Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/A foggy story
A FOGGY STORY.
Some years ago, a physician was hastily summoned to the apartments of a young man of fashion. He was shown into a class of room which may or may not be known to the reader; where tarnished gilded chairs, faded velvet cushions, and showy yet shabby curtains, give an impression at once of elegance and dinginess strongly suggestive of worn-out theatrical properties; and where it is apparent that the shabbiness pervading every expensive article of the room results from careless indifference on the part of the occupant, rather than poverty.
It was night, and a solitary reading-lamp stood upon the table. During the statement of his case the doctor noticed how carefully the patient disposed the light, so that the glare should fall upon the face of his visitor, while he remained far back in the surrounding shadow.
“What you require, Mr. Endwin,” said the doctor, “is rest; by which I am far from meaning absolute idleness. Let us hope that, with youth on your side and the advantage of—”
He hesitated: for, although the patient’s countenance was beyond his view, he somehow felt that his eye was fixed keenly upon him.
“Go on, doctor. You were saying that, with youth on my side, and the advantage of—”
“I was about to say that, with care and a strict adherence to a healthier regimen, you have everything to hope; but, then, it is my duty to add, that without it, and in the event of your continuing the same round of hard labour which you young men christen pleasure, you will have everything to fear.”
As the young man came forward out of the gloom, and in an easy careless way lifted the paper shade from the lamp, and threw it upon the floor, the circle of light, before concentrated upon the table, seemed suddenly to expand and fill the whole room, so that doctor and patient stood face to face, and saw each other distinctly for the first time.
The doctor was right. The young man’s eyes were very bright, the face a little pale and worn, the chestnut hair—which was very abundant—a little wild and disordered, and he was startled at the similarity between the picture his imagination had formed of the man and the original now suddenly disclosed to his view.
“You doctors,” said Endwin, walking towards the mantelpiece, and lolling against the marble slab, “are great hypocrites; perhaps you are obliged to be so. One would think that the art of lying—lying naturally and with an air of authority—was included in your studies, and ranked among the most essential branches of your professional education.”
“I scarcely understand your meaning.”
“It is this,” replied Endwin; “that if you had uttered your thoughts aloud, instead of the set phrases of professional prudence, you would have said, ‘This young man has squandered his health, and perhaps his fortune too, in dissipation and reckless folly. The fortune might have been regained, but the health is gone for ever, for his constitution is undermined beyond permanent remedy. He may live a year, he may live two years, but—’ Yes, you may shake your head. I am sick of evasions—always in the same strain—and know their value. You will recommend travel in a minute. You all do.”
“My friend, if you take this absurd, excited view of the matter, how can I speak to you?”
“On the contrary, I have known the truth and faced it for several days.” He stopped for a moment to listen to the noise of carriage wheels passing along the street. “And, after all, why should such as I live? Why have I lived all this time? There is no one action of my life that has made the world one degree the better for my existence.”
As this was said half jocularly, the doctor laughed, and endeavoured to reassure his patient in the same bantering tone; but the only answer he obtained was, “Go on, doctor,” uttered with a strange mixture of good-humour and defiance. A little later he sat down to write a prescription, and, with an uneasy suspicion that it was received with as little confidence as it was given, he took his leave, remarking to himself that this was one of the strangest patients he had met with for many a month.
Alone in the dingy chamber, Endwin sat for several minutes lost in thought. It was not through any inherent melancholy in his constitution, but only in a spirit of vague and listless curiosity that he had sometimes, in former days, speculated on the manner and circumstances that would attend that certain event, so unimportant to all the world—his death.
Sometimes it was a hot struggle, and a great crash, and then life slowly ebbing away. Sometimes it was a road, in the chill night air, with hedges on either side, a sighing music among the trees, and the cold stars looking down upon him. Sometimes it was a room—quaintly furnished and far away from England—while cathedral bells clanged loud, and tried to enter the closed shutters in company with a dazzling burst of sunlight. Sometimes it was a closely-curtained, very quiet room in England; the warm glow of a dying fire-light; the ticking of falling embers in the grate; the lulling sound as of a large, hushed city; the pressure of a hand—a small, thin hand stretched out from behind the curtain, as of somebody watching through the dreary night hours—and life slowly ebbing away.
