Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 16
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XXXI. LIONEL’S PRAYER FOR FORGIVENESS.
Lady Verner, like many more of us, found that misfortunes do not come singly. Coeval almost with that great misfortune, Lionel’s marriage—at any rate, coeval with his return to Verner’s Pride with his bride—another vexation befel Lady Verner. Had Lady Verner found real misfortunes to contend with, it is hard to say how she would have borne them. Perhaps Lionel’s marriage to Sibylla was a real misfortune; but this second vexation assuredly was not: at any rate, to Lady Verner.
Some women—and Lady Verner was one—are fond of scheming and planning. Whether it be the laying out of a flower-bed, or the laying out of a marriage, they must plan and project. Disappointment with regard to her own daughter—for Decima most unqualifyingly disclaimed any match-making on her own score, Lady Verner had turned her hopes in this respect on Lucy Tempest. She deemed that she should be ill-fulfilling the responsibilities of her guardianship, unless when Colonel Tempest returned to England, she could present Lucy to him, a wife: or, at least, engaged to be one. Many a time now did she unavailingly wish that Lionel had chosen Lucy, instead of her whom he had chosen. Although—and mark how we estimate things by comparison!—when, in the old days, Lady Verner had fancied Lionel was growing to like Lucy, she had told him emphatically it “would not do.” Why would it not do? Because, in the estimation of Lady Verner, Lucy Tempest was less desirable in a social point of view than the Earl of Elmsley’s daughter, and upon the latter lady had been fixed her hopes for Lionel.
All that, was past and gone. Lady Verner had seen the fallacy of sublunary hopes and projects. Lady Mary Elmsley was rejected—Lionel had married in direct defiance of everybody’s advice—and Lucy was open to offers. Open to offers, as Lady Verner supposed; but she was destined to find herself unpleasantly disappointed.
One came forward with an offer to her. And that was no other than the Earl of Elmsley’s son, Viscount Garle. A pleasant man, of eight-and-twenty years; and he was often at Lady Verner’s. He had been intimate there a long while, going in and out as unceremoniously as did Lionel or Jan. Lady Verner and Decima could tell a tale that no one else suspected. How, in the years gone by—some four or five years ago now—he had grown to love Decima with his whole heart; and Decima had rejected him. In spite of his sincere love; of the advantages of the match; of the angry indignation of Lady Verner; Decima had steadfastly rejected him. For some time Lord Garle would not take the rejection: but one day, when my lady was out, Decima spoke with him privately for five minutes, and from that hour Lord Garle had known there was no hope; had been content to begin there and then and strive to love her only as a sister. The little episode was never known: Decima and Lady Verner had kept counsel, and Lord Garle had not told tales of himself. Next to Lionel, Lady Verner liked Lord Garle better than any one—ten times better than she liked unvarnished Jan; and he was allowed the run of the house as though he had been its son. The first year of Lucy’s arrival—the year of Lionel’s illness, Lord Garle had been away from the neighbourhood; but somewhere about the time of Sibylla’s return, he had come back to it. Seeing a great deal of Lucy, as he necessarily did, being so much at Lady Verner’s, he grew to esteem and love her. Not with the same love he had borne for Decuna—a love, like that, never comes twice in a lifetime—but with a love sufficiently warm, notwithstanding. And he asked her to become his wife.
There was triumph for Lady Verner! Next to Decima—and all hope of that was dead for ever—she would like Lord Garle to marry Lucy. A real triumph, the presenting her to Colonel Tempest on his return, my Lady Viscountess Garle! In the delight of her heart she betrayed something of this to Lucy.
“But I am not going to marry him, Lady Verner,” objected Lucy.
“You are not going to marry him, Lucy? He confided to me the fact of his intention this morning before he spoke to you. He has spoken to you, has he not?”
“Yes,” replied Lucy; “but I cannot accept him.”
“You—cannot! What are you talking of?” cried Lady Verner.
“Please not to be angry. Lady Verner! I could not marry Lord Garle.”
Lady Verner’s lips grew pale.
“And pray why can you not?” she demanded.
“I—don’t like him,” stammered Lucy.
“Not like him!” repeated Lady Verner. “Why, what can there be about Lord Garle that you young ladies do not like?” she wondered; her thoughts cast back to the former rejection by Decima. “He is good-looking, he is sensible; there’s not so attractive a man in all the county, Lionel Verner excepted.”
Lucy’s face turned to a fiery glow.
“Had I known he was going to ask me, I would have requested him not to do so beforehand, as my refusal has displeased you,” she simply said. “I am sorry you should be vexed with me, Lady Verner.”
“It appears to me that nothing but vexation is to be the portion of my life!” uttered Lady Verner. “Thwarted—thwarted always!—on all sides. First from one, then the other—nothing but crosses and vexations! What did you say to Lord Garle?”
“I told Lord Garle that I could not marry him; that I should never like him well enough—for he said, if I did not care for him now, I might, later. But I told him no; it was impossible. I like him very well as a friend, but that’s all.”
“Why don’t you like him?” repeated Lady Verner.
