THE BLACK ROBE
by Wilkie Collins
BEFORE THE STORY.
FIRST SCENE.—BOULOGNE-SUR-MER.—THE DUEL.
THE doctors could do no more for the Dowager Lady Berrick.
When the medical advisers of a lady who has reached seventy years of age recommend the mild climate of the South of France, they mean in plain language that they have arrived at the end of their resources. Her ladyship gave the mild climate a fair trial, and then decided (as she herself expressed it) to "die at home." Traveling slowly, she had reached Paris at the date when I last heard of her. It was then the beginning of November. A week later, I met with her nephew, Lewis Romayne, at the club.
"What brings you to London at this time of year?" I asked.
"The fatality that pursues me," he answered grimly. "I am one of the unluckiest men living."
He was thirty years old; he was not married; he was the enviable possessor of the fine old country seat, called Vange Abbey; he had no poor relations; and he was one of the handsomest men in England. When I add that I am, myself, a retired army officer, with a wretched income, a disagreeable wife, four ugly children, and a burden of fifty years on my back, no one will be surprised to hear that I answered Romayne, with bitter sincerity, in these words:
"I wish to heaven I could change places with you!"
"I wish to heaven you could!" he burst out, with equal sincerity on his side. "Read that."
He handed me a letter addressed to him by the traveling medical attendant of Lady Berrick. After resting in Paris, the patient had continued her homeward journey as far as Boulogne. In her suffering condition, she was liable to sudden fits of caprice. An insurmountable horror of the Channel passage had got possession of her; she positively refused to be taken on board the steamboat. In this difficulty, the lady who held the post of her "companion" had ventured on a suggestion. Would Lady Berrick consent to make the Channel passage if her nephew came to Boulogne expressly to accompany her on the voyage? The reply had been so immediately favorable, that the doctor lost no time in communicating with Mr. Lewis Romayne. This was the substance of the letter.
It was needless to ask any more questions—Romayne was plainly on his way to Boulogne. I gave him some useful information. "Try the oysters," I said, "at the restaurant on the pier."
He never even thanked me. He was thinking entirely of himself.
"Just look at my position," he said. "I detest Boulogne; I cordially share my aunt's horror of the Channel passage; I had looked forward to some months of happy retirement in the country among my books—and what happens to me? I am brought to London in this season of fogs, to travel by the tidal train at seven to-morrow morning—and all for a woman with whom I have no sympathies in common. If I am not an unlucky man—who is?"
He spoke in a tone of vehement irritation which seemed to me, under the circumstances, to be simply absurd. But my nervous system is not the irritable system—sorely tried by night study and strong tea—of my friend Romayne. "It's only a matter of two days," I remarked, by way of reconciling him to his situation.
"How do I know that?" he retorted. "In two days the weather may be stormy. In two days she may be too ill to be moved. Unfortunately, I am her heir; and I am told I must submit to any whim that seizes her. I'm rich enough already; I don't want her money. Besides, I dislike all traveling—and especially traveling alone. You are an idle man. If you were a good friend, you would offer to go with me." He added, with the delicacy which was one of the redeeming points in his wayward character. "Of course as my guest."
I had known him long enough not to take offense at his reminding me, in this considerate way, that I was a poor man. The proposed change of scene tempted me. What did I care for the Channel passage? Besides, there was the irresistible attraction of getting away from home. The end of it was that I accepted Romayne's invitation.
SHORTLY after noon, on the next day, we were established at Boulogne—near Lady Berrick, but not at her hotel. "If we live in the same house," Romayne reminded me, "we shall be bored by the companion and the doctor. Meetings on the stairs, you know, and exchanging bows and small talk." He hated those trivial conventionalities of society, in which, other people delight. When somebody once asked him in what company he felt most at ease? he made a shocking answer—he said, "In the company of dogs."
I waited for him on the pier while he went to see her ladyship. He joined me again with his bitterest smile. "What did I tell you? She is not well enough to see me to-day. The doctor looks grave, and the companion puts her handkerchief to her eyes. We may be kept in this place for weeks to come."
The afternoon proved to be rainy. Our early dinner was a bad one. This last circumstance tried his temper sorely. He was no gourmand; the question of cookery was (with him) purely a matter of digestion. Those late hours of study, and that abuse of tea to which I have already alluded, had sadly injured his stomach. The doctors warned him of serious consequences to his nervous system, unless he altered his habits. He had little faith in medical science, and he greatly overrated the restorative capacity of his constitution. So far as I know, he had always neglected the doctors' advice.
The weather cleared toward evening, and we went out for a walk. We passed a church—a Roman Catholic church, of course—the doors of which were still open. Some poor women were kneeling at their prayers in the dim light. "Wait a minute," said Romayne. "I am in a vile temper. Let me try to put myself into a better frame of mind."
I followed him into the church. He knelt down in a dark corner by himself. I confess I was surprised. He had been baptized in the Church of England; but, so far as outward practice was concerned, he belonged to no religious community. I had often heard him speak with sincere reverence and admiration of the spirit of Christianity—but he never, to my knowledge, attended any place of public worship. When we met again outside the church, I asked if he had been converted to the Roman Catholic faith.
"No," he said. "I hate the inveterate striving of that priesthood after social influence and political power as cordially as the fiercest Protestant living. But let us not forget that the Church of Rome has great merits to set against great faults. Its system is administered with an admirable knowledge of the higher needs of human nature. Take as one example what you have just seen. The solemn tranquillity of that church, the poor people praying near me, the few words of prayer by which I silently united myself to my fellow-creatures, have calmed me and done me good. In our country I should have found the church closed, out of service hours." He took my arm and abruptly changed the subject. "How will you occupy yourself," he asked, "if my aunt receives me to-morrow?"
I assured him that I should easily find ways and means of getting through the time. The next morning a message came from Lady Berrick, to say that she would see her nephew after breakfast. Left by myself, I walked toward the pier, and met with a man who asked me to hire his boat. He had lines and bait, at my service. Most unfortunately, as the event proved, I decided on occupying an hour or two by sea fishing.
The wind shifted while we were out, and before we could get back to the harbor, the tide had turned against us. It was six o'clock when I arrived at the hotel. A little open carriage was waiting at the door. I found Romayne impatiently expecting me, and no signs of dinner on the table. He informed me that he had accepted an invitation, in which I was included, and promised to explain everything in the carriage.
Our driver took the road that led toward the High Town. I subordinated my curiosity to my sense of politeness, and asked for news of his aunt's health.
"She is seriously ill, poor soul," he said. "I am sorry I spoke so petulantly and so unfairly when we met at the club. The near prospect of death has developed qualities in her nature which I ought to have seen before this. No matter how it may be delayed, I will patiently wait her time for the crossing to England."
So long as he believed himself to be in the right, he was, as to his actions and opinions, one of the most obstinate men I ever met with. But once let him be convinced that he was wrong, and he rushed into the other extreme—became needlessly distrustful of himself, and needlessly eager in seizing his opportunity of making atonement. In this latter mood he was capable (with the best intentions) of committing acts of the most childish imprudence. With some misgivings, I asked how he had amused himself in my absence.
"I waited for you," he said, "till I lost all patience, and went out for a walk. First, I thought of going to the beach, but the smell of the harbor drove me back into the town; and there, oddly enough, I met with a man, a certain Captain Peterkin, who had been a friend of mine at college."
"A visitor to Boulogne?" I inquired.
"Yes. The fact is, I lost sight of Peterkin when I left Oxford—and since that time he seems to have drifted into difficulties. We had a long talk. He is living here, he tells me, until his affairs are settled."
I needed no further enlightenment—Captain Peterkin stood as plainly revealed to me as if I had known him for years. "Isn't it a little imprudent," I said, "to renew your acquaintance with a man of that sort? Couldn't you have passed him, with a bow?"
Romayne smiled uneasily. "I daresay you're right," he answered. "But, remember, I had left my aunt, feeling ashamed of the unjust way in which I had thought and spoken of her. How did I know that I mightn't be wronging an old friend next, if I kept Peterkin at a distance? His present position may be as much his misfortune, poor fellow, as his fault. I was half inclined to pass him, as you say—but I distrusted my own judgment. He held out his hand, and he was so glad to see me. It can't be helped now. I shall be anxious to hear your opinion of him."
"Are we going to dine with Captain Peterkin?"
"Yes. I happened to mention that wretched dinner yesterday at our hotel. He said, 'Come to my boarding-house. Out of Paris, there isn't such a table d'hote in France.' I tried to get off it—not caring, as you know, to go among strangers—I said I had a friend with me. He invited you most cordially to accompany me. More excuses on my part only led to a painful result. I hurt Peterkin's feelings. 'I'm down in the world,' he said, 'and I'm not fit company for you and your friends. I beg your pardon for taking the liberty of inviting you!' He turned away with the tears in his eyes. What could I do?"
I thought to myself, "You could have lent him five pounds, and got rid of his invitation without the slightest difficulty." If I had returned in reasonable time to go out with Romayne, we might not have met the captain—or, if we had met him, my presence would have prevented the confidential talk and the invitation that followed. I felt I was to blame—and yet, how could I help it? It was useless to remonstrate: the mischief was done.
We left the Old Town on our right hand, and drove on, past a little colony of suburban villas, to a house standing by itself, surrounded by a stone wall. As we crossed the front garden on our way to the door, I noticed against the side of the house two kennels, inhabited by two large watch-dogs. Was the proprietor afraid of thieves?
