THE MAN WITH A SECRET "With anxious dread have I avoided thee, Thou haunting evil of my early days, Yet by some trick of Fate we meet again; I pray thee, sir, let me go far away. And place the roaring seas between us twain, There is but sorrow in our comradeship." It was the high road to the village of Garsworth, wide, deeply rutted, and somewhat grass-grown, with a tall hedge of yellow-blossomed gorse on the one side, and on the other a ragged, broken fence, over which leaned a man absorbed in meditation, his eyes fixed upon the setting sun. The fence, rotten and moss-tufted, ran along the edge of a little hill, the slope of which had been lately reaped, and was now covered with bristly yellow stubble, variegated by bare-looking patches of brownish earth. At the bottom of the hill flowed the narrow river Gar, with its sluggish waters rolling lazily along between the low mud banks, bordered by rows of pollard willows and lush rank grasses which hid the burrows of the water-rats. Beyond, towards the distant hills, stretched the damp, melancholy fen-lands, with their long lines of slimy ditches, still pools of black water, and scattered clumps of stunted trees. Still further away appeared a scanty fringe of forest, above which could be seen the square, grey tower of a church, and over all glared an angry red sky barred with thin lines of heavy clouds, looming intensely black against the accentuating crimson light behind. An evil-looking scene it was, for over the brooding loneliness and desolation of the fen-lands flared the fierce scarlet of the sunset, turning the slender line of the river and the sombre pools of water to the tint of blood, as though they had been smitten with the Egyptian plague. Fergus Hume Fergusson Wright Hume (8 July 1859 – 12 July 1932), known as Fergus Hume, was a prolific English novelist.
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There are those in this world whose egotism is so profound, that they look upon creation as designed for their sole benefit, and take advantage of all opportunities furnished by Fate, to gain unto themselves exceeding riches and honour, although prosperity to one may mean ruin to many.
LONDON: F. V WHITE & CO., 31, SOUTHAMPTON STREET, STRAND.1892.
My Dear Father,
This Book is Affectionately Dedicated
By His Son,
FERGUS Edition 2017 by David De Angelis – all rights reserved
The mocking fiend who near us stands
Entices us to evil deeds;
He binds our souls in sensual bands
The mocking fiend who near us stands;
But some good woman-angel pleads
For mercy at Almighty hands;
With such for guide what mortal heeds
The mocking fiend who near us stands?
Table of Contents
"With anxious dread have I avoided thee, Thou haunting evil of my early days, Yet by some trick of Fate we meet again; I pray thee, sir, let me go far away. And place the roaring seas between us twain, There is but sorrow in our comradeship."
It was the high road to the village of Garsworth, wide, deeply rutted, and somewhat grass-grown, with a tall hedge of yellow-blossomed gorse on the one side, and on the other a ragged, broken fence, over which leaned a man absorbed in meditation, his eyes fixed upon the setting sun.
The fence, rotten and moss-tufted, ran along the edge of a little hill, the slope of which had been lately reaped, and was now covered with bristly yellow stubble, variegated by bare-looking patches of brownish earth.
At the bottom of the hill flowed the narrow river Gar, with its sluggish waters rolling lazily along between the low mud banks, bordered by rows of pollard willows and lush rank grasses which hid the burrows of the water-rats. Beyond, towards the distant hills, stretched the damp, melancholy fen-lands, with their long lines of slimy ditches, still pools of black water, and scattered clumps of stunted trees. Still further away appeared a scanty fringe of forest, above which could be seen the square, grey tower of a church, and over all glared an angry red sky barred with thin lines of heavy clouds, looming intensely black against the accentuating crimson light behind.
An evil-looking scene it was, for over the brooding loneliness and desolation of the fen-lands flared the fierce scarlet of the sunset, turning the slender line of the river and the sombre pools of water to the tint of blood, as though they had been smitten with the Egyptian plague.
A chill wind, heavy with the unwholesome miasma of the fens was blowing over the moist earth, and across the plain floated a vaporous white mist, making the stunted trees look weird and spectral behind its shadowy veil.
The man, leaning over the fence, took a cigarette out of his mouth and shivered slightly.
"Ugh!" he muttered, with an uneasy shudder, "it's like the Valley of the Shadow of Death." Then, replacing the cigarette, he continued contemplating the uncanny-looking landscape to which the term was singularly applicable.
It was a curious face upon which shone the red sunlight, being long and narrow, with lantern jaws and a thin, hawk-like nose. Thread-like black eyebrows in a straight line above piercing dark eyes and a scanty black moustache twisted jauntily at the ends over tightly-closed lips. Curly hair, the colour of ebony, worn longer than usual, and touched at the temples with grey, appeared from under his soft wideawake, around which was twisted a blue handkerchief with white spots. A livid, cadaverous-looking face, with the haggard expression of one who had lived a fast life; nevertheless it appeared full of animation and nervous energy.
He was tall, being much above the average height, with sloping shoulders and a slender, well-knit figure, clad in a rough suit of grey homespun, which he wore with a certain natural grace. His feet were well-shaped and neatly shod in tan-coloured boots, and his hands, long and slender, were those of an artist.
Not strictly handsome, perhaps, but with a certain insolent dash of recklessness about him which suited his Spanish-looking face, and stamped him at once as a Bohemian. A man who cared for no one so long as his personal desires were gratified, a man who would stop at nothing to gratify those desires, in short, a man who had lived forty-five years in the world without making a single friend; which fact speaks for itself. A thorough scamp, ever on the edge of an abyss, yet by some miracle never losing his balance, Basil Beaumont had fascinated many men and women, but they always found his friendship too expensive to maintain; therefore the result was ever the same, they retired, sooner or later, on some pretext or another, leaving him solitary and alone.
Mr. Beaumont was smoking a cigarette--he was always smoking cigarettes--morn, noon, and night those deadly little rolls of paper were between his thin lips, and though doctors warned him of the danger to his nerves, he laughed at their croakings.
