Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 17
LORD OAKBURN’S DAUGHTERS.
BY THE AUTHOR OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XXXIII. AN OLD ENEMY COME BACK AGAIN.
So Stephen Grey could not struggle with the fate which seemed to be working against him, and he quitted his home of years, and betook himself to London. John Grey found a suitable partner in Mr. Charles Lycett, the brother of the curate of St. Mark’s, who was seeking a practice for himself, and Frederick Grey remained with his uncle in South Wennock to pursue his medical studies.
Mr. John Grey’s advice to his brother was:—“Establish yourself well wherever you settle down, whether in London or elsewhere. Spend money in doing so, and the probability is that you will get it returned to you with interest; but if you begin in a little, poking, niggardly way, it’s ten chances to one if you ever get on.” Stephen took the advice; and circumstances favoured him. At the very time of his removal to London, a physician died suddenly in Savile Row. Stephen Grey stepped in, secured the lease of the house at the cost of a trifling outlay, and the practice came flowing in almost without exertion or solicitation on his part. Then he took his degree: and in a few months after he had quitted South Wennock, he found he was gaining a much larger income than he and his brother had counted together.
Nearly a twelvemonth elapsed subsequent to the return of Lady Jane Chesney to South Wennock, and September was come round again. The past year had brought little of event in its wake. An infant, born to Lady Laura Carlton, had died at its birth, and she was one of the gay South Wennock world again. Mr. Carlton’s practice was a very good one now, for fresh people were ever coming to the new buildings springing up around South Wennock, and he was obliged to take an assistant. No further tilt at arms had occurred between him and Frederick Grey. He had, perhaps wisely, overlooked the boy’s dangerous insolence; and since then they had passed each other in the street without speaking. Frederick Grey’s dislike of Mr. Carlton was made a sort of joke in the Grey family; none of them (save his mother, and she was away now) knew its origin; and South Wennock set the dislike down to Mr. Carlton’s somewhat under hand conduct to Stephen Grey.
Thus nearly a twelvemonth rolled on with but little to mark it.
On the grand bed of state which Jane Chesney had lovingly chosen for her father when the newly-taken house was being furnished in Portland Place, lay Eliza, Countess of Oakburn, an infant cradled by her side. There is an old saying “After a wedding comes a burying;” but it more frequently happens that after a wedding comes a christening. Buryings, however, do follow all too surely when their turn comes, and one was not far off that house now.
There had been as little of event to mark the past twelvemonth in the Earl of Oakburn’s house, as there had been in South Wennock. Lady Oakburn had made him a good wife; she had been as solicitous for his comforts as Jane could have been. She made an excellent mistress of his household, a judicious and kind step-mother to Lucy, and the little girl had learnt to love her.
But all her anxious care had not been able to keep the earl’s old enemy from him—gout. He lay in the room above, suffering under an aggravated attack; an attack which threatened danger.
Two days only had the little fellow in the cradle by the countess’s bed seen the light; he was the young heir to Oakburn. Lucy Chesney sat near, touching now and again the wonderful little red face as she talked to her step-mother.
“It is very good of you to let me come in, mamma. What shall his name be?” They were thinking of the christening, you see.
“Francis, of course, Lucy.”
“But I have heard papa say that the heir to Oakburn should be John. It has been—oh, for ages, ‘John, Earl of Oakburn.’”
“Papa shall decide, dear.”
“We can’t ask him to-day, he is so much worse. He———”
“Worse?” echoed the countess in a startled tone, whilst an attendant, sitting in the room, raised her finger with a warning gesture.
Lucy coloured with contrition; she saw that she had said what ought not to have been spoken.
“Nurse, you told me the earl was better this morning!” cried the countess.
The woman rose. “My lady, there was not much difference; he was better, if anything,” she responded, endeavouring to put all evasion from her voice. “My lord is in pain, and that’s why Lady Lucy may call him worse; but it is in the nature of gout to be painful.”
“Lucy, tell me the truth. I ask you in your father’s name. I see that he is worse, and they are keeping it from me. How much worse?”
Lucy stood in distress, not knowing what to do; blaming herself for her incaution. The eyes of fear are quick, and Lady Oakburn saw her dilemma.
“Child,” she continued, her emotion rising, “you remember the day, three months ago, when your papa was thrown from his horse in the park, and they sent on here an obscure account of the accident, so that we could not tell whether he was much or little hurt, whether he was alive or dead? Do you recollect that hour?—the dreadful suspense?—how we prayed to know the worst, rather than to be kept in it?”
“Oh, mamma,” interrupted Lucy, placing her hand on her eyes, as if she would shut out some unwelcome sight, “do not talk of it. I never could bear to think of it, but that papa came home, after all, only a little bruised. That was suspense!”
“Lucy, dear child, you are keeping me in the same now,” spoke the countess. “I cannot bear it; I can bear the certain evil, but not the suspense. Now tell me the truth.”
