M. or N.
"Similia similibus curantur"
By G.J. Whyte-Melville
I. "Small and Early"
III. Tom Ryfe
IV. Gentleman Jim
V. The Cracksman's Checkmate
VI. A Reversionary Interest
VII. Dick Stanmore
IX. The Usual Difficulty
X. The Fairy Queen
XI. In the Scales
XII. "A Cruel Parting"
XIII. Sixes and Sevens
XIV. The Officers' Mess
XV. Mrs. Stanmore at Home
XVI. "Missing—A Gentleman"
XVII. "Wanted—A Lady"
XVIII. "The Coming Queen"
XIX. An Incubus
XX. "The Little Cloud"
XXI. Furens Quid Faemina
XXII. "Not for Joseph"
XXV. Coaxing a Fight
XXX. Under the Acacias
M. or N.
"Similia similibus curantur"
"SMALL AND EARLY"
A wild wet night in the Channel, the white waves leaping, lashing, and tumbling together in that confusion of troubled waters, which nautical men call a "cross-sea." A dreary, dismal night on Calais sands: faint moonshine struggling through a low driving scud, the harbour-lights quenched and blurred in mist. Such a night as bids the trim French sentry hug himself in his watch-coat, calmly cursing the weather, while he hums the chorus of a comic opera, driving his thoughts by force of contrast to the lustrous glow of the wine-shop, the sparkling eyes and gold ear-rings of Mademoiselle Therese, who presides over Love and Bacchus therein. Such a night as gives the travellers in the mail-packet some notion of those ups and downs in life which landsmen may bless themselves to ignore, as hints to the Queen's Messenger, seasoned though he be, that ten minutes more of that heaving, pitching, tremulous motion would lay him alongside those poor sick neophytes whom he pities and condemns; reminding him how even he has cause to be thankful when he reflects that, save for an occasional Levanter, the Mediterranean is a mill-pond compared to La Manche. Such a night as makes the hardy fisherman running for Havre or St. Valerie growl his "Babord" and "Tribord" in harsher tones than usual to his mate, because he cannot keep his thoughts off Marie and the little ones ashore; his dark-eyed Marie, praying her heart out to the Virgin on her knees, feeling, as the fierce wind howls and blusters round their hut, that not on her wedding-morning, not on that summer eve when he won her down by the sea, did she love her Pierre so dearly, as now in this dark boisterous weather, that causes her very flesh to creep while she listens to its roar. Nobody who could help it would be abroad on Calais sands. "Pas meme un Anglais!" mutters the sentry, ordering his firelock with a ring, and wishing it was time for the Relief. But an Englishman is out nevertheless, wandering aimlessly to and fro on the beach; turning his face to windward against the driving rain; trying to think the wet on his cheek is all from without; vainly hoping to stifle grief, remorse, anxiety, by exposure and active bodily exercise.
"How could I stay in that cursed room?" he mutters, striding wildly among the sand-hills. "The very tick of the clock was enough to drive one mad in those long fearful pauses—solemn and silent as death! Can't the fools do anything for her? What is the use of nurses and doctors, and all the humbug of medicine and science? My darling! my darling! It was too cruel to hear you wailing and crying, and to know I could do you no good! What a coward I am to have fled into the wilderness like a murderer! I couldn't have stayed there, I feel I couldn't! I wish I hadn't listened at the door! Only yesterday you seemed so well and in such good spirits, with your dark eyes looking so patiently and fondly into mine! And now, if she should die!—if she should die!"
Then he stands stock-still, turning instinctively from the wind like one of the brutes, while the past comes back in a waking dream so akin to reality, that even in his preoccupation he seems to live the last year of his life over again. Once more he is at the old place in Cheshire, whither he has gone like any other young dandy, an agreeable addition to a country shooting-party because of his chestnut locks, his blue eyes, his handsome person, and general recklessness of character; agreeable, he reflects, to elderly roues and established married women, but a scarecrow to mothers, and a stumbling-block to daughters, as being utterly penniless and rather good-for-nothing. Once more he comes down late for dinner, to find a vacant place by that beautiful girl, with her delicate features, her wealth of raven hair, above all, with the soft, sad, dreamy eyes, that look so loving, so trustful, and so good. In such characters as theirs these things are soon accomplished. A walk or two, a waltz, a skein of silk to wind, a drive in a pony-carriage, an afternoon church, and behold them in the memorable summer-house, where he won her heart—completely and unreservedly, while flinging down his own! Then came all the sweet excitement, all the fascinating mystery of mutual understanding, of stolen glances, of hidden meanings in the common phrases and daily courtesies of social life. It was so delightful for each to feel that other existence bound up in its own, to look down from their enchanted mountain, with pity not devoid of contempt on the commonplace dwellers on the plain, undeterred by proofs more numerous perhaps on the hills of Paphos than in any other airy region, that
"Great clymbers fall unsoft;"
to know that come sorrow, suffering, disgrace, or misfortune, there was refuge and safety for the poor, broken-winged bird, though its plumage were torn by the fowler's cruelty, or even soiled in the storm of shame. Alas! that the latter should arrive too soon!
Perhaps of this young couple, the girl, in her perfect faith and entire self-sacrifice, may have been less aghast than her lover at the imminence of discovery, reprobation, and scorn. When no other course was left open, she eloped willingly enough with the man she had trusted—shutting her eyes to consequences, in that recklessness of devotion which, lead though it may to much unhappiness in life, constitutes not the least lovable trait of the female character, so ready to burst into extremes of right and wrong.
Besides, who cares for consequences at nineteen, with the sun glinting on the waves of the Channel, the sea-air freshening cheek and brow, the coast of Picardy rising bright and glistening, in smiles of welcome, and the dear, fond face looking down so proudly and wistfully on its treasure? Consequences indeed! They have been left with the heavy baggage at London Bridge, to reach their proper owner possibly hereafter in Paris; but meantime, with this fresh breeze blowing—on the blue sea—under the blue sky—they do not exist—there are no such things!
These young people were very foolish, very wicked, but they loved each other very dearly. Mr. Bruce was none of those heartless, unscrupulous Lovelaces, oftener met with in fiction than in real life, who can forget they are men as well as gentlemen; and when he crossed the Channel with Miss Algernon, it was from sheer want of forethought, from mismanagement, no doubt, but still more from misfortune, that she was Miss Algernon still.
To marry, was to be disinherited—that he knew well enough; but neither he nor his Nina, as he called her, would have paused for this consideration. There were other difficulties, trivial in appearance, harassing, vexatious, insurmountable in reality, that yet seemed from day to day about to vanish; so they waited, and temporised, and hesitated, till the opportunity came of escaping together, and they availed themselves of it without delay.
Now they had reached French ground, and were free, but it was too late! That was why Mr. Bruce roamed so wildly to-night over the Calais sands, tortured by a cruel fear that he might lose the treasure of his heart for ever; exaggerating, in that supreme moment of anxiety, her sufferings, her danger, perhaps even her priceless value to himself.
To do him justice, he did not think for an instant of the many galling annoyances to which both must be subjected hereafter in the event of her coming safely through her trial. He found no time to reflect on a censorious world, an outraged circle of friends, an infuriated family; on the cold shoulder Mrs. Grundy would turn upon his darling, and the fair mark he would himself be bound to offer that grim old father, who had served under Wellington, or that soft-spoken dandy brother in the Guards, unerring at "rocketers," and deadly for all ground game, neither of whom would probably shoot the wider, under the circumstances that he, the offender, felt in honour he must stand at least one discharge without retaliation, an arrangement which makes twelve paces uncomfortably close quarters for the passive and immovable target. He scarcely dwelt a moment on the bitter scorn with which his own great-uncle, whose natural heir he was, would calmly and deliberately curse this piece of childish folly, while he disinherited its perpetrator without scruple or remorse. He never even considered the disadvantage under which a life that ought to be very dear to him was now opening on the world: a life that might be blighted through its whole course by his own folly, punished, a score of years hence, for unwittingly arriving a few weeks too soon. No! He could think of nothing but Nina's anguish and Nina's danger; could only wander helplessly backwards and forwards, stupefied by the continuous gusts of that boisterous sea-wind, stunned by the dull wash of the incoming tide, feeling for minutes at a time, a numbed, apathetic impotency; till, roused and stung by a rush of recurring apprehensions, he hastened back to his hotel, white, agitated, dripping wet, moving with wavering gestures and swift, irregular strides, like a man in a trance.
At the foot of the staircase he ran into the arms of a dapper French doctor, young, yet experienced, a man of science, a man of pleasure, an anatomist, a dancer, a philosopher, and a dandy—who put both hands on his shoulders, and looked in his face with so comical an expression of congratulation, sympathy, pity, and amusement, that Mr. Bruce's fears vanished on the instant, and he found voice to ask, in husky accents, "if it was over?"
"Over!" repeated the doctor. "Pardon, my good sir. For our interesting young friend it is only just begun. A young lady, monsieur, a veritable little aristocrat, with a delicate nose, and, my faith, sound and powerful lungs! I make you my compliment, monsieur. I am happy to be the first to advertise you of good news. It is late. Let madame be kept tranquil. You will permit me to wish you good-night. I will return again in the morning."
"And she is safe?" exclaimed Bruce, crushing the doctor's hand in a grasp like a vice.
