Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Verner's Pride - Part 27
BY THE AUTHORESS OF “EAST LYNNE.”
CHAPTER LIII. AN UNEXPECTED ARRIVAL.
Deborah and Amilly West were sitting over the fire in the growing dusk of a February evening. Their sewing lay on the table: some home dresses they were making for themselves, for they had never too much superfluous cash for dressmakers, with fashionable patterns and fashionable prices. It had grown too dark to work, and they had turned to the fire for a chat, before the tea and lights came in.
“I tell you, Amilly, it is of no use playing at concealment, or trying to suppress the truth,” Deborah was saying. “She is as surely going as that the other two went; as sure as sure can be. I have always felt that she would go. Mr. Lionel was talking to me only yesterday. He was not satisfied with his brother: at least, he thought it as well to act as though he were not satisfied with him: and he was about to ask Dr. Hayes——”
Her voice died away. Master Cheese had come in with a doleful face.
“Miss Deb, I’m sent up to Deerham Hall. There’s a bothering note come from Miss Hautley to Jan, about one of the servants, and, he says, I am to go up and see what it is.”
“Well?” returned Miss Deb, wondering why Master Cheese should come in to give the information to her. “You couldn’t expect Mr. Jan to go up, after being out all day, as he has.”
“Folks are sure to go and fall ill at the most untoward hour of the twenty-four,” grumbled Master Cheese. “I was just looking for a good tea. I feel as empty as possible, after my short dinner. I wish——”
“Short dinner!” echoed Miss Deb in amazement, at least, it would have been in amazement, but that she was accustomed to these little episodes from the young gentleman. “We had a beautiful piece of roast beef; and I’m sure you eat as much as you chose!”
“There was no pudding or pie,” resentfully retorted Master Cheese. “I have felt all the afternoon just as if I should sink: and I couldn’t get out to buy anything for myself, because Jan never came in, and the boy stopped out. I wish, Miss Deb, you’d give me a thick piece of bread-and-jam, as I have got to go off without my tea.”
“The fact is, Master Cheese, you have the jam so often, in one way or another, that there’s very little left. It will not last the season out.”
“The green gooseberries ’ll be coming on, Miss Deb,” was Master Cheese’s insinuating reply. “And there’s always apples, you know. With plenty of lemon and a clove or two, apples make as good a pudding as anything else.”
Miss Deb, always good-natured, went to get him what he had asked for, and Master Cheese took his seat in front of the fire, and toasted his toes.
“There was a great mistake made when you were put to a surgeon,” said Miss Amilly, laughing. “You should have gone apprentice to a pastrycook.”
“She’s a regular fidgetty old woman, that Miss Hautley,” broke out Master Cheese with temper, passing over Miss Amilly’s remark. “It’s not two months yet that she has been at the Hall, and she has had one or the other of us up six times at least. I wonder what business she had to come to it? The Hall wouldn’t have run away before Sir Edmund could get home.”
Miss Deb came back with the bread-and-jam; a good thick slice, as the gentleman had requested. To look at him eating, one would think he had had nothing for a week. It disappeared in no time, and Master Cheese went out sucking his fingers and his lips. Deborah West folded up the work, and put things straight generally in the room. Then she sat down again, drawing her chair to the side of the fire.
“I do think that Cheese has got a wolf inside him,” cried Amilly with a laugh.
“He is a great gourmand. He said this morning——” began Miss Deb, and then she stopped.
Finding what she was about to say thus brought to an abrupt conclusion, Amilly West looked at her sister. Miss Deb’s attention was rivetted on the room-door. Her mouth was open, her eyes seemed starting from her head with a fixed stare, and her countenance was turning white. Amilly turned her eyes hastily to the same direction, and saw a dark, obscure form filling up the door-way.
Not obscure for long. Amilly, more impulsive than her sister, rose up with a shriek, and then darted forward with outstretched arms of welcome. Deborah went forward, stretching out hers.
“My dear father!”
It was no other than Dr. West. He gave them each a cool kiss, walked to the fire and sat down, bidding them not smother him. For some little while they could not get over their surprise or believe their senses. They knew nothing of his intention to return, and had deemed him hundreds of miles away. Question after question they showered down upon him, the result of their amazement. He answered just as much as he chose. He had only come home for a day or so, he said, and did not care that it should be known he was there, to be tormented with a shoal of callers.
“Where’s Mr. Jan?” asked he.
“In the surgery,” said Deborah.
“Is he by himself?”
“Yes, dear papa. Master Cheese has just gone up to Deerham Hall, and the boy is out.”