Lucy thought she saw her way plain before her; anything was better than suspense, now that fear had been alarmed.
“I will tell you all I know, mamma. Papa is worse, but I do not think he is so much worse as to cause uneasiness. I have often known him in as much pain as this, before—before”—Lucy in her delicacy of feeling scarcely knew how to word the phrase—“before you came here.”
“Lucy, should your papa become worse, and danger supervene, you will let me know. Mind! I rely upon you. No”—for Lucy was drawing away her hand—“you cannot go until you have promised.”
“I do promise, mamma,” was Lucy’s honest answer. And Lady Oakburn heaved a relieved sigh.
Of course the nurse had now to plot and plan to counteract this promise, and she sought Miss Snow. For Miss Snow was in the house still, Lucy’s governess. Lord Oakburn had not allowed his wife to take the full charge of Lucy’s education, so Miss Snow was retained: but the countess superintended all.
“My Lady Lucy must not be let know that his lordship’s in danger, miss,” grumbled the nurse. “She comes tattling everything to my lady, and it won’t do. A pretty thing to have her worried!” she concluded, indignantly.
“Is the earl in danger?” quickly asked Miss Snow.
“He’s in awful pain, if that’s danger,” was the answer. “I’m not a sick nurse, miss; only a monthly: but if ever I saw gout in the stomach, he has got it.”
“Why that is certain death,” uttered Miss Snow, in an accent of alarm.
“Oh, no, it’s not; not always. The worst sign, they say, is that all my lord’s snappishness is gone out of him!”
“Who says so? Who says it is?”
“The attendants. That black fellow does nothing but stand behind the bed and cry and sob. He’d like his master to rave at him as is customary. But you’ll keep things dark from Lady Lucy, please. I’ll speak to the servants.”
Miss Snow nodded, and the nurse warned the rest of the house, and took her way back to Lady Oakburn’s chamber.
The day closed; the night drew on, and the earl’s state was an ominous one. Agonies of pain, awful pain, lasted him throughout it: and but for the well built walls and floors, Lady Oakburn must have heard the groans.
With the morning he was calmer, easier; nevertheless, three physicians went in to him. The two in regular attendance had sent for another.
“The ship’s sinking,” said the earl to them. “No more splicing of the timbers; they are rotten, and won’t bear it.”
The earl was right, and the doctors knew it; but they would not admit to him, in so many words, that he was dying. The earl, in his blunt way, blunt still, told them of their crafthood.
“It’s all in your day’s work to go about deceiving people,” cried he; “telling them they are getting their sea-legs on again, while all the while you know that before the next eight bells strike they’ll be gone down to Davy Jones’s locker. It may be the right sort of steering for some patients, delicate women and children, perhaps, but it’s not for me, and you are a long way out of your reckoning.”
The earl’s voice grew faint. They administered some drops in a glass, and wiped his brow.
“I am an old sailor, sirs,” he continued, “and I have turned into my hammock night after night for the best part of my life, knowing there was but a plank between me and eternity. D’ye think, then, I have not learnt to face death—that you should be afraid to acknowledge it to me, now it’s come? If I had not made up my accounts for my Maker before, there wouldn’t be much time to do it now. I have been headstrong and irritable, giving my tongue the reins, but the Great Commander knows that poor Jack Tar acquires that in his hard life at sea. He looks to the heart, and He is merciful to a slip word or two. Pompey.”
The man came forward and threw himself by the bedside; his whole attitude expressing the keenest grief and love.
“Pompey, tell them, though I have made you fly at my voice, whether I have been a bad master. What sort of a master have I been?”
Poor Pompey! his wailing sobs nearly choked him as he knelt and covered the earl’s hand with his tears and kisses.
“Never a better massa! never a better massa! Pompey like to go with him.”
“You’d keep it from me that my voyage is run, sirs! We seamen have got a Saviour as well as you. He chose fishermen for his friends; d’ye think, then, He’d reject a poor knocked-about sailor, who goes to Him with his hat in his hand and lays his sins at His feet? No! He’ll steer our boat through the last quicksands, and be on shore to receive us, as He once received His own fishermen, and had a fire of coals ready for them, and fish laid thereon, and bread. And that was after He had suffered! Never you be backward again in telling a tired sailor that he’s nearing the port. Shall I last the day out?”
More than that, they thought.
“One of you will send a despatch for my daughter, and—I suppose my wife cannot come to me.”
The attendant of Lady Oakburn was in the room, one of those round the earl, and he pronounced it “Impossible.” Neither must her ladyship be suffered to know of the danger, he added: for a day or two at all events it must be kept from her, or he would not answer for the consequences. The young Lady Lucy must not be allowed to learn it, or she would carry the tidings.
The earl listened, and nodded his head. Very good, he said. And he dictated a message to his daughter Jane.
As the medical men went out, they encountered Lucy. She was sitting on the stairs waiting for them, deeply anxious. The summoning of the third doctor had caused commotion in the house, and Lucy did not know what to think. Gliding up to the one who attended Lady Oakburn, whom she knew best, she eagerly questioned him. But Dr. James was upon his guard, told Lucy the pain had left her papa, and she might go in for a minute to see him.