“I don’t know,” whispered Lucy, standing before Lady Verner like a culprit, her eyes cast down, and her eyelashes resting on her hot crimsoned face.
“Do you both mean to make yourselves into old maids, you and Decima?” reiterated the angry Lady Verner. “A pretty pair of you I shall have on my hands! I never was so annoyed in my life.”
Lucy burst into tears.
“I wish I could go to papa in India!” she said.
“Do you know what you have rejected?” asked Lady Verner. “You would have been a peeress of England. His father won’t live for ever.”
“But I should not care to be a peeress,” sobbed Lucy. “And I don’t like him.”
“Mamma, please do not say anymore,” pleaded Decima. “Lucy is not to blame. If she does not like Lord Garle she could not accept him.”
“Of course she is not to blame—according to you, Miss Verner! You were not to blame, were you, when you rejected—some one we know of? Not the least doubt that you will take her part! Young Bitterworth wished to have proposed to you: you sent him away—as you send all. And refuse to tell me your motive! Very dutiful you are, Decima!”
Decima turned away her pale face. She began to think Lucy would do better without her advocacy than with it.
“I cannot allow it to end thus,” resumed Lady Verner to Lucy. “You must reconsider your determination, and recall Lord Garle.”
The words frightened Lucy.
“I never can—I never can, Lady Verner!” she cried. “Please not to press it; it is of no use.”
“I must press it,” replied Lady Verner. “I cannot allow you to throw away your future prospects in this childish manner. How should I answer for it to Colonel Tempest?”
She swept out of the room as she concluded, and Lucy, in an uncontrollable fit of emotion, threw herself on the bosom of Decima, and sobbed there. Decima hushed her to her soothingly, stroking her hair from her forehead with a fond gesture.
“What is it that has grieved you lately, Lucy?” she gently asked. “I am sure you have been grieving. I have watched you. Gay as you appear to have been, it is a false gaiety, seen only by fits and starts.”
Lucy moved her face from the view of Decima.
“Oh, Decima! if I could but go back to papa!” was all she murmured. “If I could but go away, and be with papa!”
This little episode had taken place the day that Lionel Verner and his wife returned. On the following morning Lady Verner renewed the contest with Lucy. And they were deep in it—at least my Lady was, for Lucy’s chief part was only a deprecatory silence, when Lionel arrived at Deerham Court, to pay that visit to his mother which you have heard of.
“I insist upon it, Lucy, that you recall your unqualified denial,” said Lady Verner. “If you will not accept Lord Garle off hand, at any rate take time for consideration. I will inform Lord Garle that you do it by my wish.”
“I cannot,” replied Lucy, in a firm, almost a vehement tone. “I—you must not be angry with me, Lady Verner—indeed, I beg your pardon for saying it—but I will not.”
“How dare you, Lucy——”
Her ladyship stopped at the sudden opening of the door, turning angrily to see what caused the interruption. Her servant appeared.
“Mr. Verner, my lady.”
How handsome he looked as he came forward! Tall, noble, commanding. Never more so; never so much so in Lucy’s sight. Poor Lucy’s heart was in her mouth, as the saying runs, and her pulses quickened to a pang. She did not know of his return.
He bent to kiss his mother. He turned and shook hands with Lucy. He looked gay, animated, happy. A joyous bridegroom, beyond doubt.
“So, you have reached home, Lionel?” said Lady Verner.
“At ten last night. How well you are looking, mother mine!”
“I am flushed just now,” was the reply of Lady Verner, her accent a somewhat sharp one from the remembrance of the vexation which had given her the flush. “How is Paris looking? Have you enjoyed yourself?”
“Paris is looking hot and dusty, and we have enjoyed ourselves much,” replied Lionel. He answered in the plural, you observe: my lady had put the question in the singular. “Where is Decima?”
“Decima is sure to be at some work or other for Jan,” was the answer, the asperity of Lady Verner’s tone not decreasing. “He turns the house nearly upside down with his wants. Now a pan of broth must be made for some wretched old creature; now a jug of beef tea; now a bran poultice must be got; now some linen cut up for bandages. Jan’s excuse is that he can’t get anything done at Dr. West’s. If he is doctor to the parish, he need not be purveyor; but you may just as well speak to a post as speak to Jan. What do you suppose he did the other day? Those improvident Kellys had their one roomful of things taken from them by their landlord. Jan went there—the woman’s ill with a bad breast, or something—and found her lying on the bare boards: nothing to cover her, not a saucepan left to boil a drop of water. Off he comes here at the pace of a steam-engine, got an old blanket and pillow from Catherine, and a tea-kettle from the kitchen. Now, Lionel, would you believe what I am going to tell you? No! No one would. He made the pillow and blanket into a bundle, and walked off with it under his arm; the kettle—never so much as a piece of paper wrapped round it—in his other hand! I felt ready to faint with shame when I saw him crossing the road opposite, that spectacle, to get to Clay Lane, the kettle held out a yard before him to keep the black off his clothes. He never could have been meant to be your brother and my son!”
