'You'll call it for the best now,' said Bertha grimly.
'If it be so, it will prove itself; but I really do not see any special cause for extra fear.'
Lady Adela and Bertha both thought themselves as far safe as any one can be with scarlet fever, and would gladly have taken a share in the nursing. Bertha, however, had far too much of the whirlwind in her to be desirable in a sick house, and on the principle that needless risk was wrong, was never admitted within the house doors, but Lady Adela insisted on seeing Mary every day, and was assured that she should be a welcome assistant in case of need; but at present there was no necessity of calling in other help, the form of fever being lethargic with much torpidity, but no violence of delirium, and requiring no more watching than the wife and nurse could give.
Frank never failed to know his Mary, and to respond when she addressed him; but she was told never to attempt more than rousing him when it was needful to make him take food. He had long ago, with the precaution of his legal training, made every needful arrangement for her and for his son; and even on the first day, he had not seemed to trouble himself on these points, being too heavy and oppressed for the power of looking forward. So the days rolled on in one continual watch on Mary's part, during which she seemed only to live in the present, and, secure that her boy was safe, would not risk direct communication with him or with his nurse.
Lady Adela had undertaken to keep Constance, the person who really loved her uncle best, daily informed, and she also wrote at intervals to Mrs. Morton, by special desire of Lady Northmoor, and likewise to her own old servant, Eden, the nurse. She wrote cheerfully, but Eden had other correspondents in the servants' hall, who dwelt sensationally on the danger, as towards Whitsun week the fever began to run higher towards the crisis, the strength was reduced, the torpor became heavier; and anxiety increased as to whether there would be power of rally in a man who, though healthy, had never been strong.
The anxiety manifested by the entire neighbourhood was a notable proof of the estimation in which the patient was held, and was very far from springing only from pity or humanity. Half the people who came to Lady Adela for further information had some cause going on in which 'That Stick' was one of the most efficient of props.
CHAPTER XXXI MITE
Little Michael Morton was in the meantime installed in his aunt's house. For him to be anywhere else was not to be thought of, and Mrs. Morton was soft-hearted enough to be very fond of such a bright little boy, so much in her own hands, and very amusing with the old-fashioned formal ways derived from chiefly consorting with older people.
Besides, the pretty little fellow was an object of great interest to all her acquaintances, especially as it was understood at Westhaven that it was only too possible that he might any day become Lord Northmoor; and never had Mrs. Morton's drawing-room been so much resorted to by visitors anxious for bulletins, or perhaps more truly for excitement. Mite was a young gentleman of some dignity. He sat elevated on a hassock upon a chair to dine at luncheon-time, comporting himself most correctly; but his aunt was sorely chafed at Eden's standing behind his chair, like Sancho's physician, to regulate his diet, and placing her veto upon lobsters, cucumbers, pastry, and glasses of wine with lumps of sugar in them.
It amounted to a trial of strength between aunt and nurse. Michael submitted once or twice, when told that his mamma would not approve, but the lobster struck him with extreme amazement and admiration, and he could not believe but that the red, long-whiskered monster was not as good as he was beautiful.
'He has got a glove like what Peter wears to cut the holly hedge,' exclaimed the boy, to the general amusement. 'Where's his hand?'
'My Mite shall have a bit of his funny hand,' said Mrs. Morton, and Ida was dealing with the claw, when Eden interposed and said she did not think her ladyship would wish Master Michael to have any.
'Just a taste, nurse, with some of the cream,' said Mrs. Morton. 'Here, Mitey dear.'
'No, Master Michael, mamma would say no,' said Eden.
'Really, Eden, you might let Mrs. Morton judge in her own house,' said Ida.
'Master Morton is under my charge, ma'am, and I am responsible for him,' said Eden, respectfully but firmly. But Ida held out the claw, and Michael made a dart at it.
Eden again said 'No,' but he looked up at her with an exulting roguish grin, and clasped it, whereupon she laid hold of him by the waist, and bore him off, kicking and roaring, amid the pitiful and indignant exclamations of his aunt and cousin.
It may be that the faithful Eden was somewhat wanting in tact, by her determined attention to the routine that chafed her hosts; but she had been forced to come away without directions, and could only hold fast to the discipline of her well-ordered nursery under all obstacles.
Master Michael was to have his cup of milk and run on the beach with the nursery-maid long before the usual awakening of the easy-going household, which regarded late hours as belonging to gentility; then, after the general breakfast, his small lessons, over which there often was a battle, first, because he felt injured by not doing them with his mother, and next, because his hostesses regarded them as a hardship, and taught him to cry over 'Reading without tears,' besides detaining him as late as they could over the breakfast, or proposing to take him out at once, without waiting for that quarter of an hour's work. Or when out-of-doors, they would not bring him home for the siesta, on which his nurse insisted, though it was often only lying down in the dark; nor had Mrs. Morton any scruple in breaking it, if she wanted to exhibit him to her friends, though if it were interrupted or omitted, the child's temper was the worse all the afternoon.
'That nurse is a thorough tyrant over the poor little darling, and a very impertinent woman besides,' said Mrs. Morton.
'A regular little spoiled brat,' Ida declared him.
While certainly the worse his father was said to be, the more his aunt tried to spoil and indulge him, as a relief to her pity and grief.
He had missed his home and parents a good deal at first, had cried at his lessons, and cried more at not having father to carry him to the nursery, nor mother to hear him say his prayers and kiss him at night; but time wore off the association, and he was full of delight at the sea, the ships, the little crabs, and all the other charms of the shore.
Above all, he was excited about the little boys. His own kind had never come in his way before, his chief playfellow being Amice, who was so much older as to play with him condescendingly and always give way to him. There was a large family in a neighbouring lodging containing what he respectfully called 'big knicker-bocker boys,' who excited his intense admiration, and drew him like a magnet.
For once Mrs. Morton and Eden were agreed as to the propriety of the companionship, since Rollstone had pronounced them of 'high family,' and the governess who was in charge of them was quite ready to be interested in the solitary little stranger, even if he had not been the Honourable Michael. So was the elder girl of the party, but, unluckily, Michael was just of the age to be a great nuisance to children who played combined and imaginative games which he could not yet understand.
When they were making elaborate approaches to a sand fortification, erected with great care and pains, he would dash on it with a coup de main, break it down at once with his spade, and stand proudly laughing and mixing up the ruins together, heedless of the howls of anger of the besiegers, and believing that he had done the right thing.
And once, when a wrathful boy of eight had shaken the troublesome urchin as he would have done his own junior, had this last presumed to stir up his clear pool of curiosities, most of the female portion of the family had taken the part of the intruder, and cried shame on any one who could hurt or molest a poor dear little boy away from a father who was so ill!
Thus the Lincoln family, for the sake of peace and self-defence, used sedulously to flee at the approach of Mite, and seek for secluded coves to which he was not likely to penetrate.
Mr. Rollstone was Eden's great solace. They discovered that they had once been staying in the same country-house, and had a great number of common acquaintances in the upper-servant world, and they entirely agreed in their estimate of Mrs. Morton and Ida, whom Mr. Rollstone pronounced to be neither fish, flesh, nor fowl, though as for Miss Constance, she was a lady all over, and always had been, and there might have been hopes for Mr. Herbert, if only he could have got into the army.
To sit with Mr. Rollstone, whom the last winter's rheumatics had left very infirm, was Eden's chief afternoon employment, as she could not follow her charge's wanderings on the beach, but had to leave him to the nursery-maid, Ellen. The old butler wanted much to show 'Miss Eden' his daughter, who took advantage of Whit-Sunday and the Bank-holiday to run down and see her parents, though at the next quarter she was coming home for good, extremely sorry to leave her advantages in London, and the friends she had made there, but feeling that her parents needed her so much that she must pursue her employment at home.
They were all very anxious on that Whit-Sunday, and Rose carried with her something of Constance's feeling, as with tears in her eyes she looked at the little fellow at the children's service, standing by his nurse, with wide open, inquiring eyes, chiefly fixed upon Willie Lincoln in satisfaction whenever an answer proceeded from that object of his unrequited attachment. With the young maiden's love of revelling in supposed grief, Rose already pitied the fair-faced, unconscious child as fatherless, and weighted with heavy responsibilities.
Another pair of eyes looked at the boy, not with pity, but indignant impatience.
Perhaps even already that little pretender was the only obstacle between Herbert and the coronet that was his by right, between Ida herself and—
Ida had walked from the school to the church with Mr. Deyncourt, and he had talked so gently and pitifully of the family distress, and assumed so much grief on her part, that his sympathy made her heart throb; above all, when he told her that his two sisters were coming to stay with him, Mrs. Rollstone had contrived to make room for them, and they would show her, better than he could, some of the plans he wished to have carried out with the little children.
So he wished to introduce her to his sisters! What did that mean? If the Deyncourts were ever so high they could not sneer at Lord Northmoor's sisters.
Then she thought of many a novel, and in real life, of what she believed respecting that lost lover of Miss Morton's. And later in the day Tom Brady lounged up to Northmoor Cottage, and leaning with one elbow on the window-sill, while the other arm held away the pipe he had just taken from his lips, he asked if they would give him a cup of tea, the whole harbour was so full of such beastly, staring cads that there was no peace there. One ought to give such places a wide berth at Whitsuntide.
'I wonder you did not,' said Ida, as she hastened to compound the tea.
'Forgot it,' he lazily droned, 'forgot it. Attractions, you know,' and, as she brought the cup to the window, with a lump of sugar in the tongs, 'when sugar fingers are—' and the speech ended in a demonstration at the fingers that made Ida laugh, blush, and say, 'Oh, for shame, Mr. Brady!'
'You had better come in, Mr. Brady,' called Mrs. Morton. 'You can't drink it comfortably there, and you'll be upsetting it. We are down in the dining-room to-day, because—'
The cause, necessary to her gentility, was lost, as Ida proceeded to let him in at the front door, and he presently deposited himself on the sofa, grumbling complacently at the bore of holidays, especially bank holidays. His crew would have been ready to strike, he declared, if he had taken them out of harbour, or he would have asked the ladies to come on a cruise out of the way of it all.
'Why, thank you very much, Mr. Brady, but, really in my poor brother, Lord Northmoor's state, I don't know that it would be etiquette.'
'Ah, yes. By the bye, how's the governor?'