The child, delighted, went in. The earl stroked her head and kissed her; told her to take a kiss to mamma and to the “young blue-jacket,” and to say that his voyage was going on to a prosperous end. Then, remindful of what the medical men had said about its being kept from his wife, or it might cost her her life, and afraid of a slip-word on his own part, he dismissed the child, telling her he was to remain very quiet all day. Lucy flew to the countess’s chamber, encountering the angry nurse at the door, who looked ready for a pitched battle.
“It’s quite impossible that you can enter, my lady.”
Lucy pleaded. And the nurse found that the child had only come to bring glad news, and to talk of the little “blue-jacket:” and she allowed her to go in.
And when Dr. James came to pay his morning visit to the countess, his answers to her inquiries were full of reassuring suavity, calculated to give ease to her mind. No idea did they impart that the earl was dying; indeed, Lady Oakburn rather gathered from them that he might be taking a renewed lease of life.
CHAPTER XXXIV. GOING OUT WITH THE TIDE.
Lady Jane Chesney was seated at breakfast in her house at South Wennock, when a man on horseback, wearing the uniform of the telegraph office at Great Wennock, came galloping to the gate. Jane saw him hand in a despatch, and her heart fluttered strangely. Imagination took a wide range and settled upon Clarice. When Judith entered she saw that her mistress’s very lips were white.
“I am afraid to open it, Judith,” spoke poor Jane, as the girl held it out to her. “It may bring bad news.”
“Nay, my lady, I should hope the contrary,” was Judith’s answer. “It’s known there was a young heir expected: perhaps this is to tell that he is born.”
The colour came into Jane’s face again. Of course it was nothing else! How could she have been so oblivious? No, no chance of its being from the unhappy Clarice: she seemed lost for good. With fingers that burned—burned at the thought of who the young heir’s mother was, and who she had been,—Jane Chesney tore open the despatch.
“London. Half-past-eight, A.M.
“RICHARD JAMES, M.D., TO THE LADY JANE CHESNEY.
“The Earl of Oakburn is dangerously ill: come at once, if you would see him alive. He says bring Lady Laura.”
The despatch fell from her hand, and she burst into tears. All her old affection for her father had come back again in that one moment.
What was to be thought of first? Lady Jane took a minute for reflection, and then her plans were formed. She wrote a line in pencil to Laura, explaining what the matter was, and telling her she would call for her in a fly. The servant was to leave the note at Mr. Carlton’s, and then go on to the Red Lion, get the fly, and come back in it. Meanwhile, Lady Jane and Judith prepared themselves, and were ready when the fly came. Jane got in, and they drove to her sister’s. Mr. Carlton came forth.
Jane bowed coldly, but vouchsafed no other greeting to him.
“Is Lady Laura not ready?” she asked.
“Laura is absent,” he replied. “The twisted note you sent was not sealed, and I opened it. She is gone to spend a few days at Pembury with Colonel and Mrs. Marden.”
Jane was rather at a nonplus for a moment. “This opportunity for a reconciliation with the earl should not be lost,” she resumed at length. “Lady Laura must be telegraphed to.” Lady Laura! Not to him, though he was the husband, would she speak the simple name.
“I will telegraph to her myself as I pass the Great Wennock Station,” said Jane, as she gave the signal to drive on. “Good morning.”
“Thank you,” returned Mr. Carlton, “if you will take the trouble. Good morning, Lady Jane. I sincerely hope you will find the earl better on your arrival.”
A hasty journey to the station; a hasty telegraphic message, dispatched to Lady Laura Carlton at Colonel Marden’s; and Lady Jane and Judith were seated in an express train, whirling away towards London.
They reached Portland Place early in the afternoon. A change for the worse had taken place in the earl; he was rapidly sinking. Lady Jane was shown immediately to his chamber. She remembered the large handsome bed-room which had been his, and was turning to it of her own accord.
“Not there, my lady,” whispered the servant; “higher up.”
“Higher up?” repeated Jane, with displeased emphasis.
“The countess is lying in that room. My lord is up-stairs.”
Jane resented the news in her heart. He to be put out of his room for a Miss Lethwait! The words seemed to imply that she was ill, but Jane would not inquire. In the corridor, Lucy (who in spite of Miss Snow’s watchfulness had not been quite cured of her propensity for looking over balustrades) flew down to her, in delight and surprise.
“Oh, Jane!” she uttered, clinging round her neck, “is it really you? How came you to come?”
Miss Snow would have found fault with the wording of the sentence. Jane only clasped her sister.
“I have come to see papa, Lucy. Is there no hope?”
“No hope!” echoed the child, staring at her sister. “Why, Jane, whatever made you think that? He is as much better as he can be. He is nearly well. The pain is almost gone: and you know he always got well as soon as the pain left him.”
