Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 7/Verner's Pride - Part 5
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER IX. DR. WEST’S HOME.
The house of Dr. West was already lighted up. Gas at its front door, gas at its surgery door, gas inside its windows: no habitation in the place was ever so extensively lighted as Dr. West’s. The house was enclosed with iron railings, and on its side—detached—was the surgery. A very low place, this surgery: you had to go down a step or two, and then plunge into a low door. In the time of the last tenant it had been used as a garden-tool house. It was a tolerably large room, and had a tolerably small window, which was in front, next the door. A counter ran along the room at the back, and a table, covered with miscellaneous articles, stood on the right. Shelves were ranged completely round the room aloft, and a pair of steps, used for getting down the jars and bottles, rested in a corner. There was another room behind it, used exclusively by Dr. West.
Seated on the counter, pounding desperately away at something in a mortar, as if his life depended on it, was a peculiar-looking gentleman in shirt-sleeves. Very tall, very thin, with legs and arms that bore the appearance of being too long even for his tall body, great hands and feet, a thin face, dark and red, a thin aquiline nose, black hair, and black prominent eyes that seemed to be always on the stare,—there sat he, his legs dangling and his fingers working. A straightforward, honest, simple fellow looked he, all utility and practicalness—if there is such a word. One, plain in all ways.
It was Janus Verner: never, in the memory of anybody, called anything but “Jan:” second and youngest son of Lady Verner, brother to Lionel. He brother to courtly Lionel, to stately Decima, son to refined Lady Verner? He certainly was: though Lady Verner in her cross moods would declare that Jan must have been changed at nurse—an assertion without foundation, since he had been nursed at home under her own eye. Never in his life had he been called anything but Jan: address him as Janus, or as Mr. Verner, and it may be questioned if Jan would have answered to it. People called him “droll,” and, if to be of plain, unvarnished manners and speech was droll, Jan decidedly was so. Some said Jan was a fool, some said he was a bear. Lady Verner did not accord him any great amount of favour herself. She had tried to make Jan what she called a gentleman, to beat into him suavity, gracefulness, tact, gloss of speech and bearing; something between a Lord Chesterfield and a Sir Roger de Coverley, and she had been obliged to give it up as a hopeless job. Jan was utterly irreclaimable: Nature had made him plain and straightforward, and so he remained. But there was many a one that the world would bow down to as a model, whose intrinsic worth was poor, compared to unoffending Jan’s. Lady Verner would tell Jan he was undutiful. Jan tried to be as dutiful to her as ever he could; but he could not change his ungainly person, his awkward manner. As well try to wash a negro white.
Lady Verner had proposed that Jan should go into the army. Jan (plain spoken as a boy, like he was now) had responded that he’d rather not go out to be shot at. What was she to do with him? Lady Verner peevishly asked: she had no money, and she would take care Jan was not helped from Mr. Verner. To make him a barrister, or a clergyman, or a member of parliament (it was what Lady Verner said), would cost vast sums of money: a commission could be obtained for him gratis, in consideration of his father’s services.
“Make me an apothecary,” said Jan.
“An apothecary!” echoed Lady Verner, aghast. “That’s not a gentleman’s calling.”
Jan opened his great eyes. Had he taken a liking for carpentering, he would have deemed it gentlemanly enough for him.
“What on earth has put an apothecary’s business into your head?” cried Lady Verner.
“I should like the pounding,” replied Jan.
“The pounding!” reiterated Lady Verner, in astonishment.
“I should like it altogether,” concluded Jan. “I wish you’d let me go apprentice to Dr. West.”
Jan held to his liking. In due course of time he was apprenticed to Dr. West, and pounded away to his heart’s content. Thence he went to London to walk the hospitals, and completed his studies in Paris. It was at the latter period that the accident happened to Jan which called Lionel to Paris. Jan was knocked down by a carriage in the street, his leg broken, and he was otherwise injured. Time and skill cured him. Time and perseverance completed his studies, and Jan became a licensed surgeon of no mean skill. He returned to Deerham, and was engaged as assistant to Dr. West. No very ambitious position, but “it’s good enough for Jan,” slightingly said Lady Verner. Jan probably thought the same, or he would have sought a better. He was four-and-twenty now. Dr. West was a general practitioner, holding an Edinburgh degree only. There was plenty to do in Deerham and its neighbourhood, what with the rich and what with the poor. Dr. West chiefly attended the rich himself, and left Jan to take care of the poor. It was all one to Jan.
