THE GUILTY RIVER
Chapter I On the Way to the River Chapter II The River Introduces Us Chapter III He Shows Himself Chapter IV He Explains Himself Chapter V He Betrays Himself Chapter VI The Return of the Portfolio Chapter VII The Best Society Chapter VIII The Deaf Lodger Chapter IX Mrs. Roylake's Game: First Move Chapter X Warned! Chapter XI Warned Again! Chapter XII Warned for the Last Time! Chapter XIII The Claret Jug Chapter XIV Gloody Settles the Account Chapter XV The Miller's Hospitality Chapter XVI Bribery and Corruption Chapter XVII Utter Failure Chapter XVIII The Mistress of Trimley Deen
ON THE WAY TO THE RIVER
FOR reasons of my own, I excused myself from accompanying my stepmother to a dinner-party given in our neighborhood. In my present humor, I preferred being alone—and, as a means of getting through my idle time, I was quite content to be occupied in catching insects.
Provided with a brush and a mixture of rum and treacle, I went into Fordwitch Wood to set the snare, familiar to hunters of moths, which we call sugaring the trees.
The summer evening was hot and still; the time was between dusk and dark. After ten years of absence in foreign parts, I perceived changes in the outskirts of the wood, which warned me not to enter it too confidently when I might find a difficulty in seeing my way. Remaining among the outermost trees, I painted the trunks with my treacherous mixture—which allured the insects of the night, and stupefied them when they settled on its rank surface. The snare being set, I waited to see the intoxication of the moths.
A time passed, dull and dreary. The mysterious assemblage of trees was blacker than the blackening sky. Of millions of leaves over my head, none pleased my ear, in the airless calm, with their rustling summer song.
The first flying creatures, dimly visible by moments under the gloomy sky, were enemies whom I well knew by experience. Many a fine insect specimen have I lost, when the bats were near me in search of their evening meal.
What had happened before, in other woods, happened now. The first moth that I had snared was a large one, and a specimen well worth securing. As I stretched out my hand to take it, the apparition of a flying shadow passed, swift and noiseless, between me and the tree. In less than an instant the insect was snatched away, when my fingers were within an inch of it. The bat had begun his supper, and the man and the mixture had provided it for him.
Out of five moths caught, I became the victim of clever theft in the case of three. The other two, of no great value as specimens, I was just quick enough to secure. Under other circumstances, my patience as a collector would still have been a match for the dexterity of the bats. But on that evening—a memorable evening when I look back at it now—my spirits were depressed, and I was easily discouraged. My favorite studies of the insect-world seemed to have lost their value in my estimation. In the silence and the darkness I lay down under a tree, and let my mind dwell on myself and on my new life to come.
I am Gerard Roylake, son and only child of the late Gerard Roylake of Trimley Deen.
At twenty-two years of age, my father's death had placed me in possession of his large landed property. On my arrival from Germany, only a few hours since, the servants innocently vexed me. When I drove up to the door, I heard them say to each other: "Here is the young Squire." My father used to be called "the old Squire." I shrank from being reminded of him—not as other sons in my position might have said, because it renewed my sorrow for his death. There was no sorrow in me to be renewed. It is a shocking confession to make: my heart remained unmoved when I thought of the father whom I had lost.
Our mothers have the most sacred of all claims on our gratitude and our love. They have nourished us with their blood; they have risked their lives in bringing us into the world; they have preserved and guided our helpless infancy with divine patience and love. What claim equally strong and equally tender does the other parent establish on his offspring? What motive does the instinct of his young children find for preferring their father before any other person who may be a familiar object in their daily lives? They love him—naturally and rightly love him—because he lives in their remembrance (if he is a good man) as the first, the best, the dearest of their friends.
My father was a bad man. He was my mother's worst enemy; and he was never my friend.
The little that I know of the world tells me that it is not the common lot in life of women to marry the object of their first love. A sense of duty had compelled my mother to part with the man who had won her heart, in the first days of her maidenhood; and my father had discovered it, after his marriage. His insane jealousy foully wronged the truest wife, the most long-suffering woman that ever lived. I have no patience to write of it. For ten miserable years she suffered her martyrdom; she lived through it, dear angel, sweet suffering soul, for my sake. At her death, my father was able to gratify his hatred of the son whom he had never believed to be his own child. Under pretence of preferring the foreign system of teaching, he sent me to a school in France. My education having been so far completed, I was next transferred to a German University. Never again did I see the place of my birth, never did I get a letter from home, until the family lawyer wrote from Trimley Deen, requesting me to assume possession of my house and lands, under the entail.
I should not even have known that my father had taken a second wife but for some friend (or enemy)—I never discovered the person—who sent me a newspaper containing an announcement of the marriage.
When we saw each other for the first time, my stepmother and I met necessarily as strangers. We were elaborately polite, and we each made a meritorious effort to appear at our ease. On her side, she found herself confronted by a young man, the new master of the house, who looked more like a foreigner than an Englishman—who, when he was congratulated (in view of the approaching season) on the admirable preservation of his partridges and pheasants, betrayed an utter want of interest in the subject; and who showed no sense of shame in acknowledging that his principal amusements were derived from reading books, and collecting insects. How I must have disappointed Mrs. Roylake! and how considerately she hid from me the effect that I had produced!
Turning next to my own impressions, I discovered in my newly-found relative, a little light-eyed, light-haired, elegant woman; trim, and bright, and smiling; dressed to perfection, clever to her fingers' ends, skilled in making herself agreeable—and yet, in spite of these undeniable fascinations, perfectly incomprehensible to me. After my experience of foreign society, I was incapable of understanding the extraordinary importance which my stepmother seemed to attach to rank and riches, entirely for their own sakes. When she described my unknown neighbors, from one end of the county to the other, she took it for granted that I must be interested in them on account of their titles and their fortunes. She held me up to my own face, as a kind of idol to myself, without producing any better reason than might be found in my inheritance of an income of sixteen thousand pounds. And when I expressed (in excusing myself for not accompanying her, uninvited, to the dinner-party) a perfectly rational doubt whether I might prove to be a welcome guest, Mrs. Roylake held up her delicate little hands in unutterable astonishment. "My dear Gerard, in your position!" She appeared to think that this settled the question. I submitted in silence; the truth is, I was beginning already to despair of my prospects. Kind as my stepmother was, and agreeable as she was, what chance could I see of establishing any true sympathy between us? And, if my neighbors resembled her in their ways of thinking, what hope could I feel of finding new friends in England to replace the friends in Germany whom I had lost? A stranger among my own country people, with the every-day habits and every-day pleasures of my youthful life left behind me—without plans or hopes to interest me in looking at the future—it is surely not wonderful that my spirits had sunk to their lowest ebb, and that I even failed to appreciate with sufficient gratitude the fortunate accident of my birth.
Perhaps the journey to England had fatigued me, or perhaps the controlling influences of the dark and silent night proved irresistible. This only is certain: my solitary meditations under the tree ended in sleep.
I was awakened by a light falling on my face.
The moon had risen. In the outward part of the wood, beyond which I had not advanced, the pure and welcome light penetrated easily through the scattered trees. I got up and looked about me. A path into the wood now showed itself, broader and better kept than any path that I could remember in the days of my boyhood. The moon showed it to me plainly, and my curiosity was aroused.
Following the new track, I found that it led to a little glade which I at once recognized. The place was changed in one respect only. A neglected water-spring had been cleared of brambles and stones, and had been provided with a drinking cup, a rustic seat, and a Latin motto on a marble slab. The spring at once reminded me of a greater body of water—a river, at some little distance farther on, which ran between the trees on one side, and the desolate open country on the other. Ascending from the glade, I found myself in one of the narrow woodland paths, familiar to me in the by-gone time.
Unless my memory was at fault, this was the way which led to an old water-mill on the river-bank. The image of the great turning wheel, which half-frightened half-fascinated me when I was a child, now presented itself to my memory for the first time after an interval of many years. In my present frame of mind, the old scene appealed to me with the irresistible influence of an old friend. I said to myself: "Shall I walk on, and try if I can find the river and the mill again?" This perfectly trifling question to decide presented to me, nevertheless, fantastic difficulties so absurd that they might have been difficulties encountered in a dream. To my own astonishment, I hesitated—walked back again along the path by which I had advanced—reconsidered my decision, without knowing why—and turning in the opposite direction, set my face towards the river once more. I wonder how my life would have ended, if I had gone the other way?
THE RIVER INTRODUCES US
I stood alone on the bank of the ugliest stream in England.
