Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 26
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER LI. GOING TO NEW JERUSALEM ON A WHITE DONKEY.
Lionel Verner was seated in the dining-room at Verner’s Pride. Not its master. Its master, John Massingbird, was there, opposite to Lionel. They had just dined, and John was filling his short pipe as an accompaniment to his wine. During dinner he had been regaling Lionel with choice anecdotes of his Australian life, laughing ever: but not a syllable had he broached yet about the “business” he had put forth as the plea for the invitation to Lionel to come. The anecdotes did not raise the social features of that far-off colony in Mr. Verner’s estimation. But he laughed with John: laughed as merrily as his heavy heart would allow him.
It was quite a wintry day, telling of coming winter. The skies were leaden-grey; the dead leaves rustled on the paths; and the sighing wind swept through the trees with a mournful sound. Void of brightness, of hope, it all looked, like Lionel Verner’s fortunes. But a few short weeks ago he had been in John Massingbird’s place, in the very chair that he now sat in, looking never to be removed from it during life. And now!—what a change!
“Why don’t you smoke, Lionel?” asked John, setting light to his pipe by the readiest way—that of thrusting it between the bars of the grate. “You did not care to smoke in the old days, I remember.”
“I never cared for it,” replied Lionel.
“I can tell you that you would have cared for it, had you been knocked about as I have. Tobacco’s meat and drink to a fellow at the Diggings: as it is to a sailor and a soldier.”
“Not to all soldiers,” observed Lionel. “My father never smoked an ounce of tobacco in his life, I have heard them say: and he saw some service.”
“Every man to his liking,” returned John Massingbird. “Folks preach about tobacco being an acquired taste! It’s all bosh. Babies come into the world with a liking for it, I know. Talking about your father, would you like to have that portrait of him that hangs in the large drawing-room? You can if you like. I’m sure you have more right to it than I.”
“Thank you,” replied Lionel. “I should very much like it, if you will give it me.”
“What a fastidious chap you are, Lionel!” cried John Massingbird, puffing vigorously; for the pipe was turning refractory, and would not keep alight. “There are lots of things you have left behind you here, that I, in your place, should have marched off without asking.”
“The things are yours. That portrait of my father belonged to my Uncle Stephen, and he made no exception in its favour when he willed Verner’s Pride, and all it contained, away from me. In point of legal right, I was at liberty to touch nothing, beyond my personal effects.”
“Liberty be hanged!” responded John. “You are over fastidious; always were. Your father was the same, I know; can see it in his likeness. I should say, by the look of that, he was too much of a gentleman for a soldier.”
“Some of our soldiers are the most refined gentlemen on the world’s soil.”
“I can’t tell how they retain their refinement, then, amid the rough and ready of camp life. I know I lost all I had at the Diggings.”
Lionel laughed outright at the notion of John Massingbird’s losing his refinement at the Diggings. He never had any to lose. John joined in the laugh.
“Lionel, old boy, do you know I always liked you, with all your refinement; and it’s a quality that never found great favour with me. Liked you better than I liked poor Fred: and that’s the truth.”
Lionel made no reply, and John Massingbird smoked for a few minutes in silence. Presently he began again.
“I say, what made you go and marry Sibylla?”
Lionel lifted his eyes. But John Massingbird resumed, before he had time to speak.
“She’s not worth a button. Now you need not fly out, old chap. I am not passing my opinion on your wife; wouldn’t presume to do such a thing; but on my cousin. Surely I may find fault with my cousin, if I like! Why did you marry her?”
“Why does anybody else marry?” returned Lionel.
“But why did you marry her? A sickly fractious thing! I saw enough of her in the old days. There! be quiet! I have done. If it hadn’t been for her, I’d have asked you to come here to your old home; you and I should jog along together first-rate. But Sibylla bars it. She may be a model of a wife; I don’t insinuate to the contrary, take you note, Mr. Verner; but she’s not exactly a model of temper, and Verner’s Pride wouldn’t be big enough to hold her and me. Would you have taken up your abode with me, had you been a free man?”
“I cannot tell,” replied Lionel. “It is a question that cannot arise now.”
“No. Sibylla stops it. What are you going to do with yourself?”
“That I cannot tell. I should like an appointment abroad, if I could get one. I did think of going to London, and looking about me a bit; but I am not sure that I shall do so just yet.”
“I say, Lionel,” resumed John Massingbird, sinking his voice, but speaking in a joking sort of way, “how, do you mean to pay your debts? I hear you have a few.”
“I have a good many, one way or another.”
“Wipe them off,” said John.
“I wish I could wipe them off.”
“There’s nothing more easy,” returned John in his free manner. “Get the whitewash brush to work. The insolvent court has got its friendly doors ever open.”
The colour came into the face of Lionel. A Verner there! He quietly shook his head. “I daresay I shall find a way of paying sometime, if the people will only wait.”
