Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 22
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER XLIII. MEETING THE NEWS.
Miss Deborah West did not believe in ghosts. Miss Deb, setting aside a few personal weaknesses and vanities, was a strong-minded female, and no more believed in ghosts than she did in Master Cheese’s delicate constitution, which required to be supplied with an unlimited quantity of tarts and other dainties to keep up his strength between meals. The commotion respecting Frederick Massingbird, that his ghost had arrived from Australia, and “walked,” reached the ears of Miss Deb. It reached them in this way.
Miss Deb and her sister, compelled to economy by the scanty allowance afforded by Dr. West, had no more helpmates in the household department than could be avoided, and the surgery boy, Bob, found himself sometimes pressed into aiding in the domestic service. One evening Miss Deb entered the surgery, and caught Master Cheese revelling in a hat-full of walnuts by gaslight. This was the evening of the storm, previously mentioned.
“Where’s Bob?” asked she. “I want a message taken to Mrs. Broom’s about those pickled mushrooms that she is doing for me.”
“Bob’s out,” responded Master Cheese. “Have a walnut, Miss Deb?”
“I don’t mind. Are they ripe?” answered Miss Deb.
Master Cheese, the greediest chap alive, picked out the smallest he could find, politely cracked it with his teeth, and handed it to her.
“You’ll not get Bob over to Broom’s at this hour,” cried he. “Jan can’t get him to Mother Hook’s with her medicine, unless it’s made up so that he can take it before dark. They have to send for it.”
“What’s that for?” asked Miss Deb.
Master Cheese cracked on at his walnuts.
“You have not heard the tale that’s going about, I suppose, Miss Deb?”
“I have not heard any tale,” she answered.
“And I don’t know that I must tell it you,” continued Master Cheese, filling his mouth with five or six quarters at once, unpeeled. “Jan ordered me to hold my tongue in-doors.”
“It would be more respectful, Master Cheese, if you said Mr. Jan,” rebuked Miss Deborah. “I have told you so often.”
“Who cares?” returned Master Cheese. “Jan doesn’t. The fact is, Miss Deb, that there’s a ghost about at night just now.”
“Have they got up that folly again? Rachel Frost rests a great deal quieter in her grave than some of you do in your beds.”
“Ah, but it’s not Rachel this time,” significantly responded Master Cheese. “It’s somebody else.”
“Who is it, then?” asked Miss Deb, struck with his manner.
“I’ll tell you if you won’t tell Jan. It’s—don’t start, Miss Deb—it’s Fred Massingbird’s.”
Miss Deb did not start. She looked keenly at Master Cheese, believing he might be playing a joke upon her. But there was no sign of joking in his countenance. It looked, on the contrary, singularly serious, not to say awe-struck, as he leaned forward to bring it nearer Miss Deborah’s.
“It is a fact that Fred Massingbird’s ghost is walking,” he continued. “Lots have seen it. I have seen it. You’d have heard of it, like every body else has, if you had not been Mrs. Verner’s sister. It’s an unpleasantly queer thing for her, you know, Miss Deb.”
“What utter absurdity!” cried Deborah.
“Wait till you see it, before you say it’s absurdity,” replied Master Cheese. “If it’s not Fred Massingbird’s ghost, it is somebody’s that’s the exact image of him.”
Miss Deborah sat down on a stone jar, and got Master Cheese to tell her the whole story. That he should put in a few exaggerations, and so increase the marvel, was only natural. But Deborah West heard sufficient to send her mind into a state of uneasy perplexity.
“You say Mr. Jan knows of this?” she asked.
“There’s nobody about that doesn’t know of it, except you and the folks at Verner’s Pride,” responded Master Cheese. “I say, don’t you go and inform Jan that you made me tell you, Miss Deb! You’ll get me into a row if you do.”
But this was the very thing that Miss Deb resolved to do. Not to get Master Cheese into a “row,” but that she saw no other way of allaying her uncertainty. Ghosts were utterly excluded from Deborah West’s creed; and why so many people should be suddenly testifying that Frederick Massingbird’s was to be seen, she could not understand. That there must be something in it more than the common absurdity of such tales, the state of Alice Hook appeared to testify.
“Can Bob be spared to go over to Broom’s in the morning?” she asked after a long pause of silence, given apparently to the contemplation of Master Cheese’s intense enjoyment of his walnuts; in reality, to deep thought.
“Well, I don’t know,” answered the young gentleman, who never was ready to accord the services of Bob in-doors, lest it might involve any little extra amount of exertion for himself. “There’s a sight of medicine to be taken out just now. Jan’s got a great deal to do, and I am nearly worked off my legs.”
“It looks like it,” retorted Miss Deborah. “Your legs will never be much the worse for the amount of work you do. Where’s Mr. Jan?”
“He went out to go to Hook’s,” replied Master Cheese, a desperately hard walnut proving nearly too much for his teeth. “He’ll take a round, I dare say, before he comes in.”
Deborah returned in-doors. Though not much inclined to reticence in general, she observed it now, saying nothing to Amilly. The storm came on, and they sat and watched it. Supper time approached, and Master Cheese was punctual. He found some pickled herrings on the table, of which he was uncommonly fond, and eat at them as long as Miss West would supply his plate. The meal was over when Jan came in.