Suddenly waking from a reverie somewhere in this strange direction, he discovered himself mechanically playing with a little pink-coloured note received that morning from his Cousin Cissy.
“I think I’ll go and see Cousin Cissy,” he said to himself.
A few years ago he was to have married Cousin Cissy, for she was a gentle, bright-eyed, little creature, and she loved him with all her heart. But when it became rumoured abroad—and not altogether without foundation—that extravagance and careless living had deteriorated the value of Charles Endwin’s purse—by no means an empty one when he commenced life—Cissy’s father suddenly discovered he had a duty to perform, and very prudently broke off the match. None the less willingly, perhaps, that he saw, not very far distant, the probability of a richer and in every respect more eligible suitor in George Turldon, the clever, wealthy, broad-shouldered proprietor of the “Mountain Mills.” And so it fell, when the usual gradations of grief and pettish opposition to the change of suitors were gradually passed, that Cissy was married to George Turldon, and lived in the fine lawn-fronted villa he had built within view of the mills. In his own hard matter-of-fact way, George Turldon loved his wife. She liked jewels, and he brought her glittering cases from London; she was fond of flowers, and he festooned the garden with the brightest and the gayest. He always took her to the county balls, and was proud of his wife, and petted her, and worked harder than ever at the mills. He bore no ill-will towards Charles, who had, indeed, lately become to be regarded as a little bit of a scapegrace; but was rather inclined to extend to him the pity he always felt for those who lived without any regular employment or definite object in life. Whenever Charles came to pay them a few days’ visit, he would stretch out his hand, and say, “Welcome, Charles!” while Cissy would smile upon him pleasantly, and without the least show of awkwardness, call him “Cousin Charles,” the same as ever.
It was a curious impulse that led Charles towards the Mountain Mills that foggy November evening, and one which he did not stay to explain or analyse. The express train would convey him to a station half a mile’s walk from the Mountain Mills, in about three hours; and he soon found himself installed in the cushioned carriage, with no other company than the yellow, unhealthy fog and the dim oil lamp above.
To the tune of the monotonous jarring he thought again. He thought of great statesmen, great heroes, great philosophers, great writers. Under certain circumstances, and barring the crust of habits long formed, he speculated whether there was not a something in every living man—however distorted and disguised—which would impel him also to make life a great and a noble thing. But in all this he never thought of himself and his wasted life; he only thought of some imaginary men, who might have done so much to ennoble their names and better their fellows, and who had really done so little; and he was inclined to pity rather than blame them. His mind, too, wandered to the Mountain Mills much sooner than the express could manage it, and he was there in the cosy parlour, and saw how contented Cissy was, and what a happy home she had. He had long ceased to reflect that that happy home might have been his too, as well as Cissy’s.
Arrived at the station, he walked by a short path across the fields towards the villa. It stood a little behind the Mountain Mills, and having to pass through the factory yard, he was a little surprised at that late hour to see a light gleaming through the fog (for it was foggy there too) from the little glass counting-house, where George was in the habit of writing and arranging accounts on Saturday afternoons. He said to himself, “George is more than usually busy,” and went towards the counting-house door with the intention of shaking hands with George, and giving him notice of his visit, before going in to see Cissy and the children. But as his footsteps echoed in the deserted yard, and the bull-dog began to bark fiercely and clank his iron chain, the light suddenly disappeared. His first movement was towards the house, but on second thoughts he concluded it must be George on the point of leaving, and they could walk towards the house together; so again he walked towards the glass counting-house.
Then it was that he observed the light had reappeared at the little glazed window. He walked quietly that time, turned the latch of the door softly, and stood in the little passage, screened from observation by the darkness, but able to see and hear all that passed in the office. It was not George.
