Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 11/Lord Oakburn's daughters - Part 30
LORD OAKBURN’S DAUGHTERS.
BY THE AUTHOR OF "EAST LYNNE."
When South Wennock awoke on that eventful morning, dawning on the remand of Mr. Carlton, the chief thought that occupied people’s minds was, how they could best secure a place in the town-hall, by fighting, bribery, or stratagem, to hear the conclusion of that gentleman’s examination. Vague reports had floated about the town on the previous evening, of the witnesses likely to be examined; and the name of Mr. Carlton’s wife was mentioned for one, as touching the finding of the letter. Half the town scouted the idea; but at least it served to add to the ferment; and as a matter of course everybody rose with the lark, and got their breakfast over by candle-light. It was, you are aware, in the dead of winter, when the days are at the shortest.
Perhaps, of all South Wennock, the one to think most of the prisoner in pitying humanity, was Sir Stephen Grey. Few men were possessed of the milk of human kindness as was he. He dwelt not on the past dark story, its guilt and its strategy; he thought of the unhappy detected prisoner, alone in his solitary cell: and he longed to soothe, if possible, his disgrace and suffering by any means in his power. So the first thing Sir Stephen did, after snatching a hasty breakfast at his brother’s table, was to put on his hat and go down to the lock-up. This was just at that precise time when Mr. Policeman Bowler was marching home in all self-importance from his errand to Cedar Lodge.
As Stephen Grey gained the lock-up from one quarter, Lawyer Billiter was observed approaching it from another; and the policeman in charge, seeing these visitors, began to think he ought to have aroused his prisoner earlier. He sent one of his staff to do it now.”
“Let him get up at once; and you come back and take his breakfast in,” were the orders. “And tell him Lawyer Billiter’s coming down the street. Good morning, Sir Stephen.”
“Well, Jones?” cried Sir Stephen, in his free and affable manner—for the man had been one of the police staff in the old days, and Stephen Grey had known him well, “how are you? A cold morning! And how’s Mr. Carlton?”
“He’s all right, sir, thank you. I’ve just sent in to waken him.”
“What, is he not awake yet?” cried Sir Stephen, rather wondering.
“Not yet, sir. Unless he has woke since Bowler was in, and that’s about three-quarters of an hour ago. Good morning, Mr. Billiter!” added the policeman in a parenthesis, as the lawyer entered. “Mr. Carlton, he wrote a letter to his wife last night, and Bowler has stepped down with it. But what he’s stopping for I can’t make out, unless she’s writing a long an———"
“Then you had no business to let Bowler step down with it,” interrupted the lawyer sharply. “You should have kept it till I came. Didn’t I tell you I should be here the first thing, Jones? You are no more to be trusted than a child!”
“Where’s the harm of sending it?” asked Jones, rather taken aback at this rebuff. “It mayn’t be quite strict practice to let letters go out unopened, but one stretches a point for Mr. Carlton.”
“The harm may be more than you think for,” returned the lawyer as hotly as he had spoken the previous day in the hall. “He will do things of his own head and try to conduct his case with his own hands. Look at the fight I had to keep him quiet yesterday!”
“He wrote the letter last night, and asked that it should be taken to her ladyship the first thing this morning,” returned the man in an injured tone.
“And if he did write it, and ask it, you needn’t have sent it. You might have brought the letter out here and kept it till I came. Who’s to know what dangerous admission he may have made in it? I can see what it is: between you all, I shan’t find a loop-hole of escape for him.”
“Do you think he will escape?” asked Sir Stephen, interrupting the angry lawyer.
“Well, no I don’t, to speak the truth,” was the candid admission. “But that’s no reason why I shouldn’t be let do my best for it. If he does escape———"
Lawyer Billiter was interrupted. The man sent into Mr. Carlton’s cell made his appearance in a rather strange condition. He came bounding in, and stood with the door in his hand, mouth and eyes alike open, and struggling for breath and words. Mr. Jones saw there was something wrong, and rushed to the strong room.
Two minutes, and he was back again, his face very pale. Yes, even the hardened face (in one sense of the word) of Mr. Policeman Jones.
“Mr. Carlton has escaped, gentlemen. In spite of us and the law.”
And Lawyer Billiter, in his impulse, ran to the cell to regale his eyes with its emptiness, and two or three underlings, having caught the word “escaped,” rushed forth from the lock-up, partly as a vent to their feelings, partly from a vague idea of pursuing the prisoner. Sir Stephen Grey followed Jones and the lawyer to the cell.