Lucy laughed at the recollection. She had had the pleasure of beholding the spectacle. Lionel laughed now at the description. Their mirth did not please Lady Verner. She was serious in her complaint.
“Lionel, you would not have liked it yourself. Fancy his turning out of Verner’s Pride in that guise, and encountering visitors! I don’t know how it is, but there’s some deficiency in Jan; something wanting. You know he generally chooses to come here by the back door: this day, because he had got the black kettle in his hand like a travelling tinker, he must go out by the front. He did! It saved him a few steps, and he went out without a blush. Out of my house, Lionel! Nobody ever lived, I am certain, who possessed so little innate notion of the decencies of life as Jan. Had he met a carriage full of visitors in the courtyard, he would have swung the kettle back on his arm, and gone up to shake hands with them. I had the nightmare that night, Lionel. I dreamt a tall giant was pursuing me, seeking to throw some great machine at me, made of tea-kettles.”
“Jan is an odd fellow,” assented Lionel.
“The worst is, you can’t bring him to see, himself, what is proper or improper,” resumed Lady Verner. “He has no sense of the fitness of things. He would go as unblushingly through the village with that black kettle held out before him, as he would if it were her Majesty’s crown, borne on a velvet cushion.”
“I am not sure but the crown would embarrass Jan more than the kettle,” said Lionel, laughing still.
“Oh, I dare say: it would be just like him. Have you heard of the disgraceful flitting away of some of the inhabitants here to go after the Mormons?” added my lady.
“Jan has been telling me of it. What with one thing and another, Deerham will rise into notoriety. Nancy has gone from Verner’s Pride.”
“Poor deluded woman!” ejaculated Lady Verner. “There’s a story told in the village about that Peckaby’s wife—Decima can tell it best, though. I wonder where she is?”
Lucy rose. “I will go and find her, Lady Verner.”
No sooner had she quitted the room, than Lady Verner turned to Lionel, her manner changing. She began to speak rapidly, with some emotion.
“You observed that I looked well, Lionel. I told you I was flushed. The flush was caused by vexation, by anger. Not a week passes but something or other occurs to annoy me. I shall be worried into my grave.”
“What has happened?” inquired Lionel.
“It is about Lucy Tempest. Here she is, upon my hands, and of course I am responsible. She has no mother, and I am responsible to Colonel Tempest and to my own conscience for her welfare. She will soon be twenty years of age—though I am sure nobody would believe it, to look at her—and it is time that her settlement in life should, at all events, be thought of. But now, look how things turn out! Lord Garle—than whom a better parti could not be wished—has fallen in love with her. He made her an offer yesterday, and she won’t have him.”
“Indeed?” replied Lionel, constrained to say something, but wishing Lady Verner would entertain him with any other topic.
“We had quite a scene here yesterday. Indeed, it has been renewed this morning, and your coming in interrupted it. I tell her that she must have him: at any rate, must take time to consider the advantages of the offer. She obstinately protests that she will not. I cannot think what can be her motive for rejection: almost any girl in the county would jump at Lord Garle.”
“I suppose so,” returned Lionel, pulling at a hole in his glove.
“I must get you to speak to her, Lionel. Ask her why she declines. Show her——”
“I speak to her!” interrupted Lionel, in a startled tone. “I cannot speak to her about it, mother. It is no business of mine.”
“Good heavens, Lionel! are you going to turn disobedient?—And in so trifling a matter as this!—trifling so far as you are concerned. Were it of vital importance to you, you might run counter to me: it is only what I should expect.”
This was a stab at his marriage. Lionel replied by disclaiming any influence over Miss Tempest. “Where your arguments have failed, mine would not be likely to succeed.”
“Then you are mistaken, Lionel. I am certain that you hold a very great influence over Lucy. I observed it first when you were ill, when she and Decima were so much with you. She has betrayed it in a hundred little ways: her opinions are formed upon yours; your tastes unconsciously bias hers. It is only natural. She has no brother, and no doubt has learnt to regard you as one.”
Lionel hoped in his inmost heart that she did regard him only as a brother. Lady Verner continued:
“A word from you may have great effect upon her: and I desire, Lionel, that you will, in your duty to me, undertake that word. Point out to her the advantages of the match: tell her that you speak to her as her father: urge her to accept Lord Garle: or, as I say, not to summarily reject him without consideration, upon the childish plea that she ‘does not like him.’ She was terribly agitated last night: nearly went into hysterics, Decima tells me, after I left her: all her burthen being that she wished she could go away to India.”
“Mother—you know how pleased I should be to obey any wish of yours: but this is really not a proper business for me to interfere with,” urged Lionel, a red spot upon his cheek.
“Why is it not?” pointedly asked Lady Verner, looking hard at him and waiting for an answer.
“I do not deem it to be so. Neither would Lucy consider my interference justifiable.”
“But, Lionel, you take up wrong notions! I wish you to speak in my place, just as if you were her father; in short, acting for her father. As to what Lucy may consider or not consider in the matter, that is of very little consequence. Lucy is so perfectly unsophisticated, so simple in her ideas, that were I to desire my maid Thérèse to give her a lecture, she would receive it as something proper.”
