Transcriber's Note: A number of typographical errors found in the original text have been corrected in this version. A list of these errors is found at the end (before the advertisments from the original book).
THE DANVERS JEWELS
SIR CHARLES DANVERS
HARPER & BROTHERS, FRANKLIN SQUARE
* * * * *
TO MY SISTER
I AFFECTIONATELY DEDICATE THE STORY WHICH SHE HELPED ME TO WRITE
* * * * *
THE DANVERS JEWELS 9
SIR CHARLES DANVERS 93
* * * * *
THE DANVERS JEWELS.
I was on the point of leaving India and returning to England when he sent for me. At least, to be accurate—and I am always accurate—I was not quite on the point, but nearly, for I was going to start by the mail on the following day. I had been up to Government House to take my leave a few days before, but Sir John had been too ill to see me, or at least he had said he was. And now he was much worse—dying, it seemed, from all accounts; and he had sent down a native servant in the noon-day heat with a note, written in his shaking old hand, begging me to come up as soon as it became cooler. He said he had a commission which he was anxious I should do for him in England.
Of course I went. It was not very convenient, because I had to borrow one of our fellows' traps, as I had sold my own, and none of them had the confidence in my driving which I had myself. I was also obliged to leave the packing of my collection of Malay krises and Indian kookeries to my bearer.
I wondered as I drove along why Sir John had sent for me. Worse, was he? Dying? And without a friend. Poor old man! He had done pretty well in this world, but I was afraid he would not be up to much once he was out of it; and now it seemed he was going. I felt sorry for him. I felt more sorry when I saw him—when the tall, long-faced A.D.C. took me into his room and left us. Yes, Sir John was certainly going. There was no mistake about it. It was written in every line of his drawn fever-worn face, and in his wide fever-lit eyes, and in the clutch of his long yellow hands upon his tussore silk dressing-gown. He looked a very sick bad old man as he lay there on his low couch, placed so as to court the air from without, cooled by its passage through damped grass screens, and to receive the full strength of the punka, pulled by an invisible hand outside.
"You go to England to-morrow?" he asked, sharply.
It was written even in the change of his voice, which was harsh, as of old, but with all the strength gone out of it.
"By to-morrow's mail," I said. I should have liked to say something more—something sympathetic about his being ill and not likely to get better; but he had always treated me discourteously when he was well, and I could not open out all at once now that he was ill.
"Look here, Middleton," he went on; "I am dying, and I know it. I don't suppose you imagined I had sent for you to bid you a last farewell before departing to my long home. I am not in such a hurry to depart as all that, I can tell you; but there is something I want done—that I want you to do for me. I meant to have done it myself, but I am down now, and I must trust somebody. I know better than to trust a clever man. An honest fool—But I am digressing from the case in point. I have never trusted anybody all my life, so you may feel honored. I have a small parcel which I want you to take to England for me. Here it is."
His long lean hands went searching in his dressing-gown, and presently produced an old brown bag, held together at the neck by a string.
"See here!" he said; and he pushed the glasses and papers aside from the table near him and undid the string. Then he craned forward to look about him, laying a spasmodic clutch on the bag. "I'm watched! I know I'm watched!" he said in a whisper, his pale eyes turning slowly in their sockets. "I shall be killed for them if I keep them much longer, and I won't be hurried into my grave. I'll take my own time."
"There is no one here," I said, "and no one in sight except Cathcart, smoking in the veranda, and I can only see his legs, so he can't see us."
He seemed to recover himself, and laughed. I had never liked his laugh, especially when, as had often happened, it had been directed against myself; but I liked it still less now.
"See here!" he repeated, chuckling; and he turned the bag inside out upon the table.
Such jewels I had never seen. They fell like cut flame upon the marble table—green and red and burning white. A large diamond rolled and fell upon the floor. I picked it up and put it back among the confused blaze of precious stones, too much astonished for a moment to speak.
"Beautiful! aren't they?" the old man chuckled, passing his wasted hands over them. "You won't match that necklace in any jeweller's in England. I tore it off an old she-devil of a Rhanee's neck after the Mutiny, and got a bite in the arm for my trouble. But she'll tell no tales. He! he! he! I don't mind saying now how I got them. I am a humble Christian, now I am so near heaven—eh, Middleton? He! he! You don't like to contradict me. Look at those emeralds. The hasp is broken, but it makes a pretty bracelet. I don't think I'll tell you how the hasp got broken—little accident as the lady who wore it gave it to me. Rather brown, isn't it, on one side? but it will come off. No, you need not be afraid of touching it, it isn't wet. He! he! And this crescent. Look at those diamonds. A duchess would be proud of them. I had them from a private soldier. I gave him two rupees for them. Dear me! how the sight of them brings back old times. But I won't leave them out any longer. We must put them away—put them away." And the glittering mass was gathered up and shovelled back into the old brown bag. He looked into it once with hungry eyes, and then he pulled the string and pushed it over to me. "Take it," he said. "Put it away now. Put it away," he repeated, as I hesitated.
I put the bag into my pocket. He gave a long sigh as he watched it disappear.
"Now what you have got to do with that bag," he said, a moment afterwards, "is to take it to Ralph Danvers, the second son of Sir George Danvers, of Stoke Moreton, in D——shire. Sir George has got two sons. I have never seen him or his sons, but I don't mean the eldest to have them. He is a spendthrift. They are all for Ralph, who is a steady fellow, and going to marry a nice girl—at least, I suppose she is a nice girl. Girls who are going to be married always are nice. Those jewels will sweeten matrimony for Mr. Ralph, and if she is like other women it will need sweetening. There, now you have got them, and that is what you have got to do with them. There is the address written on this card. With my compliments, you perceive. He! he! I don't suppose they will remember who I am."
"Have you no relations?" I asked; for I am always strongly of opinion that property should be bequeathed to relatives, especially near relatives, rather than to entire strangers.
"None," he replied, "not even poor relations. I have no deserving nephew or Scotch cousin. If I had, they would be here at this moment smoothing the pillow of the departing saint, and wondering how much they would get. You may make your mind easy on that score."
"Then who is this Ralph whom you have never seen, and to whom you are leaving so much?" I asked, with my usual desire for information.
He glared at me for a moment, and then he turned his face away.
"D——n it! What does it matter, now I'm dying?" he said. And then he added, hoarsely, "I knew his mother."
I could not speak, but involuntarily I put out my hand and took his leaden one and held it. He scowled at me, and then the words came out, as if in spite of himself—
"She—if she had married me, who knows what might—But she married Danvers. She called her second son Ralph. My first name is Ralph." Then, with a sudden change of tone, pulling away his hand, "There! now you know all about it! Edifying, isn't it? These death-bed scenes always have an element of interest, haven't they? Good-evening"—ringing the bell at his elbow—"I can't say I hope we shall meet again. It would be impolite. No, don't let me keep you. Good-bye again."
"Good-bye, Sir John," I said, taking his impatient hand and shaking it gently; "God bless you."
"Thankee," grinned the old man, with a sardonic chuckle; "if anything could do me good that will, I'm sure. Good-bye."
* * * * *
As I breakfasted next morning, previously to my departure, I could not help reflecting on the different position in which I was now returning to England, as a colonel on long leave, to that in which I had left it many—I do not care to think how many—years ago, the youngest ensign in the regiment.
It was curious to remember that in my youth I had always been considered the fool of the family; most unjustly so considered when I look back at my quick promotion owing to casualties, and at my long and prosperous career in India, which I cannot but regard as the result of high principles and abilities, to say the least of it, of not the meanest order. On the point of returning to England, the trust Sir John had with his usual shrewdness reposed in me was an additional proof, if proof were needed, of the confidence I had inspired in him—a confidence which seemed to have ripened suddenly at the end of his life, after many years of hardly concealed mockery and derision. Just as I was finishing my reflections and my breakfast, Dickson, one of the last joined subalterns, came in.
"This is very awful," he said, so gravely that I turned to look at him.
"What is awful?"
"Don't you know?" he replied. "Haven't you heard about—Sir John—last night?"
"Dead?" I asked.
He nodded; and then he said—
"Murdered in the night! Cathcart heard a noise and went in, and stumbled over him on the floor. As he came in he saw the lamp knocked over, and a figure rush out through the veranda. The moon was bright, and he saw a man run across a clear space in the moonlight—a tall, slightly built man in native dress, but not a native, Cathcart said; that he would take his oath on, by his build. He roused the house, but the man got clean off, of course."
"And Sir John?"
"Sir John was quite dead when Cathcart got back to him. He found him lying on his face. His arms were spread out, and his dressing-gown was torn, as if he had struggled hard. His pockets had been turned inside out, his writing-table drawers forced open, the whole room had been ransacked; yet the old man's gold watch had not been touched, and some money in one of the drawers had not been taken. What on earth is the meaning of it all?" said young Dickson, below his breath. "What was the thief after?"
In a moment the truth flashed across my brain. I put two and two together as quickly as most men, I fancy. The jewels! Some one had got wind of the jewels, which at that moment were reposing on my own person in their old brown bag. Sir John had been only just in time.
"What was he looking for?" continued Dickson, walking up and down. "The old man must have had some paper or other about him that he wanted to get hold of. But what? Cathcart says that nothing whatever has been taken, as far as he can see at present."
I was perfectly silent. It is not every man who would have been so in my place, but I was. I know when to hold my tongue, thank Heaven!
