Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 16

LORD OAKBURN’S DAUGHTERS.
BY THE AUTHOR OF “EAST LYNNE.”

CHAPTER XXXI.FREDERICK GREY’S “CROTCHET.”

That a strong tide, rolling from one end of South Wennock to the other, had set in against Mr. Stephen Grey, was a fact indisputable. Immediately subsequent to the inquest on Mrs. Crane the tide of public opinion had set in for him; people seemed to feel ashamed of having suspected him of so fatal an error, and they made much, of Mr. Stephen Grey. This prevailed for a week or two, and then the current changed. One insinuated a doubt, another insinuated a doubt; some said Mr. Stephen had been culpably careless; others said he had been tipsy. And the current against the surgeon went flowing on until it became as a rushing torrent, threatening to engulf him in its angry might.

Another indisputable fact was, that a great inciter to this feeling was Mr. Carlton. It was he who did the most towards fanning the flame. This was not generally known, for Mr. Carlton’s work was partially effected in secret; but still it did in a measure ooze out, especially to the Greys. That Mr. Carlton’s motive must be that of increasing his own practice, was universally assumed; but it was an underhand way of doing it, and it caused young Frederick Grey to boil over with indignation.

On a sofa in the house of Mr. Stephen Grey, lay a lady with a pale face and delicate features. It was Stephen Grey’s wife. She had just returned home after seven or eight months’ absence at the continental spas, whither she had gone with her sister, a wealthy widow, hoping to pick up renewed health; for she, Mrs. Grey, suffered always from an affection of the spine.

Frederick was bending over her. The boy loved nothing so much on earth as his mother. He was imparting to her all the wonders, pleasant and unpleasant, that had occurred during her absence: the tragedy which had taken place in Palace Street, and its present consequences to Mr. Stephen Grey, naturally forming the principal topic. This had not been written to Mrs. Grey. “As well not disturb her with disagreeable matters,” Mr. Stephen had remarked at the time. She was growing excited over the recital, and she suddenly sat up, looking her son full in the face.

“I cannot understand, Frederick. Either your papa did put the opium into the mixture———"

“Prussic acid, mamma.”

“Prussic acid! What put my thoughts upon opium?—talking of a sleeping draught, I suppose. Either your papa did put the prussic acid into the mixture, or he did not———"

“Dearest mamma, do I not tell you that he did not? I watched him make it up; I watched every drop of everything he put into it. There was no more poison in that draught than there is in this glass of water at your elbow.”

“My dear, I do not dispute it: I should be excessively astonished to hear that your papa had been careless enough to do such a thing. What I want to know is this—with your testimony and your Uncle John’s combined, with the experience of years that they have had in your father, and with the acquitting verdict of the coroner’s jury, why have people got up this prejudice against him?”

“Because they are fools,” logically answered Frederick. “I don’t suppose there are ten people in the place who would call in papa now. It does make Uncle John so mad!”

“It must give him a great deal of extra work,” observed Mrs. Stephen Grey.

“He is nearly worked off his legs. Some of our patients have gone over altogether to the enemy, Carlton. It is he who is the chief instigator against papa. And he does it in such a sneaking, mean way. ‘I am grieved to be called in to take the place of Mr. Stephen Grey,’ he says. ‘No man can more highly respect him than I do, or deplore more deeply the lamentable mistake. I cannot but think he will be cautious for the future: still, when the lives of those dear to us, our wives and children, are at stake——

Mrs. Grey could not avoid an interrupting laugh, Frederick was imitating Mr. Carlton so quaintly.

“How do you know he says this to people?” she asked.

“Plenty of them could bear testimony to the fact, mamma. And it does its work all too well.”

“And what is Mr. Carlton’s motive?”

“To get our patients away from us, of course. Now that he has married an earl’s daughter he can’t do with a small income. I wrote you word, you know, about his running away with Miss Laura Chesney. They met with a series of disasters in the flight; were pitched out of Mr. Carlton’s carriage into the mud—I suppose he was driving madly like a second Phaëton—and Miss Laura lost one of her shoes. She’s Lady Laura now—and was then, for that matter, if they had but known it: it’s said that Mr. Carlton did know it. They got married at Gretna Green or some of those convenient places, and when they came back to South Wennock were remarried again. You should have seen St. Mark’s church! Crowds upon crowds pushed into it.”

“And you amidst the rest, I suppose,” remarked Mrs. Grey.

Frederick laughed. “Carlton was as white as a sheet, and kept looking round as if he feared some interruption. Bad men are always cowards. By the way, Lady Jane has come back to the house on the Rise.”