“Sibylla helped you to a good part of the score, didn’t she? People are saying so. Just like her!”
“When I complain of my wife, it will be quite time enough for other people to begin,” said Lionel. “When I married Sibylla, I took her with her virtues and her faults; and I am quite ready to defend both.”
“All right. I’d rather you had the right of defending them than I,” said incorrigible John. “Look here, Lionel: I got you up here to-day to talk about the estate. Will you take the management of it?”
“Of this estate?” replied Lionel, not understanding.
“Deuce a bit of any other could I offer you. Things are all at sixes and sevens already: they are chaos; they are purgatory. That’s our word out yonder, Lionel, to express the ultimatum of badness. Matiss comes and bothers; the tenants, one and another, come and bother; Roy comes and bothers. What with it all, I’m fit to bar the outer doors. Roy, you know, thought I should put him into power again! No, no, Mr. Roy: Fred might have done it, but I never will. I’ll pay him well for the services he has rendered me! but put him into power—no. Altogether things are getting into inextricable confusion; I can’t look to them, and I want a manager. Will you take it, Lionel? I’ll give you five hundred a year.”
The mention of the sum quite startled Lionel. It was far more than he should have supposed John Massingbird would offer to any manager. Matiss would do it for a fourth. Should he take it?
He sat, twirling his wine-glass round in his fingers. There was a soreness of spirit to get over, and it could not be done all in a moment. To become a servant (indeed it was no better) on the land that had once been his; that ought to be his now, by the law of right—a servant to John Massingbird!—could Lionel bend to it? John smoked, and sat watching him.
He thought of the position of his wife; he thought of the encumbrance on his mother; he thought of his brother Jan, and what he had done; he thought of his own very unsatisfactory prospects. Was this the putting his shoulder to the wheel, as he had resolved to do, thus to hesitate on a quibble of pride? Down, down with his rebellious spirit. Let him be a man, in the sight of Heaven!
He turned to John Massingbird, his brow clear, his eye serene.
“I will take it, and thank you,” he said in a steady, cheerful tone.
“Then let’s have some grog on the strength of it,” was that gentleman’s answer. “Tynn says the worry nearly took my mother’s life out of her, during the time she managed the estate; and it would take it out of mine. If I kept it in my own hands, it would go to the dogs in a twelvemonth. And you’d not thank me for that, Lionel. You are the next heir.”
“You may take a wife yet.”
“A wife for me!” he shouted. “No, thank, you. I know the value of ’em too well for that. Give me my liberty, and you may have the wives. Lionel, the office had better be in the study as it used to be: you can come up here of a day. I’ll turn the drawing-room into my smoke shop. If there are any leases or other deeds missing, you must get them drawn out again. I’m glad it’s settled.”
Lionel declined the grog; but he sat on, talking things over. John Massingbird, in a cloud of smoke, drinking Lionel’s share as well as his own, and listening to the rain, which had begun to patter against the window panes.
But it is necessary to pay a visit to Mrs. Peckaby, for great events were happening to her on that night.
When Lionel met her in the day, seated on the stump, all disconsolate, she had thrown out a hint that Mr. Peckaby was not habitually in quite so social a mood as he might be. The fact was, Peckaby’s patience had run out: and little wonder, either. The man’s meals made ready for him in any careless way, often not made ready at all, and his wife spending her time in sighing and moaning, and looking out for the white donkey! You, my readers, may deem this a rather far-fetched episode in the story; you may deem it next to impossible that any woman should be so ridiculously foolish, or could be so imposed upon: but I am only relating to you the strict truth. The facts occurred precisely as they are being narrated, and not long ago. I have neither added to the story, nor taken from it.
Mrs. Peckaby finished out her sitting on the stump. The skies were greyer than before when she rose to go home. She found Peckaby had been in to his tea; that is, he had been in, hoping to partake of that social meal; but, finding no preparation made for it, he had a little relieved his mind by pouring a pail of water over the kitchen fire, thereby putting the fire out and causing considerable damage to the fire-irons and appurtenances generally, which would cause Mrs. Peckaby some little work to remedy.
“The brute!” she ejaculated, putting her foot into the slop on the floor, and taking a general view of things. “Oh, if I was but off!”
“My patience, what a mess!” exclaimed Polly Dawson, who happened to be going by, and turned in for a gossip. “Whatever have done it?”
“Whatever have done it? why, that wretch, Peckaby,” retorted the aggrieved wife. “Don’t you never get married, Polly Dawson, if you want to keep on the right side of the men. They be the worst animals in all creation. Many a poor woman’s life has been aggrivated out of her.”
“If I do get married, I shan’t begin the aggrivation by wanting to be off to them saints at New Jerusalem,” impudently returned Polly Dawson.
Mrs. Peckaby received it meekly. What with the long-continued disappointment, the perpetual “aggravations” of Peckaby, and the prospect of work before her, arising from the gratuitous pail of water, she was feeling unusually cowed down.