Jan sat on the counter in the surgery, pounding and pounding. He had just come in from his visit to Deerham Court, summoned thither by the slight accident to his sister Decima. Leaning his two elbows on the counter, and his pale puffy cheeks on his hands, intently watching Jan with his light eyes, was a young gentleman of sixteen, with an apron tied round his waist. This was Master Cheese, an apprentice, as Jan once had been. In point of fact, the pounding now was Master Cheese’s proper work, but he was fat and lazy, and so sure as Jan came into the surgery, so sure would young Cheese begin to grunt and groan, and vow that his arms were “knocked off” with the work. Jan, in his indolent manner,—and in motion and manner Jan appeared intensely indolent, as if there was no hurry in him; he would bring his words, too, out indolently,—would lift the pounding machine aloft, sit himself down on the counter, and complete the work.
“I say,” said young Cheese, watching the progress of the pestle with satisfaction, “Dame Dawson has been here.”
“What did she want?” asked Jan.
“Bad in her inside, she says. I gave her three good doses of jalap.”
“Jalap!” echoed Jan. “Well, it won’t do her much harm. She won’t take ’em; she’ll throw ’em away.”
“Law, Jan!” For, in the private familiarity of the surgery, young Cheese was thus accustomed unceremoniously to address his master—as Jan was. And Jan allowed it with composure.
“She’ll throw ’em away,” repeated Jan. “There’s not a worse lot for physic in all the parish than Dame Dawson. I know her of old. She thought she’d get peppermint and cordials ordered for her: an excuse for running up a score at the public-house. Where’s the doctor?”
“He’s off somewhere. I saw one of the Bitterworth grooms come to the house this afternoon, so perhaps something’s wrong there. I say, Jan, there’ll be a stunning pie for supper!”
“Have you seen it?”
“Haven’t I! I went into the kitchen when she was making it. It has got a hare inside it, and forcemeat balls.”
“Who?” asked Jan—alluding to the maker.
“Miss Deb,” replied young Cheese. “It’s sure to be something extra good, for her to go and make it. If she doesn’t help me to a rare good serving, shan’t I look black at her!”
“It mayn’t be for supper,” debated Jan.
“Cook said it was. I asked her. She thought somebody was coming. I say, Jan, if you miss any of the castor oil, don’t go and say I drank it.”
Jan lifted his eyes to a shelf opposite, where various glass bottles stood. Among them was the one containing the castor oil. “Who has been at it?”
“Miss Amilly. She came and filled that great fat glass pot of hers, with her own hands; and she made me drop in some essence of cloves to scent it. Won’t her hair smell of it to night!”
“They’ll make castor oil scarce, if they go at it like that,” said Jan, indifferently.
“They use about a quart a month; I know they do; the three of ’em together,” exclaimed young Cheese, as vehemently as if the loss of the castor oil was personal. “How their nightcaps must be greased!”
“Sibylla doesn’t use it,” said Jan.
“Doesn’t she, though!” retorted young Cheese with acrimony. “She uses many things on the sly that she pretends not to use. She’s as vain as a peacock. Did you hear about—”
Master Cheese cut his question short: coming in at the surgery door was Lionel Verner.
“Well, Jan! What about Decima? After waiting ages at the Court for you to come down stairs and report, I found you were gone.”
“It’s a twist,” said Jan. “It will be all right in a few days. How’s Uncle Stephen to-day?”
“Just the same. Are the young ladies in?”
“Go and see,” said Jan. “I know nothing about ’em.”
“Yes, they are in, sir,” interrupted Master Cheese. “They have not been out all the afternoon, for a wonder.”
Lionel left the surgery, stepped round to the front door, and entered the house.
In a square, moderate-sized drawing-room, with tasty things scattered about it to catch the eye, stood a young lady, figuring off before the chimney-glass. Had you looked critically into the substantial furniture you might have found it old and poor: of a different class from the valuable furniture at Verner’s Pride, widely different from the light, elegant furniture at Lady Verner’s. But, what with white anti-macassars, many-coloured mats on which reposed pretty ornaments, glasses and vases of flowers, and other trifles, the room looked well enough for anything. In like manner, had you, with the same critical eye, scanned the young lady, you would have found that of real beauty she possessed little. A small pretty doll’s face with blue eyes and gold-coloured ringlets; a round face, betraying nothing very great, or good, or intellectual; only something fascinating and pretty. Her chief beauty lay in her complexion: by candle-light it was radiantly lovely, a pure red and white, looking like wax-work. A pretty, graceful girl she looked; and, what with her fascinations of person, of dress, and of manner, all of which she perfectly well knew how to display, she had contrived to lead more than one heart captive, and to hold it in fast chains.
The light of the gas chandelier shone on her now; on her blue gauzy dress, set off with ribbons, on her sleepy blue eyes, on her rose-coloured cheeks. She was figuring off before the glass, I say, twisting her ringlets round her fingers, and putting them in various positions to try the effect: her employment, her look, her manner, all indicating the very essence of vanity. The opening of the door caused her to turn her head, and she shook her ringlets into their proper place, and dropped her hands by her side, at the entrance of Lionel Verner.
