Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 15
LORD OAKBURN’S DAUGHTERS.
BY THE AUTHOR OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XXIX. AN IRON ENTERING INTO THE SOUL.
The Earl of Oakburn was in a bustle. The earl was one of those people who always are in a bustle when starting upon a journey, be it ever so short a one. He was going on a visit to Sir James Marden at Chesney Oaks, and he was putting himself in a commotion over it.
To Jane’s surprise he had announced an intention not to take Pompey. Jane wondered how he would get on without that faithful and brow-beaten follower, if only in the light of an object to roar at; and when she asked the earl the reason for not taking him, he had civilly replied that it was no business of hers. Jane felt sorry for the decision, for she believed Pompey to be essential to her father’s comforts; and she knew the earl, with all his temper, liked the old servant, and was glad to have him about him; but otherwise Jane attached no importance to the matter. So the earl was driven to the Paddington station, and Pompey, after seeing his master and his carpet-bag safely in an express train, returned with the carriage to Portland Place.
Jane Chesney was a little busy on her own score just now, for she was seeking a governess to replace Miss Lethwait; one who should prove to be a more desirable inmate than that lady had been. Jane blamed herself greatly for not having inquired more minutely into Miss Lethwait’s antecedents; she had been, as she thought now, too much prepossessed in her favour at first sight, had taken her too entirely upon trust. That Jane would not err again on that score, her present occupation was proving—that of searching out the smallest details in connection with the lady now recommended to her, a Miss Snow. Not many days yet had Miss Lethwait quitted the house, but Jane had forcibly put her out of remembrance. Never, willingly, would she think again upon one, whose conduct in that one particular, the episode to which Jane had been a witness the night of the party, had been so entirely obnoxious.
Lord Oakburn was whirled along that desirable line for travellers, the Great Western. In the opposite corner of the comfortable carriage there happened to be another old naval commander sitting, and the terms that the two got upon were so good, that his lordship could not believe his eyes when he saw the well-known station at Pembury, or believe that they had already reached it.
He had, however, to part with his new acquaintance, for Pembury station was his alighting point. He found Sir James Marden’s carriage waiting for him, a sort of mail phaeton, Sir James himself, a little man with a yellow face, seated in the box seat. The earl and his carpet-bag were duly installed in it, and Sir James drove out of the station.
As they were proceeding up the street to take the avenue for Chesney Oaks,—the pleasant avenue, less green now than it had been in spring, which wound through the park to the house,—a small carriage, drawn by a pair of beautiful ponies, came rapidly down upon them. Not more beautiful in their way, those ponies, than were the ladies seated in the carriage. Two gay, lovely ladies, laughing and talking with each other, their veils and their streamers and their other furbelows, flying behind them in the wind. The one, driving, was Colonel Marden’s wife, and she was about to rein in and greet Sir James, when her companion, with a half-smothered cry and a sudden paleness displacing the rich bloom on her cheeks, seized the reins and sent the ponies onward at a gallop. It was Lady Laura Carlton.
“Holloa!” exclaimed Sir James, “what was that for?”
Lord Oakburn, in his surprise, had started up in the phaeton. About the last person he had been thinking of was Laura, and Pembury was about the last place he would have expected to see her in. The fact was, Laura had recently met Mrs. Marden at a friend’s house near Great Wennock; the two ladies had struck up a sudden friendship, and Laura had come back with her for a few days’ visit.
“She was evidently scared at the sight of one of us, and I’m sure I never met her before to my knowledge,” cried Sir James, alluding to the lady seated with Mrs. Marden. “Do you know her, Lord Oakburn?”
“Know her!” repeated the earl, rather explosively. “I’m sorry to say I do know her, sir. She is an ungrateful daughter of mine, who ran away from her home to be married to a fellow, and never asked my leave.”
“It must be Lady Laura Carlton!” quickly exclaimed Sir James Marden.
“It is,” said the earl. “And I assure you I’d give a great deal out of my pocket if she were Lady Laura Anybody-else.”
“You’ll have to forgive her, I suppose. What a handsome girl she is!”
“No, I shan’t have to forgive her,” returned the earl, much offended at the suggestion. “I don’t intend to forgive her.”
Brave words, no doubt. But who knows what might have come of the interview had that pony carriage been allowed to stop? It might have been a turning point in Laura’s life, might have led to a reconciliation—for Lord Oakburn’s bark was worse than his bite, and he did love his children. But Laura Carlton, in her startled fear at seeing him so close to her, had herself given the check and the impetus, and the opportunity was gone by for ever.
“What brings her at Pembury?” growled the earl, as they drove through the park.