Jane was staggered. The message had been ominous; the servant, now showing her up, had just told her there was no hope: what, then, did Lucy mean? But Dr. James was standing beside them, having emerged from the earl’s room. He heard Lucy’s words and saw Jane’s perplexed countenance. He hastened to interfere, willing to prevent any inexpedient explanation.
“Lady Jane Chesney, I presume. But—allow me a moment, Lady Lucy: this is against orders. You were not to come to this corridor at all to-day: the earl must not be disturbed.”
“Oh, Dr. James! I was obliged just to come when I saw my sister. But I’ll go back to Miss Snow now. Jane, you will come into the study when you have seen papa?”
“Oh, and Jane, there’s a new baby. Do you know it? He is such a darling little fellow, and papa calls him ‘young blue-jacket.’ He is three days old.”
“Is there?” responded Jane, and Lucy went back again. Jane turned inquiringly to the physician.
“The earl, I grieve to say, is sinking,” he whispered. “We keep the fact from the child that it may not get to the ears of the countess; she would go immediately and tell her.”
“Is it right to keep it from the countess?” asked Jane, her tone, as she put the question, betraying that she thought it was wrong.
Dr. James heaved up his physicianly hands and eyes.
“Right to keep it from her, Lady Jane! I would not for the world allow it to reach her ladyship in her present state of health; we don’t know what the consequences might be. My reputation is at stake, my lady.”
Jane bowed her head, and entered her father’s room. The earl lay with his eyes closed, breathing heavily. Death was on his face; Jane saw that at the first glance. The slight movement she made caused him to open them: a joyful ray of gladness flashed into his countenance, and he feebly put out his hand. Jane sank on her knees, and burst into a wailing flood of tears as she clasped it.
“Oh, father, father!”
Who can tell how bitter was that moment to Jane Chesney? In spite of the marriage and the new wife, in spite of the estrangement and the separation, she had unconsciously nourished a secret hope, unacknowledged to herself openly, but not the less dear to her heart, that she and her father should come together again; that she should still be his dear daughter, living in the sunshine of his presence, ministering to his comfort as of old. How it was to be brought about, she never glanced at; but the hope, the prospect, had not been less cherished. And now—there he lay, but a few hours of life left to him! Had Jane’s heart not broken before, it would have broken then.
The day drags through, though storms keep out the sun.
And thus the heart will break, but brokenly live on.
Her head was bowed over him, and she allowed a few moments for the indulgence of her anguish. Her bonnet was off, and Lord Oakburn stretched over his other hand, and laid it fondly on her hair.
“Don’t fret, Jane. We must all make the port at last.”
“Oh, father, father!” she repeated, in agony, “is there no hope?”
“Not in this ship, Jane. But I’m going into a better one. One not made with human hands, child; one where the pumps don’t get choked or the timbers rotten. My voyage is nearly over, Jane.”
She sobbed piteously; she scarcely knew how to bear the hour’s trial.
“Father, are we to part thus, having been estranged all this while? Oh, father, forgive me for my rebellion; forgive me for all the grief I may have caused you; but I could not endure to feel nothing to you, to be a cipher in your home.”
“Child, what do you mean? You have not been rebellious to me; you must go to Laura for that. It did hurt you, Jane, I know, and I was vexed when I had done it; but you see, child, I wanted to have a direct heir, and now he is born. Forgive me, Jane, for the pain I caused you, but don’t you ask forgiveness of me; you, my dutiful child, who have ever been ready to put your hands under my feet. I might have set about it in a more ship-shape manner, have taken you into my counsels, and made it pleasant for all sides; and I wish I had. You see, I thought you wouldn’t like it, and I was a coward and did not speak. She has been a good wife to me, Jane; and she respects you, and would love you, if you’d let her.”
Jane did not answer. An attendant opened the door to see if anything might be wanted, but was waved away again.
“So Laura would not come, Jane?”
“She could not come,” sobbed Jane; “she was at Pembury. She is telegraphed for, and may be here by the next train.”
“Does he make her a good husband?”
“I think so; I hear nothing to the contrary. I do not go there,” added Jane, trying to subdue her aching heart, so as to speak calmly.
“And now, Jane, where’s Clarice? In this, my death-hour, she is more anxiously present to me than any of you. Has harm come to her?”
“Father, I don’t know where she is: I cannot think or imagine where. I begin to fear that harm has come to her; sometimes I feel sure of it.”
“In what shape?” asked the earl.
“Nay, how can I tell? Then again, I reason that she must be abroad: but the thought of her has become to me a wearing care.”
“However it maybe, I can do nothing,” panted the peer, “but, Jane, I leave her to you. Mind! I leave her to you! Spare no exertions to discover her; make it your object in life, until it is accomplished; keep that port always in view in your steering. And when you have found her give her my blessing, and tell her I have not been able to leave her well off, but that I have done what I could. You will give her a home, Jane, if she will not come to her step-mother?”
