Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 22

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

CHAPTER XLIII.MR. AND LADY LAURA CARLTON AT HOME.

Lady Laura Carlton stood in her drawing-room, dressed for dinner. Hastening home from that expedition of hers to Tupper’s cottage, of which you read in the last chapter, where she saw Mr. Carlton and spoke afterwards with the little child, she made some slight alteration in her attire and descended. In the few minutes her dressing occupied, her maid thought her petulant: but that was nothing new. As she entered the drawing-room she rang the bell violently.

“Where’s Mr. Carlton?”

“Not in, my lady.”

“Serve the dinner.”

Lady Laura Carlton was boiling over with indignation. In this little child at Tupper’s cottage, she had seen what she thought a likeness to her husband, a most extraordinary likeness, and she was suffering herself to draw inferences therefrom, more natural perhaps than agreeable. She recalled with unnecessary bitterness past suspicions of disloyalty on Mr. Carlton’s part, which, whether well-founded or not, she had believed in; she remembered their, what might be called, renewed interchange of good-feeling only on the previous night; Lady Laura now believed that he was even then deceiving her, and a miserable feeling of humiliation took possession of her spirit, and she stamped her foot in passion.

She lost sight of probabilities in her jealous indignation. An angry resentment against the woman at Tupper’s cottage seated itself in her heart, filling its every crevice. What though the woman was getting in years? though she was hard-featured, singularly unattractive? In Lady Laura’s jealous mood, she might have been as ugly as a kangaroo and it would have made no difference.

Earlier in the day, when she had first passed the cottage with Lady Jane, the likeness she detected to her husband, or fancied she detected, excited only a half doubt in her mind, a sort of disagreeable perplexity. But the doubt rankled there; and as the day went on, Lady Laura, than whom a worse or more irritable subject for this sort of suspicion could not exist, felt impelled to wind her steps thither again. She could not have gone at a worse moment: for what she saw changed all her doubts into certainties.

She sat down to the dinner table, scarcely able to suppress her emotion, to keep in bare subjection the indignation that was rending her heart and her temper. It was no very unusual thing for her to sit down alone, for Mr. Carlton’s professional engagements rendered him somewhat irregular. The servants in waiting saw that their lady was put out, but of course it was no business of theirs. Perhaps they thought it was occasioned by the absence of their master.

In point of fact, that gentleman was even then making his way home, speeding to it in haste from a second visit to Mrs. Knagg’s. Not that a second visit there was in the least required or expected of him, and Nurse Pepperfly opened her eyes in surprise when she saw him enter. “He had just called in in passing to see that all was going on well,” he observed to the nurse; and particularly kind and attentive that functionary thought it of him. Lingering a moment, he beckoned her from the room, put a professional question or two as to the case in hand, and then led the way easily and naturally to the case at Tupper’s cottage, the ailing knee of the boy.

“I suppose there is no lack of means?” he casually remarked. “The little fellow ought to have the best of nourishment.”

“And so he do,” was the response of Mrs. Pepperfly. “I never see a mother so fond of a child, though she’s a bit rough in her ways. If he could eat gold she’d give it him. As to money, sir, there ain’t no want o’ that; she seems to have got plenty of it.”

“Have you not any idea who she can be?”

“Well, sir, in course ideas comes to one promiscous, without fetching of ’em up ourselves,” answered Mrs. Pepperfly. "I should think she’s the person that took away the babby—though I can’t say that my memory serves me to recognise her.”

“Maybe,” carelessly remarked Mr. Carlton. “Remember that you keep a quiet tongue about this, Mrs. Pepperfly,” he concluded as he went out.

“Trust me for that, sir,” readily affirmed Mrs. Pepperfly. And Mr. Carlton, conscious that his dinner hour had struck, made haste home, and found his wife at table.

“Have you begun, Laura? Oh that’s all right. I have been detained.”

Lady Laura made no reply, and Mr. Carlton took his seat. She motioned to one of the servants to move the fish towards his master, who was the usual carver. For some minutes Mr. Carlton played with his dinner—played with it; did not eat it—and then he sent away his plate nearly untouched—and that he appeared to do throughout the meal. Lady Laura observed it, but said nothing; she certainly was, as the servants expressed it amongst themselves, “put out,” and when she did speak it was only in monosyllables or abrupt sentences.