"Nerves, my dear sir," he said lightly; "men in my position can't afford to have nerves; they are a luxury for the rich and foolish. Why should I have nerves? I don't drink; I don't run away with other men's wives; I don't fret over the unavoidable--bah! smoking is my one redeeming vice."
He had a number of other vices, however, as many young men found to their cost. True, he himself did not drink, but he led others to do so, nor did he covet his neighbour's wife, yet he was by no means averse to playing the part of Sir Pandarus of Troy, provided it was to his own interest to do so. Moreover, he gambled.
It was in this terrible passion--rarely, if ever conquered--that he found his greatest delight. The green cloth-covered table, the painted hieroglyphics of the cards, the hopes, the fears, the gains, the losses, were all to him but a representation of his daily life on a small scale. He gambled with men as he gambled with cards, meeting varied fortunes in both, and risking his luck as recklessly in the game of Life as in the game of baccarat. He was a scamp, a scoundrel, a blackleg of the deepest dye, bankrupt in pocket and in illusions; yet he always kept within the limits of the law, and, moreover, sinned in an eminently gentlemanly manner, which robbed the sordid, feverish life he was leading of its most repulsive features.
Why this artificial man, who lived only in the glare of the gas-lamps, and, owl-like, shunned the searching light of the day, had come to such an out-of-the-way village as Garsworth was a puzzle, but nevertheless a puzzle easy of solution. His object was two-fold. In the first place, he had left London to escape the demands of persistent creditors, and in the second, being a native of the dull little hamlet, he had returned to visit the scenes of his youth not seen by him for three-and-twenty years.
It was not a sentimental longing--no, Mr. Beaumont and sentiment had long since parted company; but Garsworth was a dead and alive place where no one would think of looking for him, so he could stay there in safety until he saw a chance of arranging his pecuniary affairs and leaving the Arcadia he detested for the London he loved.
An artist by profession, though he had not touched a brush for years, he found it necessary to resume his old employment as a reason for his sojourn in Garsworth, for the honest rustics were somewhat suspicious of Basil Beaumont, his character having been none of the best when he left his native place to seek his fortune. So he lived quietly at the principal inn of the village, dawdled about the fields, sketched picturesque landscapes in a desultory manner, and in the meantime corresponded with a dear brother hawk in Town as to his chances of return to the metropolis.
His cigarette burnt down rapidly as he leaned over the fence thinking of his future, so throwing away the stump, he took out his tobacco-pouch and a little book of rice paper, in order to manufacture another, talking to himself meanwhile as is the fashion of solitary men.
"Two weeks," he said musingly, while he deftly rolled the tobacco in his slender fingers, "two weeks in this blessed place--well, there's one good thing, the rest will do me good, and I'll go back to Town as steady as a rock; the medicine is disagreeable, but the result will be excellent. What bad luck I've had lately--everything seems against me. I'll have to make a big effort to get some cash, or I'll end my days in a workhouse--ugh!" shivering again, "not that--God, how I dread poverty! Never mind," he went on gaily, shrugging his shoulders, "there are plenty of fools in this world, and as everything was created for a special purpose, I presume le bon Dieu made fools to feather clever men's nests."
He laughed softly at this cynicism, then, lighting the cigarette, placed it in his mouth and resumed his soliloquy.
"Forty-five and still living on my wits. Ah, Basil, my friend, you've been an awful fool, and yet, if I had to live my life over again, I don't know that I would act differently. Circumstances have been too strong for me. With a certain income I might have been an honest man, but Fate--pish!--why do I blame that unhappy deity whom men always make a scapegoat for their own shortcomings? It's myself, and none other, I should curse. Well, well, rich or poor, honest man or scoundrel, I'll go with all the rest of my species through the valley of the shadow."
He raised his eyes once more to the melancholy scene before him, when suddenly his quick ear caught the sound of footsteps coming briskly along the road, and he smiled to himself as the invisible pedestrian began to whistle "Garryowen."
"Plenty of spirits," he muttered, flicking the ash off his cigarette, "or perhaps not enough, seeing he has to cheer himself with Irish melodies."
The footsteps came nearer, and shortly afterwards a man paused in the centre of the road as he saw the still figure leaning indolently against the fence. A fair-haired ruddy-faced man, of medium height, arrayed in a walking suit, with a knapsack on his shoulder, and a heavy stick in his hand.
"Hullo!" he cried, tapping his stick on the ground, "how far is it to the village?"
Basil Beaumont started slightly when he heard the voice, then an evil smile crossed his face as he turned lazily round to answer the question.
"About one mile, Nestley," he replied distinctly.
As he spoke the pedestrian gave a cry, and with a muttered oath sprang forward to where the other stood.
"Beaumont!" he whispered, recoiling at the sight of that mocking, Mephistophelean countenance smiling at his emotion.
"At your service," said Beaumont, carelessly putting his hands in his pockets. "And what are you doing in this part of the country, Doctor Duncan Nestley?"
Nestley did not answer, but stared fixedly at the artist as if he were turned into stone, but the other met his gaze steadily and seemed rather amused at the scrutiny.
"You take a long time to recognise an old friend," he observed at length, blowing a thin wreath of smoke.
"Friend," echoed Nestley, with a deep sigh, recovering himself. "Yes, you were my friend, Basil Beaumont."
"Why 'were'?" asked the artist coolly.
"Because it was you who so nearly ruined my life," replied Nestley in a deep voice.
Beaumont smiled in a saturnine manner.
"I," he said in a gibing tone. "My good fellow you do me too much honour. I would never dare to ruin so celebrated an individual as Duncan Nestley, F.R.C.S., and deuce knows what other letters of the alphabet."
The pedestrian turned on him fiercely, and, stepping forward, confronted him with clenched fists. The artist never blenched, but eyed his angry antagonist steadily. So Nestley, with all the wrath dying out of his face, fell back into his former position with a dreary laugh.