His attention was arrested by the sound of one of the sweetest and most melodious voices he had ever heard. It proceeded from a pleasant-looking gentleman of fresh-coloured complexion and thin silver hair. His eyes beamed kindly and gently upon another man—whom by his dress and general appearance Charles judged to be one of the workmen—and who leant carelessly against a desk, and brought his hard, sullen features near to the one candle which served to illumine the office.
The gentleman with the charming voice was speaking to this man in a kind, expostulatory tone, and from the stray words that caught his ear, Charles inferred that he was endeavouring to dissuade him from an interview with some person which he seemed determined to obtain. So determined, indeed, that the gentleman was finally obliged to bend to the man’s wishes: but laying his hand on his shoulder, he said, “Have the interview, my dear friend, by all means, if you wish it. But knowing the character of the pitiless man you have to deal with, I can prophecy the result of it.”
The man muttered something about “givun his boy one more chance.”
“Very sorry indeed should I be for one word of mine to deter you,” the gentleman said. “Speak with him by all means. But stay! It is dangerous to enter the house with that packet about you. I will meet you at the corner of the lane at ten o’clock to-night, and I will give it you then.”
The man twisted a fur cap he held in his hands as if he were strangling a rabbit, and suddenly clapping it on his head, lounged towards the door.
“Stay, Abel,” said the gentleman, raising his hand. “We need not speak when we see each other in the lane later this evening. You shall say ‘ten o’clock,’ as if speaking to yourself, and hold out your hand carelessly—so—I will give you the packet, and then you will have nothing to do but to hurry as fast as you can to London, and carefully follow my instructions when you arrive there.”
Abel seemed to be thinking of something else, and again turning his sullen countenance towards the door, passed so close to Charles that his flannel jacket touched him. Charles walked quietly across the yard, resolved to give George an account of this strange conversation, and pondering in his own mind what could be the meaning of the strange importance they seemed to attach to the papers.
Five minutes afterwards he reached the house; and, entering the reading-room, he found George seated alone, and buried in accounts and papers.
“You come at an unhappy time, Charles,” he said, shaking hands in his usual cold, stolid manner: “but nevertheless we are glad to see you.”
“Is anything the matter?”
“Cissy and the children are well. But within the last few days troubles have followed so rapidly one upon the other, that I am quite bewildered. First of all, Cissy’s sister, Lucy, left this house the night before last, and eloped with one of my junior clerks—young Thornberg—a man I had taken into my employ some years ago from motives of pure charity.”
Cissy’s sister Lucy! He remembered her well. She had brighter eyes even than Cissy, and her merry laugh—for a merry laugh it used to be—seemed to sound at that moment in his ears.
“Besides robbing me of my sister-in-law, it seems he has broken open my desk and stolen bank notes to the amount of several thousand pounds; and as the duty devolved usually upon him of noting their numbers, and he has purposely inserted fictitious numbers in our books to mislead us, we have few means of tracing them, and their recovery is very doubtful. The loss of this sum, together with a packet of securities, which he must have abstracted—and perhaps destroyed—through sheer malice, as they are of value to none but myself, is ruin to me, and I must close the mills and stop payment to-morrow.”
Charles was too astounded at this news to utter any but the most common-place words of sympathy, but George Turldon interrupted him abruptly.
“Say nothing to Cissy about it. She knows nothing as yet of this new trouble, and is much worried by that affair of her sister. My head man, Cairtree, has been working night and day to discover the runaways, and when he comes here this evening we shall hear what progress he has made. Come to tea,” he said, suddenly, tossing the papers in a confused heap upon the table.
He led him into the bright cheerful parlour, and Cissy rose from her seat to bid him welcome with her usual cordiality. In the same room with her was the Family Trouble.
The Family Trouble was a strange, quiet, elfish little creature, apparently of about eight years of age, who immediately put her soft hand in his—as was her wont—and led him in triumph round the room.