“My boy, do you know I think you are too bitter against Mr. Carlton. It was not a right thing, certainly, to run away with a young lady, but that is not our affair; and it is very wrong to incite people against your papa—if he does do it; but, with all that, you are scarcely justified in calling him a bad man.”

“Ah, but that’s not all,” said Frederick. “Mother, I hate Mr. Carlton! As to being bitter against him, I only wish I could be bitter; bitter to some purpose.”

“Frederick!”

The boy half sank upon his knees to bring his face on a level with Mrs. Grey’s, and lowered his voice to a whisper.

“I believe it was Mr. Carlton who put the prussic acid into the draught.”

Mrs. Grey, startled to tremor, almost to anger, frightened at the temerity of Frederick, could only stare at him.

“Look here,” he continued, in some excitement. “The draught went out of our house right, I know, and the boy delivered it as it was sent. Why then did Mr. Carlton take hold of it when it arrived and call out that it smelt of prussic acid? It could not have smelt of prussic acid then; or, if it did, some magic had been at work.”

Mrs. Grey knew how fond her son was of fancies, but she had never seen him so terribly earnest as this. She put up her hand to stop his words.

“It is of no use, mother; I must speak. This suspicion of Mr. Carlton fell upon me that night. When we heard of the death, I and Uncle John ran down to Palace Street. Carlton was in the chamber, and he began talking of what had taken place, and of his own share in the previous events of the evening: how he had smelt the draught on its being brought in, and his coming off to ask

Mr. Stephen Grey whether it was all right, and then going home and making up a draught on his own account and not getting back with it in time. He told all this readily and glibly, and Uncle John and Mr. Lycett took it in for gospel; but I did not. A feeling suddenly came over me that he was acting a part. He was too frank, too voluble; it was exactly as though he were rehearsing a tale learnt by heart; and I declare that a conviction flashed into my mind that it was ho who had done it all.”

“You frighten me to faintness,” gasped Mrs. Grey. “Have you reflected on what might be the awful consequences to Mr. Carlton were such an accusation to get abroad?”

“I am not going to speak of it abroad; but mother, I must tell you: it has been burning my heart away since that night. I dare not breathe it to papa or to Uncle John: they would call it one of my crotchety fancies, and say I was only fit for Bedlam. But you know how often you have been surprised at the quickness with which I read people and their motives, and you have called it a good gift from God. That Carlton was acting a part that night, I am certain; there was truth neither in his eye nor on his lip. He saw that I doubted him too, and wanted to get me from the chamber. Well, that was the first phase in my suspicion; and the next was his manner at the inquest. The same glib, ready tale was on his tongue; he seemed to have all the story at his fingers’ ends. The coroner complimented him on the straightforward way in which ho gave his evidence; but I know that I read lie in it from the beginning to the end.”

“Answer me a question, Frederick. What has so prejudiced you against Mr. Carlton?”

“I was not previously prejudiced against him. I declare to you, mamma, that when I entered the chamber where the poor lady lay dead, I had not, and never had had any prejudice against Mr. Carlton. I had felt rather glad that ho had set up in the place, because papa and Uncle John and Whittaker were so worried with the extent of the practice. It was when he was speaking of the draught that an inward conviction stole over me that ho was speaking falsely, deceitfully, and that he knew more about it than he would say.”

“I should call it an inward fiddlestick, were the subject less awfully serious,” reproved Mrs. Grey. “It would be better for you to bring reason and common-sense to bear upon this, Frederick, than an ‘inward conviction,’ vague and visionary. Was this young lady not a stranger to Mr. Carlton?”

“I expect she was. To him as well as to us.” “Very well. What motive, then, could Mr. Carlton have had to work her ill? The very worst man permitted to live on earth would not poison a fellow-creature, and a stranger, for the sake of pastime; and Mr. Carlton is an educated man, a man of a certain refinement, and, so far as I have seen—for I met him two or three times before I left home—he is a pleasant and agreeable one. Assuming for the moment’s argument that your views were correct, what motive could have actuated Mr. Carlton?”

Frederick Grey leaned his head on his hand. The question was a poser: in fact, it was the precise point that had puzzled him throughout. Judith Ford, the widow Gould, Mr. Stephen himself, had all testified that the lady had come to South Wennock a stranger to Mr. Carlton as to the Greys.

“I don’t deny that that’s a point difficult to get over, or that the case is completely shrouded in mystery,” ho confessed at length. “It puzzles me so that sometimes I can’t sleep, and I get thinking that I must be wronging Carlton.I ask myself what he thought to gain by it. Nothing, that I can see. Of course he now keeps up the prejudice against papa to get his patients; but he could not have entered upon it from that motive———"

“For shame, Frederick!”