The moonlight, pouring its unclouded radiance over open space, failed to throw a beauty not their own on those sluggish waters. Broad and muddy, their stealthy current flowed onward to the sea, without a rock to diversify, without a bubble to break, the sullen surface. On the side from which I was looking at the river, the neglected trees grew so close together that they were undermining their own lives, and poisoning each other. On the opposite bank, a rank growth of gigantic bulrushes hid the ground beyond, except where it rose in hillocks, and showed its surface of desert sand spotted here and there by mean patches of health. A repellent river in itself, a repellent river in its surroundings, a repellent river even in its name. It was called The Loke. Neither popular tradition nor antiquarian research could explain what the name meant, or could tell when the name had been given. "We call it The Loke; they do say no fish can live in it; and it dirties the clean salt water when it runs into the sea." Such was the character of the river in the estimation of the people who knew it best. But I was pleased to see The Loke again. The ugly river, like the woodland glade, looked at me with the face of an old friend.
On my right hand side rose the venerable timbers of the water-mill.
The wheel was motionless, at that time of night; and the whole structure looked—as remembered objects will look, when we see them again after a long interval—smaller than I had supposed it to be. Otherwise, I could discover no change in the mill. But the wooden cottage attached to it had felt the devastating march of time. A portion of the decrepit building still stood revealed in its wretched old age; propped, partly by beams which reached from the thatched roof to the ground, and partly by the wall of a new cottage attached, presenting in yellow brick-work a hideous modern contrast to all that was left of its ancient neighbor.
Had the miller whom I remembered, died; and were these changes the work of his successor? I thought of asking the question, and tried the door: it was fastened. The windows were all dark excepting one, which I discovered in the upper storey, at the farther side of the new building. Here, there was a dim light burning. It was impossible to disturb a person, who, for all I knew to the contrary, might be going to bed. I turned back to The Loke, proposing to extend my walk, by a mile or a little more, to a village that I remembered on the bank of the river.
I had not advanced far, when the stillness around me was disturbed by an intermittent sound of splashing in the water. Pausing to listen, I heard next the working of oars in their rowlocks. After another interval a boat appeared, turning a projection in the bank, and rowed by a woman pulling steadily against the stream.
As the boat approached me in the moonlight, this person corrected my first impression, and revealed herself as a young girl. So far as I could perceive she was a stranger to me. Who could the girl be, alone on the river at that time of night? Idly curious I followed the boat, instead of pursuing my way to the village, to see whether she would stop at the mill, or pass it.
She stopped at the mill, secured the boat, and stepped on shore.
Taking a key from her pocket, she was about to open the door of the cottage, when I advanced and spoke to her. As far from recognizing her as ever, I found myself nevertheless thinking of an odd outspoken child, living at the mill in past years, who had been one of my poor mother's favorites at our village school. I ran the risk of offending her, by bluntly expressing the thought which was then in my mind.
"Is it possible that you are Cristel Toller?" I said.
The question seemed to amuse her. "Why shouldn't I be Cristel Toller?" she asked.
"You were a little girl," I explained, "when I saw you last. You are so altered now—and so improved—that I should never have guessed you might be the daughter of Giles Toller of the mill, if I had not seen you opening the cottage door."
She acknowledged my compliment by a curtsey, which reminded me again of the village school. "Thank you, young man," she said smartly; "I wonder who you are?"
"Try if you can recollect me," I suggested.
"May I take a long look at you?"
"As long as you like."
She studied my face, with a mental effort to remember me, which gathered her pretty eyebrows together quaintly in a frown.
"There's something in his eyes," she remarked, not speaking to me but to herself, "which doesn't seem to be quite strange. But I don't know his voice, and I don't know his beard." She considered a little, and addressed herself directly to me once more. "Now I look at you again, you seem to be a gentleman. Are you one?"
"I hope so."
"Then you're not making game of me?"
"My dear, I am only trying if you can remember Gerard Roylake."
While in charge of the boat, the miller's daughter had been rowing with bared arms; beautiful dusky arms, at once delicate and strong. Thus far, she had forgotten to cover them up. The moment mentioned my name, she started back as if I had frightened her—pulled her sleeves down in a hurry—and hid the objects of my admiration as an act of homage to myself! Her verbal apologies followed.
"You used to be such a sweet-spoken pretty little boy," she said, "how should I know you again, with a big voice and all that hair on your face?" It seemed to strike her on a sudden that she had been too familiar. "Oh, Lord," I heard her say to herself, "half the county belongs to him!" She tried another apology, and hit this time on the conventional form. "I beg your pardon, sir. Welcome back to your own country, sir. I wish you good-night, sir."
She attempted to escape into the cottage; I followed her to the threshold of the door. "Surely it's not time to go to bed yet," I ventured to say.
She was still on her good behavior to her landlord. "Not if you object to it, sir," she answered.
This recognition of my authority was irresistible. Cristel had laid me under an obligation to her good influence for which I felt sincerely grateful—she had made me laugh, for the first time since my return to England.
"We needn't say good-night just yet," I suggested; "I want to hear a little more about you. Shall I come in?"
She stepped out of the doorway even more rapidly than she had stepped into it. I might have been mistaken, but I thought Cristel seemed to be actually alarmed by my proposal. We walked up and down the river-bank. On every occasion when we approached the cottage, I detected her in stealing a look at the ugly modern part of it. There could be no mistake this time; I saw doubt, I saw anxiety in her face. What was going on at the mill? I made some domestic inquiries, beginning with her father. Was the miller alive and well?
"Oh yes, sir. Father gets thinner as he gets older—that's all."
"Did he send you out by yourself, at this late hour, in the boat?"
"They were waiting for a sack of flour down there," she replied, pointing in the direction of the river-side village. "Father isn't as quick as he used to be. He's often late over his work now."
Was there no one to give Giles Toller the help that he must need at his age? "Do you and your father really live alone in this solitary place?" I said.
A change of expression appeared in her bright brown eyes which roused my curiosity. I also observed that she evaded a direct reply. "What makes you doubt, sir, if father and I live alone?" she asked.
I pointed to the new cottage. "That ugly building," I answered, "seems to give you more room than you want—unless there is somebody else living at the mill."
I had no intention of trying to force the reply from her which she had hitherto withheld; but she appeared to put that interpretation on what I had said. "If you will have it," she burst out, "there is somebody else living with us."
"A man who helps your father?"
"No. A man who pays my father's rent."
I was quite unprepared for such a reply as this: Cristel had surprised me. To begin with, her father was "well-connected," as we say in England. His younger brother had made a fortune in commerce, and had vainly offered him the means of retiring from the mill with a sufficient income. Then again, Giles Toller was known to have saved money. His domestic expenses made no heavy demand on his purse; his German wife (whose Christian name was now borne by his daughter) had died long since; his sons were no burden on him; they had never lived at the mill in my remembrance. With all these reasons against his taking a stranger into his house, he had nevertheless, if my interpretation of Cristel's answer was the right one, let his spare rooms to a lodger. "Mr. Toller can't possibly be in want of money," I said.
"The more money father has, the more he wants. That's the reason," she added bitterly, "why he asked for plenty of room when the cottage was built, and why we have got a lodger."
"Is the lodger a gentleman?"
"I don't know. Is a man a gentleman, if he keeps a servant? Oh, don't trouble to think about it, sir! It isn't worth thinking about."
This was plain speaking at last. "You don't seem to like the lodger," I said.
"I hate him!"
She turned on me with a look of angry amazement—not undeserved, I must own, on my part—which showed her dark beauty in the perfection of its luster and its power. To my eyes she was at the moment irresistibly charming. I daresay I was blind to the defects in her face. My good German tutor used to lament that there was too much of my boyhood still left in me. Honestly admiring her, I let my favorable opinion express itself a little too plainly. "What a splendid creature you are!" I burst out. Cristel did her duty to herself and to me; she passed over my little explosion of nonsense without taking the smallest notice of it.
"Master Gerard," she began—and checked herself. "Please to excuse me, sir; you have set my head running on old times. What I want to say is: you were not so inquisitive when you were a young gentleman in short jackets. Please behave as you used to behave then, and don't say anything more about our lodger. I hate him because I hate him. There!"
Ignorant as I was of the natures of women, I understood her at last. Cristel's opinion of the lodger was evidently the exact opposite of the lodger's opinion of Cristel. When I add that this discovery did decidedly operate as a relief to my mind, the impression produced on me by the miller's daughter is stated without exaggeration and without reserve.