“I wish I was a hundred mile off,” she cried. “Nobody’s fate was never so hard as mine.”
“It’ll take you a good two hour to red up,” observed Polly Dawson. “I’d rather you had to do it nor me.”
“I’d see it further—afore it should take me two hours—and Peckaby with it,” retorted Mrs. Peckaby, reviving to a touch of temper. “I shall but give it a lick and a promise; just mop up the wet, and dry the grate, and get a bit of fire alight. T’other things may go.”
Polly Dawson departed, and Mrs. Peckaby set to her work. By dint of some trouble, she contrived to obtain a cup of tea for herself after awhile, and then she sat on disconsolately as before. Night came on, and she had ample time to indulge her ruminations.
Peckaby had never been in. Mrs. Peckaby concluded he was solacing himself at that social rendezvous, the Plough and Harrow, and would come home in a state of beer. Between nine and ten, he entered—hours were early in Deerham—and, to Mrs. Peckaby’s surprise, he was not only sober, but social.
“It have turned out a pouring wet night,” cried he. And the mood was so unwonted, especially after the episode of the wet grate, that Mrs. Peckaby was astonished into answering pleasantly.
“Will ye have some bread and cheese?” asked she.
“I don’t mind if I do. Chuff, he gave me a piece of his bread and bacon at eight o’clock, so I ain’t over hungry.”
Mrs. Peckaby brought forth the loaf and the cheese, and Peckaby cut himself some, and eat it. Then he went up-stairs. She stayed to put the eatables away, raked out the fire, and followed. Peckaby was already in bed. To get into it was not a very ceremonious proceeding with him, as it is not with many others. There was no superfluous attire to throw off, there was no hindering time with ablutions, there were no prayers. Mrs. Peckaby favoured the same convenient mode, and she had just put the candle out when some noise struck upon her ear.
It came from the road outside. They slept back, the front room having been the one let to Brother Jarrum; but in those small houses, at that quiet hour, noises in the road were heard as distinctly back as front. There was a sound of talking, and then came a modest knock at Peckaby’s door.
Mrs. Peckaby went to the front room, opened the casement, and looked out. To say that her heart leaped into her mouth, would be a most imperfect figure of speech to describe the state of feeling that rushed over her. In the rainy obscurity of the night, she could discern something white drawn up to the door, and the figures of two men standing by it. The only wonder was, that she did not leap out; she might have done it, had the window been large enough.
“Do Susan Peckaby live here?” inquired a gruff voice, that seemed as if it were muffled.
“Oh, dear, good gentlemen, yes!” she responded, in a tremble of excitement. “Please what is it?”
“The white donkey’s come, to take her to New Jerusalem.”
With a shrieking cry of joy that might have been heard half-way up Clay Lane, Mrs. Peckaby tore back to her chamber.
“Peckaby,” she cried, “Peckaby, the thing’s come at last! The blessed animal that’s to bear me off. I always said it would.”
Peckaby—probably from drowsiness—made no immediate response. Mrs. Peckaby stooped down to the low bed, and shook him well by the shoulder.
“It’s the white quadruple, Peckaby, come at last!”
Peckaby growled out something that she was in a state of too great excitement to hear. She lighted the candle; she flung on some of the things she had taken off; she ran back to the front before they were fastened, lest the messengers, brute and human, should have departed, and put her head out at the casement again, all in the utmost fever of agitation.
“A minute or two yet, good gentlemen, please! I’m a’most ready. I’m a waiting to get out my purple gownd.”
“All right, missus,” was the muffled answer.
The “purple gownd” was kept in this very ex-room of Brother Jarrum’s, hid in a safe place between some sheets of newspaper. Had Mrs. Peckaby kept it open, to the view of Peckaby, there’s no saying what grief the robe might not have come to ere this. Peckaby, in his tantrums, would not have been likely to spare it. She put it on, and hooked it down the front, her trembling fingers scarcely able to accomplish it. That it was full loose for her, she was prepared to find: she had grown thin with fretting. Then she put on a shawl, last her bonnet, and some green leather gloves. The shawl was black, with worked coloured corners,—a thin small shawl, that hardly covered her shoulders; and the bonnet was a straw, trimmed with pink ribbons—the toilette which had been long prepared.
“Good bye, Peckaby,” said she, going in when she was ready. “You’ve said many a time as you wished I was off, and now you have got your wish. But I don’t wish to part nothing but friends.”
“Good bye,” returned Peckaby, in a hearty tone, as he turned himself round on his bed. “Give my love to the saints.”
To find him in this accommodating humour, was more than she had bargained for. A doubt had crossed her sometimes whether, when the white donkey did come, there might not arise a battle with Peckaby, ere she should get off. This apparently civil feeling on his part awoke a more social one towards him on hers; and a qualm of conscience darted across her, that she might have made him a better wife had she been so disposed. “He might have shook hands with me,” was her parting thought, as she unlocked the street door.
