RUN TO EARTH
BY THE AUTHOR OF
"LADY AUDLEY'S SECRET," "AURORA FLOYD" "ISHMAEL," "VIXEN," "WYLLARD'S WEIRD" ETC. ETC.
* * * * *
CHAPTER I. WARNED IN A DREAM CHAPTER II. DONE IN THE DARKNESS CHAPTER III. DISINHERITED CHAPTER IV. OUT OF THE DEPTHS CHAPTER V. "EVIL, BE THOU MY GOOD!" CHAPTER VI. AULD ROBIN GRAY CHAPTER VII. "O BEWARE, MY LORD, OF JEALOUSY!" CHAPTER VIII. AFTER THE PIC-NIC CHAPTER IX. ON YARBOROUGH TOWER CHAPTER X. "HOW ART THOU LOST! HOW ON A SUDDEN LOST!" CHAPTER XI. "THE WILL! THE TESTAMENT!" CHAPTER XII. A FRIEND IN NEED CHAPTER XIII. IN YOUR PATIENCE YE ARE STRONG CHAPTER XIV. A GHOSTLY VISITANT CHAPTER XV. A TERRIBLE RESOLVE CHAPTER XVI. WAITING AND WATCHING CHAPTER XVII. DOUBTFUL SOCIETY CHAPTER XVIII. AT ANCHOR CHAPTER XIX. A FAMILIAR TOKEN CHAPTER XX. ON GUARD CHAPTER XXI. DOWN IN DORSETSHIRE CHAPTER XXII. ARCH-TRAITOR WITHIN, ARCH-PLOTTER WITHOUT CHAPTER XXIII. "ANSWER ME, IF THIS BE DONE?" CHAPTER XXIV. "I AM WEARY OF MY PART" CHAPTER XXV. A DANGEROUS ALLIANCE CHAPTER XXVI. MOVE THE FIRST CHAPTER XXVII. WEAVE THE WARP, AND WEAVE THE WOOF CHAPTER XXVIII. PREPARING THE GROUND CHAPTER XXIX. AT WATCH CHAPTER XXX. FOUND WANTING CHAPTER XXXI. "A WORTHLESS WOMAN, MERE COLD CLAY" CHAPTER XXXII. A MEETING AND AN EXPLANATION CHAPTER XXXIII. "TREASON HAS DONE HIS WORST" CHAPTER XXXIV. CAUGHT IN THE TOILS CHAPTER XXXV. LARKSPUR TO THE RESCUE! CHAPTER XXXVI. ON THE TRACK CHAPTER XXXVII. "O, ABOVE MEASURE FALSE!" CHAPTER XXXVIII. "THY DAY IS COME" CHAPTER XXXIX. "CONFUSION WORSE THAN DEATH" CHAPTER XL. "SO SHALL YE REAP"
WARNED IN A DREAM.
Seven-and-twenty years ago, and a bleak evening in March. There are gas-lamps flaring down in Ratcliff Highway, and the sound of squeaking fiddles and trampling feet in many public-houses tell of festivity provided for Jack-along-shore. The emporiums of slop-sellers are illuminated for the better display of tarpaulin coats and hats, so stiff of build that they look like so many sea-faring suicides, pendent from the low ceilings. These emporiums are here and there enlivened by festoons of many-coloured bandana handkerchief's; and on every pane of glass in shop or tavern window is painted the glowing representation of Britannia's pride, the immortal Union Jack.
Two men sat drinking and smoking in a little parlour at the back of an old public-house in Shadwell. The room was about as large as a good-sized cupboard, and was illuminated in the day-time by a window commanding a pleasant prospect of coal-shed and dead wall. The paper on the walls was dark and greasy with age; and every bit of clumsy, bulging deal furniture in the room had been transformed into a kind of ebony by the action of time and dirt, the greasy backs and elbows of idle loungers, the tobacco-smoke and beer-stains of half a century.
It was evident that the two men smoking and drinking in this darksome little den belonged to the seafaring community. In this they resembled each other; but in nothing else. One was tall and stalwart; the other was small, and wizen, and misshapen. One had a dark, bronzed face, with a frank, fearless expression; the other was pale and freckled, and had small, light-gray eyes, that shifted and blinked perpetually, and shifted and blinked most when he was talking with most animation. The first had a sonorous bass voice and a resonant laugh; the second spoke in suppressed tones, and had a trick of dropping his voice to a whisper whenever he was most energetic.
The first was captain and half-owner of the brigantine 'Pizarro', trading between the port of London, and the coast of Mexico. The second was his clerk, factotum, and confidant; half-sailor, half-landsman; able to take the helm in dangerous weather, if need were; and able to afford his employer counsel in the most intricate questions of trading and speculation.
The name of the captain was Valentine Jernam, that of his factotum Joyce Harker. The captain had found him in an American hospital, had taken compassion upon him, and had offered him a free passage home. On the homeward voyage, Joyce Harker had shown himself so handy a personage, that Captain Jernam had declined to part with him at the end of the cruise: and from that time, the wizen little hunchback had been the stalwart seaman's friend and companion. For fifteen years, during which Valentine Jernam and his younger brother, George, had been traders on the high seas, things had gone well with these two brothers; but never had fortune so liberally favoured their trading as during the four years in which Joyce Harker had prompted every commercial adventure, and guided every speculation.
"Four years to-day, Joyce, since I first set eyes upon your face in the hospital at New Orleans," said Captain Jernam, in the confidence of this jovial hour. "'Why, the fellow's dead,' said I. 'No; he's only dying,' says the doctor. 'What's the matter with him?' asked I. 'Home-sickness and empty pockets,' says the doctor; 'he was employed in a gaming-house in the city, got knocked on the head in some row, and was brought here. We've got him through a fever that was likely enough to have finished him; but there he lies, as weak as a starved rat. He has neither money nor friends. He wants to get back to England; but he has no more hope of ever seeing that country than I have of being Emperor of Mexico.' 'Hasn't he?' says I; 'we'll tell you a different story about that, Mr. Doctor. If you can patch the poor devil up between this and next Monday, I'll take him home in my ship, without the passage costing him sixpence.' You don't feel offended with me for having called you a poor devil, eh, Joyce?—for you really were, you know—you really were an uncommonly poor creature just then," murmured the captain, apologetically.
"Offended with you!" exclaimed the factotum; "that's a likely thing. Don't I owe you my life? How many more of my countrymen passed me by as I lay on that hospital-bed, and left me to rot there, for all they cared? I heard their loud voices and their creaking boots as I lay there, too weak to lift my eyelids and look at them; but not too weak to curse them."
"No, Joyce, don't say that."
"But I do say it; and what's more, I mean it. I'll tell you what it is, captain, there's a general opinion that when a man's shoulders are crooked, his mind is crooked too; and that, if his poor unfortunate legs have shrivelled up small, his heart must have shrivelled up small to match 'em. I dare say there's some truth in the general opinion; for, you see, it doesn't improve a man's temper to find himself cut out according to a different pattern from that his fellow-creatures have been made by, and to find his fellow-creatures setting themselves against him because of that difference; and it doesn't soften a poor wretch's heart towards the world in general, to find the world in general harder than stone against him, for no better reason than his poor weak legs and his poor crooked back. But never mind talking about me and my feelings, captain. I ain't of so much account as to make it worth while for a fine fellow like you to waste words upon me. What I want to know is your plans. You don't intend to stop down this way, do you?"
"Why shouldn't I?"
"Because it's a dangerous way for a man who carries his fortune about him, as you do. I wish you'd make up your mind to bank that money, captain."
"Not if I know it," answered the sailor, with a look of profound wisdom; "not if I know it, Joyce Harker. I know what your bankers are. You go to them some fine afternoon, and find a lot of clerks standing behind a bran new mahogany counter, everything bright, and shining, and respectable. 'Can I leave a few hundreds on deposit?' asks you. 'Why, of course you can,' reply they; and then you hand over your money, and then they hand you back a little bit of paper. 'That's your receipt,' say they. 'All right,' say you; and off you sheer. Perhaps you feel just a little bit queerish, when you get outside, to think that all your solid cash has been melted down into that morsel of paper; but being a light-hearted, easy-going fellow, you don't think any more of it, till you come home from your next voyage, and go ashore again, and want your money; when it's ten to one if you don't find your fine new bank shut up, and your clerks and bran-new mahogany counter vanished. No, Joyce, I'll trust no bankers."
"I'd rather trust the bankers than the people down this way, any day in the week," answered the clerk, thoughtfully.
"Don't you worry yourself, Joyce! The money won't be in my keeping very long. George is to meet me in London on the fifth of April, at the latest, he says, unless winds and waves are more contrary than ever they've been since he's had to do with them; and you know George is my banker. I'm only a sleeping partner in the firm of Jernam Brothers. George takes the money, and George does what he likes with it—puts it here and there, and speculates in this and speculates in that. You've got a business head of your own, Joyce; you're one of George's own sort; and you are up to all his dodges, which is more than I am. However, he tells me we're getting rich, and that's pleasant enough— not that I think I should break my heart about it if we were getting poor. I love the sea because it is the sea, and I love my ship for her own sake."
"Captain George is right, though," answered the clerk. "Jernam Brothers are growing rich; Jernam Brothers are prospering. But you haven't told me your plans yet, captain."
"Well, since you say I had better cut this quarter, I suppose I must; though I like to see the rigging above the housetops, and to hear the jolly voices of the sailors, and to know that the 'Pizarro' lies hard by in the Pool. However, there's an old aunt of mine, down in a sleepy little village in Devonshire, who'd be glad to see me, and none the worse for a small slice of Jernam Brothers' good luck; so I'll take a place on the Plymouth coach to-morrow morning, and go down and have a peep at her. You'll be able to keep a look-out on the repairs aboard of the 'Pizarro', and I can be back in time to meet George on the fifth."
"Where are you to meet him?"
"In this room."
The factotum shook his head.
"You're both a good deal too fond of this house," he said. "The people that have got it now are strangers to us. They've bought the business since our last trip. I don't like the look on them."
"No more do I, if it comes to that. I was sorry to hear the old folks had been done up. But come, Joyce, some more rum-and-water. Let's enjoy ourselves to-night, man, if I'm to start by the first coach to- morrow morning. What's that?"
