Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 10
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XIX. DR. WEST’S SANCTUM.
For some little time past, certain rumours had arisen in Deerham somewhat to the prejudice of Dr. West. Rumours of the same nature had circulated once or twice before during the progress of the last half dozen years; but they had died away again, or been hushed up, never coming to anything tangible. For one thing, their reputed scene had not lain at the immediate spot, but at Heartburg: and distance is a great discouragement to ill-natured tattle. This fresh scandal, however, was nearer: it touched the very heart of Deerham, and people made themselves remarkably busy over it. None the less busy because its accusations were vague. Tales never lose anything in carrying, and the most outrageous things were whispered of Dr. West.
A year or two previous to this, a widow lady named Baynton with two daughters, no longer very young, had come to live at a pretty cottage in Deerham. Nothing was known of who they were, or where they came from. They appeared to be very reserved, and made no acquaintance whatever. Under these circumstances, of course their history was supplied for them. If you or I went and established ourselves in a fresh place to-morrow, saying nothing of who we were, or what we were, it would only be the signal for some busy-body in that place to coin a story for us, and all the rest of the busy-bodies would immediately circulate it. It was said of Mrs. Baynton that she had been left in reduced means; had fallen from some high pedestal of wealth, through the death of her husband; that she lived in a perpetual state of mortification in consequence of her present poverty, and would not admit a single inhabitant of Deerham within her doors to witness it. It may have had as much truth in it as the greatest canard that ever flew: but Deerham promulgated it, Deerham believed in it, and the Bayntons never contradicted it. The best of reasons, for this, may have been, that they never heard of it. They lived quietly on alone, interfering with nobody, and going out rarely. In appearance and manners they were gentlewomen, and rather haughty gentlewomen, too; but they kept no servant. How their work was done, Deerham could not conceive: it was next to impossible to fancy one of those ladies scrubbing a floor or making a bed. The butcher called for orders, and took in the meat, which was nearly always mutton-chops; the baker left his bread at the door, and the laundress was admitted inside the passage once a week.
The only other person admitted inside, was Dr. West. He had been called in, on their first arrival, to the invalid daughter—a delicate-looking lady who, when she did walk out, leaned on her sister’s arm. Dr. West’s visits grew frequent; they had continued frequent up to within a short period of the present time. Once or twice a week he called in, professionally; he would occasionally drop in for an hour in the evening. Some passers by Chalk Cottage (it was what it was named) had contrived to stretch their necks over the high privet hedge which hid the lower part of the dwelling from the road, and were immensely gratified by the fact of seeing Dr. West in the parlour, seated at tea with the family. How the doctor was questioned, especially in the earlier period of their residence, he alone could tell. Who were they? Were they well connected, or ill connected, or not connected at all? Were they known to fashion? How much was really their income? What was the matter with the one whom he attended, the sickly daughter, and what was her name? The questions would have gone on till now, but that the doctor stopped them. He had not made impertinent inquiries himself, he said, and had nothing at all to tell. The younger lady’s complaint arose from disordered liver; he had no objection to tell them that: she had been so long a sufferer from it that the malady had become chronic: and her name was Kitty.
Now, it was touching this very family that the scandal had arisen. How it arose, was the puzzle: since the ladies themselves never spoke to anybody, and Dr. West would not be likely to invent or to spread stories affecting himself. Its precise nature was buried in uncertainty, also its precise object: some said one thing, some another. The scandal, on the whole, tended to the point that Dr. West had misbehaved himself. In what way? What had he done? Had he personally ill-treated them—sworn at them—done anything else unbecoming a gentleman? And which had been the sufferer? The old lady in her widow’s cap? or the sickly daughter? or the other one? Could he have carelessly supplied wrong medicine; sent to them some arsenic instead of Epsom Salts, and so thrown them into fright, and danger, and anger? Had he scaled the privet hedge in the night, and robbed the garden of its cabbages? What, in short, was it that he had done? Deerham spoke out pretty broadly, as to the main facts, although the rumoured details were varied and obscure. It declared that some of Dr. West’s doings at Chalk Cottage had not been orthodox, and that discovery had supervened.
