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Johnny Ludlow.Fourth SeriesByMrs. Henry Wood
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Mrs. Henry Wood
CHANDLER AND CHANDLER.
VERENA FONTAINE’S REBELLION.
A CURIOUS EXPERIENCE.
KETIRA THE GIPSY.
THE CURATE OF ST. MATTHEW’S.
MRS. CRAMP’S TENANT
“God sent his Singers upon earth
With songs of sadness and of mirth,
That they might touch the hearts of men,
And bring them back to heaven again.”
“Look here, Johnny Ludlow,” said Darbyshire to me—Darbyshire being, as you may chance to remember, our doctor at Timberdale—“you seem good at telling of unaccountable disappearances: why don’t you tell of that disappearance which took place here?”
I had chanced to look in upon him one evening when he was taking rest in his chimney-corner, in the old red-cushioned chair, after his day’s work was over, smoking his churchwarden pipe in his slippers and reading the story of “Dorothy Grape.”
“We should like to see that disappearance on paper,” went on Darbyshire. “It is the most curious thing that has happened in my experience.”
True enough it was. Too curious for any sort of daylight to be seen through it; as you will acknowledge when you hear its details; and far more complicated than the other story.
The lawyer at Timberdale, John Delorane, was a warm-hearted and warm-tempered man of Irish extraction. He had an extensive practice, and lived in an old-fashioned, handsome red-brick house in the heart of Timberdale, with his only daughter and his sister, Hester.
You may have seen prettier girls than Ellin Delorane, but never one that the heart so quickly went out to. She was too much like her dead mother; had the same look of fragile delicacy, the same sweet face with its pensive sadness, the soft brown eyes and the lovely complexion. Mrs. Delorane had diedof decline: people would say to one another, in confidence, they hoped Ellin might escape it.
The largest and best farm in the neighbourhood of Timberdale, larger than even that of the Ashtons, was called the Dower Farm. It belonged to Sir Robert Tenby, and had been occupied for many years by one Roger Brook, a genial, pleasant gentleman of large private means apart from his success in farming. Rich though he was, he did not disdain to see practically after his work himself; was up with the lark and out with his men, as a good farmer ought to be. Out-of-doors he was the keen, active, thorough farmer; indoors he lived as a gentleman. He had four children: three boys and one girl, who were all well and comprehensively educated.
But he intended his sons to work as he had worked: no idleness for him; no leading of indolent and self-indulgent lives. “Choose what calling you please,” he said to them; “but stick to it when chosen, and do your very best in it.” The eldest son, Charles, had no fancy for farming, no particular head for any of the learned professions; he preferred commerce. An uncle, Matthew Brook, was the head of a mercantile house in New York; he offered a post in it to Charles, who went out to him. The second son, Reginald, chose the medical profession; after qualifying for it, he became assistant to a doctor in London to gain experience. William, the third son, went to Oxford. He thought of the Church, but being conscientious, would not decide upon it hastily.
“So that not one of you will be with me,” remarked Mr. Brook. “Well, be it so. I only want you to lead good and useful lives, striving to do your duty to God and to man.”
But one of those overwhelming misfortunes, that I’m sure may be compared with the falling of an avalanche, fell on Mr. Brook. In an evil hour he had become a shareholder in a stupendous undertaking which had banking for its staple basis; and the thing failed. People talked of “swindling.” Its managers ran away; its books and money were nowhere; its shareholders were ruined. Some of the shareholders ran away too; Roger Brook, upright and honourable, remained to face the ruin. And utter ruin it was, for the company was one of unlimited liability.
The shock was too much for him: he died under it. Every shilling he possessed was gone; harpies (it is what Timberdalecalled them) came down upon his furniture and effects, and swept them away. In less time almost than it takes to tell of, not a vestige remained of what had been, save in memory: Sir Robert Tenby had another tenant at the Dower Farm, and Mrs. Brook had moved into a little cottage-villa not a stone’s throw from Darbyshire’s. She had about two hundred a-year of her own, which no adverse law could touch. Her daughter, Minnie, remained with her. You will hardly believe it, but they had named her by the romantic name of Araminta.
William Brook had come down from Oxford just before, his mind made up not to be a clergyman, but to remain on the farm with his father. When the misfortunes fell, he was, of course, thrown out; and what to turn his hand to he did not at once know. Brought up to neither profession nor trade, no, nor to farming, it was just a dilemma. At present, he stayed with his mother.
One day he presented himself to Mr. Delorane. “Can you give me some copying to do, sir?” he asked: “either at your office here, or at home. I write a good clear hand.”
“What do you mean to do, Master William?” returned the lawyer, passing over the question. The two families had always been intimate and much together.
“I don’t know what; I am waiting to see,” said William. He was a slender young fellow of middle height, with gentle manners, a very nice, refined face, and a pair of honest, cheery, dark-blue eyes.
“Waiting for something to turn up, like our old friend Micawber!” said the lawyer.
“If I could earn only a pound a-week while I am looking out, I should not feel myself so much of a burden on my mother—though she will not hear me say a word about that,” the young man went on. “You would not take me on as clerk and give me that sum, would you, Mr. Delorane?”
Well, they talked further; and the upshot was, that Mr. Delorane did take him on. William Brook went into the office as a clerk, and was paid a pound a-week.
The parish wondered a little, making sundry comments over this at its tea-tables: for the good old custom of going out to real tea was not out of fashion yet in Timberdale. Every one agreed that William Brook was to be commended for putting his shoulder to the wheel, but that it was a grave descent for onebrought up to his expectations. Mr. St. George objected to it on another score.
Years before, there had arrived in England from the West Indies a little gentleman, named Alfred St. George. His father, a planter, had recently died, and the boy’s relatives had sent him home to be educated, together with plenty of money for that purpose. Later, when of an age to leave school, he was articled to Mr. Delorane, and proved an apt, keen pupil. Next he went into the office of a renowned legal firm in London, became a qualified lawyer and conveyancer, and finally accepted an offer made him by Mr. Delorane, to return to Timberdale, as his chief and managing clerk. Mr. Delorane paid him a handsome salary, and held out to him, as report ran, hopes of a future partnership.