“Don’t trouble to have things brought back for me,” said he. “I’ll eat a bit of bread and cheese.”
He was not like his assistant: his growing days were over.
Master Cheese went straight up to bed. He liked to do so as soon as supper was over, lest any summons came, and he should have to go out. Easy Jan, no matter how tired he might be, would attend himself, sooner than wake up Master Cheese—a ceremony more easy to attempt than to accomplish. Fortifying himself with about a pound of sweet cake, which he kept in his box, as a dessert to the herrings, and to refresh his dreams, Master Cheese put himself into bed.
Jan meanwhile finished his bread and cheese, and rose.
“I wonder whether I shall get a whole night of it to-night?” said he, stretching himself. “I didn’t have much bed last night.”
“Have you to go out again, Mr. Jan?”
“No. I shall look to the books a bit, and then turn in. Good night, Miss Deborah; good night, Miss Amilly.”
“Good night,” they answered.
Amilly drew to the fire. The chilly rain of the afternoon had caused them to have one lighted. She put her feet on the fender, feeling the warmth comfortable. Deborah sent the supper-tray away, and then left the room. Stealing out of the side door quietly, she tripped across the narrow path of wet gravel, and entered the surgery. Jan had got an account-book open on the counter, and was leaning over it, a pen in his hand.
“Don’t be frightened, Mr. Jan; it’s only me,” said Deborah, who did not at all times confine herself to the rules of severe grammar. “I’ll shut the door, if you please, for I want to say a word to yourself alone.”
“Is it more physic that you want?” asked Jan. “Has the pain in the side come again?”
“It is not about pains or physic,” she answered, drawing nearer to the counter. “Mr. Jan,”—dropping her voice to a confidential whisper,—“would you be so good as to tell me the truth of this story that is going about?”
“What story?” he rejoined.
“This ghost story. They are saying, I understand, that—that—they are saying something about Frederick Massingbird.”
“Did Cheese supply you with the information?” cried Jan, imperturbable as ever.
“He did. But I must beg you not to scold him for it—as he thought you might do. It was I who drew the story from him. He said you cautioned him not to speak of it to me or Amilly. I quite appreciate your motives, Mr. Jan, and feel that it was very considerate of you. But now that I have heard it, I want to know particulars from somebody more reliable than Master Cheese.”
“I told Lionel I’d say nothing to any soul in the parish,” said Jan, open and single-minded as though he had been made of glass. “But he’d not mind my making you an exception—as you have heard it. You are Sibylla’s sister.”
“You don’t believe in its being a ghost?”
“I!” cried he. “No, I don’t.”
“Then what do you suppose it is, that’s frightening people? And why should they be frightened?”
Jan sat himself down on the counter, and whirled his legs over to the other side, clearing the gallipots; so that he faced Miss Deborah. Not to waste time, he took the mortar before him. And there he was at his ease; his legs hanging, and his hands pounding.
“What should you think it is?” inquired he.
“How can I think, Mr. Jan? Until an hour or two ago, I had not heard of the rumour. I suppose it is somebody who walks about at night to frighten people. But it is curious that he should look like Frederick Massingbird. Can you understand it?”
“I am afraid I can,” replied Jan, pounding away.
“Will you tell me, please, what you think.”
“Can’t you guess at it, Miss Deb?”
Miss Deb looked at him, beginning to think his manner as mysterious as Master Cheese’s had been.
“I can’t guess at it at all,” she presently said. “Please to tell me.”
“Then don’t you go and drop down in a fit when you hear it,” was the rejoinder of Jan. “I suppose it is Fred himself.”
The words took her utterly by surprise. Not at first did she understand their meaning. She stared at Jan, her eyes and her mouth gradually opening.
“Fred himself?” she mechanically uttered.
“I suppose so. Fred himself. Not his ghost.”
“Do you mean that he has come to life again?” she rapidly rejoined.
“Well, you can call it so if you like,” said Jan. “I expect that, in point of fact, he has never been dead. The report of his death must have been erroneous: one of those unaccountable mistakes that do sometimes happen to astonish the world.”
Deborah West took in the full sense of the words, and sunk down on the big stone jar. She turned all over of a burning heat: she felt her hands beginning to twitch with emotion.
“You mean that he is alive?—that he has never been dead?” she gasped.
“Oh, Mr. Jan! Then, what is—what is Sibylla?”
“Ah,” said Jan, “that’s just it. She’s the wife of both of ’em—as you may say.”
For any petty surprise or evil, Miss Deborah would have gone off in a succession of screams, of pseudo-faints. This evil was all too real, too terrible. She sat with her trembling hands clasped to pain, looking hopelessly at Jan.
He told her all he knew; all that was said by others.
“Dan Duff’s nothing,” remarked he; “and Cheese is nothing; and others, who profess to have seen it, are nothing: and old Frost’s not much. But I’d back Bourne’s calmness and sound sense against the world, and I’d back Broom’s.”
“And they have both seen it?”
