Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 21
LORD OAKBURN’S DAUGHTERS.
BY THE AUTHOR OF "EAST LYNNE"
CHAPTER XLI.MR. CARLTON’S DREAMS.
There was a sound of revelry in the Red Lion inn. A dinner of the townspeople was taking place there to celebrate some cause of national rejoicing. Filling the chair—as the newspapers had it the next day—was Lewis Carlton, Esquire; a great man now amidst his fellow townsmen. People are taken with show; people are taken with grandeur; and Mr. Carlton displayed both. He was successful as a medical man, he was rather liked as a social one; and his wife’s rank brought him always a certain consideration. The money he had inherited from his father, together with the proceeds of his own practice, enabled him to live in a style attempted by few in South Wennock. The town talked indeed of undue extravagance; whispers went round of consequent debt: but that was the affair of Mr. Carlton and Lady Laura alone, and was nothing to anybody. Certainly there was a wide contrast between the quiet style of living of John Grey and his partner Mr. Lycett, and the costly one of Mr. Carlton. The partners were prudent men, putting by for their children: Mr. Carlton was not a prudent man as regarded pecuniary matters, and he had no children to put by for. Carriages and horses and servants and entertainments -made his house somewhat unlike a medical man’s. But the public, I say, are led away by all this, and Mr. Carlton was just now the most popular resident in all South Wennock.
He had been selected by unanimous accord to take the chair at this very meeting, and had consented. Consented somewhat contrary to his usual line of conduct; for Mr. Carlton personally was of a retiring disposition, and wholly declined to be made much of, or to be brought prominently out. It was the first time he had consented to fill any public office whatever. He never would serve as poor-law guardian, or churchwarden, or parish overseer; coroner’s mandates could not draw him on a jury; the stewardship at races, at public balls, had alike been thrust upon him, or was sought to be, all in vain. Mr. Carlton, in spite of the show and pomp of his home (and that perhaps was owing to his wife, more than to him), was a retiring man, and would not be drawn out.
He could hardly have told why he had yielded now, and consented in this instance to take the chair at the dinner. Having done so, however, he did not shrink from its duties, and he was proving that incapacity was certainly not the cause of his repeated refusals, for never a better chairman graced a table.
He sat at the head of the board, making his after-dinner speeches, giving out his toasts. His manner was genial, his whole heart seemed to be in his task, his usually impassive face was lighted up to gaiety. A good-looking man thus, with his well-formed features, his gentle manly form. Some of the county people were at the table, nearly all the townsmen of note; one and all applauded him to the skies; and when the chairman’s health was proposed, shouts rent the, and were taken up by the mob flattening its noses against the curtained windows outside: “The health of Mr. Carlton! Health and happiness to Mr. Carlton!”
The clock was striking eleven when the chairman, flushed and heated, came forth. Perhaps none of those gentlemen had ever seen him flushed in their lives before; he was always to them a coldly impassive man, whom nothing could excite. It was not the wine that had done it now: Mr. Carlton, invariably abstemious in that respect, had taken as little as it was possible to take; but the unusual ovation paid to him had warmed his heart and flushed his brow. Several of the guests came out with him, but the greater portion were remaining longer; some of these had to ride home miles, the rest were hastening to their proximate homes. For the most part, they were slightly elated, for it had been a very convivial meeting; and they took a demonstrative leave of Mr. Carlton, nearly shaking his hands off, and vowing he was a rare good fellow and must be their chairman always. The crowd of eaves-droppers—ever swayed by the popular feeling of the hour, ever excitable—wound up with a cheer for Mr. Carlton by way of chorus.
He walked along the street towards his home, the cheer echoing in his ears. Such moments had not been frequent in Mr. Carlton’s life, and he was a little lifted out of his ordinary self. It was a warm night in that genial season hovering between summer and autumn, and Mr. Carlton raised his hat and bared his brow to the cool night air, as he glanced at the starry canopy of heaven. Whatever cares he might have had, whatever sources of trouble or anxiety—and whether he had any or not was best known to himself; but few of us are without some secret skeleton that we have to keep sacred from the world, however innocent in itself it may be—were all cast to the winds. Mr. Carlton forgot the past and the present in the future; and certain vague aspirings lying at the bottom of his heart were allowed to take a more tangible form than they had ever taken before. When the spirit is excited it imbues things with its own hues: they are apt to be very brilliant ones.