“I should be most unwilling to——”
“Hold your tongue, Lionel. You must do it. Here she is.”
“I could not find Decima, Lady Verner,” said Lucy, entering. “When I had been all over the house for her, Catherine told me Miss Decima had gone out. She has gone to Clay Lane on some errand for Jan.”
“Oh, of course for Jan!” resentfully spoke Lady Verner. “Nothing else, I should think, would take her to Clay Lane. You see, Lionel!”
“There’s nothing in Clay Lane that will hurt Decima, mother.”
Lady Verner made no reply. She walked to the door, and stood with the handle in her hand, turning round to speak.
“Lucy, I have been acquainting Lionel with this affair between you and Lord Garle. I have requested him to speak to you upon the point; to ascertain your precise grounds of objection, and—so far as he can—to do away with them. Try your best, Lionel.”
She quitted the room, leaving them standing opposite each other. Standing like two statues. Lionel’s heart smote him. She looked so innocent, so good, in her delicate morning dress, with its grey ribbons and its white lace on the sleeves, open to the small fair arms. Simple as the dress was, it looked, in its exquisite taste, worth ten of Sibylla’s elaborate French costumes. Her cheeks were glowing, her hands were trembling, as she stood there in her self-consciousness.
Terribly self-conscious was Lionel. He strove to say something, but in his embarrassment could not get out a single word. The conviction of the grievous fact, that she loved him, went right to his heart in that moment, and seated itself there. Another grievous fact came home to him; that she was more to him than the whole world. However he had pushed the suspicion away from his mind, refused to dwell on it, kept it down, it was all too plain to him now. He had made Sibylla his wife: and he stood there, feeling that he loved Lucy above all created things.
He crossed over to her, and laid his hand fondly and gently on her head, as he moved to the door. “May God forgive me, Lucy!” broke from his white and trembling lips. “My own punishment is heavier than yours.”
There was no need of further explanation on either side. Each knew that the love of the other was theirs, the punishment keenly bitter, as surely as if a hundred words had told it. Lucy sat down as the door closed behind him, and wondered how she should get through the long dreary life before her.
And Lionel? Lionel went out by Jan’s favourite way, the back, and plunged into a dark lane where neither ear nor eye was on him. He uncovered his head, he threw back his coat, he lifted his breath to catch only a gasp of air. The sense of dishonour was stifling him.
CHAPTER XXXII. STIFLED WITH DISHONOUR.
Lionel Verner was just in that frame of mind which struggles to be carried out of itself. No matter whether by pleasure or pain, so that it be not that particular pain from which it would fain escape, the mind seeks yearningly to forget itself, to be lifted out anywhere, or by any means, from its trouble. Conscience was doing heavy work with Lionel. He had destroyed his own happiness: that was nothing; he could battle it out, and nobody be the wiser or the worse, save himself: but he had blighted Lucy’s. There was the sting that tortured him. A man of sensitively refined organisation, keenly alive to the feelings of others—full of repentant consciousness when wrong was worked through him, he would have given his whole future life, and all its benefits, to undo the work of the last few months. Either that he had never met Lucy, or that he had not married Sibylla. Which of those two events he would have preferred to recall, he did not trust himself to think: whatever may have been his faults, he had, until now, believed himself to be a man of honour. It was too late. Give what he would, strive as he would, repent as he would, the ill could neither be undone nor mitigated: it was one of those unhappy things for which there is no redress; they must be borne, as they best can, in patience and silence.
With these thoughts and feelings full upon him, little wonder was there that Lionel Verner, some two hours after quitting Lucy, should turn into Peckaby’s shop. Mrs. Peckaby was seated back from the open door, crying and moaning and swaying herself about, apparently in terrible pain, physical or mental. Lionel remembered the story of the white donkey, and he stepped in to question her: anything for a minute’s divertisement; anything to drown the care that was racking him. There was a subject on which he wished to speak to Roy, and that took him down Clay Lane.
“What’s the matter, Mrs. Peckaby?”
Mrs. Peckaby rose from her chair, curtsied, and sat down again. But for the state of tribulation she was in, she would have remained standing.
“Oh, sir, I have just had a upset!” she sobbed. “I see the white tail of a pony a-going by, and I thought it might be some ’at else. It did give me a turn!”
“What did you think it might be?”
“I thought it might be the tail of a different sort of animal. I be a-going a far journey, sir, and I thought it was, may be, the quadruple come to fetch me. I’m a-going to New Jerusalem on a white donkey.”
“So I hear,” said Lionel, suppressing a smile, in spite of his heavy heart. “Do you go all the way on the white donkey, Mrs. Peckaby?”
“Sir, that’s a matter that’s hid from me,” answered Mrs. Peckaby. “The gentleman that was sent back to me by Brother Jarrum, hadn’t had particulars revealed to him. There’s difficulties in the way of a animal on four legs, which can’t swim, doing it all, that I don’t pertend to explain away. I’m content, when the hour comes, sir, to start, and trust. Peckaby, he’s awful sinful, sir. Only last evening, when I was saying the quadruple might have mirac’lous parts give to it, like Balum’s had in the Bible, Peckaby he jeered, and said he’d like to see Balum’s, or any other quadruple, set off to swim to America—that he’d find the bottom afore he found the land. I wonder the kitchen ceiling don’t drop down upon his head! For myself, sir, I’m rejoiced to trust, as I says; and as soon as the white donkey do come, I shall mount him without fear.”