There are two classes of professional men upon whom not a taint should rest; who ought, in familiar phrase, to keep their hands clean: the parson of the parish, and the family doctor. Other people may dye themselves in Warren’s jet, if they like; but, let as much as a spot get on him who stands in the pulpit to preach to us, or on him who is admitted to familiar intercourse with our wives and children, and the spot grows into a dark thunder cloud. What’s the old saying? “One man may walk in at the gate, while another must not look over the hedge.” It runs something after that fashion. Had Dr. West not been a family doctor, the scandal might have been allowed to die out: as it was, Deerham kept up the ball, and rolled it. One chief motive, in this, may have influenced Deerham above all other motives: unsatisfied curiosity. Could Deerham have gratified this to the full, it had been content to subside into quietness.
Whether it was true, or whether it was false, there was no denying that it had happened at an unfortunate moment for Dr. West. A man always in debt—and what he did with his money Deerham could not make out, for his practice was a lucrative one—he had latterly become actually embarrassed. Deerham was goodnatured enough to say that a handsome sum had found its way to Chalk Cottage, in the shape of silence money, or something of the sort; but Deerham did not know. Dr. West was at his wits’ end where to turn to for a shilling—had been so, for some weeks past; so that he had no particular need of anything worse coming down upon him. Perhaps, what gave a greater colour to the scandal than anything else, was the fact, that, simultaneously with its rise, Dr. West’s visits to Chalk Cottage had suddenly ceased.
Only one had been bold enough to speak upon the subject personally to Dr. West. And that was the proud old baronet, Sir Rufus Hautley. He rode down to the doctor’s house one day; and, leaving his horse with his groom, had a private interview with the doctor. That Dr. West must have contrived to satisfy him in some way, was undoubted. Rigidly servere and honourable, Sir Rufus would no more have countenanced wrong doing, than he would have admitted Dr. West again to his house, whether as doctor or as anything else, had he been guilty of it. But when Sir Rufus went away, Dr. West attended him to the door, and they parted cordially, Sir Rufus saying something to the effect that he was glad his visit had dispelled the doubt arising from these unpleasing rumours, and he would recommend Dr. West to inquire into their source, with a view of bringing their authors to punishment. Dr. West replied that he should make it his business to do so. Dr. West, however, did nothing of the sort: or if he did do it, it was in strict privacy.
Jan sat one day astride on the counter in his frequent abiding place, the surgery. Jan had got a brass vessel before him, and was mixing certain powders in it, preparatory to some experiment in chemistry, Master Cheese performing the part of looker-on, his elbows, as usual, on the counter.
“I say, we had such a start here this morning,” began young Cheese, as if the recollection had suddenly occurred to him. “It was while you had gone your round.”
“What start was that?” asked Jan.
“Some fellow came here, and—I say, Jan,” broke off young Cheese, “did you ever know that room had got a second entrance to it?”
He pointed to the door of the back room: a room which was used exclusively by Dr. West. He had been known to see patients there on rare occasions, but neither Jan nor young Cheese was ever admitted into it. It opened with a latch-key only.
“There is another door leading into it from the garden,” replied Jan. “It’s never opened. It has got all those lean-to boards piled against it.”
“Is it never opened, then?” retorted Master Cheese. “You just hear. A fellow came poking his nose into the premises this morning, staring up at the house, staring round about him, and at last he walks in here. A queer looking fellow he was, with a beard, and appeared as if he had come a thousand miles, or two, on foot. ‘Is Dr. West at home?’ he asked. I told him the doctor was not at home: for, you see, Jan, it wasn’t ten minutes since the doctor had gone out. So he said he’d wait. And he went peering about and handling the bottles, and once he took the scales up, as if he’d like to test their weight. I kept my eye on him: I thought a queer fellow, like that, might be going to walk off with some physic, like Miss Amilly walks off the castor oil. Presently he comes to that door. ‘Where does this lead to?’ said he. ‘A private room,’ said I, ‘and please to keep your hands off it.’ Not he. He lays hold of the false knob, and shakes it, and turns it, and pushes the door, trying to open it. It was fast. Old West had come out of there before going out; and catch him ever leaving that door open! I say, Jan, one would think he kept skeletons there.”
“Is that all?” asked Jan, alluding to the story.
“Wait a bit. The fellow put his big fist upon the latch key-hole—I think he must have been a feller of trees, I do—and his knee to the door, and he burst it open. Burst it open, Jan! you never saw such strength.”
“I could burst any door open that I had a mind to,” was the response of Jan.
“He burst it open,” continued young Cheese, “and burst it against old West. You should have seen ’em stare! They both stared. I stared. I think the chap did not mean to do it; that he was only trying his strength for pastime. But now, Jan, the odd part of the business is, how did West get in? If there’s not another door, he must have got down the chimney.”