“I seem like a god to them,” he laughed, alluding to the extravagant homage recently paid him by the townsfolk. “Jove on Olympus never had a warmer ovation. I have become what I never intended—a man of note in the place. Any foolish charge against me—psha! they’d buffet the fellow bringing it. Nevertheless, I shall leave you to your sorrow, my good natives of South Wennock; and I know not why I have stopped with you so long. For how many years have I said to myself at waking, morning after morning, that another month should see me take my farewell of the place! and here I am still. Is it, that some invisible chain binds me to it—a chain that I cannot break? Why else do I stop? Or is it that some latent voice of caution—tush! I don’t care for those thoughts to-night.”
He broke off, rubbed his brow with his cambric handkerchief, nodded a salutation in response to one given him by a passer-by, and resumed his musings.
“My talents were not made to be hid under a bushel—and what else is it; a general practitioner in a paltry country town! I came here but as a stepping-stone, never intending to remain; and but for circumstances, to which we are all obliged to be slaves, I should not have remained. I think I have been a fool to stop so long, but I’ll leave it now. London is the field for me, and I shall go to it and take my degree. My reputation will follow me; I shall make use of these county aristocrats to recommend me; I shall try for her Majesty’s knightly sword upon my shoulder—'Rise up, Sir Lewis.’ I may be enrolled, in time, amidst the baronetage of the United Kingdom, and then my lady cannot carp at inequality of rank. A proud set, the Chesneys, and my wife the proudest. Yes, I will remove to London, and I may get on to the very highest rank permitted to men of physic. May get on! I will get on; for Lewis Carlton to will a thing is to do it. Look at Stephen Grey! was there ever such luck in this world? And if he could go triumphantly on, as he has done, without influential friends to back him, what may I not look to do? I am not sorry that luck has attended Stephen; nay, I am glad that it should be so. I have no enmity to him; I’d speed him on, myself, if I could. I wish him right well anywhere but in South Wennock— and that he’ll never come back to. But I hate his son. I should like to wring his neck. So long, however, as the insolent jackanapes behaves himself and does not cross my path—why, who are you?”
The last question was addressed to a female, and an exceedingly broad female, who stood in the shade of Mr. Carlton’s gate, dropping curtsies, just as he was about to turn into it.
“If it wasn’t for the night, sir, you’d know me well enough,” was the response. “Pepperfly, at your service, sir.”
“Oh, Nurse Pepperfly,” returned the surgeon, blandly; for somehow he always was bland to Mrs. Pepperfly. “You should stand further forward, and let your good-looking face be seen.”
“Well, now, you will have your joke, sir, remarked the nurse. “Says I to the folks wherever I goes, ‘If you want a pleasant, safe, good-hearted gentleman, as can bring you through this vale of sicknesses, just you send for Doctor Carlton.’ And I am only proud, sir, when I happens to be in conjunction with you, that’s all; which is not the happy case to-night, though I’m here, sir, to ask you to pay a visit perfessionally.”
“Where to?” asked Mr. Carlton. “What case is it?”
“It’s not a case of life and death, where you need run your legs off in a race again time,” luminously proceeded Mrs. Pepperfly. “Whether you goes to-morrow morning, or whether you goes to-morrow a'ternoon, it’ll come to the same, sir, as may be agreeable.”
“But where’s it to?” repeated Mr. Carlton, for the lady had stopped.
“It’s where I’ve been a-staying, sir, for the last few days; a private visit I’ve been on, and not perfessional, and she’s Mrs. Smith. I’m fetched out to-night, sir, to Mrs. Knagg, Knagg’s wife the broker’s, and Mrs. Smith says to me, ‘Call in at Dr. Carlton’s as you passes, and make my dooty to him, and say I’ve heered of his skill, and ask him to step in at his leisure to-morrow to prescribe for my child'—which a white swelling it is in its knee, sir, and t’other in the grave, as may be said, for ‘twont be long out of it; and me the last few days as I’ve been there, a worrying of her to let me come for Dr. Carlton.”
There were sundry embellishments in the above speech, which, in strict regard to truth, might have been omitted. Mr. Carlton, a shrewd man, took them for as much as they were worth. The name Smith had suggested to him but one woman of that name as likely to have had the lady before him on a visit.
“Mrs. Smith’s child got a white swelling!” he exclaimed, in surprise. “It must have come on pretty quick. Which of the children is it?”
“Which of the children, sir?” echoed Nurse Pepperfly; “she’s got but one. Oh, I see; you be thinking of t’other Mrs. Smith, the cow-keeper’s wife. It’s not her, sir; it’s Mrs. Smith up at Tupper’s cottage in Blister Lane.”
“I did not know there was a Mrs. Smith at Tupper’s cottage,” he replied.
“She have not been long in it, sir; she’s come fresh to the place, and she have took a fancy to me, which is very sensible of her. She’d be glad if you’d go up some time to morrow, sir.”
“Very well,” said Mr. Carlton. “I won’t forget.”
