Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 24
LORD OAKBURN’S DAUGHTERS.
BY THE AUTHOR OF "EAST LYNNE."
Lady Lucy Chesney lay in imminent danger. But a few days ill, and her life was despaired of. The anticipations of the surgeons—that she would have the fever badly—had been all too fully borne out. They had done what they could for her, and it was as nothing.
None could say that Mr. Carlton was not a kind and anxious attendant. Lady Jane thanked him in her heart. She began half to like him. That he was most solicitous for Lucy’s recovery was indisputable; and it may be said that she was in his hands, not in Mr. Grey’s, because his opportunities of seeing her were of necessity so much more frequent. Jane sat by the bed, full of grief, but not despairing as those who have no hope. She possessed sure confidence in God; full and perfect trust; she had learnt to commit all her care to Him; and to those who can, and do, so commit it, utter despair never comes. Jane believed that every earthly means which skill could devise was being tried for the recovery of Lucy; and if those means should fail, it must be God’s will; she tried to think, because she knew, that it would still be for the best, although they in their human grief might repine and see it not.
Lady Laura also had taken the fever. But she had it in so very slight a degree that she need not have lain in bed at all; and before the worst had come for Lucy, she was, comparatively speaking, well. Laura was exacting; it was in her nature so to be; and Lady Jane had to quit Lucy’s room for hers, often, when there was not the least necessity for it. Mr. Carlton was anxious and attentive, but he knew from the first there would be no danger, and he told Laura so. The result was that she called him “unfeeling.” An unmerited reproach; if ever man was anxious for the well-doing of his wife, that man was Mr. Carlton.
Frederick Grey went in once with his uncle to Lucy’s chamber, after the danger supervened. She did not know him; and he had only the pain of seeing her turn her head from side to side in the delirium of fever. If Lady Jane did not despair, he did; the sight nearly unmanned him.
“Oh, merciful Heaven, save her!” he murmured. “Save her, if only in compassion to me!”
It was not alone the dreadful grief for Lucy; it was the self-reproach that was haunting him. He assumed that the disorder must have been communicated to Lucy through him, and remorse took hold of him. What could he do?—what could he do? He would have sold his own life willingly then, to save that of Lucy Chesney.
He went straight from the sick-chamber to the telegraph-office at Great Wennock. South Wennock had been in state of resentment some time at having to go so far if it wanted to telegraph, and most certainly Frederick Grey indorsed the indignation now. Then he went back to South Wennock, to Mr. Carlton’s. Jonathan advanced from his post in the hall to the open door: open that day, that there might be neither knock nor ring.
“Do you know how she is now?” he asked, too anxiously excited to speak with any sort of ceremony.
“There’s no change, sir. Worse, if anything.”
He suppressed a groan as he leaned against the pillar. Chary of intruding into Mr. Carlton’s house, after that gentleman’s reception of him the first night of Lucy’s illness, he would not enter now. He tore a leaf from his pocketbook, wrote some words on it in pencil, folded, and gave it to Jonathan.
“Let Lady Jane have this when there’s an opportunity. But don’t disturb the sick-room to give it her.”
The paper, however, soon found its way to Jane. She opened it in some curiosity.
“I have telegraphed for my father. He may not be able to do more than is being done, but it will at least be a satisfaction. He knows Lucy’s constitution, and there’s something in that. If I lose her, I lose all I care for in life.”
Words quiet and composed enough; scant indication did they give of the urgent, impassioned nature of the message gone up to Sir Stephen.
Jane approved of what he had done. Though she put little faith in further advice being of avail, it would, as he said, be a satisfaction. She wished Lady Oakburn was as much within their reach as Sir Stephen Grey; if the worst happened to Lucy, the blow to her almost more than mother would be bitter.
Dangerous illness connected with our history was in another habitation of South Wennock that day. The little boy at Tupper’s cottage, of whom mention has been so frequently made, and who had created doubt and speculation in more minds than one, had become rapidly worse in the past week; and Mr. Carlton saw that he could not save him. Greatly worked as Mr. Carlton just then was out of doors,—having Lucy in her danger on his hands at home, not to speak of his exacting wife—he had not on this day been able to go to the cottage. Mr. Jefferson went up and brought back the report: The boy was no better, and the mother excessively anxious.