The donkey was waiting outside with all the patience for which donkeys are renowned. It had been drawn up under a sheltering ledge at a door or two’s distance, to be out of the rain. Its two conductors were muffled up, as befitted the inclemency of the night, something like their voices appeared to have been. Mrs. Peckaby was not in her sober senses, sufficiently to ask whether they were brothers from New Jerusalem, or whether the style of costume they favoured might be the prevailing mode in that fashionable city: if so, it was decidedly more useful than elegant, consisting apparently of hop-sacks, doubled over the head and over the back.
“I be quite ready,” she answered, in a tremble of delight. “There ain’t no saddle!” she called out, as the donkey was trotted forward.
“You won’t want a saddle: these New Jerusalem animals bain’t like ordinary uns. Jump on him, missus.”
Mrs. Peckaby was so exceedingly tall that she had not far to jump. She took her seat sideways, settled her gown, and laid hold of the bridle, which one of the men put into her hands. He turned round the donkey, and set it going with a smack; the other helped by crying “Gee-ho!”
Up Clay Lane she proceeded in triumph. The skies were dark, and the rain came soaking down; but Mrs. Peckaby’s heart was too warm to dwell on any temporary inconvenience. If a thought crossed her mind that the beauty of the pink ribbons might be marred by the storm, so as somewhat to dim the glory of her entrance to the city and introduction to the saints, she drove it away again. Trouble had no admission in her present frame of mind. The gentlemen in the hop-sacks continued to attend her; the one leading the donkey, the other walking behind and cheering the animal on with periodical gee-hos.
“I suppose as it’s a long way, sir?” asked Mrs. Peckaby, breaking the silence, and addressing the conductor.
“Middlin’,” replied he.
“And how do we get over the sea, please sir?” asked she again.
“The woyage is pervided for, missus,” was the short and satisfactory response. “Brother Jarrum took care of that when he sent us.”
Her heart went into a glow at the name. And them envious disbelievers in Deerham had cast all sorts of disparaging accusations to the Brother, openly expressing their opinion that he had gone off purposely without her, and that she’d never hear of him again!
Arrived at the top of Clay Lane, the road was crossed, and the donkey was led down a turning towards the lands of Sir Rufus Hautley. It may have occurred to Mrs. Peckaby to wonder that the highway was not taken, instead of an unfrequented by-path that only led to fields and a wood; but, if so, she said nothing. Had the white donkey taken her to a gravel-pit, and pitched headlong in with her, she would have deemed, in her blind faith, that it was the right road to New Jerusalem.
A long way it was, over those wet fields. If the brothers and the donkey partook of the saintly nature of the inhabitants of the Salt Lake City, possibly they did not find it a weary one. Mrs. Peckaby certainly did not. She was rapt in a glowing vision of the honours and delights that would welcome her at her journey’s end;—so rapt, that she and the donkey had been for some little time in one of the narrow paths of the wood before she missed her two conductors.
It caused Mrs. Peckaby to pull the bridle, and cry “Wo-ho!” to the donkey. She had an idea that they might have struck into the wrong path, for this one appeared to be getting narrower and narrower. The wood was intersected with paths, but only a few of them led right through it. She pulled up, and turned her head the way she had come, but was unable to distinguish anything, save that she was in the heart of the wood.
“Be you behind, gentlemen?” she called out.
There was no reply. Mrs. Peckaby waited a bit, thinking they might have lagged unwittingly, and then called out again, with the like result.
“It’s very curious!” thought Mrs. Peckaby.
She was certainly in a dilemma. Without her conductors, she knew no more how to get to New Jerusalem than she did how to get to the new moon. She might find her way through the wood, by one path or another, but, once on the other side, she had no idea which road to turn the donkey to—north, south, east, or west. She thought she would go back and look after them.
But there was some difficulty in doing this. The path had grown so narrow chat the donkey could not easily be turned. She slipped off him, tied the bridle to a tree, and ran back as fast as the obscurity of the path allowed her, calling out to the gentlemen.
The more she ran and the more she called, the less did there appear to be anybody to respond to it. Utterly at a nonplus, she at length returned to the donkey—that is, to the spot, so far as she could judge, where she had left it. But the donkey was gone.
Was Mrs. Peckaby awake, or asleep? Was the past blissful dream—when she was being borne in triumph to New Jerusalem—only an imaginary one? Was her present predicament real? Which was imagination, and which was real? For the last hour she had been enjoying the realisation of all her hopes; now, she seemed no nearer their fruition than she had been a year ago. The white donkey was gone, the conducting Brothers were gone, and she was alone in the middle of a wood, two miles from home, on a wet night. Mrs. Peckaby had heard of enchantments, and began to think she must have been subjected to something of the sort.