“Both,” replied Jan. “Both are sure that it is Frederick Massingbird.”
“What will Mr. Verner do?” she asked, looking round with a shudder, and not speaking above her breath.
“Oh, that’s his affair,” said Jan. “It’s hard to guess what he may do: he is one that won’t be dictated to. If it were some people’s case, they’d say to Sibylla, ‘Now you have got two husbands, choose which you’ll have, and keep to him.’”
“Good heavens, Mr. Jan!” exclaimed Miss Deb, shocked at the loose sentiments the words appeared to indicate. “And suppose she should choose the second? Have you thought of the sin? The second can’t be her husband: it would be as bad as those Mormons.”
“Looking at it in a practical point of view, I can’t see much difference, which of the two she chooses,” returned Jan. “If Fred was her husband once, Lionel’s her husband now: practically I say, you know, Miss Deb.”
Miss Deb thought the question was going rather into metaphysics, a branch of science which she did not understand, and so was content to leave the controversy.
“Any way, it is dreadful for her,” she said, with another shiver. “Oh, Mr. Jan, do you think it can really be true?”
“I think that there’s not a doubt of it,” he answered, stopping in his pounding. “But you need not think so, Miss Deb.”
“How am I to help thinking so?” she simply asked.
“You needn’t think either way until it is proved. As I suppose it must be, shortly. Let it rest till then.”
“No, Mr. Jan, I differ from you. It is a question that ought to be sought out and probed; not left to rest. Does Sibylla know it?”
“Not she. Who’d tell her? Lionel won’t, I know. It was for her sake that he bound me to silence.”
“She ought to be told, Mr. Jan. She ought to leave her husband—I mean Mr. Lionel—this very hour, and shut herself up until the doubt is settled.”
“Where should she shut herself?” inquired Jan, opening his eyes. “In a convent? Law, Miss Deb! If somebody came and told me I had got two wives, should you say I ought to make a start for the nearest monastery? How would my patients get on?”
Rather metaphysical again. Miss Deb drew Jan back to plain details—to the histories of the various ghostly encounters. Jan talked and pounded: she sat on her hard seat and listened: her brain more perplexed than it could have been with any metaphysics, known to science. Eleven o’clock disturbed them, and Miss Deborah started as if she had been shot.
“How could I keep you till this time!” she exclaimed. “And you, scarcely in bed for some nights!”
“Never mind, Miss Deb,” answered goodnatured Jan. “It’s all in the day’s work.”
He opened the door for her, and then bolted himself in for the night. For the night, that is, if Deerham would allow it to him. Hook’s daughter was slowly progressing towards recovery, and Jan would not need to go to her.
Amilly was nodding over the fire, or, rather, where the fire had been, for it had gone out. She inquired with wonder what her sister had been doing, and where she had been. Deborah replied that she had been busy: and they went up-stairs to bed.
But not to sleep—for one of them. Deborah West lay awake through the live-long night, tossing from side to side in her perplexity and thought. Somewhat strict in her notions, she deemed it a matter of stern necessity, of positive duty, that Sibylla should retire, at any rate for a time, from the scenes of busy life. To enable her to do this, the news must be broken to her. But how?
Ay, how? Deborah West rose in the morning with the difficulty unsolved. She supposed she must do it herself. She believed it was as much a duty laid upon her, the imparting these tidings to Sibylla, as the separating herself from all social ties, the instant it was so imparted, would be the duty of Sibylla herself. Deborah West went about her occupations that morning, one imperative sentence ever in her thoughts: “It must be done! it must be done.”
She carried it about with her, ever saying it, through the whole day. She shrank, both for Sibylla’s sake and her own, from the task she was imposing upon herself; and, as we all do when we have an unpleasant office to perform, she put it off to the last. Early in the morning she had said I will go to Verner’s Pride after breakfast and tell her; breakfast over, she said I will have my dinner first and go then.
But the afternoon passed on, and she did not go. Every little trivial domestic duty was made an excuse for delaying it. Miss Amilly, finding her sister unusually bad company, went out to drink tea with some friends. The time came for ordering in tea at home, and still Deborah had not gone.
She made the tea and presided at the table. But she could eat nothing—to the inward gratification of Master Cheese. There happened to be shrimps: a dish which that gentleman preferred, if anything, to pickled herrings, and by Miss Deborah’s want of appetite he was able to secure her share and his own, including the heads and tails. He would uncommonly have liked to secure Jan’s share also; but Miss Deborah filled a plate and put them aside against Jan came in. Jan’s pressure of work caused him of late to be irregular at his meals.
Scarcely was the tea over, and Master Cheese gone, when Mr. Bourne called. Deborah, the one thought uppermost in her mind, closed the door, and spoke out what she had heard. The terrible fear, her own distress, Jan’s belief that it was Fred himself, Jan’s representation that Mr. Bourne also believed it. Mr. Bourne, leaning forward until his pale face and his iron-grey hair nearly touched hers, whispered in answer that he did not think there was a doubt of it.
Then Deborah did nerve herself to the task. On the departure of the vicar she started for Verner’s Pride and asked to see Sibylla. The servants would have shown her to the drawing-room, but she preferred to go up to Sibylla’s chamber. The company were yet in the dining-room.
