[Transcriber's Note: There were several words that appeared to be printers errors in this book. These have been changed; the changes are marked, and the original spellings are at the end of the text.]
WIFE IN NAME ONLY
Charlotte M. Braeme
(Bertha M. Clay)
By The Same Author In Uniform Style
Dora Thorne From Gloom to Sunlight Her Martyrdom Golden Heart Her Only Sin Lady Damer's Secret The Squire's Darling Her Mother's Sin Wife in Name Only Wedded and Parted Shadow of a Sin
Wife in Name Only
It was the close Of an autumn day, and Dr. Stephen Letsom had been standing for some time at his window watching the sun go down. It faded slowly out of the western sky. There had been a golden flush with the sunset which changed into crimson, then into purple, and finally into dull gray tints that were forerunners of the shades of night. Dr. Stephen Letsom had watched it with sad, watchful eyes. The leaves on the trees had seemed to be dyed first in red, then in purple. The chrysanthemums changed color with every phase of the sunset; there was a wail in the autumn wind as though the trees and flowers were mourning over their coming fate. There was something of sadness in the whole aspect of nature.
The doctor evidently shared it. The face looking from the window was anything but a cheerful one. Perhaps it was not the most judicious manner in which the doctor could have spent his time—above all, if he wished to give people an impression that he had a large practice. But Dr. Letsom had ceased to be particular in the matter of appearances. He was to all intents and purposes a disappointed man. Years before, when his eyes were bright with the fires of youth, and hope was strong in his heart, he had invested such money as he possessed in the purchase of a practice at Castledene, and it had proved to be a failure—why, no one exactly knew.
Castledene was one of the prettiest little towns in Kent. It had a town-hall, a market-place, a weekly market, and the remains of a fine old castle; but it was principally distinguished for its races, a yearly event which brought a great influx of visitors to the town. It was half buried in foliage, surrounded by dense woods and green hills, with a clear, swift river running by. The inhabitants were divided into three distinct classes—the poor, who gained a scanty livelihood by working in the fields, the shop-keepers, and the gentry, the latter class consisting principally of old maids and widows, ladies of unblemished gentility and limited means. Among the latter Dr. Letsom was not popular. He had an unpleasant fashion of calling everything by its right name. If a lady would take a little more stimulant than was good for her he could not be persuaded to call her complaint "nervousness;" when idleness and ennui preyed upon a languid frame, he had a startling habit of rousing the patient by a mental cautery. The poor idolized him, but the ladies pronounced him coarse, abrupt; and when ladies decide against a doctor, fate frowns upon him.
How was he to get on in the world? Twenty years before he had thought less of getting on than of the interests of science or of doing good; now those ideas were gradually leaving him—life had become a stern hand-to-hand fight with hard necessity. The poor seemed to be growing poorer—the difficulty of getting a fee became greater—the ladies seemed more and more determined to show their dislike and aversion.
Matters were growing desperate, thought Dr. Letsom on this autumn night, as he stood watching the chrysanthemums and the fading light in the western sky. Money was becoming a rare commodity with him. His housekeeper, Mrs. Galbraith had long been evincing signs of great discontent. She had not enough for her requirements—she wanted money for a hundred different things, and the doctor had none to give her. The curtains were worn and shabby, the carpets full of holes, the furniture, though clean and well preserved, was totally insufficient. In vain the doctor assured her he had not the means; after the fashion of weak-minded women, she grumbled incessantly. On this night he felt overwhelmed with cares. The rent due the preceding June had not been paid; the gas and coal accounts were still unsettled; the butcher had sent in his "little bill;" the baker had looked anything but pleased at the non-payment of his. The doctor sadly wanted a new hat—and he had hardly money in hand for the week's expenses. What was to be done?
Mrs. Galbraith retired to rest in a very aggrieved state of mind, and the doctor stood watching the stars, as they came out in the darkening sky. He was tired of the struggle; life had not been a success with him; he had worked hard, yet nothing had prospered. In youth he had loved a bright, pretty girl, who had looked forward to becoming his wife; but he had never married, because he had not had the means, and the pretty girl died a disappointed woman. Now, as he watched the stars, he fancied them shining on her grave; fancied the grass waving above her head; studded with large white daisies; and he wished that he were lying by her side, free from care, and at rest. Strong man as he was his eyes grew dim with tears, and his lips trembled with a deep-drawn, bitter sob.
He was turning away, with a feeling of contempt for his own weakness, when he was startled by the sound of a vehicle driven furiously down Castle street. What vehicle could it be at that hour of the night—nearly eleven? Stephen Letsom stood still and watched. He saw a traveling carriage, with two horses, driven rapidly up to the door of the principal hotel—the Castle Arms—and there stand for some few minutes. It was too dark for him to see if any one alighted from it, or what took place; but, after a time the horses' heads were turned, and then, like a roll of thunder, came the noise of the carriage-wheels.
The vehicle drew up before his door, and the doctor stood for a few moments as though paralyzed. Then came a violent peal of the doorbell; and he knowing that Mrs. Galbraith had retired for the evening, went to answer it. There indeed, in the starlight, were the handsome traveling carriage, the pair of gray horses, and the postilion. Stephen Letsom looked about him like one in a dream. He had been twenty years in the place, yet no carriage had ever stopped at his door.
He heard a quick, impatient voice, saying:
"Are you the doctor—Dr. Letsom?"
Looking in the direction of the sound, the doctor saw a tall, distinguished-looking man, wrapped in a traveling cloak—a man whose face and manner indicated at once that he belonged to the upper ranks of society. Dr. Stephen Letsom was quick to recognize that fact.
"I am the doctor," he replied, quietly.
"Then for Heaven's sake, help me! I am almost mad. My wife has been suddenly taken ill, and I have been to the hotel, where they tell me they have not a room in which they can lodge her. The thing is incredible. You must help me."
"I will do what I can," returned the doctor.
Had fortune indeed knocked at his door at last?
He went to the carriage-door, and, looking inside, saw a lady, young and beautiful, who stretched out her hands to him, as though appealing for help.
"I am very ill," she moaned, feebly.
Dr. Letsom guessed so much from her pallid face and shadowed eyes.
"What is the matter with your wife?" he asked of the strange gentleman, who bent down and whispered something that made Dr. Letsom himself look anxious.
"Now doctor," said the traveler, "it is useless to raise objections You see how the matter stands; my wife must stop here. The hotel is full of visitors—people who are here for the races. There is nowhere else for her to go—she must stay here."
"At my house?" interrogated the doctor. "It is impossible."
"Why?" asked the stranger, quickly.
"Because I am not married—I have no wife, no sister."
"But you have women-servants, surely?" was the hasty rejoinder.
"Only one, and she is not over-clever."
"You can get more. My wife must have help. Send all over the place—get the best nurses, the best help possible. Do not study expense. I will make you a rich man for life if you will only help me now."
"I will help you," said Dr. Letsom.
For a moment his thoughts flew to the green grave under the stars. Riches would come too late, after all; they could not bring back life to the dead.
"Wait one moment," said the doctor; and he hastened to rouse his housekeeper, who, curious and interested, exerted herself so as to satisfy even the stranger.
Then the strange lady, all white and trembling, was helped down from the parlor into the doctor's shabby little parlor.
"Am I going to die?" she asked, raising her large blue eyes to the doctor's face.
"Certainly not," he replied, promptly; "you must not think of dying."
"But I am very ill; and last night I dreamed that I was dead."
"Have you any brandy in the house?" asked the traveler. "See how my wife trembles."
Alas for the poor doctor! There was neither brandy nor wine. With an impatient murmur, the stranger called the postilion and sent him to the Castle arms with such an order as made Mrs. Galbraith open her eyes in wonder. Than, without seeming to notice the doctor or his servant, he flung himself on his knees by the lady's side, and kissed the beautiful white face and colorless lips.
"My darling," he cried, "this is my fault. I ought not to have asked you to undertake such a journey. Can you ever forgive me?"
She kissed him.
"You did all for the best, Hubert," she said, then adding, in a whisper: "Do you think I shall die?"
Then the doctor thought it right to interpose.
"There is no question of death," he said; "but you must be quiet. You must have no agitation—that would injure you."
Then he and Mrs. Galbraith led the beautiful, trembling girl to the room which the latter had hastily prepared for her, and, when she was installed therein, the doctor returned to the stranger, who was pacing, with quick, impatient steps, up and down the little parlor.
"How is she?" he cried, eagerly.
The doctor shook his head.
"She is young and very nervous," he replied. "I had better tell you at once that she will not be able to leave Castledene for a time—all thought of continuing the journey must be abandoned."
"But she is in no danger?" cried the traveler, and Stephen Letsom saw an agony of suspense in his face.
"No, she is not in danger; but she requires and must have both rest and care."