“Dear mamma, I am sorry you are so vexed, and I wish I had not mentioned it at all. I tell you I have lain awake night after night, thinking it over in all its aspects, and I see that any probable accession of practice could not have been his motive, for the draught might have been made up by me or by Mr. Whittaker, for all Mr. Carlton know, and in that case the odium could not have touched papa. I see that you are angry with me, and I only wish I could put away this suspicion of Carlton from my mind. There is one loop-hole: that the man he saw concealed on the stairs may have been the villain, after all.”

“What man? What stairs?” exclaimed Mrs. Grey in astonishment.

“As Mr. Carlton was leaving the sick lady’s room that same night, he saw—Hush! Here’s papa!” cried the boy, breaking off abruptly. “Don’t breathe a word of what I have been saying, there’s a dear mother.”

Mr. Stephen Grey came in, a gloomy cloud on his usually cheerful face. He threw himself in an armchair opposite his wife’s sofa, his mood one of grievous weariness.

“Are you tired, Stephen?” she asked.

“Tired to death,” he answered; “tired of it all. We shall have to make a move.”

“A move?” she repeated, while Frederick turned round from the window, where he was now standing, and looked at his father.

“We must move from this place, Mary, to one where the gossip of Stephen Grey’s having supplied poison in mistake for safe medicine will not have penetrated. It gets worse every day, and John’s temper is tried. No wonder: he is worked like a horse. Just now he came in, jaded and tired, and found three messengers waiting to see him, ready to squabble amid themselves who should get him first. ‘I am really unable to go,’ he said. ‘I have been with a patient for the last seven hours and am fit for nothing. Mr. Stephen will attend.’ No, there was not one would have Mr. Stephen: their orders were, Mr. Grey or nobody. John is gone, unfit as he is: but this sort of thing cannot last.”

“Of course it cannot,” said Mrs. Stephen Grey. “How extraordinary it is! Why should people so prejudiced in the face of facts?”

“I had a talk with John yesterday, and broached to him what has been in my own mind for weeks. He and I must part. John must take a partner who will be more palatable to South Wennock than I now am, and I must try my fortune elsewhere. If I am ruined myself, it is of no use dragging John down with me; and, were I to stay with him, I believe the whole practice would take itself away.”

Mrs. Grey’s heart sank within her. Can any one wonder?—hearing that her home of years must be broken up. “Where could we go?” she cried in agitation.

“I don’t know. Perhaps London would be best. There, a person does not know his next-door neighbour, and nobody will know me as the unfortunate practitioner from South Wennock.”

“It is a great misfortune to have fallen upon us!” she murmured.

“It is unmerited,” returned Stephen Grey; “that’s my great consolation. God knows how innocent I was in that unhappy business, and I trust He will help me to get a living elsewhere. It’s possible that it may turn out for the best in the end.”

“What man was it that Mr. Carlton saw on the stairs that night?” inquired Mrs. Grey, after a pause, her thoughts reverting, in spite of herself, from their own troubles. And Frederick, as he heard the question, glanced uneasily at his mother, lest she should be about to betray confidence.

“Nobody can tell. And Carlton fancied afterwards that he might have been mistaken—that the moonlight deceived him. But there’s not the least doubt some one was there, concealing himself, and I and John have privately urged it upon the police never to cease their search after him. That man was the guilty agent.”

“You think so?” cried Mrs. Stephen, after an awe-struck pause.

“I feel sure of it. No reasonable being can entertain a doubt of it. But for this mistaken idea that people have picked up—that the mistake was mine in mixing the sleeping draught—there would not be two opinions upon it in the town. The only point I cannot understand, is—Carlton’s having smelt the poison in the draught when it was delivered; but I can only come to the conclusion that Carlton was mistaken, unaccountable as it seems for him to have fancied a smell where no smell was.”

“How full of mystery it all sounds!”

“The affair is a mystery altogether; it’s nothing but mystery from beginning to end. Of course the conclusion drawn is—and the coroner was the first to draw it—that that man was the ill-fated young lady’s husband, stolen into the house for the purpose of deliberately destroying her. If so, we may rest satisfied that it will be cleared up sometime, for murder is safe to come out, sooner or later.”

As Stephen Grey concluded the last words he quitted the room. Mrs. Grey approached her son.

“My dear, you hear what your papa says. How is it possible that you can suffer your suspicions to stray to any other than that concealed man?”