Looking into this child’s face—a face of singular beauty and sweetness—or at her slight neat figure which glided so noiselessly from place to place—none would dream that from her proceeded the only shadow which had hitherto darkened the domestic happiness of George and Cissy. It required a more earnest and careful scrutiny to detect the dazed, puzzled expression—now and then alternated by sudden gleams of intelligence, or the shadows that ever crossed her quiet, otherwise happy countenance, and seemed to stand between her intellect and the outer world. The clouds always seemed partially to break when Charles visited them, and she would follow him from room to room with a half-run and a merry laugh, nodding her head and smiling as a token that she understood every word he said. A hope, but hitherto a vain hope, had always been cherished by George and Cissy, that as the child grew older these clouds would be cleared away.
It was a strange group assembled in that quiet parlour, and not devoid of dramatic interest. George Turldon was standing moodily at the window, anxious for the arrival of his foreman, and disturbed at the thought of the disclosures he would have to make to Cissy, probably that very night. He asked himself, as he drew the red curtains and tried to pierce the darkness without, how she would bear it. Whether she would be stunned and paralysed by the suddenness of the blow, or stand bravely by his side, and help him to brave the storm with firmness and fortitude. Cissy, sighing at the thought of her sister’s folly, but calm, and never for a moment dreaming of the misfortune that overhung them nearer home, and threatened to sweep away her jewels, coaches, gardens, and all the little luxuries she delighted in. Charles, thinking of many things,—of the doctor’s interview, of the strange tale George had just confided to him, of the gentleman with the sweet voice, of Effie, who sat, quiet now, on a high chair at the table, and arched her pretty neck, while she tried to build a house with some old playing-cards.
The silence was disturbed by the entrance of a servant, who announced that Abel Mayner, a workman from the mills, wished to speak with the master on urgent business; and before George had time either to refuse or consent to the interview, Abel stood at the door, and bowed awkwardly to the assembled company. It was the man with whom the kind gentleman had expostulated in the glass counting-house, and during his address—a long, rambling statement from which Charles could infer nothing but that Abel’s boy was in custody for some theft at the mills, and the father was pleading for leniency—he several times went through the performance of strangling his fur cap. George listened to him in frowning silence, and then said: “I have already given you my answer. You and your brother are the most discontented and mischievous spirits in the mill. Were it otherwise I should still have my duty to perform, and could not overlook the crime of robbery without serious injury to the morals of all the men in my employ.”
Then Abel commenced again, waving his hands violently, and speaking in a husky voice. It was plain that he had been drinking; for when George interrupted him curtly, and said—“You have my answer,” Abel staggered towards the street door, stumbling over the hall chairs as he went. Before he went out into the fog he turned round, as if suddenly impressed with a new idea, and exclaimed, with a drunken sigh—“The Lord have mercy upon this house.” So he left them, and George resumed his post at the window.
“I wish Cairtree would come.”
“Charles has never seen Mr. Cairtree,” said Cissy, making the tea: and Cissy never looked prettier nor more in her natural sphere than when making tea. “I should like you to see him, Charles. He’s an old dear.”
Cairtree came at last, and at a glance Charles recognised in him the cheerful, kindly, gentleman, he had before seen that evening.
As he shook hands with him, George gave him an anxious inquiring glance, but the foreman shook his head, and the words “no hope” were plainly read in his sorrowful countenance. Cissy rose smilingly to welcome him, and as she advanced, the expression of concern which over-shadowed his face gradually cleared away. He had been in the mills since the time of George’s father; had known George when he was a child, and in spite of his subordinate position, they evidently looked up to him as their friend, and favourite, and trustiest adviser. He drew a little case from his pocket and gave it to Cissy: “what you asked me to get from London, dear Mrs. Turldon. You know I never forget promises.”
Cissy uttered a little scream of pleasure, and in another moment a new emerald ring was shining on her small white finger. With the vanity and glee of a petted child, she ran to Charles and said, “Isn’t it sweet, cousin?” Then she ran to George and scolded him for saying “very pretty” before he had glanced at it, and said he was a bear to-night.