THE moment we were introduced to the drawing-room, my suspicions of the company we were likely to meet with were fully confirmed.
"Cards, billiards, and betting"—there was the inscription legibly written on the manner and appearance of Captain Peterkin. The bright-eyed yellow old lady who kept the boarding-house would have been worth five thousand pounds in jewelry alone, if the ornaments which profusely covered her had been genuine precious stones. The younger ladies present had their cheeks as highly rouged and their eyelids as elaborately penciled in black as if they were going on the stage, instead of going to dinner. We found these fair creatures drinking Madeira as a whet to their appetites. Among the men, there were two who struck me as the most finished and complete blackguards whom I had ever met with in all my experience, at home and abroad. One, with a brown face and a broken nose, was presented to us by the title of "Commander," and was described as a person of great wealth and distinction in Peru, traveling for amusement. The other wore a military uniform and decorations, and was spoken of as "the General." A bold bullying manner, a fat sodden face, little leering eyes, and greasy-looking hands, made this man so repellent to me that I privately longed to kick him. Romayne had evidently been announced, before our arrival, as a landed gentleman with a large income. Men and women vied in servile attentions to him. When we went into the dining-room, the fascinating creature who sat next to him held her fan before her face, and so made a private interview of it between the rich Englishman and herself. With regard to the dinner, I shall only report that it justified Captain Peterkin's boast, in some degree at least. The wine was good, and the conversation became gay to the verge of indelicacy. Usually the most temperate of men, Romayne was tempted by his neighbors into drinking freely. I was unfortunately seated at the opposite extremity of the table, and I had no opportunity of warning him.
The dinner reached its conclusion, and we all returned together, on the foreign plan, to coffee and cigars in the drawing-room. The women smoked, and drank liqueurs as well as coffee, with the men. One of them went to the piano, and a little impromptu ball followed, the ladies dancing with their cigarettes in their mouths. Keeping my eyes and ears on the alert, I saw an innocent-looking table, with a surface of rosewood, suddenly develop a substance of green cloth. At the same time, a neat little roulette-table made its appearance from a hiding-place in a sofa. Passing near the venerable landlady, I heard her ask the servant, in a whisper, "if the dogs were loose?" After what I had observed, I could only conclude that the dogs were used as a patrol, to give the alarm in case of a descent of the police. It was plainly high time to thank Captain Peterkin for his hospitality, and to take our leave.
"We have had enough of this," I whispered to Romayne in English. "Let us go."
In these days it is a delusion to suppose that you can speak confidentially in the English language, when French people are within hearing. One of the ladies asked Romayne, tenderly, if he was tired of her already. Another reminded him that it was raining heavily (as we could all hear), and suggested waiting until it cleared up. The hideous General waved his greasy hand in the direction of the card table, and said, "The game is waiting for us."
Romayne was excited, but not stupefied, by the wine he had drunk. He answered, discreetly enough, "I must beg you to excuse me; I am a poor card player."
The General suddenly looked grave. "You are speaking, sir, under a strange misapprehension," he said. "Our game is lansquenet—essentially a game of chance. With luck, the poorest player is a match for the whole table."
Romayne persisted in his refusal. As a matter of course, I supported him, with all needful care to avoid giving offense. The General took offense, nevertheless. He crossed his arms on his breast, and looked at us fiercely.
"Does this mean, gentlemen, that you distrust the company?" he asked.
The broken-nosed Commander, hearing the question, immediately joined us, in the interests of peace—bearing with him the elements of persuasion, under the form of a lady on his arm.
The lady stepped briskly forward, and tapped the General on the shoulder with her fan. "I am one of the company," she said, "and I am sure Mr. Romayne doesn't distrust me." She turned to Romayne with her most irresistible smile. "A gentleman always plays cards," she resumed, "when he has a lady for a partner. Let us join our interests at the table—and, dear Mr. Romayne, don't risk too much!" She put her pretty little purse into his hand, and looked as if she had been in love with him for half her lifetime.
The fatal influence of the sex, assisted by wine, produced the inevitable result. Romayne allowed himself to be led to the card table. For a moment the General delayed the beginning of the game. After what had happened, it was necessary that he should assert the strict sense of justice that was in him. "We are all honorable men," he began.
"And brave men," the Commander added, admiring the General.
"And brave men," the General admitted, admiring the Commander. "Gentlemen, if I have been led into expressing myself with unnecessary warmth of feeling, I apologize, and regret it.
"Nobly spoken!" the Commander pronounced. The General put his hand on his heart and bowed. The game began.
As the poorest man of the two I had escaped the attentions lavished by the ladies on Romayne. At the same time I was obliged to pay for my dinner, by taking some part in the proceedings of the evening. Small stakes were allowed, I found, at roulette; and, besides, the heavy chances in favor of the table made it hardly worth while to run the risk of cheating in this case. I placed myself next to the least rascally-looking man in the company, and played roulette.
For a wonder, I was successful at the first attempt. My neighbor handed me my winnings. "I have lost every farthing I possess," he whispered to me, piteously, "and I have a wife and children at home." I lent the poor wretch five francs. He smiled faintly as he looked at the money. "It reminds me," he said, "of my last transaction, when I borrowed of that gentleman there, who is betting on the General's luck at the card table. Beware of employing him as I did. What do you think I got for my note of hand of four thousand francs? A hundred bottles of champagne, fifty bottles of ink, fifty bottles of blacking, three dozen handkerchiefs, two pictures by unknown masters, two shawls, one hundred maps, and—five francs."
We went on playing. My luck deserted me; I lost, and lost, and lost again. From time to time I looked round at the card table. The "deal" had fallen early to the General, and it seemed to be indefinitely prolonged. A heap of notes and gold (won mainly from Romayne, as I afterward discovered) lay before him. As for my neighbor, the unhappy possessor of the bottles of blacking, the pictures by unknown masters, and the rest of it, he won, and then rashly presumed on his good fortune. Deprived of his last farthing, he retired into a corner of the room, and consoled himself with a cigar. I had just arisen, to follow his example, when a furious uproar burst out at the card table.
I saw Romayne spring up, and snatch the cards out of the General's hand. "You scoundrel!" he shouted, "you are cheating!" The General started to his feet in a fury. "You lie!" he cried. I attempted to interfere, but Romayne had already seen the necessity of controlling himself. "A gentleman doesn't accept an insult from a swindler," he said, coolly. "Accept this, then!" the General answered—and spat on him. In an instant Romayne knocked him down.
The blow was dealt straight between his eyes: he was a gross big-boned man, and he fell heavily. For the time he was stunned. The women ran, screaming, out of the room. The peaceable Commander trembled from head to foot. Two of the men present, who, to give them their due, were no cowards, locked the doors. "You don't go," they said, "till we see whether he recovers or not." Cold water, assisted by the landlady's smelling salts, brought the General to his senses after a while. He whispered something to one of his friends, who immediately turned to me. "The General challenges Mr. Romayne," he said. "As one of his seconds, I demand an appointment for to-morrow morning." I refused to make any appointment unless the doors were first unlocked, and we were left free to depart. "Our carriage is waiting outside," I added. "If it returns to the hotel without us, there will be an inquiry." This latter consideration had its effect. On their side, the doors were opened. On our side, the appointment was made. We left the house.
IN consenting to receive the General's representative, it is needless to say that I merely desired to avoid provoking another quarrel. If those persons were really impudent enough to call at the hotel, I had arranged to threaten them with the interference of the police, and so to put an end to the matter. Romayne expressed no opinion on the subject, one way or the other. His conduct inspired me with a feeling of uneasiness. The filthy insult of which he had been made the object seemed to be rankling in his mind. He went away thoughtfully to his own room. "Have you nothing to say to me?" I asked. He only answered: "Wait till to-morrow."
The next day the seconds appeared.
I had expected to see two of the men with whom we had dined. To my astonishment, the visitors proved to be officers of the General's regiment. They brought proposals for a hostile meeting the next morning; the choice of weapons being left to Romayne as the challenged man.
It was now quite plain to me that the General's peculiar method of card-playing had, thus far, not been discovered and exposed. He might keep doubtful company, and might (as I afterward heard) be suspected in certain quarters. But that he still had, formally-speaking, a reputation to preserve, was proved by the appearance of the two gentlemen present as his representatives. They declared, with evident sincerity, that Romayne had made a fatal mistake; had provoked the insult offered to him; and had resented it by a brutal and cowardly outrage. As a man and a soldier, the General was doubly bound to insist on a duel. No apology would be accepted, even if an apology were offered.
In this emergency, as I understood it, there was but one course to follow. I refused to receive the challenge.
Being asked for my reasons, I found it necessary to speak within certain limits. Though we knew the General to be a cheat, it was a delicate matter to dispute his right to claim satisfaction, when he had found two officers to carry his message. I produced the seized cards (which Romayne had brought away with him in his pocket), and offered them as a formal proof that my friend had not been mistaken.
The seconds—evidently prepared for this circumstance by their principal—declined to examine the cards. In the first place, they said, not even the discovery of foul play (supposing the discovery to have been really made) could justify Romayne's conduct. In the second place, the General's high character made it impossible, under any circumstances, that he could be responsible. Like ourselves, he had rashly associated with bad company; and he had been the innocent victim of an error or a fraud, committed by some other person present at the table.