"Safe!" answered the little man. "Parbleu—yes—for the present, safe as the mole in the harbour, and likely to remain so if you will only keep out of the room. Come, you shall see her for one quiet little moment. She desires it so much. And when I scratch at the door thus, you will come out. Agreed? Enter, then. You shall embrace your child."
So the good-natured man turned into the hotel again, to conduct Mr. Bruce back to the door from which he had fled in anguish an hour or two ago, and was thus five minutes too late for another professional engagement, which could not be postponed, but went on indeed very well without him, the expectant lady being a person of experience, the wife of a Calais fisherman, and now employed for the thirteenth time in her yearly occupation. But this has nothing to do with Mr. Bruce.
That gentleman stole on tiptoe through the darkened room, catching a glimpse, as he passed the tawdry mirror on the chimney-piece, of a very pale and anxious face strangely unlike his own, while from behind the half-drawn bed-curtains he heard a quiet placid breathing, and a weak, faint voice with its tender whisper, "Charlie, are you there? My darling, I begged so hard to see you for one minute, and—Charlie dear, to—to show you this."
This was a morsel of something swathed up in wrappings, round which the young mother's arm was folded with proud, protecting love; but I think he had been too anxious about the woman to feel a proper elation in his new position as father to the child. The tears came thick to his eyes once more, while he caught the pale, fragile hand that lay so weary and listless on the counterpane, to press it against his lips, his cheeks, his forehead, murmuring broken words of endearment, and gratitude, and joy.
She would have kept him there all night: she would have talked to him for an hour, feeble as she was, of that little being, in so short a time promoted to its sovereignty of Baby (with a capital B), in which she had already discovered instincts, qualities, high reasoning powers, noble moral characteristics: but the doctor's tap was heard, "scratching," as he called it, at the door, and Bruce, too happy not to be docile, had the good sense to obey his summons without delay.
"Let them sleep, monsieur," said the Frenchman, struggling into his great-coat, and hurrying down-stairs. "It will do them more good than all your prevision and all my experience. I will return in the morning, to inquire after madame and to renew my acquaintance with mademoiselle—I should say with 'your charming mees.' Monsieur, you are now father of a family—you should keep early hours. Good-night, then—till to-morrow."
Bruce looked after him with a blessing on his lips, and a fervent thanksgiving in his heart to the Providence that had spared him his treasure. For the moment, I believe, he completely forgot that important personage with whom originated all their anxiety and discomfort. To men, indeed, there is so little individuality about a Baby, that, I fear, it has to be weaned and vaccinated, and to go through many other processes before it ceases to be a thing, and rather an inconvenient one. No; Bruce went to his own sitting-room, with his heart so full of his Nina, there was scarcely place for other considerations; therefore, instead of going to bed, he kicked off his wet boots, turned on a brilliant illumination of gas, and threw himself into an arm-chair—to smoke. After the excitement he had lately passed through, the first few whiffs of his cigar were soothing and consolatory in the extreme, but reflection comes with tobacco, not less surely than warmth comes with fire; and soon he began to see the crowd of fresh difficulties which the events of to-night would bring swarming round his devoted head. How he cursed his foolish calculations, his ill-judged caution, his cowardly scruples, thus to have postponed the ceremony of marriage till too late. How impossible it would be now, to throw dust in the eyes of society as to dates and circumstances! how fruitless the reparation which should certainly be put off no longer, no, not a day! It seemed so hard that he, of all the world, should have injured the woman who loved him, the woman whom he so devotedly loved in return. He almost hated the innocent baby for its inopportune arrival; but remembering how that poor little creature too must bear the punishment of his crime, he flung the end of his cigar against the stove with a curse, and for one moment—only one bitter, painful moment—found himself wishing he had never met, never loved, his darling; had left the lamb at peace in its fold, the rose ungathered on its stalk.
The clock did not tick twice before there came a reaction. It seemed so impossible that they should be independent of each other. He would not be himself without Nina! and the flow of his affection, like the back-water of a mill-stream, returned only the stronger for its momentary interruption. After all, Nina was everything, Nina was the first consideration. Something must be done at once. As soon as she could bear it, that ceremony must be gone through which should have been performed long ago. He was young, he was impatient, he would fain be at work without delay; so he turned to his writing-table, and began opening certain letters that had already followed him into France, but that he had laid aside without examination, in the excitement of the last few hours.
They were not calculated to afford him much distraction. A circular from a coal company, a couple of invitations to dinner, a tailor's bill, and a manifesto from the firm, calling attention to the powers of endurance with which their little account had "made running" for a considerable period, while promising a "lawyer's letter" to enforce payment of the same. Next this hostile protocol lay a business-like missive bearing a Lincoln's Inn look about it not to be mistaken, and which Bruce determined he would leave unopened till the morning, when, if Nina had slept, and was doing well, he felt nothing in the world could make him unhappy.
"Serves me right, though," he yawned, "for deserting Poole. He wouldn't have bothered me for a miserable pony at such a time as this;" and flinging off his clothes, in less than five minutes he was as fast asleep as if he had never known an anxiety in the world, but was lulled by the soothing considerations of a well-spent past, an untroubled conscience, and a balance at his banker's!
So he slept and dreamed not, as those sleep who are thoroughly out-wearied in body and mind, waking only when the sun had been up more than an hour, and the stormy night had given place to a clear, unclouded day.
The Channel was all blue and white now; the rollers, as they subsided into a long heaving ground-swell, bringing in with them a freight of health and freshness to the shore. The gulls were soaring and screaming round the harbour, edging their wings with gold as they dipped and wheeled in the morning light. Everything spoke of hope and happiness and vitality. Bruce opened his window, drew in long breaths of the keen, reviving air, and stole to listen at Nina's door.
How his heart went up in gratitude to heaven! Mother and child were sleeping—so peacefully, so soundly. Mother and child! At that early period the dearest, the sweetest, the holiest link of human love—the gold without the dross, the flower without the insect, the wine without the headache, the full fruition of the feelings without the wear and tear of the heart.
He could have kissed the antiquated French chambermaid, dressed like a Sister of Mercy, who met him in the passage, and wishing "Monsieur" good-morning, congratulated him with tears of honest sympathy in her glittering, bold black eyes. He did give a five-franc piece to the alert and well-dressed waiter, who looked as if he had never been in bed, and never required to go. It may be this impulse of generosity reminded him that five-franc pieces were likely to be scarce with him in future, and an unpleasant association of ideas brought the lawyer's letter to his mind. There it lay, square and uncompromising, between his watch and his cigar-case. He opened it, I am afraid, with a truly British oath.
He turned quite white when he read it the first time, but the blood rushed to his temples on a second perusal, and he flung himself down on his knees at the windowsill, thanking Providence, somewhat inconsiderately, for the benefits that only came to him through another man's death.
This letter, indeed, though the composition of a lawyer, had not been written at the instance of his long-suffering tailor, but was from the solicitor who conducted the business of his family. It advised him, in very concise language, of his great-uncle's sudden "demise," as it was worded, "intestate"; informing him that he thus became heir, as next of kin, to the whole personal and real property of the deceased, and concluded with sincere congratulations on his accession to a fine fortune, not without a hope that their firm might continue to manage his affairs, and afford him the same satisfaction that had always been expressed by his late lamented relative, etc. The surprise staggered him like a blow. From such blows, however, we soon "come to time," willing to take any amount of similar punishment. He gave himself credit for self-denial in not waking Nina on the instant to tell her of their good fortune. Still more, he plumed himself on his forethought in resolving to ask her doctor's leave before he entered on so exciting a topic with the invalid. He longed to tell somebody. He was so happy, so elated, so thankful! and yet, amidst all his joy, there rankled an uncomfortable sensation of remorse and self-reproach when he thought of the little blighted life, the little injured helpless creature nestling to its young mother's side in the next room.
It is more than twenty years ago, and yet how vividly it all comes back to him to-night!
The sun has gone down in streaks of orange and crimson over the old oaks that crown the deer-park sloping upward to the rear of Ecclesfield Manor. Mr. Bruce walks across a darkened room to throw the window open for a gasp of fresh evening air, laden with the perfume of pinks, carnations, and moss-roses in the garden below. Her garden! Is it possible? Something in the action reminds him of that bright, hopeful morning at Calais. Something in the scent of the flowers steals to his brain, half torpid and benumbed; his heart contracts with an agony of physical suffering. "My darling! my darling!" he murmurs, "shall I never see you tying those flowers again?" and turning from the window, he falls on his knees by the bedside with a passionate burst of weeping that, like blood-letting to the body, restores the unwelcome faculty of consciousness to his mind. When he raises his head again he knows well enough that the one great misfortune has arrived at last—that henceforth for him there may come, in the lapse of long years, resignation, even repose, but hope and happiness no more.
Even now, though he wonders at his own callousness, he can bear to look on the bed through a mist of tears; and, so looking, feels his intellect failing in its effort to grasp the calamity that has befallen him.
