I felt that now I could talk freely to her of what most perplexed me—not so much, I confess, with any hope that she might cast light on my difficulties, as in the assurance that she would not only influence me to think purely and nobly, but would urge me in the search after God. In such a relation of love to religion the vulgar mind will ever imagine ground for ridicule; but those who have most regarded human nature know well enough that the two have constantly manifested themselves in the closest relation; while even the poorest love is the enemy of selfishness unto the death, for the one or the other must give up the ghost. Not only must God be in all that is human, but of it he must be the root.
THE SWORD IN THE SCALE.
The next morning Charley and I went as usual to the library, where, later in the day, we were joined by the two ladies. It was long before our eyes once met, but when at last they did, Mary allowed hers to rest on mine for just one moment with an expression of dove-like beseeching, which I dared to interpret as meaning—'Be just to me.' If she read mine, surely she read there that she was safe with my thoughts as with those of her mother.
Charley and I worked late in the afternoon, and went away in the last of the twilight. As we approached the gate of the park, however, I remembered I had left behind me a book I had intended to carry home for comparison with a copy in my possession, of which the title-page was gone. I asked Charley, therefore, to walk on and give my man some directions about Lilith, seeing I had it in my mind to propose a ride on the morrow, while I went back to fetch it.
Finding the door at the foot of the stair leading to the open gallery ajar, and knowing that none of the rooms at either end of it were occupied, I went the nearest way, and thus entered the library at the point furthest from the more public parts of the house. The book I sought was, however, at the other end of the suite, for I had laid it on the window-sill of the room next the armoury.
As I entered that room, and while I crossed it towards the glimmering window, I heard voices in the armoury, and soon distinguished Clara's. It never entered my mind that possibly I ought not to hear what might be said. Just as I reached the window I was arrested, and stood stock still: the other voice was that of Geoffrey Brotherton. Before my self-possession returned, I had heard what follows.
'I am certain he took it,' said Clara. 'I didn't see him, of course; but if you call at the Moat to-morrow, ten to one you will find it hanging on the wall.'
'I knew him for a sneak, but never took him for a thief. I would have lost anything out of the house rather than that sword!'
'Don't you mention my name in it. If you do, I shall think you—well, I will never speak to you again.'
'And if I don't, what then?'
Before I heard her answer, I had come to myself. I had no time for indignation yet. I must meet Geoffrey at once. I would not, however, have him know I had overheard any of their talk. It would have been more straightforward to allow the fact to be understood, but I shrunk from giving him occasion for accusing me of an eavesdropping of which I was innocent. Besides, I had no wish to encounter Clara before I understood her game, which I need not say was a mystery to me. What end could she have in such duplicity? I had had unpleasant suspicions of the truth of her nature before, but could never have suspected her of baseness.
I stepped quietly into the further room, whence I returned, making a noise with the door-handle, and saying,
'Are you there, Miss Coningham? Could you help me to find a book I left here?'
There was silence; but after the briefest pause I heard the sound of her dress as she swept hurriedly out into the gallery. I advanced. On the top of the steps, filling the doorway of the armoury in the faint light from the window, appeared the dim form of Brotherton.
'I beg your pardon,' I said. 'I heard a lady's voice, and thought it was Miss Coningham's.'
'I cannot compliment your ear,' he answered. 'It was one of the maids. I had just rung for a light. I presume you are Mr Cumbermede?'
'Yes,' I answered. 'I returned to fetch a book I forgot to take with me. I suppose you have heard what we've been about in the library here?'
'I have been partially informed of it,' he answered, stiffly. 'But I have heard also that you contemplate a raid upon the armoury. I beg you will let the weapons alone.'
I had said something of the sort to Clara that very morning.
'I have a special regard for them,' he went on; 'and I don't want them meddled with. It's not every one knows how to handle them. Some amongst them I would not have injured for their weight in diamonds. One in particular I should like to give you the history of—just to show you that I am right in being careful over them.—Here comes the light.'
