That inclination or predilection of Westray's for Anastasia, which he had been able to persuade himself was love, had passed away. His peace of mind was now completely restored, and he discounted the humiliation of refusal, by reflecting that the girl's affections must have been already engaged at the time of his proposal. He was ready to admit that Lord Blandamer would in any case have been a formidable competitor, but if they had started for the race at the same time he would have been quite prepared to back his own chances. Against his rival's position and wealth, might surely have been set his own youth, regularity of life, and professional skill; but it was a mere tilting against windmills to try to win a heart that was already another's. Thus disturbing influences were gradually composed, and he was able to devote an undivided attention to his professional work.
As the winter evenings set in, he found congenial occupation in an attempt to elucidate the heraldry of the great window at the end of the south transept. He made sketches of the various shields blazoned in it, and with the aid of a county history, and a manual which Dr Ennefer had lent him, succeeded in tracing most of the alliances represented by the various quarterings. These all related to marriages of the Blandamer family, for Van Linge had filled the window with glass to the order of the third Lord Blandamer, and the sea-green and silver of the nebuly coat was many times repeated, beside figuring in chief at the head of the window. In these studies Westray was glad to have Martin Joliffe's papers by him. There was in them a mass of information which bore on the subject of the architect's inquiries, for Martin had taken the published genealogy of the Blandamer family, and elaborated and corrected it by all kinds of investigation as to marriages and collaterals.
The story of Martin's delusion, the idea of the doited grey-beard whom the boys called "Old Nebuly," had been so firmly impressed on Westray's mind, that when he first turned over the papers he expected to find in them little more than the hallucinations of a madman. But by degrees he became aware that however disconnected many of Martin's notes might appear, they possessed a good deal of interest, and the coherence which results from a particular object being kept more or less continuously in view. Besides endless genealogies and bits of family history extracted from books, there were recorded all kinds of personal impressions and experiences, which Martin had met with in his journeyings. But in all his researches and expeditions he professed to have but one object—the discovery of his father's name; though what record he hoped to find, or where or how he hoped to find it, whether in document or register or inscription, was nowhere set out.
It was evident that the old fancy that he was the rightful owner of Fording, which had been suggested to him in his Oxford days, had taken such hold of his mind that no subsequent experience had been able to dislodge it. Of half his parentage there was no doubt. His mother was that Sophia Flannery who had married Yeoman Joliffe, had painted the famous picture of the flowers and caterpillar, and done many other things less reputable; but over his father hung a veil of obscurity which Martin had tried all his life to lift. Westray had heard those early stories from Clerk Janaway a dozen times, how that when Yeoman Joliffe took Sophia to church she brought him a four-year-old son by a former marriage. By a former marriage Martin had always stoutly maintained, as in duty bound, for any other theory would have dishonoured himself. With his mother's honour he had little concern, for where was the use of defending the memory of a mother who had made shipwreck of her own reputation with soldiers and horse-copers? It was this previous marriage that Martin had tried so hard to establish, tried all the harder because other folk had wagged their heads and said there was no marriage to discover, that Sophia was neither wife nor widow.
Towards the end of his notes it seemed as if he had found some clue—had found some clue, or thought that he had found it. In this game of hunt the slipper he had imagined that he was growing "hotter" and "hotter" till death balked him at the finish. Westray recollected Mr Sharnall saying more than once that Martin had been on the brink of solving the riddle when the end overtook him. And Sharnall, too, had he not almost grasped the Will-of-the-wisp when fate tripped him on that windy night? Many thoughts came to Westray's mind as he turned these papers, many memories of others who had turned them before him. He thought of clever, worthless Martin, who had wasted his days on their writing, who had neglected home and family for their sake; he thought of the little organist who had held them in his feverish hands, who had hoped by some dramatic discovery to illumine the dark setting of his own life. And as Westray read, the interest grew with him too, till it absorbed the heraldry of the Blandamer window from which the whole matter had started. He began to comprehend the vision that had possessed Martin, that had so stirred the organist's feelings; he began to think that it was reserved for himself to make the long-sought discovery, and that he had in his own hand the clue to the strangest of romances.
One evening as he sat by the fire, with a plan in his hands and a litter of Martin's papers lying on a table at his side, there was a tap at the door, and Miss Joliffe entered. They were still close friends in spite of his leaving Bellevue Lodge. However sorry she had been at the time to lose her lodger, she recognised that the course he had taken was correct, and, indeed, obligatory. She was glad that he had seen his duty in this matter; it would have been quite impossible for any man of ordinary human feelings, to continue to live on in the same house under such circumstances. To have made a bid for Anstice's hand, and to have been refused, was a blow that moved her deepest pity, and she endeavoured in many ways to show her consideration for the victim. Providence had no doubt overruled everything for the best in ordaining that Anstice should refuse Mr Westray, but Miss Joliffe had favoured his suit, and had been sorry at the time that it was not successful. So there existed between them that curious sympathy, which generally exists between a rejected lover and a woman who has done her best to further his proposal. They had since met not unfrequently, and the year which had elapsed had sufficiently blunted the edge of Westray's disappointment, to enable him to talk of the matter with equanimity. He took a sad pleasure in discussing with Miss Joliffe the motives which might have conduced to so inexplicable a refusal, and in considering whether his offer would have been accepted if it had been made a little sooner or in another manner. Nor was the subject in any way distasteful to her, for she felt a reflected glory in the fact of her niece having first refused a thoroughly eligible proposal, and having afterwards accepted one transcendently better.
"Forgive me, sir—forgive me, Mr Westray," she corrected herself, remembering that their relation was no longer one of landlady and lodger. "I am sorry to intrude on you so late, but it is difficult to find you in during the day. There is a matter that has been weighing lately on my mind. You have never taken away the picture of the flowers, which you and dear Mr Sharnall purchased of me. I have not hurried in the matter, feeling I should like to see you nicely settled in before it was moved, but now it is time all was set right, so I have brought it over to-night."
If her dress was no longer threadbare, it was still of the neatest black, and if she had taken to wearing every day the moss-agate brooch which had formerly been reserved for Sundays, she was still the very same old sweet-tempered, spontaneous, Miss Joliffe as in time past. Westray looked at her with something like affection.
"Sit down," he said, offering her a chair; "did you say you had brought the picture with you?" and he scanned her as if he expected to see it produced from her pocket.
"Yes," she said; "my maid is bringing it upstairs"—and there was just a suspicion of hesitation on the word "maid," that showed that she was still unaccustomed to the luxury of being waited on.
It was with great difficulty that she had been persuaded to accept such an allowance at Anastasia's hands, as would enable her to live on at Bellevue Lodge and keep a single servant; and if it brought her infinite relief to find that Lord Blandamer had paid all Martin's bills within a week of his engagement, such generosity filled her at the same time with a multitude of scruples. Lord Blandamer had wished her to live with them at Fording, but he was far too considerate and appreciative of the situation to insist on this proposal when he saw that such a change would be uncongenial to her. So she remained at Cullerne, and spent her time in receiving with dignity visits from the innumerable friends that she found she now possessed, and in the fullest enjoyment of church services, meetings, parish work, and other privileges.
"It is very good of you, Miss Joliffe," Westray said; "it is very kind of you to think of the picture. But," he went on, with a too vivid recollection of the painting, "I know how much you have always prized it, and I could not bear to take it away from Bellevue Lodge. You see, Mr Sharnall, who was part owner with me, is dead; I am only making you a present of half of it, so you must accept that from me as a little token of gratitude for all the kindness you have shown me. You have been very kind to me, you know," he said with a sigh, which was meant to recall Miss Joliffe's friendliness, and his own grief, in the affair of the proposal.
Miss Joliffe was quick to take the cue, and her voice was full of sympathy. "Dear Mr Westray, you know how glad I should have been if all could have happened as you wished. Yet we should try to recognise the ordering of Providence in these things, and bear sorrow with meekness. But about the picture, you must let me have my own way this once. There may come a time, and that before very long, when I shall be able to buy it back from you just as we arranged, and then I am sure you will let me have it. But for the present it must be with you, and if anything should happen to me I should wish you to keep it altogether."
Westray had meant to insist on her retaining the picture; he would not for a second time submit to be haunted with the gaudy flowers and the green caterpillar. But while she spoke, there fell upon him one of those gusty changes of purpose to which he was peculiarly liable. There came into his mind that strange insistence with which Sharnall had begged him at all hazards to retain possession of the picture. It seemed as if there might be some mysterious influence which had brought Miss Joliffe with it just now, and that he might be playing false to his trust with Sharnall if he sent it back again. So he did not remain obdurate, but said: "Well, if you really wish it, I will keep the picture for a time, and whenever you want it you can take it back again." While he was speaking there was a sound of stumbling on the stairs outside, and a bang as if something heavy had been let drop.
"It is that stupid girl again," Miss Joliffe said; "she is always tumbling about. I am sure she has broken more china in the six months she has been with me than was broken before in six years."
They went to the door, and as Westray opened it great red-faced and smiling Anne Janaway walked in, bearing the glorious picture of the flowers and caterpillar.