"Good-night," she repeated, "for the last time." I held out my hand. "Is it quite right, sir," she modestly objected, "for such as me to shake hands with such as you?"
She did it nevertheless; and dropping my hand, cast a farewell look at the mysterious object of her interest—the new cottage. Her variable humor changed on the instant. Apparently in a state of unendurable irritation, she stamped on the ground. "Just what I didn't want to happen!" she said to herself.
HE SHOWS HIMSELF
I too, looked at the cottage, and made a discovery that surprised me at one of the upper windows.
If I could be sure that the moon had not deceived me, the most beautiful face that I had ever seen was looking down on us—and it was the face of a man! By the uncertain light I could discern the perfection of form in the features, and the expression of power which made it impossible to mistake the stranger for a woman, although his hair grew long and he was without either moustache or beard. He was watching us intently; he neither moved nor spoke when we looked up at him.
"Evidently the lodger," I whispered to Cristel. "What a handsome man!"
She tossed her head contemptuously: my expression of admiration seemed to have irritated her.
"I didn't want him to see you!" she said. "The lodger persecutes me with his attentions; he's impudent enough to be jealous of me."
She spoke without even attempting to lower her voice. I endeavored to warn her. "He's at the window still," I said, in tones discreetly lowered; "he can hear everything you are saying."
"Not one word of it, Mr. Gerard."
"What do you mean?"
"The man is deaf. Don't look at him again. Don't speak to me again. Go home—pray go home!"
Without further explanation, she abruptly entered the cottage, and shut the door.
As I turned into the path which led through the wood I heard a voice behind me. It said: "Stop, sir." I stopped directly, standing in the shadow cast by the outermost line of trees, which I had that moment reached. In the moonlight that I had left behind me, I saw again the man whom I had discovered at the window. His figure, tall and slim; his movements, graceful and easy, were in harmony with his beautiful face. He lifted his long finely-shaped hands, and clasped them with a frantic gesture of entreaty.
"For God's sake," he said, "don't be offended with me!"
His voice startled me even more than his words; I had never heard anything like it before. Low, dull, and muffled, it neither rose nor fell; it spoke slowly and deliberately, without laying the slightest emphasis on any one of the words that it uttered. In the astonishment of the moment, I forgot what Cristel had told me. I answered him as I should have answered any other unknown person who had spoken to me.
"What do you want?"
His hands dropped; his head sunk on his breast. "You are speaking, sir, to a miserable creature who can't hear you. I am deaf."
I stepped nearer to him, intending to raise my voice in pity for his infirmity. He shuddered, and signed to me to keep back.
"Don't come close to my ear; don't shout." As he spoke, strong excitement flashed at me in his eyes, without producing the slightest change in his voice. "I don't deny," he resumed, "that I can hear sometimes when people take that way with me. They hurt when they do it. Their voices go through my nerves as a knife might go through my flesh. I live at the mill, sir; I have a great favour to ask. Will you come and speak to me in my room—for five minutes only?"
I hesitated. Any other man in my place, would, I think, have done the same; receiving such an invitation as this from a stranger, whose pitiable infirmity seemed to place him beyond the pale of social intercourse.
He must have guessed what was passing in my mind; he tried me again in words which might have proved persuasive, had they been uttered in the customary variety of tone.
"I can't help being a stranger to you; I can't help being deaf. You're a young man. You look more merciful and more patient than young men in general. Won't you hear what I have to say? Won't you tell me what I want to know?"
How were we to communicate? Did he by any chance suppose that I had learnt the finger alphabet? I touched my fingers and shook my head, as a means of dissipating his delusion, if it existed.
He instantly understood me.
"Even if you knew the finger alphabet," he said, "it would be of no use. I have been too miserable to learn it—my deafness only came on me a little more than a year since. Pardon me if I am obliged to give you trouble—I ask persons who pity me to write their answers when I speak to them. Come to my room, and you will find what you want—a candle to write by."
Was his will, as compared with mine, the stronger will of the two? And was it helped (insensibly to myself) by his advantages of personal appearance? I can only confess that his apology presented a picture of misery to my mind, which shook my resolution to refuse him. His ready penetration discovered this change in his favour: he at once took advantage of it. "Five minutes of your time is all I ask for," he said. "Won't you indulge a man who sees his fellow-creatures all talking happily round him, and feels dead and buried among them?"
The very exaggeration of his language had its effect on my mind. It revealed to me the horrible isolation among humanity of the deaf, as I had never understood it yet. Discretion is, I am sorry to say, not one of the strong points in my character. I committed one more among the many foolish actions of my life; I signed to the stranger to lead the way back to the mill.
HE EXPLAINS HIMSELF
Giles Toller's miserly nature had offered to his lodger shelter from wind and rain, and the furniture absolutely necessary to make a bedroom habitable—and nothing more. There was no carpet on the floor, no paper on the walls, no ceiling to hide the rafters of the roof. The chair that I sat on was the one chair in the room; the man whose guest I had rashly consented to be found a seat on his bed. Upon his table I saw pens and pencils, paper and ink, and a battered brass candlestick with a common tallow candle in it. His changes of clothing were flung on the bed; his money was left on the unpainted wooden chimney-piece; his wretched little morsel of looking-glass (propped up near the money) had been turned with its face to the wall. He perceived that the odd position of this last object had attracted my notice.
"Vanity and I have parted company," he explained; "I shrink from myself when I look at myself now. The ugliest man living—if he has got his hearing—is a more agreeable man in society than I am. Does this wretched place disgust you?"
He pushed a pencil and some sheets of writing-paper across the table to me. I wrote my reply: "The place makes me sorry for you."
He shook his head. "Your sympathy is thrown away on me. A man who has lost his social relations with his fellow-creatures doesn't care how he lodges or where he lives. When he has found solitude, he has found all he wants for the rest of his days. Shall we introduce ourselves? It won't be easy for me to set the example."
I used the pencil again: "Why not?"
"Because you will expect me to give you my name. I can't do it. I have ceased to bear my family name; and, being out of society, what need have I for an assumed name? As for my Christian name, it's so detestably ugly that I hate the sight and sound of it. Here, they know me as The Lodger. Will you have that? or will you have an appropriate nick-name? I come of a mixed breed; and I'm likely, after what has happened to me, to turn out a worthless fellow. Call me The Cur. Oh, you needn't start! that's as accurate a description of me as any other. What's your name?"
I wrote it for him. His face darkened when he found out who I was.
"Young, personally attractive, and a great landowner," he said. "I saw you just now talking familiarly with Cristel Toller. I didn't like that at the time; I like it less than ever now."
My pencil asked him, without ceremony, what he meant.
He was ready with his reply. "I mean this: you owe something to the good luck which has placed you where you are. Keep your familiarity for ladies in your own rank of life."
This (to a young man like me) was unendurable insolence. I had hitherto refrained from taking him at his own bitter word in the matter of nick-name. In the irritation of the moment, I now first resolved to adopt his suggestion seriously. The next slip of paper that I handed to him administered the smartest rebuff that my dull brains could discover on the spur of the moment: "The Cur is requested to keep his advice till he is asked for it."
For the first time, something like a smile showed itself faintly on his lips—and represented the only effect which my severity had produced. He still followed his own train of thought, as resolutely and as impertinently as ever.
"I haven't seen you talking to Cristel before to-night. Have you been meeting her in secret?"
In justice to the girl, I felt that I ought to set him right, so far. Taking up the pencil again, I told this strange man that I had just returned to England, after an absence of many years in foreign countries—that I had known Cristel when we were both children—and that I had met her purely by accident, when he had detected us talking outside the cottage. Seeing me pause, after advancing to that point in the writing of my reply, he held out his hand impatiently for the paper. I signed him to wait, and added a last sentence: "Understand this; I will answer no more questions—I have done with the subject."
He read what I had written with the closest attention. But his inveterate suspicion of me was not set at rest, even yet.
"Are you likely to come this way again?" he asked.
I pointed to the final lines of my writing, and got up to go.
This assertion of my will against his roused him. He stopped me at the door—not by a motion of his hand but by the mastery of his look. The dim candlelight afforded me no help in determining the color of his eyes. Dark, large, and finely set in his head, there was a sinister passion in them, at that moment, which held me in spite of myself. Still as monotonous as ever, his voice in some degree expressed the frenzy that was in him, by suddenly rising in its pitch when he spoke to me next.