“I can’t tell,” replied Sir James. “I conclude she must be visiting at my brother’s.”
“I didn’t know she knew them,” was the comment of the earl. “Forgive a clandestine marriage! No, never!”
Brave words again of the Earl of Oakburn’s. Clandestine marriages are not good in themselves, and they often work incalculable ill, entailing embarrassing consequences on more than one generation, But the condemnation would have come with better grace from another than Lord Oakburn, seeing that he was contemplating something of the sort on his own account.
He slept one night at Chesney Oaks, and then he concluded his visit. Sir James Warden was surprised and vexed at the abrupt termination. He set it down to the unwelcome presence of the earl’s rebellious daughter at Pembury, and he pressed Lord Oakburn’s hand at parting, and begged him to come again shortly, at a more convenient period.
But most likely Lord Oakburn had never intended a longer stay. The probabilities were—it’s hard, you know, to have to write it of a middle-aged earl, a member of the sedate and honourable Upper House—that he had only taken Chesney Oaks as a blind to his daughters on his way to Miss Lethwait. For his real visit was to her.
Chesney Oaks was situated in quite an opposite part of the kingdom to Twifford vicarage, but by taking advantage of cross rails, Lord Oakburn contrived to reach Twifford late that same night. He did not intrude on them until the following morning. The house, a low one, covered with ivy, was small and unpretending, but exceedingly picturesque; its garden was beautiful, and the birds made their nests and sang in the clustering trees that surrounded the lawn and flowers.
In features they were very much alike, but in figure no two could be much more dissimilar than the father and daughter. The vicar was a littleman, particularly timid in manner; his daughter magnificent as a queen. If she had looked queenly in the handsomely proportioned rooms of the earl’s town house, how much more so did she look in the miniature little parlour of the vicarage.
Lord Oakburn entered upon his business in his usual blunt fashion. He had come down, he said, to make acquaintance with Mr. Lethwait, and to know when the wedding was to be.
The vicar replied by stating that Eliza had told him all. And he, the father, was deeply sensible of the honour done her by the Earl of Oakburn, and that he himself should be proud and pleased to see her his wife; but that he felt a scruple upon the point, as did Eliza. He felt that her entrance into the family might be very objectionable to the earl’s daughters.
And, knowing what you do know of the earl, you may be sure that that speech was the signal for an outburst. He poured forth a torrent of angry eloquence in his peculiar manner, so completely annihilating every argument but his own, that the timid clergyman never dared to utter another word of objection. The earl must have it his own way: as it had been pretty sure from the first he would have it.
“Eliza has been a good and dutiful daughter, my lord,” said the vicar, who in his retired life, his humble home, had hardly ever been brought into contact with one of the earl’s social degree. “My living has been very small, and my expenses have been inevitably large—that is, large for one in my position. The last years of my wife’s life were years of illness; she suffered from a complaint that required constant medical attendance and expensive nourishment, and Eliza was to us throughout almost as a guardian angel. Every penny she could spare from her own absolute expenses, she sent to us. She has put up with undesirable places where the discomforts were great, the insults hard to be borne, and would not throw herself out, lest we might suffer. She has been a good daughter,” he emphatically added; “she will, I hesitate not to say it, make a good wife. And if only your lordship’s daughters will——”
Another interrupting burst from his lordship: his daughters had nothing to do with it, and he did not intend that they should have. And the vicar was finally silenced.
The earl did things like nobody else. He had spent the best part of his life at sea, and shore ideas and proprieties were still almost to him as a closed book. In discussing the arrangements of the marriage with Miss Lethwait—for he compelled her to discuss them, and he did it in a perfectly matter-of-fact manner, just as he might have discussed a debate in the Lords—she found herself obliged to hint, as he did not, that a tour, long or short, inland or foreign, as might be convenient, was usually deemed eligible on that auspicious occasion. The earl could not be brought to see it; did not understand it. What on earth was the matter with his house at home that they could not proceed direct to it on their wedding day? he demanded. Were there a brig convenient they might enjoy a month’s cruize in her, and he’d say something to it, or even a well-built yacht; but he hated land travelling, and was not going to encounter it.
Miss Lethwait thought of the horrors of sea-sickness, and left the brig and the yacht to drop into abeyance. Neither dared she, in the timidity of her new position, urge the tour further upon him; but she did shrink from being taken home to the midst of his daughters on the marriage day.
On the following day the earl went back to town, Miss Lethwait having succeeded in postponing the period of the marriage until October.
September was a busy month with Jane Chesney. The term for which they had engaged their present furnished residence was expiring, and Lord Oakburn took on lease one of the neighbouring houses in Portland Place.