Jan went on with his compounding, and made no response.
“And if there is a door, he must have been mortal sly over it,” resumed the young gentleman. “He must have gone right out from here, and in at the side gate of the garden, and got in that way. I wonder what he did it for?”
“It isn’t any business of ours,” said Jan.
“Then I think it is,” retorted Master Cheese. “I’d like to know how many times he has been in there, listening to us, when we thought him a mile off. It’s a shame!”
“It’s nothing to me who listens,” said Jan, equably. “I don’t say things behind people’s backs, that I’d not say before their faces.”
“I do,” acknowledged young Cheese. “Wasn’t there a row! Didn’t he and the man go on at each other! They shut themselves up in that room, and had it out.”
“What did the man want?” asked Jan.
“I’d like to know. He and old West had it out together, I say, but they didn’t admit me to the conference. Goodness knows where he had come from. West seemed to know him. Jan, I heard something about him and the Chalk Cottage folks yesterday.”
“You had better take yourself to a safe distance,” advised Jan. “If this goes off with a bang, your face will come in for the benefit.”
“I say, though, it’s you that must take care and not let it go off,” returned Master Cheese, edging nevertheless a little away. “But, about that room—If old West——”
The words were interrupted. The door of the room in question was pushed open, and Dr. West came out of it. Had Master Cheese witnessed the arrival of an inhabitant from the other world, introduced by the most privileged medium extant, he could not have experienced more intense astonishment. He had truly believed, as he had just expressed it, that Dr. West was at that moment a good mile away.
“Put your hat on, Cheese,” said Dr. West.
Cheese put it on, going into a perspiration at the same time. He thought nothing less but that he was about to be dismissed.
“Take this note up to Sir Rufus Hautley’s.”
It was a great relief, and Master Cheese took the note in his hand, and went off whistling.
“Step in here, Mr. Jan,” said the doctor.
Jan took one of his long legs over the counter, jumped off, and stepped in: into the doctor’s sanctum. Had Jan been given to speculation, he might have wondered what was coming: but it was Jan’s mode to take things cool and easy, as they came, and not anticipate them.
“My health has been bad of late,” began the doctor.
“Law!” cried Jan. “What has been the matter?”
“A general disarrangement of the system altogether, I fancy,” returned Dr. West. “I believe that the best thing to restore me will be change of scene—travelling; and an opportunity to embrace it has presented itself. I am solicited by an old friend of mine, in practice in London, to take charge of a nobleman’s son for some months: to go abroad with him.”
“Is he ill?” asked literal Jan, to whom it never occurred to ask whether Dr. West had first of all applied to his old friend to seek after such a post for him.
“His health is delicate, both mentally and bodily,” replied Dr. West. “I should like to undertake it: the chief difficulty is, the leaving you here alone.”
“I dare say I can do it all,” said Jan. “My legs get over the ground quick. I can take to your horse.”
“If you find you cannot do it, you might engage an assistant,” suggested Dr. West.
“So I might,” said Jan.
“I should see no difficulty at all in the matter, if you were my partner. It would be the same as leaving myself, and the patients could not grumble. But, it is not altogether the thing to leave only an assistant, as you are, Mr. Jan.”
“Make me your partner, if you like,” said cool Jan. “I don’t mind. What’ll it cost?”
“Ah, Mr. Jan, it will cost more than you have got. At least, it ought to cost it.”
“I have got five hundred pounds,” said Jan. “I wanted Lionel to have it, but he won’t. Is that of any use?”
Dr. West coughed.
“Well, under the circumstances—But it is very little! I am sure you must know that it is. Perhaps, Mr. Jan, we can come to some arrangement by which I take the larger share for the present. Say that, for this year, you forward me——”
“Why, how long do you mean to be away?” interrupted Jan.
“I can’t say. One year, two years, three years,—it may be even more than that. I expect this will be a long and a lucrative engagement. Suppose, I say, that for the first year you transmit to me the one-half of the net profits, and, beyond that, hand over to Deborah a certain sum, as shall be agreed upon, towards housekeeping.”
“I don’t mind how it is,” said easy Jan. “They’ll stop here, then?”
“Of course they will. My dear Mr. Jan, everything, I hope, will go on just as it goes on now, save that I shall be absent. You and Cheese—whom I hope you’ll keep in order—and the errand boy: it will all be just as it has been. As to the assistant, that will be a future consideration.”