Meanwhile Charles was pre-occupied with one idea, and the words “ten o’clock” still sounded in his ears. Once, he thought his lips had mechanically uttered them, for Cairtree gave him a glance of curiosity, and fixed his eyes upon him for a moment in a searching manner that perplexed him.
George took Cairtree by the arm, and conducted him to the library. “You have traced none of the notes?”
Cairtree shook his head. “You have no hope of recovering the packet of securities?”
“I am sorry to say, none.”
“Then I must tell my wife to prepare for ruin with all its terrors—to date from to-morrow the commencement of a new, miserable era, of her existence.”
“Young Thornberg has acted throughout with such deep-laid cunning, that I fear there is little hope of materially mending matters. In spite of all our efforts to discover his whereabouts we are still at a loss, and meanwhile, your position is hopeless. I need not say how much I grieve to tell you this.”
George’s old foreman was affected, and passed his hand across his eyes.
George took his other hand, and said: “My dear friend, we had hoped, one day, to repay the kind affection you have always borne for us—I’m not much given to the exhibition of feeling: I never was. Even now, I would much rather take a practical view of the matter, and consider what is best to be done to mitigate our position, than waste time in idle repining. But I must tell Cissy.” Here George, for the first time, looked distressed. “I must tell Cissy what’s in store for her.”
Cairtree took leave of George with a sigh. “I can do no good here. I shall be at my desk till late to-night, and if anything fresh occurs, I will not fail to let you know.”
Charles and Cissy were together in the green-papered parlour. Charles was mentioning, among other things, his intention to take a trip on the Continent, when George suddenly thrust in his head at the door and called to Cissy—“Come and see something else Mr. Cairtree has brought to you from London.”
When Cissy obeyed this summons, and left her cousin alone with Effie, who again approached him with that smiling confidence she displayed towards none other of their acquaintance, Charles was once more haunted by the words “ten o’clock.” The time-piece seemed to mutter it on the mantel-piece. When Effie looked at him, with her large mournful eyes, it seemed that she was trying to utter the words. Every sound, every movement, every rustle seemed to echo it, and an irresistible voice called him away.
He heard George’s low calm voice in the adjoining room, and once a little shriek from Cissy—then a silence—then a sob—and then George’s voice again. George soothed her grief as if she were a child, and there was something almost of pity for her weak nature, in his way of leading her, a few moments afterwards, into the room where her cousin sat. “There, Cissy, go and speak with Charles; it’s of no use to grieve.”
The words “ten o’clock” were so loudly clamouring to him to come out into the fog, that Charles scarcely made an effort to cheer her, as she sat down and gave way to a wild, ungovernable burst of grief.
“Oh, cousin!” she cried, with a shudder, “George has been saying such dreadful, dreadful things to me: he has quite frightened me. You can’t tell what shocking things he’s been saying.”
It really seemed, as she rocked herself to and fro, and sobbed as if her heart would break, that George, in telling her, had been the guilty origin of all their misfortunes.
It was nearing ten o’clock, and as Charles had already formed the project of meeting the white-haired gentleman in the fog that night, and receiving from him the packet in the silent manner enjoined upon Abel, he muttered a few words of common-place sympathy to Cissy, and rising, announced his intention of returning home by the last night-train. “I leave early for fear of missing the train, and losing my way in the fog.”
“Oh, yes; it’s dreadfully, dreadfully foggy,” cried poor Cissy, clasping her hands with a fresh outburst of grief; and as if the fog, too, were not altogether blameless of their trouble.
He left her, cowering over the fire, and weeping bitterly at the dreadful things George had been saying to her. This pretty ornament of George’s drawing-room, this graceful flower of George’s garden, this little creature that would trip so lightly and laughingly towards the garden gate, to meet him of a summer evening, was but a sorry support for him, in the times of troubles like these.
