Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 19

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

[Part the Second.]

CHAPTER XXXVII.THE WATERING-PLACE.

Seven years to look forward to is a vast period of time; to the young it seems almost interminable. It is long in the passing: for we count it by hours, and days, and weeks, and months and years. But what is it in the retrospect?—a little bubble, as it were, on the ocean; a speck in the span of life. Since the last chapter, seven years have gone over the heads of the actors in this history, and now the reader is invited to meet some of them again.

Seated on the sands of a fashionable and somewhat exclusive English watering-place, was a group of ladies. Some were working as they talked, some were reading, some were enjoying in idleness and silence the fresh breeze that came wafting over the sea, and some were watching the sports of the children in the distance, running hither and thither and making pies in the sand. A bevy of girls had congregated together, rather apart, but still within reach of speech and hearing. They were intent on their own pursuits, their peculiar interests: dress, flirtation, the libraries, the fashionable promenades of the day, and the assemblies in the rooms at night. Just now they seemed inclined to be quarrelsome rather than sociable. Jealousy was creeping in amidst them.

“You may say what you will, Miss Lake,” exclaimed one, “but I maintain that he is the most distinguished-looking man staying at Seaford. Am I right or not?” she added, appealing to her companions.

The speaker was a tall, stately girl, with aquiline features, pale and classic. She was the daughter of General and Mrs. Vaughan, and was staying with them at Seaford. The Miss Lake she had replied to was plain and cynical. And Miss Lake, in place of answering, again drew down the corners of her lips.

“I don’t care whether he’s ‘distinguished looking’ or not,” spoke up a pretty girl, Fanny Darlington. “I know he is the pleasantest man I ever spoke to. And if he is ‘distinguished’ it does not make him disagreeable. I hate your distinguished-looking men; they are generally vain and unapproachable; two faults that he steers clear of. He danced with me twice last night.”

“And not once with Augusta Lake, and that’s why she is accusing him this morning.”

A slight smile, suppressed out of good manners, appeared on the lips of several. Miss Vaughan was the only one who spoke.

“Dancing goes for nothing. A man may whirl his legs off, dancing with a woman, and yet not care for her: while he may be secretly attached to one, whom he never asks to walk through a quadrille.”

“You say that, because he sits at your side in the rooms, and talks to you by the hour together, Helen Vaughan,” interposed Fanny Darlington, who had a free tongue, and some times used it more than was quite requisite. “But you will be none the nearer him, for all that. I don’t believe he cares two pins for any girl at Seaford.”

A tale-telling flush rose to the face of Helen Vaughan. She shook back her head haughtily, as if to intimate that retort would be beneath her.

“Talking about the rooms, though, who was it he was with there last night?” asked Miss Lake. “I have not seen her there before. A lovely girl.”

“I’m sure I saw him with no lovely girl at the rooms last night,” struck in Helen Vaughan.

“I know who Miss Lake means,” cried Fanny Darlington. “She is lovely. She sat with a tall, majestic-looking lady, quite a Juno, and he kept coming up to them. I was near when he asked her to dance; she refused, and said her mamma wished her not; and he turned to the Juno, and inquired whether it was true———"

“A very ugly Juno in face, whatever she may be in figure,” interrupted Augusta Lake.

“How you do stop me! The Juno said Yes; she thought it better that (I could not catch the name) should not dance with him, because she would have no plea for refusing others.”

“Some second-rate city people, who would stick themselves up for ‘quality,’ and say the frequenters of the rooms are not good enough for them,” remarked the general’s daughter, with a lofty sneer.

“No, they don’t look like that; quite another sort of thing,” said a young lady quietly, who had not yet spoken. “I think they are ‘quality,’ not would-be.”

“Rubbish!” cried Miss Lake. “How do you know anything of them, Mary Miller?”

“I have the use of my eyes, and can observe them as well as you, that’s all. You saw that child who came on the sands yesterday morning with a maid and an old black servant?”

“Well, what of him?”

“In the afternoon I saw her—the young lady—driving about with the same child,” returned Miss Miller. “I infer that they are people of consequence.”

“How can you infer it!” flashed Helen Vaughan, as if the remark disturbed her temper. “Every soul sojourning at Seaford drives out daily. You are turning silly, Mary Miller.”

Mary Miller laughed as she answered. In her quiet way she liked to excite the ire of Miss Vaughan. “The carriage was well-appointed.”

“You may get ‘well-appointed’ carriages at the hiring-place, by paying six shillings an hour for them,” was Miss Vaughan’s scornful answer.

“So you may,” said Mary Miller. “But the carriage they were in was not hired. The footman had a powdered wig and a gold-headed cane; and the silver plates of the harness and the panels of the carriage displayed a coronet.”