"Mr. Roylake, I love her. Mr. Roylake, I am determined to marry her. Any man who comes between me and that cruel girl—ah, she's as hard as one of her father's millstones; it's the misery of my life, it's the joy of my life, to love her—I tell you, young sir, any man who comes between Cristel and me does it at his peril. Remember that."
I had no wish to give offence—but his threatening me in this manner was so absurd that I gave way to the impression of the moment, and laughed. He stepped up to me, with such an expression of demoniacal rage and hatred in his face that he became absolutely ugly in an instant.
"I amuse you, do I?" he said. "You don't know the man you're trifling with. You had better know me. You shall know me." He turned away, and walked up and down the wretched little room, deep in thought. "I don't want this matter between us to end badly," he said, interrupting his meditations—then returning to them again—and then once more addressing me. "You're young, you're thoughtless; but you don't look like a bad fellow. I wonder whether I can trust you? Not one man in a thousand would do it. Never mind. I'm the one man in ten thousand who does it. Mr. Gerard Roylake, I'm going to trust you."
With this incoherent expression of a resolution unknown to me, he unlocked a shabby trunk hidden in a corner, and took from it a small portfolio.
"Men of your age," he resumed, "seldom look below the surface. Learn that valuable habit, sir—and begin by looking below the surface of Me." He forced the portfolio into my hand. Once more, his beautiful eyes held me with their irresistible influence; they looked at me with an expression of sad and solemn warning. "Discover for yourself," he said, "what devils my deafness has set loose in me; and let no eyes but yours see that horrid sight. You will find me here tomorrow, and you will decide by that time whether you make an enemy of me or not."
He threw open the door, and bowed as graciously as if he had been a sovereign dismissing a subject.
Was he mad?
I hesitated to adopt that conclusion. There is no denying it, the deaf man had found his own strange and tortuous way to my interest, in spite of myself. I might even have been in some danger of allowing him to make a friend of me, if I had not been restrained by the fears for Cristel which his language and his manner amply justified, to my mind. Although I was far from foreseeing the catastrophe that really did happen, I felt that I had returned to my own country at a critical time in the life of the miller's daughter. My friendly interference might be of serious importance to Cristel's peace of mind—perhaps even to her personal safety as well.
Eager to discover what the contents of the portfolio might tell me, I hurried back to Trimley Deen. My stepmother had not yet returned from the dinner-party. As one of the results of my ten years' banishment from home, I was obliged to ask the servant to show me the way to my own room, in my own house! The windows looked out on a view of Fordwitch Wood. As I opened the leaves which were to reveal to me the secret soul of the man whom I had so strangely met, the fading moonlight vanished, and the distant trees were lost in the gloom of a starless night.
HE BETRAYS HIMSELF
The confession was entitled, "Memoirs of a Miserable Man." It began abruptly in these words:
"I acknowledge, at the outset, that misfortune has had an effect on me which frail humanity is for the most part anxious to conceal. Under the influence of suffering, I have become of enormous importance to myself. In this frame of mind, I naturally enjoy painting my own portrait in words. Let me add that they must be written words because it is a painful effort to me (since I lost my hearing) to speak to anyone continuously, for any length of time.
"I have also to confess that my brains are not so completely under my own command as I could wish.
"For instance, I possess considerable skill (for an amateur) as a painter in water colors. But I can only produce a work of art, when irresistible impulse urges me to express my thoughts in form and color. The same obstacle to regular exertion stands in my way, if I am using my pen. I can only write when the fit takes me—sometimes at night when I ought to be asleep; sometimes at meals when I ought to be handling my knife and fork; sometimes out of doors when I meet with inquisitive strangers who stare at me. As for paper, the first stray morsel of anything that I can write upon will do, provided I snatch it up in time to catch my ideas as they fly.
"My method being now explained, I proceed to the deliberate act of self-betrayal which I contemplate in producing this picture of myself."
"I divide my life into two Epochs—respectively entitled: Before my Deafness, and After my Deafness. Or, suppose I define the melancholy change in my fortunes more sharply still, by contrasting with each other my days of prosperity and my days of disaster? Of these alternatives, I hardly know which to choose. It doesn't matter; the one thing needful is to go on.
"In any case, then, I have to record that I passed a happy childhood—thanks to my good mother. Her generous nature had known adversity, and had not been deteriorated by undeserved trials. Born of slave-parents, she had not reached her eighteenth year, when she was sold by auction in the Southern States of America. The person who bought her (she never would tell me who he was) freed her by a codicil, added to his will on his deathbed. My father met with her, a few years afterwards, in American society—fell (as I have heard) madly in love with her—and married her in defiance of the wishes of his family. He was quite right: no better wife and mother ever lived. The one vestige of good feeling that I still possess, lives in my empty heart when I dwell at times on the memory of my mother.
"My good fortune followed me when I was sent to school.
"Our head master was more nearly a perfect human being than any other man that I have ever met with. Even the worst-tempered boys among us ended in loving him. Under his encouragement, and especially to please him, I won every prize that industry, intelligence, and good conduct could obtain; and I rose, at an unusually early age, to be the head boy in the first class. When I was old enough to be removed to the University, and when the dreadful day of parting arrived, I fainted under the agony of leaving the teacher—no! the dear friend—whom I devotedly loved. There must surely have been some good in me at that time. What has become of it now?
"The years followed each other—and I was Fortune's spoilt child still.
"Under adverse circumstances, my sociable disposition, my delight in the society of young people of my own age, might have exposed me to serious dangers in my new sphere of action. Happily for me, my father consulted a wise friend, before he sent me to Cambridge. I was entered at one of the smaller colleges; and I fell, at starting, among the right set of men. Good examples were all round me. We formed a little club of steady students; our pleasures were innocent; we were too proud and too poor to get into debt. I look back on my career at Cambridge, as I look back on my career at school, and wonder what has become of my better self."
"During my last year at Cambridge, my father died.
"The profession which he had intended that I should follow was the Bar. I believed myself to be quite unfit for the sort of training imperatively required by the Law; and my mother agreed with me. When I left the University, my own choice of a profession pointed to the medical art, and to that particular branch of it called surgery. After three years of unremitting study at one of the great London hospitals, I started in practice for myself. Once more, my persistent luck was faithful to me at the outset of my new career.
"The winter of that year was remarkable for alternate extremes of frost and thaw. Accidents to passengers in the streets were numerous; and one of them happened close to my own door. A gentleman slipped on the icy pavement, and broke his leg. On sending news of the accident to his house, I found that my chance-patient was a nobleman.
"My lord was so well satisfied with my services that he refused to be attended by any of my elders and betters in the profession. Little did I think at the time, that I had received the last of the favours which Fortune was to bestow on me. I enjoyed the confidence and goodwill of a man possessing boundless social influence; and I was received most kindly by the ladies of his family. In one word, at the time when my professional prospects justified the brightest hopes that I could form, sudden death deprived me of the dearest and truest of all friends—I suffered the one dreadful loss which it is impossible to replace, the loss of my mother. We had parted at night when she was, to all appearance, in the enjoyment of her customary health. The next morning, she was found dead in her bed."
"Keen observers, who read these lines, will remark that I have said nothing about the male members of my family, and that I have even passed over my father with the briefest possible allusion to his death.
"This curious reticence on my part, is simply attributable to pure ignorance. Until affliction lay heavy on me, my father, my uncle, and my grandfather were hardly better known to me, in their true characters, than if they had been strangers passing in the street. How I contrived to become more intimately acquainted with my ancestors, I am now to reveal.
"In the absence of any instructions to guide me, after my mother's death, I was left to use my own discretion in examining the papers which she had left behind her. Reading her letters carefully, before I decided what to keep and what to destroy, I discovered a packet, protected by an unbroken seal, and bearing an inscription, addressed abruptly to my mother in these words:
'For fear of accidents, my dear, we will mention no names in this place. The sight of my handwriting will remind you of my devotion to your interests in the past, and will satisfy you that I am to be trusted in the service that I now offer to my good sister-friend. In the fewest words, let me tell you that I have heard of the circumstances under which your marriage has taken place. Your origin has unfortunately become known to the members of your husband's family; their pride has been deeply wounded; and the women especially regard you with feelings of malignant hatred. I have good reason for fearing that they may try to excuse their inhuman way of speaking of you, by making public the calamity of your slave-birth. What deplorable influence might be exercised on your husband's mind, by such an exposure as this, I will not stop to inquire. It will be more to the purpose to say that I am able to offer you a sure means of protecting yourself—through information which I have unexpectedly obtained, and the source of which I am obliged to keep secret. If you are ever threatened by your enemies, open the packet which I have now sealed up, and you will command the silence of the bitterest man or woman who longs to injure you. I may add that absolute proof accompanies every assertion which my packet contains. Keep it carefully, as long as you live—and God grant you may never have occasion to break the seal.'