Alfred St. George had grown up a fine man; tall, strong, lithe and active. People thought his face handsome, but it had unmistakably a touch of the tar-brush. The features were large and well formed, the lips full, and the purple-black hair might have been woolly but for being drilled into order with oils. His complexion was a pale olive, his black eyes were round, showing a great deal of the whites, and at times they wore a very peculiar expression. Take him for all in all, he was a handsome man, with a fluent tongue and persuasive eloquence.
It was Mr. St. George who spoke against William Brook’s being taken on as clerk. Not that his objection applied to the young man himself, but to his probable capacity for work. “He will be of no use to us, sir,” was the substance of his remonstrance to Mr. Delorane. “He has had no experience: and one can hardly snub Brook as one would a common clerk.”
“Don’t suppose he will be of much use,” carelessly acquiesced Mr. Delorane, who was neither a stingy nor a covetous man. “What could I do but take him on when he asked me to? I like the young fellow; always did; and his poor father was my very good friend. You must make the best of him, St. George: dare say he won’t stay long with us.” At which St. George laughed good-naturedly and shrugged his shoulders.
But William Brook did prove to be of use. He got on so well, was so punctual, so attentive, so intelligent, that fault could not be found with him; and at the end of the first year Mr. Delorane voluntarily doubled his pay—raising it to two pounds per week.
Timberdale wondered again: and began to ask how it was that young Brook, highly educated, and reared to expect some position in the world, could content himself with stopping on, a lawyer’s clerk? Did he mean to continue in the office for ever? Had he ceased to look out for that desirable something that was to turn up? Was he parting with all laudable ambition?
William Brook could have told them, had he dared, that it was not lack of ambition chaining him to his post, but stress of love. He and Ellin Delorane had entered a long while past into the mazes of that charming dream, than which, as Tom Moore tells us, there’s nothing half so sweet in life, and the world was to them as the Garden of Eden.
It was close upon the end of the second year before Mr. Delorane found it out. He went into a storm of rage and reproaches—chiefly showered upon William Brook, partly upon Ellin, a little upon himself.
“I have been an old fool,” he spluttered to his confidential clerk. “Because the young people had been intimate in the days when the Brooks were prosperous, I must needs let it go on still, and never suspect danger! Why, the fellow has had his tea here twice a-week upon an average!—and brought Ellin home at night when she has been at his mother’s!—and I—I—thought no more than if it had been her brother! I could thrash myself! And where have her aunt Hester’s eyes been, I should like to know!”
“Very dishonourable of Brook,” assented St. George, knitting his brow. “Perhaps less harm is done than you fear, sir. They are both young, can hardly know their own minds; they will grow out of it. Shall you part them?”
“Do you suppose I shouldn’t?” retorted the lawyer.
William Brook was discharged from the office: Ellin received orders to give up his acquaintanceship; she was not to think of him in private or speak to him in public. Thus a little time went on. Ellin’s bright face began to fade; Aunt Hester looked sick and sorry; the lawyer had never felt so uncomfortable in his life.
Do what he would, he could not get out of his liking for William Brook, and Ellin was dear to him as the apple of his eye. He had been in love himself once, and knew what it meant; little as you would believe it of a stout old red-faced lawyer; knew that both must be miserable. So much the better for Brook—but what of Ellin?
“One would think it was you who had had your lover sent to the right-about!” he wrathfully began to Aunt Hester, one morning when he came upon her in tears as she sat at her sewing. “I’d hide my face if I were you, unless I could show a better.”
“It is that I am so sorry for Ellin, John,” replied Aunt Hester, meekly wiping her tears. “I—I am afraid that some people bear sorrow worse than others.”
“Now what do you mean by that?”
“Oh, not much,” sighed Aunt Hester, not daring to allude to the dread lying latent in her own mind—that Ellin might fade away like her mother. “I can see what a sharp blow it has been to the child, John, and so—and so I can but feel it myself.”
“Sharp blow! Deuce take it all! What business had young Brook to get talking to her about such rubbish as love?”
“Yes indeed, it is very unfortunate,” said Aunt Hester. “But I do not think he has talked to her, John; I imagine he is too honourable to have said a single word. They have just gone on loving one another in secret and in silence, content to live in the unspoken happiness that has flooded their two hearts.”
“Unspoken fiddlestick? What a simpleton you are, Hester!”
Mr. Delorane turned off in a temper. He knew it must have been a “sharp blow” to Ellin, but he did not like to hear it so stated to his face. Banging the door behind him, he was crossing the hall to the office—which made a sort of wing to the house—when he met William Brook.
“Will you allow me to speak to you, sir?” asked the young man in a tone of deprecation. And, though the lawyer had the greatest mind in the world to tell himNOand send him head-foremost out again, he thought of Ellin, he thought of his dead friend, Roger Brook; so he gave a growl, and led the way into the dining-room.
In his modest winning way, William Brook spoke a little of the trouble that had come upon their family—how deeply sorry he was that Ellin and he should have learnt to care for one another for all time, as it was displeasing to Mr. Delorane—
“Hang it, man,” interrupted the lawyer irascibly, too impatient to listen further—“what on earth do you propose to yourself? Suppose I did not look upon it with displeasure?—are you in a position to marry her?”
“You would not have objected to me had we been as we once were—prosperous, and——”
“What the dickens has that to do with it!” roared the lawyer. “Our business lies with the present, not the past.”
“I came here to tell you, sir, that I am to leave for New York to-night. My brother Charles has been writing to me about it for some time past. He says I cannot fail to get on well in my uncle’s house, and attain to a good position. Uncle Matthew has no sons: he will do his best to advance his nephews. What I wish to ask you, sir, is this—if, when my means shall be good and my position assured, you will allow me to think of Ellin?”
“The man’s mad?” broke forth Mr. Delorane, more put about than he had been at all. “Do you suppose I should let my only child go to live in a country over the seas?”