Dr. West rose, and made his way to the surgery. The surgery was empty. But the light of a fire from the half-opened door, led him to Jan’s bed-room. It was a room that would persist in remaining obstinately damp, and Jan, albeit not over careful of himself, judged it well to have an occasional fire lighted. The room, seen by this light, looked comfortable. The small, low, iron bed stood in the far corner: in the opposite corner, the bureau, as in Dr. West’s time, the door opening to the garden (never used now) between them, at the end of the room. The window was on the side opposite the fire, a table in the middle. Jan was then occupied in stirring the fire into a blaze, and its cheerful light flickered on every part of the room.
“Good evening, Mr. Jan.”
Jan turned round, poker in hand, and stared amiably.
“Law!” cried he. “Who’d have thought it?”
The old word; the word he had learnt at school—law. It was Jan’s favourite mode of expressing surprise still, and Lady Verner never could break him of it. He shook hands cordially with Dr. West.
The doctor shut the door, slipping the bolt, and sat down to the fire. Jan cleared a space on the table, which was covered with jars and glass vases, cylinders, and other apparatus, seemingly for chemical purposes, and took his seat there.
The doctor had taken a run home, “making a morning call, as it might be metaphorically observed,” he said to Jan. Just to have a sight of home faces, and hear a little home news. Would Mr. Jan recite to him somewhat of the latter?
Jan did so: touching upon all he could recollect. From John Massingbird’s return to Verner’s Pride, and the consequent turning out of Mr. Verner and his wife, down to the death of Sir Rufus Hautley: not forgetting the pranks played by the “ghost,” and the foiled expedition of Mrs. Peckaby to New Jerusalem. Some of these items of intelligence the doctor had heard before, for Jan periodically wrote to him. The doctor looked taller, and stouter, and redder than ever, and as he leaned thoughtfully forward, and the crimson blaze played upon his face, Jan thought how like he was growing to his sister, the late Mrs. Verner.
“Mr. Jan,” said the doctor, “it is not right that my nephew, John Massingbird, should enjoy Verner’s Pride.”
“Of course it’s not,” answered Jan. “Only things don’t go by rights always, you know. It’s but seldom they do.”
“He ought to give it up to Mr. Verner.”
“So I told him,” said Jan. “I should, in his place.”
“What did he say?”
“Say? Laughed at me, and called me green.”
Dr. West sat thoughtfully pulling his great dark whiskers. Dark as they were, they had yet a tinge of red in the fire-light. “It was a curious thing; a very curious thing, that both brothers should die, as was supposed, in Australia,” said he. “Better—as things have turned out—that Fred should have turned up afterwards, than John.”
“I don’t know that,” spoke Jan, with his accustomed truth-telling freedom. “The pair were not good for much, but John was the best of them.”
“I was thinking of Sibylla,” candidly admitted the doctor. “It would have been better for her.”
Jan opened his eyes considerably.
“Better for her!—for it to turn out that she had two husbands living? That’s logic, that is.”
“Dear me, to be sure!” cried the doctor. “I was not thinking of that phase of the affair, Mr. Jan. Is she in spirits?”
“Who? Sibylla? She’s fretting herself into her grave.”
Dr. West turned his head with a start.
“What at? The loss of Verner’s Pride?”
“Well, I don’t know,” said Jan, ever plain-spoken. “She puzzles me. When she was at Verner’s Pride, she never seemed satisfied: she was perpetually hankering after excitement, and didn’t seem to care for Lionel or for anybody else, and kept the house full of people from top to bottom. She has a restless, dissatisfied temper, and it keeps her on the worry. Folks with such tempers know no peace, and let nobody else know any that’s about them. A nice life she leads Lionel! Not that he’d drop a hint of it. He’d cut out his tongue before he’d speak a word against his wife: he’d rather make her out to be an angel.”
“Are they pretty comfortably off for money?” inquired Dr. West, after a pause. “I suppose Mr. Verner must have managed to feather his nest a little, before leaving?”
“Not a bit of it,” returned Jan. “He was over head and ears in debt. Sibylla helped him to a good portion of it. She went the pace. John Massingbird waives the question of the mesne profits, or Lionel would be in worse embarrassment than he is.”
Dr. West looked crestfallen.
“What do they live on?” he asked. “Does Lady Verner keep them? She can’t have too much for herself now.”
“Oh! it’s managed somehow,” said Jan.
Dr. West sat for some time in ruminating silence, pulling his whiskers as before, running his hands through his hair, the large clear blue sapphire ring, which he always wore on his finger, conspuous. Jan swayed his legs about, and waited to afford any further information. Presently the doctor turned to him, a charming expression of open confidence on his countenance.
“Mr. Jan, I am in great hopes that you will do me a little favour. I have temporary need for a trifle of pecuniary aid—some slight debts which have grown upon me abroad,” he added, carelessly, with a short cough—“and, knowing your good heart, I have resolved to apply to you. If you can oblige me with a couple of hundred pounds or so, I’ll give you my acknowledgment, and return it punctually as soon as I am able.”
