Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The Herberts of Elfdale - Part 3
THE HERBERTS OF ELFDALE.
A STORY IN SIX CHAPTERS.
BY MRS. CROWE,
Author of “Susan Hopley,” “The Night-Side of Nature,” &c., &c.
I was married on the day that had been previously fixed for the wedding, and Clara believed that she had married the man who had for three months been winning her affections by the most assiduous attentions; but alas! she was mistaken. I was transformed. I was just as eager to make her my wife, or rather, I should say, I was just as unable to bear the thought of losing her, and I think I should have been capable of shooting any man who had attempted to rob me of her. But I that last look of my father’s had poisoned my cup of bliss; that indescribable look of horror had chilled the marrow in my bones; it had cast a pall over the present and the future; filled my soul with terrible forebodings of I know not what misfortune, and though I spurned the thought of being deterred from fulfilling my engagement, I was a coward acting a part. Everything was acting, even my tenderness for Clara was acting, for a new element had sprung up and mingled with my love—hatred born of suspicion. Suspicion of what? I did not know; I could fix upon nothing; but there it was, a cormorant keeping itself alive by feeding greedily on every word, look, and action of my affianced bride and her relatives. Day and night I asked myself why they had been so ready to receive me on a footing of intimacy at first,—why they had been so eager for the match, and why they had never insisted on my father’s being consulted even in regard to the settlements. I was now first struck by the extraordinary co-incidence of their taking up their abode under the same roof as myself. I had hitherto thought it a lucky chance; now I believed it to be deep design—a plot—a conspiracy to entrap me; but what could be their object? Young, beautiful, well-born, for although she was not the daughter of Sir Ralph, she was his niece, and not ill-dowered, what need was there of plots or conspiracies to get her married? I had no title, nor was my estate so large as to excite the cupidity of a family like the Wellwoods. But the more impossible it was to find any probable motive for their ready reception of my suit, except the simple one that they liked me, and approved of the alliance, the more I sought for some occult and sinister one. My father’s strange behaviour, the absolute solitude in which he lived, the mystery of my mother’s disappearance and death, his irreconcilable hatred to the Wellwoods—which I had hitherto attributed to some ordinary source of quarrel between neighbours, embittered by my father’s ungenial character and temperament: these, and other half-forgotten trifles, coloured by the lurid light of that death-bed scene, I was eternally brooding on.
No doubt a great change was visible in my character and demeanour; but this was naturally attributed to the sudden catastrophe that had occurred. In compliance with continental customs, the funeral took place earlier than it would in England; and immediately after our marriage, which was quite private, I started for Elfdale with my bride, my presence there being necessary. Our original plan had been to travel southward, and spend the winter at Rome, where Lady Wellwood and Sir Ralph had promised to join us. It seemed possible enough to fulfil this engagement still, and we spoke of it as probable; but I confess to privately feeling a disinclination to carry out the arrangement. Their presence had become a restraint and an annoyance to me. I wanted leisure to brood over my suspicions, for morbid suspicion, like morbid jealousy, “grows by what it feeds on!” the germ, once planted, it fell on such congenial soil, that it spread and spread till it had quite o’ermastered me.
Poor Clara must have found it a dull journey; however, it came to an end, and we arrived at Elfdale. She was struck with the beauty of the grounds—a gloomy beauty it is true; but even I, whether, because my taste was developed by time and travel, or whether because it was now my own, could not but acknowledge it.
“I had no idea the country was so picturesque,” said Clara. “I almost wonder my uncle could live entirely away from it for so many years.”
“Ah,” said I, “did you ever understand why he did so?”
“No,” she answered, “it never struck me to inquire. You know I had never been here since my infancy, and though I had a recollection of being lifted up to kiss a little boy over the wall, and of the storm that ensued, which was perhaps, what impressed the circumstance on my memory, I had not the slightest recollection of the place, and of course had no desire to return to it. My uncle said it did not agree with him.
“There cannot be a more healthy situation,” I said. “It is high and dry, and yet not bleak.”