'Very sad, strength failing. I hardly expect to hear he is alive to-morrow,' and Mrs. Morton's handkerchief was raised.
'Oh ay, sad enough, you know! I say, will it make any difference to you?'
'My poor, dear brother! Well, it ought, you know. Indeed it would if it had not been for that dear little boy. My poor Herbert!'
'It must have been an awful sell for him.'
'Yes,' said Ida, 'and some people think there was something very odd about it all—the child being born out in the Dolomites, with nobody there!'
'Don't, Ida, I can't have you talk so,' protested her mother.
'Supposititious, by all that's lucky! I should strangle him!' and Mr. Brady put back his head and laughed a loud and hearty laugh, by no means elegant, but without much sound of truculent intentions.
CHAPTER XXXII A SHOCK
It was on the Thursday of Whitsun-week when Lady Adela and Bertha came down from their visit of inquiry, a little more hopeful than on the previous day, though they could not yet say that recovery was setting in.
But a great shock awaited them. The parlour-maid met them at the door, pale and tearful. 'Oh, my lady, Mrs. Eden's come, and—'
Poor Eden herself was in the hall, and nothing was to be heard but 'Oh, my lady!' and another tempest of sobs.
'Come in, Eden,' scolded Bertha, in her impatience. 'Don't keep us in this way. What has happened to the child? Let us have it at once! The worst, or you wouldn't be here.'
For all answer, Eden held up a little wooden spade, a sailor hat, and a shoe showing traces of sand and sea-water.
'It is so then,' said Lady Adela. 'Oh, his mother! But,' after that one wail, she thought of the poor woman before her, 'I am sure you are not to blame, Eden.'
'Oh, my lady, if I could but feel that! But that I should have trusted the darling out of my sight for a moment!'
Presently they brought her to a state in which she could tell her lamentable history.
She had been spending the afternoon at Mr. Rollstone's, leaving Master Michael as usual in the care of the underling, Ellen, and after that she knew no more till neither child nor maid came home at his supper-time, and Mrs. Morton was slowly roused to take alarm, while Eden, half distracted, wandered about, seeking her charge, and found Ellen, calling and shouting in vain for him. Ellen confessed that she had seen him running after the Lincoln children, and supposing him with them, had given herself up to the study of a penny dreadful in company with another young nursemaid. When they had awakened to real life, the first idea had been that he must be with these children; but they were gone, and Ellen, fancying that he might have gone home with them, asked at their lodging, but no, he was not there.
The tide was by this time covering the beach, and driving away the miserable maids, with the aunt, cousin and others who had been on the fruitless quest. No more could be done then, and they went home with desolation in their hearts. Miss Ida, as Eden declared, stayed out long after everybody else when it was clearly of no use, and came back so tired and upset that she went up straight to bed. There was still a hope that some one might have met the little boy and taken him home, unable clearly to make out to whom he belonged, more especially as the Lincolns in terror and compunction had confessed that they had seen him and his nurse from a distance, and had rushed headlong round a projecting rock into a cove, hoping that he had not seen them, because he was so tiresome and spoilt all their games. And when that morning the spade, hat, and shoe were discovered upon the shore, not far from the very rock, the poor children had to draw plenty of morals on the consequences of selfishness. No doubt that poor little Michael had pursued them barefooted and gone too near the waves!
There was nothing more but the forlorn hope that the waves would restore the little body they had carried off, and Mrs. Morton was watching for that last sad satisfaction. In case of that contingency, Ellen, as the last person known to have seen the boy, had been left at Westhaven, in agonies of despair, vowing that she would never speak to any one, nor look at a story-book again in her life. She had attempted the excuse that she thought she saw Miss Ida going in that direction, but the young lady had declared that she had never been on the beach at all that afternoon till after the alarm had been given; and had been extremely angry with Ellen for making false excuses and trying to shift off the blame, and the girl had been much terrified, and owned that she was not at all sure.
'And oh, my lady,' entreated Eden, 'don't send me up to the House! Don't make me face her ladyship! I should die of it!'
'We must think what is to be done about that,' said Lady Adela. 'Can you tell whether any one from the House has seen you?'
Eden thought not, and after she had been consigned to her friend, Lady Adela's maid, to be rested, fed, and comforted as far as might be possible, the sisters-in-law held sad counsel, and agreed that it was not safe to keep back the terrible news from the poor mother who expected daily tidings of her child, and might hear some report, in spite of her shut-up state.
'Poor Adela, I pity you almost as much as her,' said Bertha.
'Oh, I know now how much I have to be thankful for! No uncertainty—and my little one's grave.'
'Besides Amice. Let me drive you up, Addie. Your heart is beating enough to knock you down.'
'Well, I believe it is. But not up to the front door. I will go in by the garden. Oh, may he be spared to her at least!'
Very pale then Lady Adela crept in, meeting a weeping maid who was much relieved to see her, but was hardly restrained from noisy sobs. Mr. Trotman, she said, had come just before the garden boy had inevitably dashed up with the tidings, and the household had been waiting till he came out, to secure that he should be near when Lady Northmoor was told.
Adela felt that this might be the safest opportunity, and sent a message to the door to beg that her ladyship would come and speak to her for a few minutes in the study.
Mary's soft step was soon there, and her lips were framing the words, 'No ground lost,' when at sight of Adela's face the light went out of her eyes, and setting herself firmly on her feet, she said, 'You have bad news. My boy!'
Adela came near and would have taken her hand, saying—'My poor Mary'—but she clasped them both as if to hold herself together, and said, 'The fever!'
'No, no—sadder still! Drowned!'
'Ah, then there was not all that suffering, and without me! Thankworthy— Oh no, no, please'—as Lady Adela, with eyes brimming over, would have pressed her to her bosom—'don't—don't upset me, or I could not attend to Frank. It all turns on this one day, they say, and I must—I must be as usual. There will be time enough to know all about it—if'—with a long oppressed gasp—'he is saved from the hearing it.'
'I think you are right, dear,' said Adela, 'if you keep him—' but she could not go on.
'Well, any way,' said Mary, 'either he will be given back, or he will be saved this. Let me go back to him, please.' Then at the door, putting her hand to her head—'Who is here?'
'Ah, let her and Emma know that I am sure it is not their fault. Come again to-morrow, please; I think he will be better.'
She went away in that same gliding manner, perfectly tearless. Adela waited to see the doctor, who assured her that the patient had rather gained than lost during the last twenty-four hours, and that if he could be spared from any shock or agitation he would probably recover. Lady Northmoor seemed so entirely absorbed by his critical state, that she was not likely to betray the sad knowledge she had put aside in the secret chamber of her heart, more especially as her husband was still too much weighed down, and too slumberous to be observant, or to speak much, and knowing the child to be out of the house, he did not inquire for him.
Nevertheless, Mr. Trotman gladly approved of Lady Adela's intention of sleeping in the house in case of any sudden collapse; and the servants, who were not to let Lady Northmoor know, evidently felt this a great relief.
'Yes, it is a comfort to think some one will be within that poor thing's reach,' said Bertha, as they went back together, 'and, if you can bear it, you are the right person.'
'She will not let herself dwell on it. She never even looked at Mrs. Morton's letter.'
'And I really hope they won't find the poor little dear, to have all the fuss and heart-rending.'
'There's only one thing that would make me wish it. I'm quite sure that that Miss Ida knows more about it than she owns. No, you need not say, "Oh, Birdie" again; I don't suspect her of the deed, but I do believe she saw the boy and kept out of his way, and now wants that poor Ellen to have all the blame!'
'You will believe nothing against a girl out of an orphanage!'
'I had rather any day believe Ellen Mole than Ida Morton. There's something about that girl which has always revolted me. I would never trust her farther than I could see her!'
'Prejudice, Birdie; because she is in bad style.'
'You to talk of prejudice, Addie, who hardly knew how to go on living here under the poor stick!'
'Don't, Birdie. He has earned esteem by sheer goodness. Poor man, I don't know what to wish for him when I think of the pang that awaits him.'
'You know what to wish for yourself and Northmoor! Not but that Herbert may come to good if he doesn't come into possession for many a long year.'
'And now I must write to that poor child, Constance. But oh, Bertha, don't condemn hastily! Haven't I had enough of that?'
CHAPTER XXXIII DARKNESS
Full a week later, Frank looked up from his pillow, and said, 'I wonder when it will be safe to have Mite back. Mary, sweet, what is it? I have been sure something was burthening you. Come and tell me. If he has the fever, you must go to him. No!' as she clasped his hand and laid her face down on the pillow.
'Ah, Frank, he does not want us any more!'
'My Mary, my poor Mary, have you been bearing such knowledge about with you? For how long?'
'Since that worst day, yesterday week. Oh, but to see you getting better was the help!'
'Can you tell me?'
She told him, in that low, steady voice, all she knew. It was very little, for she had avoided whatever might break the composure that seemed so needful to his recovery; and he could listen quietly, partly from the lulling effect of weakness, partly from his anxiety for her, and the habit of self-restraint, in which all the earlier part of their lives had been passed, made utterance come slowly to them.
'Life will be different to us henceforth,' he once said. 'We have had three years of the most perfect happiness. He gave and He hath taken away. Blessed—'
And there he stopped, for he saw the working of her face. Otherwise they hardly spoke of their loss even to one another. It went down deeper than they could bear to utter, and their hearts and eyes met if their lips did not. Only Lord Northmoor lay too dejected to make the steps expected in the recovery of strength for a few days after the grievous revelation, and on the day when at last he was placed on a couch by the window, his wife collapsed, and, almost unconscious, was carried to her bed.
It was not a severe or alarming attack, and all she wanted was to be let alone; but there was enough of sore throat and other symptoms to prolong the quarantine, and Lady Adela could no longer be excluded from giving her aid. She went to and fro between the patients, and comforted each with regard to the other, telling the one how her husband's strength was returning, and keeping the other tranquil by the assurance that what his wife most needed was perfect rest, especially from the necessity of restraining herself. Those eyes showed how many tears were poured forth when they could have their free course. Lady Adela had gone through enough to feel with ready tact what would be least jarring to each. She had persuaded Bertha to go back to London, both to her many avocations and to receive Amice, who must still be kept at a distance for some time.