“She did not like my calling,” observed the assistant-surgeon to Mr. Carlton. “She said she hoped you would be able to get up to day, if only for a minute.”
Mr. Carlton made no particular answer. He would go if he could, but did not think time would permit him; and he knew his going could do the child no good.
Mrs. Smith, to her own surprise, found she was to be favoured with a levee that afternoon. The little fellow, for whom a temporary daybed had been made up in the parlour, was lying upon it asleep, and Mrs. Smith sat by him. The leg gave him a great deal of pain now, but it seemed easier than it was in the morning; and in these easy intervals he was sure to sleep. The young woman, whom you saw drawing the child’s carriage not long ago, had come into the house entirely by Mrs. Smith’s desire, to do the work, go on errands, anything that might be required; and there’s always enough to do in illness. She was out now: having had leave to go and see her mother; and Mrs. Smith had fallen into a doze herself, when she was aroused by a sharp knock at the cottage door.
She went into the kitchen and opened it. There stood a little shrivelled woman in a black bonnet, with a thin, battered-looking sort of face. Mrs. Smith had seen her before, though she retained not the slightest recollection of her; and the reader has seen her also.
Is was the Widow Gould from Palace Street. She had been honoured by a call from Mrs. Pepperfly that morning, which led, as a matter of course, to a dish of gossip; and the result was, that the widow became acquainted for the first time with Mrs. Smith’s presence at South Wennock, and the various speculations arising therefrom. Consequently the widow—and there were few more curious widows living—thought she could not do better than go up to the cottage and claim acquaintance.
Mrs. Smith received her with some graciousness. The truth was, she was growing rather out of conceit of the plan of secrecy she had adopted since her sojourn at South Wennock. Her only motive for it (if we except a natural reserve, which was habitual) had been that she thought she might find out more particulars of Mrs. Crane’s death as a stranger, if there was anything attendant on that death which needed concealment. Until she heard of the death, she had not the remotest idea of any concealment. But the plan had not seemed to answer, for Mrs. Smith could learn no more than she had learnt at the commencement, and she talked readily enough with the widow.
Upon hospitable thoughts intent, Mrs. Smith set out her tea-table; laying the tray in the kitchen, not to disturb the little sleeper in the parlour. It’s true it was barely three o’clock, rather an early hour for the meal; but it has become fashionable, you know, to take a cup of tea early. Before they had sat down to it, another visitor arrived. It was Judith Ford.
It appeared that Judith had been obliged to come to Cedar Lodge that afternoon upon some matter of business: and Lady Jane had told her to call in and ask after the little boy at the cottage. Jane had heard of his increasing illness; and she thought much of him, even in the midst of her anxiety for Lucy.
“It’s like magic, your both meeting here together!” exclaimed Mrs. Smith.
For there was always a feeling resting in the woman’s mind that the whole known circumstances connected with Mrs. Crane’s death had not been detailed to her; a continuous hope that a chance word might reveal to her something or other new. Judith said she could stop for a quarter of an hour, and Mrs. Smith handed her some tea in triumph, for the promised tea-drinking bout, when Judith was to spend an evening at the cottage, had not taken place yet. What with Lady Jane’s visit to London, and Lucy’s sojourn with them, and one thing or other, Judith had not been able to find the time for it.
It would have been strange had the conversation not turned upon that long-past tragedy. The Widow Gould, who loved talking better than anything else in the world, related her version of it, and the other widow listened with all her ears. Mrs. Gould, it must be remembered, had never admitted, in conjunction with the nurse, that there could be truth in that vision of Mr. Carlton’s, touching the man on the stairs; it a little exasperated both of them to hear it spoken of, and she began disclaiming against it now. A needless precaution, since Mrs. Smith had never before heard of it. It appeared, however, to make a great impression upon her, now that she did hear it.
“Good Heavens! And do you mean to say that man was not followed up?”
“There wasn’t no man to follow,” testily returned the Widow Gould, upon whom the past seven or eight years had not sat lightly, and she looked at least sixty-six. “I’ve never liked Mr. Carlton since, I know that. It might have took away our characters, you know, ma'am.”