"You have the one virtue of a scoundrel, I see," he said bitterly. "Courage."
"Man of one virtue and ten thousand crimes," quoted Beaumont, easily. "Faith, it's something to have even one virtue in this degenerate age. Where are you going?" he added, as Nestley turned away.
"Going?" echoed the doctor, fiercely. "Anywhere, so long as it is away from you."
Beaumont raised his eyebrows in affected surprise, then, shrugging his shoulders, took out his watch.
"It is now between five and six o'clock," he said, putting it back again, "and it will be dark by the time we reach Garsworth, which is the nearest village. I am staying there, but if you choose to go back again in order to avoid the moral leper, I daresay you'll reach Shunton by twelve o'clock."
"I'm not going with you," reiterated Nestley, resolutely, as the artist stepped into the road.
"'Nobody axed you, sir,' she said," retorted Beaumont, with a sneer, sauntering on. "Good-bye; a pleasant journey."
Nestley looked at the sky, out of which the red light was rapidly dying. A few stars glimmered in the pale flush of colour, and the chill breeze was growing colder while the mists lay over the fen lands like a thick white veil. He was cold and hungry, so the prospect of getting something to eat and a night's rest instead of trudging back wearily to Shunton, decided him. He shook himself impatiently, made a few steps forward, then paused irresolutely.
"Bah! Why should I mind?" he said angrily to himself. "Beaumont can do me no harm now. After five years I hardly see how his influence can affect me. I'll chance it, anyhow."
Away in the distance he could see the tall form of the artist strolling easily along, so, having paused a moment to light his pipe, he strode rapidly after him. Even as he did so there flashed across his mind, with the rapidity of lightning, the phrase, "Lead us not into temptation," and a shiver, not caused by the chill wind, passed over his body, but he dismissed the warning with an uneasy laugh and walked on quickly in the track of his evil genius.
"Much sorrow didst thou bring to me of old, Tainted my life by poisonous words and deeds, Turned holy thoughts to evil--made me dread To face the fearless looks of honest men, Lest they should spy my quick learnt devilries, And cry, 'Off, off; this fellow is a knave.'"
Garsworth was one of those queer, old-fashioned villages which, owing to their isolated positions, yet retain the primitive simplicity of earlier ages. The nearest railway station, Duxby Junction, to which steam and electricity continually carried the news of the world, was fully twenty miles distant, so that in this out of-the-way village the rustics heard but little of the doings of the nations, being content to remain in a state of Arcadian ignorance as their forefathers had done before them.
There was not even a stage-coach to Duxby, and the only means of communication was by the carriers' carts, which went weekly along the dusty high road, drawn lazily by their sleek horses. The nearest market town was Shunton, almost as quiet and primitive as Garsworth, and the sturdy farmers going there on market days sold their cattle and wheat, picked up such small items of news as had drifted thither from Duxby, then returned to their homes perfectly satisfied with life and with themselves. Well-to-do folks were these yeomen, for many rich farms lay hidden in the wide fen lands--farms which had descended from father to son through many generations, and as neither agrarian agitation nor vexed questions of rents had penetrated to this remote spot, they tilled their lands, looked up to their landlords, and pursued their monotonous lives in peace.
The village, built on a primitive plan, consisted of one long, wide street, with a similar one running crosswise to it, so that the little town was divided into four almost equal sections. Where the four roads met appeared a large open space doing duty as the village green, in the centre of which stood an antique stone cross with elaborate carvings thereon, much worn by time, said to have been erected by one Geoffrey Garsworth on his return from the third crusade. As a proof of this, there could be seen amid the carvings, representations of palm branches and scallop shells, both symbolical of eastern vegetation and pilgrim wanderings; but Dr. Larcher, the vicar of Garsworth--an ardent archaeologist--maintained that the cross had been placed there by the Cistercian monks, who once occupied a monastery near the village. The worthy vicar, being of a somewhat polemical nature, was wont to wax warm on the subject, and held strong opinions as to the cross and the church, which opinions he was willing enough to impart to any curious stranger who might chance to have antiquarian leanings.
And a beautiful old church it was, of irregular architecture, with heavy stone pillars supporting both round and pointed arches of the Norman Romanesque style, remarkably fine stained glass windows, and a high, elaborately carved roof of dark oak. Standing at the end of the village, near the bridge, the graveyard in which it was placed sloped down to the river's edge, and at times the mighty shadow of the square tower fell across the stream.
A little further down was the vicarage, built of grey stone in the quaint Tudor fashion, enclosing a green square on three sides, while the fourth was open to the Gar. From its grounds could be seen the graceful span of the bridge, a somewhat modern structure, which led on to a wide common overgrown with golden gorse, and far away in the distance amid a thick forest of beech and elm and oak, arose the towers of Garsworth Grange, wherein lived the Lord of the Manor.
The village possessed only one inn, quaintly entitled "The House of Good Living," an ancient building as fantastic as its name. Standing somewhat back from the street it was built of grey stone, with heavy beams set into the walls in the old-fashioned style, and the upper storey projected over the lower one in a cumbersome manner, apparently threatening every moment to overbalance itself. There were wide, diamond-paned casements, with rows of flower-pots containing bright, scarlet geraniums standing on the broad ledges, and on the left a tall gable jutted out some distance from the main building, while in the corner, thus formed, was the huge porch, with its cumbersome benches for the convenience of village cronies. The space in front was of cobbled stones down to the street, and there stood the tall pole with the swinging sign, whereon was bravely painted a baron of beef and a tankard of beer as an earnest of the good cheer within. The roof was of thatch, grey and weatherworn, neatly trimmed round the windows and eaves, while above towered the great stacks of twisted, red-tinged chimneys. Altogether, a typical English inn of the stage coach period, severely respectable and intensely conservative.