Once out of the house, Charles walked briskly through the fog, which seemed to thicken at every step. As he walked, his ears were attracted by sounds as of water, dripping, dripping at regular intervals. Sometimes they seemed in advance of him; at others they appeared to proceed from behind. Once he stopped and listened intently: half inclined to attribute the sounds to some illusion of his fancy. When he crossed the yard these drips ceased altogether, and he heard nothing but the sound of his own footsteps, as they echoed through the deserted rooms of the factory.
He soon arrived at the little stream which gurgled all day long within sound of George’s counting-house, and ran down far away into the valley beyond. Standing for a moment beside this stream, he thought its voice had changed. He remembered how often on summer days he had listened to its dreamy sound as it flowed quietly and peacefully past the factory, laughing as it leapt the little break of stones which marked the point where its way lay under overhanging boughs, and among bright wild flowers. It was swollen and of inky blackness now, and rushed quickly, as if in fright, past the deserted building, anxious to pass the stones quickly and leave its shadow far behind. Crossing onwards towards the right, Charles soon stood in the lane he supposed Cairtree to have meant, and patiently awaited his arrival. He no longer heard the sound of dripping water.
All alone in the choking fog, and remembering that he was without any means of defence in this desolate region, he once reproached himself for not having disclosed all to George, and allowed him to accompany him. But only for a moment, for he was glad to think that George’s life—so valuable to Cissy, the children, and many others,—would not be risked in this enterprise. His chief apprehension was, that Abel might arrive higher up in the lane and forestall him, by receiving the packet from Cairtree before the appointed hour.
In this event, so firmly was he possessed by the idea that George’s fate rested upon the recovery of this packet, he resolved to seize Abel suddenly from behind, and wrenching the papers from him, to escape homewards, trusting to the darkness to screen him from pursuit.
It was therefore with a mixture of apprehension and satisfaction that he heard the approach of footsteps from the expected quarter.
Advancing cautiously, he stretched out his hand towards a figure which passed close to him, like a phantom in the thick gloom, and muttered, in a low voice, ‘ten o’clock.’
“Be careful, my friend,” said Cairtree, as he placed the papers in Charles’s hand, and walked quickly from him.
As Charles held the parcel with an eager grasp, he could scarcely refrain from an exclamation of triumph, as he reflected that George was saved; for from the first he had entertained no doubt that these documents were the securities to which George attached so much importance. A second phantom passed him, and he was recalled to a sense of his danger by the thought, that in another moment the trap would be discovered. He heard a sudden parley and walked briskly on. A violent blow on the shoulder, evidently intended for the head, made him stagger for a few moments; but he held the papers tight, and suddenly darting to the opposite side of the road, jumped over the hedge.
As he leaped, another blow was struck at him, and it was either this, or the fall on the other side, which proved to be steeper than he had calculated, that stunned him when he reached the ground.
When he returned to consciousness he no longer heard the voices of his pursuers, who, probably bewildered by the darkness, had followed another track. For the moment he was too weak to raise himself, but he felt instinctively for the papers. They were still there, but helpless as he lay there, he felt that if the two men were to discover his whereabouts, resistance was quite out of the question.
Again the sound of dripping water—drip—drip—drip!
The vision of the white-haired gentleman bending over him, and feeling gently in his bosom for the precious packet, could scarcely have disconcerted him more than did the repetition of these sounds.
As the drips came nearer, they seemed to change more and more into the sound of light footsteps, pattering on the wet, muddy path. A moment more it was Effie who stood beside him.
For some wild freak, she must have evaded the vigilance of Mrs. Turner, the nurse, and slipped out of the door when Charles left, to follow the path of her favourite in his dark journey.
“Effie, child! who let you come out to-night? Run home, run home.”
She did not seem to understand him, but stood beside him like a spirit, motionless and speechless.
Charles again repeated, “run home, Effie,” trying this time to speak angrily. Struck by a sudden idea, he put the papers in her little hand and bid her hide them under her cloak. “Effie, you understand those you love, and who love you dearly. Quick, quick. Run home and give them to papa.” The sound of other voices startled her, and suddenly, more like a spirit than ever, her form melted away in the mist and she was gone.