Mrs. Smith did not appear to know anything of the sort, or even to hear the delicate allusion. She had risen from her seat to fill the teapot from the kettle on the fire; but she put it down again in haste.
“It was just the clue I wanted!” she exclaimed. “Just the clue. I thought it so strange that he had not been here; so strange, so strange! It was more unaccountable to me than all the rest.”
“What do you mean?” exclaimed the little shrivelled woman, staring at the evident excitement.
“I mean her husband. That man concealed on the stairs must have been her husband.”
“What, Mr. Crane?”
“Of course it was. He killed her. I feel as certain of it as if I had seen it done. How came that fat nurse, Pepperfly, not to tell me this?”
“Mother Pepperfly don’t believe in it,” said Mrs. Gould. “She’s as certain as I be, that no man was there.”
“You might have told me this,” resumed Mrs. Smith, turning to Judith. “Why, it throws more light upon the subject than all the rest put together.”
“I have not had much opportunity of telling you anything,” answered Judith, who had sat in her usual silent fashion, sipping the hot tea and listening to the other two. “But I don’t believe it, either, for the matter of that.”
“That any man was concealed on the stairs.”
“But—I can’t understand,” cried Mrs. Smith. “Did Mr. Carlton not see one there?”
“He fancied so at the moment. But he came to the conclusion afterwards that the moonlight had deceived him.”
“And it never was followed up?”
“Oh dear yes,” said Judith. “The police sought after the man for a long while, and could never find him.”
“And they came to think at last, ma'am—as everybody else of sense had thought at the time—that there wasn’t no man there,” put in the little widow.
“Then I can tell them to the contrary,” was Mrs. Smith’s emphatic rejoinder. “That man was poor Mrs. Crane’s husband. I happen to know so much.”
Little Mrs. Gould was startled at the words. Judith arrested the piece of bread-and-butter she was about to put into her mouth, and gazed in astonishment.
“Yes,” continued Mrs. Smith, “it must have been him. I know—I feel that it was him. He was at South Wennock: I know so much as that.”
“You know this?” cried the other two in a breath.
“I do. I know that Mrs. Crane’s husband was at South Wennock.”
“And where is he now, ma'am?” asked the widow.
“Ah, where indeed!” was the answer given in an angry tone. “I have never heard of him since in all these years. I came down here now to find out what I could about him—and her.”
“It’s what old Pepperfly told me this morning, ma'am; she said she was sure you hadn’t come for nothing else. I know what I should have done in your place,” added the widow. “I should have declared myself to the police the minute I come, and got them to rake up the search again. You see there was nobody here belonging to the poor lady at the time, and it made the police careless over it —least ways, a many folks have held that opinion. All I can say is, that if there was any Mr. Crane on the stairs that night, he must have stole in surreptitious down the drawing-room, for he never come in at the straightforward door.”
“There’s time enough yet to declare my business to the police,” was Mrs. Smith’s answer. “I have preferred to remain quiet, and feel my way. Not but that one or two have suspected who I was. Judith, here, for one; she remembered me at once.”
“And Mother Pepperfly for another,” remarked the widow, handing up her cup for some more tea.
“No, she did not; at first she did not recollect me at all,” said Mrs. Smith, as she filled it. “I think Mr. Carlton suspects who I am.”
Judith lifted her eyes. “Why do you think so?”
“Because he asked so many questions when I first came—who I was, and what I was, and all the rest of it; I believe he’d have gone on asking till now if I had not put him down. And one day I caught him looking curiously into my drawers; he said he was searching for rag for my child’s knee; but I have always thought he was looking to see what he could find.”
“Why! Mr. Carlton met you that time at the station at Great Wennock!” exclaimed Mrs. Gould, the event occurring to her memory. “I remember it came out at the inquest.”
“Was it Mr. Carlton I met there?” resumed Mrs. Smith, after a pause, during which she had cast her thoughts back to the nearly-forgotten incident. “I have not recognised him again. It was almost dark at the time, I remember. But perhaps his eyes were keener than mine. At any rate, I feel sure he knows who I am; why also should he put all those questions?”
“It’s only natural to him to ask such,” observed the Widow Gould. “He’d like it to be brought to light as well as the rest of us.”
“Of course he would,” was the acquiescent answer. “Once or twice I have been upon the point of talking to him about it, but I thought I’d wait; I thought I’d wait.”