There she lies, like a dead lily, his own, his treasure, his beloved; the sweet face, calm and placid, with its chiselled ivory features, its smooth and gentle brow, has already borrowed a higher, a more perfect beauty from the immortality on which it has entered. Not fairer, not lovelier did she look that well-remembered evening when he first knew her pure and priceless heart was his own, though she has borne him a daughter—nay, two daughters (and he winces with a fresh and different pain)—the younger as old as she was then. Her raven hair is parted soft and silky off those pale, delicate temples; her long black lashes rest upon the waxen cheek. No; she never looked as beautiful, not in the calm sleep he used to watch so lovingly; and now the deep, fond eyes must open on his own no more. She was so gentle, too, so patient, so sweet-tempered, and O, so true. He had been a man of the world, neither better nor worse than others: he knew women well; knew how rare are the good ones; knew the prize he had won, and valued it—yes, he was sure he always valued it as it deserved. What was the use? Had she not far better have been like the others—petulant, wilful, capricious, covetous of admiration, careless of affection, weak-headed, shallow-hearted, and desirous only of that which could not possibly be her own? Such were most of the women amongst whom he had been thrown in his youth; but O, how unlike her who was lying dead there before his eyes.
"For men at most differ as heaven and earth, But women, worst and best, as heaven and hell."
He felt so keenly now that she had been his better angel for more than twenty years; that but for her he might long ago have deteriorated to selfishness and cynicism, or sunk into that careless philosophy which believes only in the tangible, the material, and the present.
A good woman's lot may be linked to that of a bad man; she may even love him very dearly, and yet retain much of her purer, better nature amidst all the mire in which she is steeped; but it is not so with us. To care for a bad woman is to be dragged down to her level, inch by inch, till the intellect itself becomes sapped in a daily degradation of the heart. From such slavery emancipation is cheap under any suffering, at any sacrifice. The lopping of a limb is a painful process, but above a gangrened wound experienced surgeons amputate without scruple or remorse.
On the other hand, a true woman's affection is of all earthly influences the noblest and most elevating. It encourages the highest and gentlest qualities of man's nature—his enterprise, courage, patience, sympathy, above all, his trust. Happy the pilgrim on whose life such a beacon-star has shone out to guide him in the right way; thrice happy if it sets not until it has lured him so far that he will never again turn aside from the path.
Such reflections as these, while they added to his sense of loss and loneliness, yet took so much of the sting out of Mr. Bruce's great sorrow, that he could realise it for minutes at a time without being goaded to madness or stunned to apathy by the pain.
There had been no warning—no preparation. He had left her that morning as usual, after smoking a cigar in her society on the lawn, while she tied, and snipped, and gathered the flowers of her pretty garden. He had visited the stable, ordered the pony-carriage, seen the keeper, and been to look at an Alderney cow. It was one of his idle days, yet, after twenty years of marriage, such days he still liked to spend, if possible, in the company of his wife. So he strolled back to write his letters in her boudoir, and entered it at the garden door, expecting to find her, as usual, busied in some graceful feminine employment.
Her work was heaped on the sofa; a book she had been reading lay open on the table; the very flowers she gathered an hour ago had the dew on them still. He could not finish his first letter without consulting her, for she kept his memory, his conscience, and his money, just as she kept his heart, so he ran up-stairs to her bedroom door and knocked.
There was no answer, and he went in. At the first glance he thought she must have fainted, for she had fallen on her knees against a high-backed chair, her face buried in its cushions, and one hand touching the carpet. He had a quick eye, and the turn of that grey rigid hand warned him with a stab of something he refused persistently to believe. Then he lifted her on the bed where she lay now, and sent for every doctor within reach.
He had no recollection of the interval that elapsed before the nearest could arrive, nor distinct notion of any part of that long sunny afternoon while he sat by his Nina in the death-chamber. Once he got up to stop the ticking of a clock on the chimney-piece, moving mechanically with stealthy footfall across the room lest she should be disturbed. The doctors came and went, agreeing, as they left the house, that he had answered their questions with wonderful precision and presence of mind; nay, that he was less prostrated by the blow than they should have expected. "Disease of the heart," said they—I believe they called it "the pericardium"; and after paying a tribute of admiration to the loveliness of the dead lady, discussed the leading article of that day's Times with perfect equanimity. What would you have? There can be but one person in the world to whom another is more than all the world beside.
This person was sitting by Nina's bed, except for a few brief minutes at a time, utterly stupefied and immovable. Even Maud—his cherished daughter Maud—whose smile had hitherto been welcome in his eyes as the light of morning, could not rouse his attention by the depth of her own uncontrolled grief. He sat like an idiot or an opium-eater, till something prompted him to open the window and gasp for a breath of fresh evening air. Then it all came back to him, and he awoke to the full consciousness of his misery.
There are men, though not many, and these, perhaps, the least inclined to prate about it, who have one attachment in their lives to which every other sentiment is but an accessory and a satellite. Such natures are often very bold to dare, very strong to endure, very difficult to assail, save in their single vulnerable point. Force that, and the man's whole vitality seems to collapse. He does not even make a fight of it, but fails, gives in, and goes down without an effort. Such was the character of Mr. Bruce, and to-day he had gotten his death-blow.
The stars twinkled out faintly one by one, the harvest-moon rose broad and ruddy behind the wooded hill, and still he sat stupefied at the bedside. The door opened gently to admit a beautiful girl, strangely, startlingly like her dead mother, who came in with a cup of tea and a candle. Setting these on the chimney-piece, she moved softly round to where he sat, and pressed his head, with both hands, against her breast.
"Dearest father," said she, "I have brought you some tea. Try and rouse yourself, papa, dear papa, for my sake. You love me too."
The appeal was well chosen; once more the tears came to his eyes, and he woke up as from a dream.
"You are a good girl, Maud," he answered, with a vague, distracted air. "I have my children left—I have my children left! But all the world cannot make up to me for what I have lost!"
She thought his mind was wandering, and tried to recall him to himself.
"We must bear our sorrows as best we may, papa," she answered, very gently. "We must help each other. You and I are alone now in the world."
A contraction, as of some fresh pain, came over his livid face. He raised his head to speak, but, stopping himself with an obvious effort, looked long and scrutinisingly in his daughter's face.
Maud Bruce was a very beautiful girl even now, in the extremity of her sorrow. She had been crying heartily; no wonder, but her delicate features were not swollen, nor her dark eyes dimmed. The silky hair shone smooth and trim, the muslin dress was not rumpled nor disarranged, and the white hands, with which she still caressed her father's sorrow-laden head, neither shook nor wavered in their office.
With her mother's beauty, Miss Bruce had inherited but little of her mother's character; on the contrary, her nature, like that of her father's ancestors rather than his own, was bold, firm, and self-reliant to an unusual degree. She was hard, and that is the only epithet properly to describe her—manner, voice, appearance, all were lady-like, feminine, and exceedingly attractive; but the self-possession she never seemed to lose, would have warned an experienced admirer, that beneath the white bosom beat a heart not to be reduced by stratagem, nor carried by assault; that he must not hope to see the beautiful dark eyes veil themselves in the dreamy softness which so confesses all it means to hide; that the raven tresses clinging coquettishly to that faultless head were most unlikely to be severed as a tribute of affection for any one whose conquest would not be a question of pride and profit to their owner. Tenderness was the one quality Maud lacked, the one quality which, like the zone of Venus, completed all her mother's attractions, with an indefinable and irresistible charm.
There is a wild German legend which describes how a certain woodman, a widower, gave shelter to a strangely fascinating dame, and falling in love with her, incontinently made his guest lawful mistress of hearth and home; how, notwithstanding his infatuated passion, and intense admiration for her beauty, there was yet in it a fierceness which chilled and repelled him, while he worshiped; how his children could never be brought to look in the fair face of their stepmother without crying aloud for fear; and how at last he discovered, to his horror and dismay, that he had wedded a fearful creature, half wolf, half woman, combining the seductions of the syren with the cruel voracity of the brute. There was something about Maud Bruce to remind one of that horrible myth, even now, now at her gentlest and softest, while she clung round a sorrowing father, by the death-bed of one, whom, in their different ways, both had very dearly loved.
It was well that the young lady preserved her presence of mind, for Bruce seemed incapable of connected thought or action. He roused himself, indeed, at his daughter's call, but gazed stupidly about him, stammered in his speech, and faltered in his step when he crossed the room. The shock of grief had evidently overmastered his faculties—something, too, besides affliction, seemed to worry and distress him—something of which he wished to unbosom himself, but that yet he could not make up his mind to reveal. Maud, whose quickness of perception was seldom at fault, did not fail to observe this, and reviewing the position with her accustomed coolness, drew her father gently to the writing-table, and sat down.
"Papa," said she, "there is much to be done. We must exert ourselves. It will do us both good. Bargrave can be down by the middle of the day, to-morrow. Let me write for him at once."
Bargrave and Co. were Mr. Bruce's solicitors, as they had been his great-uncle's: it was the same firm, indeed, that had apprised him of his inheritance at Calais twenty years ago. How he rejoiced in their intelligence then! What was the use of an inheritance now?
A weary lassitude had come over him; he seemed incapable of exertion, and shook his head in answer to Maud's appeal; but again some hidden motive stung him into action, and taking his seat at the writing-table, he seized a pen, only to let it slip helplessly through his fingers, while he looked in his daughter's face with a vacant stare.
Maud was equal to the occasion. Obviously something more than sorrow had reduced her father to this state. She sat down opposite, scribbled off a note hastily enough, but in the clear unwavering hand, affirmed by her correspondents to be so characteristic of the writer's disposition, and ringing the bell, desired it should be dispatched on the instant. "Let Thomas take the brougham with the ponies; the doctor is sure to be at home. He can bring him back at once."
Then she looked at her father, and stopped the lady's-maid, who, tearful and hysterical, had answered the familiar summons, which but this morning was "missis's bell."
