Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 3
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER V. DINAH ROY’S “GHOST.”
The moon, high in the heavens, shone down brightly, lighting up the fair domain of Verner’s Pride, lighting up the broad terrace, and one who was hasting along it; all looking as peaceful as if a deed of dark mystery had not that night been committed.
He, skimming the terrace with a fleet foot, was that domain’s recognised heir, Lionel Verner. Tynn and others were standing in the hall, talking in groups, as is the custom with dependents when something unusual and exciting is going on. Lionel appeared full of emotion when he burst in upon them.
“Is it true?” he demanded, speaking impulsively. “Is Rachel really dead?”
“She is dead, sir.”
“Yes, sir, drowned.”
He stood like one confounded. He had heard the news in the village, but this decided confirmation of it was as startling as if he now heard it for the first time. A hasty word of feeling, and then he looked again at Tynn.
“Was it the result of accident?”
Tynn shook his head.
“It’s to be feared it was not, sir. There was a dreadful quarrel heard, it seems, near to the pool, just before it happened. My master is inquiring into it now, sir, in his study. Mr. Bitterworth and some more are there.”
Giving his hat to the butler, Lionel Verner opened the study door, and entered. It was at that precise moment when John Massingbird had gone out for Mrs. Roy; so that, as may be said, there was a lull in the proceedings.
Mr. Verner looked glad when Lionel appeared. The ageing man, enfeebled with sickness, had grown to lean on the strong young intellect. As much as it was in Mr. Verner’s nature to love anything, he loved Lionel. He beckoned him to a chair beside himself.
“Yes, sir, in an instant,” nodded Lionel. “Matthew,” he whispered, laying his hand kindly on the old man’s shoulder as he passed, and bending down to him with his sympathising eyes, his pleasant voice, “I am grieved for this as if it had been my own sister. Believe me.”
“I know it; I know you, Mr. Lionel,” was the faint answer. “Don’t unman me, sir, afore ’em here; leave me to myself.”
With a pressure of his hand on the shoulder ere he quitted it, Lionel turned to Frederick Massingbird, asking of him particulars in an undertone.
“I don’t know them myself,” replied Frederick, his accent a haughty one. “There seems to be nothing but uncertainty and mystery. Mr. Verner ought not to have inquired into it in this semi-public way. Very disagreeable things have been said, I assure you: there was not the least necessity for allowing such absurdities to go forth, as suspicions, to the public. You have not been running from the willow-pool at a strapping pace, I suppose, to-night?”
“That I certainly have not,” replied Lionel.
“Neither has John, I am sure,” returned Frederick, resentfully. “It is not likely. And yet that boy of Mother Duff’s—”
The words were interrupted. The door had opened, and John Massingbird appeared, marshalling in Dinah Roy. Dinah looked fit to die, with her ashy face and her trembling frame.
“Why, what is the matter?” exclaimed Mr. Verner.
The woman burst into tears.
“Oh, sir, I don’t know nothing of it; I protest I don’t,” she uttered. “I declare that I never set eyes on Rachel Frost this blessed night.”
“But you were near the spot at the time?”
“Oh, bad luck to me, I was!” she answered, wringing her hands. “But I know no more how she got into the water nor a child unborn.”
“Where’s the necessity for being put out about it, my good woman?” spoke up Mr. Bitterworth. “If you know nothing, you can’t tell it. But you must state what you do know—why you were there, what startled you, and such like. Perhaps—if she were to have a chair?” he suggested to Mr. Verner in a whisper. “She looks too shaky to stand.”
“Ay,” acquiesced Mr. Verner. “Somebody bring forward a chair. Sit down, Mrs. Roy.”
Mrs. Roy obeyed. One of those harmless, well-meaning, timid women, who seem not to possess ten ideas of their own, and are content to submit to others, she had often been seen in a shaky state from very trifling causes. But she had never been seen like this. The perspiration was pouring off her pinched face, and her blue check apron was incessantly raised to wipe it.
“What errand had you near the willow-pool this evening?” asked Mr. Verner.
“I didn’t see anything,” she gasped, “I don’t know anything. As true as I sit here, sir, I never saw Rachel Frost this blessed evening.”
“I am not asking you about Rachel Frost. Were you near the spot?”
“Then you can say what errand you had there; what business took you to it,” continued Mr. Verner.
“It was no harm took me, sir. I went to get a dish o’ tea with Martha Broom. Many’s the time she have asked me since Christmas; and my husband, he was out with the Dawsons and all that bother; and Luke, he’s gone, and there was nothing to keep me at home. I changed my gownd and I went.”
“What time was that?”
“’Twas the middle o’ the afternoon, sir. The clock had gone three.”
“Did you stay tea there?”
“In course, sir, I did. Broom, he was out, and she was at home by herself a rinsing out some things. But she soon put ’em away, and we sat down and had our teas together. We was a talking about—”
“Never mind that,” said Mr. Verner. “It was in coming home, I conclude, that you were met by young Broom?”