Driven to my last resource, I could now only base my refusal to receive the challenge on the ground that we were Englishmen, and that the practice of dueling had been abolished in England. Both the seconds at once declined to accept this statement in justification of my conduct.
"You are now in France," said the elder of the two, "where a duel is the established remedy for an insult, among gentlemen. You are bound to respect the social laws of the country in which you are for the time residing. If you refuse to do so, you lay yourselves open to a public imputation on your courage, of a nature too degrading to be more particularly alluded to. Let us adjourn this interview for three hours on the ground of informality. We ought to confer with two gentlemen, acting on Mr. Romayne's behalf. Be prepared with another second to meet us, and reconsider your decision before we call again."
The Frenchmen had barely taken their departure by one door, when Romayne entered by another.
"I have heard it all," he said, quietly. "Accept the challenge."
I declare solemnly that I left no means untried of opposing my friend's resolution. No man could have felt more strongly convinced than I did, that nothing could justify the course he was taking. My remonstrances were completely thrown away. He was deaf to sense and reason, from the moment when he had heard an imputation on his courage suggested as a possible result of any affair in which he was concerned.
"With your views," he said, "I won't ask you to accompany me to the ground. I can easily find French seconds. And mind this, if you attempt to prevent the meeting, the duel will take place elsewhere—and our friendship is at an end from that moment."
After this, I suppose it is needless to add that I accompanied him to the ground the next morning as one of his seconds.
WE were punctual to the appointed hour—eight o'clock.
The second who acted with me was a French gentleman, a relative of one of the officers who had brought the challenge. At his suggestion, we had chosen the pistol as our weapon. Romayne, like most Englishmen at the present time, knew nothing of the use of the sword. He was almost equally inexperienced with the pistol.
Our opponents were late. They kept us waiting for more than ten minutes. It was not pleasant weather to wait in. The day had dawned damp and drizzling. A thick white fog was slowly rolling in on us from the sea.
When they did appear, the General was not among them. A tall, well-dressed young man saluted Romayne with stern courtesy, and said to a stranger who accompanied him: "Explain the circumstances."
The stranger proved to be a surgeon. He entered at once on the necessary explanation. The General was too ill to appear. He had been attacked that morning by a fit—the consequence of the blow that he had received. Under these circumstances, his eldest son (Maurice) was now on the ground to fight the duel on his father's behalf; attended by the General's seconds, and with the General's full approval.
We instantly refused to allow the duel to take place, Romayne loudly declaring that he had no quarrel with the General's son. Upon this, Maurice broke away from his seconds; drew off one of his gloves; and stepping close up to Romayne, struck him on the face with the glove. "Have you no quarrel with me now?" the young Frenchman asked. "Must I spit on you, as my father did?" His seconds dragged him away, and apologized to us for the outbreak. But the mischief was done. Romayne's fiery temper flashed in his eyes. "Load the pistols," he said. After the insult publicly offered to him, and the outrage publicly threatened, there was no other course to take.
It had been left to us to produce the pistols. We therefore requested the seconds of our opponent to examine and to load them. While this was being done, the advancing sea-fog so completely enveloped us that the duelists were unable to see each other. We were obliged to wait for the chance of a partial clearing in the atmosphere. Romayne's temper had become calm again. The generosity of his nature spoke in the words which he now addressed to his seconds. "After all," he said, "the young man is a good son—he is bent on redressing what he believes to be his father's wrong. Does his flipping his glove in my face matter to me? I think I shall fire in the air."
"I shall refuse to act as your second if you do," answered the French gentleman who was assisting us. "The General's son is famous for his skill with the pistol. If you didn't see it in his face just now, I did—he means to kill you. Defend your life, sir!" I spoke quite as strongly, to the same purpose, when my turn came. Romayne yielded—he placed himself unreservedly in our hands.
In a quarter of an hour the fog lifted a little. We measured the distance, having previously arranged (at my suggestion) that the two men should both fire at the same moment, at a given signal. Romayne's composure, as they faced each other, was, in a man of his irritable nervous temperament, really wonderful. I placed him sidewise, in a position which in some degree lessened his danger, by lessening the surface exposed to the bullet. My French colleague put the pistol into his hand, and gave him the last word of advice. "Let your arm hang loosely down, with the barrel of the pistol pointing straight to the ground. When you hear the signal, only lift your arm as far as the elbow; keep the elbow pressed against your side—and fire." We could do no more for him. As we drew aside—I own it—my tongue was like a cinder in my mouth, and a horrid inner cold crept through me to the marrow of my bones.
The signal was given, and the two shots were fired at the same time.
My first look was at Romayne. He took off his hat, and handed it to me with a smile. His adversary's bullet had cut a piece out of the brim of his hat, on the right side. He had literally escaped by a hair-breadth.
While I was congratulating him, the fog gathered again more thickly than ever. Looking anxiously toward the ground occupied by our adversaries, we could only see vague, shadowy forms hurriedly crossing and recrossing each other in the mist. Something had happened! My French colleague took my arm and pressed it significantly. "Leave me to inquire," he said. Romayne tried to follow; I held him back—we neither of us exchanged a word.
The fog thickened and thickened, until nothing was to be seen. Once we heard the surgeon's voice, calling impatiently for a light to help him. No light appeared that we could see. Dreary as the fog itself, the silence gathered round us again. On a sudden it was broken, horribly broken, by another voice, strange to both of us, shrieking hysterically through the impenetrable mist. "Where is he?" the voice cried, in the French language. "Assassin! Assassin! where are you?" Was it a woman? or was it a boy? We heard nothing more. The effect upon Romayne was terrible to see. He who had calmly confronted the weapon lifted to kill him, shuddered dumbly like a terror-stricken animal. I put my arm round him, and hurried him away from the place.
We waited at the hotel until our French friend joined us. After a brief interval he appeared, announcing that the surgeon would follow him.
The duel had ended fatally. The chance course of the bullet, urged by Romayne's unpracticed hand, had struck the General's son just above the right nostril—had penetrated to the back of his neck—and had communicated a fatal shock to the spinal marrow. He was a dead man before they could take him back to his father's house.
So far, our fears were confirmed. But there was something else to tell, for which our worst presentiments had not prepared us.
A younger brother of the fallen man (a boy of thirteen years old) had secretly followed the dueling party, on their way from his father's house—had hidden himself—and had seen the dreadful end. The seconds only knew of it when he burst out of his place of concealment, and fell on his knees by his dying brother's side. His were the frightful cries which we had heard from invisible lips. The slayer of his brother was the "assassin" whom he had vainly tried to discover through the fathomless obscurity of the mist.
We both looked at Romayne. He silently looked back at us, like a man turned to stone. I tried to reason with him.
"Your life was at your opponent's mercy," I said. "It was he who was skilled in the use of the pistol; your risk was infinitely greater than his. Are you responsible for an accident? Rouse yourself, Romayne! Think of the time to come, when all this will be forgotten."
"Never," he said, "to the end of my life."
He made that reply in dull, monotonous tones. His eyes looked wearily and vacantly straight before him. I spoke to him again. He remained impenetrably silent; he appeared not to hear, or not to understand me. The surgeon came in, while I was still at a loss what to say or do next. Without waiting to be asked for his opinion, he observed Romayne attentively, and then drew me away into the next room.
"Your friend is suffering from a severe nervous shock," he said. "Can you tell me anything of his habits of life?"
I mentioned the prolonged night studies and the excessive use of tea. The surgeon shook his head.
"If you want my advice," he proceeded, "take him home at once. Don't subject him to further excitement, when the result of the duel is known in the town. If it ends in our appearing in a court of law, it will be a mere formality in this case, and you can surrender when the time comes. Leave me your address in London."
I felt that the wisest thing I could do was to follow his advice. The boat crossed to Folkestone at an early hour that day—we had no time to lose. Romayne offered no objection to our return to England; he seemed perfectly careless what became of him. "Leave me quiet," he said; "and do as you like." I wrote a few lines to Lady Berrick's medical attendant, informing him of the circumstances. A quarter of an hour afterward we were on board the steamboat.
There were very few passengers. After we had left the harbor, my attention was attracted by a young English lady—traveling, apparently, with her mother. As we passed her on the deck she looked at Romayne with compassionate interest so vividly expressed in her beautiful face that I imagined they might be acquainted. With some difficulty, I prevailed sufficiently over the torpor that possessed him to induce him to look at our fellow passenger.
"Do you know that charming person?" I asked.
"No," he replied, with the weariest indifference. "I never saw her before. I'm tired—tired—tired! Don't speak to me; leave me by myself."
I left him. His rare personal attractions—of which, let me add, he never appeared to be conscious—had evidently made their natural appeal to the interest and admiration of the young lady who had met him by chance. The expression of resigned sadness and suffering, now visible in his face, added greatly no doubt to the influence that he had unconsciously exercised over the sympathies of a delicate and sensitive woman. It was no uncommon circumstance in his past experience of the sex—as I myself well knew—to be the object, not of admiration only, but of true and ardent love. He had never reciprocated the passion—had never even appeared to take it seriously. Marriage might, as the phrase is, be the salvation of him. Would he ever marry?
Leaning over the bulwark, idly pursuing this train of thought, I was recalled to present things by a low sweet voice—the voice of the lady of whom I had been thinking.
"Excuse me for disturbing you," she said; "I think your friend wants you."
She spoke with the modesty and self-possession of a highly-bred woman. A little heightening of her color made her, to my eyes, more beautiful than ever. I thanked her, and hastened back to Romayne.