“What do you expect to find at New Jerusalem?” asked Lionel.
“I could sooner tell you, sir, what I don’t expect: it ’ud take up less time. There’s a’most everything good at New Jerusalem that the world contains—Verner’s Pride’s a poor place to it, sir—saving your presence for saying so. I could have sat and listened to Brother Jarrum in this here shop for ever, sir, if it hadn’t been that the longing was upon me to get there. In this part o’ the world we women be poor, cast-down, half famished, miserable slaves; but in New Jerusalem we are the wives of saints, well cared for, and clothed and fed, happy as the day’s long, and our own parlours to ourselves, and nobody to interrupt us. Yes, Peckaby, I’m a telling his honour, Mr. Verner, what’s a waiting for me at New Jerusalem! And the sooner I’m on my road to it, the better.”
The conclusion was addressed to Peckaby himself. Peckaby had just come in from the forge, grimed and dirty. He touched his hair to Lionel, an amused expression playing on his face. In point of fact, this New Jerusalem vision was affording the utmost merriment to Peckaby and a few more husbands. Peckaby had come home to his tea, which meal it was the custom of Deerham to enjoy about three o’clock. He saw no signs of its being in readiness; and, but for the presence of Mr. Verner, might probably have expressed his opinion openly upon the point. Peckaby, of late, appeared to have changed his nature and disposition. From being a timid man, living under wife-thraldom, he had come to exercise thraldom over her. How far Mrs. Peckaby’s state of low spirits, into which she was generally sunk, may have explained this, nobody knew.
“I have had a turn, Peckaby. I caught sight of a white tail a-going by, and I thought it might be the quadruple a-coming for me. I was shook, I can tell you. ’Twas more nor a hour ago, and I’ve been able to do nothing since, but sit here and weep: I couldn’t red up after that.”
“Warn’t it the quadrepid?” asked Peckaby, in a mocking tone.
“No, it weren’t,” she moaned. “It were nothing but that white pony of Farmer Blow’s.”
“Him, was it,” said Peckaby, with affected scorn. “He is in the forge now, he is; a having his shoes changed and his tail trimmed.”
“I’d give a shilling to anybody as ud cut his tail off!” angrily rejoined Mrs. Peckaby. “A deceiving of me, and turning my inside all of a quake! Oh, I wish it ’ud come! The white donkey as is to bear me to New Jerusalem!”
“Don’t you wish her joy of her journey, sir?” cried the man, respectfully, a twinkle in his eye, while she rocked herself to and fro. “She have got a bran new gownd laid up in a old apron up-stairs, ready for the start. She, and a lot more to help her, set on and made it in a afternoon, for fear the white donkey should arrive immediate. I asks her, sir, how much back the gownd ’ll have left in him, by the time she have rode from here to New Jerusalem.”
“Peckaby, you are a mocker!” interposed his lady, greatly exasperated. “Remember the forty-two as was eat up by bears when they mocked at Elisher!”
“Mrs. Peckaby,” said Lionel, keeping his countenance, “don’t you think you would have made more sure of the benefits of the New Jerusalem, had you started with the rest, instead of depending upon the arrival of the white donkey?”
“They started without her, sir,” cried the man, laughing from ear to ear. “They give her the slip, while she were abed and asleep.”
“It were revealed to Brother Jarrum so to do, sir,” she cried, eagerly. “Don’t listen to him. Brother Jarrum as much meant me to go, sir, and I as much thought to go, as I mean to go to my bed this night—always supposing the white donkey don’t come,” she broke off in a different voice.
“Why did you not go, then?” demanded Lionel.
“I’ll tell you about it, sir. Me and Brother Jarrum was on the best of terms—which it’s a real gentleman he was, and never said a word nor gave a look as could offend me. I didn’t know the night fixed for the start; and Brother Jarrum didn’t know it; in spite of Peckaby’s insinuations. On that last night, which it was Tuesday, not a soul came near the place but that pale lady where Dr. West attended. She stopped a minute or two, and then Brother Jarrum goes out, and says he might be away all the evening. Well, he was; but he came in again, I can be upon my oath he did, and I give him his candle and wished him a good night. After that, sir, I never heard nothing till I got up in the morning. The first thing I see was his door wide open, and the bed not slept in. And the next thing I heard was, that the start had took place: they a walking to Heartburg, and taking the train there. You might just have knocked me down with a puff of wind.”
“Such a howling and screeching followed on, sir,” put in Peckaby. “I were at the forge, and it reached all the way to our ears, over there. Chuff, he thought as the place had took fire and the missis was a burning.”