She spoke this in a dreamy sort of manner. Judith rose and put back her chair. She could not stay long on that day of anxiety, and she did not care to ask Mrs. Smith any questions before the other.
“I say,” broke in that other, “how long did that little mite of an infant live? Pepperfly says it’s dead.”
“Not over long,” replied Mrs. Smith. “It wasn’t to be expected that it would. I wish yon could stay, Judith.”
“I wish I could,” was Judith’s answer. “It’s impossible to-day. There’s nothing can be done for Lady Lucy, poor thing, but one must be in the house.”
“Report says, Judy, that Lady Laura———My goodness! who’s come now?”
The sudden breaking off of the Widow Gould’s remark was caused by the dashing up to the gate of some sort of vehicle. They crowded to the window to look.
It was a baker’s cart. And seated in state beside the driver was Mrs. Pepperfly.
It appeared that her duties at Mrs. Knagg’s were over, through that lady’s being, as Mrs. Pepperfly expressed it, on her legs again, and she had quitted her the previous day. Consequently she was at leisure to make calls upon various friends. It struck her that she could not do better than devote the afternoon and evening to her new acquaintance in Blister Lane, where she should be sure to enjoy a good tea, and might happen to drop upon something nice for supper—pickled pork, or some other dainty; not to reckon the chance of being invited to take a bed. The friendly baker had accommodated her with a lift in his cart. How he had contrived to lift her up, he hardly knew; still less how he should get her down again. While this was being accomplished, the Widow Gould running out to assist in the process, the little boy awoke and cried aloud. Altogether, what with one distraction and another, Judith found a good opportunity to slip away.
She was half way down the Rise, when she met Mr. Carlton driving up in his open carriage. He was on his way to pay a visit at Tupper’s cottage.
CHAPTER XLVIII.SIR STEPHEN’S VISIT.
Down thundered Sir Stephen Grey as fast as the hissing and shrieking train could take him. The message had disturbed him in no measured degree. Lucy Chesney given over! At Great Wennock he found his son waiting with a fleet horse and gig. A minute’s explanation, and they were skimming along the smooth road.
“Any change since you telegraphed, Frederick?”
“None for the better, sir.”
There was an interval of silence.
“My son, what a pace you are driving at? Take care what you are about.”
“The horse is sure, father. And she lying at the turn between life and death.”
Sir Stephen said no more. As the gig reached South Wennock, and dashed through it on its way to Mr. Carlton’s, the inhabitants flocked to their doors and windows. What could possess young Fred Grey, that he was driving in that mad fashion? But, as their eyes fell on his companion, they recognised him, and comprehended all. Sir Stephen Grey, the great physician, brought down from London in that haste? Then Lady Lucy Chesney must indeed be dying!
Mr. Carlton happened to be at home when the gig dashed up. He had just returned from that visit to Tupper’s cottage. At the first moment he did not recognise his visitor. But he did when he met him in the hall.
“Sir Stephen Grey?” he exclaimed, his manner cold, his tones bearing marked surprise. In that first moment he scarcely understood how or why Sir Stephen had come.
“How d’ye do, how d’ye do, Carlton?” unceremoniously spoke Sir Stephen, in his haste, as he brushed past him. “Which room is she lying in?”
Whether opposition was or was not in the surgeon’s mind, he did not offer it. Indeed there was no time, for Sir Stephen had gone quickly up the stairs. For one thing, Mr. Carlton was preoccupied, sundry little trifles at Tupper’s cottage having put him out considerably. He comprehended the case now: that Frederick Grey—or perhaps Mr. John Grey— had telegraphed to Sir Stephen on Lucy’s account. Mr. Carlton had not any objection to Sir Stephen’s seeing her; but he asked himself in what way Sir Stephen’s skill was better than theirs, that he need have been summoned; and he resented its having been done without consulting him.
He looked out at the front door, and saw Frederick Grey driving away in the gig, quietly now. Mr. Carlton sent after him a scornful word: he disliked him as much as he had done in the days gone by.
Sir Stephen was already at his post in Lucy's chamber, Lady Jane alone its other inmate. Mr. Carlton went in once, but Sir Stephen put his finger on his lip for silence. A few words passed between them in the lowest whisper, having reference to the case; its past symptoms and treatment; and the surgeon stole away again.