“Still, you say, you would not like to live here yourself.”
“Well, no; I have got accustomed to continental life, and—”
“But your father did not live here, either, for many years before he died,” she said suddenly, as if the circumstance had just struck her. “It’s odd everybody should leave it. It must be unhealthy, surely!”
“No, Clara,” I said, “I believe it’s healthy enough; but I fancy that your uncle’s and my father’s dislike to this part of the country arose from the same source.”
“Indeed!” she said, looking up innocently; “and what was that?”
“Ah!” I answered, “that is what I do not know—I wish I did.”
“Why? Is there any mystery about it?” she asked.
“There may be,” I said. “But did you never hear your uncle allude to the feud that existed betwixt the two families.”
“Feud? No; I knew that he disliked your father; and after your first visit, Lady Wellwood told me the dislike was mutual, and she rather wondered at your seeking our acquaintance. Then we found you were not on very good terms with your father yourself, and so we never named him. Afterwards, when you began to pay me attention, I said to her, ‘But I’m afraid, Mr. Herbert would not like George to marry me?’”
“And what did she answer?”
“‘Oh!’ she said, ‘We’ve nothing to do with that. He’s quite independent of his father,’ and, of course, I did not think it necessary to be more scrupulous than she was,” she added, smiling on me affectionately. I could not smile; but Clara was too unsuspicious to put anything but the most favourable construction on my behaviour; and thinking I was merely suffering from some regrets connected with my father’s death, she made an effort to turn the conversation into another channel.
My father had kept no establishment at Elfdale. Within the house there were only the housekeeper, and two or three women to assist her—strangers to me. Out of doors, there were the gardeners, the gamekeeper, and the people at the lodge—all equally strange, with the exception of Phibbs, whom, notwithstanding the ill name he bore amongst his own class, had always retained his place. He knew his business thoroughly, and, either from honesty or policy, had contrived to secure one voice on his side, and make it his master’s interest to keep him.
The prejudice against him was founded on the slight foundations I have alluded to before, and I shared them from the reasons mentioned; but those were rougher times than these, especially in our part of the country. Killing a man in fair fight was looked on as a very venial crime, and would have excited no unfavourable feeling; but the source of the quarrel and the story of the pike were not forgotten, and the man’s character and deportment were well calculated to keep alive the recollection. As a child, I had dreaded and hated him, and I had determined he should not remain a day in the place after I had power to dismiss him. I do not know whether it is the case with all children, but I know, for my own part, I had retained in my heart a fund of resentment against every one who had treated me with harshness and injustice.
After breakfast, on the morning after our arrival, while Clara was settling matters with the housekeeper, I took my hat and strolled into the garden. It was not long before I found him: he was stooping over a flower-bed, digging up the tubers; and, although he must have heard my foot on the gravel, he preserved his attitude and let me approach without raising his head. I think he wished it to appear that he had not observed me, in order that he might see in what tone I addressed him before he spoke; for the last time I was at Elfdale—that is, before I went abroad—I had refused to acknowledge his salutations when he touched his hat, and had shown him, as far as I then dared, that I had not forgotten the past.
I stood now beside him for some seconds, enjoying his embarrassment; and then, finding I continued silent, he lifted up his head and showed me his face—and what a face it was! I remembered it well in its prime, colour and all—I had plenty of reason to do so.
He had been originally a good-looking man: he must have been a sort of rustic Adonis, with ruddy complexion, blue eyes, prominent but good teeth, and light brown hair that curled stiffly and set as close to his head as a negro’s wool. He was tall, and not ill made, except that his figure was marred by his very high shoulders. I believe that the expression of his features must always have been disagreeable—of course it was so to me, because I feared him: now, it was what the country people called awful. I said to myself, “Yes, he must have murdered the girl!” His complexion was ghastly, too—not pallid, but much worse; the ruddy hue had changed to a livid faded crimson; the lower jaw had fallen considerably, and the lips were so drawn across the projecting teeth, that his mouth looked like the mouth of a skeleton. I was really taken aback, and stood silently staring at him, while he, after slightly touching his hat, waited for me to speak first. He saw that he was encountering an enemy, and paused to see in what form the enmity would be manifested.