“Oh, Lionel! is it you?” said she, with as much composure as if she had not been caught gazing at herself. “I was looking at this,” pointing to an inverted tumbler on the mantlepiece. “Is it not strange that we should see a moth at this cold season? Amilly found it this afternoon on the geraniums.”
Lionel Verner advanced and bent his head to look at the pretty speckled moth, reposing so still on its green leaf. Did he see through the artifice? Did he suspect that the young lady had been admiring her own pretty face, and not the moth? Not he. Lionel’s whole heart had long ago been given to that vain butterfly, Sibylla West, who was gay and fluttering, and really of little more use in life than the moth. How was it that he had suffered himself to love her? Suffered! Love plays strange tricks, and it has fooled many a man like it was fooling Lionel Verner.
And what of Sibylla? Sibylla did not love him. The two ruling passions of her heart were vanity and ambition. To be sometime the mistress of Verner’s Pride was a very vista of desire, and therefore she encouraged Lionel. She did not encourage him very much; she was rather in the habit of playing fast and loose with him; but that only served to rivet tighter the links of his chain. All the love—such as it was!—that Sibylla West was capable of giving, was in possession of Frederick Massingbird. Strange tricks again! It was scarcely credible that one should fall in love with him by the side of attractive Lionel; but so it had been. Sibylla loved Frederick Massingbird for himself, she liked Lionel because he was the heir to Verner’s Pride, and she had managed to keep both her slaves.
Lionel had never spoken of his love. He knew that his marriage with Sibylla West would be so utterly distasteful to Mr. Verner, that he was content to wait. He knew that Sibylla could not mistake him—could not mistake what his feelings were; and he believed that she also was content to wait until he should be his own master and at liberty to ask for her. When that time should come, what did she intend to do with Frederick Massingbird, who made no secret to her that he loved her and expected to make her his wife? Sibylla did not know; she did not much care; she was of a careless nature, and allowed the future to take its chance.
The only person who had penetrated to the secret of her love for Frederick Massingbird was her father, Dr. West.
“Don’t be a simpleton, child, and bind yourself with your eyes bandaged,” he abruptly and laconically said to her one day. “When Verner’s Pride falls in, then marry whoever is its master.”
“Lionel will be its master for certain, will he not?” she answered, startled out of the words.
“We don’t know who will be its master,” was Dr. West’s rejoinder. “Don’t play the simpleton, I say, Sibylla, by entangling yourself with your cousin Fred.”
Dr. West was one who possessed an eye to the main chance; and, had Lionel Verner been, beyond contingency, “certain” of Verner’s Pride, there is little doubt but he would have brought him to book at once, by demanding his intentions with regard to Sibylla. There were very few persons in Deerham, but deemed Lionel as indisputably certain of Verner’s Pride as though he were already in possession of it. Dr. West was probably an unusually cautious man.
“It is singular,” observed Lionel, looking at the moth. “The day has been sunshiny, but far too cold to call these moths into life. At least, according to my belief; but I am not learned in entomology.”
“Ento——, what a hard word!” cried Sibylla, in her prettily affected manner. “I should never find out how to spell it.”
Lionel smiled. His deep love was shining out of his eyes as he looked down upon her. He loved her powerfully, deeply, passionately; to him she was as a very angel, and he believed her to be pure-souled, honest-hearted, single-minded as one.
“Where did my aunt go to to-day?” inquired Sibylla, alluding to Mrs. Verner.
“She did not go out at all that I am aware of,” he answered.
“I saw the carriage out this afternoon.”
“It was going to the station for Miss Tempest.”
“Oh! she’s come, then? Have you seen her? What sort of a demoiselle does she seem?”
“The sweetest child!—she looks little more than a child!” cried Lionel, impulsively.
“A child, is she? I had an idea she was grown up. Have any of you at Verner’s Pride heard from John?”
“But the mail’s in, is it not? How strange that he does not write!”
“He may be coming home with his gold,” said Lionel.
They were interrupted. First of all came in the tea-things—for at Dr. West’s the dinner-hour was early—and, next, two young ladies, bearing a great resemblance to each other. It would give them dire offence not to call them young. They were really not very much past thirty, but they were of that class of women who age rapidly; their hair was sadly thin, some of their teeth had gone, and they had thin flushed faces and large twisted noses; but their blue eyes had a good-natured look in them. Little in person, rather bending forward as they walked, and dressing youthfully, they yet looked older than they really were. Their light brown hair was worn in short straggling ringlets in front, and twisted up with a comb behind. Once upon a time that hair was long and tolerably thick, but it had gradually and spitefully worn down to what it was now. The Miss Wests were proud of it still, however; as may be inferred by the disappearance of the castor oil. A short while back, somebody had recommended to them castor oil as the best specific for bringing on departed hair. They were inoffensive in mind and manners, rather simple, somewhat affected and very vain, quarrelling with no person under the sun, except Sibylla. Sibylla was the plague of their lives. So many years younger than they, they had petted her and indulged her as a child, until at length the child became their mistress. Sibylla was rude and ungrateful, would cast scornful words at them and call them “old maids,” with other reproachful terms. There was open warfare between them: but in their hearts they loved Sibylla still. They had been named respectively Deborah and Amilly. The latter name had been intended Amelie; but by some mistake of the parents or of the clergyman, none of them French scholars, Amilly, the child was christened and registered. It remained a joke against Amilly to this day.