“No, sir, I have thought of that. Charles thinks, if I show an aptitude for business, they may make me their agent over here. Oh, Mr. Delorane, be kind, be merciful: for Ellin’s sake and for mine! Do not send me away without hope!”
“Don’t you think you possess a ready-made stock of impudence, William Brook?”
The young man threw his earnest, dark-blue eyes into the lawyer’s. “I feared you would deem so, sir. But I am pleading for what is dearer to me and to her than life: our lives will be of little value to us if we must spend them apart. Only just one ray of possible hope, Mr. Delorane! It is all I ask.”
“Look here; we’ll drop this,” cried the lawyer, his hands in his pockets, rattling away violently at the silver in them, his habit when put out, but nevertheless calming down in temper, for in spite of prejudice he did like the young man greatly, and he was not easy as to Ellin. “The best thing you can do is to go where you are going—over the Atlantic: and we’ll leave the future to take care of itself. The money you think to make may turn out all moonshine, you know. There; that’s every word I’ll say and every hope I’ll give, though you stop all day bothering me, William Brook.”
And perhaps it was as much as William Brook had expected: any way, it did not absolutely forbid him to hope. He held out his hand timidly.
“Will you not shake hands with me, sir—I start to-night—and wish me God speed.”
“I’ll wish you better sense; and—and I hope you’ll get over safely,” retorted Mr. Delorane: but he did not withhold his hand. “No correspondence with Ellin, you understand, young man; no underhand love-making.”
“Yes, sir, I understand; and you may rely upon me.”
He quitted the room as he spoke, to make his way out as he came—through the office. The lawyer stood in the passage and looked after him: and a thought, that had forced itself into his mind several times since this trouble set in, crossed it again. Should he make the best of a bad bargain: give Brook a chief place in his own office and let them set up in some pleasant little home near at hand? Ellin had her mother’s money: and she would have a great deal more at his own death; quite enough to allow her husband to live the idle life of a gentleman—and William was a gentleman, and the nicest young fellow he knew. Should he? For a full minute Mr. Delorane stood deliberating—yes, or no; then he took a hasty step forward to call the young man back. Then, wavering and uncertain, he stepped back again, and let the idea pass.
“Well, how have you sped?” asked Mr. St. George, as William Brook reappeared in the office. “Any hope?”
“Yes, I think so,” answered William. “At least, it is not absolutely forbidden. There’s a line in a poem my mother would repeat to us when we were boys—‘God and an honest heart will bear us through the roughest day.’ I trust He, and it, will so bear me and Ellin.”
“Wish I had your chance, old fellow!”
“My chance!” repeated William.
“To go out to see the world; to go out to the countries where gold and diamonds are picked up for the stooping—instead of being chained, as I am, between four confined walls, condemned to spend my life over musty parchments.”
William smiled. “I don’t know where you can pick up gold and diamonds for the stooping. Not where I am going.”
“No, not in New York. You should make your way to the Australian gold-fields, Brook, or to the rich Californian mines, or to the diamond mountains in Africa, and come back—as you would in no time—with a sack of money on your shoulders, large enough to satisfy even Delorane.”
“Or lose my health, if not my life, in digging, and come home without a shirt to my back; a more common result thanthe other, I fancy,” remarked William. “Well, good-bye, old friend.”
St. George, towering aloft in his height and strength, put his arm around William’s shoulder and walked thus with him to the street-entrance. There they shook hands, and parted. Ellin Delorane, her face shaded behind the drawing-room curtain from the October sun, watched the parting.
There was to be no set farewell allowed to her. She understood that. But she gathered from Aunt Hester, during the day, that her father had not been altogether obdurate, and that if William could get on in the future, perhaps things might be suffered to come right. It brought to her a strange comfort. So very slight a ray, no bigger than one of the specks that fall from the sky, as children say, will serve to impart a most unreasonable amount of hope to the troubled heart.
Towards the close of the afternoon, Ellin went in her restlessness to pay a visit to her friend Grace at the Rectory, who had recently become Herbert Tanerton’s wife, and sat talking with her till it was pretty late. The moon, rising over the tops of the trees, caused her to start up with an exclamation.
“What will Aunt Hester say?”
“If you don’t mind going through the churchyard, Ellin,” said Grace, “you would cut off that corner, and save a little time.” So Ellin took that route.
They had met face to face under the church walls. He explained that he was sparing a few minutes to say farewell to his friends at the Rectory. The moon, coming out from behind a swiftly passing cloud, for it was rather a rough night, shone down upon them and upon the graves around them. Wildly enough beat the heart of each.
“You saw papa to-day,” she whispered unevenly, as though her breath were short.
“Yes, I saw him. I cannot say that he gave me hope, Ellin, but he certainly did not wholly deny it. I think—I believe—that—if I can succeed in getting on, all may be well with us yet.”
William Brook spoke with hesitation. He felt trammelled; he could not in honour say what he would have wished to say. This meeting might be unorthodox, but it was purely accidental; neither he nor Ellin had sought it.
“Good-bye, my darling,” he said with emotion, clasping her hands in his. “As we have met, there cannot be much wrong in our saying it. I may not write to you, Ellin; I may not even ask you to think of me; I may not, I suppose, tell you in so many words that I shall think of you; but, believe this: I go out with one sole aim and end in view—that of striving to make a position sufficiently fair to satisfy your father.”
The tears were coursing down her cheeks; she could hardly speak for agitation. Their hearts were aching to pain.
“I will be true to you always, William,” she whispered. “I will wait for you, though it be to the end of life.”
To be in love with a charming young lady, and to have her all to yourself in a solitary graveyard under the light of the moon, presents an irresistible temptation for taking a kiss, especially if the kiss is to be a farewell kiss for days and for years. William Brook did not resist it; very likely did not try to. In spite of Mr. Delorane and every one else, he took his farewell kiss from Ellin’s lips.
Then they parted, he going one way, she the other. Only those of us—there are not many—who have gone through this parting agony can know how it wrings the heart.
But sundry superstitious gossips, hearing of this afterwards, assured Ellin that it must be unlucky to say farewell amidst graves.