How long Sibylla kept her waiting there, she scarcely knew. Sibylla was not in the habit of putting herself to inconvenience for her sisters. The message was taken to her—that Miss West waited in her chamber—as she entered the drawing-room. And there Sibylla let her wait. One or two more messages to the same effect were subsequently delivered: they produced no impression, and Deborah began to think she should not get to see her that night.
But Sibylla came up at length, and Deborah entered upon her task. Whether she accomplished it clumsily, or whether Sibylla’s ill-disciplined mind was wholly in fault, certain it is that there ensued a loud and unpleasant scene. The scene to which you were a witness. Scarcely giving herself time to take in more than the bare fact hinted at by Deborah—that her first husband was believed to be alive—not waiting to inquire a single particular, she burst out of the room and went shrieking down the stairs, flying into the arms of Lionel, who at that moment had entered.
Lionel could not speak comfort to her. Or, at the best, comfort of a most negative nature. He held her to him in the study, the door locked against intruders. They were somewhat at cross-purposes. Lionel supposed that the information had been imparted to her by Captain Cannonby; he never doubted but that she had been told Frederick Massingbird had returned and was on the scene; that he might come in any moment—even that very present one as they spoke—to put in his claim to her. Sibylla, on the contrary, did not think (what little she was capable of thinking) that Lionel had had previous information of the matter.
“What am I to do?” she cried, her emotion becoming hysterical. “Oh, Lionel! don’t you give me up!”
“I would have got here earlier had there been means,” he soothingly said, wisely evading all answer to the last suggestion. “I feared he would be telling you in my absence: better that you should have heard of it from me.”
She lifted her face to look at him. “Then you know it!”
“I have known it this day or two. My journey to-day—”
She broke out into a most violent fit of emotion, shrieking, trembling, clinging to Lionel, calling out at the top of her voice that she would not leave him. All his efforts were directed to stilling the noise. He implored her to be tranquil; to remember there were listeners around: he pointed out that, until the blow actually fell, there was no necessity for those listeners to be made cognisant of it. All that he could do for her protection and comfort, he would do, he earnestly said. And Sibylla subsided into a softer mood and cried quietly.
“I’d rather die,” she sobbed, “than have this disgrace brought upon me.”
Lionel put her into the large arm-chair, which remained in the study still: the old arm-chair of Mr. Verner. He stood by her and held her hands, his pale face, grave, sad, loving, bent towards her with the most earnest sympathy. She lifted her eyes to it, whispering:
“Will they say you are not my husband?”
“Hush, Sibylla! There are moments, even yet, when I deceive myself into a fancy that it may be somehow averted. I cannot understand how he can be alive. Has Cannonby told you whence the error arose?”
She did not answer. She began to shake again; she tossed back her golden hair. Some blue ribbons had been wreathed in it for dinner: she pulled them out and threw them on the ground, her hair partially falling with their departure.
“I wish I could have some wine?”
He moved to the door to get it for her. “Don’t you let her in, Lionel,” she called out as he unlocked it.
“That Deborah. I hate her now,” was the ungenerous remark.
Lionel opened the door, called to Tynn, and desired him to bring wine. “What time did Captain Cannonby get here?” he whispered, as he took it from the butler.
“Who, sir?” asked Tynn.
Tynn paused, like one who does not understand. “There’s no gentleman here of that name, sir. A Mr. Rushworth called to-day, and my mistress asked him to stay dinner. He is in the drawing-room now. There is no other stranger.”
“Has Captain Cannonby not been here at all?” reiterated Lionel. “He left London this morning to come.”
Tynn shook his head to express a negative. “He has not arrived, sir.”
Lionel went in again, his feelings undergoing a sort of revulsion, for there now peeped out a glimmer of hope. So long as the nearly certain conviction on Lionel’s mind was not confirmed by positive testimony—as he expected Captain Cannonby’s would be—he could not entirely lose sight of all hope. That he most fervently prayed the blow might not fall, might even now be averted, you will readily believe. Sibylla had not been to him the wife he had fondly hoped for; she provoked him every hour in the day; she appeared to do what she could, wilfully to estrange his affection. He was conscious of all this; he was all too conscious that his inmost love was another’s, not hers: but he lost sight of himself in anxiety for her: it was for her sake he prayed and hoped. Whether she was his wife by law, or not; whether she was loved or hated, Lionel’s course of duty lay plain before him now: to shield her, so far as he might be allowed, in all care and tenderness. He would have shed his last drop of blood to promote her comfort: he would have sacrificed every feeling of his heart for her sake.
The wine in his hand, he turned into the room again. A change had taken place in her aspect. She had left the chair, and was standing against the wall opposite the door, her tears dried, her eyes unnaturally bright, her cheeks burning.
“Lionel,” she uttered, a catching of the breath betraying her emotion, “if he is alive, whose is Verner’s Pride?”
“His,” replied Lionel, in a low tone.
She shrieked out, very much after the manner of a petulant child.
“I won’t leave it!—I won’t leave Verner’s Pride! You could not be so cruel as to wish me. Who says he is alive? Lionel, I ask you who it is that says he is alive?”