"While they are putting to," said she calmly, "I will write a telegraphic message and a letter. Tell him to send word when he is ready. I shall give him exactly ten minutes."
Once more she glanced uneasily at Mr. Bruce; what she saw decided her. In half-a-dozen words she penned a concise message to her father's solicitor, desiring him to come himself or send a confidential person to Ecclesfield Manor, by the very first train, on urgent business; and wrote a letter as well to the same address, explaining her need of immediate assistance, for Mr. Bargrave to receive the following morning, in case that gentleman should not obey her telegram in person, a contingency Miss Bruce considered highly probable.
The ten minutes conceded to Thomas had stretched to twenty before he was ready; for so strong is the force of habit among stablemen, that even in a case of life and death, horses cannot be allowed to start till their manes are straightened and their hoofs blacked. In the interval, Miss Bruce became more and more concerned to observe no signs of attention on her father's part—no inquiries as to her motives—apparently no consciousness of what she was doing. When the brougham was heard to roll away at a gallop, she came round and put her arm about his neck, where he sat in his chair at the writing-table.
"Papa, dear," she said, "I have told them to get your dressing-room ready. You are ill, very ill. I can see it. You must go to bed."
He nodded, and smiled. Such a weary, silly smile, letting her lead him away like a little child. He would even have passed the bed where his wife lay without a look, but that his daughter stopped him at the door.
"Papa," said she—and the girl deserved credit for the courage with which she kept her tears back—"won't you kiss her before you go?"
It may be some instinct warned her that not in the body was he to look on the face he loved again—that those material lips were never more to touch the gentle brow which in a whole lifetime he had not seen to frown—that their next greeting, freed from earthly anxieties, released from earthly troubles, must be exchanged, at no distant period, in heaven.
He obeyed unhesitatingly, imprinting a caress on his dead wife's forehead with no kind of emotion, and so left the room, muttering vaguely certain indistinct and incoherent syllables, in which the words "Nina" and "Bargrave" were alone intelligible.
Maud saw her father to his room, and consigned him to the hands of his valet, to be put to bed without delay. Then she went to the dining-room, and forced herself to eat a crust of bread, to drink a single glass of sherry. "I shall need all my strength to-night," thought the girl, "to take care of poor papa, and arrange about the funeral and such matters as he cannot attend to—the funeral! O, mother, dear, kind mother! I wasn't half good enough to you while you were with us, and now—but I won't cry—I won't cry. There'll be time enough for all that by and by. The first thing to think of is about papa. He hasn't borne it well. Men have very little courage when they come to trial, and I fear—I fear there is something sadly wrong with him. Let me see. Three-quarters of an hour to get to Bragford—five minutes' stoppage at the turn-pike, for that stupid man is sure to have gone to bed—five minutes more for Doctor Skilton to put on his greatcoat, forty minutes for coming back—those ponies always go faster towards home. No, he can't be here under another hour. Another hour! It's a long time in a case like this. Suppose papa should have a paralytic stroke! And I haven't a notion what to do—the proper remedies, the best treatment. Women ought to know everything, and be ready for everything."
"Then there's the lawyer to-morrow. I don't suppose papa will be able to see him. I must think of all the business—all the arrangements. He can't be here till ten o'clock at the earliest, even if he starts by the first train. I shall write my directions for him in the morning. Meantime, I'll go and sit with poor papa, and see if I can't hush him off to sleep."
But when Miss Bruce reached her father's room, she found him lying in an alarming state of which she had no experience. Something between sleeping and waking, yet without the repose of the one, the consciousness of the other. So she took her place by his pillow, and watched, listening anxiously for the brougham that was to bring the doctor.
At half-past eight in the morning Mr. Bargrave's office in Gray's Inn was still empty. It had been swept, indeed, and "straightened," as he called it, by a young gentleman, whose duty it was to be in attendance at all hours from sunrise to sunset, when nobody else was in the way, and who fulfilled that duty by slipping out on such available occasions to join the youth of the quarter in sports of clamour, strength, and skill. Just now he was half-a-mile off in Holborn, running at full speed, shouting at the top of his voice, with no apparent object but that of exercising his own physical powers and the patience of the general public in his exertions. It was not, therefore, the step of this trusty guardian which fell sharp and quick on the stone stair outside the office, nor was it his hand, nor pass-key, that opened the door to admit Mr. Bargrave's nephew, assistant, and possible successor in the business, Tom Ryfe.
That gentleman entered with the air of a master, looked about him, detected the absence of his young subordinate as one who is disgusted rather than surprised, and lifted two envelopes lying unopened on the table with an oath. "As usual," he muttered, "telegram and letter, same date—same place. Arrive together, of course! Chances are, if there is any hurry you get the letter before the telegram. Halloa! here's a business. Bargrave's sure to be an hour late, and that young scamp not within a mile. If I had my way—Hang it! I will have my way. At all events I must manage this business my way, for it seems there's not a moment to spare, and nobody to help me. Dorothe-a!"
The dirtiest woman to be found, probably, at that hour in the whole of London, appeared from a lower storey in answer to his summons. Pushing her hair off a grimy forehead with a grimier hand, she listened to his directions, staring vacantly, as is the manner of her kind, but understanding them, nevertheless, and not incapable of remembering their purport: they were short and intelligible enough.
"Tell that young scamp he is to sleep in the office tonight. He mustn't leave it on any consideration while I'm away. I'm going into the country, and I'll break his head when I come back."
Tom Ryfe then huddled the letter into his pocket for perusal at leisure, hailed a hansom, and in less than a quarter of an hour was in his uncle's breakfast-room, bolting ham, muffins, and green tea, while his clothes were packed.
Mr. Bargrave, a bachelor, who liked his comforts, and took care to have them, was reading the newspaper in a silk dressing-gown, and a pair of gold spectacles. He had finished breakfast—such a copious and leisurely repast as is consumed by one who dines at six, drinks a bottle of port every day at dessert, and never smoked a cigar in his life. No earthly consideration would hurry him for the next half-hour. He looked over the top of his newspaper with the placid benignity of a man who, considering digestion one of the most important functions of nature, values and encourages it accordingly.
"Sudden," observed Mr. Bargrave, in answer to his nephew's communication. "Something of a seizure, no doubt. Time is of importance; the young lady's telegram should have come to hand last night. Be so good as to make a note on the back. Three doctors, does she say? Bless me! They'll never let him get over it. Most unfortunate just now, on account of the child—of the young lady. You can take the necessary instructions. I will follow, if required. It's twenty-three minutes' drive to the station. Better be off at once, Tom."
So Tom took the hint, and was off. While he drives to the station we may as well give an account of Tom's position in the firm of Bargrave and Co.
Old Bargrave's sister had chosen to marry a certain Mr. Ryfe, of whom nobody knew more than that he could shoot pigeons, had been concerned in one or two doubtful turf transactions, and played a good hand at whist. While he lived, though it was a mystery how he lived, he kept Mrs. Ryfe "very comfortable," to use Bargrave's expression. When he died he left her nothing but the boy Tom, a precocious urchin, inheriting some of his father's sporting propensities, with a certain slang smartness of tone and manner, acquired in those circles where horseflesh is affected as an inducement to speculation.
Mrs. Ryfe did not long survive her husband. She had married a scamp, and was, therefore, very fond of him: so before he had been dead a year, she was laid in the same grave. Then her brother took the boy Tom, and put him into his own business, making him begin by sweeping out the office, and so requiring him to rise grade by grade till he became confidential clerk and head manager of all matters connected with the firm.
At twenty-six years of age, Tom Ryfe possessed as much experience as his principal, joined to a cunning and sharpness of intellect peculiarly his own. To take care of number one was doubtless the head clerk's ruling maxim; but while thus attending to his personal welfare, he never failed to affect a keen interest in the affairs of numbers two, three, four, and the rest. Tom Ryfe was a "friendly fellow," people declared; "a deuced friendly fellow, and knew what he was about, mind you, better than most people."
"Every great man," said the Emperor Nicholas, "has a hook in his nose." In the firmest characters, no doubt, there is a weakness by which they are to be led or driven; and Tom Ryfe, like other notabilities, was not without this crevice in his armour, this breach in his embattled wall. He had shrewdness, knowledge of the world, common sense, and yet the one great object of his efforts was to be admitted into a class of society far above his own, and to find there an ideal lady with whom to pass the rest of his days.
"I'll marry a top-sawyer," he used to say, whenever his uncle broached the question of his settlement in life. "Why, bless ye, it's the same tackle and the same fly that takes the big fish and the little one. It's no more trouble to make up to a duchess than a dairymaid. I'll pick a real white-handed one, you see if I don't. A wife that can move, uncle, cool, and calm, and lofty, like an air balloon; wearing her dresses as if she was made for them, and her jewels as if she didn't know she'd got them on; looking as much at home in the Queen's drawing-room as she does in her own. That's my sort, and that's the sort I'll choose! Why, there's scores of 'em to be seen any afternoon in the Park. Never tell me I can't go in and take my pick. 'Nothing venture, nothing have,' they say. I ain't going to venture much. I don't see occasion for it, but I'll have what I want, you see if I won't, or I'll know the reason why."