Had the speaker announced that the harness and panels displayed a live griffin rampant, it could not have aroused more excitement. “A coronet!” broke from the lips of those around.

“An earl’s coronet. So if she is an earl’s daughter, as we may assume, it would be somewhat infra dig. for her to be found dancing in these rooms, liable to be waltzed about by any clerk from London who may pay his subcription to go in—whatever you may say to the contrary, Miss Vaughan.”

“It is singular I should not have observed them last night,” was Miss Vaughan’s remark.

“They did not stay long,” said Fanny Darlington; “they seemed to come in more to see what the rooms were like than to stay. He went out with them, but he came back again. He appeared to know them intimately.”

“Some of his patients, no doubt,” cried Miss Lake. “Medical men are always———"

“Hush, Augusta! Here he is. Don’t ask who the people were.”

A tall, slender man was slowly approaching the group. Certainly he was what Miss———Vaughan had just described him—distinguished-looking. The thoughtful expression of his intelligent countenance, full of the beauty of intellect, gave him the appearance of being somewhat older than his age, which may have been near five-and-twenty. But it was neither for his fine form nor his handsome face that he was popular, popular with all classes; it was for his charm of manner. Quiet and refined, gentlemanly in bearing and in thought, he yet bore about him that ready frankness of speech, that winning courtesy to others, which is the great passport to favour, and which can never be assumed by those who possess it not.

Do you guess who it was? You have seen him before. It was that impetuous boy of years gone by, Frederick Grey. But Frederick Grey grown into manhood.

The change in the fortunes of Stephen Grey had been wonderful. At least it would have appeared wonderful, but that the rise had been so gradually progressive, one step leading easily, and naturally as it were, to another. Eight years ago, barely so much yet, he had been a general practitioner in South Wennock, the modest dispenser of his own medicines; and now he was Sir Stephen Grey, a baronet, and one of the royal physicians.

A wonderful rise, you will say. In truth it was. But the transition had been, I repeat, easy and gradual. His settling in London was the turning point in his fortunes, and they had continued to rise step by step throughout the subsequent years. Practice first flew in to him, and he obtained a name; how valuable that is to a physician, more especially a London physician, let them tell you; next, he had been appointed to attend on royalty, and was knighted by the Queen; and now, about twelve months back, his patent of baronetcy had been made out for “Stephen Grey and his heirs for ever.” There was scarcely a medical man in the metropolis who was so popular as Sir Stephen Grey; certainly none who had risen so rapidly.

Frederick, as you know, had been trained to his father’s profession. He would soon take his degree as M.D. A break had occurred in his medical studies, for when Sir Stephen found his fortunes rising, he judged it right to afford his son the advantages of a more liberal education, and Frederick was despatched to keep his terms at the Oxford University. No wonder he was sought after by those young ladies on the Seaford sands! The heir to a baronetcy and the inheritor of wealth—for Sir Stephen was putting by largely; added to these were his own attractions of person, his high character, his fascinating manners,—the whole combined in one man might well be deemed a prize.

Lady Grey, no stronger in health than she had used to be, had come to Seaford for the sea air, accompanied by her son. They had been there a fortnight now, and Mr. Frederick, as you perceive, had not failed to make himself a mark of interest; though probably using no effort of his own in the process.

He walked slowly towards those susceptible young ladies, and a change came over them all: that change from apathy to interest which the presence of such a man is sure to bring. Perhaps there was not a girl sitting there but would have been glad to be his chosen, what with his own attractions and his fair prospects in life.

He shook hands with some, he chatted with others, he had a pleasant look and word for all; but Helen Vaughan contrived to monopolize him—as she generally did. He thought nothing yet of her doing so, for he was accustomed to the homage of women. He never suspected she had any particular motive in it; most certainly he did not suspect that she was permitting herself to become seriously attached to him.

“How is Lady Grey,?” called out Fanny Darlington.

“Thank you,” he replied, “she is not well this morning. I begged her not to think of coming on the sands to-day.”

“How vexatious! " exclaimed Miss Vaughan. “Vexatious that she should be ill, and vexatious on my own account,” she added, with a fascinating smile. “You see this work that I am doing, Mr. Grey?”

“Very complicated work it seems to be,” was his laughing reply, as he glanced at the fragile fabric of threads she held out to him.

“I cannot get on with it, do you know. I am doing it under Lady Grey’s instructions, and cannot tell which part to take up next. If I thought mamma would not mind my walking alone through the streets, I would go to your house, and take them from her. Is she well enough to see friends?” continued the young lady, quickly.

“Quite well enough.”

“I think I must go to her for instructions, then. It is so tiresome to be at a standstill. Besides, I am working against time; this is for a wedding present.”

“I can tell you how to go on with it, if you choose,” interrupted Augusta Lake. “There’s not the least necessity for your troubling Lady Grey.”