"Such was the inscription; copied exactly, word for word.
"I cannot even guess who my mother's devoted friend may have been. Neither can I doubt that she would have destroyed the packet, but for the circumstance of her sudden death.
"After hesitating a little—I hardly know why—I summoned my resolution, and broke the seal. Of the horror with which I read the contents of the packet I shall say nothing. Who ever yet sympathized with the sorrows and sufferings of strangers? Let me merely announce that I knew my ancestors at last, and that I am now able to present them in their true characters, as follows:
"My grandfather was tried on a charge of committing willful murder—was found guilty on the clearest evidence—and died on the scaffold by the hangman's hands.
"His two sons abandoned the family name, and left the family residence. They were, nevertheless, not unworthy representatives of their atrocious father, as will presently appear.
"My uncle (a captain in the Army) was discovered at the hazard table, playing with loaded dice. Before this abject scoundrel could be turned out of his regiment, he was killed in a duel by one of his brother officers whom he had cheated.
"My father, when he was little more than a lad, deserted a poor girl who had trusted him under a promise of marriage. Friendless and hopeless, she drowned herself and her child. His was the most infamous in the list of the family crimes—and he escaped, without answering to a court of law or a court of honor for what he had done.
"Some of us come of one breed, and some of another. There is the breed from which I drew the breath of life. What do you think of me now?"
"I looked back over the past years of my existence, from the time of my earliest recollections to the miserable day when I opened the sealed packet.
"What wholesome influences had preserved me, so far, from moral contamination by the vile blood that ran in my veins? There were two answers to that question which, in some degree, quieted my mind. In the first place, resembling my good mother physically, I might hope to have resembled her morally. In the second place, the happy accidents of my career had preserved me from temptation, at more than one critical period of my life. On the other hand, in the ordinary course of nature, not one half of that life had yet elapsed. What trials might the future have in store for me? and what protection against them would the better part of my nature be powerful enough to afford?
"While I was still troubled by these doubts, the measure of my disasters was filled by an attack of illness which threatened me with death. My medical advisers succeeded in saving my life—and left me to pay the penalty of their triumph by the loss of one of my senses.
"At an early period of my convalescence, I noticed one day, with languid surprise, that the voices of the doctors, when they asked me how I had slept and if I felt better, sounded singularly dull and distant. A few hours later, I observed that they stooped close over me when they had something important to say. On the same evening, my day nurse and my night nurse happened to be in the room together. To my surprise, they had become so wonderfully quiet in their movements, that they opened the door or stirred the fire, without making the slightest noise. I intended to ask them what it meant; I had even begun to put the question, when I was startled by another discovery relating this time to myself. I was certain that I had spoken—and yet, I had not heard myself speak! As well as my weakness would let me, I called to the nurses in my loudest tones. "Has anything happened to my voice?" I asked. The two women consulted together, looking at me with pity in their eyes. One of them took the responsibility on herself. She put her lips close to my ear; the horrid words struck me with a sense of physical pain: 'Your illness has left you in a sad state, sir. You are deaf.'"
"As soon as I was able to leave my bed, well-meaning people, in and out of the medical profession, combined to torment me with the best intentions.
"One famous aural surgeon after another came to me, and quoted his experience of cases, in which the disease that had struck me down had affected the sense of hearing in other unhappy persons: they had submitted to surgical treatment, generally with cheering results. I submitted in my turn. All that skill could do for me was done, and without effect. My deafness steadily increased; my case was pronounced to be hopeless; the great authorities retired.
"Judicious friends, who had been waiting for their opportunity, undertook the moral management of me next.
"I was advised to cultivate cheerfulness, to go into society, to encourage kind people who tried to make me hear what was going on, to be on my guard against morbid depression, to check myself when the sense of my own horrible isolation drove me away to my room, and, last but by no means least, to beware of letting my vanity disincline me to use an ear-trumpet.
"I did my best, honestly did my best, to profit by the suggestions that were offered to me—not because I believed in the wisdom of my friends, but because I dreaded the effect of self-imposed solitude on my nature. Since the fatal day when I had opened the sealed packet, I was on my guard against the inherited evil lying dormant, for all I knew to the contrary, in my father's son. Impelled by that horrid dread, I suffered my daily martyrdom with a courage that astonishes me when I think of it now.
"What the self-inflicted torture of the deaf is, none but the deaf can understand.
"When benevolent persons did their best to communicate to me what was clever or amusing, while conversation was going on in my presence, I was secretly angry with them for making my infirmity conspicuous, and directing the general attention to me. When other friends saw in my face that I was not grateful to them, and gave up the attempt to help me, I suspected them of talking of me contemptuously, and amusing themselves by making my misfortune the subject of coarse jokes.
"Even when I deserved encouragement by honestly trying to atone for my bad behavior, I committed mistakes (arising out of my helpless position) which prejudiced people against me. Sometimes, I asked questions which appeared to be so trivial, to ladies and gentlemen happy in the possession of a sense of hearing, that they evidently thought me imbecile as well as deaf. Sometimes, seeing the company enjoying an interesting story or a good joke, I ignorantly appealed to the most incompetent person present to tell me what had been said—with this result, that he lost the thread of the story or missed the point of the joke, and blamed my unlucky interference as the cause of it.
"These mortifications, and many more, I suffered patiently until, little by little, my last reserves of endurance felt the cruel strain on them, and failed me. My friends detected a change in my manner which alarmed them. They took me away from London, to try the renovating purity of country air.
"So far as any curative influence over the state of my mind was concerned, the experiment proved to be a failure.
"I had secretly arrived at the conclusion that my deafness was increasing, and that my friends knew it and were concealing it from me. Determined to put my suspicions to the test, I took long solitary walks in the neighborhood of my country home, and tried to hear the new sounds about me. I was deaf to everything—with the one exception of the music of the birds.
"How long did I hear the little cheering songsters who comforted me?
"I am unable to measure the interval that elapsed: my memory fails me. I only know that the time came, when I could see the skylark in the heavens, but could no longer hear its joyous notes. In a few weeks more the nightingale, and even the loud thrush, became silent birds to my doomed ears. My last effort to resist my own deafness was made at my bedroom window. For some time I still heard, faintly and more faintly, the shrill twittering just above me, under the eaves of the house. When this last poor enjoyment came to an end—when I listened eagerly, desperately, and heard nothing (think of it, nothing!)—I gave up the struggle. Persuasions, arguments, entreaties were entirely without effect on me. Reckless what came of it, I retired to the one fit place for me—to the solitude in which I have buried myself ever since."
"With some difficulty, I discovered the lonely habitation of which was in search.
"No language can describe the heavenly composure of mind that came to me, when I first found myself alone; living the death-in-life of deafness, apart from creatures—no longer my fellow-creatures—who could hear: apart also from those privileged victims of hysterical impulse, who wrote me love-letters, and offered to console the 'poor beautiful deaf man' by marrying him. Through the distorting medium of such sufferings as I have described, women and men—even young women—were repellent to me alike. Ungratefully impatient of the admiration excited by my personal advantages, savagely irritated by tender looks and flattering compliments, I only consented take lodgings, on condition that there should be no young women living under the same roof with me. If this confession of morbid feeling looks like vanity, I can only say that appearances lie. I write in sober sadness; determined to present my character, with photographic accuracy, as a true likeness.
"What were my habits in solitude? How did I get through the weary and wakeful hours of the day?
"Living by myself, I became (as I have already acknowledged) important to myself—and, as a necessary consequence, I enjoyed registering my own daily doings. Let passages copied from my journal reveal how I got through the day."
EXTRACTS FROM A DEAF MAN'S DIARY
"Monday.—Six weeks today since I first occupied my present retreat.
"My landlord and landlady are two hideous old people. They look as if they disliked me, on the rare occasions when we meet. So much the better; they don't remind me of my deafness by trying to talk, and they keep as much as possible out of my way. This morning, after breakfast, I altered the arrangement of my books—and then I made my fourth attempt, in the last ten days, to read some of my favorite authors. No: my taste has apparently changed since the time when I could hear. I closed one volume after another; caring nothing for what used to be deeply interesting to me.
"Reckless and savage—with a burning head and a cold heart—I went out to look about me.
