Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 21
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XLI. THE THUNDER-STORM.
The fine September morning had turned to a rainy afternoon. A heavy mist hung upon the trees, the hedges, the ground; something like the mist which had fallen upon Lionel Verner’s spirit. The day had grown more like a November one: the clouds were leaden-coloured, the rain fell; even the little birds sought the shelter of their nests.
One there was who walked in it, his head uncovered, his brow bared. Not a bird, but a man. He was in the height of his fever dream. It is not an inapt name for his state of mind. His veins coursed as with fever; his thoughts took all the vague uncertainty of a dream. Little heeded he that the weather had become chilly, or that the waters fell upon him!
What must be his course? What ought it to be? The more he dwelt on the revelation of that day, the deeper grew his conviction that Frederick Massingbird was alive, breathing the very air that he breathed. What ought to be his course? If this were so, his wife was—not his wife.
It was obvious that his present, immediate course ought to be to solve the doubt: to set it at rest. But how? It could only be done by unearthing Frederick Massingbird; or he who bore so strange a resemblance to him. And where was he to be looked for? To track the hiding-place of a “ghost” is not an easy matter; and Lionel had no clue where to find the track of this one. If staying in the village, he must be concealed in some house; lying perdu by day. It was very strange that it should be so; that he should not openly show himself.
There was another way by which perhaps the doubt might be solved—as it suddenly occurred to Lionel. And that was through Captain Cannonby. If this gentleman really was with Frederick Massingbird when he died, and saw him buried, it was evident that it could not be Frederick come back to life. In that case, who or what it might be, Lionel did not stay to speculate: his business lay in ascertaining by the most direct means in his power, whether it was, or was not, Frederick Massingbird. How was it possible to do this, how could it be possible to set the question at rest?
By a very simple process, it may be answered—the waiting for time and chance. Ay, but do you know what that waiting involves, in a case like this? Think of the state of mind that Lionel Verner must live under, during the suspense!
He made no doubt that the man who had been under the tree on the lawn, a few nights before, watching his window, whom they had set down as being Roy, was Frederick Massingbird. And yet, it was scarcely believable. Where now was Lionel to look for him? He could not, for Sibylla’s sake, make inquiries in the village in secret or openly: he could not go to the inhabitants and ask—have you seen Frederick Massingbird? or say to each individual, I must send a police-officer to search your house, for I suspect Frederick Massingbird is somewhere concealed, and I want to find him. For her sake he could not so much as breathe the name, in connection with his being alive.
Given that it was Frederick Massingbird, what could possibly prevent his making himself known? As he dwelt upon this problem, trying to solve it, the idea taken up by Lucy Tempest—that the man under the tree was watching for an opportunity to harm him—came into his mind. That, surely, could not be the solution! If he had taken Frederick Massingbird’s wife to be his wife, he had done it in all innocence. Lionel spurned the notion as a preposterous one: nevertheless, a remembrance crossed him of the old days when the popular belief at Verner’s Pride had been, that the younger of the Massingbirds was of a remarkably secretive and also of a revengeful nature. But all that he barely glanced at: the terrible fear touching Sibylla absorbed him.
He was leaning against a tree in the covered walk near Verner’s Pride, the walk which led to the willow-pond, his head bared, his brow bent with the most unmistakeable signs of care, when something not unlike a small white balloon came flying down the path. A lady, with her silk dress turned over her shoulders, leaving only the white lining exposed to view. She was face to face with Lionel before she saw him.
“Lucy!” he exclaimed, in extreme surprise.
Lucy Tempest laughed, and let her dress drop into a more dignified position. “I and Decima went to call on Mrs. Bitterworth,” she explained, “and Decima is staying there. It began to rain as I came out, so I turned into the back walk and put my dress up to save it. Am I not economical, Mr. Verner?”
She spoke quickly. Lionel thought it was done with a view to hide her agitation. “You cannot go home through this rain, Lucy. Let me take you indoors: we are close at home.”
“No, thank you,” said Lucy, hastily, “I must return to Lady Verner. She will not be pleased at Decima’s staying out, therefore I must return. Poor Mrs. Bitterworth has had an attack of—what did they call it?—spasmodical croup, I think. She is better now, and begged Decima to stay with her the rest of the day: Mr. Bitterworth and the rest of them are out. Jan says it is highly dangerous for the time it lasts.”
“She has had something of the same sort before, I remember,” observed Lionel. “I wish you would come in, Lucy. If you must go home, I will send you in the carriage: but I think you might stay and dine with us.”
A soft colour mantled in Lucy’s cheeks. She had never made herself a familiar acquaintance at Lionel Verner’s. He had observed it, if no one else had. Sibylla had once said to her that she hoped they should be great friends, that Verner’s Pride would see a great deal of her. Lucy had never responded to the wish. A formal visit with Decima or Lady Verner when she could not help herself; but alone, in a social manner, she had never put her foot over the threshold of Verner’s Pride.