Whereon Bargrave, who considered womankind in general as an unnecessary evil, would reply—
"Time enough, Tom, time enough. I haven't had much experience with the ladies myself, except as clients, you know. The less I see of 'em, I think, the more I like 'em. Better put it off a little, Tom. It can be done any day, my boy, when you've an hour to spare. I wouldn't be in a hurry if I was you. There's a fresh sample ticketed every year; and they're not like port wine, you must remember, they don't improve with keeping."
Tom Ryfe had plenty of time to revolve his speculations, matrimonial and otherwise, during his journey to Ecclesfield Manor by one of those mid-day trains so irritating to through-passengers, which stop at intermediate stations, dropping brown-paper parcels, and taking up old women with baskets. He reviewed many little affairs of the heart in which he had lately been engaged, without, however, suffering his affections to involve themselves too deeply for speedy withdrawal. He reflected with great satisfaction on his own fastidious rejection of several "suitable parties," as he expressed it, who did not quite reach his standard of aristocratic perfection, remembering how Mrs. Blades, the well-to-do widow, with fine eyes and a house in Duke Street, had fairly landed him but for that unfortunate dinner at which he detected her eating fish with a knife; how certain grated-looking needle-marks on Miss Glance's left forefinger had checked him just in time while in the act of kissing her hand; and how, on the very eve of a proposal to beautiful Constance de Courcy, whose manner, bearing, and appearance, no less than her name, denoted the extreme of refinement and high birth, he had sustained a shock, galvanic but salutary, from her artless exclamation, "O my! whatever shall I do? If here isn't pa!"
"No," thought Tom, as he rolled on into the fair expanse of down country that lay for miles round Ecclesfield, "I haven't found one yet quite up to the pattern I require. When I do I shall go in and win, that's all. I don't see why my chance shouldn't be as good as another's. I'm not such a bad-looking chap when I'm dressed and my hair's greased. I can do tricks with cards like winking. I can ride a bit, shoot a bit—'specially pigeons—dance a bit, and make love to 'em no end. I've got the gift of the gab, I know, and I stick at nothing. That's what the girls like, and that's what will pull me through when I find the one I want. Another station, and not there yet! What a slow train this is!"
It was a slow train, and Tom, arriving at Ecclesfield, saw on the face of the servant who admitted him that he was too late. In addition to the solemn and mysterious hush that pervades a house in which the dead lie yet unburied, a feeling of horror, the result of some unlooked-for and additional calamity, seemed to predominate; and Tom was hardly surprised, however much he might be shocked, when the old butler gasped, in broken sentences, "Seizure—last night—quite unconscious—all over this morning. Will you take some refreshment, sir, after your journey?"
Mr. Bruce had been dead a few hours—dead without time to set his house in order, without consciousness even to wish his child good-bye.
She came down to see Mr. Bargrave's clerk that afternoon, pale, calm, collected, beautiful, but stern and unbending under the sorrow against which her haughty nature rebelled. In a few words, referring to a memorandum the while, she gave him her directions for the funeral and its ceremonies; desired him to ascertain at once the state of her late father's affairs, the amount of a succession to which she believed herself entitled; begged he would return with full information that day fortnight; ordered luncheon for him in the dining-room; and so dismissed him as a bereaved queen might dismiss the humblest of her subjects.
Tom Ryfe, returning to London by the next train, thought he had never felt so small; and yet, was not this proud, sorrowing, and beautiful young damsel the ideal he had been seeking hitherto in vain? It is not too much to say that for twenty miles he positively hated her, striving fiercely against the influence, which yet he could not but acknowledge. In another twenty, his good opinion of his best friend Mr. Ryfe reasserted itself. He had seen something of the world, and possessed, moreover, a certain shallow acquaintance with human nature, not of the highest class, so he argued thus—
"Women like what they are unaccustomed to. The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein makes love to a private soldier simply because she don't know what a private soldier is. This girl must have lived amongst a set of starched and stuck-up people who have not two ideas beyond themselves and their order. She has never so much as seen a smart, business-like, active fellow, ready to take all trouble off her hands, and make up her mind for her before she can turn round—young, too, and not so bad-looking, though I dare say she's used to good-looking chaps enough. The man's game who went in for Miss Bruce would be this: constant attention to her interests, supreme disregard for her feelings, and never to let her have her own way for a moment. She'd be so utterly taken aback she'd give in without a fight. Why shouldn't I try my chance? It's a good spec. It must be a good spec. And yet, hang it! such a high-handed girl as that would suit me without a shilling. It dashed me a little at first; but I like that scornful way of hers, I own. What eyes, too! and what hair! I wonder if I'm a fool. No; nothing's impossible; it's only difficult. What! London already? Ah! there's no place like town."
The familiar gas-lamps, the roll of the cabs, the bustle in the streets, dispelled whatever shadows of mistrust in his own merits remained from Tom's reflections in the railway carriage; and long before he reached his uncle's house, he had made up his mind to "go in," as he called it, for Miss Bruce, morally confident of winning, yet troubled with certain chilling misgivings, as fearing that this time he had really fallen in love.
Many and long, during the ensuing week, were the consultations between old Bargrave and his nephew as to the future prospects of the lady in question. Her father had died without a will. That fact seemed pretty evident, as he had often expressed his intention of preparing such an instrument, but had hitherto moved no farther in the matter.
"Depend upon it, Tom," said his uncle, that very evening over their port wine, "he wouldn't go to anybody else. He was never much of a business man, and he couldn't have disentangled his affairs sufficiently to make 'em clear, except to me. It's a sad pity for many reasons, but I'm just as sure there's no will as I am that my glass is empty. Help yourself, Tom, and pass the wine."
"Then she takes as next of kin," said Tom, thinking of Maud's dark eyes, and filling his glass. "Here's her health!"
"By all means," assented Bargrave. "Her very good health, poor girl! But as to the succession I have my doubts; grave doubts. There's a trust, Tom. I looked over the deed while you were down there to-day. It is so worded that a male heir might advance a prior claim. There is a male heir, a parson in Dorsetshire, not a likely man to give in without a fight. We'll look at it again to-morrow. If it reads as I think, I wouldn't give a pinch of snuff for the young lady's chance."
Tom's face fell. "Can't we fight it, uncle?" said he, stoutly, applying himself once more to the port; but Bargrave had drawn his silk handkerchief over his face, and was already fast asleep.
So uncle and nephew went into the trust-deed, morning after morning, arriving in its perusal at a conclusion adverse to Miss Brace's interest; but then, as the younger man observed, "the beauty of our English law is, that you can always fight a thing even if you haven't a leg to stand on."
It was almost time for Tom Ryfe's return journey to Ecclesfield, and a coat ordered for the express purpose of captivating Miss Bruce had actually come home, when the post brought him a little note from that lady, which afforded him, as such notes often do, an absurd and overweening joy. It was bordered with the deepest black, and ran as follows—
('Dear sir,' thought Tom, 'ah! that sounds much sweeter than plain sir')—I venture to trouble you with a commission in the nature of business. A packet, containing some diamond ornaments belonging to me, will be left by the jeweller at Mr. Bargrave's office to-morrow. Will you kindly bring it down with you to Ecclesfield?
Yours, very obediently,
Tom kissed the signature. He was very far gone already, and took care to be at the office in time to receive the diamonds. That boy was out of the way, of course! So Tom summoned the grimy Dorothea to his presence.
"I shall be busy for an hour," said he; "don't admit anybody unless he comes by appointment, except it's a man with a packet of jewelry. Take it in yourself, and bring it here at once. I've got to carry it down with me to-night by the train. Do you understand?"
"Is it a long journey as you're a-goin', sir?" asked Dorothea. "I should like to clean up a bit while you was away."
"Only to Bragford," answered Tom; "but I might not be back for a day or two. Mind about the parcel, though," he added, in the exuberance of his spirits. "The thing's valuable. It's for a young lady. It's jewels, Dorothea. It's diamonds."
"Lor!" said Dorothea, going back to her scrubbing forthwith.
The jeweller being dilatory, Tom had finished his letters before that artificer arrived, thus saving Dorothea all responsibility in the valuable packet confided to his charge, for Mr. Ryfe received it himself in the outer office, whither he had resorted in a fidget to compare a time-table with a railway-map of England. He fretted to set off at once. He had finished his business; he had nothing to do now but eat an early dinner at his uncle's, and so start by the afternoon train on the path of love, triumph, and success, leaving the boy, coerced by ghastly threats, to take charge of the office in his absence.
We have all seen a bird moulting, draggled, dirty, woebegone, not to be recognised for the same bird, sleek and glossy in its holiday-suit of feathers, pruning its wing for a flight across the summer sky. Even so different was the Dorothea of the unkempt hair, the soapy arms, the dingy apron, and the grimy face, from a gaudy damsel who emerged in the afternoon sun out of Mr. Bargrave's chambers, bright with all the colours of the rainbow, and scrupulously dressed, according to the extreme style of the last prevailing fashion but two.
She was a good-looking woman enough now that she had "cleaned herself," as she expressed it, but for a certain roughness of hair, coarseness of skin, and general redundancy of outline, despite of which drawbacks, however, she attracted many admiring glances from cab-drivers, omnibus-conductors, a precocious shoeblack, and the policeman on duty, as she tripped into Holborn and mingled with the living stream that flows unceasingly down that artery of London.
