The Nether Millstone - Fred M. White - ebook

The Nether Millstone ebook

Fred M White

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Opis

What is it like to know that you will die soon? Our main character knew that. 22-year-old Mary Dashwood knew that she had only a few minutes left to live. Her horse was galloping wildly when she heard the man’s smooth, firm voice. But the man had not come for Mary. Instead, he’d come with a deathbed message and a long-standing grudge.

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Liczba stron: 533

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Contents

I. “The Caste Of Vere De Vere”

II. Dashwood Hall

III. Horace Mayfield

IV. A Leaf From The Past

V. The Sacrifice

VI. A Cruel Misunderstanding

VII. The Only Way

VIII. Found!

IX. The Parting Guest

X. Skin Deep

XI. The Dowager Lady Dashwood

XII. Lady Dashwood Sees A Ghost

XIII. Desecration!

XIV. A Fierce Temptation

XV. Not Quite Too Late

XVI. The Unfinished Word

XVII. Breathing Time

XVIII. A Flaming Sword

XIX. A Guardian Angel

XX. Half Told

XXI. Vincent Dashwood

XXII. Who Did It?

XXIII. The Silver Clue

XXIV. A Fresh Calamity

XXV. Pride Or Prejudice

XXVI. In Reckless Mood

XXVII. A Warning

XXVIII. Moral Force

XXIX. Strategy

XXX. The Heir Of The House

XXXI. Under Which Lord?

XXXII. Must This Thing Be?

XXXIII. A Rebel Against Fate

XXXIV. Mistress Of Herself

XXXV. A Friend In Need

XXXVI. Connie Colam

XXXVII. The Unexpected Happens

XXXVIII. The Mystery Deepens

XXXIX. Homeless

XL. In Peril

XLI. The Lesson Of Adversity

XLII. The Courage Of Despair

XLIII. Getting Nearer

XLIV. The Dreary Way

XLV. The Walls Of Pride

XLVI. The Head Of The House

XLVII. “How Long, How Long!”

XLVIII. Face To Face!

XLIX. A Bolt From The Blue

L. Hard Put To It

LI. Cold Comfort

LII. The Spider’s Web

LIII. The Web Tightens

LIV. “Eyes Clearer Grown…”

LV. Not Dead

LVI. Found!

LVII. A Clean Breast Of It

LVIII. “The King Is Dead…”

LIX. “Long Live The King!”

LX. Open Confession

I. “THE CASTE OF VERE DE VERE”

There were tears in the girl’s eyes–tears of futile anger and despair. The danger was so great, and yet safety was so near. If only the black horse would stumble or swerve, if only she could work the bit into that iron mouth and bring him to a standstill altogether. Her gloves were cut to ribands now; the blue veins stood out on the slender white wrists.

And still the horse flew on down the rocky path leading to the lych-gate. He would charge through the gate into the green old churchyard beyond, but no longer with his rider fighting for life on his back. The arch of the lych-gate would sweep her from the saddle with a blow that would crush the life out of her. Mary Dashwood could see that plainly enough; she knew that she had only a few more minutes to live.

She set her teeth and blinked the welling tears from her proud blue eyes. She was not afraid–no Dashwood was ever afraid–but the pity of it! She saw the great beeches rising on either side of the path, she saw the blue sky beyond, the song of the birds came to her ears. And she was only twenty-two, and life was very dear to her.

The moment was coming ever nearer. The black horse was thundering along the straight downward path; the lych-gate was in sight. Mary discarded the idea of throwing herself from the saddle; she would have only been dashed to pieces on the rocks on either side of the road. She had been warned, too, not to take the black horse. She bent low to escape an overhanging bough; her hat was swept away; the shining chestnut hair began to stream from her shapely head.

There was a crackling of sticks in the wood on the right; surely, a hundred yards or so ahead, a face looked over the high fence, the figure of a man was holding on to the overhanging bough of an oak tree. Mary Dashwood wondered if the man realised her danger. Perhaps he did, for he crooked a leg over the bough and hung arms downward over the roadway. He was saying something in a smooth, firm voice.

“Pull to the side of the road,” said the voice. It almost sounded like a command. “Drop the reins and clear your stirrup as you near me. And have no fear.”

The big horse thundered on. Despite her peril, Mary did not fail to notice how strong and brown and capable the stranger’s hands looked... It was all done so quickly and easily as to rob the episode of romantic danger–two hands, warm and tender, and yet firm as a steel trap, grasped the girl’s slender wrists, she was floated lightly from the saddle, and in the next instant she was swaying dizzily on her feet in the road. The pride and courage of the Dashwoods availed nothing now–it was but a mere woman who fell almost fainting by the roadside.

She opened her eyes presently to the knowledge that a strong arm was supporting her. A bright blush mounted to her proud, beautiful face. The colour deepened as she saw the look, half admiration, half amusement, on the face of her rescuer.