“Sibylla!” exclaimed Deborah, somewhat in surprise, as she shook hands with Lionel, “I thought you had gone to Verner’s Pride.”
“Nobody came for me. It got dusk, and I did not care to go alone,” replied Sibylla.
“Did you think of going to Verner’s Pride this evening, Sibylla?” asked Lionel. “Let me take you now. We shall be just in time for dinner. I’ll brink you back this evening.”
“I don’t know,” hesitated Sibylla. The truth was, she had expected Frederick Massingbird to come for her. “I—think—I’ll—go,” she slowly said, apparently balancing some point in her mind.
“If you do go, you should make haste and put your things on,” suggested Miss Amilly. And Sibylla acquiesced, and left the room.
“Has Mr. Jan been told that the tea’s ready, I wonder?” cried Miss Deborah.
Mr. Jan apparently had been told, for he entered as she was speaking; and Master Cheese—his apron off and his hair brushed—with him. Master Cheese cast an inquisitive look at the tea-table, hoping he should see something tempting upon it: eating good things, forming the pleasantest portion of that young gentleman’s life.
“Take this seat, Mr. Jan,” said Miss Amilly, drawing a chair forward next her own. “Master Cheese, have the kindness to move a little round: Mr. Jan can’t see the fire if you sit there.”
“I don’t want to see it,” said literal Jan. “I’m not cold.” And Master Cheese took the opportunity, the words gave, to remain where he was. He liked to sit in the warmth, with his back to the fire.
“I cannot think where papa is,” said Miss Deborah. “Mr. Lionel, is it of any use asking you to take a cup of tea?”
“Thank you, I am going home to dinner,” replied Lionel. “Dr. West is coming in now,” he added, perceiving that gentleman’s approach from the window.
“Miss Amilly,” asked Jan, “have you been at the castor oil?”
Poor Miss Amilly turned all the colours of the rainbow: if she had one weakness, it was upon the subject of her diminishing locks. While Cheese, going red also, administered to Jan sundry kicks under the table, as an intimation that he should have kept counsel. “I—took—just a little drop, Mr. Jan,” said she. “What’s the dose, if you please? Is it one teaspoonful or two?”
“It depends upon the age,” said Jan, “if you mean taken inwardly. For you it would be—I say, Cheese, what are you kicking at?”
Cheese began to stammer something about the leg of the table; but the subject was interrupted by the entrance of Sibylla. Lionel wished them good evening, and went out with her. Outside the room door they encountered Dr. West.
“Where are you going, Sibylla?” he asked, almost sharply, as his glance fell upon his daughter and Lionel.
“To Verner’s Pride.”
“Go and take your things off. You cannot go to Verner’s Pride this evening.”
“But, papa, why?” inquired Sibylla, feeling that she should like to turn restive.
“I have my reasons for it. You will know them later. Now go and take your things off without another word.”
Sibylla dared not openly dispute the will of her father, neither would she essay to do it before Lionel Verner. She turned somewhat unwillingly towards the staircase, and Dr. West opened the drawing-room door, signing to Lionel to wait.
“Deborah, I am going out. Don’t keep the tea. Mr. Jan, should I be summoned anywhere, you’ll attend for me. I don’t know when I shall be home.”
“All right,” called out Jan. And Dr. West went out with Lionel Verner.
“I am going to Verner’s Pride,” he said, taking Lionel’s arm as soon as they were in the street. “There’s news come from Australia. John Massingbird’s dead.”
The announcement was made so abruptly, with so little circumlocution or preparation, that Lionel Verner failed at the first moment to take in the full meaning of the words—“John Massingbird dead?” he mechanically asked.
“He is dead. It’s a sad tale. He had the gold about him, a great quantity of it, bringing it down to Melbourne, and he was killed on the road: murdered for the sake of the gold.”
“How have you heard it?” demanded Lionel.
“I met Roy just now,” replied Dr. West. “He stopped me, saying he had heard from his son by this afternoon’s post; that there was bad news in the letter, and he supposed he must go to Verner’s Pride, and break it to them. He gave me the letter, and I undertook to carry the tidings to Mrs. Verner.”
“It is awfully sudden,” said Lionel. “By the mail, two months ago, he wrote himself to us, in the highest spirits. And now—dead!”