“As long as I have one, father.”
“Yours is secured, such as it is. Lucy———”
The earl’s voice had been growing weaker, and now ceased altogether. Jane opened the door, and beckoned in the attendants, whom she found waiting outside.
“Oh, missee! oh, missee!” wept poor Pompey, likewise pressing forward, “massa never get up no more!”
The earl appeared to have sunk into a sort of stupor; they could scarcely tell whether it was stupor or sleep. When the medical men paid their next visit, they said he might go off in it, or might rally from it for a time. Jane sat in the room; she could not leave him. And thus the day passed on.
Passed on without bringing Laura. Jane wondered, much. Would she not come—as the earl had fancied? She listened intently, her ear being alive to every sound.
The medical men came in and out, but the dying man still lay as he was, and gave no token. Once more Jane urged upon them the claims of the countess—that she ought to be apprised of the danger; but they positively refused to listen. It grew dark, and the nurse brought in the night-lamp. Jane was watching her arrange it, watching her mechanically, when a voice was heard from the bed.
It was her father’s; he had roused up to consciousness; it almost seemed to strength, for the voice was firm, and the sight and sense seemed clear. Jane put a few teaspoonfuls of jelly within his lips.
“Jane, I think I have seen the country on the other side. It’s better than Canaan was, and the rivers are like crystal, and the flowers on the banks are bright. I am nearly there, Jane; just one narrow strait to work through first, which looks dark; but the darkness is nothing, for I can see the light beyond it.”
Jane’s tears fell on the bed-clothes. She could not trust her voice to answer: and the earl was silent for a time.
“Such a great big ship, Jane,” he began again; “big enough to hold all the people in the world; and those who get into her are at rest for ever. No more cold watches to keep in the dark night; no more shifting sails; no more tacking and wearing; no more struggles with the storm and hurricane; the Great Commander does it all for us. You’ll come to me there, Jane? I am but going on a short while first.”
“Yes,” Jane softly whispered through her sobs, “to be together in bliss for ever and ever.”
“Where’s Clarice?” he suddenly exclaimed. “Is she not come?”
Jane had little doubt that he meant Laura.
“We did not expect Clarice,” she said. “And Laura is not here yet.”
“Jane, perhaps Clarice has gone into the beautiful ship before me. I may find her there.”
“I don’t know,” Jane faintly answered, feeling how worse than unsatisfactory was the uncertainty respecting Clarice in that dying hour. “Father, if—if Laura cannot be here in time, you will leave her your forgiveness?”
“It is left to her. You may give it to her again; my love and my full forgiveness. But she might have come for it. Perhaps he would not let her, Jane.”
“You forget,” she murmured; “Laura was not at home, and Mr. Carlton could not prevent her. Why should he wish to do so? I do not think he would.”
“Tell Laura I forgive him, too; and I hope he may get into the ship with the rest of us. But, Jane, I cannot like him; I never did. When Laura finds herself upon the quicksands, do you shelter her; she’ll have nobody else to do it.” Was that sentence spoken with the strange prevision that sometimes attends the dying?
A slight sound upon the muffled knocker. Jane’s quick ear caught it. She hoped it was Laura, but it was only Dr. James. He came into the earl’s room, and then went down to pay a visit to the countess.
After his departure Lord Oakburn again sank into what seemed a stupor, and lay so for an hour or two. As ten o’clock struck he started from it.
“Eliza, what’s the time?”
Jane glanced at his watch, which was hanging up, for he had not noticed the striking of the house clock.
“Five minutes past ten.”
“Oh, it’s you, Jane,” he said, with a sort of gladness that it was her, which found its echo in Jane’s heart; and he feebly put out his hand in search of hers. “My own Jane! with me at last! She doesn’t know how I have missed her.”
The last sentence appeared to be spoken as if he were oblivious of her presence, in that treachery of memory which frequently accompanies the dying: and there was a second glad echo within her.
“I am not in there yet, Jane, and the passage seems long. But there the ship is—what a sight! with her spars and her white sails. They are silvered over; and the spars are as glass, and the ship herself is gold. But it seems long to wait! How’s the tide?”
His voice had grown so indistinct that Jane had to bend down to listen, but the last question was spoken in a clear and anxious tone. She gave some soothing answer, not supposing that he meant the tide of reality—the matter-of-fact “high water at London Bridge” of the living, moving world.
“The tide, Jane, the tide?” he continued, pointing with his finger to his own nautical almanac, which lay on his dressing table. Jane rose and reached the book.
“The tide is coming in, father,” she said, after finding the place. “It will be high water at eleven o’clock.”
“Ay, ay. That’s what I am waiting for. I couldn’t go against the tide, Jane; it must turn. I am going out with the tide.”
Jane put the book back, and resumed her post by him.
“Give my love to my wife, Jane, and tell her I wish I could have seen her; but the doctors wouldn't let it be so. And, Jane, you'll love my little son?”
“Oh, yes,” she answered, with a sobbing sigh.