The captain stopped, with the bell-rope in his hand, to listen to the sound of music close at hand. A woman's voice, fresh and clear as the song of a sky-lark, was singing "Wapping Old Stairs," to the accompaniment of a feeble old piano.
"What a voice!" cried the sailor. "Why, it seems to pierce to the very core of my heart as I listen to it. Let's go and hear the music, Joyce."
"Better not, captain," answered the warning voice of the clerk. "I tell you they're a bad lot in this house. It's a sort of concert they give of a night; an excuse for drunkenness, and riot, and low company. If you're going by the coach to-morrow, you'd better get to bed early to- night. You've been drinking quite enough as it is."
"Drinking!" cried Valentine Jernam; "why, I'm as sober as a judge. Come, Joyce, let's go and listen to that girl's singing."
The captain left the room, and Harker followed, shrugging his shoulders as he went.
"There's nothing so hard to manage as a baby of thirty years old," he muttered; "a blessed infant that one's obliged to call master."
He followed the captain, through a dingy little passage, into a room with a sanded floor, and a little platform at one end. The room was full of sailors and disreputable-looking women; and was lighted by several jets of coarse gas, which flared in the bleak March wind.
A group of black-bearded, foreign-looking seamen made room for the captain and his companion at one of the tables. Jernam acknowledged their courtesy with a friendly nod.
"I don't mind standing treat for a civil fellow like you," he said; "come, mates, what do you say to a bowl of punch?"
The men looked at him and grinned a ready assent.
Valentine Jernam called the landlord, and ordered a bowl of rum-punch.
"Plenty of it, remember, and be sure you are not too liberal with the water," said the captain.
The landlord nodded and laughed. He was a broad-shouldered, square-built man, with a flat, pale face, broad and square, like his figure—not a pleasant-looking man by any means.
Valentine Jernam folded his arms on the rickety, liquor-stained table, and took a leisurely survey of the apartment.
There was a pause in the concert just now. The girl had finished her song, and sat by the old square piano, waiting till she should be required to sing again. There were only two performers in this primitive species of concert—the girl who sang, and an old blind man, who accompanied her on the piano; but such entertainment was quite sufficient for the patrons of the 'Jolly Tar', seven-and-twenty years ago, before the splendours of modern music-halls had arisen in the land.
Valentine Jernam's dark eyes wandered round the room, till they lighted on the face of the girl sitting by the piano. There they fixed themselves all at once, and seemed as if rooted to the face on which they looked. It was a pale, oval face, framed in bands of smooth black hair, and lighted by splendid black eyes; the face of a Roman empress rather than a singing-girl at a public-house in Shadwell. Never before had Valentine Jernam looked on so fair a woman. He had never been a student or admirer of the weaker sex. He had a vague kind of idea that there were women, and mermaids, and other dangerous creatures, lurking somewhere in this world, for the destruction of honest men; but beyond this he had very few ideas on the subject.
Other people were taking very little notice of the singer. The regular patrons of the 'Jolly Tar' were accustomed to her beauty and her singing, and thought very little about her. The girl was very quiet, very modest. She came and went under the care of the old blind pianist, whom she called her grandfather, and she seemed to shrink alike from observation or admiration.
She began to sing again presently.
She stood by the piano, facing the audience, calm as a statue, with her large black eyes looking straight before her. The old man listened to her eagerly, as he played, and nodded fond approval every now and then, as the full, rich notes fell upon his ear. The poor blind face was illuminated with the musician's rapture. It seemed as if the noisy, disreputable audience had no existence for these two people.
"What a lovely creature!" exclaimed the captain, in a tone of subdued intensity.
"Yes, she's a pretty girl," muttered the clerk, coolly.
"A pretty girl!" echoed Jernam; "an angel, you mean! I did not know there were such women in the world; and to think that such a woman should be here, in this place, in the midst of all this tobacco-smoke, and noise, and blasphemy! It seems hard, doesn't it, Joyce?"
"I don't see that it's any harder for a pretty woman than an ugly one," replied Harker, sententiously. "If the girl had red hair and a snub nose, you wouldn't take the trouble to pity her. I don't see why you should concern yourself about her, because she happens to have black eyes and red lips. I dare say she's a bad lot, like most of 'em about here, and would as soon pick your pocket as look at you, if you gave her the chance."
Valentine Jernam made no reply to these observations. It is possible that he scarcely heard them. The punch came presently; but he pushed the bowl towards Joyce, and bade that gentleman dispense the mixture. His own glass remained before him untouched, while the foreign seamen and Joyce Harker emptied the bowl. When the girl sang, he listened; when she sat in a listless attitude, in the pauses between her songs, he watched her face.
Until she had finished her last song, and left the platform, leading her blind companion by the hand, the captain of the 'Pizarro' seemed like a creature under the influence of a spell. There was only one exit from the room, so the singing-girl and her grandfather had to pass along the narrow space between the two rows of tables. Her dark stuff dress brushed against Jernam as she passed him. To the last, his eyes followed her with the same entranced gaze.
When she had gone, and the door had closed upon her, he started suddenly to his feet, and followed. He was just in time to see her leave the house with her grandfather, and with a big, ill-looking man, half-sailor, half-landsman, who had been drinking at the bar.
The landlord was standing behind the bar, drawing beer, as Jernam looked out into the street, watching the receding figures of the girl and her two companions.
"She's a pretty girl, isn't she?" said the landlord, as Jernam shut the door.
"She is, indeed!" cried the sailor. "Who is she?—where does she come from?—what's her name?"
"Her name is Jenny Milsom, and she lives with her father, a very respectable man."
"Was that her father who went out with her just now?"
"Yes, that's Tom Milsom."
"He doesn't look very respectable. I don't think I ever set eyes on a worse-looking fellow."
"A man can't help his looks," answered the landlord, rather sulkily; "I've known Tom Milsom these ten years, and I've never known any harm of him."
"No, nor any good either, I should think, Dennis Wayman," said a man who was lounging at the bar; "Black Milsom is the name we gave him over at Rotherhithe. I worked with him in a shipbuilder's yard seven years ago: a surly brute he was then, and a surly brute he is now; and a lazy, skulking vagabond into the bargain, living an idle life out at that cottage of his among the marshes, and eating up his pretty daughter's earnings."
"You seem to know Milsom's business as well as you do your own, Joe Dermot," answered the landlord, with some touch of anger in his tone.
"It's no use looking savage at me, Dennis," returned Dermot; "I never did trust Black Milsom, and never will. There are men who would take your life's blood for the price of a gallon of beer, and I think Milsom is one of 'em."
Valentine Jernam listened attentively to this conversation—not because he was interested in Black Milsom's character, but because he wanted to hear anything that could enlighten him about the girl who had awakened such a new sentiment in his breast.
The clerk had followed his master, and stood in the shadow of the doorway, listening even more attentively than his employer; the small, restless eyes shifted to and fro between the faces of the speakers.
More might have been said about Mr. Thomas Milsom; but it was evident that the landlord of the 'Jolly Tar' was inclined to resent any disrespectful allusion to that individual. The man called Joe Dermot paid his score, and went away. The captain and his factotum retired to the two dingy little apartments which were to accommodate them for the night.
All through that night, sleeping or waking, Valentine Jernam was haunted by the vision of a beautiful face, the sound of a melodious voice, and the face and the voice belonged alike to the singing-girl.
The captain of the 'Pizarro' left his room at five o'clock, and tapped at Joyce Marker's door with the intention of bidding him goodbye.
"I'm off, Joyce," he said; "be sure you keep your eye upon the repairs between this and the fifth."
He was prepared to receive a drowsy answer; but to his surprise the door was opened, and Joyce stood dressed upon the threshold.
"I'm coming to the coach-office with you, captain," answered Harker. "I don't like this place, and I want to see you safe out of it, never to come back to it any more."
"Nonsense, Joyce; the place suits me well enough."
"Does it?" asked the factotum, in a whisper; "and the landlord suits you, I suppose?—and that man they call Black Milsom? There's something more than common between those two men, Captain Jernam. However that is, you take my advice. Don't you come back to this house till you come to meet Captain George. Captain George is a cool hand, and I'm not afraid of him; but you're too wild and too free-spoken for such folks as hang about the 'Jolly Tar'. You sported your pocket-book too freely last night, when you were paying for the punch. I saw the landlord spot the notes and gold, and I haven't trusted myself to sleep too soundly all night, for fear there should be any attempt at foul play."
"You're a good fellow, Joyce; but though you've pluck enough for twenty in a storm at sea, you're as timid as a baby at home."
"I'm like a dog, captain—I can smell danger when it threatens those I love. Hark! what's that?"
They were going down stairs quietly, in the darkness of the early spring morning. The clerk's quick ear caught the sound of a stealthy footstep; and in the next minute they were face to face with a man who was ascending the narrow stairs.
"You're early astir, Mr. Wayman," said Joyce Harker, recognizing the landlord of the 'Jolly Tar'.
"And so are you, for the matter of that," answered the host.
"My captain is off by an early coach, and I'm going to walk to the office with him," returned Joyce.
"Off by an early coach, is he? Then, if he can stop to drink it, I'll make him a cup of coffee."
"You're very good," answered Joyce, hastily; "but you see, the captain hasn't time for that, if he's going to catch the coach."
"Are you going into the country for long, captain?" asked the landlord.
"Well, no; not for long, mate; for I've got an appointment to keep in this house, on the fifth of April, with a brother of mine, who's homeward-bound from Barbadoes. You see, my brother and me are partners; whatever good luck one has he shares it with the other. We've been uncommon lucky lately."
The captain slapped his hand upon one of his capacious pockets as he spoke. Dennis Wayman watched the gesture with eager eyes. All through Valentine's speech, Joyce Harker had been trying to arrest his attention, but trying in vain. When the owner of the 'Pizarro' began to talk, it was very difficult to stop him.
The captain bade the landlord a cheerful good day, and departed with his faithful follower.
Out in the street, Joyce Harker remonstrated with his employer.
"I told you that fellow was not to be trusted, captain," he said; "and yet you blabbed to him about the money."
"Nonsense, Joyce. I didn't say a word about money."
"Didn't you though, captain? You said quite enough to let that man know you'd got the cash about you. But you won't go back to that place till you go to meet Captain George on the fifth?"
"Of course not."
"You won't change your mind, captain?"