He was standing by the barred skylight which guarded the machinery. I instantly noticed a change in him. His eyes wandering here and there, in search of me, had more than recovered their animation—there was a wild look of terror in them. He seized me roughly by the arm and pointed down to the engine-room.
"What do you hear there?" he asked.
"I hear the thump of the engines."
"Nothing. What do you hear?"
He suddenly turned away.
"I'll tell you," he said, "when we get on shore."
SECOND SCENE.—VANGE ABBEY.—THE FOREWARNINGS
As we approached the harbor at Folkestone, Romayne's agitation appeared to subside. His head drooped; his eyes half closed—he looked like a weary man quietly falling asleep.
On leaving the steamboat, I ventured to ask our charming fellow-passenger if I could be of any service in reserving places in the London train for her mother and herself. She thanked me, and said they were going to visit some friends at Folkestone. In making this reply, she looked at Romayne. "I am afraid he is very ill," she said, in gently lowered tones. Before I could answer, her mother turned to her with an expression of surprise, and directed her attention to the friends whom she had mentioned, waiting to greet her. Her last look, as they took her away, rested tenderly and sorrowfully on Romayne. He never returned it—he was not even aware of it. As I led him to the train he leaned more and more heavily on my arm. Seated in the carriage, he sank at once into profound sleep.
We drove to the hotel at which my friend was accustomed to reside when he was in London. His long sleep on the journey seemed, in some degree, to have relieved him. We dined together in his private room. When the servants had withdrawn, I found that the unhappy result of the duel was still preying on his mind.
"The horror of having killed that man," he said, "is more than I can bear alone. For God's sake, don't leave me!"
I had received letters at Boulogne, which informed me that my wife and family had accepted an invitation to stay with some friends at the sea-side. Under these circumstances I was entirely at his service. Having quieted his anxiety on this point, I reminded him of what had passed between us on board the steamboat. He tried to change the subject. My curiosity was too strongly aroused to permit this; I persisted in helping his memory.
"We were looking into the engine-room," I said; "and you asked me what I heard there. You promised to tell me what you heard, as soon as we got on shore—"
He stopped me, before I could say more.
"I begin to think it was a delusion," he answered. "You ought not to interpret too literally what a person in my dreadful situation may say. The stain of another man's blood is on me—"
I interrupted him in my turn. "I refuse to hear you speak of yourself in that way," I said. "You are no more responsible for the Frenchman's death than if you had been driving, and had accidentally run over him in the street. I am not the right companion for a man who talks as you do. The proper person to be with you is a doctor." I really felt irritated with him—and I saw no reason for concealing it.
Another man, in his place, might have been offended with me. There was a native sweetness in Romayne's disposition, which asserted itself even in his worst moments of nervous irritability. He took my hand.
"Don't be hard on me," he pleaded. "I will try to think of it as you do. Make some little concession on your side. I want to see how I get through the night. We will return to what I said to you on board the steamboat to-morrow morning. Is it agreed?"
It was agreed, of course. There was a door of communication between our bedrooms. At his suggestion it was left open. "If I find I can't sleep," he explained, "I want to feel assured that you can hear me if I call to you."
Three times in the night I woke, and, seeing the light burning in his room, looked in at him. He always carried some of his books with him when he traveled. On each occasion when I entered the room, he was reading quietly. "I suppose I forestalled my night's sleep on the railway," he said. "It doesn't matter; I am content. Something that I was afraid of has not happened. I am used to wakeful nights. Go back to bed, and don't be uneasy about me."
The next morning the deferred explanation was put off again.
"Do you mind waiting a little longer?" he asked.
"Not if you particularly wish it."
"Will you do me another favor? You know that I don't like London. The noise in the streets is distracting. Besides, I may tell you I have a sort of distrust of noise, since—" He stopped, with an appearance of confusion.
"Since I found you looking into the engine-room?" I asked.
"Yes. I don't feel inclined to trust the chances of another night in London. I want to try the effect of perfect quiet. Do you mind going back with me to Vange? Dull as the place is, you can amuse yourself. There is good shooting, as you know."
In an hour more we had left London.
VANGE ABBEY is, I suppose, the most solitary country house in England. If Romayne wanted quiet, it was exactly the place for him.
On the rising ground of one of the wildest moors in the North Riding of Yorkshire, the ruins of the old monastery are visible from all points of the compass. There are traditions of thriving villages clustering about the Abbey, in the days of the monks, and of hostleries devoted to the reception of pilgrims from every part of the Christian world. Not a vestige of these buildings is left. They were deserted by the pious inhabitants, it is said, at the time when Henry the Eighth suppressed the monasteries, and gave the Abbey and the broad lands of Vange to his faithful friend and courtier, Sir Miles Romayne. In the next generation, the son and heir of Sir Miles built the dwelling-house, helping himself liberally from the solid stone walls of the monastery. With some unimportant alterations and repairs, the house stands, defying time and weather, to the present day.
At the last station on the railway the horses were waiting for us. It was a lovely moonlight night, and we shortened the distance considerably by taking the bridle path over the moor. Between nine and ten o'clock we reached the Abbey.
Years had passed since I had last been Romayne's guest. Nothing, out of the house or in the house, seemed to have undergone any change in the interval. Neither the good North-country butler, nor his buxom Scotch wife, skilled in cookery, looked any older: they received me as if I had left them a day or two since, and had come back again to live in Yorkshire. My well-remembered bedroom was waiting for me; and the matchless old Madeira welcomed us when my host and I met in the inner-hall, which was the ordinary dining-room of the Abbey.
As we faced each other at the well-spread table, I began to hope that the familiar influences of his country home were beginning already to breathe their blessed quiet over the disturbed mind of Romayne. In the presence of his faithful old servants, he seemed to be capable of controlling the morbid remorse that oppressed him. He spoke to them composedly and kindly; he was affectionately glad to see his old friend once more in the old house.
When we were near the end of our meal, something happened that startled me. I had just handed the wine to Romayne, and he had filled his glass—when he suddenly turned pale, and lifted his head like a man whose attention is unexpectedly roused. No person but ourselves was in the room; I was not speaking to him at the time. He looked round suspiciously at the door behind him, leading into the library, and rang the old-fashioned handbell which stood by him on the table. The servant was directed to close the door.
"Are you cold?" I asked.
"No." He reconsidered that brief answer, and contradicted himself. "Yes—the library fire has burned low, I suppose."
In my position at the table, I had seen the fire: the grate was heaped with blazing coals and wood. I said nothing. The pale change in his face, and his contradictory reply, roused doubts in me which I had hoped never to feel again.
He pushed away his glass of wine, and still kept his eyes fixed on the closed door. His attitude and expression were plainly suggestive of the act of listening. Listening to what?
After an interval, he abruptly addressed me. "Do you call it a quiet night?" he said.
"As quiet as quiet can be," I replied. "The wind has dropped—and even the fire doesn't crackle. Perfect stillness indoors and out."
"Out?" he repeated. For a moment he looked at me intently, as if I had started some new idea in his mind. I asked as lightly as I could if I had said anything to surprise him. Instead of answering me, he sprang to his feet with a cry of terror, and left the room.
I hardly knew what to do. It was impossible, unless he returned immediately to let this extraordinary proceeding pass without notice. After waiting for a few minutes I rang the bell.
The old butler came in. He looked in blank amazement at the empty chair. "Where's the master?" he asked.
I could only answer that he had left the table suddenly, without a word of explanation. "He may perhaps be ill," I added. "As his old servant, you can do no harm if you go and look for him. Say that I am waiting here, if he wants me."
The minutes passed slowly and more slowly. I was left alone for so long a time that I began to feel seriously uneasy. My hand was on the bell again, when there was a knock at the door. I had expected to see the butler. It was the groom who entered the room.
"Garthwaite can't come down to you, sir," said the man. "He asks, if you will please go up to the master on the Belvidere."
The house—extending round three sides of a square—was only two stories high. The flat roof, accessible through a species of hatchway, and still surrounded by its sturdy stone parapet, was called "The Belvidere," in reference as usual to the fine view which it commanded. Fearing I knew not what, I mounted the ladder which led to the roof. Romayne received me with a harsh outburst of laughter—that saddest false laughter which is true trouble in disguise.
"Here's something to amuse you!" he cried. "I believe old Garthwaite thinks I am drunk—he won't leave me up here by myself."
Letting this strange assertion remain unanswered, the butler withdrew. As he passed me on his way to the ladder, he whispered: "Be careful of the master! I tell you, sir, he has a bee in his bonnet this night."
Although not of the north country myself, I knew the meaning of the phrase. Garthwaite suspected that the master was nothing less than mad!
Romayne took my arm when we were alone—we walked slowly from end to end of the Belvidere. The moon was, by this time, low in the heavens; but her mild mysterious light still streamed over the roof of the house and the high heathy ground round it. I looked attentively at Romayne. He was deadly pale; his hand shook as it rested on my arm—and that was all. Neither in look nor manner did he betray the faintest sign of mental derangement. He had perhaps needlessly alarmed the faithful old servant by something that he had said or done. I determined to clear up that doubt immediately.
"You left the table very suddenly," I said. "Did you feel ill?"
"Not ill," he replied. "I was frightened. Look at me—I'm frightened still."
"What do you mean?"
Instead of answering, he repeated the strange question which he had put to me downstairs.