Yes, the prisoner had escaped. Not escaped in the ordinary acceptation of that word, as it was just then agitating the crowd outside the lock-up, and raising the horrified hair of Mr. Policeman Bowler; but in a different manner. Mr. Carlton had escaped by death.
On the rude bed in the cell lay the inanimate remains of what was once Lewis Carlton, the active, moving, accountable human being. Accountable for the actions done in the body, whether they had been good or whether they had been evil.
The place was forthwith in a commotion; a far greater one than when the escape was assumed to have been of a different nature. The natural conclusion jumped to was “poison,” that he must have had poison of some subtle nature concealed upon his person, and had taken it. The route of the runners was changed; and instead of galloping up by-lanes and other obscure outlets from the town, in chase of the fugitive, they rushed to the house of Mr. John Grey, forgetting that the London physician, Sir Stephen, was already present.
No doctor, however, could avail with Mr. Carlton. He had been dead for several hours. He must have been long dead and cold when Mr. Policeman Bowler had stood in his cell and concluded he was fast asleep; and Mr. Policeman Bowler never overcame the dreadful regret that attacked him for not having been the first to find it out, and so have secured notoriety for himself for ever.
The most cut-up of anybody, to use a familiar term, was Mr. Jones. That functionary stood against the pallet looking down at what lay on it, his countenance more chap-fallen than any policeman’s was ever seen yet. Curious to say, that while Bowler took the blame to himself when it was thought Mr. Carlton had escaped by flight, Jones was taking it now.
“To think I should have been so green as to let him deceive me in that way!” he burst forth at length. ”' You needn’t be particular, Jones,’ he says to me with a sort of laugh when I was searching him; ‘I’ve got nothing about me that you want.’ Well, I am a fool!”
“And didn’t you search him?” cried Lawyer Billiter.
“Yes, I did search him. But perhaps I wasn’t quite so particular over it as I might have been; it was his easy manner threw me off my guard. At any rate, I’ll vow there was no poison in his pockets: I did effectually search them.”
Sir Stephen Grey rose up from his examination of the prisoner, over whom he had been bent. “I don’t think you need torment yourself, Jones,” he said. “I see no trace of poison here. My belief is, that the death has been a natural one.”
“No!” exclaimed Mr. Jones with revived hope. “You don’t say so, sir, do you?”
“It is impossible to speak with any certainty yet,” replied Sir Stephen, “but I can detect no appearance whatever of poison. One thing appears certain; that he must have died in his sleep. See his calm countenance.”
A calmer countenance in death it was not well possible to see. The wonder was, that a man lying under the accusation of such a crime could show a face so outwardly calm. The eyes were closed, the brow was smooth, there was a faint smile upon the lips. No signs of struggle, whether physical or mental, was there, no trace of any parting battle between the body and the spirit. Lewis Carlton looked entirely at rest.
“I fancy it must have been the heart,” remarked Sir Stephen. “I remember years ago, just before I left South Wennock, I met Carlton at a post-mortem examination. It was over that poor fellow, that milkman who dropped down dead in the road; you must recollect, Jones. And, in talking of things, Carlton casually remarked to me that he had some doubts about his own heart being sound. How strange that it should occur to me now; I had quite forgotten it; and how more than strange that I should be the one, of all others, first to examine him!"
“Poor fellow!” exclaimed Lawyer Billiter, gazing on the still countenance. “There’s something very awful in these sudden deaths, Sir Stephen, whether they proceed from—from one cause or another.”
Sir Stephen bowed his head. They quitted the cell, locking the door. Mr. Jones proceeded to deal with the intruders filling the outer room, and Sir Stephen went up to carry the news to Cedar Lodge. Bowler had said that Lady Laura was there.
The first to come to Sir Stephen was Lucy. Weak with her recent illness, the shock of this dreadful business was unnaturally great; since the night of Judith's narrative she had been in a sad state of excitement; and she fell sobbing into Sir Stephen's arms.
"Hush, child, hush! This is hard for you. Brighter days may be in store, Lucy."
"But think what it is for Laura! And for Mr. Carlton himself. Laura has had a letter from him, and he says he was mad when he did it. He must have been, you know; and we can't help pitying him!"
How like Laura Carlton! how like the impulsive openness of the dead sailor-earl! Who else would have made any of the contents of that letter public? Laura had relieved her feelings by a storm of passionate sobs after reading it, and had then lifted up her head from her wet pillow to speak its information aloud.