"Because, you see, I shall be down at Blackwall, looking after the repairs, for it will be sharp work to get finished against you want to sail for Rio. So, you see, I shall be out of the way. And if you did go back to that house alone, Lord knows what they might try on."
"Don't you be afraid, Joyce. In the first place I shan't go back there till twelve o'clock on the fifth. I'll come up from Plymouth by the night coach, and put up at the 'Golden Cross' like a gentleman. And, in the second place, I flatter myself I'm a match for any set of land-sharks in creation."
"No, you're not, captain. No honest man is ever a match for a scoundrel."
Jernam and his companion carried the captain's portmanteau between them. They hailed a hackney-coach presently, and drove to the "Golden Cross," through the chill, gray streets, where the closed shutters had a funereal aspect.
At the coach-office they parted, with many friendly words on both sides; but to the last, Joyce Harker was grave and anxious.
The last he saw of his friend and employer was the captain's dark face looking out of the coach-window; the captain's hand waved in cordial farewell.
"What a good fellow he is!—what a noble fellow!" thought the wizen little clerk, as he trudged back towards the City. "But was there ever a baby so helpless on shore?—was there ever an innocent infant that needed so much looking after?"
* * * * *
Valentine Jernam arrived at Plymouth early the next morning, and walked from Plymouth to the little village of Allanbay, in which lived the only relative he had in the world, except his brother George. Walking at a leisurely pace along the quiet road, Captain Jernam, although not usually a thoughtful person, was fain to think about something, and fell to thinking over the past.
Light-hearted and cheery of spirit as the adventurous sailor was now-a-days, his childhood had been a very sad one. Motherless at eight years of age, and ill-used by a drunken father, the boy had suffered as the children of the poor too often suffer.
His mother had died, leaving George an infant of less than twelve months old; and from the hour of her death, Valentine had been the infant's sole nurse and protector; standing between the helpless little one and the father's brutality; enduring all hardships cheerfully, so long as he was able to shelter little Georgy.
On more than one occasion, the elder boy had braved and defied his father in defence of the younger brother.
It was scarcely strange, therefore, that there should arise between the two brothers an affection beyond the ordinary measure of brotherly love. Valentine had supplied the place of both parents to his brother George,—the place of the mother, who lay buried in Allanbay churchyard; the place of the father, who had sunk into a living death of drunkenness and profligacy.
They were not peasant-born these Jernams. The father had been a lieutenant in the Royal Navy; but had deservedly lost his commission, and had come, with his devoted wife, to hide his disgrace at Allanbay. The vices which had caused his expulsion from the navy had increased with every year, until the family had sunk to the lowest depths of poverty and degradation, in spite of the wife's heroic efforts to accomplish the reform of a reprobate. She had struggled nobly till the last, and had died broken-hearted, leaving the helpless children to the mercy of a wretch whose nature had become utterly debased and brutalized.
Throughout their desolate childhood the brothers had been all in all to each other, and as soon as George was old enough to face the world with his brother, the two boys ran away to sea, and obtained employment on board a small trading vessel.
At sea, as on shore, Valentine stood between his younger brother and all hardships. But the rough sailors were kinder than the drunken father had been, and the two lads fared pretty well.
Thus began the career of the two Jernams. Through all changes of fortune, the brothers had clung to each other. Despite all differences of character, their love for each other had known neither change nor diminution; and to-day, walking alone upon this quiet country road, the tears clouded Valentine Jernam's eyes as he remembered how often he had trodden it in the old time with his little brother in his arms.
"I shall see his dear face on the fifth," he thought; "God bless him!"
The old aunt lived in a cottage near the entrance to the village. She was comfortably off now—thanks to the two merchant captains; but she had been very poor in the days of their childhood, and had been able to do but little for the neglected lads. She had given them shelter, however, when they had been afraid to go home to their father, and had shared her humble fare with them very often.
Mrs. Jernam, as she was called by her neighbours, in right of her sixty years of age, was sitting by the window when her nephew opened the little garden-gate: but she had opened the door before he could knock, and was standing on the threshold ready to embrace him.
"My boy," she exclaimed, "I have been looking for you so long!"
That day was given up to pleasant talk between the aunt and nephew. She was so anxious to hear his adventures, and he was so willing to tell them. He sat before the fire smoking, while Susan Jernam's busy fingers plied her knitting-needles, and relating his hair-breadth escapes and perils between the puffs of blue smoke.
The captain was regaled with an excellent dinner, and a bottle of wine of his own importation. After dinner, he strolled out into the village, saw his old friends and acquaintances, and talked over old times. Altogether his first day at Allanbay passed very pleasantly.
The second day at Allanbay, however, hung heavily on the captain's hands. He had told all his adventures; he had seen all his old acquaintances. The face of the ballad-singer haunted him perpetually; and he spent the best part of the day leaning over the garden-gate and smoking. Mrs. Jernam was not offended by her nephew's conduct.
"Ah! my boy," she said, smiling fondly on her handsome kinsman, "it's fortunate Providence made you a sailor, for you'd have been ill-fitted for any but a roving life."
The third day of Valentine Jernam's stay at Allanbay was the second of April, and on that morning his patience was exhausted. The face which had made itself a part of his very mind lured him back to London. He was a man who had never accustomed himself to school his impulses; and the impulse that drew him back to London was irresistible.
"I must and will see her once more," he said to himself; "perhaps, if I see her face again, I shall find out it's only a common face after all, and get the better of this folly. But I must see her. After the fifth, George will be with me, and I shan't be my own master. I must see her before the fifth."
Impetuous in all things, Valentine Jernam was not slow to act upon his resolution. He told his aunt that he had business to transact in London. He left Allanbay at noon, walked to Plymouth, took the afternoon coach, and rode into London on the following day.
It was one o'clock when Captain Jernam found himself once more in the familiar seafaring quarter; early as it was, the noise of riot and revelry had begun already.
The landlord looked up with an expression of considerable surprise as the captain of the 'Pizarro' crossed the threshold.
"Why, captain," he said, "I thought we weren't to see you till the fifth."
"Well, you see, I had some business to do in this neighbourhood, so I changed my mind."
"I'm very glad you did," answered Dennis Wayman, cordially; "you've just come in time to take a snack of dinner with me and my missus, so you can sit down, and make yourself at home, without ceremony."
The captain was too good-natured to refuse an invitation that seemed proffered in such a hearty spirit. And beyond this, he wanted to hear more about Jenny Milsom, the ballad-singer.
So he ate his dinner with Mr. Wayman and his wife, and found himself asking all manner of questions about the singing-girl in the course of his hospitable entertainment.
He asked if the girl was going to sing at the tavern to-night.
"No," answered the landlord; "this is Friday. She only sings at my place on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Saturdays."
"And what does she do with herself for the rest of the week?"
"Ah! that's more than I know; but very likely her father will look in here in the course of the afternoon, and he can tell you. I say, though, captain, you seem uncommonly sweet on this girl," added the landlord, with a leer and a wink.
"Well, perhaps I am sweet upon her," replied Valentine Jernam "perhaps I'm fool enough to be caught by a pretty face, and not wise enough to keep my folly a secret."
"I've got a Little business to see to over in Rotherhithe," said Mr. Wayman, presently; "you'll see after the bar while I'm gone, Nancy. There's the little private room at your service, captain, and I dare say you can make yourself comfortable there with your pipe and the newspaper. It's ten to one but what Tom Milsom will look in before the day's out, and he'll tell you all about his daughter."
Upon this the landlord departed, and Valentine Jernam retired to the little den called a private room, where he speedily fell asleep, wearied out by his journey on the previous night.
His slumbers were not pleasant. He sat in an uneasy position, upon a hard wooden chair, with his arms folded on the table before him, and his head resting on his folded arms.
There was a miserable pretence of a fire, made with bad coals and damp wood.
Sleeping in that wretched atmosphere, in that uncomfortable attitude, it was scarcely strange if Valentine Jernam dreamt a bad dream.
He dreamt that he fell asleep at broad day in his cabin on board the 'Pizarro', and that he woke suddenly and found himself in darkness. He dreamt that he groped his way up the companion-way, and on to the deck.
There, as below, he found gloom and darkness, and instead of a busy crew, utter loneliness, perfect silence. A stillness like the stillness of death reigned on the level waters around the motionless ship.
The captain shouted, but his voice died away among the shrouds. Presently a glimmer of star-light pierced the universal gloom, and in that uncertain light a shadowy figure came gliding towards him across the ocean—a face shone upon him beneath the radiance of the stars. It was the face of the ballad-singer.
The shadow drew nearer to him, with a strange gliding motion. The shadow lifted a white, transparent hand, and pointed.
To a tombstone, which glimmered cold and white through the gloom of sky and waters.
The starlight shone upon the tombstone, and on it the sleeper read this inscription—"In memory of Valentine Jernam, aged 33."
The sailor awoke suddenly with a cry, and, looking up, saw the man they called Black Milsom sitting on the opposite side of the table, looking at him earnestly.
"Well, you are a restless sleeper, captain!" said this man: "I dropped in here just now, thinking to find Dennis Wayman, and I've been looking on while you finished your nap. I never saw a harder sleeper."
"I had a bad dream," answered Jernam, starting to his feet.
"A bad dream! What about, captain?"
"About your daughter!"
DONE IN THE DARKNESS.
Before Thomas Milsom, otherwise Black Milsom, could express his surprise, the landlord of the 'Jolly Tar' returned from his business excursion, and presented himself in the dingy little room, where it was already beginning to grow dusk.
Milsom told Dennis Wayman how he had discovered the captain sleeping uneasily, with his head upon the table; and on being pressed a little, Valentine Jernam told his dream as freely as it was his habit to tell everything relating to his own affairs.
"I don't see that it was such a very bad dream, after all," said Dennis Wayman, when the story was finished. "You dreamt you were at sea in a dead calm, that's about the plain English of it."
"Yes; but such a calm! I've been becalmed many a time; but I never remember anything like what I saw in my dream just now. Then the loneliness; not a creature on board besides myself; not a human voice to answer me when I called. And the face—there was something so awful in the face—smiling at me, and yet with a kind of threatening look in the smile; and the hand pointing to the tombstone! Do you know that I was thirty-three last December?"
The sailor covered his face with his hands, and sat for some moments in a meditative attitude. Bold and reckless though he was, the superstition of his class had some hold upon him; and this bad dream influenced him, in spite of himself.