Mrs. Roy raised her apron again, and passed it over her face: but not a word spoke she in answer.
“What time did you leave Broom’s cottage to return home?”
“I can’t be sure, sir, what time it was. Brooms haven’t got no clock: they tells the time by the sun, and that.”
“Was it dark?”
“Oh, yes, it was dark, sir: except for the moon. That had been up a good bit, for I hadn’t hurried myself.”
“And what did you see or hear, when you got near the Willow-pond?”
The question sent Mrs. Roy into fresh tears; into fresh tremor.
“I never saw nothing,” she reiterated. “The last time I set eyes on Rachel Frost was at church on Sunday.”
“What is the matter with you?” cried Mr. Verner with asperity. “Do you mean to deny that anything had occurred to put you in a state of agitation, when you were met by young Broom?”
Mrs. Roy only moaned.
“Did you hear people quarrelling?” he persisted.
“I heard people quarrelling,” she sobbed. “I did. But I know no more than the dead who it was.”
“Whose voices were they?”
“I couldn’t tell, sir. I wasn’t near enough. There were two voices, a man’s and a woman’s; but I couldn’t catch a single word, and it did not last long. I declare, if it were the last word I had to speak, that I heard no more of the quarrel than that, and I wasn’t no nearer to it.”
She really did seem to speak the truth, in spite of her shrinking fear, which was evident to all. Mr. Verner inquired, with incredulity equally evident, whether that was sufficient to put her into the state of tremor spoken of by young Broom.
Mrs. Roy hung her head.
“I’m timid at quarrels, ’specially if it’s at night,” she faintly answered.
“And was it just the hearing of that quarrel that made you sink down on your knees, and clasp hold of a tree?” continued Mr. Verner. Upon which Mrs. Roy let fall her head on her hands, and sobbed piteously.
Robin Frost interrupted, sarcasm in his tone.
“There’s a tale going on outside, that you saw a ghost, and that it was that frighted you,” he said to her. “Perhaps, sir”—turning to Mr. Verner—“you’ll ask her whose ghost it was.”
This appeared to put the finishing touch to Mrs. Roy’s discomfiture. Nothing could be made of her for a few minutes. Presently, her agitation somewhat subsided; she lifted her head, and spoke as with a desperate effort.
“It’s true,” she said. “I’ll make a clean breast of it. I did see a ghost, and it was that as upset me so. It wasn’t the quarrelling frighted me: I thought nothing of that.”
“What do you mean by saying you saw a ghost?” sharply reproved Mr. Verner.
“It was a ghost, sir,” she answered, apparently picking up a little courage, now the subject was fairly entered upon.
A pause ensued. Mr. Verner may have been at a loss what to say next. When deliberately assured by any timorous spirit that they have “seen a ghost,” it is waste of time to enter an opposing argument.
“Where did you see the ghost?” he asked.
“I had stopped still, listening to the quarrelling, sir. But that soon came to an end, for I heard no more, and I went on a few steps, and then I stopped to listen again. Just as I turned my head towards the grove, where the quarrelling had seemed to be, I saw something a few paces from me that made my flesh creep. A tall, white thing it looked, whiter than the moonlight. I knew it could be nothing but a ghost, and my knees sunk down from under me, and I laid hold o’ the trunk o’ the tree.”
“Perhaps it was a death’s head and bones?” cried John Massingbird.
“May be, sir,” she answered. “That, or something worse. It glided through the trees with its great eyes staring at me; and I felt ready to die.”
“Was it a man’s or a woman’s ghost?” asked Mr. Bitterworth, a broad smile upon his face.
“Couldn’t have been a woman’s, sir; ’twas too tall,” was the sobbing answer. “A great tall thing it looked, like a white shadder. I wonder I be alive!”
“So do I,” irascibly cried Mr. Verner. “Which way was it going? towards the village, or in this direction?”
“Not in neither of ’em, sir. It glided right off at a angle amid the trees.”
“And it was that—that folly, that put you into the state of tremor in which Broom found you?” uttered Mr. Verner. “It was nothing else?”
“I declare, before Heaven, that it was what I saw as put me into the fright young Broom found me in,” she repeated, earnestly.
“But, if you were so silly as to be alarmed, for the moment, why do you continue to show alarm still?”
“Because my husband says he’ll shake me,” she whimpered, after a long pause. “He never has no patience with ghosts.”
“Serve you right,” was the half-audible comment of Mr. Verner. “Is this all you know of the affair?” he continued, after a pause.
“It’s all, sir,” she sobbed. “And enough too! There’s only one thing as I shall be for ever thankful for.”
“What’s that?” asked Mr. Verner.
“That my poor Luke was away afore this happened. He was fond of hankering after Rachel, and folks might have been for laying it on his shoulders; though, goodness knows, he’d not have hurt a hair of her head.”