Jane was in her element. Choosing furniture and planning out arrangements for their new home was welcome work, all being done with one primary object—the comfort of her father. The best rooms were appropriated to him, the best things were placed in them. Jane thought how happy they should be together, she and her father, in this settled homestead. They did not intend to go out of town that year: why should they? they had but a few months entered it. Custom? Fashion? The earl did not understand custom, and fashion was as a foreign ship to him. Jane only cared for what he cared.
They moved into the house the last week in September, Jane anxious with loving cares still. But for the mysterious and prolonged absence of Clarice, she would have been thoroughly and completely happy. Miss Snow was proving an efficient governess for Lucy, and Jane had leisure on her hands. The unpleasant episode in the reign of the last governess, Eliza Lethwait, had nearly faded from Jane Chesney’s memory, and she no more dreamt of connecting that condemned lady with certain occasional short absences of the earl in the country, than she dreamt of attributing them to visits paid to the Great Mogul.
The first week in October came in, and the evenings were getting wintry. Lord Oakburn had been away from home three days, and Jane, who had just got the house into nice condition, and was resting from her labours, had leisure to feel ill. Not actually ill, perhaps; but anything but well. She had felt so all day, a sick shivery feeling that she could not account for, a low-spirited sensation, as of some approaching evil. Do coming events thus cast their shadows before? There are those who tell us that they do. Not in that way, however, was Jane Chesney superstitious, or did she think of attributing her sensations to any such mystical cause. She “felt out of sorts” she said to Lucy’s governess, and supposed she had caught cold.
Causing a fire to be lighted in her dressing-room, a little snuggery on the second floor adjoining her bed-room, she resolved to make herself comfortable there for the evening. She ordered the tea-tray to be brought up, and sent a message for Miss Snow and Lucy.
Miss Snow, a little, lively, warm-mannered woman, the very reverse of the dignified Miss Lethwait, was full of trifling cares for Lady Jane. She threw a warm shawl on her shoulders, she insisted on wrapping her feet in flannel as they rested on the footstool before the fire, and she asked permission to make and pour out the tea.
Judith was at that moment bringing in the tea-tray. Judith—I’m sure I forget whether this has been mentioned before—had taken the place of own maid to Jane and Lucy when the change occurred in their fortunes. Jane valued her greatly, and the girl was deserving of it.
“A gentleman has called to inquire when the earl will be at home, my lady,” she said, as she put down the tray. “He wishes very particularly to see him.”
“I’m sure I don’t know,” said Jane, rather listlessly. “Who is it?”
“It is that same gentleman who has been here occasionally on Sir James Marden’s business,” replied Judith. “I heard him say to Wilson as I came through the hall that he had had a communication from Chesney Oaks which he wished the earl to see as soon as possible. Wilson asked me if I’d bring the message to your ladyship.”
Jane turned her head in some slight surprise. “A communication from Chesney Oaks?” she repeated. “But papa is at Chesney Oaks. You can tell the gentleman so, Judith.”
“No, Jane, papa’s not at Chesney Oaks,” interposed Lacy, who was dancing about the room with her usual restlessness. “If he had been going to Chesney Oaks he would have gone from the Paddington Station, wouldn’t he?”
“Well?” said Jane.
“Well, he went to the King’s Cross Station.”
“How do you know?” asked Jane.
Lucy gave a deprecatory glance at Miss Snow ere she entered on her confession. She had run out to her papa after he was in the carriage for a last last kiss, and heard Pompey give the order to the coachman, “The King’s Cross Station.”
Jane shook her head. “You must have been mistaken, Lucy,” she said. “I asked papa whether he was going to Chesney Oaks, and he—he—” Jane stopped a moment in recollection—“he nodded his head in the affirmative. It must have meant the affirmative,” she added, slowly, as if debating the point with herself. “I am sure he is at Chesney Oaks.”
“Shall I inquire of the coachman, my lady?” asked Judith. “He is down stairs.”
“Yes, do,” replied Jane. “And you can tell the gentleman, Sir James Marden’s agent, that I shall expect Lord Oakburn home daily until I see him. He seldom remains away above three days.”
Judith went down on her errand, and came up again. Lucy was right. The coachman had driven his master to the King’s Cross Station: the coachman further said that it was to the King’s Cross Station that he had driven his master on his recent absences. Jane wondered. She was not aware that Lord Oakburn knew any one on that line. This time he had taken Pompey with him.
Miss Snow busied herself with the tea; Lucy talked; Jane sat in listless idleness. And thus the time went on until a loud knock and ring resounded through the house. Jane lifted her eyes to the clock on the mantelpiece, and saw that it wanted ten minutes to nine.