"What have you been doing now?" her mistress asked sharply.
"Very sorry, mum," said the maid, mingling some indignation with her apology, "this here gurt paint tripped I up. I'm sure I hope I haven't hurt un"—and she planted the picture on the floor against the table.
Miss Joliffe scanned the picture with an eye which was trained to detect the very flakiest chip on a saucer, the very faintest scratch upon a teapot.
"Dear me, dear me!" she said, "the beautiful frame is ruined; the bottom piece is broken almost clean off."
"Oh, come," Westray said in a pacifying tone, while he lifted the picture and laid it flat on the table, "things are not so bad as all that."
He saw that the piece which formed the bottom of the frame was indeed detached at both corners and ready to fall away, but he pushed it back into position with his hand till it stuck in its place, and left little damage apparent to a casual observer.
"See," he said, "it looks nearly all right. A little glue will quite repair the mischief to-morrow I am sure I wonder how your servant managed to get it up here at all—it is such a weight and size."
As a matter of fact, Miss Joliffe herself had helped Ann to carry the picture as far as the Grands Mulets of the last landing. The final ascent she thought could be accomplished in safety by the girl alone, while it would have been derogatory to her new position of an independent lady to appear before Westray carrying the picture herself.
"Do not vex yourself," Westray begged; "look, there is a nail in the wall here under the ceiling which will do capitally for hanging it till I can find a better place; the old cord is just the right length." He climbed on a chair and adjusted the picture, standing back as if to admire it, till Miss Joliffe's complacency was fairly restored.
Westray was busied that night long after Miss Joliffe had left him, and the hands of the loud-ticking clock on the mantelpiece showed that midnight was near before he had finished his work. Then he sat a little while before the dying fire, thinking much of Mr Sharnall, whom the picture had recalled to his mind, until the blackening embers warned him that it was time to go to bed. He was rising from his chair, when he heard behind him a noise as of something falling, and looking round, saw that the bottom of the picture-frame, which he had temporarily pushed into position, had broken away again of its own weight, and was fallen on the floor. The frame was handsomely wrought with a peculiar interlacing fillet, as he had noticed many times before. It was curious that so poor a picture should have obtained a rich setting, and sometimes he thought that Sophia Flannery must have bought the frame at a sale, and had afterwards daubed the flower-piece to fill it.
The room had grown suddenly cold with the chill which dogs the heels of a dying fire on an early winter's night. An icy breath blew in under the door, and made something flutter that lay on the floor close to the broken frame. Westray stooped to pick it up, and found that he had in his hand a piece of folded paper.
He felt a curious reluctance in handling it. Those fantastic scruples to which he was so often a prey assailed him. He asked himself had he any right to examine this piece of paper? It might be a letter; he did not know whence it had come, nor whose it was, and he certainly did not wish to be guilty of opening someone else's letter. He even went so far as to put it solemnly on the table, like a skipper on whose deck the phantom whale-boat of the Flying Dutchman has deposited a packet of mails. After a few minutes, however, he appreciated the absurdity of the situation, and with an effort unfolded the mysterious missive.
It was a long narrow piece of paper, yellowed with years, and lined with the creases of a generation; and had on it both printed and written characters. He recognised it instantly for a certificate of marriage— those "marriage lines" on which so often hang both the law and the prophets. There it was with all the little pigeon-holes duly filled in, and set forth how that on "March 15, 1800, at the Church of Saint Medard Within, one Horatio Sebastian Fynes, bachelor, aged twenty-one, son of Horatio Sebastian Fynes, gentleman, was married to one Sophia Flannery, spinster, aged twenty-one, daughter of James Flannery, merchant," with witnesses duly attesting. And underneath an ill-formed straggling hand had added a superscription in ink that was now brown and wasted: "Martin born January 2, 1801, at ten minutes past twelve, night." He laid it on the table and folded it out flat, and knew that he had under his eyes that certificate of the first marriage (of the only true marriage) of Martin's mother, which Martin had longed all his life to see, and had not seen; that patent of legitimacy which Martin thought he had within his grasp when death overtook him, that clue which Sharnall thought that he had within his grasp when death overtook him also.
On March 15, 1800, Sophia Flannery was married by special licence to Horatio Sebastian Fynes, gentleman, and on January 2, 1801, at ten minutes past twelve, night, Martin was born. Horatio Sebastian—the names were familiar enough to Westray. Who was this Horatio Sebastian Fynes, son of Horatio Sebastian Fynes, gentleman? It was only a formal question that he asked himself, for he knew the answer very well. This document that he had before him might be no legal proof, but not all the lawyers in Christendom could change his conviction, his intuition, that the "gentleman" Sophia Flannery had married was none other than the octogenarian Lord Blandamer deceased three years ago. There was to his eyes an air of authenticity about that yellowed strip of paper that nothing could upset, and the date of Martin's birth given in the straggling hand at the bottom coincided exactly with his own information. He sat down again in the cold with his elbows on the table and his head between his hands while he took in some of the corollaries of the position. If the old Lord Blandamer had married Sophia Flannery on March 15, 1800, then his second marriage was no marriage at all, for Sophia was living long after that, and there had been no divorce. But if his second marriage was no marriage, then his son, Lord Blandamer, who was drowned in Cullerne Bay, had been illegitimate, and his grandson, Lord Blandamer, who now sat on the throne of Fording, was illegitimate too. And Martin's dream had been true. Selfish, thriftless, idle Martin, whom the boys called "Old Nebuly," had not been mad after all, but had been Lord Blandamer.
It all hung on this strip of paper, this bolt fallen from the blue, this message that had come from no one knew where. Whence had it come? Could Miss Joliffe have dropped it? No, that was impossible; she would certainly have told him if she had any information of this kind, for she knew that he had been trying for months to unravel the tangle of Martin's papers. It must have been hidden behind the picture, and have fallen out when the bottom piece of the frame fell.
He went to the picture. There was the vase of flaunting, ill-drawn flowers, there was the green caterpillar wriggling on the table-top, but at the bottom was something that he had never seen before. A long narrow margin of another painting was now visible where the frame was broken away; it seemed as if the flower-piece had been painted over some other subject, as if Sophia Flannery had not even been at the pains to take the canvas out, and had only carried her daub up to the edge of the frame. There was no question that the flowers masked some better painting, some portrait, no doubt, for enough was shown at the bottom to enable him to make out a strip of a brown velvet coat, and even one mother-of-pearl button of a brown velvet waistcoat. He stared at the flowers, he held a candle close to them in the hope of being able to trace some outline, to discover something of what lay behind. But the colour had been laid on with no sparing hand, the veil was impenetrable. Even the green caterpillar seemed to mock him, for as he looked at it closely, he saw that Sophia in her wantonness had put some minute touches of colour, which gave its head two eyes and a grinning mouth.
He sat down again at the table where the certificate still lay open before him. That entry of Martin's birth must be in the handwriting of Sophia Flannery, of faithless, irresponsible Sophia Flannery, flaunting as her own flowers, mocking as the face of her own caterpillar.
There was a dead silence over all, the utter blank silence that falls upon a country town in the early morning hours. Only the loud-ticking clock on the mantelpiece kept telling of time's passage till the carillon of Saint Sepulchre's woke the silence with New Sabbath. It was three o'clock, and the room was deadly cold, but that chill was nothing to the chill that was rising to his own heart. He knew it all now, he said to himself—he knew the secret of Anastasia's marriage, and of Sharnall's death, and of Martin's death.
CHAPTER TWENTY ONE.
The foreman of the masons at work in the under-pinning of the south-east pier came to see Westray at nine o'clock the next morning. He was anxious that the architect should go down to the church at once, for the workmen, on reaching the tower shortly after daybreak, found traces of a fresh movement which had taken place during the night. But Westray was from home, having left Cullerne for London by the first train.
About ten of the same forenoon, the architect was in the shop of a small picture-dealer in Westminster. The canvas of the flowers and caterpillar picture lay on the counter, for the man had just taken it out of the frame.
"No," said the dealer, "there is no paper or any kind of lining in the frame—just a simple wood backing, you see. It is unusual to back at all, but it is done now and again"—and he tapped the loose frame all round. "It is an expensive frame, well made, and with good gilding. I shouldn't be surprised if the painting underneath this daub turned out to be quite respectable; they would never put a frame like this on anything that wasn't pretty good."
"Do you think you can clean off the top part without damaging the painting underneath?"
"Oh dear, yes," the man said; "I've had many harder jobs. You leave it with me for a couple of days, and we'll see what we can make of it."
"Couldn't it be done quicker than that?" Westray said. "I'm in rather a hurry. It is difficult for me to get up to London, and I should rather like to be by, when you begin to clean it."
"Don't make yourself anxious," the other said; "you can leave it in my hands with perfect confidence. We're quite used to this business."
Westray still looked unsatisfied. The dealer gave a glance round the shop. "Well," he said, "things don't seem very busy this morning; if you're in such a hurry, I don't mind just trying a little bit of it now. We'll put it on the table in the back-room. I can see if anyone comes into the shop."