"Do you call it a quiet night?"
Considering the time of year, and the exposed situation of the house, the night was almost preternaturally quiet. Throughout the vast open country all round us, not even a breath of air could be heard. The night-birds were away, or were silent at the time. But one sound was audible, when we stood still and listened—the cool quiet bubble of a little stream, lost to view in the valley-ground to the south.
"I have told you already," I said. "So still a night I never remember on this Yorkshire moor."
He laid one hand heavily on my shoulder. "What did the poor boy say of me, whose brother I killed?" he asked. "What words did we hear through the dripping darkness of the mist?"
"I won't encourage you to think of them. I refuse to repeat the words."
He pointed over the northward parapet.
"It doesn't matter whether you accept or refuse," he said, "I hear the boy at this moment—there!"
He repeated the horrid words—marking the pauses in the utterance of them with his finger, as if they were sounds that he heard:
"Assassin! Assassin! where are you?"
"Good God!" I cried. "You don't mean that you really hear the voice?"
"Do you hear what I say? I hear the boy as plainly as you hear me. The voice screams at me through the clear moonlight, as it screamed at me through the sea-fog. Again and again. It's all round the house. That way now, where the light just touches on the tops of the heather. Tell the servants to have the horses ready the first thing in the morning. We leave Vange Abbey to-morrow."
These were wild words. If he had spoken them wildly, I might have shared the butler's conclusion that his mind was deranged. There was no undue vehemence in his voice or his manner. He spoke with a melancholy resignation—he seemed like a prisoner submitting to a sentence that he had deserved. Remembering the cases of men suffering from nervous disease who had been haunted by apparitions, I asked if he saw any imaginary figure under the form of a boy.
"I see nothing," he said; "I only hear. Look yourself. It is in the last degree improbable—but let us make sure that nobody has followed me from Boulogne, and is playing me a trick."
We made the circuit of the Belvidere. On its eastward side the house wall was built against one of the towers of the old Abbey. On the westward side, the ground sloped steeply down to a deep pool or tarn. Northward and southward, there was nothing to be seen but the open moor. Look where I might, with the moonlight to make the view plain to me, the solitude was as void of any living creature as if we had been surrounded by the awful dead world of the moon.
"Was it the boy's voice that you heard on the voyage across the Channel?" I asked.
"Yes, I heard it for the first time—down in the engine-room; rising and falling, rising and falling, like the sound of the engines themselves."
"And when did you hear it again?"
"I feared to hear it in London. It left me, I should have told you, when we stepped ashore out of the steamboat. I was afraid that the noise of the traffic in the streets might bring it back to me. As you know, I passed a quiet night. I had the hope that my imagination had deceived me—that I was the victim of a delusion, as people say. It is no delusion. In the perfect tranquillity of this place the voice has come back to me. While we were at table I heard it again—behind me, in the library. I heard it still, when the door was shut. I ran up here to try if it would follow me into the open air. It has followed me. We may as well go down again into the hall. I know now that there is no escaping from it. My dear old home has become horrible to me. Do you mind returning to London tomorrow?"
What I felt and feared in this miserable state of things matters little. The one chance I could see for Romayne was to obtain the best medical advice. I sincerely encouraged his idea of going back to London the next day.
We had sat together by the hall fire for about ten minutes, when he took out his handkerchief, and wiped away the perspiration from his forehead, drawing a deep breath of relief. "It has gone!" he said faintly.
"When you hear the boy's voice," I asked, "do you hear it continuously?"
"No, at intervals; sometimes longer, sometimes shorter."
"And thus far, it comes to you suddenly, and leaves you suddenly?"
"Do my questions annoy you?"
"I make no complaint," he said sadly. "You can see for yourself—I patiently suffer the punishment that I have deserved."
I contradicted him at once. "It is nothing of the sort! It's a nervous malady, which medical science can control and cure. Wait till we get to London."
This expression of opinion produced no effect on him.
"I have taken the life of a fellow-creature," he said. "I have closed the career of a young man who, but for me, might have lived long and happily and honorably. Say what you may, I am of the race of Cain. He had the mark set on his brow. I have my ordeal. Delude yourself, if you like, with false hopes. I can endure—and hope for nothing. Good-night."
EARLY the next morning, the good old butler came to me, in great perturbation, for a word of advice.
"Do come, sir, and look at the master! I can't find it in my heart to wake him."
It was time to wake him, if we were to go to London that day. I went into the bedroom. Although I was no doctor, the restorative importance of that profound and quiet sleep impressed itself on me so strongly, that I took the responsibility of leaving him undisturbed. The event proved that I had acted wisely. He slept until noon. There was no return of "the torment of the voice"—as he called it, poor fellow. We passed a quiet day, excepting one little interruption, which I am warned not to pass over without a word of record in this narrative.
We had returned from a ride. Romayne had gone into the library to read; and I was just leaving the stables, after a look at some recent improvements, when a pony-chaise with a gentleman in it drove up to the door. He asked politely if he might be allowed to see the house. There were some fine pictures at Vange, as well as many interesting relics of antiquity; and the rooms were shown, in Romayne's absence, to the very few travelers who were adventurous enough to cross the heathy desert that surrounded the Abbey. On this occasion, the stranger was informed that Mr. Romayne was at home. He at once apologized—with an appearance of disappointment, however, which induced me to step forward and speak to him.
"Mr. Romayne is not very well," I said; "and I cannot venture to ask you into the house. But you will be welcome, I am sure, to walk round the grounds, and to look at the ruins of the Abbey."
He thanked me, and accepted the invitation. I find no great difficulty in describing him, generally. He was elderly, fat and cheerful; buttoned up in a long black frockcoat, and presenting that closely shaven face and that inveterate expression of watchful humility about the eyes, which we all associate with the reverend personality of a priest.
To my surprise, he seemed, in some degree at least, to know his way about the place. He made straight for the dreary little lake which I have already mentioned, and stood looking at it with an interest which was so incomprehensible to me, that I own I watched him.
He ascended the slope of the moorland, and entered the gate which led to the grounds. All that the gardeners had done to make the place attractive failed to claim his attention. He walked past lawns, shrubs, and flower-beds, and only stopped at an old stone fountain, which tradition declared to have been one of the ornaments of the garden in the time of the monks. Having carefully examined this relic of antiquity, he took a sheet of paper from his pocket, and consulted it attentively. It might have been a plan of the house and grounds, or it might not—I can only report that he took the path which led him, by the shortest way, to the ruined Abbey church.
As he entered the roofless inclosure, he reverently removed his hat. It was impossible for me to follow him any further, without exposing myself to the risk of discovery. I sat down on one of the fallen stones, waiting to see him again. It must have been at least half an hour before he appeared. He thanked me for my kindness, as composedly as if he had quite expected to find me in the place that I occupied.
"I have been deeply interested in all that I have seen," he said. "May I venture to ask, what is perhaps an indiscreet question on the part of a stranger?"
I ventured, on my side, to inquire what the question might be.
"Mr. Romayne is indeed fortunate," he resumed, "in the possession of this beautiful place. He is a young man, I think?"
"Is he married?"
"Excuse my curiosity. The owner of Vange Abbey is an interesting person to all good antiquaries like myself. Many thanks again. Good-day."
His pony-chaise took him away. His last look rested—not on me—but on the old Abbey.
MY record of events approaches its conclusion.
On the next day we returned to the hotel in London. At Romayne's suggestion, I sent the same evening to my own house for any letters which might be waiting for me. His mind still dwelt on the duel; he was morbidly eager to know if any communication had been received from the French surgeon.
When the messenger returned with my letters, the Boulogne postmark was on one of the envelopes. At Romayne's entreaty, this was the letter that I opened first. The surgeon's signature was at the end.
One motive for anxiety—on my part—was set at rest in the first lines. After an official inquiry into the circumstances, the French authorities had decided that it was not expedient to put the survivor of the duelists on his trial before a court of law. No jury, hearing the evidence, would find him guilty of the only charge that could be formally brought against him—the charge of "homicide by premeditation." Homicide by misadventure, occurring in a duel, was not a punishable offense by the French law. My correspondent cited many cases in proof of it, strengthened by the publicly-expressed opinion of the illustrious Berryer himself. In a word, we had nothing to fear.
The next page of the letter informed us that the police had surprised the card playing community with whom we had spent the evening at Boulogne, and that the much-bejeweled old landlady had been sent to prison for the offense of keeping a gambling-house. It was suspected in the town that the General was more or less directly connected with certain disreputable circumstances discovered by the authorities. In any case, he had retired from active service.
He and his wife and family had left Boulogne, and had gone away in debt. No investigation had thus far succeeded in discovering the place of their retreat.
Reading this letter aloud to Romayne, I was interrupted by him at the last sentence.
"The inquiries must have been carelessly made," he said. "I will see to it myself."
"What interest can you have in the inquiries?" I exclaimed.
"The strongest possible interest," he answered. "It has been my one hope to make some little atonement to the poor people whom I have so cruelly wronged. If the wife and children are in distressed circumstances (which seems to be only too likely) I may place them beyond the reach of anxiety—anonymously, of course. Give me the surgeon's address. I shall write instructions for tracing them at my expense—merely announcing that an Unknown Friend desires to be of service to the General's family."
This appeared to me to be a most imprudent thing to do. I said so plainly—and quite in vain. With his customary impetuosity, he wrote the letter at once, and sent it to the post that night.
