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Mrs. Henry Wood
PART THE FIRST.
CHAPTER I. THE ANONYMOUS LETTER.
CHAPTER II. ELLEN ADAIR
CHAPTER III. IN MRS. GASS'S PARLOUR
CHAPTER IV. ALONE WITH THE TRUTH
CHAPTER V. RETROSPECT
CHAPTER VI. WATCHING THE FUNERAL
CHAPTER VII. AFTER THE FUNERAL
CHAPTER VIII. MADAM'S LISTENING CLOSET
CHAPTER IX. IN LAWYER DALE'S OFFICE
CHAPTER X. PUT TO HIS CONSCIENCE
CHAPTER XI. A QUIET WEDDING
CHAPTER XII. JELLY'S INDISCRETION
CHAPTER XIII. COMING HOME
PART THE SECOND.
CHAPTER I. OF WHAT WAS, AND OF WHAT MIGHT BE
CHAPTER II. MRS. GASS AMID THE WORKMEN
CHAPTER III. MORNING VISITORS
CHAPTER IV. THREE LETTERS FOR DR. RANE
CHAPTER V. MADAM'S ADVICE
CHAPTER VI. MARY DALLORY
CHAPTER VII. LOVE AMONG THE ROSES
CHAPTER VIII. THE TONTINE
CHAPTER IX. AT THE SEASIDE
CHAPTER X. A LAST PROPOSAL
CHAPTER XI. UNDER THE CEDAR-TREE
CHAPTER XII. AN INTERRUPTION
CHAPTER XIII. PANIC
CHAPTER XIV. WHAT JELLY SAW
CHAPTER XV. DESOLATION
CHAPTER XVI. IN THE CHURCHYARD
CHAPTER XVII. AT SIR NASH BOHUN'S
CHAPTER XVIII. JELLY'S TROUBLES
CHAPTER XIX. COMING HOME TO DIE
CHAPTER XX. RICHARD NORTH'S REVELATION
CHAPTER XXI. UNDER THE SAME ROOF
CHAPTER XXII. TANGLED THREADS
CHAPTER XXIII. JELLY'S TWO EVENING VISITS
CHAPTER XXIV. MISCHIEF BREWING IN NORTH INLET
CHAPTER XXV. DAYS OF PAIN
CHAPTER XXVI. MRS. GASS AT HOME.
CHAPTER XXVII. ONCE AGAIN
CHAPTER XXVIII. COMING VERY NEAR
CHAPTER XXIX. IN THE SHRUBBERY
CHAPTER XXX. LYING IN WAIT
CHAPTER XXXI. DISTURBING THE GRAVE
CHAPTER XXXII. A NIGHT EXPEDITION
PART THE THIRD
CHAPTER I. IN GROSVENOR PLACE
CHAPTER II. NO HOPE.
CHAPTER III. BROUGHT HOME TO HIM
CHAPTER IV. CONCLUSION
It was an intensely dark night. What with the mist that hung around from below, and the unusual gloom above, Dr. Rane began to think he might have done well to bring a lantern with him, to guide his steps up Ham Lane, when he should turn into it. He would not be able to spare time to pick his way there. A gentleman—so news had been brought to him—was lying in sudden extremity, and his services as a medical man were being waited for.
Straight down, on the road before him, at only half-a-mile distance, lay the village of Dallory; so called after the Dallory family, who had been of importance in the neighbourhood in the years gone by. This little off-shoot was styled Dallory Ham. The latter name had given rise to disputes amidst antiquarians. Some maintained that the word Ham was only a contraction of hamlet, and that the correct name would be Dallory Hamlet: others asserted that the appellation arose from the circumstance that the public green, or common, was in the shape of a ham. As both sides brought logic and irresistible proof to bear on their respective opinions, contention never flagged. At no very remote period the Ham had been a grassy waste, given over to stray donkeys, geese, and gipsies. They were done away with now that houses encircled it; pretty villas of moderate dimensions, some cottages and a few shops: the high-road ran, as it always had done, straight through the middle of it. Dallory Ham had grown to think itself of importance, especially since the time when two doctors had established themselves in it: Dr. Rane and Mr. Alexander. Both lived in what might be called the neck of the Ham, which was nearest to Dallory proper.
Standing with your face towards Dallory (in the direction the doctor was hastening), his house was on the right-hand side. He had only now turned out of it. Dallory Hall, to which place Dr. Rane had been summoned, stood a little beyond the entrance to the Ham, lying back on the right in its grounds, and completely hidden by trees. It was inhabited by Mr. North.
Oliver Rane had come forth in haste and commotion. He could not understand the message, excepting the one broad fact that Edmund North, Mr. North's eldest son, was supposed to be dying. The servant, who brought it, did not seem to understand it either. He spoke of an anonymous letter that had been received by Mr. North, of disturbance thereupon, of a subsequent encounter—a sharp, brief quarrel—between Edmund North and Mr. Alexander, the surgeon; and of some sort of fit in which Edmund North was now lying senseless.
Dr. Rane was a gentlemanly man of middle height and slender frame, his age about thirty. The face in its small regular features might have been held to possess a dash of effeminacy, but for the resolute character of the firm mouth and the pointed chin. His eyes—rather too close together—whiskers and hair, were of a reddish brown, the latter worn brushed aside from the forehead; his teeth were white and even: altogether a good-looking man; but one of rather too silent manners, of too inscrutable a countenance to be very pleasing.
"An anonymous letter!" Dr. Rane had repeated to himself, with a sort of groan, hastening from his house as one greatly startled, and pursued his course down the Ham. Glancing across at Mr. Alexander's house, he felt a momentary temptation to go over and learn particulars—if, haply, the surgeon should be at home. The messenger had said that Mr. Alexander flung out of Dallory Hall in a passion, right in the middle of the quarrel; hence the summons for Dr. Rane. For Mr. Alexander, not Dr. Rane, was the Hall's medical attendant: this was the first time the latter had been so called upon.