I presume it had been hurriedly arranged between them as Clara left him that she should send one of the maids, who in consequence now made her appearance with a candle. Brotherton took it from her and approached the wall.
'Why! What the devil! Some one has been meddling already, I find! The very sword I speak of is gone! There's the sheath hanging empty! What can it mean? Do you know anything of this, Mr Cumbermede?'
'I do, Mr Brotherton. The sword to which that sheath belongs is mine. I have it.'
'Yours!' he shouted; then restraining himself, added in a tone of utter contempt—'This is rather too much. Pray, sir, on what grounds do you lay claim to the smallest atom of property within these walls? My father ought to have known what he was about when he let you have the run of the house! And the old books, too! By heaven, it's too much! I always thought—'
'It matters little to me what you think, Mr Brotherton—so little that I do not care to take any notice of your insolence—'
'Insolence!' he roared, striding towards me, as if he would have knocked me down.
I was not his match in strength, for he was at least two inches taller than I, and of a coarse-built, powerful frame. I caught a light rapier from the wall, and stood on my defence.
'Coward!' he cried.
'There are more where this came from,' I answered, pointing to the wall.
He made no move towards arming himself, but stood glaring at me in a white rage.
'I am prepared to prove,' I answered as calmly as I could, 'that the sword to which you allude is mine. But I will give you no explanation. If you will oblige me by asking your father to join us, I will tell him the whole story.'
'I will have a warrant out against you.'
'As you please. I am obliged to you for mentioning it. I shall be ready. I have the sword, and intend to keep it. And by the way, I had better secure the scabbard as well,' I added, as with a sudden spring I caught it also from the wall, and again stood prepared.
He ground his teeth with rage. He was one of those who, trusting to their superior strength, are not much afraid of a row, but cannot face cold steel: soldier as he had been, it made him nervous.
'Insulted in my own house!' he snarled from between his teeth.
'Your father's house,' I corrected. 'Call him, and I will give explanations.'
'Damn your explanations! Get out of the house, you puppy; or I'll have the servants up, and have you ducked in the horse-pond.'
'Bah!' I said. 'There's not one of them would lay hands on me at your bidding. Call your father, I say, or I will go and find him myself.'
He broke out in a succession of oaths, using language I had heard in the streets of London, but nowhere else. I stood perfectly still, and watchful. All at once he turned and went into the gallery, over the balustrade of which he shouted,
'Martin! Go and tell my father to come here—to the armoury—at once. Tell him there's a fellow here out of his mind.'
I remained quiet, with my scabbard in one hand, and the rapier in the other—a dangerous weapon enough, for it was, though slight, as sharp as a needle, and I knew it for a bit of excellent temper. Brotherton stood outside waiting for his father. In a few moments I heard the voice of the old man.
'Boys! boys!' he cried; 'what is all this to do?'
'Why, sir,' answered Geoffrey, trying to be calm, 'here's that fellow Cumbermede confesses to have stolen the most valuable of the swords out of the armoury—one that's been in the family for two hundred years, and says he means to keep it.'
I just caught the word liar ere it escaped my lips: I would spare the son in his father's presence.
'Tut! tut!' said Sir Giles. 'What does it all mean? You're at your old quarrelsome tricks, my boy! Really you ought to be wiser by this time!'
As he spoke, he entered panting, and with the rubicund glow beginning to return upon a face from which the message had evidently banished it.
'Tut! tut!' he said again, half starting back as he caught sight of me with the weapon in my hand—'What is it all about, Mr Cumbermede? I thought you had more sense!'
'Sir Giles,' I said, 'I have not confessed to having stolen the sword—only to having taken it.'
'A very different thing,' he returned, trying to laugh. 'But come now; tell me all about it. We can't have quarrelling like this, you know. We can't have pot-house work here.'
'That is just why I sent for you, Sir Giles,' I answered, replacing the rapier on the wall. 'I want to tell you the whole story.'