The landlord was the first to break the silence. "Come, captain," he said; "this is what I call giving yourself up to the blue devils. You went to sleep in an uncomfortable position, and you had an uncomfortable dream, with no more sense nor reason in it than such dreams generally have. What do you say to a hand at cards, and a drop of something short? You want cheering up a bit, captain; that's what you want."
Valentine Jernam assented. The cards were brought, and a bowl of punch ordered by the open-handed sailor, who was always ready to invite people to drink at his expense.
The men played all-fours; and what generally happens in this sort of company happened now to Captain Jernam. He began by winning, and ended by losing; and his losses were much heavier than his gains.
He had been playing for upwards of an hour, and had drunk several glasses of punch, before his luck changed, and he had occasion to take out the bloated leathern pocket-book, distended unnaturally with notes and gold.
But for that rum-punch he might, perhaps, have remembered Joyce Harker's warning, and avoided displaying his wealth before these two men. Unhappily, however, the fumes of the strong liquor had already begun to mount to his brain, and the clerk was completely forgotten. He opened his pocket-book every time he had occasion to pay his losses, and whenever he opened it the greedy eyes of Dennis Wayman and Black Milsom devoured the contents with a furtive gaze.
With every hand the sailor grew more excited. He was playing for small stakes, and as yet his losses only amounted to a few pounds. But the sense of defeat annoyed him. He was feverishly eager for his revenge: and when Milsom rose to go, the captain wanted him to continue to play.
"You shan't sneak off like that," he said; "I want my revenge, and I must have it."
Black Milsom pointed to a little Dutch clock in a corner of the room.
"Past eight o'clock," he said; "and I've got a five-mile walk between me and home. My girl, Jenny, will be waiting up for me, and getting anxious about her father."
In the excitement of play, and the fever engendered by strong drink, Valentine Jernam had forgotten the ballad-singer. But this mention of her name brought the vision of the beautiful face back to him.
"Your daughter!" he muttered; "your daughter! Yes; the girl who sang here, the beautiful girl who sang."
His voice was thick, and his accents indistinct. Both the men had pressed Jernam to drink, while they themselves took very little. They had encouraged him to talk as well as to drink, and the appointment with his brother had been spoken of by the captain.
In speaking of this intended meeting, Valentine Jernam had spoken also of the good fortune which had attended his latest trading adventures; and he had said enough to let these men know that he carried the proceeds of his trading upon his person.
"Joyce wanted me to bank my money," he said; "but none of your banking rogues for me. My brother George is the only banker I trust, or ever mean to trust."
Milsom insisted upon the necessity of his departure, and the sailor declared that he would have his revenge. They were getting to high words, when Dennis Wayman interfered to keep the peace.
"I'll tell you what it is," he said; "if the captain wants his revenge, it's only fair that he should have it. Suppose we go down to your place, Milsom! you can give us a bit of supper, I dare say. What do you say to that?"
Milsom hesitated in a sheepish kind of manner. "Mine's such a poor place for a gentleman like the captain," he said. "My daughter Jenny will do her best to make things straight and comfortable; but still it is about the poorest place that ever was—there's no denying that."
"I'm no fine gentleman," said the captain, enraptured at the idea of seeing the ballad-singer; "if your daughter will give us a crust of bread and cheese, I shall be satisfied. We'll take two or three bottles of wine down with us, and we'll be as jolly as princes. Get your trap ready, Wayman, and let's be off at once."
The captain was all impatience to start. Dennis Wayman went away to get the vehicle ready, and Milsom followed him, but they did not leave Captain Jernam much time for thought, for Dennis Wayman came back almost immediately to say that the vehicle was ready.
"Now, then, look sharp, captain!" he said; "it's a dark night, and we shall have a dark drive."
It was a dark night—dark even here in Wapping, darker still on the road by which Valentine Jernam found himself travelling presently.
The vehicle which Dennis Wayman drove was a disreputable-looking conveyance—half chaise-cart, half gig—and the pony was a vicious-looking animal, with a shaggy mane; but he was a tremendous pony to go, and the dark, marshy country flew past the travellers in the darkness like a landscape in a dream.
The ripple of the water, sounding faintly in the stillness, told Valentine Jernam that the river was near at hand; but beyond this the sailor had little knowledge of his whereabouts.
They had soon left London behind.
After driving some six or seven miles, and always keeping within sound of the dull plash of the river, the landlord of the 'Jolly Tar' drew up suddenly by a dilapidated wooden paling, behind which there was a low- roofed habitation of some kind or other, which was visible only by reason of one faint glimmer of light, flickering athwart a scrap of dingy red curtain. The dull, plashing sound of the river was louder here; and, mingling with that monotonous ripple of the water, there was a shivering sound—the trembling of rushes stirred by the chill night wind.
"I'd almost passed your place, Tom," said the landlord, as he drew up before the darksome habitation.
"You might a'most drive over it on such a night as this," answered Black Milsom, "and not be much the wiser."
The three men alighted, and Dennis Wayman led the vicious pony to a broken-down shed, which served as stable and coach-house in Mr. Milsom's establishment.
Valentine Jernam looked about him. As his eyes grew more familiar with the locality, he was able to make out the outline of the dilapidated dwelling.
It was little better than a hovel, and stood on a patch of waste ground, which could scarcely have been garden within the memory of man. By one side of the house there was a wide, open ditch, fringed with rushes—a deep, black ditch, that flowed down to the river.
"I can't compliment you on the situation of your cottage, mate," he said; "it might be livelier."
"I dare say it might," answered Black Milsom, rather sulkily. "I took to this place because everybody else was afraid to take to it, and it was to be had for nothing. There was an old miser as cut his throat here seven or eight year ago, and the place has been left to go to decay ever since. The miser's ghost walks about here sometimes, after twelve o'clock at night, folks say. 'Let him walk till he tires himself out,' says I. 'He don't come my way; and if he did he wouldn't scare me.' Come, captain."
Mr. Milsom opened the door, and ushered his visitor into the lively abode, which the prejudice of weak-minded people permitted him to occupy rent-free.
The girl whom Jernam had seen at the Wapping public-house was sitting by the hearth, where a scrap of fire burnt in a rusty grate. She had been sitting in a listless attitude, with her hands lying idle on her lap, and her eyes fixed on the fire; but she looked up as the two men entered.
She did not welcome her father's return with any demonstration of affection; she looked at him with a strange, wondering gaze; and she looked with an anxious expression from him to his companion.
Dennis Wayman came in presently, and as the girl recognized him, a transient look, almost like horror, flitted across her face, unseen by the sailor.
"Come, Jenny," said Milsom; "I've brought Wayman and a friend of his down to supper. What can you give us to eat? There's a bit of cold beef in the house, I know, and bread and cheese; the captain here has brought the wine; so we shall do well enough. Look sharp, lass. You're in one of your tempers to-night, I suppose; but you ought to know that don't answer with me. I say, captain," added the man, with a laugh, "if ever you're going to marry a pretty woman, make sure she isn't troubled with an ugly temper; for you'll find, as a rule, that the handsomer a woman is the more of the devil there is in her. Now, Jenny, the supper, and no nonsense about it."
The girl went into another room, and returned presently with such fare as Mr. Milsom's establishment could afford. The sailor's eyes followed her wherever she went, full of compassion and love. He was sure this brutal wretch, Milsom, used her badly, and he rejoiced to think that he had disregarded all Joyce Harker's warnings, and penetrated into the scoundrel's home. He rejoiced, for he meant to rescue this lovely, helpless creature. He knew nothing of her, except that she was beautiful, friendless, lonely, and ill-used; and he determined to take her away and marry her.
He did not perplex himself with any consideration as to whether she would return his love, or be grateful for his devotion. He thought only of her unhappy position, and that he was predestined to save her.
The supper was laid upon the rickety deal table, and the three men sat down. Valentine would have waited till his host's daughter had seated herself; but she had laid no plate or knife for herself, and it was evident that she was not expected to share the social repast.
"You can go to bed now," said Milsom. "We're in for a jolly night of it, and you'll only be in the way. Where's the old man?"
"Gone to bed."
"So much the better: and the sooner you follow him will be so much the better again. Good night."
The girl did not answer him. She looked at him for a few moments with an earnest, inquiring gaze, which seemed to compel him to return her look, as if he had been fascinated by the profound earnestness of those large dark eyes; and then she went slowly and silently from the room.
"Sulky!" muttered Mr. Milsom. "There never was such a girl to sulk."
He took up a candle, and followed his daughter from the room.
A rickety old staircase led to the upper floor, where there were three or four bed-chambers. The house had been originally something more than a cottage, and the rooms and passages were tolerably large.
Thomas Milsom found the girl standing at the top of the stairs, as if waiting for some one.
"What are you standing mooning there for?" asked the man. "Why don't you go to bed?"
"Why have you brought that sailor here?" inquired the girl, without noticing Milsom's question.
"What's that to you? You'd like to know my business, wouldn't you? I've brought him here because he wanted to come. Is that a good answer? I've brought him here because he has money to lose, and is in the humour to lose it. Is that a better answer?"
"Yes," returned the girl, fixing her eyes upon him with a look of horror; "you will win his money, and, if he is angry, there will be a quarrel, as there was on that hideous night three years ago, when you brought home the foreign sailor, and what happened to that man will happen to this one. Father," cried the girl, suddenly and passionately, "let this man leave the house in safety. I sometimes think my heart is almost as hard as yours; but this man trusts us. Don't let any harm come to him."
"Why, what harm should come to him?"
For some time the girl called Jenny stood before her father in silence, with her head bent, and her face in shadow; then she lifted her head suddenly, and looked at him piteously.
"The other!" she murmured; "the other! I remember what happened to him."
"Come, drop that!" cried Milsom, savagely; "do you think I'm going to stand your mad talk? Get to bed, and go to sleep. And the sounder you sleep the better, unless you want to sleep uncommonly sound for the future, my lady."
The ruffian seized his daughter by the arm, and half pushed, half flung her into a room, the door of which stood open. It was the dreary room which she called her own. Milsom shut the door upon her, and locked it with a key which he took from his pocket—a key which locked every door in the house. "And now, I flatter myself, you're safe, my pretty singing-bird," he muttered.