“Visitors to-night!” she exclaimed, with vexation.
“Don’t admit them, Lady Jane,” spoke up Miss Snow impulsively, in her sympathy for Lady Jane. “You are not well enough.”
Lucy had escaped from the room, and Miss Snow caught her at the dignified pastime of listening. Stretched over the balustrades as far as she could stretch, her ears and eyes were riveted to what was going on in the hall below. The governess administered a sharp reprimand and ordered her to come away. But Lucy was absorbed, and altogether ignored both Miss Snow and the mandate.
“Do you hear me speak to you, Lady Lucy? Must I come for you, then?”
Lucy drew away now, but not, as it appeared, in obedience to the governess. Her face wore a puzzled look of surprise, and she went back to the room on tiptoe.
“Jane,” said she, scarcely above her breath, “Jane what do you think? It is papa and Miss Lethwait!”
Jane turned round on her chair. “What nonsense, Lucy! Miss Lethwait!”
“It is indeed, Jane. It looks just as though papa had brought her on a visit, and there’s some luggage coming into the hall. Miss Lethwait——”
“It cannot be Miss Lethwait,” sharply interrupted Lady Jane, her tone betraying annoyance at the very mistake.
“Yes it is Miss Lethwait,” persisted Lucy. “She is dressed so well!—in a rich damask dress and a white bonnet, and an Indian shawl with a gold border. It is just like that Indian shawl of mamma’s that you never remove from the drawer and never wear, because you say it puts you too much in mind of her.”
“Lucy, you must certainly be dreaming!” reiterated Jane. “Miss Lethwait would never dare to step inside our house again. If——”
Jane stopped. Wilson the footman had come up the stairs, and his face wore a blank look.
“I beg your pardon, my lady; the earl has arrived.”
“Well?” said Jane.
“He ordered me to come up to you, my lady, and ask whether there was nobody to receive him and—and—Lady Oakburn.”
“Bade you ask what?” demanded Jane, bending her haughty eyelids on the servant.
“My lady,” returned the man, thinking he would give the words as they were given to him, and then perhaps he should escape anger, “what his lordship said was this: ‘Go up and see where they are, and ask what’s the reason that nobody is about, to receive Lady Oakburn.’ They were the exact words, my lady.”
“Is it my aunt, the Dowager Lady Oakburn?” asked Jane in her wonder.
“It is Miss Lethwait, my lady. That is to say, she as was Miss Lethwait when she lived here.”
Lucy was right, then! A ghastly hue overspread the face of Jane Chesney. Not at the unhappy fact—which as yet, strange to say, had not dawned on her mind—but at the insult offered to her by this re-entrance of the governess into their house. Who was she, this Eliza Lethwait, that she should come again, and beard her in her home? Had he, her father, brought her—brought her on a visit, as surmised by Lucy?
The footman had already gone down stairs again. Jane flung aside Miss Snow’s wrapperings and prepared to descend. The governess had stood in a state of puzzled amazement, wondering what it all meant. On the stairs Jane encountered Judith. The girl was paler than usual, and very grave.
“My lady,” she whispered, arresting Jane’s progress, “do you know what has occurred?”
“I know that that person whom I turned from my house has dared to intrude into it again,” answered Lady Jane in her wrath, speaking far more openly than it was her custom to speak before a servant. “But she shall not stop in it; no, not for an hour. Let me pass, Judith.”
“Oh, my lady, hear the worst before you go in; before you enter upon a contest with her that perhaps she’d gain,” implored Judith, in her eager sympathy for her mistress. “My lord has married her, and has brought her home.”
Jane fell against the wall and looked at Judith, a pitiable expression of helplessness on her face. The girl resumed.
“Pompey says they were married yesterday morning; were married by Miss Lethwait’s father in his own church. He says, my lady, he finds it is to Miss Lethwait’s the earl has gone lately when he has been absent from town; not to Chesney Oaks.”
“Support me, Judith,” was the feeble prayer of the unhappy daughter.
Utterly sick and faint was she, and but for Judith’s help she would have fallen. She sunk down on the friendly stairs, and let her head rest on them until the faintness had passed. Then she rose, staggering, and went on with what feeble strength was left her.
“I must know the worst,” she moaned. “I must know the worst.”
Lucy, wondering and timid, stole into the drawing-room after her. Standing by its fire, her face turned to the door in expectation, was she who had quitted the house as Miss Lethwait, only six or seven weeks before. Jane’s eyes fell on her dress, as mentioned by Lucy, the rich sweeping silk, the pretty white bonnet, and the costly shawl—their own mother’s shawl! taken by the earl from its resting place to bestow on his new bride. Woman’s mind is a strange compound of strength and littleness; and to see that shawl on her shoulders brought to Jane’s heart perhaps the keenest pang of all. The earl was striding the room; his stick, suspiciously restless, coming down loudly with each step. He confronted his two daughters.