“And you'll come here sometimes when I'm gone? You'll come to see Lucy.”
“Oh, father!” uttered Jane, in a tone of startled pain, “you surely have not left her away from me?”
The earl half opened his eyes.
“You have not left the guardianship of Lucy to any one but me?” breathlessly continued Jane. “Father, I have brought her up from her cradle; I have been to her a second mother; you could not leave her away from me?”
He was evidently troubled, insensible as he had nearly become to earthly things.
“I did not think of it, Jane; when I made my will, I did not think—” his voice sunk and Jane could not catch it. Silence fell upon the room, broken only by a convulsive sort of sound that arose now and then: the sobs of Jane.
“It's getting dark,” he resumed, later; “come closer to me, Jane. Don't you see the ship? She's lying at anchor while she waits. Look at her, Jane; how bright she is; never mind it's being dark here. The banks are green, and the flowers brilliant, and the clouds are of rose colour. And there, there's the Captain! there he is! Oh, Jane, shut your eyes, you cannot look upon his brightness. He is beckoning to me; he is beckoning to me!” reiterated the earl, his earnest voice so full of strange, loving triumph, that to Jane's mind it was impossible to connect what he said with a mere worldly vision. “I told you he would not reject a poor weather-beaten sailor. He is going to guide the ship to God—right into the blessed port of Heaven. Yes, yes, I am coming; never mind the darkness; we shall soon be in the light.”
He said no more, but lay quietly. The tide turned at eleven o'clock to go out, and the spirit of Francis, thirteenth Earl of Oakburn, went out with it.
One of the servants left the room to make known the event to the household below, and in the same moment Lady Laura Carlton, so anxiously looked for, arrived. It turned out that when the telegraphic despatch reached Colonel Marden's, she and the family had just departed on a day's excursion to some distant ruins. It was given to her when she returned home, but that was not until five in the evening; she had lost no time in coming then.
Laura was of an impetuous nature, and the instant the door was opened to her she ran up the stairs, trusting to instinct to find her father's bed-room. In the corridor of the first floor, close to the countess's chamber, she encountered the servant who had just left the room above. “How is the earl?” she then inquired.
The servant stared at her. Perhaps the woman did not know that another daughter was expected. She made no answer for the moment, and Laura stamped her foot impatiently.
“I ask you how Lord Oakburn is! Don't you know me? I am Lady Laura Carlton.”
“The earl is dead, my lady,” replied the woman in a low voice. “The breath has just left his body.”
“Dead!” shrieked Laura, in a tone that might be heard in every part of the house. “My father dead! Oh, Jane, is it true?” she wailed out, catching sight of Jane Chesney on the stairs above. “Jane, Jane! is papa dead?”
Out came the nurse from Lady Oakburn's room, her face as white as a sheet and sour as a crab, praying for caution and silence. Laura went higher up, and Jane took her into the death-chamber.
She flung herself down by the side of the bed, crying frantically, almost raving. Why had she not been sent for earlier? why had they allowed him to die without her seeing him? Jane, in her quiet, but far deeper grief, strove to soothe her; she whispered of his peaceful frame of mind, of his loving message of forgiveness; but Laura sobbed on hysterically, and would not be comforted.
A sight startled them both. A tall figure robed in a flannel dressing-gown, with an ashy pale face, came gliding in and stood gazing at the corpse. Laura had never seen her before, and the sight hushed her to silence; Jane knew her for Lady Oakburn. The nurse followed behind, wringing her hands, and audibly lamenting what it appeared she had no power to prevent. Laura's cry in the corridor had penetrated to the chamber, and Lady Oakburn rose out of her bed to come.
Anguish and reproach struggled in her countenance; anguish at her husband's death, reproach at those who had kept his state from her; but she had powerful command over her feelings, and retained almost unnatural calmness. Seeing Jane, she turned and confronted her.
“Was this well done, Lady Jane?”
“I do not know precisely to what you allude,” was Jane's answer. “I am a stranger in the house, holding no authority in it, and whether things are ill or well done, it is not I who am responsible. I would have saved my father's life with my own, had it been possible so to save it.”
“You have been here with him?”
“Since this afternoon.”
“And yet you have excluded me!” returned Lady Oakburn, her voice trembling with its suppressed emotion. “You think it right to exclude a wife from her husband's death bed?”
“I think it very wrong,” said Lady Jane: “I think nothing can justify it, save peril to her own life. The first caution I had breathed into my ear upon entering this house, was, that the truth of my father's state, his danger, must be kept from you. I ventured to remonstrate; yes I did: once to Dr. James alone, again to the medical men in concert; and I was told that it was essential you should be kept in ignorance; that the tidings, if imparted, might have the worst effect upon you. I should have been the first to tell you, had I dared.”
Lady Oakburn turned her condemning eyes on the nurse. “It was Dr. James,” spoke up the woman; “he gave his orders throughout the household, and we could but obey him. He was afraid of such a thing as this, that has now happened; and who's to know, my lady, that you may not die for it?”