"Begin where the face ought to be," Westray said; "let us see whose portrait it is."
"No, no," said the dealer; "we won't risk the face yet. Let us try something that doesn't matter much. We shall see how this stuff peels off; that'll give us a guide for the more important part. Here, I'll start with the table-top and caterpillar. There's something queer about that caterpillar, beside the face some joker's fitted it up with. I'm rather shy about the caterpillar. Looks to me as if it was a bit of the real picture left showing through, though I don't very well see how a caterpillar would fit in with a portrait." The dealer passed the nail of his forefinger lightly over the surface of the picture. "It seems as if 'twas sunk. You can feel the edges of this heavy daubing rough all round it."
It was as he pointed out; the green caterpillar certainly appeared to form some part of the underlying picture. The man took out a bottle, and with a brush laid some solution on the painting. "You must wait for it to dry. It will blister and frizzle up the surface, then we can rub off the top gently with a cloth, and you'll see what you will see."
"The fellow who painted this table-top didn't spare his colours," said the dealer half an hour later, "and that's all the better for us. See, it comes off like a skin"—and he worked away tenderly with a soft flannel. "Well, I'm jiggered," he went on, "if here isn't another caterpillar higher up! No, it ain't a caterpillar; but if it ain't a caterpillar, what is it?"
There was indeed another wavy green line, but Westray knew what it was directly he saw it. "Be careful," he said; "they aren't caterpillars at all, but just part of a coat of arms—a kind of bars in an heraldic shield, you know. There will be another shorter green line lower down."
It was as he said, and in a minute more there shone out the silver field and the three sea-green bars of the nebuly coat, and below it the motto Aut Fynes aut finis, just as it shone in the top light of the Blandamer window. It was the middle bar that Sophia had turned into a caterpillar, and in pure wantonness left showing through, when for her own purposes she had painted out the rest of the picture. Westray's excitement was getting the better of him—he could not keep still; he stood first on one leg and then on another, and drummed on the table with his fingers.
The dealer put his hand on the architect's arm. "For God's sake keep quiet!" he said; "don't excite yourself. You needn't think you have found a gold mine. It ain't a ten thousand-guinea Vandyke. We can't see enough yet to say what it is, but I'll bet my life you never get a twenty-pound note for it."
But for all Westray's impatience, the afternoon was well advanced before the head of the portrait was approached. There had been so few interruptions, that the dealer felt called upon to extenuate the absence of custom by explaining more than once that it was a very dull season. He was evidently interested in his task, for he worked with a will till the light began to fail. "Never mind," he said; "I will get a lamp; now we have got so far we may as well go a bit further."
It was a full-face picture, as they saw a few minutes afterwards. Westray held the lamp, and felt a strange thrill go through him, as he began to make out the youthful and unwrinkled brow. Surely he knew that high forehead—it was Anastasia's, and there was Anastasia's dark wavy hair above it. "Why, it's a woman after all," the dealer said. "No, it isn't; of course, how could it be with a brown velvet coat and waistcoat? It's a young man with curly hair."
Westray said nothing; he was too much excited, too much interested to say a word, for two eyes were peering at him through the mist. Then the mist lifted under the dealer's cloth, and the eyes gleamed with a startling brightness. They were light-grey eyes, clear and piercing, that transfixed him and read the very thoughts that he was thinking. Anastasia had vanished. It was Lord Blandamer that looked at him out of the picture.
They were Lord Blandamer's eyes, impenetrable and observant as to-day, but with the brightness of youth still in them; and the face, untarnished by middle age, showed that the picture had been painted some years ago. Westray put his elbows on the table and his head between his hands, while he gazed at the face which had thus come back to life. The eyes pursued him, he could not escape from them, he could scarcely spare a glance even for the nebuly coat that was blazoned in the corner. There were questions revolving in his mind for which he found as yet no answer. There was some mystery to which this portrait might be the clue. He was on the eve of some terrible explanation; he remembered all kinds of incidents that seemed connected with this picture, and yet could find no thread on which to string them. Of course, this head must have been painted when Lord Blandamer was young, but how could Sophia Flannery have ever seen it? The picture had only been the flowers and the table-top and caterpillar all through Miss Euphemia's memory, and that covered sixty years. But Lord Blandamer was not more than forty; and as Westray looked at the face he found little differences for which no change from youth to middle age could altogether account. Then he guessed that this was not the Lord Blandamer whom he knew, but an older one—that octogenarian who had died three years ago, that Horatio Sebastian Fynes, gentleman, who had married Sophia Flannery.
"It ain't a real first-rater," the dealer said, "but it ain't bad. I shouldn't be surprised if 'twas a Lawrence, and, anyway, it's a sight better than the flowers. Beats me to know how anyone ever came to paint such stuff as them on top of this respectable young man."
Westray was back in Cullerne the next evening. In the press of many thoughts he had forgotten to tell his landlady that he was coming, and he stood charing while a maid-of-all-work tried to light the recalcitrant fire. The sticks were few and damp, the newspaper below them was damp, and the damp coal weighed heavily down on top of all, till the thick yellow smoke shied at the chimney, and came curling out under the worsted fringe of the mantelpiece into the chilly room. Westray took this discomfort the more impatiently, in that it was due to his own forgetfulness in having sent no word of his return.
"Why in the world isn't the fire lit?" he said sharply. "You must have known I couldn't sit without a fire on a cold evening like this;" and the wind sang dismally in the joints of the windows to emphasise the dreariness of the situation.
"It ain't nothing to do with me," answered the red-armed, coal-besmeared hoyden, looking up from her knees; "it's the missus. 'He was put out with the coal bill last time,' she says, 'and I ain't going to risk lighting up his fire with coal at sixpence a scuttle, and me not knowing whether he's coming back to-night.'"
"Well, you might see at any rate that the fire was properly laid," the architect said, as the lighting process gave evident indications of failing for the third time.
"I do my best," she said in a larmoyant tone, "but I can't do everything, what with having to cook, and clean, and run up and down stairs with notes, and answer the bell every other minute to lords."
"Has Lord Blandamer been here?" asked Westray.
"Yes, he came yesterday and twice to-day to see you," she said, "and then he left a note. There 'tis"—and she pointed to the end of the mantelpiece.
Westray looked round, and saw an envelope edged in black. He knew the strong, bold hand of the superscription well enough, and in his present mood it sent something like a thrill of horror through him.
"You needn't wait," he said quickly to the servant; "it isn't your fault at all about the fire. I'm sure it's going to burn now."
The girl rose quickly to her feet, gave an astonished glance at the grate, which was once more enveloped in impotent blackness, and left the room.
An hour later, when the light outside was failing, Westray sat in the cold and darkening room. On the table lay open before him Lord Blandamer's letter:
"Dear Mr Westray,
"I called to see you yesterday, but was unfortunate in finding you absent from home, and so write these lines. There used to hang in your sitting-room at Bellevue Lodge an old picture of flowers which has some interest for my wife. Her affection for it is based on early associations, and not, of course, on any merits of the painting itself. I thought that it belonged to Miss Joliffe, but I find on inquiry from her that she sold it to you some little time ago, and that it is with you now. I do not suppose that you can attach any great value to it, and, indeed, I suspect that you bought it of Miss Joliffe as an act of charity. If this is so, I should be obliged if you would let me know if you are disposed to part with it again, as my wife would like to have it here.
"I am sorry to hear of fresh movement in the tower. It would be a bitter thought to me, if the peal that welcomed us back were found to have caused damage to the structure, but I am sure you will know that no expense should be spared to make all really secure as soon as possible.
"Very faithfully yours,
Westray was eager, impressionable, still subject to all the exaltations and depressions of youth. Thoughts crowded into his mind with bewildering rapidity; they trod so close upon each other's heels that there was no time to marshal them in order; excitement had dizzied him. Was he called to be the minister of justice? Was he chosen for the scourge of God? Was his the hand that must launch the bolt against the guilty? Discovery had come directly to him. What a piece of circumstantial evidence were these very lines that lay open on the table, dim and illegible in the darkness that filled the room! Yet clear and damning to one who had the clue.
This man that ruled at Fording was a pretender, enjoying goods that belonged to others, a shameless evil-doer, who had not stuck at marrying innocent Anastasia Joliffe, if by so stooping he might cover up the traces of his imposture. There was no Lord Blandamer, there was no title; with a breath he could sweep it all away like a house of cards. And was that all? Was there nothing else?
Night had fallen. Westray sat alone in the dark, his elbows on the table, his head still between his hands. There was no fire, there was no light, only the faint shimmer of a far-off street lamp brought a perception of the darkness. It was that pale uncertain luminosity that recalled to his mind another night, when the misty moon shone through the clerestory windows of Saint Sepulchre's. He seemed once more to be making his way up the ghostly nave, on past the pillars that stood like gigantic figures in white winding-sheets, on under the great tower arches. Once more he was groping in the utter darkness of the newel stair, once more he came out into the organ-loft, and saw the baleful silver and sea-green of the nebuly coat gleaming in the transept window. And in the corners of the room lurked presences of evil, and a thin pale shadow of Sharnall wrung its hands, and cried to be saved from the man with the hammer. Then the horrible suspicion that had haunted him these last days stared out of the darkness as a fact, and he sprung to his feet in a shiver of cold and lit a candle.