“So! here you are at last! And nothing ready, that I see, in the shape of welcome. Not so much as the tea laid! What’s the reason, Lady Jane?”
“We did not expect you,” replied Jane in a low tone, her back turned on the ex-governess.
“You got my letter. Wasn’t it plain enough?”
“I have not received any letter.”
“Not received any letter! By Jove! I’ll prosecute the post-office! Girls,” with a flourish of his hand towards his wife—“here’s your new mother, Lady Oakburn. You don’t want a letter to welcome her.”
It seemed that Jane, at any rate, wanted something, if not a letter. She persistently ignored the presence of the lady, keeping her face turned to her father. But when she tried to address him, no sound issued from her white and quivering lips. The new countess came forward, and humbly, deprecatingly, held out her hand to Jane.
“Lady Jane, I implore you, let there be peace between us. Suffer me to sue for it. It has pleased Lord Oakburn to make me his wife; but indeed I have not come here to interfere with his daughters’ privileges or to sow dissension in their home. Try and like me, Lady Jane! It will not be difficult to me to love you.”
Jane wheeled round, her white lips trembling, her face ablaze with scorn.
“Like you!” she repeated, her voice, in her terrible emotion, rising to a hiss. “Like you! Can we like the serpent that entwines its deadly coils around its victim? You have brought your arts to bear on my unsuspicious father, and torn him from his children. As you have dealt with us, Eliza Lethwait, may you so be dealt with when your turn shall come!”
The countess drew back in agitation. She laid her hand on Lucy.
“You at least will let me love you, Lucy! I loved you when I was with you, and I will endeavour to be to you a second mother. This entrance into your home is as embarrassing and painful to me as to you.”
Lucy burst into tears as she received the kiss pressed upon her lips. She had liked Miss Lethwait very much, but she did not like her to bring upon them this discomfort.
The earl and his stick, neither of them quite so brave as usual, went off to take refuge in the small room that they had made the library; glad perhaps, if the truth could be known, that he had a refuge just then to hide himself in.
“It’s new lines to them yet, Eliza,” he called out as he went, for the benefit of his rebellious daughters. “To Jane especially. They haven’t got their sea-legs on at present; but it will be all right in a day or two. Or you shall ask them the reason why.”
An exceedingly smart lady’s maid brushed past the earl, brushed past Jane, and addressed her mistress, with whom she had arrived.
“Your chamber is in order now, my lady, and what you’ll want to-night unpacked. I thought your ladyship might like a fire, so I have had one lighted.”
The countess passed out of the room, glad as the earl, perhaps, to make her escape. Jane grasped a chair in her heart-sickness.
Oh, reader! surely you can feel for her! She was hurled without warning from the post of authority in her father’s home, in which she had been mistress for years; she was hurled from the chief place in her father’s heart. One whom she regarded as in every way beneath her, whom she disliked and despised, over whom she had held control, was exalted into her place; raised over her. She might have borne that bitterness: not patiently, but still she might have borne it: but what she could not bear was that another should become more to her father than she was. He whom she had so revered and loved, he in whom her very life had been bound up, had now taken to himself an idol—and Jane henceforth was nothing.
She dragged her aching limbs back to her dressing-room and cowered down before the fire with a low moan. Judith found her there. The girl had a letter in her hand.
“My lady, Pompey’s nearly out of his mind with alarm. He says he’d rather run away back to Africa than that his fault should become known to his master. My lord gave him a letter to post for you yesterday, and he forgot it, and has just found it in his pocket.”
Jane mechanically stretched out her hand for the letter; mechanically opened it. It was short and pithy.
“Dear Jane:—I married Miss Lethwait this morning, and we shall be home to tea to-morrow: have things ship-shape. You behaved ill to her when she was with us, and she felt it keenly, but you’ll take care to steer clear of that quicksand for the future; for remember she’s my wife now, and will be the mistress of my home.
“Your affectionate father,
Jane crushed the letter in her hand and let her head fall, a convulsive sob that arose in her throat from time to time alone betraying her anguish. If ever the iron entered into the soul of woman, it had surely entered into that of Jane Chesney.
CHAPTER XXX.BACK AT THE OLD HOME.
They stood together in the library—the earl and his daughter Jane. The morning sun streamed in at the window, playing on the fair smooth hair of Jane, showing all too conspicuously the paleness of her cheek, the utter misery of her countenance. The earl, looking bluff and uncomfortable, paced the carpet restlessly, his stick, for a wonder, lying unheeded in a corner.