'Let's have it, then.'
'Mind, I don't believe a word of it,' said Geoffrey.
'Hold your tongue, sir,' said his father, sharply.
'Mr Brotherton,' I said, 'I offered to tell the story to Sir Giles—not to you.'
'You offered!' he sneered. 'You may be compelled—under different circumstances by-and-by, if you don't mind what you're about.'
'Come now—no more of this!' said Sir Giles.
Thereupon I began at the beginning, and told him the story of the sword, as I have already given it to my reader. He fidgeted a little, but Geoffrey kept himself stock-still during the whole of the narrative. As soon as I had ended Sir Giles said,
'And you think poor old Close actually carried off your sword!—Well, he was an odd creature, and had a passion for everything that could kill. The poor little atomy used to carry a poniard in the breast-pocket of his black coat—as if anybody would ever have thought of attacking his small carcass! Ha! ha! ha! He was simply a monomaniac in regard of swords and daggers. There, Geoffrey! The sword is plainly his. He is the wronged party in the matter, and we owe him an apology.'
'I believe the whole to be a pure invention,' said Geoffrey, who now appeared perfectly calm.
'Mr Brotherton!' I began, but Sir Giles interposed.
'Hush! hush!' he said, and turned to his son. 'My boy, you insult your father's guest.'
'I will at once prove to you, sir, how unworthy he is of any forbearance, not to say protection from you. Excuse me for one moment.'
He took up the candle, and opening the little door at the foot of the winding stair, disappeared. Sir Giles and I sat in silence and darkness until he returned, carrying in his hand an old vellum-bound book.
'I dare say you don't know this manuscript, sir,' he said, turning to his father.
'I know nothing about it,' answered Sir Giles. 'What is it? Or what has it to do with the matter in hand?'
'Mr Close found it in some corner or other, and used to read it to me when I was a little fellow. It is a description, and in most cases a history as well, of every weapon in the armoury. They had been much neglected, and a great many of the labels were gone, but those which were left referred to numbers in the book-heading descriptions which corresponded exactly to the weapons on which they were found. With a little trouble he had succeeded in supplying the numbers where they were missing, for the descriptions are very minute.'
He spoke in a tone of perfect self-possession.
'Well, Geoffrey, I ask again, what has all this to do with it?' said his father.
'If Mr Cumbermede will allow you to look at the label attached to the sheath in his hand—for fortunately it was a rule with Mr Close to put a label on both sword and sheath—and if you will read me the number, I will read you the description in the book.'
I handed the sheath to Sir Giles, who began to decipher the number on the ivory ticket.
'The label is quite a new one,' I said.
'I have already accounted for that,' said Brotherton. 'I will leave it to yourself to decide whether the description corresponds.'
Sir Giles read out the number figure by figure, adding—
'But how are we to test the description? I don't know the thing, and it's not here.'
'It is at the Moat,' I replied; 'but its future place is at Sir Giles's decision.'
'Part of the description belongs to the scabbard you have in your hand, sir,' said Brotherton. 'The description of the sword itself I submit to Mr Cumbermede.'
'Till the other day I never saw the blade,' I said.
'Likely enough,' he retorted dryly, and proceeding, read the description of the half-basket hilt, inlaid with gold, and the broad blade, channeled near the hilt, and inlaid with ornaments and initials in gold.
'There is nothing in all that about the scabbard,' said his father.
'Stop till we come to the history,' he replied, and read on, as nearly as I can recall, to the following effect. I have never had an opportunity of copying the words themselves.