An hour, two hours, three hours passed before he had written an answer to the letter that lay before him, and in the interval a fresh vicissitude of mind had befallen him. He, Westray, had been singled out as the instrument of vengeance; the clue was in his hands; his was the mouth that must condemn. Yet he would do nothing underhand, he would take no man unawares; he would tell Lord Blandamer of his discovery, and give him warning before he took any further steps. So he wrote:
"My lord," and of the many sheets that were begun and flung away before the letter was finished, two were spoiled because the familiar address "Dear Lord Blandamer" came as it were automatically from Westray's pen. He could no longer bring himself to use those words now, even as a formality, and so he began:
"I have just received your note about the picture bought by me of Miss Joliffe. I cannot say whether I should have been willing to part with it under ordinary circumstances. It had no apparent intrinsic value, but for me it was associated with my friend the late Mr Sharnall, organist of Saint Sepulchre's. We shared in its purchase, and it was only on his death that I came into sole possession of it. You will not have forgotten the strange circumstances of his end, and I have not forgotten them either. My friend Mr Sharnall was well-known among his acquaintances to be much interested in this picture. He believed it to be of more importance than appeared, and he expressed himself strongly to that effect in my presence, and once also, I remember, in yours.
"But for his untimely death I think he would have long ago made the discovery to which chance has now led me. The flowers prove to be a mere surface painting which concealed what is undoubtedly a portrait of the late Lord Blandamer, and at the back of the canvas were found copies of certain entries in parish registers relating to him. I most earnestly wish that I could end here by making over these things to you, but they seem to me to throw so strange a light on certain past events that I must hold myself responsible for them, and can give them up to no private person. At the same time, I do not feel justified in refusing to let you see picture and papers, if you should wish to do so, and to judge yourself of their importance. I am at the above address, and shall be ready to make an appointment at any time before Monday next, after which date I shall feel compelled to take further steps in this matter."
Westray's letter reached Lord Blandamer the next morning. It lay at the bottom of a little heap of correspondence on the breakfast-table, like the last evil lot to leap out of the shaken urn, an Ephedrus, like that Adulterer who at the finish tripped the Conqueror of Troy. He read it at a glance, catching its import rather by intuition than by any slavish following of the written characters. If earth was darkness at the core, and dust and ashes all that is, there was no trace of it in his face. He talked gaily, he fulfilled the duties of a host with all his charm of manner, he sped two guests who were leaving that morning with all his usual courtesy. After that he ordered his horse, and telling Lady Blandamer that he might not be back to lunch, he set out for one of those slow solitary rides on the estate that often seemed congenial to his mood. He rode along by narrow lanes and bridle-paths, not forgetting a kindly greeting to men who touched their hats, or women who dropped a curtsey, but all the while he thought.
The letter had sent his memory back to another black day, more than twenty years before, when he had quarrelled with his grandfather. It was in his second year at Oxford, when as an undergraduate he first felt it his duty to set the whole world in order. He held strong views as to the mismanagement of the Fording estates; and as a scholar and man of the world, had thought it weakness to shirk the expression of them. The timber was being neglected, there was no thinning and no planting. The old-fashioned farmhouses were being let fall into disrepair, and then replaced by parsimonious eaveless buildings; the very grazing in the park was let, and fallow-deer and red-deer were jostled by sheep and common mongrel cows. The question of the cows had galled him till he was driven to remonstrate strongly with his grandfather. There had never been much love lost between the pair, and on this occasion the young man found the old man strangely out of sympathy with suggestions of reform.
"Thank you," old Lord Blandamer had said; "I have heard all you have to say. You have eased your mind, and now you can go back to Oxford in peace. I have managed Fording for forty years, and feel myself perfectly competent to manage it for forty years more. I don't quite see what concern you have in the matter. What business is it of yours?"
"You don't see what concern I have in it," said the reformer impetuously; "you don't know what business it is of mine? Why, damage is being done here that will take a lifetime to repair."
A man must be on good terms with his heir not to dislike the idea of making way for him, and the old lord flew into one of those paroxysms of rage which fell upon him more frequently in his later years.
"Now, look you," he said; "you need not trouble yourself any more about Fording, nor think you will be so great a sufferer by my mismanagement. It is by no means certain that I shall ever burden you with the place at all."
Then the young man was angry in his turn. "Don't threaten me, sir," he said sharply; "I am not a boy any longer to be cowed by rough words, so keep your threats for others. You would disgrace the family and disgrace yourself, if you left the property away from the title."
"Make your mind easy," said the other; "the property shall follow the title. Get away, and let me hear no more, or you may find both left away from you."
The words were lightly spoken, perhaps in mere petulance at being taken to task by a boy, perhaps in the exasperating pangs of gout; but they had a bitter sound, and sank deep into the heart of youth. The threat of the other possible heirs was new, and yet was not new to him. It seemed as if he had heard something of this before, though he could not remember where; it seemed as if there had always been some ill-defined, intangible suspicion in the air of Fording to make him doubt, since he came to thinking years, whether the title ever really would be his.
Lord Blandamer remembered these things well, as he walked his horse through the beech-leaves with Westray's letter in his breast-pocket. He remembered how his grandfather's words had sent him about with a sad face, and how his grandmother had guessed the reason. He wondered how she had guessed it; but she too, perhaps, had heard these threats before, and so came at the cause more easily. Yet when she had forced his confidence she had little comfort to give.
He could see her now, a stately woman with cold blue eyes, still handsome, though she was near sixty.
"Since we are speaking of this matter," she said with chilling composure, "let us speak openly. I will tell you everything I know, which is nothing. Your grandfather threatened me once, many years ago, as he has threatened you now, and we have never forgotten nor forgiven." She moved herself in her chair, and there came a little flush of red to her cheek. "It was about the time of your father's birth; we had quarrelled before, but this was our first serious quarrel, and the last. Your father was different from me, you know, and from you; he never quarrelled, and he never knew this story. So far as I was concerned I took the responsibility of silence, and it was wisest so." She looked sterner than ever as she went on. "I have never heard or discovered anything more. I am not afraid of your grandfather's intentions. He has a regard for the name, and he means to leave all to you, who have every right, unless, indeed, it may be, a legal right. There is one more thing about which I was anxious long ago. You have heard about a portrait of your grandfather that was stolen from the gallery soon after your father's birth? Suspicion fell upon no one in particular. Of course, the stable door was locked after the horse was gone, and we had a night-watchman at Fording for some time; but little stir was made, and I do not believe your grandfather ever put the matter in the hands of the police. It was a spiteful trick, he said; he would not pay whoever had done it the compliment of taking any trouble to recover the portrait. The picture was of himself; he could have another painted any day.
"By whatever means that picture was removed, I have little doubt that your grandfather guessed what had become of it. Does it still exist? Was it stolen? Or did he have it taken away to prevent its being stolen? We must remember that, though we are quite in the dark about these people, there is nothing to prevent their being shown over the house like any other strangers." Then she drew herself up, and folded her hands in her lap, and he saw the great rings flashing on her white fingers. "That is all I know," she finished, "and now let us agree not to mention the subject again, unless one of us should discover anything more. The claim may have lapsed, or may have been compounded, or may never have existed; I think, anyhow, we may feel sure now that no move will be made in your grandfather's lifetime. My advice to you is not to quarrel with him; you had better spend your long vacations away from Fording, and when you leave Oxford you can travel."
So the young man went out from Fording, for a wandering that was to prove half as long as that of Israel in the wilderness. He came home for a flying visit at wide intervals, but he kept up a steady correspondence with his grandmother as long as she lived. Only once, and that in the last letter which he ever received from her, did she allude to the old distasteful discussion. "Up to this very day," she wrote, "I have found out nothing; we may still hope that there is nothing to find out."
In all those long years he consoled himself by the thought that he was bearing expatriation for the honour of the family, that he was absenting himself so that his grandfather might find the less temptation to drag the nebuly coat in the mire. To make a fetish of family was a tradition with Blandamers, and the heir as he set out on his travels, with the romance of early youth about him, dedicated himself to the nebuly coat, with a vow to "serve and preserve" as faithfully as any ever taken by Templar.
Last of all the old lord passed away. He never carried out his threat of disinheritance, but died intestate, and thus the grandson came to his own. The new Lord Blandamer was no longer young when he returned; years of wild travel had hardened his face, and made his heart self-reliant, but he came back as romantic as he went away. For Nature, if she once endows man or woman with romance, gives them so rich a store of it as shall last them, life through, unto the end. In sickness or health, in poverty or riches, through middle age and old age, through loss of hair and loss of teeth, under wrinkled face and gouty limbs, under crow's-feet and double chins, under all the least romantic and most sordid malaisances of life, romance endures to the end. Its price is altogether above rubies; it can never be taken away from those that have it, and those that have it not, can never acquire it for money, nor by the most utter toil—no, nor ever arrive at the very faintest comprehension of it.