"After two hours of walking and thinking, I found that I had wandered to our county town. The rain began to fall heavily just as I happened to be passing a bookseller's shop. After some hesitation—for I hate exposing my deafness to strangers—I asked leave to take shelter, and looked at the books.
"Among them was a collection of celebrated Trials. I thought of my grandfather; consulted the index; and, finding his name there, bought the work. The shopman (as I could guess from his actions and looks) proposed sending the parcel to me. I insisted on taking it away. The sky had cleared; and I was eager to read the details of my grandfather's crime.
"Tuesday—Sat up late last night, reading my new book. My favorite poets, novelists, and historians have failed to interest me. I devoured the Trials with breathless delight; beginning of course with the murder in which I felt a family interest. Prepared to find my grandfather a ruffian, I confess I was surprised by the discovery that he was also a fool. The officers of justice had no merit in tracing the crime to him; his own stupidity delivered him into their hands. I read the evidence twice over, and put myself in his position, and saw the means plainly by which he might have set discovery at defiance.
"In the Preface to the Trials I found an allusion, in terms of praise, to a work of the same kind, published in the French language. I wrote to London at once, and ordered the book."
"Wednesday.—Is there some mysterious influence, in the silent solitude of my life, that is hardening my nature? Is there something unnatural in the existence of a man who never hears a sound? Is there a moral sense that suffers when a bodily sense is lost?
"These questions have been suggested to me by an incident that happened this morning.
"Looking out of window, I saw a brutal carter, on the road before the house, beating an over-loaded horse. A year since I should have interfered to protect the horse, without a moment's hesitation. If the wretch had been insolent, I should have seized his whip, and applied the heavy handle of it to his own shoulders. In past days, I have been more than once fined by a magistrate (privately in sympathy with my offence) for assaults committed by me in the interests of helpless animals. What did I feel now? Nothing but a selfish sense of uneasiness, at having been accidentally witness of an act which disturbed my composure. I turned away, regretting that I had gone to the window and looked out.
"This was not an agreeable train of thought to follow. What could I do? I was answered by the impulse which commands me to paint.
"I sharpened my pencils, and opened my box of colors, and determined to produce a work of art. To my astonishment, the brutal figure of the carter forced its way into my memory again and again. It (without in the least knowing why) as if the one chance of getting rid of this curious incubus, was to put the persistent image of the man on paper. It was done mechanically, and yet done so well, that I was encouraged to add to the picture. I put in next the poor beaten horse (another good likeness!); and then I introduced a life-like portrait of myself, giving the man the sound thrashing that he had deserved. Strange to say, this representation of what I ought to have done, relieved my mind as if I had actually done it. I looked at the pre-eminent figure of myself, and felt good, and turned to my Trials, and read them over again, and liked them better than ever."
"Thursday.—The bookseller has found a second-hand copy of the French Trials, and has sent them to me (as he expresses it) 'on approval'.
"I more than approve—I admire; and I more than admire—I imitate. These criminal stories are told with a dramatic power, which has impelled me to try if I can rival the clever French narrative. I found a promising subject by putting myself in my grandfather's place, and tracing the means by which it had occurred to me that he might have escaped the discovery of his crime.
"I cannot remember having read any novel with a tenth part of the interest that absorbed me, in constructing my imaginary train of circumstances. So completely did the reality of the narrative impress itself on my mind, that I felt as if the murder that I was relating had been a crime committed by myself. It was my own ingenuity that hid the dead body, and removed the traces of blood—and my own self-control that presented me as an innocent person, when the victim was missing, and I was asked (among other respectable people) to say whether I thought he was living or dead."
"A whole week has passed—and has been occupied by my new literary pursuit.
"My inexhaustible imagination invents plots and conspiracies of which I am the happy hero. I set traps which invariably catch my enemies. I place myself in positions which are entirely new to me. Yesterday, for instance, I invented a method of spiriting away a young person, whose disappearance was of considerable importance under the circumstances, and succeeded in completely bewildering her father, her friends, and the police: not a trace of her could they find. If I ever have occasion to do, in reality, what I only suppose myself to do in these exercises of ingenuity, what a dangerous man I may yet prove to be!
"This morning, I rose, planning to amuse myself with a new narrative, when the ideal world in which I am now living, became a world annihilated by collision with the sordid interests of real life.
"In plainer words, I received a written message from my landlord which has annoyed me—and not without good cause. This tiresome person finds himself unexpectedly obliged to give up possession of his house. The circumstances are not worth relating. The result is important—I am compelled to find new lodgings. Where am I to go?
"I left it to chance. That is to say, I looked at the railway time-table, and took a ticket for the first place, of which the name happened to catch my eye. Arrived at my destination, I found myself in a dirty manufacturing town, with an ugly river running through it.
"After a little reflection, I turned my back on the town, and followed the course of the river, in search of shelter and solitude on one or the other of its banks. An hour of walking brought me to an odd-looking cottage, half old and half new, attached to a water-mill. A bill in one of the windows announced that rooms were to be let; and a look round revealed a thick wood on my left hand, and a wilderness of sand and heath on my right. So far as appearances went, here was the very place for me.
"I knocked at the door, and was admitted by a little lean sly-looking old man. He showed me the rooms—one for myself, and one for my servant. Wretched as they were, the loneliness of the situation recommended them to me. I made no objections; and I consented to pay the rent that was asked. The one thing that remained to be done, in the interests of my tranquillity, was to ascertain if any other persons lived the cottage besides my new landlord. He wrote his answer to the question: 'Nobody but my daughter.' With serious misgivings, I inquired if his daughter was young. He wrote two fatal figures: '18'.
"Here was a discovery which disarranged all my plans, just as I had formed them! The prospect of having a girl in the house, at the age associated with my late disagreeable experience of the sensitive sex, was more than my irritable temper could endure. I saw the old man going to the window to take down the bill. Turning in a rage to stop him, I was suddenly brought to a standstill by the appearance of a person who had just entered the room.
"Was this the formidable obstacle to my tranquillity, which had prevented me from taking the rooms that I had chosen? Yes! I knew the miller's daughter intuitively. Delirium possessed me; my eyes devoured her; my heart beat as if it would burst out of my bosom. The old man approached me; he nodded, and grinned, and pointed to her. Did he claim his parental interest in her? Did he mean that she belonged to him? No! she belonged to me. She might be his daughter. She was My Fate.
"I don't know what it was in the girl that took me by storm. Nothing in her look or her manner expressed the slightest interest in me. That famous "beauty" of mine which had worked such ravages in the hearts of other young women, seemed not even to attract her notice. When her father put his hand to his ear, and told her (as I guessed) that I was deaf, there was no pity in her splendid brown eyes; they expressed a momentary curiosity, and nothing more. Possibly she had a hard heart? or perhaps she took a dislike to me, at first sight? It made no difference to my mind, either way. Was she the most beautiful creature I had ever seen? Not even that excuse was to be made for me. I have met with women of her dark complexion who were, beyond dispute, her superiors in beauty, and have looked at them with indifference. Add to this, that I am one of the men whom women offend if they are not perfectly well-dressed. The miller's daughter was badly dressed; her magnificent figure was profaned by the wretchedly-made gown that she wore. I forgave the profanation. In spite of the protest of my own better taste, I resigned myself to her gown. Is it possible adequately to describe such infatuation as this? Quite possible! I have only to acknowledge that I took the rooms at the cottage—and there is the state of my mind, exposed without mercy!
"How will it end?"
THE RETURN OF THE PORTFOLIO
With that serious question the last of the leaves entrusted to me by the Lodger at the Mill came to an end.
I betray no confidence in presenting this copy of his confession. Time has passed since I first read it, and changes have occurred in the interval, which leave me free to exercise my own discretion, and to let the autobiography speak for itself.
If I am asked what impression of the writer those extraordinary pages produced on me, I feel at a loss how to reply.
Not one impression, but many impressions, troubled and confused my mind. Certain passages in the confession inclined me to believe that the writer was mad. But I altered my opinion at the next leaf, and set him down as a man with a bitter humor, disposed to make merry over his own bad qualities. At one time, his tone in writing of his early life, and his allusions to his mother, won my sympathy and respect. At another time, the picture of himself in his later years, and the defiant manner in which he presented it, almost made me regret that he had not died of the illness which had struck him deaf. In this state of uncertainty I may claim the merit of having arrived, so far as my own future conduct was concerned, at one positive conclusion. As strangers he and I had first met. As strangers I was determined we should remain.