"She shall have anything, if Heaven will only spare her. Doctor, my best and safest plan will be to make a friend of you, to confide in you, and then we can arrange together what had better be done. Can you spare me five minutes?"
Stephen Letsom nodded assent, and sat down to listen to as strange a story as he bad ever heard.
"I should imagine," said the strange gentleman, "that no man likes to plead guilty to a folly. I must do so. Let me first of all introduce myself to you as Lord Charlewood. I am the only son of the Earl of Mountdean, and my father lies dying in Italy. I came of age only last year, and at the same time I fell in love. Now I am not in any way dependent on my father—the title and estate are entailed—but I love him. In these degenerate days it seems perhaps strange to hear a son say that he loves his father. I have obeyed him all my life from this motive. I would give my life for him. But in one respect I have done that which will cause him great annoyance and anger. I have married without his knowledge."
The doctor looked up with greater interest; perhaps his thoughts reverted to the grave in the starlight. Lord Charlewood moved uneasily in his chair.
"I cannot say that I am sorry," he continued, "for I love my wife very dearly; but I do wish now that I had been less hurried, less precipitate. My wife's great loveliness must be my excuse. She is the daughter of a poor curate, the Reverend Charles Trevor, who came two years ago to supply temporarily the place of the Rector of Lynton. He brought his daughter with him; and the first moment I saw her I fell in love with her. My heart seemed to go out from me and cleave to her. I loved her with what I can see now was the selfish ardor of a young man. I had but one thought—to win her. I wrote to my father, who was in Italy, and asked his consent. He refused it in the most decided manner, and told me to think no more of what after all was but a boy's fancy. He was then staying near the Lake of Como—staying for the benefit of his health—and I went over to see him. I pleaded, prayed, urged my great love—all in vain. The earl, my father, only laughed at me, and said all young men suffered from the fever called love. I came back to England, and found that Mr. Trevor was dead. Madaline, his daughter, was left alone in the world. She raised her beautiful face to mine, poor child, and tried to smile while she talked of going out into the world and of working hard for her daily bread; and, as I listened, my love seemed to grow stronger and deeper. I caught her in my arms, and swore that nothing should part us—that, come what would, she must be my wife. She was very unwilling—not that she did not love me, but because she was afraid of making my father angry; that was her great objection. She knew my love for him and his affection for me. She would not come between us. It was in vain that I prayed her to do as I wished. After a time she consented to a compromise—to marry me without my father's knowledge. It was a folly, I own; now I see clearly its imprudence—then I imagined it the safest and surest way. I persuaded her, as I had persuaded myself, that, when my father once knew that we were married, he would forgive us, and all would go well. We were married eleven mouths since, and I have been so happy since then that it has seemed to me but a single day. My beautiful young wife was frightened at the bold step we had taken, but I soothed her. I did not take her home to Wood Lynton, but, laying aside all the trappings of wealth and title, we have traveled from place to place as Mr. and Mrs. Charlewood, enjoying our long honeymoon. If we liked any one particular spot we remained in it. But a letter from Italy came like a thunderbolt—my father had grown rapidly worse and wanted to see me at once. If I had been content to go at once, all would have been well. I could not endure that he should die without seeing, loving, and blessing my wife Madaline. I told her my desire, and she consented most cheerfully to accompany me. I ought to have known that—in her state of health—traveling was most injurious; but I was neglectful of the fact—I listened only to my heart's desire, that my father should see my wife before he died. We started on our fatal journey—only this morning. At first my wife seemed to enjoy it; and then I saw all the color fading from her sweet face. I saw her lips grow white and tremble, and I became alarmed. It was not until we reached Castledene that she gave in and told me she could go no further. Still you say there is no danger, and that you do not think she will die?"
"Danger? No, I see none. Life and death lie in the hands of One above us; but, humanely speaking, I see no danger."
"Of course we cannot get on now," observed Lord Charlewood "at least Lady Charlewood cannot. How long do you think my suspense will last?"
"Not much longer," was the calm reply. "By noon to-morrow all will be safe and well, I hope."
"I must wait until then," said Lord Charlewood. "I could not leave my wife while even the faintest shadow of danger lies over her. If all be well, I can start the day after to-morrow; and, please Heaven, I shall be in time to see my father. You think I shall have good news for him?"
"I have every hope that you will be able to tell him that the heir of the Mountdeans is thriving and well."
Lord Charlewood smiled.
"Such news as that will more than reconcile him to our marriage," he said. After a pause he continued: "It is a most unfortunate matter; yet I am just as well pleased that my son and heir should be born in England. Doctor, there is another thing I wish to say. I know perfectly well what these little country towns are—everything is a source of gossip and sensation. If it were known that such an incident as this had happened to me, the papers would be filled with it; and it might fall out that my father, the earl, would come to know of it before I myself could tell him. We had better take all proper precautions against such a thing. I should prefer that we be known here only as Mr. and Mrs. Charlewood. No one will think of connecting the surname with the title."
"You are quite right," agreed the doctor.
"Another thing I wish to add is that I want you to spare no expense—send for the best nurse, the best help it is possible to get. Remember that I am a rich man, and that I would give my whole fortune, my life itself a thousand times over, to save or to serve my wife."
Then came a summons for the doctor from the room above, and Lord Charlewood was once more left alone. He was a young man, and was certainly both a good and honorable one. He had never deliberately done anything wicked—on the contrary he had tried always to do what was best; yet, as he stood there, a strange sense of something wanting came over him. The young wife he loved with such passionate worship was in the hour of need, and he could render no assistance.
Later on a strange hush had fallen over the doctor's house. It was past 1 in the morning; the sky was overcast; the wind was moaning fitfully, as though a storm was brewing in the autumn air. The dew lay thick and heavy on the ground. Inside the house was the strange hush that dangerous sickness always brings with it. The doctor had in haste summoned the best nurse in Castledene, Hannah Furney, who shook her head gravely when she saw the beautiful pale face. An hour passed, and again Dr. Letsom sought his distinguished guest.
"I am sorry not to bring better news," he said. "Lady—Mrs Charlewood—is not so well as I had hoped she would be. Dr. Evans is considered very clever. I should like further advice. Shall I send for him?"
The sudden flash of agony that came into Lord Charlewood's face was a revelation to Dr. Letsom; he laid his hand with a gentle touch on the stranger's arm.
"Do not fear the worst," he said. "She is in the hands of Heaven. I am taking only ordinary precautions. I do not say she is in danger—I merely say that she is not so well as I should like to see her."
Another hour passed, the church clock at Castledene was striking two, and Dr. Evans had joined the grave-faced group around the sick woman's bed. He, too, had looked with compassion on the beautiful young face—he, too, had bent forward to listen to the whisper that parted the white lips.
"Am I going to die?" she asked.
He tried to smile and say something about hope; but Nurse Furney knew, and she turned away lest the sick woman's questioning eyes should read what her face betrayed.
Three o'clock struck. A sweet voice, abrupt and clear, broke the silence of the solemn scene.
"Hubert. Where is Hubert? I must see him."
"Tell him to come," said Dr. Evans to Dr. Letsom, "but do not tell him there is any danger."
A few minutes later Lord Charlewood stood by the side of his young wife.
"Hubert," she said to him, with outstretched hands, "Hubert, my husband, I am so frightened. They do not tell me the truth. Am I going to die?"
He bent down to kiss her.
"Die, my darling? No, certainly not. You are going to live, to be what you always have been, the dearest, sweetest wife in the world." And he believed implicitly what he said.
Then came a strange sleep, half waking, half dreaming. Lady Charlewood fancied that she was with her husband on the seashore, and that the waves were coming in so fast that they threatened to drown her, they were advancing in such great sheets of foam. Once more she clung to him, crying:
"Help me, Hubert; I shall be drowned—see how the tide is coming in!"
Then the doctor bade him leave her—he must go down to the shabby, lowly little room, where the gas was burning, and the early dawn of the morning was coming in. The agony of unrest was on him. He thought how useless was money, after all; here he was with thousands at his command, yet he could not purchase help or safety for her whom his soul loved best. He was helpless, he could do nothing to assist her; he could trust only to Heaven.
He went from the window to the door; he trembled at the solemn silence, the terrible hush; he longed for the full light of day. Suddenly he heard a sound that stirred the very depths of his heart—that brought a crimson flush to his face and tears to his eyes. It was the faint cry of a little child. Presently he heard the footsteps of Dr. Letsom; and the next minute the doctor was standing before him, with a grave look on his face.
"You have a little daughter," he said—"a beautiful little girl—but your wife is in danger; you had better come and see her."
Even he—the doctor—accustomed to scenes of sorrow and desolation was startled by the cry of pain that came from the young man's lips.
Five o'clock! The chimes had played the hour, the church clock had struck; the laborers were going to the fields, the dairy-maids were beginning their work; the sky had grown clear and blue, the long night of agony was over. The Angel of Death had spread his wings over the doctor's house, and awaited only the moment when his sword should fall.