“But it didn’t last; it didn’t last,” repeated Mrs. Peckaby. “Thanks be offered up for it, it didn’t last, or I should ha’ been in my coffin afore the day were out! A gentleman came to me: a Brother he were, sent express by Brother Jarrum, and had walked afoot all the way from Heartburg. It had been revealed to Brother Jarrum, he said, that they were to start that partic’lar night, and that I was to be left behind special. A higher mission was—what was the word? resigned?—No—reserved—reserved for me, and I was to be conveyed special on a quadruple, which was a white donkey. I be to keep myself in readiness, sir, always a looking out for the quadruple’s coming and stopping afore the door.”
Lionel leaned against the counter, and went into a burst of laughter. The woman told it so quaintly, with such perfect good faith in the advent of the white donkey! She did not much like the mirth. As to that infidel Peckaby, he indulged in sundry mocking doubts, which were, to say the least of them, very mortifying to a believer.
“What’s your opinion, sir?” she suddenly asked of Lionel.
“Well,” said Lionel, “my opinion—as you wish for it—would incline to the suspicion that your friend, Brother Jarrum, deceived you. That he invented the fable of the white donkey to keep you quiet while he and the rest got clear off.”
Mrs. Peckaby went into a storm of shrieking sobs. “It couldn’t be! it couldn’t be! Oh, sir, you be as cruel as the rest! Why should Brother Jarrum take the others, and not take me?”
“That is Brother Jarrum’s affair,” replied Lionel. “I only say it looks like it.”
“I telled Brother Jarrum, the very day afore the start took place, that if he took off my wife, I’d follor him on and beat every bone to smash as he’d got in his body,” interposed Peckaby, glancing at Lionel with a knowing smile. “I did, sir. Her was out”—jerking his black thumb at his wife—“and I caught Brother Jarrum in his own room and shut the door on us both, and there I telled him. He knew I meant it, too: and he didn’t like the look of a iron bar I happened to have in my hand: I saw that. Other wives’ husbands might do as they liked; but I warn’t a going to have mine deluded off by them Latter Day Saints. Were I wrong, sir?”
“I do not think you were,” answered Lionel.
“I’d Latter Day ’em! and saint ’em too, if I had my will!” continued wrathful Peckaby. “Arch-deceiving villuns!”
“Well, good day, Mrs. Peckaby,” said Lionel, moving to the door. “I would not spend too much time, were I you, looking out for the white donkey.”
“It’ll come! it’ll come!” retorted Mrs. Peckaby in an ecstasy of joy, removing her hands from her ears, where she had clapped them during Peckaby’s heretical speech. “I am proud, sir, to know as it’ll come, in spite of opinions contrairey and Peckaby’s wickedness; and I’m proud to be always a looking out for it.”
“This is never it, is it, drawing up to the door now?” cried Lionel, with gravity.
Something undoubtedly was curvetting and prancing before the door; something with a flowing white tail. Mrs. Peckaby caught one glimpse, and bounded from her seat, her chest panting, her nostrils working. The signs betrayed how implicit was the woman’s belief; how entirely it had taken hold of her.
Alas for Mrs. Peckaby! alas for her disappointment! It was nothing but that deceiving animal again, Farmer Blow’s white pony. Apparently the pony had been so comfortable in the forge, that he did not care to leave it. He was dodging about and backing, wholly refusing to go forward, and setting at defiance a boy who was striving to lead him onwards. Mrs. Peckaby sat down, and burst into tears.
“Now, then,” began Peckaby, as Lionel departed, “what’s the reason my tea ain’t ready for me?”
“Be you a man to ask?” demanded she. “Could I red up, and put on kettles, and see to ord’nary work, with my inside a turning?”
Peckaby paused for a minute, “I’ve a good mind to wallop you!”
“Try it,” she aggravatingly answered. “You have not kep’ your hands off me yet, to be let begin now. Anybody but a brute ’ud comfort a poor woman in her distress. You’ll be sorry for it when I’m gone off to New Jerusalem.”
“Now look here, Suke,” said he, attempting to reason with her. “It’s quite time as you left off this folly: we’ve had enough on’t. What do you suppose you’d do at Salt Lake? What sort of a life ’ud you lead?”
“A joyful life!” she responded, turning her glance sky-ward. “Brother Jarrum thinks as the head saint, the prophet hisself, has a favour to me! Wives is as happy there as the day’s long.”
Peckaby grinned: the reply amused him much. “You poor ignorant creatur,” cried he, “you have got your head up in a madhouse; and that’s about it. You know Mary Green?”
“Well?” answered she, looking surprised at this divertisement.
“And you know Nancy from Verner’s Pride as is gone off,” he continued, “and you can just set on and think of half-a-dozen more nice young girls about here. How ’ud you like to see me marry the whole of ’em, and bring ’em home here? Would the house hold the tantrums you’d go into, d’ye think?”
“You hold your senseless tongue, Peckaby! A man ’ud better try and bring home more nor one wife here! The law ’ud be on to him.”
“In course it would,” returned Peckaby. “And the law knowed what it was about when it made itself into the law. A place with more nor one wife in it ’ud be compairable to nothing but that blazing place you’ve heerd on as is under our feet, or the Salt Lake City.”