“I’d rather be without one, if I can do it,” cried Jan, “and Cheese will be coming on. Am I to live with ’em?”
“With Deb and Amilly? Why not? Poor, unprotected old things, what would they do without you? And now, Mr. Jan, as that is settled so far, we will sit down, and go further into details. I know I can depend upon your not mentioning this abroad.”
“If you don’t want me to mention it, you can. But where’s the harm?”
“It is always well to keep these little arrangements private,” said the doctor. “Matiss will draw up the deed, and I will take you round and introduce you as my partner. But there need not be anything said beforehand. Neither need there be anything said at all about my going away, until I actually go. You will oblige me in this, Mr. Jan.”
“It’s all the same to me,” said accommodating Jan. “Whose will be this room, then?”
“Yours to do as you please with, of course, so long as I am away.”
“I’ll have a turn-up bedstead put in it and sleep here, then,” quoth Jan. “When folks come in the night, and ring me up, I shall be handy. It’ll be better than disturbing the house, as is the case now.”
The doctor appeared struck with the proposition.
“I think it would be a very good plan, indeed,” he said. “I don’t fancy the room’s damp.”
“Not it,” said Jan. “If it were damp, it wouldn’t hurt me. I have no time to be ill, I haven’t. Damp——Who’s that?”
It was a visitor to the surgery—a patient of Dr. West’s. And, for the time, the conference was broken up.
Not to be renewed until evening. Dr. West and Jan were both fully occupied all the afternoon. When business was over—as much so as a doctor’s business ever can be over—Jan knocked at the door of this room, where Dr. West again was.
It was opened about an inch, and the face of the doctor appeared in the aperture, peering out to ascertain who it might be disturbing him. The same aperture which enabled him to see out, enabled Jan to see in.
“Why! what’s up?” cried unceremonious Jan.
Jan might well ask it. The room contained a table, a desk or two,—some sets of drawers, and other receptacles for the custody of papers. All these were turned out, desks and drawers alike stood open, and their contents, a mass of papers, were scattered everywhere.
The doctor could not, in good manners, shut the door right in his proposed new partner’s face. He opened it an inch or two more. His own face was purple: it wore a startled, perplexed look, and the drops of moisture had gathered on his forehead. That he was not in the most easy frame of mind, was evident. Jan put one foot into the room: he could not put two, unless he had stepped upon the papers.
“What’s the matter?” asked Jan, perceiving the signs of perturbation on the doctor’s countenance.
“I have had a loss,” said the doctor. “It’s the most extraordinary thing, but a—a paper, which was here this morning, I cannot find anywhere. I must find it!” he added, in ill-suppressed agitation. “I’d rather lose everything I possess, than lose that.”
“Where did you put it? Where did you have it?” cried Jan, casting his eyes around.
“I kept it in a certain drawer,” replied Dr. West, too much disturbed to be anything but straightforward. “I have not had it in my hand for—oh, I cannot tell how long—months and months, until this morning. I wanted to refer to it then, and got it out. I was looking it over when a rough, ill-bred fellow burst the door open——”
“I heard of that,” interrupted Jan. “Cheese told me.”
“He burst the door open, and I put the paper back in its place before I spoke to him,” continued Dr. West. “Half an hour ago I went to take it out again, and I found it had disappeared.”
“The fellow must have walked it off,” cried Jan. Not an unnatural conclusion.
“He could not,” said Dr. West; “it is quite an impossibility. I went back there,”—pointing to a bureau of drawers behind him—“and put the paper hastily in, and locked it in, returning the keys to my pocket. The man had not stepped over the threshold of the door then; he was a little taken to, I fancy, at his having burst the door, and he stood there staring.”
“Could he have got at it afterwards?” asked Jan.
“It is, I say, an impossibility. He never was within a yard or two of the bureau; and, if he had been, the place was firmly locked. That man it certainly was not. Nobody has been in the room since, save myself, and you for a few minutes to-day when I called you in. And yet the paper is gone!”
“Could anybody have come into the room by the other door?” asked Jan.
“No. It opens with a latchkey only, as this does. And the key was safe in my pocket.”
“Well, this beats everything,” cried Jan. “It’s like the codicil at Verner’s Pride.”