'"This sword seems to have been expressly forged for Sir [——] [——],"' (He read it Sir So and So.) '"whose initials are to be found on the blade. According to tradition, it was worn by him, for the first and only time, at the battle of Naseby, where he fought in the cavalry led by Sir Marmaduke Langdale. From some accident or other, Sir [——] [——] found, just as the order to charge was given, that he could not draw his sword, and had to charge with only a pistol in his hand. In the flight which followed he pulled up, and unbuckled his sword, but while attempting to ease it, a rush of the enemy startled him, and, looking about, he saw a Roundhead riding straight at Sir Marmaduke, who that moment passed in the rear of his retiring troops—giving some directions to an officer by his side, and unaware of the nearness of danger. Sir [——] [——] put spurs to his charger, rode at the trooper, and dealt him a downright blow on the pot-helmet with his sheathed weapon. The fellow tumbled from his horse, and Sir [——] [——] found his scabbard split halfway up, but the edge of his weapon unturned. It is said he vowed it should remain sheathed for ever."—The person who has now unsheathed it has done a great wrong to the memory of a loyal cavalier.'
'The sheath halfway split was as familiar to my eyes as the face of my uncle,' I said, turning to Sir Giles. 'And in the only reference I ever heard my great-grandmother make to it, she mentioned the name of Sir Marmaduke. I recollect that much perfectly.'
'But how could the sword be there and here at one and the same time?' said Sir Giles.
'That I do not pretend to explain,' I said.
'Here at least is written testimony to our possession of it,' said Brotherton in a conclusive tone.
'How, then, are we to explain Mr Cumbermede's story?' said Sir Giles, evidently in good faith.
'With that I cannot consent to allow myself concerned.—Mr Cumbermede is, I am told, a writer of fiction.'
'Geoffrey,' said Sir Giles, 'behave yourself like a gentleman.'
'I endeavour to do so,' he returned with a sneer.
I kept silence.
'How can you suppose,' the old man went on, 'that Mr Cumbermede would invent such a story? What object could he have?'
'He may have a mania for weapons, like old Close—as well as for old books,' he replied.
I thought of my precious folio. But I did not yet know how much additional force his insinuation with regard to the motive of my labours in the library would gain if it should be discovered that such a volume was in my possession.
'You may have remarked, sir,' he went on, 'that I did not read the name of the owner of the sword in any place where it occurred in the manuscript.'
'I did. And I beg to know why you kept it back,' answered Sir Giles.
'What do you think the name might be, sir?'
'How should I know? I am not an antiquarian.'
'Sir Wilfrid Cumbermede. You will find the initials on the blade.—Does that throw any light on the matter, do you think, sir?'
'Why, that is your very own name!' cried Sir Giles, turning to me.
'It is a pity the sword shouldn't be yours.'
'It is mine, Sir Giles—though, as I said, I am prepared to abide by your decision.'
'And now I remember;—the old man resumed, after a moment's thought—'the other evening Mr Alderforge—a man of great learning, Mr Cumbermede—told us that the name of Cumbermede had at one time belonged to our family. It is all very strange. I confess I am utterly bewildered.'
'At least you can understand, sir, how a man of imagination, like Mr Cumbermede here, might desire to possess himself of a weapon which bears his initials, and belonged two hundred years ago to a baronet of the same name as himself—a circumstance which, notwithstanding it is by no means a common name, is not quite so strange as at first sight appears—that is, if all reports are true.'
I did not in the least understand his drift; neither did I care to inquire into it now.
'Were you aware of this, Mr Cumbermede?' asked his father.
'No, Sir Giles,' I answered.
'Mr Cumbermede has had the run of the place for weeks. I am sorry I was not at home. This book was lying all the time on the table in the room above, where poor old Close's work-bench and polishing-wheel are still standing.'
'Mr Brotherton, this gets beyond bearing,' I cried. 'Nothing but the presence of your father, to whom I am indebted for much kindness, protects you.'
'Tut! tut!' said Sir Giles.
'Protects me, indeed!' exclaimed Brotherton. 'Do you dream I should be by any code bound to accept a challenge from you?—Not, at least, I presume to think, before a jury had decided on the merits of the case.'
My blood was boiling, but what could I do or say? Sir Giles rose, and was about to leave the room, remarking only—
'I don't know what to make of it.'