They had come to Dallory within a day of each other, these two doctors, in consequence of the sudden death of its old practitioner; each hoping to secure the practice for himself. It was Mr. Alexander who chiefly gained it. Both were clever men; and it might have been at least an even race between them, but for the fact that Mrs. North, of Dallory Hall, set her face resolutely against Dr. Rane. The reason was inexplicable, since he had been led to believe that he should have the countenance of Mr. and Mrs. North. She did her best in a covert way to prevent his obtaining practice, pushing his rival—whom she really despised, and did not care a tittle for—into favour. Her object might not be to drive Oliver Rane from the spot, but it certainly seemed to look like it. So Mr. Alexander had obtained the lion's share of the practice in the best families, Dr. Rane but little; as to the poor, they were divided between them pretty equally. Both acted as general practitioners, and Mr. Alexander dispensed his own medicines. The rivals were outwardly cordial with each other; but Dr. Rane, no doubt, felt an inward smart at his want of success.
The temptation to dash over to Mr. Alexander's passed with the thought; there was no time for it. Dr. Rane pursued his course until he came to Ham Lane, an opening on the right, into which he turned, for it was a nearer way to the Hall. A narrow lane, green and lovely in early summer, with wild flowers nestling on its banks, dog-roses and honeysuckles clustering in its hedges. Here was the need of the lantern. But Dr. Rane sped on without regard to inadvertent steps that might land him in the ditch. Some excitement appeared to be upon him, far beyond any that might arise from the simple fact of being called out to a gentleman in a fit; yet he was by temperament very self-possessed, one of the calmest-mannered men living. A stile in the hedge on the left, which he found as if by instinct, took him at once into the grounds of Dallory Hall; whence there came wafting to him the scent of hyacinths, daffodils, and other spring flowers in delicious sweetness, spite of the density of the night-air. Not that Dr. Rane derived much advantage from the sweetness; nothing could seem delicious to him just then.
It was more open here, as compared with the lane, and not so intensely dark. Three minutes of the same heedless pace in and out of the winding walks, when he turned a point, and the old stone mansion was before him. A long, grey, sensible-looking house, of only two stories high, suggesting spacious rooms within. Lights shone from some of the windows and through the fan-light over the entrance-door. One of the gardeners crossed Dr. Rane's path.
"Is that you, Williams? Do you know how young Mr. North is?"
"I've not been told, sir. There's something wrong with him, we hear."
"Is this blight?" called back the doctor, alluding to the curiously dark mist.
"Not it, sir. It's nothing but the vapour rising from the day's heat. It have been hot for the first day o' May."
The door yielded to Dr. Rane's hand, and he went into the hall it was of fair size, and paved with stone. On the left were the drawing-rooms, on the right the dining-room, and also a room that was called Mr. North's parlour; a handsome staircase of stone wound up at the back. All the doors were closed; and as Dr. Rane stood for a moment in hesitation, a young lady in grey silk came swiftly and silently down the stairs. Her figure was small and slight, her face fair, pale, gentle, with the meekest look in her dove-like grey eyes. Her smooth, fine hair, of an exceedingly light brown, was worn in curls all round the head, after the manner of girls in a bygone time. It made her look very young, but she was in reality thirty years of age; three months younger than Dr. Rane. Miss North was very simple in tastes and habits, and adhered to many customs of her girlhood. Moreover, since an illness seven years ago, her hair had never grown very long or thick. She saw Dr. Rane, and came swiftly to him. Their hands met in silence.
"What is this trouble, Bessy?"
"Oh, I am so glad you are here!" she exclaimed, in the soft, subdued tones characteristic of dangerous sickness in a house. "He is lying as though he were dead. Papa is with him. Will you come?"
"One moment," he whispered. "Tell me, in a word, what it all is. The cause, I mean, not the illness."
"It was caused by an anonymous letter to papa. Edmund——"
"But how could any anonymous letter to your papa have caused illness to Edmund?" he interrupted. And the tone of his voice was so sharp, and the dropping of her hand, clasped until then, so sudden, that Miss North thought he was angry with her, and glanced upwards through her tears.
"I beg your pardon, Bessy. My dear, I feel so grieved and confounded at this, that I am scarcely myself. It is to me utterly incomprehensible. What were the contents of the letter?" he continued, as they hastened upstairs to the sick-chamber. And Bessy North told him in a whisper as much as she knew.
The facts of the case were these. By the six o'clock post that same evening, Mr. North received an anonymous letter, reflecting on his son Edmund. His first wife, dead now just eight-and-twenty years, had left him three children, Edmund, Richard, and Bessy. When the letter arrived, the family had sat down to dinner, and Mr. North did not open it until afterwards. He showed it to his son Edmund, as soon as they were left alone. The charges it contained were true, and Edmund North jumped to the conclusion that only one man in the whole world could have written it, and that was Alexander, the surgeon. He went into a frightful passion; he was given to doing so on occasions; and he had, besides, taken rather more wine at dinner than was good for him—which also he was somewhat addicted to. As ill fate had it, Mr. Alexander called just at the moment, and Mr. North, a timid man in nervous health, grew frightened at the torrent of angry words, and left them together in the dining-room. There was a short, sharp storm. Mr. Alexander came out almost immediately, saying, "You are mad; you are mad. I will talk to you when you are calmer." "I would rather be mad than bad," shouted Edmund North, coming after him. But the surgeon had already let himself out at the hall-door; and Edmund North went back to the dining-room, and shut himself in. Two of the servants, attracted by the sounds of dispute, had been lingering in the hall, and they saw and heard this. In a few minutes Mr. North went in, and found his son lying on the ground, senseless, He was carried to his chamber, and medical men were sent for: Dr. Rane (as being the nearest), and two physicians from the more distant market town, Whitborough.
Edmund North was not dead. Dr. Rane, bending over him, saw that. He had not been well of late, and was under the care of Mr. Alexander. Only a week ago (as was to transpire later) he had gone to consult a physician in Whitborough, one of those now summoned to him. This gentleman suspected he had heart-disease, and warned him against excitement. But the family knew nothing as yet of this; neither did Oliver Rane. Another circumstance Edmund North had not disclosed. When sojourning in London the previous winter, he had been attacked by a sort of fit. It had looked like apoplexy more than heart; and the doctors gave him sundry injunctions to be careful. This one also, Dr. Rane thought, knowing nothing of the former, looked like apoplexy. Edmund North was a very handsome man, but a great deal too stout.