“So you are here still,” I said, at length, drily.
“There is no other man or woman on the estate, I suppose, that I know?”
I think he had a presentiment of the turn the conversation was about to take, for while he answered “No, sir,” in a sort of dogged tone, I saw a spasm cross his face.
“How many men have you in the garden?”
“Four, sir, besides myself.”
“Is Goring amongst them?” said I.
He tried to look at me as he answered that he was not; but his eyes fell in spite of himself.
“Where is he?” I asked.
“Dead, is he?” I said, looking at him inquiringly.
“I suppose you know he is,” he returned, sullenly. “You’ve been here since that. It was an accident; he mought ha’ killed me.”
“It was in fair fight, was it?”
“Nobody ever said it warn’t.”
“But how came Matty, the dairy-maid, in the pond? That’s what I never have been able to make out.”
“Nor nobody else,” he said, with tolerable firmness; for he was prepared for the question, and had often been called upon to answer it.
“There is something yet to be discovered upon that point,” I said, significantly. “A young girl on the eve of a good marriage wouldn’t have thrown herself into the water—somebody must have thrown her in; but who?”
Here, as if weary of the conversation, he stooped and began putting together the tubers that were lying on the ground at his feet.
“Was anybody jealous of her?” I continued. “Did anybody else want to marry her, do you think?”
He must have heard the subject discussed hundreds of times, no doubt; but I am sure he remembered the scene at the dairy-door, when Matty purchased my immunity by a concession, and he suspected that I remembered it too.
“Well, sir,” he said, as steadily as he could, raising his head for a moment, but continuing to pick up his tubers, “mayhap there may have been them as liked the girl, but a man can’t always get the girl he fancies; but as for her getting into the pond, she war o’er fond of standing on the edge and feeding the fish; and most like her feet slipt from under her; and that’s what the coroner said when he gave his verdict.”
“But that’s not what Goring thought, though!” I answered sharply.
He raised himself from his stooping position, and, looking me in the face, said, “Goring wer’ a fool! Human natur’s human natur’ all the world over.” And then with a peculiar look and tone he added: “Them as lives in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, I’ve heerd say.”
This was a home thrust, and I felt it; it was addressed to me pointedly, and my mind instantly reverted to the mystery that perplexed me. This man had been long in my father’s service. If there was a secret he might know it; but I had declared war and had irritated him. He had hit me in his own defence. I had intended, after letting him see that I did not forget the past, to terminate the interview by dismissing him contemptuously then and there from my service, but now I wished to alter my plan, so I turned away, saying, “I don’t see the application of your proverb, Mr. Phibbs.” But we cannot deceive our adversary in this sort of skirmishing; we may try to conceal our wound, but the enemy knows when he has made a hit. I walked on, feeling vexed and defeated, and presently he passed me with his tubers in a basket.
“You’ll soon be housing your things for the winter, I suppose?” I said carelessly, wishing to conceal my discomfiture; but I had better have said nothing. He saw his advantage, and lifting his eye confidently to my face, he answered, “Yes, sir; we must look for cold weather now, and I’m going to take in all the tender plants. Perhaps you’d like to see the hothouses.”
“Another time, Phibbs,” I said; but this short dialogue was the acknowledgment of a treaty of peace, after a sharp conflict, in which I had been worsted.
He knows something, I said to myself. From him I may learn what I dread to know, but which, till I do, I never can rest. I must make him speak—probably he only needs to be questioned—and I walked on with my eyes on the ground and lost in thought. When I reached the house, Benoit said that Mrs. Herbert was in her room, and desired to see me as soon as I came in. I ascended the stairs slowly and unwillingly, for I never approached Clara now without an indescribable repugnance. The revolution in my feelings was altogether unaccountable to myself. I found her in her dressing-room, and her first words on entering were, “Oh, George, come with me!” and, rising from her seat, she led me out of the room.
