Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 26
LORD OAKBURN’S DAUGHTERS.
BY THE AUTHOR OF "EAST LYNNE."
CHAPTER LI.A LITTLE LIGHT.
Lady Jane Chesney sat before her dressing-glass, having her hair brushed by Judith, preparatory to retiring to rest, when they were interrupted by the entrance of Lady Laura.
“Jane, I want a little talk with you,” she said, sitting down by the bright fire. “Bring your chair round to the warmth.”
“I thought you said you were going to bed,” observed Jane.
“I don’t feel tired. Excitement is as good to me as rest, and I have had an exciting evening, taking one thing with another. Jane, you were right about Clarice.”
“Right in what way?” returned Jane, eagerly. “Have you questioned Mr. Carlton?”
“Shall I leave the room, my lady, and come back presently?” inquired Judith of her mistress, pausing with the hair-brush in her hand.
“No,” interposed Lady Laura. “There’s something to puzzle out, and I think you may perhaps help us, Judith. I have not questioned Mr. Carlton, Jane, but in—in—" Laura gave a slight cough, as though her throat troubled her—“in rummaging over some of his waste places to-night, I came upon a note. A note written by Clarice.”
Involuntarily Jane thought of the scrap of paper, the part of a note written by Clarice, which Laura had “come upon” once before.
“It is written to her husband,” continued Laura. “That Tom West, I suppose. And it proves that she came to South Wennock, and that Mr. Carlton must have attended upon her. Only think, Jane, to South Wennock! She must have been visiting at Mrs. Jenkinson’s, I fancy, where Judith’s sister lives, for the note is dated from Palace Street. I will read it to you, Jane.”
“13, Palace Street, South Wennock.
“Friday Evening, March 10, 1848.
“My dearest Husband,—You will be surprised to hear of my journey, and that I am safe at South Wennock. I know you will be angry, but I cannot help it, and we will talk over things when we meet. I have asked the people here about a medical man, and they strongly recommend one of the Messrs. Grey, but I tell them I would prefer Mr. Carlton: what do you say? I must ask him to come and see me this evening, for the railway omnibus shook me dreadfully, and I feel anything but well. I know he will come, and without delay. “It was unreasonable of you, my darling husband, to wish me to be ill so far away. I felt that I could not; that I should have died; and that’s why I have disobeyed you. I can go back again when all’s well over, if things still turn out crossly for the avowal of our marriage. No harm can come of it, for I have not given our name, and you must ask for me by the one you and Mr. West were so fond of calling me in sport. “Lose no time; be here in half an hour, if you can, for I do feel really ill; and believe me,
“Ever your loving wife,
“I have heard part of that note before!” was on the tip of Judith’s tongue. But some feeling prompted her to stop the words ere they were spoken. Lady Jane took the note and read it to herself in silence, pondering over each word.
“It is incomprehensible to me,” she at length said, drawing the envelope from Laura, and looking at it. “Why, this is addressed to Mr. Carlton!” she burst forth.
“It must have come into his possession in some way; perhaps he and Tom West got their envelopes and letters mixed together,” returned Laura with composure. “I suppose there’s no doubt now that it was Tom West she married. Judith says he used to visit his aunt in Palace Street—old Mrs. Jenkinson,—and the letter’s dated from thence. If—Judith, what on earth’s the matter with you?”
“Thank you, my lady,” replied Judith, who was looking white and faint. “I feel a little sick. It will pass off directly.”
“It is evident that Clarice must have come to South Wennock without her husband’s consent,” resumed Laura, tossing a bottle of smelling salts to Judith. “I suppose he was stopping at Mrs. Jenkinson’s. Her number is thirteen, is it not, Judith?”
“No, my lady, Mrs. Jenkinson’s number is fourteen,” replied Judith, in a low tone.
“Oh, well, a mistake’s readily made in a strange number. Clarice must have———"
“Laura, I am all at sea,” interrupted Lady Jane. “Why should Clarice have come to South Wennock at all, unless she came with him? This note would seem to imply that he lived at South Wennock, but—he never lived here, did he, Judith? "
“Who, my lady? Mr. Tom West? no, he never lived here,” was Judith’s reply; but the girl looked remarkably uneasy. Did she fear being asked questions which she could not answer?
“It could not have been Tom West that Clarice married,” said Lady Jane. “This note is dated March, and he sailed for India in February.”