“Life, over there, is not worth a month’s purchase just now,” remarked Dr. West; and Lionel could but note that had he been discussing the death of a total stranger, instead of a nephew, he could only have spoken in the same indifferent, matter-of-fact tone. “By all accounts, society is in a strange state there,” he continued; “ruffians lying in wait ever for prey. The men have been taken, and the gold found upon them, Luke writes.”
“That’s good, so far,” said Lionel.
When they reached Verner’s Pride, they found that a letter was waiting for Frederick Massingbird, who had not been home since he left the house early in the afternoon. The superscription was in the same handwriting as the letter Dr. West had brought—Luke Roy’s. There could be no doubt that it was only a confirmation of the tidings.
Mrs. Verner was in the drawing-room alone, Tynn said, ready to go in to dinner, and rather cross that Mr. Lionel should keep her waiting for it.
“Who will break it to her—you or I?” asked Dr. West, of Lionel.
“I think it should be you. You are her brother.”
Broken to her it was, in the best mode they were able. It proved a severe shock. Mrs. Verner had loved John, her eldest born, above every earthly thing. He was wild, random, improvident, had given her incessant trouble as a child and as a man; and so, mother fashion, she loved him best.
CHAPTER X. A CONTEMPLATED VOYAGE.
Frederick Massingbird sat perched on the gate of a ploughed field, softly whistling. His brain was busy, and he was holding counsel with himself, under the grey February skies. Three weeks had gone by since the tidings arrived of the death of his brother, and Frederick was deliberating whether he should, or should not, go out. His own letter from Luke Roy had been in substance the same as that which Luke had written to his father. It was neither more explanatory, nor less so. Luke Roy was not a first-hand at epistolary correspondence. John had been attacked and killed for the sake of his gold, and the attackers and the gold had been taken hold of by the law; so far it said, and no further. That the notion should occur to Frederick to go out to Melbourne, and lay claim to the gold and any other property that had been left by John, was only natural. He had been making up his mind to do so for the last three weeks; and perhaps the vision of essaying a little business in the gold-fields on his own account urged him on. But he had not fully made up his mind yet. The journey was a long and hazardous one; and—he did not care to leave Sibylla.
“To be, or not to be?” soliloquised he, from his seat on the gate, -as he plucked thin branches off from the bare winter hedge, and scattered them. “Old step-father’s wiry yet, he may last an age, and this is getting a horrid humdrum life. I wonder what he’ll leave me, when he does go off? Mother said one day she thought it wouldn’t be more than five hundred pounds. She doesn’t know: he does not tell her about his private affairs—never has told her. Five hundred pounds! If he left me a paltry sum like that, I’d fling it in the heir’s face—Master Lionel’s.”
He put a piece of the thorn into his mouth, bit it up, spit it out again, and went on with his soliloquy.
“I had better go. Why—if nothing, to speak of, does come to me from old Verner, this money of John’s would be a perfect windfall. I must not lose the chance of it—and lose it I should, unless I go out and see after it. No, it would never do. I’ll go. It’s hard to say how much he has left, poor fellow. Thousands—if one may judge by his letters—besides this great nugget that they killed him for, the villains! Yes, I’ll go—that’s settled. And now, to try and get Sibylla. She’ll accompany me fast enough—at least, I fancy she would—but there’s that old West. I may have a battle over it with him.”
He flung away what remained in his hand of the sticks, leaped off the gate, and bent his steps hastily in the direction of Deerham. Could he be going, there and then, to Dr. West’s, to try his fate with Sibylla? Very probably. Frederick Massingbird liked to deliberate well when making up his mind to a step; but, that once done, he was wont to lose no time in carrying it out.
On this same afternoon, and just about the same hour, Lionel Verner was strolling through Deerham on his way to pay a visit to his mother. Close at the door he encountered Decima—well now—and Miss Tempest, who were going out. None would have believed Lionel and Decima to be brother and sister, judging by their attire—he wore deep mourning, she had not a shred of mourning about her. Lady Verner, in her prejudice against Verner’s Pride, had neither put on mourning herself for John Massingbird, nor allowed Decima to put it on. Lionel was turning with them; but Lady Verner, who had seen him from the window, sent a servant to desire him to come to her.
“Is it anything particular, mother?” he hastily inquired. “I am going with Decima and Lucy.”
“It is so far particular, Lionel, that I wish you to stay with me, instead of going with them,” answered Lady Verner. “I fancy you are getting rather fond of being with Lucy, and—and—in short, it won’t do.”
Lionel, in his excessive astonishment, could only stare at his mother.
“Whatever do you mean?” he asked. “Lucy Tempest! What won’t do?”
“You are beginning to pay Lucy Tempest particular attention,” said Lady Verner, unscrewing the silver stopper of her essence-bottle, and applying some to her forehead. “I will not permit it, Lionel.”