“I beg your pardon,” murmured the countess to Jane. “Oh, Lady Jane, let us be friends in this awful moment!” she implored, an irresistible impulse prompting her to speak. “He was your father; my husband; and he is lying dead before us; he has entered into the world where strife must cease; forgive me for the injury you think I did you, for the estrangement that I unhappily caused; let us at least be friends in the present hour, though the future should bring coolness again!”
Jane Chesney put her hand into her step mother's. “It was not my fault that you were not with him; had it rested with me, you should have been. He charged me to give you his love, and to say how he wished he could have seen you, but that the doctors forbid it. His death has been very peaceful; full of hope of a better world; a little while, he said, and we should all be joining him there.”
Lady Oakburn, Jane's hand still in hers, had laid her face upon the pillow by the dead, when a storm of suffocating sobs was heard behind them. Lucy, likewise aroused by Laura's cry on the stairs, had stolen in, in her night dress.
“You kept it from me too, Lucy!” exclaimed Lady Oakburn in a tone of sad reproach. “And I trusted to you!”
“It was kept from her,” spoke up the nurse. “We were afraid of the child's knowing it, my lady, because she would have carried the news to you.”
“Oh, Jane,” sobbed the little girl, “why has your love gone from us? You knew he was dying, and you never told me! you need not have begrudged a kiss to me from him for the last time.”
“I have no longer authority in the house, Lucy,” repeated Jane, “and can but do as I am told. I am but a stranger in it.”
Her tone, broken by suffering, by sorrow, by a sound of injury, struck upon them all, even amidst their own grief.
Laura had been kneeling in the shade since Lady Oakburn's entrance; had neither spoken to her, nor been seen by Lucy. Jane turned to her now.
“And he left you his forgiveness, Laura; his full and free, and his blessing,” she said, as her silent tears dropped. “He died leaving his forgiveness to Mr. Carlton; his good wishes for him. Oh, but that I know my father has gone to peace, to heavenly happiness, this trial would be greater than I could bear!”
The last words appeared to escape her in her excess of anguish. It was indeed a night of bitter trial for them all; but for none perhaps as it was for Jane.
Still, in spite of her grief, she was obliged to forego a great part of her prejudice against Lady Oakburn. It was certainly not a time to retain ill-feeling; and Jane could not close her eyes to facts—that Lady Oakburn had been a good woman in her new home. If Jane could but forgive the marriage, the countess's conduct in all her new duties had been admirable: and as she sobbed that night by Jane's side, and reiterated over and over again her grief, her remorse for the estrangement between the earl and his daughter, her humble prayer that Lady Jane would at least try to learn to look upon her as not an enemy, Jane's heart insensibly warmed, and she unconsciously began to like the countess better than ever she had liked her as Miss Lethwait.
“If I have been wrong in my prejudice, more obstinate than I ought to be, if it brought pain to my dear father, may God forgive me!” she murmured. “Yes, Lady Oakburn, we will be friends henceforth; good friends, I trust; never more enemies.”
And Lady Oakburn took Jane's hand and sobbed over it. The trouble she had brought upon Lady Jane, the estrangement caused by her between Jane and her father, had been the one thorn in the countess's wedded life.
On the following morning Judith went abroad to make certain purchases for her mistress, and in passing along Piccadilly she encountered Stephen Grey—now Dr. Grey, as you have heard. The two stopped, mutually surprised and delighted: it is so pleasant to meet an old face from one's native place, no matter what the social degree.
“Why, Judith,” he exclaimed, “is it you or your ghost? What wind blew you to town?”
He put out his hand to shake hands with her: he was the same Stephen Grey as ever, free and cordial. Judith's face glowed with pleasure: if there was one person in all South Wennock who believed in Mr. Stephen Grey's innocence, and that he was an ill-used man, it was Judith Ford.
“Lady Jane was telegraphed for yesterday, sir,” she explained. “The earl was dying. We got to London in the afternoon, and he died a few minutes past eleven at night.”
“I heard of his death this morning. Gout, I suppose?”
“Gout in the stomach, I believe, sir,” replied Judith. “But he suffered as good as nothing yesterday, sir, and died peacefully as a child.”
“He would not suffer much towards the last,” remarked the doctor. “And the young earl is a strapping shaver of four days old! Death and birth, Judith; the one comes to replace the other.”
“It's in the course of nature that it should, sir. But as to the baby being strapping, 1 don't know about that, for I have not seen him. It's born healthy and straight, the servants say, and that's the chief thing. Lady Laura is up also,” added Judith: “but she did not get there in time to see her father alive.”
“How was that—if Lady Jane could do it?”
“Lady Laura was out, visiting at Pembury. My lady sent a note to her, thinking she was at home, and we called for her in the fly as we were going to the station. Mr. Carlton came out to Lady Jane; I don't fancy she much liked meeting him; she has never once met him face to face, sir, until yesterday, since the marriage.”