Inside, the scene had hardly changed. The light of the lamp seemed to have grown so ghostly that the nurse had turned it out, and, drawing the blinds, let the faint morning light come in. It fell on the beautiful face that had grown even whiter in the presence of death. Lady Charlewood was dying; yet the feeble arms held the little child tightly. She looked up as her husband entered the room. He had combated by a strong effort all outward manifestations of despair.
"Hubert," whispered the sweet, faint voice, "see, this is our little daughter."
He bent down, but he could not see the child for the tears that filled his eyes.
"Our little daughter," she repeated; "and they say, Hubert, that I have given my life for hers. Is it true?"
He looked at the two doctors; he looked at the white face bearing the solemn, serene impress of death. It would be cruel to deceive her now, when the hands that caressed the little child were already growing colder.
"Is it true, Hubert?" she repeated, a clear light shining in her dying eyes.
"Yes, my darling, it is true," he said, in a low voice.
"I am dying—really dying—when I have my baby and you?" she questioned. "Oh, Hubert, is it really true?"
Nothing but his sobs answered her; dying as she was, all sweet, womanly compassion awoke in her heart.
"Hubert," she whispered—"oh, my darling, if you could come with me!—I want to see you kiss the baby while it lies here in my arms."
He bent down and kissed the tiny face, she watching him all the time.
"You will be very kind to her, darling, for my sake, because you have loved me so much, and call her by my name—Madaline. Tell her about me when she grows up—how young I was to die, how dearly I loved you, and how I held her in my arms. You will not forget?"
"No," he said, gently; "I shall not forget."
The hapless young mother kissed the tiny rosebud face, all the passion and anguish of her love shining in her dying eyes; and then the nurse carried the babe away.
"Hubert," said Lady Charlewood, in a low, soft, whisper, "may I die in your arms, darling?"
She laid her head on his breast, and looked at him with the sweet content of a little child.
"I am so young," she said, gently, "to die—to leave you Hubert. I have been so happy with you—I love you so much."
"Oh, my wife, my wife!" he groaned, "how am I to bear it?"
The white hands softly clasped his own.
"You will bear it in time," she said. "I know how you will miss me; but you have the baby and your father—you will find enough to fill your life. But you will always love me best—I know that, Hubert. My heart feels so strange; it seems to stop, and then to beat slowly. Lay your face on mine, darling."
He did just as she requested, whispering sweet, solemn words of comfort; and then, beneath his own he felt her lips grow cold and still. Presently he heard one long, deep-drawn sigh. Some one raised the sweet head from his breast, and laid it back upon the pillow. He knew she was dead.
He tried to bear it; he said to himself that he must be a man, that he had to live for his child's sake. He tried to rise, but the strength of his manhood failed him. With a cry never forgotten by those who heard it, Lord Charlewood fell with his face on the ground.
Seven o'clock. The full light of day was shining in the solemn chamber; the faint golden sunbeams touched the beautiful white face, so still and solemn in death; the white hands were folded, and lay motionless on the quiet heart. Kindly hands had brushed back the golden-brown hair; some one had gathered purple chrysanthemums and laid them round the dead woman, so that she looked like a marble bride on a bed of flowers. Death wore no stern aspect there; the agony and the torture, the dread and fear, were all forgotten; there was nothing but the sweet smile of one at perfect rest.
They had not darkened the room, after the usual ghostly fashion—Stephen Letsom would not have it so—but they had let in the fresh air and the sunshine, and had placed autumn flowers in the vases. The baby had been carried away—the kind-hearted nurse had charge of it. Dr. Evans had gone home, haunted by the memory of the beautiful dead face. The birds were singing in the morning sun; and Lord Charlewood, still crushed by his great grief, lay on the couch in the little sitting-room where he had spent so weary a night.
"I cannot believe it," he said, "or, believing, cannot realize it. Do you mean to tell me, doctor, that she who only yesterday sat smiling by my side, life of my life, soul of my soul, dearer to me than all the world, has gone from me, and that I shall see her no more? I cannot, I will not believe it! I shall hear her crying for me directly, or she will come smiling into the room. Oh, Madaline, my wife, my wife!"
Stephen Letsom was too clever a man and too wise a doctor to make any endeavor to stem such a torrent of grief. He knew that it must have its way. He sat patiently listening, speaking when he thought a word would be useful; and Lord Charlewood never knew how much he owed to his kind, unwearied patience.
Presently he went up to look at his wife, and, kneeling by her side, nature's great comforter came to him. He wept as though his heart would break—tears that eased the burning brain, and lightened the heavy heart. Dr. Letsom was a skillful, kindly man; he let the tears flow, and made no effort to stop them. Then, after a time, disguised in a glass of wine, he administered a sleeping potion, which soon took effect. He looked with infinite pity on the tired face. What a storm, a tempest of grief had this man passed through!
"It will be kinder and better to let him sleep the day and night through, if he can," said Stephen to himself. "He would be too ill to attend to any business even if he were awake."
So through the silent hours of the day Lord Charlewood slept, and the story spread from house to house, until the little town rang with it—the story of the travelers, the young husband and wife, who, finding no room at the hotel, had gone to the doctors, where the poor lady had died. Deep sympathy and pity were felt and expressed; kind-hearted mothers wept over the babe; some few were allowed to enter the solemn death chamber; and these went away haunted, as Dr. Evans was, by the memory of the lovely dead face. Through it all Lord Charlewood slept the heavy sleep of exhaustion and fatigue, and it was the greatest mercy that could have befallen him.
The hour of wakening was to come—Stephen Letsom never forgot it. The bereaved man was frantic in his grief, mad with the sense of his loss. Then the doctor, knowing how one great sorrow counteracts another, spoke of his father, reminding him that if he wished to see him alive he must take some little care of himself.
"I shall not leave her!" cried Lord Charlewood. "Living or dead, she is dearer than all the world to me—I shall not leave her!"
"Nor do I wish you to do so," said the doctor. "I know you are a strong man—I believe you to be a brave one; in grief of this kind the first great thing is to regain self-control. Try to regain yours, and then you will see for yourself what had better be done."
Lord Charlewood discerned the truth.
"Have patience with me," he said, "a little longer; the blow is so sudden, so terrible, I cannot yet realize what the world is without Madaline."
A few hours passed, and the self-control he had struggled for was his. He sent for Dr. Letsom.
"I have been thinking over what is best," he said, "and have decided on all my plans. Have you leisure to discuss them with me?"
The question seemed almost ironical to the doctor, who had so much more time to spare than he cared to have. He sat down by Lord Charlewood's side, and they held together the conversation that led to such strange results.
"I should not like a cold, stone grave for my beautiful wife," said Lord Charlewood. "She was so fair, so spirituelle, she loved all nature so dearly; she loved the flowers, trees, and the free fresh air of heaven. Let her be where she can have them all now."
The doctor looked up with mild reproach in his eyes.
"She has something far better than the flowers of this world," he said. "If ever a dead face told of rest and peace, hers does; I have never seen such a smile on any other."
"I should like to find her a grave where the sun shines and the dew falls," observed Lord Charlewood—"where grass and flowers grow and birds sing in the trees overhead. She would not seem so far away from me then."
"You can find many such graves in the pretty church-yard here in Castledene," said the doctor.
"In time to come," continued Lord Charlewood, "she shall have the grandest marble monument that can be raised, but now a plain white cross will be sufficient, with her name, Madaline Charlewood; and, doctor, while I am away you will have the grave attended to—kept bright with flowers—tended as for some one that you loved."
Then they went out together to the green church-yard at the foot of the hill, so quiet, so peaceful, so calm, and serene, that death seemed robbed of half its terrors; white daisies and golden buttercups studded it, the dense foliage of tall lime-trees rippled above it. The graves were covered with richly-hued autumn flowers; all was sweet, calm, restful. There was none of earth's fever here. The tall gray spire of the church rose toward, the clear blue sky.
Lord Charlewood stood looking around him in silence.
"I have seen such a scene in pictures," he said. "I have read of such in poems, but it is the first I have really beheld. If my darling could have chosen for herself, she would have preferred to rest here."
On the western slope, where the warmest and brightest sun beams lay, under the shade of the rippling lime-trees, they laid Lady Charlewood to rest. For long years afterward the young husband was to carry with him the memory of that green grassy grave. A plain white cross bore for the present her name; it said simply:
In Loving Memory of MADALINE CHARLEWOOD, who died in her 20th year. ERECTED BY HER SORROWING HUSBAND.
"When I give her the monument she deserves," he said. "I can add no more."