The boy turned, and wound his mother’s arm about him as he answered, his frank, earnest eyes lifted trustingly to hers.

“I am just puzzled to death over it, mother mine. I don’t feel a doubt that some wicked fellow was there; I can’t doubt it; and of course ho was not there for good. Still, I cannot overget that impression of falseness in Mr. Carlton. There is such a thing as bribery, you know.”

“Bribery!” repeated Mrs. Grey, not understanding his drift.

“If Carlton did not commit the ill himself, he may be keeping the counsel of that man who did. Mother dear, don’t take your arm from me in anger. I can’t drive the feeling away from me. Mr. Carlton may not have been the actual culprit; but, that he knows more of the matter than he suffers to appear, I am as certain of as that I am in life.”

And Mrs. Stephen Grey shivered within her as she listened to the words, terrified for the consequences should they come to be overheard.

“Frederick, this is one of your crotchets. Be still; be still!”

CHAPTER XXXII.AN UNLUCKY ENCOUNTER.

Reclining languidly in her easy chair one bright afternoon, was Lady Jane Chesney. The reaction of the passionate excitement, arising from the blow dealt out to her so suddenly, had come, and she felt utterly weary both in mind and body. Some little bustle and talking outside was heard, as if a visitor had entered, and then the room door opened. There stood Laura Carlton.

“Well, Jane! I suppose I may dare to come in?”

She spoke in a half laughing, half deprecating tone, and looked out daringly at Jane from her dazzling beauty. A damask colour shone in her cheek, a brilliant light in her eye. She wore a rich silk dress with brocaded flounces, and a white lace bonnet all gossamer and prettiness. Jane retained her hand as she gazed at her.

“You are happy, Laura?”

“Oh, so happy!” was the echoed answer. “But I want to be reconciled to you all. Papa is dreadfully obstinate when he is crossed, I know that, but he need not hold out so long. And you, Jane, to have been here going on for a fortnight and not to have taken notice of me!”

“I have been ill,” said Jane.

“Oh I daresay! I suppose the fact is, papa forbade you to call at my house or to receive me here.”

“No, he did not. But let us come to a thorough understanding at once, Laura, as you are here: it may spare trouble to both of us; perhaps some heart-burning. I must decline, myself, to visit at your house. I will receive you here with pleasure, and be happy to see you whenever you like to come: but I cannot receive Mr. Carlton.”

“Why will you not visit at my house?”

“Because it is Mr. Carlton’s. I would prefer not to meet him—anywhere.”

Laura’s resentment bubbled up. “Is your prejudice against Mr. Carlton to last for ever?”

“I cannot say. I confess that it is strong against him at present. I never liked him, Laura; and his underhand conduct with regard to you has not tended to soften the dislike. I cannot extend my hand in greeting to Mr. Carlton. It is altogether better that we should not meet. Like him, I never can.”

“And never will, so long as you persist in shutting yourself out from all intercourse with him,” retorted Laura. “What! would it hurt you, Jane, to meet my husband?”

“We will drop the subject,” said Jane. “To pursue it would be productive of no end. When I tell you that my own feelings (call them prejudices if you will) forbid me to see Mr. Carlton, I tell you truth. And some deference is due to the feelings of my father. I will not reproach you, Laura, for the step you took: the time has gone by for that; but you must not ask me to countenance Mr. Carlton.”

“You speak of deference to papa’s feelings, Jane! I don’t think he showed much to yours. What a simpleton he has made of himself!”

Jane Chesney’s face burnt with a sudden glow, and her drooping eyelids wore not raised. The old spirit, always ready to uphold her father, whether he was right or whether he was wrong, had gone out of her crushed heart for ever.

“What sort of a woman is she?” resumed Laura.

“O, Laura, what matters it?” Jane answered in a tone that betrayed how full of pain was the subject. “He has married her, and that is enough. I cannot talk of it.”

“Why did you not bring away Lucy?”

“I was not permitted to bring her.”

“And do you mean to say that you shall live here, all by yourself?”

“Whom have I to live with? I may as well occupy this house as any other. My means will afford nothing better. That I do not repine at; it is good enough for me; and to be able to live at peace in it is a great improvement upon the embarrassment we used to undergo.”

“But it is so lonely an existence for you! It seems like isolation.”

Jane was silent. The sense of her lonely lot was all too present to her as her sister spoke: but she knew that she must bear.

“How much are you to be allowed, Jane?”

“Five hundred a year.”

“Five hundred a year for the Lady Jane Chesney!” returned Laura with flashing eyes. “It is not half enough, Jane.”