“You are very kind. I must go home at once. The rain will not hurt me.”
Lionel, self-conscious, did not urge it further.
“Will you remain here, then, under the trees, while I go home and get an umbrella?”
“Oh dear no, I don’t want an umbrella; thank you all the same. I have my parasol, you see.”
She took her dress up again as she spoke, not high, as it was previously, but turning it a little.
“Lady Verner scolds me so if I spoil my things,” she said, in a tone of laughing apology. “She buys me very good ones, and orders me to take care of them. Good-bye, Mr. Verner.”
Lionel took the hand in his which she held out. But he turned with her, and then loosed it again.
“You are not coming with me, Mr. Verner?”
“I shall see you home.”
“But—I had rather you did not. I prefer—not to trouble you.”
“Pardon me, Lucy. I cannot suffer you to go alone.”
It was a calm reply, quietly spoken. There were no fine phrases of its being “no trouble,” that the “trouble was a pleasure,” as others might indulge in. Fine phrases from them! from the one to the other! Neither could have spoken them.
Lucy said no more, and they walked on side by side in silence, both unpleasantly self-conscious. Lionel’s face had resumed its strange expression of care. Lucy had observed it when she came up to him; she observed it still.
“You look as if you had some great trouble upon you, Mr. Verner,” she said, after awhile.
“Then I look what is the truth. I have one, Lucy.”
“A heavy one?” asked Lucy, struck with his tone.
“A grievously heavy one. One that does not often fall to the lot of man.”
“May I know it?” she timidly said.
“No, Lucy. If I could speak it, it would only give you pain; but it is of a private nature. Possibly it may be averted; it is at present a suspected dread, not a confirmed one. Should it become confirmed, you will learn it in common with all the world.”
She looked up at him puzzled; sympathy in her mantling blush, in her soft dark, earnest eyes. He could not avoid contrasting that truthful face with another’s frivolous one: and I can’t help it if you blame him. He did his best to shake off the feeling, and looked down at her with a careless smile.
“Don’t let it give you concern, Lucy. My troubles must rest upon my own head.”
“Have you seen any more of that man who was watching? Roy.”
“No. But I don’t believe now that it was Roy. He strongly denies it, and I have had my suspicicions diverted to another quarter.”
“To one who may be equally wishing to do you harm?”
“I cannot say. If it be the party I—I suspect, he may deem that I have done him harm.”
“You!” echoed Lucy. “And have you?”
“Yes. Unwittingly. It seems to be my fate, I think, to work harm upon—upon those whom I would especially shield from it.”
Did he allude to her? Lucy thought so, and the flush on her cheeks deepened. At that moment the rain began to pour down heavily. They were then passing the thicket of trees where those adventurous ghost hunters had taken up their watch a few nights previously, in view of the willow-pond. Lucy stepped underneath their branches.
“Now,” said Lionel, “should you have done well to accept my offer of Verner’s Pride as a shelter, or not?”
“It may only be a passing storm,” observed Lucy. “The rain then was nothing.”
Lionel took her parasol and shook the wet off it. He began to wonder how Lucy would get home. No carriage could be got to that spot, and the rain, coming down now, was not, in his opinion, a passing storm.
“Will you promise to remain here, Lucy, while I get an umbrella?” he presently asked.
“Why! where could you get an umbrella from?”
“From Hook’s, if they possess such a thing. If not, I can get one from Broom’s.”
“But you would get so wet going for it!”
Lionel laughed as he went off.
“I don’t wear a silk dress; to be scolded for it, if it gets spoiled.”
Not ten steps had he taken, however, when who should come striding through an opening in the trees, but Jan. Jan was on his way from Hook’s cottage, a huge brown cotton umbrella over his head, more useful than elegant.
“What, is that you, Miss Lucy! Well, I should as soon have thought of seeing Mrs. Peckaby’s white donkey!”
“I am weather-bound, Jan,” said Lucy. “Mr. Verner was about to get me an umbrella.”
“To see if I could get one,” corrected Lionel. “I question if the Hooks possess such a commodity.”
“Not they,” cried Jan. “The girl’s rather better,” added he, unceremoniously. “She may get through it now: at least there’s a shade of a chance. You can have my umbrella, Miss Lucy.”
“Won’t you let me go with you, Jan?” she asked.
“Oh, I can’t stop to take you to Deerham Court,” was Jan’s answer, given with his accustomed plainness. “Here, Lionel.”
He handed over the umbrella, and was walking off.
“Jan, Jan, you will get wet,” said Lucy.
It amused Jan.
“A wetting more or less is nothing to me,” he called out, striding on.
“Will you stay under shelter a few minutes yet, and see whether it abates?” asked Lionel.