"Is he dead, Oliver?" asked the grieving father; who, when alone with the doctor, and unrestrained by the presence of his wife, often called him by his Christian name.
"No; he is not dead."
And, indeed, a spasm at that moment passed over the prostrate face. All the means that Oliver Rane could think of, and use, he tried with the best heart and efforts—hoping to recall the fast-fleeting life.
But when the two doctors arrived from Whitborough, Oliver Rane found he was not wanted. They were professionals of long standing, men of note in their local arena; and showed themselves condescendingly patronizing to the young practitioner. Dr. Rane had rather a strong objection to be patronized: he withdrew, and went to Mr. North's parlour. It was a dingy room; the shaded lamp on the table not sufficing to light it up. Red moreen curtains were drawn before the large French window that opened to the flower-garden at the side.
Mr. North was standing before the fire. He was a little shrivelled man with stooping shoulders, his scanty hair smoothed across a low, broad forehead, his lips thin and querulous; his eyes, worn and weary now, had once been mild and loving as his daughter Bessy's. Time and care and (as some people said) his second wife, had changed him. Oliver Rane thought he had never seen him look so shrunken, nervous, and timid as to-night.
"What a pity it was that you should have mentioned the letter to him, Mr. North!" began the doctor, speaking at once of what lay uppermost in his thoughts.
"Mentioned the letter to him!—why, it concerned him," was the surprised answer. "But I never gave a thought to its having this effect upon him."
"What was in the letter, sir?" was the doctor's next question, put with considerable gloom, and after a long silence.
"You can read it, Oliver."
Opening the document, he handed it to Dr. Rane. It looked like any ordinary letter. The doctor took it to the lamp.
"Pardon a friend who ventures to give you a caution. Your eldest son is in some sort of embarrassment, and is drawing bills in conjunction with Alexander, the surgeon. Perhaps a word from you would arrest this: it is too frequently the first step of a man's downward career—and the writer would not like to see Edmund North enter on such."
Thus, abruptly and without signature, ended the fatal letter. Dr. Rane slowly folded it, and left it on the table.
"Who could have written it?" he murmured.
"Ah, there it is!" rejoined Mr. North. "Edmund said no one could have done it but Alexander."
Standing over the fire, to which he had turned, Dr. Rane warmed his hands. The intensely hot day had given place to a cold night. His red-brown eyes took a dreamy gaze, as he mentally revolved facts and suppositions. In his private opinion, judging only from the contents of the letter, Mr. Alexander was the last man who would have been likely to write it.
"It is not like Alexander's writing," observed Mr. North.
"Not in the least."
"But of course this is in a thoroughly disguised hand."
"Most anonymous letters are so, I expect. Is it true that he and your son have been drawing bills together?"
"I gather that they have drawn one; perhaps two, Edmund's passion was so fierce that I could not question him. What I don't like is, Alexander's going off in the manner he did, without seeing me: it makes me think that perhaps he did write the letter. An innocent man would have remained to defend himself. It might have been written from a good motive, after all, Oliver! My poor son!—if he had only taken it quietly!"
Mr. North wrung his hands. His tones were feeble, meekly complaining; his manner and bearing were altogether those of a man who has been constantly put down and no longer attempts to struggle against the cares and crosses of the world, or the will of those about him.
"I must be going," said Oliver Rane, arousing himself from a reverie. "I have to see a poor man at Dallory."
"Is it Ketler?"
"Yes, sir. Goodnight. I trust you will have reason to be in better spirits in the morning."
But the doctor could not get off at once. He was waylaid by a servant, who said madam wished to see him. Crossing the hall, the man threw open the doors of the drawing-room, a magnificent apartment. Gilded and gleaming mirrors; light blue satin curtains and furniture; a carpet softer and thicker than moss: and all kinds of bright and resplendent things were there.
"Dr. Rane, madam."
Mrs. North sat on a couch by the fire. In the house she was called Madam—out of the house, too, for that matter. A severely handsome woman, with a cold, pale, imperious face, the glittering jewels in her black hair looking as hard as she did. A cruel face, as some might have deemed it. When Mr. North married her, she was the widow of Major Bohun, and had one son. Underneath the chandelier, reading by its light, sat her daughter, a young lady whose face bore a strong resemblance to hers. This daughter and a son had been born since her second marriage.
"You wished to see me, Mrs. North?"
Dr. Rane so spoke because they took no manner of notice of him. Mrs. North turned then, with her dark, inscrutable eyes; eyes that Oliver Rane hated, as he hated the cruelty glittering in their depths, He believed her to be a woman unscrupulously selfish. She did not rise; merely motioned him to a seat with a haughty wave of her white arm: and the bracelets shone on it, and her ruby velvet dress gleamed with amazing richness. He sat down with perfect self-possession, every whit as independent as herself.
"You have seen this infamous letter, I presume, Dr. Rane?"
"Who sent it?"
"I cannot tell you, Mrs. North."
"Have you no idea at all?"
"Certainly not. How should I have?"
"Could you detect no resemblance in the writing to any one's you know?"
He shook his head.
"Not to—for instance—Alexander's?" she resumed, looking at him steadfastly. But Dr. Rane saw with a sure instinct that Alexander's was not the name she had meant to speak.
"I feel sure that Mr. Alexander no more wrote the letter than—than you did, Mrs. North."
"Does it bear any resemblance to Richard North's?" she continued, after a faint pause.
"To Richard North's!" echoed the doctor, the words taking him by surprise. "No."
"Are you familiar with Richard North's handwriting?"
Oliver Rane paused to think, and then replied with a passing laugh. "I really believe I do not know his handwriting, madam."
"Then why did you speak so confidently?"
"I spoke in the impulse of the moment. Richard North, of all men, is the lest likely to do such a thing as this."
The young lady, Matilda North, turned round from her book. An opera cloak of scarlet gauze was on her shoulders, as if she were cold; she drew it closer with an impatient hand.
"Mamma, why do you harp upon Richard? He couldn't do it; papa told you so. If Dick saw need to find fault with any one, or tell tales, he would do it openly."