“What’s the matter?” I said. “Where do you want me to go?”
“I’ve something to show you,” she said, as she eagerly ascended the stairs to the upper storey.
“What—up in the garrets?” I exclaimed. “What took you up there?”
“I’ve been all over the house since breakfast,” she said.
“Well, and what have you found?”
She did not answer, for we were by this time at the end of the ascent. Instead of speaking, she led me into an attic which was used as a lumber-room, and, advancing, she pointed to a large picture from which she had previously unripped the canvas with which it had been covered. “Look,” she said, “that’s the portrait of my mother, George!”
I stared at her, dumb with amazement. “Yes,” she continued, “is it not strange to find it here?”
“Why?” said I, rather to gain time than because I wanted an answer.
“Well,” she said, “you know I never saw my parents, and I never could get my uncle to tell me anything about them. He always turned it off when I wanted to ask him, and as I saw that, for some reason, it was a disagreeable subject, I ceased to recur to it. But after his death Lady Wellwood was looking into a casket which he always kept in his own possession. It was the very casket that was lost on the night we reached Paris, you know. Well, I happened to enter the room suddenly, and saw her with a small picture in her hand. She tried to hide it, but as I pressed her to tell me who it was, she said Sir Ralph had told her that it was the portrait of my mother. I asked her to give it me at once, but she said, as we were hurriedly packing up for the journey to Paris, she would leave it where it was for the present. And most provokingly it was lost!”
I think I should have fallen to the ground, but I supported myself against the wall, and by a strong effort, I forced myself to ask her why she thought this was intended to represent the same person.
“Oh,” she said, with her eyes still fixed upon the picture, so that she did not observe the agitation and dismay that I was conscious my countenance must have betrayed—“oh, I recognised it directly; the other is an exact copy of this in little, even to the music-book and the name;” and as she spoke she pointed to the corner of the picture where there was a music-book lying on the ground, on the open leaf of which was inscribed in legible characters, Rose Callender. “And,” she continued, “you know it was after her I was christened Rose, though I am always called Clara, because that was my grandmother’s name, old Lady Wellwood. But the strange thing is, that we should find the original picture here. However, I’ll have it brought down to the dining-room, and——”
But I could hear no more. I turned my back to avoid her eye, and descended the stairs with tottering steps to the library, where, after shutting myself up for a short time in order to reflect on my situation, my resolution was formed. I wrote a few lines to Clara, saying that circumstances beyond my control obliged me to leave her for a time; that I earnestly requested, and even commanded her, as far as she acknowledged my authority to command, that she would not seek to penetrate the motive of my absence, begging her at the same time to make herself as happy as she could during its continuance.
That very hour I quitted Elfdale, and, proceeding to London, made arrangements with a confidential agent there, whom I had been introduced to by my father when I came of age; and, from that day, I became a wanderer on the face of the earth, leaving my wife in possession of the estate, and ample funds to maintain a suitable establishment.
The unhappiness of my father and mother, the interview I had witnessed in the park betwixt the latter and Sir Ralph Wellwood, her subsequent disappearance, the universal silence regarding her, the abandonment of the neighbourhood which had necessarily become odious to both families, Clara’s utter ignorance with respect to her parentage, my father’s solemn injunction, and that last look of horror, all were explained! The dread secret was revealed; the curse had fallen upon me.
And now for the story. Rose Callender was the orphan daughter of a poor clergyman, who died while she was at the school where, having lost her mother very early, she was placed for education; and where, being left perfectly destitute, she remained subsequently in the capacity of teacher. It happened that the vicar of our parish had known something of her father, and having two little girls of his own, who needed more superintendence than their mother was willing to bestow on them, he offered her a liberal salary if she would undertake the office, and give them the first rudiments of education.