Lucy looked up at the skies, stretching her head beyond the trees to do so.
“Do you think it will abate?” she rejoined.
“Honestly, to confess it, I think it will get worse,” said Lionel. “Lucy, you have thin shoes on! I did not see that until now.”
“Don’t you tell Lady Verner,” replied Lucy, with the pretty dependent manner which she had brought from school with her, and which she probably would never lose. “She would scold me for walking out in them.”
Lionel smiled, and held the great umbrella—large enough for a carriage—close to the trees, that it might shelter her as she came forth.
“Take my arm, Lucy.”
She hesitated for a single moment—a hesitation so temporary that any other than Lionel could not have observed it, and then took his arm. And again they walked on in silence. In passing down Clay Lane—the way Lionel took—Mrs. Peckaby was standing at her door.
“On the look out for the white donkey, Mrs. Peckaby?” asked Lionel.
The husband, inside, heard the words and flew into a tantrum.
“She’s never on the look out for nothing else, sir: asking pardon for saying it to you.”
Mrs. Peckaby clasped her hands together.
“It’ll come!” she murmured. “Sometimes, sir, when my patience is well nigh exhausted, I has a vision of the New Jerusalem in the night, and is revived. It’ll come, sir, the quadruple ’ll come!”
“I wonder,” laughed Lucy, as they walked on, “whether she will go on to the end of her life expecting it?”
“If her husband will allow her,” answered Lionel. “But by what I have heard since I came home, his patience is—as she says by her own with reference to the white ‘quadruple’—well nigh exhausted.”
“He told Decima, the other day, that he was sick of the theme and of her folly, and he wished the New Jerusalem had her and the white donkey together. Here we are!” added Lucy, as they came in front of Deerham Court. “Lionel, please, let me go in the back way—Jan’s way. And then Lady Verner will not see me. She will say I ought not to have come through the rain.”
“She’ll see the shoes and the silk dress, and she’ll say you should have stopped at Verner’s Pride, as a well-trained young lady ought,” returned Lionel.
He took her safely to the back door, opened it, and sent her in.
“Thank you very much,” said she, holding out her hand to him. “I have given you a disagreeable walk, and now I must give you one back again.”
“Change your shoes at once, and don’t talk foolish things,” was Lionel’s answer.
A wet walk back he certainly had: but, wet or dry, it was all the same in his present distressed frame of mind. Arrived at Verner’s Pride, he found his wife dressed for dinner, and the centre of a host of guests, gay as she was. No opportunity, then, to question her about Frederick Massingbird’s death, and how far Captain Cannonby was cognisant of the particulars.
He had to change his own things. It was barely done by dinner-time, and he sat down to table, the host of many guests. His brow was smooth, his speech was courtly: how could any of them suspect that a terrible dread was gnawing at his heart? Sibylla, in a rustling silk dress and a coronet of diamonds, sat opposite to him in all her dazzling beauty. Had she suspected what might be in store for her, those smiles would not have chased each other so incessantly on her lips.
Sibylla went up to bed early. She was full of caprices as a wayward child. Of a remarkably chilly nature—as is the case sometimes where the constitution is delicate—she would have a fire in her dressing-room night and morning all the year round, even in the heat of summer. It pleased her this evening to desert her guests suddenly: she had the headache, she said.
The weather on this day appeared to be as capricious as Sibylla, as strangely curious as the great fear which had fallen upon Lionel. The fine morning had changed to the rainy, misty, chilly afternoon; the afternoon to a clear, bright evening; and that evening had now become overcast with portentous clouds.
Without much warning, the storm burst forth: peals of thunder reverberated through the air, flashes of forked lightning played in the sky. Lionel hastened upstairs: he remembered how these storms terrified his wife.
She had knelt down to bury her head amidst the soft cushions of a chair when Lionel entered her dressing-room. “Sibylla,” he said.
Up she started at the sound of his voice, and flew to him. There lay her protection; and in spite of her ill-temper and her love of aggravation, she felt and recognised it. Lionel held her in his sheltering arms, bending her head down upon his breast and drawing his coat over it, so that she might see no ray of light: as he had been wont to do in former storms. As a timid child was she at these times: humble, loving, gentle: she felt as if she were on the threshold of the next world, that the next moment might be her last. Others have been known to experience the same dread in a thunder-storm: and, to be thus brought, as it were, face to face with death, takes the spirit out of people.
He stood patiently, holding her. Every time the thunder burst above their heads, he could feel her heart beat against his. One of her arms was round him; the other he held; all wet it was with the fear. He did not speak: he only clasped her closer every now and then, that she might be reminded of her shelter.
Twenty minutes, or so, and the violence of the storm abated. The lightning grew less frequent, the thunder distant and more distant. At length the sound wholly ceased, and the lightning subsided into that harmless sheet lightning which is so beautiful to look at in the far-off horizon.