“It is enough for comfort. And grandeur I have done with. May I express a hope, Laura, that you find your income adequate to your expectations,” she added in a spirit of kindness.

Laura’s colour deepened. Laura was learning to estimate herself by her new standard, as the Earl of Oakburn’s daughter; she was longing for the display and luxury that rank generally gives. But Mr. Carlton’s father had not come forward with money; and they had to content themselves with what Mr. Carlton made by his profession: he had been compelled to tell his wife she must practise economy; and every hour of the day Laura caught herself wishing for a thousand and one articles that only wealth can purchase. Her vanity had certainly not lessened with the accession to her title.

“I think it shameful of papa not to allow me an income, now that he enjoys the Chesney estates, or else present my husband with an adequate sum of ready money,” exclaimed Laura, in a resentful tone. “Mr. Carlton, I am sure, feels the injustice, though he does not speak of it.”

“Injustice?” interrupted Jane with marked emphasis.

“Yes, it is unjust; shamefully unjust. What was my offence?—that I chose the husband he would have denied me. And now look at what he has done!—married a woman obnoxious to us all. If it was derogatory for Miss Laura Chesney to choose a surgeon when she had not a cross or a coin to bless herself with, I wonder what it is for the Earl of Oakburn, the peer, to lower himself to his daughter’s governess?”

Jane made no reply. There was some logic in Laura’s reasoning; although she appeared to ignore the fact that she owed obedience to her father, and had forfeited it.

“You were devoted to him, Jane, and how has he repaid you? Just done that which has driven you from his homo. He has driven you with as little compunction, I dare say, as he would drive a dog—Jane, be quiet; I will say what I have to say. He has got his new lady, and much value you and I are to him henceforth!”

“You are wrong, Laura,” Jane answered with emotion. “I came away with my own free will when he would have kept me. He—but I—I—cannot bear to speak of it. I do not defend his marriage; but he is not the first man who has been led away by a designing woman.”

“He is a hard man,” persisted Laura, working herself into a state of semi-fury; “he is heartless as the grave. Why else has ho not forgiven Clarice?”

“Clarice! He has forgiven her.”

“Has he!” returned Laura, upon whom the words acted as a sudden check. “She is not at home. I am sure she’s not!”

Jane dropped her voice, “We cannot find Clarice, Laura.”

“Not find Clarice! What do you mean?”

“Simply what I say: we cannot find her. I sought out the situation she was at in Gloucester Terrace,—in fact, she was at two situations there, one after the other, but she did not remain long at either. She quitted the last of them a twelvemonth ago last June, and no trace of her since then can be discovered. Our only conjecture is, that she must have gone on the Continent with some family, or elsewhere abroad. Papa has caused the lists of passports at the most frequented ports to be searched, but without success; but that we think little of, as she may have been entered as “the governess.” In short, we have searched for her in all ways, and the police have searched; and we can hear nothing of her. The uneasiness this gives me, Laura, I cannot express to you; and papa—in spite of your opinion of his heartlessness—is as much troubled as I am.”

“I never heard of such a thing,” exclaimed Laura, when her astonishment allowed her to speak. “Not find Clarice!”

In her eagerness she reiterated question upon question, and Jane told her all the particulars she had been able to glean. They were with difficulty received.

“Nothing at all has been heard of her since last June—that is, June twelvemonth?” repeated Laura. “But, Jane, you had letters from her subsequent to that?”

“I know I had; one: but it gave me no clue to where she was. It was the letter that came to us last New Year’s day, to wish us the bonne année."

“That was not the last letter you had from her?”

“Yes, it was. I wrote three letters to her subsequent to that, the letters that I afterwards found lying at the library, unclaimed. Do you recollect my telling you of a very singular dream I had, relating to Clarice—a disagreeable dream?”

“I recollect your not telling me,” replied Laura. “You said you had a dream that troubled you, but you would not tell it, fearing my ridicule.”

“Yes,” said Jane: “it was in March. The dream made me very uneasy, and I wrote, as I tell you, more than once to Clarice, begging tidings of her. They were the letters I speak of. Every phase of that dream is as vivid to my mind now as it was then. There are moments when the superstition is all too strong upon me that it only only shadowed forth the reality of Clarice’s fate. I seem to know that we shall never find her—in life.”

Laura would have liked to ridicule then. “Can’t you tell me the dream, Jane?”

“No” shuddered Jane, “I cannot tell it. Least of all to you.”

Laura became curious. “Why least of all to me?”

“Because—because—in the same dream, mixed up with Clarice, mixed up with the horror—but, I am foolish, I think,” broke off Jane. “I shall say no more about it, Laura.”