Dorothea seemed to know where she was going well enough, and yet the coarse red cheek turned pale while she approached her goal, though it was but a flashy, dirty-looking gin-shop, standing at a corner where two streets met. Her colour rose though, higher than before, when a pot-boy, with a shock of red hair, and his shirt-sleeves rolled up to his shoulders, thus accosted her—
"You're just in time, miss; he'd 'a been off in a minit, but old Batters, he come in just now, and your young man stopped to take his share of another half-quartern."
There is no reason, because a woman is coarse, hard-working, low-born, and badly dressed, she should be without that inconvenient feminine appendage—a heart. Dorothea trembled and turned pale when the door of the Holborn gin-shop swung open and the man she most wished to see in all the world stood at her side.
He would have been a good-looking fellow enough in any rank of life, but to Dorothea, and others of her class, his clear, well-cut features and jetty ringlets rendered him an absolute Adonis, despite the air of half-drunken bravado and assumed recklessness which marred a naturally resolute expression of countenance. He wore a fur cap, a velveteen jacket, and a bright-red neckcloth, secured by an enormous ring; nor was this remarkable costume out of character with the perfume he exhaled, denoting he had consumed at least his share of that other half-quartern which postponed his departure.
Dorothea slipped her arm in his, and clung to him with the fond tenacity of a woman who loves heart and soul, poor thing, to her cost.
His manner was an admirable combination of low-class gallantry with pitying condescension.
"Why, Doll," said he, "what's up now? You don't look hearty, my lass. Step in and take a dram; it'll do you good."
She glanced admiringly in the comely dissipated face.
"Ah! they may well call you Gentleman Jim," she answered; "you're fit to be a lord of the land, you are; and so you would, if I was queen. But I doesn't want you to treat me, Jim, leastways not this turn; I wants you to come for a walk, dear. I've a bit of news for you. It's business, Jim," she added, somewhat ruefully, "or I wouldn't go for to ask."
His face, which had fallen a little, assuming that wearied expression a woman ought most to dread on the face she cares for, brightened considerably.
"Come on, lass!" he exclaimed, "business first, and pleasure arter. Speak up, and let's hear all about it."
They had turned from the main thoroughfare into a dark and quiet by-street. She crossed her work-worn hands on his arm, and proceeded nervously—
"You say I never put you on a job, Jim. Well, I've a job to put you on now. I don't half like it, dear. It's for your sake I don't half like it. Promise me as you'll be careful, very careful, this turn."
"Bother!" answered Jim. "Stow that, lass, and let's have it out."
Thus elegantly adjured, Doll, as he called her, obeyed without delay, though her voice faltered and her colour faded more than once while she went on.
"You told me as you wouldn't love me without I kep' my ears open, and my eyes too. Well, Jim, I've watched and watched old master and young, like a cat watches a mouse-hole, till I've been that sick and tired I could have set down and cried. Now, to-day I wanted to see you so bad, at any rate, and, thinks I, here's a bit of news as my Jim will like to learn. Look now: young master, he's a-goin' to a place they call Bragford by the five-o'clock train. O, I mind the name well enough. You know, Jim, you always bid me take notice of names. Well, it's Bragford. Bragford, says he, quite plain, an' as loud as I'm a-speakin' now."
"Forty-five miles from London," answered Jim, "and not ten minutes' walk from the branch line. Well?"
"He's a-takin' summut down for a young lady," continued Doll. "It is but a small package, what you might put in your coat-pocket, or your hat. O, Jim! Jim! if you should chance on a stroke of luck this turn, won't you give the trade up for good and all? If you and me had but a roof to cover us, I wouldn't ask better than only liberty to work for you till I dropped."
Tears stood in her eyes, and for a moment the face that looked up into the ruffian's was almost beautiful in its expression of entire devotion and trust.
He had taken a doubtful cigar from his coat-pocket, and was smoking thoughtfully.
"Small," said he, "then it ought, by rights, to be valuable. Did ye get a feel of it, Doll, or was it only a smell?"
"He took it hisself out of the jeweller's hands," answered Doll; "but I hadn't no call to be curious, for he told me what it was free enough. There ain't no smell about diamonds, Jim."
"Nor you can't swear to them neither," replied Jim exultingly. "Diamonds, Doll! you're sure he said diamonds? Come, you have done it, my lass. Give us a kiss, Doll, and let's turn in here at the Sunflower, and drink good luck to the job."
The woman acceded to both proposals readily enough, but followed her companion into the ill-favoured little tavern with a weary step and a heavy heart. Some unerring instinct told her, no doubt, that she was giving all and taking nothing, offering gold for silver, truth for falsehood, love and devotion for a mere liking, rapidly waning to indifference and contempt.
Tom Ryfe, all anxiety to find himself once more in the same county with Miss Bruce, was in good time, we may be sure, for the train that should carry him down to Ecclesfield. Bustling through the station to take his ticket, he was closely followed by a well-dressed person in a pair of blue spectacles, travelling apparently without luggage or impediments of any description. This individual seemed also bound for Bragford, and showed some little eagerness to travel in the same carriage with Tom, who attributed the compliment to his lately-constructed coat and general appearance as a swell of the first water. "He don't often get such a chance," thought Mr. Ryfe, accepting with extreme graciousness the other's civilities as to open windows and change of seats. He even went so far as to take a proffered cigar from the case of his fellow-traveller, which he would have smoked forth-with, but for the peremptory objections of a crusty old gentleman, who arrived at the last moment, encumbered with such a paraphernalia of railway-rugs, travelling-bags, books, newspapers and magazines as denoted the through-passenger, not to be got rid of at any intermediate station. The old gentleman glared defiance, but made himself comfortable nevertheless; and the presence of this common enemy was a bond of union to render the two chance acquaintances more than ordinarily cordial and communicative.
Smoking being prohibited, they had not proceeded many miles into the country ere the gentleman in spectacles produced a box of lozenges from his pocket, and, selecting one for his own consumption, offered another, with much suavity, to Tom Ryfe, surveying meanwhile, with inquisitive glances, the bulge in that gentleman's breast-pocket, where he carried his valuable package; but here again both were startled, not to say irritated, by the dictatorial interference of the last arrival.
"Excuse me, gentlemen," said this irrepressible old man, "I cannot permit it. Damn me, sir!" turning full round upon Tom Ryfe, "I won't permit it! I can detect the smell of chloroform in those lozenges. Smell, sir, I've the smell of a bloodhound. I could hunt a scamp all over England by nose—by nose, I tell you, sir, and worry him to death when I ran into him; and I would too. Now, sir, if you choose to be chloroformed, I don't. I'm not anxious to be taken out of this compartment as stupid as an owl, and as cold as a cabbage, with a pain in my eyes, a singing in my ears, and a scoundrel's hands in my waistcoat-pockets. Excuse me, sir, I'm warm—I wouldn't give much for a chap that wasn't—and I speak my mind!"
It seemed a bad speculation to quarrel with him, this big, burly, resolute, and disagreeable old man. Tom Ryfe, for once, was at a nonplus. He murmured a few vague sentences of dissent, while the passenger in spectacles, consigning his lozenges to an inner pocket, buried himself in the broad sheet of the Times. But it was his turn now, and not even thus could he escape. Staring grimly at him, over the top of the paper, his tormentor fired a point-blank question, from which there was no refuge.
"Pray, sir," said he, "are you a chemist?"
The gentleman in spectacles signified, by a shake of the head, that was not his profession.
"Then, sir," continued the other, "do you know anything about chemistry—volatile essences, noxious drugs, subtle poisons? I do." (Here Tom Ryfe observed his ally turn pale.) "Permit me to remark, sir, that if you don't, you are like a school-boy carrying a pocketful of squibs and crackers on the fifth of November, unconscious that a single spark may blow him into the Christmas holidays before he can say 'knife!' Let me see those lozenges, sir—let me have them in my hand; I'll tell you in five seconds what they're made of, and how, and where, and why."
Here the man in spectacles, with considerable presence of mind, threw the whole of his lozenges out of window, under cover of the Times.
"You frighten me, sir," said he; "I wouldn't keep such dangerous articles about me on any consideration."
The old gentleman executed an elaborate wink, denoting extreme satisfaction, at Tom Ryfe. "If you were going through," said he, "I could tell you some funny stories. Queer tricks upon travellers I've seen in my time. Why I was the first person to find out the sinking-floor dodge in West Street. My evidence transported three people for life, and a fourth for fifteen years. I once saw a man pulled down by the heels through a grating in one of the busiest streets in the City, and if I hadn't seen him he would never have come up alive. Why the police apply to me for advice many a time when people are missing. 'Don't distress yourselves,' says I, 'they'll turn up, never fear.' And they do turn up, sir, in nineteen cases out of twenty. In the twentieth, when there's foul play, we generally know something about it within eight-and-forty hours. Bragford? Is it? You get out here, do you? Good-morning, gentlemen; I hope you've enjoyed your jaunt."
Then as Tom, collecting great-coats, newspapers, etc., followed his new acquaintance out of the carriage, this strange old gentleman detained him for an instant by the arm.
"Friend of yours, sir?" said he, pointing to the man in spectacles on the platform. "Never saw him before? I thought so. Sharper, sir, I'll take my oath of it, or something worse. I know the sort; I've exposed hundreds of them. Take my advice, sir, and never see him again."
With that the train glided on, leaving Mr. Ryfe and the gentleman in spectacles staring at each other over a basket of fish and a portmanteau.
"Mad!" observed the latter, with an uneasy attempt at a laugh, and a readjustment of his glasses.