Helen Vaughan shook her head dubiously.

“But if you should tell me wrong?—and I had the work to pick out again! No, I would rather trust to Lady Grey, as she has shown me all throughout. Would it be troubling her too much, Mr. Grey?” appealing to him with her handsome eyes.

“On the contrary, I think my mother would be glad to receive you,” he replied. “On I these monotonous mornings, when she is confined to the sofa, she is often pleased at the sight of a visitor.”

Helen Vaughan rose, but she did not move away; she stood where she was, and seemed to be lost in perplexed deliberation.

“I scarcely know what to be at; mamma has so great a dislike to our walking through the streets alone.” Augusta Lake’s lip curled scornfully, and she did not take any pains to hide it.

“Will you accept of my escort?” asked the gentleman. Could he say anything less?

“Oh, thank you!” exclaimed Helen, with a rosy flush. “Though I am extremely sorry to give you the trouble, Mr. Grey.”

He had taken a step or two by her side when he found himself impeded. A little pale lad had come up, and was pulling him backwards. He wore a plain brown-holland tunic dress, and his straw hat had a bit of straw-coloured ribbon tied round it. There was nothing about the child to tell his quality or condition; his attire might have been equally worn by one of no degree, or by a son of her Majesty the Queen.

“Hey, Frank! Where did you spring from?”

“Mamma’s there, She said I might run to you.”

“Who is that child, Mr. Grey?” came the eager inquiry, for the gossiping young ladies had recognised him for the one of whom they had been making mention.

Mr. Grey caught the boy in his arms and perched him on his shoulder.

“Tell who you are, Frank.”

Master Frank did not choose to speak; he was shy. One hand stole round Frederick Grey’s neck; the fingers of the other he inserted in his own mouth.

“The child was here yesterday with a black servant,” began Miss Lake, “but———"

“It was Pompey,” interrupted the boy, finding his tongue. “Put me down, please, Mr. Grey; I want to go for my spade.”

“There you are, then,” he returned, depositing him on his legs. " But, Frank, I am ashamed of you. Not to tell your name when you are asked it!”

“It’s Frank,” said the boy, running away over the sand.

“Who is he really, Mr. Grey? "

“Lord Oakburn.”

“Lord Oakburn! The young Earl of Oakburn, who was born when his father died?”

“The same,” said Mr. Grey. “He is a somewhat delicate boy, and Lady Oakburn has brought him here for a month’s sea-bathing.”

“It was his mother we saw you so amiable with at the rooms last night, then?” cried Miss Lake. “And the young lady—who was she?”

“A very lovely girl; quite charming to look upon,” interposed Fanny Darlington rather maliciously, as she stole a glance at Miss Vaughan. “Who was she, Mr. Grey?”

“His sister, Lady Lucy Chesney.”

“Are they patients of yours, Mr. Grey?” asked Helen Vaughan, in a cold tone.

“Of Sir Stephen’s; not of mine,” he answered, laughing.

“By the way, Mr. Grey, I thought you expected Sir Stephen down last Sunday.”

“We expected him on Saturday, but he was unable to come. He will be here next Saturday, if not prevented again.”

The little lord ran up again, spade in hand.

“Mr. Grey, Lucy says I am to tell you we have heard from town.”

“Is Lucy there?” suddenly responded Mr. Grey, turning his head. “She told me she———"

The words died away with the steps of the speaker; for he strode off, quite oblivious to any recollection of Miss Vaughan. At some distance, tracing characters on the sands with her parasol, in a cool and pretty muslin dress, stood an elegant girl of middle height and graceful bearing, her features inexpressibly refined and beautiful, her complexion bright and delicate. It was Lucy Chesney: the little girl of the short frocks and white-tipped drawers had become this lovely young woman of nineteen. The blushes rose to her face in so obvious a degree as Frederick Grey approached her, that they might have told a tale, had any one been there to read it. Miss Vaughan looked on from the distance, her heart sinking, her lips paling: if ever she saw the signs of mutual love, she believed she saw them then.

Miss Vaughan was not deceived. Love, and love in no measured degree, had long ago sprung up between Frederick Grey and Lucy Chesney. That introduction of Stephen Grey to the Countess of Oakburn by Lady Jane—though indeed we ought to give Judith the credit of it—had led to a personal intimacy between the families, which had ripened into a close and lasting friendship. Lady Oakburn, poor for her rank, living a retired life in the house at Portland Place, educating Lucy, training her little boy, had been more inclined to form quiet friendships than to frequent the gay society of the world. A little gaiety now Lucy was out—and she had been presented this past spring—but the long friendship with the Greys could not be superseded by all the gaiety in the world. It had brought forth its fruits, that friendship; for Lucy Chesney’s heart had gone out for all time to that attractive young man, now bending to her to whisper his honied words.