“At any rate, he is out of it,” observed John Massingbird.
“Ay,” she replied, in a sort of self-soliloquy, as she turned to leave the room, for Mr. Verner told her she was dismissed, “it’ll be a corn o’ comfort among my peck o’ troubles. I have fretted myself incessant since Luke left, a thinking as I could never know comfort again; but perhaps it’s all for the best now, as he should ha’ went.”
She curtseyed, and the door was closed upon her. Her evidence left an unsatisfactory feeling behind it. An impression had gone forth that Mrs. Roy could throw some light upon the obscurity; and, as it turned out, she had thrown none. The greater part of those present gave credence to what she said. All believed the “ghost” to have been pure imagination; knowing the woman’s proneness to the marvellous, and her timid temperament. But, upon one or two there remained a strong conviction that Mrs. Roy had not told the whole truth; that she could have said a great deal more about the night’s work, had she chosen to do so.
No other testimony was forthcoming. The cries and shouts of young Broom, when he saw the body in the water, had succeeded in arousing some men who slept at the distant brick-kilns; and the tidings soon spread, and crowds flocked up. These crowds were eager to pour into Mr. Verner’s room now, and state all they knew, which was precisely the evidence not required; but, of further testimony to the facts, there was none.
“More may come out prior to the inquest; there’s no knowing,” observed Mr. Bitterworth, as the gentlemen stood in a group, before separating. “It is a very dreadful thing; demanding the most searching investigation. It is not likely she would throw herself in.”
“A well-conducted girl like Rachel Frost throw herself wilfully into a pond for the purpose of drowning!” indignantly repeated Mr. Verner. “She would be one of the last to do it.”
“And equally one of the last to be thrown in,” said Dr. West. “Young women do not get thrown into ponds without some cause; and I should think few ever gave less cause for maltreatment of any kind than she. It appears most strange to me with whom she could have been quarrelling—if indeed it was Rachel that was quarrelling.”
“It is all strange together,” cried Lionel Verner. “What took Rachel that way at all, by night-time?”
“What indeed!” echoed Mr. Bitterworth. “Unless—”
“Unless what?” asked Mr. Verner; for Mr. Bitterworth had brought his words to a sudden standstill.
“Well, I was going to say, unless she had an appointment there. But that does not appear probable for Rachel Frost.”
“It is barely possible, let alone probable,” was the retort of Mr. Verner.
“But still, in a case like this, every circumstance must be looked at, every trifle weighed,” resumed Mr. Bitterworth. “Does Rachel’s own conduct appear to you to have been perfectly open? She has been indulging, it would seem, in some secret grief latterly; has been ‘strange,’ as one or two have expressed it. Then, again, she stated to her father that she was going to stay at Duff’s for a gossip, whereas the woman says she had evidently no intention of gossiping, and barely gave herself time to order the articles spoken of. Other witnesses observed her leave Duff’s, and walk with a hasty step direct to the field road, and turn down it. All this does not sound quite clear to me.”
“There was one thing sounded not clear to me,” broke in Lionel, abruptly, “and that was Dinah Roy’s evidence. The woman’s half a fool; otherwise I should think she was purposely deceiving us.”
“A pity but she could see a real ghost!” cried John Massingbird, looking half inclined to laugh, “it might cure her for fancy ones. She’s right in one thing, however: that poor Luke might have got this clapped on to his shoulders, had he been here.”
“Scarcely,” dissented Dr. West. “Luke Roy is too inoffensive to harm any one, least of all a woman, and Rachel; and that the whole parish knows.”
“There’s no need to discuss Luke’s name in the business,” said Mr. Verner, “he is far enough away. Whoever the man may have been, it was not Luke,” he emphatically added. “Luke would have been the one to succour Rachel, not to hurt her.”
Not a soul present but felt that Mr. Verner spoke in strict accordance with the facts, known and presumptive. They must look in another quarter than Luke for Rachel’s assailant.
Mr. Verner glanced at Mr. Bitterworth and Dr. West, then at the three young men before him.
“We are amongst friends,” he observed, addressing the latter. “I would ask you, individually, whether it was one of you that the boy Duff spoke of as being in the lane?”
They positively disclaimed it, each one for himself. Each one mentioned that he had been elsewhere at the time; and where he had been.
“You see,” said Mr. Verner, “the lane leads only to Verner’s Pride.”
“But, by leaping a fence anywhere, or a gate, or breaking through a hedge, it may lead all over the country,” observed Frederick Massingbird. “You forget that, sir.”
“No, Frederick, I do not forget it. But unless a man had business at Verner’s Pride, what should he go into the lane for? On emerging from the field, on this side the Willow-pool, any one, not bound for Verner’s Pride, would take the common path to the right hand, open to all; only in case of wanting to come here would he take the lane. You cannot suppose for a moment that I suspect any one of you has had a hand in this unhappy event; but it was right that I should be assured, from your own lips, that you were not the person spoken of by young Duff.”