'At all events, Sir Giles,' I said hurriedly, 'you will allow me to prove the truth of what I have asserted. I cannot, unfortunately, call my uncle or aunt, for they are gone; and I do not know where the servant who was with us when I took the sword away is now. But, if you will allow me, I will call Mrs Wilson—to prove that I had the sword when I came to visit her on that occasion, and that on the morning after sleeping here I complained of its loss to her, and went away without it.'
'It would but serve to show the hallucination was early developed. We should probably find that even then you were much attracted by the armoury,' said Brotherton, with a judicial air, as if I were a culprit before a magistrate.
I had begun to see that, although the old man was desirous of being just, he was a little afraid of his son. He rose as the latter spoke, however, and going into the gallery, shouted over the balustrade—
'Some one send Mrs Wilson to the library!'
We removed to the reading-room, I carrying the scabbard which Sir Giles had returned to me as soon as he had read the label. Brotherton followed, having first gone up the little turn-pike stair, doubtless to replace the manuscript.
Mrs Wilson came, looking more pinched than ever, and stood before Sir Giles with her arms straight by her sides, like one of the ladies of Noah's ark. I will not weary my reader with a full report of the examination. She had seen me with a sword, but had taken no notice of its appearance. I might have taken it from the armoury, for I was in the library all the afternoon. She had left me there thinking I was a 'gentlemany' boy. I had said I had lost it, but she was sure she did not know how that could be. She was very sorry she had caused any trouble by asking me to the house, but Sir Giles would be pleased to remember that he had himself introduced the boy to her notice. Little she thought, &c., &c.
In fact, the spiteful creature, propitiating her natural sense of justice by hinting instead of plainly suggesting injurious conclusions, was paying me back for my imagined participation in the impertinences of Clara. She had besides, as I learned afterwards, greatly resented the trouble I had caused of late.
Brotherton struck in as soon as his father had ceased questioning her.
'At all events, if he believed the sword was his, why did he not go and represent the case to you, sir, and request justice from you? Since then he has had opportunity enough. His tale has taken too long to hatch.'
'This is all very paltry,' I said.
'Not so paltry as your contriving to sleep in the house in order to carry off your host's property in the morning—after studying the place to discover which room would suit your purpose best!'
Here I lost my presence of mind. A horror shook me lest something might come out to injure Mary, and I shivered at the thought of her name being once mentioned along with mine. If I had taken a moment to reflect, I must have seen that I should only add to the danger by what I was about to say. But her form was so inextricably associated in my mind with all that had happened then, that it seemed as if the slightest allusion to any event of that night would inevitably betray her; and in the tremor which, like an electric shock, passed through me from head to foot, I blurted out words importing that I had never slept in the house in my life.
'Your room was got ready for you, anyhow, Master Cumbermede,' said Mrs Wilson.
'It does not follow that I occupied it,' I returned.
'I can prove that false,' said Brotherton; but, probably lest he should be required to produce his witness, only added,—'At all events, he was seen in the morning, carrying the sword across the court before any one had been admitted.'
I was silent; for I now saw too clearly that I had made a dreadful blunder, and that any attempt to carry assertion further, or even to explain away my words, might be to challenge the very discovery I would have given my life to ward off.
As I continued silent, steeling myself to endure, and saying to myself that disgrace was not dishonour, Sir Giles again rose, and turned to leave the room. Evidently he was now satisfied that I was unworthy of confidence.
'One moment, if you please, Sir Giles,' I said. 'It is plain to me there is some mystery about this affair, and it does not seem as if I should be able to clear it up. The time may come, however, when I can. I did wrong, I see now, in attempting to right myself, instead of representing my case to you. But that does not alter the fact that the sword was and is mine, however appearances may be to the contrary. In the mean time, I restore you the scabbard, and as soon as I reach home, I shall send my man with the disputed weapon.'
'It will be your better way,' he said, as he took the sheath from my hand.