“Are you going out this evening, Laura?” asked Mr. Carlton.

“No.”

“I thought you were engaged to the Newberrys.”

“I am not going.”

He ceased; he saw, as well as the servants, that the lady was out of sorts. She never spoke another word until the cloth was drawn, the dessert on the table, and the servants gone. Mr. Carlton poured out two glasses of wine and handed one to Lady Laura. She did not thank him; she did not take the glass.

“Shall I give you some grapes, my love?”

“Your love!” she burst forth, with scornful, mocking emphasis, “how dare you insult me by calling me ‘your love?’ Go to your other loves, Mr. Carlton, and leave me; it is time you did.”

He looked up, astounded at the outbreak; innocent in himself, so far as he knew, of anything that could have caused it.

“Laura! What is the matter?”

“You know,” she replied; “your conscience tells you. How dare you so insult me, Mr. Carlton?”

“I have not insulted you; I am not conscious of any offence against you. What has put you out?”

“Oh, fool that I was,” she passionately wailed, “to desert, for you, my father’s home! What has boon my recompense? disinheritance by my father, desertion by my family, that I might have expected; but what has my recompense been from you?”

“Laura, I protest I do not know what can have caused this; If you have anything to say against me, say it out”

" You do know,” she retorted. “Oh, it is shameful! shameful so to treat me!—to bring this contumely upon me! I, an earl’s daughter!”

" You must be out of your mind,” exclaimed Mr. Carlton, half doubting perhaps whether such was not the fact. “What ‘contumely’ have I brought upon you?”

“Don’t insult me further! don’t attempt to defend yourself!” retorted Laura, well nigh mad indeed with passion. “Think rather of yourself, of your own conduct. Such transgressions on the part of a married man reflect bitter disgrace and humiliation upon the wife; they expose her to the contemptuous pity of the world. And they have so exposed me.”

“Pshaw!” exclaimed Mr. Carlton, growing cross, for this was but a repetition of scenes enacted before. “I thought these heroics, these bickerings, were done with. Remember what you said last night. What has raked them up?”

“You ask me what has raked them up!—Ask yourself, Mr. Carlton. You know too well.”

“By heaven, I do not! I have no more notion what you mean than that!" He raised a wine glass as he spoke, and bringing it down again too fiercely, the fragments were shattered over the mahogany table.

The burst half frightened Laura. Mr. Carlton’s temper was impassive as his face, and she had never witnessed such from him before. Perhaps he was surprised at himself. But he had gone home full of inward trouble, and the attack, so uncalled for, was more than ho could patiently bear.

“If you wish me to understand you, Laura, so as to be able to give you any answer, you must be more explanatory,” he said, resuming his equable tone of calmness.

Lady Laura’s lips quivered, and she leaned over the table, speaking in a whisper, low as the unsatisfactory topic deserved.

“In that cottage of Tupper’s on the Rise, a woman and a child are living. The child is yours!"

An extraordinary change, possibly caused by surprise at the accusation, possibly by indignation, passed over the aspect of Mr. Carlton. His face grew livid, his white lips parted. Laura noted all.

“It tells home, does it!” she exclaimed in a tone of utter scorn. “I knew your conscience would accuse you. What have I done, I ask, that this shameless woman should be brought hither to insult me? Could you not have kept her where she came from? must you bring her here and parade her in my very presence?”

Mr. Carlton wiped the moisture from his face and recalled his senses, which seemed to have been scattered. He looked at his wife in very amazement.

“Suspect that woman of———You are a fool, Laura, if you are not mad. I beg your par don, but it must be one of the two. Until this day, when I was called in to attend the child, the woman was an utter stranger to me. Why, she looks old enough to be my mother! What are you thinking of?”

Lady Laura was thinking of a great many things, and they were not pleasant ones. Nevertheless her husband spoke so earnestly, so truthfully, that she was somewhat staggered in spite of her exasperation.

“It will come, next, that I must not visit a patient when called out to one,” he proceeded in a severe tone. “You speak of shame, Laura, but I do not think it is I, who ought to feel it. These absurd delusions bring yourself shame, but not me. I know nothing of the woman and her child. I solemnly declare to you that until last night I did not know Tupper’s cottage was occupied, or that such people existed.”

“Who summoned you to them?” inquired Laura, no relenting whatever in her words and aspect.