“Mr. Darnley,” she stammered. “I–I hardly expected to see you here. A little over two years ago, in Paris, you saved my life before.”

“It is good to know that you have not forgotten it,” Ralph Darnley murmured. “And yet the coincidence is not so strange as it seems. I did not come to these parts moved by any unaccountable impulse–I simply had business here. And I was told that a walk through the park would repay me for my trouble. As I was making a start out, through a copse I saw your predicament and hastened to your assistance. A handy tree did the rest. The only strange part of the affair is that you should be here, too.”

“Nothing strange about that,” the girl smiled, “seeing that the Hall is my home.”

It was a commonplace statement of facts, and yet the words seemed to hurt Ralph Darnley as if they had been lashes to sting him. The honest open brown face paled perceptibly under its tan hue. A dozen emotions changed in those clear brown eyes.

“I–I don’t quite understand,” he remarked. “When we met in Paris two years ago, Miss Mary Mallory––”

“Quite so. Mary Dashwood Mallory. But, you see, the head of the family was alive then. He died nearly two years ago without any children, in fact, his only son died years ago somewhere abroad–it was a rather sad story–and my father came into the title and estates. He is Sir George Dashwood now. You can quite see why he changed his name.”

“Of course. Only you can see that I could not possibly know this. What a grand old place it is, and what a grand old house! You must have grown very fond of it.”

“I love it,” Mary Dashwood cried. The look of haughty pride had faded from her face, leaving it refined and beautiful. “I love every stick and stone of it, it is part of my very life. You see, I have practically lived here always. As my father was in the Diplomatic Service, and my mother died young, it was necessary for somebody to look after me. I spent my childhood here with old Lady Dashwood, who has now gone to the dower house–such a wonderful old body!”

But Darnley did not appear to be listening. He made an effort to recover himself presently. He was like a man who dreams.

“I can quite appreciate your feelings,” he said quietly. “I understand that the Dashwoods have ruled here for three hundred years. It is a fine estate; they tell me the heirlooms are almost priceless. And yet I am sorry.”

The girl looked sharply up at the speaker.

“Why should you be sorry?” she demanded.

“Because it is the end of a dream,” Darnley said. “I rather gathered in Paris that your father was poor. The fact levelled things up a little. It is just possible that you may remember our last evening together in Paris.”

“I recollect,” Mary said, the delicate colour flushing her cheeks again. “But I thought that we had closed that chapter finally, Mr. Darnley.”

“No. That chapter can never be closed for me. I loved you from the first moment that we met, and I shall go on loving you till I die. I asked you to be my wife, and you refused me. The future mistress of Dashwood could not stoop to the son of a Californian rancher, though I happened to be an English gentleman by birth. I hope I took your refusal quietly, though it was a great blow to me. There can be no other woman for me, Mary.”

“I am sorry,” the girl said, “but see how impossible it is. Perhaps I am a little old-fashioned, perhaps it is the fault of my bringing up. That like must mate with like has always been the motto of the Dashwoods. These new people, with their wealth and noise and ostentation can never cross the threshold of Dashwood Hall. My father is fond of finance, but he never dreams of bringing his City friends here.”

Darnley smiled to himself. He recollected the days in Paris, when Mary’s father had been hand-in-glove with many a dubious French financier.

“We are wandering from the point,” he said. “In any case your strictures do not touch me, for I have no money. My poor father left me comfortably off, as he thought, but my mine of silver is ruined now, ruined by a firm of City swindlers whom I was fool enough to regard as honest men. It was a very bad thing for me when I came in contact with Horace Mayfield.”

It was the girl’s turn to start guiltily. The beautiful face flushed once more.

“I know Mr. Mayfield,” she said. “He is the only one of my father’s business friends who comes here. We make an exception in his favour, because he is so well connected. Frankly, I do not like him, but I thought that he––”

“That he is a cold-blooded and calculating rascal to the core,” Darnley said. “I trusted him, and he left me almost penniless. Many people will tell you I am saying no more than what is actually true. And, because I am poor, I came down here thinking to find a little something that belonged to my people years ago. And so I met you, Mary, and discovered that I love you with the same old pure affection, that will go on burning in my heart till I die. It may strike you as strange that a poor man should speak to Miss Dashwood, of Dashwood, like this. Mind you, I am young, and strong, and able, and I shall come into my kingdom again. And love is worth all the rest; it is better far than money, or position, or pride of birth. If I could hear you say that you cared for me now! You are so beautiful; behind all your pride the woman’s heart beats true enough. May God grant that you meet the right man when the time comes! I would give you up to him willingly and shake his hand on it. But to think of your being the wife of some brainless nonentity, of some brutal ruffian who has nothing but an old title to cover his moral wickedness, why the thought is unbearable. Mary, I think I could find it in my heart to kill that man.”