“It’s good night to you, sir, then, and wishing you was a-coming to Mrs. Knaggs’s along with me; but it’s Mr. Lycett. Which is a safe gentleman too, and nothing to be said against.”
She sailed off towards the town, and Mr. Carlton closed his gate, and glanced up at his windows; in some of which lights were burning.
“I wonder whether I shall find Laura in tantrums to-night?” he said, half audibly.
By which expression the reader must not think that Mr. Carlton was in the habit of visiting those “tantrums” unpleasantly on his wife. If not a strictly faithful husband, he was always—when Laura allowed him to be so—an affectionate one. He loved her still as much as it was in the nature of such a man as Mr. Carlton, disenchanted by time and change of the first fond passion, to love. Had Laura but permitted him, he would have been ever tender to her; and that singular charm which distinguished his manner to all women, where he chose to put it forth, exercised its spell upon her still.
He opened the door with his latchkey, and a footman came forward into the hall and took his master’s hat. A civil, simple-mannered rustic, in spite of his fine livery.
“Is Lady Laura in, Jonathan?”
“My lady has been in this half hour, sir.”
Laura was lounging on the sofa in the drawing-room, half asleep. She had very few resources within herself: reading, working, albums, engravings, she was sure to yawn over all; music she had not much cared for of late. To spend a half hour alone at night, as she was doing now, was a very penance to Laura Carlton.
She rose up when her husband entered, and the mantle of lace, which she had worn in the carriage to return home, was still on her shoulders. It fell from them now; or rather she shook it off; and the rich silk dress she wore was displayed to view, and the gleaming jewels on her neck and arms shone in the gas-light. She had been to a dinner party; made up by a lady, whose husband had some motive for not wishing to attend the public dinner at the Lion.
“Well, Laura!” he said, pleasantly. “Home, I see.”
“Oh, Lewis, it was so stupid!” she exclaimed. “Only fancy it!—two gentlemen and ten ladies. I went to sleep in the carriage coming home, and I have been asleep here, I think. I am glad you are come.”
He sat down on the sofa by her side. She held out her wrist, asking him to unclasp a certain bracelet, which was tight. Mr. Carlton put the bracelet on the table and kept the hand.
“I scarcely hoped,” he said, “to find you back so soon.”
“There was nothing to stay for. What could ten women do for themselves? I was so thankful when the carriage came. They made a fuss at my leaving, but I said my head ached. And so it did, with the stupidity. It’s dreadfully dull in the country at this season of the year. Everybody’s at the watering-places.”
“A town like this is dull at most seasons,” remarked Mr. Carlton. “At times I regret that I am tied to it.”
Laura passed over the remark without notice, almost without hearing it. The fact of his being “tied” to it was so indisputable a one, that comment was unnecessary. “The Goughs are going to Scarborough next week,” she said. “Heigho!”
The sigh was a weary one. Mr. Carlton turned to her.
“Laura, you know, if you would like to go to any of those places, you have but to say so. If it would do you good, or give you pleasure———"
“I don’t think I care about it,” she interrupted. “You would not go with me.”
“How could I? I am tied here, I say. 1 wish my practice was a different one!”
“In what way?”
“A physician’s—where patients, for the most part, had to come to me. The most wearing life of all is a general practitioner’s; and it is the least profitable. Compare my gains here with those of a London physician.”
“Leave it, and set up in London,” said she.
“I am seriously thinking of doing so.”
Laura had spoken carelessly, without meaning, and the words astonished her excessively. Mr. Carlton explained. His talents were buried in South Wennock, he said, and he was really purposing a change. “You would like London, I think, Laura?”
“Yes, very much,” she answered; her vain head filling itself forthwith with sundry gay visions, popularly supposed to be capable of realisation in the metropolis only. “But you would never quit South Wennock,” she resumed, after a pause.
“Why would I not quit it?”
“You have found attractions in the place, if I have not.”
A momentary contraction of the brow, smoothed away as instantly, and Mr. Carlton was himself again. Not perfectly conscience clear, he hated above all things these allusions of his wife’s: he had thought the old trouble was dying away.
“Laura,” he gravely said, “South Wennock has no attractions for me; but the contrary. Should I leave it, I take its only attraction with me—yourself.”
She laughed. “It’s all very well for you to tell me so.”
“I swear it,” he said, in an earnest, almost a solemn, tone, as he bent to her and laid his hand impressively on her shoulder. “I have no attraction save yourself; whether in South Wennock or in the wide world.”
She believed him; she liked him still well enough to wish it. “But, Lewis, it has not always been so, you know.”
“I thought my wife promised me, when we were last upon this topic, to let bygones be bygones?”
“Did I? Well, I believe I did; and I will. Tell me about your dinner, Lewis. Was it very successful? How did you get on with your speeches?”