The time went on. William Brook wrote regularly to his people, and Minty whispered the news to Ellin Delorane. He would send kind remembrances to friends, love to those who cared for it. He did not dislike the work of a mercantile life, and thought he should do well—in time.
In time. There was the rub, you see. We say “in time” when we mean next Christmas, and we also say it when we mean next century. By the end of the first year William Brook was commanding a handsome salary; but the riches that might enable him to aspire to the hand of Miss Delorane loomed obscurely in the distance yet. Ellin seemed strong and well, gay and cheerful, went about Timberdale, and laughed and talked with the world, just as though she had never had a lover, or was not waiting for somebody over the water. Mr. Delorane thought she must have forgotten that scapegrace, and he hoped it was so.
It was about this time, the end of the first year, that a piece of good luck fell to Mr. St. George. He came into a fortune. Some relative in the West Indies died and left it to him. Timberdale put it down at a thousand pounds a-year, so I suppose it might be about five hundred. It was thought he might be for giving up his post at Mr. Delorane’s to be a gentleman at large. But he did nothing of the kind. He quitted his lodgings over Salmon’s shop, and went into a pretty house near Timberdale Court, with a groom and old Betty Huntsman as housekeeper, and set up a handsome gig and a grey horse. And that was all the change.
As the second year went on, Ellin Delorane began to droop a little. Aunt Hester did not like it. One of the kindest friends Ellin had was Alfred St. George. After the departure of young Brook, he had been so tender with Ellin, so considerate, so indulgent to her sorrow, and so regretful (like herself) of William’s absence, that he had won her regard. “It will be all right when he comes back, Ellin,” he would whisper: “only be patient.”
But in this, the second year, Mr. St. George’s tone changed. It may be that he saw no hope of any happy return, and deemed that, for her own sake, he ought to repress any hope left in her.
“There’s no more chance of his returning with a fortune than there is of my going up to the moon,” he said to Tod confidentially one day when we met him striding along near the Ravine.
“Don’t suppose there is—in this short time,” responded Tod.
“I’m afraid Ellin sees it, too: she seems to be losing her spirits. Ah, Brook should have done as I advised him—gone a little farther and dug in the gold-fields. He might have come back a Crœsus then. As it is—whew! I wouldn’t give a copper sixpence for his chance.”
“Do you know what I heard say, St. George?—that you’d like to go in for the little lady yourself.”
The white eye-balls surrounding St. George’s dark orbs took a tinge of yellow as they rolled on Tod. “Who said it?” he asked quietly.
“Darbyshire. He says you are in love with her as much as ever Brook was.”
St. George laughed. “Old Darbyshire? Well, perhaps he is not far wrong. Any way, love’s free, I believe. Were I herfather, Brook should prove his eligibility to propose for her, or else give her up. Good-day, Todhetley; good-day, Johnny.”
St. George went off at a quick pace. Tod, looking after him, made his comments. “Should not wonder but he wins her. He is the better man of the two—”
“The better man!” I interrupted.
“As to means, at any rate: and see what a fine upright free-limbed fellow he is! And where will you find one more agreeable?”
“In tongue, nowhere; I admit that. But I wouldn’t give up William Brook for him, were I Ellin Delorane.”
That St. George was in love with her grew as easy to be seen as is the round moon in harvest. Small blame to him. Who could be in the daily companionship of a sweet girl like Ellin Delorane, and not learn to love her, I should like to know? Tod told St. George he wished he had his chance.
At last St. George spoke to her. It was in April, eighteen months after Brook’s departure. Ellin was in the garden at sunset, busy with the budding flowers, when St. George came to join her, as he sometimes did, on leaving the office for the day. Aunt Hester sat sewing at the open glass-doors of the window.
“I have been gardening till I am tired,” was Ellin’s greeting to him, as she sat down on a bench near the sweetbriar bush.
“You look pale,” said Mr. St. George. “You often do look pale now, Ellin: do you think you can be quite well?”
“Pray don’t let Aunt Hester overhear you,” returned Ellin in covert, jesting tones. “She begins to have fancies, she says, that I am not as well as I ought to be, and threatens to call in Mr. Darbyshire.”
“You need some one to take care of you; some one near and dear to you, who would study your every look and action, who would not suffer the winds of heaven to blow upon your face too roughly,” went on St. George, plunging into Shakespeare. “Oh, Ellin, if you would suffer me to be that one——”
Her face turned crimson; her lips parted with emotion; she rose up to interrupt him in a sort of terror.
“Pray do not continue, Mr. St. George. If—if I understand you rightly, that you—that you——”
“That I would be your loving husband, Ellin; that I wouldshelter you from all ill until death us do part. Yes, it is nothing less than that.”
“Then you must please never to speak of such a thing again; never to think of it. Oh, do not let me find that I have been mistaking you all this time,” she added in uncontrollable agitation: “that while I have ever welcomed you as my friend—and his—you have been swayed by another motive!”
He did not like the agitation; he did not like the words; and he bit his lips, striving for calmness.
“This is very hard, Ellin.”
“Let us understand each other once for all,” she said—“and oh, I am so sorry that there’s need to say it. What you have hinted at is impossible. Impossible: please not to mistake me. You have been my very kind friend, and I value you; and, if you will, we can go on still on the same pleasant terms, caring for one another in friendship. There can be nothing more.”
“Tell me one thing,” he said: “we had better, as you intimate, understand each other fully. Can it be that your hopes are still fixed upon William Brook?”
“Yes,” she answered in a low tone, as she turned her face away. “I hope he will come home yet, and that—that matters may be smoothed for us with papa. Whilst that hope remains it is simply treason to talk to me as you would have done,” she concluded with a spurt of anger.
“Ellin,” called out Aunt Hester, putting her head out beyond the glass-doors, “the sun has set; you had better come in.”
“One moment, Ellin,” cried Mr. St. George, preventing her: “will you forgive me?”
“Forgive and forget, too,” smiled Ellin, her brow smoothing itself. “But you must never recur to the subject again.”
So Mr. St. George went home, his accounts settled—as Tod would have said: and the days glided on.