Jane came in. "I heard you were at South Wennock," she faltered, as she shook hands with Sir Stephen. "What a dreadful blow this is to us! And—the consequences have to come," she added, dropping her voice. "If the worst supervenes, Laura will surely never live through the disgrace."
He knew to what she alluded. Sir Stephen leaned towards her. "There will be no further disgrace, Lady Jane," he whispered. "I have come up to tell you."
She paused a moment, supposing Sir Stephen did not understand. "He will be committed—as we hear—to-day for trial, Sir Stephen. And the result of that trial—we, of course, know only too well what it may be. Nothing can save him from standing his trial."
"One thing can, my dear lady. Nay—no, I was not meaning his escape by flight, as was first assumed down there"—nodding his head in the imaginary direction of the lock-up; "in these days of security that escape is next to impracticable. There is another sort of escape over which human laws have no control."
Jane sat breathless; silent; half divining what he had to tell.
"I am a bad one at preparing people for ill tidings," cried Sir Stephen; "my brother John and Frederick are worth ten of me. But—always setting his poor, unhappy self aside—my news must be good for you and Lady Laura, harsh and cruel as it may seem to say it. Mr. Carlton is dead, Lady Jane."
"Dead!" she repeated, as the dread fear of what its cause might be arose to her, and every vestige of colour forsook her trembling lips.
"No, I don't think there's any fear of that, I don't, indeed; I can find no trace whatever of any cause, and therefore I fancy it must have been heart disease. Violent mental emotion will bring that on, you know, Lady Jane, where there's a predisposition to it."
"Yes," she answered, mechanically, hearing nothing, seeing nothing still, but the one great fear. Had Mr. Carlton been her husband, Jane would have passed out her future life in praying for him.
"Do you know whether he suspected, of late years, that he might be subject to it?"
"To what?" she asked, striving to collect herself.
"Any affection of the heart."
"I never heard of it; never. If it was so, I should think Laura would know of it."
Poor Laura! How were they to break the tidings to her? She was the most uncertain woman in existence. One moment her mood was of intense bitterness towards Mr. Carlton, the next it had changed, and she was weeping for him, bewailing him with loving words, reproaching herself as the cause of all the present misery. Jane went in, wishing anybody else had to undertake the task. Laura's frantic attacks—and she was sure to have one now—were so painful to her. She found Laura in bed still; her head buried in the pillow, her sobs choking her, and Mr. Carlton's dying letter—it might surely be called such—clutched in her hand. Jane sat down by her side in silence, until calmness should supervene; it would be better to break the news when Laura was physically exhausted, and Jane waited,—her own heart aching. Sir Stephen would not quit the house until the news was broken.
Jane Chesney had always been of a thoughtful nature, striving to do her duty in whatsoever line it lay before her; and, though she had not been without her trials—sore trials—she had earned that great boon, a peaceful conscience: she had learnt that far greater boon, better than any other that can be found on earth—perfect trust in God.
Later in the day the official medical examination was made of the remains of Mr. Carlton; and, strange to say, the cause of death continued to be unknown. No sign of poison of any nature whatever could be traced; no symptom of anything amiss with the heart. If he had really taken poison, it was of too subtle a nature to be discovered; if he had died from natural causes, nothing remained of them to show. It might be possible that mental excitement had suddenly snapped the chord of life. If so, it was a singular fact; but the problem was one that would never be set at rest.
The first startling shock of the death subsided, South Wennock awoke to the fact that it was a particularly ill-used place, in being cut off from all future revelation on the past affairs of Mrs. Crane—as we may as well call her to the end. That second day’s examination at the police court, and the subsequent trial, had been looked forward to by South Wennock as a very boon in life’s dull romance; and for Mr. Carlton to go off in the sudden manner he had done, balked their curiosity nearly beyond bearing. There were so many points in the past history that would never now be cleared up.