One angry gleam from madam's eyes as her daughter settled to her book again, and then she proceeded to close the interview.
"As you profess yourself unable to give me information or to detect any clue, I will not detain you longer, Dr. Rane."
He stood for a second, expecting, perhaps, that she might offer her hand. She did nothing of the sort, only bowed coldly. Matilda North took no notice of him whatever: she was content to follow her mother's teachings when they did not clash with her own inclination. Dr. Rane had ceased to marvel why he was held in disfavour by Mrs. North: to try to guess at it seemed a hopeless task. Neither could he imagine why she opposed his marriage with Bessy; for to Bessy and her interests she was utterly indifferent.
As he left the drawing-room, Bessy North joined him, and they went together to the hall-door. No servant had been rung for—it was one of Mrs. North's ways of showing contempt—and they stood together outside, speaking softly. Again the tears shone in Bessy's eyes: her heart was a very tender one, and she had loved her brother dearly.
"Oliver, is there any hope?"
"Do not distress yourself, Bessy. I cannot tell you one way or the other."
"How can I help distressing myself?" she rejoined, her hand resting quietly in both his. "It is all very well for you to be calm; a medical man meets these sad things every day. You cannot be expected to care."
"Can I not?" he answered; and there was a touch of passionate emotion in the usually calm tones. "If any effort or sacrifice of mine would bring back his health and life, I would freely make it. Goodnight, Bessy."
As he stooped to kiss her, quick, firm footsteps were heard approaching, and Bessy went indoors. He who came up was a rather tall and very active man, with a plain, but nevertheless an attractive face. Plain in its irregular features; attractive from its open candour and strong good sense, from the earnest, truthful look in the deep-set hazel eyes. People were given to saying that Richard North was the best man of business for miles round. It was so: and he was certainly, in mind, manners, and person, a gentleman.
"Is it you, Rane? What is all this trouble? I have been away for a few hours, unfortunately. Mark Dawson met me just now with the news that my brother was dying."
The voice would have been pleasing to a degree if only from its tone of ready decision: but it was also musical as voices seldom are, clear and full of sincerity. From the voice alone, Richard North might have been trusted to his life's end. Dr. Rane gave a short summary of the illness and the state he was lying in.
"Dawson spoke of a letter that had excited him," said Richard.
"True; a letter to Mr. North."
"A dastardly anonymous letter. Just so."
"An anonymous letter," repeated the doctor. "But the effect on your brother seems altogether disproportioned to the cause."
"Where is the letter? I cannot look upon Edmund until I have seen the letter."
Dr. Rane told him where the letter was, and went out. Richard North passed on to the parlour. Mr. North, sitting by the fire, had his face bent in his hands.
"Father, what is all this?"
"Oh, Dick, I am glad you have come!" and in the tone there sounded an intense relief, as if he who came brought with him strength and hope. "I can't make top or tail of this; and I think he is dying."
"Who is with him?—Arthur?"
"No; Arthur has been out all day. The doctors are with him still."
"Let me see the letter."
Mr. North gave it him, reciting at the same time the chief incidents of the calamity in a rambling sort of manner. Richard North read the letter twice: once hastily, to gather in the sense; then attentively, giving to every word full consideration. His father watched him.
"It was not so much the letter itself that excited him, Richard, as the notion that Alexander wrote it."
"Alexander did not write this," decisively spoke Richard.
"You think not?"
"Why, of course he did not. It tells against himself as much as against Edmund."
"Edmund said no one knew of the matter except Alexander, and therefore no one else could have written it. Besides, Dick, where is Alexander? Why is he staying away?"
"We shall hear soon, I daresay. I have faith in Alexander. Keep this letter jealously, father. It may have been right to give you the information it contains; I say nothing at present about that; but an anonymous writer is generally a scoundrel, deserving no quarter."
"And none shall he get from me," spoke Mr. North, emphatically. "It was posted at Whitborough, you see, Dick."
"I see," shortly answered Richard. He threw his coat back as if he were too hot; and moved to the door on his way to his brother's chamber.
Meanwhile Oliver Rane went down the avenue to the entrance-gates, and took the road to Dallory. He had to see a patient there: a poor man who was lying in danger. He threw his coat back, in spite of the chilling fog, and wiped his brow, as if the weather or his reflections were too hot for him.
"What a fool! What a fool!" murmured he, half aloud, apostrophizing, doubtless, the writer of the anonymous letter. Or, it might be, the unfortunate young man who had allowed it to excite within him so fatal an amount of passion.
The road was smooth and broad: a fine highway, well kept. For a short distance there were no houses, but they soon began. Dallory was a bustling village, both poor and rich inhabiting it. The North Works, as they were familiarly called, from the fact of Mr. North's being their chief proprietor, lay a little further on, and Dallory Church still beyond. It was a straggling parish at best.
Amidst the first good houses that Dr. Rane came to was one superior to the rest. A large, square, handsome dwelling, with a pillared portico close to the village pathway, and a garden behind it.
"I wonder how Mother Gass is to-night?" thought the doctor, arresting his steps. "I may as well ask."
His knock was answered by the lady herself, whom he had so unceremoniously styled "Mother Gass." A stout, comfortable-looking dame, richly dressed, with a face as red as it was good-natured, and a curiously-fine lace cap, standing on end with yellow ribbon. Mrs. Gass possessed neither birth nor breeding; she had made an advantageous match, as you will hear further on: she owned many good qualities, and was popularly supposed to be rich enough to buy up the whole of Dallory Ham. Her late husband had been uncle to Oliver Rane, but neither she nor Oliver presumed upon the relationship in their intercourse with each other. In fact they had never met until two years ago.
"I knew your knock, Dr. Rane, and came to the door myself. Step into the parlour. I want to speak to you."
The doctor did not want to go in by any means, and felt caught. He said he had no time to stay; had merely called, in passing, to ask how she was.
"Well, I'm better this evening: the swimming in the head is less. You just come in, now. I won't keep you two minutes. Shut the door, girl, after Dr. Rane."
This was to a smart housemaid, who had followed her mistress down the wide, handsome passage. Dr. Rane perforce stepped in, very unwillingly. He felt instinctively convinced that Mrs. Gass had heard of the calamity at the Hall and wished to question him. To avoid this he would have gone a mile any other way.