“What is it that ails Ellin?”
It was a piping-hot morning in July, in one of the good old hot summers that we seem never to get now; and Aunt Hester sat in her parlour, its glass-doors open, adding up the last week’s bills of the butcher and the baker, when she was interrupted by this question from her brother. He had come stalking upon her, rattling as usual, though quite unconsciously, the silver inhis trousers pockets. The trousers were of nankeen: elderly gentlemen wore them in those days for coolness.
“What ails her!” repeated Aunt Hester, dropping the bills in alarm. “Why do you ask me, John?”
“Now, don’t you think you should have been a Quaker?” retorted Mr. Delorane. “I put a simple question to you, and you reply to it by asking me another. Please to answer mine first. What is it that is the matter with Ellin?”
Aunt Hester sighed. Of too timid a nature to put forth her own opinion upon any subject gratuitously in her brother’s house, she hardly liked to give it even when asked for. For the past few weeks Ellin had been almost palpably fading; was silent and dispirited, losing her bright colour, growing thinner; might be heard catching her breath in one of those sobbing sighs that betoken all too surely some secret, ever-present sorrow. Aunt Hester had observed this; she now supposed it had at length penetrated to the observation of her brother.
“Can’t you speak?” he demanded.
“I don’t know what to say, John. Ellin does not seem well, and looks languid: of course this broiling weather is against us all. But——”
“But what?” cried the lawyer, as she paused. “As to broiling weather, that’s nothing new in July.”
“Well, John—only you take me up so—and I’m sure I shouldn’t like to anger you. I was about to add that I think it is not so much illness of body with Ellin as illness of mind. If one’s mind is ransacked with perpetual worry——”
“Racked with perpetual worry,” interrupted Mr. Delorane, unconsciously correcting her mistake. “What has she to worry her?”
“Dear me! I suppose it is about William Brook. He has been gone nearly two years, John, and seems to be no nearer coming home with a fortune than he was when he left. I take it that this troubles the child: she is losing hope.”
Mr. Delorane, standing before the open window, his back to his sister, turned the silver coins about in his pockets more vehemently than before. “You say she is not ailing in body?”
“Not yet. She is never very strong, you know.”
“Then there’s no need to be uneasy.”
“Well, John—not yet, perhaps. But should this state of despair, if I don’t use too strong a word, continue, it will tell in tune upon her health, and might bring on—bring on——”
“Bring on what?” sharply asked the lawyer.
“I was thinking of her mother,” said poor Aunt Hester, with as much deprecation as though he had been the Great Mogul: “but I trust, John, you won’t be too angry with me for saying it.”
Mr. Delorane did not say whether he was angry or not. He stood there, fingering his sixpences and shillings, gazing apparently at the grass-plat, in reality seeing nothing. He was recalling a past vision: that of his delicate wife, dying of consumption before her time; he seemed to see a future vision: that of his daughter, dying as she had died.
“When it comes to dreams,” timidly went on Aunt Hester, “I can’t say I like it. Not that I am one to put faith in the foolish signs old wives talk of—that if you dream of seeing a snake, you’ve got an enemy; or, if you seem to be in the midst of a lot of beautiful white flowers, it’s a token of somebody’s death. I am not so silly as that, John. But for some time past Ellin has dreamt perpetually of one theme—that of being in trouble about William Brook. Night after night she seems to be searching for him: he is lost, and she cannot tell how or where.”
Had Aunt Hester suddenly begun to hold forth in the unknown tongue, it could not have brought greater surprise to Mr. Delorane. He turned short round to stare at her.
“Seeing what a wan and weary face the child has come down with of late, I taxed her with not sleeping well,” continued Aunt Hester, “and she confessed to me that she was feeling a good bit troubled by her dreams. She generally has them towards morning, and the theme is always the same. The dreams vary, but the subject is alike in all—William Brook is lost, and she is searching for him.”
“Nonsense! Rubbish!” put in Mr. Delorane.
“Well, John, I dare say it is nonsense,” conceded Aunt Hester meekly: “but I confess I don’t like dreams that come to you persistently night after night and always upon one and the same subject. Why should they come?—that’s what I ask myself. Be sure, though, I make light of the matter to Ellin, and tell her her digestion is out of order. Over and over again, she says, they seem to have the clue to his hiding place, but they never succeed in finding him. And—and I am afraid, John, that the child, through this, has taken up the notion that she shall never see him again.”
Mr. Delorane, making some impatient remark about the absurdity of women in general, turned round and stood looking into the garden as before. Ellin’s mind was getting unhinged with the long separation, she had begun to regard it as hopeless, and hence these dreams that Brook was “lost,” he told himself, and with reason: and what was he to do?
How long he stood thus in perfect silence, no sound to be heard but the everlasting jingling of the loose silver, Aunt Hester did not know; pretty near an hour she thought. She wished he would go; she felt very uncomfortable, as she always did feel when she vexed him—and here were the bills waiting to be added up. At length he turned sharply, with the air of one who has come to some decision, and returned to the office.
“I suppose I shall have to do it myself,” he remarked to Mr. St. George.
“Do what, sir?”
“Send for that young fellow back, and let them set up in some little homestead near me. I mean Brook.”
“Brook!” stammered St. George.
“Here’s Ellin beginning to fade and wither. It’s all very well for her aunt to talk about the heat!Iknow. She is pining after him, and I can’t see her do it; so he must come home.”
Of all the queer shades that can be displayed by the human countenance, about the queerest appeared in that of Mr. St. George. It was not purple, it was not green, it was not yellow; it was a mixture of all three. He gazed at his chief and master as one gazes at a madman.
“Brook can come into the office again,” continued Mr. Delorane. “I don’t like young men to be idle; leads ’em into temptation. We’ll make him head clerk here, next to you, and give him a couple of hundred a-year. If—what’s the matter?”
For the strange look on his manager’s face had caught the eye of Mr. Delorane. St. George drew three or four deep breaths.
“Have you thought of Miss Delorane, sir—of her interests—in planning this?” he presently asked.