“My ladies,” spoke up Judith, “I have inquired of my sister Margaret whether young Mr. West’s name was Thomas. She says it was not Thomas, but Robert; and she also says he was married several years ago to a Miss Pope, and they live somewhere in Gloucestershire.”
“Then that disposes of the affair so far as he is concerned,” cried Laura, with wondering eyes. “How much difficulty it appears to be encompassed with!”
“Not quite,” said Jane. “Robert West may have been a brother. Do you know, Judith? And do you know whether Robert was a surgeon?”
“Robert West was not in any profession, my lady. He was an independent gentleman. I don’t think he had a brother. Margaret says he had not.”
“Laura, I cannot rest,” said Jane, starting from a pause of thought. “I shall go now and speak to Mr. Carlton. I ought to have applied to him before.”
Causing her hair to be smoothed under one of her plain white net morning caps, Jane proceeded to the dining-parlour. Mr. Carlton was in an easy-chair before the fire, solacing himself with a cigar, which, as a visiting medical man, he only ventured on at night—and that not often. He threw it into the fire with a word of apology when he saw Lady Jane.
“Pardon me for disturbing you at this hour,” she said, taking the chair he offered, “but I am in great want of some information which I think you can afford me—very anxious about it, in short. Some years ago you were, I believe, intimate with a family living in Gloucester Terrace, Hyde Park, of the name of West. Can you tell me whether Tom West married my sister?”
No pen could adequately describe Mr. Carlton’s countenance. It was one sheet of blank consternation; first—as it appeared—at being charged with having known the Wests, next at being questioned about Lady Jane’s sister.
“I can’t tell anything about it,” he said at length.
“I hope you can, Mr. Carlton. Perhaps I have not been sufficiently explicit. You were a friend of Tom West’s, were you not?”
“I certainly knew him,” he replied, after a pause. “Not much; that is, it was but a passing acquaintance. He went out to India, and I believe died there.”
“Not much!” repeated Jane; “Mrs. West told me you were there frequently. You used to see her cousins there, and my sister. We have a suspicion that my sister married Thomas West. Were you cognisant of it?”
The same blank look reigned paramount in Mr. Carlton’s face.
“I really do not understand you, Lady Jane. I never saw a sister of yours at Mrs. West’s. What sister?”
“You saw Miss Beauchamp?”
He suddenly rose, and seizing hold of the poker, began knocking the fire about.
“Well?” said he.
“I speak of Miss Beauchamp. She was my sister.”
He turned sharply round, poker in hand.
“Miss Beauchamp! What farce is it that you wish to play me, Lady Jane?”
“No farce,” replied Jane, sadly. “She dropped our name when she went out as governess—not to disgrace it, she said —retaining only that of Beauchamp. She was our sister, Clarice Beauchamp Chesney.”
A strange expression was on Mr. Carlton’s face, but he kept it turned away from Lady Jane.
“We know that Clarice married,” proceeded Jane, “and we can only think she must have married Thomas West. Had he a brother Robert, do you know?”
“Had who a brother Robert?” asked Mr. Carlton.
“Tom West had no brother Robert, that I am aware of. I never knew any one of the name of Robert West.”
“What name did my sister go by when she was here, at South Wennock?” continued Jane. “You can tell that.”
“She never was at South Wennock.”
“Mr. Carlton! She was, and you must know it. She sent for you, did she not, to attend her the night she arrived: sent for you to Palace Street?”
Down clattered the poker. Was it an accident, or were Mr. Carlton’s hands shaking? As he stooped to pick it up, Jane caught a glimpse of his face: either it was unusually pale or the firelight deceived her. Another moment, and he had put the poker in its place, and was turning to Lady Jane and speaking quietly.
“I know nothing of your sister; nothing whatever. Why should you think I do?—why do you apply to me?”
The precise why and wherefore Jane could not answer, for she had given a hasty promise to Laura not to speak of the note the latter had produced.
“When my sister came to South Wennock to stay with old Mrs. Jenkinson, we have reason to believe that you attended her, Mr. Carlton. I want to know by what name she then went.”
Again astonishment appeared to be the prevailing emotion of Mr. Carlton. It seemed that he could not understand.
“I protest, Lady Jane, you are asking me things that I know nothing of. I never was inside Mrs. Jenkinson’s house in my life. John Grey attends there.”
“Clarice would not have the Greys; Clarice preferred you: and Clarice was there. Was she not confined in Palace Street?”