“It is over,” he whispered.
She lifted her head from its resting-place. Her blue eye was bright with excitement, her delicate cheek crimson, her golden hair fell in a dishevelled mass around. Her gala robes had been removed with the diamond coronet, and the storm had surprised her writing a note in her dressing-gown. In spite of the sudden terror which overtook her, she did not forget to put the letter—so far as had been written of it—safely away. It was not expedient that her husband’s eyes should fall upon it: Sibylla had many answers to write now to importunate creditors.
“Are you sure, Lionel?”
“Quite sure. Come and see how clear it is. You are not alarmed at the sheet-lightning.”
He put his arm round her, and led her to the window. As he said, the sky was clear again. Nearly all traces of the storm had passed away: there had been no rain with it; and, but for the remembrance of its sound in their ears, they might have believed that it had not taken place. The broad lands of Verner’s Pride lay spreading out before them; the lawns and the terrace underneath: the sheet-lightning illumined the heavens incessantly, rendering objects nearly as clear as in the day.
Lionel held her to his side, his arm round her. She trembled still; trembled excessively; her bosom heaved and fell beneath his hand.
“When I die, it will be in a thunder-storm,” she whispered.
“You foolish girl!” he said, his tone half a joking one, wholly tender. “What can have given you this excessive fear of thunder, Sibylla?”
“I was always frightened at a thunder-storm. Deborah says mamma was. But I was not so very frightened until a storm I witnessed in Australia. It killed a man!” she added, shivering and nestling nearer to Lionel.
“It was only a few days before Frederick left me, when he and Captain Cannonby went away together,” she continued. “We had hired a carriage and had gone out of the town ever so far. There was something to be seen there; I forget what now; races perhaps. I know a good many people went; and an awful thunder-storm came on. Some ran under the trees for shelter; some would not: and the lightning killed a man. Oh, Lionel, I shall never forget it! I saw him carried past; I saw his face! Since then I have felt ready to die, myself, with the fear.”
She turned her face and hid it upon his bosom. Lionel did not attempt to soothe the fear; he knew that for such fear time alone is the only cure. He whispered words of soothing to her; he stroked fondly her golden hair. In these moments, when she was gentle, yielding, clinging to him for protection, three parts of his old love for her would come back again. The lamp, which had been turned on to its full blaze of light, was behind them, so that they might have been visible enough to anybody standing in the nearer portion of the grounds.
“Captain Cannonby went away with Frederick Massingbird,” observed Lionel, approaching by degrees to the questions he wished to ask. “Did they start together?”
“Yes. Don’t talk about it, Lionel.”
“My dear wife, I must talk about it,” he gravely answered. “You have always put me off in this manner, so that I know little or nothing of the circumstances. I have a reason for wishing to become cognisant of those past particulars. Surely,” he added, a shade of deeper feeling in his tone, “at this distance of time it cannot be so very painful to your feelings to speak of Frederick Massingbird. I am by your side.”
“What is the reason that you wish to know?”
“A little matter that regarded him and Cannonby. Was Cannonby with him when he died?”
Sibylla, subdued still, yielded to the wish, as she would probably have yielded at no other time.
“Of course he was with him. They were but a day’s journey from Melbourne. I forget the name of the place: a sort of small village or settlement, I believe, where the people halted that were going to, or returning from the diggings. Frederick was taken worse as they got there, and in a few hours he died.”
“Cannonby remaining with him?”
“Yes. I am sure I have told you this before, Lionel. I told it to you on the night of my return.”
He was aware she had. (He could not say: “But I wish to press you upon the points; to ascertain beyond doubt that Frederick Massingbird did really die; that he is not living.”) “Did Cannonby stay until he was buried?”
“You are sure of this?”
Sibylla looked at him curiously. She could not think why he was recalling this; why want to know it.
“I am sure of it only so far as that Captain Cannonby told me so,” replied Sibylla.
The reservation struck upon him with a chill: it seemed to be a confirmation of his worst fears. Sibylla continued, for he did not speak:
“Of course he stayed with him until he was buried. When Captain Cannonby came back to me at Melbourne, he said he had waited to lay him in the ground. Why should he have said it, if he did not?”
“True,” murmured Lionel.
“He said the burial-service had been read over him. I remember that, well. I reproached Captain Cannonby with not having come back to me immediately, or sent for me that I might at least have seen him dead, if not alive. He excused himself by saying that he did not think I should like to see him: and he had waited to bury him before returning.”
Lionel fell into a reverie. If this, that Captain Cannonby had stated, was correct, there was no doubt that Frederick Massingbird was safely dead and buried. But he could not be sure that it was correct: he may not have relished waiting to see a dead man buried: although he had affirmed so much to Sibylla. A thousand pounds would Lionel have given out of his pocket at that moment, for one minute’s interview with Captain Cannonby.