Lord Northmoor, as soon as he had strength and self-command for it, read poor Mrs. Morton's letters, and also saw Eden, for whom there was little fear of infection. She managed to tell her history and answer all his questions in detail, but she quite broke down under his kind tone of forgiveness and assurance that no blame attached to her, and that he was only grateful to her for her tender care of his child, and she went away sobbing pitifully.
Adela came back, after taking her from the room, where Frank was sitting in an easy-chair by the window, and looking out on the summer garden, which seemed to be stripped of all its charm and value for him.
'Poor thing,' she said, 'she is quite overcome by your kindness.'
'I do not think any one is more to be pitied,' said he.
'No, indeed, but she wishes you would have heard what she had to say about the supposing Ida to have gone in that direction.'
'I thought it better not. It would not have exonerated the poor little maid from carelessness, and there is no use in fostering a sense of injury or suspicion, when what is done cannot be undone,' he said wearily.
'Indeed you are quite right,' said Adela earnestly. 'You know how to be in charity with all men. Oh, the needless misery of hasty unjust suspicions!' Then as he looked up at her—'Do you know our own story?'
'Only the main facts.'
'I think you ought to know it. It accounts for so much!' said she, moved partly by the need of utterance, and partly by the sense that the turn of his thoughts might be good for him. 'You know what a passion for horses there has always been in this family.'
'I know—I could have had it if my life had begun more prosperously.'
'And you have done your best to save Herbert from it. Well, my Arthur had it to a great degree; and so indeed had Bertha. They were brought up to nothing else; Bertha was, I really think, a better judge than her brother, she was not so reckless. They became intimate with a Captain Alder, who was in the barracks at Copington—much the nicest, as I used to think, of the set, though I was not very glad to see an attachment growing up between him and Bertha. There was always such a capacity of goodness in her that I longed to see her in the way of being raised altogether.'
'She has always been most kind to us. There is much to admire in her.'
'Her present life has developed all that is best; but—' She hesitated, wondering whether the good simple man were sensible of that warp in the nature that she had felt. She went on, 'Then she was a masterful, high-spirited girl, to whom it seemed inevitable to come to high words with any one about whom she cared. And I must say—she and my husband, while they were passionately fond of one another, seemed to have a sort of fascination in provoking one another, not only in words but in deeds. Ah, you can hardly believe it of her! How people get tamed! Well, Arthur bought a horse, a beautiful creature, but desperately vicious. Captain Alder had been with him when he first saw it, and admired it; but I do not think gave an opinion against it. Bertha, however, from the moment she saw its eyes and ears, protested against it in her vehement way. I remember imploring her not to make Arthur defy her; but really when they got into those moods, I don't think they could stop themselves, and she thought Captain Alder encouraged him. So Arthur went out on that fatal drive in the dog-cart, and no sooner were they out on the Colbeam road than the horse bolted, they came into collision with a hay waggon. And—'
'Captain Alder was thrown on the top of the hay and not hurt. He came to prepare me to receive Arthur, and then went up to the house. Bertha, poor girl, in her wild grief almost flew at him. It was all his doing, she said; he had egged Arthur on; she supposed Arthur had bets. In short, she knew not what she said; but he left the house, and never has been near her again.'
'Were they engaged?'
'Not quite formally, but they understood one another, and were waiting for a favourable moment with old Lord Northmoor, who was not easy to deal with, and it was far from being a good match anyway. We all thought, I believe, that the drive was the fault or rather the folly of Captain Alder, and Arthur was too ill to explain—unconscious at first—then not rousing himself. At last he asked for his friend, and then he told me that Captain Alder had done all in his power to prevent his taking the creature out—had told him he had no right to endanger his life; and when only laughed at, had insisted on going with him, in hopes, I suppose, of averting mischief. I wrote—Lord Northmoor wrote to him at his quarters; but our letters came back to us. We had kept no watch on the gazette, and he had retired and left no address with his brother-officers. Bertha knew that his parents were dead, and that he had a sister at school at Clifton. I wrote to her, but the mistress sent back my letter; and we found that he had fetched away his sister and gone. Even his money was taken from Coutts's, as if to cut off any clue.'
'He should not have so attended to a girl in her angry grief.'
'No, but I think there was some self-blame in him, though not about that horse. I believe he thought he might have checked Arthur more. And he had debts which he seems to have paid on selling out his capital. So, as I have told poor Bertha whenever she would let me, there may have been other reasons besides her stinging words.'
'And it has preyed on her?'
'More than any one would guess who had not known her in old times. I was glad that you secured that child, Cea, to her. She seems to have fastened her affections on her.'
'Alder,' presently repeated Frank. 'Alder—I was thinking how the name had come before me. There were some clients of ours—of Mr. Burford's, I mean—of that name; I think they sold an estate. Some day I will find out whether he knows anything about them, and I shall remember more by and by.'
'It would be an immense relief if you could find out anything good about the poor fellow,' said Adela, very glad to have found any topic of interest, and pleased to find that it occupied his thoughts afterwards, when he asked whether she knew the Christian name of this young man, without mentioning any antecedent, as if he had been going on with the subject all the time.
In a few days the pair were able to meet, and to take up again the life over which a dark veil had suddenly descended, contrasting with the sunshine of those last few years. To hold up one another, and do their duty on their way to the better world, was evidently the one thought, though they said little.
Still neither was yet in a condition to return to ordinary life, and it was determined that as soon as they were disinfected, they should leave the house to undergo the same process, and spend a few weeks at some health resort. Only Mary shuddered at the notion of hearing the sound of the sea, and Malvern was finally fixed upon. Lady Adela would go with them, and she wrote to beg that Constance, so soon as her term was over, might bring Amice thither, to be in a separate lodging at first, till there had been time to see whether the little girl's company would be a solace or a trial to the bereaved parents.
Bertha, as soon as the chief anxiety was over, joined Mrs. Bury in a mountaineering expedition. She declared that she had never dared to leave Cea before, lest the wretched father, now proved to be a myth, should come and abstract the child.
CHAPTER XXXIV THE PHANTOM OF THE STATION
There was a crash in Mrs. Morton's kitchen, where an elegant five o'clock tea was preparing, not only to greet Herbert, who had just come home to await the news of his fate after the last military examination open to him, but also for a friend or two of his mother's, who, to his great annoyance, might be expected to drop in on any Wednesday afternoon.
Every one ran out to see what was the matter, and the maid was found picking up Mrs. Morton's silver teapot, the basket-work handle of which had suddenly collapsed under the weight of tea and tea-leaves. The mistress's exclamations and objurgation of the maid for not having discovered its frail condition need not be repeated. It had been a wedding-present, and was her great pride. After due examination to see whether there were any bruises or dents, she said—
'Well, Ida, we must have yours; run and fetch it out of the box. You have the key of it.' And she held out the key of the cupboard where the spoons were daily taken out by herself or Ida.
The teapot had been left to Ida by a godmother, who had been a farmer's wife, with a small legacy, but was of an unfashionable make and seldom saw the light.
'That horrid, great clumsy thing!' said Ida. 'You had much better use the blue china one.'
'I'll never use that crockery for company when there's silver in the house! What would Mrs. Denham say if she dropped in?'
'I won't pour out tea in that ugly, heavy brute of a thing.'
'Then if you won't, I will. Give me the key this instant!'
'It is mine, and I am not going to give it up!'
'Come, Ida,' said Herbert, weary of the altercation; 'any one would think you had made away with it! Let us have it for peace's sake.'
'It's no business of yours.'
He whistled. However, at that moment the door-bell rang.
It was to admit a couple of old ladies, whom both the young people viewed as very dull company; and the story of the illness of 'my brother, Lord Northmoor,' as related by their mother, had become very tedious, so that as soon as possible they both sauntered out on the beach.
'I wonder when uncle will send for you!' Ida said. 'He must give you a good allowance now.'
'Don't talk of it, Ida; it makes me sick to think of it. I say—is that the old red rock where they saw the last of the poor little kid?'
'Yes; that was where his hat was.'
'Did you find it? Was it washed up?'
'Don't talk of such dreadful things, Bertie; I can't bear it! And there's Rose Rollstone!'
Ida would have done her utmost to keep her brother and Rose Rollstone apart at any other time, but she was at the moment only too glad to divert his attention, and allowed him, without protest, to walk up to Rose, shake hands with her, and rejoice in her coming home for good; but, do what Ida would, she could not keep him from recurring to the thought of the little cousin of whom he had been very fond.
'Such a jolly little kid!' he said; 'and full of spirit! You should have seen him when I picked him up before me on the cob. How he laughed!'
'So good, too,' said Rose. 'He looked so sweet with those pretty brown eyes and fair curls at church that last Sunday.'
'I can't make out how it was. The tide could not have been high enough to wash him off going round that rock, or the other children would not have gone round it.'
'Oh, I suppose he ran after a wave,' said Ida hastily.
'Do you know,' said Rose mysteriously, 'I could have declared I saw him that very evening, and with his nursery-maid, too!'
'Nonsense, Rose! We don't believe in ghosts!' said Ida.
'It was not like a ghost,' said Rose. 'You know I had come down for the bank-holiday, and went back to finish my quarter at the art embroidery. Well, when we stopped at the North Westhaven station, I saw a man, woman, and child get in, and it struck me that the boy was Master Michael and the woman Louisa Hall. I think she looked into the carriage where I was, and I was going to ask her where she was taking him.'
'Nonsense, Rose! How can you listen to such folly, Herbert?'
'But that's not all! I saw them again under the gas when I got out. I was very near trying to speak to her, but I lost sight of her in the throng; but I saw that face so like Master Michael, only scared and just ready to cry.'
'You'll run about telling that fine ghost-story,' said Ida roughly.
'But Louisa could not have been a ghost,' said Rose, bewildered. 'I thought she was his nursery-maid taking him somewhere! Didn't she—' then with a sudden flash—'Oh!'
'Turned off long ago for flirting with that scamp Rattler,' said Herbert. 'Now she has run off with him.'
'There was a sailor-looking man with her,' said Rose.
'I never heard such intolerable nonsense!' burst out Ida. 'Mere absurdity!'
Herbert looked at her with surprise at the strange passion she exhibited. He asked—
'Did you say the Hall girl had run away?'
'Oh, never mind, Herbert!' cried Ida, as if unable to command herself. 'What is it to you what a nasty, horrid girl like that does?'
'Hold your tongue, Ida!' he said resolutely. 'If you won't speak, let Rose.'