They speak of that funeral to this day in Castledene—of the sad, tragic story, the fair young mother's death, the husband's wild despair. They tell how the beautiful stranger was buried when the sun shone and the birds sang—how solemnly the church-bell tolled, each knell seeming to cleave the clear sunlit air—how the sorrowing young husband, so suddenly and so terribly bereft, walked first, the chief mourner in the sad procession; they tell how white his face was, and how at each toll of the solemn bell he winced as though some one had struck him a terrible blow—how he tried hard to control himself, but how at the grave, when she was hidden forever from his sight, he stretched out his hands, crying, "Madaline, Madaline!" and how for the remainder of that day he shut himself up alone, refusing to hear the sound of a voice, to look at a human face—refusing food, comfort, grieving like one who has no hope for the love he had lost. All Castledene grieved with him; it seemed as though death and sorrow had entered every house.
Then came the morrow, when he had to look his life in the face again—life that he found so bitter without Madaline. He began to remember his father, who, lying sick unto death, craved for his presence. He could do no more for Madaline; all his grief, his tears, his bitter sorrow, were useless; he could not bring her back; he was powerless where she was concerned. But with regard to his father matters were different—to him he could take comfort, healing, and consolation. So it was decided that he should at once continue his broken journey.
What of little Madaline, the child who had her dead mother's large blue eyes and golden hair? Again Lord Charlewood and the doctor sat in solemn conclave; this time the fate of the little one hung in the balance.
Lord Charlewood said that if he found his father still weak and ill, he should keep the secret of his marriage. Of course, if Madaline had lived, all would have been different—he would have proudly owned it then. But she was dead. The child was so young and so feeble, it seemed doubtful whether it would live. What need then to grieve the old earl by the story of his folly and his disobedience? Let the secret remain. Stephen Letsom quite agreed with him in this; no one knew better than himself how dangerous was the telling of bad or disagreeable news to a sick man. And then Lord Charlewood added:
"You have indeed been a friend in need to me, Dr. Letsom. Money can no more repay such help as yours than can thanks; all my life I shall be grateful to you. I am going now to Italy, and most probably shall remain there until the earl, my father, grows better, or the end comes. When I return to England, my first care shall be to forward your views and prospects in life; until then I want you to take charge of my child."
Stephen Letsom looked up, with something like a smile.
"I shall be a rough nurse," he observed.
"You understand me," said Lord Charlewood. "You have lived here so long that you know the place and every one in it, I have been thinking so much of my little one. It would be absurd for me to take her to Italy; and as, for my father's sake, I intend to keep my marriage a secret for some time longer, I cannot send her to any of my own relatives or friends. I think the best plan will be for you to find some healthy, sensible woman, who would be nurse and foster-mother to her."
"That can easily be managed," remarked Stephen Letsom.
"Then you will have both child and nurse entirely under your own control. You can superintend all arrangements made for the little one's benefit. I have thought of offering to send you five hundred per annum, from which you can pay what you think proper for the child. You can purchase what is needful for her, and you will have an income for yourself. That I beg you accept in return for the services you have rendered me."
Dr. Letsom expressed his gratitude. He thanked Lord Charlewood and began at once to look around for some one who would be a fitting person to take care of little Madaline. Lord Charlewood had expressed a desire to see all settled before leaving for Italy.
Among the doctor's patients was one who had interested him very much—Margaret Dornham. She had been a lady's-maid. She was a pretty, graceful woman, gentle and intelligent—worthy of a far better lot than had fallen to her share. She ought to have married a well-to-do tradesman, for whom she would have made a most suitable wife; but she had given her love to a handsome ne'er do well, with whom she had never had one moment of peace or happiness. Henry Dornham had never borne a good character; he had a dark, handsome face—a certain kind of rich, gypsy-like beauty—but no other qualifications. He was neither industrious, nor honest, nor sober. His handsome face, his dark eyes, and rich curling hair had won the heart of the pretty, graceful, gentle lady's-maid, and she had married him—only to rue the day and hour in which she had first seen him.
They lived in a picturesque little cottage called Ashwood, and there Margaret Dornham passed through the greatest joy and greatest sorrow of her life. Her little child, the one gleam of sunshine that her darkened life had ever known, was born in the little cottage, and there it had died.
Dr. Letsom, who was too abrupt for the ladies of Castledene, had watched with the greatest and most untiring care over the fragile life of that little child. He had exerted his utmost skill in order to save it. But all was in vain; and on the very day that Lord Charlewood arrived at Castledene the child died.
When a tender nurse and foster-mother was needed for little Madaline, the doctor thought of Margaret Dornham. He felt that all difficulty was at an end. He sent for her. Even Lord Charlewood looked with interest at the graceful, timid woman, whose fair young face was so deeply marked with lines of care.
"Will I take charge of a little child?" she replied to the doctor's question. "Indeed I will, and thank Heaven for sending me something to keep my heart from breaking."
"You feel the loss of your own little one very keenly?" said Lord Charlewood.
"Feel it, sir? All the heart I have lies in my baby's grave."
"You must give a little of it to mine, since Heaven has taken its own mother," he said, gently. "I am not going to try flu bribe you with money—money does not buy the love and care of good women like you—but I ask you, for the love you bore to your own child, to be kind to mine. Try to think, if you can, that it is your own child brought back to you."
"I will," she promised, and she kept her word.
"You will spare neither expense nor trouble," he continued, "and when I return you shall be most richly recompensed. If all goes well, and the little one prospers with you, I shall leave her with you for two or three years at least. You have been a lady's-maid, the doctor tells me. In what families have you lived?"
"Principally with Lady L'Estrange, of Verdun Royal, sir," she replied. "I left because Miss L'Estrange was growing up, and my lady wished to have a French maid."
In after years he thought how strange it was that he should have asked the question.
"I want you," said Lord Charlewood, "to devote yourself entirely to the little one; you will be so liberally paid as not to need work of any other kind. I am going abroad, but I leave Dr. Letsom as the guardian of the child; apply to him for everything you want, as you will not be able to communicate with me."
He watched her as she took the child in her arms. He was satisfied when he saw the light that came into her face: he knew that little Madaline would be well cared for. He placed a bank note for fifty pounds in the woman's hands.
"Buy all that is needful for the little one," he said.
In all things Margaret Dornham promised obedience. One would have thought she had found a great treasure. To her kindly, womanly heart, the fact that she once more held a little child in her arms was a source of the purest happiness The only drawback was when she reached home, and her husband laughed coarsely at the sad little story.
"You have done a good day's work, Maggie," he said; "now I shall expect you to keep me, and I shall take it easy."
He kept his word, and from that day made no further effort to earn any money.
"Maggie had enough for both," he said—"for both of them and that bit of a child."
Faithful, patient Margaret never complained, and not even Dr. Letsom knew how the suffering of her daily life had increased even though she was comforted by the love of the little child.
Madaline slept in her grave—her child was safe and happy with the kindly, tender woman who was to supply its mother's place. Then Lord Charlewood prepared to leave the place where he had suffered so bitterly. The secret of his title had been well kept. No one dreamed that the stranger whose visit to the little town had been such a sad one was the son of one of England's earls. Charlewood did not strike any one as being a very uncommon name. There was not the least suspicion as to his real identity. People thought he must be rich; but that he was noble also no one ever imagined.
Mary Galbraith, the doctor's housekeeper, thought a golden shower had fallen over the house. Where there had been absolute poverty there was now abundance. There were no more shabby curtains and threadbare carpets—everything was new and comfortable. The doctor seemed to have grown younger—relieved as he was from a killing weight of anxiety and care.
The day came when Lord Charlewood was to say good-by to his little daughter, and the friends who had been friends indeed. Margaret Dornham was sent for. When she arrived the two gentlemen were in the parlor, and she was shown in to them. Every detail of that interview was impressed on Margaret's mind. The table was strewn with papers, and Lord Charlewood taking some in his hand, said:
"You should have a safe place for those doctor. Strange events happen in life. They might possibly be required some day as evidences of identification."
"Not much fear of that," returned the doctor, with a smile. "Still, as you say, it is best to be cautious."
"Here is the first—you may as well keep it with the rest," said Lord Charlewood; "it is a copy of my marriage certificate. Then you have here the certificates of my little daughter's birth and of my poor wife's death. Now we will add to these a signed agreement between you and myself for the sum I have spoken about."
Rapidly enough Lord Charlewood filled up another paper, which was signed by the doctor and himself; then Stephen Letsom gathered them all together. Margaret Dornham saw him take from the sideboard a plain oaken box bound in brass, and lock the papers in it.
"There will be no difficulty about the little lady's identification while this lasts," he said, "and the papers remain undestroyed."
She could not account for the impulse that led her to watch him so closely, while she wondered what the papers could be worth.
Then both gentlemen turned their attention from the box to the child. Lord Charlewood would be leaving directly, and it would be the last time that he, at least, could see the little one. There was all a woman's love in his heart and in his face, as he bent down to kiss it and say farewell.