“It may have been a stranger to the neighbourhood, sir. In that case he would not know that the lane led only to Verner’s Pride.”
“True—so far. But what stranger would be likely to quarrel with Rachel?”
“Egad, if you come to that, sir, a stranger’s more likely to pick a quarrel with her than one of us,” rejoined John Massingbird.
“It was no stranger,” said Mr. Verner, shaking his head. “We do not quarrel with strangers. Had any stranger accosted Rachel at night, in that lonely spot, with rude words, she would naturally have called out for help: which it is certain she did not do, or young Broom and Mrs. Roy must have heard her. Rely upon it, that man in the lane is the one we must look for.”
“But—where to look?” debated Frederick Massingbird.
“There it is! The inference would be that he was coming to Verner’s Pride; being on its direct way and nearly close upon it. But, the only tall men (as the boy describes) at Verner’s Pride, are you three and Bennet. Bennet was at home, therefore he is exempt; and you were scattered in different directions—Lionel at Mr. Bitterworth’s, John at the Royal Oak—I wonder you like to make yourself familiar with those tap-rooms, John!—and Frederick coming in from Poynton’s to his dinner.”
“I don’t think I had been in ten minutes when the alarm came,” remarked Frederick.
“Well, it is involved in mystery at present,” cried Mr. Bitterworth, shaking hands with them. “Let us hope that to-morrow will open more light upon it? Are you on the wing, too, doctor? Then we’ll go out together.”
CHAPTER VI. THE REVELATION AT THE INQUEST.
To say that Deerham was rudely disturbed from its equanimity; that petty animosities, whether concerning Mr. Roy and the Dawsons or other contending spirits, were lost sight of, hushed to rest in the absorbing calamity which had overtaken Rachel; to say that occupations were partially suspended, that there ensued a glorious interim of idleness, for the female portion of it,—of conferences in gutters and collectings in houses; to say that Rachel was sincerely mourned, old Frost sympathised with, and the supposed assailant vigorously sought after, would be sufficient to indicate that public curiosity was excited to a high pitch: but all this was as nothing, compared to the excitement which was to ensue, upon the evidence given at the coroner’s inquest.
In the absence of any certain data to go upon, Deerham had been content to take uncertain data, and to come to its own conclusions. Deerham assumed that Rachel, from some reasons which they could not fathom, had taken the lonely road home that night, had met with somebody or other with whom had ensued a quarrel and scuffle, and that, accidentally or by intent, she had been pushed into the pond, the coward decamping.
“Villany enough! even if ’twas but an accident!” cried wrathful Deerham.
Villany enough, beyond all doubt, had this been the extent. But, Deerham had to learn that the villany had had a beginning previous to that.
The inquest had been summoned in due course. It sat two days after the accident. No evidence tending to further elucidate the matter was given, than had been elicited that first night before Mr. Verner; except the medical evidence. Dr. West and a surgeon from a neighbouring town, who had jointly made the post mortem examination, testified that there was a cause for Rachel Frost’s unevenness of spirits, spoken to by her father and by Mrs. Verner. She might possibly, they now thought, have thrown herself into the pool; induced to it by self-condemnation.
It electrified Deerham. It electrified Mr. Verner. It worse than electrified Matthew Frost and Robin. In the first impulse of the news, Mrs. Verner declared that it could not be. But the medical men, with their impassive faces, calmly said that it was.
But, so far as the inquiry went, it only left the point where it found it. For, if it tended to induce a suspicion that Rachel might have found life a burthen, and so wished to end it, it only rendered stronger the suspicion against another. This supplied the very motive for that other’s conduct, which had been wanting, supposing that he had indeed got rid of her by violence. It gave the clue to much which had before been dark. People could understand now why Rachel should hasten to keep a stealthy appointment; why quarrelling should be heard at it; in short, why poor Rachel should have been found in the pond. The jury returned an open verdict—“Found drowned; but how she got into the water, there is no precise evidence to show.”
Robin Frost struggled out of the room as the crowd was dispersing. His eye was blazing, his cheek burning. Could Robin have laid his hand at that moment upon the right man, there would speedily have ensued another coroner’s inquest. The earth was not wide enough for the two to live on it. Fortunately, Robin could not fix on any one, and say, thou art the man! The knowledge was hidden from him: and yet, the very man may have been at the inquest, side by side with himself. Nay, he probably was.
Robin Frost cleared himself from the crowd. He gave vent to a groan of despair; he lifted his strong arms in impotency. Then he turned and sought Mr. Verner.
Mr. Verner was ill; could not be seen. Lionel came forward.
“Robin, I am truly sorry;—truly grieved. We all are. But I know you will not care to-day to hear me say it.”
“Sir, I wanted to see Mr. Verner,” replied Robin. “I want to know if that inquest can be squashed.” Don’t laugh at him now, poor fellow. He meant quashed.