It was quite dark when Dr. Nestley reached this haven of rest, but the generous light within gushed from the windows in ruddy streams with a most inviting air of comfort. The door stood wide open, letting out a flood of mellow light into the chilly darkness, and the new comer could hear the murmur of men's voices, with every now and then a coarse laugh, while the smell of stale tobacco permeated the atmosphere. Evidently the village gossips were holding high festival, and as Nestley passed into the porch he saw dimly through the smoke-clouded air a number of them seated in the taproom, puffing steadily at their pipes and draining their tankards with great contentment.
Job Kossiter, the landlord of this house of entertainment, soon made his appearance in answer to Nestley's imperative summons, and stood waiting orders in stolid silence. A large, fat man was Mr. Kossiter, with a large, fat face ruddy with health, a brain of bovine slowness, and a habit of repeating all questions asked in a meditative manner, in order to give himself time to consider his answer.
"I want a bed for to-night, landlord," said Nestley, leaning against the wall and surveying the rotund proportions of mine host, "and at present, something to eat."
Mr. Kossiter fixed his ox-like eyes on the stranger and repeated the words slowly like a child learning its lesson.
"He wants," observed Job stolidly, "a bed for to-night and summat to eat; sir, you can have 'em both."
"Right you are," replied the doctor cheerfully. "Get something ready at once and show me to a bedroom. I want to wash my hands."
"He wants," repeated Kossiter mechanically, "to wash his hands. Margery!"
In answer to this call, a bright, brisk-looking young woman, in a neat print gown, stepped forward and confronted Nestley.
"He wants," said Job looking from Margery to Nestley, "a bed, summat to eat, a room and a wash;" then, having given all the requisite information he rolled slowly away to attend to the wants of the rustics in the taproom, while, Margery in a voice as sharp as her appearance, invited Nestley to follow her to his room.
"Lor, sir," she said shrilly, tripping lightly up the stairs, "if I'd only knowed as you was comin', I'd have got things a bit straight, but father never does tell, father don't."
"He didn't know I was coming," replied Nestley as he entered the bedroom and took off his knapsack. "I'm a bird of passage--bring me some hot water."
"Yes, sir," replied Margery, pausing with her hand on the handle of the door, "and anything to eat, sir?"
"Of course--cold beef, pickles--whatever there is. I'm too hungry to be dainty."
"You won't have supper with the other gentleman, sir, will you?" asked Margery, "Mr. Beaumont, sir."
"No, no," replied Nestley harshly, a dark shadow crossing his face. "I want to be alone."
"Very good, sir," said Margery, rather alarmed at his tone of voice. "I'll bring the hot water, sir--yes, sir."
She closed the door after her, and Nestley, sitting down on the bed, gnawed his moustache savagely.
"Under the same roof," he growled viciously. "I don't know if I'm wise--pshaw, it doesn't matter, he won't do me any more harm, I've got no money, and Beaumont doesn't care about doing anything for nothing--my poverty is my best shield against him."
At this moment Margaret knocked at the door and handed in his hot water, so he postponed his ideas on the subject of Mr. Beaumont while he made himself respectable. Having washed the dust of the road from his face and hands, he brushed his clothes, arranged his hair, and then descended to the parlour of the inn, where he found a plentifully-spread supper-table awaiting him and Margery lighting the lamp.
The parlour was a quaint, low-ceilinged room, all angles, with queer cupboards and unnecessary alcoves in unexpected places, heavy, black oak furniture, baskets of wax fruits and paper flowers, a small harmonium in one corner and a general air of intense cleanliness and comfort. Dismissing Margery, Dr. Nestley made an excellent supper from a round of corned beef, but pushing away the tankard of ale which stood near him, he filled a glass with water and drank it off. His meal being ended he lighted his pipe, and drawing his chair up to the fire, with a sigh of gratitude, gave himself up to his reflections. The lamp shone with a dim, yellow light, but the ruddy glare of the fire lighted up the room and gleamed on the polished furniture and plaster ceiling. Truly a pleasant place to dream in, but judging by the frown upon Nestley's face his thoughts were anything but agreeable, for as a matter of fact he was thinking about Basil Beaumont. Whether a sympathetic feeling or a vein of animal magnetism drew the subject of his reflections towards him it is hard to say, but in a very short time the door was pushed silently open and Mr. Beaumont, cool and complacent, sauntered into the room.
This unwelcomed intruder walked across to the fireplace and, leaning against the mantelpiece, looked down at the indignant Nestley with a bland smile.
"Enjoyed your supper?" he asked coolly, removing his cigarette.
"None the better for seeing you," growled the doctor, drawing hard at his pipe.
"Our excellent Duncan," observed Mr. Beaumont, airily, "is rather cross."
At which impertinent observation Nestley began to show anger.
"What right have you to come into this room?" he asked savagely.
"The best right in the world," retorted Basil, smoothly. "It is a public room; I am one of the public--ergo, I use it."
Dr. Nestley frowned again, and his rather weak mouth quivered nervously as he looked at the placid countenance of the man leaning against the mantelpiece. On his part, Beaumont slipped his hands into his pockets, crossed his long legs and, after glancing curiously at the figure cowering in the arm-chair began to talk in a delicately-modulated voice, which was one of his greatest charms.
"We were friends five years ago, Nestley, yet now we meet as enemies. I am not, as a rule, curious; but I confess I would like to know the reason."
"You know well enough," said Nestley, sulkily.
"Ah! Let me see. I think in the road to-night you accused me of ruining your life. Pray tell me how--I don't think," observed Mr. Beaumont, reflectively, "I really don't think I borrowed money from you."
Dr. Nestley removed his pipe, and put his hand up to hide the nervous quivering of his mouth. The artist went on smoking placidly, waiting for the other to speak, so seeing this, Nestley, with a great effort, sat up in his chair and looked steadily at him.
"Listen to me, Basil Beaumont," he said, slowly. "Five years ago, when I met you, I was only a boy----"
"Yes, an awful cub," replied Beaumont, insolently. "I taught you all you know."