It was their first meeting since the of his return the previous night. Ah, what a night it had been for Jane! Never for an instant had she closed her eyes. As she went to bed, so she rose; not having once lost consciousness of the blow that had been dealt out to her.
She had heard the earl go into the library, after his breakfast. He had taken it with the countess and Lucy. And Jane, drinking at a gulp the cup of tea brought to her, and which had stood neglected until it was cold, went down stairs and followed him in.
Not to reproach him; not to cast a word of indignation on the usurping countess; simply to speak of herself, and what her future course must be.
“This is no longer a home for me, papa,” she quietly began, striving to subdue all outward token of emotion, of the bitter pain that was struggling within her. “I think you must see that it is not. Will you help me to another?”
“Don’t talk nonsense, Jane,” said the earl, testily, wishing he was breasting the waves in a hurricane off the Cape, rather than in this dilemma. “It will all smooth down in a few days, if you’ll only let it.”
Jane lifted her eyes to him, a whole world of anguish in their depths. “I could not stop here,” she said, in a low tone, quite painful from its earnestness. “Papa, it would kill me.”
And it seemed as if it really would kill her. Lord Oakburn grunted something unintelligible, and looked uncommonly ill-at-ease.
“You must let me go away, papa. Perhaps you will help me to another home?”
“What home? Where d’ye want to go?” he crossly asked.
“I have been thinking that I could go to South Wennock,” she said. “I cannot remain in London. The house at South Wennock has not let since we left it; it is lying useless there, with its furniture; and, now that the winter is approaching, it will not be likely to let. Suffer me to go back there.”
Lord Oakburn took a few strides up and down without reply. Jane stood, as before, near the table, one hand leaning on it, as if for support.
“It’s the most rubbishing folly in the world, Jane! You’d be as comfortable at home as ever you were, if you’d only bring your mind to it. Do you suppose she has come into the house to make things unpleasant for us? You don’t know her, if you think that. But there!—have it your own way! If you’d like to go back to South Wennock for the winter, you can.”
“Thank you,” answered Jane, with a suppressed sob. “You will allow me sufficient to live upon, papa?”
“I’ll see about that,” said the earl, testily. “Let me know what you want, and I’ll do what I can.”
“I should like to continue in it, papa: to make it my home for life.”
“Stuff, Jane! Before you have been there six months you’ll be right glad to come back to us.”
“You will let me take Lucy, papa?”
“No; I’ll be shot if I do!” returned the earl, raising his voice in choler. “I don’t approve of your decamping off at all, though I give in to it; but I will never permit Lucy to share in such rebellion. You needn’t say more, Jane. If my other daughters leave me, I will keep her.”
Jane sighed as she gave up the thought of Lucy. She moved from the table and held out her hand.
“Good-by, papa. I shall go to-day.”
“Short work, my young lady,” was the answer. “You’ll come to see the folly of your whim speedily, I hope.”
He shook hands. But, in his vexation and annoyance, he did not offer to kiss her, and he did not say “Good-by.” Perhaps he felt vexed at himself as much as at Jane.
She went up to her room. Judith was busy at the dressing-table, and a maid was making the bed. Jane motioned to the latter to quit the chamber.
“I am going back to South Wennock, Judith, to live at the old house on the Rise. I leave for it to-day. Would you like to go, and remain with me?”
Judith looked too surprised to speak. She had a glass toilette-bottle in her hand, dusting it, and she laid it down in wonder. Jane continued.
“If you do not wish to go with me, I suppose you can remain here with Lady Lucy. They will want a maid for her, unless Lady Oakburn’s is to attend on her. That can be ascertained.”
“I will go with you, my lady,” said Judith.
“I shall be glad if you will. But mine will be a very quiet household. Only you and another, at the most.”
“I would prefer to go with you, my lady.”
“Then, Judith, let us make haste with the preparations. We must be away from this house to-day.”
Scarcely had she spoken when Lucy came dancing in, her cheeks and her eyes glowing.
“O Jane! I hope we shall all be happy together!” she exclaimed. “I think we can be. Lady Oakburn is so kind. She means to get Miss Snow a nice situation, and to teach me herself. She says she will not entrust my education to anybody else.”
“I am going away, Lucy,” said Jane, drawing the little gild to her. “I wish—I wish I could have had you with me? But papa will not——”
“Going away!” repeated Lucy. “Where?”
“I am going back to South Wennock to live.”
“Oh Jane! And to leave papa! What will he do without you?”
A spasm passed over Jane Chesney’s face. “He has some one else now, Lucy.”