They could not be cleared up for others who owned a nearer interest in them than South Wennock. There was one particular that would remain a puzzle to Jane Chesney for ever—why Clarice had not married in her full name. She could understand her keeping the marriage a secret from her family, knowing their prejudices on the score of birth, and that Mr. Carlton was then not even well established in practice, and was scarcely justified in marrying at all; but she could not understand why Clarice should have concealed her true name and family from her husband. It was impossible, of course, that the slightest doubt could have occurred to her of its affecting the legality of the marriage; but what reason was there for suppressing her name at all? Jane could only come to one solution, and that a poor one: that Clarice thought it best to suppress it in all ways until Mr. Carlton should be doing well, then she would say to him, I was not Miss Beauchamp, I was Miss Chesney, grandniece to the Earl of Oakburn, and we will go and declare ourselves. It might have been so, for Clarice had a world of romance within her. Again, there was that oath she took, in a moment of wildness, not to tell her name; was it possible that she deemed it binding upon her for ever? Mr. Carlton’s motive for concealing his marriage will have been gathered from certain passages at the commencement of the history: he stood in awe of his father. Mr. Carlton the elder had set his face entirely against his son’s marrying, and Lewis Was dependent upon him. Men do not in general—at least, educated men, like Mr. Carlton—plunge into crime all at once. When Mr. Carlton grew to think of a marriage with Miss Beauchamp, he sounded his father on the subject, stating at the same time that the lady, though every inch a lady, was only a governess. Had Mr. Carlton the elder lent a favourable ear, all the dark future might have been avoided; for the marriage would have taken place openly. But he did not. Whether the word governess offended him, certain it was that he was unnecessarily austere and bitter, quietly assuring his son that he should disinherit him; and Mr. Carlton knew only too well that his father was one to keep his word. Once married, of course there was every necessity for their keeping the fact a secret; and Clarice Carlton seconded her husband. How little did either of them foresee what it would lead to! Link the first link in a chain in deceit, and no living being can tell to what length it will go, or how it will end.
Some slight compensation to South Wennock was afforded by the funeral of the little boy. For the excitement attendant on that ceremony was so great as to operate as a sort of balm to the previously disappointed feelings. Everybody turned out to witness it. All who had had anything to do in the remotest degree with the past tragedy deemed themselves possessed of a right to follow the coffin at a short or at a long distance. Mrs. Pepperfly, Mrs. Gould, even Dick, Mr. Grey’s surgery boy of yore, now converted into a rising market gardener, nearly six foot high, were amidst the uninvited attendants. It was a fine morning, the day of his burial; the air clear and cold. Mrs. Smith walked next the coffin; for she would resign that place to none. Lady Jane Chesney had intimated a wish to bury the child—that is, to be at the expense; and had that lady intimated a wish to bury her, Mrs. Smith could not have shown herself more aggrieved. The child had been as her own all its life, she resentfully said, and, at least, she thought she had earned the right of buying him his grave. Jane acquiesced, with an apology, and felt sorry she had spoken. The funeral moved down the Rise from Blister Lane, passing Mr. Carlton’s residence, where all that remained of him lay, having been removed there from the lock-up, until he should be interred. The Law had not cared to keep possession of his body when the spirit had flown. Yes; they carried the little coffin past the house where the dead lay; carried it to St. Mark’s Churchyard, to the side of the ill-fated mother, who had lain there so long in its quiet corner, and they buried the child by his right name, Lewis George Carlton.
Sir Stephen Grey and his son returned to London together. Lady Grey knew nothing of the events recently enacted, and they imparted them to her. She could not overget her shock of astonishment.
“What do you say to my boyish fancy, now, mother?” asked Frederick. “Did I wrong Carlton?”
“Hush!” she said. “It seems to me to savour of that faculty told of as pertaining to Scotland—second sight. “Oh, Frederick, how could Mr. Carlton live, knowing what he had done?”
“Poor fellow!” spoke Frederick, as impulsively as Sir Stephen himself could have said it. “Rely upon it, he must have paid the penalty of the crime over and over again. He could not have existed but in the constant dread of discovery; he was not without a conscience. And what must that have been to him, with the scarlet letter ‘M’ ever eating into his breast?”
CHAPTER LX.THE TURBULENT WAVES LAID TO REST.
The time rolled on. Another year was in, and its months glided away until the autumn. It had been no eventful year, this; rather too much of event had been crowded into the preceeding one, and this was calm—so calm, as to be almost monotonous. The storm had spent itself, the turbulent waves had laid themselves to rest.
Lady Oakburn had returned from the Continent as soon as she heard of the trouble connected with Mr. Carlton, travelling in the dead of winter; and Lucy Chesney quitted South Wennock for her own home. The marriage with Frederick Grey had been postponed; it was to have taken place in the spring, but all parties united in agreeing that it might be more seemly to delay it until the autumn.