Medical men have their prejudices in favour of certain watering-places, some patronising one place, some another. Sir Stephen Grey’s pet place was Seaford. His wife generally visited it once a year; in short, Sir Stephen recommended it to all his patients, especially to those whose maladies were more imaginary than real. It was he who had said to Lady Oakburn, not ten days ago yet, “Take the boy to Seaford.” The boy, young Frank, was but sickly, and his mother, as a matter of course, was very anxious. The boy had the sturdy independence of his father, and the magnificent dark eyes, the plain good sense of his mother. “There’s no reason to be fidgety over him,” Sir Stephen would say; “he’ll grow into a strong man in time.” But Lady Oakburn was fidgety in that one particular, and Sir Stephen had this year ordered the boy to Seaford—Sir Stephen having no conception that the mandate would be a particularly welcome one to his son and Lucy Chesney, Lady Oakburn as little; for they had been utterly blind to the attachment that was taking root under, as may be said, their very noses. Talk of beetles being blind, men and women are far more so.

He went up to her, holding out his hand, and the cheeks wore the loveliest carmine flush as he bent to her with his whispered words. Very commonplace words, though, and there was no apparent necessity for her blushes, or for his sweet, low tones. Their love-making had not yet gone on to open avowal.

“You told me you were not coming here to-day, Lucy.”

“I thought we were not. Mamma said it would be too hot, but she changed her mind. We had a note from Sir Stephen this morning.”

“Ah! What about?”

“He has obtained the information for us regarding those German baths. It is very favourable, and mamma says now she wishes she had gone to them instead of coming to Seaford.”

An interchanged glance from between their eyelashes, shy on Lucy’s part, speaking worlds on his, and Lucy’s eyes at least were dropped again. Lady Oakburn’s going to the German baths instead of to Seaford would not have been acceptable to either.

“But as Lady Oakburn is here, I suppose she will remain! " he said.

“I think so, now. It is only July, you know, and there may be time for Germany later. Mamma says we must remain a month, for she has written to ask Jane to come to us. At least, we must remain if Jane accepts the invitation.”

“I hope she will!” involuntarily exclaimed Frederick. “Did Sir Stephen say whether he should come down on Saturday, do you know, Lucy?”

“I cannot tell. I did not read his letter. Mamma read it to me, but I don’t know whether she read it all. Sir Stephen———"

“Mr. Frederick Grey, Helen bade me ask whether you had forgotten that she is waiting. She says perhaps it is inconvenient to you to keep your promise.”

Frederick Grey turned to behold a girl of ten, Helen Vaughan’s sister. Helen Vaughan had watched the speakers with a resentful spirit and jealous eye. It was more than her chafed temper could bear, and she called her sister from the attractions of the sand pies, and gave her the message.

Following herself slowly on the heels of the little girl. As Frederick looked round she had nearly come up to them. The child flew off to the pies again and Helen spoke.

“It may be inconvenient to you now, Mr. Grey?”

“By no means. I shall be happy to accompany you.”

The two young ladies stood, scanning each other’s faces, waiting—as it seemed to him—for an introduction. He knew that Miss Vaughan’s position as the daughter of a general officer, would quite justify his making it to Lucy.

“Miss Vaughan: Lady Lucy Chesney.”

Two cold distant curtseys, and the ceremony was over. The general’s daughter was the first to speak.

“Not Miss Vaughan; Miss Helen Vaughan. I have an elder sister. Her health was indifferent and she stayed behind us at Montreal to come home later.”

Montreal? Vaughan? The names struck some nearly forgotten chord in the memory of Lucy, in connection with a Miss Beauchamp who had gone out to Montreal as governess, and who turned out not to be Clarice. She made no comment, however, no inquiry; the young lady’s haughty face did not take her fancy. Neither perhaps did her intimacy with Frederick Grey.

A few interchanged words, cold and civil, two more distant curtseys, and the young ladies had parted, and Miss Vaughan was walking in the direction of the town, side by side with Frederick Grey.

“I don’t like her a bit,” thought Lucy, as she turned away. “I wonder how long Frederick has known her?”

In a quiet spot, apart from others, sat Lady Oakburn. The seven years had passed over her face lightly, and she looked nearly as young, more magnificent than when, as Miss Lethwait, the captivated earl had asked her to become his wife. A hazardous venture, perhaps, but one that had turned out well: Lady Oakburn was a step-mother in a thousand. Seated by her side, having rushed up to claim acquaintance with her on hearing Frederick Grey’s announcement, was a Mrs. Delcie. The acquaintance between them was very slight. They had met once or twice in some of the crowded rooms of London; but you know it is not all of us who get the chance to show to our sea-bathing friends that we are on speaking terms with a countess. Mrs. Delcie appeared inclined to make herself at home, and was already initiating Lady Oakburn into the politics of the place.