"I want to get at the truth about Edmund North, doctor. One of the maids from the Hall called in just now and said he had been frightened into a fit through some letter; and that you were fetched to him."
"Well, that is true," said the doctor, accepting the situation.
"My patience!" ejaculated Mrs. Gass. "What was writ in the letter? She said it was one of them enonymous things."
"So it was."
"Was it writ to himself?"
"No. To Mr. North."
"Well, now,"—dropping her voice—"was it about that young woman he got acquainted with? You know."
"No, no; nothing of that sort." And Dr. Rane, as the shortest way of ending the matter, gave her the details.
"There was not much in the letter," he said, in confidential tones. "No harm would have come of it but for Edmund North's frightful access of passion. If he dies, mind,"—the doctor added this in a dreamy tone, gazing out as if looking into the future—"if he dies, it will not be the letter that has killed him, but his own want of self-control."
"Don't talk of dying, doctor. It is to be hoped it won't come to that."
"It is, indeed."
"And Mr. Richard was not at home, the girl said!"
"Neither he nor Captain Bohun. Richard has just come in now."
Mrs. Gass would fain have kept him longer, but he told her the sick man Ketler was waiting for him. This man was one of the North workmen, who had been terribly injured in the arm; Dr. Rane hoped to save both arm and life.
"That receipt for the rhubarb jam Mrs. Cumberland promised: is it ever coming?" asked Mrs. Gass as Dr. Rane was quitting the room.
Turning back, he put his hat on the table and took out his pocketbook. Mrs. Cumberland had sent it at last. He selected the paper from amongst several others and handed it to her.
"I forgot to leave it when I was here this morning, Mrs. Gass. My mother gave it me yesterday."
Between them they dropped the receipt. Both stooped for it, and their heads came together. There was a slight laugh; in the midst of which the pocketbook fell on the carpet. Some papers fluttered out of it, which the doctor picked up and replaced.
"Have you got them all, doctor? How is the young lady's cold?"
"What young lady's?" he questioned.
"I did not know she had one."
"Ah, them lovely girls with their bright faces never show their ailments; and she is lovely, if ever one was lovely in this terrestial world. Goodnight to you, doctor; you're in a mortal hurry."
He strode to the street-door and it closed sharply after him. Mrs. Gass looked out of her parlour and saw the same smart maid hastening along the passage: a little too late.
"Drat it, wench! is that the way you let gentlefolk show themselves out?—scuttering to the door when they've got clean away from it. D'you call that manners?"
The day promised to be as warm as the preceding one. The night and morning mists were gone; the sun shone hot and bright. Summer seemed to have come in before its time.
Two white gothic villas stood side by side just within the neck of Dallory Ham, a few yards of garden and some clustering shrubs between them. They were built alike. The side windows, facing each other over this strip of ground, were large projecting bay-windows, and belonged to the dining-rooms. These houses were originally erected for two maiden sisters. A large and beautiful garden lay at the back, surrounding the two villas, only a slender wire fence, that a child might have stepped over, dividing it. Entering the Ham from the direction of Dallory, these houses stood on the left; in the first of them lived Mrs. Cumberland, the mother of Oliver Rane. She had been married twice: hence the difference in name. The second house was occupied by Dr. Rane himself. They lay back with a strip of grass before them, the entrance-doors being level with the ground.
Let us go into the doctor's: turning the handle of the door without ceremony, as Dr. Rane's more familiar patients are wont to do. The hall is small, narrowing off at the upper end to a passage, and lighted with stained glass. On the left of the entrance is the consulting-room, not much larger than a closet; beyond it is the dining-room, a spacious apartment, with its bay-window, already spoken of, looking to the other house. Opposite the dining-room across the passage is the white-flagged kitchen; and the drawing-room lies in front, on the right of the entrance. Not being furnished it is chiefly kept shut up. A back-door opens to the garden.
Oliver Rane sat in his consulting-room; the Whitborough Journal, damp from the press, in his hand. It was just twelve o'clock and he had to go out, but the newspaper was attracting him. By seven o'clock that morning he had been at the Hall, and learnt that there was no material change in the patient lying there: he had then gone on, early though it was, to see the man, Ketler. The journal gave the details of Mr. North's seizure with tolerable accuracy, and concluded its account in these words: "We have reason to know that a clue has been obtained to the anonymous writer."
"A clue to the writer!" repeated Dr. Rane, his eyes appearing glued to the words. "I wonder if it's true?—No, no; it is not likely," came the quiet, contemptuous decision. "How should any clue——"
He stopped suddenly; rose from the chair, and stood erect and motionless, as if some thought had struck him. A fine man; almost as good-looking at a casual glance as another who was stepping in upon him. The front-door had opened, and this one was lightly tapped at. Dr. Rane paused before he answered it, and a fierce look of inquiry, as if he did not care to be interrupted, shot from his eyes.
A tall, slender, and very handsome man, younger than Dr. Rane, opened the door slowly. There was a peculiar refinement in his proud fair features; a dreamy look in his dark blue eyes. An attractive face at all times and seasons, whose owner it was impossible to mistake for anything but an upright, well-bred gentleman. It was Arthur Bohun; Captain Bohun, as he was very generally called. He was the only son of Mrs. North by her former marriage with Major Bohun, and of course stepson to Mr. North.
"Any admittance, doctor?"
"Always admittance to you," answered the doctor, who could be affable or not, as suited his mood. "Why don't you come in?"
He came in with his pleasant smile; a smile that hid the natural pride of the face. Oliver Rane put down the newspaper.
"Well, is there any change in Edmund North?"
"The very slightest in the world, the doctors think; and for the better," replied Captain Bohun. "Dick told me. I have not been in myself since early morning. I cannot bear to look on extreme suffering."
A ghost of a smile flitted across Dr. Rane's features at the avowal. He could understand a woman disliking to look on suffering, but not a man. And the one before him had been a soldier!
Captain Bohun sat down on an uncomfortable wooden stool as he spoke, gently throwing back his light summer overcoat. He imparted the idea of never being put out over any earthly thing. The movement displayed his cool white waistcoat, across which fell a dainty gold chain with its transparent sapphire seal of rare and costly beauty.