Lionel could not avoid laughing.
“What can have put such a thing in your head, mother, I am at a loss to conceive. Certainly nothing in my conduct has induced it. I have talked to Lucy as a child, more than as anything else; I have scarcely thought of her but as one—”
“Lucy is not a child,” interrupted Lady Verner.
“In years I find she is not. When I first saw her at the railway-station, I thought she was a child, and the impression somehow remains upon my mind. Too often I talk to her as one. As to anything else—were I to marry to-morrow, it is not Lucy Tempest I should make my wife.”
The first glad look that Lionel had seen on Lady Verner’s face for many a day came over it then. In her own mind she had been weaving a pretty little romance for Lionel: and it was her dread, lest that romance should be interfered with, which had called up her fears, touching Lucy Tempest.
“My darling Lionel, you know where you might go and choose a wife,” she said. “I have long wished that you would do it. Beauty, rank, wealth,—you may win them for the asking.”
A slightly self-conscious smile crossed the lips of Lionel.
“You are surely not going to introduce again that nonsense about Mary Elmsley!” he exclaimed. “I should never like her, never marry her, therefore—”
“Did you not allude to her when you spoke but now—that it was not Lucy Tempest you should make your wife?”
“To whom, then? Lionel, I must know it.”
Lionel’s cheek flushed scarlet.
“I am not going to marry yet—I have no intention of it. Why should this conversation have arisen?”
“Oh, Lionel, there is a dreadful fear upon me!” gasped Lady Verner. “Not Lady Mary! Some one else! I remember Decima said one day that you appeared to care more for Sibylla West than for her, your sister. I have never thought of it from that hour to this: I paid no more attention to it than though she had said you cared for my maid Thérèse. You cannot care for Sibylla West!”
Lionel had high notions of duty as well as of honour, and he would not equivocate to his mother.
“I do care very much for Sibylla West,” he said, in a low tone; “and, please God, I hope she will sometime be my wife. But, mother, this confidence is entirely between ourselves. I beg you not to speak of it: it must not be suffered to get abroad.”
The one short sentence of avowal over, Lionel might as well have talked to the moon. Lady Verner heard him not. She was horrified. The Wests in her eyes were utterly despicable. Dr. West was tolerated as her doctor; but as nothing else. Her brave Lionel—standing there before her in all the pride of his strength and his beauty—he sacrifice himself to Sibylla West! Of the two, Thérèse would have been the less dreadful to the mind of Lady Verner.
A quarrel ensued. Stay—that’s a wrong word. It was not a quarrel, for Lady Verner had all the talking, and Lionel would not respond angrily; he kept his lips pressed together lest he should. Never had Lady Verner been moved to make such a scene: she reproached, she sobbed, she entreated. And, in the midst of it, in walked Decima and Lucy Tempest.
Lady Verner for once forgot herself. She forgot that Lucy was a stranger; she forgot the request of Lionel for silence; and, upon Decima’s asking what was amiss, she told all—that Lionel loved Sibylla West, and meant to marry her.
Decima was too shocked to speak. Lucy turned and looked at Lionel, a pleasant smile shining in her eyes. “She is very pretty; very, very pretty; I never saw any one prettier.”
“Thank you, Lucy,” he cordially said: and it was the first time he had called her Lucy.
Decima went up to her brother. “Lionel, must it be? I do not like her.”
“Decima, I fear that you and my mother are both prejudiced,” he somewhat haughtily answered. And there he stopped. In turning his eyes towards his mother as he spoke of her, he saw that she had fainted away.
Jan was sent for, in all haste. Dr. West was Lady Verner’s medical adviser; but a feeling in Decima’s heart at the moment prevented her summoning him. Jan arrived, on the run: the servant had told him she was not sure but her lady was dying.
Lady Verner had revived then; was better; and was re-entering upon the grievance which had so affected her. “What could it have been?” wondered Jan, who knew his mother was not subject to fainting fits.
“Ask your brother, there, what it was,” resentfully spoke Lady Verner. “He told me he was going to marry Sibylla West.”
“Law!” uttered Jan.
Lionel stood; haughty, impassive; his lips curling, his figure drawn to its full height. He would not reproach his mother by so much as a word, but the course she was taking, in thus proclaiming his affairs to the world, hurt him in no measured degree.
“I don’t like her,” said Jan. “Deborah and Amilly are not much, but I’d rather have the two, than Sibylla.”
“Jan,” said Lionel, suppressing his temper, “your opinion was not asked.”
Jan sat down on the arm of the sofa, his great legs dangling. “Sibylla can’t marry two,” said he.
“Will you be quiet, Jan?” said Lionel. “You have no right to interfere. You shall not interfere.”
“Gracious, Lionel, I don’t want to interfere,” returned Jan, simply. “Sibylla’s going to marry Fred Massingbird.”