Laura did not care. She had been in the habit of laughing at Jane’s dreams, and she would laugh still. Jane Chesney had certainly had two or three most singular dreams, which had borne reference in a remarkable degree to subsequent realities of life. One of them had foreshadowed her mother’s death, and Jane had told it before the death took place. That the events following upon and bearing out the dreams were singular coincidences, can at least be said. And yet Jane Chesney was not by nature inclined to superstition, but the dreams had, in a degree, forced it upon her. She buried the feeling within herself, as we all like to bury those feelings which touch wholly on the imagination—that inner life within the life. But of all her dreams, never had she been visited by one bearing half the vivid horror, the horror of reality, as did this last one relating to her sister Clarice.

“It is very deceitful of you, Jane, to persist to my face that you have not heard from Clarice since the new year,” resumed Laura.

Jane raided her eyelids. “I have not heard from her since.”

“Where’s the use of saying it, Jane?” and Laura’s voice took a peevish tone, for she had as much dislike to being kept in the dark as had her father the earl. “You know quite well that you had at least one letter subsequent to that, and a most affectionate and loving one”

Jane was surprised. “I do not know what your head is running on, Laura, but I do know that I never had a line or syllable from Clarice, subsequent to that January letter.”

Laura took out her purse, a handsome porte-monnaie, the gift of Mr. Carlton, and extracted from it a small piece of paper that had once formed part of a letter.

“Look there, Jane. You would know Clarice’s writing, is that hers or not?” I put it in my purse to-day to bring to you.”

“Oh yes, it is Clarice’s writing,” said Jane the instant it was in her hands. It was the upper part of the first page, where the writing commenced, and was dated from London on the 28th of the previous February. It began as follows:—

“My dearest, I am about to make a proposal to you, and———"

Then the paper was torn. On the reverse side was the conclusion of the note, which had apparently been a short one.

"———without delay. Ever your own, Clarice.”

Jane Chesney pondered over the words, especially over the date. But she had never seen the note in her life before, and said so.

“Nonsense,” said Laura. “If it was not addressed to you, Jane, to whom was it addressed? Clarice never wrote home to anybody but you since her departure.”

“How did you become possessed of this?” inquired Jane.

“It came from home with my clothes.”

“Impossible,” said Jane. “I collected your things myself and packed them. There was no such scrap of paper, as this, amongst them.”

“I tell you, Jane, it came to me in my box of clothes. Some little time ago a pair of my lace sleeves got mislaid. I was angry with my maid, and turned the drawer, where my lace things are kept, out upon the floor. In picking them up to replace, I found the paper. That it had come from home with my lace things is certain, for they were emptied straight from the trunk into that drawer. And there it must have remained since unnoticed, probably slipped under the paper laid at the bottom of the drawer.”

“It appears to me inexplicable,” returned Jane. “I know that I never received the note; and, as you say, Clarice wrote home only to me. But she never worded her letters in that strain: it is more as a wife would write to her husband.”

“The display of affection struck me,” said Laura, “I thought she had grown over-fond all on a sudden.”

“Clarice has too much good sense to indulge in foolishly-fond expressions. I cannot understand this,” resumed Jane. “It seems all on a par with the rest, full of nothing but mystery. Will you give me this scrap of paper, Laura?”

“You may keep it, and welcome. I hope we shall soon hear of her. It is so dreadfully inconsistent for Lady Clarice Chesney, or Lady anybody else, to be getting her living as a governess. But I suppose she cannot have heard of the change. Jane—to alter the subject—do you know that I saw papa at Pembury?”

“No.”

“I did. I was visiting Colonel and Mrs. Marden, they are such nice people—but you know them for yourself. I was driving through the street in the pony carriage with Mrs. Marden, and we met Sir James’s mail-cart, he and papa inside it. Between astonishment and fear I was nearly frightened out of my wits. I pulled the reins and started the ponies off, and the next day we heard that papa had left again.”

“Are you going?” asked Jane, for Laura had risen.

“I must be going now. I shall come in again soon, for I have not said half I thought to say, or remembered half the questions. Good-by, Jane; come with me as far as the gate.”

“I don’t feel well enough to go out,” was Jane’s answer.

“Nonsense, that’s all fancy. A minute’s walk in this bright sunshine will do you good.”

Jane yielded to the persuasion. She muffled herself up and accompanied Laura to the gate. It was a balmy autumn day, the sun brilliant, and the red leaves shining in the foliage. Jane really did feel the air revive her, and she did not hasten indoors immediately.