ON the question of submitting himself to medical advice (which I now earnestly pressed upon him), Romayne was disposed to be equally unreasonable. But in this case, events declared themselves in my favor.
Lady Berrick's last reserves of strength had given way. She had been brought to London in a dying state while we were at Vange Abbey. Romayne was summoned to his aunt's bedside on the third day of our residence at the hotel, and was present at her death. The impression produced on his mind roused the better part of his nature. He was more distrustful of himself, more accessible to persuasion than usual. In this gentler frame of mind he received a welcome visit from an old friend, to whom he was sincerely attached. The visit—of no great importance in itself—led, as I have since been informed, to very serious events in Romayne's later life. For this reason, I briefly relate what took place within my own healing.
Lord Loring—well known in society as the head of an old English Catholic family, and the possessor of a magnificent gallery of pictures—was distressed by the change for the worse which he perceived in Romayne when he called at the hotel. I was present when they met, and rose to leave the room, feeling that the two friends might perhaps be embarrassed by the presence of a third person. Romayne called me back. "Lord Loring ought to know what has happened to me," he said. "I have no heart to speak of it myself. Tell him everything, and if he agrees with you, I will submit to see the doctors." With those words he left us together.
It is almost needless to say that Lord Loring did agree with me. He was himself disposed to think that the moral remedy, in Romayne's case, might prove to be the best remedy.
"With submission to what the doctors may decide," his lordship said, "the right thing to do, in my opinion, is to divert our friend's mind from himself. I see a plain necessity for making a complete change in the solitary life that he has been leading for years past. Why shouldn't he marry? A woman's influence, by merely giving a new turn to his thoughts, might charm away that horrible voice which haunts him. Perhaps you think this a merely sentimental view of the case? Look at it practically, if you like, and you come to the same conclusion. With that fine estate—and with the fortune which he has now inherited from his aunt—it is his duty to marry. Don't you agree with me?"
"I agree most cordially. But I see serious difficulties in your lordship's way. Romayne dislikes society; and, as to marrying, his coldness toward women seems (so far as I can judge) to be one of the incurable defects of his character."
Lord Loring smiled. "My dear sir, nothing of that sort is incurable, if we can only find the right woman."
The tone in which he spoke suggested to me that he had got "the right woman"—and I took the liberty of saying so. He at once acknowledged that I had guessed right.
"Romayne is, as you say, a difficult subject to deal with," he resumed. "If I commit the slightest imprudence, I shall excite his suspicion—and there will be an end of my hope of being of service to him. I shall proceed carefully, I can tell you. Luckily, poor dear fellow, he is fond of pictures! It's quite natural that I should ask him to see some recent additions to my gallery—isn't it? There is the trap that I set! I have a sweet girl to tempt him, staying at my house, who is a little out of health and spirits herself. At the right moment, I shall send word upstairs. She may well happen to look in at the gallery (by the merest accident) just at the time when Romayne is looking at my new pictures. The rest depends, of course, on, the effect she produces. If you knew her, I believe you would agree with me that the experiment is worth trying."
Not knowing the lady, I had little faith in the success of the experiment. No one, however, could doubt Lord Loring's admirable devotion to his friend—and with that I was fain to be content.
When Romayne returned to us, it was decided to submit his case to a consultation of physicians at the earliest possible moment. When Lord Loring took his departure, I accompanied him to the door of the hotel, perceiving that he wished to say a word more to me in private. He had, it seemed, decided on waiting for the result of the medical consultation before he tried the effect of the young lady's attractions; and he wished to caution me against speaking prematurely of visiting the picture gallery to our friend.
Not feeling particularly interested in these details of the worthy nobleman's little plot, I looked at his carriage, and privately admired the two splendid horses that drew it. The footman opened the door for his master, and I became aware, for the first time, that a gentleman had accompanied Lord Loring to the hotel, and had waited for him in the carriage. The gentleman bent forward, and looked up from a book that he was reading. To my astonishment, I recognized the elderly, fat and cheerful priest who had shown such a knowledge of localities, and such an extraordinary interest in Vange Abbey!
It struck me as an odd coincidence that I should see the man again in London, so soon after I had met with him in Yorkshire. This was all I thought about it, at the time. If I had known then, what I know now, I might have dreamed, let us say, of throwing that priest into the lake at Vange, and might have reckoned the circumstance among the wisely-improved opportunities of my life.
To return to the serious interests of the present narrative, I may now announce that my evidence as an eye-witness of events has come to an end. The day after Lord Loring's visit, domestic troubles separated me, to my most sincere regret, from Romayne. I have only to add, that the foregoing narrative of personal experience has been written with a due sense of responsibility, and that it may be depended on throughout as an exact statement of the truth.
JOHN PHILIP HYND, (late Major, 110th Regiment).
BOOK THE FIRST.
IN an upper room of one of the palatial houses which are situated on the north side of Hyde Park, two ladies sat at breakfast, and gossiped over their tea.
The elder of the two was Lady Loring—still in the prime of life; possessed of the golden hair and the clear blue eyes, the delicately-florid complexion, and the freely developed figure, which are among the favorite attractions popularly associated with the beauty of Englishwomen. Her younger companion was the unknown lady admired by Major Hynd on the sea passage from France to England. With hair and eyes of the darkest brown; with a pure pallor of complexion, only changing to a faint rose tint in moments of agitation; with a tall graceful figure, incompletely developed in substance and strength—she presented an almost complete contrast to Lady Loring. Two more opposite types of beauty it would have been hardly possible to place at the same table.
The servant brought in the letters of the morning. Lady Loring ran through her correspondence rapidly, pushed away the letters in a heap, and poured herself out a second cup of tea.
"Nothing interesting this morning for me," she said. "Any news of your mother, Stella?"
The young lady handed an open letter to her hostess, with a faint smile. "See for yourself, Adelaide," she answered, with the tender sweetness of tone which made her voice irresistibly charming—"and tell me if there were ever two women so utterly unlike each other as my mother and myself."
Lady Loring ran through the letter, as she had run through her own correspondence. "Never, dearest Stella, have I enjoyed myself as I do in this delightful country house—twenty-seven at dinner every day, without including the neighbors—a little carpet dance every evening—we play billiards, and go into the smoking room—the hounds meet three times a week—all sorts of celebrities among the company, famous beauties included—such dresses! such conversation!—and serious duties, my dear, not neglected—high church and choral service in the town on Sundays—recitations in the evening from Paradise Lost, by an amateur elocutionist—oh, you foolish, headstrong child! why did you make excuses and stay in London, when you might have accompanied me to this earthly Paradise?—are you really ill?—my love to Lady Loring—and of course, if you are ill, you must have medical advice—they ask after you so kindly here—the first dinner bell is ringing, before I have half done my letter—what am I to wear?—why is my daughter not here to advise me," etc., etc., etc.
"There is time to change your mind and advise your mother," Lady Loring remarked with grave irony as she returned the letter.
"Don't even speak of it!" said Stella. "I really know no life that I should not prefer to the life that my mother is enjoying at this moment. What should I have done, Adelaide, if you had not offered me a happy refuge in your house? My 'earthly Paradise' is here, where I am allowed to dream away my time over my drawings and my books, and to resign myself to poor health and low spirits, without being dragged into society, and (worse still) threatened with that 'medical advice' in which, when she isn't threatened with it herself, my poor dear mother believes so implicitly. I wish you would hire me as your 'companion,' and let me stay here for the rest of my life."
Lady Loring's bright face became grave while Stella was speaking.
"My dear," she said kindly, "I know well how you love retirement, and how differently you think and feel from other young women of your age. And I am far from forgetting what sad circumstances have encouraged the natural bent of your disposition. But, since you have been staying with me this time, I see something in you which my intimate knowledge of your character fails to explain. We have been friends since we were together at school—and, in those old days, we never had any secrets from each other. You are feeling some anxiety, or brooding over some sorrow, of which I know nothing. I don't ask for your confidence; I only tell you what I have noticed—and I say with all my heart, Stella, I am sorry for you."
She rose, and, with intuitive delicacy, changed the subject. "I am going out earlier than usual this morning," she resumed. "Is there anything I can do for you?" She laid her hand tenderly on Stella's shoulder, waiting for the reply. Stella lifted the hand and kissed it with passionate fondness.
"Don't think me ungrateful," she said; "I am only ashamed." Her head sank on her bosom; she burst into tears.
Lady Loring waited by her in silence. She well knew the girl's self-contained nature, always shrinking, except in moments of violent emotion, from the outward betrayal of its trials and its sufferings to others. The true depth of feeling which is marked by this inbred modesty is most frequently found in men. The few women who possess it are without the communicative consolations of the feminine heart. They are the noblest—-and but too often the unhappiest of their sex.
"Will you wait a little before you go out?" Stella asked softly.
Lady Loring returned to the chair that she had left—hesitated for a moment—and then drew it nearer to Stella. "Shall I sit by you?" she said.
"Close by me. You spoke of our school days just now Adelaide. There was some difference between us. Of all the girls I was the youngest—and you were the eldest, or nearly the eldest, I think?"
"Quite the eldest, my dear. There is a difference of ten years between us. But why do you go back to that?"
"It's only a recollection. My father was alive then. I was at first home-sick and frightened in the strange place, among the big girls. You used to let me hide my face on your shoulder, and tell me stories. May I hide in the old way and tell my story?"