"You did," retorted Nestley, bitterly, rising to his feet. "You taught me things of which I had better have remained ignorant. I had a little money----"
"Fairly won by me at cards," murmured Beaumont, coolly.
"I didn't mind that," said Nestley, who was walking up and down the room in a state of uncontrollable agitation, "you had that, and welcome--one must pay for one's experience, I suppose. No; it was not the money, but I did blame you for teaching me to drink wine to excess."
"I!" said Basil, in surprise, "why, I never drink wine to excess, so how could I teach you?"
"Ah!" replied the other, significantly, stopping in his walk, "your head is too strong--mine is not. I was a clever boy, and likely to do well in my profession. You met me when I came up to London--liked me for some inexplicable reason, and undertook to show me what you called life. With my weak constitution and highly-strung organization drink was like poison to me--it turned me into a maniac. I did not care for it--I had no hereditary love for alcohol, but you were always at my elbow, tempting me to have another glass. My weaker will was overcome by your stronger one. I took drink, and it made me mad, causing me to commit a thousand follies for which I was no more responsible than a child. I got into the habit of taking drinks all day. You encouraged me--God knows why, except for your own selfish ends. Had I remained with you, I would have been in a lunatic asylum or in the gutter but, thank God, my better angel prevailed, and I broke the spell you held over me. Leaving you and the mad life I was then leading, I became a total abstainer, at what cost I need not tell you--no one can ever understand the struggles and agonies I underwent, but I conquered in the end. For five years I have not touched a drop of liquor, and now--now that I have subdued the devil that once possessed me I meet you once more--you who so nearly ruined me, body and soul."
Beaumont did not move during this long speech, delivered with intense emotion by Nestley, but at its conclusion shrugged his shoulders and addressed himself to the task of making another cigarette.
"A very excellent lecture," he said, scoffingly, "very excellent, indeed, but quite wrong. I did meet you in London, and out of kindness introduced you into decent society, but I certainly did not teach you to make a beast of yourself, as you did!"
"You were always urging me to drink."
"Hospitality only. I asked you to drink when I did, yet I did not make a fool of myself."
"True! You only made a fool of me. What you could take and I could take were two very different things. What was drunkenness in me was sobriety in you."
Beaumont laughed and lighted the cigarette he had just made.
"You were an idiot," he said, politely. "When you found drink did you harm you should have left it off."
"Ah! you think that an easy task?"
"It would be--to me."
"To you!" cried Nestley, vehemently, "yes, a practised man of the world like you has his nerves and passions well under control. I was young, inexperienced, enthusiastic, you were cool, calculating and cynical. You drank three times as much as I ever did, but the effect on our natures was different You were looked upon as a sober man, I--God help me!--as a drunkard!"
The artist smiled sarcastically.
"Well," he said, coolly, "all this was five years ago--why are you so disagreeable now?"
"I cannot forget how you tried to ruin me."
"Humph!" observed Beaumont, walking to the door, "there's nothing like putting our sins on other people's shoulders; it saves such a lot of unnecessary trouble. However, I don't wish to argue any longer. You reject my friendship, so I've nothing more to say. I daresay you'll be gone by the time I rise in the morning, so, as we're not likely to meet one another again in this life, I'll say good-bye."
He opened the door just as Nestley was about to answer him, when suddenly there was a noise--the voices of men laughing uproariously, then the sharp bark of a dog, and in another moment a large black cat, with her fur all on end, darted into the room, followed by an eager fox-terrier in a state of great excitement.
It's very odd the pride we take In finding out our neighbours' lives, Tho' idle words a heart may break, It's very odd the pride we take In saying this one is a rake, And that one's luck thro' evil thrives It's very odd the pride we take In finding out our neighbour's lives.
Snarling and spitting, with blazing eyes and bushy tail, the cat flew round the room rapidly, did a steeplechase over several chairs, and finally took refuge on the mantelpiece, where she stood with arched back, spitting freely, while the fox-terrier, yelping sharply, tried, unsuccessfully, to leap up.
"What a beast of a dog," said Beaumont, tranquilly; "it's Muffins, of course."
"Rather," cried a laughing voice at the door, "did you ever know Muffins when he wasn't worrying a cat or killing a rat or doing something disreputable?"
The owner of the voice was a tall young fellow of twenty years of age, with curly fair hair, a fresh complexion and merry blue eyes. He was positively bubbling over with good nature and excitement, and appeared the embodiment of robust health and animal spirits. Suddenly he caught sight of Nestley, who stood near the fireplace looking on at the scene with an amused smile.
"Awfully sorry about my dog, sir," he said, taking off his cap with a gay laugh and striding across the room to where Muffins was performing leaps worthy of an acrobat, "but he believes his mission in life is to kill cats, so at present----"
"He is performing his mission with great zeal," finished Nestley with a smile.
"By the way," interposed Beaumont, raising his voice, "I'd better introduce you two men, Mr. Richard Pemberton--Dr. Duncan Nestley."
Nestley bowed somewhat stiffly, as he thought Beaumont was taking an unwarrantable liberty in acting as he was doing, but Pemberton, with the ingenuousness of youth, caught the doctor's hand and shook it heartily.
"Glad to see you," he said looking at Nestley, "you will be a perfect God-send in this dull place."
His manner was so cordial that without being positively rude Nestley could not refuse to be gracious so seeing that he had attained his object of introducing Nestley as his friend, Mr. Beaumont sauntered out of the room with a cynical smile on his thin lips.
"You'll measure swords with me, will you?" he said to himself with a short laugh. "I wouldn't advise you to try that game, my friend."
Meanwhile Pemberton caught hold of Muffins, who was making frantic attempts to seize his feline enemy, whereupon the cat, seeing the coast clear, sprang down and dashed out of the room, but the wary Muffins, wriggling himself free, raced after her, nose on ground, with an occasional sharp yelp.