“The inquest quashed!” repeated Lionel. “Of course it cannot be. I don’t know what you mean, Robin. It has been held, and it cannot be unheld.”
“I should ha’ said the verdict,” explained Robin. “I’m beside myself to-day, Mr. Lionel. Can’t Mr. Verner get it squashed? He knows the crowner.”
“Neither Mr. Verner nor anybody else could do it, Robin. Why should you wish it done?”
“Because it as good as sets forth a lie,” vehemently answered Robin Frost. “She never put herself into the water. Bad as things had turned out with her, poor dear, she never did that. Mr. Lionel, I ask you, sir, was she likely to do it?”
“I should have deemed it very unlikely,” replied Lionel. “Until to-day,” he added to his own thoughts.
“No, she never did! Was it the work of one to go and buy herself aprons, and tape, and cotton for sewing, who was on her way to fling herself into a pond, I’d ask the crowner?” he continued, his voice rising almost to a shriek in his emotion. “Them aprons be a proof that she didn’t take her own life. Why didn’t they bring it in Wilful Murder, and have the place scoured out to find him?”
“The verdict will make no difference to the finding him, Robin,” returned Lionel Verner.
“I dun know that, sir. When a charge of wilful murder’s out in a place, again some one of the folks in it, the rest be all on the edge to find him: but ‘Found drownded’ is another thing. Have you any suspicion again anybody, sir?”
He put the question sharply and abruptly, and Lionel Verner looked full in his face as he answered—“No, Robin.”
“Well, good afternoon, sir.”
He turned away without another word. Lionel gazed after him with true sympathy. “He will never recover this blow,” was Lionel Verner’s mental comment.
But for this unfortunate occurrence, John Massingbird would have already departed from Verner’s Pride. The great bane of the two Massingbirds was, that they had been brought up to be idle men. A sum of money had become theirs when Frederick came of age—which sum you will call large or small, as it may please you. It would be as a drop of water to the millionaire; it would be as a countless fortune to one in the depths of poverty: we estimate things by comparison. The sum was five thousand pounds each—Mrs. Massingbird, by her second marriage with Mr. Verner, having forfeited all right in it. With this fine sum the young Massingbirds appeared to think that they could live like gentlemen, and need not seek to add to it.
Thrown into the luxurious home of Verner’s Pride—again we must speak by comparison: Verner’s Pride was luxurious compared to the moderate home they had been reared in—John and Frederick Massingbird suffered that worst complaint of all complaints, indolence, to overtake them and become their master. John, careless, free, unsteady in many ways, set on to spend his portion as fast as he could; Frederick, more cold, more cautious, did not squander as his brother did, but he had managed to get rid of a considerable amount of his own share in unfortunate speculations. While losses do not affect our personal convenience they are scarcely felt. And so it was with the Massingbirds. Mr. Verner was an easy man in regard to money matters; he was also a man who was particularly sensitive to the feelings of other people, and he had never breathed a word to his wife about the inexpediency of her keeping her sons at home in idleness. He feared his motives might be misconstrued—that it might be thought he grudged the keeping them. He had spoken once or twice of the desirability of their pursuing some calling in life, and intimated that he should be ready to further their views by pecuniary help; but the advice was not taken. He offered to purchase a commission for one or both of them; he hinted that the bar afforded a stepping-stone to fame. No; John and Frederick Massingbird were conveniently deaf; they had grown addicted to field-sports, to a life of leisure, and they did not feel inclined to quit it for one of obligation or of labour. So they had stayed on at Verner’s Pride, in the enjoyment of their comfortable quarters, of the well-spread table, of their horses, their dogs. All these sources of expense were provided without any cost or concern of theirs, their own private expenditure alone coming out of their private purses. How it was with their clothes, they and Mrs. Verner best knew—Mr. Verner did not. Whether these were furnished at their own cost, or whether their mother allowed them to draw for such on her—or, indeed, whether they were scoring up long bills on account—Mr. Verner made it no concern of his.
John—who was naturally of a roving nature, and but for the desirable home he was allowed to call his, would probably have been all over the world before he was his present age, working in his shirt-sleeves for bread one day, exalted to some transient luck the next—had latterly taken a fancy in his head to emigrate to Australia. Certain friends of his had gone out there a year or two previously, and were sending home flaming accounts of their success at the gold-fields. It excited in John Massingbird a strong wish to join them. Possibly other circumstances urged him to the step; for, that his finances were not in so desirable a state as they might be, was certain. With John Massingbird, to wish a thing was to do it; and almost before the plan was spoken of, even in his own family, he was ready to start. Frederick was in his confidence, Lionel partly so, and a hint to his mother was sufficient to induce her to preserve reticence on the subject. John Massingbird had his reasons for this. It was announced in the household that Mr. Massingbird was departing on a visit to town, the only one who was told the truth being Rachel Frost. Rachel was looked upon almost as one of themselves. Frederick Massingbird had also confided it to Sibylla West—but Frederick and Sibylla were on more confidential terms than was suspected by the world. John had made a confidant on his own score, and that was of Luke Roy. Luke, despised by Rachel, whom he truly loved, clearly seeing there was no hope whatever that she would ever favour him, was eager to get away from Deerham—anywhere, so that he might forget her. John Massingbird knew this; he liked Luke, and he thought Luke might prove useful to him in the land he was emigrating to, so he proprosed to him to join in the scheme. Luke warmly embraced it. Old Roy, whom they were obliged to take into confidence, was won over to it; he furnished Luke with the needful funds, believing he should be repaid four-fold, for John Massingbird had contrived to imbue him with the firm conviction that gold was to be picked up for the stooping.