'She did,' said Rose, in a low, anxious, terrified voice. 'I only heard it since I came home. She was married at the registrar's office to that man Jones, whom they call the Rattler, and went off with him. It must have been her whom I saw, really and truly; and, oh, Herbert, could she have been so wicked as to steal Master Michael!'
'Somebody else has been wicked then,' said Herbert, laying hold of his sister's arm.
'I don't know what all this means,' exclaimed Ida, in great agitation; 'nor what you and Rose are at! Making up such horrible, abominable insinuations against me, your poor sister! But Rose Rollstone always hated me!'
'She does not know what she is saying,' sighed Rose; and, with much delicacy, she moved away.
'Let me go, Herbert!' cried Ida, as she felt his grip on her hand.
'Not I, Ida—till you have answered me! Is this so—that Michael is not drowned, but carried off by that woman?' demanded Herbert, holding her fast and looking at her with manly gravity, not devoid of horror.
'He is a horrid little impostor, palmed off to keep you out of the title and everything! That's why I did it!' sobbed Ida, trying to wrench herself away.
'Oh, you did it, did you? You confess that! And what have you done with him?'
'I tell you he is no Morton at all—just the nurse-woman's child, taken to spite you. I found it all out at—what's its name?—Botzen; only ma would not be convinced.'
'I should suppose not! To think that my uncle and aunt would do such a thing—why, I don't know whether it is not worse than stealing the child!'
'Herbert! Herbert! do you want to bring your sister to jail, talking in that way?'
'It is no more than you deserve. I would bring you there if it is the only way to get back the child! I do not know what is bad enough for you. My poor uncle and aunt! To have brought such misery on them!' He clenched his hands as he spoke.
'Everybody said she didn't mind—didn't ask questions, didn't cry, didn't go on a bit like his real mother.'
'She could not, or it might have been the death of my uncle. Bertha wrote it all to me; but you—you would never understand. Ida, I can't believe that you, my sister, could have done such an awfully wicked thing!'
'I wouldn't, only I was sure he was not—'
'No more of that stuff!' said Herbert. 'You don't know what they are.'
'I do. So strict—not a bit like a mother.'
'If our mother had been like them, you might not have been such a senseless monster,' said Herbert, pausing for a word. 'Come, now; tell me what you have done with him, or I shall have to set on the police.'
'Oh, Herbert, how can you be so cruel?'
'It is not I that am cruel! Come, speak out! Did you bribe her with your teapot? Ah! I see: what has she done with him?'
He gripped her arm almost as he used to torture her when they were children, and insisted again that either she must tell him the whole truth or he should set the police on the track.
'You wouldn't,' she said, awed. 'Think of the exposure and of mother!'
'I can think of nothing but saving Mite! I say—my mother knows nothing of this?'
'Oh no, no!'
Herbert breathed more freely, but he was firm, and seemed suddenly to have grown out of boyishness into manly determination, and gradually he extracted the whole story from her. He would not listen to the delusion in which she had worked herself into believing, founded upon the negations for which she had sedulously avoided seeking positive refutation, and which had been bolstered up by her imagination and wishes, working on the unsubstantial precedents of novels. She had brought herself absolutely to believe in the imposture, and at a moment when her uncle's condition seemed absolutely to place within her grasp the coronet for Herbert, with all possibilities for herself.
Then came the idea of Louisa Hall, inspired by seeing her speak to little Michael on the beach, and obtain his pretty smiles and exclamation of 'Lou, Lou! mine Lou!' for he had certainly liked this girl better than Ellen, who was wanting in life and animation. Ida knew that Sam Jones, alias Rattler, was going out to join his brother in Canada, and that Louisa was vehemently desirous to accompany him, but had failed to satisfy the requirements of Government as to character, so as to obtain a free passage, and was therefore about to be left behind in desertion and distress. She might beguile Michael away quietly and carry him to Canada, where, as it seemed, there were any amount of farmers ready to adopt English children—a much better lot, in Ida's eyes, than the little Tyrolese impostor deserved. She even persuaded herself that she was doing an act of great goodness, when, at the price of her teapot, she obtained that Louisa should be married by the registrar to Sam Jones, and their passage paid, on condition of their carrying away Michael with them. The man was nothing loth, having really a certain preference for Louisa, and likewise a grudge against Lord Northmoor for having spoilt that game with Miss Morton, which might have brought the means for the voyage.
They were married on Whit Monday, and Ida was warned that if she and Louisa could not get possession of the child by Wednesday, he would be left behind. Louisa was accordingly on the watch, and Ida hovered about, just enough completely to put the nurses off their guard. They heard Michael's imploring call of 'Willie! Willie!' and then Louisa descended on him with coaxings and promises, and Ida knew no more, except that, as she had desired, a parcel had been sent her containing the hat and shoes. The spade she had herself picked up.
When Rose had seen them, they had no doubt been on their way to Liverpool.
It seemed to be Herbert's horror-stricken look that first showed his sister the enormity of what she had done, and when she pleaded 'for your sake,' he made such a fierce sound of disgust, that she only durst add further, 'Oh, Herbert, you will not tell?'
'Not find him?' he thundered.
'No, no; I didn't mean that! But don't let them know about me! Just think—'
'I must think! Get away now; I can't bear you near!'
And just then a voice was heard, 'Miss Hider, Miss Hider, your ma wants you!'
CHAPTER XXXV THE QUEST
Herbert had made no promises, but as he paced up and down the shingle after his sister had gone in, he had time to feel that, though he was determined to act at once, the scandal of her deed must be as much as possible avoided. Indeed, he believed that she might have rendered herself amenable to prosecution for kidnapping the child, and he felt on reflection that his mother must be spared the terror and disgrace. His difficulties were much increased by the state of quarantine at Northmoor, for though the journey to Malvern had been decided upon, neither patient was yet in a state to attempt it, and as one of the servants had unexpectedly sickened with the disease, all approach to the place was forbidden; nor did he know with any certainty how far his uncle's recovery had advanced, since Bertha, his chief informant, had gone abroad with Mrs. Bury, and Constance was still at Oxford.
He went home, and straight up to his room, feeling it intolerable to meet his sister; and there, the first sleepless night he had ever known, convinced him that to the convalescents it would be cruelty to send his intelligence, when it amounted to no more than that their poor little boy had been made over to an unscrupulous woman and a violent, good-for-nothing man.
'No,' said Herbert, as he tossed over; 'it would be worse than believing him quietly dead, now they have settled down to that. I must get him back before they know anything about it. But how? I must hunt up those wretches' people here, and find where they are gone; if they know—as like as not they won't. But I'll throw everything up till I find the boy!' He knelt up in his bed, laid his hand on his Bible—his uncle's gift—and solemnly swore it.
And Herbert was another youth from that hour.
When he had brought his ideas into some little order, the foremost was that he must see Rose Rollstone, discover how much she knew or guessed, and bind her to silence. 'No fear of her, jolly little thing!' said he to himself; but, playfellows as they had been, private interviews were not easy to secure under present circumstances.
However, the tinkling of the bell of the iron church suggested an idea. 'She is just the little saint of a thing to be always off to church at unearthly hours. I'll catch her there—if only that black coat isn't always after her!'
So Herbert hurried off to the iron building, satisfied himself with a peep that Rose's sailor hat was there, and then—to make sure of her—crept into a seat by the door, and found his plans none the worse for praying for all needing help in mind, body, or estate. Rose came out alone, and he was by her side at once. 'I say, Rose, you did not speak about that last night?'
'Oh no, indeed!'
'You're a brick! I got it all out of that sister of mine. I'm only ashamed that she is my sister!'
'And where is the dear little boy?'
'That's the point,' and Herbert briefly explained his difficulties, and Rose agreed that he must try to learn where the emigrants had gone, from their relations. And when he expressed his full intention of following them, even if he had to work his passage, before telling the parents, she applauded the nobleness of the resolution, and all the romance in her awoke at the notion of his bringing home the boy and setting him before his parents. She was ready to promise secrecy for the sake of preventing the prosecution that might, as Herbert saw, be a terrible thing for the whole family; and besides, it must be confessed, the two young things did rather enjoy the sharing of a secret. Herbert promised to meet her the next morning, and report his discoveries and plans, as in fact she was the only person with whom he could take counsel.
He did meet her accordingly, going first to the church. He had to tell her that he had been able to make nothing of Mrs. Hall. He was not sure whether she knew where her daughter had gone; at any rate, she would not own to any knowledge, being probably afraid. Besides, when acting as charwoman, Master Herbert had been such a torment to her that she was not likely to oblige him.
He had succeeded better with the Jones family, and perhaps had learnt prudence, for he had not begun by asking for the Rattler, but for the respectable brother who had invited him out, and had thus learnt that the destination of the emigrant was Toronto, where the elder brother was employed on the British Empress, Ontario steamer. Mrs. Jones, the mother, and her eldest son were decent people, and there was no reason to think they were aware of the encumbrances that their scapegrace had taken with him.
So Herbert had resolved, without delay, to make his way to Toronto; where he hoped to find the child, and maybe, bring him back in a month's time.
'Only,' said Rose timidly, 'did you really mean what you said about working your way out?'
'Well, Rose, that's the hitch. I had to pay up some bills after I got my allowance, and unluckily I changed my bicycle, and the rascals put a lot more on the new one, and I haven't got above seven pounds left, and I must keep some for the rail from New York and for getting home, for I can't take the kid home in the steerage. The bicycle's worth something, and so is my watch, if I put them in pawn; so I think I can do it that way, and I'm quite seaman enough to get employment, only I don't want to lose time about it.'
'I was thinking,' said Rose shyly; 'they made me put into the Post Office Savings Bank after I began to get a salary. I have five-and-twenty pounds there that I could get out in a couple of days, and I should be so glad to help to bring that dear little boy home.'
'Oh, Rose, you are a girl! You see, you are quite safe not to lose it, for my uncle would be only too glad to pay it back, even if I came to grief any way, and it would make it all slick smooth. I would go to Liverpool straight off, and cross in the first steamer, and the thing's done. And can you get at it at once with nobody knowing?'
'Yes, I think so,' said Rose. 'My father asked to see my book when first I came home, and he is not likely to do so again, till I can explain all about it, and I am sure it cannot be wrong.'