For three long hours Stephen Grey remained in the chamber, never quitting it; three long hours, and every moment of those hours might be that of death. Lady Jane caused a sandwich to be brought to the door and a glass of wine, and he swallowed the refreshment standing. And the time wore on.
When Sir Stephen quitted the house it was night. A little beyond Mr. Carlton's, nearer the town, was a space unoccupied by houses; it was dark there, for no friendly gas-lamp was near to throw out its light. Pacing this dark spot, was one with folded arms; he had so paced it since the night set in. The baronet recognised his son.
"The crisis has come," said Sir Stephen. "Come: and passed."
Frederick Grey struggled with his agitation. He strove to be a man. But he essayed twice to speak before any words would issue from his bloodless lips.
"And she is dead?"
"No. She will recover."
He placed his arm within his son's as he spoke, and walked on, perceiving little of the emotion. Sir Stephen was of equable mind himself; he liked to take things easy, and could not understand that Frederick must be different. Frederick, however, was different: he had inherited his mother's sensativo temperament. Sir Stephen caught a glimpse of his pallid face as they passed the window of Wilkes the barber, who had a flaring gas jet therein, to display the beauties of a stuffed gentleman, all hair and whiskers, which turned round upon a pivot.
"What's the matter, Frederick? Don't you feel well?"
"Oh, yes. A little—anxious. Are you sure the crisis is favourable?"
"Certain. If she dies now, it will be from weakness. I wonder Lady Jane let her be ill at Carlton's."
Even yet Frederick was not sufficiently himself to enter on the explanation. It was not Lady Jane's fault, was all he said.
"You won't go back to-night, father?"
"No. I shall stay until morning, but I am sure she is all right now. Youth and beauty can't escape, you see. To think that it should have attacked Lucy Chesney! Fortunately she has a good constitution."
They walked on to Mr. John Grey's, where Sir Stephen would remain for the night. Most cordially was he welcomed; Mrs. Grey said it seemed like old times to see him back again.
There were many cases, even at that present time, where the fever had taken as great a hold as it had on Lucy, and when the fact of Sir Stephen's arrival became known—and the news spread like wildfire—Mr. Grey's house was besieged with applicants, praying that Sir Stephen would afford the sick the benefit of his advice, before he went back to town. So much for popular opinion! A few years back, Mr. Stephen Grey had been hunted from the town, scarcely a soul in it would have taken his advice, gratis; but Sir Stephen Grey, the orthodox London physician, the baronet, the great man who attended upon royalty, had risen to a wonderful premium. Had all the faculty of the physicians' college combined been at South Wennock, none would have been thought much of, in comparison with Sir Stephen Grey.
Did he refuse to go? Not he. At the beck and call of any in South Wennock—for he was not one to pay back evil in its own coin, Sir Stephen went abroad. In at one house, out of another, till the little hours of the morning, was he. And not a fee would he take, either from rich or poor. No, no, it was for old friendship's sake, he said, as he shook them by the hand; for old friendship's sake.
Twice in the evening he visited Lucy, and found that the favourable symptoms remained; nay, were growing more and more apparent. Jane would scarcely let go his hand; she could not divest herself of the idea that he had saved Lucy. No, Sir Stephen said: Lucy's constitution would have triumphed without him, under God.
Mr. Carlton, who had recovered his equanimity, invited Sir Stephen into his drawing-room, and seemed disposed to be cordial; but Sir Stephen told him, and with truth, that he had no time to sit that night even for a minute, South Wennock would not let him.
When Sir Stephen reached his brother's house it was one o'clock, and, to his surprise, he saw another applicant waiting for him; a stout female of extraordinary size, who was dozing asleep in a chair, underneath the hall lamp. His coming in aroused her, and she stood up, curtseying after her peculiar fashion.
“You don’t remember me, sir.”
“Why, bless my heart!—if I don’t think it’s mother Pepperfly!” he exclaimed, after a minute’s doubtful stare. “What have you been doing with yourself? You have grown into two.”
“Growed into six, Mr. Stephen, if I’m to be reckoned by breadth. Hope you are well, sir, and your good lady!”