"You have begun summer early!" remarked the doctor, glancing at Captain Bohun's attire.
The clothes were of a delicate shade of grey; looking remarkably cool and nice in conjunction with the white waistcoat. Captain Bohun was always well dressed; it seemed a part of himself. To wear the rude and rough attire that some men affect nowadays, would have been against his instincts.
"Don't sit on that stool of penitence; take the patient's chair," said the doctor, pointing to an elbow-chair opposite the window.
"But I am not a patient."
"No. Or you'd be at the opposition shop over the way."
Arthur Bohun laughed. "It was of the opposition shop I came to speak to you—if I came for anything in particular, Where's Alexander? Is he keeping out of the way; or has he really gone to London as people say?"
"I know nothing about him," returned Dr. Rane. "Look here—I was reading the account they give in the newspaper. Is this last hint true?"—holding out the journal—"that a clue has been obtained to the writer of the letter?"
Arthur Bohun ran his eyes over the sentence to which the doctor's finger pointed.
"No, this has no foundation," he promptly answered. "At least so far as the Hall is concerned. As yet we have not found any clue whatever."
"I thought so. These newsmongers put forth lies by the bushel. Just as we might do, if we had to cater for an insatiably curious public. But I fear I must be going out."
Arthur Bohun brought down the fore-legs of the stool, which he had kept on the tilt, rose, and said a word of apology for having detained him from his patients. His was essentially a courteous nature, sensitively regardful of other people's feelings, as men of great innate refinement are sure to be.
They went into the dining-room, Dr. Rane having left his hat there, and passed out together by the large bay-window. The doctor crossed at once to a door in the wall that bound the premises at the back, and made his exit to the lane beyond, leaving Arthur Bohun in the garden.
A garden that on a summer's day seemed as a very paradise. With its clustering shrubs, its overhanging trees, its leafy glades, its shrubberies, its miniature rocks, its sweet repose, its sweeter flowers. Seated in a remote part of that which belonged to Mrs. Cumberland, was one of the loveliest girls that eye had ever looked upon. She wore a morning dress of light-coloured muslin, with an edging of lace at the neck and wrists. Slight, gentle, charming, with a peculiar look of grace and refinement, a stranger would have been almost startled at her beauty. It was a delightful face; the features clearly cut; the complexion soft, pure, and delicate, paling and flushing with every emotion. In the dark brown eyes there was a singularly sweet expression; the dark brown hair took a lustrously bright tinge in the sunlight.
A natural arbour of trees and branches had been formed overhead: she sat on a garden bench, behind a rustic table. Before her, at a short distance, a falling cascade trickled down the artificial rocks, and thence wound away, a tiny stream, amidst ferns, violets, primroses, and other wild plants. A plot of green grass, smooth and soft as the moss of the rocks, lay immediately at her feet, and glimpses of statelier flowers were caught through the trees. Their rich perfume came wafted in a sudden breeze to the girl's senses, and she looked up gratefully from her work; some small matter of silken embroidery.
And now you could see the singular refinement and delicacy of the face, the pleasant expression of the soft bright eyes. A bird lodged itself on a branch close by, and began a song. Her lips parted with a smile of greeting. By way of rewarding it, off he flew, dipped his beak into the running stream, and soared away out of her sight. As is the case sometimes in life.
On the table lay a handful of violets, picked short off at the blossoms. Almost unconsciously, as it seemed, her thoughts far away, she began toying with them, and fell insensibly into the French schoolgirls' play, telling off the flowers. "M'aime-t-il?" was the first momentous question; and then the pastime, a blossom being told off with every answer. "Oui. Non. Un peu. Beaucoup. Pas du tout. Passionnément." And so the round went on, until the last violet was reached. It came, as chance had it, with the last word, and she, in an access of rapture, her soft cheeks glowing, her sweet lips parting, caught up the flower and pressed it to her lips.
"Il m'aime passionnément!"
Ah, foolish girl! The oracle seemed as true as if it had come direct from heaven. But can we not remember the ecstasy such necromancy once brought to ourselves!
With her blushes deepening as she woke, startling, into reality; with a smile at her own folly; with a sense of maidenly shame for indulging in the pastime, she pushed the violets together, threaded a needleful of green floss silk, and went on soberly with her work. A few minutes, and then either eye or ear was attracted by something ever so far off, and she sat quite still. Quite still outwardly; but oh! The sudden emotion that rose like a lightning flash within! And she knew the footsteps. Every vein was tingling; every pulse throbbing; the pink on her cheeks deepened; the life blood of her heart rushed wildly on, and she pressed her hand upon her bosom to still it.
He was passing on from Dr. Rane's to the other house, when he caught a glimpse of her dress through the trees, and turned aside. Nothing could have been quieter or more undemonstrative than the meeting; and yet a shrewd observer, skilled in secrets, had not failed to read the truth—that both alike loved. Captain Bohun went up, calm as befitted a well-bred man: shaking hands after the fashion of society, and apparently with as little interest: but on his face the flush also shone with all its tell-tale vividness; the hand that touched hers thrilled almost to pain. She had risen to receive him: as calm outwardly as he, but her senses were in wild confusion.
She began to go on with her work again in a hurried, trembling sort of fashion when he sat down. The day, for her, had turned to Eden; all things seemed to discourse sweet music.
True love—passionate, pure love—is not fluent of speech, whatever the world may say, or poets teach. Dr. Rane and Miss North thought they loved each other: and so they did, after a sensible, sober manner: they could have conversed with mutual fluency for ever and a day; but their love was not this love. It is the custom of modern writers to ignore it: the prevailing fashion is to be matter-of-fact; realistic; people don't talk of love now, and of course don't feel it: the capacity for it has died out; habits have changed. It is false sophistry. We cannot put off human nature as we do a garment.
Captain Bohun was the first to break the silence. She had been content to live in it by his side for ever: it was more eloquent, too, than his words were.
"What a lovely day it is, Ellen!"
"Yes. I think summer has come: we shall scarcely have it warmer than this in July. And oh, how charming everything is!"