They were the voices of Cairtree and Abel, who must have heard Charles speaking to the child, and were now preparing to clear the hedge. He heard Cairtree say, in a hurried whisper, “Get them, be sure to get them, but avoid murder.”
How far Abel was disposed to follow the latter part of these instructions is undetermined; but a new detention arose at that juncture. Two gentlemen, chatting gaily, ascended the lane, and one of them asked Cairtree, in a pleasant voice, whether he could direct him to the residence of Mr. George Turldon—the proprietor of the mills—with whom he wished to speak on pressing business. Cairtree eyed him suspiciously. “Mr. Turldon, I know, is much occupied at present; but I am his foreman, and if your visit relates to matters of business, perhaps I shall do as well.”
“Certainly, certainly,” says the other cheerfully, “and better too, for it will save me the trouble of walking further up the hill in the fog. You are going this way. I will explain my errand as we go along.”
During this colloquy, Charles regained sufficient strength to rise from the ground. The blows he had received were not serious, and the dizziness gradually cleared away, so that he was able to make his way leisurely towards his house.
Arranging his clothes, and wiping the blood from his face, so as to conceal all traces of the recent struggle, he again entered George’s little room, where he was seated gloomily before a desk covered with scattered papers.
“George,” Charles said breathlessly, “I know you won’t believe what I am going to tell you; but your foreman, Mr. Cairtree, is the traitor you are in search of. It is he that has worked your ruin.”
George neither started nor changed his gloomy manner, but merely nodded his head quietly. “I knew it all the time. I discovered it several days ago, but thought it prudent to meet treachery with her own weapons, and hide my knowledge until every possible step had been taken to recover those papers!”
What wary thoughts, what shrewd suspicions, what deep plans were working, and day by day developing, behind that calm, stolid face, the most practised disciple of Lavater would be at a loss to detect; for an inscrutable man was George.
“I have received him into my house, I have let him give presents and make pretty speeches to my wife, I have seen him stroke the children’s heads, I have shaken him by the hand; and yet for the last four days I knew him to be the blackest traitor that ever overshadowed a home. For the moment, I have allowed him to cast suspicion upon young Thornberg, as it will put him further off his guard.”
“But have you set the police to work?”
“Long ago: but in spite of the efforts of the detectives, who have probably taken both him and Abel into custody by this time, he has outwitted us. My cash, my notes, all my available securities are gone. Some he may have converted into money; others I believe him to have taken in sheer malice. Why, I can hardly tell; for I have always confided in him, and treated him with kindness. He had a quarrel with my father once, on some matter of which I know nothing; and my father, who was a violent man, struck him, I believe, in his rage.”
Charles was about to tell him how that the papers were recovered, and he might sleep calmly that night, but checked himself. No. The child—the child whom they were rather disposed, he feared, to regard as a useless burden, should herself be the harbinger of his good fortune. But had she returned? Where was Effie?
The very question that Cissy asked, when she came hastily into the room: her eyes dried now, and all traces of her grief past, like an autumnal shower. Mrs. Turner, a stout lady, whose head was so thickly covered with curl-papers, that it suggested preparations for a grand pyrotechnical display, so that the proximity of the candle she held in her hand seemed highly dangerous, and momently threatened an explosion, followed in great trepidation, and suggested the searching of all sorts of impossible places.
“I know she must be here, mum,” she said, with a false calmness, as if trying to ward off the horror of her position, by resolutely not believing in it. “Unless,” she muttered, “the gal’s been among the spirits again,”—her general belief, whenever Effie was more than usually strange in her ways.
Cissy—though her face became very white—showed the same determination to cheat herself, and not believe in the possibility of any danger to the child, and suggested going with a lantern towards the garden door. She might be there—she must be there. She walked quickly, pretending to herself that there was no hurry, and not the least cause for alarm, and cried out into the fog in a strange, unnatural voice that none would have recognised as hers, “Effie! Effie!’