He gave her a laughing account of it all, and of the homage paid him. For nearly an hour they remained up, in gay, amicable converse; and when Laura went to rest that night, a vision dawned upon her of a future time when full confidence should be restored between them.
On the following day, Mr. Carlton proceeded to keep the appointment at Mrs. Smith’s. He called in about eleven o’clock, after visiting his patients on the Rise. He went straight into the cottage without knocking, and there happened to be nobody in the room but the child, who was seated in a little chair, with some toys on his lap, soldiers, whom he was placing in martial array.
“Are you the little fellow———”
So far spoke Mr. Carlton, and there he stopped dead. He had cast his eyes, wondering eyes just then, on the boy’s face, and apparently was confounded, or staggered, or something, by what he saw. Did he trace any likeness, as Judith had done? Certain it was, that he stared at the child in undisguised astonishment, and only seemed to recover self-possession when he saw they were not alone, for Mrs. Smith was peeping in from the staircase door.
“I thought I heard a strange voice,” quoth she. “Perhaps you are the doctor, who was to call?”
“I am,” replied Mr. Carlton.
He eyed her as he spoke almost as keenly as he had done the child. The woman had remarked his earnest gaze at the boy, and feared it was caused by the little one’s sickly look.
“He does look ill, I’m afraid,” she said. “Is that what you were struck with, sir?”
“No—no,” returned Mr. Carlton, half abstractedly; “he put me in mind of some one, that was all. What is his name?”
“Where does he come from?”
“Well,” returned the woman, who had a blunt, abrupt way of speaking, the result of natural manner, not of intended incivility, “I don’t see what that has to do with it, or what it is to anybody in this place, which is strange to me and me to it. But if it’s necessary to know it, sir, he comes from Scotland, where he has lived all his life. He is my youngest child: the only one I have reared.”
“Was he born in Scotland?” asked Mr. Carlton, his eyes still riveted on the child.
“Whether he was born there, or whether he was born in New Zealand, don’t matter to the present question,” returned the woman, with a touch of irascibility, for she thought the surgeon had no right to pry into her affairs. “If you don’t like to treat my boy, sir, unless you first know the top and bottom of everything, there’s no harm done, and I’ll send for Mr. Grey.”
Mr. Carlton laughed pleasantly at her irritability, and rejoined in a courteous tone.
“It guides us very much sometimes to know what sort of a climate our patients have been living in, and whether they were born in it; and our inquiries are not usually attributed to idle curiosity, Mrs. Smith. But, come, let me see his knee.”
She undid the wrappings, and Mr. Carlton stooped down to examine the knee; but still he could not keep his eyes from the boy’s face. And yet there was nothing out of common in the face; unless it was in the eyes. Thin, pale, quiet features, with flaxen hair curling over them, were illumined by a pair of large, rich, soft brown eyes, beautiful to look at.
“Do I pain you, my little man?” said Mr. Carlton, as he touched the knee.
“No, sir. This soldier won’t stand,” he added, holding one out to Mr. Carlton, with the freedom of childhood.
“Won’t it? Let me see what’s the matter. The foot wants cutting level. There,” he continued, after shaving it with his penknife, “it will stand now.”
The boy was enraptured; it had been a defaulting soldier, given to tumble over from the commencement; and the extraordinary delight that suddenly beamed forth from his eyes, sent a thrill through the senses of the surgeon. But for the woman over-looking him, he could have bent his searching gaze into those eyes for the next half hour, and never have removed it.
“He seems a quiet little fellow.”
“Indeed, then, he was a regular little tartar till this illness came on,” was Mrs. Smith’s reply. “A great deal too fond of showing that he had a will of his own. This has tamed his spirit down. Could you form any idea, sir, what can have brought it on? I’m certain that he never had a fall, or any other hurt.”
“It is a disease that arises from weakness of constitution as well as from injury,” replied Mr. Carlton. “Do you purpose residing permanently at South Wennock?”
“That’s how far I may feel inclined, sir,” she answered civilly. “I am not tied to any spot.”
Mr. Carlton, after a few professional directions, took his departure. As he turned from the lane into the high road, so absorbed was he in thought, that he did not notice the swift passing of Mr. John Grey in his gig, until the latter called out to him. The groom pulled up, and Mr. Carlton advanced to the gig. There was not much private intimacy between the surgeons, but they often met professionally.
“Lycett is with Knagg’s wife,” began Mr. Grey, stooping from his gig to say what he had to say. “By what I hear, it appears not unlikely to be a difficult case; if so, he may want your assistance. Shall you be in the way?”
“Yes. Or if I go out, I’ll leave word where I may be found.”