“Hush, my dear! This excitement will do you a world of harm, and it cannot mend the matter, however it may be. I want to know who told you of this, Sibylla. I supposed it to be Cannonby: but Tynn says Cannonby has not been here.”
The question appeared to divert her thoughts into another channel.
“Cannonby! What should bring him here? Did you expect him to come?”
“Drink your wine, and then I will tell you,” he said, holding the glass towards her.
She pushed the wine from her capriciously. “I don’t want wine now. I am hot. I should like some water.”
“I will get it for you directly. Tell me, first of all, how you came to know of this?”
“Deborah told me. She sent for me out of the drawing-room where I was so happy, to tell me this horrid tale. Lionel”—sinking her voice again to a whisper—“is—he—here?”
“I cannot tell you——”
“But you must tell me,” she passionately interrupted. “I will know. I have a right to know it, Lionel.”
“When I say I cannot tell you, Sibylla, I mean that I cannot tell you with any certainty. I will tell you all I do know. Some one is in the neighbourhood who bears a great resemblance to him. He is seen sometimes at night: and—and—I have other testimony that he has returned from Australia.”
“What will be done if he comes here?”
Lionel was silent.
“Shall you fight him?”
“Fight him!” echoed Lionel. “No.”
“You will give up Verner’s Pride without a struggle! You will give up me! Then, are you a coward, Lionel Verner?”
“You know that I would give up neither willingly, Sibylla.”
Grievously pained was his tone as he replied to her. She was meeting this as she did most other things—without sense or reason; not as a thinking, rational being. Her manner was loud, her emotion violent: but, deep and true, her grief was not. Depth of feeling, truth of nature, were qualities that never yet had place in Sibylla Verner. Not once, throughout all their married life, had Lionel been so painfully impressed with the fact as he was now.
“Am I to die for the want of that water?” she resumed. “If you don’t get it for me I shall ring for the servants to bring it.”
He opened the door again without a word. He knew quite well that she had thrown in that little shaft about ringing for the servants, because it would not be pleasant to him that the servants should intrude upon them then. Outside the door, about to knock at it, was Deborah West.
“I must go home,” she whispered. “Mr. Verner, how sadly she is meeting this!”
The very thought that was in Lionel’s heart. But, not to another would he cast a shade of reflection on his wife.
“It is a terrible thing for any one to meet,” he answered. “I could have wished, Miss West, that you had not imparted it to her. Better that I should have done it, when it must have been done.”
“I did it from a good motive,” was the reply of Deborah, who was looking sadly down-hearted, and had evidently been crying. “She ought to leave you until some certainty is arrived at.”
“Nonsense! No,” said Lionel. “I beg you—I beg you, Miss West, not to say anything more that can distress or disturb her. If the—the—explosion comes, of course it must come; and we must all meet it as we best may, and see then what is best to be done.”
“But it is not right that she should remain with you in this uncertainty,” urged Deborah, who could be obstinate when she thought she had cause. “The world will not deem it to be right. You should remember this.”
“I do not act to please the world. I am responsible to God and my conscience.”
“Responsible to—— Good gracious, Mr. Verner!” returned Deborah, every line in her face expressing astonishment. “You call keeping her with you acting as a responsible man ought! If Sibylla’s husband is living, you must put her away from your side.”
“When the time shall come. Until then, my duty—as I judge it—is to keep her by my side, to shelter her from harm and annoyance, petty as well as great.”
“You deem that your duty!”
“I do,” he firmly answered. “My duty to her and to God.”
Deborah shook her head and her hands.
“It ought not to be let go on,” she said, moving nearer to the study-door. “I shall urge the leaving you upon her.”
Lionel calmly laid his hand upon the lock.
“Pardon me, Miss West. I cannot allow my wife to be subjected to it.”
“But if she is not your wife?”
A streak of red came into his pale face.
“It has yet to be proved that she is not. Until that time shall come, Miss West, she is my wife, and I shall protect her as such.”
“You will not let me see her?” asked Deborah, for his hand was not lifted from the handle.
“No. Not if your object be the motives you avow. Sleep a night upon it, Miss West, and see if you do not change your mode of thinking and come over to mine. Return here in the morning with words of love and comfort for her, and none will welcome you more sincerely than I.”
“Answer me one thing, Mr. Verner. Do you believe in your heart that Frederick Massingbird is alive and has returned?”
“Unfortunately I have no resource but to believe it,” he replied.
“Then, to your way of thinking, I can never come,” returned Deborah in some agitation. “It is just sin, Mr. Verner, in the sight of Heaven.”
“I think not,” he quietly answered. “I am content to let Heaven judge me, and the motives that actuate me: a judgment more merciful than man’s.”
Deborah West, in her conscientious, but severe rectitude, turned to the hall door and departed, her hands uplifted still. Lionel ordered Tynn to attend Miss West home. He then procured some water for his wife and carried it in, as he had previously carried in the wine.