“Pepperfly, the nurse. I met the old woman at the gate here last night, as I was coming home from the dinner. She said a person with a sick child had come to Tupper’s cottage, and would I go up at my leisure, and see it. If you will take the trouble to walk there, and inquire, you will find my statement correct: the boy has a white swelling in the knee.”

“I have been,” she replied, with sullen composure.

Mr. Carlton gave a start of anger. “Very well, my lady; if you think it well to dodge my footsteps amongst my patients, you must do so. I don’t know how I can prevent it. But if you hear nothing worse than that woman can tell you, you won’t hurt.”

“Mr. Carlton! keep within the bounds of truth, if you please. When did I ever dodge your footsteps?”

“It seems like it, at any rate.”

“No; my passing that cottage was accidental. I was out with Jane to-day, and she had to go down Blister Laue.”

“What has given rise to this suspicion?” demanded Mr. Carlton, feeling completely in the dark. “The very appearance of the woman might have shown you its absurdity. You must have gone to sleep and dreamt it.”

Laura was in a cruel perplexity of mind. Were her suspicions right, or were they wrong? She looked ready to break a glass on her own score, and she dropped her voice again and leaned towards Mr. Carlton.

“If it be as you say, why should there be so extraordinary a likeness between you and the child.”

“A likeness between me and the child!” he echoed, in genuine surprise. “There’s none in the world, none whatever. How can you draw so, Laura, upon your flighty imagination?”

“There never was, I believe, so great a one in the world,” was Laura’s answer. “Every feature is similar, save the eyes. That is not all. Your ears are a peculiar shape, unlike any one’s I ever saw; so are that child’s. The very feather here,” touching the parting of her own hair in front, “the wave of the flaxen hair; it is all you in miniature.”

Now Mr. Carlton had failed to observe any likeness to himself; the thought of such had not crossed his mind. It was only natural, therefore, that he should disbelieve in the existence of any, and he thought his wife was asserting it, in her jealousy, without foundation.

“This is very absurd, Laura! I had hoped these fancies were done with.”

“Why should he bear your name—Lewis?” proceeded Lady Laura.”

“He does not bear it,” replied Mr. Carlton, looking at her in increased surprise.

“He does! Where is the use of your denying facts?” she angrily demanded.

“I asked the boy’s name this afternoon, and his mother told me it was George. If he bears any other, all I can say, is, I do not know it. They did not mention another to me.”

“I heard the woman speak to him as Lewis. The boy told me himself at the gate that his name was Lewis,” reiterated Laura. “You gave him that toy!”

“I know I did. I have no children of my own; but I love children, and I often give a plaything to my little patients. Is there any harm in it?”

“Lewis is an uncommon name,” she persistently resumed, fearing she was getting the worst of the argument. “And the likeness is there!”

“Upon my word, Laura, this is very absurd! If people call their children Lewis, I cannot help it. As to the likeness—pray did Lady Jane see this astounding likeness?” he broke off to ask.

“She did not say so.”

“No, no. I believe you have drawn solely on your own imagination for this fancy, and that nothing of the sort exists. I can only assure you, and with truth, that I failed to observe it, as I hardly should have failed had it been there. The boy was a stranger to me until this day.”

Laura replied not. She had nearly arrived at the conclusion that she had made a very ridiculous mistake. Mr. Carlton rose and went over to her.

“Understand me, Laura,” he said, in a serious and impressive tone, but one of friendly conciliation. “Whether the resemblance exists or not, it is equally unimportant to you and to me. I tell you that I was unconscious of the existence of these people until now; I tell you that, so far as I believe and know, the woman is a stranger to me. I have never known her in any way whatever; and I swear that I speak the truth, by the ties that exist between you and me!”

He held out his hand, and after a moments struggle with herself—not caused so much by the present point at issue, for she was now pretty well convinced that the likeness and the name must be accidental, as by the remembrance of certain former grievances, which Mr. Carlton had not been able so triumphantly to clear up—she gave him hers. Mr. Carlton stooped and kissed her, and she turned her face to him and burst into tears.

“If I am suspicious, you have made me so, Lewis, You should never have tried me.”

“The trials have been chiefly of your own making,” he whispered, “but we will not revert to the past. But now—am I to go on attending this child, or am I not, Laura? It shall be as you please; it is nothing to me one way or the other. If you wish me not, I’ll hand the case over to Grey.”