“I’d let you have it with all the pleasure in life, if I had got it,” heartily replied Jan. “But I have not.”
“My dear Mr. Jan! Not got it! You must have quite a nice little nest of savings laid by in the bank, surely! I know you never spend a shilling on yourself.”
“All I had in the bank and what I have drawn since has been handed over to my mother. I wanted Lionel and Sibylla to come here: and Miss Deb arranged it all; and in that case I should have given the money to Miss Deb. But Sibylla refused: she would not come here, she would not go anywhere but to Lady Verner’s. So I handed the money to my mother.”
The confession appeared to put the doctor out considerably.
“How very imprudent, Mr. Jan! To give away all you possessed, leaving nothing for yourself! I never heard of such a thing!”
“Lionel and his wife were turned out of everything, and had nobody to look to. I don’t see that I could have put the money to better use,” stoutly returned Jan. “It was not much. There’s such a lot of the Clay Lane folks always wanting things when they are ill. And Miss Deb, she had had something. You keep her so short, doctor.”
“But you pay her the sum that was agreed upon for housekeeping?” said Dr. West.
“What should hinder me?” returned Jan. “She can’t make both ends meet, she says, and then she has to come to me. I’m willing: only I can’t give money away and put it by, you see.”
Dr. West probably did see it. He saw, beyond doubt, that all hope of ready money from easy Jan was gone—from the simple fact that Jan’s coffers were just now empty. The fact did not afford him satisfaction.
“I’ll tell you what, Mr. Jan,” said he, brightening up, “you shall give me your signature to a little bill—a bill at two months, let us say. It will be the same as money.”
“Can’t,” said Jan.
“You can’t!” replied Dr. West.
“No!” said Jan, resolutely. “I’d give away all I had in hand to give, and welcome; but I’d never sign bills. A doctor has no business with ’em. Don’t you remember what they did for Jones at Bartholomew’s?”
“I don’t remember Jones at Bartholomew’s,” frigidly returned the doctor.
“No! Why, what’s gone with your memory?” innocently asked Jan. “If you think a bit, you’ll recollect about him, and what his end was. Bills did it; the signing of bills to oblige some friend. I’ll never sign a bill, doctor. I wouldn’t do it for my own mother.’
Thus the doctor’s expectations were put a final end to, so far as Jan went—and very certain expectations they had, no doubt, been. As to Jan, a thought may have crossed him that the doctor and his daughter Sibylla appeared to have the same propensity for getting out of money. Dr. West recovered his equanimity, and magnanimously waived away the affair as a trifle not worth dwelling on.
“How does Cheese get on?” he asked.
“First-rate—in the eating line,” replied Jan.
“Have you got him out of his idleness yet?”
“It would take a more clever man than I to do that, doctor. It’s constitutional. When he goes up to London, in the autumn, I shall take an assistant, unless you should be coming home yourself.”
“I have no intention of it at present, Mr. Jan. Am I to understand you that Sibylla has serious symptoms of disease?”
“There’s no doubt of it,” said Jan. “You always prophesied it for her, you know. When she was at Verner’s Pride she was continually ailing: not a week passed but I was called to attend her. She was so imprudent, too—she would be. Going out and getting her feet wet; sitting up half the night. We tried to bring her to reason; but it was of no use. She defied Lionel; she would not listen to me—as well speak to a post.”
“Why should she defy her husband? Are they on bad terms?”
“They are on as good terms as any man and wife could ever be, Sibylla being the wife,” was Jan’s rejoinder. “You know something of her temper and disposition, doctor—it is of no use to mince matters—you remember how it had used to be with her here at home. Lionel’s a husband in a thousand. How he can possibly put up with her, and be always patient and kind, puzzles me more than any problem ever did in Euclid. If Fred had lived—why, he’d have broken her spirit or her heart, long before this.”
Dr. West rose and stretched himself. The failings of Sibylla were not a pleasant topic, thus openly spoken of by Jan, but none knew better than the doctor how true were the grounds on which he spoke. None knew better, either, that disease for her was to be feared.
“Her sisters went off about this age, or a little later,” he said, musingly. “I could not save them.”
“And Sibylla’s as surely going after them, doctor, as that I am here,” returned Jan. “Lionel intends to call in Dr. Hayes to her.”
“Since when has she been so ill?”
“Not since any time in particular. There appears to be no real illness yet: only symptoms. She coughs, and gets as thin as a skeleton. Sometimes I think, if she could keep up a cheerful temper, she’d keep well. You will see what you think of her.”
The doctor walked towards the bureau at the far comer.
“Have you ever opened it, Mr. Jan?”
“It’s not likely,” said Jan. “Didn’t you tell me not to? Your own papers are in it, and you hold the key.”