“You look tired, my dear child,” exclaimed Lady Oakburn, when Lucy came up. “It is hot here. Would you rather go home?”

“I am not at all tired, mamma. I think Frank will be, by the way he is running about.”

“It will do him good,” returned Lady Oakburn. “You know what Sir Stephen says—that we wrap him up in lavender.”

“Is that Sir Stephen Grey?” interposed Mrs. Delcie. “You know the Greys personally, perhaps?”

“Very well indeed,” replied Lady Oakburn.

“I don’t. But I should like to. I must get an introduction to Lady Grey. What a handsome young fellow is that son of theirs! He will not get away from Seaford heart-whole.”

The words were spoken emphatically, and Lady Oakburn looked up with some curiosity. Lucy, who had sat down by her step-mother, bent her face and her parasol, and began her favourite pastime of tracing characters on the sands as she listened.

“That handsome girl, Helen Vaughan, has been making a dead set at him ever since he came here, and he does not respond to it unwillingly,” continued Mrs. Delcie. “Some think that they are already engaged; but I don’t know.”

“I do not think that likely,” observed Lady Oakburn.

“Why?”

“From what I know of Frederick Grey, he is not the man to choose a young lady for a wife after knowing her for a fortnight only.”

“You would think it likely if you saw them together. He is ever with her, evidently smitten; on the sands, in the promenade, in the rooms, there he is by the side of Helen Vaughan. Some fancy his profession might be a bar in the general’s eyes; not it, say I: there’s the baronetcy to set off against it. It is to be hoped he will have her, for she’s dying for him.”

Lucy’s face turned white, and the parasol went scoring its marks according to its own will. Was it true, this? For the last few months she had been living as in a blissful dream of Eden: one that she had not cared to analyse. All she knew was, that the step of Frederick Grey sent her whole life-blood coursing through her veins, that his presence brought to her a rapturous bliss; his voice was sweeter than the sweetest music, the touch of his hand thrilled her every fibre. The sunny spring-tide of love had come for Lucy Chesney, and she had been glad that it should never pass.

Love took up the glass of time and turned it in his glowing hands;
Every moment, lightly shaken, ran itself in golden sands.
Love took up the harp of life, and smote on all its cords with might;
Smote the chord of self, which, trembling, passed in music out of sight.

CHAPTER XXXVIII.CHANGES.

Lady Jane Chesney sat in her quiet drawing-room in the old house on the Rise. The Rise was a suburb of importance now; mansions, and villas with two entrance gates, and dwellings with a miniature lodge, and other grandeur, had sprung up. Seven years make changes in a place. They had not made much in Jane Chesney. The former carking care, the disappointment, the trouble had passed; and these peaceful last years of quiet had smoothed her fair countenance instead of ageing it. One source of care alone was hers; and that had grown into a care of the past—the anxiety touching her sister Clarice. Strange as it may seem to have to write it, strange as it was in fact, nothing whatever had been heard of Lady Clarice Chesney. Not so much as a word, a hint, a sign had come to Jane of her in any way during the past seven years. Even Mrs. West—the only link, as it had seemed to Lady Jane between Clarice in being and Clarice lost—had disappeared. Not disappeared in the same sense that Clarice had. Mrs. West had given up her house in Gloucester Terrace and gone to reside on the continent for the benefit of her children’s education. Her husband went with her. A successful man in business, he had realised a competency earlier than most men realise it, and had (perhaps wisely) retired from it altogether. So that Jane had seen nothing of the Wests since the short interview with Mr. West at the period of Lord Oakburn’s death.

No, Clarice Chesney remained lost; her fate a mystery amidst the many mysteries of life; and time had flung its healing wings over the heart of Jane, and the anxiety and sorrow were now all of the past. It is true that moments of dismay would come over Jane, like unto that first waking of ours in the early morning, when all the old horror would return to her; the strange disappearance, the vivid features of the dreaded dream, the wearing suspense when she and the earl were afterwards searching for Clarice; and she would remember how faithfully she had promised her father to make the seeking Clarice the one chief object of her life. In these moments she would ask herself—was she doing so? But in truth she saw not anything that could be done, for all sources of inquiry had been exhausted at the time. Should any clue ever turn up, though it were but the faintest shadow of one, then Jane would act; act with all her best energy, and strive to unravel it. A voice within her sometimes made itself heard, in spite of herself, whispering that that time would come.

But the seven years had gone on, bringing none; and seven years at Lady Jane Chesney’s age seems a long span in the lease of life. The signs of care had left her face; it was of placid gentleness; and existence in a calm way had charms yet for Jane Chesney.