"Mad, no doubt," answered Tom, but followed the lunatic's counsel, nevertheless, so far as to refrain from offering the other a lift in the well-appointed brougham, with its burly coachman, waiting to convey him to Ecclesfield Manor, though his late fellow-traveller was proceeding in that direction on foot.
Tom had determined to sleep at the Railway Hotel, Bragford, ere he returned to London next day. This arrangement he considered more respectful than an intrusion on the hospitality of Ecclesfield, should it be offered him. Perhaps so scrupulous a regard for the proprieties mollified Miss Bruce in his favour, and called forth an invitation to tea in the drawing-room when he had concluded the solitary dinner prepared for him after his journey.
Tom Ryfe was always a careful dresser. Up to forty most men are. It is only when we have nobody to please that we become negligent of pleasing. I believe, though, that never in his life did he tie his neckcloth or brush his whiskers with more care than on the present occasion in a large and dreary chamber known to the household as one of the "best bedrooms" of Ecclesfield Manor.
Tom looked about him, with a proud consciousness that at last his foot was on the ladder he had wanted all his life to climb. Here he stood, actually dressing for dinner, a welcome guest in the house of an old-established county family, on terms of confidence, if not intimacy, with its proud and beautiful female representative, in whose cause he was about to do battle with all the force of his intellect, and (Tom began to think she could make him fool enough for anything) all the resources of his purse. The old family pictures—sad daubs, or they would never have been consigned to the bedrooms—simpered down on him with encouraging benignity. Prim women, wearing enormously long waists, and their heads a good deal on one side, pointed their fans at him, while he washed his hands, with a coquetry irresistible, had their colours only stood, combining entreaty and command; while a jolly old boy in flowing wig, steel breast-plate, and the most convivial of noses, smiled in his face, as who should say, "Audaces Fortuna juvat!—Go in, my hearty, and win if you can!"
What was there in these surroundings, in the orderly decorum of the well-regulated mansion, in the chiming of the stable clock, nay, in the reflection of his own person shown by that full-length glass, to take the starch, as it were, out of Tom's self-confidence, turning his moral courage limp and helpless for the nonce, bringing insensibly to his mind the familiar refrain of "Not for Joseph"? What was there that bade him man himself against this discouragement, as true bravery mans itself against the sensation of fear? and why should he be less worthy of approbation than other spirits who venture on "enterprises of great pith and moment" with beating hearts indeed, but with unflinching courage and a dogged determination to succeed?
Had Tom been a young knight arming for a tournament, in which the good fortune of his lance was to win him a king's daughter for his bride, he might have claimed to be an admirable and interesting hero. Was he, indeed, a less respectable adventurer, that for steel he had to substitute French polish, for surcoat and corselet, broadcloth and cambric—that the battle he was to wage must be fought out by tenacity of purpose and ingenuity of brain, rather than strength of arm and downright hardness of skull?
He shook a little too much scent on his handkerchief as he finished dressing, and walked down-stairs in a state of greater agitation than he would have liked to admit.
Dinner was soon done. Eaten in solitude with grave servants watching every mouthful, he was glad to get it over. In a glass of brown sherry he drank Miss Brace's health, and thus primed, followed the butler to the drawing-room, where that lady sat working by the light of a single lamp.
The obscurity was in his favour. Tom made his bow and accepted the chair offered him, less awkwardly than was to be expected from the situation.
Maud looked very beautiful with the light falling on her sculptured chin, her fair neck, and white hands, set off by the deep shadows of the mourning dress she wore.
I believe he was going to begin by saying "it had been a fine day," but she stopped him in her clear, cold voice, with its patrician accent, so difficult to define, yet so impossible to mistake.
"I have to thank you, Mr. Ryfe, for taking such care of my jewels. I hope the man left them at your office as he promised, and that you had no farther trouble about them."
He wanted to say that "no errand of hers could be a trouble to him," but the words stuck in his throat, or she would hardly have proceeded so graciously.
"We must go into a few matters of business this evening, if you have got the papers you mentioned. I leave here to-morrow, and there is little time to spare."
He produced a neatly-folded packet, docketed and carefully tied with tape. The sight of it roused his energies, as the shaking of a guidon rouses an old trooper. Despite of the enchantress and all her glamour, Tom was himself again.
"Business is my trade, Miss Bruce," said he briskly. "I must ask your earnest attention for a quarter of an hour, while I explain our position as regards the estate. At present it appears beset with difficulties. That's my look-out. Before we begin," added Tom, with a diffident faltering of voice, partly natural, partly assumed, "forgive my asking your future address. It is indispensable that we should frequently communicate, and—and—I cannot help hoping and expressing my hope for your happiness in the home you have chosen."
Maud's smile was very taking. She smiled with her eyes, those dark, pleasing eyes that would have made a fool of a wiser man than Tom.
"I am going to Aunt Agatha's," she said. "I am to live with her for good. I have no home of my own now."
The words were simple enough—spoken, too, without sadness or bitterness as a mere abstract matter of fact, but they aroused all the pen-and-ink chivalry in Tom's nature, and he vowed in his heart to lay goose-quill in rest on her behalf, with the devotion of a Montmorency or a Bayard.
"Miss Bruce," said he resolutely, "the battle is not yet lost. In our last, of the 15th, we advised you that the other side had already taken steps to oppose our claims. My uncle has great experience, and I will not conceal from you that my uncle is less sanguine than myself; but I begin to see my way, and if there is a possibility of winning, by hook or by crook, depend upon it, Miss Bruce, win we will, for our own sakes, and—and—for yours!"
The last two words were spoken in a whisper, being indeed a spontaneous ebullition, but she heard them nevertheless. In her deep sorrow, in her friendless, homeless position there was something soothing and consolatory in the sympathy of this young man, lawyer's clerk though he were, as she insisted with unnecessary repetition to herself. He showed at his best, too, while explaining the legal complications involved in the whole business, and the steps by which he hoped eventually to succeed. Maud was too thoroughly a woman not to admire power, and Tom's intellect possessed obviously no small share of that quality, when directed on such matters as the present. In half-an-hour he had furnished her with a lucid statement of the whole case, and in half-an-hour he had inspired her with respect for his opinion, admiration of his sagacity, and confidence in his strength—not a bad thirty minutes' work. At its conclusion, she shook hands with him cordially when she wished him good-night. Tom was no fool, and knew when to venture as when to hold back. He bowed reverentially over the white hand, muttering only—"God bless you, Miss Bruce! If you think of anything else, at a moment's notice I will come from the end of the world to serve you,"—and so hurried away before she could reply.
THE CRACKSMAN'S CHECKMATE
Puckers, or Miss Puckers, as she liked to be called below-stairs, was a little puzzled by her young mistress's abstraction, while she brushed out Maud's wealth of raven hair for the night. Stealing glances at herself in the glass opposite, she could not help observing the expression on Miss Bruce's face. The light was in it once more that had been so quenched by her father's death. Puckers, who, in the housekeeper's room, had discussed the affairs of the family almost hourly ever since that sorrowful event, considered that it must have left his daughter in the possession of untold wealth, and that "the young man from town," as she designated Tom Ryfe, was sent down expressly to afford the heiress an estimate of her possessions. A true lady's-maid, she determined to hazard the inquiry.
"I suppose, miss," said she, brushing viciously, "we sha'n't be going to your aunt's now quite so soon. I'm sure I've been that hurried and put about, I don't scarce know which way to turn."
"Why?" asked Maud quietly. "Not so hard, please."
"Well, miss, a lady is not like a servant, you know; she can do as she chooses, of course. But if I was you, miss, I'd remain on the spot. There's the new furniture to get; there's the linen to see to; there's the bailiff given warning; and that there young man from town, I suppose he wouldn't come if we could do without him, charging goodness knows what, as if his very words was gold. But I give you joy, miss, of your fortune, I do. I was a-sayin', only last night, was it? to Mrs. Plummer, says I, 'Whatever my young lady will do,' says I, 'in a house where she isn't mistress, she that's been used to rule in her poor ma's time, and her pa's, ah! ever since she cut her teeth almost;' and Mrs. Plummer says, says she——"
"That'll do, Puckers," observed Miss Bruce, "I shall not want you any more. Good-night."
She took as little notice of her handmaid's volubility as if the latter had been a grey parrot, and dismissed her with a certain cold, imperial manner that none of the household ever dreamt it possible to dispute or disobey; but after Puckers, with a quantity of white draperies over her arm, had departed to return no more, she sat down at the dressing-table, and began to think with all her might.