“Why, that’s what I do think of; nothing else. You may be sure I shouldn’t think of it for the interest of Brook. All the same, I like the young man, and always shall. The child is moping herself into a bad way. Where shall I be if she should go into a decline like her mother? No, no; she shall marry and have proper interests around her.”
“She could do that without being sacrificed to Brook,” returned St. George in a low tone. “There are others, sir, of good and suitable position, who would be thankful to take her—whose pride it would be to cherish her and render every moment of her life happy.”
“Oh, I know that; you are one of ’em,” returned Mr. Delorane carelessly. “It’s what all you young sparks are ready to say of a pretty girl, especially if she be rich as well. But don’t you see, St. George, that Ellin does not care for any of you. Her heart is fixed upon Brook, and Brook it must be.”
Of course this news came out to Timberdale. Some people blamed Mr. Delorane, others praised him. Delorane must be turning childish in his old age, said one; Delorane is doing a good and a wise thing, cried another. Opinions vary in this world, you know, and ever will, as proved to us in the fable of the old man and his ass.
But now—and it was a strange thing to happen the very next day Mr. Delorane received a letter from William Brook, eight closely written pages. Briefly, this was its substance. The uncle, Matthew Brook of New York, was about to establish a house in London, in correspondence with his own; he had offered the managership of it to William, with a small share of profits, guaranteeing that the latter should not be less than seven hundred a-year.
“And if you can only be induced to think this enough for us to begin upon, sir, and will give me Ellin,” wrote the young man, “I can but say that I will strive to prove my gratitude in loving care for her; and I trust you will not object to her living in London. I leave New York next month, to be in England in September, landing at Liverpool, and I shall make my way at once to Timberdale, hoping you will allow me to plead my cause in person.”
“No no, Master William, you won’t carry my daughter off to London,” commented Mr. Delorane aloud, when he had read the letter—not but that it gratified him. “You must give up your post, young man, and settle down by me here, if you are to have Ellin. I don’t see, St. George, why Brook should not make himself into a lawyer, legal and proper,” added he thoughtfully. “He is young enough—and he does not dislike the work. You and he might be associated together after I am dead: ‘Brook and St. George.’”
Mr. St. George’s face turned crusty: he did not like to hear his name put next to Brook’s. “I never feel too sure of my own future,” he said in reply. “Now that I am at my ease in the world, tempting visions come often enough across me of travelling out to see it.”
Mr. Delorane wrote a short, pithy note in answer to the appeal of William Brook, telling him he might come and talk to him as soon as he returned. “The young fellow may have left New York before it can reach him,” remarked the lawyer, as he put the letter in the post; “but if so, it does not much matter.”
So there was Timberdale, all cock-a-hoop at the prospect of seeing William Brook again, and the wedding that was to follow. Sam Mullet, the clerk, was for setting the bells to ring beforehand.
Some people think September the pleasantest month in the year, when the heats of summer have passed and the frosts of winter have not come. Never a finer September than we had that autumn at Timberdale; the skies looked bright, the leaves of the trees were putting on their tints of many colours, and the land was not yet quite shorn of its golden grain.
All the world was looking out for William Brook. He did not come. Disappointment is the lot of man. Of woman also. When the third week was dragging itself along in expectancy, a letter came to Mrs. Brook from William. It was to say that his return home was somewhat delayed, as he should have to take Jamaica en route, to transact some business at Kingston for his uncle. He should then proceed direct from Kingston by steamer to Liverpool, which place he hoped to reach before the middle of October. “Tell all my friends this, that they may not wonder at my delay,” the letter concluded; but it contained no intimation that he had received the answer written by Mr. Delorane.
A short postscript was yet added, in these words: “Alfred St. George has, I know, some relatives living in, or near Kingston—planters, I believe. Tell him I shall call upon them, if I can make time, to see whether they have any commands for him.”
Long before the middle of October, Ellin Delorane became obviously restless. A sort of uneasy impatience seemed to have taken possession of her: and without cause. One day, when we called at Mr. Delorane’s to take a message from home, Ellinwas in the garden with her outdoor things on, waiting to go out with her aunt.
“What a ridiculous goose you are!” began Tod. “I hear you have taken up the notion that Sweet William has gone down in the Caribbean Sea.”
“I’m sure I have not,” said Ellin. “Aunt Hester must have told you that fable when she was at Crabb Cot yesterday.”
“Just so. She and the mater laid their gossiping caps together for the best part of an hour—and all about the foolishness of Miss Ellin Delorane.”
“Why, you know, Ellin,” I put in, “it is hardly the middle of October yet.”
“I tell myself that it is not,” she answered gravely. “But, somehow, Johnny, I don’t—don’t—expect—him.”
“Now, what on earth do you mean?”
“I wish I knew what. All I can tell you is, that when his mother received that letter from William last month, saying his return was delayed, a sort of foreboding seized hold of me, an apprehension that he would never come. I try to shake it off, but I cannot. Each day, as the days come round, only serves to make it stronger.”
“Don’t you think a short visit to Droitwich would do you good, Ellin?” cried Tod, which was our Worcestershire fashion of recommending people to the lunatic asylum.
“Just listen to him, Johnny!” she exclaimed, with a laugh.
“Yes, ‘just listen to him’—and just listen to yourself, Miss Ellin, and see which talks the most sense,” he retorted. “Have you got over those dreams yet?”
Ellin turned her face to him quickly. “Who told you anything about that, Aunt Hester?”
Tod nodded. “It’s true, you know.”
“Yes, it is true,” she slowly said. “I have had those strange dreams for some weeks now; I have them still.”
“That William Brook is lost?”
“That he is lost, and that we are persistently searching for him. Sometimes we are seeking for him in Timberdale, sometimes at Worcester—in America, in France, in places that I have no knowledge of. There always seems to be a sadness connected with it—a sort of latent conviction that he will never be found.”
“The dreams beget the dreams,” said Tod, “and I should have thought you had better sense. They will soon vanish, onceSweet William makes his appearance: and mind, Miss Ellin, that you invite me to the wedding.”