“That’s all right, then,” returned Mr. Grey, signing to his groom to go on. “I am called in haste to a shocking accident, five miles away; some men burnt by an explosion of gunpowder. Good morning.”
The gig sped on; and Mr. Carlton went towards South Wennock, nearly oblivious to all things, save one; and that was the face of the little boy.
CHAPTER XLII.A PERPLEXING LIKENESS.
That must have been a remarkable child, judging by its face, for the hold it seemed to take upon people and the consternation it caused was something amazing.
On the afternoon of the above day, it chanced that Lady Jane Chesney and her sister Laura were taking a quiet walk together, an unusual circumstance. Their course led down Blister Lane, for Jane wished to leave a book at the door of one of her pensioners; and in passing the gate of Topper’s cottage, they saw a little boy seated in the garden in a child’s chair, some toys lying in his pinafore. His head had fallen back and his hands had dropped; he had sunk into a doze.
His face was full in their view; Lady Laura’s glance fell upon it, and she halted.
“Good Heavens!” she uttered, “what an extraordinary likeness!”
“Likeness,” repeated Jane. “Likeness to whom? He looks very pale and sickly. I wonder who they are? Judith said the cottage was let.”
“I never saw such a likeness in my life,” resumed Lady Laura, quite devouring the face with her eyes. “Don’t you see it, Jane?”
“I do not perceive a likeness to anyone. To whom do you allude?”
“Then if you don’t see it, I will not tell you,” was the answer: “but it is certainly plain enough.”
They were about to walk on, when a voice was heard inside the cottage, “Lewis!”
“Listen,” whispered Laura, pulling her sister back.
“Lewis! why, you’ve never gone and dropped off again. Now I won’t have you do it, for you know that if you sleep so much in the day, you can’t sleep at night. Come! wake up.”
The speaker came forth from the door: a hard-featured woman in a widow’s cap. She noted the ladies standing there.
“The little boy appears ill,” remarked Lady Jane.
“He is very poorly, ma'am,” was the answer. “He will go to sleep in the afternoon, and then there’s good-bye to sleep for the night; and I want to break him of it.”
“Invalids are generally drowsy in an afternoon, especially if their night’s rest is broken. You are strangers, here, I think,” added Lady Jane.
“Yes. I’ve brought him, hoping the country air will do him good. Come, Lewis, wake up,” she said, tapping the boy on the arm. “Why, there’s all your soldiers running away!”
What with the talking, the tapping, and the soldiers, the boy was fully aroused. He sat up, and fixed his magnificent dark eyes upon the ladies.
"Oh, I see it now," murmured Lady Jane to her sister. "It is an extraordinary likeness; the very self-same eyes."
"Nay," returned Laura, in the same low tone, "the eyes are the only feature not like. His eyes were shut when the resemblance struck me."
"Look, look! the very expression she used to wear!" whispered Jane, so intent upon the boy as to have paid no attention to her sister's dissenting words.
"She!" uttered Laura, in an accent of wonder. "Why, what are your ideas running upon, Jane?"
"Upon Clarice. The boy's likeness to her is wonderful. Whose little boy is this?" quickly added Lady Jane, turning to the woman. "He is so very like a—a—a—friend of mine, a lady."
"He's mine," was the short retort.
Lady Jane gave a sigh of regret, as she always did when she spoke or thought of Clarice; but in the present sigh relief was mingled. She did not ask herself why, though innately conscious of it. "There is no accounting for resemblances," she remarked to the mother, as she bade her good afternoon, and bent her steps onward. Laura followed her: and she cast a haughty, condemning glance upon the woman at parting.
"Jane," began Laura, "I think you are demented. What do you mean by saying the child is like Clarice?"
"Why, you spoke first of the likeness yourself!"
"Not to Clarice. He is not in the least like her."
"Of whom, then, did you speak?" was the wondering question.
"I shan't say," unceremoniously answered Lady Laura. "Certainly not of Clarice; he is no more like her than he's like me."
"Laura, save that boy's and Clarice's, and perhaps Lucy's, but Lucy's are softer, I do not believe there are such eyes in the world, so large and brilliant and sweetly tender. Yours are the same in shape and colour, but not in expression. His likeness to what poor Clarice was, is wonderful."
Laura paused, rather staggered at Jane's words.
"I'll go back and look again," said she. She wheeled round, retraced her steps, and stood at the gate a minute talking to the boy, but not deigning to notice the woman. Jane stood by her side in silence, looking at him.
"Well?" said Jane, when they finally turned away.
"I repeat that I cannot trace any resemblance to Clarice. I do trace a great resemblance to some one else, but not in the eyes; and it is not so striking now he is awake, as it was when he was asleep."
"is very strange!" cried Lady Jane.