Having made up my mind, so far, the next thing to do (with the clock on the mantel-piece striking midnight) was to go to bed.
I slept badly. The events that had happened, since my arrival in England, had excited me I suppose. Now and then, in the wakeful hours of the night, I thought of Cristel with some anxiety. Taking the Loger's exaggerated language for what it was really worth, the poor girl (as I was still inclined to fear) might have serious reason to regret that he had ever entered her father's cottage.
At the breakfast table, my stepmother and I met again.
Mrs. Roylake—in an exquisite morning dress; with her smile in perfect order—informed me that she was dying with curiosity. She had heard, from the servants, that I had not returned to the house until past ten o'clock on the previous night; and she was absolutely bewildered by the discovery. What could her dear Gerard have been doing, out in the dark by himself, for all that time?
"For some part of the time," I answered, "I was catching moths in Fordwitch Wood."
"What an extraordinary occupation for a young man! Well? And what did you do after that?"
"I walked on through the wood, and renewed my old associations with the river and the mill."
Mrs. Roylake's fascinating smile disappeared when I mentioned the mill. She suddenly became a cold lady—I might even say a stiff lady.
"I can't congratulate you on the first visit you have paid in our neighborhood," she said. "Of course that bold girl contrived to attract your notice?"
I replied that I had met with the "bold girl" purely by accident, on her side as well as on mine; and then I started a new topic. "Was it a pleasant dinner-party last night?" I asked—as if the subject really interested me. I had not been quite four and twenty hours in England yet, and I was becoming a humbug already.
My stepmother was her charming self again the moment my question had passed my lips. Society—provided it was not society at the mill—was always attractive as a topic of conversation. "Your absence was the only drawback," she answered. "I have asked the two ladies (my lord has an engagement) to dine here to-day, without ceremony. They are most anxious to meet you. My dear Gerard! you look surprised. Surely you know who the ladies are?"
I was obliged to acknowledge my ignorance.
Mrs. Roylake was shocked. "At any rate," she resumed, "you have heard of their father, Lord Uppercliff?"
I made another shameful confession. Either I had forgotten Lord Uppercliff, during my long absence abroad, or I had never heard of him.
Mrs. Roylake was disgusted. "And this is a foreign education!" she exclaimed. "Thank Heaven, you have returned to your own country! We will drive out after luncheon, and pay a round of visits." When this prospect was placed before me, I remembered having read in books of sensitive persons receiving impressions which made their blood run cold; I now found myself one of those persons, for the first time in my life. "In the meanwhile," Mrs. Roylake continued, "I must tell you—excuse me for laughing; it seems so very absurd that you should not know who Lord Uppercliff's daughters are—I must tell you that Lady Rachel is the eldest. She is married to the Honorable Captain Millbay, of the Navy, now away in his ship. A person of extraordinary strength of mind (I don't mean the Captain; I mean Lady Rachel); I admire her intellect, but her political and social opinions I must always view with regret. Her younger sister, Lady Lena—not married, Gerard; remember that!—is simply the most charming girl in England. If you don't fall in love with her, you will be the only young man in the county who has resisted Lady Lena. Poor Sir George—she refused him last week; you really must have heard of Sir George; our member of parliament; conservative of course; quite broken-hearted about Lady Lena; gone away to America to shoot bears. You seem to be restless. What are you fidgeting about? Ah, I know! You want to smoke after breakfast. Well, I won't be in your way. Go out on the terrace; your poor father always took his cigar on the terrace. They say smoking leads to meditation; I leave you to meditate on Lady Lena. Don't forget—luncheon at one o'clock, and the carriage at two."
She smiled, and kissed her hand, and fluttered out of the room. Charming; perfectly charming. And yet I was ungrateful enough to wish myself back in Germany again.
I lit my cigar, but not on the terrace. Leaving the house, I took the way once more that led to Fordwitch Wood. What would Mrs. Roylake have said, if she had discovered that I was going back to the mill? There was no other alternative. The portfolio was a trust confided to me; the sooner I returned it to the writer of the confession—the sooner I told him plainly the conclusion at which I had arrived—the more at ease my mind would be.
The sluggish river looked muddier than ever, the new cottage looked uglier than ever, exposed to the searching ordeal of sunlight. I knocked at the door on the ancient side of the building.
Cristel's father—shall I confess I had hoped that it might be Cristel herself?—let me in. In by-gone days, I dimly remembered him as old and small and withered. Advancing years had wasted him away, in the interval, until his white miller's clothes hung about him in empty folds. His fleshless face would have looked like the face of a mummy, but for the restless brightness of his little watchful black eyes. He stared at me in momentary perplexity, and, suddenly recovering himself, asked me to walk in.
"Are you the young master, sir? Ah, yes, yes; I thought so. My girl Cristy said she saw the young master last night. Thank you kindly, sir; I'm pretty well, considering how I've fallen away in my flesh. I have got a fine appetite, but somehow or other, my meals don't show on me. You will excuse my receiving you in the kitchen, sir; it's the best room we have. Did Cristy tell you how badly we are off here for repairs? You being our landlord, we look to you to help us. We are falling to pieces, as it were, on this old side of the house. There's first drains——"
He proceeded to reckon up the repairs, counting with his fleshless thumb on his skinny fingers, when he was interrupted by a curious succession of sounds which began with whining, and ended with scratching at the cottage door.
In a minute after, the door was opened from without. A brown dog, of the companionable retriever breed, ran in and fawned upon old Toller. Cristel followed (from the kitchen garden), with a basket of vegetables on her arm. Unlike the river and the cottage, she gained by being revealed in the brilliant sunlight. I now saw, in their full beauty, the luster of her brown eyes, the warm rosiness of her dark complexion, the delightful vivacity of expression which was the crowning charm of her face. She paused confusedly in the doorway, and tried to resist me when I insisted on relieving her of the basket.
"Mr. Gerard," she protested, "you are treating me as if I was a young lady. What would they say at the great house, if they knew you had done that?"
My answer would no doubt have assumed the form of a foolish compliment, if her father had not spared her that infliction. He returned to the all-important question, the question of repairs.
"You see, sir, it's no use speaking to the bailiff. Saving your presence, he's a miser with his master's money. He says, 'All right,' and he does nothing. There's first, as I told you just now, the truly dreadful state of the drains——"
I tried to stop him by promising to speak to the bailiff myself. On hearing this good news, Mr. Toller's gratitude became ungovernable: he was more eager than ever, and more eloquent than ever, in returning to the repairs.
"And then, sir, there's the oven. They do call bread the staff of life. It's a burnt staff at one time, and a clammy staff at another, in our domestic experience. Satisfy yourself, sir; do please cross the kitchen and look with your own eyes at the state, the scandalous state, of the oven."
His daughter interfered, and stopped him at the critical moment when he was actually offering his arm to conduct me in state across the kitchen. Cristel had just put her pretty brown hand over his mouth, and said, "Oh, father, do pray be quiet!" when we were all three disturbed by another interruption.
A second door communicating, as I concluded from its position, with the new cottage, was suddenly opened. In the instant before the person behind it appeared, the dog looked that way—started up, frightened—and took refuge under the table. At the next moment, the deaf Lodger walked into the room. It was he beyond all doubt who had frightened the dog, forewarned by instinct of his appearance.
What I had read of his writing disposed me, now that I saw the man by daylight, to find something devilish in the expression of his face. No! strong as it was, my prejudice failed to make any discoveries that presented him at a disadvantage. His personal attractions triumphed in the clear searching light. I now perceived that his eyes were of that deeply dark blue, which is commonly and falsely described as resembling the color of the violet. To my thinking, they were so entirely beautiful that they had no right to be in a man's face. I might have felt the same objection to the pale delicacy of his complexion, to the soft profusion of his reddish-brown hair, to his finely shaped sensitive lips, but for two marked peculiarities in him which would have shown me to be wrong—that is to say: the expression of power about his head, and the signs of masculine resolution presented by his mouth and chin.
On entering the room, the first person, and the only person, who attracted his attention was Cristel.
He bowed, smiled, possessed himself abruptly of her hand, and kissed it. She tried to withdraw it from his grasp, and met with an obstinate resistance. His gallantry addressed her in sweet words; and his voice destroyed their charm by the dreary monotony of the tone in which he spoke. "On this lovely day, Cristel, Nature pleads for me. Your heart feels the sunshine and softens towards the poor deaf man who worships you. Ah, my dear, it's useless to say No. My affliction is my happiness, when you say cruel things to me. I live in my fool's paradise; I don't hear you." He tried to draw her nearer to him. "Come, my angel; let me kiss you."