“It’s not inconvenient to your room, my retaining it, is it?” asked the doctor. “I don’t know where else I should put my papers.”
“Not a bit of it,” said Jan. “Have another in here as well, if you like. It’s safe here.”
“Do you know, Mr. Jan, I feel as if I’d rather sleep in your little bed to-night than indoors,” said the doctor, looking at Jan’s bed. “The room seems like an old friend to me: I feel at home in it.”
“Sleep in it, if you like,” returned Jan, in his easy good-nature. “Miss Deb can put me into some room or other. I say, doctor, it’s past tea-time. Wouldn’t you like some refreshment?”
“I had a good dinner on my road,” replied Dr. West: which Jan might have guessed, for Dr. West was quite sure to take care of himself. “We will go in, if you like: Deb and Amilly will wonder what has become of me. How old they begin to look!”
“I don’t suppose any of us look younger,” answered Jan.
They went into the house. Deborah and Amilly were in a flutter of hospitality, lading the tea-table with good things that it would have gladdened Master Cheese’s heart to see. They had been up-stairs to smooth out their curls, to put on clean white sleeves and collars, a gold chain and such-like little additions, setting themselves off as they were now setting off the tea-table, all in their affectionate welcome to their father. And Dr. West, who liked eating as well as ever did Master Cheese, surveyed the table with complacency as he sat down to it, ignoring the dinner he had spoken of to Jan. Amilly sat by him, heaping his plate with what he liked best, and Deborah made the tea.
“I have been observing to Mr. Jan that you are beginning to look very old, Deb,” remarked the doctor. “Amilly also.”
It was a cruel shaft. A bitter return for their loving welcome. Perhaps they were looking older, but he need not have said it so point blank, and before Jan. They turned crimson, poor ladies, and bent to sip their tea, and tried to turn the words off with a laugh, and did not know where to look. In true innate delicacy of feeling, Dr. West and his daughter, Sibylla, rivalled each other.
The meal over, the doctor proposed to pay a visit to Deerham Court, and did so, Jan walking with him, first of all mentioning to Deborah the wish expressed by Dr. West as to occupying Jan’s room for the night, that she might see the arrangement carried out.
Which she did. And Jan, at the retiring hour—though this is a little anticipating, for the evening is not yet over—escorted the doctor to the door of the room, and wished him a good night’s rest, never imagining but what he enjoyed one. But had fire, or any other accident, burst open the room to public gaze in the lone night hours, Dr. West would have been seen at work, instead of asleep. Every drawer of the bureau was out, every paper it contained was misplaced. The doctor was evidently searching for something, as sedulously as he had once searched for that lost prescription, which at the time appeared so much to disturb his peace.
CHAPTER LIV. AN EVENING AT LADY VERNER’S.
In the well-lighted drawing-room at Deerham Court was its mistress, Lady Verner. Seated with her on the same sofa was her son, Lionel. Decima, at a little distance, was standing, talking to Lord Garle. Lucy Tempest sat at the table, cutting the leaves of a new book; and Sibylla was bending over the fire in a shivering attitude, as if she could not get enough of its heat. Lord Garle had been dining with them.
The door opened, and Jan entered.
“I have brought you a visitor, Sibylla,” said he, in his unceremonious fashion, without any sort of greeting to anybody. “Come in, doctor.”
It caused quite a confusion, the entrance of Dr. West. All were surprised. Lionel rose, Lucy rose; Lord Garle and Decima came forward, and Sibylla sprung towards him with a cry. Lady Verner was the only one who retained entire calmness.
“Papa! it cannot be you! When did you come?”
Dr. West kissed her, and turned to Lady Verner with some courtly words. Dr. West was an adept at such. Not the courtly words that spring genuinely from a kindly and refined nature; but those that are put on to hide a false one. All people, true-hearted ones, too, cannot distinguish between them: the false and the real. Next, the doctor grasped the hand of Lionel.
“My son-in-law!” he exclaimed, in a very demonstrative manner. “The last time you and I had the pleasure of meeting, Mr. Verner, we little anticipated that such a relationship would ensue. I rejoice to welcome you in it, my dear sir.”
“True,” said Lionel, with a quiet smile. “Coming events do not always cast their shadows before.”
With Decima, with Lord Garle, with Lucy Tempest, the doctor severally shook hands: he had a phrase of suavity for all.
“I should not have known you,” he said to the latter.
“No!” returned Lucy. “Why?”
“You have grown, Miss Tempest. Grown much.”
“Then I must have been very short before,” said Lucy. “I am not tall now.”
“You have grown into remarkable beauty,” added the doctor.
Whether Lucy had grown into beauty or not, she did not like being told of it. And she did not like Dr. West. She had not been in love with him ever, as you may recollect; but she seemed to like him now, as he stood before her, less and less. Drawing away from him when she could do so civilly, she went up and talked to Jan.