"In three years' time, when I come back again," he said, "she will be three years old—she will walk and talk. You must teach her to say my name, Mrs. Dornham, and teach her to love me."
Then he bade farewell to the doctor who had been so kind a friend to him, leaving something in his hand which made his heart light for many a long day afterward.
"I am a bad correspondent, Dr. Letsom," he said; "I never write many letters—but you may rely upon hearing from me every six months. I shall send you half-yearly checks—and you may expect me in three years from this at latest; then my little Madaline will be of a manageable age, and I can take her to Wood Lynton."
So they parted, the two who had been so strangely brought together—parted with a sense of liking and trust common among Englishmen who feel more than they express. Lord Charlewood looked round him as he left the town.
"How little I thought," he said, "that I should leave my dead wife and living child here! It was a town so strange to me that I hardly even knew its name."
On arriving at his destination, to his great joy, and somewhat to his surprise, Lord Charlewood found that his father was better; he had been afraid of finding him dead. The old man's joy on seeing his son again was almost pitiful in its excess—he held his hands in his.
"My son—my only son! why did you not come sooner?" he asked. "I have longed so for you. You have brought life and healing with you; I shall live years longer now that I have you again."
And in the first excitement of such happiness Lord Charlewood did not dare to tell his father the mournful story of his marriage and of his young wife's untimely death. Then the doctors told him that the old earl might live for some few years longer, but that he would require the greatest care; he had certainly heart-disease, and any sudden excitement, any great anxiety, any cause of trouble might kill him at once. Knowing this Lord Charlewood did not dare to tell his secret; it would have been plunging his father into danger uselessly; besides which the telling of it was useless now—his beautiful wife was dead, and the child too young to be recognized or made of consequence. So he devoted himself to the earl, having decided in his own mind what steps to take. If the earl lived until little Madaline reached her third year, then he would tell him his secret; the child would be pretty and graceful—she would, in all probability, win his love. He could not let it go on longer than that. Madaline could not remain unknown and uncared for in that little county town; it was not to be thought of. Therefore, if his father lived, and all went well, he would tell his story then; if, on the contrary, his health failed, then he would keep his secret altogether, and his father would never know that he had disobeyed him.
There was a wonderful affection between this father and son. The earl was the first to notice the change that had come over his bright, handsome boy; the music had all gone from his voice, the ring from his laughter, the light from his face. Presently he observed the deep mourning dress.
"Hubert," he asked, suddenly, "for whom are you in mourning?"
Lord Charlewood's face flushed. For one moment he felt tempted to answer—
"For my beloved wife whom Heaven has taken from me."
But he remembered the probable consequence of such a shock to his father, and replied, quietly:
"For one of my friends, father—one whom you did not know." And Lord Mountdean did not suspect.
Another time the old earl placed his arm round his son's neck.
"How I wish, Hubert," he said, "that your mother had lived to see you a grown man! I think—do not laugh at me, my son—I think yours is perfect manhood; you please me infinitely."
Lord Charlewood smiled at the simple, loving praise.
"I have a woman's pride in your handsome face and tall, stately figure. How glad I am, my son, that no cloud has ever come between us! You have been the best of sons to me. When I die you can say to yourself that you have never once in all your life given me one moment's pain. How pleased I am that you gave up that foolish marriage for my sake! You would not have been happy. Heaven never blesses such marriages."
He little knew that each word was as a dagger to his son's heart.
"After you had left me and had gone back to England," he continued, "I used to wonder if I had done wisely or well in refusing you your heart's desire; now I know that I did well, for unequal marriages never prosper. She, the girl you loved, may have been very beautiful, but you would never have been happy with her."
"Hush, father!" said Lord Charlewood, gently. "We will not speak of this again."
"Does it still pain you? tell me, my son," cried the earl.
"Not in the way you think," he replied.
"I would not pain you for the world—you know that, Hubert. But you must not let that one unfortunate love affair prejudice you against marriage. I should like to see you married, my son. I should like you to love some noble, gentle lady whom I could call daughter; I should like to hold your children in my arms, to hear the music of children's voices before I go."
"Should you love my children so much, father?" he asked.
"Yes, more than I can tell you. You must marry, Hubert, and then, as far as you are concerned, I shall not have a wish left unfulfilled."
There was hope then for his little Madaline—hope that in time she would win the old earl's heart, and prevent his grieving over the unfortunate marriage. For two years and a half the Earl of Mountdean lingered; the fair Italian clime, the warmth, the sunshine, the flowers, all seemed to join in giving him new life. For two years and a half he improved, so that his son had begun to hope that he might return to England, and once more see the home he loved so dearly—Wood Lynton; and, though during this time his secret preyed upon him through every hour of every day, causing him to long to tell his father, yet he controlled the longing, because he would do nothing that might in the least degree retard his recovery. Then, when the two years and a half had passed, and he began to take counsel with himself how he could best break the intelligence, the earl's health suddenly failed him, and he could not accomplish his purpose.
During this time he had every six months sent regular remittances to England, and had received in return most encouraging letters about little Madaline. She was growing strong and beautiful; she was healthy, fair, and happy. She could say his name; she could sing little baby-songs. Once, the doctor cut a long golden-brown curl from her little head and sent it to him; but when he received it the earl lay dying, and the son could not show his father his little child's hair. He died as he had lived, loving and trusting his son, clasping his hand to the last, and murmuring sweet and tender words to him. Lord Charlewood's heart smote him as he listened, he had not merited such implicit faith and trust.
"Father," he said, "listen for one moment! Can you hear me? I did marry Madaline—I loved her so dearly, I could not help it—I married her; and she died one year afterward. But she left me a little daughter. Can you hear me, father?"
No gleam of light came into the dying eyes, no consciousness into the quiet face; the earl did not hear. When, at last, his son had made up his mind to reveal his secret, it was too late for his father to hear—and he died without knowing it. He died, and was brought back to England, and buried with great pomp and magnificence; and then his son reigned in his stead, and became Earl of Mountdean. The first thing that he did after his father's funeral was to go down to Castledene; he had made all arrangements for bringing his daughter and heiress home. He was longing most impatiently to see her; but when he reached the little town a shock of surprise awaited him that almost cost him his life.
Dr. Letsom had prospered; one gleam of good fortune had brought with it a sudden outburst of sunshine. The doctor had left his little house in Castle street, and had taken a pretty villa just outside Castledene. He had furnished it nicely—white lace curtains were no longer an unattainable luxury; no house in the town looked so clean, so bright, or so pretty as the doctor's People began to look up to him; it was rumored that he had had money left to him—a fortune that rendered him independent of his practice. No sooner was that quite understood than people began to find out that after all he was a very clever man. No sooner did they feel quite convinced that he was indifferent about his practice than they at once appreciated his services; what had been called abruptness now became truth and sincerity He was declared to be like Dr. Abernethy—wonderfully clever, though slightly brusque in manner. Patients began to admire him; one or two instances of wonderful cures were noted in his favor; the world, true to itself, true to its own maxims, began to respect him when it was believed that he had good fortune for his friend. In one year's time he had the best practice in the town, the ladies found his manner so much improved.
He bore his good-fortune as he had borne his ill-fortune, with great equanimity; it had come too late. If but a tithe of it had fallen to his share twelve years earlier, he might have made the woman he loved so dearly his wife. She might have been living—- loving happy, by his side. Nothing could bring her back—the good-fortune had come all too late; still he was grateful for it. It was pleasant to be able to pay his bills when they became due, to be able to help his poorer neighbors, to be able to afford for himself little luxuries such as he had long been without. The greatest happiness he had now in life was his love for little Madeline. The hold she had taken of him was marvelous from the first moment she held out her baby-hands until the last in which he saw her she was his one dream of delight. At first he had visited Ashwood as a matter of duty; but, as time passed on those visits became his dearest pleasures. The child began to know him, her lovely little face to brighten for him; she had no fear of him, but would sit on his knee and lisp her pretty stories and sing her pretty songs until he was fairly enchanted.
Madaline was a lovely child. She had a beautiful head and face, and a figure exquisitely molded. Her smiles were like sunshine; her hair had in it threads of gold; her eyes were of the deep blue that one sees in summer. It was not only her great loveliness, but there was about her a wonderful charm, a fascination, that no one could resist.