Presently the others came in, all full of the same subject, and then suddenly I remembered that it was getting late; and there was a bustle and a leave-taking, and I had to post off before I could hear more. Not, however, that there was much more to hear, for everything seemed to be in the greatest confusion, and every species of conjecture was afloat as to the real criminal, and the motive for the crime. I had not much time to think of anything during the first day on board; yet, busy as I was in arranging and rearranging my things, poor old Sir John never seemed quite absent from my mind. His image, as I had last seen him, constantly rose before me, and the hoarse whisper was forever sounding in my ears, "I'm watched! I know I'm watched!" I could not get him out of my head. I was unable to sleep the first night I was on board, and, as the long hours wore on, I always seemed to see the pale searching eyes of the dead man; and above the manifold noises of the steamer, and the perpetual lapping of the calm water against my ear, came the whisper, "I'm watched! I know I'm watched!"
I was all right next day. I suppose I had had what women call nerves. I never knew what nerves meant before, because no two women I ever met seemed to have the same kind. If it is slamming a door that upsets one woman's nerves, it may be coming in on tiptoe that will upset another's. You never can tell. But I am sure it was nerves with me that first night; I know I have never felt so queer since. Oh yes I have, though—once. I was forgetting; but I have not come to that yet.
We had a splendid passage home. Most of the passengers were in good spirits at the thought of seeing England again, and even the children were not so troublesome as I have known them. I soon made friends with some of the nicest people, for I generally make friends easily. I do not know how I do it, but I always seem to know what people really are at first sight. I always was rather a judge of character.
There was one man on board whom I took a great fancy to from the first. He was a young American, travelling about, as Americans do, to see the world. I forget where he had come from—though I believe he told me—or why he was going to London; but a nicer young fellow I never met. He was rather simple and unsophisticated, and with less knowledge of the world than any man I ever knew; but he did not mind owning to it, and was as grateful as possible for any little hints which, as an older man who had not gone through life with his eyes shut, I was of course able to give him. He was of a shy disposition I could see, and wanted drawing out; but he soon took to me, and in a surprisingly short time we became friends. He was in the next cabin to mine, and evidently wished so much to have been with me, that I tried to get another man to exchange; but he was grumpy about it, and I had to give it up, much to young Carr's disappointment. Indeed, he was quite silent and morose for a whole day about it, poor fellow. He was a tall handsome young man, slightly built, with the kind of sallow complexion that women admire, and I wondered at his preferring my company to that of the womankind on board, who were certainly very civil to him. One evening when I was rallying him on the subject, as we were leaning over the side (for though it was December it was hot enough in the Red Sea to lounge on deck), he told me that he was engaged to be married to a beautiful young American girl. I forget her name, but I remember he told it me—Dulcima Something—but it is of no consequence. I quite understood then. I always can enter into the feelings of others so entirely. I know when I was engaged myself once, long ago, I did not seem to care to talk to any one but her. She did not feel the same about it, which perhaps accounted for her marrying some one else, which was quite a blow to me at the time. But still I could fully enter into young Carr's feelings, especially when he went on to expatiate on her perfections. Nothing, he averred, was too good for her. At last he dropped his voice, and, after looking about him in the dusk, to make sure he was not overheard, he said:
"I have picked up a few stones for her on my travels; a few sapphires of considerable value. I don't care to have it generally known that I have jewels about me, but I don't mind telling you."
"My dear fellow," I replied, laying my hand on his shoulder, and sinking my voice to a whisper, "not a soul on board this vessel suspects it, but so have I."
It was too dark for me see his face, but I felt that he was much impressed by what I had told him.
"Then you will know where I had better keep mine," he said, a moment later, with his impulsive boyish confidence. "How fortunate I told you about them. Some are of considerable value, and—and I don't know where to put them that they will be absolutely safe. I never carried about jewels with me before, and I am nervous about losing them, you understand." And he nodded significantly at me. "Now where would you advise me to keep them?"
"On you," I said, significantly.
He was simpler than even I could have believed.
"My dear boy," I said, hardly able to refrain from laughing, "do as I do; put them in a bag with a string to it. Put the string round your neck, and wear that bag under your clothes night and day."
"At night as well?" he asked, anxiously.
"Of course. You are just as likely to lose them, as you call it, in the night as in the day."
"I'm very much obliged to you," he replied. "I will take your advice this very night. I say," he added, suddenly, "you would not care to see them, would you? I would not have any one else catch sight of them for a good deal, but I would show you them in a moment. Every one else is on deck just now, if you would like to come down into my cabin."
I hardly know one stone from another, and never could tell a diamond from paste; but he seemed so anxious to show me what he had, that I did not like to refuse.
"By all means," I said. And we went below.
It was very dark in Carr's cabin, and after he had let me in he locked the door carefully before he struck a light. He looked quite pale in the light of the lamp after the red dusk of the warm evening on deck.
"I don't want to have other fellows coming in," he said in a whisper, nodding at the door.
He stood looking at me for a moment as if irresolute, and then he suddenly seemed to arrive at some decision, for he pulled a small parcel out of his pocket and began to open it.
They really were not much to look at, though I would not have told him so for worlds. There were a few sapphires—one of a considerable size, but uncut—and some handsome turquoises, but not of perfect color. He turned them over with evident admiration.
"They will look lovely, set in gold, as a bracelet on her arm," he said, softly. He was very much in love, poor fellow! And then he added, humbly, "But I dare say they are nothing to yours."
I chuckled to myself at the thought of his astonishment when he should actually behold them; but I only said, "Would you like to see them, and judge for yourself?"
"Oh! if it is not giving you too much trouble," he exclaimed, gratefully, with shining eyes. "It's very kind of you. I did not like to ask. Have you got them with you?"
I nodded, and proceeded to unbutton my coat.
At that moment a voice was heard shouting down the companion-ladder: "Carr! I say, Carr, you are wanted!" and in another moment some one was hammering on the door.
Carr sprang to his feet, looking positively savage.
"Carr!" shouted the voice again. "Come out, I say; you are wanted!"
"Button up your coat," he whispered, scowling suddenly; and with an oath he opened the door.
Poor Carr! He was quite put out, I could see, though he recovered himself in a moment, and went off laughing with the man, who had been sent for him to take his part in a rehearsal which had been suddenly resolved on; for theatricals had been brewing for some time, and he had promised to act in them. I had not been asked to join, so I saw no more of him that night. The following morning, as I was taking an early turn on the deck, he joined me, and said, with a smile, as he linked his arm in mine, "I was put out last night, wasn't I?"
"But you got over it in a moment," I replied. "I quite admired you; and, after all, you know—some other time."
"No," he said, smiling still, "not some other time. I don't think I will see them—thanks all the same. They might put me out of conceit with what I have picked up for my little girl, which are the best I can afford."
He seemed to have lost all interest in the subject, for he began to talk of England, and of London, about which he appeared to have that kind of vague half-and-half knowledge which so often proves misleading to young men newly launched into town life. When he found out, as he soon did, that I was, to a certain extent, familiar with the metropolis, he began to question me minutely, and ended by making me promise to dine with him at the Criterion, of which he had actually never heard, and go with him afterwards to the best of the theatres the day after we arrived in London.
He wanted me to go with him the very evening we arrived, but on that point I was firm. My sister Jane, who was living with a hen canary (called Bob, after me, before its sex was known) in a small house in Kensington, would naturally be hurt if I did not spend my first evening in England with her, after an absence of so many years.
Carr was much interested to hear that I had a sister, and asked innumerable questions about her. Was she young and lovely, or was she getting on? Did she live all by herself, and was I going to stay with her for long? Was not Kensington—was that the name of the street?—rather out of the world? etc.
I was pleased with the interest he took in any particulars about myself and my relations. People so seldom care to hear about the concerns of others. Indeed, I have noticed, as I advance in life, such a general want of interest on the part of my acquaintance in the minutiae of my personal affairs that of late I have almost ceased to speak of them at any length. Carr, however, who was of what I should call a truly domestic turn of character, showed such genuine pleasure in hearing about myself and my relations, that I asked him to call in London in order to make Jane's acquaintance, and accordingly gave him her address, which he took down at once in his note-book with evident satisfaction.
Our passage was long, but it proved most uneventful; and except for an occasional dance, and the theatricals before-mentioned, it would have been dull in the extreme. The theatricals certainly were a great success, mainly owing to the splendid acting of young Carr, who became afterwards a more special object of favor even than he was before. It was bitterly cold when we landed early in January at Southampton, and my native land seemed to have retired from view behind a thick veil of fog. We had a wretched journey up to London, packed as tight as sardines in a tin, much to the disgust of Carr, who accompanied me to town, and who, with his usual thoughtfulness, had in vain endeavored to keep the carriage to ourselves, by liberal tips to guards and porters. When we at last arrived in London he insisted on getting me a cab and seeing my luggage onto it, before he looked after his own at all. It was only when I had given the cabman my sister's address that he finally took his leave, and disappeared among the throng of people who were jostling each other near the luggage-vans.
Curiously enough, when I arrived at my destination an odd thing happened. I got out at the green door of 23, Suburban Residences, and when the maid opened it, walked straight past her into the drawing-room.
"Well, Jane!" I cried.
A pale middle-aged woman rose as I came in, and I stood aghast. It was not my sister. It was soon explained. She was a little pettish about it, poor woman! It seemed my sister had quite recently changed her house, and the present occupant had been put to some slight inconvenience before by people calling and leaving parcels after her departure. She gave me Jane's new address, which was only in the next street, and I apologized and made my bow at once. My going to the wrong house was such a slight occurrence that I almost forgot it at the time, until I was reminded of it by a very sad event which happened afterwards.