"Yes. Yesterday I had a ride of ten miles between green hedges in which the May is beginning to blossom. Envious darkness had shut out the world before I reached home again."
"And I sat out here all the afternoon," she answered—and perhaps she unconsciously spoke in pursuance of the thought, that she had sat out waiting and hoping for him. "Where did you go, Arthur?"
"To Bretchley. Some of my old brother officers are quartered there: and I spent the day with them. What's that for?"
He alluded to the piece of work. She smiled as she held it out in her right hand, on the third finger of which was a plain gold ring. A small piece of white canvas with a pink rose and part of a green leaf already worked upon it in bright floss silk.
"Nay, how can I? For a doll's cushion?"
"Oh, Arthur!" came the laughing exclamation. "If I tell you, you must keep counsel, mind that, for it is a secret, and I am working it under difficulties, out of Mrs. Cumberland's sight. Don't you think I have done a great deal? I only began it yesterday."
"Well, what's it for?" he asked, putting his hand underneath it as an excuse, perhaps, for touching the fingers that held it. "A fire-screen for pretty faces?"
The young lady shook her head. "It's for a kettle-holder."
"A kettle-holder! What a prosy ending!"
"It is for Mrs. Cumberland's invalid kettle that she keeps in her bedroom. The handle got hot a day or two ago, and she burnt her hand. I shall put it on some morning to surprise her."
A silence ensued. Half their intercourse was made up of pauses: the eloquent language of true love. Captain Bohun, thinking how sweet-natured was the girl by his side, played abstractedly with the blossoms lying on the table.
"What have you been doing with all these violets, Ellen?"
"Nothing," she replied; and down went the scissors. But that she stooped at once, Captain Bohun might have seen the sudden flush on the delicate face, and wondered at it: a flush of remembrance. Il m'aime passionnément. Well, so he did.
"Please don't entangle my silk, Captain Bohun."
He laughed as he put down the bright gold skein. "Shall I help you to wind it, Ellen?"
"Thank you, but we don't wind floss silk. It would deaden its beauty. Arthur! Do you know that the swallows have come?"
"The swallows! Then this summer weather will stay with us, for those birds have a sure instinct. It is early for them to be here."
"I saw one this morning. It may be only an avant-courier, come to report on the weather to the rest."
She laughed lightly at her own words, and there ensued another pause. Captain Bohun broke it.
"What a shocking thing this is about Edmund North!"
"What is a shocking thing?" she asked, with indifference, going on with her work as she spoke. Arthur Bohun, who was busy again with the pale blue violets, scarcely as blue as his own eyes, lifted his face and looked at her.
"I mean altogether. The illness; the letter; the grief at home. It is all shocking."
"Is Edmund North ill? I did not know it."
Living in the very atmosphere of the illness, amidst its bustle, distress, and attendant facts, to Arthur Bohun it seemed almost impossible that she should be ignorant of it.
"Why, what has Rane been about, not to tell you?"
"I don't know. What is the matter with Edmund North?"
Captain Bohun explained the illness and its cause. Her work dropped on her knee as she listened; her face grew pale with interest. She never once interrupted him; every sympathetic feeling within her was aroused to warm indignation.
"An anonymous letter!" she at length exclaimed. "That's worse than a stab."
"A fellow, writing one of malice, puts himself beyond the pale of decent society: shooting would be too good for him," quietly remarked Captain Bohun. "Here comes a summons for you, I expect, Ellen."
Even so. One of the maids approached, saying Mrs. Cumberland was downstairs; and so the interview was broken up. Captain Bohun would perforce have taken his departure, but Miss Adair invited him in—to tell the sad story to Mrs. Cumberland. Only too glad was he of any plea that kept him by Ellen's side.
Putting her work away in her pocket, she took the arm that was held out, and they went wandering through the garden; lingering by the cascade, dreaming in the dark cypress walk, standing over the beds of beautiful flowers. A seductive time; life's summer; but a time that never stays, for the frosts of winter and reality succeed it surely and swiftly.
Nothing had been said between them, but each was conscious of what the other felt. Neither had whispered in so many words, "I love you." Ellen did not hint that she had watched for him the whole of the past livelong day with love's sick longing; he did not confess how lost the day had been to him, how worse than weary, because it did not bring him to her presence. These avowals might come in time, but they would not be needed.
Stepping in through the centre doors of the bay window, as Arthur Bohun had made his exit from the opposite one, they looked round for Mrs. Cumberland, and did not see her. She was in the drawing-room on the other side the small hall, sitting near the Gothic windows that faced the road. A pale, reticent, lady-like woman, always suffering, but making more of her sufferings than she need have done—as her son, Dr. Rane, not over-dutifully thought. Her eyes were light and cold; her flaxen hair, banded smoothly under a cap, was turning grey. But that Mrs. Cumberland was quite occupied with self, and very little with her ward, Ellen Adair, she might have noticed before now the suggestive intimacy between that young lady and Arthur Bohun.
"Captain Bohun is here, Mrs. Cumberland," said Ellen, when they entered. "He has some sad news to tell you."
"And the extraordinary part of the business is that you should not have heard it before," added Arthur, as he shook hands with Mrs. Cumberland.
Mrs. Cumberland's rich black silk gown rustled a very little as she responded to the greeting; but there was no smile on her grey face, her cold eyes wore no brighter light. In her way she was glad to see him: that is, she had no objection to seeing him; but gladness and Mrs. Cumberland seemed to have parted company. The suffering that arises from constant pain makes a self-absorbed nature doubly selfish.
"What is the news that Ellen speaks of, Captain Bohun?"
He stood leaning against the mantelpiece as he told the tale: told it systematically; the first advent of the anonymous letter to Mr. North; the angry, passionate spirit in which Edmund North had taken it up; his stormy interview with the surgeon, Alexander; the subsequent attack, and the hopelessness in which he was lying. For once Mrs. Cumberland was aroused to feeling sympathy in another's sufferings: she listened with painful interest.
"And it was Oliver who was called in first to Edmund North!" she presently exclaimed, with emphasis, as if unable to credit the fact.
"But how was it he did not step in here afterwards to tell me the news?" she added, resentfully.