The call came from Sibylla with sudden intensity, half startling him. She had got one of her fingers pointed to the lawn.
“Who’s that—peeping forth from underneath the yew-tree?”
The same place, the same tree which had been pointed to by Lucy Tempest! An impulse, for which Lionel could not have accounted, caused him to turn round and put out the lamp.
“Who can it be?” wondered Sibylla. “He appears to be watching us. How foolish of any of them to go out! I should not feel safe under a tree, although that lightning is only sheet-lightning.”
Every perceptive faculty that Lionel Verner possessed was strained upon the spot. He could make out a tall man; a man whose figure bore—unless his eyes and his imagination combined to deceive him—a strong resemblance to Frederick Massingbird’s. Had it come to it? Were he and his rival face to face; was she, by his own side now, about to be bandied between them?—belonging, save by the priority of the first marriage ceremony, no more to one than to the other? A stifled cry, suppressed instantly, escaped his lips; his pulses stood still, and then throbbed on with painful violence.
“Can you discern him, Lionel?” she asked. “He is going away—going back amidst the trees. Perhaps because he can’t see us any longer, now you have put the light out. Who is it? Why should he have stood there, watching us?”
Lionel snatched her to him with an impulsive gesture. He would have sacrificed his life willingly to save Sibylla from the terrible misfortune that appeared to be falling upon her.
CHAPTER XLII. A CASUAL MEETING ON THE RIVER.
A merry breakfast-table. Sibylla, for a wonder, up, and present at it. The rain of the preceding day, the storm of the night had entirely passed away, and as fine a morning as could be wished was smiling on the earth.
“Which of you went out before the storm was over, and ventured under the great yew-tree?”
It was Mrs. Verner who spoke. She looked at the different gentlemen present, and they looked at her. They did not know what she meant.
“You were under it, one of you,” persisted Sibylla.
All, save one, protested that they had neither been out nor under the tree. That one—it happened to be Mr. Gordon, of whom casual mention has been made—confessed to having been on the lawn, so far as crossing it went; but he did not go near the tree.
“I went out with my cigar,” he observed, “and had strolled some distance from the house when the storm came on. I stood in the middle of a field and watched it. It was grandly beautiful.”
“I wonder you were not brought home dead!” ejaculated Sibylla.
Mr. Gordon laughed.
“If you once witnessed the thunder-storms that we get in the tropics, Mrs. Verner, you would not associate these with danger.”
“I have seen dreadful thunder-storms, apart from what we get here, as well as you, Mr. Gordon,” returned Sibylla. “Perhaps you will deny that anybody’s ever killed by them in this country. But why did you halt underneath the yew-tree?”
“I did not,” he repeated. “I crossed the lawn, straight on to the upper end of the terrace. I did not go near the tree.”
“Some one did, if you did not. They were staring right up at my dressing-room window. I was standing at it with Mr. Verner.”
Mr. Gordon shook his head.
“Not guilty, so far as I am concerned, Mrs. Verner. I met some man, when I was coming home, plunging into the thicket of trees as I emerged from them. It was he, possibly.”
“What man?” questioned Sibylla.
“I did not know him. He was a stranger. A tall, dark man with stooping shoulders, and something black upon his cheek.”
“Something black upon his cheek!” repeated Sibylla, thinking the words bore an odd sound.
“A large black mark it looked like. His cheek was white—sallow would be the better term—and he wore no whiskers, so it was a conspicuous looking brand. In the moment he passed me, the lightning rendered the atmosphere as light as—”
“Sibylla!” almost shouted Lionel, “we are waiting for more tea in this quarter. Never mind Gordon.”
They looked at him with surprise. He was leaning towards his wife; his face crimson, his tones agitated. Sibylla stared at him, and said, if he called out like that, she would not get up another morning. Lionel replied, talking fast; and just then the letters were brought in. Altogether, the subject of the man with the mark upon his cheek dropped out of the discussion.
Breakfast over, Lionel put his arm within Mr. Gordon’s and drew him outside upon the terrace. Not to question him upon the man he had seen: Lionel would have been glad that that encounter should pass out of Mr. Gordon’s remembrance, as affording less chance of Sibylla’s hearing of it again; but to get information on another topic. He had been rapidly making up his mind during the latter half of breakfast, and had come to a decision.
“Gordon, can you inform me where Captain Cannonby is to be found?”
“Can you inform me where the comet that visited us last year may be met with this?” returned Mr. Gordon. “I’d nearly as soon undertake to find out the locality of the one as of the other. Cannonby did go to Paris; but where he may be now, is quite another affair.”
“Was he going there for any length of stay?”