Jane was delighted to see me. It seemed she had written to inform me of her change of address, but the letter did not reach me before I started for England with the Danvers jewels, about which I have been asked to write this account. Considering this is an account of the jewels, it is wonderful how seldom I have had occasion to mention them so far; but you may rest assured that all this time they were safe in their bag under my waiscoat; and knowing I had them there all right, I did not trouble my head much about them. I never was a person to worry about things.
Still I had no wish to be inconvenienced by a hard packet of little knobs against my chest any longer than was necessary, and I wrote the same evening to Sir George Danvers, stating the bare facts of the case, and asking what steps he or his second son wished me to take to put the legacy in the possession of its owner. I had no notion of trusting a packet of such immense value to the newly organized Parcels Post. With jewels I consider you cannot be too cautious. Indeed, I told Jane so at the time, and she quite agreed with me.
I did not much like the arrangement of Jane's new house when I came to stay in it. The way the two bedrooms, hers and mine, were shut off from the rest of the house by a door, barred and locked at night for fear of burglars, was, I thought, unpleasant, especially as, once in my room for the night, there was no possibility of getting out of it, the key of the door of the passage not being even allowed to remain in the lock, but retiring with Jane, the canary cage, and other valuables, into her own apartment. I remonstrated, but I soon found that Jane had not remained unmarried for nothing. She was decided on the point. The outer door would be locked as usual, and the key would be deposited under the pin-cushion in her room, as usual; and it was so.
The next morning, as Jane and I went out for a stroll before luncheon, we had to pass the house to which I had driven by mistake the day before. To our astonishment, there was a crowd before the door, and a policeman with his back to it was guarding the entrance. The blinds were all drawn down. The image of the pale lonely woman, sitting by her little fire, whom I had disturbed the day before, came suddenly back to me with a strange qualm.
"What is it?" I hurriedly asked a baker's boy, who was standing at an area railing, rubbing his chin against the loaf he was waiting to deliver. The boy grinned.
"It's murder!" he said, with relish. "Burgilars in the night. I've supplied her reg'lar these two months. One quartern best white, one half-quartern brown every morning, French rolls occasional; but it's all up now." And he went off whistling a tune which all bakers' boys whistled about that time, called "My Grandfather's Timepiece," or something similar.
A second policeman came up the street at this moment, and from him I learned all the little there was to know. The poor lady had not been murdered, it seemed, but, being subject to heart complaint, had died in the night of an acute attack, evidently brought on by fright. The maid, the only other person in the house, sleeping as maids-of-all-work only can, had heard nothing, and awoke in the morning to find her mistress dead in her bed, with the window and door open. "Strangely enough," the policeman added, "although nothing in the house had been touched, the lock of an unused bedroom had been forced, and the room evidently searched."
Poor Jane was quite overcome. She seemed convinced that it was only by a special intervention of Providence that she had changed her house, and that her successor had been sacrificed instead of herself.
"It might have been me!" she said over and over again that afternoon.
Wishing to give a turn to her thoughts, I began to talk about Sir John's legacy, in which she had evinced the greatest interest the night before, and, greatly to her delight, showed her the jewels. I had not looked at them since Sir John had given them to me, and I was myself astonished at their magnificence, as I spread them out on the table under the gas-lamp. Jane exhausted herself in admiration; but as I was putting them away again, saying it was time for me to be dressing and going to meet Carr, who was to join me at the Criterion, she begged me on no account to take them with me, affirming that it would be much safer to leave them at home. I was firm, but she was firmer; and in the end I allowed her to lock them up in the tea-caddy, where her small stock of ready money reposed.
I met Carr as we had arranged, and we had a very pleasant evening. Poor Carr, who had seen the papers, had hardly expected that I should turn up, knowing the catastrophe of the previous night had taken place at the house I was going to, and was much relieved to hear that my sister had moved, and had thus been spared all the horror of the event.
The dinner was good, the play better. I should have come home feeling that I had enjoyed myself thoroughly, if it had not been for a little adventure with our cab-driver that very nearly proved serious. We got a hansom directly we came out of the theatre, but instead of taking us to the direction we gave him, after we had driven for some distance I began to make out that the cabman was going wrong, and Carr shouted to him to stop; but thereupon he lashed up his horse, and away we went like the wind, up one street, and down another, till I had lost all idea where we were. Carr, who was young and active, did all he could; but the cabman, who, I am afraid, must have been intoxicated, took not the slightest notice, and continued driving madly, Heaven knows where. At last, after getting into a very dingy neighborhood, we turned up a crooked dark street, unlit by any lamp, a street so narrow that I thought every moment the cab would be overturned. In another moment I saw two men rush out of a door-way. One seized the horse, which was much blown by this time, and brought it violently to a stand-still, while the other flew at the cab, and catching Carr by the collar, proceeded to drag him out by main force. I suppose Carr did his best, but being only an American, he certainly made a very poor fight of it; and while I was laying into the man who had got hold of him, I was suddenly caught by the legs myself from the other side of the cab. I turned on my assailant, saw a heavy stick levelled at me, caught at it, missed it, beheld a series of fireworks, and remembered nothing more.
* * * * *
The first thing I heard on beginning to come to myself was a series of subdued but evidently heart-felt oaths; and I became sensible of an airy feeling, unpleasant in the extreme, proceeding from an open condition of coat and waistcoat quite unsuited to the time of year. A low chorus of muffled whispering was going on round me. As I groaned, involuntarily, it stopped.
"He's coming to!" I heard Carr say. "Go and fetch some brandy." And I felt myself turned right side uppermost, and my hands were rubbed, while Carr, in a voice of the greatest anxiety, asked me how I felt. I was soon able to sit up, and to become aware that I had a splitting headache, and was staring at a tallow-candle stuck in a bottle. Having got so far I got a little farther, and on looking round found myself reclining on a sack in a corner of a disreputable-looking room, dingy with dirt, and faithful to the memory of bad tobacco. Then I suddenly remembered what had occurred. Carr saw that I did so, and instantly poured forth an account of how we had been rescued from a condition of great peril by the man to whom the house we were in belonged, to whom he hardly knew how to express his gratitude, and who was now gone for some brandy for me. He told me a great deal about it, but I was so dizzy that I forgot most of what he said, and it was not until our deliverer returned with the brandy that I became thoroughly aware of what was going forward. I could not help thinking, as I thanked the honest fellow who had come to our assistance, how easily one may be deceived by appearances, for a more forbidding-looking face, under its fur cap, I never saw. That of his son, who presently returned with a four-wheeler which Carr had sent for, was not more prepossessing. In fact, they were two as villanous-looking men as I had ever seen. After recompensing both with all our spare cash, we got ourselves hoisted stiffly into the cab, and Carr good-naturedly insisted on seeing me home, though he owned to feeling, as he put it, "rather knocked up by his knocking down." We were both far too exhausted to speak much, until Carr gave a start and a gasp and said, "By Jove!"
"What?" I inquired.
"They are gone!" he said, tremulously—"my sapphires. They are gone! Stolen! I had them in a bag round my neck, as you told me. They must have been taken from me when I was knocked down. I say," he added, quickly, "how about yours? Have you got them all right?"
Involuntarily I raised my hand to my throat. A horrid qualm passed over me.
"Thank Heaven!" I replied, with a sigh of relief. "They are safe at home with Jane. What a mercy! I might have lost them."
"Might!" said Carr. "You would have lost them to a dead certainty; mine are gone!" And he stamped, and clinched his fists, and looked positively furious.
Poor Carr! I felt for him. He took the loss of his stones so to heart; and I am sure it was only natural. I parted from him at my own door, and was glad on going in to find Jane had stayed up for me. I soon figured in her eyes as the hero of a thrilling adventure, while her clever hands applied sticking-plaster ad libitum. We were both so full of the events of the evening, and the letter which I was to write to the Times about it the next day, that it never entered the heads of either of us, on retiring to bed, to remove Sir John's jewels from the tea-caddy into which they had been temporarily popped in the afternoon.
I really think adventures, like misfortunes, never come single. Would you believe it? Our house was broken into that very night. Nothing serious came of it, wonderful to relate, owing to Jane's extraordinary presence of mind. She had been unable to sleep after my thrilling account of the cab accident, and had consoled herself by reading Baxter's "Saint's Rest" by her night-light, for the canary became restless and liable to sudden bursts of song if a candle were lighted. While so engaged she became aware of a subdued grating sound, which had continued for some time before she began to speculate upon it. While she was speculating it ceased, and after a short interval she distinctly heard a stealthy step upon the stair, and the handle of the passage door before-mentioned was gently, very gently turned.
Jane has some of that quickness of perception which has been of such use to myself through life. In a moment she had grasped the situation. Some one was in the house. In another moment she was hanging out of her bedroom window, springing the policeman's rattle which she had had by her for years with a view to an emergency of this kind, and at the same time—for she was a capable woman—blowing a piercing strain on a cabman's whistle.
To make a long story short, her extraordinary presence of mind was the saving of us. With her own eyes she saw two dark figures fly up our area steps and disappear round the corner, and when a policeman appeared on the scene half an hour later, he confirmed the fact that the house had been broken into, by showing us how an entrance had been effected through the kitchen window.
There was of course no more sleep for us that night, and the remainder of it was passed by Jane in examining the house from top to bottom every half hour or so, owing to a rooted conviction on her part that a burglar might still be lurking on the premises, concealed in the cellaret, or the jam cupboard, or behind the drawing-room curtains.