Laura shook hands and proceeded down the road. Just after she had passed its bend, she encountered her husband. He was advancing at a quick step, swinging a cane in his hand.

“Oh, Lewis, were you coming in search of me?”

“Not I,” said Mr. Carlton, laughing. “It would take I don’t know what amount of moral courage to venture into the precincts of my enemy, Lady Jane. Has it been a stormy interview, Laura?”

“It has been a pleasant one. Not that Jane is a model of suavity in all things. She tells me I may go and see her whenever I please, but you are not to go, and she won’t come to my house.”

“Then I’d retaliate, Laura, by not going to hers.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” was Laura’s careless answer; “I should like to go to her sometimes, and I daresay she’ll come round after a while. Won’t you walk home with me, Lewis?"

“I cannot, my dearest. A patient is waiting for me.”

“Who is it?”

“A farmer’s wife: nobody you know. She is very ill.”

They parted different ways. Laura went towards home, and Mr. Carlton continued his road up the Rise. As he passed the bend, he became aware that some one was advancing from an opposite direction, and recognised young Frederick Grey. And Master Frederick was in a fiery temper.

A word of explanation as to its cause is necessary. At the Michaelmas just passed, a Mr. Thrupp and his wife, people from a distance, had come to live at a small farm just beyond the Rise. A short time after taking possession, the wife was seized with illness, and Mr. Carlton was called in. The farmer knew nothing and had heard nothing of the merits of the different practitioners of the place, but Mr. Carlton lived nearest to him, and therefore he was summoned.

Mr. Carlton obeyed the call: but the case assumed an alarming aspect, and after a few days he suggested that another doctor should meet him in consultation, and mentioned Mr. John Grey. The farmer, Mr. Thrupp, went to the Greys’ residence, to request Mr. John’s attendance early on the following morning. Mr. John was out, but Mr. Stephen was in; and the farmer, knowing nothing of the prejudice against the latter, arranged that he should go instead of his brother. Mr. Carlton was considerably surprised to meet him; he said nothing in his presence, but he remained to say it after Mr. Stephen had departed. This was on the morning of the day when Lady Laura made her call upon her sister. Mr. Carlton was now on his way to the farm, unconscious that Frederick Grey, bearing down upon him, had just left it.

In point of fact, Frederick had been sent up by his father to inquire the result of certain remedies ordered at the consultation. On his arrival the farmer came out to speak with him.

“You are perhaps a relation of the Mr. Greys', sir?” said he, after replying to the inquiries of Frederick.

“I am Mr. Stephen Grey’s son. Why?”

Mr. Thrupp, a simple-looking man, scratched his head.

“Then perhaps you’ll be good enough to say, sir, that we’d rather the gentleman didn’t come again,” he resumed, bringing the words out with hesitation, for he did not much like to speak them. “It has so flustered my wife to hear that he sometimes sends out poison by mistake in his physic bottles, that his visit has done her more harm than good. She is a trifle better, and she thinks Dr. Carlton can get her round now by himself. If you’ll be just good enough to say so, sir, to Mr. Stephen Grey, with our thanks for his visit of this morning.”

The indignant red dyed Frederick Grey’s features. “Who in the world told you that calumny of my father?” he asked.

“No offence, sir,” returned the farmer, civilly; “I’m sure I don’t intend any personality, for we know nothing but what we hear. After the gentleman had left, the other one, Dr. Carlton, asked how we could think of calling him into the house; he said it might have cost us our lives sometime, for he was not particular as to the making up of his medicines, and one lady had died through it. The other brother, Mr. John, was quite a reliable gentleman, he said, and it was him he had told me to call in. I asked my next door neighbour whether it was true, and he said it was true that a lady did die after taking some physic sent by him. It gave my wife such a turn, sir, that we feared she was going—and perhaps you’ll please tell him, not meaning any offence, that we’d rather he didn’t come again.”

Frederick Grey quitted the farmer, his blood rising up against the injustice done his father, the malice (as he regarded it) of Mr. Carlton. It was on returning from this very unsatisfactory interview, and when Master Frederick was in this very unsatisfactory temper, that the two unhappily came in contact, meeting exactly opposite the gate of Lady Jane Chesney.

Lady Jane might be called a third party at the meeting. She had taken a turn on the path after the departure of Laura, and on nearing the gate again heard footsteps in the road, and looked out to see Mr. Carlton close to her on the one side and Stephen Grey’s son on the other. Not caring to be so much as seen by the surgeon, she stepped aside behind the hedge until he should have passed.