Only three days before the tragic event occurred to Rachel, Luke had been despatched to London by John Massingbird to put things in a train of preparation for the voyage. Luke said nothing abroad of his going, and the village only knew he was away by missing him.
“What’s gone of Luke?” many asked of his father.
“Oh! he’s off to London on some spree; he can tell ye about it when he gets back,” was Roy’s answer.
When he got back! John’s departure was intended for the day following that one when you saw him packing his clothes, but the untimely end of Rachel had induced him to postpone it. Or, rather, the command of Mr. Verner,—a command which John could not conveniently disobey, had he wished. He had won over Mr. Verner to promise him a substantial sum, to “set him up,” as he phrased it, in Australia; and that sum was not yet handed to him.
The revelation at the inquest had affected Mr. Verner in no measured degree, greatly increasing, for the time, his bodily ailments. He gave orders to be denied to all callers; he could not bear the comments that would be made. An angry, feverish desire, to find out who had played the traitor, grew strong within him. Innocent, pretty, childlike Rachel! who was it that had set himself, in his wickedness, deliberately to destroy her? Mr. Verner now deemed it more than likely that she had been the author of her own death. It was of course impossible to tell: but he dwelt on that part of the tragedy less than on the other. The one injury was uncertain; the other was a fact.
What rendered it all the more obscure, was the absence of any previous grounds of suspicion. Rachel had never been observed to be on terms of intimacy with any one. Luke Roy had been anxious to court her, as Verner’s Pride knew; but Rachel had utterly repudiated the wish. Luke it was not. And, who else was there?
The suspicions of Mr. Verner veered, almost against his will, towards those of his own household. Not to Lionel; he honestly believed Lionel to be too highly principled: but towards his stepsons. He had no particular cause to suspect either of them: unless the testimony of Mrs. Duff’s son about the tall gentleman could furnish it: and it may be said that his suspicion strayed to them only from the total absence of any other quarter to fix it upon. Of the two, he could rather fix upon John, than Frederick. No scandal, touching Frederick, had ever reached his ears: plenty of it, touching John. In fact, Mr. Verner was rather glad to help in shipping John off to some far-away place, for he considered him no credit to Verner’s Pride, or to the neighbourhood. Venial sins sat lightly on John Massingbird’s conscience.
But this was no venial sin, no case of passing scandal: and Mr. Verner declared to that gentleman that if he found him guilty, he would discard him from Verner’s Pride without a shilling of help. John Massingbird protested, in the strongest terms, that he was innocent as Mr. Verner himself.
A trifling addition was destined to be brought to the suspicion already directed by Mr. Verner towards Verner’s Pride. On the night of the inquest Mr. Verner had his dinner served in his study—the wing of a fowl, of which he ate about a fourth part. Mrs. Tynn attended on him: he liked her to do so when he was worse than usual. He was used to her, and he would talk to her when he would not to others. He spoke about what had happened, saying that he felt as if it would shorten his life. He would give anything, he added, half in self-soliloquy, to have the point cleared up of who it was young Duff had seen in the lane. Mrs. Tynn answered this, lowering her voice.
“It was one of our young gentlemen, sir; there’s no doubt of it. Dolly saw one of them come in.”
“Dolly did!” echoed Mr. Verner.
Mrs. Tynn proceeded to explain. Dolly, the dairymaid at Verner’s Pride, was ill-conducted enough (as Mrs. Tynn would tell her, for the fact did not give that ruling matron pleasure) to have a sweetheart. Worse still, Dolly was in the habit of stealing out to meet him when he left work, which was at eight o’clock. On the evening of the accident, Dolly, abandoning her dairy, and braving the wrath of Mrs. Tynn, should she be discovered, stole out to a sheltered spot in the rear of the house, the usual meeting-place. Scarcely was she ensconced here when the swain arrived; who, it may be remarked, en passant, filled the important post of waggoner to Mr. Bitterworth. The spot was close to the small green gate which led to the lane already spoken of; it led to that only; and, while he and Dolly were talking and making love, after their own rustic fashion, they saw Dan Duff come from the direction of the house, and pass through the gate, whistling. A short while subsequently the gate was heard to open again. Dolly looked out, and saw what she took to be one of the gentlemen come in, from the lane, walking very fast. Dolly looked but casually, the moonlight was obscured there, and she did not particularly notice which of them it was; whether Mr. Lionel, or either of Mrs. Verner’s sons. But the impression received into her mind was, that it was one of the three; and Dolly could not be persuaded out of that to this very day.