By that morning's post I heard, as I expected I should do, from Sir George Danvers, but the contents of the letter surprised me. He wrote most cordially, thanking me for my kindness in undertaking such a heavy responsibility (I am sure I never felt it to be so) for an entire stranger, and ended by sending me a pressing invitation to come down to Stoke Moreton that very day, that he and his son, whose future wife was also staying with them, might have the pleasure of making the acquaintance of one to whom they were so much indebted. He added that his eldest son Charles was also going down from London by a certain train that day, and that he had told him to be on the lookout for me at the station in case I was able to come at such short notice. I made up my mind to go, sent Sir George a telegram to that effect, and proceeded to fish up the jewels out of the tea-caddy.
Jane, who had never ceased for one instant to comment on the event of the night, positively shrieked when she saw me shaking the bag free from tea-leaves.
"Good gracious! the burglars," she exclaimed. "Why, they might have taken them if they had only known."
Of course they had not known, as I had been particularly secret about them; but I wished all the same that I had not left them there all night, as Jane would insist, and continue insisting, that they had been exposed to great danger. I argued the matter with her at first; but women, I find, are impervious as a rule to masculine argument, and it is a mistake to reason with them. It is, in fact, putting the sexes for the moment on an equality to which the weaker one is unaccustomed, and consequently unsuited.
A few hours later I was rolling swiftly towards Stoke Moreton in a comfortable smoking carriage, only occupied by myself and Mr. Charles Danvers, a handsome young fellow with a pale face and that peculiar tired manner which (though, as I soon found, natural to him) is so often affected by the young men of the day.
"And so Ralph has come in for a legacy in diamonds," he said, listlessly, when we had exchanged the usual civilities, and had become, to a certain degree, acquainted. "Dear me! how these good steady young men prosper in the world. When last I heard from him he had prevailed upon the one perfect woman in the universe to consent to marry him, and his aunt (by-the-way, you will meet her there, too—Lady Mary Cunningham) had murmured something vague but gratifying about testamentary intentions. A week later Providence fills his brimming cup with a legacy of jewels, estimated at——" Charles opened his light sleepy eyes wide and looked inquiringly at me. "What are they estimated at?" he asked, as I did not answer.
I really had no idea, but I shrugged my shoulders and looked wise.
"Estimated at a fabulous sum," he said, closing his eyes again. "Ah! had they been mine, with what joyful alacrity should I have ascertained their exact money value. And mine they ought to have been, if the sacred law of primogeniture (that special Providence which watches over the interests of eldest sons) had been duly observed. Sir John had not the pleasure of my acquaintance, but I fear he must have heard some reports—no doubt entirely without foundation—respecting my career, which had induced him to pass me over in this manner. What a moral! My father and my aunt Mary are always delicately pointing out the difference between Ralph and myself. I wish I were a good young man, like Ralph. It seems to pay best in the long-run; but I may as well inform you, Colonel Middleton, of the painful fact that I am the black sheep of the family."
"Oh, come, come!" I remarked, uneasily.
"I should not have alluded to the subject if you were not likely to become fully aware of it on your arrival, so I will be beforehand with my relations. I was brought up in the way I should go," he continued, with the utmost unconcern, as if commenting on something that did not affect him in the least; "but I did not walk in it, partly owing to the uncongenial companionship that it involved, especially that of my aunt Mary, who took up so much room herself in the narrow path that she effectually kept me out of it. From my earliest youth, also, I took extreme interest in the parable of the Prodigal, and as soon as it became possible I exemplified it myself. I may even say that I acted the part in a manner that did credit to a beginner; but the wind-up was ruined by the lamentable inability of others, who shall be nameless, to throw themselves into the spirit of the piece. At various intervals," he continued, always as if speaking of some one else, "I have returned home, but I regret to say that on each occasion my reception was not in any way what I could have wished. The flavor of a fatted calf is absolutely unknown to me; and so far from meeting me half-way, I have in extreme cases, when impelled homeward by urgent pecuniary considerations, found myself obliged to walk up from the station."
"Dear me! I hope it is not far," I said.
"A mere matter of three miles or so uphill," he resumed; "nothing to a healthy Christian, though trying to the trembling legs of the ungodly after a long course of husks. There, now I think you are quite au fait as to our family history. I always pity a stranger who comes to a house ignorant of little domestic details of this kind; he is apt to make mistakes." "Oh, pray don't mention it,"—as I murmured some words of thanks—"no trouble, I assure you; trouble is a thing I don't take. By-the-way, are you aware we are going straight into a nest of private theatricals at Stoke Moreton? To-night is the last rehearsal; perhaps I had better look over my part. I took it once years ago, but I don't remember a word of it." And after much rummaging in a magnificent silver-mounted travelling-bag, the Prodigal pulled out a paper book and carelessly turned over the leaves.
I did not interrupt his studies, save by a few passing comments on the weather, the state of the country, and my own health, which, I am sorry to say, is not what it was; but as I only received monosyllabic answers, we had no more conversation worth mentioning till we reached Stoke Moreton.
Stoke Moreton is a fine old Elizabethan house standing on rising ground. As we drove up the straight wide approach between two rows of ancient fantastically clipped hollies, I was impressed by the stately dignity of the place, which was not lessened as we drew up before a great arched door-way, and were ushered into a long hall supported by massive pillars of carved white stone. A roaring log-fire in the immense fireplace threw a ruddy glow over the long array of armor and gleaming weapons which lined the walls, and made the pale winter twilight outside look bleak indeed. Charles, emerging slim and graceful out of an exquisite ulster, sauntered up to the fire, and asked where Sir George Danvers was. As he stood inside the wide fireplace, leaning against one of the pillars which supported the towering white stone chimney-piece, covered with heraldic designs and coats of arms, he looked a worthier representative of an ancient race than I fear he really was.
"So they have put the stage at that end, in front of the pillars," he remarked, nodding at a wooden erection. "Quite right. I could not have placed it better myself. What, Brown? Sir George is in the drawing-room, is he? and tea, as I perceive, is going in at this moment. Come, Colonel Middleton." And we followed the butler to the drawing-room.
I am not a person who easily becomes confused, but I must own I did get confused with the large party into the midst of which we were now ushered. I soon made out Sir George Danvers, a delicate, but irascible-looking old gentleman, who received me with dignified cordiality, but returned Charles's greeting with a certain formality and coldness which I was pained to see, family affection being, in my opinion, the chief blessing of a truly happy home. Charles I already knew, and with the second son, Ralph, a ruddy, smiling young man with any amount of white teeth, I had no difficulty; but after that I became hopelessly involved. I was introduced to an elderly lady whom I addressed for the rest of the evening as Lady Danvers, until Charles casually mentioned that his mother was dead, and that, until the Deceased Wife's Sister Bill was passed, he did not anticipate that his aunt Mary would take upon herself the position of step-mother to her orphaned nephews. The severe elderly lady, then, who beamed so sweetly upon Ralph, and regarded Charles with such manifest coldness, was their aunt Lady Mary Cunningham. She had known Sir John slightly in her youth, she said, as she graciously made room for me on her sofa, and she expressed a very proper degree of regret at his sudden death, considering that he had not been a personal friend in any way.
"We all have our faults, Colonel Middleton," said Lady Mary, with a gentle sigh, which dislodged a little colony of crumbs from the front of her dress. "Sir John, like the rest of us, was not exempt, though I have no doubt the softening influence of age would have done much, since I knew him, to smooth acerbities of character which were unfortunately strongly marked in his early life."
She had evidently not known Sir John in his later years.
As she continued to talk in this strain I endeavored to make out which of the young ladies present was the one to whom Ralph was engaged. I was undecided as to which it was of the two to whom I had already been introduced. Girls always seem to me so very much alike, especially pretty girls; and these were both of them pretty. I do not mean that they resembled each other in the least, for one was dark and one was fair; but which was Miss Aurelia Grant, Ralph's fiancee, and which was Miss Evelyn Derrick, a cousin of the family, I could not make out until later in the evening, when I distinctly saw Ralph kiss the fair one in the picture-gallery, and I instantly came to the conclusion that she was the one to whom he was engaged.
I asked Charles if I were not right, as we stood in front of the hall-fire before the rest of the party had assembled for dinner, and he told me that I had indeed hit the nail on the head in this instance, though for his own part he never laid much stress himself on such an occurrence, having found it prove misleading in the extreme to draw any conclusion from it. He further informed me that Miss Derrick was the young lady with dark hair who had poured out tea, and whom he had favored with some of his conversation afterwards.
I admired Ralph's taste, as did Charles, who had never seen his future sister-in-law before. Aurelia Grant was a charming little creature, with a curly head and a dimple, and a pink-and-white complexion, and a suspicion of an Irish accent when she became excited.
Charles said he admired her complexion most because it was so thoroughly well done, and the coloring was so true to nature.
I did not quite catch his meaning, but it certainly was a beautiful complexion; and then she was so bright and lively, and showed such pretty little teeth when she smiled! She was quite delightful. I did not wonder at Ralph's being so much in love with her, and Charles agreed with me.
"There is nothing like a good complexion," he remarked, gravely. "One may be led away to like a pale girl with a mind for a time, but for permanent domestic happiness give me a good complexion, and—a dimple," he added, as if it were an after-thought. "I feel I could not bestow my best affections on a woman without a dimple. Yes, indeed! Ralph has chosen well."
Now I do not agree with Charles there, as I have always considered that a woman should have a certain amount of mind; just enough, in fact, to enable her to appreciate a superior one. I said as much to Charles; but he only laughed, and said it was a subject on which opinion had always varied.