“I fancy not. Most likely he is back in London by this time. Had he told me he was coming back, I should have paid no attention to it. He never knows his own mind two hours together.”
“I particularly wish to see him,” observed Lionel. “Can you give me any address where he may be found in London?—if he has returned?”
“Yes. His brother’s in Westminster. I can give you the exact number and address by referring to my note-book. When Cannonby’s in London, he makes it his head-quarters. If he is away, his brother may know where he is.”
“His brother may be out of town also. Few men are in it at this season.”
“If they can get out. But Dr. Cannonby can’t. He is a physician, and must stop at his post, season or no season.”
“I am going up to town to-day,” remarked Lionel, “and—”
“You are! For long?”
“Back to-morrow, I hope: perhaps to-night. If you will give me the address, I’ll copy it down.”
Lionel wrote it down: but Mr. Gordon told him there was no necessity: any little ragged boy in the street could direct him to Dr. Cannonby’s. Then he went to make his proposed journey known to Sibylla. She was standing near one of the terrace pillars, looking up at the sky, her eyes shaded with her hand. Lionel drew her inside an unoccupied room.
“Sibylla, a little matter of business is calling me to London,” he said. “If I can catch the half-past ten train, I may be home again to-night, late.”
“How sudden!” cried Sibylla. “Why didn’t you tell me? What weather shall we have to-day, do you think?”
“Fine. But it is of little consequence to me whether it be fine or wet.”
“Oh! I was not thinking of you,” was the careless reply. “I want it to be fine for our archery.”
“Good-bye,” he said, stooping to kiss her. “Take care of yourself.”
“Lionel, mind, I shall have the ponies,” was her answer, given in a pouting, pretty, affected manner.
Lionel smiled, shook his head, took another kiss, and left her. Oh, if he could but shield her from the tribulation that too surely seemed to be ominously looming!
The lightest and fleetest carriage he possessed, had been made ready, and was waiting for him at the stables. He got in there, and drove off with his groom, saying farewell to none, and taking nothing with him but an overcoat. As he drove past Mrs. Duff’s shop, the remembrance of the bill came over him. He had forwarded the money to her the previous night in his wife’s name.
He caught the train; was too soon for it; it was five minutes behind time. If those who saw him depart could but have divined the errand he was bent on, what a commotion would have spread over Deerham! If the handsome lady, seated opposite to him, the only other passenger in that compartment, could but have read the cause which rendered him so self-absorbed, so insensible to her attractions, she would have gazed at him with far more interest.
“Who is that gentleman?” she privately asked of the guard when she got the opportunity.
“Mr. Verner, of Verner’s Pride.”
He sat back on his seat, heeding nothing. Had all the pretty women of the kingdom been ranged before him, on a row, they had been nothing to Mr. Verner then. Had Lucy Tempest been there, he had been equally regardless of her. If Frederick Massingbird were indeed in life, Verner’s Pride was no longer his: but it was not of that he thought: it was of the calamity that would involve his wife. A calamity which, to the refined, sensitive mind of Lionel Verner, was almost worse than death itself.
What would the journey bring forth for him? Should he succeed in seeing Captain Cannonby? He awaited the fiat with feverish heat; and wished the fast express engine would travel faster.
The terminus gained at last, a Hansom took him to Dr. Cannonby’s. It was half-past two o’clock. He leaped out of the cab and rang, entering the hall when the door was opened.
“Can I see Dr. Cannonby?”
“The doctor’s just gone out, sir. He will be home at five.”
It was a sort of checkmate, and Lionel stood looking at the servant—as if the man could telegraph some impossible aërial message to his master to bring him back then.
“Is Captain Cannonby staying here?” was his next question.
“No, sir. He was staying here, but he went away this morning.”
“He is home from Paris then?”
“He came back two or three days ago, sir,” replied the servant.
“Do you know where he is gone?”
“I don’t, sir. I fancy it’s somewhere in the country.”
“Dr. Cannonby would know?”
“I dare say he would, sir. I should think so.”
Lionel turned to the door. Where was the use of his lingering? He looked back to ask a question.
“You are sure that Captain Cannonby has gone out of town?”
“Oh yes, sir.”
He descended the steps, and the man closed the door upon him. Where should he go? What should he do with himself for the next two and a half mortal hours? Go to his club? Or to any of the old spots of his London life? Not he: some familiar faces might be in town; and he was in no mood for familiar faces then.
Sauntering hither, sauntering thither, he came to Westminster Bridge. One of the steamers was approaching the pier to take in passengers, on its way down the river. For want of some other mode in which to employ his time, Lionel went down to the embarking place, and stepped on board.
Does any thing in this world happen by chance? What secret unknown impulse could have sent Lionel Verner on board that steamer? Had Dr. Cannonby been at home he would not have gone near it: had he turned to the right hand instead of to the left, on leaving Dr. Cannonby’s house, the boat would never have seen him.