A fruitless service. Sibylla rejected it. She wanted neither water nor anything else, were all the thanks Lionel received, querulously spoken. He laid the glass upon the table: and, sitting down by her side in all patience, he set himself to the work of soothing her, gently and lovingly as though she had been what she was showing herself—a wayward child.
CHAPTER XLIV. TYNN PUMPED DRY.
Miss West and Tynn proceeded on their way. The side path was dirty, and she chose the middle of the road, Tynn walking a step behind her. Deborah was of an affable nature, Tynn a long attached and valued servant, and she chatted with him familiarly. Deborah, in her simple good heart, could not have been brought to understand why she should not chat with him. Because he was a servant and she a lady, she thought there was only the more reason why she should, that the man might not be unpleasantly reminded of the social distinction between them.
She pressed down, so far as she could, the heavy affliction that was weighing upon her mind. She spoke of the weather, the harvest, of Mrs. Bitterworth’s recent dangerous attack, of other trifling topics patent at the moment to Deerham. Tynn chatted in his turn, never losing his respect of words and manner: a servant worth anything never does. Thus they progressed towards the village, utterly unconscious that a pair of eager eyes were following and an evil tongue was casting anathemas towards them.
The owner of the eyes and tongue was wanting to hold a few words of private colloquy with Tynn. Could Tynn have seen right round the corner of the pillar of the outer gate when he went out, he would have detected the man waiting there in ambush. It was Giles Roy. Roy was aware that Tynn sometimes attended departing visitors to the outer gate. Roy had come up, hoping that he might so attend them on this night. Tynn did appear, with Miss West, and Roy began to hug himself that fortune had so far favoured him: but when he saw that Tynn departed with the lady, instead of only standing politely to watch her off, Roy growled out vengeance against the unconscious offenders.
“He’s a-going to see her home belike,” snarled Roy, in soliloquy, following them with angry eyes and slow footsteps. “I must wait till he comes back—and be shot to both of ’em!”
Tynn left Miss West at her own door, declining the invitation to go in and take a bit of supper with the maids, or a glass of beer. He was trudging back again, his arms behind his back and wishing himself at home, for Tynn, fat and of short breath, did not like much walking, when, in a lonely part of the road, he came upon a man sitting astride upon a gate.
“Halloa! is that you, Mr. Tynn? Who’d ha’ thought of seeing you out to-night?”
For it was Mr. Roy’s wish, from private motives of his own, that Tynn should not know he had been looked for, but should believe the encounter to be accidental. Tynn turned off the road, and leaned his elbow upon the gate, rather glad of the opportunity to stand a minute and get his breath. It was somewhat up-hill to Verner’s Pride, the whole of the way from Deerham.
“Are you sitting here for pleasure?” asked he of Roy.
“I’m sitting here for grief,” returned Roy; and Tynn was not sharp enough to detect the hollow falseness of his tone. “I had to go up the road to-night on a matter of business, and, walking back by Verner’s Pride, it so overcome me that I was glad to bring myself to a anchor.”
“How should walking by Verner’s Pride overcome you?” demanded Tynn.
“Well,” said Roy, “it was the thoughts of poor Mr. and Mrs. Verner did it. He didn’t behave to me over liberal in turning me from the place I’d held so long under his uncle, but I’ve overgot that smart; it’s past and gone. My heart bleeds for him now, and that’s the truth.”
For Roy’s heart to “bleed” for any fellow-creature was a marvel that even Tynn, unsuspicious as he was, could not take in. Mrs. Tynn repeatedly assured him that he had been born into the world with one sole quality—credulity. Certainly Tynn was unusually inclined to put faith in fair outsides. Not that Roy could boast much of the latter advantage.
“What’s the matter with Mr. Verner?” he asked of Roy.
Roy groaned dismally.
“It’s a thing that is come to my knowledge,” said he—“a awful misfortin that is a-going to drop upon him. I’d not say a word to another soul but you, Mr. Tynn; but you be his friend if anybody be, and I feel that I must either speak or bust.”
Tynn peered at Roy’s face. As much as he could see of it; for the night was not a clear one.
“It seems quite a providence that I happened to meet you,” went on Roy, as if any meeting with the butler had been as far from his thoughts as an encounter with somebody at the North Pole. “Things does turn out lucky sometimes.”
“I must be getting home,” interposed Tynn. “If you have anything to say to me, Roy, you had better say it. I may be wanted.”
Roy—who was standing now, his elbow leaning on the gate—brought his face nearer to Tynn’s. Tynn was also leaning on the gate.
“Have you heered of this ghost that’s said to be walking about Deerham?” he asked, lowering his voice to a whisper. “Have you heered whose they say it is?”
Now, Tynn had heard. All the retainers, male and female, at Verner’s Pride had heard. And Tynn, though not much inclined to give credence to ghosts in a general way, had felt somewhat uneasy at the tale. More on his mistress’s account than on any other score: for Tynn had the sense to know that such a report could not be pleasing to Mrs. Verner, should it reach her ears.