Mr. Carlton raised his hand to smooth his brow. “What mistake you are labouring under, I cannot tell,” he presently said. “I know nothing of what you are asking me; I know nothing of your sister, or her health, or her movements; and I know as little of Mrs. Jenkinson.”
“You knew Miss Beauchamp at Mrs. West’s?” rejoined Jane.
“I used to see a lady there of that name, I remember, the Wests’ governess,” he replied. “Surely, Lady Jane, you must make some strange mistake in calling her your sister?”
“She was indeed our sister, Mr. Carlton. Laura, it seems, has never liked to mention the subject of Clarice to you, but we have been searching for her all these years.”
“Why has she not liked to mention it?” interrupted Mr. Carlton.
“From a feeling of pride, I believe. But—can you not tell me something, Mr. Carlton? Did Clarice marry Tom West?”
“Lady Jane, I cannot tell you anything,” he repeated, some annoyance in his tone. “Miss Beauchamp was the Wests’ governess, she was not mine. All I can say is, that if she married Tom West, I never knew it. So far as I believe, Tom West went out to India a single man. When I came down here to settle, I lost sight of them all.”
“But—surely you can tell me something?” Jane persisted, collecting her senses, which seemed in a maze. “Did you not attend my sister here, at Mrs. Jenkinson’s? You were certainly summoned to do so.”
“What grounds have you for thinking so? By whom was I summoned?”
Jane’s tongue was again tied. She could not tell of the note she had just read.
“The best answer I can give you, Lady Jane, is but a repetition of what I have already said,” he resumed, finding she did not speak. “I never attended anyone at Mrs. Jenkinson’s in my life: I never was summoned to do so.”
“And you can tell me nothing?”
“I cannot indeed.”
Jane rose from her chair, dissatisfied. “Will you pardon me for saying, Mr. Carlton, that I think you could say more if you would. I must find my sister, alive or dead. A curious suspicion has been latterly upon me that that little boy at Tupper’s cottage is her child,” she continued, in agitation. “I wish you could help me.”
He shook his head, intimating that he could not, opened the door for Lady Jane, and bowed her out. Laura, waiting in Jane’s room still, questioned her when she got up stairs.
“Well?” said she.
“Mr. Carlton either does not know anything, or will not disclose it,” said Jane. “I think it is the latter.”
“Did he ever know Clarice?”
“As Miss Beauchamp; not as Clarice Chesney. I believe he spoke truth there. He seems to have a difficulty in believing still that she was our sister. He says he never was inside Mrs. Jenkinson’s house in his life. Laura, I should have shown the note: I could have questioned to so much more purpose.”
“Ah, that would not do at any price,” laughed Laura. “I got it out of one of his hiding-places.”
“How can you laugh at this moment?” rebuked Jane. “I feel as if some heavy secret were on the point of discovery. You need not go away, Judith.”
Laura opened her eyes. “What secret?”
“How can I tell? I wish I could tell. If it were all straight and fair, why should Mr. Carlton betray agitation, and refuse to answer? There’s no doubt my questions did agitate him. A horrible doubt is growing upon me, Laura: whether those young Wests can have deceived Clarice into a marriage which would not, or did not, hold good—and Mr. Carlton was the confidant of their plans!”
“Do you suppose Mr. Carlton would sully himself by anything so cruel and disgraceful?” flashed Laura. “He has his own faults; but he would not lend himself to a business of that sort.”
“Men think a poor friendless governess legitimate game sometimes,” spoke Jane in a low tone. “And she was only known as the unprotected girl, Clarice Beauchamp. Rely upon it, Tom West worked ill to Clarice in some shape or other; I fear Mr. Carlton knew of it, and is trying to screen him. It was so shadowed forth in that dreadful dream: Mr. Carlton was mixed up with it.”
“What was that dream, Jane?—tell it me now,” whispered Laura, eagerly; for, however it might have pleased Laura in general to ridicule not only dreams themselves but those who dreamt them, that night hour, and the vague dread pervading Jane’s spirit, all too plainly were exercising their influence over her now. Jane began at once; it was a significant fact that she showed no thought of objecting. Judith, not caring to be solitary at a dream-telling, drew near and stood close behind the chair of Lady Jane.
“It was on Monday night, the thirteenth of March,” began Lady Jane, with a shiver, “and quite the beginning of Lent, for Easter was very late that year———"
“What has Easter to do with it?” interrupted Laura.