As the lantern shot a bar of light into the fog, Effie herself appeared, walking at a leisurely pace towards the house.
“The gal has been among the spirits again,” said Mrs. Turner, in a low voice.
Then Cissy scolded her soundly.
“Naughty Effie! Where have you been? You’ll be the death of us all, some day. Mercy! How cold the child’s hand is! Bring her to the fire. Oh dear!”
Without resistance, or any signs of comprehending what was said to her, the child suffered herself to be led to the fire, and there remained, with the same blank expression, the same imperturbable silence, with which she had stood beside Charles that evening near the hedge.
“Naughty child,” said Cissy, chafing her hands, to warm them. “And what is this she has in the other hand? Who gave you this, child?”
Mrs. Turner nodded her head, knowingly, and said, “The spirits.”
As George took the papers, Charles smiled within himself; for he had made a resolve, quite consistent with his whimsical nature, never to breathe a word of the part he had borne in the transaction, but to leave them to form their own conjectures.
A glance at the paper showed George that he was saved; for there he found not only the securities that had caused him so much anxiety, but a memorandum, showing, in Cairtree’s own clear, neat handwriting, the number of the notes that had been stolen.
“Cissy, we are no more ruined than you thought we were two hours ago!”
Ah, Effie! Years to come they will remember how you came, that foggy night, like a spirit out of the darkness, with a strange light in your eyes, and a message of comfort and restored happiness in your tiny hand, in a time of great trouble.
Something of this Charles seemed to see, as he stooped to kiss her passive face; to see in the far distance how selfishness, ignorance, and unkindness of others would crush her frail and tender nature, and make her life a dark and cheerless journey.
“If at any time you should be inclined to treat her harshly, and impatiently regard her as a burden, remember this night, and then say if her life has been profitless to you! If ever you feel inclined to forget the claims which failings such as hers should render doubly sacred; to make hasty and complaining comparison, when brothers and sisters shall have sprung up around her, so much brighter, and cleverer, and happier than she, remember that whether she comes from the living or the dead, whether she has been among the spirits or no, it is she that has saved you from ruin, and she alone. And now then, good bye!”
“What, going?” says Cissy, starting up.
“Yes, going. I only came down here to see you once more; to know that you were all well and happy.”
He walked towards the outer door, while George and Cissy followed him in blank astonishment.
Too much engrossed in their own affairs, it was only now that they noticed that Charles seemed pale and tired. The events of the night had upset Cissy, and she was trembling.
“Why not remain till to-morrow. You look as if you wanted rest.”
“The fog is clearing away. We shall have the moon yet.”
“Charles! What is that on your face!”
“Nothing. A scratch. The briers did it.”
A long, low wail, very like a child’s cry, sweeps across the distant hills, and the fog, becoming of a bluish tint from the moonlight, seems about to clear away. As Charles wraps his cloak closer around him, and waves his hand in farewell, Cissy shudders, for a sudden chill, the first touch of the fever which is approaching to lay her low for many weeks, has come upon her: and little Effie, holding her mother’s hand, peers out into the garden, with a puzzled, half-sorrowful expression; and the clouds chase each other across her earnest face more wildly than ever.
And so it was that George, though the injury he had sustained from Cairtree’s treachery was still serious, was neither forced to stop payment the next day, nor to sell his house, nor to take the rings off Cissy’s fingers.
Charles left England the day after the events above narrated. It was spring before they heard of him again, and then they received an announcement of his death.
George told it to Cissy as she sat, quite recovered from her illness, working at the window overlooking the garden. Effie was by her side, playing with a skein of bright-coloured silk from Cissy’s workbox. A shade of pain crossed Cissy’s face, as she tossed one piece of work aside, and took up another: “Oh, George! how dreadful!”
“It’s strange,” said George, musing, “that he should have taken such a fancy to that child. He died worth more than one would have expected, after the life of extravagance he led; and has left all, which amounts to a comfortable competency, to Effie.”
“Poor dear cousin!” said Cissy, beginning to cry.
H. A. R.