She rubbed her eyes; she pinched her arms. Was she in her senses or not? Sure never was such a situation heard of! The cup of hope presented palpably to her lips, only to vanish again—she could not tell how—and leave no sign. A very disagreeable doubt—not yet a suspicion—began to dawn over Mrs. Peckaby. Had she been made the subject of a practical joke?
She might have flung the doubt from her, but for a distant sound that came faintly on her ears—the sound of covert laughter. Her doubt turned to conviction; her face became hot; her heart, but for the anger at it, would have grown sick with the disappointment. Her conductors and the donkey were retreating, having played their joke out! Two certainties forced themselves upon her mind. One, that Peckaby and his friends had planned it: she felt sure now that the biggest of the “Brothers” had been nobody but Chuff, the blacksmith; the other certainty was, that she should never be sent for to New Jerusalem in any other way. Why it should have been, Mrs. Peckaby could not have told, then or afterwards; but the positive conviction that Brother Jarrum had been false, that the story of sending for her on a white donkey had only been invented to keep her quiet, fixed itself in her mind in that moment in the lonely wood. She sunk down amidst the trees and sobbed bitterly.
But all the tears combined, that the world ever shed, could not bring her nearer to New Jerusalem, or make her present situation better. After awhile she had the sense to remember that. She rose from the ground, turned her gown up over her shoulders, found her way out of the wood, and set off on her walk back again in a very humble frame of mind, arriving home as the clock was striking two.
She could make nobody hear. She knocked at the door, she knocked at the window, gently at first, then louder; she called and called, but there came no answer. Some of the neighbours, aroused by the unwonted disturbance, came peeping at their windows. At length Peckaby opened his; thrusting his head out at the very casement from which Mrs. Peckaby had beheld the deceitful vision earlier in the night.
“Who’s there?” called out Peckaby.
“It’s me, Peckaby,” was the answer, delivered in a forlorn tone. “Come down and open the door.”
“Who’s ‘me’?” asked Peckaby.
“It’s me,” repeated Mrs. Peckaby, looking up. And, what with her height and the low casement, their faces were really not many inches apart; but yet Peckaby appeared not to know her.
“You be off, will you!” retorted he. “A pretty thing, if tramps be to come to decent folks’s doors and knock ’em up like this. Who’s door did you take it for?”
“It’s me!” screamed Mrs. Peckaby. “Don’t you know me? Come and undo the door, and let me come in. I be sopping.”
“Know you! How should I know you? Who be you?”
“Good heavens, Peckaby! you must know me. Ain’t I your wife?”
“My wife! Not a bit on’t. You needn’t come here with that gammon, missis, whoever you be. My wife’s gone off to New Jerusalem on a white donkey.”
He slammed-to the casement. Mrs. Peckaby, what with the rain, and what with the disappointment, burst into tears. In the same moment, sundry other casements opened, and all the heads in the vicinity—including the blacksmith, Chuff’s, and Mrs. Chuff’s—were thrust out to condole with their neighbour, Mrs. Peckaby.
“Had she been and come back a’ready?” “Did she get tired of the saints so soon as this—or did they get tired of her?” “What sort of a city was it?” “Which was most plentiful—geese or sage?” “How many wives, besides herself, had the gentleman that she chose?” “Who took care of the babies?” “Did they have many public dances?” “Was veils for the bonnets plentiful?” “Was it a paradise—or warn’t it?” And “How was Brother Jarrum?”
Amongst the many questions asked, those came prominently tingling on the ears of the unhappy Mrs. Peckaby. Too completely prostrate with events, to retort, she suddenly let drop her gown, that she had kept so carefully turned, and clapped both her hands upon her face. Then came a real, genuine question from the next door casement—Mrs. Green’s.
“Ain’t that your plum-coloured gownd? What’s come to it?”
Mrs. Peckaby, somewhat aroused, looked at the gown in haste. What had come to it? Patches of dead-white, looking not unlike paint, covered it about on all sides, especially behind. The shawl had caught some white, too, and the green leather gloves looked inside as though they had had a coat of whitewash put on them. Her beautiful gownd! laid by so long!—what on earth had ruined it like that?
Chuff, the blacksmith, gave a great grin from his window. “Sure that there donkey never was painted down white!” quoth he.
That it had been painted down white, and with exceedingly wet paint too, there could be little doubt. Some poor donkey, humble in its coat of grey, converted into a fine white animal for the occasion, by Peckaby and Chuff and their cronies. Mrs. Peckaby shrieked and sobbed with mortification, and drummed frantically on her house door. A chorus of laughter echoed from all sides, and Peckaby’s casement flew open again. “Will you stop that there knocking, then!” roared Peckaby. “Disturbing a man’s night’s rest.”
“I will come in then, Peckaby,” she stormed, plucking up a little spirit in her desperation. “I be your wife, you know I be, and I will come in.”
“My good woman, what’s took you?” cried Peckaby, in a tone of compassionating suavity. “You ain’t no wife of mine. My wife’s miles on her road by this time. She’s off to New Jerusalem on a white donkey.”