A little while, and they had become more settled, dispersing into groups. The doctor, his daughter, and Lionel were sitting on a couch apart, conversing in an under tone; the rest disposed themselves as they would. Dr. West had accepted a cup of coffee. He kept it in his hand, sipping it now and then, and slowly eat a biscuit.
“Mr. Jan tells me Sibylla is not very strong,” he observed, addressing both of them, but more particularly Lionel.
“Not very,” replied Lionel. “The cold weather of this winter has tried her; has given her a cough. She will be better, I hope, when it comes in warm.”
“How do you feel, my dear?” inquired the doctor, apparently looking at his coffee-cup instead of Sibylla. “Weak here?”—touching his chest.
“Not more weak than I had used to be,” she answered, in a cross tone, as if the confession that she did feel weak was not pleasant to her. “There’s nothing the matter with me, papa; only Lionel makes a fuss.”
“Nay, Sibylla,” interposed Lionel, good-humouredly, “I leave that to you and Jan.”
“You would like to make papa believe you don’t make a fuss!” she cried, in a most resentful tone. “When you know, not two days ago, you wanted to prevent my going to the party at Mrs. Bitterworth’s!”
“I plead guilty to that,” said Lionel. “It was a most inclement night, a cold, raw fog that penetrated everywhere, carriages and all else, and I wished you not to venture out in it. The doing so increased your cough.”
“Mr. Verner was right,” said Dr. West. “Night fogs are pernicious to a degree, where the chest and lungs are delicate. You should not stir out of the house, Sibylla, after sunset. Now don’t interrupt, my dear. Let the carriage be ever so closely shut, it makes no difference. There is the change of atmosphere from the warm room to the cold carriage; there are the draughts of air in passing to it. You must not do it, Sibylla.”
“Do you mean to say, papa, that I am to live like a hermit?—never to go out?” she returned, her bosom heaving with vexation. “It is not much visiting that I have had, goodness knows, since quitting Verner’s Pride: if I am to give it all up, you may as well put me out of the world. As good be dead!”
“Sibylla,” said the doctor, more impressively than he often spoke, “I know your constitution, and I know pretty well what you can and what you can not bear. Don’t attempt to stir out after sunset again. Should you get stronger it will be a different matter. At present it must not be. Will you remember this, Mr. Verner?”
“If my wife will allow me to remember it,” he said, bending to Sibylla with a kindly tone. “My will was good to keep her in, all this winter: but she would not be kept.”
“What has Jan been telling you about me, papa? It is a shame of him! I am not ill.”
“Mr. Jan has told me very little indeed of your ailments,” replied Dr. West. “He says you are not strong: he says you are fretful, irritable. My dear, this arises from your state of health.”
“I have thought so, too,” said Lionel, speaking impulsively. Many and many a time, latterly, when she had nearly tired out his heart and his patience, had he been willing to find an excuse for her still—that her illness of body caused in her the irritation of mind. Or, at any rate, greatly increased it.
An eye, far less experienced than that of Dr. West—who, whatever may have been his other shortcomings, was clever in his profession—could have seen at a glance how weak Sibylla was. She wore an evening dress of white muslin, its body very low, its sleeves very short: her chest was painfully thin, and every breath she took lifted it ominously: she seemed to be breathing outside as well as in. The doctor touched the muslin.
“This is not a fit dress for you, Sibylla. It—”
“Lionel has been putting you up to say it, papa!” she burst forth.
Dr. West looked at her. He surmised what was indeed the case, that her husband had remonstrated against the unsuitableness of the attire, to one in her condition.
“You have heard every word Mr. Verner has spoken to me, Sibylla. You should be wrapped up warmly always: to be exposed like this, is enough to—to—” give you your death he was about to say, but changed the words—“make you very ill.”
“Decima and Lucy Tempest dress so,” she returned, in a tone that threatened tears.
Dr. West lifted his eyes to where Decima and Lucy were standing with Lord Garle. Decima wore a silk dress; Lucy a white one: each made evening fashion.
“They are both healthy,” he said, “and may wear what they please. Look at their necks, compared to yours, Sibylla. I shall ask Mr. Verner to put all these thin, low bodies behind the fire.”
“He would only have the pleasure of paying for others to replace them,” was the undutiful rejoinder. “Papa, I have enough trouble without your turning against me.”
Turning against her! Dr. West did not point out how purposeless were her words. His intention was to come in in the morning, and talk to her seriously of her state of health, and the precautions it was necessary to observe. He took a sip of his coffee, and turned to Lionel.
“I was about to ask you a superfluous question, Mr. Verner—whether that lost codicil has been heard of. But your leaving Verner’s Pride is an answer.”