“The very thing it put me in mind of,” said Dr. West. “I’d rather—I’d rather have lost that codicil, had it been mine, than lose this, Mr. Jan.”
Jan opened his eyes. Jan had a knack of opening his eyes when anything surprised him: tolerably wide, too. “What paper was it, then?” he cried.
“It was a prescription, Mr. Jan.”
“A prescription!” returned Jan, the answer not lessening his wonder. “That’s not much. Isn’t it in the book?”
“No, it is not in the book,” said Dr. West. “It was too valuable to be in the book. You may look, Mr. Jan, but I mean what I say. This was a private prescription of inestimable value, a secret prescription, I may say. I would not have lost it for the whole world.”
The doctor wiped the dew from his perplexed forehead: the doctor strove, unsuccessfully, to control his agitated voice to calmness. Jan could only stare. All this fuss about a prescription!
“Did it contain the secret for compounding Life’s Elixir?” asked he.
“It contained what was more to me than that,” said Dr. West. “But you can’t help me, Mr. Jan. I would rather be left to the search alone.”
“I hope you’ll find it yet,” returned Jan, taking the hint and retreating to the surgery. “You must have overlooked it amongst some of these papers.”
“I hope I shall,” replied the doctor.
And he shut himself up to the search, and turned over the papers. But he never found what he had lost, although he was still turning and turning them at morning light.
CHAPTER XX. AN INTERCEPTED JOURNEY.
One dark morning, the beginning of November: in fact, it was the first morning of that gloomy month. Jan was busy in the surgery. Jan was arranging things there according to his own pleasure; for Dr. West had departed that morning early, and Jan was master of the field.
Jan had risen betimes. Never a sluggard, he had been up now for some hours, and had effected so great a metamorphosis in the surgery that the doctor himself would hardly have known it again: things in it previously never having been arranged to Jan’s satisfaction. And now he was looking at his watch to see whether breakfast time was coming on, Jan’s hunger reminding him that it might be acceptable. He had not yet been into the house; his bedroom now being the room you have heard of, the scene of Dr. West’s lost prescription. The doctor had gone by the six o’clock train, after a cordial farewell to Jan; he had gone—as it was soon to turn out—without having previously informed his daughters. But of this Jan knew nothing.
“Twenty minutes past eight,” quoth Jan, consulting his watch, a silver one, the size of a turnip. Jan had bought it when he was poor: had given about two pounds for it, second-hand. It never occurred to Jan to buy a better one while that legacy of his was lying idle. Why should he? Jan’s turnip kept time to a moment, and Jan did not understand buying things for show. “Ten minutes yet! I shall eat a double share of bacon this morning.—Good morning, Miss Deb.”
Miss Deb was stealing into the surgery with a scared look and a white face. Miss Deb wore her usual winter morning costume, a huge brown cape. She was of a shivery nature at the best of times, but she shivered palpably now.
“Mr. Jan, have you got a drop of ether?” asked she, her poor teeth chattering together. Jan was too goodnatured to tell Deerham those teeth were false, though Dr. West had betrayed the secret to Jan.
“Who’s it for?” asked Jan. “For you? Aren’t you well, Miss Deb? Eat some breakfast: that’s the best thing.”
“I have had a dreadful shock, Mr. Jan. I have had bad news. That is—what has been done to the surgery?” she broke off, casting her eyes around it in wonder.
“Not much,” said Jan. “I have been making some odds and ends of alterations. Is the news from Australia?” he continued, the open letter in her hand helping him to the suggestion. “A mail’s due.”
Miss Deborah shook her head. “It is from my father, Mr. Jan. The first thing I saw, upon going into the breakfast parlour, was this note for me, propped against the vase on the mantel-piece. Mr. Jan,”—dropping her voice to confidence—“it says he is gone! That he is gone away for an indefinite period.”
“You don’t mean to say he never told you of it before!” exclaimed Jan.
“I never heard a syllable from him,” cried poor Deborah. “He says you’ll explain to us as much as is necessary. You can read the note. Mr. Jan, where’s he gone?”
Jan ran his eyes over the note: feeling himself probably in somewhat of a dilemma, as to how much or how little it might be expedient to explain. “He thought some travelling might be beneficial to his health,” said Jan. “He has got a rare good post as travelling doctor to some young chap of quality.”
Miss Deborah was looking very hard at Jan. Something seemed to be on her mind; some great fear. “He says he may not be back for ever so long to come, Mr. Jan.”