"How did he meet her?" I inquired.
"On the Rigi, last summer," said Charles. "I am thinking of going there myself next year. Lovely orphan sat by Lady Mary at table d'hote. Read tracts presented by Lady Mary. Made acquaintance. Lovely orphan's travelling companion or governess discovered to be live sister of defunct travelling companion or governess of Lady Mary. Result, warm friendship. Ralph, like a dutiful nephew, appears on the scene. Fortnight of fine weather. Interesting expeditions. Romantic attachment, cemented by diamond and pearl ring from Hunt & Roskell's. There is the whole story for you."
Evelyn Derrick joined us as he finished speaking. She was a tall graceful girl, gentle and dignified in manner, with a pale refined face. She was pretty in a way, but not to compare to Aurelia. Evelyn had an anxious look about her, too. Now I do not approve of a girl looking grave; she ought to be bright and happy, with a smile for every one. It is all very well for us men, who have the work of the world to do, to look grave at times, but with women it is different; and a woman always looks her best when she smiles—at least, I think so.
Then Aurelia came down, perfectly dazzling in white satin; then Sir George, then Ralph, giving an arm to Lady Mary, who suffered from rheumatism in her foot. Then came the gong, and there was a rustle down of more people, young and old, friends of the family who had come to act, or to see their sons and daughters act. As I never could get even their names right, I shall not attempt to give any account of them, especially as they are not of importance in any way.
After dinner, on entering the drawing-room, I found that great excitement prevailed among the ladies respecting Sir John's jewels. About his sad fate and costly legacy they all seemed fully informed. I had myself almost forgotten the reason of my visit in my interest in my new surroundings, not having even as yet given up the jewels to Sir George Danvers or Ralph; but, at the urgent request of all the ladies at once, Ralph begged me to bring them down, to be seen and admired then and there, before the rehearsal began.
"They will all be yours, you know," Ralph said to Aurelia. "You shall wear them on your wedding-day."
"You are always talking about being married," said Aurelia, with a little pout. "I wish you would try and think of something else to say. I was quite looking forward to it myself until I came here, and now I am quite, quite tired of it beforehand."
Ralph laughed delightedly, and Sir George reminding me that every one was dying of anxiety, himself included, I ran up-stairs to take the brown bag from around my neck, and in a few minutes returned with it in my hand. They were all waiting for me, Lady Mary drawn up in an arm-chair beside an ebony table, on which a small space near her had been cleared, Charles alone holding rather aloof, sipping his coffee with his back to the fire.
"Don't jostle," he said, as they all crowded round me. "Evelyn, let me beg of you not to elbow forward in that unbecoming manner. Observe how Aunt Mary restrains herself. Take time, Middleton! your coffee is getting cold. Won't you drink it first?"
As he finished speaking I turned the contents of the bag upon the table. The jewels in the bright lamp-light seemed to blaze and burn into the ebony of the table. There was a general gasp, a silence, and then a chorus of admiration. Charles came up behind me and looked over my shoulder.
"Good gracious!" said Lady Mary, solemnly. "Ralph, you are a rich man. Why, mine are nothing to them!" and she touched a diamond and emerald necklace on her own neck. "I never knew poor Sir John had so much good in him."
"Oh, Ralph, Ralph!" cried Aurelia, clasping her little hands with a deep sigh. "And will they really be my very own?"
Ralph assured her that they would, and that she should act in them the following night if she liked.
I think there was not a woman present who did not envy Aurelia as Ralph took up a flashing diamond crescent and held it against her fair hair. I saw Evelyn turn away and begin to tear up a small piece of paper in her hand. Women are very jealous of each other, especially the nice, by which I mean the pretty, ones. I was sorry to see jealousy so plainly marked in such a charming looking girl as Evelyn; but women are all the same about jewels. Aurelia blushed and sparkled, and pouted when the clasp caught in her hair, and shook her little head impatiently, and was altogether enchanting.
After the first burst of admiration had subsided, General Marston, an old Indian officer, who had been somewhat in the rear, came up, and looked long at the glittering mass upon the table.
"Are you aware," he said at last to Ralph, pointing to the crescent, "that those diamonds are of enormous value? I have not seen such stones in any shop in London. I dare not say what that one crescent alone is worth, or that emerald bracelet. Jewels of such value as this are a grave responsibility." He stood, shaking his head a little and turning the crescent in his hand. "Wonderful!" he said. "Wonderful! Do not tear up that piece of rice-paper, Miss Derrick," he added, taking it from her. "The crescent was wrapped in it, and I will put it round it again. All these stones want polishing, and many of them resetting. They ought not to be tumbled together in this way in a bag, with nothing to prevent them scratching each other. See, Ralph, here is a clasp broken; and here are some loose stones; and this star has no clasp at all. You must take them up to some trustworthy jeweller, and have them thoroughly looked over."
"I suppose the second son was specially mentioned, Middleton?" said Charles, as I drew back to let the rest handle and admire.
"Of course!" said Lady Mary, sharply; "and a very fortunate thing, too."
"Very—for Ralph," he replied. "It is really providential that I am what I am. Why, I might have ruined the dear boy's prospects if I had paid my tailor's bill, and lived in the country among the buttercups and daisies. Ah! my dear aunt, I see you are about to remark how all things here below work together for good!"
"I was not going to remark anything of the kind," retorted Lady Mary, drawing herself up; "but," she added, spitefully, "I do not feel the less rejoiced at Ralph's good fortune and prosperity when I see, as I so often do, the ungodly flourishing like a green bay-tree."
"Of course," said Charles, shaking his head, "if that is your own experience, I bow before it; but for my own part, I must confess I have not found it so. Flourish like a green bay-tree! No, Aunt Mary, it is a fallacy; they don't: I am sure I only wish they did. But I see the rehearsal is beginning. May I give you an arm to the hall?"
The offer was entirely disregarded, and it was with the help of mine that Lady Mary retired from an unequal combat, which she never seemed able to resist provoking anew, and in which she was invariably worsted, causing her, as I could see, to regard Charles with the concentrated bitterness of which a severely good woman alone is capable.
I soon perceived that Charles was on the same amicable terms with his father; that they rarely spoke, and that it was evidently only with a view to keeping up appearances that he was ever invited to the paternal roof at all. Between the brothers, however, in spite of so much to estrange them, a certain kindliness of feeling seemed to exist, which was hardly to have been expected under the circumstances.
The rehearsal now began, and Sir George Danvers, who had remained behind to put by the jewels, and lock them up in his strong-box among his papers, came and sat down by me, again thanking me for taking charge of them, though I assured him it had been very little trouble.
"Not much trouble, perhaps, but a great responsibility," he said, courteously.
"A soldier, Sir George," I replied, with a slight smile, "becomes early inured to the gravest responsibility. It is the air we breathe; it is taken as a matter of course."
He looked keenly at me, and was silent, as if considering something—perhaps what I had said.
I was delighted to find the play was one of those which I had seen acted during our passage home. There is nothing I like so much as knowing a play beforehand, because then one can always whisper to one's companion what is coming next. The stage, with all its adjustments, had been carefully arranged, the foot-lights were lighted, the piece began. All went well till nearly the end of the first act, when there was a cry behind the scenes of "Mr. Denis!" Mr. Denis should have rushed on, but Mr. Denis did not rush on. The play stopped. Mr. Denis was not in the library, the improvised greenroom; Mr. Denis did not appear when his name was called in stentorian tones by Ralph, or in pathetic falsetto by Charles. In short, Mr. Denis was not forthcoming. A rush up-stairs on the part of most of the young men brought to light the awful fact that Mr. Denis had retired to his chamber, a prey to sudden and acute indisposition.
"Dear me!" said Charles to Lady Mary, with a dismal shake of his head, "how precarious is life! Here to-day, and in bed to-morrow. Support your aunt Mary, my dear Evelyn; she wishes to retire to rest. Indeed, we may as well all go to bed, for there will be no more acting to-night without poor Denis. I only trust he may be spared to us till to-morrow, and that he may be well enough to die by my hand to-morrow evening."
We all dispersed for the night in some anxiety. The play could not proceed without Mr. Denis, who took an important part; and Sir George ruefully informed me that all the neighboring houses had been filled for these theatricals, and that great numbers of people were expected. There was to be dancing afterwards, but the principal feature of the entertainment was the play. We all retired to rest, fervently hoping that the health of Mr. Denis might be restored by the following morning.
But far from being better the following morning, Denis was much worse. Charles, who had sat up most of the night with him, and who came down to breakfast more cool and indifferent than ever, at once extinguished any hope that still remained that he would be able to take his part that night.
Great was the consternation of the whole party. A vague feeling of resentment against Denis prevailed among the womankind, who, having all preserved their own healths intact for the occasion (and each by her own account was a chronic invalid), felt it was extremely inconsiderate, not to say indelicate, of "a great man like him" to spoil everything by being laid up at the wrong moment.
But what was to be done? Denis was ill, and without Denis the play could not proceed. Must the whole thing be given up? There was a general chorus of lamentation.
"I see no alternative," said Charles, "unless some Curtius will leap into the gulf, and go through the piece reading the part, and that is always a failure at the best of times."
At that moment I had an idea; it broke upon me like a flash of lightning: Valentine Carr! I had seen him act the very part Denis was to have taken, in the theatricals on the steamer. How wonderfully fortunate that it should have occurred to me!
I told Charles that I had a friend who had acted that part only the week before.