“How is Carlton getting on?” asked the doctor. “Well, I hear.”
“Very well, I believe,” answered Judith, “But Mr. Grey and his partner, Mr. Lycett, have as much as ever they can do. There's plenty of practice for all, sir.”
“I always said there was,” replied the doctor. “Do Carlton and Frederick fall out still?” And he laughed as he asked the question.
“Not that I hear of, sir. I fancy they keep apart, for there's no love lost between them. He gets so good-looking, does Master Frederick; the last time I saw him he said he should soon be leaving for London.”
“Very soon now. But we thought it better he should remain for a time at South Wennock, where he gets more of the drudgery of the profession than he would with me.”
“And, sir, if I may make bold to ask it, how are you prospering?”
“Famously, Judith. Short as the time is that I have been here, I am making a great deal more than I did at South Wennock. So if your friend, Carlton, thought to ruin me by driving me away, he has not succeeded in his wish.”
The doctor spoke in a light, pleasant tone. He cherished enmity to none, not even Mr. Carlton; to do so was not in his nature. But Judith resented the words.
“Mr. Carlton is no friend of mine, sir; I don't like him well enough. When shall you be paying a visit to South Wennock, Mr. Stephen?”
“My goodness, Judith! The idea of your calling me ‘Mr. Stephen!’” returned the jesting doctor. “I'm a great man now, and shall enter an action against you for defamation of title. Don't you know I am the famed Dr. Grey?”
Judith smiled. His merriment was contagious.
“But when shall you be coming, sir?”
“Perhaps never,” he replied, a shade of seriousness arising to his face. “South Wennock did not treat me so well that I should wish to see it speedily. Should the mystery ever be cleared up about that poisoned draught—and, mark you, Judith, when it is cleared up, it will be found that I was innocent—then I may visit it again.”
Judith fell into momentary thought, wondering whether the mystery ever would be cleared up. She hoped it would be sometime; and yet—she dreaded that that time should come.
“You will call upon us, won't you, Judith, now you are in town? Mrs. Stephen Grey will be glad to see an old face.”
“Thank you sir,” replied Judith, much gratified at the invitation. “I shall be glad to pay my duty to Mrs. Grey. Does London agree with her, sir?”
“1 am afraid it does not, Judith, very well. But neither did South Wennock. She is always delicate you know, let her be where she will. Ah, Judith, if we could but find some Utopia of a spot in this lower world, warranted to give health to all invalids, what a thing it would be! As great a boon as the mill we are always looking for that grinds folks young again.”
He was turning away laughing. Judith stopped him.
“1 beg your pardon, sir, but I do not know your address.”
“Bless me, don’t you! I thought all the world knew where the great Dr. Grey lived,” he returned in his jesting way. “There it is”—giving her his card—“Savile Row; and mind you find your way to it.”
Curious to say, that accidental interview, that simple giving of the card to Judith, led to an event quite unlooked for.
When Judith reached home—that is, her temporary home for the time being, Portland Place—she found the house in a sort of commotion, although it was the house of the dead. Lady Oakburn had dismissed her medical attendant, Dr. James.
She had done it, as she did most things, in a quiet, lady-like manner, but one entirely firm and uncompromising. Dr. James had by stratagem, by untruth, prevented a last interview between her and her husband, and she felt that she could not regard him again with feelings unallied to vexation and anger: it was better therefore that they should part. Dr. James urged that what he had done, he had done for the best, out of concern for her ladyship’s welfare. That, her ladyship did not doubt, she answered; but she could not forget or forgive the way in which it had been accomplished: in her judgment, Dr. James should have imparted to her the truth of her husband’s state, and then urged prudence upon her. It was the deceit she could not forgive, or—in short—countenance.
The result was the dismissal of Dr. James, and the dismay of the nurse in attendance upon the countess. The dismay extended itself to Lady Jane. Although the imprudence of Lady Oakburn on the previous night appeared not to have materially affected her, still she was not yet in a sufficiently convalescent state to be left without a medical attendant. Lady Oakburn appeared to think she was: she was not personally acquainted with any other doctor in London, she said to Jane, and seemed to dislike the idea of a stranger’s being called to her of whose skill she could know nothing. It was in this dilemma that Judith found the house on her return.
“Oh, my lady,” she exclaimed to her mistress on the spur of the moment, “if the countess would but call in Mr. Stephen Grey! He is so sure! he is so skilful! and she could not fail to like him.”
She extended the card as she spoke, and told of the recent interview. Jane listened, and carried the card to the countess.
“Let me send for him, Lady Oakburn,” she urged. “I do think it is necessary that you should have some one; and, as Judith says, you could not fail to like Dr. Grey.”
Lady Oakburn consented. Known well to Judith, partially to Lady Jane, he would not seem like a stranger: and Stephen Grey was sent for. It was the first step in the friendship that ensued between the Greys and Lady Oakburn: a friendship that was destined to bring great events in its train.