It was not crowded, as those steamers sometimes are crowded, suggesting visions of the bottom of the river. The day was fine; warm for September, but not too hot; the gliding down the stream delightful. With a heart at ease, Lionel would have found it so: as it was, he could scarcely have told whether he was going down the stream or up, whether it was wet or dry. He could see but one thing—the image of Frederick Massingbird.
As the boat drew up to the Temple pier, the only person, waiting to embark, was a woman; a little body in a brown faded silk dress. Whether, seeing his additional freight was to be so trifling, the manager of the steamer did not take the usual care to bring it alongside, certain it is, that in some way the woman fell in stepping on board; her knees on the boat, her feet hanging down to the water. Lionel, who was sitting near, sprang forward and pulled her out of danger.
“I declare I never ought to come aboard these nasty steamers!” she exclaimed, as he placed her in a seat. “I’m greatly obliged to you, sir: I might have gone in else; there’s no saying. The last time I was aboard one I was in danger of being killed. I fell through the port-hole, sir.”
“Indeed!” responded Lionel, who could not be so discourteous as not to answer. “Perhaps your sight is not good?”
“Well, yes it is, sir, as good as most folks’ at middle age. I get timid aboard ’em, and it makes me confused and awkward, and I suppose I don’t mind where I put my feet. This was in Liverpool, sir, a week or two ago. It was a passenger-ship just in from Australia, and the bustle and confusion aboard was dreadful—they say it’s mostly so with them vessels that are coming home. I had gone down to meet my husband, sir; he has been away four years—and it’s a pity he ever went, for all the good he has done. But he’s back safe himself, so I must not grumble.”
“That’s something,” said Lionel.
“True, sir. It would have been a strange thing if I had lost my life just as he had come home. And I should, but for a gentleman on board. He seized hold of me by the middle, and somehow contrived to drag me up again. A strong man he must have been! I shall always remember him with gratitude, I’m sure: as I shall you, sir. His name, my husband told me after, was Massingbird.”
All Lionel’s inertness was gone at the sound of the name. “Massingbird?” he repeated.
“Yes, sir. He had come home in the ship from the same port as my husband—Melbourne. Quite a gentleman, my husband said he was, with grand relations in England. He had not been out there over long—hardly as long as my husband, I fancy—and my husband don’t think he has made much, any more than himself has.”
Lionel had regained all his outward impassiveness. He stood by the talkative woman, his arms folded. “What sort of a looking man was this Mr. Massingbird?” he asked. “I knew a gentleman once of that name, who went to Australia.”
The woman glanced up at him, measuring his height. “I should say he was as tall as you, sir, or close upon it, but he was broader made, and had got a stoop in the shoulders. He was dark; had dark eyes and hair, and a pale face. Not the clear paleness of your face, sir, but one of them sallow faces that get darker and yellower with travelling; never red.”
Every word was as fresh testimony to the suspicion that it was Frederick Massingbird. “Had he a black mark upon his cheek?” inquired Lionel.
“Likely he might have had, sir, but I couldn’t see his cheeks. He wore a sort of fur cap with the ears tied down. My husband saw a good bit of him on the voyage, though he was only a middle-deck passenger, and the gentleman was a cabin. His friends have had a surprise before this,” she continued, after a pause. He told my husband that they all supposed him dead; had thought he had been dead this two years and more, past; and he had never sent home to contradict it.”
Then it was Frederick Massingbird! Lionel Verner quitted the woman’s side, and leaned over the rail of the steamer, apparently watching the water. He could not, by any dint of reasoning or supposition, make out the mystery. How Frederick Massingbird could be alive; or, being alive, why he had not come home before to claim Sibylla—why he had not claimed her before she left Australia—why he did not claim her now he was come. A man without a wife might go roving where he would and as long as he would, letting his friends think him dead if it pleased him; but a man with a wife could not, in his sane senses, be supposed to act so. It was a strange thing, his meeting with this woman—a singular coincidence: one that he would hardly have believed, if related to him, as happening to another.
It was striking five when he again knocked at Dr. Cannonby’s. He wished to see Captain Cannonby still; it would be the crowning confirmation: but he had no doubt whatever that that gentleman’s report would be: “I saw Frederick Massingbird die—as I believed, and I quitted him immediately. I conclude that I must have been in error in supposing he was dead.”
Dr. Cannonby had returned, the servant said. He desired Lionel to walk in, and threw open the door of the room. Seven or eight people were sitting in it, waiting. The servant had evidently mistaken him for a patient, and placed him there to wait his turn with the rest. He took his card from his pocket, wrote on it a few words, and desired the servant to carry it to his master.
The man came back with an apology.
“I beg your pardon, sir. Will you step this way?”