"What is strange?"
"It is all strange. The likeness to Clarice is strange; your not seeing the likeness is strange; and your detecting one to somebody else is strange, as you say you do; and your declining to mention to whom, is strange. Is it to any of our family, Laura?"
"The Chesneys? Oh, no. Jane, you spoke just now of Clarice in the past tense. 'His likeness to what poor Clarice was’; it is as though you think she is no longer living."
"What else am I to think?" returned Jane. "All these years, and no trace of her. My father on his death-bed left the seeking of her out to me, but I have no clue to go upon, and can do nothing, and hear nothing."
"If you feel so sure of her death, you had better take the three thousand pounds to your self," spoke Laura, with a touch of acerbity. Her having been disinherited was a sore point still.
"No," quietly returned Jane, "I shall never appropriate that money to myself. Until we shall be assured beyond doubt of Clarice's death—if she be dead—the money will remain out at interest, and then—"
"What then?" asked Laura, for her sister had stopped.
"We shall see when that time comes," was the somewhat evasive remark of Jane. "But for myself I shall touch none of it; I have plenty, as it is."
Now you need not be astonished, my good reader, at this discrepancy in the vision of the sisters. It is well known that where one person will detect a likeness, another cannot see it. "How greatly that child resembles her father!" will be heard from one; "Nay," speaks up another, "how much she resembles her mother!" Some people detect the likeness that exists in form, others that which pertains to expression. Some will be struck with the wonderful resemblance to each other between the members of a family, even before knowing that they are related; others cannot see or trace it. You must surely have remarked this in your own experience.
And thus it was with the ladies Chesney; the one could not see with the eyes of the other. But it was rather remarkable that both should have detected a resemblance in this strange child, and not to the same person.
It turned out as Mr. Grey had anticipated. In the afternoon a message came to Mr. Carlton from his brother practitioner, Mr. Lycett, and he hastened to the broker's house. There he found Mrs. Pepperfly in all her glory. To give that lady her due, apart from her graces of person and her proneness to a certain failing, she was a skilful, clever woman, equal to an emergency; and nothing brought out her talent like an emergency, and there was nothing she was so fond of. "A spice of danger puts me on my metal, and shows folks the stuff I'm made of," was a favourite remark of hers; and Mrs. Pepperfly might thank her stars that it was so, or she would have been allowed to sink into private life long ago.
It was not so much that a second doctor's services were then actually required, as that it was expedient one should be at hand, in case they should be; consequently, while Mr. Lycett chiefly remained with the sick woman, Mr. Carlton had an opportunity for a little chat with Mrs. Pepperfly in an adjoining room. Which, however, was enjoyed by snatches, for Mrs. Pepperfly was in and out, from one chamber to another, like a dog in a fair.
"Have you been up there, to Tupper's cottage, sir?" she asked, between whiles.
"I went there this morning. Where do they come from?"
"And ain't it a bad case, sir?" returned Mrs. Pepperfly, unmindful of the question.
"I don't think it has been well treated," remarked Mr. Carlton. "Do you know where they come from, or what brings them to South Wennock?"
"She comes from—where was it?—Scotland or Ireland, or some of them outlandish places, I think she said. What she wants in South Wennock is another matter," added Mrs. Pepperfly with a sniff.
The accent was peculiar, and Mr. Carlton looked at her.
"Have you any idea what does bring her here?" he repeated, his tone slightly authoritative.
"Well, yes, I does have my idea, sir, and I may be wrong and I may be right! Though it don't make no difference to me whether I be or whether I bain't. And I don't suppose, you'd care, sir, to hear it, neither."
"Speak on," said Mr. Carlton, half eagerly, half carelessly. "What do you suppose her business is at South Wennock?"
Mrs. Pepperfly dropped her voice to a whisper. "You remember that young lady who came to her death so awful at the widder Gould's through Mr. Stephen Grey's draught?—though indeed, sir, what with the heaps of patients you have had since, you might have forgot her long ago!"
"What of her?" asked Mr. Carlton, and there was a sound in his voice as though he had lost his breath.
"Well, sir, my belief is just this—that there widder up at Tupper's is appeared at South Wennock to ferret out what she can about the death, and nothing less."
Mr. Carlton did not reply, but he gazed at Mrs. Pepperfly as eagerly as he had gazed at the suffering boy, and with far more inward perplexity, though it did not show itself on his impassive face.
"How very absurd!" he uttered, after a while.
"Just what I says to myself," responded the woman. "And what good 'll it do her? If we could come at anything certain as to who the poor young lady was, and how the draught were converted into poison, 'twould be some satisfaction; but there ain't none to be gained, as it is. I telled the widder Smith so, with my own lips."