Dr. Letsom loved the child. She sat on his knee and talked to him, until the whole face of the earth seemed changed to him. Besides his great love for the little Madaline, he became interested in the story of Margaret Dornham's life—in her love for the handsome, reckless ne'er-do-well who had given up work as a failure—in her wonderful patience, for she never complained—in her sublime heroism, for she bore all as a martyr. He heard how Henry Dornham was often seen intoxicated—heard that he was abusive, violent. He went afterward to the cottage, and saw bruises on his wife's delicate arms and hands—dark cruel marks on her face; but by neither word nor look did she ever betray her husband. Watching that silent, heroic life, he became interested in her. More than once he tried to speak to her about her husband—to see if anything could be done to reclaim him. She knew that all efforts were in vain—there was no good in him; still more she knew now that there never had been such good as she had hoped and believed. Another thing pleased and interested the doctor—it was Margaret Dornham's passionate love for her foster child. All the love that she would have lavished on her husband, all the love that she would have given to her own child, all the repressed affection and buried tenderness of heart were given to this little one. It was touching pitiful, sad, to see how she worshiped her.
"What shall I do when the three years are over, and her father comes to claim her?" she would say to the doctor. "I shall never be able to part with her. Sometimes I think I shall run away with her and hide her."
How little she dreamed that there was a prophecy in the words!
"Her father has the first claim," said Dr. Letsom. "It may be hard for us to lose her, but she belongs to him."
"He will never love her as I do," observed Margaret Dornham.
Of the real rank and position of that father she had not the faintest suspicion. He had money, she knew; but that was all she knew—and money to a woman whose heart hungers for love seems very little.
"There is something almost terrible in the love of that woman for that child," thought the doctor. "She is good, earnest, tender, true, by nature; but she is capable of anything for the little one's sake."
So the two years and a half passed, and the child, with her delicate, marvelous grace, had become the very light of those two lonely lives. In another six months they would have to lose her. Dr. Letsom knew very well that if the earl were still living at the end of the three years his son would tell him of his marriage.
On a bright, sunshiny day in June the doctor walked over to Ashwood. He had a little packet of fruit and cakes with him, and a wonderful doll, dressed most royally.
"Madaline!" he cried, as he entered the cottage, and she came running to him, "should you like a drive with me to-morrow?" he asked. "I am going to Corfell, and I will promise to take you if you will be a good girl."
She promised—for a drive with the doctor was her greatest earthly delight.
"Bring her to my house about three to-morrow afternoon, Mrs. Dornham," said Dr. Letsom, "and she shall have her drive."
Margaret promised. When the time came she took the little one, dressed in her pretty white frock; and as they sat in the drawing-room, the doctor was brought home to his house—dead.
It was such a simple yet terrible accident that had killed him. A poor man had been injured by a kick from a horse. For want of better accommodation, he had been carried up into a loft over a stable, where the doctor attended him. In the loft was an open trap-door, through which trusses of hay and straw were raised and lowered. No one warned Dr. Letsom about it. The aperture was covered with straw, and he, walking quickly across, fell through. There was but one comfort—he did not suffer long. His death was instantaneous; and on the bright June afternoon when he was to have taken little Madaline for a drive, he was carried home, through the sunlit streets, dead.
Margaret Dornham and the little child sat waiting for him when the sad procession stopped at the door.
"The doctor is dead!" was the cry from one to another.
A terrible pain shot through Margaret's head. Dead! The kindly man, who had been her only friend, dead! Then perhaps the child would be taken from her, and she should see it no more!
An impulse, for which she could hardly account, and for which she was hardly responsible, seized her. She must have the box that contained the papers, lest, finding the papers, people should rob her of the child. Quick as thought, she seized the box—which always stood on a bracket in the drawing-room—and hid it under her shawl. To the end of her life she was puzzled as to why she had done this. It would not be missed, she knew, in the confusion that was likely to ensue. She felt sure, also, that no one, save herself and the child's father, knew of its contents.
She did not wait long in that scene of confusion and sorrow. Clasping the child in her arms, lest she should see the dead face, Margaret Dornham hurried back to the cottage, bearing with her the proofs of the child's identity.
The doctor was buried, and with him all trace of the child seemed lost. Careful search was made in his house for any letters that might concern her, that might give her father's address; but Stephen Letsom had been faithful to his promise—he had kept the secret. There was nothing that could give the least clew. There were no letters, no memoranda; and, after a time, people came to the conclusion that it would be better to let the child remain where she was, for her father would be sure in time to hear of the doctor's death and to claim her.
So September came, with its glory of autumn leaves. Just three years had elapsed since Lady Charlewood had died; and then the great trouble of her life came to Margaret Dornham.
On the day after Dr. Letsom's death, Margaret Dornham's husband was apprehended on a charge of poaching and aiding in a dangerous assault on Lord Turton's gamekeepers. Bail was refused for him, but at the trial he was acquitted for want of evidence. Every one knew he was guilty. He made no great effort to conceal it. But he defied the whole legal power of England to prove him guilty. He employed clever counsel, and the result was his acquittal. He was free; but the prison brand was on him, and his wife felt that she could not endure the disgrace.
"I shall go from bad to worse now, Maggie," he said to her. "I do not find prison so bad, nor yet difficult to bear; if ever I Bee by any lucky hit I can make myself a rich man, I shall not mind a few years in jail as the price. A forgery, or something of that kind, or the robbery of a well-stocked bank, will be henceforward my highest aim in life."
She placed her hand on his lips and prayed him for Heaven's sake to be silent. He only laughed.
"Nature never intended me to work—she did not indeed, Maggie. My fellow-men must keep me; they keep others far less deserving."
From that moment she knew no peace or rest. He would keep his word; he would look upon crime as a source of profit; he would watch his opportunity of wrong-doing, and seize it When it came.
In the anguish of her heart she cried aloud that it must not be at Ash wood; anywhere else, in any other spot, but not there, where she had been known in the pride of her fair young life—not there, where people had warned her not to marry the handsome reckless, ne'er-do-well, and had prophesied such terrible evil for her if she did marry him—not there, where earth was so fair, where all nature told of innocence and purity. If he must sin, let it be far away in large cities where the ways of men were evil.
She decided on leaving Ashwood. Another and perhaps even stronger motive that influenced her was her passionate love for the child; that was her one hope in life, her one sheet-anchor, the one thing that preserved her from the utter madness of desolation.
The three years had almost elapsed; the doctor was dead, and had left nothing behind him that could give any clew to Madaline's identity, and in a short time—she trembled to think how short—the father would come to claim his child, and she would lose her. When she thought of that, Margaret Dornham clung to the little one in a passion of despair. She would go away and take Madaline with her—keep her where she could love her—where she could bring her up as her own child, and lavish all the warmth and devotion of her nature upon her. She never once thought that in acting thus she was doing a selfish, a cruel deed—that she was taking the child from her father, who of all people living had the greatest claim upon her.
"He may have more money than I have," thought poor, mistaken Margaret, "but he cannot love her so much; and after all love is better than money."
It was easy to manage her husband. She had said but little to him at the time she undertook the charge of little Madaline, and he had been too indifferent to make inquiries. She told him now, what was in some measure quite true, that with the doctor's death her income had ceased, and that she herself not only was perfectly ignorant of the child's real name, but did not even know to whom to write. It was true, but she knew at the same time that, if she would only open the box of papers, she would not be ignorant of any one point; for those papers she had firmly resolved never to touch, so that in saying she knew nothing of the child's identity she would be speaking the bare truth.
At first Henry Dornham was indignant. The child should not be left a burden and drag on his hands, he declared—it must go to the work-house.
But patient Margaret clasped her arms round his neck, and whispered to him that the child was so clever, so pretty, she would be a gold-mine to them in the future—only let them get away from Ashwood, and go to London, where she could be well trained and taught. He laughed a sneering laugh, for which, had he been any other than her husband, she would have hated him.
"Not a bad plan, Maggie," he said; "then she can work to keep us. I, myself, do not care where we go or what we do, so that no one asks me to work."
He was easily persuaded to say nothing about their removal, to go to London without saying anything to his old friends and neighbors of their intentions. Margaret knew well that so many were interested in the child that she would not be allowed to take her away if her wish became known.
How long the little cottage at Ashwood had been empty no one knows. It stood so entirely alone that for weeks together nothing was seen or known of its inhabitants. Henry Dornham was missed from his haunts. His friends and comrades wondered for a few days, and then forgot him; they thought that in all probability he was engaged in some not very reputable pursuit.
The rector of Castledene—the Rev. John Darnley—was the first really to miss them. He had always been interested in little Madaline. When he heard from the shop keepers that Margaret had not been seen in the town lately, he feared she was ill, and resolved to go and see her. His astonishment was great when he found the cottage closed and the Dornhams gone—the place had evidently been empty for some weeks. On inquiry he found that the time of their departure and the place of their destination was equally unknown. No one knew whither they had gone or anything about them. Mr. Darnley was puzzled; it seemed to him very strange that, after having lived in the place so long, Margaret Dornham should have left without saying one word to any human being.
"There is a mystery in it," thought the rector. He never dreamed that the cause of the mystery was the woman's passionate love for the child.