“It has never been heard of,” replied Lionel. “When John Massingbird returned and put in his claim—when he took possession, I may say, for the one was coeval with the other—the wanting of the codicil was indeed a grievance: far more than it had appeared at the time of its loss.”
“You must regret it much.”
“I regret it always,” he answered. “I regret it bitterly for Sibylla’s sake.”
“Papa,” she cried in deep emotion, her cheeks becoming crimson, her blue eyes flashing with an unnatural light, “if that codicil could be found, it would save my life. Jan, in his rough, stupid way, tells me I am fretting myself into my grave. Perhaps I am. I want to go back to Verner’s Pride.”
It was not a pleasant subject to converse on; it was a subject utterly hopeless—and Dr. West sought one more genial. Ranging his eyes over the room, they fell upon Lord Garle, who was still talking with Decima and Lucy.
“Which of the two young ladies makes the viscount’s attraction, Mr. Verner?”
Lionel smiled. “They do not take me into their confidence, sir; any one of the three.”
“I am sure it is not Decima, papa,” spoke up Sibylla. “She’s as cold as a stone. I won’t answer for its not being Lucy Tempest. Lord Garle comes here a good deal, and he and Lucy seem great friends. I often think he comes for Lucy.”
“Then there’s little doubt upon the point,” observed the doctor, coming to a more rapid conclusion than the words really warranted. “Time was, Mr. Verner, when I thought that young lady would have been your wife.”
“Who?” asked Lionel. But that he only asked the question in his confusion, without need, was evident: the tell-tale flush betrayed it. His pale face had turned red, to the very roots of his hair.
“In those old days when you were ill, lying here, and Miss Tempest was so much with you, I fancied I saw the signs of a mutual attachment,” continued the doctor. “I conclude I must have been mistaken.”
“Little doubt of that, doctor,” lightly answered Lionel, recovering his equanimity, though he could not yet recover his disturbed complexion, and laughing as he spoke.
Sibylla’s greedy ears had drunk up the words, her sharp eyes had caught the conscious flush, and her jealous heart was making the most of it. At that unfortunate moment, as ill-luck had it, Lucy brought up the basket of cakes and held it out to Dr. West. Lionel rose to take it from her.
“I was taking your name in vain, Miss Tempest,” said the complacent doctor. “Did you hear me?”
“No,” replied Lucy, smiling, “What about?”
“I was telling Mr. Verner that in the old days I had deemed his choice was falling upon another, rather than my daughter. Do you remember, young lady?—in that long illness of his?”
Lucy did remember. And the remembrance, thus called suddenly before her, the words themselves, the presence of Lionel, all brought to her far more emotion than had arisen to him. Her throat heaved, as with a spasm, and the startled colour dyed her face. Lionel saw it. Sibylla saw it.
“It proves to us how we may be mistaken, Miss Tempest,” observed the doctor, who, from that habit of his, already hinted at, the never looking people in the face when he spoke to them, had failed to observe anything. “I hear there is a probability of this fair hand being appropriated by another: one who can enhance his value by coupling it with a coronet.”
“Don’t take the trouble, Lucy. I am holding it.”
It was Lionel who spoke. In her confusion she had not loosed hold of the cake-basket, although he had taken it. Quietly, impassively, in the most unruffled manner spoke he, smiling carelessly. Only for a moment had his self-control been shaken. “Will you take a biscuit, Dr. West?” he asked.
“Lucy, my dear, will you step here to me?”
The request came from the other end of the room, from Lady Verner. Lionel, who was about to place the cake-basket on the table, stopped and held out his arm to Lucy, to conduct her to his mother. They went forward, utterly unconscious that Sibylla was casting angry and jealous glances at them; conscious only that those sacred feelings in either heart, so well hid from the world, had been stirred to their very depths.
The door opened, and one of the servants entered. “Mr. Jan is wanted.”
“Who’s taken ill now, I wonder?” cried Jan, descending from the arm of his mother’s sofa, where he had been perched.
In the ante-room was Master Cheese, looking rueful.
“There’s a message come from Squire Pidcock’s,” cried he, in a most resentful tone. “Somebody’s to attend immediately. Am I to go?”
“I suppose you’d faint at having to go, after being up to Miss Hautley’s,” returned Jan. “You’d never survive the two, should you?”
“Well, you know, Jan, it’s a good mile and a half to Pidcock’s, and I had to go to the other place without my tea,” remonstrated Master Cheese.
“I dare say Miss Deb has given you your tea since you came home.”
“But it’s not like having it at the usual hour. And I couldn’t finish it in comfort, when this message came.”
“Be off back and finish it now, then,” said Jan. And the young gentleman departed with alacrity.
Returning to the drawing-room, Jan told them that he was called out. Lionel had resumed his seat then, by Sibylla and Dr. West. Jan departed, and, later in the evening, as he did not return, Lionel walked home with the doctor.