The words came slowly and clear as cut steel. Calm as he was, Darnley’s tones vibrated with passion. He drew the girl towards him, and laid his hands on her shoulders so that he could look down into the fathomless lake of her blue eyes. Strange as it was, Mary Dashwood did not resent that which would have been insolent familiarity in anybody else. There was something so strong and dominating about this man; she thrilled with a strange tenderness and pride in the knowledge that he loved her. True, on his own confession, he was penniless, but then he treated the loss of his money in a way that only a strong man could assume.

“I love you, dear,” he said, very gently and tenderly. “I love you, Mary, and no words could say more. I shall live to see the ice and pride melt from your heart, I shall live to see the beautiful womanhood within you blossom like a rose. The day will come when you will be prouder far to own a good man’s heart than you will be to call yourself a Dashwood. You may frown, but I feel certain that my words will come true. And, meanwhile, I am afraid that there is no hope at all for me, my dear.”

“It is impossible,” Mary said coldly. Yet her voice trembled and tears came to her eyes. “Oh, I know that you are a good man and true, but you must make allowances for me. And besides, love is only a name to me. I owe my life to you, and believe me, I am too grateful for words. And if the time should ever come–oh, how selfish I am. Look at your arm. It is bruised and bleeding. It must have happened when you lifted me from the saddle. You must come up to the house and have it attended to at once.”

“I don’t think–” Darnley hesitated; “yes I will. It’s really nothing. Let me catch your horse for you and we will walk across the path together.”

II. DASHWOOD HALL

There were the lodge-gates at last, with the name of the Dashwoods carved in mossy stone, and the great iron gates from the cunning hand of Quentin Matsys himself. Beyond, the noble elms planted in the days of Elizabeth led to the house, a great Tudor mansion with gabled and latticed windows covered with ivy to the quaintly carved roof-tree. The gardens spread wide on either side; there was a thick hedge of crimson roses bounding the park, and in its purple glory the dappled deer reposed. Ralph Darnley drew a deep breath as he took in the splendid beauty and serenity of it all. For three hundred years the reign of the Dashwoods had lasted, and not a stain had shown itself on the family escutcheon all that time. Darnley could excuse all Mary’s pride.

“It is exquisitely beautiful,” he said, with a slight catch in his voice. “How vividly it recalls Tennyson’s line–‘a haunt of ancient peace.’ I am trying to make due allowances for your feelings, Miss Dashwood. If I had been brought up here, my views would be the same as yours. I love old houses.”

Mary smiled one of her rare tender smiles. Darnley’s eulogy touched her. She led the way through a great flagged hall, the walls of which were a perfect dream of carving; from their frames dead and gone Dashwoods looked down. There was oak carving everywhere, the ceilings were panelled, in the stained glass windows masses of flowers stood. Ralph would have stopped to admire it all, but Mary hurried him on.

“We will go into the breakfast-parlour,” she said. “Then I will endeavour to show you that I can be useful as well as ornamental. Excuse me one moment–I must get rid of these torn gloves. Ring the bell, please, for Slight, the butler, and ask him for warm water and towels.”

Ralph laid his hand on the bell as Mary flitted away. The old butler came presently, a thin little man, pink and white, the embodiment of what an old servant should be. Ralph gave his directions clearly enough, but the man stood there shaking from head to foot. There was joy and terror and amazement on his face; the tears gathered in his rheumy eyes.

“Mr. Ralph!” he whispered, “Mr. Ralph come back from the grave! Come back after all these years! What will the master say if he knows? I’m dreaming, that’s what is the matter; I’ve gone off my head or I’m dreaming. And after forty years!”

The speaker came forward tremblingly and touched Ralph’s hand. Apparently the contact with warm flesh and blood reassured him, for the pink apple bloom came back to his cheek.

“The same and yet not the same,” he went on. “Stands to reason as forty years must make a deal of difference. But you are Mr. Ralph over again all the same. I loved him, sir. I mourned for him like a child of my own. I taught him to ride; I taught him to use a gun. I had to stand between him and Sir Ralph when the crash came. And you are his son as sure as there is a Heaven above us.”

“Not quite so loud,” Ralph said. “Pull yourself together, Slight. I take it you are old Slight about whom my father talked so often. He did not forget you, Slight. On his deathbed he gave me a message for you.”

“And so my dear Mr. Ralph is dead. Dear, dear. What shall I call you, sir?”

“You are to call me nothing for the present,” Ralph said. “I am Mr. Darnley, Slight, and you are to be discreet and silent. I had quite left you out of my calculation when I came here to-day; in fact, I had forgotten all about you. It never occurred to me that you would discover the likeness to what my father was forty years ago. I will ask you to meet me this evening, say, at half-past ten at the lodge-gates, for I have much to say to you.”

“And, meanwhile, is nobody to know anything about you, sir?”

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