“So he told me,” said Jan.
“And is that the reason he took you into partnership, Mr. Jan?”
“Yes,” said Jan. “Couldn’t leave an assistant for an indefinite period.”
“You will never be able to do it all yourself. I little thought, when all this bustle and changing of bed-rooms was going on, what was up. You might have told me, Mr. Jan,” she added, in a reproachful tone.
“It wasn’t my place to tell you,” returned Jan. “It was the doctor’s, if anybody’s.”
Miss Deborah looked timidly round, and then sunk her voice to a lower whisper. “Mr. Jan, why has he gone away?”
“For his health,” persisted Jan.
“They are saying—they are saying—Mr. Jan, what is it that they are saying, about papa and those ladies at Chalk Cottage?”
Jan laid hold of the pestle and mortar, popped in a big lump of some hard looking white substance, and began pounding away at it. “How should I know anything about the ladies at Chalk Cottage?” asked he. “I never was inside their door; I never spoke to any one of ’em.”
“But you know that things are being said,” urged Miss Deborah, with almost feverish eagerness. “Don’t you?”
“Who told you anything was being said?” asked Jan.
“It was Master Cheese. Mr. Jan, folks have seemed queer lately. The servants have whispered together, and then have glanced at me and at Amilly, and I knew there was something wrong, but I could not get at it. This morning, when I picked up this note—it’s not five minutes ago, Mr. Jan—in my fright and perplexity I shrieked out; and Master Cheese, he said something about Chalk Cottage.”
“What did he say?” asked Jan.
Miss Deborah’s pale face turned to crimson. “I can’t tell,” she said. “I did not hear the words rightly. Master Cheese caught them up again. Mr. Jan, I have come to you to tell me.”
Jan answered nothing. He was pounding very fiercely.
“Mr. Jan, I ought to know it,” she went on. “I am not a child. If you please I must request you to tell me.”
“What are you shivering for?” asked Jan.
“I can’t help it. Is—is it anything that—that he can be taken up for?”
“Taken up!” replied Jan, ceasing from his pounding, and fixing his wide-open eyes on Miss Deborah. “Can I be taken up for doing this?”—and he brought down the pestle with such force as to threaten the destruction of the mortar.
“You’ll tell me, please,” she shivered.
“Well,” said Jan, “if you must know it, the doctor had a misfortune.”
“A misfortune! He! What misfortune? A misfortune at Chalk Cottage?”
Jan gravely nodded. “And they were in an awful rage with him, and said he should pay expenses, and all that. And he wouldn’t pay expenses: the chimney-glass alone was twelve pound fifteen; and there was a regular quarrel, and they turned him out.”
“But what was the nature of the misfortune?”
“He set the parlour chimney on fire.”
Miss Deborah’s lips parted with amazement; she appeared to find some difficulty in closing them again.
“Set the parlour chimney on fire, Mr. Jan!”
“Very careless of him,” continued Jan, with composure. “He had no business to carry gunpowder about with him. Of course they won’t believe but he flung it in purposely.”
Miss Deborah could not gather her senses.
“Who won’t?—the ladies at Chalk Cottage?”
“The ladies at Chalk Cottage,” assented Jan. “If I saw all these bottles go to smithereens, through Cheese carrying about gunpowder in his trousers’ pockets, I might go into a passion too, Miss Deb.”
“But, Mr. Jan—this is not what’s being said in Deerham?”
“Law, if you go by all that’s said in Deerham, you’ll have enough to do,” cried Jan. “One says one thing and one says another. No two are ever in the same tale. When that codicil was lost at Verner’s Pride, ten different people were accused by Deerham of stealing it.”
“Were they?” responded Miss Deborah, abstractedly.
“Did you never hear it? You just ask Deerham about the row between the doctor and Chalk Cottage, and you’ll hear ten versions, all different. What else could be expected. As if he’d take the trouble to explain the rights of it to them! Not that I should advise you to ask,” concluded Jan, pointedly. “Miss Deborah, do you know the time?”
“It must be half-past eight,” she repeated mechanically, her thoughts buried in a reverie.
“And turned,” said Jan. “I’d be glad of breakfast. I shall have the gratis patients here.”
“It shall be ready in two minutes,” said Miss Deborah, meekly. And she went out of the surgery.
Presently young Cheese came leaping into it.
“The breakfast’s ready,” cried he.
Jan stretched out his long arm, and pinned Master Cheese.