She made a second attempt to release herself; and this time, she wrenched her hand out of his grasp with a strength for which he was not prepared.
That fiercest anger which turns the face pale, was the anger that had possession of Cristel as she took refuge with her father. "You asked me to bear with that man," she said, "because he paid you a good rent. I tell you this, father; my patience is coming to an end. Either he must go, or I must go. Make up your mind to choose between your money and me."
Old Toller astonished me. He seemed to have caught the infection of his daughter's anger. Placed between Cristel and his money, he really acted as if he preferred Cristel. He hobbled up to his lodger, and shook his infirm fists, and screamed at the highest pitch of his old cracked voice: "Let her be, or I won't have you here no longer! You deaf adder, let her be!"
The sensitive nerves of the deaf man shrank as those shrill tones pierced them. "If you want to speak to me, write it!" he said, with rage and suffering in every line of his face. He tore from his pocket his little book, filled with blank leaves, and threw it at Toller's head. "Write," he repeated. "If you murder me with your screeching again, look out for your skinny throat—I'll throttle you."
Cristel picked up the book. She was gratefully sensible of her father's interference. "He shall know what you said to him," she promised the old man. "I'll write it myself."
She took the pencil from its sheath in the leather binding of the book. Controlling himself, the lover whom she hated advanced towards her with a persuasive smile.
"Have you forgiven me?" he asked. "Have you been speaking kindly of me? I think I see it in your face. There are some deaf people who can tell what is said by looking at the speaker's lips. I am too stupid, or too impatient, or too wicked to be able to do that. Write it for me, dear, and make me happy for the day."
Cristel was not attending to him, she was speaking to me. "I hope, sir, you don't think that father and I are to blame for what has happened this morning," she said. He looked where she was looking—and discovered, for the first time, that I was in the room.
He had alluded to his wickedness a moment since. When his face turned my way, I thought it bore witness to his knowledge of his own character.
"Why didn't you come to my side of the house?" he said to me. "What am I to understand, sir, by seeing you here?"
Cristel dropped his book on the table, and hurried to me in breathless surprise. "He speaks as if he knew you!" she cried. "What does it mean?"
"Only that I met him last night," I explained, "after leaving you."
"Did you know him before that?"
"No. He was a perfect stranger to me."
He picked up his book from the table, and took his pencil out of Cristel's hand, while we were speaking. "I want my answer," he said, handing me the book and the pencil. I gave him his answer.
"You find me here, because I don't wish to return to your side of the house."
"Is that the impression," he asked, "produced by what I allowed you to read?"
I replied by a sign in the affirmative. He inquired next if I had brought his portfolio with me. I put it at once into his hand.
In some way unknown to me, I had apparently roused his suspicions. He opened the portfolio, and counted the loose leaves of writing in it carefully. While he was absorbed in this occupation, old Toller's eccentricity assumed a new form. His little restless black eyes followed the movements of his lodger's fingers, as they turned over leaf after leaf of the manuscript, with such eager curiosity and interest that I looked at him in surprise. Finding that he had attracted my notice, he showed no signs of embarrassment—he seized the opportunity of asking for information.
"Did my gentleman trust you, sir, with all that writing?" he began.
"Did he want you to read it?"
"What's it all about, sir?"
Confronted by this cool inquiry, I informed Mr. Toller that the demands of curiosity had their limits, and that he had reached them. On this ground, I declined to answer any more questions. Mr. Toller went on with his questions immediately.
"Do you notice, sir, that he seems to set a deal of store by his writings? Perhaps you can say what the value of them may be?"
I shook my head. "It won't do, Mr. Toller!"
He tried again—I declare it positively, he tried again. "You'll excuse me, sir? I've never seen his portfolio before. Am I right if I think you know where he keeps it?"
"Spare your breath, Mr. Toller. Once more, it won't do!"
Cristel joined us, amazed at his pertinacity. "Why are you so anxious, father, to know about that portfolio?" she asked.
Her father seemed to have reasons of his own for following my example and declining to answer questions. More polite, however, than I had been, he left his resolution to be inferred. His daughter was answered by a few general remarks, setting forth the advantage to the landlord of having a lodger who had lost one of senses.
"You see there's something convenient, my dear, in the circumstance of that nice-looking gentleman over there being deaf. We can talk about him before his face, just as comfortably as if it was behind his back. Isn't that so, Mr. Gerard? Don't you see it yourself, Cristy? For instance, I say it without fear in his presence: 'tis the act of a fool to be fumbling over writings, when there's nothing in them that's not well known to himself already—unless indeed they are worth money, which I don't doubt is no secret to you, Mr. Gerard? Eh? I beg your pardon, sir, did you speak? No? I beg your pardon again. Yes, yes, Cristy, I'm noticing him; he's done with his writings. Suppose I offer to put them away for him? You can see in his face he finds the tale of them correct. He's coming this way. What's he going to do next?"
He was going to establish a claim on my gratitude, by relieving me of Giles Toller.
"I have something to say to Mr. Roylake," he announced, with a haughty look at his landlord. "Mind! I don't forget your screaming at me just now, and I intend to know what you meant by it. That will do. Get out of the way."
The old fellow received his dismissal with a low bow, and left the kitchen with a look at the Lodger which revealed (unless I was entirely mistaken) a sly sense of triumph. What did it mean?
The deaf man addressed me with a cold and distant manner. "We must understand each other," he said. "Will you follow me to my side of the cottage?" I shook my head. "Very well," he resumed; "we will have it out, here. When I trusted you with my confession last night, I left you to decide (after reading it) whether you would make an enemy of me or not. You remember that?" I nodded my head. "Then I now ask you, Mr. Roylake: Which are we—enemies or friends?"
I took the pencil, and wrote my reply:
"Neither enemies nor friends. We are strangers from this time forth."
Some internal struggle produced a change in his face—visible for one moment, hidden from me in a moment more. "I think you will regret the decision at which you have arrived." He said that, and saluted me with his grandly gracious bow. As he turned away, he perceived Cristel at the other end of the room, and eagerly joined her.
"The only happy moments I have are my moments passed in your presence," he said. "I shall trouble you no more for to-day. Give me a little comfort to take back with me to my solitude. I didn't notice that there were other persons present when I asked leave to kiss you. May I hope that you forgive me?"
He held out his hand; it was not taken. He waited a little, in the vain hope that she would relent: she turned away from him.
A spasm of pain distorted his handsome face. He opened the door that led to his side of the cottage—paused—and looked back at Cristel. She took no notice of him. As he moved again to the door and left us, the hysterical passion in him forced its way outward—he burst into tears.
The dog sprang up from his refuge under the table, and shook himself joyfully. Cristel breathed again freely, and joined me at my end of the room. Shall I make another acknowledgment of weakness? I began to fear that we might all of us (even including the dog!) have been a little hard on the poor deaf wretch who had gone away in such bitter distress. I communicated this view of the matter to Cristel. She failed to see it as I did.
The dog laid his head on her lap, asking to be caressed. She patted him while she answered me.
"I agree with this old friend, Mr. Gerard. We were both of us frightened, on the very first day, when the person you are pitying came to lodge with us. I have got to hate him, since that time—perhaps to despise him. But the dog has never changed; he feels and knows there is something dreadful in that man. One of these days, poor Ponto may turn out to be right.—May I ask you something, sir?"
"You won't think I am presuming on your kindness?"
"You ought to know me better than that, Cristel!"
"The truth is, sir, I have been a little startled by what I saw in our lodger's face, when he asked if you were his enemy or his friend. I know he is thought to be handsome—but, Mr. Gerard, those beautiful eyes of his sometimes tell tales; and I have seen his pretty complexion change to a color that turned him into an ugly man. Will you tell me what you wrote when you answered him?"
I repeated what I had written, word for word. It failed to satisfy her.
"He is very vain," she said, "and you may have wounded his vanity by treating him like a stranger, after he had given you his writings to read, and invited you to his room. But I thought I saw something much worse than mortification in his face. Shall I be taking a liberty, if I ask how it was you got acquainted with him last night?"
She was evidently in earnest. I saw that I must answer her without reserve; and I was a little afraid of being myself open to a suspicion of vanity, if I mentioned the distrust which I had innocently excited in the mind of my new acquaintance. In this state of embarrassment I took a young man's way out of the difficulty, and spoke lightly of a serious thing.