“What do you think of Sibylla?” was his first question, before they had well quitted the gates.
“My opinion is not a favourable one, so far as I can judge at present,” replied Dr. West. “She must not be crossed, Mr. Verner.”
“Heaven is my witness that she is not crossed by me, Dr. West,” was the reply of Lionel, given more earnestly than the occasion seemed to call for. “From the hour I married her, my whole life has been spent in striving to shield her from crosses, so far as lies in the power of man; to cherish her in all care and tenderness. There are few husbands would bear with her—her peculiarities—as I have borne: as I will still bear. I say this to you, her father; I would say it to no one else. My chief regret, at the wrenching from me of Verner’s Pride, is for Sibylla’s sake.”
“My dear sir, I honestly believe you. I know what Sibylla was at home, fretful, wayward, and restless; and those tendencies are not likely to be lessened, now disease has shown itself. I always feared it was in her constitution; that, in spite of all our care, she would follow her sisters. They fell off and died, you may remember, when they seemed most blooming. People talked freely—as I understood at the time—about my allowing her so suddenly to marry Frederick Massingbird; but my course was dictated by one sole motive—that it would give her the benefit of a sea voyage, which might prove invaluable to her constitution.”
Lionel believed just as much of this as he liked. Dr. West was his wife’s father, and, as such, he deferred to him. He remembered what had been told him by Sibylla; and he remembered the promise he had given her.
“It’s a shocking pity that you are turned from Verner’s Pride!” resumed the doctor.
“It is. But there’s no help for it.”
“Does Sibylla grieve after it very much? Has it any real effect, think you, upon her health?—as she seemed to intimate.”
“She grieves, no doubt. She keeps up the grief, if you can understand it, Dr. West. Not a day passes, but she breaks into lamentations over the loss, complaining loudly and bitterly. Whether her health would not equally have failed at Verner’s Pride, I am unable to say. I think it would.”
“John Massingbird, under the circumstances, ought to give it up to you. It is rightfully yours. Sibylla’s life—and she is his own cousin—may depend upon it: he ought not to keep it. But for the loss of the codicil, he would never have come to it.”
“Of course he could not,” assented Lionel. “It is that loss which has upset everything.”
Dr. West fell into silence, and continued in it until his house was in view. Then he spoke again.
“What will you undertake to give me, Mr. Verner, if I can bring John Massingbird to hear reason, and re-establish you at Verner’s Pride?”
“Not anything,” answered Lionel. “Verner’s Pride is John Massingbird’s according to the law; therefore it cannot be mine. Neither would he resign it.”
“I wonder whether it could be done by stratagem?” mused Dr. West. “Could we persuade him that the codicil has turned up?—or something of that? It would be very desirable for Sibylla.”
“If I go back to Verner’s Pride at all, sir, I go back by right; neither by purchase nor by stratagem,” was the reply of Lionel. “Rely upon it, things set about in an underhand manner never prosper.”
“I might get John Massingbird to give it up to you,” continued the doctor, nodding his head thoughtfully, as if he had some scheme afloat in it. “I might get him to resign it to you, rents, and residence and all, and betake himself off. You would give me a per centage?”
“Were John Massingbird to offer such to me to-morrow, of his own free will, I should decline it,” forcibly returned Lionel. “I have suffered too much from Verner’s Pride ever to take possession of it again, except by indisputable right—a right in which I cannot be disturbed. Twice have I been turned from it, you know, sir. And the turning out has cost me more than the world deemed.”
“But surely you would go back to it if you could, for Sibylla’s sake?”
“Were I a rich man, able to rent Verner’s Pride from John Massingbird, I might ask him to let it me, if it would gratify Sibylla. But, to return there as its master, on sufferance, liable to be expelled again at any moment,—never! John Massingbird holds the right to Verner’s Pride, and he will exercise it, for me.”
“Then you will not accept my offer—to try and get you back again; and to make me a substantial honorarium if I do it?”
“I do not understand you, Dr. West. The question cannot arise.”
“If I make it arise; and carry it out?”
“I beg your pardon—No.”
It was an emphatic denial, and Dr. West may have felt himself foiled, as he had been foiled by Jan’s confession of empty pockets, earlier in the evening.
“Nevertheless,” observed he equably, as he shook hands with Lionel, before entering his own house, “I shall see John Massingbird to-morrow, and urge the hardship of the case upon him.”
It was probably with that view that Dr. West proceeded early on the following morning to Verner’s Pride, after his night of search, instead of sleep, astonishing John Massingbird not a little. That gentleman was enjoying himself in a comfortable sort of way in his bedroom. A substantial breakfast was laid out on a table by the bed-side, while he, not risen, smoked a pipe as he lay, by way of whetting his appetite. Dr. West entered without ceremony.