But they were not to pass so soon. Mr. Carlton was striding on with a half indifferent, half supercilious nod to the boy, when the latter, bold, fearless, and angry, placed himself right in his path.

“Don’t brush by me so quickly, if you please, Mr. Carlton. I’ll thank you to explain first what it is you have been saying at Thrupp’s farm about my father.”

Mr. Carlton stared at him, stared more especially at the address; and the supercilious expression deepened on his countenance.

“You are in a passion, I should think, young sir,” was the answer, delivered with stinging blandness.

“I and Mr. Stephen Grey can settle our own affairs without your aid.”

The tone turned Frederick half mad, and he forgot his prudence. “You are a wicked, designing man,” he burst forth. “You have been working in an underhand manner to drive my father from the place; not a day passes but you are secretly traducing him. Why don’t you do it openly before his face, Mr. Carlton? Why do you do it behind his back, when he can’t defend himself?”

“I don’t know what you mean,” said Mr. Carlton. “Stand aside, and let me pass.”

“You do know what I mean,” retorted the boy, keeping his place before Mr. Carlton, so that the surgeon could not pass. “He met you in consultation at Thrupp’s this morning, and the moment his back was turned, you set on to prejudice their minds against him; saying he was in the habit of sending out poisoned medicines, and it frightened the woman so, that they will not have him again. And this has been your game for months. How dare you continue to assert that my father poisoned the draught that night, when you know he did not? When you know it, I say!”

Mr. Carlton lifted his cane menacingly. “But for the respect I bear your uncle, as my brother practitioner, and your father also, in spite of the fatal error he committed, I would lay this about your shoulders, young gentleman, and teach you better manners.”

Master Frederick’s passion was not calmed by the threat, and it may be questioned if he even knew in that wild moment the danger of the words he was about to utter.

“You know, I say, that Mr. Stephen Grey did not commit the error. You know that it was you who dropped the poison into the draught when you were alone with it after it was delivered. Keep your cane off me, Mr. Carlton; blows will not mend murder. If it was not you, it was that villain you saw on the stairs, and you, perhaps by bribery, undertook to keep his counsel and turn suspicion off him. You saw that I suspected you the very night it was done, you saw that I suspected you when you were giving your plausible evidence at the inquest. What the poor young lady had done to you, you best know, but I believe in my true heart, and I tell it you with God hearing me, that you were guilty either of killing her, or of helping that man to do it, though by concealment. Now, go and talk about my father, Mr. Carlton.”

It was only by dint of the most ingenious dodging that Frederick Grey had been able to accomplish his say, but Mr. Carlton caught him now. The cane came down on his shoulders; and Frederick, passion giving him the strength of a young lion, seized it and broke it. Mr. Carlton walked away, leaving a careless and scornful epithet behind him; and the boy leaned against the gate to recover breath and equanimity.

A tap on the shoulder, and Frederick turned. There stood Lady Jane Chesney. He raised his hat, and she could not help being struck with the nobility of the glowing countenance, the fearless truth of the large grey eyes.

“Master Grey, do you know that I have heard every syllable you said to Mr. Carlton? Surely you do not believe in your own accusation? It must have had its rise only in the heat of passion?”

“Lady Jane—I beg your pardon—I am sorry you heard this—I hope you do not think me capable of making such an accusation not believing it. I do believe it; I have believed it ever since the night. Not that I have any grounds, or what might be called reason for believing it,” he hastily added. “It is but an instinct within that tells me so.”

“Do you remember that—although we are at variance and I do not like him—he is my brother-in-law?”

“Yes. I am very sorry that you heard what passed,” he repeated. “Perhaps, Lady Jane, you will be kind enough to let it be as though you had not heard it?”

“I will,” said Lady Jane: “and in return allow me to recommend you not to give utterance to sentiments so dangerous. My opinion is that you are totally wrong in your fancy, and that prejudice against Mr. Carlton has led you into the error. It is impossible to believe otherwise. Some men—I do not know that Mr. Carlton is one—would bring you before the law for this, and make you prove your words, or punish you if you could not. Be more discreet in future.”

“Thank you,” he answered, his sunny smile returning to him; “it is a bargain, Lady Jane. I was in a dreadful passion, there’s no denying it, and I did say more than I ought. Thank you very much.”

And replacing his hat, for he had stood bareheaded during the interview, Frederick Grey vaulted away, flinging the pieces of cane from him as he ran. Lady Jane stood looking after him.

A noble spirit, I am sure,” she murmured, “in spite of his hairbrained words. I wonder if Mr. Carlton will bring him to punishment for them? I should, were so unjustifiable an accusation made against me. Boys will be boys.”