He went down stairs, and returned to his guest, who had been pressed to eat and drink by Dennis Wayman, and who had yielded good-naturedly to that gentleman's hospitable attentions.
* * * * *
Alone in her room, Jenny Milsom opened the window, and sat looking out into the inky darkness of the night, and listening to the voices of the three men in the room below.
The voices sounded very distinctly in that dilapidated old house. Every now and then a hearty shout of laughter seemed to shake the crazy rafters; but presently the revellers grew silent. Jenny knew they were busy with the cards.
"Yes, yes," she murmured; "it all happens as it happened that night— first the loud voices and laughter; then the silence; then—Great Heaven! will the end be like the end of that night?"
She clasped her hands in silent agony, and sank in a crouching position by the open window, with her head lying on the sill.
For hours this wretched girl sat upon the floor in the same attitude, with the cold wind blowing in upon her. All seemed tranquil in the room below. The voices sounded now and then, subdued and cautious, and there were no more outbursts of jovial laughter.
A dim, gray streak glimmered faint and low in the east—the first pale flicker of dawn. The girl raised her weary eyes towards that chill gray light.
"Oh! if this night were only ended!" she murmured: "if it were only ended without harm!"
The words were still upon her lips, when the voices sounded loud and harsh from the room below. The girl started to her feet, white and trembling. Louder with every moment grew those angry voices. Then came a struggle; some article of furniture fell with a crash; there was the sound of shivered glass, and then a dull heavy noise, which echoed through the house, and shook the weather-beaten wooden walls to their foundations.
After the fall there came the sound of one loud groan, and then subdued murmurs, cautious whispers.
The window of Jenny Milsom's room looked towards the road. From that window she could see nothing of the sluggish ditch or the river.
She tried the door of her room. It was securely locked, as she had expected to find it.
"They would kill me, if I tried to come between them and their victim," she said; "and I am afraid to die."
She crept to her wretched bed, and flung herself down, dressed as she was. She drew the thin patchwork coverlet round her.
Ten minutes after she had thrown herself upon the bed, a key turned in the lock, and the door was opened by a stealthy hand. Black Milsom looked into the room.
The cold glimmer of day fell full upon the girl's pale face. Her eyes were closed, and her breathing was loud and regular.
"Asleep," he whispered to some one outside; "as safe as a rock."
He drew back and closed the door softly.
* * * * *
Joyce Harker worked his hardest on board the 'Pizarro', and the repairs were duly completed by the 4th of April. On the morning of the 5th the vessel was a picture, and Joyce surveyed her with the pride of a man who feels that he has not worked in vain.
He had set his heart upon the brothers celebrating the first day of their re-union on board the trim little craft: and he had made arrangements for the preparation of a dinner which was to be a triumph in its way.
Joyce presented himself at the bar of the 'Jolly Tar' at half-past eleven on the appointed morning. He expected that the brothers would be punctual; but he did not expect either of them to appear before the stroke of noon.
All was very quiet at the 'Jolly Tar' at this hour of the day. The landlord was alone in the bar, reading a paper. He looked up as Joyce entered; but did not appear to recognize him.
"Can I step through into your private room?" asked Joyce; "I expect Captain Jernam and his brother to meet me here in half an hour."
"To be sure you can, mate. There's no one in the private room at this time of day. Jernam—Jernam, did you say? What Jernam is that? I don't recollect the name."
"You've a short memory," answered Joyce; "you might remember Captain Jernam of the 'Pizarro'; for it isn't above a week since he was here with me. He dined here, and slept here, and left early in the morning, though you were uncommonly pressing for him to stay."
"We've so many captains and sailors in and out from year's end to year's end, that I don't remember them by name," said Dennis Wayman; "but I do remember your friend, mate, now you remind me of him; and I remember you, too."
"Yes," said Joyce, with a grin; "there ain't so many of my pattern. I'll take a glass of rum for the good of the house; and if you can lend me a paper, I'll skim the news of the day while I'm waiting."
Joyce passed into the little room, where Dennis took him the newspaper and the rum.
Twelve o'clock struck, and the clerk began to watch and to listen for the opening of the door, or the sound of a footstep in the passage outside. The time seemed very long to him, watching and listening. The minute-hand of the Dutch clock moved slowly on. He turned every now and then towards the dusky corner where the clock hung, to see what progress that slow hand had made upon the discoloured dial.
He waited thus for an hour.
"What does it mean?" he thought. "Valentine Jernam so faithfully promised to be punctual. And then he's so fond of his brother. He'd scarcely care to be a minute behindhand, when he has the chance of seeing Captain George."
Joyce went into the bar. The landlord was scrutinizing the address of a letter—a foreign letter.
"Didn't you say your friend's name was Jernam?" he asked.
"Then this letter must be for him. It has been lying here for the last two or three days; but I forgot all about it till just this minute."
Joyce took the letter. It was addressed to Captain Valentine Jernam, of the 'Pizarro', at the 'Jolly Tar', care of the landlord, and it came from the Cape of Good Hope.
Joyce recognized George Jernam's writing.
"This means a disappointment," he thought, as he turned the letter over and over slowly; "there'll be no meeting yet awhile. Captain George is off to the East Indies on some new venture, I dare say. But what can have become of Captain Valentine? I'll go down to the 'Golden Cross,' and see if he's there."
He told Dennis Wayman where he was going, and left a message for his captain. From Ratcliff Highway to Charing Cross was a long journey for Joyce; but he had no idea of indulging in any such luxury as a hackney- coach. It was late in the afternoon when he reached the hotel; and there he was doomed to encounter a new disappointment.
Captain Jernam had been there on the second of the month, and had never been there since. He had left in the forenoon, after saying that he should return at night; and in evidence that such had been his intention, the waiter told Joyce that the captain had left a carpet- bag, containing clean linen and a change of clothes.
"He's broken his word to me, and he's got into bad hands," thought Harker. "He's as simple as a child, and he's got into bad hands. But how and where? He'd never, surely, go back to the 'Jolly Tar', after what I said to him. And where else can he have gone? I know no more where to look for him in this great overgrown London than if I was a new-born baby."
In his perfect ignorance of his captain's movements, there was only one thing that Joyce Harker could do, and that was to go back to the "Jolly Tar," with a faint hope of finding Valentine Jernam there.
It was dusk by the time he got back to Ratcliff Highway, and the flaring gas-lamps were lighted. The bar of the tavern was crowded, and the tinkling notes of the old piano sounded feebly from the inner room.
Dennis Wayman was serving his customers, and Thomas Milsom was drinking at the bar. Joyce pushed his way to the landlord.
"Have you seen anything of the captain?" he asked.
"No, he hasn't been here since you left."
"You're sure of that?"
"He's not been here to day; but he's been here within the week, hasn't he? He was here on Tuesday, if I'm not misinformed."
"Then you are misinformed," Wayman said, coolly; "for your seafaring friend hasn't darkened my doors since the morning you and he left to go to the coach-office."
Joyce could say nothing further. He passed through the passage into the public room, where the so-called concert had begun. Jenny Milsom was singing to the noisy audience.
The girl was very pale, and her manner and attitude, as she sat by the piano, were even more listless than usual.
Joyce Harker did not stop long in the concert-room. He went back to the bar. This time there was no one but Milsom and Wayman in the bar, and the two seemed to be talking earnestly as Joyce entered.
They left off, and looked up at the sound of the clerk's footsteps.
"Tired of the music already?" asked Wayman.
"I didn't come here to hear music," answered Joyce; "I came to look for my captain. He had an appointment to meet his brother here to-day at twelve o'clock, and it isn't like him to break it. I'm beginning to get uneasy about him."
"But why should you be uneasy? The captain is big enough, and old enough, to take care of himself," said the landlord, with a laugh.
"Yes; but then you see, mate, there are some men who never know how to take care of themselves when they get into bad company. There isn't a better sailor than Valentine Jernam, or a finer fellow at sea; but I don't think, if you searched from one end of this city to the other, you'd find a greater innocent on shore. I'm afraid of his having fallen into bad hands, Mr. Wayman, for he had a goodish bit of money about him; and there's land-sharks as dangerous as those you meet with on the sea."
"So there are, mate," answered the landlord; "and there's some queer characters about this neighbourhood, for the matter of that."
"I dare say you're right, Mr. Wayman," returned Joyce; "and I'll tell you what it is. If any harm has come to Valentine Jernam, let those that have done the harm look out for themselves. Perhaps they don't know what it is to hurt a man that's got a faithful dog at his heels. Let them hide themselves where they will, and let them be as cunning as they will, the dog will smell them out, sooner or later, and will tear them to pieces when he finds them. I'm Captain Jernam's dog, Mr. Dennis Wayman; and if I don't find my master, I'll hunt till I do find those that have got him out of the way. I don't know what's amiss with me to- night; but I've got a feeling come over me that I shall never look in Valentine Jernam's honest face again. If I'm right, Lord help the scoundrels who have plotted against him, for it'll be the business of my life to track them down, and bring their crime home to them—and I'll do it."
After having said this, slowly and deliberately, with an appalling earnestness of voice and manner, Joyce Harker looked from Dennis Wayman to Black Milsom, and this time the masks they were accustomed to wear did not serve these scoundrels so well as usual, for in the faces of both there was a look of fear.
"I am going to search for my captain," said Joyce. "Good night, mates."
He left the tavern. The two men looked at each other earnestly as the door closed upon him.
"A dangerous man," said Dennis Wayman.
"Bah!" muttered Black Milsom, savagely; "who's afraid of a hunchback's bluster? I dare say he wanted the handling of the money himself."
All that night Joyce Harker wandered to and fro amidst the haunts of sailors and merchant captains; but wander where he would, and inquire of whom he would, he could obtain no tidings of the missing man.
Towards daybreak, he took a couple of hours' sleep in a tavern at Shadwell, and with the day his search began again.
Throughout that day the same patient search continued, the same inquiries were repeated with indomitable perseverance, in every likely and unlikely place; but everywhere the result was failure.
It was towards dusk that Joyce Harker turned his back upon a tavern in Rotherhithe, and set his face towards the river bank.
"I have looked long enough for him among the living," he said; "I must look for him now amongst the dead."
Before midnight the search was ended. Amongst the printed bills flapping on dreary walls in that river-side neighbourhood, Joyce Harker had discovered the description of a man "found drowned." The description fitted Valentine Jernam, and the body had been found within the last two days.