"You!" cried Charles, losing all his customary apathy—"you don't say so! Great heavens, where is he? Out with him! Where is he at this moment? England, Ireland, Scotland, or Wales? Where is this treasure concealed?"
"Oh, Colonel Middleton! Oh, how delightful!" cried a number of gentle voices; and I was instantly surrounded, and all manner of questions put to me. Would he come? Was he tall? And oh! had he a beard? He had not a beard, had he? because it would not do for the part. Did he act well? When had he acted? Where had he acted?
Sir George interrupted the torrent of interrogation.
"Do you think he would come?" he asked.
"I am almost sure he would," I said; "he is a great friend of mine."
"It would be an exceedingly good-natured and friendly act," said Sir George. "Charles—no, I mean Ralph—bring a telegraph form, and if you will write a telegram at once, Middleton, I will send it to the station directly. We shall have an answer by twelve o'clock, and until then we will not give up all hope, though of course we must not count on your friend being able to come at such short notice."
The telegram was written and despatched, Carr having given me an address where letters would find him, though he said he did not put up there. I sincerely hoped he would not be out of the way on this occasion, and I was not a little pleased when, a few hours later, I received a telegram in reply saying that he could come, and should arrive by the afternoon train which had brought me the day before.
The spirits of the whole party revived. I (as is often the case) was in high favor with all. Even poor Denis, who had been very much depressed, was sufficiently relieved by the news—so Charles said—to smile over his beef-tea. Lady Mary, who appeared at luncheon-time, treated me with marked consideration. I had already laid them under an obligation, she said, graciously, by undertaking the care of the jewels, and now they were indebted to me a second time. Was Mr. Carr one of Lord Barrantyne's sons, or was he one of the Crampshire Carrs? She had known Lady Caroline Carr in her youth, but had not met her of late years. She seemed surprised when I told her that Carr was an American, and he sank, I could see, at once in her estimation; but she was kind enough to say that she was not a person who was prejudiced in any way by a man's nationality, and that she believed that very respectable people might be found among the Americans.
The day passed in the usual preparations for an entertainment. If I went into the hall I was sure to run against gardeners carrying in quantities of hot-house plants, with which the front of the stage was being hidden from the foot-lights to the floor; if I wandered into the library I interrupted Aurelia and Ralph rehearsing their parts alone, with their heads very close together; if I hastily withdrew into the morning-room, it was only to find Charles upon his knees luring Evelyn to immediate flight, in soul-stirring accents, before an admiring audience of not unenvious young ladyhood.
"Now, Evelyn, I ask you as a favor," said Charles, as I came in, moving towards her on his knees, "will you come a little closer when I am down? I don't mind wearing out my knees the least in a good cause; but I owe it to myself, as a wicked baron in hired tights, not to cross the stage in that position. Any impression I make will be quite lost if I do; and unless you keep closer, I shall never be able to reach your hand and clasp it to a heart at least two yards away. Now,"—rising, and crossing over to the other side—"I shall begin again. 'Ah! but my soul's adored—'"
"Is Middleton here?" asked a voice in the door-way. It was Sir George Danvers who had put his head into the room, and I went to him.
"I say, Middleton," he began, twirling his stick, and looking rather annoyed, "it is excessively provoking. I never thought of it before, but I find there is not a bed in the house. Every cranny has been filled. It never occurred to me that we had not a room for your friend, now that he is kind enough to come. And it looks so rude, when it is so exceedingly good-natured of him to come at all."
"Oh, dear! anywhere will do," I said.
"There is not even room for Ralph in the house," continued Sir George. "I have put him up at the lodge," pointing to a small house at the end of the drive, near the great entrance gates. "There is another nice little room leading out of his," he added, hesitating—"but really I don't like to suggest—"
"Oh, that will do perfectly!" I broke in. "Carr is not the sort of fellow to care a straw how he is put up. He will be quite content anywhere."
"Come and see it," he said, leading the way out-of-doors. "I would have turned out Charles in a moment, and given Carr his room; but Denis is really rather ill, and Charles sees to him, as he is next door."
I could not help saying how much I liked Charles.
"Strangers always do," he replied, coldly, as we walked towards the lodge. "I constantly hear him spoken of as a most agreeable young man."
"And he is so handsome."
"Yes," replied Sir George, in the same hard tone, "handsome and agreeable. I have no doubt he appears so to others; but I, who have had to pay the debts and hush up the scandals of my handsome and agreeable son, find Ralph, who has not a feature in his face, the better-looking of the two. I know Charles is head over ears in debt at this moment, but,"—with sudden acrimony—"he will not get another farthing from me. It is pouring water into a sieve."
"Ralph is marrying a sweetly pretty creature," I said, with warmth, desirous of changing the subject.
"Yes, she is very pretty," said Sir George, without enthusiasm; "but I wish she had belonged to one of our county families. It is nothing in the way of connection. She has no relations to speak of—one uncle living in Australia, and another, whom she goes to on Saturday, in Ireland. There seems to be no money either. It is Lady Mary's doing. She took a fancy to her abroad; and to say the truth, I did not wish to object, for at one time there seemed to be an attraction between Ralph and his cousin Evelyn Derrick, which his aunt and I were both glad to think had passed over. I do not approve of marriages between cousins."
We had reached the lodge by this time, and I was shown a tidy little room leading out of the one Ralph was occupying, in which I assured Sir George that Carr would be perfectly comfortable, much to the courteous old gentleman's relief, though I could see that he was evidently annoyed at not being able to put him up in the house.
In the afternoon, towards five o'clock, Carr arrived. I went into the hall to meet him, and to bring him into the drawing-room myself. Just as we came in, and while I was introducing him to Sir George, Ralph and Aurelia, who were sitting together as usual, started a lovers' squabble.
"Oh my!" said Ralph, suddenly.
"It is all your fault. You jogged my elbow," came Aurelia's quick rejoinder.
"My dearest love, I did not," returned Ralph, on his knees, pocket-handkerchief in hand.
It appeared that between them they had managed to transfer Amelia's tea from her cup to the front of her dress.
"You did; you know you did," she said, evidently ready to cry with vexation. "I was just going to drink, and you had your arm round the back of my—"
"Hush, Aurelia, I beg," expostulated Charles. "Aunt Mary and I are becoming embarrassed. It is not necessary to enter into particulars as to the exact locality of Ralph's arm."
"Round the back of my chair," pouted Aurelia.
"It is all right, Aunt Mary," called Charles, cheerfully, to that lady. "Only the back of her chair. We took alarm unnecessarily. Just as it should be. I have done the same myself with—a different chair."
"He is always doing it," continued Aurelia, unmollified. "I have told him about it before. He made me drop a piece of bread and butter on the carpet only yesterday."
"I ate it afterwards," humbly suggested Ralph, still on his knees, "and there were hairs in it. There were, indeed, Aurelia."
"And now it is my tea-gown," continued Aurelia, giving way to the prettiest little outburst of temper imaginable. "I wish you would get up and go away, Ralph, and not come back. You are only making it worse by rubbing it in that silly way with your wet handkerchief."
"Here is another," said Charles, snatching up Lady Mary's delicate cambric one, which was lying on her work-table, while I was in the act of introducing Carr to her; and before that lady's politeness to Carr would allow her to turn from him to expostulate, Charles was on his knees beside Ralph, wiping the offending stain.
"'Out, d——d spot!' or rather series of spots. What, Aurelia! you don't wish it rubbed any more? Good! I will turn my attention to the Aubusson carpet. Ha! triumph! Here at least I am successful. Aunt Mary, you have no conception how useful your handkerchief is. The amount of tea or dirt, or both, which is leaving the carpet and taking refuge in your little square of cambric will surprise you when you see it. Ah!" rising from his knees as I brought up Carr, having by this time presented him to Sir George. "Very happy to see you, Mr. Carr. Most kind of you to come. Evelyn, are you pouring out some tea for Mr. Carr? Nature requires support before a last rehearsal. May I introduce you to my cousin Miss Derrick?"
After Carr had also been introduced to Aurelia, who, however, was still too much absorbed in her tea-gown to take much notice of him, he seemed glad to retreat to a chair by Evelyn, who gave him his tea, and talked pleasantly to him. He was very shy at first, but he soon got used to us, and many were the curious glances shot at him by the rest of the party as tea went on. There was to be a last rehearsal immediately afterwards, so that he might take part in it; and there was a general unacknowledged anxiety on the part of all the actors as to how he would bear that crucial test on which so much depended. I was becoming anxious myself, being in a manner responsible for him.
"You're not nervous, are you?" I said, taking him aside when tea was over. "Only act half as well as you did on the steamer and you will do capitally."
"Yes, I am nervous," he replied, with a short uneasy laugh. "It is enough to make a fellow nervous to be set down among a lot of people whom he has never seen before—to act a principal part, too. I had no idea it was going to be such a grand affair or I would not have come. I only did it to please you."
Of course I knew that, and I tried to reassure him, reminding him that the audience would not be critical, and how grateful every one was to him for coming.
"Tell me who some of the people are, will you?" he went on. "Who is that tall man with the fair mustache? He is looking at us now."
"That is Charles, the eldest son," I replied; "and the shorter one, with the pleasant face, near the window, is Ralph, his younger brother."
"That is a very good-looking girl he is talking to," he remarked. "I did not catch her name."
"Hush!" I said. "That is Miss Grant, whom he is engaged to. They have just had a little tiff, and are making it up. He does talk to her a good deal. I have noticed it myself. Such a sweet creature!"