She was now the calmest of the two. The elder woman turned a little pale, and looked down in silent anxiety at the darkly beautiful head that rested on her shoulder.
"After such an experience as mine has been," said Stella, "would you think it possible that I could ever again feel my heart troubled by a man—and that man a stranger?"
"My dear! I think it quite possible. You are only now in your twenty-third year. You were innocent of all blame at that wretched by-gone time which you ought never to speak of again. Love and be happy, Stella—if you can only find the man who is worthy of you. But you frighten me when you speak of a stranger. Where did you meet with him?"
"On our way back from Paris."
"Traveling in the same carriage with you?"
"No—it was in crossing the Channel. There were few travelers in the steamboat, or I might never have noticed him."
"Did he speak to you?"
"I don't think he even looked at me."
"That doesn't say much for his taste, Stella."
"You don't understand. I mean, I have not explained myself properly. He was leaning on the arm of a friend; weak and worn and wasted, as I supposed, by some long and dreadful illness. There was an angelic sweetness in his face—such patience! such resignation! For heaven's sake keep my secret. One hears of men falling in love with women at first sight. But a woman who looks at a man, and feels—oh, it's shameful! I could hardly take my eyes off him. If he had looked at me in return, I don't know what I should have done—I burn when I think of it. He was absorbed in his suffering and his sorrow. My last look at his beautiful face was on the pier, before they took me away. The perfect image of him has been in my heart ever since. In my dreams I see him as plainly as I see you now. Don't despise me, Adelaide!"
"My dear, you interest me indescribably. Do you suppose he was in our rank of life? I mean, of course, did he look like a gentleman?"
"There could be no doubt of it."
"Do try to describe him, Stella. Was he tall and well dressed?"
"Neither tall nor short—rather thin—quiet and graceful in all his movements—dressed plainly, in perfect taste. How can I describe him? When his friend brought him on board, he stood at the side of the vessel, looking out thoughtfully toward the sea. Such eyes I never saw before, Adelaide, in any human face—so divinely tender and sad—and the color of them that dark violet blue, so uncommon and so beautiful—too beautiful for a man. I may say the same of his hair. I saw it completely. For a minute or two he removed his hat—his head was fevered, I think—and he let the sea breeze blow over it. The pure light brown of his hair was just warmed by a lovely reddish tinge. His beard was of the same color; short and curling, like the beards of the Roman heroes one sees in pictures. I shall never see him again—and it is best for me that I shall not. What can I hope from a man who never once noticed me? But I should like to hear that he had recovered his health and his tranquillity, and that his life was a happy one. It has been a comfort to me, Adelaide, to open my heart to you. I am getting bold enough to confess everything. Would you laugh at me, I wonder, if I—?"
She stopped. Her pale complexion softly glowed into color; her grand dark eyes brightened—she looked her loveliest at that moment.
"I am far more inclined, Stella, to cry over you than to laugh at you," said Lady Loring. "There is something, to my mind, very sad about this adventure of yours. I wish I could find out who the man is. Even the best description of a person falls so short of the reality!"
"I thought of showing you something," Stella continued, "which might help you to see him as I saw him. It's only making one more acknowledgment of my own folly."
"You don't mean a portrait of him!" Lady Loring exclaimed.
"The best that I could do from recollection," Stella answered sadly.
"Bring it here directly!"
Stella left the room and returned with a little drawing in pencil. The instant Lady Loring looked at it, she recognized Romayne and started excitedly to her feet.
"You know him!" cried Stella.
Lady Loring had placed herself in an awkward position. Her husband had described to her his interview with Major Hynd, and had mentioned his project for bringing Romayne and Stella together, after first exacting a promise of the strictest secrecy from his wife. She felt herself bound—doubly bound, after what she had now discovered—to respect the confidence placed in her; and this at the time when she had betrayed herself to Stella! With a woman's feline fineness of perception, in all cases of subterfuge and concealment, she picked a part of the truth out of the whole, and answered harmlessly without a moment's hesitation.
"I have certainly seen him," she said—"probably at some party. But I see so many people, and I go to so many places, that I must ask for time to consult my memory. My husband might help me, if you don't object to my asking him," she added slyly.
Stella snatched the drawing away from her, in terror. "You don't mean that you will tell Lord Loring?" she said.
"My dear child! how can you be so foolish? Can't I show him the drawing without mentioning who it was done by? His memory is a much better one than mine. If I say to him, 'Where did we meet that man?'—he may tell me at once—he may even remember the name. Of course, if you like to be kept in suspense, you have only to say so. It rests with you to decide."
Poor Stella gave way directly. She returned the drawing, and affectionately kissed her artful friend. Having now secured the means of consulting her husband without exciting suspicion, Lady Loring left the room.
At that time in the morning, Lord Loring was generally to be found either in the library or the picture gallery. His wife tried the library first. On entering the room, she found but one person in it—not the person of whom she was in search. There, buttoned up in his long frock coat, and surrounded by books of all sorts and sizes, sat the plump elderly priest who had been the especial object of Major Hynd's aversion.
"I beg your pardon, Father Benwell," said Lady Loring; "I hope I don't interrupt your studies?"
Father Benwell rose and bowed with a pleasant paternal smile. "I am only trying to organize an improved arrangement of the library," he said, simply. "Books are companionable creatures—members, as it were, of his family, to a lonely old priest like myself. Can I be of any service to your ladyship?"
"Thank you, Father. If you can kindly tell me where Lord Loring is—"
"To be sure! His lordship was here five minutes since—he is now in the picture gallery. Pray permit me!"
With a remarkably light and easy step for a man of his age and size, he advanced to the further end of the library, and opened a door which led into the gallery.
"Lord Loring is among the pictures," he announced. "And alone." He laid a certain emphasis on the last word, which might or might not (in the case of a spiritual director of the household) invite a word of explanation.
Lady Loring merely said, "Just what I wanted; thank you once more, Father Benwell"—and passed into the picture gallery.
Left by himself again in the library, the priest walked slowly to and fro, thinking. His latent power and resolution began to show themselves darkly in his face. A skilled observer would now have seen plainly revealed in him the habit of command, and the capacity for insisting on his right to be obeyed. From head to foot, Father Benwell was one of those valuable soldiers of the Church who acknowledge no defeat, and who improve every victory.
After a while, he returned to the table at which he had been writing when Lady Loring entered the room. An unfinished letter lay open on the desk. He took up his pen and completed it in these words: "I have therefore decided on trusting this serious matter in the hands of Arthur Penrose. I know he is young—but we have to set against the drawback of his youth, the counter-merits of his incorruptible honesty and his true religious zeal. No better man is just now within my reach—and there is no time to lose. Romayne has recently inherited a large increase of fortune. He will be the object of the basest conspiracies—conspiracies of men to win his money, and (worse still) of women to marry him. Even these contemptible efforts may be obstacles in the way of our righteous purpose, unless we are first in the field. Penrose left Oxford last week. I expect him here this morning, by my invitation. When I have given him the necessary instructions, and have found the means of favorably introducing him to Romayne, I shall have the honor of forwarding a statement of our prospects so far."
Having signed these lines, he addressed the letter to "The Reverend the Secretary, Society of Jesus, Rome." As he closed and sealed the envelope, a servant opened the door communicating with the hall, and announced:
"Mr. Arthur Penrose."
FATHER BENWELL rose, and welcomed the visitor with his paternal smile. "I am heartily glad to see you," he said—and held out his hand with a becoming mixture of dignity and cordiality. Penrose lifted the offered hand respectfully to his lips. As one of the "Provincials" of the Order, Father Benwell occupied a high place among the English Jesuits. He was accustomed to acts of homage offered by his younger brethren to their spiritual chief. "I fear you are not well," he proceeded gently. "Your hand is feverish, Arthur."
"Thank you, Father—I am as well as usual."
"Depression of spirits, perhaps?" Father Benwell persisted.
Penrose admitted it with a passing smile. "My spirits are never very lively," he said.
Father Benwell shook his head in gentle disapproval of a depressed state of spirits in a young man. "This must be corrected," he remarked. "Cultivate cheerfulness, Arthur. I am myself, thank God, a naturally cheerful man. My mind reflects, in some degree (and reflects gratefully), the brightness and beauty which are part of the great scheme of creation. A similar disposition is to be cultivated—I know instances of it in my own experience. Add one more instance, and you will really gratify me. In its seasons of rejoicing, our Church is eminently cheerful. Shall I add another encouragement? A great trust is about to be placed in you. Be socially agreeable, or you will fail to justify the trust. This is Father Benwell's little sermon. I think it has a merit, Arthur—it is a sermon soon over."
Penrose looked up at his superior, eager to hear more.
He was a very young man. His large, thoughtful, well-opened gray eyes, and his habitual refinement and modesty of manner, gave a certain attraction to his personal appearance, of which it stood in some need. In stature he was little and lean; his hair had become prematurely thin over his broad forehead; there were hollows already in his cheeks, and marks on either side of his thin, delicate lips. He looked like a person who had passed many miserable hours in needlessly despairing of himself and his prospects. With all this, there was something in him so irresistibly truthful and sincere—so suggestive, even where he might be wrong, of a purely conscientious belief in his own errors—that he attached people to him without an effort, and often without being aware of it himself. What would his friends have said if they had been told that the religious enthusiasm of this gentle, self-distrustful, melancholy man, might, in its very innocence of suspicion and self-seeking, be perverted to dangerous uses in unscrupulous hands? His friends would, one and all, have received the scandalous assertion with contempt; and Penrose himself, if he had heard of it, might have failed to control his temper for the first time in his life.