"There," said Pemberton gaily, "Muffins is provided with an amusing evening, for he'll never leave the cat till he runs her down."
"I'm sorry for the cat."
"You'll be sorry for Muffins when you see him return scratched all over," retorted the lad, whereupon they both laughed.
"Staying here long?" asked Pemberton eyeing the doctor in a friendly manner.
"Only to-night--I'm on a walking tour," replied Nestley carelessly.
"Lucky devil," said the other, thrusting his hands into his pockets. "I've got to stay here."
"Is it your home."
"In a sort of way, yes--pupil at the vicarage and all that shoot, don't you know--it's a five-act funeral of a place, but we manage to get some tra-la-la out of it."
"Who are we?" asked the doctor, mightily amused at Mr. Pemberton's colloquialisms.
"Oh! I forgot you're a stranger here--why, Reggy Blake, myself, and Priggs."
"One of the pupils," explained the communicative Richard, "a jolly ass--writes poetry--lines to Chloe, and all that sort of thing--hasn't got an idea beyond the Muses as he calls 'em--beastly old frumps--Reggy's a good sort of chappie--he's in the taproom now--come and see the fun--we often stand beer to the rustics and they sing us songs--twenty verses long and no stops."
"Do you know Beaumont well?" asked Nestley, following his youthful guide to the taproom.
"Not very, he's only been here a fortnight, but the vicar knows him; he's a native of these parts, not a bad sort of chap but awfully stand off the grass; gets up on his hind legs pretty freely. Do you know him?"
"To my cost," replied the doctor bitterly.
Pemberton stared and was about to ask the meaning of this strange remark, when a burst of laughter sounded from the taproom, so postponing his inquiry until a more favourable period, he opened the door and entered, followed by Duncan Nestley.
The doctor's eyes smarted somewhat with the pungent tobacco-smoke, but when he became more accustomed to the cloudy atmosphere, he found himself in a long low-ceilinged room round which about fifteen men were seated on benches, smoking vigorously. On a long, deal table in the centre stood a number of pewter tankards containing beer and a large jug filled with the same generous beverage stood at the end. A kerosine lamp hung from the ceiling, diffusing a dull yellow light, and the floor was covered with saw-dust, with spittoons placed about.
On the end of the table sat Reginald Blake, who was as dark as Pemberton was fair. A somewhat mournful countenance when in repose, but now sparkling with life and animation. Decidedly handsome, with an olive complexion, closely-cropped black hair and a small moustache of the same colour. As he sat there swinging his legs and showing his white teeth with every laugh, Nestley thought he was a very striking figure, although somewhat out of place in that homely room.
"Looks like an Italian," he thought, looking at the tall, lithe figure as Reginald Blake slipped off the table to greet him. "Must have been born in the South, or perhaps he's a Greek born in England, like Keats."
Dick Pemberton lost no time, but then and there introduced Nestley to his friend.
"This is Dr. Nestley, Reggy--stranger here--got the blues, so I brought him here to see the fun."
"Rather homely fun I'm afraid," said Blake holding out his hand with a frank smile. "I'm very pleased to see you, Dr. Nestley. You'll find this noisy but it's amusing."
"What would the vicar say if he knew two of his pupils were here?" asked Nestley mischievously.
Both the young men laughed heartily.
"Oh, the dear old boy wouldn't mind," said Pemberton producing a cigar case, "he trusts us, besides, we work hard all the week and only get off the chain on Saturday nights."
"Then," observed Reggy, helping himself to a cigar from his friend's case, "we study mankind----"
"As seen in the public-house," finished the doctor smiling.
"As seen in the public-house," assented Mr. Blake gravely, lighting his cigar. "Dick and myself are students of human nature."
"It's great fun," observed Dick confidentially. "If we were in Town I've no doubt we'd go to a music hall, but here we amuse ourselves with rustic simplicity."
"Said simplicity being mythical," said Blake satirically, "but the singing is amusing--I say Jarx," he added, raising his voice, "sing us that ditty of yours."
Jarx, a huge, good-tempered giant, excused himself bashfully, but on being pressed, took a long drink of beer, wiped his large mouth with his sleeve and fixing his eyes on the ceiling began to sing. First he started too low so that his voice sounded as if it came from his boots, then, apologising in a sheepish manner to the company, he began again in a high key. This being the other extreme was found equally unsatisfactory, but on making a third attempt he struck the happy medium and started off into a rustic ditty the chorus of which was solemnly sung by the company while they rocked slowly to and fro:
"There's the hog tub and the pig tub And the tub behind the do-o-r She's gone away with t'other chap And she'll never come back no more."
Full chorus after long pause. "She won't--"
This song averaged about ten verses which the singer conscientiously delivered with the chorus to each verse, first as a solo, afterwards with the full strength of the company, who sang impartially in different keys, so that the result was anything but harmonious. By this simple means the song lasted about a quarter-of-an hour, much to Nestley's amusement and that of the young men, who joined in the chorus with great gusto, Dick gravely conducting with his cigar.
Mr. Jarx having finished his melody, resumed his seat, his pipe and his beer, amid great applause, and in response to a general demand, a local favourite with a shrill voice sang a ditty about "Four Irish girls who came from the Isle of Wight," which also had the additional attraction of a dance, the music of which was provided by the performer whistling, he being his own orchestra. This double display of genius was received with great rapture and, at its conclusion Nestley, turning to the young men, asked if either of them sang.
"Reggy does," said Dick promptly; "he's got a voice like a nightingale."
"Bosh!" retorted Reggy, reddening under his dark skin. "Why I never had a lesson in my life."
"No, self-taught genius," said the incorrigible Dick. "Come, old man, out with it."
Thus adjured by his friend and being pressed by the doctor, Blake consented and sang "You'll remember me," that old-fashioned song which contains such a world of pathos.