Not that little temporary worries never intruded themselves; I do not know anyone to whom they do not come. Even on this morning something of the sort is troubling Jane as she sits in her cool and shady drawing-room, where the sun does not penetrate until the noon is high. A letter has been delivered to her from Seaford from the Countess of Oakburn, and its contents are perplexing her, as her fair brow bends over it for about the twentieth time.

Lady Oakburn had written to her some days’ previously, inviting her to come and stay with them at Seaford. Jane declined it. She did not feel inclined to go from home just then, she wrote, but that perhaps, if all went well, she would spend Christmas with them in London. Jane’s former antipathy to the countess had worn away: she truly esteemed her, and they were the best of friends. Her refusal was duly despatched, and a few days passed on: but this morning had brought another letter from the countess, containing a few urgent lines of entreaty. “Do come to me at once, dear Lady Jane. I ask you for Lucy’s sake. She is quite well; but I must have some advice from you respecting her.”

The words puzzled Jane. Lady Oakburn had written in evident anxiety; in—Jane thought—pain; certainly in haste. Her letters were always so sensible and self-possessed that there could be no doubt something unusual had seriously disturbed her, and that it concerned Lucy.

“I shall go,” decided Jane, as she folded the letter for the last time, and placed it in her pocket. “I do not like suspense, and I shall go to-day. We can get away by the three o’clock train.”

She rang for Judith, to give her the necessary orders, and in the same moment saw the carriage of her sister Laura stop at the gate. A grand carriage was Lady Laura’s now, with its bedecked servants and all sorts of show and frippery attached to it, quite after Laura’s own vain heart. Mr. Carlton the elder had quitted the world, and bequeathed his gains to his son; and none in all South Wennock were so grand as Mr. and Lady Laura Carlton.

She came in: the imperious look, which had now grown habitual, very conspicuous on her face; her robe of pale green morning silk rustling and glistening, her Chantilly veil of white flung back. Jane could see in a moment that something had crossed her. Something often did cross her now. The sisters were not very intimate. Jane maintained her original resolution, never to put her foot within Mr. Carlton’s house; and her intercourse with her sister was confined to these chance visits of Laura’s. Laura sat down upon the nearest chair, flinging her dainty parasol of lace upon the table.

“Jane, I wish to goodness you’d let me have Judith!”

The words were spoken without any superfluous ceremony of greeting. When Laura was put out, she was as sparing of courtesy as ever had been the sailor-earl, her father. Jane looked at her in surprise.

“Let you have Judith, Laura! I don’t know what you mean.”

“That Stiffing has nearly driven me wild this morning with her stupidity,” returned Lady Laura, alluding to her maid, “and if I could only get some one in her place to suit me, she should go this very day. Would you believe, Jane, would you believe, that she has gone and sent that lovely gold-coloured scarf of mine to the dyer’s?”

“She must have done it in a mistake,” observed Jane.

“But, good gracious, who but an idiot would make such a mistake?” retorted Laura. “I told her to send my brown scarf to be dyed, and she says she thought I meant my gold one, and she sent it, and it has come home this morning converted into a wretched thing of a black! I could have beaten her in my vexation. I wish you’d spare me Judith, Jane. She would suit me I know better than anybody else.”

Jane shook her head. Perhaps she admired the coolness of the request. She said very little; but that little was to the effect that she could not spare Judith, and Laura saw she meant it.

“Don’t part with a maid who suits you in other ways for one sole error, Laura,” was her advice. “At any rate, I cannot give you Judith. I am going to take her away with me this very day. I am going to Seaford.”

“To Seaford!” returned Laura, speaking as crossly as she felt. “Why, it was only on Friday, when I met you in High Street, you told me Lady Oakburn had invited you to Seaford, and you had declined to go.”

“I know I did. But I have had another letter from her this morning, and have altered my mind. I shall go to-day.”

Laura gave her head a toss in her old fashion. “I’d not be as changeable as you, Jane. Then you won’t give me Judith?”

“I am very sorry to deny you, Laura,” was Jane’s answer, “but I could not do without her.”

Laura sat tapping the carpet with her foot. “I have a great mind to go with you,” said she at length “I am sure Lady Oakburn would be glad to see me.”

“But 1 shall stay there a month.”

“What of that?”

“Mr. Carlton might not like to spare you for so long.”

“Do you suppose I study what he likes?” asked Laura, a scowl of bitter superciliousness crossing her face. “But I won’t go: I should miss the races here.”

For South Wennock was a gay place now, and held its own yearly races, at which nobody enjoyed themselves more than Lady Laura Carlton. These races brought to them some of the good county families, and Laura was in her element, keeping open house. She said a cold adieu to Jane; she was capricious as the wind; and swept out to her carriage with pouting lips.