'Wrong—no! Right as a trivet! Rose, Rose, if ever that poor child sees his father and mother again, it is every bit your doing! No one can tell what I think of it, or what my uncle and aunt will say to you! You've been the angel in this, if Ida has been the other thing!'
But Rose found difficulties in the way of her angelic part, for her father addressed her in his most solemn and sententious manner: 'Rose, I have always looked on you as sensible and discreet, but I have to say that I disapprove of your late promenades with a young man connected with the aristocracy.'
Rose coloured up a good deal, but cried out, 'It's not that, papa, not that!'
'I do not suppose either you or he is capable at present of forming any definite purpose,' said Mr. Rollstone, not to be baulked of his discourse; 'but you must bear in mind that any appearance of encouragement to a young man in his position can only have a most damaging effect on your prospects, and even reputation, however flattering he may appear.'
'I know it, papa, I know it! There has been nothing of the kind, I assure you,' said Rose, who during the last discourse had had time to reflect; 'and he is going away to-morrow or next day, so you need not be afraid, though I must see him or send to him once more before he goes.'
'Well, if you are helping him to get some present for his sisters, I do not see so much objection for this once; only it must not occur again.'
Rose was much tempted to let this suggestion stand, but truth forbade her, and she said, 'No, papa, I cannot say it is that; but you will know all about it before long, and you will not disapprove, if you will only trust your little Rose,' and she looked up for a kiss.
'Well, I never found you not to be trusted, though you are a coaxing puss,' said her father, and so the matter ended with him, but she had another encounter with her mother.
'Mind, Rose, if that churching—which Sunday was enough for any good girl in my time—is only to lead to walking with young gents which has no call to you, I won't have it done.'
Mrs. Rollstone was not cultivated up to her husband's mark, neither had she ever inspired so much confidence, and Rose made simple answer, 'It is all right, mamma; I have spoken to papa about it.'
'Oh, if your pa knows, I suppose he is satisfied; but men aren't the same as a mother, and if that there young Mr. Morton comes dangling and gallanting after you, he is after no good.'
'He is doing no such thing,' said Rose in a resolutely calm voice that might have shown that she was with difficulty controlling her temper; 'and, besides, he is going away.'
Wherewith Mrs. Rollstone had to be satisfied.
Rose took a bold measure when she had taken her five five-pound notes from the savings bank. She saw her father preparing to waddle out for his daily turn on the beach, and she put the envelope containing them, addressed to H. Morton, Esq., into his hand, begging him to give it to Mr. Morton himself.
Which he did, when he met Herbert trying to soothe his impatience with a cigar.
'Here, sir,' he said, 'my daughter wishes me to give you this. I don't ask what it is, mind; but I tell you plainly, I don't like secrets between young people.'
Herbert tried to laugh naturally, then said, 'Your daughter is no end of a trump, Mr. Rollstone.'
'Only recollect this, sir—I know my station and I know yours, and I will have no nonsense with her.'
'All right!' said Herbert shortly, with a laugh, his head too full of other matters to think what all this implied.
He wished to avoid exciting any disturbance, so he told his mother that he should be off again the next day.
'It is very hard,' grumbled Mrs. Morton, 'that you can never be contented to stay with your poor mother! I did hope that with the regatta, and the yachts, and Mr. Brady, you would find amusement enough to give us a little of your company; but nothing is good enough for you now. Which of your fine friends are you going to?'
Herbert was not superior to an evasion, and said, 'I'm going up to town first, and shall see Dacre, and I'll write by and by.'
She resigned herself to the erratic movements of the son, who, being again, in her eyes, heir to the peerage, was to her like a comet in a higher sphere.
CHAPTER XXXVI IDA'S CONFESSION
The move to Malvern was at last made, and the air seemed at once to invigorate Lord Northmoor, though the journey tried his wife more than she had expected, and she remained in a very drooping state, in spite of her best efforts not to depress him. Nothing seemed to suit her so well as to lie on a couch in the garden of their lodging, with Constance beside her, talking, and sometimes smiling over all her little Mite's pretty ways; though at other times she did her best to seem to take interest in other matters, and to persuade her husband that his endeavours to give her pleasure or interest were successful, because the exertions he made for her sake were good for him.
He was by this time anxious—since he was by the end of three weeks quite well, and fairly strong—to go down to Westhaven, and learn all he could about the circumstances of the fate of his poor little son; and only delayed till he thought his wife could spare him. Lady Adela urged him at last to go. She thought that Mary lived in a state of effort for his sake, and that there was a certain yearning and yet dread in the minds of both for these further details, so that the visit had better be over.
Thus it was about six weeks after Herbert's departure that Mrs. Morton received a note to tell her that her brother-in-law would arrive the next evening. It was terrible news to Ida, and if there had been time she would have arranged to be absent elsewhere; but as it was she had no power to escape, and had to spend her time in assisting in all the elaborate preparations which her mother thought due to the Baron—a very different personage in her eyes from the actual Frank.
He did not come till late in the day, and then Mrs. Morton received him with a very genuine gush of tears, and anxious inquiries. He was thin, and looked much older; his hair was grayer, and had retreated from his brow, and there was a bent, worn, dejected air about the whole man, which, as Mrs. Morton said, made her ready to cry whenever she looked at him; but he was quite composed in manner and tone, so as to repress her agitation, and confirm Ida's inexperienced judgment in the idea that Michael was none of his. He was surprised and concerned at Herbert's absence, which was beginning to make his mother uneasy, and he promised to write to some of the boy's friends to inquire about him. To put off the evil day, Ida had suggested asking Mr. Deyncourt to meet him, but that gentleman could not come, and dinner went off in stiff efforts at conversation, for just now all the power thereof, that Lord Northmoor had ever acquired, seemed to have forsaken him.
Afterwards, in the August twilight, he begged to hear all. Ida withdrew, glad not to submit to the ordeal, while her mother observed, 'Poor, dear Ida! She was so fond of her dear little cousin, she cannot bear to hear him mentioned! She has never been well since!'
Then, with copious floods of tears, and all in perfect good faith, she related the history of the loss, as she knew it, with—on his leading questions—a full account of all the child's pretty ways during his stay, and how he had never failed to say his prayer about making papa better, and how he had made friends with Mr. Deyncourt, in spite of having pronounced his church like a big tin box all up in frills; and how he had admired the crabs, and run after the waves, and had been devoted to the Willie, who had thought him troublesome—giving all the anecdotes, to which Frank listened with set face and dry eyes, storing them for his wife. He thanked Mrs. Morton for all her care and tenderness, and expended assurances that no one thought her to blame.
'It is one of those dispensations,' he said, 'that no one can guard against. We can only be thankful for the years of joy that no one can take from us, and try to be worthy to meet him hereafter.'
Mrs. Morton had wept so much that she was very glad to seize the first excuse for wishing good-night. She said that she had put all Michael's little things in a box in his father's room, for him to take home to his mother, and bade Frank—as once more she called him—good-night, kissing him as she had never done before. The shock had brought out all that was best and most womanly in her.
That box had an irresistible attraction for Frank. He could not but open it, and on the top lay the white woolly, headless dog that had been Mite's special darling, had been hugged by him in his slumbers every night, and been the means of many a joyous game when father and mother came up to wish the noisy creature good-night, and 'Tarlo' had been made to bark at them.
Somehow the 'never more' overcame him completely. He had not before been beyond the restraint of guarding his feelings for Mary's sake; and, tired with the long day, and torn by the evening's narration, all his self-command gave way, and he fell into a perfect anguish of deep-drawn, almost hysterical sobbing.
[Picture: 'What?' and he threw the door wide open]
Those sobs were heard through the thin partition in Ida's room. They were very terrible to her. They broke down the remnant of her excuse that the child was an imposition. They woke all her woman's tenderness, and the impulse to console carried her in a few moments to the door.
'Uncle! Uncle Frank!'
'I'm not ill,' answered a broken, heaving, impatient voice. 'I want nothing.'
'Oh, let me in, dear uncle—I've something to tell you!'
'Not now,' came on the back of a sob. 'Go!'
'Oh, now, now!' and she even opened the door a little. 'He is not drowned! At least, Rose Rollstone thinks—'
'What?' and he threw the door wide open.
'Rose Rollstone is sure she saw him with Louisa Hall in London that day,' hurried out Ida, still bent on screening herself. 'She's gone to Canada. It's there that Herbert is gone to find him and bring him home!'
'And why—why were we never told?'
'You were too ill, uncle, and Rose did not know about it till she came home. Then she told Herbert, and he hoped to find him and write.'
'When was this?'
'When Herbert came home—the 29th or 30th of June,' said Ida, trembling. 'He must find him, uncle; don't fear!'
It was a strange groaning sigh that answered; then, with a great effort—
'Thank you, Ida; I can't understand it yet—I can't talk! Good-night!' Then, with an afterthought, when he had almost shut his door, he turned the handle again to say, 'Who did you say saw—thought she saw—my boy? Where?'
'Rose Rollstone, uncle; first at the North Station—then at Waterloo! And Louisa Hall too!'
'I thank you; good-night!'
And for what a night of strange dreams, prayers, and uncertainties did Frank shut himself in—only forcing himself by resolute will into sleeping at last, because he knew that strength and coolness were needful for to-morrow's investigation.
CHAPTER XXXVII HOPE
That last sleep lasted long, till the sound of the little tinkling bell came through the open window, and then the first waking thought that Mite was alive was at first taken for a mere blissful dream. It was only the sight of the woolly dog that recalled with certainty the conversation with Ida.
To pursue that strange hint was of course the one impulse. The bell had ceased before Frank had been able to finish dressing, but the house was so far from having wakened to full life, that remembering the lateness of the breakfast hour, he decided on hastening out to lay his anxious, throbbing feelings before his God, if only to join in the prayer that our desires may be granted as may be most expedient for us.
Nor was he without a hope that the girl whom Constance described as so devout and religious might be found there.
And she was; he knew her by sight well enough to accost her when she came out with 'Miss Rollstone, I believe?'
She bowed, her heart thumping almost as much as the father's, in the importance of what she had to tell, and the doubt how much she had a right to speak without betrayal.
'I am told,' Lord Northmoor said, with a tremble in his voice, 'that you think you saw my poor little boy.'
'I am almost sure I did,' said Rose.
'And when, may I ask?'
'On the evening of the Wednesday in Whitsun week,' said Rose.
'Just when he was lost—and where?'