A new actor came up to the scene. No other than Jan Verner. Jan had been sitting up with some poor patient, and was now going home. To describe his surprise when he saw the windows alive with nightcapped heads, and Mrs. Peckaby in her dripping discomfort, in her paint, in her state altogether, outward and inward, would be a long task. Peckaby himself undertook the explanation, in which he was aided by Chuff; and Jan sat himself down on the public pump, and laughed till he was hoarse. “Come, Peckaby, you’ll let her in,” cried he, before he went away.
“Let her in!” echoed Peckaby. “That would be a go, that would! What ’ud the saints say? They’d be for prosecuting of her for bigamy. If she’s gone over to them, sir, she can’t belong legal to me.”
Jan laughed so that he had to hold his sides, and Mrs. Peckaby shrieked and sobbed. Chuff began calling out that the best remedy for white paint was turpentine.
“Come along, Peckaby, and open the door,” said Jan, rising. “She’ll catch an illness if she stops here in her wet clothes, and I shall have a month’s work, attending on her. Come!”
“Well, sir, to oblige you, I will,” returned the man. “But let me ever catch her snivelling after them saints again, that’s all! They should have her if they liked; I’d not.”
“You hear, Mrs. Peckaby,” said Jan in her ear. “I’d let the saints alone for the future, if I were you.”
“I mean to, sir,” she meekly answered, between her sobs.
Peckaby, in his shirt and nightcap, opened the door, and she bounded in. The casements closed to the echoes of subsiding laughter, and the echoes of Jan’s footsteps died away in the distance.
CHAPTER LII. AN EXPLOSION OF SIBYLLA’S.
Sibylla Verner sat at the window of her sitting-room in the evening twilight: a cold evening in early winter. Sibylla was in an explosive temper. It was nothing unusual for her to be in an explosive temper now; but she was in a worse than customary this evening. Sibylla felt the difference between Verner’s Pride and Deerham Court. She lived but in excitement; she cared but for gaiety. In removing to Deerham Court, she had gone readily, believing that she should there find a large portion of the gaiety she had been accustomed to at Verner’s Pride; that she should, at any rate, be living with the appliances of wealth about her, and should go out a great deal with Lady Verner. She had not bargained for Lady Verner’s establishment being reduced to simplicity and quietness, for her laying down her carriage and discharging her men servants and selling her horses, and living again the life of a retired gentlewoman. Yet all these changes had come to pass, and Sibylla’s inward spirit turned restive. She had everything any reasonable mind could possibly desire, every comfort: but quiet comfort and Sibylla’s taste did not accord. Her husband was out a great deal, at Verner’s Pride and on the estate. As he had resolved to do, over John Massingbird’s dinner-table, so he was doing—putting his shoulder to the wheel. He had never looked after things as he was looking now. To be the master of Verner’s Pride was one thing; to be the hired manager of Verner’s Pride was another: and Lionel found every hour of his time occupied. His was no eye-service; his conscience was engaged in his work, and he did it efficiently.
Sibylla still sat at the window, looking out into the twilight. Decima stood near the fire in a thoughtful mood. Lucy was down-stairs in the drawing room, at the piano. They could hear the faint echo of her soft playing as they sat there in silence. Sibylla was in no humour to talk: she had repulsed Decima rudely—or it may rather be said fractiously—when the latter had ventured on conversation. Lady Verner had gone out to dinner. The Countess of Elmsley had been there that day, and she had asked Lady Verner to go over in the evening and take a friendly dinner with her. “Bring any of them that you like with you,” had been her careless words in parting. But Lady Verner had not chosen to take “any of them she had dressed and driven off in the hired fly alone: and this it was that was exciting the anger of Sibylla. She thought Lady Verner might have taken her.
Lucy came in and knelt down on the rug before the fire, half shivering. “I am so cold!” she said. “Do you know what I did, Decima? I let the fire go out. Sometime after Lady Verner went up to dress, I turned round and found the fire was out. My hands are quite numbed.”
“You have gone on playing there without a fire!” cried Decima.
“I shall be warm again directly,” said Lucy, cheerily. “As I passed through the hall, the reflection of the blaze came out of the dining-room. We shall get warm there. Is your head still aching, Mrs. Verner?”
“It is always aching,” snapped Sibylla.
Lucy, kind and gentle in spirit, unretorting, ever considerate for the misfortunes which had come upon Mrs. Verner, went to her side. “Shall I get you a little of your aromatic vinegar?” she asked.
“You need not trouble to get anything for me,” was the ungracious answer.
Lucy, thus repulsed, stood in silence at the window. The window, on the side of the house, overlooked the road which led to Sir Rufus Hautley’s. A carriage, apparently closely shut up, so far as she could see in the dark, its coachman and footman attending it, was bowling rapidly down towards the village.