From that one little remark above of my Lady Laura’s, the reader will infer that the domestic sunshine formerly brightening the daily life of Mr. Carlton and his wife, had not continued uninterruptedly to illumine it. Things might have been happier with Laura perhaps had she had children; but since that first infant which had died at its birth, there had been no signs of any. Happier in so far as that she would have had occupation,—a legitimate interest to fill her thoughts; but it might not have made any difference to the terms on which she now lived with her husband. And the terms were not, on the whole, those of harmony.

The original fault was his. However haughty, sullen, passionate Laura might have become; however aggravating in her manner to him as she often now was, let it emphatically be repeated that the fault lay originally with him. It was but a repetition of the story too often enacted in real life, though not so often disclosed to the world. Laura had loved Mr. Carlton with impassioned fervour; and she had so continued to love him for three or four years; then she was rudely awakened. Not awakened by the gradual process of disenchantment, but suddenly, violently, at one fell stroke.

It is the spécialité of man to be fickle; it is the spécialité of some men to stoop to sin. Perhaps few men living were more inclined by nature to transgress social laws than was Mr. Carlton. He had been lax in his notions of morality all his life; he was lax still. His love for his wife had been wild and passionate as a whirlwind, while it lasted; but these whirlwinds, you know, never do last. Certain rumours reflecting on Mr. Carlton got whispered about; escapades now and again, in which there was, it must be confessed, as much truth as scandal, and they unfortunately penetrated to the ear of his wife. The town ignored them of course: was obligingly willing to ignore them; Lady Laura did not. She contrived to acquire pretty good proof of their foundation, and they turned her love for her husband into something very like hatred. It has had the same effect, you may be aware, in real life. Since then she had been unequal in her temper. The first burst of the storm over, the cruel shock in some degree lived down, she had subsided into an indifferent sort of specious civility: but this calm was occasionally varied by bursts of passionate anger, not in the least agreeable to Mr. Carlton. Personally he was loving and indulgent to Laura still. No open rupture had taken place to cause a nine days’ marvel; before the world they were as sufficiently cordial with each other as are most husbands and wives; but Laura Carlton was an unhappy woman, looking upon herself as one miserably outraged, miserably deceived. Little wonder was there at the remark to her sister, “Do you suppose I should study what he likes?”

Lady Jane, attended by her faithful maid, drove to Great Wennock to take one of the afternoon trains. The road was another thing that had been changed by the hand of Time. The old ruts and hillocks and stones had gone, and it was now almost as smooth as a bowling-green. As they entered the waiting-room, the omnibus renowned in this history, which still plied between the two towns, and now boasted of a rather more civil driver, and of new springs and of sundry outer embellishments, was drawn up in its place outside, waiting for the passengers from the coming train. Had Lady Jane and Judith turned their eyes to it in passing—which they did not—they might have seen seated in it a remarkably stout lady. It was an old acquaintance of ours, Mrs. Pepperfly. She had been on an errand to Great Wennock, and was taking advantage of the omnibus to return.

The train came up. It set down those of its passengers who wished to alight, and took up those who wished to go on by it. Amidst the latter were Lady Jane and Judith.

Mrs. Pepperfly had been enjoying a good dinner, comprising a proportionable supply of beer. The result was, that she felt drowsy. Only herself was in the omnibus, and she sat nodding and blinking, when a slight stir at its door aroused her.

A passenger from the train had come up to take her place in the omnibus. She was a hard-featured, respectable-looking woman, dressed in good widow’s mourning, and she had with her a little boy and some luggage. She took her seat opposite Mrs. Pepperfly, and placed the child by her side; he was a delicate-looking lad of perhaps six years, with a fair skin and light flaxen hair. Mrs. Pepperfly, skilled in looks, detected at once that he was not in good health. But he was more restless than are most sickly children, turning his head about from the door to the side window incessantly, as different objects attracted his attention.

“Oh, mother, mother, look there!”

The words were spoken in the most excited manner. Two soldiers in their red clothes had come forth from the station; and this it was which caused the words. The mother ad ministered a reprimand.

“There you go again! I never saw such a child! One would think soldiers were some of the world’s wonders, by the fever you put yourself into at sight of ’em!”

“I have knowed some children go a'most wild at sight of a red-coat!” interposed Mrs. Pepperfly, without ceremony.

“Then he’s one,” replied the widow. “He’d rather look at a soldier any day than at a penny peep-show.”

The omnibus started, having waited in vain for other passengers. The little boy, probably seeing nothing in the road, or the fields on either side of it, to attract his admiration, nestled against his mother and was soon asleep. Mrs. Pepperfly had also begun to nod again, when the stranger bent over to her with a question.

“Do you happen to know a lady living about here of the name of Crane?”