'At the North Station. I had got into the train at the main station. I saw him put into the train at the North one, and taken out at Waterloo.'
'And why—why, may I ask, have we been left—have we never heard this before?'
His voice shook, as he thought of all the misery to himself and his wife that might have been spared, as well as the danger of the child. Rose hesitated, doubting how much she ought to say, and Mr. Deyncourt came out.
'May I introduce myself?' said Frank, hoping for an auxiliary,—'Lord Northmoor. I have just heard that Miss Rollstone thinks she saw my little boy in the London train the day he disappeared; and I am trying to understand whether there is really any hope that she is right, and that we can recover him.'
Mr. Deyncourt was infinitely surprised, and spoke a few words of wonder that this had not been made known. Rose found it easier to speak to him.
'I saw Louisa Hall with him; I did not know she was not still his maid. I thought she had been sent to take him somewhere. And when I heard from home that he—he was—drowned, I only thought the likeness had deceived me. It was not till Mr. Morton came home, and we talked it over, that I understood that Louisa Hall was dismissed long ago, and was eloping to Canada.
'And then,' for she had spoken falteringly, and with an effort, as their sounds of inquiry elicited each sentence—'and then, Mr. Morton said he would follow her to Canada. He did not want Lady Northmoor to be tortured with uncertainty.'
'Very strange,' said the gentlemen one to the other, Lord Northmoor adding—
'Thank you, Miss Rollstone; I will not detain you, unless you can tell me more.'
Rose was glad to be released, though pained and vexed not to dare to express her reasons for full certainty.
'Is this only a girl's fancy?' sighed the father.
'I think she is a sensible girl.'
'And my nephew Herbert is a hard-headed fellow, not likely to fly off on a vague notion. Is this Hall girl's mother still living here?'
'Certainly. It has been a bad business, her going off with that Jones; but I ascertained that she was married to him.'
'Jones—Sam Jones, or Rattler?'
'Ah! She was dismissed on his account. And I detected him in imposing on Miss Morton. Yet—where does this Mrs. Hall live?'
'Along this alley. Shall I come with you?'
'It may induce her to speak out, if there is anything to hear. I dare not hope! It is too incredible, and I don't understand those children's silence.'
He spoke it almost to himself, and the clergyman thought it kinder not to interrupt his thoughts during the few steps down the evil-smelling alley that led to the house, where Mrs. Hall was washing up her cup after breakfast. It was Mr. Deyncourt who spoke, seeing that the swelling hope and doubt were almost too much for his companion.
'Good morning, Mrs. Hall; we have come to you early, but Lord Northmoor is very anxious to know whether you can throw any light on what has become of his little boy.'
Mrs. Hall was in a very different state of mind from when she had denied all knowledge to Herbert, a mere boy, whom she did not like, and when she was anxious to shelter her daughter, whose silence had by this time begun to offend her. The sight of the clergyman and the other gentleman alarmed her, and she began by maundering out—
'I am sure, sir, I don't know nothing. My daughter have never writ one line to me.'
'He was with her!' gasped out Lord Northmoor.
'I am sure, sir, it was none of my doing, no, nor my daughter wouldn't neither, only the young lady over persuaded her. 'Tis she as was the guilty party, as I'll always say.'
'Miss Morton—Miss Hida, sir; and my gal wouldn't never have done it, sir, but for the stories she told, fictious stories they was, I'm sure, that the child wasn't none of my lady's, only a brat picked up in foreign parts to put her brother out of his chance.'
'What are you saying?' exclaimed Lord Northmoor. 'My niece never could have said any such thing.'
'Indeed, but she did, sir, my Lord, and that's what worked on my daughter, though I always told her not to believe any such nonsense; but then you see, she couldn't get her passage paid to go out with Rattler, and Miss Hida give her the money if so be she would take off the child to Canada with her.'
'And where?' hoarsely asked the father.
'That I can't tell, my Lord; Louey have never written, and I knows no more than nothing at all. She've not been a dutiful gal to me, as have done everything for her.'
There was no more to be made out of Mrs. Hall, and they went their way.
'There is no doubt that the little fellow is alive,' said Mr. Deyncourt.
'Who can guess what those wretches have done to him?' said Lord Northmoor under his breath. 'Not that I am unthankful for the blessed hope,' he added, uncovering his head, 'but I am astounded more than I can say, by this—'
'It must be invention of the woman,' said Mr. Deyncourt.
'I hope so,' was the answer.
'Could Miss Rollstone have suspected it? She was very unlike what I have seen of her before.'
They separated for breakfast, agreeing to meet afterwards to hunt up the Jones family.
Ida had suffered a good deal all the night and morning as she wondered what her confession might entail on her. Sometimes she told herself that since it would come out in Herbert's letters on the discovery of the child, it was well to have the honour of the first disclosure, and her brother was certain to keep her part in the matter a secret; but, on the other hand, she did not know how much Louisa might have told her mother, nor whether Mrs. Hall might persist in secrecy—nay, or even Rose. Indeed, she was quite uncertain how much Rose had understood. She could not have kept back guesses, and she did not believe in honour on Rose's part. So she was nervous on finding that her uncle was gone out.
When he came in to breakfast, he merely made a morning greeting. Afterwards he scarcely spoke, except to answer an occasional remark from her mother. To herself, he neither looked nor spoke, but when Mrs. Morton declared that he looked the better for his morning walk, there was a half smile and light in his eye, and the weight seemed gone from his brow. Mrs. Morton asked what he was going to do.
'I am going out with Mr. Deyncourt,' he answered.
And Ida breathed more freely when he was gone.
But she little knew that Mr. Deyncourt had gone to Rose Rollstone in her father's presence, and told her of Mrs. Hall's revelations, asking her if this had been the cause of her silence. She had to own how the truth had flashed at once on her and Mr. Morton.
'It would be so very dreadful for them if it were known,' she said. 'He thought if he brought back the boy, his sister's part need not be known.'
'Then that was the secret!' exclaimed Mrs. Rollstone. 'Well, I'll not blame you, child, but you might have told us.'
Secrets were safe with the ex-butler, but not quite so much so with his wife, though all three tried to impress on her the need of silence, before Mr. Deyncourt hastened out to rejoin Lord Northmoor. The inquiry took a much longer time than they had expected, for the family wanted did not live in Mr. Deyncourt's district, and they were misdirected more than once to people who disdained the notion of being connected with the Rattler, if they had ever heard of such a person. At last they did find a sister-in-law, who pronounced George Jones to be a good fellow, so far as she knew. He sent home to his mother regularly, and lately had had out his brother Sam, and a good job too, to have him out of the way, only what must he do but go and marry that there trollopy girl, as was no good.
Yes, George had written to say they had come safe to Toronto, but she did not hear as he said anything about a child. The letter was to his mother, who had taken it into the country when she went to stay with her daughter. This deponent didn't know the address, and her husband was out with a yacht.
Nothing could be done but to pursue the mother to a village about five miles off, where she was traced out with some difficulty, and persuaded to refer to her son George's letter, where he mentioned the safe arrival of Mr. and Mrs. Sam, but without a word about their bringing a child with them. This omission seemed to dash all former hopes, so as to show Frank how strong they had been, and besides, there had been more than time for Herbert to have written after reaching Toronto.
However, the one step of knowing George Jones's address had been gained, and with no more than this, they had to return, intending to see whether Ida had any notion as to what was to be done.
It was evening when Lord Northmoor came in. Mrs. Morton was alone, and as she looked up, was answered by his air of disappointment as he shook his head.
'Oh, it is so dreadful,' she exclaimed, 'it is all over the place! We met Mr. Brady and his sisters, and they cut Ida dead. She is quite broken-hearted, indeed, she is.'
'Then she has told you all?'
'She could not help it. Mrs. Rollstone came to ask me if it was true—as a friend, she said, I should say it was more like an enemy, and Mrs. Hall came too, wanting to see Ida, but I saw her instead. The wicked woman to have given in! And they have gone and told every one, and the police will be after my poor child.'
'No, they would not interfere unless I prosecuted, and that I certainly should not do unless it proved the only means of tracing my child. I came home intending to ask Ida if she gave any directions about him. It seems certain that he was not brought to Toronto.'
'Indeed! She made sure that he would be there!' exclaimed Mrs. Morton, much dismayed. 'Let me go and see. She is so much upset altogether that she declares that she cannot see you this evening.'
Mrs. Morton went, and presently brought word that Ida was horrified at hearing that little Michael was not with the Joneses. She had trusted Louisa to treat him kindly, and only dispose of him to some of those Canadian farmers, who seemed to have an unlimited appetite for adopted children, and the last hope was that this might have been the case, though opportunities could have been few on the way to Toronto.
Ida had cried over the tidings. It must have been worse than she had ever intended that the child should be treated; and the shock was great both to her and to her mother.
Mrs. Morton really seemed quite broken down, both by sorrow and fear for the boy, and by the shame, the dread of the story getting into the papers, and the sense that she could never go on living at Westhaven; and her brother-in-law quite overwhelmed her by saying that he should do all in his power to prevent publicity, and that he entirely exonerated her from all blame in the matter.
'Ah, Frank dear,' she said, 'you are so good, it makes me feel what a sinful woman I am! I don't mean that I ever gave in for a moment to that nonsense of poor Ida's which was her only bit of excuse. No one that had ever been a mother could, you know; but I won't say that I did not grumble at my boy losing his chances.'
'I don't wonder!'
'And—and I never would listen to you and Mary about poor Ida. I let her idle and dress, and read all those novels, and it is out of them she got that monstrous notion. You little know what I have gone through with that girl, Frank, so different from the other two. Oh! if I could only begin over again!'
'Perhaps,' said Frank, full of pity, 'this terrible shock may open her eyes, and by God's blessing be the beginning of better things.'
'Oh, Frank, you are a perfect angel ever to bear the sight of us again!' cried the poor woman, ever violent in her feelings and demonstrations. 'Hark! What's that?—I can't see any one.'
'Please, ma'am, it's Miss Rollstone, with a letter for his Lordship.'