Lucy burst into tears. “And I, Jane! What shall I do? You have never been away from me in all my life!”
A struggle with herself, and then Jane’s tears burst forth. For the first time since the descending of the blow. She laid her face on Lucy’s neck and sobbed aloud.
Only for a few moments did she suffer herself to indulge the grief. “I cannot afford this, child,” she said; “I have neither time nor emotion to spare to-day. You must leave me, or I shall not be ready.”
Lucy went down, her face wet. Lady Oakburn, who seemed to be taking to her new home and its duties quite naturally, was sorting some of Lucy’s music in the drawing-room. She looked just as she had used to look as Miss Lethwait; but she wore this morning a beautiful dress of lama, shot with blue and gold, and a lace cap of guipure. Lucy’s noisy entrance and noisy grief caused her to turn abruptly.
“My dear child, what is the matter?”
“Jane is going away,” was the sobbing answer.
“Going away!” echoed the countess, not understanding.
“Yes, she is going back to live at South Wennock, she says. She and Judith are packing up to go to-day.”
Lady Oakburn was as one struck dumb. For a minute she could neither stir nor speak. Self-reproach was taking possession of her.
“Does your papa know of this, Lucy?”
“Oh yes, I think so,” sobbed Lucy. “Jane said she had asked papa to let me go with her, and he would not.”
Lady Oakburn quitted the room and went in search of the earl. He was in the library still, pacing it with his stick now—the stick having just menaced poor Pompey’s head, who had come in with a message.
“Lucy tells me that Lady Jane is about to leave,” began the countess. “Oh, Lord Oakburn, it is what I feared! I would almost rather have died than come here to sow dissension in your house. Can nothing be done?”
“No, it can’t,” said the earl. “When Jane’s determined upon a thing, she is determined. It’s the fault of the family, my lady; as you’ll find when you have been longer in it.”
“But, Lord Oakburn——”
“My dear, look here. All the talking in the world won’t alter it, and I’d rather hear no more upon the subject. Jane will go to South Wennock; but I daresay she’ll come to her senses before she has lived there many months.”
Did a recollection cross the earl’s mind of another of his daughters, of whom he had used the self-same words? Clarice! She would come to her senses, he said, if let alone. But it seemed she had not come to them yet.
Lady Oakburn, more grieved, more desolate than can well be imagined, for she was feeling herself to be a wretched interloper, in her lively conscientiousness, went upstairs to Jane’s room and knocked at it. Jane was alone then. She was standing before a chest of drawers, taking out their contents. The countess was agitated, even to tears.
“Oh, Lady Jane, do not inflict this unhappiness upon me! I wish I had never entered the house, if the consequences are to involve your leaving it.”
Jane stood, calm, impassive, scarcely deigning to raise her haughty eyelids.
“You should have thought of consequences before, madam.”
“If you could know how very far from my thoughts it would be to presume in any way upon my position!” continued the countess imploringly. “If you would consent to be still the mistress of the house, Lady Jane——”
“I beg your pardon,” interrupted Jane, in a haughty tone of reproof, as if she would recall her to common sense. “My time is very short,” she continued: “may I request to be left alone?”
Lady Oakburn saw there was no help for it, no remedy; and she turned to quit the room with a gesture of grief and pain. “I can only pray that the time may come when you will know me better, Lady Jane. Believe me, I would rather have died, than been the means of turning you from your home.”
Taking leave of none but Lucy and Miss Snow, Lady Jane quitted the house with Judith in the course of the afternoon. Lord Oakburn had gone out: his wife, Jane would not see. And in that impromptu fashion Lady Jane returned to South Wennock, and took up her abode again in the old house, startling the woman who had charge of it.
The next day Jane wrote to her father. Her intention was to live as quietly as possible, she told him, keeping only two maids—Judith, to attend upon her personally, and a general servant—and a very modest sum indeed Jane named as an estimation of what it would cost her to live upon. But Lord Oakburn was more liberal, and exactly doubled it: in his answer he told her, her allowance would be at the rate of five hundred a year.
But the past trouble reacted upon Jane, and she became really ill. Mr. John Grey was called in to her. He found the sickness more of the mind than the body, and knew that time alone could work a cure.
“My dear lady, if I were to undertake you as a patient I should but be robbing you,” he said to her, at his second interview. “Tonics? Well, you shall have some if you wish; but the best tonic will be time.”
She saw that he divined how cruel had been the blow of the earl’s marriage, the news of which had caused quite a commotion in South Wennock. Even this remote allusion to it Jane would have resented in some; but there was that about Mr. Grey that seemed to draw her to him as a friend. She sat at the table in the little square drawing-room—little, as compared to some of the rooms to which she had lately been accustomed—and leaned her cheek upon her hand. Mr. Grey was seated on the other side the hearth, opposite to her. It was getting towards the dusk of evening, and the red blaze of the fire played on Jane’s pale face.