A tenor voice, pure, rich and silvery as a bell, not cultured in the least, but with rare natural power and an intensity of dramatic expression. One of those sympathetic voices which find their way straight to the heart, and as Blake sang the appealing words of the song, with their haunting, pathetic tenderness, Nestley felt strangely stirred. Even the rustics, dull as they were, fell under the spell of those resonant notes, and when the last word died away like a long-drawn sigh, sat silently pondering, not daring to break the charm with applause.
"You have a great gift," said Nestley, when the singer ceased. "A wonderful voice."
Blake flushed with pleasure at this word of praise from a stranger, and Dick delighted with the eulogy of his friend's talent chimed in delightedly.
"'Tis--isn't it jolly? and he sings comic songs--give us one old chap."
Blake would have consented, particularly as the rustics seemed anxious to hear something more suited to their comprehension than the preceding ballad, but Nestley hastily intervened.
"No, no," he said quickly, unwilling to spoil his first impression of that charming voice by hearing it lowered to the level of music hall singing, "don't do that, it will spoil everything."
The young man looked at him in surprise.
"I don't care much about them myself," said Reginald frankly, "but people down here like them better than sentimental ditties."
At this moment, Job Kossiter announced to the assembled company that it was time to close the bar, so in a few moments the room was empty of all save Nestley and his two companions. Dick asked him to have a glass of ale but he refused.
"I never drink," he said bluntly, "I'm teetotal."
They both opened their eyes at this, but were too polite to make any comments, so in order to relieve the awkwardness of the situation, Dr. Nestley began to speak.
"I suppose you've got some queer characters down here," he said, filling a fresh pipe of tobacco.
"Rather," said Dick, promptly, "old Garsworth for instance."
"Is that the squire you're talking of?" said a drawling voice at the door, and on looking towards it, the trio saw Mr. Basil Beaumont strolling into the room. Nestley grew a shade stiffer in his manner as his enemy came towards them, but Dick Pemberton turned his merry face to the new comer and nodded an answer.
"Do you know him?" he asked.
Beaumont took up his favourite position in front of the fire and smoked complacently.
"Yes. When I left this place twenty-three years ago, I heard a lot about him."
"He's a miser," said Blake meditatively.
"He was when I left, and I presume he still is," replied Beaumont, "but from all I've heard, he used to be pretty gay in his youth."
"Youth," echoed Dick scornfully, "was he ever a youth?"
"I believe he was, somewhere about the Flood. Why he must be ninety now."
"Over seventy," said Blake.
"Thank you for the correction," answered Beaumont, casting a sidelong look at him; "over seventy, yes, I should say seventy-three or four, as he was about fifty when I left; he had lived a riotous life up to the age of forty, then he suddenly took to saving money, why, nobody knows."
"Oh yes, they do," said Reginald, taking his cigar out of his mouth. "It's common gossip now."
"Tell us all about it," said Nestley, settling himself in his chair.
"It's a curious story," said Blake leisurely. "Squire Garsworth led a fast life, as Beaumont says, till he was forty, then he stumbled on some books about the transmigration of the soul."
"Pythagoras?" asked Beaumont.
"Yes, and Allan Kardec, spiritualism and re-incarnation; he learned from those books to believe that his soul would be incarnated in another body; from long study of this theory he became a monomaniac."
"In one word--mad," said Beaumont.
Nestley did not want to speak either directly or indirectly to Beaumont, but this observation appealed to his professional pride, therefore he spoke.
"Monomania does not necessarily mean madness, though it may become so; but so far as I can understand Mr. Blake, it seems to me that Squire Garsworth has made a hobby of this study, and from long concentration upon it, his hobby has become a mania; and again, the disease, as I may call it, has now assumed a more dangerous form and become monomania, which really means madness on a particular subject."
"Then it is madness," insisted Beaumont.
"In a sort of a way yes," assented Nestley; "but in a general sense I would not call him mad from simply concentrating his mental power on a single subject."
"You'll call him mad when you hear all about him," said Dick grimly; "fire away Reggy."
"Mr. Garsworth," said Blake, "accepted the doctrine of re-incarnation with certain modifications. Kardec, Pythagoras and Co. believe that a newly incarnated soul is in ignorance of its previous existences, but the squire thinks that it knows all about them, consequently he believes that when his soul--at present incarnated in the Garsworth body--leaves said body, it will become re-incarnated in another body of the same sex, and remember the time when it was the guiding intelligence of Squire Garsworth. Do I make myself clear?"
"Very clear," replied Nestley, "but if the squire believes that the soul does not lose its memory, what about his previous existences?"
"He's got a whole stock of 'em," broke in Dick quickly, "ranging from the Pharaohs down to the middle ages, but I think the Garsworth body is the first time his soul has used any fleshly envelope in our modern days."
"Curious mania," said Nestley reflectively, "if he isn't mad he's very near it."
"But what has all this incarnation humbug to do with his miserly habits," said Beaumont impatiently, "he doesn't want to pass his existences in being miserable."
"That's the very thing," explained Reginald calmly, "it appears that in some of his previous existences he suffered from poverty, so in order to arrest such a calamity, he is saving up all his money in this existence to spend during his next incarnation."
"Oh, he's quite mad," said Nestley decisively.
"But how does he propose to get hold of the money?" observed Beaumont disbelievingly; "he'll be in another body, 'and won't have any claim to the Garsworth estate."
"That's his secret," said Dick Pemberton, "nobody knows; queer yarn, isn't it?"
"Very," said Nestley, deeply interested. "I should like to study the case. Does he live by himself?"
"No, his cousin, Una Challoner, lives with him," interposed Blake hurriedly, the colour flushing in his face.
"Ah," thought Beaumont, noting this, "case of love, I see. I suppose Miss Challoner does not believe in his mad theories?" he added aloud.
"Hardly," said Dick contemptuously, "she's too sensible."
At this moment Job Kossiter entered the room, and, after slowly surveying the group, addressed himself to Reginald:
"If I may make so bold, Mr. Blake, sir," he said, in his thick voice, "would you ask the vicar to go to the old squire?"