Ellin sighed—and smiled. And just then Aunt Hester appeared attired in her crimson silk shawl with the fancy border, and the primrose feather in her Leghorn bonnet.
A day or two went on, bringing no news of the traveller. On the nineteenth of October—I shall never forget the date—Mr. and Mrs. Todhetley and ourselves set off in the large open phaeton for a place called Pigeon Green, to spend the day with some friends living there. On this same morning, as it chanced, a very wintry one, Mr. St. George started for Worcester in his gig, accompanied by Ellin Delorane. But of this we knew nothing. He had business in the town; she was going to spend a few days with Mary West, formerly Mary Coney.
Ellin was well wrapped up, and Mr. St. George, ever solicitous for her comfort, kept the warm fur rug well about her during the journey: the skies looked grey and threatening, the wind was high and bitterly cold. Worcester reached, he drove straight through the town, left Ellin at Mrs. West’s door, in the Foregate Street, and then drove back to the Hare and Hounds Inn to put up his horse and gig.
I shall always say, always think, it was a curious thing we chanced to go that day, of all days, to Pigeon Green. It is not chance that brings about these strange coincidences.
“There’s a divinity that shapes our ends,
Rough-hew them how we will.”
Pigeon Green, a small colony of a dozen houses, formed a triangle, as may be said, with Timberdale and Evesham, being a few miles distant from each. Old Mr. and Mrs. Beele, life-long friends of the Squire, lived here. Their nephew had brought his newly-married wife from London to show her to them, and we were all invited to dinner. As the Squire did not care to be out in the dark, his sight not being what it used to be, the dinner-hour was fixed for two o’clock. We started in the large open phaeton, the Squire driving his favourite horses, Bob and Blister. It was the nineteenth of October. Mrs. Todhetley complained of the cold as we went along. The lovely weatherof September had left us; early winter seemed to be setting in with a vengeance. The easterly wind was unusually high, and the skies were leaden.
On this same wintry morning Mr. St. George left Timberdale in his gig for Worcester, accompanied by Ellin Delorane. St. George had business to transact with Philip West, a lawyer, who was Mr. Delorane’s agent in Worcester. Philip West lived in the Foregate Street, his offices being in the same house. Ellin was very intimate with his wife, formerly Mary Coney, and was invited to spend a few days with her. It was Aunt Hester who had urged the acceptance of this invitation: seeing that Ellin was nervous at the non-arrival of her lover, William Brook, was peeping into the newspapers for accounts of shipwrecks and other calamities at sea. So they set off after breakfast, Ellin well wrapped up, in this stylish gig of Mr. St. George’s. There are gigs and gigs, you know, and I assure you some gigs were yet fashionable vehicles in those days.
It was bitterly cold. St. George, remarking that they should have snow as soon as the high wind would let it come down, urged his handsome grey horse to a fleet pace, and they soon reached Worcester. He drove straight to Foregate Street, which lay at the other end of the town, set down Ellin, and then went back again to leave his horse and gig at the Hare and Hounds in College Street, the inn at which he generally put up, retracing his steps on foot to Mr. West’s.
And now I must return to ourselves.
After a jolly dinner at two o’clock with the Beeles, and a jolly dessert after it, including plenty of fresh filberts and walnuts, and upon that a good cup of tea and some buttered toast, we began to think about getting home. When the phaeton came round, the Squire remarked that it was half-an-hour later than he had meant to start; upon which, old Beele laid the fault of its looking late to the ungenial weather of the evening.
We drove off. Dusk was approaching; the leaden skies looked dark and sullen, the wind, unpleasantly high all day, had increased to nearly a hurricane. It roared round our heads, it whistled wildly through the trees and hedges, it shook the very ears of Bob and Blister; the few flakes of snow or sleet beginning then to fall were whirled about in the air like demons. It was an awful evening, no mistake about that; and a very unusual one for the middle of October.
The Squire faced the storm as well as he could, his coat-collar turned up, his cloth cap, kept for emergencies in a pocket of the carriage, tied down well on his ears. Mrs. Todhetley tied a knitted grey shawl right over her bonnet. We, in the back seat, had much ado to keep our hats on: I sat right behind the Squire, Tod behind Mrs. Todhetley. It was about the worst drive I remember. The wild wind, keen as a knife, stung our faces, and seemed at times as if it would whirl us, carriage and horses and all, in the air, as it was whirling the sleet and snow.
Tod stood up to speak to his father. “Shall I drive, sir?” he asked. “Perhaps you would be more sheltered if you sat here behind.”
Tod’s driving in those days was regarded by the Squire with remarkable disparagement, and Tod received only a sharp answer—which could not be heard for the wind.
We got along somehow in the teeth of the storm. The route lay chiefly through by-ways, solitary and unfrequented, not in the good, open turnpike-roads. For about a mile, midway between Pigeon Green and Timberdale, was an ultra dreary spot; dreary in itself and dreary in its associations. It was called Dip Lane, possibly because the ground dipped there so much that it lay in a hollow; overgrown dark elm-trees grew thickly on each side of it, their branches nearly meeting overhead. In the brightest summer’s day the place was gloomy, so you may guess how it looked now.
But the downward dip and the dark elm-trees did not constitute all the dreariness of Dip Lane. Many years before, a murder had been committed there. The Squire used to tell us of the commotion it caused, all the gentlemen for miles and miles round bestirring themselves to search out the murderers. He himself was a little fellow of five or six years old, and could just remember what a talk it made. A wealthy farmer, belated, riding through the lane from market one dark night, was attacked and pulled from his horse. The assailants beat him to death, rifled his pockets of a large sum, for he had been selling stock, and dragged himthrough the hedge, making a large gap in it. Across the field, near its opposite side, was the round, deep stagnant piece of water known as Dip Pond (popularly supposed to be too deep to have any bottom to it); and it was conjectured that the object of the murderers, in dragging him through the hedge, was to conceal the body beneath the dark and slimywater, and that they must have been disturbed by some one passing in the lane. Any way, the body was found in the morning lying in the field a few yards from the gap in the hedge, pockets turned inside out, and watch and seals gone. The poor frightened horse had made its way home, and stayed whinnying by the stable-door all night.