Without another word, he left the room. Mrs Wilson also retired. Brotherton alone remained. I took no further notice of him, but followed Sir Giles through the armoury. He came after me, step for step, at a little distance, and as I stepped out into the gallery, said, in a tone of insulting politeness:
'You will send the sword as soon as may be quite convenient, Mr Cumbermede? Or shall I send and fetch it?'
I turned and faced him in the dim light which came up from the hall.
'Mr Brotherton, if you knew that book and those weapons as early as you have just said, you cannot help knowing that at that time the sword was not there.'
'I decline to re-open the question,' he said.
A fierce word leaped to my lips, but repressing it I turned away once more, and walked slowly down the stair, across the hall, and out of the house.
I PART WITH MY SWORD
I made haste out of the park, but wandered up and down my own field for half an hour, thinking in what shape to put what had occurred before Charley. My perplexity arose not so much from the difficulty involved in the matter itself as from my inability to fix my thoughts. My brain was for the time like an ever-revolving kaleidoscope, in which, however, there was but one fair colour—the thought of Mary. Having at length succeeded in arriving at some conclusion, I went home, and would have despatched Styles at once with the sword, had not Charley already sent him off to the stable, so that I must wait.
'What has kept you so long, Wilfrid?' Charley asked, as I entered.
'I've had a tremendous row with Brotherton,' I answered.
'The brute! Is he there? I'm glad I was gone. What was it all about?'
'About that sword. It was very foolish of me to take it without saying a word to Sir Giles.'
'So it was,' he returned. 'I can't think how you could be so foolish!'
I could, well enough. What with the dream and the waking, I could think little about anything else; and only since the consequences had overtaken me, saw how unwisely I had acted. I now told Charley the greater part of the affair—omitting the false step I had made in saying I had not slept in the house; and also, still with the vague dread of leading to some discovery, omitting to report the treachery of Clara; for, if Charley should talk to her or Mary about it, which was possible enough, I saw several points where the danger would lie very close. I simply told him that I had found Brotherton in the armoury, and reported what followed between us. I did not at all relish having now in my turn secrets from Charley, but my conscience did not trouble me about it, seeing it was for his sister's sake; and when I saw the rage of indignation into which he flew, I was, if possible, yet more certain I was right. I told him I must go and find Styles, that he might take the sword at once; but he started up, saying he would carry it back himself, and at the same time take his leave of Sir Giles, whose house, of course, he could never enter again after the way I had been treated in it. I saw this would lead to a rupture with the whole family, but I should not regret that, for there could be no advantage to Mary either in continuing her intimacy, such as it was, with Clara, or in making further acquaintance with Brotherton. The time of their departure was also close at hand, and might be hastened without necessarily involving much of the unpleasant. Also, if Charley broke with them at once, there would be the less danger of his coming to know that I had not given him all the particulars of my discomfiture. If he were to find I had told a falsehood, how could I explain to him why I had done so? This arguing on probabilities made me feel like a culprit who has to protect himself by concealment; but I will not dwell upon my discomfort in the half-duplicity thus forced upon me. I could not help it. I got down the sword, and together we looked at it for the first and last time. I found the description contained in the book perfectly correct. The upper part was inlaid with gold in a Greekish pattern, crossed by the initials W. C. I gave it up to Charley with a sigh of submission to the inevitable, and having accompanied him to the park-gate, roamed my field again until his return.
He rejoined me in a far quieter mood, and for a moment or two I was silent with the terror of learning that he had become acquainted with my unhappy blunder. After a little pause, he said,
'I'm very sorry I didn't see Brotherton. I should have liked just a word or two with him.'
'It's just as well not,' I said. 'You would only have made another row. Didn't you see any of them?'
'I saw the old man. He seemed really cut up about it, and professed great concern. He didn't even refer to you by name—and spoke only in general terms. I told him you were incapable of what was laid to your charge; that I had not the slightest doubt of your claim to the sword,—your word being enough for me,—and that I trusted time would right you. I went too far there, however, for I haven't the slightest hope of anything of the sort.'