“I can’t think why they do say it,” replied Tynn, answering the man’s concluding question. “For my part, I don’t believe there’s anything in it. I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Neither didn’t a good many more, till now that they have got orakelar demonstration of it,” returned Roy. “Dan Duff see it, and a’most lost his senses; that girl of Hook’s see it, and you know, I suppose, what it did for her; Broom see it; the parson see it; old Frost see it; and lots more. Not one on ’em but ’ud take their Bible oath, if put to it, that it is Fred Massingbird’s ghost.”
“But it is not,” said Tynn. “It can’t be. Leastways I’ll never believe it till I see it with my own eyes. There’d be no reason in its coming now. If it had wanted to come at all, why didn’t it come when it was first buried, and not wait till over two years had gone by?”
“That’s the point that I stuck at,” was Roy’s answer. “When my wife come home with the tales, day after day, that Fred Massingbird’s spirit was walking,—that this person had seen it, and that person had seen it—‘Yah! Rubbish!’ I says to her. ‘If his ghost had been a-coming, it ’ud have come afore now.’ And so it would.”
“Of course,” assented Tynn. “If it had been coming. But I have not lived to these years to believe in ghosts at last.”
“Then, what do you think of the parson, Mr. Tynn?” continued Roy, in a strangely significant tone. “And Broom,—he have got his senses about him? How d’ye account for their believing it?’
“I have not heard them say that they do believe it,” responded Tynn, with a knowing nod. “Folks may go about and say that I believe it, perhaps: but that wouldn’t make it any nearer the fact. And what has all this to do with Mr. Verner?”
“I am coming to it,” said Roy. He took a step backward, looked carefully up and down the road, lest listeners might be in ambush; stretched his neck forward and in like manner surveyed the field on either side the hedge. Apparently it satisfied him, and he resumed his close proximity to Tynn and his meaning whisper. “Can’t you guess the riddle, Mr. Tynn?”
“I can’t in the least guess what you mean, or what you are driving at,” was Tynn’s response. “I think you must have been having a drop of drink, Roy. I ask what this is to my master, Mr. Verner?”
“Drink be bothered! I’ve not had a sup inside my mouth since mid-day,” was Roy’s retort. “This secret has been enough drink for me, and meat, too. You’ll keep counsel, if I tell it you, Mr. Tynn? Not but what it must soon come out.”
“Well?” returned Tynn, in some surprise.
“It’s Fred Massingbird fast enough. But it’s not his ghost.”
“What on earth do you mean?” asked Tynn, never for a moment glancing at the fact of what Roy tried to imply.
“He is come back: Frederick Massingbird. He didn’t die, over there.”
A pause, devoted by Tynn to staring and thinking. When the full sense of the words broke upon him, he staggered a step or two away from the ex-bailiff.
“Heaven help us if it’s true!” he uttered. “Roy! it can’t be!”
“It is,” said Roy.
They stood looking at each other by starlight. Tynn’s face had grown hot and wet, and he wiped it.
“It can’t be,” he mechanically repeated.
“I tell you it is, Mr. Tynn. Now, never you mind asking me how I came to the bottom of it,” went on Roy in a sort of defiant tone. “I did come to the bottom of it, and I do know it: and Mr. Fred, he knows that I know it. It’s as sure that he is back, and in the neighbourhood, as that you and me is here at this gate. He is alive and he is among us—as certain as that you are Mr. Tynn, and I be Giles Roy.”
There came flashing over Tynn’s thoughts the scene of that very evening. His mistress’s shrieks and agitation when she broke from Miss West; her cries and sobs which had penetrated to their ears when she was shut afterwards in the study with her husband. The unusual scene had been good for gossipping comment among the servants: and Tynn had believed something distressing had occurred. Not this; he had never glanced a suspicion at this. He remembered the lines of pain which shone out at the moment from his master’s pale face, in spite of its impassiveness: and somehow that very face brought conviction to Tynn now, that Roy’s news was true. Tynn let his arms fall on the gate again with a groan.
“What ever will become of my poor mistress?” he uttered.
“She!” slightingly returned Roy. “She’ll be better off than him.”
“Better off than who?”
“Than Mr. Verner. She needn’t leave Verner’s Pride. He must.”
To expect any ideas but coarse ones from Roy, Tynn could not. But his attention was caught by the last suggestion.
“Leave Verner’s Pride?” slowly repeated Tynn. “Must he?—good heavens! must my master be turned from Verner’s Pride?”
“Where’ll be the help for it?” asked Roy, in a confidential tone. “I tell you, Mr. Tynn, my heart’s been a-bleeding for him ever since I heard it. I don’t see no help for his turning out. I have been a-turning it over and over in my mind, and I don’t see none. Do you?”
Tynn looked very blank. He was feeling so. He made no answer, and Roy continued, blandly confidential still.
“If that there codicil, that was so much talked on, hadn’t been lost, he’d have been all right, would Mr. Verner. No come-to-life-again Fred Massingbird needn’t have tried at turning him out. Couldn’t it be hunted for again, Mr. Tynn?”
Roy turned the tail of his eye on Tynn. Would his pumping take effect? Mrs. Tynn would have told him that her husband might be pumped dry, and never know it. She was not far wrong. Unsuspicious Tynn went headlong into the snare.
“Where would be the good of hunting for it again—when every conceivable place was hunted for it before?” he asked.