Mrs. Pepperfly started and opened her eyes, hardly awake yet.

“Crane?” said she.

“I want to find the address of a lady of that name. Do you know a Mrs. Crane in South Wennock?”

“No, mum,” answered Mrs. Pepperfly, her reminiscences of a certain episode of the past aroused, and not pleasantly, at the question. “I never knowed but one lady o’ that name; and that was but for two or three days, eight year and more ago, for she went out of the world promiscous.”

The widow paused a minute as if she had lost her breath. “How do you mean?” she asked.

“She was ill, mum, and I was the very nurse that was nursing of her, and she was getting on all beautiful when a nasty accident fell in, which haven’t been brought to light yet, and it put her into her grave in St. Mark’s Churchyard.”

“Was she hurt?” exclaimed the widow, hastily.

“No, nothing of that,” answered Mrs. Pepperfly, shaking her head. “The wrong medicine was given to her: it was me myself what poured it out and put it to her dear lips, little thinking I was giving her her death: and I wish my fingers had been bit off first!”

The stranger stared hard at Mrs. Pepperfly, as if she could not understand the words, or as if she doubted the tale. “Where did this happen?” she said at length. “Was she in lodgings in South Wennock?”

“She were in lodgings in Palace Street,” was the reply. “She come all sudden to the place, knowing nobody and nobody knowing her, just as one might suppose a strange bird might drop down from the skies. And she took the widow Gould’s rooms in Palace Street, and that very night her illness come on, and it was me that was called in to nurse her.

“And she is dead?" repeated the stranger, unable apparently to take in the tidings.

“She have been lying ever since in a corner of St. Mark’s Churchyard. She died the following Monday night. Leastways she were killed,” added Mrs. Pepperfly.

The stranger altered the position of the sleeping child, and bent nearer to the nurse. “Tell me about it,” she said.

“It’s soon told,” was the answer. “The doctor had sent in a composing draught. He had sent one in on the Saturday night and on the Sunday night; she were restless, poor thing, though doing as well as it’s possible for a body to do; but she were young, and she would get laughing and talking, and the doctors they don’t like that—and I’ll not say but there’s cases where it’s dangerous. Well, on the Monday night there was sent in another of these sleeping draughts, as the doctor thought, and as us thought, and I gave it to her, and it turned out to be poison, and her poor innocent soul went out after swallowing it; and mine a'most went out too with the fright.”

“Poison!”

“The draught were poisoned, and it killed her.”

“But how came the doctor to send a poisoned draught?” asked the stranger in a passionate tone.

“Ah, there it is,” returned Mrs. Pepperfly. “He says he didn’t send it so—that it went out from him good wholesome physic. But, as me and the widow Gould remarked to each other at the time, If he sent it out pure, what should bring the poison in it afterwards?”

“What was done to the doctor?”

“Nothing. There was a inquest sat upon her body, as I’ve cause to remember, for they had me up at it: but the jury and the crowner thought the doctor had not made the mistake nor put the poison into the draught—which he had stood to it from the first he didn’t.”

“Then who did put it in?”

“It’s more nor I can tell,” replied Mrs. Pepperfly. “I know I didn’t.”

“And was no stir made about it?” continued the stranger, wiping her face, which was growing heated.

“Plenty of stir, for that matter, but nothing come of it. The police couldn’t follow it up proper, for they didn’t know where she came from, or even what her crissen name was: and nobody has never come to inquire after her from that day to this.”

“Who was the doctor that attended her?” was the next question; and it was put abruptly.

“Mr. Stephen Grey. One might say indeed that two was attending of her, him and Mr. Carlton; but Mr. Carlton only saw her once or twice; he was away from the town. She had Mr. Stephen Grey throughout, and it was him that sent the draught.”

“Does he bear a good character?” asked the stranger, harshly.

“Mrs. Pepperfly opened her eyes. “What, Mr. Stephen Grey? Why, mum, nobody never bore a better character in this world, whether as a doctor or a man. Except that mistake—if it was him that made it—he never had a thing whispered again him before or since. He left the place after that to settle in London, and he have got on, they say, like a house a-fire. I know this: he’d give his right hand to find oat the rights about it”

“Is he a young man—an unmarried man?”

“Be you and me young and unmarried?” retorted Mrs. Pepperfly, for the want of sense in the question (as it sounded to her in her superior knowledge) excited her ire. “Him? He have been married this five-and-twenty year, and he’s a'most as old as we be. There! There’s the very churchyard where she’s lying.”

Mrs. Pepperfly pointed to the opposite side of the street which the omnibus was now approaching. And the stranger, in her eagerness to look at the churchyard, found her face brought violently in contact with the side of the omnibus, as it was whirled round the corner by the driver, to draw up at the door of the Red Lion.