“Yes,” she acknowledged, “it is time alone that can do much for me, I believe. I feel—I feel that I shall never be blithe again. But I should like some tonic medicine, Mr. Grey.”
“You shall have it, Lady Jane. I fancy you are naturally not very strong.”
“Not very strong, perhaps. But I have hitherto enjoyed good health. Are there any changes at South Wennock?” she continued, not sorry to quit the subject of self for some other.
“No, I think not,” he answered; “nothing in particular, that would interest you. A few people have died; a few have married: as is the case in all places.”
“Does Mr. Carlton get much practice?” she asked, overcoming her repugnance to speak of that gentleman, in her wish for some information as to how he and Laura were progressing.
“He gets a great deal,” said Mr. Grey. “The fact is, quite a tide has set in against my brother, and Mr. Carlton reaps the benefit.”
“I do not understand,” said Jane.
“People seem to have taken a dislike to my brother, on account of that unhappy affair in Palace Street,” he explained. “Or rather, I should say, to distrust him. In short, people won’t have Mr. Stephen Grey to attend them any longer: if I can’t go, they run for Mr. Carlton, and thus he has now a great many of our former patients. South Wennock is a terrible place for gossip; everybody must interfere with his neighbour’s affairs. Just now,” added Mr. John Grey, with a genial smile, “the town is commenting on Lady Jane Chesney’s having called in me, instead of Mr. Carlton, her sister’s husband.”
Jane shook her head. “I dislike Mr. Carlton personally very much,” she said. “Had he never entered our family to sow dissension in it, I should still have disliked him. But this must be a great trouble to Mr. Stephen Grey.”
“It is a great annoyance. I wonder sometimes that Stephen puts up with it so patiently. ‘It will come round with time,’ is all he says.”
“Has any clue been obtained to the unfortunate lady who died?” asked Jane.
“Not the slightest. She lies, poor thing, in the corner of St. Mark’s Churchyard, unclaimed and unknown.”
“But, has her husband never come forward to inquire after her?” exclaimed Lady Jane, in wonder. “It was said at the time, I remember, that he was travelling. Surely he must have returned?”
“No one whatever has come forward,” was Mr. Grey’s reply. “Neither he nor anybody else. In short, Lady Jane, but for that humble grave and the obloquy that has become the property of my brother Stephen, the whole affair might well seem a myth; a something that had only happened in a dream.”
“Does it not strike you as being altogether very singular?” said Lady Jane, after a pause of thought. “The affair itself, I mean.”
“Very much so indeed. It so impressed me at the time of the occurrence; far more than it did my brother.”
“It would almost seem as though—as though the poor young lady had had no husband,” concluded Lady Jane. “If it be not uncharitable to the dead to say so.”
“That is the opinion I incline to,” avowed Mr. John Grey. “My brother, on the contrary, will not entertain it; he feels certain, he says, that in that respect things were as straight as they ought to be. But for one thing, I should adopt my opinion indubitably, and go on, as a natural sequence, to the belief that she herself introduced the fatal drops into the draught.”
“And that one thing—what is it?” asked Jane, interested in spite of her own cares. But indeed the tragedy from the first had borne much interest for her—as it had for everybody else in South Wennock.
“The face that was seen on the stairs by Mr. Carlton.”
“But I thought Mr. Carlton maintained afterwards that he had not seen any face there—that it was a misapprehension of his own?”
“Rely upon it, Mr. Carlton did see a face there, Lady Jane. The impression conveyed to his mind at the moment was, that a face—let us say a man—was there; and I believe it to have been a right one. The doubt arose to him afterwards with the improbability: and, for one thing, he may wish to believe that there was nobody, and to impress that belief upon others.”
“But why should he wish to do that?” asked Jane.
“Because he must be aware that it was very careless of him not to have put the matter beyond doubt at the time. To see a man hovering in that stealthy manner near a sick lady’s room would be the signal for unearthing him to most medical attendants. It ought to have been so to Mr. Carlton; and he is no doubt secretly taking blame to himself for not having done it.”
“I thought he did search.”
“Yes, superficially. He carried out a candle and looked around. But he should have remained on the landing, and called to those below to bring lights, so as not to allow a chance of escape. Of course, he had no thought of evil.”
“And you connect that man with the evil?”
“I do,” said Mr. Grey, as he rose to leave. “There’s not a shadow of doubt on my mind that that man was the author of Mrs. Crane’s death.”