“All well. And now, what do you want with me? To recommend you to a mill that grinds people slender again?”
Mrs. Pepperfly shook her head dolefully, intimating that no such mill could have any effect upon her, and proceeded to explain her business. Which she persisted in doing at full length, in spite of the lateness of the hour and Sir Stephen’s fatigue.
It appeared—rather to Mrs. Pepperfly’s own discomfiture—that Mrs. Smith was not able to invite her to a bed, owing to the only spare one being occupied by the servant maid; but she was treated to a refreshing tea and profuse supper, and enjoyed her evening very much; the Widow Gould’s presence adding to the general sociability. The widow loft early; she kept good hours; but Mrs. Pepperfly was in no hurry to depart. She really did make herself useful in attending to the child, and sat by him for some time after he was carried up-stairs to his room. She offered to stop with him for the night, but Mrs. Smith entirely declined: it had not come yet to sitting up nights with him.
In the course of the evening, the news which had been spreading through South Wennock reached Tupper’s cottage. Mr. Carlton’s boy, who had carried up some medicine, imparted it. The great London doctor, Sir Stephen Grey, had come down by telegraph to Lady Lucy, and was now paying visits to the sick throughout the town. Mrs. Smith seized upon the news, as a parched traveller seizes upon water. She loved the child passionately, hard and cold as were her outward manners; and it seemed that this whispered a faint hope for his life. Not that she had reason to be dissatisfied with Mr. Carlton; she acknowledged that gentleman’s skill, and was sure he did his best; but the very name of a great physician brings some magic with it. She asked Mrs. Pepperfly to find out where Sir Stephen was staying, as she went home, and to call and beg him to step up in the morning, and to be sure and say he would be paid his fee, whatever amount it might be, lest he might think it was but a poor cottage, and decline the visit. Upon this last clause in the message, the nurse laid great stress when telling it to Sir Stephen.
But not one word did she say, or hint impart, that this Mrs. Smith was the same person who had played a part in the drama which had driven Stephen Grey from his former home. Mrs. Pepperfly was a shrewd woman; she did not want for common sense; and she judged that that past reminiscence could not be pleasant to Sir Stephen; at any rate she would not be the one to recall it to him. She simply spoke of Mrs. Smith as a “party” who had settled lately at South Wennock, and reiterated the prayer for Sir Stephen to go up.
“But I have no time,” cried Sir Stephen. “What’s the matter with the boy? The fever?”
“Bless you, no, sir,” replied Mrs. Pepperfly. “He haven’t got enough of fever in him, poor little wan object! He’s going off as fast as he can go in a decline and a white swelling in his knee.”
“Then I can do no good.”
“Don’t say that, Mr. Stephen, sir. If you only knowed the good a doctor does, just in looking at ’em, you wouldn’t say it. But in course you do know it, sir, just as well as me. He mayn’t save their lives by an hour, and mostly don’t in them hopeless cases; but think of the comfort it brings to the cowed-down mind, sir! If you could step up for a minute in the morning, sir, she’d be everlasting grateful.”
Telling her he must leave it until the morning to decide, though he gave a sort of promise to find the time if possible, Sir Stephen dismissed Mrs. Pepperfly. He had a good laugh afterwards with his brother John at her size. “What about the old failing?” he asked.
“Well, it’s not quite cured,” was the reply, “but it’s certainly no worse. She keeps within bounds.”
With the morning, Sir Stephen was up and out early. Many were still calling for him. Indeed everybody in the town would fain have had a visit from him, could they have invented the least shadow of an excuse. His first care was Lucy Chesney, who was decidedly better: skin cool, intellects collected; in short, Lucy was out of danger.
“And now for this cottage of Tupper’s, if I must go up,” he exclaimed to his son, who had walked with him to Mr. Carlton’s but had not entered. “I declare it is unreasonable of people! What good can I do to a dying boy?”
One thing must be mentioned. That Frederick Grey had not the remotest idea there was any suspicion, anything singular, attaching to this woman and child. That suspicion was confined as yet to very few in South Wennock. He had casually heard such people were living in Tupper’s cottage, but he supposed them to be entire strangers.