CHAPTER XXXVIII THE CLUE
'BEST OF ROSES,—
'I don't know where my uncle is, so please send him this. I got to Toronto all right, and had not much trouble in finding out the steady-going Jones, who is rather a swell, chief mate on board the British Empress. He was a good deal taken aback by my story, and said that his brother had come out with his wife, but no child. It was quite plain that he was a good deal disappointed in the Rattler, and not at all prepared for Mrs. Louisa, whom neither he nor his wife admired at all, at all. He had got his brother a berth on a summer steamer that had just been set up on Lake Winnipeg—being no doubt glad to get rid of such an encumbrance as the wife, and he looked very blue when he heard that I was quite certain that she had taken the kid away with her, and been paid for it. There was nothing for it but to go after them, and find out from them what they had done with poor little Mite. He is a right good fellow, and would have gone with me, but that he is bound to his boat, and a stunner she is; but he gave me a letter to Sam, so I had to get on the Canadian Pacific Railway, so that I should have been nonplussed but for your loan. Splendid places it goes through, you never saw such trees, nor such game.
'As good luck would have it, I was in the same car with an Englishman—a gentleman, one could see with half an eye, and we fraternised, so that I told him what I was come about. He was awfully good-natured, and told me he lived a mile or two out of Winnipeg, and had a share in the steam company, and if I found any difficulty I was to come to him, Mr. Forman, at Northmoor. I stared at the name, as you may guess! There was a fine horse and buggy waiting for him at the station, and off he went. I put up at the hotel—there's sure to be that whatever there is not—and went after the Joneses next. I got at the woman first, she looked ill and fagged, as if she didn't find life with Rattler very jolly. She cried bucketsful, and said she didn't know anything, since she put the poor little Mite to sleep after supper in a public-house at Liverpool. She was dead tired, and when she woke he was gone, and her husband swore at her, and never would tell her what he had done with the boy, except that he had not hurt him. Then I interviewed Sam Rattler himself. He cut up rough, as he said my Lord had done him an ill turn, and he had the game in his hands now, and was not going to let him know what was become of his child, without he came down handsome enough to make up for what he had done him out of. So then I had to go off to Mr. Forman. He has such a place, a house such as any one might be delighted to have—pine trees behind, a garden in front, no end of barns and stables, with houses and cows, fine wheat fields spreading all round, such as would do your heart good. That is what Mr. Forman and his brother-in-law, Captain Alder, have made, and there's a sweet little lady as ever you saw, Alder's sister. The Captain was greatly puzzled to hear it was Lord Northmoor's son I was looking for. He is not up in the peerage like your father, you see, and I had to make him understand. He thought Lord N. must be either the old man, or Lady Adela's little boy. He said some of his happiest days had been at Northmoor, and he asked after Lady Adela, and if Miss Morton was married. He came with me, and soon made Mr. Rattler change his note, by showing him that it would be easy to give him the sack, even if he was not laid hold of by the law on my information for stealing the child. They are both magistrates and could do it. So at last the fellow growled out that he wasn't going to be troubled with another man's brat, and just before embarking, he had laid it down asleep at the door of Liverpool Workhouse! So no doubt poor little Michael is there! I would have telegraphed at once; but I don't know where my uncle is, or whether he knows about it, but you can find out and send him this letter at once. I have asked him to pay your advance out of my quarter; and as to the rest of it, it is all owing to you that the poor little kid is not to grow up a pauper.
'I am staying on at Northmoor—it sounds natural; they want another hand for their harvesting, so I am working out my board, as is the way here, at any rate till I hear from my uncle, and I shall ask him to let me stay here for good as a farming-pupil. It would suit me ever so much better than the militia, even if I could get into it, which I suppose I haven't done. It is a splendid country, big enough to stretch oneself in, and I shall never stand being cramped up in an island after it; besides that I don't want to see Ida again in a hurry, though there is some one I should like no end to see again. There, I must not say any more, but send this on to my uncle. I wish I could see his face. I did look to bring Mite back to him, but that can't be, as I have not tin enough to carry me home. I hope your loan has not got you into a scrape.
'Yours ever (I mean it), 'H. MORTON.'
The letter to Lord Northmoor, which the servant put into his hand, was shorter, and began with the more important sentence—'The rascal dropped Michael at Liverpool Workhouse.'
The father read it with an ejaculation of 'Thank God,' the aunt answered with a cry of horror, so that he thought for a moment she had supposed he said 'dropped him into the sea,' and repeated 'Liverpool Workhouse.'
'Oh, yes, yes; but that is so dreadful. The Honourable Michael Morton in a workhouse!'
'He is safe and well taken care of there, no doubt,' said Frank. 'I have no fears now. There are much worse places than the nurseries of those great unions.' Then, as he read on, 'There, Emma, your boy has acted nobly. He has fully retrieved what his sister has done. Be happy over that, dear sister, and be thankful with me. My Mary, my Mary, will the joy be too much? Oh, my boy! How soon can I reach Liverpool? There, you will like to read it. I must go and thank that good girl who found him the means.'
He was gone, and found Rose in the act of reading her letter aloud (all but certain bits, that made her falter as if the writing was bad) to her parents and Mr. Deyncourt. And there, in full assembly, he found himself at a loss for words. No one was so much master of the situation as Mr. Rollstone.
'My Lord, I have the honour to congratulate your Lordship,' he said, with a magnificence only marred by his difficulty in rising.
'I—I,' stammered his Lordship, with an unexpected choke in his throat, 'have to congratulate you, Mr. Rollstone, on having such a daughter.' Then, grasping Rose's hand as in a vice, 'Miss Rollstone, what we owe to you—is past expression.'
'I am sure she is very happy, my Lord, to have been of service,' said her mother, with a simper.
Mr. Deyncourt, to relieve the tension of feeling, said, 'Miss Rollstone was reading the letter about Mr. Morton's adventures. Would you not like her to begin again?'
And while Rose obeyed, Lord Northmoor was able to extract his cheque-book from his pocket-book, and as Rose paused, to say—
'I have a debt of which my nephew reminds me. Miss Rollstone furnished the means for his journey. Will you let me fill this up? This can be repaid,' he added, with a smile, 'the rest, never.'
Mr. Rollstone might have been distressed at the venture on which his daughter's savings had gone; but he was perfectly happy and triumphant now, except that, even more than Mrs. Morton, he suffered from the idea of the Honourable Michael being exposed to the contamination of a workhouse, and was shocked at his Lordship's thinking it would have been worse for him to be with the Rattler. Then, hastily looking at his watch, Lord Northmoor asked when the post went out, and hearing there was but half an hour to spare, begged Mr. Deyncourt to let him lose no time by giving him the wherewithal to write to his wife.
'She would miss a note and be uneasy,' he said. 'Yet I hardly know what I dare tell her. Only not mourning paper!' he added, with an exultant smile.
In the curate's room he wrote—
'I have been out all day, and have only a moment to say that I am quite well, and trust to have some most thankworthy news for you. Don't be uneasy if you do not hear to-morrow.—Your own
There was still time to scribble—
'DEAR LADY ADELA,—
'I trust to you to prepare Mary for well-nigh incredible joy, but do not agitate her too soon. I cannot come till Friday afternoon.
'Yours gratefully, 'NORTHMOOR.'
Having sent this off, his next search was for a time-table. He would fain have gone by the mail train that very night, but Mr. Deyncourt and Mrs. Morton united in persuading him that his strength was not yet equal to such a pull upon it, and he yielded. They hardly knew the man, usually so equable and quiet as to be almost stolid.
He smiled, and declared he could neither eat nor sleep, but he actually did both, sleeping, indeed, better and longer than he had done since his illness, and coming down in the morning a new man, as he called himself, but the old one still in his kindness to Mrs. Morton. He promised to telegraph to her as soon as he knew all was well, assured her that he would do his best to keep the scandal out of the papers, that he would never forget his obligations to Herbert's generosity, and that if she made up her mind to leave Westhaven he would facilitate her so doing.
Ida was not up. She had had a very bad night, and indeed she had confessed that she had been miserable under dreams worse than waking, ever since the child was carried off. Her mother had observed her restlessness and nervousness, but had set a good deal down to love, and perhaps had not been entirely wrong. At any rate, she was now really ill, and could not bear the thought of seeing her uncle, though he sent a message to her that now he did not find it nearly so hard to forgive her, and that he felt for her with all his heart.
It was this gentleness that touched Mrs. Morton above all. Years had softened her; perhaps, too, his patience, and the higher tone of Mr. Deyncourt's ministry, and she was, in many respects, a different woman from her who had so loudly protested against his marrying Mary Marshall.
CHAPTER XXXIX THE HONOURABLE PAUPER
Lord Northmoor's card was given to the porter with an urgent request for an interview with the Master of the workhouse.
He steadied his voice with difficulty when, on entering the office, he said that he had come to make inquiry after his son, a child of three and a half years old, who had been supposed to be drowned, but he had now discovered had been stolen by a former nurse, and left at the gate of the workhouse, and as the Master paused with an interrogative 'Yes, my Lord?' he added—'On the night between the Wednesday and Thursday of Whitsun week, May the—'
'Children are so often left,' said the Master. 'I will ascertain from the books as to the date.'
After an interval really of scarcely a minute, but which might have been hours to the father's feeling, he read—
'May 18th.—Boy, of apparently four years old, left on the steps, asleep, apparently drugged.'
'Calls himself Mitel Tent—name probably Michael Trenton.'
'Michael Kenton Morton.' Then he reflected, 'No doubt he thought he was to say his catechism.'
'Does not seem to know parents' name nor residence. Dress—man's old rough coat over a brown holland pinafore—no mark—feet bare; talks as if carefully brought up. May I ask you to describe him.'
'Brown eyes, light hair, a good deal of colour, sturdy, large child,' said Lord Northmoor, much agitated. 'There,' holding out a photograph.
'Ah!' said the Master, in assent.
'And where—is he here?'
'He is at the Children's Home at Fulwood Lodge. Perhaps I had better ask one of the Guardians, who lives near at hand, to accompany you.'
This was done, the Guardian came, much interested in the guest, and a cab was called. Lord Northmoor learnt on the way that the routine in such cases, which were only too common, was the child was taken by the police to the bellman's office till night and there taken care of, in case he should be a little truant of the place, but being unclaimed, he spent a few days at the Union, and then was taken to the Children's Home at Fulwood. Inquiries had been made, but the little fellow had been still under the influence of the drug that had evidently been administered to him at first, and then was too much bewildered to give a clear account of himself. He was in confusion between his real home and Westhaven, and the difference between his appellation and that of his parents was likewise perplexing, nor could he make himself clear, even as to what he knew perfectly well, when interrogated by official strangers who alarmed him.