“There’s Sir Rufus Hautley’s carriage,” said Lucy. “I suppose he is going out to dinner.”
Decima drew to the window and looked out. The carriage came sweeping round the point, and turned, on its road to the village, as they supposed. In the still silence of the room, they could hear its wheels on the frosty road, after they lost sight of it: could hear it bowl before their house, and—stop at the gates.
“It has stopped here!” exclaimed Lucy.
Decima moved quietly back to the fire and sat down. A fancy arose to Lucy that she, Decima, had turned unusually pale. Was it so?—or was it fancy? If it was fancy, why should the fancy have arisen? Ghastly pale her face certainly looked, as the blaze played upon it.
A few minutes, and one of the servants came in, handing a note to Decima.
“Bring lights,” said Decima, in a low tone.
The lights were brought: and then Decima’s agitation was apparent. Her hands shook as she broke the seal of the letter. Lucy gazed in surprise; Sibylla, somewhat aroused from her own grievances, in curiosity.
“Desire the carriage to wait,” said Decima.
“It is waiting, Miss Decima. The servants said they had orders.”
Decima crushed the note into her pocket as well as her shaking fingers would allow her, and left the room. What could have occurred thus to agitate calm and stately Decima? Before Lucy and Mrs. Verner had recovered their surprise she was back again, dressed to go out.
“I am sorry to leave you so abruptly, as mamma is not here,” she said. I dare say Lionel will be in to dinner. If not, you must for once entertain each other.”
“But where are you going?” cried Mrs. Verner.
“To Sir Rufus Hautley’s. He wishes to see me.”
“What does he want with you?” continued Sibylla.
“I do not know,” replied Decima.
She quitted the room and went down to the carriage, which had waited for her. Mrs. Verner and Lucy heard it drive away again as quickly as it had driven up. As it turned the corner and pursued its way up the road, past the window they were looking from, but at some distance from it, they fancied they saw the form of Decima inside, looking out at them.
“Sir Rufus is taken ill,” said old Catherine to them, by way of news. “The servants say that it’s feared he won’t live through the night. Mr. Jan is there, and Dr. Hayes.”
“But what can he want with Miss Verner?” reiterated Sibylla.
Catherine shook her head. She had not the remotest idea.
Lionel Verner did not come in for dinner. His non-appearance was no improvement to the temper of his wife. It had occurred lately that Lionel did not always get home to dinner. Sometimes, when detained at Verner’s Pride, he would take it with John Massingbird; if out on the estate, and unable to get home in time, he would eat something when he came in. Her fractious state of mind did not tend to soothe the headache she had complained of earlier in the day. Every half-hour that passed without her husband’s entrance, made her worse in all ways, head and temper; and about nine o’clock she went up to her sitting-room and lay down on the sofa, saying that her temples were splitting.
Lucy followed her. Lucy thought she must really be ill. She could not understand that any one should be so fractious, except from wearying pain.
“I will bathe your temples,” she gently said.
Sibylla did not appear to care whether her temples were bathed or not. Lucy got some water in a basin and two thin handkerchiefs, wringing out one and placing it on Mrs. Verner’s head and forehead, kneeling to her task. That her temples were throbbing and her head hot, there was no question: the handkerchief was no sooner on than it was warm, and Lucy had to exchange it for the other.
“It is Lionel’s fault,” suddenly burst forth Sibylla.
“His fault?” returned Lucy. “How can it be his fault?”
“What business has he to stop out?”
“But if he cannot help it?” returned Lucy. “The other evening, don’t you remember, Mr. Verner said, when he came in, that he could not help being late sometimes now?”
“You need not defend him,” said Sibylla. “It seems to me that you are all ready to take his part against me.”
Lucy made no reply. An assertion more unfounded could not be spoken. At that moment the step of Lionel was heard on the stairs. He came in, looked jaded and tired.
“Up here this evening!” he exclaimed, laying down a paper or parchment which he had in his hand. “Catherine says my mother and Decima are out. Why, Sibylla, what is the matter?”
Sibylla dashed the handkerchief off her brow as he advanced to her, and rose up, speaking vehemently. The sight of her husband appeared to have brought the climax to her temper.
“Where have you been? Why were you not in to dinner?”
“I could not get home in time. I have been detained.”
“It is false,” she retorted, her blue eyes flashing fire. “Business, business! it is always your excuse now! You stay out for no good purpose.”
The outbreak startled Lucy. She backed a few paces, looking scared.
“Sibylla!” was all the amazed reply uttered by Lionel.
“You leave me here, hour after hour, to solitude and tears, while you are out, taking your pleasure! I have all the endurance of our position, and you the enjoyment.”
He battled for a moment with his rising feelings; battled for calmness, for forbearance, for strength to bear. There were moments when he was tempted to answer her in her own spirit.