Joyce went to the police-office where the man was lying. He had no need to look at the poor dead face—the dark, handsome face, which was so familiar to him.
"I expected as much," he said to the official who had admitted him to see the body; "he had money about him, and he has fallen into the hands of scoundrels."
"You don't think it was an accident?"
"No; he has been murdered, sir. And I think I know the men who did it."
"You know the men?"
"Yes; but my knowledge won't help to avenge his death, if I can't bring it home to them—and I don't suppose I can. There'll be a coroner's inquest, won't there?"
At the inquest, next day, Joyce Harker told his story; but that story threw very little light on the circumstances of Valentine Jernam's death.
The investigation before the coroner set at rest all question as to the means by which the captain had met his death. A medical examination demonstrated that he had been murdered by a blow on the back of the head, inflicted by some sharp heavy instrument. The unfortunate man must have died before he was thrown into the water.
The verdict of the coroner's jury was to the effect that Valentine Jernam had been wilfully murdered by some person or persons unknown. And with this verdict Joyce Harker was obliged to be content. His suspicions he dared not mention in open court. They were too vague and shadowy. But he called upon a celebrated Bow Street officer, and submitted the case to him. It was a case for secret inquiry, for careful investigation; and Joyce offered a handsome reward out of his own savings.
While this secret investigation was in progress, Joyce opened the letter addressed to Valentine by his brother George.
"DEAR VAL," wrote the sailor: "I have been tempted to make another trip to Calcutta with a cargo shipped at Lisbon, and shall not be able to meet you in London on the 5th of April. It will be ten or twelve months before I see England again; but when I do come back, I hope to add something handsome to our joint fortunes. I long to see your honest face, and grasp your hand again; but the chance of a big prize lures me out yonder. We are both young, and have all the world before us, so we can afford to wait a year or two. Bank the money; Joyce will tell you where, and how to do it; and let me know your plans before you leave London. A letter addressed to me, care of Riverdale and Co., Calcutta, will be safe. Good luck to you, dear old boy, now and always, and every good wish.—From your affectionate brother," "GEORGE JERNAM."
It was Joyce Harker's melancholy task to tell Valentine Jernam's younger brother the story of the seaman's death. He wrote a long letter, recording everything that had happened within his knowledge, from the moment of the 'Pizarro' reaching Gravesend to the discovery of Valentine's body in the river-side police office. He told George the impression that had been made upon his brother by the ballad-singer's beauty.
"I think that this girl and these two men, her father, Thomas Milsom, and Dennis Wayman, the landlord of the 'Jolly Tar', are in the secret— are, between them, the murderers of your brother. I think that when he broke his promise to me, and came back to this end of London, before the fifth, he came lured by that girl's beauty. It is to the girl we must look for a key to the secret of his death. I do not expect to extort anything from the fears of the men. They are both hardened villains; and if, as I believe, they are guilty of this crime, it is not likely to be the first in which they have been engaged. The police are on the watch, and I have promised a liberal reward for any discoveries they may make; but it is very slow work."
This, and much more, Joyce Harker wrote to George Jernam. The letter was written immediately after the inquest; and on the night succeeding that inquiry, Joyce went to the 'Jolly Tar', in the hope of seeing Jenny Milsom. But he was doomed to disappointment; for in the concert- room at Dennis Wayman's tavern he found a new singer—a fat, middle- aged woman, with red hair.
"What has become of the pretty girl who used to sing here?" he asked the landlord.
"Milsom's daughter?" said Wayman. "Oh, we've lost her She was a regular she-devil, it seems. Her father and she had a row, and the girl ran away. She can get her living anywhere with that voice of hers; and I don't suppose Milsom treated her over well. He's a rough fellow, but an honest one."
"Yes," answered Joyce, with a sneer; "he seems uncommonly honest. There's a good deal of that sort of honesty about this neighbourhood, I think, mate. I suppose you've heard about my captain?"
"Not a syllable. Is there anything wrong with him?"
"Ah! news seems to travel slowly down here. There was an inquest held this morning, not so many miles from this house."
The landlord shrugged his shoulders.
"I've been busy in-doors all day, and I haven't heard anything," he said.
Joyce told the story of his captain's fate, to which Dennis Wayman listened with every appearance of sympathy.
"And you've no idea what has become of the girl?" Harker asked, after having concluded his story.
"No more than the dead. She's cut and run, that's all I know."
"Has her father gone after her?"
"Not a bit of it. He's not that sort of man. She has chosen to take herself off, and her father will let her go her own way."
"And her grandfather, the old blind man?"
"He has gone with her."
There was no more to be said about the girl after this.
"I'll tell you what it is, Mr. Wayman," said Joyce, "I'm likely to be a good bit down in this neighbourhood, while I'm waiting for directions about my poor captain's ship from his brother Captain George, and as your house suits me as well as any other, I may as well take up my quarters here. I know you've got plenty of room, and you'll find me a quiet lodger."
"So be it," answered the landlord, promptly. "I'm agreeable."
Joyce deliberated profoundly as he walked away from the 'Jolly Tar' that night.
"He's too deep to be caught easily," he thought. "He'll let me into his house, because he knows there's nothing I can find out, watch as I may. Such a murder as that leaves no trace behind it. If I had been able to get hold of the girl, I might have frightened her into telling me something; but it's clear to me she has really bolted, or Wayman would never let me into his house."
For weeks Joyce Harker was a lodger at the 'Jolly Tar'; always on the watch; always ready to seize upon the smallest clue to the mystery of Valentine Jernam's death; but nothing came of his watching.
The police did their best to discover the key to the dreadful secret; but they worked in vain. The dead man's money had been partly in notes and gold, partly in bills of exchange. It was easy enough to dispose of such bills in the City. There were men ready to take them at a certain price, and to send them abroad; men who never ask questions of their customers.
So there was little chance of any light being thrown on this dark and evil mystery. Joyce watched and waited with dog-like fidelity, ready to seize upon the faintest clue; but he waited and watched in vain.
* * * * *
Nearly a year had elapsed since the murder of Valentine Jernam, and the March winds were blowing amongst the leafless branches of the trees in the Green Park.
In the library of one of the finest houses in Arlington Street, a gentleman paced restlessly to and fro, stopping before one of the windows every now and then, to look, with a fretful glance, at the dull sky. "What weather!" he muttered: "what execrable weather!"
The speaker was a man of some fifty years of age—a man who had been very handsome and who was handsome still—a man with a haughty patrician countenance—not easily forgotten by those who looked upon it. Sir Oswald Eversleigh, Baronet, was a descendant of one of the oldest families in Yorkshire. He was the owner of Raynham Castle, in Yorkshire; Eversleigh Manor, in Lincolnshire; and his property in those two counties constituted a rent-roll of forty thousand per annum.
He was a bachelor, and having nearly reached his fiftieth year it was considered unlikely that he would marry.
Such at least was the fixed idea of those who considered themselves the likely inheritors of the baronet's wealth. The chief of these was Reginald Eversleigh, his favourite nephew, the only son of a younger brother, who had fallen gloriously on an Indian battle-field.
There were two other nephews who had some right to look forward to a share in the baronet's fortune. These were the two sons of Sir Oswald's only sister, who had married a country rector, called Dale. But Lionel and Douglas Dale were not the sort of young men who care to wait for dead men's shoes. They were sincerely attached to their uncle; but they carefully abstained from any demonstration of affection which could seem like worship of his wealth. The elder was preparing himself for the Church; the younger was established in chambers in the Temple, reading for the bar.
It was otherwise with Reginald Eversleigh. From his early boyhood this young man had occupied the position of an adopted son rather than a nephew.
There are some who can bear indulgence, some flowers that flourish best with tender rearing; but Reginald Eversleigh was not one of these.
Sir Oswald was too generous a man to require much display of gratitude from the lad on whom he so freely lavished his wealth and his affection. When the boy showed himself proud and imperious, the baronet admired that high, and haughty spirit. When the boy showed himself reckless and extravagant in his expenditure of money, the baronet fancied that extravagance the proof of a generous disposition, overlooking the fact that it was only on his own pleasures that Reginald wasted his kinsman's money. When bad accounts came from the Eton masters and the Oxford tutors, Sir Oswald deluded himself with the belief that it was only natural for a high-spirited lad to be idle, and that, indeed, youthful idleness was often a proof of genius.
But even the moral blindness of love cannot last for ever. The day came when the baronet awoke to the knowledge that his dead brother's only son was unworthy of his affection.
The young man entered the army. His uncle purchased for him a commission in a crack cavalry regiment, and he began his military career under the most brilliant auspices. But from the day of his leaving his military tutor, until the present hour, Sir Oswald had been perpetually subject to the demands of his extravagance, and had of late suffered most bitterly from discoveries which had at last convinced him that his nephew was a villain.
In ordinary matters, Sir Oswald Eversleigh was by no means a patient or long-suffering man; but he had exhibited extraordinary endurance in all his dealings with his nephew. The hour had now come when he could be patient no longer.
He had written to his nephew, desiring him to call upon him at three o'clock on this day.
The idea of this interview was most painful to him, for he had resolved that it should be the last between himself and Reginald Eversleigh. In this matter he had acted with no undue haste; for it had been unspeakably distressing to him to decide upon a step which would separate him for ever from the young man.
As the timepiece struck three, Mr. Eversleigh was announced. He was a very handsome man; of a refined and aristocratic type, but of a type rather effeminate than powerful. And pervading his beauty, there was a winning charm of expression which few could resist. It was difficult to believe that Reginald Eversleigh could be mean or base. People liked him, and trusted him, in spite of themselves; and it was only when their confidence had been imposed upon, and their trust betrayed, that they learned to know how despicable the handsome young officer could be. Women did their best to spoil him; and his personal charms of face and manner, added to his brilliant expectations, rendered him an universal favourite in fashionable circles.
He came to Arlington Street prepared to receive a lecture, and a severe one, for he knew that some of his late delinquencies had become known to Sir Oswald; but he trusted in the influence which he had always been able to exercise over his uncle, and he was determined to face the difficulty boldly, as he had faced it before.
He entered the room with a smile, and advanced towards his uncle, with his hand outstretched.
But Sir Oswald drew back, refusing that proffered hand.