“Hush—sh—sh!” cried she to her sweetheart, “it’s one o’ the young masters.”
The quick steps passed on: but whether they turned into the yard, or took the side path which would conduct round to the front entrance, or bore right across, and so went out into the public road, Dolly did not notice. Very shortly after this—time passes swiftly when people are courting, of which fact the Italians have a proverb—Dan Duff came bursting back again, calling, and crying, and telling the tidings of Rachel Frost. This was the substance of what Mrs. Tynn told Mr. Verner.
“Dolly said nothing of this before!” he exclaimed.
“Not she, sir. She didn’t dare confess that she’d been off all that while from her dairy. She let drop a word, and I have got it out of her piecemeal. I have threatened her, sir, that if ever she mentions it again, I’ll get her turned off.”
“Why did you threaten her?” he hastily asked.
Mrs. Tynn dropped her voice. “I thought it might not be pleasant to have it talked of, sir. She thinks I’m only afraid of the neglect of work getting to the ears of Mrs. Verner.”
This was the trifling addition. Not very much in itself, but it served to bear out the doubts Mr. Verner already entertained. Was it John or was it Frederick who had come in? Or was it—Lionel? There appeared to be no more certainty that it was one than another. Mr. Verner had minutely inquired into the proceedings of John and Frederick Massingbird that night, and he had come to the conclusion that both could have been in the lane at that particular hour. Frederick, previously to entering the house for his dinner, after he had left the veterinary surgeon’s, Poynton; John, before he had paid his visit to the Royal Oak. John appeared to have called in at several places, and his account was not particularly clear. Lionel, Mr. Verner had not thought it necessary to question. He sent for him as soon as his dinner tray was cleared away: it was as well to be indisputably sure of him, before fastening the charge on either of the others.
“Sit down, Lionel,” said Mr. Verner. “I want to talk to you. Had you finished your dinner?”
“Quite, thank you. You look very ill to-night,” Lionel added, as he drew a chair to the fire; and his tone insensibly became gentle, as he gazed on his uncle’s pale face.
“How can I look otherwise? This trouble is worrying me to death, Lionel. I have discovered, beyond doubt, that it was one of you young men who was in the lane that night.”
Lionel, who was then leaning over the fire, turned his head, with a quick, surprised gesture, towards Mr. Verner. The latter proceeded to tell Lionel the substance of the communication made to him by Mrs. Tynn. Lionel sat, bending forward, his elbow on his knee, and his fingers unconsciously running amidst the curls of his dark chestnut hair, as he listened to it. He did not interrupt the narrative, or speak at its conclusion.
“You see, Lionel, it appears certain to have been one belonging to this house.”
“Yes, sir. Unless Dolly was mistaken.”
“Mistaken as to what?” sharply asked Mr. Verner, who, when he made up his own mind that a thing was so-and-so, could not bear to be opposed. “Mistaken that some one came in at the gate?”
“I do not see how she could be mistaken in that,” replied Lionel. “I meant mistaken as to its being any one belonging to the house.”
“Is it likely that any one would come in at that gate at night, unless they belonged to the house, or were coming to the house?” retorted Mr. Verner. “Would a stranger drop from the clouds to come in at it? or was it Di Roy’s ‘ghost,’ think you?” he sarcastically added.
Lionel did not answer. He vacantly ran his fingers through his hair, apparently in deep thought.
“I have abstained from asking you the explicit details of your movements on that evening,” continued Mr. Verner, “but I must demand them of you now.”
Lionel started up, his cheek on fire.
“Sir,” he uttered, with emotion, “you cannot suspect me of having had act or part in it! I declare, before Heaven, that Rachel was as sacred for me—”
“Softly, Lionel,” interrupted Mr. Verner, “there’s no cause for you to break your head against a wheel. It is not you that I suspect—thank God! But I wish to be sure of your movements—to be able to speak of them as sure, you understand—before I accuse another.”
“I will willingly tell you every movement of my evening, so far as I remember,” said Lionel, resuming his calmness. “I came home when dinner was half over. I had been detained—but you know all that,” he broke off. “When you left the dining-room, I went on to the terrace, and sat there smoking a cigar. I should think I stayed there an hour, or more; and then I went up-stairs, changed my coat, and proceeded to Mr. Bitterworth’s.
“What took you to Mr. Bitterworth’s that evening, Lionel?”