“Will you be quiet?” reiterated Lionel, his brow flushing scarlet.
“I’ll be quiet,” said Jan, with composure. “You can go and ask her for yourself. It has all been settled this afternoon; not ten minutes ago. Fred’s going out to Australia, and Sibylla’s going with him, and Deborah and Amilly are crying their eyes out, at the thought of parting with her.”
Lady Verner looked up at Jan, an expression of eager hope on her face. She could have kissed him a thousand times. Lionel—Lionel took his hat and walked out.
Believing it? No. The temptation to chastise Jan was growing great, and he deemed it well to remove himself out of it. Jan was right, however.
Much to the surprise of Frederick Massingbird, very much to the surprise of Sibylla, Dr. West not only gave his consent to the marriage as soon as asked, but urged it on. If Fred must depart in a week, why they could be married in a week, he said. Sibylla was thunderstruck: Miss Deborah and Miss Amilly gave vent to a few hysterical shrieks, and hinted about the wedding clothes and the outfit. That could be got together in a day, was the reply of Dr. West, and they were too much astonished to venture to say it could not.
“You told me to wait for Lionel Verner,” whispered Sibylla, when she and her father were alone, as she stood before him, trembling. In her mind’s eye she saw Verner’s Pride slipping from her: and it gave her chagrin, in spite of her love for Fred Massingbird.
Dr. West leaned forward and whispered a few words in her ear. She started violently, she coloured crimson. “Papa!”
“It is true,” nodded the doctor.
As Lionel passed the house on his way from Deerham Court to Verner’s Pride, he turned into it, led by a powerful impulse. He did not believe Jan, but the words had made him feel twitchings of uneasiness. Fred Massingbird had gone then, and the doctor was out. Lionel looked into the drawing-room, and there found the two elder Miss Wests, each dissolved in a copious shower of tears. So far, Jan’s words were borne out. A sharp spasm shot across his heart.
“You are in grief,” he said, advancing to them. “What is the cause?”
“The most dreadful voyage for her!” ejaculated Miss Deborah. “The ship may go to the bottom before it gets there.”
“And not so much as time to think of proper things for her, let alone the getting them!” sobbed Miss Amilly. “It’s all a confused mass in my mind together: bonnets, and gowns, and veils, and wreaths, and trunks, and petticoats, and calico things for the voyage!”
Lionel felt his lips grow pale. They were too much engrossed to notice him; nevertheless, he covered his face with his hand as he stood by the mantlepiece. “Where’s she going?” he quietly asked.
“To Melbourne with Fred,” said Miss Deborah. “Fred’s going out to see about the money and gold John left, and to realise it. They are not to stay: it will only be the voyage out and home. But, if she should be taken ill out there, and die! Her sisters died, Mr. Lionel. Fred is her cousin, too. Better have married one not of kin.”
They talked on. Lionel heard them not. After the revelation, that she was about to marry, all else seemed a chaos. But he was one who could control his feelings.
“I must be going,” said he quietly, moving from his standing-place with calmness. “Good day to you.”
He shook hands with them both, amidst a great accession of sobs, and quitted the room. Running down the stairs at that moment, singing gaily a scrap of a merry song, came Sibylla, unconscious of his vicinity; indeed, of his presence in the house. She started when she saw him, and stopped in hesitation.
Lionel threw open the door of the empty dining-room, caught her arm and drew her into it: his bearing haughty, his gestures imperative. There they stood before each other, neither speaking for some moments. Lionel’s very lips were livid; and her rich wax-work colour went and came, and her light blue eyes fell under the stern gaze of his.
“Is this true, which I have been obliged to hear?” was his first question.
She knew that she had acted ill. She knew that Lionel Verner deserved to have a better part played by him. She had always looked up to him—all the Wests had—as one superior in birth, rank, and station to herself. Altogether, the moment brought to her a great amount of shame and confusion.
“Answer me one question: I demand it of you,” reiterated Lionel. “Have you ever mistaken my sentiments towards you in the least degree?”
“How—I—I don’t know,” she faltered.
“No equivocation,” burst forth Lionel. “Have you not known that I loved you? That I was only waiting my uncle’s death to make you my wife?—Heaven forgive me that I should thus speak as though I had built upon it!”
Sibylla let fall some tears.
“Which have you loved?—all this while! Me?—or him?”
“Oh! don’t speak to me like that,” sobbed Sibylla. “He asked me to marry him, and—and—papa said yes.”
“I ask you,” said Lionel in a low voice, “which is it that you love?”
She did not answer. She stood before him the prettiest picture of distress imaginable: her hands clasped, her large blue eyes filled with tears, her shower of golden hair shading her burning cheeks.