Captain Bohun could not answer that so readily. Ellen Adair, ever ready to find a charitable excuse for the world, turned to Mrs. Cumberland.
"Dr. Rane may have had patients to see. Perhaps he did not return home until too late to come here."
"Yes, he did; I saw his lamp burning before ten o'clock," was Mrs. Cumberland's answer. "Ah! This is another proof that I am being forgotten," she went on, bitterly. "When a woman has seen fifty years of life, she is old in the sight of her children, and they go then their own way in the world, leaving her to coldness and neglect."
"But, dear Mrs. Cumberland, Dr. Rane does not neglect you," said Ellen, struck with the injustice of the complaint. "He is ever the first to come in and amuse you with what news he has."
"And in this instance he may have kept silence from a good motive—the wish to spare you pain," added Captain Bohun.
"True, true," murmured Mrs. Cumberland, her mind taking a more reasonable view of the matter. "Oliver has always been dutiful to me."
Departing, Captain Bohun crossed the road to Mr. Alexander's; a slight limp visible in his gait. The mystery that appeared to surround the surgeon's movements at present, puzzled him not a little; his prolonged absence seemed unaccountable. The surgery, through which he entered, was empty, and he opened the door leading from it to the house. A maid-servant met him.
"Is Mr. Alexander at home?"
"Papa's gone to London," called out a young gentleman of ten, who came running along the passage, cracking a whip. "He went last night. They sent for him."
"Who sent for him?" asked Captain Bohun.
"The people. Mamma's gone too. They are coming home to-day; and mamma's going to bring me a Chinese puzzle and a box of chocolate if she had time to buy them."
Not much information, this. As Captain Bohun turned out again, he stood at the door, wishing he had a decent plea to take him over to Mrs. Cumberland's again. He was an idle man; living only in the sweet pastime of making that silent love.
But Mrs. North never suspected that he was making it, or knew that he was intimate at Mrs. Cumberland's. Still less did she suspect that Mrs. Cumberland had a young lady inmate named Ellen Adair. It would have startled her to terror.
Early on the following morning the death-bell ringing out from the church at Dallory proclaimed to those who heard it that Edmund North had passed to his rest. He had never recovered consciousness, and died some thirty-six hours after the attack.
Amongst those who did not hear it was Oliver Rane. The doctor had been called out at daybreak to a country patient in an opposite direction, returning between eight and nine o'clock.
He sat at breakfast in the dining-room, unconscious of the morning's calamity. The table stood in front of the large bay-window.
"She has done it too much—stupid thing!" exclaimed Dr. Rane, cutting a slice of ham in two and apostrophizing his unconscious servant. "Yesterday it was hardly warmed through. Just like them!—make a complaint, and they rush to the other extreme. I wonder how things are going on there this morning?"
He glanced up towards the distant quarter where the Hall was situated, for his query had reference to Edmund North; and this gave him the opportunity of seeing something else: a woman stepping out of Mrs. Cumberland's dining-room. She was getting on for forty, tall as a may-pole, with inquisitive green eyes, sallow cheeks, remarkably thin, as if she had lost her teeth, and a bunch of black ringlets on either side of her face. She wore the white apron and cap of a servant, but looked one of a superior class. Emerging from the opposite window, she stepped across the wire fence and approached Dr. Rane.
"What does Jelly want now?" he mentally asked.
A curious name, no doubt, but it was hers. Fanny Jelly. When Mrs. Cumberland had engaged her as upper maid, she decided to call her by the latter name, Fanny being her own.
Jelly entered without ceremony—she was not given to observing much at the best of times. She had come to say that he need not provide anything for dinner; her mistress meant to send him in a fowl—if he would accept it.
"With pleasure, tell her," said Dr. Rane. "How is my mother this morning, Jelly?"
"She has had a good night, and is pretty tolerable," replied Jelly, giving a backward fling to her flying cap-strings. "The foreign letters have come in; two for her, one for Miss Adair."
Dr. Rane, not particularly interested in the said foreign letters, went on with his breakfast. Jelly, with characteristic composure, stood at ease just inside the window watching the process.
"That ham is dried up to fiddle-strings," she suddenly said.
"Yes. Phillis has done it too much."
"And I should like to have the doing of her!" spoke Jelly in wrathful tones. "It is a sin to spoil good food."
"So it is," said Dr. Rane.
"So that poor young man's gone!" she resumed, as he cracked an egg.
The doctor lifted his head quickly. "What young man?"
"Edmund North. He died at half-past seven this morning."
"Who says so?" cried Dr. Rane, a startled look crossing his face.
"The milkman told me: he heard the passing-bell toll out. You needn't be surprised, sir: there has been no hope from the first."
"But there has been hope," disputed the doctor. "There was hope yesterday at midday, there was hope last night. I don't believe he is dead."
"Well, sir, then you must disbelieve it," equably answered Jelly; but she glanced keenly at him from her green eyes. "Edmund North is as certainly dead as that I stand here."
He seemed strangely moved at the tidings: a quiver stirred his lips, the colour in his face faded to whiteness. Jelly, having looked as much as she chose, turned to depart.
"Then we may send in the fowl, sir?"
He watched her dreamily as she crossed the low fence and disappeared within her proper domains; he pushed the neglected ham from him, he turned sick at the lightly done egg, of which the shell had just been broken. What, though he preferred eggs lightly done in calm times? calm times were not these. The news did indeed trouble him in no measured degree: it was so sad for a man in the prime of early life to be cut off thus. Edmund North was only a year or two older than himself: two days ago he had been as full of health and life, deep in the plans and projects of this world, thinking little of the next. Sad? It was horrible. And Dr. Rane's breakfast was spoiled for that day.
He got up to walk the room restlessly: he looked at himself in the glass; possibly to see how the news might have affected his features; in all he did there was a hurried, confused sort of motion, betraying that the mind must be in a state of perturbation. By-and-by he snatched up his hat, and went forth, taking the direction of the Hall.
"I ought to call. It will look well for me to call. It is a civility I owe them," he kept repeating at intervals, as he strode along. Just as though he thought in his inmost heart he ought not to call, and were seeking arguments to excuse himself from doing so.