The new lord had come back to Fording full of splendid purpose. He was tired of wandering; he would marry; he would settle down and enjoy his own; he would seek the good of the people, and make his great estates an example among landowners. And then within three weeks he had learned that there was a pretender to the throne, that in Cullerne there was a visionary who claimed to be the very Lord Blandamer. He had had this wretched man pointed out to him once in the street—a broken-down fellow who was trailing the cognisance of all the Blandamers in the mud, till the very boys called him Old Nebuly. Was he to fight for land, and house, and title, to fight for everything, with a man like that? And yet it might come to fighting, for within a little time he knew that this was the heir who had been the intangible shadow of his grandmother's life and of his own; and that Martin might stumble any day upon the proof that was lacking. And then death set a term to Martin's hopes, and Lord Blandamer was free again.
But not for long, for in a little while he heard of an old organist who had taken up Martin's role—a meddlesome busybody who fished in troubled waters, for the trouble's sake. What had such a mean man as this to do with lands, and titles, and coats of arms? And yet this man was talking under his breath in Cullerne of crimes, and clues, and retribution near at hand. And then death put a term to Sharnall's talk, and Lord Blandamer was free again.
Free for a longer space, free this time finally for ever; and he married, and marriage set the seal on his security, and the heir was born, and the nebuly coat was safe. But now a new confuter had risen to balk him. Was he fighting with dragon's spawn? Were fresh enemies to spring up from the—The simile did not suit his mood, and he truncated it. Was this young architect, whose very food and wages in Cullerne were being paid for by the money that he, Lord Blandamer, saw fit to spend upon the church, indeed to be the avenger? Was his own creature to turn and rend him? He smiled at the very irony of the thing, and then he brushed aside reflections on the past, and stifled even the beginnings of regret, if, indeed, any existed. He would look at the present, he would understand exactly how matters stood.
Lord Blandamer came back to Fording at nightfall, and spent the hour before dinner in his library. He wrote some business letters which could not be postponed, but after dinner read aloud to his wife. He had a pleasant and well-trained voice, and amused Lady Blandamer by reading from the "Ingoldsby Legends," a new series of which had recently appeared.
Whilst he read Anastasia worked at some hangings, which had been left unfinished by the last Lady Blandamer. The old lord's wife had gone out very little, but passed her time for the most part with her gardens, and with curious needlework. For years she had been copying some moth-eaten fragments of Stuart tapestry, and at her death left the work still uncompleted. The housekeeper had shown these half-finished things and explained what they were, and Anastasia had asked Lord Blandamer whether it would be agreeable to him that she should go on with them. The idea pleased him, and so she plodded away evening by evening, very carefully and slowly, thinking often of the lonely old lady whose hands had last been busied with the same task. This grandmother of her husband seemed to have been the only relation with whom he had ever been on intimate terms, and Anastasia's interest was quickened by an excellent portrait of her as a young girl by Lawrence, which hung in the long gallery. Could the old lady have revisited for once the scene of her labours, she would have had no reason to be dissatisfied with her successor. Anastasia looked distinguished enough as she sat at her work-frame, with the skeins of coloured silks in her lap and the dark-brown hair waved on her high forehead; and a dress of a rich yellow velvet might have supported the illusion that a portrait of some bygone lady of the Blandamers had stepped down out of its frame.
That evening her instinct told her that something was amiss, in spite of all her husband's self-command. Something very annoying must have happened among the grooms, gardeners, gamekeepers, or other dependents; he had been riding about to set the matter straight, and it was no doubt of a nature that he did not care to mention to her.
CHAPTER TWENTY TWO.
Westray passed a day of painful restlessness. He had laid his hand to a repugnant business, and the burden of it was too heavy for him to bear. He felt the same gnawing anxiety, that is experienced by one whom doctors have sentenced to a lethal operation. One man may bear himself more bravely in such circumstances than another, but by nature every man is a coward; and the knowledge that the hour is approaching, when the surgeon's knife shall introduce him to a final struggle of life and death cannot be done away. So it was with Westray; he had undertaken a task for which he was not strong enough, and only high principle, and a sense of moral responsibility, kept him from panic and flight. He went to the church in the morning, and endeavoured to concentrate attention on his work, but the consciousness of what was before him would not be thrust aside. The foreman-mason saw that his master's thoughts were wandering, and noticed the drawn expression on his face.
In the afternoon his restlessness increased, and he wandered listlessly through the streets and narrow entries of the town, till he found himself near nightfall at that place by the banks of the Cull, where the organist had halted on the last evening of his life. He stood leaning over the iron railing, and looked at the soiled river, just as Mr Sharnall had looked. There were the dark-green tresses of duck-weed swaying to and fro in the shallow eddies, there was the sordid collection of broken and worthless objects that lay on the bottom, and he stared at them till the darkness covered them one by one, and only the whiteness of a broken dish still flickered under the water.
Then he crept back to his room as if he were a felon, and though he went early to bed, sleep refused to visit him till the day began to break. With daylight he fell into a troubled doze, and dreamt that he was in a witness-box before a crowded court. In the dock stood Lord Blandamer dressed in full peer's robes, and with a coronet on his head. The eyes of all were turned upon him, Westray, with fierce enmity and contempt, and it was he, Westray, that a stern-faced judge was sentencing, as a traducer and lying informer. Then the people in the galleries stamped with their feet and howled against him in their rage; and waking with a start, he knew that it was the postman's sharp knock on the street-door, that had broken his slumber.
The letter which he dreaded lay on the table when he came down. He felt an intense reluctance in opening it. He almost wondered that the handwriting was still the same; it was as if he had expected that the characters should be tremulous, or the ink itself blood-red. Lord Blandamer acknowledged Mr Westray's letter with thanks. He should certainly like to see the picture and the family papers of which Mr Westray spoke; would Mr Westray do him the favour of bringing the picture to Fording? He apologised for putting him to so much trouble, but there was another picture in the gallery at Fording, with which it might be interesting to compare the one recently discovered. He would send a carriage to meet any train; Mr Westray would no doubt find it more convenient to spend the night at Fording.
There was no expression of surprise, curiosity, indignation or alarm; nothing, in fact, except the utmost courtesy, a little more distant perhaps than usual, but not markedly so.
Westray had been unable to conjecture what would be the nature of Lord Blandamer's answer. He had thought of many possibilities, of the impostor's flight, of lavish offers of hush-money, of passionate appeals for mercy, of scornful and indignant denial. But in all his imaginings he had never imagined this. Ever since he had sent his own letter, he had been doubtful of its wisdom, and yet he had not been able to think of any other course that he would have preferred. He knew that the step he had taken in warning the criminal was quixotic, and yet it seemed to him that Lord Blandamer had a certain right to see his own family portrait and papers, before they were used against him. He could not feel sorry that he had given the opportunity, though he had certainly hoped that Lord Blandamer would not avail himself of it.
But go to Fording he would not. That, at any rate, no fantastic refinement of fair play could demand of him. He knew his mind at least on this point; he would answer at once, and he got out a sheet of paper for his refusal. It was easy to write the number of his house, and the street, and Cullerne, and the formal "My lord," which he used again for the address. But what then? What reason was he to give for his refusal? He could allege no business appointment or other serious engagement as an obstacle, for he himself had said that he was free for a week, and had offered Lord Blandamer to make an appointment on any day. He himself had offered an interview; to draw back now would be mean and paltry in the extreme. It was true that the more he thought of this meeting the more he shrank from it. But it could not be evaded now. It was, after all, only the easiest part of the task that he had set before him, only a prolusion to the tragedy that he would have to play to a finish. Lord Blandamer deserved, no doubt, all the evil that was to fall on him; but in the meanwhile he, Westray, was incapable of refusing this small favour, asked by a man who was entirely at his mercy.
Then he wrote with a shrinking heart, but with yet another fixed purpose, that he would bring the picture to Fording the next day. He preferred not to be met at the station; he would arrive some time during the afternoon, but could only stay an hour at the most, as he had business which would take him on to London the same evening.
It was a fine Autumn day on the morrow, and when the morning mists had cleared away, the sun came out with surprising warmth, and dried the dew on the lawns of many-gardened Cullerne. Towards mid-day Westray set forth from his lodgings to go to the station, carrying under his arm the picture, lightly packed in lath, and having in his pocket those papers which had fallen out from the frame. He chose a route through back-streets, and walked quickly, but as he passed Quandrill's, the local maker of guns and fishing-rods, a thought struck him. He stopped and entered the shop.
"Good-morning," he said to the gunsmith, who stood behind the counter; "have you any pistols? I want one small enough to carry in the pocket, but yet something more powerful than a toy."
Mr Quandrill took off his spectacles.
"Ah," he said, tapping the counter with them meditatively. "Let me see. Mr Westray, is it not, the architect at the minster?"
"Yes," Westray answered. "I require a pistol for some experiments. It should carry a fairly heavy bullet."