“Nothing. I had gone to bed that evening as soon as tea was over, not being well, and by half-past nine was asleep. I thought that Clarice came to my bed-side, dressed in her grave clothes, and stood looking at me. Understand me, Laura—I remembered in my dream that I had gone to bed ill; I seemed to know that I was lying in bed, and that I was sleeping. I dreamt that Clarice came, I say, and I dreamt that I awoke; her attire, the shroud, did not appear to frighten me, but she did not speak. ‘Why have you come here?’ I asked. ‘To tell you that I am gone,’ she answered, and she pointed to her face, which was that of the dead, and to the shroud; but it did not appear that I associated her words with death (at least, I could not remember so when I awoke), but that she had gone on a journey. ‘Why did you go without telling us?’ I asked her. ‘He stopped it,’ she answered, ‘he was too quick.’ ‘Who?’ I asked; and she turned her white face round and pointed to the door of the room. I cannot describe to you, Laura, the horror, the fear, that at that moment seemed to take possession of me. ‘Come and see him,’ Clarice said, and glided towards the door. I seemed to get out of bed, to follow her, without power of resistance; she kept looking over her shoulder, with her dead face and her dead fixed eyes, and beckoned to me. But oh! the dread, the fear I seemed to experience at having to look beyond that door! It was a dread perfectly unearthly, such as we can never feel in life. I thought Clarice went out before me,—went out in obedience to one who was compelling her to go, as she was compelling me. It seemed that I would have given my own life not to look, but yet I had no thought of resistance. There, standing outside, and waiting for her, was———"
“A—h!” shrieked Laura, her nerves strung beyond their tension with the superstitious terror induced by the recital “Look at Judith!”
Jane started at the interruption, and turned round. Judith’s face was of a blue whiteness. She stammered forth an excuse. “I am not ill, my ladies; but it frightens me to hear these strange dreams.”
Lady Jane resumed.
“Standing outside, waiting for Clarice, was the person she seemed to have spoken of as stopping her from telling us, as being ‘too quick.’ It was Mr. Carlton. He was looking at her sternly, and pointed with his outstretched hand to some place in the distance where it was dark. I remember no more; I awoke with the terror, the horror—such horror that, I tell you, Laura, we can never experience in life, except in a dream. And yet I was collected enough not to scream; papa was just getting better from his attack of gout, and I did not dare raise the house, and alarm him. I put my head under the bedclothes, and I believe a full hour passed before I had courage to put it out again; there I lay, shivering and shaking, bathed in perspiration.”
“It was a singular dream,” said Laura, musingly. “But, Jane, it could have had no meaning.”
“I argued so to myself. Clarice was at a distance, in London as we supposed, and Mr. Carlton was at South Wennock; that very evening, as late as half-past seven, he had been at our house with papa. This dream of mine took place before ten, for I heard the clock strike after I awoke. I did not like Mr. Carlton previously; we do take likes and dislikes; but it is impossible to tell you how very much that dream set me against him. Unjustly, you will say; but we cannot help these things. He was, ever after, associated in my mind with terror, with dread; and I would rather have seen you marry any one else in the world. This night, for the first time, I begin to think that the dream had a meaning, for Clarice must have been at South Wennock; the note of hers was dated the tenth, the previous Friday.”
“How absurd, Jane! What meaning?”
“I cannot conjecture; unless, as I say, those young Wests brought any ill on Clarice, and Mr. Carlton was privy to it.”
Laura would not accept the suggestion; ridiculed it in the highest degree; and she went away to her room casting a mocking, laughing word of censure at Jane for what she called her “folly.”
“I shall go,” said Jane, “to Mrs. Jenkinson’s in the morning.”
She spoke aloud, though the words were but uttered in commune with herself. Judith came forward, a little wash-leather bag in her hand.
“It will be of no use your going to Mrs. Jenkinson—as I believe, my lady. Did your ladyship ever see this?”
She took a trinket from the bag and laid it in Lady Jane’s hand. An elegant little locket, the back of blue enamel, the rim set round with pearls, with a short fine gold chain some three inches in length attached to it on either side. Lady Jane needed to cast but one glance at it.
“Oh, Judith!” she cried, “where did you get this? It belongs to Lady Clarice.”
“It did belong to her,” returned Judith, in a low tone. “My lady, I can tell you what became of her, I think—but the tale is full of horror and distress; one that you will not like to hear.”
“Tell it,” murmured Lady Jane, “tell it, whatever it may be.”