"Is she going to act?"
"Yes," I replied. "They are going to begin at once. You need not dress. It is not a dress rehearsal."
"I think I will go and get my boots off, though," said Carr. "Can you show me where I am?"
"I am afraid you are not in the house at all," I said. "The fact is—did not Sir George tell you?" And then I explained.
For a moment his face fell, but it cleared instantly, though not before I had noticed it.
"You don't mind?" I said, astonished. "You quite understand—"
"Of course, of course!" he interrupted. "It is all right, I have a cold, that is all; and I have to sing next week. I shall do very well. Pray don't tell your friends I have a cold. I am sure Sir George is kindness itself, and it might make him uneasy to think I was not in his house."
The rehearsal now began, and in much trepidation I waited to see Carr come on. The moment he appeared all anxiety vanished; the other actors were reassured, and acted their best. A few passages had to be repeated, a few positions altered, but it was obvious that Carr could act, and act well; though, curiously enough, he looked less gentlemanlike and well-bred when acting with Charles than he had done when he was the best among a very mixed set on the steamer.
"You act beautifully, Mr. Carr!" said Aurelia, when it was over. "Doesn't he, Ralph?"
"Doesn't he?" replied Ralph, hot but good-humored. "I am sure, Carr, we are most grateful to you."
"So am I," said Charles. "Your death agonies, Carr, are a credit to human nature. No great vulgar writhings with legs all over the stage, like Denis; but a chaste, refined wriggle, and all was over. It is a pleasure to kill a man who dies in such a gentlemanlike manner. If only Evelyn will keep a little closer to me when I am on my wicked baronial knees, I shall be quite happy. You hear, Evelyn?"
"How you can joke at this moment," said Evelyn, who looked pale and nervous, "I cannot think. I don't believe I shall be able to remember a word when it comes to the point."
"Stage-fever coming on already," said Charles, in a different tone. "Ah! it is your first appearance, is it not? Go and rest now, and you will be all right when the time comes. I have a vision of a great success, and a call before the curtain, and bouquets, and other delights. Only go and rest now." And he went to light a candle for her. He seemed very thoughtful for Evelyn.
It was the signal for all of us to disperse, the ladies to their rooms, the men to the only retreat left to them, the smoking-room. As Aurelia went up-stairs I saw her beckon Ralph and whisper to him:
"Am I really to wear them?"
"Wear what, my angel? The jewels! Why, good gracious, I had quite forgotten them. Of course I want you to wear them."
"So do I, dreadfully," she replied, with a killing glance over the balusters. "Only if I am, you must bring them down in good time, and put them on in the greenroom. I hope you have got them somewhere safe."
"Safe as a church," replied Ralph, forgetting that in these days the simile was not a good one. "Father has them in his strong-box. I will ask him to get them out—at least all that could be worn—and I will give them a rub up before you wear them."
"Ah!" said Charles, sadly, as we walked up-stairs, "if only I had known Sir John!"
It was nearly eight o'clock when I came down. The play was to begin at eight. The hall, which was brilliantly lighted, was one moving mass of black coats, with here and there a red one, and evening-dresses many colored—the people in them, chatting, bowing, laughing, being ushered to their places. Lady Mary and Sir George Danvers side by side received their guests at the foot of the grand staircase, Lady Mary, resplendent in diamond tiara and riviere, smiling as if she could never frown; Sir George upright, courteous, a trifle stiff, as most English country gentlemen feel it incumbent on themselves to be on such occasions.
Presently the continual roll of the carriages outside ceased, the lamps were toned down, the orchestra struck up, and Sir George and Lady Mary took their seats, looking round with anxious satisfaction at the hall crowded with people. People lined the walls; chairs were being lifted over the heads of the sitting for some who were still standing; cushions were being arranged on the billiard-table at the back for a covey of white waistcoats who arrived late; the staircase was already crowded with servants; the whole place was crammed.
I wondered how they were getting on behind the scenes, and slipping out of the hall, I traversed the great gold and white drawing-room, prepared for dancing, and peeped into the morning-room, which, with the adjoining library, had been given up to the actors. They were all assembled in the morning-room, however, waiting for one of the elder ladies who had not come down. The prompter was getting fidgety, and walking about. The two scene-shifters, pale, weary-looking men, who had come down with the scenery, were sitting in the wings, perfectly apathetic amid the general excitement. Charles and several other actors were standing round a footman who was opening champagne bottles at a surprising rate. I saw Charles take a glass to Evelyn, who was shivering with a sharp attack of stage-fever in an arm-chair, looking over her part. She smiled gratefully, but as she did so her eyes wandered to the other side of the room, where Ralph, on his knees before Aurelia, was fastening a diamond star in her dress. Diamonds, rubies, and emeralds flashed in her hair, and on her white neck and arms. Ralph was fixing the last ornament onto her shoulder with wire off a champagne bottle, there being no clasp to hold it in its place. I saw Evelyn turn away again, and Charles, who was watching her, suddenly went off to the fire, and began to complain of the cold, and of the thinness of his silk stockings.
The elder lady—"the heavy mother," as Charles irreverently called her—now arrived; the orchestra, which was giving a final flourish, was begged in a hoarse whisper to keep going a few minutes longer; eyes were applied to the hole in the curtain, and then, every one being assembled, it was felt by all that the awful moment had come at last. A more miserable-looking set of people I never saw. I always imagined that the actors behind the scenes were as gay off the stage as on it; but I found to my astonishment that they were all suffering more or less from severe mental depression. Ralph and Aurelia were now sitting ruefully together on an ottoman beside the painting table, littered with its various rouges and creams and stage appliances. Even Charles, who had established Evelyn on a chair in the wings at the side she had to come on from, and was now drinking champagne with due regard to his paint—even Charles owned to being nervous.
"I wish to goodness Mrs. Wright would begin!" he said. "Ah, there she goes!"—as she ascended the stage steps. "There goes the bell. We are in for it now. She starts, and I come on next. Up goes the curtain. Where the devil has my book got to?"
In another moment he was in the wings, intent on his part; then I saw him throw down his book and go jauntily forward. A moment more, and there was a thunder of applause. All the actors looked at each other, and smiled a feeble smile.
"He will do," said General Marston, the Indian officer, who, now in the dress of an old-fashioned livery servant, proceeded to mount the steps. It dawned upon me that I was missing the play, and I hurried back to find Charles convulsing the audience with the utmost coolness, and evidently enjoying himself exceedingly. Then Evelyn came on—But who cares to read a description of a play? It is sufficient to say that Aurelia looked charming, and many were the whispered comments on her magnificent jewels; but on the stage Evelyn surpassed her, as much as Aurelia surpassed Evelyn off it.
Ralph and Carr did well, but Charles was the favorite with every one, from the Duchess of Crushington in the front seat to the scullery-maid on the staircase. He was so bold, so wicked, so insinuating, in his plumed cap and short cloak, so elegantly refined when he wiped his sword upon his second's handkerchief. He took every one's heart by storm. Ralph, who represented all the virtues, with rather thick ankles and a false mustache, was nowhere. When the curtain fell for the last time, amid great and continued applause, the "heavy mother," Ralph, Aurelia, all were well received as they passed before it; but Charles, who appeared last, was the hero of the evening.
"He is engaged to his cousin, Miss Derrick, isn't he?" said a lady near me, in a loud whisper to a friend.
"Hush! no. Charles can't marry. Head over ears in debt. They say she is attached to one of her cousins, but I forget which. I am not sure it was not the other one."
"Then it is the second son who is going to be married, is it? I know I heard something about one of them being engaged."
"Yes, the second son is engaged to that good-looking girl in diamonds, who acted Florence Mordaunt. A lot of money, I believe, but not much in the way of family. Grandfather sold mouse-traps in Birmingham, so people say."
"She looks like it!" replied the other, who had daughters out, and could not afford to let any praise of other girls pass. "No breeding or refinement; and she will be stout later, you will see."
The play being over, a general movement now set in towards the drawing-room, where the band was already installed, and making its presence known by an inspiriting valse tune. In a few moments twenty, thirty, forty couples were swaying to the music; Aurelia in her acting costume was dancing away with Ralph in his red stockings; Carr with the "heavy mother," and Charles in prosaic evening-dress was flying past with Evelyn, who, now that she had effaced her beautiful stage complexion, looked pale and grave as ever.
I suppose it was a capital ball. Every one seemed to enjoy it. I did not dance myself, but I liked watching the others; and after a time Charles, who had been dancing indefatigably with two school-room girls with pigtails, came and flung himself down on the other half of the ottoman on which I was sitting.
"Three times with each!" he said, in a voice of extreme exhaustion. "No favoritism. I have done for to-night now."
"What! Are you not going to dance any more?"
"No, not unless Evelyn will give me another turn later, which she probably won't. There she goes with Lord Breakwater again. How I do dislike that young man! And look at Carr—valsing with Aurelia! He seems to be leaping on her feet a good deal, and she looks as if she were telling him so, does not she? There! they have subsided into the bay-window. I thought she would not stand it long. He does not dance as well as he acts. Heigh-ho! Come in to supper with me, Middleton. The supper-room will be emptier now, and I am dying of hunger. You must be the same, for you had no regular dinner any more than we had. Come along. We will get a certain little table for two that I know of, in the bay-window where I took the fair pigtail just now, to the evident anxiety of the parental chignon who was at the large table. We will have a good feed in peace and quietness."
In a few minutes we were established in a quiet nook in the supper-room, which was now half empty, and were making short work of everything before us.