The physician was bowing a lady out as he entered the room—a room lined with books, and containing casts of heads. He came forward to shake hands, a cordial-mannered man. He knew Lionel by reputation, but had never seen him.
“My visit was not to you, but to your brother,” explained Lionel. “I was in hopes to have found him here.”
“Then he and you have been playing at cross-purposes to-day,” remarked the doctor, with a smile. “Lawrence started this morning for Verner’s Pride.”
“Indeed!” exclaimed Lionel. “Cross purposes indeed!” he uttered to himself.
“He heard some news in Paris which concerned you, I believe, and hastened home to pay you a visit.”
“Which concerned me!” repeated Lionel.
“Or rather Mrs. Massingbird—Mrs. Verner, I should say.”
A sickly smile crossed Lionel’s lips. Mrs. Massingbird! Was it already known?
“Why,” he asked, “did you call her Mrs. Massingbird?”
“I beg your pardon for my inadvertence, Mr. Verner,” was the reply of Dr. Cannonby. “Lawrence knew her as Mrs. Massingbird, and on his return from Australia he frequently spoke of her to me as Mrs. Massingbird, so that I got into the habit of thinking of her as such. It was not until he went to Paris that he heard she had exchanged the name for that of Verner.”
A thought crossed Lionel that this was the news which had taken Captain Cannonby down to him. He might know of the existence of Frederick Massingbird, and had gone to break the news to him, Lionel; to tell him that his wife was not his wife.
“You do not know precisely what his business was with me?” he inquired, quite wistfully.
“No, I don’t. I don’t know that it was much beyond the pleasure of seeing you and Mrs. Verner.”
“But you will stay and dine with me, Mr. Verner?”
“Thank you, I am going back at once. I wish to be home this evening if possible, and there’s nothing to hinder it now.”
“A letter or two has come for Lawrence since the morning,” observed the doctor as he shook hands. “Will you take charge of them for him?”
Dr. Cannonby turned to a letter rack over the mantelpiece, selected three letters from it, and handed them to Lionel.
Back again all the weary way. His strong suspicions were no longer suspicions now, but confirmed certainties. The night grew dark: it was not darker than the cloud which had fallen upon his spirit.
Thought was busy with his brain. How could it be otherwise? Should he get home to find the news public property? Had Captain Cannonby made it known to Sibylla? Most fervently did he hope not. Better that he, Lionel, should be by her side to help her to bear it when the dreadful news came out. Next came another thought. Suppose Frederick Massingbird should have discovered himself? should have gone to Verner’s Pride to take possession?—his home now; his wife. Lionel might get back to find that he had no longer a place there.
Lionel found his carriage waiting at the station. He had ordered it to be so. Wigham was with it. A very coward now, he scarcely dared ask questions.
“Has Captain Cannonby arrived at the house to-day, do you know, Wigham?”
“A strange gentleman from London. Captain Cannonby.”
“I can’t rightly say, sir. I have been about in the stables all day. I saw a strange gentleman cross the yard just at dinner time, one I’d never seen afore. May be it was him.”
A feeling came over Lionel that he could not see Captain Cannonby before them all. Better send for him to a private room, and get the communication over. What his after course would be was another matter. Yes: better in all ways.
“Drive round to the yard, Wigham,” he said, as the coachman was about to turn on to the terrace. And Wigham obeyed.
He got out. He went in at the back door, almost as if he were slinking into the house stealthily, traversed the passages, and gained the lighted hall. At the very moment that he put his foot on its tesselated floor, a sudden commotion was heard up the stairs. A door was flung open, and Sibylla, with cheeks inflamed and breath panting, flew down, her convulsive cries echoing through the house. She saw Lionel, and threw herself into his arms.
“Oh Lionel, what is this wicked story?” she sobbed. “It is not true! It cannot be true that I am not your wife and—”
“Hush, my darling!” he whispered, placing his hand across her mouth. “We are not alone!”
They certainly were not! Out of the drawing-rooms, out of the dining-room, had poured the guests; out of the kitchen came peeping the servants. Deborah West stood on the stairs like a statue, her hands clasped, and Mademoiselle Benoite frantically inquired what anybody had been doing to her mistress. All stared in amazement. She, in that terrible state of agitation; Lionel supporting her with his white and haughty face.
“It is nothing,” he said, waving them off. “Mrs. Verner is not well. Come with me, Sibylla.”
Waving them off still, he drew her into the study, closed the door, and bolted it. She clung to him like one in the extremity of terror, her throat heaving convulsively.
“Oh Lionel! is it true that he is come back? That he did not die? What will become of me? Tell me that they have been deceiving me; that it is not true!”
He could not tell her so. He wound his arms tenderly round her and held her face to his breast, and laid his own down upon it. “Strive for calmness,” he murmured, his heart aching for her. “I will protect you so long as I shall have the power.”