“That poor lady about whom so much has been said in South Wennock—who died the very night of your dream, my lady, not at Mrs. Jenkinson’s, but at the Widow Gould’s, next door to it—she gave me the locket.”
Lady Jane stood with dilating eyes. She could not sufficiently collect her ideas to understand as yet.
“I speak of Mrs. Crane, my lady, who died after taking the composing draught sent in by Mr. Stephen Grey.”
“She could not have been my sister!” panted Lady Jane, scarcely above her breath. “Judith, she could not have been my sister!”
“I truly believe she must have been so, my lady,” whispered Judith. “She told me it was her own hair inside. And that letter, which Lady Laura brought in tonight, was the one read by the coroner at the inquest; that was only partially read, that is to say, for the half of it was missing.”
Jane sank down on her knees, unable to support herself in her shock of discovery. Just as she had sunk in another shock of discovery once before, that long-ago evening when her father had brought home his unwelcome bride.
CHAPTER LII.CROSS PURPOSES.
The revelation disturbed the previous theory of Lady Jane. Mrs. Crane? then it appeared to be evident that Clarice had married the Mr. Crane spoken of by Mrs. West. But there were discrepancies still. How account for the assertion in that letter to her husband, that she did not go by her proper name, when she had called herself Mrs. Crane?
What feeling prompted Jane to withhold the news of this discovery from Laura? Any subtle instinct? What feeling prompted her to give orders for quitting Mr. Carlton’s house on the following morning?—hurrying away Lucy, almost at the risk of her health? Of the true facts of the case she was in complete uncertainty; but a dark suspicion kept floating within her that the man seen on the stairs by Mr. Carlton the night of the death was the husband, Crane. The poor lady had asserted her husband was travelling; but, by the letter above alluded to, it was apparent her husband was then in South Wennock. It was altogether incomprehensible. Judith wore a timid, downcast look when questioned by her mistress, as if fearing she should be asked too much.
“This is a sudden departure, Lady Jane,” cried Mr. Carlton, as she went in to his presence in the morning. “I thought you would have been here at least a few days longer. Mind! I do not give a guarantee that Lucy is fit to be moved.”
“I take the risk upon myself, Mr. Carlton. I—I thank you sincerely for your hospitality, for your kindness and attention to Lucy, but I am anxious to be in my own home. I feel that I must be free; free to pursue this investigation of which I spoke to you last night, regarding the fate of my sister Clarice. Had you been more open with me, Mr. Carlton, I might not have gone.”
A shade of annoyance passed across his countenance. “It is a singular thing that you should persist in attributing to me a knowledge of these things, Lady Jane!”
“My firm conviction is, that you do possess the knowledge,” was Jane’s answer. “But in speaking of Clarice last night, I may have somewhat misled you; I was misled myself. It was not at Mrs. Jenkinson’s she stayed when at South Wennock, but at the next door. That ill-fated lady who died at the Widow Gould’s was my sister Clarice.”
Mr. Carlton made no reply. He looked hard at Jane. “She called herself Mrs. Crane. Of course I can only conclude that she married, not Tom West, but the Mr. Crane who used to visit at the Wests’. You must have known him well, Mr. Carlton. What sort of a man was he?”
“Sort of man?” repeated Mr. Carlton, who seemed half buried in his own thoughts. “He was a short man, stout, had black hair. At least, if my memory serves me well. I protest that I have never seen or heard of him, since the time he used to go to the Wests. What have you learnt, Lady Jane, that can induce you to think that dead lady was your sister?”
“Short and stout, with black hair,” repeated Jane, unmindful of the rest. “It must have been him, the same you saw on the stairs.”
“That it was not,” burst forth Mr. Carlton, unusually heated. “The face I saw on the stairs—if I did see one—bore no earthly resemblance to any one I had ever seen in all my life.”
“Did you know that Clarice—that Miss Beauchamp married Mr. Crane?”
“I did not”
“I cannot divest myself of the idea that you know more of this past business than you say,” she rejoined. “I want the clue to it. If you can furnish it, why will you not? You certainly were called in to Mrs. Crane: you gave evidence to that effect at the inquest.”
“We are at cross-purposes, Lady Jane,” was the surgeon’s answer. “I can tell you nothing whatever. The lady I was called to attend in Palace Street was a stranger. As to the supposition you have taken up, that she was your sister, I think you must be wholly mistaken. But, whether or not, my advice to you would be to let it drop. No good can result, investigate it as you will; the poor lady cannot be recalled to life, and it would not be pleasant for you or my wife, to have the matter raked up and spread before the public. Let it drop, Lady Jane.”