Lord Northmoor was himself a Poor Law Guardian, and had no vague superstitions to alarm him as to the usage of children in workhouses; but he was surprised at the pleasant aspect of the nursery of the Liverpool Union, a former gentleman's house and grounds, with free air and beautiful views.
The Matron, on being summoned, said that she had from the first been sure, in spite of his clothes, that little Mike was a well-born, tenderly-nurtured child, with good manners and refined habits, and she had tried in vain to understand what he said of himself, though night and morning, he had said his prayers for papa and mamma, and at first added that 'papa might be well,' and he might go home; but where home was there was no discovering, except that there had been journeys by puff puff; and Louey, and Aunt Emma, and Nurse, and sea, and North something, and 'nasty man,' were in an inextricable confusion.
She took them therewith into a large airy room, where the elder children, whole rows of little beings in red frocks, were busied under the direction of a lively young nurse, in building up coloured cubes, 'gifts' in Kindergarten parlance.
There was a few moments of pause, as all the pairs of eyes were raised to meet the new-comers. With a little sense of disappointment, but more of anxiety, Frank glanced over them, and encountered a rounded, somewhat puzzled stare from two brown orbs in a rosy face. Then he ventured to say 'Mite,' and there followed a kind of laughing yell, a leap over the structure of cubes, and the warm, solid, rosy boy was in his arms, on his breast, the head on his shoulder in indescribable ecstasy of content on both sides, of thankfulness on that of the father.
'No doubt there!' said the Guardian and the Matron to one another, between smiles and tears.
Mite asked no questions. Fate had been far beyond his comprehension for the last five months, and it was quite enough for him to feel himself in the familiar arms, and hear the voice he loved.
'Would he go to mamma?'
The boy raised his head, looked wonderingly over his father's face, and said in a puzzled voice—
'Louey said she would take me home in the puff puff.'
'Come now with father, my boy. Only kiss this good lady first, who has been so kind to you.
'Kiss Tommy too, and Fanny,' said Michael, struggling down, and beginning a round of embraces that sufficiently proved that his nursery had been a happy one, while his father could see with joy that he was as healthy and fresh-looking as ever, perhaps a little less plump, but with the natural growth of the fourth year, and he was much the biggest of the party, with the healthfulness of country air and wholesome tendance, while most of the others were more or less stunted or undergrown.
Lord Northmoor's longing was to take his recovered son at once to gladden his mother's eyes; but Michael's little red frock would not exactly suit with the manner of his travels.
So he accepted the Guardian's invitation to come to his house and let Michael be fitted out there, an invitation all the more warmly given because it would have been a pity to let wife and daughters miss the interest of the sight of the lost child and his father. So, all formalities being complied with and in true official spirit, the account for the boy's maintenance having been asked for, a hearty and cordial leave was taken of the Matron, and Michael Kenton Morton was discharged from Liverpool Union.
The lady and her daughters were delighted to have him, and would have made much of him, but the poor little fellow proved that his confidence in womankind had been shaken, by clinging tight to his father, and showing his first inclination to cry when it was proposed to take him into another room to be dressed. Indeed, his father was as little willing to endure a moment's separation as he could be, and looked on and assisted to see him made into a little gentleman again in outward costume.
After luncheon there was still time to reach Malvern by a reasonable hour of the evening, and Frank felt as if every moment of sorrow were almost a cruelty to his wife. The Guardian's wife owned that she ought not to press him to sleep at her house, and forwarded his departure with strong fellow-feeling for the mother's hungry bosom.
From the station Frank sent telegrams to Herbert, to Mrs. Morton, and to Rose Rollstone; besides one to Lady Adela, containing only the reference, Luke xv. 32.
People looked somewhat curiously at the thin, worn-looking, elderly man, with the travelling bag in one hand, and the little boy holding tight by the other, each with a countenance of radiant gladness; and again, to see how, when seated, he allowed himself to be climbed over and clasped by the sturdy being, who seemed almost overwhelming to one so slight.
When the September twilight darkened into night, Michael, who had been asleep, awoke with a scream and flung both arms round his father's neck, exclaiming—
'Oh, Louey, I'll not cry! Don't let him throw me out! Oh, the nasty man!'
And even when convinced that no nasty man was present, and that it was papa, not Louey, whom he was grappling, he still nestled as close as possible, while he was only pacified in recurring frights by listening to a story. Never good at story-telling, the only one that, for the nonce, his father could put together was that of Joseph, and this elicited various personal comparisons.
'Mine wasn't a coat of many colours, it was my blue frock! Did they dip it in blood, papa?'
'Not quite, my darling, but it was the same thing.'
Then presently, 'It wasn't a camel, but a puff puff, and he was so cross!'
By and by, 'I didn't tell anybody's dreams, papa. They didn't make me ride in a cha-rot, but nurse made me monitor, 'cause I knew all my letters. I should like to have a brother Benjamin. Mayn't Tommy be my brother? Wasn't Joseph's mamma very glad?'
Michael's Egypt had not been a very terrible house of bondage, and the darker moments of his abduction did not dwell on his memory; but years later, when first he tasted beer, he put down the glass with a shudder, as the smell and taste brought back a sense of distress, confusion, and horror in a gas-lit, crowded bar, full of loud-voiced, rough figures, and resounding with strange language and fierce threats to make him swallow the draught which, no doubt, had been drugged.
CHAPTER XL JOY WELL-NIGH INCREDIBLE
The midday letters were a riddle to the ladies at Malvern.
'Out all day,' said Mary, 'that is well. He will get strong out boating.'
'I hope Herbert has come home to take him out,' said Constance.
'Or he may be yachting. I wonder he does not say who is taking him out. I am glad that he can feel that sense of enjoyment.'
Yet that rejoicing seemed to be almost an effort to the poor mother who craved for a longer letter, and perhaps almost felt as if her Frank were getting out of sympathy with her grief—and what could be the good news?
'Herbert must have passed!' said Constance.
'I hope he has, but the expression is rather strong for that,' said Lady Adela.
'Perhaps Ida is engaged to that Mr. Deyncourt? Was that his name?' said Lady Northmoor languidly.
'Oh! that would be delicious,' cried Constance, 'and Ida has grown much more thoughtful lately, so perhaps she would do for a clergyman's wife.'
'Is Ida better?' asked her aunt, who had been much drawn towards the girl by hearing that her health had suffered from grief for Michael.
'Mamma does not mention her in her last letter, but poor Ida is really much more delicate than one would think, though she looks so strong. This would be delightful!'
'Yet, joy well-nigh incredible!' said her aunt, meditatively. 'Were not those the words? It would not be like your uncle to put them in that way unless it were something—even more wonderful, and besides, why should he not write it to me?'
'Oh—h!' cried Constance, with a leap, rather than a start. 'It can be only one thing.'
'Don't, don't, don't!' cried poor Mary; 'you must not, Constance, it would kill me to have the thought put into my head only to be lost.'
Constance looked wistfully at Lady Adela; but the idea she had suggested had created a restlessness, and her aunt presently left the room. Then Constance said—
'Lady Adela, may I tell you something? You know that poor dear little Mite was never found?'
'Oh! a boat must have picked him up,' cried Amice; 'and he is coming back.'
'Gently, Amy; hush,' said the mother, 'Constance has more to tell.'
'Yes,' said Constance. 'My friend, Rose Rollstone, who lives just by our house at Westhaven, and was going back to London the night that Mite was lost, wrote to me that she was sure she had seen his face just then. She thought, and I thought it was one of those strange things one hears of sights at the moment of death. So I never told of it, but now I cannot help fancying—'
'Oh! I am sure,' cried Amice.
Lady Adela thought the only safe way would be to turn the two young creatures out to pour out their rapturous surmises to one another on the winding paths of the Malvern hills, and very glad was she to have done so, when by and by that other telegram was put into her hands.
Then, when Mary, unable to sit still, though with trembling limbs, came back to the sitting-room, with a flush on her pale cheek, excited by the sound at the door, Lady Adela pointed to the yellow paper, which she had laid within the Gospel, open at the place.
Mary sank into a chair.
'It can't be a false hope,' she gasped.
'He would never have sent this, if it were not a certainty,' said Adela, kneeling down by her, and holding her hands, while repeating what Constance had said.
A few words were spent on wonder and censure on the girl's silence, more unjust than they knew, but hardly wasted, since they relieved the tension. Mary slid down on her knees beside her friend, and then came a silence of intense heart-swelling, choking, and unformed, but none the less true thanksgiving, and ending in a mutual embrace and an outcry of Mary's—
'Oh, Adela! how good you are, you with no such hope'—and that great blessed shower of tears that relieved her was ostensibly the burst of sympathy for the bereaved mother with no such restoration in view. Then came soothing words, and then the endeavour with dazed eyes and throbbing hearts to look out the trains from Liverpool, whence, to their amazement, they saw the telegram had started, undoubtedly from Lord Northmoor. There was not too large a choice, and finally Lady Adela made the hope seem real by proposing preparations for the child's supper and bed—things of which Mary seemed no more to have dared to think than if she had been expecting a little spirit; but which gave her hope substance, and inspired her with fresh energy and a new strength, as she ran up and downstairs, directing her maid, who cried for joy at the news, and then going out to purchase those needments which had become such tokens of exquisite hope and joy. After this had once begun, she seemed really incapable of sitting still, for every moment she thought of something her boy would want or would like, or hurried to see if all was right.
Constance begged again and again to run on the messages, but she would not allow it, and when the girl looked grieved, and said she was tiring herself to death, Lady Adela said—
'My dear, sitting still would be worse for her. However it may turn out, fatigue will be best for her.'
'Surely it can't mean anything else!' cried Constance.
'I don't see how it can. Your uncle weighs his words too much to raise false hopes.'
So, dark as it was by the time the train was expected, Adela promoted the ordering a carriage, and went herself with the trembling Mary to the station, not without restoratives in her bag, in case of, she knew not what. Not a word was spoken, but hands were clasped and hearts were uplifted in an agony of supplication, as the two sat in the dark on the drive to the station. Of course they were too soon, but the driver manoeuvred so as to give them a full view of the exit—and then came that minute of indescribable suspense when the sounds of arrival were heard, and figures began to issue from the platform.