Lionel hesitated. He did not choose to say, “Because I knew Sibylla West was to be there:” but that would have been the true answer. “I had nothing particular to do with my evening, so I went up,” he said aloud. “Mr. Bitterworth was out. Mrs. Bitterworth thought he had gone into Deerham.”
“Yes. He was at Deerham when the alarm was given, and hastened on here. Sibylla West was there, was she not?”
“She was there,” said Lionel. “She had promised to be home early; and, as no one came for her, I saw her home. It was after I left her that I heard what had occurred.”
“About what time did you get there—I mean to Bitterworth’s?” questioned Mr. Verner, who appeared to have his thoughts filled with other things at that moment than with Sibylla West.
“I cannot be sure,” replied Lionel. “I think it must have been nine o’clock. I went into Deerham to the post-office first, and then came back to Bitterworth’s.”
Mr. Verner mused.
“Lionel,” he observed, “it is a curious thing, but there’s not one of you but might have been the party to the quarrel that night; so far as that your time cannot be positively accounted for by minutes and by hours. I mean, were the accusation brought publicly against you, you would, none of you, be able to prove a distinct alibi, as it seems to me. For instance, who is to prove that you did not, when you were sitting on the terrace, steal across to a rendezvous at the Willow-pond, or cut across to it when you were at the post-office at Deerham?”
“I certainly did not,” said Lionel, quietly, taking the remarks only as they were meant—for an illustration. “It might, sir, as you observe, be difficult to prove a decided alibi. But”—he rose and bent to Mr. Verner with a bright smile, a clear, truthful eye—“I do not think you need one to believe me.”
“No, Lionel, I do not. Is John Massingbird in the dining-room?”
“He was when I left it.”
“Then go and send him in to me.”
John Massingbird was found and despatched to Mr. Verner, without any reluctance on his own part. He had been bestowing hard words upon Lionel for “taking up the time of the old man” just on the evening when he wanted to take it up himself. The truth was, John Massingbird was intending to depart the following morning, the Fates and Mr. Verner permitting him.
Their interview was a long one. Two hours, full, had they been closeted together when Robin Frost made his appearance again at Verner’s Pride, and craved once more an interview with Mr. Verner. “If it was only for a minute—only for a minute!” he implored.
Under the circumstances, the overwhelming sorrow which had fallen on the man, Lionel did not like again to deny him without first asking Mr. Verner. He went himself to the study.
“Come in,” called out Mr. Verner, in answer to the knock.
He was sitting in his chair as usual; John Massingbird was standing up, his elbow on the mantelpiece. That their conversation must have been of an exciting nature was evident, and Lionel could not help noticing the signs. John Massingbird had a scarlet streak on his sallow cheek, never seen there above once or twice in his life, and then caused by deep emotion. Mr. Verner, on his part, looked livid as clay. Robin Frost might come in.
Lionel called him, and he came in with Frederick Massingbird.
The man could hardly speak for agitation. He believed the verdict could not be set aside, he said: others had told him so besides Mr. Lionel. He had come to ask if Mr. Verner would offer a reward.
“A reward!” repeated Mr. Verner, mechanically, with the air of a man whose mind is far away.
“If you’d please to offer it, sir, I’d work the flesh off my bones to pay it back again,” he urged. “I’ll live upon a crust myself, and I’ll keep my home upon a crust, but what I’ll get it up. If there’s a reward pasted up, sir, we might come upon the villain.”
Mr. Verner appeared, then, to awake to the question before him, and to awake to it in terrible excitement.
“He’ll never be found, Robin,—the villain will never be found, so long as you and I and the world shall last!”
They looked at him in consternation; Lionel, Frederick Massingbird, and Robin Frost. Mr. Verner recollected himself, and calmed his spirit down.
“I mean, Robin,” he more quietly said, “that a reward will be useless. The villain has been too cunning, rely upon it, to—to—leave his traces behind him.”
“It might be tried, sir,” respectfully urged Robin. “I’d work—”
“You can come up to-morrow, Robin, and I’ll talk with you,” interrupted Mr. Verner. “I am too ill—too upset to-night. Come at any hour you please, after twelve, and I’ll see you.”
“I’ll come, sir. I’ve registered a vow afore my old father,” went on Robin, lifting his right arm, “and I register it again afore you, sir,—afore our future master, Mr. Lionel,—that I’ll never leave a stone unturned by night nor by day,—that I’ll make it my first and foremost business in life to find that man. And when I’ve found him—let him be who he will—either him or me shall die. So help me—”
“Be still, Robin!” passionately interposed Mr. Verner, in a voice that startled the man. “Vows are bad things. I have found them so.”
“It was registered afore, sir,” significantly answered Robin, as he turned away. “I’ll be up here to-morrow.”
The morrow brought forth two departures from Verner’s Pride. John Massingbird started for London in pursuit of his journey, Mr. Verner having behaved to him liberally. And Lionel Verner was summoned in hot haste to Paris, where his brother had just met with an accident, and was supposed to be lying between life and death.