"Oh, just so," the man said, with an air of some relief, as Westray's coolness convinced him that he was not contemplating suicide. "Just so, I see; some experiments. Well, in that case, I suppose, you would not require any special facilities for loading again quickly, otherwise I should have recommended one of these," and he took up a weapon from the counter. "They are new-fangled things from America, revolving pistols they call them. You can fire them four times running, you see, as quick as you like," and he snapped the piece to show how well it worked.
Westray handled the pistol, and looked at the barrels.
"Yes," he said, "that will suit my purpose very well, though it is rather large to carry in the pocket."
"Oh, you want it for the pocket," the gunmaker said with renewed surprise in his tone.
"Yes; I told you that already. I may have to carry it about with me. Still, I think this will do. Could you kindly load it for me now?"
"You are sure it's quite safe," said the gunmaker.
"I ought to ask you that," Westray rejoined with a smile. "Do you mean it may go off accidentally in my pocket?"
"Oh no, it's safe enough that way," said the gunmaker. "It won't go off unless you pull the trigger." And he loaded the four barrels, measuring out the powder and shot carefully, and ramming in the wads. "You'll be wanting more powder and shot than this, I suppose," he said.
"Very likely," rejoined the architect, "but I can call for that later."
He found a heavy country fly waiting for him at Lytchett, the little wayside station which was sometimes used by people going to Fording. It is a seven-mile drive from the station to the house, but he was so occupied in his own reflections, that he was conscious of nothing till the carriage pulled up at the entrance of the park. Here he stopped for a moment while the lodge-keeper was unfastening the bolt, and remembered afterwards that he had noticed the elaborate iron-work, and the nebuly coat which was set over the great gates. He was in the long avenue now, and he wished it had been longer, he wished that it might never end; and then the fly stopped again, and Lord Blandamer on horseback was speaking to him through the carriage window.
There was a second's pause, while the two men looked each other directly in the eyes, and in that look all doubt on either side was ended. Westray felt as if he had received a staggering blow as he came face to face with naked truth, and Lord Blandamer read Westray's thoughts, and knew the extent of his discovery.
Lord Blandamer was the first to speak.
"I am glad to see you again," he said with perfect courtesy, "and am very much obliged to you for taking this trouble in bringing the picture." And he glanced at the crate that Westray was steadying with his hand on the opposite seat. "I only regret that you would not let me send a carriage to Lytchett."
"Thank you," said the architect; "on the present occasion I preferred to be entirely independent." His words were cold, and were meant to be cold, and yet as he looked at the other's gentle bearing, and the grave face in which sadness was a charm; he felt constrained to abate in part the effect of his own remark, and added somewhat awkwardly: "You see, I was uncertain about the trains."
"I am riding back across the grass," Lord Blandamer said, "but shall be at the house before you;" and as he galloped off, Westray knew that he rode exceedingly well.
This meeting, he guessed, had been contrived to avoid the embarrassment of a more formal beginning. It was obvious that their terms of former friendship could no longer be maintained. Nothing would have induced him to have shaken hands, and this Lord Blandamer must have known.
As Westray stepped into the hall through Inigo Jones' Ionic portico, Lord Blandamer entered from a side-door.
"You must be cold after your long drive. Will you not take a biscuit and a glass of wine?"
Westray motioned away the refreshment which a footman offered him.
"No, thank you," he said; "I will not take anything." It was impossible for him to eat or drink in this house, and yet again he softened his words by adding: "I had something to eat on the way."
The architect's refusal was not lost upon Lord Blandamer. He had known before he spoke that his offer would not be accepted.
"I am afraid it is useless to ask you to stop the night with us," he said; and Westray had his rejoinder ready:
"No; I must leave Lytchett by the seven five train. I have ordered the fly to wait."
He had named the last train available for London, and Lord Blandamer saw that his visitor had so arranged matters, that the interview could not be prolonged for more than an hour.
"Of course, you could catch the night-mail at Cullerne Road," he said. "It is a very long drive, but I sometimes go that way to London myself."
His words called suddenly to Westray's recollection that night walk when the station lights of Cullerne Road were seen dimly through the fog, and the station-master's story that Lord Blandamer had travelled by the mail on the night of poor Sharnall's death. He said nothing, but felt his resolution strengthened.
"The gallery will be the most convenient place, perhaps, to unpack the picture," Lord Blandamer said; and Westray at once assented, gathering from the other's manner that this would be a spot where no interruption need be feared.
They went up some wide and shallow stairs, preceded by a footman, who carried the picture.
"You need not wait," Lord Blandamer said to the man; "we can unpack it ourselves."
When the wrappings were taken off, they stood the painting on the narrow shelf formed by the top of the wainscot which lined the gallery, and from the canvas the old lord surveyed them with penetrating light-grey eyes, exactly like the eyes of the grandson who stood before him.
Lord Blandamer stepped back a little, and took a long look at the face of this man, who had been the terror of his childhood, who had darkened his middle life, who seemed now to have returned from the grave to ruin him. He knew himself to be in a desperate pass. Here he must make the last stand, for the issue lay between him and Westray. No one else had learned the secret. He understood and relied implicitly on Westray's fantastic sense of honour. Westray had written that he would "take no steps" till the ensuing Monday, and Lord Blandamer was sure that no one would be told before that day, and that no one had been told yet. If Westray could be silenced all was saved; if Westray spoke, all was lost. If it had been a question of weapons, or of bodily strength, there was no doubt which way the struggle would have ended. Westray knew this well now, and felt heartily ashamed of the pistol that was bulging the breast-pocket on the inside of his coat. If it had been a question of physical attack, he knew now that he would have never been given time, or opportunity for making use of his weapon.
Lord Blandamer had travelled north and south, east and west; he had seen and done strange things; he had stood for his life in struggles whence only one could come out alive; but here was no question of flesh and blood—he had to face principles, those very principles on which he relied for respite; he had to face that integrity of Westray which made persuasion or bribery alike impossible. He had never seen this picture before, and he looked at it intently for some minutes; but his attention was all the while concentrated on the man who stood beside him. This was his last chance—he could afford to make no mistake; and his soul, or whatever that thing may be called which is certainly not the body, was closing with Westray's soul in a desperate struggle for mastery.
Westray was not seeing the picture for the first time, and after one glance he stood aloof. The interview was becoming even more painful than he had expected. He avoided looking Lord Blandamer in the face, yet presently, at a slight movement, turned and met his eye.
"Yes, it is my grandfather," said the other.
There was nothing in the words, and yet it seemed to Westray as if some terrible confidence was being thrust upon him against his will; as if Lord Blandamer had abandoned any attempt to mislead, and was tacitly avowing all that might be charged against him. The architect began to feel that he was now regarded as a personal enemy, though he had never so considered himself. It was true that picture and papers had fallen into his hands, but he knew that a sense of duty was the only motive of any action that he might be taking.
"You promised, I think, to show me some papers," Lord Blandamer said.
Most painfully Westray handed them over; his knowledge of their contents made it seem that he was offering a deliberate insult. He wished fervently that he never had made any proposal for this meeting; he ought to have given everything to the proper authorities, and have let the blow fall as it would. Such an interview could only end in bitterness: its present result was that here in Lord Blandamer's own house, he, Westray, was presenting him with proofs of his father's illegitimacy, with proofs that he had no right to this house—no, nor to anything else.
It was a bitter moment for Lord Blandamer to find such information in the possession of a younger man; but, if there was more colour in his face than usual, his self-command stood the test, and he thrust resentment aside. There was no time to say or do useless things, there was no time for feeling; all his attention must be concentrated on the man before him. He stood still, seeming to examine the papers closely, and, as a matter of fact, he did take note of the name, the place, and the date, that so many careful searchings had failed ever to find. But all the while he was resolutely considering the next move, and giving Westray time to think and feel. When he looked up, their eyes met again, and this time it was Westray that coloured.
"I suppose you have verified these certificates?" Lord Blandamer asked very quietly.
"Yes," Westray said, and Lord Blandamer gave them back to him without a word, and walked slowly away down the gallery.
Westray crushed the papers into his pocket where most of the room was taken up by the pistol; he was glad to get them out of his sight; he could not bear to hold them. It was as if a beaten fighter had given up his sword. With these papers Lord Blandamer seemed to resign into his adversary's hands everything of which he stood possessed, his lands, his life, the honour of his house. He made no defence, no denial, no resistance, least of all any appeal. Westray was left master of the situation, and must do whatever he thought fit. This fact was clearer to him now than it had ever been before, the secret was his alone; with him rested the responsibility of making it public. He stood dumb before the picture, from which the old lord looked at him with penetrating eyes. He had nothing to say; he could not go after Lord Blandamer; he wondered whether this was indeed to be the end of the interview, and turned sick at the thought of the next step that must be taken.
At the distance of a few yards Lord Blandamer paused, and looked round, and Westray understood that he was being invited, or commanded, to follow. They stopped opposite the portrait of a lady, but it was the frame to which Lord Blandamer called attention by laying his hand on it.
"This was my grandmother," he said; "they were companion pictures. They are the same size, the moulding on the frame is the same, an interlacing fillet, and the coat of arms is in the same place. You see?" he added, finding Westray still silent.