“Nonsense,” responded Lady Laura.

Which Mr. Carlton of course took to be en intimation that he was to go on with it. And accordingly on the afternoon of the following day, he again went up to Tupper’s cottage. Mrs. Smith had the boy on her lap at the table, the soldiers before him in battle array. “I have forgotten half my errand,” the surgeon exclaimed, as he threw himself in a chair, after speaking with her and the boy. “I intended to bring up a box of ointment and I have left it behind me.

“Is it of consequence, sir?”

“Yes, it is. I wanted to put some on his knee myself. I’m dead tired, for I have been on foot all day, running about. Would it be too much to ask you to step down to my house for it? It is not far. I’ll look at his leg the while.”

Mrs. Smith paused, hesitated, and then said she would go. Mr. Carlton told her what to ask for: a small box done up in white paper standing near the scales in the surgery. As she departed, he untied the linen round the child’s knee, gave a cursory glance at it, and tied it up again.

“What’s your name, my boy?”

“Lewis,” said the child.

“I thought your mother told me yesterday It was George?”

“So it is George. It’s Lewis George. Mother used to call me Lewis always, but she calls me George sometimes since we came here. Will you please let me go to my soldiers?”

“Presently. In your father dead?”

“He died before we come here; he died in Scotland. My black things are worn for him. Mr. Carlton, will that soldier drum always?”

“I think so,” said Mr. Carlton. “George, my little man, you want some fresh air, and I shall put you outside in your chair until your mother returns.”

Mr. Carlton did so. He not only put the boy in his chair, but he tied him in with a towel he espied; and carrying boy, chair, and soldiers, he placed them against the wall of the cottage outside.

“Why do you tie me in, sir?”

“That you may not get down to run about.”

“I won’t do that. Since my leg was bad, I don’t like running.”

Mr. Carlton made no reply. Ha went indoors, beyond reach of the view of the boy, and then he began a series of extraordinary manoeuvres. Up-stairs and down, up-stairs first, he went peeping about, now into this box, now into that; now into this drawer, now into that cupboard. One small box baffled him, for it was locked and double locked, and he thrust it back into its receptacle, inside another, for he had nothing to force it with, though he had tried his penknife. What was he hunting for?

Leaving everything in its place, so that no trace of the search might be found, he went down to the kitchen again, drew open a drawer, and turned over its contents. An old envelope he clutched eagerly; it contained a prescription, and nothing else, but that he did not know. He was about to dive into its folds, when he became conscious that he was not alone. Mrs. Smith stood in the doorway, watching him with all her eyes. What on earth had brought her back so quickly? was Mr. Carlton’s thought.

He dropped the envelope with a quick motion, recollected himself, and continued to look in the drawer, his manner cool and collected. “I am searching for some rag,” said be, turning to her.

“Rag?” repeated Mrs. Smith, who did not appear particularly pleased at his off-handed proceedings. “I don’t keep rag in those drawers. You might have waited, sir, I think, till I came home.”

“You were so long,” replied Mr. Carlton, “I have not the time to stop.”

“Then, sir, I don’t know what you’d call short,” returned Mrs. Smith. “I ran all the way there and back.”

Mr. Carlton took the ointment from her, repeated his request for some rag, brought the boy in, and proceeded to attend to his knee. He scanned the child’s features from time to time, but could detect nothing of the resemblance spoken of by his wife. He completely made his peace with Mrs. Smith before he departed, told her laughingly always to have linen at hand ready for him, and then he should not want to look into her hiding-places.

It was not however quite the truth that Mrs. Smith had run all the way back. In point of fact she had not come straight back, but had taken a short détour out of her way. She ran there, received the ointment without delay, and set off to run back again. But ladies of middle age (to put it politely) don’t run very far up a hill, be it ever so gentle a one, and Mrs. Smith slackened her pace. Just before she got to Blister Lane she overtook Judith, Lady Jane’s maid, and joined her, walking with her past the lane, for Judith was in a hurrry and could not stop to talk. Mrs. Smith reminded her of her promise to come and partake of tea; but Judith said she could not for a day or two: she was busy, getting her lady’s autumn dresses in order.

“It’s not autumn weather yet,” remarked Mrs. Smith. “It’s as hot as summer.”