Laura had remained with Jane. Lady Oakburn had asked her to come to her, and make her house her home. Many friends had stepped forward, and pressed her to come and pay them as long a visit as she liked; but Laura had chosen to stay with Jane, very much, it must he confessed, to Jane’s own surprise. For a few short weeks Laura’s grief had been excessive, which grief was intermixed, as before, with moments of anger against Mr. Carlton for the disgrace he had brought upon himself; but all that wore away, and Laura gradually grew very much her old self again, and worried Judith nearly to death with her caprice, mostly as touching the ornaments and trimmings of her black dresses.
They sat together, Jane and her sister, on a bright morning in September. Laura was in a petulant mood. Her pretty foot, peeping from underneath the crape of her dress, tapping the carpet impatiently; her widow’s cap, a very marvel of tasty arrangement, was just lodged on the back of her head. The recent bugbear of Lady Laura’s life had been this very article of widow’s attire—the cap; it was the cause of the present moment’s rebellion. Laura had grown to hate the cap beyond everything: not from any association with the past it might be supposed to call up, but simply as a matter of personal adornment; and she believed Jane to be her greatest enemy, because she held to it that Laura could not, and must not, throw the cap off until a twelvemonth had elapsed from the death of Mr. Carlton.
And yet Laura need not have been afraid of the cap; a more lovely face than hers, as it looked now, with her rich hair braided, and the white crape lappets thrown back, it is impossible to conceive. The present trouble was this: Laura would not go up to Lucy’s wedding, now about to take place, unless she could leave the odious caps behind her. Jane assured her it would not be proper to appear without them.
“Then I will not go at all,” Laura was saying with pouting lips. “If I can’t appear before people but as a guy, I’ll stay where I am. How would you like being made into an old woman, Jane, if you were as young as I am? Why don’t you take to the caps yourself, if you are so fond of them?”
“I am not a widow,” said Jane.
“I wish you were! you’d know what the caps are, then. They never could have been invented for anybody on this side fifty. And their heat is enough to give one brain-fever.”
“Only three months longer, Laura,” said Jane soothingly, “and the twelvemonth will have expired. I am sure you would not like to leave them off sooner yourself.”
“Where’s the good of them?” sharply asked Laura. “They don’t make me regret my—my husband either more or less. I can mourn him if I please without the cap as much as I can with it; and they are ruin to the hair! Everybody says it is most unhealthy to keep the head covered.”
“But you don’t cover yours,” Jane ventured to remark, as she glanced at the gossamer article perched on the knot of hair behind.
“No, but you’d like me to. Why should you hold out for the wretched things, Jane? My belief is, you are jealous of me. It’s not my fault if you are not handsome.”
Jane took it all meekly. When Laura got into this temper, it was best to let her say what she would. And Jane thought she talked more for the sake of opposition than anything, for she believed that Laura herself was sufficiently sensitive to appearances not to quit the caps before the year had gone by.
But the result was, that Lady Laura did not go to London to the wedding. Perhaps she had never intended to go. Judith thought so, and privately said so to her mistress. The following year Laura was to spend with Lady Oakburn, the heavy widow’s silks and the offending caps left behind her at South Wennock; and Judith felt nearly sure that Lady Laura had not meant to show herself in town until she was divested of these unbecoming appendages.
So Jane went alone. Getting there on the day only before the wedding. Judith as usual was with her—and this was another grievance for Laura; to be left without a maid. In a fit of caprice—it must be called such—Lady Laura had discharged her own maid, Stiffing, at the time of Mr. Carlton’s death, protesting that old faces about her only put her in mind of the past, and Judith had waited upon her since.
The rest of Mr. Carlton’s establishment had been broken up with the home. But Lady Jane would not go to town without Judith, and my Lady Laura had to do the best she could. It may as well here be mentioned that the money left to Clarice by the Earl of Oakburn, and which had since been accumulating, Jane had made over in equal portions to Laura and Lucy, her self taking none of it.
It was a cloudless day, that of the wedding, cloudless in all senses of the word. The September sky was blue and bright, the guests bidden to the ceremony were old and true friends. Portland Place was gay with spectators; carriages dashed about; and Lady Jane seemed to be in one maze of whirl and confusion until she was quietly seated at the breakfast-table.
Man and wife for ever! They had stood at the altar side by side and sworn it faithfully, earnestly, with a full and steadfast purpose in their hearts and on their lips. Not until they were alone together in the chariot, returning home again, could Frederick Grey realise the fact that she was his, as she sat beside him in her young beauty, her true affection, every pulse of her heart beating for him.