“I shall never let it drop,” answered Jane.
“And the unpleasantness—we must put up with that.”
“As you please, of course,” said Mr. Carlton, with indifference. “I can say no more.”
At cross purposes they seemed indeed to be, and at cross-purposes they parted. Jane began to doubt whether she who died really was Miss Beauchamp, but she was resolute in her work of discovery, and she went at once to Tupper’s cottage. Judith told her that Mrs. Smith had confessed to her that the child was Mrs. Crane’s. Generally speaking, the door stood open: the sun streaming in on a bright winter’s day was cheering: but it was shut now. Mrs. Smith came to open it, and Jane said she wished for half an hour’s interview with her, if she was at leisure.
“At too much leisure,” was the woman’s sad reply. “I am but watching the dead.”
“The dead! He is not dead—that little child!”
“He is. He died between nine and ten this morning.”
Jane sank down on a chair in the kitchen. “And I never gave him a kiss for his mother’s sake! I never knew that he belonged to her. Dead! He was—as I believe—my little nephew.”
The woman stared at her. "Your nephew, madam, you are one of the Ladies Chesney.”
“Yes—stay. This little child’s mother died in Palace Street. Who was she? What was her married name?”
“I don’t know. I would give a great deal to know.”
Lady Jane felt sick at heart. Was it to be ever thus? Was obstacle after obstacle ever to be thrust in her way?
“I pray you let us have no more concealment!” she said, in a voice of anguish. “If I cannot come to the bottom of this business by fair entreaty, I must call in the help of the law. Did you never know that young lady’s name before her marriage or after it?”
“I knew it before—at least the one she went by. I knew her first when she was governess at the Lortons’. She was Miss Beauchamp.”
“And my dear sister!” exclaimed Jane, her doubts at rest. “Whom did she marry!”
Mrs. Smith held out her hard hand. “I’d give this to know.”
“Let me see the child,” said Jane. He was lying on the bed up stairs in his white nightgown, a little cambric- bordered cap shading his wan white face. His hands were laid by his side, and some sprigs of geranium were strewn on the sheet.
“He was so fond of flowers in life,” said Mrs. Smith. “Geraniums especially. So was his mother.”
Jane’s tears fell upon the placid little countenance, and she stooped and kissed it. “I did not do it while he lived,” she said. “Why did you not tell me whose child he was then?”
“Nay, my lady, why did you not tell me who his mother was?—how was I to suspect she could be anything to the Ladies Chesney? I only knew her as a governess. Passers-by were always asking me about him out of idle curiosity, just because they saw he was ill, and that we were strangers in the place: I thought you only asked from the same motive.”
“You were attached to his mother,” said Jane, as she gave a short history of her sister Clarice.
“I don’t think I was ever so much attached to anybody,” was Mrs. Smith’s answer; “though it was not for long I knew her.”
“Then I ask you by that attachment to give me every particular you can respecting her.”
“You might have heard all I know long ago, my lady, had I but been aware what you were to her. I knew her first at the Lortons’ in Gloucester Terrace. I and Mrs. Lorton are cousins; yes, she’s a great lady, and lives in style, and tries to make herself out a greater; but she’ll never be one, let her try ever so. We lived in a country town; her father was a pastry-cook, and mine (they were brothers) kept a public-house. She thought the pastry line was more genteel than the public line, and held up her head rather. She married, married well—some London gentleman—and I stopped at home for many years, marrying nobody. In course of time my father and mother died, and all they had became mine. What with their savings and the sale of the business, I found I had about a hundred and fifty pounds a year. Then came my turn. George Smith, who had used our house for many years, and had been, as the nonsense runs, sweet upon me, said why should we not join our means together: his salary a hundred and fifty, and my hundred and fifty, would make three hundred, and we should be comfortable for life? I said nothing against it, but that I was getting on to be forty years of age and liked my own way; he, poor fellow, was turned forty by some years, and as mild as milk. So we married, and settled in London, where his master’s house of business was, he being their country traveller. I couldn’t set up for a lady, and I didn’t; I was as plain and rough as ever; that didn’t please Mrs. Lorton, and she shunned me; but when, soon after, Mrs. Lorton was taken with a dangerous illness, she was glad enough to send for me to nurse her through it. It was then I saw Miss Beauchamp; I thought her the sweetest girl I had ever met, and the more I saw of her the more I liked her. A real lady she was, there was no mistaking that; she had none of Mrs. Lorton’s stuck-up airs, but spoke gently and kindly to folks, as if they were human beings. I was there for a month, for my husband was away on his journey, and when I left, Miss Beauchamp promised faithfully to come and see me at Islington, where we lived. She did come, and she told me she had left Mrs. Lorton’s, through that great big booby of a son making up to her, and had gone to Mrs. West’s. After that I saw no more of her for some months, till—I think it must have been September in the following year; and then she came, and asked if I could recommend her to a lodging. Of course I was surprised, and she told me she would confide a secret to me—that she was married. I asked why it was a secret; she laughed, and said for two reasons; one was, that her husband could not and would not tell his father, on account of some money matters between them that were not settled amicably; and the other reason was, that she, on her part, could not tell her family, for they were very high and proud, and would say she had disgraced them by her choice. Her husband, she said, was a professional man, and as soon as he got on well, so as to keep her in comfort and tolerable style, then they should declare it, and care for nobody.”