"May I ask a question, without giving offense?" he said, timidly.
Father Benwell took his hand. "My dear Arthur, let us open our minds to each other without reserve. What is your question?"
"You have spoken, Father, of a great trust that is about to be placed in me."
"Yes. You are anxious, no doubt, to hear what it is?"
"I am anxious to know, in the first place, if it requires me to go back to Oxford."
Father Benwell dropped his young friend's hand. "Do you dislike Oxford?" he asked, observing Penrose attentively.
"Bear with me, Father, if I speak too confidently. I dislike the deception which has obliged me to conceal that I am a Catholic and a priest."
Father Benwell set this little difficulty right, with the air of a man who could make benevolent allowance for unreasonable scruples. "I think, Arthur, you forget two important considerations," he said. "In the first place, you have a dispensation from your superiors, which absolves you of all responsibility in respect of the concealment that you have practiced. In the second place, we could only obtain information of the progress which our Church is silently making at the University by employing you in the capacity of—let me say, an independent observer. However, if it will contribute to your ease of mind, I see no objection to informing you that you will not be instructed to return to Oxford. Do I relieve you?"
There could be no question of it. Penrose breathed more freely, in every sense of the word.
"At the same time," Father Benwell continued, "let us not misunderstand each other. In the new sphere of action which we design for you, you will not only be at liberty to acknowledge that you are a Catholic, it will be absolutely necessary that you should do so. But you will continue to wear the ordinary dress of an English gentleman, and to preserve the strictest secrecy on the subject of your admission to the priesthood, until you are further advised by myself. Now, dear Arthur, read that paper. It is the necessary preface to all that I have yet to say to you."
The "paper" contained a few pages of manuscript relating the early history of Vange Abbey, in the days of the monks, and the circumstances under which the property was confiscated to lay uses in the time of Henry the Eighth. Penrose handed back the little narrative, vehemently expressing his sympathy with the monks, and his detestation of the King.
"Compose yourself, Arthur," said Father Benwell, smiling pleasantly. "We don't mean to allow Henry the Eighth to have it all his own way forever."
Penrose looked at his superior in blank bewilderment. His superior withheld any further information for the present.
"Everything in its turn," the discreet Father resumed; "the turn of explanation has not come yet. I have something else to show you first. One of the most interesting relics in England. Look here."
He unlocked a flat mahogany box, and displayed to view some writings on vellum, evidently of great age.
"You have had a little sermon already," he said. "You shall have a little story now. No doubt you have heard of Newstead Abbey—famous among the readers of poetry as the residence of Byron? King Henry treated Newstead exactly as he treated Vange Abbey! Many years since, the lake at Newstead was dragged, and the brass eagle which had served as the lectern in the old church was rescued from the waters in which it had lain for centuries. A secret receptacle was discovered in the body of the eagle, and the ancient title-deeds of the Abbey were found in it. The monks had taken that method of concealing the legal proof of their rights and privileges, in the hope—a vain hope, I need hardly say—that a time might come when Justice would restore to them the property of which they had been robbed. Only last summer, one of our bishops, administering a northern diocese, spoke of these circumstances to a devout Catholic friend, and said he thought it possible that the precaution taken by the monks at Newstead might also have been taken by the monks at Vange. The friend, I should tell you, was an enthusiast. Saying nothing to the bishop (whose position and responsibilities he was bound to respect), he took into his confidence persons whom he could trust. One night—in the absence of the present proprietor, or, I should rather say, the present usurper, of the estate—the lake at Vange was privately dragged, with a result that proved the bishop's conjecture to be right. Read those valuable documents. Knowing your strict sense of honor, my son, and your admirable tenderness of conscience, I wish you to be satisfied of the title of the Church to the lands of Vange, by evidence which is beyond dispute."
With this little preface, he waited while Penrose read the title-deeds. "Any doubt on your mind?" he asked, when the reading had come to an end.
"Not the shadow of a doubt."
"Is the Church's right to the property clear?"
"As clear, Father, as words can make it."
"Very good. We will lock up the documents. Arbitrary confiscation, Arthur, even on the part of a king, cannot override the law. What the Church once lawfully possessed, the Church has a right to recover. Any doubt about that in your mind?"
"Only the doubt of how the Church can recover. Is there anything in this particular case to be hoped from the law?"
"And yet, Father, you speak as if you saw some prospect of the restitution of the property. By what means can the restitution be made?"
"By peaceful and worthy means," Father Benwell answered. "By honorable restoration of the confiscated property to the Church, on the part of the person who is now in possession of it."
Penrose was surprised and interested. "Is the person a Catholic?" he asked, eagerly.
"Not yet." Father Benwell laid a strong emphasis on those two little words. His fat fingers drummed restlessly on the table; his vigilant eyes rested expectantly on Penrose. "Surely you understand me, Arthur?" he added, after an interval.
The color rose slowly in the worn face of Penrose. "I am afraid to understand you," he said.
"I am not sure that it is my better sense which understands. I am afraid, Father, it may be my vanity and presumption."
Father Benwell leaned back luxuriously in his chair. "I like that modesty," he said, with a relishing smack of his lips as if modesty was as good as a meal to him. "There is power of the right sort, Arthur, hidden under the diffidence that does you honor. I am more than ever satisfied that I have been right in reporting you as worthy of this most serious trust. I believe the conversion of the owner of Vange Abbey is—in your hands—no more than a matter of time."
"May I ask what his name is?"
"Certainly. His name is Lewis Romayne."
"When do you introduce me to him?"
"Impossible to say. I have not yet been introduced myself."
"You don't know Mr. Romayne?"
"I have never even seen him."
These discouraging replies were made with the perfect composure of a man who saw his way clearly before him. Sinking from one depth of perplexity to another, Penrose ventured on putting one last question. "How am I to approach Mr. Romayne?" he asked.
"I can only answer that, Arthur, by admitting you still further into my confidence. It is disagreeable to me," said the reverend gentleman, with the most becoming humility, "to speak of myself. But it must be done. Shall we have a little coffee to help us through the coming extract from Father Benwell's autobiography? Don't look so serious, my son! When the occasion justifies it, let us take life lightly." He rang the bell and ordered the coffee, as if he was the master of the house. The servant treated him with the most scrupulous respect. He hummed a little tune, and talked at intervals of the weather, while they were waiting. "Plenty of sugar, Arthur?" he inquired, when the coffee was brought in. "No! Even in trifles, I should have been glad to feel that there was perfect sympathy between us. I like plenty of sugar myself."
Having sweetened his coffee with the closest attention to the process, he was at liberty to enlighten his young friend. He did it so easily and so cheerfully that a far less patient man than Penrose would have listened to him with interest.
THE INTRODUCTION TO ROMAYNE.
"EXCEPTING my employment here in the library," Father Benwell began, "and some interesting conversation with Lord Loring, to which I shall presently allude, I am almost as great a stranger in this house, Arthur, as yourself. When the object which we now have in view was first taken seriously into consideration, I had the honor of being personally acquainted with Lord Loring. I was also aware that he was an intimate and trusted friend of Romayne. Under these circumstances, his lordship presented himself to our point of view as a means of approaching the owner of Vange Abbey without exciting distrust. I was charged accordingly with the duty of establishing myself on terms of intimacy in this house. By way of making room for me, the spiritual director of Lord and Lady Loring was removed to a cure of souls in Ireland. And here I am in his place! By-the-way, don't treat me (when we are in the presence of visitors) with any special marks of respect. I am not Provincial of our Order in Lord Loring's house—I am one of the inferior clergy."
Penrose looked at him with admiration. "It is a great sacrifice to make, Father, in your position and at your age."
"Not at all, Arthur. A position of authority involves certain temptations to pride. I feel this change as a lesson in humility which is good for me. For example, Lady Loring (as I can plainly see) dislikes and distrusts me. Then, again, a young lady has recently arrived here on a visit. She is a Protestant, with all the prejudices incident to that way of thinking—avoids me so carefully, poor soul, that I have never seen her yet. These rebuffs are wholesome reminders of his fallible human nature, to a man who has occupied a place of high trust and command. Besides, there have been obstacles in my way which have had an excellent effect in rousing my energies. How do you feel, Arthur, when you encounter obstacles?"
"I do my best to remove them, Father. But I am sometimes conscious of a sense of discouragement."
"Curious," said Father Benwell. "I am only conscious, myself, of a sense of impatience. What right has an obstacle to get in my way?—that is how I look at it. For example, the first thing I heard, when I came here, was that Romayne had left England. My introduction to him was indefinitely delayed; I had to look to Lord Loring for all the information I wanted relating to the man and his habits. There was another obstacle! Not living in the house, I was obliged to find an excuse for being constantly on the spot, ready to take advantage of his lordship's leisure moments for conversation. I sat down in this room, and I said to myself, 'Before I get up again, I mean to brush these impertinent obstacles out of my way!' The state of the books suggested the idea of which I was in search. Before I left the house, I was charged with the rearrangement of the library. From that moment I came and went as often as I liked. Whenever Lord Loring was disposed for a little talk, there I was, to lead the talk in the right direction. And what is the result? On the first occasion when Romayne presents himself I can place you in a position to become his daily companion. All due, Arthur, in the first instance, to my impatience of obstacles. Amusing, isn't it?"