"You have talked to her, then, about it?"
"Talked to her!" ejaculated Nurse Pepperfly, "she haven't let my tongue have no holiday from talking of it, since we two met in the new omnibus."
"The new omnibus!" he repeated. "What do you mean?"
Mrs. Pepperfly liked few things better than talking, and she forthwith recounted to Mr. Carlton the history of her meeting with the widow, and the progress of the acquaintance since. Ere it was well concluded, her duties took her into the adjoining chamber.
Mr. Carlton had listened in silence, and now he stood, apparently revolving the news. He walked to the window, opened it, thrust his head out into a stifling back yard, where certainly little air could be found, if that was his motive, and after a while drew it back again.
"Have you mentioned this to any one?" he asked, as the woman re-appeared, and something sharp in his tone grated on her ear.
"Never to a blessed soul," protested Mother Pepperfly, conveniently oblivious to all recollection of Judith. "The widder charged me not, sir."
"And I would recommend you not to do so," returned Mr. Carlton. "I have not forgotten the worry and annoyance the affair caused, if you have. I was besieged with curiosity-mongers by night and by day until it had blown over. They left me no leisure to attend to my own business; and I should be exceedingly sorry to be subjected to a similar annoyance again—as I should be, were the affair raked up. So be silent, as Mrs. Smith tells you. What’s her motive for wanting silence?” he abruptly added.
“She hasn’t give none to me, sir; she hasn’t said as she’s got a motive, or that she does want to find out anything. But when a person harps everlastingly upon one string, like a bell and a clapper, hammering to find out its top and its tail, one can’t be off suspecting, sir, that there’s a motive at the bottom.”
“I wonder———who she can be!” he said, in a musing tone, making a pause in the sentence, as marked.
“She’s uncommon close about herself,” was the answering observation of Mrs. Pepperfly.
Mr. Carlton said no more. Indeed there was not time for it, for he was called to by Mr. Lycett. An hour later he quitted Mrs. Knagg’s, his business there being over.
He reached home, buried in a reverie. The name, Smith, the information now furnished by Nurse Pepperfly, drew him to the not unnatural conclusion that she might be the Mrs. Smith spoken of as having taken away Mrs. Crane’s infant; the woman he had himself seen at Great Wennock railway station. If so, could this be the same child? He had asked the boy’s age that morning, and Mrs. Smith replied “six;” and the boy did not in appearance look more than six. That other child, if alive, would be considerably older; but Mr. Carlton knew that the look of children, as regards their age, is deceptive.
He entered his surgery, spoke a word or two to his assistant, Mr. Jefferson, mixed up a small phial of medicine with his own hands, and went out again, glancing at his watch. It was past six then, but their dinner hour was seven.
Near to his own house was a toy-shop, and as Mr. Carlton passed it he saw displayed in the window a certain toy—a soldier beating a drum. By pulling a wire, the arms moved and the drum sounded. He went in and asked the price. It was fifteen-pence. Mr. Carlton bought it, and carried it away with him.
Walking quickly up the Rise, he soon came to Tupper’s cottage. Mrs. Smith was seated in the parlour, darning socks; the little boy sat at the table, chattering to her and eating his supper. A bone of cold lamb was in one hand, a piece of bread in the other, and a plate was before him with some salt upon it.
“Well, and how is the little man now?” was the salutation of Mr. Carlton as he went in, with a pleasant tone and pleasant smile.
Mrs. Smith looked surprised. She had not expected the surgeon to call again that day.
“I have been thinking it might be as well if he took a little tonic medicine, which I did not order him this morning,” said that gentleman, producing the bottle from his pocket. “So I brought it myself, as I was coming up here. You’ll see the directions. Have the other things come?”
“Oh yes, sir; they were here by one o’clock.”
“Ah, yes. And so you are eating your supper, my little man! It’s rather early for that, isn’t it?”
“He gets so hungry about this time,” said the mother in a tone of apology. “And he is so fond of loin of lamb, he won’t rest if he knows it is in the house: he likes to eat it this way, in his fingers. There’s his cup of milk on the table.”
“As I am here I may as well look at his knee again, Mrs. Smith,” said the surgeon. She rose from her seat to undo the bandage; but Mr. Carlton preferred to undo it himself. The boy put down his bread and meat, and rubbed his fingers on his pinafore.
“It doesn’t hurt to-night,” cried he.
“That’s all right then,” said Mr. Carlton. “And now will you tell me your name, my little gentleman, for I have not heard it?”
“It’s George, sir,” interposed the mother before the child could speak. “It was his father’s name.”
“George, is it?” repeated Mr. Carlton, as he did up the leg again. “And where are the soldiers, George?”