"I shake hands only with gentlemen and honest men," he said, haughtily. "You are neither, Mr. Eversleigh."
Reginald had been used to hear his uncle address him in anger; but never before had Sir Oswald spoken to him in that tone of cool contempt. The colour faded from the young man's face, and he looked at his uncle with an expression of alarm.
"My dear uncle!" he exclaimed.
"Be pleased to forget that you have ever addressed me by that name, or that any relationship exists between us, Mr. Eversleigh," answered Sir Oswald, with unaltered sternness. "Sit down, if you please. Our interview is likely to be a long one."
The young man seated himself in silence.
"I have sent for you, Mr. Eversleigh," said the baronet, "because I wished to tell you, without passion, that the tie which has hitherto bound us has been completely broken. Heaven knows I have been patient; I have endured your misdoings, hoping that they were the thoughtless errors of youth, and not the deliberate sins of a hardened and wicked nature. I have trusted till I can trust no longer; I have hoped till I can hope no more. Within the past week I have learned to know you. An old friend, whose word I cannot doubt, whose honour is beyond all question, has considered it a duty to acquaint me with certain facts that have reached his knowledge, and has opened my eyes to your real character. I have given much time to reflection before determining on the course I shall pursue with one who has been so dear to me. You know me well enough to be aware that when once I do arrive at a decision, that decision is irrevocable. I wish to act with justice, even towards a scoundrel. I have brought you up with the habits of a rich man, and it is my duty to save you from absolute poverty. I have, therefore, ordered my solicitors to prepare a deed by which an income of two hundred a year will be secured to you for life, unconditionally. After the execution of that deed I shall have no further interest in your fate. You will go your own way, Mr. Eversleigh, and choose your own companions, without remonstrance or interference from the foolish kinsman who has loved you too well."
"But, my dear uncle—Sir Oswald—what have I done that you should treat me so severely?"
The young man was deadly pale. His uncle's manner had taken him by surprise; but even in this desperate moment, when he felt that all was lost, he attempted to assume the aspect of injured innocence.
"What have you done!" cried the baronet, passionately.
"Shall I show you two letters, Reginald Eversleigh—two letters which, by a strange combination of circumstances, have reached my hands; and in each of which there is the clue to a shameful story—a cruel and disgraceful story, of which you are the hero?"
"You shall read them," replied Sir Oswald. "They are addressed to you, and have been in your possession; but to so fine a gentleman such letters were of little importance. Another person, however, thought them worth preserving, and sent them to me."
The baronet took up two envelopes from the table, and handed them to his nephew.
At the sight of the address of the uppermost envelope, Reginald Eversleigh's face grew livid. He looked at the lower, and then returned both documents to his uncle, with a hand that trembled in spite of himself.
"I know nothing of the letters," he faltered, huskily.
"You do not!" said his uncle; "then it will be necessary for me to enlighten you."
Sir Oswald took a letter from one of the envelopes, but before reading it he looked at his nephew with a grave and mournful countenance, from which all traces of scorn had vanished.
"Before I heard the history of this letter, I fully believed that, in spite of all your follies and extravagances, you were at least honourable and generous-hearted. After hearing the story of this letter, I knew you to be base and heartless. You say you know nothing of the letter? Perhaps you will tell me that you have forgotten the name of the writer. And yet you can scarcely have so soon forgotten Mary Goodwin."
The young man bent his head. A terrible rage possessed him, for he knew that one of the darkest secrets of his life had been revealed to his uncle.
"I will tell you the history of Mary Goodwin," said the baronet, "since you have so poor a memory. She was the favourite and foster-sister of Jane Stukely, a noble and beautiful woman, to whom you were engaged. You met Jane Stukely in London, fell in love with her as it seemed, and preferred your suit. You were accepted by her—approved by her father. No alliance could have been more advantageous. I was never better pleased than when you announced to me your engagement. The influence of a good wife will cure him of all his follies, I thought, and I shall yet have reason to be proud of my nephew."
"Spare me, sir, for pity's sake," murmured Reginald, hoarsely.
"When did you spare others, Mr. Reginald Eversleigh? When did you consider others, if they stood in the way of your base pleasures, your selfish gratifications? Never! Nor will I spare you. As Jane's engaged lover, you were invited to Stukely Park. There you saw Mary Goodwin. Accident threw you across this girl's pathway very often in the course of your visit; but the time came when you ceased to meet by accident. There were secret meetings in the park. The poor, weak, deluded girl could not resist the fascinations of the fine gentleman—who lured her to destruction by means of lying promises. In due time you left Stukely Park, unsuspected. Within a few days of your departure, the girl, Mary Goodwin, disappeared.
"For six months nothing was heard of the missing Mary Goodwin; but at the end of that time a gentleman, who remembered her in the days of her beauty and innocence at Stukely Park, recognized the features of Miss Stukely's protegee in the face of a suicide, whose body was exhibited in the Morgue at Paris. The girl had been found drowned. The Englishman paid the charges of a decent funeral, and took back to the Stukelys the intelligence of their protegee's fate; but no one knew the secret of her destruction. That secret was, however, suspected by Jane Stukely, who broke her engagement with you on the strength of the dark suspicion.
"It was to you she fled when she left Stukely Park—in your companionship she went abroad, where she passed as your wife, you assuming a false name—under which you were recognized, nevertheless. The day came when you grew weary of your victim. When your funds were exhausted, when the girl's tears and penitence grew troublesome—in the hour when she was most helpless and miserable, and had most need of your pity and protection, you abandoned her, leaving her alone in Paris, with a few pounds to pay for her journey home, if she should have courage to go back to the friends who had sheltered her. In this hour of abandonment and shame, she chose death rather than such an ordeal, and drowned herself."
"I give you my honour, Sir Oswald, I meant to act liberally. I meant,"—the young man interrupted; but his uncle did not notice the interruption.
"I will read you this wretched girl's letter," continued the baronet; "it is her last, and was left at the hotel where you deserted her, and whence it was forwarded to you. It is a very simple letter; but it bears in every line the testimony of a broken heart:—
"'You have left me, Reginald, and in so doing have proved to me most fully that the love you once felt for me has indeed perished. For the sake of that love I have sacrificed every principle and broken every tie. I have disgraced the name of an honest family, and have betrayed the dearest and kindest friend who ever protected a poor girl. And now you leave me, and tell me to return to my old friends, who will no doubt forgive me, you say, and shelter me in this bitter time of my disgrace. Oh, Reginald, do you know me so little that you think I could go back, could lift my eyes once more to the dear faces that used to smile upon me, but which now would turn from me with loathing and aversion? You know that I cannot go back. You leave me in this great city, so strange and unknown to me, and you do not care to ask yourself any questions as to my probable fate. Shall I tell you what I am going to do, Reginald? You, who were once so fond and passionate a lover— you, whom I have seen kneeling at my feet, humbly born and penniless though I was—it is only right that you should know the fate of your abandoned mistress. When I have finished this letter it will be dark— the shadows are closing in already, and I can scarcely see to write. I shall creep quietly from the house, and shall make my way over to that river which I have crossed so often, seated by your side in a carriage. Once on the bridge, under cover of the blessed darkness, all my troubles will be ended; you will be burdened with me no longer, and I shall not cost you even the ten-pound note which you so generously left for me, and which I shall enclose in this letter. Forgive me if there is some bitterness in my heart. I try to forgive you—I do forgive you! May a merciful heaven pardon my sins, as I pardon your desertion of me! M.G.'"
There was a pause after the reading of the letter—a silence which Mr. Eversleigh did not attempt to break. "The second letter I need scarcely read to you," said the baronet; "it is from a young man whom you were pleased to patronize some twelve months back—a young man in a banking office, aspiring and ambitious, whose chief weakness was the desire to penetrate the mystic circle of fashionable society. You were good enough to indulge that weakness at your own price, and for your own profit. You initiated the banker's clerk into the mysteries of card-playing and billiards. You won money of him—more than he had to lose; and after being the kindest and most indulgent of friends, you became all at once a stern and pitiless creditor. You threatened the bank-clerk with disgrace if he did not pay his losses. He wrote you pleading letters; but you laughed to scorn his prayers for mercy, and at last, maddened by shame, he helped himself to the money entrusted to him by his employers, in order to pay you. Discovery came, as discovery always does come, sooner or later, in these cases, and your friend and victim was transported. Before leaving England he wrote you a letter, imploring you to have some compassion on his widowed mother, whom his disgrace had deprived of all support. I wonder how much heed you took of that letter, Mr. Eversleigh? I wonder what you did towards the consolation of the helpless and afflicted woman who owed her misfortunes to you?"
The young officer dared not lift his eyes to his uncle's face; the consciousness of guilt rendered him powerless to utter a word in his defence.
"I have little more to say to you," resumed the baronet. "I have loved you as a man rarely loves his nephew. I have loved you for the sake of the brother who died in my arms, and for the sake of one who was even dearer to me than that only brother—for the sake of the woman whom we both loved, and who made her choice between us—choosing the younger and poorer brother, and retaining to her dying day the affection and esteem of the elder. I loved your mother, Reginald Eversleigh, and when she died, within one short year of her husband's death, I swore that her only child should be as dear to me as a son. I have kept that promise. Few parents can find patience to forgive such follies as I have forgiven. But my endurance is exhausted; my affection has been worn out by your heartlessness: henceforward we are strangers."
"You cannot mean this, sir?" murmured Reginald Eversleigh.
There was a terrible fear at his heart—an inward conviction that his uncle was in earnest.
"My solicitors will furnish you with all particulars of the deed I spoke of," said Sir Oswald, without noticing his nephew's appealing tones. "That deed will secure to you two hundred a year. You have a soldier's career before you, and you are young enough to redeem the past—at any rate, in the eyes of the world, if not before the sight of heaven. If you find your regiment too expensive for your altered means, I would recommend you to exchange into the line. And now, Mr. Eversleigh, I wish you good morning."
"But, Sir Oswald—uncle—my dear uncle—you cannot surely cast me off thus coldly—you—"
The baronet rang the bell.
"The door—for Mr. Eversleigh," he said to the servant who answered his summons.
The young man rose, looking at his kinsman with an incredulous gaze. He could not believe that all his hopes were utterly ruined; that he was, indeed, cast off with a pittance which to him seemed positively despicable.