She accepted the proposal, and whilst in that situation became acquainted with the family at Staughton. The old baronet, Sir Lawrence, grandfather to the young Sir Ralph, introduced to the reader in the last chapter, was then alive and in possession of the estate. Sir Ralph, the father of the lad, and husband of Lady Wellwood, was his only boy, and when home from school or college used to be sent to read with the vicar, and thus had many opportunities of seeing Rose, with whom, as was natural, he fell desperately in love. Whether this love ever ripened into a positive engagement, I am unable to say; but there is every reason to believe that it was reciprocated with more or less ardour by the poor orphan. But Sir Lawrence was not a man to hear of such an alliance; he had himself, late in life, married the daughter of an earl, and he expected no less a match for his son. No suspicion, therefore, was entertained in regard to the young governess, of whom the old gentleman heard little and saw less, being wholly confined to his arm-chair by gout and rheumatism, and general declining health.
Nevertheless, there was one member of the family, besides young Ralph, with whom Rose was on terms of intimacy, and she it was who had brought them together. This was his cousin, Emily Wellwood, the daughter of a spendthrift captain in the line, who was then abroad with his regiment, and so overwhelmed with debt that he was never likely to return. The girl was therefore dependent on Sir Lawrence; who, when his health failed, and his wife was dead, sent for her to Staughton to nurse him. This young lady was neither very handsome, nor, indeed, very juvenile, for though her father was the younger brother of the baronet, he had married while almost a boy. She was, therefore, much older than Ralph, in spite of which disadvantage she thought it by no means impossible that by good management she might become his wife. Poor and dependent, proud and ambitious, unscrupulous and clever, she considered the enterprise not very difficult, if once Sir Lawrence was out of the way; but she was too well acquainted with his character and intentions to risk anything by a premature betrayal of her scheme.
Rose Callender’s arrival in the neighbourhood, and Ralph’s evident admiration disturbed and alarmed her; and, of course, generated a secret enmity which she was much too wise to disclose. On the contrary, she disguised it under an assumed cordiality, while she assiduously cultivated her intimacy and encouraged her confidence.
Affairs were in this position when my father, Reginald Herbert, who had been absent with his regiment, returned to Elfdale. He had not long before come into possession of the estate, and was intending to sell out of the service; indeed, he had given notice at the Horse Guards of his wish to retire. Naturally, his first visit was to his nearest neighbour, Sir Lawrence,; but it happened that the baronet, who had passed a bad night, was still in bed, and Miss Wellwood received him. She had been aware that he was expected, and had seen how his arrival might possibly promote her views. Accordingly, she took an early opportunity of directing the conversation to the vicarage, and announcing the appearance there of one of the most beautiful creatures she had ever beheld—she could afford to praise her now, for young Ralph was absent at college—amiable and accomplished too, in the highest degree; but when Colonel Herbert said, smilingly, that he should take care to see this rara avis, she shook her head and answered; “you had better not; for you’ll fall in love with her beyond a doubt—everybody does—my cousin amongst the rest.”
“But how does that please Sir Lawrence?” said my father.
“Oh,” she replied, “I don’t think they are actually engaged yet; and as for my uncle, he knows nothing about it. But I see clearly that as soon as Ralph is his own master—and it can’t be very long before that happens—he’ll propose for her directly.”
From curiosity, partly to see the future Lady Wellwood, and partly to see the young beauty, my father made an early visit to the vicarage, and the picture I have described was painted to commemorate that first interview, which decided the fate of both. He fell in love; and she, after a short struggle, accepted his suit. Colonel Herbert was a handsome man and a gallant officer: Ralph was only just out of his teens; possibly therefore the superior attractions of the last lover effaced the impression made by the first; but besides this, the one was a certainty, the other an uncertainty; and the vicar, aware how utterly dependent Rose was, urgently enforced the duty of not rejecting such an unexceptionable offer.
Everything was arranged for the marriage which was to take place, for especial reasons, at the earliest possible period. But ere even that period had arrived, the American War broke out, my father’s regiment was ordered to take the field, and he, unwilling to risk his reputation by retiring from the service at such a crisis, gave notice at the Horse Guards of his intention to join, which he did; but not till he had made Rose Callender his own by sealing their vows at the altar.