“But nobody knows how soon it may change, and my lady likes to have her things in readiness,” was Judith’s answer. “I’ll be sure to come as soon as I can. I shall like to come. How’s the little boy?”

“He’s middling. 1 have had Mr. Carlton to him. He is at the cottage now; I have been to his house for this salve which he left behind him. I say, he’s a curious man, isn’t he?”

“Curious?” repeated Judith, not understanding how to take the remark.

“Curious in regard to one’s business. He asked enough questions of me; wanting to know where we came from, and where we had lived, and where the boy was born; I don’t know what he didn’t ask. But 1 think he is clever; he seems thoroughly to understand the case. And he’s very kind.”

“He is thought to be very clever,” said Judith. “His patients like him.”

Lady Jane’s gate was reached; it was only a little higher than Blister Lane, on the opposite side of the way, and Mrs. Smith said “Good afternoon” and ran back again. Lady Jane had seen the woman at the gate and spoke of her to Judith.

The likeness Jane had detected in the little child to her sister Clarice had been haunting her mind since the previous day, more than she would have cared to tell.

“So you know that person, Judith?”

“I don’t know much of her, my lady. I have spoken to her once or twice in passing the cottage. She was talking of her little boy. She has had Mr. Carlton to him.”

“Is that her own child?” abruptly asked Lady Jane, after a pause. “She told me it was, but I almost doubt it. For one thing, she seems too old to have so young a child.”

“Well, my lady, and so do I doubt it,” cried Judith; “but I don’t know anything certain.”

“The boy bears so remarkable a likeness to—to—some one I know—"

“My lady, there never was such a likeness seen,” eagerly interposed Judith. “It struck me the first moment I saw him.”

“You!” rejoined Lady Jane; “struck you! Why, how did you know her? When did you see her? I spoke of my sister.”

Judith stood dumb.

“I’m sure I beg your pardon, my lady; I misunderstood.”

“I had another sister, of whom you have not heard, Judith. That little boy’s eyes are so exactly like hers that they seem to be ever before me. What likeness did you speak of?”

“Oh, my lady, it’s not worth troubling you with. It was just a fancy of mine that the boy was like somebody’s face I know: not a lady’s.”

“Not a lady’s?”

“It was a man’s face; not a lady’s.”

“Ah, yes. Of course you could not have known my sister. She never was at South Wennock.”

Judith lingered as if she had something on her tongue, and looked hard at Lady Jane; but she turned away without speaking. She wondered never to have heard that there was another sister; but the Chesneys, one and all, had kept the name from their households. In fact, considering the semi-publicity that had been given to the affair when it was entrusted to the police, it had been kept wonderfully secret. But the likeness the child bore to Clarice continued to trouble the mind of Lady Jane. And the likeness—that other likeness—festered in the heart of Mr. Carlton’s wife. In spite of her apparent satisfaction at the time of the explanation, the bitter suspicion sprung up again within her with a force that threatened mischief. There is no passion in this wide world so difficult to eradicate as jealousy.

CHAPTER XLIV.AN ITEM OF NEWS.

Little heirs are precious things, especially if they happen to be on the peerage roll of this aristocratic realm. Perhaps there was not an individual in the land more valued by those about him than was the young lord of Oakburn, and when, after his return to town from Seaford, he seemed to languish rather than revive, his mother’s fears were up in arms.

The young gentleman had caught cold the day of his return, just as other boys are liable to catch it. Complete master of Pompey, he had walked deliberately into a pond with his clothes on, in spite of that faithful retainer’s efforts to prevent him, and the result was a slight attack of sore throat. It was magnified into a visitation of bronchitis, and Sir Stephen Grey was sent for. He was soon well, but the disorder left him a little languid, and the countess said she must take him out again; she would take him to some of the salubrious spas of Germany, perhaps from thence to the South of France; possibly keep him abroad for the winter or part of it.

“It’s not in the least necessary,” said Sir Stephen.

Lady Oakburn thought it was, and decided to go. But while she was hesitating what place to fix upon, a letter arrived from her brother, the Reverend Mr. Lethwait, who held a continental chaplaincy, and in the letter he happened to speak of the lovely climate of the place, so renovating to invalids.

It was just the turning point of the balance, the last atom of dust which made the scale go down. If there had been a remnant of indecision in Lady Oakburn’s mind, whether she should go or not, whether the expedition was really necessary, this put an end to it; and the requisite orders for her departure were issued to her household forthwith.