“What did she say her name was?” interrupted Lady Jane.
“She did not say, madam. When I pressed her, she said it was better that it should not be known, especially as I was connected with the Gloucester Terrace Lortons; it might get to them and it might get to the Wests, and that would not do. I said, then what was I to call her, and she laughed again, and said I might call her Miss Beauchamp; she was not afraid of my misconstruing her position. My lady, she never left my house again until she came down to South Wennock.”
“Never left it!”
“I mean, not to live. Ours was a good house, and I said the drawing-room and bed-room were at her service; but she would pay for them, and my servant waited on her. In the December my little child was born, the only one I ever had; and she, dear lady, used to sit with me, and be———"
“But did her husband never come to see her all that time?” interrupted Lady Jane, with wonder.
“Never once to my house. From what I could gather—for she would let a word now and then drop in forgetfulness—he seemed to have left London to live in the country. He would occasionally come to London, and of that she made no secret, and at those times she would go out and be away a day or two. But I never knew where she stayed.”
“How were her letters addressed?” asked Jane. “She must have received letters.”
“No letters came to the house; she used to go to Islington post-office for them. Once, when she was expecting one, she was too ill to go out, and sent the maid. I saw the letter in the girl’s hand as she came in; it was directed ‘C. C'"
“For Clarice Crane,” thought Jane. Though it might have served equally for Clarice Chesney.
“Towards the next March she got restless; she would be expecting her own illness in May, and she did not like to lie up so far from her husband. She said she would go down to where he lived, whether he was pleased or not. He said she was not to go—so she told me; and I spoke against it; I did not think she was strong enough to travel. I was in great grief at that time, for my child had died; and, as to my husband, I thought he’d never be pacified. When old folks like us get blessed with a child for the first time, they are as fond of it and proud over it as a dog with two tails. Ah, well!” added Mrs. Smith, in an indifferent tone, as she rubbed her nose, “it’s all over, and I’m almost glad it didn’t live, for the world’s full of trouble and care and wickedness. Miss Beauchamp promised that I should have the nursing of hers, and, my lady, I looked to that promise like a famished man looks to meat, for I am naturally fond of young children, and I didn’t want her to go away, lest I should not get the baby, after all.”
“But she went?”
“She went; there was no stopping her. She packed her things in one large trunk, burning all her letters and papers, and left on the morning of the tenth of March; I well remember the day, it was on a Friday. On the next day, the Saturday, I was out with some friends, country people who had come to London for a few days’ pleasuring. They were at an inn near the Strand, and nothing would do but I must go and breakfast with them, which they had made me promise to do, and I went out early, before the post was in. When I got home at night there was a letter from Miss Beauchamp, asking me to go to her, for she was ill at South Wennock. I took the night-train, and when I arrived I found the baby was born—the least child nearly I ever saw. I was very angry with her, my lady; I could not help it: and she had endangered her life for nothing, as may be said, for when she got to South Wennock, her husband was away.”
“Away?” interrupted Lady Jane.
“So she said. And by a slip word she let drop, I thought he was a surgeon, but I was not sure. I took the baby away with me that same evening. I could not stop, for, as ill luck would have it, my husband was coming home on the Monday, sick. She told me to have the baby baptised, and to name him ‘Lewis'—and it occurred to me that it might be the name of his father. I took the liberty of adding George to it, after my husband.”