Immediately after the ceremony, the bride and bridegroom proceeded to London, where Colonel Herbert’s presence was necessary previous to his departure for the seat of war. Rose remained with her husband till the day of embarkation, and then took up her residence at Elfdale to await his return.
Besides the two principals, there were three other persons materially affected by this marriage; first, Miss Wellwood, who triumphed in the success of her scheme; secondly, young Ralph, who was frantic at the loss of his mistress; and, thirdly, old Mrs. Herbert, my awful grandmother, who was furious at her son’s espousing an obscure, portionless beauty. On the death of her husband she had quitted Elfdale, and retired to a small estate of her own in Devonshire. Her family resided there, and she had a notion that her native air was more congenial to her constitution. On my father’s arrival in England, after an absence of some years with his regiment, he had hastened to see her, and had expressed a wish that she would return to Elfdale and live with him. As the attachment between them was very strong, she had consented, and she was deliberately making preparations for her removal, when the unwelcome news of the marriage reached her; for willing to escape an opposition to which he was determined not to yield, he had kept his secret till opposition was impossible. Far from lending her countenance to the unwelcome intruder, she would at once have retracted her promise and have remained where she was, had my father not earnestly requested her to come and be the protector and companion of his young wife during his absence. Unhappily to this request she acceded; and never were two human beings brought together less capable of understanding each other. To great discrepancies of character and age was added, on my grandmother’s side, the strongest prejudice against what she considered the penniless brat who, with nothing but a pretty face, had artfully contrived to entrap her son into a hasty marriage, and intrude herself into one of the oldest families in the county. Rose’s aversion probably only dated from the first interview; but even from my own recollections, I can easily comprehend it, and fully appreciate her situation.
However, no permanent evil might have resulted from this unfortunate conjunction, had not a train of circumstances arisen that placed my mother in the power of her enemies—that is, circumstances that, from her own imprudence and inexperience, exposed her to suspicions which my grandmother was too ready to adopt; and which certain persons found it their interest to feed and encourage. Arrived at Elfdale, Mrs. Herbert senior at once assumed the command; Mrs. Herbert junior was nobody; and as the ill will of the old lady to her daughter-in-law was no secret, it may be easily inferred that poor Rose had more foes than friends amongst the servants and dependants. The love passages betwixt her and young Sir Ralph had not escaped their observation, and were now made the most of; even Miss Wellwood, envious of her beauty and, perhaps, unconsciously jealous of the very advancement to which she herself had contributed, was her covert enemy, though her avowed friend.
Nine months after the marriage, I made my appearance in the world to the great joy of my mother, who, pleasingly engrossed with her baby, became henceforth more independent of other society. Indeed, she had none but Miss Wellwood, for Elfdale had no near neighbours but the Staughton family and the vicarage; and the vicar having obtained preferment, was replaced by a stranger. However, Emily Wellwood, who accommodated herself to both, was a welcome visitor to my grandmother as well as to my mother. The latter really entertained a regard for her, and believed herself the object of a corresponding sentiment. Perhaps some little remains of tenderness towards her first young love was the source of this friendship on the part of Rose, for their characters must have always been utterly discrepant. However this may be, they lived on terms of considerable intimacy, insomuch that when I was about two years old, my mother observing Miss Wellwood to be in great trouble, thought herself entitled to invite her confidence, the result of which invitation was a very unexpected confession. According to her own statement of the case, the one which my mother of course accepted, she, Emily, had long secretly loved her cousin Ralph; but perceiving no corresponding attachment on his part, she had carefully concealed her sentiments; but when, after Rose’s marriage, the young man had fallen into low spirits, she being his only confidante and consoler, he had gradually grown to look on her with affection; the unhappy consequence of which was, that an intimacy ensued between them which now threatened Emily with exposure and ruin. What made the matter worse, she added, was, that young Ralph had been sent abroad by his father, and was now travelling there with a tutor; so that she was without a friend to help her; while should the slightest suspicion of her situation reach Sir Lawrence, she was certain to be turned out of doors and thrown destitute on the wide world.