“My stars!” uttered John, when he could believe his eyes. “It’s never you, Uncle West! Did you drop from a balloon?”
Dr. West explained. That he had come over for a few hours’ sojourn. The state of his dear daughter Sibylla was giving him considerable uneasiness, and he had just put himself to the expense and inconvenience of a journey to see her, and judge of her state himself.
That there were a few trifling inaccuracies in this statement, inasmuch as that his daughter’s state had had nothing to do with the doctor’s journey, was of little consequence. It was all one to John Massingbird. He made a hasty toilette, and invited the doctor to take some breakfast.
Dr. West was nothing loth. He had breakfasted at home; but a breakfast, or any other meal, more or less, was nothing to Dr. West. He sat down to the table, and took a choice morsel of boned chicken on his plate.
“John, I have come up to talk to you about Verner’s Pride.”
“What about it?” asked John, speaking with his mouth full of devilled kidneys.
“The place is Lionel Verner’s.”
“How d’ye make out that?” asked John.
“That codicil revoked the will which left the estate to you. It gave it to him.”
“But the codicil vanished,” answered John.
“True. I was present at the consternation it excited. It disappeared in some unaccountably mysterious way; but there’s no doubt that Mr. Verner died, believing the estate would go in its direct line—to Lionel. In fact, I know he did. Therefore you ought to act as though the codicil were in existence, and resign the estate to Lionel Verner.”
The recommendation excessively tickled the fancy of John Massingbird. It set him laughing for five minutes.
“In short, you never ought to have attempted to enter upon it,” continued Dr. West. “Will you resign it to him?”
“Uncle West, you’ll kill me with laughter, if you joke like that,” was the reply.
“I have little doubt that the codicil is still in existence,” urged Dr. West. “I remember, my impression at the time was, that it was only mislaid, temporarily lost. If that codicil turned up, you would be obliged to quit.”
“So I should,” said John, with equanimity. Let Lionel Verner produce it, and I’ll vacate the next hour. That will never turn up: don’t you fret yourself, Uncle West.”
“Will you not resign it to him?”
“No, that I won’t. Verner’s Pride is mine by law. I should be a simpleton to give it up.”
“Sibylla’s pining for it,” resumed the doctor, trying what a little pathetic pleading would do. “She will as surely die, unless she can come back to Verner’s Pride, as that you and I are at breakfast here.”
“If you ask my opinion, Uncle West, I should say that she’d die, any way. She looks like it. She’s fading away just as the other two did. But she won’t die a day sooner for being away from Verner’s Pride; and she would not have lived an hour longer had she remained in it. That’s my belief.”
“Verner’s Pride never was intended for you, John,” cried the Doctor. “Some freak caused Mr. Verner to will it away from Lionel; but he came to his senses before he died, and repaired the injury.”
“Then I am so much the more obliged to the freak,” was the good-humoured but uncompromising rejoinder of John Massingbird.
And, more than that, Dr. West could not make of him. John was evidently determined to stand by Verner’s Pride. The doctor then changed his tactics, and tried a little business on his own account—that of borrowing from John Massingbird as much money as that gentleman would lend.
It was not much. John, in his laughing way, protested he was always “cleaned out.” Nobody knew but himself—but he did not mind hinting it to Uncle West—the heaps of money he had been obliged to “shell out” before he could repose in tranquillity at Verner’s Pride. There were back entanglements and present expenses. Not to speak of sums spent in benevolence. “Benevolence?” the doctor exclaimed. “Yes, benevolence,” John replied with a semi-grave face: he had had to give away an unlimited amount of bank-notes to the neighbourhood, as a recompense for having terrified it into fits. There were times when he thought he should have to come upon Lionel Verner for the mesne profits, he observed. A procedure which he was unwilling to resort to for two reasons: the one was, that Lionel possessed nothing to pay them with; the other, that he, John, never liked to be hard.
So the doctor had to content himself with a very trifling loan, compared with the sum he had fondly anticipated. He dropped some obscure hints that the evidence he could give, if he chose, with reference to the codicil, or rather what he knew to have been Mr. Verner’s intentions, might go far to deprive his nephew John of the estate. But his nephew only laughed at him, and could not by any manner of means be induced to treat the hints as serious. A will was a will, he said, and Verner’s Pride was indisputably his.
Altogether, taking one thing with another, Dr. West’s visit to Deerham had not been quite so satisfactory as he had anticipated it might be made. After quitting John Massingbird, he went to Deerham Court and remained a few hours with Sibylla. The rest of the day he divided between his daughters in their sitting-room, and Jan in the surgery, taking his departure again from Deerham by the night train.
And Deborah and Amilly, drowned in tears, said his visit could be compared only to the flash of a comet’s tail: no sooner seen than gone again.