“Pleasure and I have not been very close friends of late, Sibylla,” he gravely said. “None can know that, better than you. My horse fell lame, and I have been leading him these last two hours. I have now to go to Verner’s Pride. Something has arisen on which I must see Mr. Massingbird.”
“It is false, it is false,” reiterated Sibylla. “You are not going to Verner’s Pride; you are not going to see Mr. Massingbird. You best know where you are going; but it is not there. It is the old story of Rachel Frost over again.”
The words confounded Lionel: both that they were inexplicable, and spoken in such vehement passion.
“What do you say about Rachel Frost?” he asked.
“You know what I say, and what I mean. When Deerham looked far and near for the man who did the injury to Rachel, they little thought they might have found him in Lionel Verner. Lucy Tempest, it is true. He—”
But Lionel had turned imperatively to Lucy, drawing her to the door, which he opened. It was no place for her, a discussion such as this.
“Will you be so kind as to go down and make me a cup of tea, Lucy?” he said, in a wonderfully calm tone, considering the provocation he was receiving. He closed the door on Lucy, and turned to his wife.
“Sibylla, allow me to request, nay, to insist, that when you have fault to find, or reproach to cast to me, you choose a moment when we are alone. If you have no care for what may be due to me and to yourself, you will do well to bear in mind that something is due to others. Now then, tell me what you mean about Rachel Frost.”
“I won’t,” said Sibylla. “You are killing me,” and she burst into tears.
Oh, it was weary work!—weary work for him. Such a wife as this!
“In what way am I killing you?”
“Why do you leave me so much alone?”
“I have undertaken work, and I must do it. But, as to leaving you alone, when I am with you, you scarcely ever give me a civil word.”
“You are leaving me now—you are wanting to go to Verner’s Pnde to-night,” she reiterated with strange inconsistency, considering that she had just insinuated he did not want to go there.
“I must go there, Sibylla. I have told you why: and I have told you truth. Again I ask you what you meant about Rachel Frost.”
Sibylla flung up her hands petulantly.
“I won’t tell you, I say. And you can’t make me. I wish, I wish Fred had not died.”
She turned round on the sofa and buried her face in the cushions. Lionel, true to the line of conduct he had carved out for himself, to give her all possible token of respect and affection ever, whatever might be her provocation,—and all the more true to it from the very consciousness that the love of his inmost heart grew less hers, more another’s day by day, bent over her and spoke kindly. She flung back her hand in a repelling manner towards him, and maintained an obstinate silence. Lionel, sick and weary, at length withdrew, taking up the parchment.
How sick and weary, none, save himself, could know. Lucy Tempest had the tea before her, apparently ready, when he looked into the drawing-room.
“I am going on now to Verner’s Pride, Lucy. You can tell my mother so, should she ask after me when she returns. I may be late.”
“But you will take some tea, first?” cried Lucy, in a hasty tone. “You asked me to make it for you.”
He knew he had;—asked her as an excuse to get her from the room.
“I don’t care for it,” he wearily answered.
“I am sure you are tired,” said Lucy. “When did you dine?”
“I have not dined. I have taken nothing since I left home this morning.”
She was hastening to the bell. Lionel stopped her, laying his hand upon her arm.
“I could not eat it, Lucy. Just one cup of tea, if you will.”
She returned to the table, poured out the cup of tea, and he drank it standing.
“Shall I take Mrs. Verner up a cup?” asked Lucy. “Will she drink it, do you think?”
“Thank you, Lucy. It may do her head good. I think it aches much to-night.”
He turned, and departed. Lucy noticed that he had left the parchment behind him, and ran after him with it. Catching him as he was about to close the hall-door. She knew that all such business-looking papers went up to Verner’s Pride.
“Did you mean to leave it? Or have you forgotten it?”
He had forgotten it. He took it from her, retaining her hand for a moment.
“Lucy, you will not misjudge me?” he said, in a strange tone of pain.
Lucy looked up at him with a bright smile and a very emphatic shake of the head. She knew by instinct that he alluded to the accusation of his wife, touching Rachel Frost. Lucy misjudge him!
“You should have waited to eat some dinner,” she gaily said. “Take care you don’t faint by the way, like that sick patient of Jan’s did, the other morning.”
Lionel went on. At any rate there was peace outside, if not within: the peace of outward calm. He lifted his hat; he bared his brow, aching with its weight of trouble, to the clear night air; he wondered whether he should have, so to bear, for his whole long life. At the moment of passing the outer gates, the carriage of Sir Rufus Hautley drew up, bearing Decima.
Lionel waited to receive her. He helped her out, and gave her his arm to the hall-door. Decima walked with her head down.
“You are silent, Decima. Are you sad?”
“Yes,” she answered. “Sir Rufus is dead.”
“Dead!” echoed Lionel, in very astonishment, for he had heard nothing of the sudden illness.
“It is so,” she replied, breaking into sobs. “Spasms at the heart, they say. Jan and Dr. Hayes were there, but they could not save him.”