'How did he take all that?'
'He only smiled—incredulously and sadly,—so that I couldn't find it in my heart to tell him all my mind. I only insisted on my own perfect confidence in you.—I'm afraid I made a poor advocate, Wilfrid. Why should I mind his grey hairs where justice is concerned? I am afraid I was false to you, Wilfrid.'
'Nonsense; you did just the right thing, old boy. Nobody could have done better.'
'Do you think so? I am so glad! I have been feeling ever since as if I ought to have gone into a rage, and shaken the dust of the place from my feet for a witness against the whole nest of them! But somehow I couldn't—what with the honest face and the sorrowful look of the old man.'
'You are always too much of a partisan, Charley; I don't mean so much in your actions—for this very one disproves that—but in your notions of obligation. You forget that you had to be just to Sir Giles as well as to me, and that he must be judged—not by the absolute facts of the case, but by what appeared to him to be the facts. He could not help misjudging me. But you ought to help misjudging him. So you see your behaviour was guided by an instinct or a soul, or what you will, deeper than your judgment.'
'That may be—but he ought to have known you better than believe you capable of misconduct.'
'I don't know that. He had seen very little of me. But I dare say he puts it down to cleptomania. I think he will be kind enough to give the ugly thing a fine name for my sake. Besides, he must hold either by his son or by me.'
'That's the worst that can be said on my side of the question. He must by this time be aware that that son of his is nothing better than a low scoundrel.'
'It takes much to convince a father of such an unpleasant truth as that, Charley.'
'Not much, if my experience goes for anything.'
'I trust it is not typical, Charley.'
'I suppose you're going to stand up for Geoffrey next?'
'I have no such intention. But if I did, it would be but to follow your example. We seem to change sides every now and then. You remember how you used to defend Clara when I expressed my doubts about her.'
'And wasn't I right? Didn't you come over to my side?'
'Yes, I did,' I said, and hastened to change the subject; adding, 'As for Geoffrey, there is room enough to doubt whether he believes what he says, and that makes a serious difference. In thinking over the affair since you left me, I have discovered further grounds for questioning his truthfulness.'
'As if that were necessary!' he exclaimed, with an accent of scorn.' But tell me what you mean?' he added.
'In turning the thing over in my mind, this question has occurred to me.—He read from the manuscript that oh the blade of the sword, near the hilt, were the initials of Wilfrid Cumbermede. Now, if the sword had never been drawn from the scabbard, how was that to be known to the writer?'
'Perhaps it was written about that time,' said Charley.
'No; the manuscript was evidently written some considerable time after. It refers to tradition concerning it.'
'Then the writer knew it by tradition.'
The moment Charley's logical faculty was excited his perception was impartial.
'Besides,' he went on,' it does not follow that the sword had really never been drawn before. Mr Close even may have done so, for his admiration was apparently quite as much for weapons themselves as for their history. Clara could hardly have drawn it as she did if it had not been meddled with before.'
The terror lest he should ask me how I came to carry it home without the scabbard hurried my objection.
'That supposition, however, would only imply that Brotherton might have learned the fact from the sword itself, not from the book. I should just like to have one peep of the manuscript to see whether what he read was all there!'
'Or any of it, for that matter,' said Charley. 'Only it would have been a more tremendous risk than I think he would have run.'
'I wish I had thought of it sooner, though.'
My suspicion was that Clara had examined the blade thoroughly, and given him a full description of it. He might, however, have been at the Hall on some previous occasion, without my knowledge, and might have seen the half-drawn blade on the wall, examined it, and pushed it back into the sheath; which might have so far loosened the blade that Clara was afterwards able to draw it herself. I was all but certain by this time that it was no other than she that had laid it on my bed. But then why had she drawn it? Perhaps that I might leave proof of its identity behind me—for the carrying out of her treachery, whatever the object of it might be. But this opened a hundred questions not to be discussed, even in silent thought, in the presence of another.