There might perhaps have been another version of this story more consonant to truth, in which the word ambition would be substituted for the word love, and in which it would appear that the source of the present embarrassment originated not from the imprudence of youth, but from something much less excusable. Ralph naturally flew to her in his distress as the only person to whom he could speak of Rose; she saw the opportunity, and made use of it to soften his heart towards her by tenderness and sympathy. What followed arose out of the circumstance of Sir Lawrence’s physicians having pronounced, prematurely, as it proved, that he had but a few days to live. The old man dead, Emily knew that she must leave the house immediately; and feeling that her hold on Ralph’s affections was by no means a thing to be reckoned upon, she sought to make his honour an additional security. But, contrary to all expectation, the baronet suddenly revived under the prescriptions and treatment of a physician from London, and—whether his own observations, or hints from some other quarter had led him to entertain any suspicions of a growing attachment between his son and his niece does not appear—his first act, on his recovery, was to dispatch young Ralph on the grand tour, as it was then called, with a tutor of rigid morals to look after him.
Hence the imbroglio! The story, however, from Emily’s lips was pathetic in the extreme; Rose was moved, and promised her best assistance. Accordingly, a plan was formed in which my mother acted a part, of which she herself ultimately became the victim. She began by affecting indisposition, and after a short interval announced that she was going away for advice, and that Miss Wellwood had, at her request, obtained Sir Lawrence’s consent to accompany her. In due time they departed together, taking me and my nurse with them.
They were absent little more than a month, and almost immediately after their return Sir Lawrence was seized with a sudden relapse and died. There were no telegraphs in those days; some time elapsed before the arrival of the heir, and in the meanwhile Emily had gone to live with her relations near London. Rose would have gladly given her a temporary home, but on the proposal being hinted to my grandmother she sternly refused.
However, in due time Ralph arrived, and was informed by my mother of what had happened. He engaged, upon her representation of the case, to do all that was right and honourable, but for the present it was decided on all accounts, that Emily should remain where she was. However, he took great interest in the child, which he arranged should be brought to the neighbourhood of Staughton, and placed under the care of a trustworthy person, alleging that it was the child of a deceased relative of his own. Perhaps not much credit was given to this story from the first, and the villagers smiled when they repeated it; but nobody had any right to inquire who was the mother of the infant, and certainly nobody suspected Miss Emily Wellwood.
What followed may be easily conceived. When my father returned, a grim and ominous silence on the part of my grandmother first alarmed him, and awakened suspicion in a mind too naturally prone to it. All appearances were against my mother, and, as she had no friends, the world was not disposed to spare her. Innocent, inexperienced, and knowing little of the ways of men, it was sometime before Rose comprehended her position; for my father’s disposition did not lead him to make a sudden outbreak, nor even to seek an explanation, if explanation were possible. On the contrary, he brooded in sullenness and silence over his imaginary wrongs and misfortunes, only manifesting his dissatisfaction by a general austerity and reserve, and a tacit abnegation of my mother’s society.
By-and-by, Sir Ralph, after an absence of some duration, brought down Miss Wellwood as his bride; but this, far from improving the situation, only made things worse. All communication was sternly forbidden; Staughton and all its inhabitants tabooed, and when, at length, my mother penetrated the mystery and saw through the dark cloud that enveloped her, it was too late to make the least impression on my father’s mind, although Sir Ralph, as soon as he learnt the state of the case, despite of his wife’s prohibition, insisted on making an avowal of the truth—of course, not a public avowal—but he made a full statement to my father, on whom, however, it created no impression, since so much care had been taken to shield Emily’s reputation, that it was impossible to produce any satisfactory corroboration.
This confession, however, led to the expatriation of the family; Lady Wellwood finding the place insupportable to her after a circumstance so mortifying to her pride. She could not persuade herself that my father would not, sooner or later, recognise the truth, and possibly vindicate Rose by inculpating her.