"What's up?" asked Blake, rising.
"He's very ill, sir, as Munks says," said Kossiter, scratching his head, "and Doctor Bland, sir, he's ill, too, sir, and can't go, so as there ain't a doctor to see him, I thought the vicar----"
"Not a doctor?" interposed Beaumont, quickly. "Nonsense! This gentleman," indicating Nestley, "is a doctor, so he can go at once."
"Oh, I'll go," said Nestley, rising, rather glad of the opportunity to study the case.
"Then, sir, Munks is waiting outside with the cart," observed Kossiter, moving to the door.
"Who on earth is Munks?" asked Nestley, following the landlord.
"The squire's servant," cried Dick, "and a cross-grained old ass he is."
"I don't suppose as you need tell the vicar now, sir," said Mr. Kossiter to Reginald.
"No, of course not," replied Blake, "this gentleman will do more good; it's the doctor he needs--not the clergyman."
"I wouldn't be too sure of that, Reggy," said Dick, as they all went out. "He needs a little spiritual consolation."
"I think a strait waistcoat would be best," said Beaumont quietly, as they stood at the door, "judging from your story."
The two lads said good-night, and went homeward, while Mr. Beaumont retired into the inn, and Nestley, stepping up into the high dog-cart, drove off into the darkness of the night on his unexpected mission.
Mad? Not what the world calls madness--he is quiet Raves not about strange matters--curbs his tongue With wond'rous wisdom--ponders ere he speaks, And yet I tell you he is mad, my liege; The moon was regnant at his birth and all The planets bowed to her strong influence.
If Dr. Nestley had been imaginative he might have thought that he was being driven by one of the statues out of the old church, so grim and stiff was the figure beside him. Munks had a hard-featured face, and an equally hard manner, and in his suit of rough grey cloth he looked like Don Juan's Commandantore out for an airing. He devoted himself exclusively to the raw-boned animal he was driving, and replied to Dr. Nestley's questions in what might be called a chippy manner, his answers being remarkably monosyllabic.
Was the squire ill?--very! What made him ill?--Did not know! How many people lived at the Grange?--Six! What were their names?--The squire, Miss Una, Miss Cassandra, Patience Allerby, Jellicks and himself.
As Nestley did not find this style of conversation particularly exhilarating, he relapsed into silence, and the stony Munks devoted his attention once more to the raw-boned horse.
The dog-cart spun rapidly through the sleeping village with the dark-windowed houses on either side--over the narrow, vibrating bridge under which swept the sullen, grey river--across the wide common, where the gorse bushes looked fantastic and unreal in the moonlight, with only the silent sky overhead and the silent earth below--tall trees on either side, some gaudy with the yellow and red of their autumnal foliage, and others gaunt and bare, their leafless branches ready for the winter snows. So still, so silent, with every now and then the sad cry of some night bird from the lonely marshes, and the steady beat of the horse's hoofs on the hard, white road. The scenery, grey and colourless under the pale light of the moon, changed with the rapidity of a kaleidoscope. First the tangled, odorous hedges that separated the road from the closely-reaped fields, afterwards a grove of beeches, casting fantastic shadows on the ground, and then, suddenly starting out of the earth as if by magic, the thick, dark wood which surrounded Garsworth Grange, as though it were the enchanted palace of the sleeping beauty. The rusty iron gates were wide open, and they drove into the park between the tall white posts with the leopards sejant thereon--up the broad, winding avenue with the trees tossing their leafless branches in the chill wind--while here and there at intervals the cloudy white forms of statues appeared indistinctly. The wheels crunched the dead leaves that thickly carpeted the path--a wide sweep of the avenue, and then a low, broad terrace of white stone, to which a flight of shallow steps led up through urns and statues to Garsworth Grange.
Nestley had no time to take any note of the architectural beauties of the place; for, hastily alighting, he ran up the steps, while Munks, still grimly silent, drove off, presumably in the direction of the stables. So here, Nestley found himself alone in this ghostly white world, with the keen wind whistling shrilly in his ears, and before him a monstrous, many-pillared porch with a massive door scrolled grotesquely with ironwork, like the entrance to a family mausoleum. Whilst he was searching for a bell to ring or a knocker to knock with, the door slowly swung open with a surly creak, and a tall, slim figure, holding a flickering candle, appeared.
Was it one of the cold, white statues in the lonely garden that had by some miracle awoke to life?--this sudden vision of lovely, breathing womanhood standing out from the darkness amid a faint halo of tremulous light, the rose-flushed face with its perfectly-chiselled features delicately distinct under the coronet of pale, golden hair, one slender arm raised aloft, holding the faintly-glimmering candle, one eloquent finger placed warningly upon the full red lips, while the supple body, clad in a loose white dress, was bent forward in a graceful poise. Not Aphrodite, this midnight goddess, for the face was too pure and childlike for that of the divine coquette, not Hera in the imperial voluptuousness of undying beauty, but Hebe, bright, girlish Hebe, with the smile of eternal youth on her lips, and the vague innocence of maidenhood shining in her dreamy eyes.
The goddess evidently expected to see the familiar face of the village doctor; for she started back in astonishment when she beheld a stranger, and seemed to demand an explanation of his visit. This he speedily furnished.
"Doctor Bland is ill, I understand," he said, politely, "but I am a medical man staying at the inn, and as the case seemed urgent, I came in his place."
The goddess smiled, and her frigid manner thawed rapidly.
"It's very kind of you, Doctor--Doctor----"
"Nestley," said that gentleman, "Doctor Nestley."
"It's very kind of you, Doctor Nestley," she said, in a musical voice, "and, indeed, the case is very urgent--please come in."
Nestley stepped inside, and the young lady, closing the heavy door, secured the innumerable fastenings. Catching Nestley's eye, as he looked on, rather puzzled, at the multiplicity of bolts and chains, she laughed quietly.
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