There was a long pause. “Did you know she went by the name of Crane?” asked Lady Jane.
“She told me in her letter to ask for her by that name. I inquired of her, after I reached South Wennock, whether it was her real name, and she laughed and said, no more real than Beauchamp, nor half so much so; it was a name that her husband and young Mr. West were very fond of calling her, partly because she had a peculiar way of arching her neck, partly to tease her. Some gentleman, named Crane, to whom she had an aversion, used to visit at the Wests', and, to make her angry, they would call her by his name, Mrs. Crane. She said it had never struck her that she should want a name for South Wennock until she was close upon the place, and then she thought of that one—Crane; it would do for her as well as any other, until she assumed her legal one, which she supposed she should now soon do. I found great fault: I said she ought to have assumed it and been with her husband before the child was born; and we had quite words. She defended him, and said it would have been so, but for the child’s coming before its time. She charged me not to write to her, not to communicate at all with her, until she wrote to me. We had nearly a fight upon another point: she wanted me to say I would be paid for the child; I steadily refused it. It was a boon to me to have the child, and I was at ease in my circumstances. My lady, I took away the child, and I never heard one word from her, good or bad, afterwards.”
“Never at all?”
“Never at all. My husband was at home with a long illness, and afterwards removed to Paisley, where he had a good situation offered him. Some friends took to our house at Islington and to the carpets and curtains, and there I left a letter, saying where we had gone, directing it ‘Mrs. Crane, late Miss Beauchamp.’ It was never applied for.”
“And you never wrote to South Wennock?” cried Lady Jane.
“I never did. I own I was selfish; I was afraid of losing the child, and my husband he had got to love it as much as I did. I argued, if she wanted the child she would be sure to apply for it. Besides, I thought I might do some mischief by writing, and I did not know her real name or address.”
“But what could you think of her silence?—of her leaving the child?”
“We thought it might arise from one of two reasons. Either that she had gone abroad with her husband to America, or some distant colony (and she had said something about it in the early days when she was first at my house), and that her letters to me from thence must miscarry: or else that—you must pardon me for speaking it, my lady—that she was not married, and shrank from claiming the child. I did not believe it was so, but my husband used to think it might be.”
Jane made no reply.
“Anyway we were thankful to keep him. And when my husband died last spring, his care in his last illness was more for the child than for me. I sold off then, and determined to come to South Wennock: partly to hear what I could of Mrs. Crane; partly to see if the child’s native air would do him good; he had never been strong. I never shall forget the shock when I got here and heard how Mrs. Crane had died”
Poor Jane thought she should never forget the shock of the previous night, when told that Mrs. Crane was Clarice Chesney.
“What I can’t make out is, that her husband has never been heard of,” resumed Mrs. Smith, breaking the pause of silence. “I—I am trying to put two and two together, as the saying goes, but somehow I can’t do it; I get baffled. There’s a talk of a dark man having been seen on the stairs near her room that night; one would think he must have been the husband, stolen in there to work the ill.”
“I don’t know,” shivered Lady Jane. “Since you have been speaking, other dark fears have come upon me. Fears which I dare not look upon.”
Yes; various fears, and thoughts, and remembrances were stirring within her. A recollection of that scrap of letter, found by Lady Laura in her drawer of fine laces soon after becoming Mr. Carlton’s wife, rose up. Laura had always persisted that the paper must have come from Cedar Lodge amidst her clothes: how else, she argued, could it have got there? Now Jane began to think (what she would have thought previously but for its apparent impossibility) that the paper must have been in the drawer before Laura ever went into the house; that it must have slipped under the paper covering of the drawer, and lain there, it was impossible to say how long. It had never occurred to her or to Laura to connect Mr. Carlton with it at all; and the little matter had puzzled Jane more than she cared to think of. Could the letter have been written to Mr. Crane? surely it had not been written to Mr. Carlton! But how came it in the drawer? Had Mr. Crane ever visited Mr. Carlton at South Wennock? And again there was Clarice’s denial that her name was Crane. What had been Mr. Carlton’s part in it all? was the chief question that agitated Jane’s mind now. She stayed with Mrs. Smith, talking and talking, and it was growing dusk when she quitted the cottage to walk home. But as Lady Jane went down Blister Lane and turned on to the Rise, she started nervously at every shadow in the hedge, just as Mr. Carlton had started at them some years before.