“For shame, you wicked man.”
“There ain’t no shame in saying that; it’s truth,” composedly answered Peckaby. “Brother Jarrum said, didn’t he, as the wives had a parlour a-piece. Why do they? ’Cause they be obleeged to be kep’ apart, for fear o’ damaging each other, a tearing and biting and scratching, and a pulling of eyes out. A nice figure you’d cut among ’em! You’d be a wishing yourself home again afore you’d tried it for a day. Don’t you be a fool, Susan Peckaby.”
“Don’t you!” retorted she. “I wonder you ain’t afraid o’ some judgment falling on you. Lies is sure to come home to people.”
“Just take your thoughts back to the time as we had the shop here, and plenty o’ custom in it. One day you saw me just a kissing of a girl in that there corner—leastways you fancied as you saw me,” corrected Peckaby, coughing down his slip. “Well, d’ye recollect the scrimmage? Didn’t you go a’most mad, never keeping your tongue quiet for a week, and the place hardly holding of ye? How ’ud you like to have eight or ten more of ’em, my married wives like you be, brought in here?”
“You are a fool, Peckaby. The cases is different.”
“Where’s the difference?” asked Peckaby. “The men be men, out there; and the women be women. I might pertend as I’d had visions and revelations sent to me, and dress myself up in a black coat and a white choker, and such like paycock’s plumes—I might tar and feather myself if I pleased, if it come to that—and give out as I was a prophit and a Latter Day Saint: but where ’ud be the difference, I want to know? I should just be as good and as bad a man as I be now, only a bit more of a hypocrite. Saints and prophits, indeed! You just come to your senses, Susan Peckaby.”
“I haven’t lost ’em yet,” answered she, looking inclined to beat him.
“You have lost ’em: to suppose as a life, out with them reptiles, could be anything but just what I telled you—a hell! It can’t be otherways. It’s again human female natur. If you went angry mad with jealousy, just at fancying you see a innocent kiss give upon a girl’s face, how ’ud you do, I ask, when it come to wives? Tales runs as them ‘saints’ have got any number a-piece, from four or five, up to seventy. If you don’t come to your senses, Mrs. Peckaby, you’ll get a walloping to bring you to ’em; and that’s about it. You be the laughing-stock o’ the place as it is.”
He swung out at the door and took his way towards the nearest public-house, intending to solace himself with a pint of ale, in lieu of tea, of which he saw no chance. Mrs. Peckaby burst into a flood of tears, and apostrophised the expected white donkey in moving terms, that he would forthwith appear and bear her off from Peckaby and trouble, to the triumphs and delights of New Jerusalem.
Lionel meanwhile went to Roy’s dwelling. Roy, he found, was not in it. Mrs. Roy was: and, by the appearance of the laid-out tea-table, she was probably expecting Roy to enter. Mrs. Roy sat, doing nothing: her arms hung listlessly down, her head also; sunk apparently in that sad state of mind—whatever may have been its cause—which was now habitual to her. By the start with which she sprang from her chair, as Lionel Verner appeared at the open door, it may be inferred that she took him for her husband. Surely nobody else could have put her in such tremor.
“Roy’s not in, sir,” she said, dropping a curtsey, in answer to Lionel’s inquiry. “May be, he’ll not be long. It’s his time for coming home, but there’s no dependence on him.”
Lionel glanced round. He saw that the woman was alone, and he deemed it a good opportunity to ask her about what had been mentioned to him, two or three hours previously, by the Vicar of Deerham. Closing the door, and advancing towards her, he begun.
“I want a word with you, Mrs. Roy. What were your grounds for stating to Mr. Bourne that Mr. Frederick Massingbird was with Rachel Frost at the Willow-pool the evening of her death?”
Mrs. Roy gave a low shriek of terror, and flung her apron over her face. Lionel ungallantly drew it down again. Her countenace was turning livid as death.
“You will have the goodness to answer me, Mrs. Roy.”
“It were just a dream, sir,” she said, the words issuing in unequal jerks from her trembling lips. “I have been pretty nigh crazed lately. What with them Mormons, and the uncertainty of fixing what to do—whether to believe ’em or not—and Roy’s crabbed temper, which grows upon him, and other fears and troubles, I’ve been a-nigh crazed. It were just a dream as I had, and nothing more; and I be vexed to my heart that I should have made such a fool of myself, as to go and say what I did to Mr. Bourne.”
One word, above all others, caught the attention of Lionel in the answer. It was “fears.” He bent towards her, lowering his voice.
“What are these fears that seem to pursue you? You appear to me to have been perpetually under the influence of fear since that night. Terrified you were then; terrified you remain. What is its cause?”
The woman trembled excessively.
“Roy keeps me in fear, sir. He’s for ever a threatening. He’ll shake me, or he’ll pinch me, or he’ll do for me, he says. I’m in fear of him always.”
“That is an evasive answer,” remarked Lionel. “Why should you fear to confide in me? You have never known me take an advantage to anybody’s injury. The past is past. That unfortunate night’s work appears now to belong wholly to the past. Nevertheless if you can throw any light upon it, it is your duty to do so. I will keep the secret.”