“If you have been surprised or terrified into this engagement, loving him not, will you give him up for me?” tenderly whispered Lionel. “Not—you understand—if your love be his. In that case, I would not ask it. But, without reference to myself at all, I doubt—and I have my reasons for it—if Frederick Massingbird be worthy of you.”
Was she wavering in her own mind? She stole a glance upward—at his tall fine form, his attractive face, its lineaments showing out, in that moment, all the pride of the Verners. A pride that mingled with love.
Lionel bent to her:
“Sibylla, if you love him I have no more to say; if you love me, avow it, as I will then avow my love, my intentions, in the face of day. Reflect before you speak. It is a solemn moment,—a moment which holds alike my destiny and yours in its hands.”
A rush of blood to her heart; a rush of moisture to her forehead, for Sibylla West was not wholly without feeling, and she knew, as Lionel said, that it was a decision fraught with grave destiny. But Frederick Massingbird was more to her than he was.
“I have given my promise. I cannot go from it,” was her scarcely breathed answer.
“May your falsity never come home to you!” broke from Lionel, in the bitterness of his anguish. And he strode from the room without another word or look, and quitted the house.
Deerham could not believe the news. Verner’s Pride could not believe it. Nobody believed it, save Lady Verner, and she was only too thankful to believe it and hug it. There was nothing surprising in Sibylla’s marrying her Cousin Fred, for many had shrewdly suspected that the favour between them was not altogether cousinly favour; but the surprise was given to the hasty marriage. Dr. West vouchsafed an explanation. Two of his daughters, aged respectively one year and two years younger than Amilly, had each died of consumption, as all Deerham knew. On attaining her twenty-fifth year, each one had shown rapid symptoms of the disease, and had lingered but a few weeks. Sibylla was only one-and-twenty yet; but Dr. West fancied he saw, or said he saw, grounds for fear. It was known of what value a sea-voyage was in these constitutions; hence his consent to the departure of Sibylla. Such was the explanation of Dr. West.
“I wonder whether the stated ‘fear of consumption’ has been called up by himself for the occasion?” was the thought that crossed the mind of Decima Verner. Decima did not believe in Dr. West.
Verner’s Pride, like the rest, had been taken by surprise. Mrs. Verner received the news with equanimity. She had never given Fred a tithe of the love that John had had, and she did not seem much to care whether he married Sibylla, or whether he did not,—whether he went out to Australia or whether he staid at home. Frederick told her of it in a very off-hand manner: but he took pains to bespeak the approbation of Mr. Verner.
“I hope my choice is pleasant to you, sir? That you will cordially sanction it.”
“Whether it is pleasant to me or not, I have no right to say it shall not be,” was the reply of Mr. Verner. “I have never interfered with you, or with your brother, since you became inmates of my house.”
“Do you not like Sibylla, sir?”
“She is a pretty girl. I know nothing against her. I think you might have chosen worse.”
Coldly, very coldly, were the words delivered; and there was a strangely keen expression of anguish on Mr. Verner’s face: but that was nothing unusual now. Frederick Massingbird was content to accept the words as a sanction of approval.
A few words—I don’t mean angry ones—passed between him and Lionel on the night before the wedding. Lionel had not condescended to speak to Frederick Massingbird upon the subject at all: Sibylla had refused him, for the other, of her own free will; and there he let it rest. But the evening previous to the marriage-day, Lionel appeared strangely troubled; indecisive, anxious, as if he were debating some question with himself. Suddenly he went straight up to Frederick Massingbird’s chamber, who was deep in the business of packing, like his unfortunate brother John had been, not two short years before.
“I want to speak to you,” he began. “I have thought of it these several days past, but I was unwilling to do so, for you may deem that it is no business of mine. However, I cannot get it off my mind, that it may be my duty; and I have come to do it.”
Frederick Massingbird was half buried amid piles of things, but he turned round at this strange address and looked at Lionel.
“Is there nothing on your conscience that should prevent your marrying that girl?”
“Do you want her left for yourself?” was Fred’s answer, after a prolonged stare.
Lionel flushed to his very temples. He controlled the hasty retort that rose to his tongue. “I came here not to speak in any one’s interest but hers. Were she free as air this moment—were she to come to my feet and say, ‘Let me be your wife,’ I should tell her that the whole world was before her to choose from, save myself. She can never again be anything to me. No. I speak for her alone. She is marrying you in all confidence. Are you worthy of her?”
“What on earth do you mean?” cried Frederick Massingbird.
“If there be any sin upon your conscience that ought to prevent your taking her, or any confiding girl, to your heart, as wife, reflect whether you should ignore it. The consequences may come home later; and then what would be her position?”
“I have no sin upon my conscience. Poor John, perhaps, had plenty. I do not understand you, Lionel Verner.”
“On your sacred word?”
“On my word, and honour, too.”
“Then forgive me,” was the ready reply of Lionel; and he held out his hand with frankness to Frederick Massingbird.