Westray was obliged to meet his look once more.
"I see," he said, most reluctantly. He knew now, that the unusual moulding and the size of the picture that hung in Miss Joliffe's house, must have revealed its identity long ago to the man who stood before him; that during all those visits in which plans for the church had been examined and discussed, Lord Blandamer must have known what lay hid under the flowers, must have known that the green wriggling caterpillar was but a bar of the nebuly coat. Confidences were being forced upon Westray that he could not forget, and could not reveal. He longed to cry out, "For God's sake, do not tell me these things; do not give me this evidence against yourself!"
There was another short pause, and then Lord Blandamer turned. He seemed to expect Westray to turn with him, and they walked back over the soft carpet down the gallery in a silence that might be heard. The air was thick with doom; Westray felt as if he were stifling. He had lost mental control, his thoughts were swallowed up in a terrible chaos. Only one reflection stood out, the sense of undivided responsibility. It was not as if he were adding a link, as in duty bound, to a long chain of other evidence: the whole matter was at rest; to set it in motion again would be his sole act, his act alone. There was a refrain ringing in his ears, a verse that he had heard read a few Sundays before in Cullerne Church, "Am I God, to kill and make alive? Am I God, to kill and make alive?" Yet duty commanded him to go forward, and go forward he must, though the result was certain: he would be playing the part of executioner.
The man whose fate he must seal was keeping pace with him quietly, step by step. If he could only have a few moments to himself, he might clear his distracted thoughts. He paused before some other picture, feigning to examine it, but Lord Blandamer paused also, and looked at him. He knew Lord Blandamer's eye was upon him, though he refused to return the look. It seemed a mere act of courtesy on Lord Blandamer's part to stop. Mr Westray might be specially interested in some of the pictures, and, if any information was required, it was the part of the host to see that it was forthcoming. Westray stopped again once or twice, but always with the same result. He did not know whether he was looking at portraits or landscapes, though he was vaguely aware that half-way down the gallery, there stood on the floor what seemed to be an unfinished picture, with its face turned to the wall.
Except when Westray stopped, Lord Blandamer looked neither to the right nor to the left; he walked with his hands folded lightly behind him, and with his eyes upon the ground, yet did not feign to have his thoughts disengaged. His companion shrank from any attempt to understand or fathom what those thoughts could be, but admired, against his will, the contained and resolute bearing. Westray felt as a child beside a giant, yet had no doubt as to his own duty, or that he was going to do it. But how hard it was! Why had he been so foolish as to meddle with the picture? Why had he read papers that did not belong to him? Why, above all, had he come down to Fording to have his suspicions confirmed? What business was it of his to ferret out these things? He felt all the unutterable aversion of an upright mind for playing the part of a detective; all the sovereign contempt even for such petty meanness as allows one person to examine the handwriting or postmark of letters addressed to another. Yet he knew this thing, and he alone; he could not do away with this horrible knowledge.
The end of the gallery was reached; they turned with one accord and paced slowly, silently back, and the time was slipping away fast. It was impossible for Westray to consider anything now, but he had taken his decision before he came to Fording; he must go through with it; there was no escape for him any more than for Lord Blandamer. He would keep his word. On Monday, the day he had mentioned, he would speak, and once begun, the matter would pass out of his hands. But how was he to tell this to the man who was walking beside him, and silently waiting for his sentence? He could not leave him in suspense; to do so would be cowardice and cruelty. He must make his intention clear, but how? in what form of words? There was no time to think; already they were repassing that canvas which stood with its face to the wall.
The suspense, the impenetrable silence, was telling upon Westray; he tried again to rearrange his thoughts, but they were centred only on Lord Blandamer. How calm he seemed, with his hands folded behind him, and never a finger twitching! What did he mean to do—to fly, or kill himself, or stand his ground and take his trial on a last chance? It would be a celebrated trial. Hateful and inevitable details occurred to Westray's imagination: the crowded, curious court as he saw it in his dream, with Lord Blandamer in the dock, and this last thought sickened him. His own place would be in the witness-box. Incidents that he wished to forget would be recalled, discussed, dwelt on; he would have to search his memory for them, narrate them, swear to them. But this was not all. He would have to give an account of this very afternoon's work. It could not be hushed up. Every servant in the house would know how he had come to Fording with a picture. He heard himself cross-examined as to "this very remarkable interview." What account was he to give of it? What a betrayal of confidence it would be to give any account. Yet he must, and his evidence would be given under the eyes of Lord Blandamer in the dock. Lord Blandamer would be in the dock watching him. It was unbearable, impossible; rather than this he would fly himself, he would use the pistol that bulged his pocket against his own life.
Lord Blandamer had noted Westray's nervous movements, his glances to right and left, as though seeking some way of escape; he saw the clenched hands, and the look of distress as they paced to and fro. He knew that each pause before a picture was an attempt to shake him off, but he would not be shaken off; Westray was feeling the grip, and must not have a moment's breathing space. He could tell exactly how the minutes were passing, he knew what to listen for, and could catch the distant sound of the stable clock striking the quarters. They were back at the end of the gallery. There was no time to pace it again; Westray must go now if he was to catch his train.
They stopped opposite the old lord's portrait; the silence wrapped Westray round, as the white fog had wrapped him round that night on his way to Cullerne Road. He wanted to speak, but his brain was confused, his throat was dry; he dreaded the sound of his own voice.
Lord Blandamer took out his watch.
"I have no wish to hurry you, Mr Westray," he said, "but your train leaves Lytchett in little over an hour. It will take you nearly that time to drive to the station. May I help you to repack this picture?"
His voice was clear, level, and courteous, as on the day when Westray had first met him at Bellevue Lodge. The silence was broken, and Westray found himself speaking quickly in answer:
"You invited me to stay here for the night. I have changed my mind, and will accept your offer, if I may." He hesitated for a moment, and then went on: "I shall be thankful if you will keep the picture and these documents. I see now that I have no business with them."
He took the crumpled papers from his pocket, and held them out without looking up.
Then silence fell on them again, and Westray's heart stood still; till after a second that seemed an eternity Lord Blandamer took the papers with a short "I thank you," and walked a little way further, to the end of the gallery. The architect leant against the side of a window opposite which he found himself, and, looking out without seeing anything, presently heard Lord Blandamer tell a servant that Mr Westray would stop the night, and that wine was to be brought them in the gallery. In a few minutes the man came back with a decanter on a salver, and Lord Blandamer filled glasses for Westray, and himself. He felt probably that both needed something of the kind, but to the other more was implied. Westray remembered that an hour ago he had refused to eat or drink under this roof. An hour ago—how his mood had changed in that short time! How he had flung duty and principle to the winds! Surely this glass of red wine was a very sacrament of the devil, which made him a partner of iniquity.
As he raised the glass to his lips a slanting sunbeam shot through the window, and made the wine glow red as blood. The drinkers paused glass in hand, and glancing up saw the red sun setting behind the trees in the park. Then the old lord's picture caught the evening light, the green bars of the nebuly coat danced before Westray's eyes, till they seemed to live, to be again three wriggling caterpillars, and the penetrating grey eyes looked out from the canvas as if they were watching the enactment of this final scene. Lord Blandamer pledged him in a bumper, and Westray answered without hesitation, for he had given his allegiance, and would have drunk poison in token that there was to be no turning back now.
An engagement kept Lady Blandamer from home that evening. Lord Blandamer had intended to accompany her, but afterwards told her that Mr Westray was coming on important business, and so she went alone. Only Lord Blandamer and Westray sat down to dinner, and some subtle change of manner made the architect conscious that for the first time since their acquaintance, his host was treating him as a real equal. Lord Blandamer maintained a flow of easy and interesting conversation, yet never approached the subject of architecture even near enough to seem to be avoiding it. After dinner he took Westray to the library, where he showed him some old books, and used all his art to entertain him and set him at his ease. Westray was soothed for a moment by the other's manner, and did his best to respond to the courtesy shown him; but everything had lost its savour, and he knew that black Care was only waiting for him to be alone, to make herself once more mistress of his being.
A wind which had risen after sunset began to blow near bed-time with unusual violence. The sudden gusts struck the library windows till they rattled again, and puffs of smoke came out from the fireplace into the room.
"I shall sit up for Lady Blandamer," said the host, "but I dare say you will not be sorry to turn in;" and Westray, looking at his watch, saw that it wanted but ten minutes of midnight.
In the hall, and on the staircase, as they went up, the wind blowing with cold rushes made itself felt still more strongly.
"It is a wild night," Lord Blandamer said, as he stopped for a moment before a barometer, "but I suspect that there is yet worse to come; the glass has fallen in an extraordinary way. I hope you have left all snug with the tower at Cullerne; this wind will not spare any weak places."
"I don't think it should do any mischief at Saint Sepulchre's," Westray answered, half unconsciously. It seemed as though he could not concentrate his thought even upon his work.
His bedroom was large, and chilly in spite of a bright fire. He locked the door, and drawing an easy-chair before the hearth, sat a long while in thought. It was the first time in his life that he had with deliberation acted against his convictions, and there followed the reaction and remorse inseparable from such conditions.