The boy was in bed up-stairs, and Mrs. Smith was putting her house to rights, for she had sent the girl for some milk. She had not expected the doctor so early. He passed quickly up the stairs; he had not a minute to lose, leaving her to follow. The little fellow, in his restlessness, had got one arm out of his nightgown sleeve, leaving it exposed. Sir Stephen’s attention was caught by a mark on the arm, underneath the shoulder. He looked at it attentively; it was a very peculiar mark, a sort of mole, almost black, and as large as a speckled bean. He was talking to the child when Mrs. Smith came up.
“Is there any hope, sir?” she whispered, after Sir Stephen had examined the child and was preparing to go down.
“Not the least. He won’t be here long.”
Mrs. Smith paused. “At any rate, you tell it me plump enough, sir,” she said presently, in a resentful tone. “There’s not much soothing in that to a mother’s feelings.”
“Why should I not tell it you?” rejoined Sir Stephen. “You said you wished for my candid opinion, and I gave it. You are not his mother.”
“Not his mother!” she echoed.
“That you are not. That child’s one of mine.”
“Whatever do you mean?” she exclaimed in astonishment.
“I mean that I brought that child into the world. Look here,” he added, retracing his steps to the bed, and pulling aside the night gown to show the mark. “I know the child by that, and could swear to him among a thousand.”
She made no reply. They descended to the kitchen, where Frederick was waiting. Sir Stephen talked as he went down.
“The mother of that child was the unfortunate lady who died at the Widow Gould’s in Palace Street some years ago: Mrs. Crane. I have cause to remember it, if nobody else has.”
The widow fixed her eyes on Sir Stephen. “I asked Mrs. Pepperfly—who was the attendant nurse upon that lady—whether the infant was born with any mark upon it, and she told me it had none.”
“I don’t care what Mrs. Pepperfly told you,” returned Sir Stephen. “She may have forgotten the mark, or may possibly not have seen it at the time, for her faculties of perception are sometimes obscured by gin. I tell you that it is the same child.”
Frederick Grey was listening with all his ears, in doubt whether he might believe them. He scarcely understood. Mrs. Smith gave in the point: at least so far as that she did not dispute it further.
“You are the gentleman, sir, who attended that lady? Mr.—Mr.———"
“Mr. Stephen Grey, then: Sir Stephen, now. I am; and I am he against whom was brought the accusation of having carelessly mixed poison with her draught.”
“And you did not do it?” she whispered.
“I! My good woman, what you may be to that dead lady, I know not; but you may put perfect faith in this, that I tell you. Over her poor corpse, and in the presence of her Maker and mine, I took an oath that the draught went out of my hands a proper and wholesome mixture, that no poison was impregnated with it: and I again swear it to you now, within shadow of her dying child.”
“Who did do it?” continued the woman, catching up her breath.
“Nay, I know not,” replied Sir Stephen, as he wrote a prescription with his pencil, ink not being at hand. “Smith! Smith!” he repeated to himself, the name, in connection with the past, striking upon his memory. “You must be the Mrs. Smith who came to take away the child!”
Possibly Mrs. Smith saw no further use in denying it; possibly she no longer cared to do so. “And what if I am, sir?”
“What if you are!” echoed Sir Stephen, sitting down on one of the wooden chairs, and regarding her in his astonishment. “Why, my good woman, do you know that pretty nearly the whole world was searched to find you? Nobody connected with the affair was wanted so much as you were.”
“To give what testimony you could; to throw some light upon the mystery; to declare who and what the young lady was,” reiterated Sir Stephen, speaking very fast.
“But if I couldn’t?” rejoined Mrs. Smith.
“But I don’t suppose you couldn’t. I expect you could.”
“Then, sir, you expect wrong. I declare to Goodness that I know no more who the lady was—that is, what her family was or what her connections wore—than that baby up-stairs knows. I have come down to South Wennock now to find out; and I never knew that Mrs. Crane was dead until after I got here.”
Sir Stephen Grey was surprised. Frederick, who was leaning his elbow on the back of a high chair, carelessly played with his watchchain.
“Where’s her husband?” asked Sir Stephen. “Sir, it’s just what I should like to know. I have never heard of him since I took the baby from South Wennock.”
“But you must know in a measure who she was! You could not have come down, as you did, to take the child from an utter stranger.”