Under what circumstances my poor mother died I have no means of knowing; but when—after the lapse of so many years—I fell in with the Wellwoods, in Paris, Lady W—— promoted the match both because she wanted Clara married to a man who troubled her with no questions or inquiries, and also because her permitting it was a thorough vindication of Rose, whose sad fate was incurred by her endeavour to save her friend from disgrace and ruin.
Little remains to be told. As I have said, I became a wanderer on the face of the earth, and Clara, who had no clue whatever to the motive of my departure, and was constantly expecting my return, felt herself bound to obey my injunctions, and neither seek to penetrate the mystery herself nor allow any one else to do it. She therefore never mentioned the circumstance in her letters to her family; and the first news that reached them of my unaccountable disappearance, was in that which announced my wife’s death. She had unhappily confided her situation to no one; and a woman from the village, summoned in haste when the extremity came, was the only aid she had.
Whether from want of skill or from Clara’s previous state of mental suffering remains uncertain; but mother and child both perished; and, I confess, when my confidential agent, who alone was acquainted with my address, communicated the event to me, I looked on it as the best possible termination to a frightful tragedy.
Years elapsed; Elfdale was odious to me; I would have sold it, but it was entailed. England was odious to me—I may say the whole world was odious to me; but of all creatures in it the Wellwoods were the most so; from my earliest years they had been the real source of all my misery. But for them I might have had a happy childhood, if my father’s heart had not been turned to stone by the criminality of Sir Ralph and my mother; how different might every thing have been with me through life! How well I understand his hatred of them! Oh! if he had but confided in me! And, ah! if I had but died believing myself only a victim and not a criminal!
On Lady Wellwood and her son’s arrival at Elfdale, they found Clara and her infant buried, and the secret that was to account for my extraordinary absence was buried with them. Lady W—— was sure that her unfortunate daughter had never had a suspicion that she was anything but Sir Ralph’s niece; and although she almost suspected that my strange disappearance was in some way connected with the old calumny about my mother, it was neither possible, nor now, she thought, worth while to attempt clearing it up.
Long years afterwards, when Lady Wellwood was dead and Sir Ralph was married and living at Staughton, one day a foreigner presented himself at the back-door and requested to speak with him. On being admitted he said he was a courier by profession, and that he had been requested to deliver a box, which he had brought with him, into the hands of the baronet. The person who sent it was now dead—he had also been a courier, of the name of Rosetti—beyond this the bearer knew nothing.
On opening the box a full narration of the above circumstances was found in the handwriting of the late Sir Ralph, together with letters corroborating the statements he made respecting the birth of Clara and the innocence of my mother, whose picture an accurate copy in little of the one at Elfdale, was also found there,—that picture which, perhaps, in the flurry of the moment, and to avert further questions, Lady Wellwood had told Clara was the picture of her mother. The nurse who went to London with Rose and Emily was the mother of Phibbs, the gardener. She knew the truth, and her silence had been bought by Lady Wellwood. This woman was now dead, but her son still lived. He had never quitted Elfdale, and though a very old man, was working there when, on the occasion of this news reaching me, I returned to England.
When I questioned him he confirmed the whole statement, and assured me that aware of my enmity to him, and foreseeing that sooner or later the report of my mother’s guilt would reach me, he had hoped to appease my ill-will and win my favour by revealing the truths, but that I had cut off the opportunity myself by my conduct towards him on the morning after my return, and by my subsequent disappearance from the spot.
Now, how much of my misery and the misery of those connected with me was due to adverse fate, and how much to my own mistaken line of conduct, it is difficult to say; but of this I am sure that had I been treated with kindness and affection in my childhood, the faults of my character, which I fear were in some degree innate, might have been modified; and certain it is, that if my father, instead of shutting up his secrets and his sorrows in his own breast, had made me his confidant, he would himself have found sympathy and consolations, and I should have escaped a life of needless suffering and never-dying remorse.