“I didn’t know a thing, sir, about the night’s work. I didn’t,” she sobbed.
“Hush!” said Lionel. “I felt sure at the time that you did know something, had you chosen to speak. I feel more sure of it now.”
“No I don’t, sir; not if you pulled me in pieces for it. I had a horrid dream, and I went straight off, like a fool, to Mr. Bourne and told it, and—and—that was all, sir.”
She was flinging her apron up again to hide her countenance, when, with a faint cry, she let it fall, sprung from her seat, and stood before Lionel.
“For the love of heaven, sir, say nothing to him!” she uttered, and disappeared within an inner door. The sight of Roy, entering, explained the enigma: she must have seen him from the window. Roy took off his cap by way of salute.
“I hope I see you well, sir, after your journey.”
“Quite well. Roy, some papers have been left at Verner’s Pride for my inspection, regarding the dispute in Farmer Hartright’s lease. I do not understand them. They bear your signature: not Mrs. Verner’s. How is that?”
Roy stopped awhile: to collect his thoughts, possibly. “I suppose I signed it for her, sir.”
“Then you did what you had no authority to do. You never received power to sign from Mrs. Verner.”
“Mrs. Verner must have give me power, sir, if I have signed. I don’t recollect signing anything. Sometimes when she was ill, or unwilling to be disturbed, she’d say ‘Roy, do this,’ or, ‘Roy, do the other.’ She—”
“Mrs. Verner never gave you authority to sign,” impressively repeated Lionel. “She is gone, and therefore cannot be referred to; but you know as well as I do, that she never did give you such authority. Come to Verner’s Pride to-morrow morning at ten, and see these papers.”
Roy signified his obedience, and Lionel departed. He bent his steps towards home, taking the field way: all the bitter experiences of the day rising up within his mind. Ah! try as he would, he could not deceive himself: he could not banish or drown the one ever-present thought. The singular information imparted by Mr. Bourne; the serio-comic tribulation of Mrs. Peckaby, waiting for her white donkey; the mysterious behaviour of Dinah Roy, in which there was undoubtedly more than met the ear; all these could not cover for a moment the one burning fact—Lucy’s love, and his own dishonour. In vain Lionel flung off his hat, heedless of any second sun-stroke, and pushed his hair from his heated brow. It was of no use: as he had felt when he went out from the presence of Lucy, so he felt now—stifled with dishonour.
Sibylla was at a table, writing notes. Several were on it, already written, and in their envelopes. She looked up at him.
“Oh, Lionel, what a while you have been out! I thought you were never coming home.”
He leaned down and kissed her. Although his conscience had revealed to him, that day, that he loved another better, she should never feel the difference. Nay, the very knowledge that it was so, would render him all the more careful to give her marks of love.
“I have been to my mother’s, and to one or two more places. What are you so busy over, dear?”
“I am writing invitations,” said Sibylla.
“Invitations! Before people have called upon you?”
“They can call all the same. I have been asking Mary Tynn how many beds she can, by dint of screwing, afford. I am going to fill them all. I shall ask them for a month. How grave you look, Lionel!”
“In this first, early sojourn together in our own house, Sibylla, I think we shall be happier alone.”
“Oh, no, we should not. I love visitors. We shall be together all the same, Lionel.”
“My little wife,” he said, “if you cared for me as I care for you, you would not feel the want of visitors just now.”
And there was no sophistry in this speech. He had come to the conviction that Lucy ought to have been his wife, but he did care for Sibylla very much. The prospect of a house full of guests at the present moment, appeared most displeasing to him, if only as a matter of taste.
“Put it off for a few weeks, Sibylla.”
“It is of no use preaching, Lionel. If you are to be a preaching husband, I shall be sorry I married you. Fred was never that.”
Lionel’s face turned blood-red. Sibylla put up her hand, and drew it carelessly down.
“You must let me have my own way for this once,” she coaxingly said. “What’s the use of my bringing all those loves of things from Paris, if we are to live in a dungeon, and nobody’s to see them? I must invite them, Lionel.”
“Very well,” he answered, yielding the point. Yielding it the more readily from the consciousness above spoken of.
“There’s my dear Lionel! I knew you would never turn tyrant. And now I want something else.”
“What’s that?” asked Lionel.
“A cheque? I gave you one this morning, Sibylla.”
“Oh! but the one you gave me is for housekeeping—for Tynn, and all that. I want one for myself. I am not going to have my expenses come out of the housekeeping.”
Lionel sat down to write one, a good-natured smile on his face. “I’m sure I don’t know what you will find to spend it in, after all the finery you bought in Paris,” he said, in a joking tone. “How much shall I fill it in for?”
“As much as you will;” replied Sibylla, too eagerly. “Couldn’t you give it me in blank, and let me fill it in?”
He made no answer. He drew it for a £100, and gave it her.
“Will that do, my dear?”
She drew his face down again caressingly. But, in spite of the kisses left upon his lips, Lionel had awoke to the conviction, firm and undoubted, that his wife did not love him.