Mrs. Smith was silent. “I knew her because she lodged at my house,” she said at length. “I don’t know why I may not say it.”
“And her husband? Was he lodging with you also?”
“No. Only herself. Sir, I declare upon my sacred word that I don’t know who she really was, or who her husband, Mr. Crane, was. It’s partly because I didn’t want to be bothered with people asking me things I was unable to answer, that I have kept myself quiet here, saying nothing about its being the same child.”
“And you did not know she was dead?”
“I did not know she was dead. I have been living with the child in Scotland, where my husband was in a manufactory; and times upon times have we wondered what had become of Mrs. Crane, that she did not come for her child. We thought she must have gone to America with her husband. There was some talk of it.”
“And you know nothing about the death?—or the circumstances attending it?” reiterated Sir Stephen.
“I know nothing whatever about it,” was the reply, spoken emphatically. “Except what has been told to me since I came here this time. Mrs. Crane lodged with me in London, and left me to come to South Wennock. I got a note a day or two afterwards, saying her baby was born, and asking me to come and fetch it. It had been arranged that I should have the nursing of it. That’s all I know.”
“Do you know why she came to South Wennock?”
“To meet her husband. But there seemed to be some mystery connected with him, and she was not very communicative to me.”
It seemed that this was all Mrs. Smith knew. At least it was all she would say; and it threw little if any more light upon the past than Sir Stephen had known before. He quitted her with a recommendation to tell what she knew to the police.
“I dare say I shall,” she said. “But I must take my own time over it. I have my reasons. It won’t be my fault, sir, if the thing is not brought to light.”
Sir Stephen was half way down the garden with his son, when Mrs. Smith came running after him, asking him to stop.
“Sir, you have forgotten: you have not taken your fee.”
“I don’t take fees in South Wennock,” he smiled. “Follow my direction, and you may give the child a little ease, but nothing can save him.”
In going out at the gate they met Mr. Carlton, who was abroad early with his patients. What on earth had brought them there? was the question in his eyes, if not on his lips.
“You have been to see my patient!” he exclaimed aloud, in no conciliating tone.
“Is it your patient?” cried Sir Stephen. “I declare I thought it was Lycett’s, and I had no time to ask extraneous particulars. I have recommended a little change in the treatment and left a prescription: just to give ease; nothing else can be done.”
He spoke in the carelessly authoritative manner of a first-class physician; he meant no offence, nor dreamt of any; but it grated on the ear of Mr. Carlton.
“What brought you here at all,” he asked, really wondering what could have brought Sir Stephen to that particular place.
“Mrs. Smith sent for me,” said Sir Stephen. “I suppose you know what child it is?”
“What child it is?” repeated the surgeon, after an almost imperceptible pause. “It won’t be long here; I know that much, in spite of physician’s prescriptions.”
“It is the child of that lady who died in Palace Street, where I attended for you. She who was killed by the prussic acid.”
“Nonsense,” said Mr. Carlton.
“There’s no nonsense about it,” rejoined Sir Stephen. “Mrs. Smith thought to persuade me I was wrong, but I convinced her to the contrary.”
A change had crossed the face of Mr. Carlton; a peculiar expression, not unlike that of a stag at bay. Lifting his eyes, he caught those of Frederick riveted upon his.
“Is it possible to recognise an infant after the lapse of years, do you think, Sir Stephen?”
“Not unless it is born with a distinguishing mark, as this was. I should know that boy if I met him in old age in the wilds of Africa.”
“What is the mark?” asked Mr. Carlton, looking as if he doubted whether there was any.
“It’s under the right arm, near the armpit; one you can’t forget, once seen. Go and look at it.”
They parted, shaking hands. Sir Stephen turned out at the gate, Mr. Carlton towards the door of the cottage. He had all but entered it, when he heard himself called by Sir Stephen.
“You had better make it known abroad that this is the same child, Mr. Carlton; it may lead to a discovery eventually. Perhaps Mrs. Smith will tell you more than she has told me. She says Mrs. Crane came to South Wennock to meet her husband, and I should think that likely. Recollect the fellow you saw hidden on the stairs!”
Sir Stephen had no need to say “Recollect the fellow.” That fellow was in Mr. Carlton’s mind, all too often for its peace.