“What have you been saying to Miss Deb?” he asked. “Look here: who is your master now?”
“You are, I suppose,” said the young gentleman.
“Very well. You just bear that in mind; and don’t go carrying tales indoors of what Deerham says. Attend to your own business and leave Dr. West’s alone.”
Master Cheese was considerably astonished. He had never heard such speech from easy Jan.
“I say, though, are you going to turn out a bashaw with three tails?” asked he.
“Yes,” replied Jan. “I have promised Dr. West to keep you in order, and I shall do it.”
Dr. West’s was not the only departure from Deerham that was projected for that day. The other was that of Lionel Verner. Fully recovered, he had deemed it well to waste no more time. Lady Verner suggested that he should remain in Deerham until the completion of the year: Lionel replied that he had remained in it rather too long already; that he must be up and doing. He was eager to be “up and doing,” and his first step towards it was the proceeding to London and engaging chambers. He fixed upon the first day of November for his departure, unconscious that that day had also been fixed upon by Dr. West for his. However, the doctor was off long before Lionel was out of bed.
Lionel rose all excitement, all impulse, to begin his journey, to be away from Deerham. Somebody else rose with feelings less pleasurable: and that was Lucy Tempest. Now that the real time of separation had come, Lucy awoke to the state of her own feelings; to the fact, that the whole world contained but one beloved face for her—that of Lionel Verner.
She awoke with no start, she saw nothing wrong in it, she did not ask herself how it was to end, what the future was to be; any vision of marrying Lionel, which might have flashed across the active brain of a more sophisticated young lady, never occurred to Lucy. All she knew was, that she had somehow glided into a state of existence different from anything she had ever experienced before; that her days were all brightness, the world an Eden, and that it was the presence of Lionel that made the sunshine.
She stood before the glass, twisting her soft brown hair, her cheeks crimson with excitement, her eyes bright. The morrow morning would be listless enough; but this, the last on which she would see him, was gay with rose hues of love. Stay! not gay. That is a wrong expression: it would have been gay but for that under current of feeling, which was whispering that a short hour or two and all would change to the darkest shade.
“He says it may be a twelvemonth before he shall come home again,” she said to herself her white fingers trembling as she fastened her pretty morning dress. “How lonely it will be! What shall we do all that while without him? Oh, dear, what’s the matter with me this morning?”
In her perturbed haste, she had fastened her dress all awry, and had to undo it again. The thought that she might be keeping them waiting breakfast—which was to be taken that morning a quarter of an hour earlier than usual—did not tend to expedite her. Lucy thought of the old proverb: “The more haste, the less speed.”
“How I wish I dare ask him to come sooner than that to see us! But he might think it strange. I wonder he should not come! there’s Christmas, there’s Easter, and he must have holiday then. A whole year, perhaps more; and not to see him!”
She passed out of the room and descended, her soft skirts of pink-shaded cashmere sweeping the staircase. You saw her in it the evening she first came to Lady Verner’s. It had lain by almost ever since, and was now converted into a morning dress. The breakfast-room was empty. Instead of being behind her time, Lucy found she was before it. Lady Verner had not risen: she rarely did rise to breakfast: and Decima was in Lionel’s room, busy over some of his things.
Lionel himself was the next to enter. His features broke into a glad smile when he saw Lucy. A fairer picture, she, Mr. Lionel Verner, than even that other vision of loveliness which your mind has been pleased to make its ideal—Sibylla!
“Down first, Lucy!” he cried, shaking hands with her. “You wish me somewhere, I dare say, getting you up before your time.”
“By how much—a few minutes?” she answered, laughing. “It wants twenty minutes to nine. What would they have said to me at the rectory, had I come down so late as that?”
“Ah, well, you won’t have me here to torment you to-morrow. I have been a trouble to you, Lucy, take it altogether. You will be glad to see my back turned.”
Lucy shook her head. She looked shyly up at him in her timidity; but she answered truthfully still:
“I shall be sorry; not glad.”
“Sorry! Why should you be sorry, Lucy?” and his voice insensibly assumed a tone of gentleness. “You cannot have cared for me; for the companionship of a half dead fellow, like myself!”
Lucy rallied her courage. “Perhaps it was because you were half dead that I cared for you,” she answered.
“I suppose it was,” mused Lionel, aloud, his thoughts cast back to the past. “I will bid you good-by now, Lucy, while we are alone. Believe me that I part from you with regret; that I do heartily thank you for all you have been to me.”