The men were never found. A labourer, hastening through the lane earlier in the evening, with some medicine from the doctor’s for his sick wife, had noticed two foot-pads, as he described them, standing under a tree. That these were the murderers, then waiting for prey, possibly for this very gentleman they attacked, no one had any doubt; but they were never traced. Whoever they were, they got clear off with their booty, and—the Squire would always add when telling the story to a stranger—with their wicked consciences, which he sincerely hoped tormented them ever afterwards.
But the most singular fact in the affair remains to be told. From that night nothing would grow on the spot in the hedge over which the murdered man was dragged, and on which his blood had fallen. The blood-stains were easily got rid of, but the hedge, though replanted more than once, never grew again; and the gap remained in it still. Report went that the farmer’s ghost haunted it—that, I am sure, you will not be surprised to hear, ghosts being so popular—and might be seen hovering around it on a moonlit night.
And amidst the many small coincidences attending the story (my story) which I am trying to place clearly before you, was this one: that the history of the murder was gone over that day at Mr. Beele’s. Some remark led to the subject as we sat round the dessert-table, and Mrs. Frank Beele, who had never heard of it, inquired what it was. Upon that, the Squire and old Beele recounted it to her, each ransacking his memory to help the other with fullest particulars.
To go on with our homeward journey. Battling along, we at length plunged into Dip Lane—which, to its other recommendations, added that of being inconveniently narrow—and Tod, peering outwards in the gloomy dusk, fancied he saw some vehicle before us. Bringing his keen sight to bear upon it, he stood up to reconnoitre, and made it out to be a gig, going the same way that we were. The wind was not quite so bad in this low spot, and the snow and sleet had ceased for a bit.
“Take care, father,” said Tod: “there’s a gig on ahead.”
“A gig, Joe?”
“Yes, it’s a gig: and going at a strapping pace.”
But the Squire was going at a strapping pace also, and driving two fresh horses, whereas the gig had but one horse. We caught it up in no time. It slackened speed slightly as it drew close to the hedge on that side, to give us room to pass. In a moment we saw it was St. George’s gig, St. George driving.
“Halloa!” called Tod, as we shot by, and his shout was loud enough to frighten the ghost at the gap, which lively spot we were fast approaching, “there’s William Brook! Father, pull up: there’s William Brook!”
Brook was sitting with St. George. His coat was well buttoned up, a white woollen comforter folded round his neck and chin, and a low-crowned, wide-brimmed hat pulled down over his brows. I confess that but for Tom’s shout I should not have recognized him—muffled up in that way.
Anxious to get home, out of the storm, the Squire paid no heed to Tod’s injunction of pulling up. He just turned his head for a moment towards the gig, but drove on at the same speed as before. All we could do was to call out every welcome we could think of to William Brook as we looked back, and to pull off our hats and wave them frantically.
William Brook pulled off his, and waved it to us in return.I saw him do it.He called out something also, no doubt a greeting. At least, I thought he did; but the wind swept by with a gust at the moment, and it might have been St. George’s voice and not his.
“Johnny, lad, it’s better than nuts,” cried Tod to me, all excitement for once, as he fixed his hat on his head again. “How glad I am!—for Nelly’s sake. But what on earth brings the pair of them—he and St. George—in Dip Lane?”
Another minute or so, and we reached the gap in the hedge. I turned my eyes to it and to the pond beyond it in a sort of fascination; I was sure to do so whenever I went by, but that was seldom; and the conversation at the dessert-table had opened the wretched details afresh. Almost immediately afterwards, the gig wheels behind us, which I could hear above the noise of the wind, seemed to me to come to a sudden standstill. “St. George has stopped,” I exclaimed to Tod. “Not a bit of it,” answered he; “we can no longer hear him.” Almost close uponthat, we passed the turning which led out of the lane towards Evesham. Not heeding anything of all this, as indeed why should he, the Squire dashed straight onwards, and in time we gained our homestead, Crabb Cot.
The first thing the Squire did, when we were all gathered round the welcome fire, blazing and crackling with wood and coal, and the stormy blasts beat on the window-panes, but no longer upon us, was to attack us for making that noise in Dip Lane, and for shouting out that it was Brook.
“It was Brook, father,” said Tod. “St. George was driving him.”
“Nonsense, Joe,” reprimanded the Squire. “William Brook has not landed from the high seas yet. And, if he had landed, what should bring him in Dip Lane—or St. George either?”
“It was St. George,” persisted Tod.
“Well, that might have been. It looked like his grey horse. Where was he coming from, I wonder?”
“Mr. St. George went to Worcester this morning, sir,” interposed Thomas, who had come in with some glasses, the Squire having asked for some hot brandy-and-water. “Giles saw his man Japhet this afternoon, and he said his master had gone off in his gig to Worcester for the day.”
“Then he must have picked up Brook at Worcester,” said Tod, in his decisive way.
“May be so,” conceded the Squire, coming round to reason. “But I don’t see what they could be doing in Dip Lane.”
The storm had disappeared the following morning, but the ground was white with a thin coating of snow; and in the afternoon, when we started for Timberdale to call on William Brook, the sky was blue and the sun shining. Climbing up from the Ravine and crossing the field beyond it to the high-road, we met Darbyshire, the surgeon, striding along as fast as his legs would carry him.
“You seem to be in a hurry,” remarked the Squire.
“Just sent for to a sick patient over yonder,” replied Darbyshire, nodding to some cottages in the distance. “Dying, the report is; supposed to have swallowed poison. Dare say it will turn out to be a case of cucumber.”
He was speeding on when Tod asked whether he had seenWilliam Brook yet. Darbyshire turned to face him, looking surprised.
“Seen Brook yet! No; how should I see him? Brook’s not come, is he?”
“He got home last night. St. George drove him from Worcester in his gig,” said Tod, and went on to explain that we had passed them in Dip Lane. Darbyshire was uncommonly pleased. Brook was a favourite of his.
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