Lucy rebelled. Lucy Chesney actually rebelled. Not against the young earl’s exile from England, but against her own. She was to be married the following spring: and, as everybody knew, it would take from this time to that to prepare the wedding clothes and general paraphernalia. Frederick Grey stepped in to the rescue; he knew nothing about the clothes and the paraphernalia; that was not in his department; but he did protest that Lady Oakburn could not be so cruel as to take Lucy away from England and from him. The countess laughed, and said then Lucy must go for the time to Lady Jane’s.

Compared to the other arrangement, this seemed pleasant and feasible. Jane was communicated with, and she—only too glad to have Lucy—hastened to London to take charge of her down. When she arrived in Portland Place, and the little lord ran up to her, she gazed at him with some anxiety.

“Have you come to take away Lucy, sister Jane?”

“Yes, darling. But, Frank, who says you are ill? 1 think you are looking famous.”

Lady Oakburn interposed with a half apology for her previous anxiety. The young gentleman had picked up his crumbs (to use Sir Stephen’s expression) in so astonishing a manner the last day or two, and his face had got so blooming and himself so noisy, that her ladyship felt half ashamed of herself. But she should rejoice in the opportunity of once more meeting her brother, she avowed to Jane, and the trip would do Frank good, even if he did not want it.

Jane purposed to stay in London one clear day. She reached it on the Thursday, and would return with Lucy on the Saturday; on which day Lady Oakburn would also take her departure.

On the Friday, Jane went abroad on foot. She had several little errands to do, purchases to make, and she would not be troubled with the carriage. In fact, Jane Chesney had never cared to use a carriage so much as many do; she was a good walker and liked exercise.

It happened that her way led her through Gloucester Terrace. The reminiscences that the locality called up were bitter ones to Jane; how little she had thought, that long-ago day when she first went into it in search of Clarice, that years and years would pass and bring no trace of her!

She walked along slowly. She was just in the spot where the house of the Lortons was situated; and she was looking to see whether she could remember which it was, when a lady passed her on the pavement,—a little fat lady with a very pleasing expression of face. That expression struck upon Jane’s memory. Where had she seen it?

Fearing that she had passed, without speaking, some one whom she ought to know, an acquaintance possibly of her brief London life, Jane turned in the moment’s impulse, and found that the lady had also turned and was looking at her. The latter stepped back with a smile.

“Lady Jane Chesney! I beg your pardon for passing you. My thoughts were elsewhere at the moment.”

It was Mrs. West! But Mrs. West grown so excessively stout that it was no wonder Jane had not recognised her. She was almost a second Mrs. Pepperfly. Jane’s heart gave a glad leap and she held out her hand. This lady seemed to be the one only link between Clarice living and Clarice lost.

And now what a singular coincidence it was that Jane should have chanced to meet her there! Chanced? Something more than chance was at work in this commencement—for it was the commencement—of the unravelling of the fate of Clarice Chesney.

A few moments, and Lady Jane was seated in Mrs. West’s house close by, listening to that lady’s explanation. They had been abroad between six and seven years, she said; had educated their four daughters well—of whom she seemed not a little fond and proud, and regretted their absence from home that day, or she would have shown them to Lady Jane—and had now come back for good to England and Gloucester Terrace. Not to the same house: that was occupied: but to one within five or six doors of it.

Jane spoke of Clarice. And Mrs. West seemed thunderstruck, really thunderstruck, to hear that no tidings had been gained of her.

“It is like a romance,” she cried. “But for your telling me yourself, Lady Jane, I should scarcely have believed it. It seems so impossible in these days that any lady should be lost. We read advertisements in the Times of gentlemen missing; now and then of a lady; but I think—at least I have always supposed—that the ladies at least come to light again. I and Mr. West have often talked of this affair; he saw you, Lady Jane, as perhaps you may remember, the day you called at our house when I was at Ramsgate; and we thought—we concluded —but perhaps you would not like me to repeat it to you?” broke off Mrs. West.

“Indeed I should,” replied Jane, eagerly, not that she had any idea what it was Mrs. West hesitated to repeat. “The least word, the least surmise or conjecture, bearing upon my sister is of interest for me.”

“Well, then, the conclusion we came to was, that Miss Beauchamp’s marriage must have been an inferior one. That she had married in accordance with her temporary position, and did not like to avow it to her family, especially after they were ennobled. I am sure you will forgive my speaking thus freely, Lady Jane.”