“Gone home from drill,” was the laughing answer. “That one stands now.”
“To be sure it does,” said Mr. Carlton. “Have you got one to play the drum to the rest while they are at drill?”
He took the toy from his pocket and displayed it. Nothing could exceed the child’s delight at the sight. His eyes sparkled; his pale cheeks flushed a vivid crimson; his little thin hands shook with eagerness. Mr. Carlton saw what a sensitive nature it was, and he felt a pleasure as he resigned the toy.
“You are very kind, sir,” exclaimed the widow, her own face lighting up with pleasure. “His fondness for soldiers is something marvellous. I’m sure I don’t know any other doctor that would have done as much.”
“I saw it as I came by a shop a few minutes ago; and I thought it would please him,” was the reply of Mr. Carlton. “These poor sick children should have their innocent pleasures gratified when practicable. Good evening to you, Master George.”
The widow followed him into the garden. Perhaps the tender tone of some words in the last sentence had aroused her fears. “Have you a bad opinion of him, sir?” she whispered. “Won’t he get well?”
“I’ll do the best I can to get him well,” replied Mr. Carlton. “I cannot give you an opinion yet, one way or the other.”
He shook hands with her and turned away. Mr. Carlton was affable with all classes of patients, cold and impassive though his usual maimers were. But had Mr. Carlton been standing with his face to the road, instead of his back, while he spoke to the woman, he would have seen a lady pass, no doubt to his astonishment, for it was his own wife.
Not more astonished, perhaps, than she was to see him. She was passing the cottage—she best knew for what purpose—and she turned her eyes stealthily towards its path. What she had hoped to see was the little boy; what she really did see was her husband, shaking hands with the boy’s mother. Laura Carlton, feeling like one guilty, just as some of us may have felt when unexpectedly detected in a mean action, made one bound forward, and crouched close to the hedge, which there took a bend inwards.
Had Mr. Carlton been on his way to any other patient up the lane—and many cottages were scattered at this end of it—he must have seen her; but he turned towards South Wennock, and marched away at a quick pace.
Lady Laura came out of hiding. Her cheeks were glowing, her pulses were beating. Not altogether with the detection she had escaped; there was another feeling. Conscience makes cowards of us, you know,—sad, weak, foolish cowards. It would have been so very easy for Laura, had her husband seen her, to be doing just what she was doing, and nothing else—taking a walk down Blister Lane. She had a right to do so as well as other people had. It was a cool, shady lane, very pleasant to walk in, except after rain, and then it was apt to be over the ankles in mud. And Laura Carlton, of all people, might be supposed to cling to it from past associations,—for was it not the trysting-place, that long-ago evening, when she had stolen out to meet and run away with him now her husband?
Mr. Carlton went safely beyond sight, and Laura began to retrace her steps. Standing on one leg on the bottom bar of the low wooden gate was the little child, his new toy in his left hand. He had come limping out to look after his benefactor, Mr. Carlton. The mother had gone indoors again. Laura halted. She gazed at him for a good two minutes, saying nothing; and the boy, who had little of that timid shyness which mostly attends sensitive children, looked up at her in return.
“What’s your name?” began Laura.
“What’s your other name? What’s your mother’s name?”
“Is that your mother?—the—the—person who was out here a minute ago?”
“Yes,” replied the boy. Laura’s face darkened. “How many brothers and sisters have you?”
“None. There’s only me. I had a little baby brother; but mother says he died before I was born.”
There was a long pause. Laura devoured the child with her eyes. “Where’s your father?” she began again.
“Oh!” retorted Laura, scornfully. “Dead, is he? I suppose that’s why your mother wears a widow’s cap!”
The boy made no reply. Possibly he did not understand. Laura put her hand down over the gate and touched his light hair, pushing it back from his forehead. He held up the toy to show her.
“Yes, very pretty,” said she, carelessly. But all in a moment it struck her that she had seen this toy, or one resembling it, in the toy-shop near their house. “Who gave you that?” she resumed.
“Mr. Carlton. He brought it to me just now.”
Lady Laura’s eyes flashed. The boy began making the soldier play the drum.
“He’s to play to the others at drill,” said he, looking up. “Mr. Carlton says so.”
“My soldiers. They are shut up in the box now in mother’s drawer.”
“And so Mr. Carlton gave you this, did he?” repeated Laura, strangely resentful. “He has just brought it you, has he?”
“Wasn’t it good of him!” returned the child, paying more attention to the plaything than to the question. “See how he drums! Mother says———"
“Lewis! Are you going to stop there all night? Come in directly and finish your supper!”
It was the interrupting voice of Mrs. Smith, calling from the cottage. Laura Carlton started as if she had been shot, and went away in the direction of South Wennock.