Is there any depression so deep as this? is there any night so dark as this first eclipse of the soul, this first conscious stilling of the instinct for right? He had conspired to obscure truth, he had made himself partaker in another man's wrong-doing, and, as the result, he had lost his moral foothold, his self-respect, his self-reliance. It was true that, even if he could, he would not have changed his decision now, yet the weight of a guilty secret, that he must keep all his life long, pressed heavily upon him. Something must be done to lighten this weight; he must take some action that would ease the galling of his thoughts. He was in that broken mood for which the Middle Ages offered the cloister as a remedy; he felt the urgent need of sacrifice and abnegation to purge him. And then he knew the sacrifice that he must make: he must give up his work at Cullerne. He was thankful to find that there was still enough of conscience left to him to tell him this. He could not any longer be occupied on work for which the money was being found by this man. He would give up his post at Cullerne, even if it meant giving up his connection with his employers, even if it meant the giving up of his livelihood. He felt as if England itself were not large enough to hold him and Lord Blandamer. He must never more see the associate of his guilt; he dreaded meeting his eyes again, lest the other's will should constrain his will to further wrong. He would write to resign his work the very next day; that would be an active sacrifice, a definite mark from which he might begin a painful retracing of the way, a turning-point from which he might hope in time to recover some measure of self-respect and peace of mind. He would resign his work at Cullerne the very next day; and then a wilder gust of wind buffeted the windows of his room, and he thought of the scaffolding on Saint Sepulchre's tower. What a terrible night it was! Would the thin bows of the tower arches live through such a night, with the weight of the great tower rocking over them? No, he could not resign to-morrow. It would be deserting his post. He must stand by till the tower was safe, that was his first duty. After that he would give up his post at once.
Later on he went to bed, and in those dark watches of the night, that are not kept by reason, there swept over him thoughts wilder than the wind outside. He had made himself sponsor for Lord Blandamer, he had assumed the burden of the other's crime. It was he that was branded with the mark of Cain, and he must hide it in silence from the eyes of all men. He must fly from Cullerne, and walk alone with his burden for the rest of his life, a scapegoat in the isolation of the wilderness.
In sleep the terror that walketh in darkness brooded heavily on him. He was in the church of Saint Sepulchre, and blood dripped on him from the organ-loft. Then as he looked up to find out whence it came he saw the four tower arches falling to grind him to powder, and leapt up in his bed, and struck a light to make sure that there were no red patches on him. With daylight he grew calmer. The wild visions vanished, but the cold facts remained: he was sunk in his own esteem, he had forced himself into an evil secret which was no concern of his, and now he must keep it for ever.
Westray found Lady Blandamer in the breakfast-room. Lord Blandamer had met her in the hall on her return the night before, and though he was pale, she knew before he had spoken half a dozen words, that the cloud of anxiety which had hung heavily on him for the last few days was past. He told her that Mr Westray had come over on business, and, in view of the storm that was raging, had been persuaded to remain for the night. The architect had brought with him a picture which he had accidentally come across, a portrait of the old Lord Blandamer which had been missing for many years from Fording. It was very satisfactory that it had been recovered; they were under a great obligation to Mr Westray for the trouble which he had taken in the matter.
In the events of the preceding days Westray had almost forgotten Lady Blandamer's existence, and since the discovery of the picture, if her image presented itself to his mind, it had been as that of a deeply wronged and suffering woman. But this morning she appeared with a look of radiant content that amazed him, and made him shudder as he thought how near he had been only a day before to plunging her into the abyss. The more careful nurture of the year that had passed since her marriage, had added softness to her face and figure, without detracting from the refinement of expression that had always marked her. He knew that she was in her own place, and wondered now that the distinction of her manner had not led him sooner to the truth of her birth. She looked pleased to meet him, and shook hands with a frank smile that acknowledged their former relations, without any trace of embarrassment. It seemed incredible that she should ever have brought him up his meals and letters.
She made a polite reference to his having restored to them an interesting family picture, and finding him unexpectedly embarrassed, changed the subject by asking him what he thought of her own portrait.
"I think you must have seen it yesterday," she went on, as he appeared not to understand. "It has only just come home, and is standing on the floor in the long gallery."
Lord Blandamer glanced at the architect, and answered for him that Mr Westray had not seen it. Then he explained with a composure that shed a calm through the room:
"It was turned to the wall. It is a pity to show it unhung, and without a frame. We must get it framed at once, and decide on a position for it. I think we shall have to shift several paintings in the gallery."
He talked of Snyders and Wouverman, and Westray made some show of attention, but could only think of the unframed picture standing on the ground, which had helped to measure the passing of time in the terrible interview of yesterday. He guessed now that Lord Blandamer had himself turned the picture with its face to the wall, and in doing so had deliberately abandoned a weapon that might have served him well in the struggle. Lord Blandamer must have deliberately foregone the aid of recollections such as Anastasia's portrait would have called up in his antagonist's mind. "Non tali auxilio nec defensoribus istis."
Westray's haggard air had not escaped his host's notice. The architect looked as if he had spent the night in a haunted room, and Lord Blandamer was not surprised, knowing that the other's scruples had died hard, and were not likely to lie quiet in their graves. He thought it better that the short time which remained before Westray's departure should be spent out of the house, and proposed a stroll in the grounds. The gardener reported, he said, that last night's gale had done considerable damage to the trees. The top of the cedar on the south lawn had been broken short off. Lady Blandamer begged that she might accompany them, and as they walked down the terrace steps into the garden a nurse brought to her the baby heir.
"The gale must have been a cyclone," Lord Blandamer said. "It has passed away as suddenly as it arose."
The morning was indeed still and sunshiny, and seemed more beautiful by contrast with the turmoil of the previous night. The air was clear and cold after the rain, but paths and lawns were strewn with broken sticks and boughs, and carpeted with prematurely fallen leaves.
Lord Blandamer described the improvements that he was making or projecting, and pointed out the old fishponds which were to be restocked, the bowling-green and the ladies' garden arranged on an old-world plan by his grandmother, and maintained unchanged since her death. He had received an immense service from Westray, and he would not accept it ungraciously or make little of it. In taking the architect round the place, in showing this place that his ancestors had possessed for so many generations, in talking of his plans for a future that had only so recently become assured, he was in a manner conveying his thanks, and Westray knew it.
Lady Blandamer was concerned for Westray. She saw that he was downcast, and ill at ease, and in her happiness that the cloud had passed from her husband, she wanted everyone to be happy with her. So, as they were returning to the house, she began, in the kindness of her heart, to talk of Cullerne Minster. She had a great longing, she said, to see the old church again. She should so much enjoy it if Mr Westray would some day show her over it. Would he take much longer in the restorations?
They were in an alley too narrow for three to walk abreast. Lord Blandamer had fallen behind, but was within earshot.
Westray answered quickly, without knowing what he was going to say. He was not sure about the restorations—that was, they certainly were not finished; in fact, they would take some time longer, but he would not be there, he believed, to superintend them. That was to say, he was giving up his present appointment.
He broke off, and Lady Blandamer knew that she had again selected an unfortunate subject. She dropped it, and hoped he would let them know when he was next at leisure, and come for a longer visit.
"I am afraid it will not be in my power to do so," Westray said; and then, feeling that he had given a curt and ungracious answer to a kindly-meant invitation, turned to her and explained with unmistakable sincerity that he was giving up his connection with Farquhar and Farquhar. This subject also was not to be pursued, so she only said that she was sorry, and her eyes confirmed her words.
Lord Blandamer was pained at what he had heard. He knew Farquhar and Farquhar, and knew something of Westray's position and prospects—that he had a reasonable income, and a promising future with the firm. This resolve must be quite sudden, a result of yesterday's interview. Westray was being driven out into the wilderness like a scapegoat with another man's guilt on his head. The architect was young and inexperienced. Lord Blandamer wished he could talk with him quietly. He understood that Westray might find it impossible to go on with the restoration at Cullerne, where all was being done at Lord Blandamer's expense. But why sever his connection with a leading firm? Why not plead ill-health, nervous breakdown, those doctor's orders which have opened a way of escape from impasses of the mind as well as of the body? An archaeologic tour in Spain, a yachting cruise in the Mediterranean, a winter in Egypt—all these things would be to Westray's taste; the blameless herb nepenthe might anywhere be found growing by the wayside. He must amuse himself, and forget. He wished he could assure Westray that he would forget, or grow used to remembering; that time heals wounds of conscience as surely as it heals heart-wounds and flesh-wounds; that remorse is the least permanent of sentiments. But then Westray might not yet wish to forget. He had run full counter to his principles. It might be that he was resolved to take the consequences, and wear them like a hair-shirt, as the only means of recovering his self-esteem. No; whatever penance, voluntary or involuntary, Westray might undergo, Lord Blandamer could only look on in silence. His object had been gained. If Westray felt it necessary to pay the price, he must be let pay it. Lord Blandamer could neither inquire nor remonstrate. He could offer no compensation, because no compensation would be accepted.