Jane did not altogether understand. The tone of the words surprised her ear.

“But still we never supposed but that she would avow it in time,” proceeded Mrs. West. “However inferior or unsuitable her marriage might have been, she would surely not keep it secret so long as this———"

“What marriage?” interrupted Jane. “Clarice was not married.”

“Oh yes, she was.”

“Do you know that she was?” gasped Jane. "How do you know it?”

Mrs. West paused in surprise. She was asking herself how it was that Lady Jane did not know it; it was so long ago that she forgot partially, but at length came to the unwelcome conclusion that she had neglected to make her acquainted with it. Not with the marriage itself: of that Mrs. West knew positively nothing: but of the grounds they had for assuming it to have taken place.

“Tell me about it now,” implored Jane.

“It was through an old servant,” said Mrs. West. “A young woman named Mary Grove, who had lived with me as parlour-maid, and left just about the time that Miss Beauchamp did. Mary had fallen into bad health—indeed she was never strong, and I used to think the work too much for her—and she went home to be nursed. They were Suffolk people. She took another place in London when she got better; and upon calling here one day to see us sometime afterwards, she told me that she had met Miss Beauchamp, and saw from her appearance that she was married.”

“When did she meet her?—and where?” eagerly inquired Lady Jane.

“She had met her sometime in the course of the winter subsequent to Miss Beauchamp’s quitting us, at its turn, I think; I know the girl said it was a frosty day. And it was somewhere in this”—Mrs. West hesitated and spoke very slowly—“in this neighbourhood, I think, though I cannot remember precisely where. Mary accosted Miss Beauchamp, saying something to the effect that she perceived she was married; and Miss Beauchamp replied, yes she was, she had married upon leaving Mrs. West’s. The girl said she seemed in great spirits, and looked remarkably well.”

“When was it that you heard this?” asked Jane.

“I am not sure of the precise time, Lady Jane. It was subsequent to the interview I had with you, was it not?”

“I wish you had told me of it!”

“Indeed I am very sorry that I did not. I suppose I thought it not worth troubling you with; it was so very little news, you see; and nothing certain, no details. And in truth, Lady Jane, I supposed that perhaps Miss Beauchamp did not care you should know of her marriage just at first, but would take her own time for revealing it. One thing I may mention: that this information of the girl’s had the effect of removing from my mind any fear on the subject of Miss Beauchamp—I ought to say of Lady Clarice.”

“I wonder whether I could see that girl?”

Mrs. West shook her head. “She is dead, poor thing. She grew ill again and died just before we went on the continent.”

Lady Jane was turning matters over in her mind. That Clarice had married, there was now no room for a shadow of doubt. The question remained, to whom?

“If she quitted your house to be married,” she said aloud to Mrs. West, “we may safely argue that she must already have made the acquaintance of the gentleman. And how could she have done it, and where could she have met him?”

“I thought that over with myself at the time the girl told me this, and it struck me that she might have met him here,” was the reply. “My husband’s brother was then living with us, Tom West, and a very open-hearted, pleasant young man he was. He had just passed for a surgeon, and he used to fill the house nearly with his companions, more so than I liked, but we knew he would soon be leaving, so I said nothing. Two of my cousins were on a visit to me that spring, merry girls, and they and Miss Beauchamp and Tom were much together.”

“Could he have married her?” breathlessly interrupted Lady Jane.

Mrs. West paused. It was the first time the idea had been presented to her.

“I should not think so. Tom was of an open disposition, above concealment, and they must both have been very sly, if it did take place—excuse my plainness of thought, Lady Jane; I am speaking of things as they occur to me. Oh no. If they had wished to marry, why have concealed it? Tom West was his own master, and I am sure we should have made no objection to Miss Beauchamp; we liked her very much. If she married any one of them, it was not Tom.”

“Where is Mr. Tom West?”

“Oh, poor fellow, he went abroad directly; about—let me see?—about the next February, I think. He was appointed assistant-surgeon to the staff in India, and there he died.”

“What more probable than that she should have accompanied him?” exclaimed Lady Jane.

Mrs. West cast her reflections back to the past.