All Castledene wondered with him—indeed, for some days the little town was all excitement. Margaret Dornham had disappeared with the child who had been left in their midst. Every one seemed to be more or less responsible for her; but neither wonder nor anything else gave them the least clew as to whither or why she had gone. After a few day's earnest discussion and inquiry the excitement died away, when a wonderful event revived it. It was no other than the arrival of the new Earl of Mountdean in search of his little girl.
This time the visitor did not take any pains to conceal his title. He drove to the "Castle Arms," and from there went at once to the doctor's house. He found it closed and empty. The first person he asked told him that the doctor had been for some weeks dead and buried.
The young earl was terribly shocked. Dead and buried—the kindly man who had befriended him in the hour of need! It seemed almost incredible. And why had no one written to him? Still he remembered the address of his child's foster-mother. It was Ashwood Cottage; and he went thither at once. When he found that too closed and deserted, it seemed to him that fortune was playing him a trick.
He was disconcerted; and then, believing that this at least was but a case of removal, he decided upon going to the rector of the parish, whom he well remembered. He surely would be able to give him all information.
Mr. Darnley looked up in wonder at the announcement of his visitor's name—the Earl of Mountdean. What could the earl possibly want of him?
His wonder deepened as he recognized in the earl the stranger at the burial of whose fair young wife he had assisted three years before. The earl held out his hand.
"You are surprised to see me, Dr. Darnley? You recognize me, I perceive."
The rector contrived to say something about his surprise, but Lord Mountdean interrupted him hastily:
"Yes, I understand. I was traveling as Mr. Charlewood when my terrible misfortune overtook me here. I have returned from Italy, where I have been spending the last three years. My father has just died, and I am here in search of my child. My child," continued the earl, seeing the rector's blank face—"where is she? I find my poor friend the doctor is dead, and the house where my little one's foster-mother lived is empty. Can you tell me what it means?"
He tried to speak calmly, but his handsome face had grown quite white, his lips were dry and hot, his voice, even to himself, had a strange, harsh sound.
"Where is she?" he repeated. "The little one—my Madaline's child? I have a strange feeling that all is not well. Where is my child?"
He saw the shadow deepen on the rector's face, and he clasped his arm.
"Where is she?" he cried. "You cannot mean that she is dead? Not dead, surely? I have not seen her since I left her, a little, feeble baby; but she has lived in my heart through all these weary years of exile. My whole soul has hungered and thirsted for her. By night and by day I have dreamed of her, always with Madaline's face. She has spoken sweet words to me in my dreams, always in Madaline's voice. I must see her. I cannot bear this suspense. You do not answer me. Can it be that she too is dead?"
"No, she is not dead," replied the rector. "I saw her two months since, and she was then living—well, beautiful, and happy. No, the little one is not dead."
"Then tell me, for pity's sake, where she is!" cried the earl, in an agony of impatience.
"I cannot. Two months since I was at Ashwood Cottage Margaret Dornham's worthless husband was in some great trouble. I went to console his wife; and then I saw the little one. I held her in my arms, and thought, as I looked at her, that I had never seen such a lovely face. Then I saw no more of her; and my wonder was aroused on hearing some of the tradespeople say that Mrs. Dornham had not been in town for some weeks. I believed she was ill, and went to see. My wonder was as great as your own at finding the house closed. Husband, wife, and child had disappeared as though by magic from the place, leaving no clew or trace behind them."
The rector was almost alarmed at the effect of his words. The young earl fell back in his chair, looking as though the shadow of death had fallen over him.
It was but a child, the rector thought to himself, whom its father had seen but a few times. He did not understand that to Lord Mountdean this child—his dying wife's legacy—was the one object in life, that she was all that remained to him of a love that had been dearer than life itself. Commonplace words of comfort rose to his lips, but the earl did not even hear them. He looked up suddenly, with a ghastly pallor still on his face.
"How foolish I am to alarm myself so greatly!" he said. "Some one or other will be sure to know whither the woman has gone. She may have had some monetary trouble, and so have desired to keep her whereabouts a secret; but some one or other will know. If she is in the world I will find her. How foolish I am to be so terribly frightened! If the child is living what have I to fear?"
But, though his words were brave and courageous, his hands trembled, and the rector saw signs of great agitation. He rang for wine, but Lord Mountdean could not take it—he could do nothing until he had found his child.
In few words he told the rector the story of his marriage.
"I thought," he said, "that I could not do better for the little one than leave her here in the doctor's care."
"You were right," returned the rector; "the poor doctor's love for the child was talked about everywhere. As for Margaret Dornham, I do not think, if she had been her own, she could have loved her better. Whatever else may have gone wrong, take my word for it, there was no lack of love for the child; she could not have been better cared for—of that I am quite sure."
"I am glad to hear you say so; that is some comfort. But why did no one write to me when the doctor died?"
"I do not think he left one shred of paper containing any allusion to your lordship. All his effects were claimed by some distant cousin, who now lives in his house. I was asked to look over his papers, but there was not a private memorandum among them—not one; there was nothing in fact but receipted bills."
Lord Mountdean looked up.
"There must be some mistake," he observed. "I myself placed in his charge all the papers necessary for the identification of my little daughter."
"May I ask of what they consisted?" said the rector.
"Certainly—the certificate of my marriage, of my beloved wife's death, of my little daughter's birth, and an agreement between the doctor and myself as to the sum that was to be paid to him yearly while he had charge of my child."
"Then the doctor knew your name, title, and address?"
"Yes; I had no motive in keeping them secret, save that I did not wish my marriage to be known to my father until I myself could tell him—and I know how fast such news travels. I remember distinctly where he placed the papers. I watched him."
"Where was it?" asked Mr. Darnley. "For I certainly have seen nothing of them."
"In a small oaken box with brass clasps, which stood on a sideboard. I remember it as though it were yesterday."
"I have seen no such box," said the rector. "Our wisest plan will be to go at once to the house where his cousin, Mr. Grey, resides, and see if the article is in his possession. I am quite sure, though, that he would have mentioned it if he had seen it."
Without a minute's delay they drove at once to the house, and found Mr. Grey at home. He was surprised when he heard the name and rank of his visitor, and above all when he understood his errand.
"A small oaken box with brass clasps?" he said. "No; I have nothing of the kind in my possession; but, if your lordship will wait, I will have a search made at once."
Every drawer, desk, and recess were examined in vain. There was no trace of either the box or the papers.
"I have an inventory of everything the doctor's house contained—it was taken the day after his death," said Mr. Grey; "we can look through that."
Item after item was most carefully perused. The list contained no mention of a small oaken box. It was quite plain that box and papers had both disappeared.
"Could the doctor have given them into Mrs. Dornham's charge?" asked the earl.
"No," replied the rector—"I should say certainly not. I am quite sure that Mrs. Dornham did not even know the child's surname. I remember once asking her about it; she said it was a long name, and that she could never remember it. If she had had the papers, she would have read them. I cannot think she holds them."
Then they went to visit Mrs. Galbraith, the doctor's housekeeper. She had a distinct recollection of the box—it used to stand on the sideboard, and a large-sized family Bible generally lay on the top of it. How long it had been out of sight when the doctor died she did not know, but she had never seen it since. Then they drove to the bank, thinking that, perhaps, for greater security, he might have deposited it there. No such thing had been heard of. Plainly enough, the papers had disappeared; both the earl and the rector were puzzled.
"They can be of no possible use to any one but myself," said Lord Mountdean. "Now that my poor father is dead and cannot be distressed about it, I shall tell the whole world—if it cares to listen—the story of my marriage. If I had wanted to keep that or the birth of my child a secret, I could have understood the papers being stolen by one wishing to trade with them. As it is, I cannot see that they are of the least use to any one except myself."
They gave up the search at last, and then Lord Mountdean devoted himself to the object—the finding of his child.
In a few days the story of his marriage was told by every newspaper in the land; also the history of the strange disappearance of his child. Large rewards were offered to any one who could bring the least information. Not content with employing the best detective skill in England, he conducted the search himself. He worked unwearyingly.
"A man, woman, and child could not possibly disappear from the face of the earth without leaving some trace behind," he would say.
One little gleam of light came, which filled him with hope—they found that Margaret Dornham had sold all her furniture to a broker living at a town called Wrentford. She had sent for him herself, and had asked him to purchase it, saying that she, with her husband, was going to live at a distance, and that they did not care about taking it with them. He remembered having asked her where she was going, but she evaded any reply. He could tell no more. He showed what he had left of the furniture and tears filled Lord Mountdean's eyes as he saw among it a child's crib. He liberally rewarded the man, and then set to work with renewed vigor to endeavor to find out Margaret Dornham's destination.
He went to the railway stations; and, though the only clew he succeeded in obtaining was a very faint one, he had some reason for believing that Margaret Dornham had gone to London.
In that vast city he continued the search, until it really seemed that every inch of ground had been examined. It was all without result—Margaret Dornham and her little foster-child seemed to have vanished.