But there was no hope to be derived from Sir Oswald's face. A mask of stone could not have been more inflexible.
"Good morning, sir," said Reginald, in accents that were tremulous with suppressed rage.
He could say no more, for the servant was in attendance, and he could not humiliate himself before the man who had been wont to respect him as Sir Oswald Eversleigh's heir. He took up his hat and cane, bowed to the baronet, and left the room.
Once beyond the doors of his uncle's mansion, Reginald Eversleigh abandoned himself to the rage that possessed him.
"He shall repent this," he muttered. "Yes; powerful as he is, he shall repent having used his power. As if I had not suffered enough already; as if I had not been haunted perpetually by that girl's pale, reproachful face, ever since the fatal hour in which I abandoned her. But those letters; how could they have fallen into my uncle's hands? That scoundrel, Laston, must have stolen them, in revenge for his dismissal."
He went to the loneliest part of the Green Park, and, stretched at full length upon a bench, abandoned himself to gloomy reflections, with his face hidden by his folded arms.
For hours he lay thus, while the bleak March winds whistled loud and shrill in the leafless trees above his head—while the cold, gray light of the sunless day faded into the shadows of evening. It was past seven o'clock, and the lamps in Piccadilly shone brightly, when he rose, chilled to the bone, and walked away from the park.
"And I am to consider myself rich—with my pay and fifty pounds a quarter," he muttered, with a bitter laugh; "and if I find a crack cavalry regiment too expensive, I am to exchange into the line—turn foot-soldier, and face the scornful looks of all my old acquaintances. No, no, Sir Oswald Eversleigh; you have brought me up as a gentleman, and a gentleman I will remain to the end of the chapter, let who will pay the cost. It may seem easy to cast me off, Sir Oswald; but we have not done with each other yet."
* * * * *
OUT OF THE DEPTHS.
After dismissing his nephew, Sir Oswald Eversleigh abandoned himself for some time to gloomy thought. The trial had been a very bitter one; but at length, arousing himself from that gloomy reverie, he said aloud, "Thank Heaven it is over; my resolution did not break down, and the link is broken."
Sir Oswald had made his arrangements for leaving London that afternoon, on the first stage of his journey to Raynham Castle. There were few railroads six-and-twenty years ago, and the baronet was in the habit of travelling in his own carriage, with post-horses. The journey from London to the far north of Yorkshire was, therefore, a long one, occupying two or three days.
Sir Oswald left town an hour after his interview with Reginald Eversleigh.
It was ten o'clock when he alighted for the first time in a large, bustling town on the great northern road. He had changed horses several times since leaving London, and had accomplished a considerable distance within the five hours. He put up at the principal hotel, where he intended to remain for the night. From the windows of his rooms was to be seen the broad, open market-place, which to-night was brilliantly lighted, and thronged with people. Sir Oswald looked with surprise at the bustling scene, as one of the waiters drew the curtains before the long windows.
"Your town seems busy to-night," he said.
"Yes, sir; there has been a fair, sir—our spring fair, sir—a cattle fair, sir. Perhaps you'd rather not have the curtains drawn, sir. You may like to look out of the window after dinner, sir."
"Look out of the window?—oh, dear no! Close the curtains by all means."
The waiter wondered at the gentleman's bad taste, and withdrew to hasten the well-known guest's dinner.
It was long past eleven, and Sir Oswald was sitting brooding before the fire, when he was startled from his reverie by the sound of a woman's voice singing in the market-place below. The streets had been for some time deserted, the shops closed, the lights extinguished, except a few street-lamps, flickering feebly here and there. All was quiet, and the voice of the street ballad-singer sounded full and clear in the stillness.
Sir Oswald Eversleigh was in no humour to listen to street-singers. It must needs be some voice very far removed from common voices which could awaken him from his gloomy abstraction.
It was, indeed, an uncommon voice, such a voice as one rarely hears beyond the walls of the Italian opera-house—such a voice as is not often heard even within those walls. Full, clear, and rich, the melodious accents sent a thrill to the innermost heart of the listener.
The song which the vagrant was singing was the simplest of ballads. It was "Auld Robin Gray."
While he sat by the fire, listening to that familiar ballad, Sir Oswald Eversleigh forgot his sorrow and indignation—forgot his nephew's baseness, forgot everything, except the voice of the woman singing in the deserted market-place below the windows.
He went to one of the windows, and drew back the curtain. The night was cold and boisterous; but a full moon was shining in a clear sky, and every object in the broad street was visible in that penetrating light.
The windows of Sir Oswald's sitting-room opened upon a balcony. He lifted the sash, and stepped out into the chill night air. He saw the figure of a woman moving a way from the pavement before the hotel very slowly, with a languid, uncertain step. Presently he saw her totter and pause, as if scarcely able to proceed. Then she moved unsteadily onwards for a few paces, and at last sank down upon a door-step, with the helpless motion of utter exhaustion.
He did not stop to watch, longer from the balcony. He went back to his room, snatched up his hat, and hurried down stairs. They were beginning to close the establishment for the night, and the waiters stared as Sir Oswald passed them on his way to the street.
In the market-place nothing was stirring. The baronet could see the dark figure of the woman still in the same attitude into which he had seen her sink when she fell exhausted on the door-step, half-sitting, half-lying on the stone.
Sir Oswald hurried to the spot where the woman had sunk down, and bent over her. Her arms were folded on the stone, her head lying on her folded arms.
"Why are you lying there, my good girl?" asked Sir Oswald, gently.
Something in the slender figure told him that the ballad-singer was young, though he could not see her face.
She lifted her head slowly, with a languid action, and looked up at the speaker.
"Where else should I go?" she asked, in bitter tones.
"Have you no home?"
"Home!" echoed the girl. "I have never had what gentlemen like you call a home."
"But where are you going to-night?"
"To the fields—to some empty barn, if I can find one with a door unfastened, into which I may creep. I have been singing all day, and have not earned money enough to pay for a lodging."
The full moon shone broad and clear upon the girl's face. Looking at her by that silvery light, Sir Oswald saw that she was very beautiful.
"Have you been long leading this miserable life?" Sir Oswald asked her presently.
"My life has been one long misery," answered the ballad-singer.
"How long have you been singing in the streets?"
"I have been singing about the country for two years; not always in the streets, for some time I was in a company of show-people; but the mistress of the show treated me badly, and I left her. Since then I have been wandering about from place to place, singing in the streets on market-days, and singing at fairs."
The girl said all this in a dull, mechanical way, as if she were accustomed to be called on to render an account of herself.
"And before you took to this kind of life," said the baronet, strangely interested in this vagrant girl; "how did you get your living before then?"
"I lived with my father," answered the girl, in an altered tone. "Have you finished your questions?"
She shuddered slightly, and rose from her crouching attitude. The moon still shone upon her face, intensifying its deathlike pallor.
"See," said her unknown questioner, "here are a couple of sovereigns. You need not wander into the open country to look for an empty barn. You can procure shelter at some respectable inn. Or stay, it is close upon midnight: you might find it difficult to get admitted to any respectable house at such an hour. You had better come with me to my hotel yonder, the 'Star'—the landlady is a kind-hearted creature, and will see you comfortably lodged. Come!"
The girl stood before Sir Oswald, shivering in the bleak wind, with a thin black shawl wrapped tightly around her, and her dark brown hair blown away from her face by that bitter March wind. She looked at him with unutterable surprise in her countenance.
"You are very good," she said; "no one of your class ever before stepped out of his way to help me. Poor people have been kind to me— often—very often. You are very good."
There was more of astonishment than pleasure in the girl's tone. It seemed as if she cared very little about her own fate, and that her chief feeling was surprise at the goodness of this fine gentleman.
"Do not speak of that," said Sir Oswald, gently; "I am anxious to get you a decent shelter for the night, but that is a very small favour. I happen to be something of a musician, and I have been much struck by the beauty of your voice. I may be able to put you in the way of making good use of your voice."
"Of my voice!"
The girl echoed the phrase as if it had no meaning to her.
"Come," said her benefactor, "you are weary, and ill, perhaps. You look terribly pale. Come to the hotel, and I will place you in the landlady's charge."
He walked on, and the girl walked by his side, very slowly, as if she had scarcely sufficient strength to carry her even that short distance.
There was something strange in the circumstance of Sir Oswald's meeting with this girl. There was something strange in the sudden interest which she had aroused in him—the eager desire which he felt to learn her previous history.
The mistress of the "Star Hotel" was somewhat surprised when one of the waiters summoned her to the hall, where the street-singer was standing by Sir Oswald's side; but she was too clever a woman to express her astonishment. Sir Oswald was one of her most influential patrons, and Sir Oswald's custom was worth a great deal. It was, therefore, scarcely possible that such a man could do wrong.
"I found this poor girl in an exhausted state in the street just now," said Sir Oswald. "She is quite friendless, and has no shelter for the night, though she seems above the mendicant class. Will you put her somewhere, and see that she is taken good care of, my dear Mrs. Willet? In the morning I may be able to think of some plan for placing her in a more respectable position."
Mrs. Willet promised that the girl should be taken care of, and made thoroughly comfortable. "Poor young thing," said the landlady, "she looks dreadfully pale and ill, and I'm sure she'll be none the worse for a nice little bit of supper. Come with me, my dear."
The girl obeyed; but on the threshold of the hall she turned and spoke to Sir Oswald.
"I thank you," she said; "I thank you with all my heart and soul for your goodness. I have never met with such kindness before."
"The world must have been very hard for you, my poor child," he replied, "if such small kindness touches you so deeply. Come to me to- morrow morning, and we will talk of your future life. Goodnight!"
"Good night, sir, and God bless you!"
The baronet went slowly and thoughtfully up the broad staircase, on his way to his rooms.
Sir Oswald Eversleigh passed the night of his sojourn at the 'Star' in broken slumbers. The events of the preceding day haunted him perpetually in his sleep, acting themselves over and over again in his brain. Sometimes he was with his nephew, and the young man was pleading with him in an agony of selfish terror; sometimes he was standing in the market-place, with the ghost-like figure of the vagrant ballad- singer by his side.
When he arose in the morning, Sir Oswald resolved to dismiss all thought of his nephew. His strange adventure of the previous night had exercised a very powerful influence upon his mind; and it was upon that adventure he meditated while he breakfasted.