There was nothing in the least grand about the wedding—unless it was Jane’s new pearl silk of amazing rustle and richness, and a gentleman in a flaxen wig and a very screwed-in waist, who sat at Lady Oakburn’s right hand at the table. He was Lord Something, a tenth cousin or so of the late earl’s, and he had condescended to come out of his retirement and gout, to which disorder he was a martyr—it ran in the Oakburn family—to give Lucy away. John Grey and his wife were up, and the Reverend Mr. Lycett, now the incumbent of St Mark’s Church at South Wennock, had come to read the marriage ceremony—they were all visiting Sir Stephen and Lady Grey.
It was the first time Jane had seen Sir Stephen since the previous December. She thought he looked worn and ill, as if his health were failing; she thought, as she looked at him, that there might be a fear the young M.D. opposite to her by Lucy’s side might become Sir Frederick sooner than he ought to do in the natural course of age. But Sir Stephen made light of his ailments, and told Jane that ho was only knocked up with too much work. He was merry as ever; and said, now that Frederick was making himself into a respectable member of married society, he should turn over the chief worry of the patients to him, and nurse himself into a young man again. “Do you know,” he cried in a whisper, in Jane’s ear, his merry tone changing, “I’m glad Lady Laura did not come. The sight of her face here to-day would have put me too much in mind of poor Carlton.”
Of course the chief personage at the table was the young Earl of Oakburn. The young earl had planted himself in the seat next to Lucy, and wholly declined to quit it for any other. There, with Pompey behind his chair, who was a verier slave to the young gentleman than ever he had been to Captain Chesney, and his hand in Lucy’s, he made himself at home.
“I am so glad to see how Frank improves!” Jane remarked to Sir Stephen. “He looks very much stronger.”
“Stronger!” returned Sir Stephen, “he’s as strong as a little lion. And would have been so long ago but for his mamma and Lucy’s having coddled him. Mind, Lucy! if you attempt to coddle your own boys when they come, as you and my lady have coddled Frank, I shall put a summary stop to it. I shall; and so I give you fair warning.”
Sir Stephen had not thought it necessary to lower his voice. On the contrary it was considerably raised, as he bent his face forward towards Lucy on the opposite side of the table. A fair picture, she; with her flowing white robes, her bridal veil and wreath, and the pretty gold ring upon her finger. One startled glance at Sir Stephen, as he spoke, and then she sat motionless, her eyelids drooping on her crimsoned cheeks. Frederick, by her side, threw his eyes at his father, half amused, half indignant.
“You may look, Dr. Grey, but you won’t look me out of it,” nodded Sir Stephen. “I shall claim as much right in the young Turks as you and Lucy, and I promise you they shan’t be coddled.”
“Meanwhile, Sir Stephen,” interposed the countess, with a laugh, “Lady Jane is sitting by you with nothing to eat”
“I beg Lady Jane’s pardon,” said Sir Stephen, gaily. “But they’ll want keeping in order, those two, and it is well to let them know there’s somebody to undertake it. What do you say you want, Frank?”
“1 want a piece of wedding cake,” responded Frank.
“Now I do protest against that. You must eat some meat first, Frank, and the cake afterwards. I know how it is when cake is begun upon: there’s no room left for good strengthening meat. Cakes, and sweets, and trash! all that comes of coddling. Mind, Lucy, I will not allow cakes or———"
“I am not coddled,” interrupted Frank opportunely. “And mamma says I shall soon go to Eton.”
“The very best place for you,” cried Sir Stephen. “I hope it’s true.”
“Oh, it’s true,” said Lady Oakburn. “He is strong enough for it already, Sir Stephen: in spite of the coddling,” she added with a smile.
“Thanks to me, my lady, for keeping the coddling within bounds. Judith! that’s never you in that white topknot!”
Judith laughed, turned, and curtsied. The white satin bow on her cap was as large as the coachmen’s favours. Judith was waiting at the chocolate table, her hands encased, perhaps for the first time in Judith’s life, in delicate white kid gloves.
“Why can’t Lucy come back to-night?” suddenly demanded the young earl, appealing to the table generally.
“Because Lucy’s mine now, and I can’t spare her,” whispered Frederick Grey, leaning behind Lucy to speak.
An indignant pause. “She’s not yours.”
“Indeed she is.”
“You have not bought her!”
“Yes I have. I bought her with the gold ring that is upon her finger.”
Lord Oakburn had seen the ring put on, and sundry disagreeable convictions arose within him. “Is she quite bought?” he asked.
“Quite. She can’t ever be sold back again.”