"What can be the woman's motive?" the earl would cry, in despair. "Why has she taken the child? What does she intend to do with it?"
It never occurred to him that her great, passionate love for the little one was the sole motive for the deed she had done.
The papers were filled with appeals to Margaret Dornham to return to Castledene, or to give some intelligence of her foster-child. The events of the story were talked about everywhere; but, in spite of all that was done and said, Lord Mountdean's heiress remained undiscovered. Months grew into years, and the same mystery prevailed. The earl was desperate at first—his anguish and sorrow were pitiful to witness; but after a time he grew passive in his despair. He never relaxed in his efforts. Every six months the advertisements with the offers of reward were renewed; every six months the story was retold in the papers. It had become one of the common topics of the day. People talked of the Earl of Mountdean's daughter, of her strange disappearance, of the mysterious silence that had fallen over her. Then, as the years passed on, it was agreed that she would never be found, that she must be dead. The earl's truest friends advised him to marry again. After years of bitter disappointment, of anguish and suspense, of unutterable sorrow and despair, he resigned himself to the entire loss of Madaline's child.
* * * * *
Nature had made Philippa L'Estrange beautiful, circumstances had helped to make her proud. Her father, Lord L'Estrange, died when she was quite a child, leaving her an enormous fortune that was quite under her own control. Her mother, Lady L'Estrange, had but one idea in life, and that was indulging her beautiful daughter in her every caprice. Proud, beautiful, and wealthy, when she most needed her mother's care that mother died, leaving her sole mistress of herself. She was but seventeen then, and was known as one of the wealthiest heiresses and loveliest girls of the day. Her first step was, in the opinion of the world, a wise one; she sent for a widowed cousin, Lady Peters, to live with her as chaperon. For the first year after her mother's death she remained at Verdun Royal, the family estate. After one year given to retirement, Philippa L'Estrange thought she had mourned for her mother after the most exemplary fashion She was just nineteen when she took her place again in the great world, one of its brightest ornaments.
An afternoon in London in May. The air was clear and fresh; there was in it a faint breath of the budding chestnuts, the hawthorn and lilac; the sun shone clear and bright, yet not too warmly.
On this afternoon Miss L'Estrange sat in the drawing-room of the magnificent family mansion in Hyde Park. The whole world could not have produced a more marvelous picture. The room itself was large, lofty, well proportioned, and superbly furnished; the hangings were of pale-rose silk and white lace the pictures and statues were gems of art, a superb copy of the Venus of Milo gleaming white and shapely from between the folds of rose silk, also a marble Flora, whose basket was filled with purple heliotropes, and a Psyche that was in itself a dream of beauty; the vases were filled with fairest and most fragrant flowers. Nothing that art, taste, or luxury could suggest was wanting—the eye reveled in beauty. Miss L'Estrange had refurnished the room in accordance with her own ideas of the beautiful and artistic.
The long windows were opened, and through them one saw the rippling of the rich green foliage in the park; the large iron balconies were filled with flowers, fragrant mignonette, lemon-scented verbenas, purple heliotropes, all growing in rich profusion. The spray of the little scented fountain sparkled in the sun. Every one agreed that there was no other room in London like the grand drawing-room at Verdun House.
There was something on that bright May afternoon more beautiful even than the flowers, the fountains, the bright-plumaged birds in their handsome cages, the white statues, or the pictures; that was the mistress and queen of all this magnificence, Philippa L'Estrange. She was reclining on a couch that had been sent from Paris—a couch made of finest ebony, and covered with pale, rose-colored velvet. If Titian or Velasquez had seen her as she lay there, the world would have been the richer by an immortal work of art; Titian alone could have reproduced those rich, marvelous colors; that perfect, queenly beauty. He would have painted the picture, and the world would have raved about its beauty. The dark masses of waving hair; the lovely face with its warm Southern tints; the dark eyes lighted with fire and passion; the perfect mouth with its proud, sweet, imperial, yet tender lips; the white, dimpled chin; the head and face unrivaled in their glorious contour; the straight, dark brows that could frown and yet soften as few other brows could; the white neck, half hidden, half revealed by the coquettish dress; the white rounded arms and beautiful hands—all would have struck the master. Her dress fell round her in folds that would have charmed an artist. It was of some rich, transparent material, the pale amber hue of which enhanced her dark loveliness. The white arms were half shown, half covered by rich lace—in the waves of her dark hair lay a yellow rose. She looked like a woman whose smile could be fatal and dangerous as that of a siren, who could be madly loved or madly hated, yet to whom no man living could be indifferent.
She played for some few minutes with the rings on her fingers, smiling to herself a soft, dreamy smile, as though her thoughts were very pleasant ones; then she took up a volume of poems, read a few lines, and then laid the book down again. The dark eyes, with a gleam of impatience in them, wandered to the clock.
"How slowly those hands move!" she said.
"You are restless," observed a calm, low voice; "watching a clock always makes time seem long."
"Ah, Lady Peters," said the rich, musical tones, "when I cease to be young, I shall cease to be impatient."
Lady Peters, the chosen confidante and chaperon of the brilliant heiress, was an elderly lady whose most striking characteristic appeared to be calmness and repose. She was richly dressed in a robe of black moire, and she wore a cap of point lace; her snowy hair was braided back from a broad white brow; her face was kindly, patient, cheerful; her manner, though somewhat stately, the same. She evidently deeply loved the beautiful girl whose bright face was turned to hers.
"He said three in his note, did he not, Lady Peters?"
"Yes, my dear, but it is impossible for any one to be always strictly punctual; a hundred different things may have detained him."
"But if he were really anxious to see me, he would not let anything detain him," she said.
"Your anxiety about him would be very flattering to him if he knew it," remarked the elder lady.
"Why should I not be anxious? I have always loved him better than the whole world. I have had reason to be anxious."
"Philippa, my dear Philippa, I would not say such things if I were you, unless I had heard something really definite from himself."
The beautiful young heiress laughed a bright, triumphant laugh.
"Something definite from himself! Why, you do not think it likely that he will long remain indifferent to me, even if he be so now—which I do not believe."
"I have had so many disappointments in life that I am afraid of being sanguine," said Lady Peters; and again the young beauty laughed.
"It will seem so strange to see him again. I remember his going away so well. I was very young then—I am young now, but I feel years older. He came down to Verdun Royal to bid us good-by, and I was in the grounds. He had but half an hour to stay, and mamma sent him out to me,"
The color deepened in her face as she spoke, and the light shone in her splendid eyes—there was a kind of wild, restless passion in her words.
"I remember it all so well! There had been a heavy shower of rain in the early morning, that had cleared away, leaving the skies blue, the sunshine golden, while the rain-drops still glistened on the trees and the grass. I love the sweet smell of the green leaves and the moist earth after rain. I was there enjoying it when he came to say good-by to me—mamma came with him. 'Philippa,' she said, 'Norman is going; he wants to say good-by to his little wife.' He always calls me his little wife. I saw him look very grave. She went away and left us together. 'You are growing too tall to be called my little wife, Philippa,' she said, and I laughed at his gravity. We were standing underneath a great flowering lilac-tree—the green leaves and the sweet flowers were still wet with the rain. I remember it so well! I drew one of the tall fragrant sprays down, and shaking the rain-drops from it, kissed it. I can smell the rich, moist odor now. I never see a lilac-spray or smell its sweet moisture after rain but that the whole scene rises before me again—I see the proud, handsome face that I love so dearly, the clear skies and the green trees. 'How long shall you be away, Norman?' asked him. 'Not more than two years,' he replied. 'You will be quite a brilliant lady of fashion when I return, Philippa; you will have made conquests innumerable.' 'I shall always be the same to you,' I replied; but he made no answer. He took the spray of lilac from my hands. 'My ideas of you will always be associated with lilacs,' he said; and that is why, Lady Peters, I ordered the vases to be filled with lilacs to-day. He bent down and kissed my face. 'Good-by, Philippa,' he said, 'may I find you as good and as beautiful as I leave you.' And then he went away. That is just two years ago; no wonder that I am pleased at his return."
Lady Peters looked anxiously at her.
"There was no regular engagement between you and Lord Arleigh, was there, Philippa?"
"What do you call a regular engagement?" said the young heiress. "He never made love to me, if that is what you mean—he never asked me to be his wife; but it was understood—always understood."
"By whom?" asked Lady Peters.
"My mother and his. When Lady Arleigh lived, she spent a great deal of time at Verdun Royal with my mother; they were first cousins, and the dearest of friends. Hundreds of times I have seen them sitting on the lawn, while Norman and I played together. Then they were always talking about the time we should be married. 'Philippa will make a beautiful Lady Arleigh,' his mother used to say. 'Norman, go and play with your little wife,' she would add; and with all the gravity of a grown courtier, he would bow before me and call me his little wife."