Lucy looked up at him, a yearning, regretful sort of look, and her eyelashes grew wet. Lionel had her hand in his, and was looking down at her.
“Lucy, I do think you are sorry to part with me!” he exclaimed.
“Just a little,” she answered.
If you, good, grave sir, had been stoical enough to resist the up-turned face, Lionel was not. He bent his lips and left a kiss upon it.
“Keep it until we meet again,” he whispered.
Jan came in while they were at breakfast.
“I can’t stop a minute,” were his words when Decima asked him why he did not sit down. “I thought I’d run up and say good-by to Lionel, but I am wanted in all directions. Mrs. Verner has sent for me, and there are the regular patients.”
“Dr. West attends Mrs. Verner, Jan,” said Decima.
“He did,” replied Jan. “It is to be myself, now. West is gone.”
“Gone!” was the universal echo. And Jan gave an explanation.
It was received in silence. The rumours affecting Dr. West had reached Deerham Court.
“What is the matter with Mrs. Verner?” asked Lionel. “She appeared as well as usual when I quitted her last night.”
“I don’t know that there’s anything more the matter with her than usual,” returned Jan, sitting down on a side-table. “She has been going in some time for apoplexy.”
“Oh, Jan!” uttered Lucy.
“So she has, Miss Lucy,—as Dr. West has said. I have not attended her.”
“Has she been told it, Jan?”
“Where’s the good of telling her?” asked Jan. “She knows it fast enough. She’d not forego a meal, if she saw the fit coming on before night. Tynn came round to me, just now, and said his mistress felt poorly. The Australian mail is in,” continued Jan, passing to another subject.
“Is it?” cried Decima.
“I met the postman as I was coming out, and he told me. I suppose there’ll be news from Fred and Sibylla.”
After this little item of information, which called the colour into Lucy’s cheek—she best knew why—but which Lionel appeared to listen to impassively, Jan got off the table:
“Good-by, Lionel,” said he, holding out his hand.
“What’s your hurry, Jan?” asked Lionel.
“Ask my patients,” responded Jan. “I am off the first thing to Mrs. Verner, and then shall take my round. I wish you luck, Lionel.”
“Thank you, Jan,” said Lionel. “Nothing less than the woolsack, of course.”
“My gracious!” said literal Jan. “I say, Lionel, I’d not count upon that. If only one in a thousand gets to the woolsack, and all the lot expect it, what an amount of heart-burning must be wasted.”
“Right, Jan. Only let me lead my circuit, and I shall deem myself lucky.”
“How long will it take you before you can accomplish that?” asked Jan. “Twenty years?”
A shade crossed Lionel’s countenance. That he was beginning late in life, none knew better than he. Jan bade him farewell, and departed for Verner’s Pride.
Lady Verner was down before Lionel went. He intended to take the quarter past ten o’clock train.
“When are we to meet again?” she asked, holding her hand in his.
“I will come home to see you soon, mother.”
“Soon! I don’t like the vague word,” returned Lady Verner. “Why cannot you come for Christmas?”
“Christmas! I shall scarcely have gone.”
“You will come, Lionel?”
“Very well, mother. As you wish it, I will.”
A crimson flush—a flush of joy—rose to Lucy’s countenance. Lionel happened to have glanced at her. I wonder what he thought of it!
His luggage had gone on, and he walked with a hasty step to the station. The train came in two minutes after he reached it. Lionel took his ticket and stepped into a first-class carriage.
All was ready. The whistle sounded, and the guard had one foot on his van-step, when a shouting and commotion was heard. “Stop! Stop!” Lionel, like others, looked out, and beheld the long legs of his brother Jan come flying along the platform. Before Lionel had well known what was the matter, or had gathered in the hasty news, Jan had pulled him out of the carriage, and the train went shrieking on without him.
“There goes my luggage, and here am I and my ticket!” cried Lionel. “You have done a pretty thing, Jan. What do you say?”
“It’s all true, Lionel. She was crying over the letters when I got there. And pretty well I have raced back to stop your journey. Of course you will not go away now. He’s dead.”
“I don’t understand yet,” gasped Lionel, feeling, however, that he did understand.
“Not understand,” repeated Jan. “It’s easy enough. Fred Massingbird’s dead, poor fellow; he died of fever three weeks after they landed: and you are master of Verner’s Pride.”