Her maid was a fool, no doubt: all maids were; but the shaft of folly, shot at random, went home to the quick. "A house where she wasn't mistress!" Had she ever considered the future shelter offered her by Aunt Agatha in that light? Here at the Manor, for as long as she could remember, had she not reigned supreme? All the little arrangements of dinner-parties, picnics, archery-meetings, and such gatherings as make up country society, had fallen into her hands. Mamma didn't care—mamma never cared how anything was settled so long as papa was pleased; and papa thought Maud could not possibly do wrong. So by degrees—and this at an age when young ladies are ordinarily in the schoolroom—Miss Bruce had grown, on all social questions, to be the virtual head of the family. It was a position of which, till the time came to abdicate, she had not sufficiently appreciated the value. It seemed so natural to order carriages and horses at her own hours, to return visits, to receive guests, to do the honours of a comfortable country-house with an adequate establishment, and now, could she bear to live with Aunt Agatha, on sufferance?—Aunt Agatha, whom she had never liked, and whom she only refrained from snubbing and setting down, because they so seldom met, but when the elder lady had been invited by the younger as a guest! "To be dependent," thought Maud, mentally addressing the beautiful face in the glass, "How should you like that? you with your haughty head, and your scornful eyes, and your hard, unbending heart? I know you! Nobody knows you but me! And I know how bad you are—how capricious, and how cruel! When you want anything, do you ever spare anybody to get it? Did you ever love any one on earth as well as your own way? Even mamma? O, mamma, dear, dear mamma, if you had lived I might have got better—I was better, I know I was better while I was with you. But now—now I must be myself. I can't help it. After all, it is not my fault. What is it I most covet and desire in the world? It is power. Rank, wealth, luxury—these are all very well as accessories of life; but how should I loathe and hate them if they were conditional on my thinking as other people thought, or doing what I was told! I ought to have been a man. Women are such weak, vapid, idiotic characters, in general—at least, all I meet down here. Engrossed with their children, their parishes, their miserable household cares and perplexities. While in London, I believe there are women who actually lead a party and turn out a minister. But they are beautiful, of course. Well—and me? I don't think I am so much amiss. With my looks and the position I ought to have, surely I might hold my own with the best of them. But what good will my looks do me if I am to be a dependent on Aunt Agatha? No. Without the estate I am nothing. With it I might be anything. This lawyer thinks he can win it for me. I wonder if he knows. How clever he seems! and how thoughtful! Nothing escapes him, and nothing seems to take him by surprise. And yet what a fool I could make of him if I chose. I saw it before he had been five minutes in the room. I wonder now what he thinks of me!—whether he has the presumption to suppose I could ever allow him to betray what he cared for me. I believe I should rather admire his impudence! It is pleasant to be cared for, even by an inferior; and, after all, this Mr. Ryfe is not without his good points. He has plenty of talent and energy, and I should think audacity. By his own account he sticks at nothing, when he means winning, and he certainly means to win for me if he can. I never saw anybody so eager, so much in earnest. Perhaps he thinks that if he could come to me and say, 'There, Miss Bruce, I have saved your birthright for you, and I ask nothing but one kind word in return,' I might be disposed to give it, and something more. Well, I don't know. Perhaps it would be as good a way as any other of getting into favour. One thing is certain. The inheritance I must preserve at every sacrifice. Dear me, how late it is! I ought to have been in bed hours ago. Puckers, is that you?"
Puckers did not answer, and a faint rustle in the adjoining room, which had called forth Miss Bruce's question, ceased the instant she spoke aloud.
This young lady was not nervous; far from it; yet her watch seemed to tick with extraordinary vigour, and her heart to beat harder than common while she listened.
The door of communication between the two rooms was closed. Another door in the smaller apartment opened to the passage, but this, she remembered, was habitually locked on the inside. It couldn't be Puckers, therefore, who thus disturbed her mistress's reflections, unless that handmaiden had come down the chimney, or in at the window.
In this smaller room Miss Bruce kept her riding-habits, her ball-dresses, her draperies of different fabric, her transparencies of all kinds, and her jewels.
The house was very silent—so silent, that in the distant corridors were distinctly audible those faint and ghostly footfalls, which traverse all large houses after midnight. There were candles burning on Maud's toilet-table, but they served rather to show how dismal were the shadowy corners of the large, lofty bedroom, than to afford light and confidence to its inmate.
She listened intently. Yes; she was sure she heard somebody in the next room—a step that moved stealthily about; a noise as of woodwork skilfully and cautiously forced open.
One moment she felt frightened. Then her courage came back the higher for its interruption. She could have escaped from her own room into the passage, easily enough, and so alarmed the house; but when she reflected that its fighting garrison consisted only of an infirm old butler—for the footman was absent on leave—there seemed little to be gained by such a proceeding, if violence or robbery were really intended. Besides, she rather scorned the idea of summoning assistance till she had ascertained the amount of danger.
So she blew her candle out, crept to the door of the little room, and laid her hand noiselessly on its lock.
Softly as she turned it, gently as she pushed the door back on its hinges inch by inch, she did not succeed in entering unobserved. The light of a shaded lantern flashed over her the instant she crossed the threshold, dazzling her eyes indeed, yet not so completely but that she made out the figure of a man standing over her shattered jewel-box, of which he seemed to have been rifling the contents. Quick as thought, she said to herself, "Come, there is only one! If I can frighten him more than he frightens me, the game is mine."
The man swore certain ghastly oaths in a whisper, and Maud was aware of the muzzle of a pistol covering her above the dark lantern.
She wondered why she wasn't frightened, not the least frightened—only rather angry and intensely determined to save the jewels, and have it out.
She could distinguish a dark figure behind the spot of intense light radiating round her own person, and perceived, besides, almost without looking, that an entrance had been made by the window, which stood wide open to disclose the topmost rounds of a garden-ladder, borrowed doubtless from the tool-house, propped against its sill.
What the housebreaker saw was a vision of dazzling beauty in a flood of light. A pale, queenly woman, with haughty, delicate face, and loops of jet-black hair, falling over robes of white, erect and dauntless, fronting his levelled weapon without the slightest sign of fear.
He had never set eyes on such a sight as this; no, neither in circus nor music-hall, nor gallery of metropolitan theatre at Christmas. For a moment he lost his head—for a moment he hesitated.
In that moment Miss Bruce showed herself equal to the occasion.
Quick as thought, she made one step to the window, pushed the ladder outwards with all her force, and shut down the sash. As it closed, the ladder, poising for an instant, fell with a crash on the gravel below.
"Now," she said quietly, "you are trapped and taken. Better make no resistance, for the gamekeepers watching below are a rough sort of people, and I do not wish to see you ill-treated."
The man was aghast! What could it all mean? Was he awake or dreaming? She must be well backed, he said to himself, to assume such a position as this; and she looked so beautiful—so beautiful!
The latter consideration was not without its effect on him, even in the exercise of his profession. "Gentleman Jim," as his mates affirmed in their nervous English, became a fool of the deepest crimson dye whenever a woman was concerned, and this woman was in his eyes as an angel of light.
Nevertheless, instinctively rather than of intention, he muttered hoarsely—
"Drop it, miss, I warn you. One word out loud and I'll shoot, as sure as you stand there."
"Shoot away!" she answered with perfect composure; "you will save me the trouble of giving an alarm. They expect it, and are waiting for it every moment below-stairs. Light those candles, and let us see what damage you have done before you return the plunder."
A pair of wax-candles stood on the chimney-piece, and he obeyed mechanically, wondering at himself the while. His cunning, however, had not entirely deserted him, and he left his pistol lying on the table, ready to snatch it away if she tried to take possession. It was thus he gauged her confidence, and seeing she scarcely noticed the weapon, argued that powerful assistance must be near at hand to render this beautiful young lady so arbitrary and so unconcerned. His admiration burst out in spite of his discomfiture and critical position.
"Well, you are a cool one!" he exclaimed, in accents of mingled vexation and approval. "A cool one and a stunner, I'm blessed if you ain't! No offence, but I never see your likes yet, not since I was born. Come, miss, let's cry quits. You pass me out o' this on the quiet. I dessay as I can make shift to get down without the ladder; an' I'll leave all these here gimcracks just as I found 'em. Now I've seen ye once, I'm blessed if I'd take so much as an ear-drop, unless it was in the way of a keepsake. Pass me out, miss, and I'll promise—no, I'm blowed if I think as I can promise—never to come here no more."
Undisguised admiration—the admiration always acceptable to a woman when accompanied with respect—shone in Gentleman Jim's dark eyes. He seemed under a spell, and while he acknowledged its strength, had no power, nay, had no wish, to resist its influence. When on such jobs as these it was his habit to observe an unusual sobriety. He was glad now to think of his adherence to that rule. Had he been drunk, he might, peradventure, have insulted this divinity. What had come over him? He felt almost pleased to know he was in her power, and yet she treated him like the dirt beneath her feet.
"No insolence, sir," she said in a commanding voice. "Let me see, first of all, that every one of my trinkets is in its place. There, that bracelet would have brought you money, those diamonds would have been valuable if you could have got them clear off. You must have learned your trade very badly to suppose that with such things in the house we keep no guard. Come, I am willing to believe that distress brought you to this. Listen. You are in my power, and I will show you mercy. If I give you five pounds now, on the spot, and let you go, will you promise to try and get your bread as an honest man?"
The tears came in his eyes. This woman, then, that looked so like an angel, was angel all through. Yet, touched as he felt in his better nature, the proletary instinct bade him try once more if her effort to get rid of him originated in pity or fear, and he muttered, "Guineas! make it guineas, miss, and I'll say 'done.'"
"Not a shilling more, not a farthing," she answered, moving her hand as if to put it on the bell-pull. "It cannot matter to me," she added, in a tone of the most complete indifference, "but while I am about it I think I would rather be the making of an honest man than the destruction of a rogue."
Her acting was perfect. She seemed so cold, so impassive, so completely mistress of the position, and all the time her heart was beating as the gambler's beats, albeit in winning vein, ere he lifts the box from off the imprisoned dice—as the lion-tamer's beats when he spurns in its very den the monster that could crush him with a movement, and that yet he holds in check by an imaginary force, irresistible only so long as it is unresisted.