"How well Carr acted!" said Charles at last, leaning back, and leisurely sipping his champagne. "I can think of something besides food now. Did not you think he acted well?"
"Yes," I said, "but you cut him out."
"Did I!" said Charles, absently, beckoning to some lobster salad which was passing. "Have some? Do, Middleton. We can but die once. You won't? Well I will. Have you often seen Carr act before?"
"Never," I said. "I never met him till I came on board the Bosphorus at——"
"Indeed! Oh! I fancied you were quite old friends."
"We made great friends on the steamer."
"Did you see much of him in London?" he asked, filling up his glass and mine.
"Not much, naturally," I said, laughing. "I was in London only two nights."
"Ah! I forgot. Very good of you, I am sure, to come down here so soon after your arrival. You would hardly have seen him at all since you landed, then?"
"Carr? Yes," I replied, thinking Charles's talk was becoming very vague; though when I rallied him about it next day he assured me it had been very much to the point indeed. "We dined and went to the play together, and had rather a nasty accident into the bargain on our way home."
"What kind of accident?"
I told him the particulars, which seemed to interest him very much.
"And you had all those jewels of poor Sir John's with you, no doubt," continued Charles. "You said you had them on you day and night. I wonder you were not relieved of them."
"That is just what Carr said," I went on; "for he lost something of his, poor fellow. However, I had left them with Jane in a—in a safe place."
I did not think it necessary to mention the tea-caddy.
"Oh! so Carr knew you had charge of them, did he?" said Charles. "Have some of these grapes, Middleton; the white ones are the best."
"Yes," I said, "he was the only person who had any idea of such a thing. I am very careful, I can tell you; and I did not mean to have half the ship's company know that I had valuables to such an amount upon me. When I told Jane about them—"
"Oh, then, Jane—I beg her pardon, Miss Middleton—was aware you had them with you?"
"Of course," I replied; "and she was quite astonished at them when I showed them to her."
"I hope," continued Charles, with his charming smile—all the more charming because it was so rare—"that Miss Middleton will add me to the number of her friends some day. I live in London, you know; but I wonder at ladies caring to live there. No poultry or garden, to which the feminine mind usually clings."
"Jane seems to like it," I said.
"Yes," replied Charles, meditatively. "I dare say she is very wise. A woman who lives alone is much safer in town than in an isolated house in the country, in case of fire, or thieves, or——"
"Well, I don't know that," I said. "I don't see that they are so very safe. Why, only the night before I came down here——" I stopped. I had looked up to catch a sudden glimpse of Carr's face, pale and uneasy, watching us in a mirror opposite. In a moment I saw his face turn smiling to another—Evelyn's, I think—and both were gone.
Charles's light steel eyes were fixed full upon me.
"'Only the night before you came down here,' you were saying," he remarked, leaning back and half shutting them as usual.
"Yes, only the night before I came down here our house was broken into;" and I gave him a short account of what had happened. "And only the night before that," I added, "a poor woman was murdered in Jane's old house. I remember it especially, because I went to the house by mistake, not knowing Jane had moved, and I saw her, poor thing, sitting by the fire. I don't see that living in town is so much safer for life and property, after all."
"Dear me! no. You are right, perfectly right," said Charles, dreamily. "Your sister's experience proves it. And that other poor creature—only the night before—and in Miss Middleton's former house, too. Well, Middleton," with a start, "I suppose we ought to be going back now. I have got all I want, if you have. I wonder what time it is? I'm dog tired."
We re-entered the ball-room to find the last valse being played, and a crowd of people taking leave of Lady Mary.
"Where's father?" asked Charles, as Ralph came up. "He ought to be here to say good-night."
"He's gone to bed," said Ralph. "Aunt Mary sent him. He was quite done up. He has been on his legs all day. I expect he will be laid up to-morrow."
In a quarter of an hour the ball-room was empty, and Lady Mary, who was dragging herself wearily towards the hall as the last carriage rolled away, felt that she might safely restore the balance of her mind by a sudden lapse from the gracious and benevolent to the acid and severe.
"To bed! to bed!" she kept repeating. "Where is Evelyn? I want her arm. General Marston, Colonel Middleton, will you have the goodness to go and glean up these young people? Mrs. Marston and Lady Delmour, you must both be tired to death. Let us go on, and they can follow."
General Marston and I found a whole flock of the said young people in the library, candle in hand, laughing and talking, thinking they were going that moment, but not doing it, and all, in fact, listening to Charles, who was expounding a theory of his own respecting ball dresses, which seemed to meet with the greatest feminine derision.
"First take your silk slip," he was saying as we came in. "There is nothing indiscreet in mentioning a slip; is there, Evelyn? I trust not; for I heard Lady Delmour telling Mrs. Wright that all well-brought-up young ladies had silk slips. Then—"
"He exposes his ignorance more entirely every moment," said Evelyn. "Let us all go to bed, and leave him to hold forth to men who know as little as himself."
"Oh, Ralph!" said Aurelia, pointing to the jewels on her neck and arms; "before we go I want you to take back these. I don't like keeping them myself; I am afraid of them." And she began to take them off and lay them on the table.
"Nonsense, my pet; keep them yourself, and lock them up in your dressing-case." And Ralph held them towards her.
"I haven't got a dressing-case," said Aurelia, pouting; "and my hat-box won't lock. I don't like having them. I wish you would keep them yourself."
"Bother!" said Ralph; "and father has gone to bed. He can't put them back into his safe, and he keeps the key himself. Where is the bag they go in?"
Aurelia said that she had seen him put it behind a certain jar on the chimney-piece in the morning-room, and Carr went for it, she following him with a candle, as all the lamps had been put out. They presently returned with it, and Ralph, who had been collecting all the jewels spread over the table, shovelled them in with little ceremony.
"Bother!" he said again, looking round and swinging the bag; "what on earth am I to do with them? Ah, well, here goes!" and he opened a side drawer in a massive writing-table and shoved the bag in.
"There!" he said, locking it, and putting the key in his pocket; "they will do very well there till to-morrow. Are you content now, Aurelia?"
"Oh yes," she said, "I am, if you are." And she bade us good-night and followed in the wake of the others, who were really under way at last.
As we all tramped wearily up-stairs to the smoking-room I saw Charles draw Ralph aside and whisper something to him.
"Nonsense!" I heard Ralph say. "Safe enough. Besides, who would suspect their being there? Just as safe as in the strong-box. Brahma lock. Won't be bothered any more about them."
Charles shrugged his shoulders and marched off to bed. Ralph and Carr likewise went off shortly afterwards to their rooms in the lodge. Carr looked tired to death. I went down with them, at Ralph's request, to lock the door behind them, as all the servants had gone to bed.
It was a fine night, still and cold, with a bright moon. It had evidently been snowing afresh, for there was not a trace of wheels upon the ground; but it had ceased now.
"Good-night!" called Ralph and Carr, as they went down the steps together. I watched the two figures for a moment in the moonlight, their footsteps making a double track in the untrodden snow. The cold was intense. I drew back shivering, and locked and bolted the door.
It is very seldom I cannot sleep, but I could not that night. There was something in the intense quiet and repose of the great house, after all the excitement of the last few hours, that oppressed me. Everything seemed, as I lay awake, so unnaturally silent. There was not a sound in the wide grate, where the last ashes of the fire were silently giving up the ghost, not a rumble of wind in the old chimney which had had so much to say the night before. I tossed and turned, and vainly sought for sleep, now on this side, now on that. At last I gave up trying, half in the hope that it might steal upon me unawares. I thought of the play and the ball, of poor Charles and his debts—of anything and everything—but it was no good. In the midst of a jumble of disconnected ideas I suddenly found myself listening again to the silence—listening as if it had been broken by a sound which I had not heard. My watch ticked loud and louder on the dressing-table, and presently I gave quite a start as the distant stable clock tolled out the hour: One, two, three, four. I had gone to bed before three. Had I been awake only an hour? It seemed incredible. Getting up on tiptoe, vaguely afraid myself of breaking the silence, I noiselessly pushed aside the heavy curtains and looked out.
The moon had set, but by the frosty starlight the outline of the great snow-laden trees and the wide sweep of white drive were still dimly visible. All was silent without as within. Not a branch moved or let fall its freight of snow. There was not a breath of wind stirring. I was on the point of getting back into bed, when I thought in the distance I heard a sound. I listened intently. No! I must have been mistaken. Ah! again, and nearer! I held my breath. I could distinctly hear a stealthy step coming up the stairs. My room was the nearest to the staircase end of the corridor, and any one coming up the stairs must pass my door. With a presence of mind which, I am glad to say, rarely deserts me, I blew out my candle, slipped to the door, and noiselessly opened it a chink.
Some one was coming down the corridor with the lightness of a cat, candle in hand, as a faint light showed me. Another moment, and I saw Charles, pale and haggard, still in evening-dress, coming towards me. He was without his shoes. He passed my door and went noiselessly into his own room, a little farther down the passage. There was the faintest suspicion of a sound, as of a key being gently turned in the lock, and then all was still again, stiller than ever.
What could Charles have been after? I wondered. He could not have been returning from seeing Denis, who was not only much better, but was in the room beyond his own. And why had he still got on his evening clothes at four o'clock in the morning? I determined to ask him about it next day, as I got back into bed again, and then, while wondering about it and trying to get warm, I fell fast asleep. I was only roused, after being twice called, to find that it was broad daylight, and to hear being carried down the boxes of many of the guests who were leaving by an early train.