“But why need she go away? Can’t you let her stop here?”
“I am afraid I can’t, Frank. She shall come and see you soon.”
Upon which his lordship burst into a cry and rubbed his wet cheeks until he was a sight to be seen. Pompey surreptitiously filled his ears with soothing words, and his hands with wedding cake and bon-bons.
About ten days after this, Frederick Grey and his wife were at South Wennock. It had been arranged that they should pay Jane a short visit before returning to town to take possession of their new home.
There had not been many changes at South Wennock. The greatest perhaps was at the late house of Mr. and Lady Laura Carlton. It had been converted into a “Ladies’ College,” and the old surgery side-door had got a large brass plate on its middle, “Pupils’ Entrance.” The Widow Gould flourished still, and had not yet ceased talking about the events of the previous December; and Mrs. Pepperfly was decidedly more robust than ever, and had been in very great request this year from her near connection with the events which had brought to light the tragedy. Mrs. Smith had gone back to Scotland. She had a tie there, she said—her husband’s grave.
Just as they had been sitting, nearly a fortnight before, so they were sitting now, the ladies Jane and Laura. Laura, in spite of her cap and her widowhood, had contrived to make herself look very charming, almost as much so as the fair young bride, who ran in to them from the carriage, her face radiant with happiness.
But Lucy’s gaiety, and her husband’s also, faded down to a sort of timid reserve at the sight of Laura. It was the first time they had met since the enacting of the cruel trouble, and it was impossible but that their minds should go back to it. Laura noted the change of manner, and resented it according to her hasty fashion, taking some idea into her head that they considered she ought to be treated with grave sobriety in her character of widow; while she did not think so at all.
They had arrived in time for a late dinner, and in the evening Frederick said he would just run down as far as his uncle’s. Somehow it had been a dull dinner; try as Frederick and Lucy would, they could not divest themselves of the impression left by the past, in this first interview with Mr. Carlton’s wife. Laura, in a pet, went up-stairs early.
“Jane, how well Laura is looking!” were Lucy’s first words. “I had not expected to see her half so well; and all her old light manner has returned. Has she forgotten Mr. Carlton?”
“Quite sufficiently to marry again,” replied Jane, somewhat heedlessly. These words shocked Lucy.
“Oh, Jane! Marry again—yet!"
Jane looked up and smiled at the mistake.
“I did not mean that, Lucy; of course not. But I should think it an event not unlikely to happen with time. She said one day that she would give a great deal to be able to put away the tarnished name of Carlton. She is young enough still, very good-looking, of good birth, and upon her, personally, there rests no slur; altogether, it has struck me as being probable. Next year, which she is to pass with Lady Oakburn, she will be in her element—the world.”
“Jane,” said Lucy, awaking from a reverie, “I wonder you never married.”
A tinge of red came into Jane Chesney’s cheeks, and her drooping eyelids were not raised.
“I think it must have been your own fault.”
“You are right, Lucy,” said Jane, rallying; “I was so near being married once that the wedding-day was fixed. I afterwards broke it off.”
“Whatever for?” exclaimed Lucy, in impulsive curiosity, as the thought occurred to her how very grievous a catastrophe it would have been had her own wedding been broken off.
“We were attached to each other too,” resumed Jane, in the tone of abstraction which proved her mind had gone back to the past and was absorbed in it. “He was of good family, as good as ours, but he was not rich, and he was hoping for a Government appointment. We were to have married, however, on what he had, and the wedding-day was fixed. Then came mamma’s illness and death, which, of course, caused the marriage to be postponed. Afterwards he got his appointment, it was in India; and then, Lucy, came the bitter trial of choosing between him and my father. My mother had said to me on her death-bed, ‘Stay always with your father, Jane; he will be lost without you when I am gone,’ and I promised. She did not know William would be going abroad.”
“And you gave him up to remain?”
“Yes, I thought it my duty; and I loved papa almost as well, in another way, as I loved him. There was a little creature in my care also, besides: you, Lucy.”
“Oh, I am so sorry,” exclaimed Lucy, clasping her hands; “you should not have minded me.”
Jane smiled. “I got over it after a time; and, Lucy, do you know, I think it likely that I am best as I am.”
“Where is he now, Jane? Perhaps he may come home yet and marry you!” And Jane laughed outright, Lucy’s tone was so eager.
“He has had a wife a great many years, and I don’t know how many children. Lucy, dear, my romance wore itself out long ago.”