“Well, it was a curious thing, that codicil,” remarked Roy. “Has it never been heered on?”
Tynn shook his head.
“Never at all. What an awful thing this is, if it’s true!”
“It is true, I tell ye,” said Roy. “You needn’t doubt it. There was a report a short while agone that the codicil had been found, and Matiss had got it in safe keeping. As I sat here, afore you come up, I was thinking how well it ’ud have served Mr. Verner’s turn just now, if it was true.”
“It is not true,” said Tynn. “All sorts of reports get about. The codicil has never been found and never been heard of.”
“What a pity!” groaned Roy, with a deep sigh. “I’m glad I’ve told it you, Mr. Tynn! It’s a heavy secret for a man to carry about inside of him. I must be going.”
“So must I,” said Tynn. “Roy, are you sure there’s no mistake?” he added. “It seems a tale next to impossible.
“Well now,” said Roy, “I see you don’t half believe me. You must wait a few days, and see what them days ’ll bring forth. That Mr. Massingbird’s back from Australia, I’ll take my oath to. I didn’t believe it at first: and when young Duff was a going on about the porkypine, I shook him, I did, for a little lying rascal. I know better now.”
“But how do you know it?” debated Tynn.
“Now, never you mind. It’s my business, I say, and nobody else’s. You just wait a day or two, that’s all, Mr. Tynn. I declare I am as glad to have met with you to-night, and exchanged this intercourse of opinions, as if anybody had counted me out a bag o’ gold.”
“Well, good night, Roy,” concluded Tynn, turning his steps towards Verner’s Pride. “I wish I had been a hundred miles off, I know, before I had heard it.”
Roy slipped over the gate; and there, out of sight, he executed a kind of triumphant dance.
“Then there is no codicil!” cried he. “I thought I could wile it out of him! That Tynn’s as easy to be run out as is glass when it’s hot.”
And, putting his best leg forward, he made his way as fast as he could make it towards his home.
Tynn made his way towards Verner’s Pride. But not fast. The information he had received filled his mind with the saddest trouble, and reduced his steps to slowness. When any great calamity falls suddenly upon us, or the dread of any great calamity, our first natural thought is, how it may be mitigated or averted. It was the thought that occurred to Tynn. The first shock over, digested, as may be said, Tynn began to deliberate whether he could do anything to help his master in the strait; and he went along, turning all sorts of suggestions over in his mind. Much as Sibylla was disliked by the old servants—and she had contrived to make herself very much disliked by them all—Tynn could not help feeling warmly the blow that was about to burst upon her head. Was there anything earthly he could do to avert it?—to help her or his master?
He did not doubt the information. Roy was not a particularly reliable person; but Tynn could not doubt that this was true. It was the most feasible solution of the ghost story agitating Deerham; the only solution of it, Tynn grew to think. If Frederick Massingbird—
Tynn’s reflections came to a halt. Vaulting over a gate on the other side the road; the very gate through which poor Rachel Frost had glided, the night of her death, to avoid meeting Frederick Massingbird and Sibylla West; was a tall man. He came straight across the road, in front of Tynn, and passed through a gap of the hedge, on to the grounds of Verner’s Pride.
But what made Tynn stand transfixed, as if he had been changed into a statue? What brought a cold chill to his heart, a heat to his brow? Why, as the man passed him, he turned his face full on Tynn; disclosing the features, the white, whiskerless cheek, with the black mark upon it, of Frederick Massingbird. Recovering himself as he best could, Tynn walked on, and gained the house.
Mrs. Verner had gone to her room. Mr. Verner was mixing with his guests. Some of the gentlemen were on the terrace smoking, and Tynn made his way on to it, hoping he might get a minute’s interview with his master. The impression upon Tynn’s mind was, that Frederick Massingbird was coming, there and then, to invade Verner’s Pride: it appeared to Tynn to be his duty to impart what he had heard and seen, at once to Mr. Verner.
Circumstances favoured him. Lionel had been talking with Mr. Gordon at the far end of the terrace, but the latter was called to from the drawing-room windows, and departed in answer to it. Tynn seized the opportunity: his master was alone.
Quite alone. He was leaning over the outer balustrade of the terrace, apparently looking forth in the night obscurity on his own lands, stretched out before him. “Master!” whispered Tynn, forgetting ceremony in the moment’s absorbing agitation, in the terrible calamity that was about to fall, “I have had an awful secret made known to me to-night. I must tell it you, sir.”
“I know it already, Tynn,” was the quiet response of Lionel.
Then Tynn told—told all he had heard, and how he had heard it; told how he had just seen Frederick Massingbird. Lionel started from the balustrade.
“Tynn! You saw him! Now?”
“Not five minutes ago, sir. He came right on to these grounds through the gap in the hedge. Oh, master! what will be done?” and the man’s voice rose to a wail in its anguish. “He may be coming on now to put in his claim to Verner’s Pride; to—to—to—all that’s in it!”
But that Lionel was nerved to self-control, he might have answered with another wail of anguish. His mind filled up the gap of words, that the delicacy of Tynn would not speak. “He may be coming to claim Sibylla.”