“I do not fancy it,” she said; “it seems to me next to impossible. With him I am quite certain she did not go, for we saw him off, and arranged his baggage, and all that. He was at our house till he sailed. No; if he had been married, especially to Miss Beauchamp, rely upon it, Lady Jane, he would not have kept it from us.”

“Other gentlemen visited at your house, you say?” continued Jane.

“Plenty of them; Tom was rich in friends. Most of them were in the medical line, students or young practitioners; I daresay you may have observed how fond they are of congregating together. All were not introduced to our society: Tom used to have them in his own room. Three or four were intimate with us, and had, as may be said, the run of the house, as Tom had.”

“Who were they?” asked Jane. “It may have been one of them. What were their names?”

“Let me try and recollect; we have mostly lost sight of them since that period, Lady Jane. There was a Mr. Boys, who is now a doctor in good practice in Belgravia; and there was young Manning, a harumscarum fellow who came to no good; and there was Mr. Carlton. I think that was all.”

“Mr. Carlton!” repeated Jane, struck with the name. “What Mr. Carlton was that?”

“His father was a surgeon, in practice at the East end of London,” replied Mrs. West.

“He used to be very much here with Tom.”

“Was his name Lewis?”

“Lewis? Well, I think it was. Did you know him, Lady Jane?”

" A gentleman of that name married my sister, Lady Laura. I know him."

“He was a good-looking, clever man, this Mr. Carlton—older than Tom, and by far the most gentlemanly of them all. We have quite lost sight of him. Stay; there was another used to come, a Mr. Crane; and I don’t know what became of him. We did not like him.”

“If it be the same Mr. Carlton, he is in practice at South Wennock,” observed Jane, very much struck, she could scarcely tell why, with this portion of the intelligence. “Our family highly disapproved of Lady Laura’s choice, and declined to countenance him.”

“We fancied at the time that Mr. Carlton was paying attention to one of my two cousins; at least, she did. But his visits here ceased before Tom went out. I have an idea that he went to settle somewhere in the country.”

“Did it ever occur to you to fancy that any one of these gentlemen paid attention to my sister?” inquired Jane.

“Never,” said Mrs. West; “never at all. I remember that Tom and my cousins used to joke Miss Beauchamp about young Crane, but 1 believe they did so simply to tease her. She appeared to dislike him very much, and she could not bear being joked about him. None of us, except Tom, much liked Mr. Crane.”

And the remaining two gentlemen you have mentioned?—Mr. Manning and Mr.———I forget the other name.”

“Mr. Boys, Dr. Boys now. Oh no, it was neither of them, I am sure. They were not quite so intimate with us as the rest were. If she married any one of the young men, it must lie between Tom, Mr. Carlton, and Mr. Crane; but to hear that she had would astonish me more than anything ever astonished me yet. Tom, I am fully persuaded she did not marry; or Mr. Carlton either—if he had a preference any way, it was, I say, for my cousin, though the preference never came to anything. As to young Crane—if Miss Beauchamp’s dislike to him was not genuine, she must have been a good actor.”

This was all. It was but a little item of news. Lady Jane sat some time longer, but she had gained the extent of Mrs. West’s information, and she went away revolving it.

She went down to South Wennock revolving it; she did nothing but revolve it after she was settled at home. And the conclusion she arrived at was, that Clarice had married one of those young men—Mr. Tom West.

And what of the Mr. Carlton? Could it be the one who was now Laura’s husband? Lady Jane felt little if any doubt of it. The description, personal and circumstantial, tallied with him in all points; and the name, Lewis Carlton, was not a common one. Ever and anon there would come over Jane, with a shiver, a remembrance of that portentous dream, in which it had seemed to be shown her that her sister Clarice was dead, and that Mr. Carlton had had some hand in causing the death. Had one of these young men married Clarice, and worked her ill? and was Mr. Carlton privy to it? But Jane, a just woman, shrunk from asking that question, even of her own mind. She had no grounds whatever for suspecting Mr. Carlton of such a thing; and surely it was wrong to dwell upon a dream for them. There was one question, however, that she could ask him in all reason—and that was, whether he was the same Mr. Carlton; if so, it was possible he could impart some information of her sister. Jane did not think it very likely that he could, but it was certainly possible.

And meantime, while Jane was seeking for an opportunity of doing this, or perhaps deliberating upon the best way of asking it, and how much she should say about Clarice, and how much she should not, a fever broke out at South Wennock.