“But it must be so dreadful a thing to have your marriage broken off,” said Lucy, in a half whisper; “I think it would have killed me, Jane.”
“Very dreadful indeed it must seem to you no doubt, in these early days,” said Jane; “but, my dear, people don’t die so easily as that.”
Lucy had turned scarlet: was Jane laughing at her? She began to speak of something else.
“Jane,” she said, dropping her voice, “was it not a singular thing that you and papa—and myself a little—took that strange dislike to Mr. Carlton?”
“It must have been instinct, as I believe.
“While Laura and—I suppose—Clarice became so greatly attracted by him. It strikes me as being very strange. Oh, what an unhappy thing it was that Clarice ever went away from home.”
“All the regret in the world will not mend it now; I strive not to think of it. I never—as a matter of course, Laura being here—talk of the past. Lucy,” she added, drawing her young sister to her; “I can see that you are happy.”
A bright smile and a brighter blush answered the words.
“My child, take a caution from me,” proceeded Jane; “have no concealments from your husband, and never disobey him.”
“There is no need to tell me, Jane,” said Lucy, with some surprise; “how could I do either?”
“No, I believe there is none; but we cannot forget, my dear, that concealment or disobedience, following on their rebellious marriages, brought the ill upon Laura and Clarice. Had not Clarice come to South Wennock, in all probability her tragical end would never have occurred, and she came in direct disobedience to the will and command of her husband. Had Laura not gone in dishonourable secrecy, forcing her husband’s private locks, the awful disclosure might never have burst upon her. Be you cautious, Lucy; love, reverence, and obey your husband.”
A conscious smile played around Lucy’s lips, and at that moment Judith came in. Lady Laura wanted her sister Jane.
“It does not seem like the old room, Judith,” Lucy said, as her sister quitted it; “I should scarcely have known it again.”
For it was a very smart drawing-room now, and somewhat inconveniently crowded with ornaments and furniture. Laura’s handsome grand piano took up a good portion of it.
“True, my lady,” was Judith’s answer; “when the sale took place at Mr. Carlton’s after his death, Lady Laura reserved a great many of the things, and they had to be brought here.”
“Where’s Stiffing?” asked Lucy.
“She soon found a place after Lady Laura discharged her, but she did not remain in it, and she has left South Wennock. She got mobbed one evening,” added Judith, dropping her voice.
“Got mobbed!” echoed Lucy, staring at Judith.
“It was in this way, my lady: the news got abroad somehow that it was Stiffing who fetched the skeleton key for Lady Laura, that—that black night, and a number of rude boys set upon Stiffing one spring evening; they hooted her and pelted her and chased her, called her a skeleton, and altogether behaved very badly."
"But if she did fetch the key, Lady Laura sent her for it."
"Oh yes, but boys and men, when they set upon a body like that, my lady, they only think of the victim before them. Stiffing wouldn't stop in South Wennock after that, but gave up her place."
"How shamefully unjust!" exclaimed Lucy.
Her indignation had scarcely spent itself when Frederick Grey entered, and Judith retired.
"Did you think I was lost, Lucy?"
"No, I began to think you were long; I suppose you could not get away?"
"That's how it was. John's young ones hid my hat, in fact; and Charles Lycett and his wife were spending the evening there. I don't know what good wishes for luck they don't send to Lady Lucy Grey," he added, drawing her before him, and keeping his hands on her waist.
"What brings you alone?" he asked. "Where are they?"
"Laura went up-stairs to bed, and just now she called Jane. Frederick, Jane has been giving me a lecture."
"She bade me love and reverence you always," she whispered, lifting her eyes momentarily to his. "I told her the injunction was not needed: do you think it is?"
He snatched her closer to him: he covered her face with his warm kisses.
"Once, in this room—I have never told you, Frederick—I passed some miserable hours. It was the night following the examination of Mr. Carlton; of course it was altogether miserable enough then, but I had a fear on my own score, from which the others were free: I thought the disgrace would cause you—not to have me."
"Oh, you foolish child! you thorough goose! Lucy, my darling," he continued, in an altered tone, "you could not really have feared it. Had disgrace attached itself to every relative you possessed in the world, there would only have been the greater happiness for me in shielding you. My wife, you know it."
She looked at him with the prettiest smile and blush ever seen, and he released her suddenly, for Jane came in.
There is no more to tell. And I thank you, my readers, for your interest in coming with me thus far. It is well to break off when the sky is sunny: better to leave sunshine on the memory than storm.