'Did you see your mother, Charley?' I asked.
'No, I thought it better not to trouble her. They are going to-morrow. Mary had persuaded her—why, I don't know—to return a day or two sooner than they had intended.'
'I hope Brotherton will not succeed in prejudicing them against me.'
'I wish that were possible,' he answered. 'But the time for prejudice is long gone by.'
I could not believe this to be the case in respect of Mary; for I could not but think her favourably inclined to me.
'Still,' I said, 'I should not like their bad opinion of me to be enlarged as well as strengthened by the belief that I had attempted to steal Sir Giles's property. You must stand my friend there, Charley.'
'Then you do doubt me, Wilfrid?'
'Not a bit, you foolish fellow.'
'You know, I can't enter that house again, and I don't care about writing to my mother, for my father is sure to see it; but I will follow my mother and Mary the moment they are out of the grounds to-morrow, and soon see whether they've got the story by the right end.'
The evening passed with me in alternate fits of fierce indignation and profound depression, for, while I was clear to my own conscience in regard of my enemies, I had yet thrown myself bound at their feet by my foolish lie; and I all but made up my mind to leave the country, and only return after having achieved such a position—of what sort I had no more idea than the school-boy before he sets himself to build a new castle in the air—as would buttress any assertion of the facts I might see fit to make in after-years.
When we had parted for the night, my brains began to go about, and the centre of their gyrations was not Mary now, but Clara. What could have induced her to play me false? All my vanity, of which I had enough, was insufficient to persuade me that it could be out of revenge for the gradual diminution of my attentions to her. She had seen me pay none to Mary, I thought, unless she had caught a glimpse from the next room of the little passage of the ring, and that I did not believe. Neither did I believe she had ever cared enough about me to be jealous of whatever attentions I might pay to another. But in all my conjectures, I had to confess myself utterly foiled. I could imagine no motive. Two possibilities alone, both equally improbable, suggested themselves—the one, that she did it for pure love of mischief, which, false as she was to me, I could not believe; the other, which likewise I rejected, that she wanted to ingratiate herself with Brotherton. I had still, however, scarcely a doubt that she had laid the sword on my bed. Trying to imagine a connection between this possible action and Mary's mistake, I built up a conjectural form of conjectural facts to this effect—that Mary had seen her go into my room, had taken it for the room she was to share with her, and had followed her either at once—in which case I supposed Clara to have gone out by the stair to the roof to avoid being seen—or afterwards, from some accident, without a light in her hand. But I do not care to set down more of my speculations, for none concerning this either were satisfactory to myself, and I remain almost as much in the dark to this day. In any case the fear remained that Clara must be ever on the borders of the discovery of Mary's secret, if indeed she did not know it already, which was a dreadful thought—more especially as I could place no confidence in her. I was glad to think, however, that they were to be parted so soon, and I had little fear of any correspondence between them.
The next morning Charley set out to waylay them at a certain point on their homeward journey. I did not propose to accompany him. I preferred having him speak for me first, not knowing how much they might have heard to my discredit, for it was far from probable the matter had been kept from them. After he had started, however, I could not rest, and for pure restlessness sent Styles to fetch my mare. The loss of my sword was a trifle to me now, but the proximity of the place where I should henceforth be regarded as what I hardly dared to realize, was almost unendurable. As if I had actually been guilty of what was laid to my charge, I longed to hide myself in some impenetrable depth, and kept looking out impatiently for Styles's return. At length I caught sight of my Lilith's head rising white from the hollow in which the farm lay, and ran up to my room to make a little change in my attire. Just as I snatched my riding-whip from a hook by the window, I spied a horseman approaching from the direction of the park gates. Once more it was Mr Coningham, riding hitherward from the windy trees. In no degree inclined to meet him, I hurried down the stair, and arriving at the very moment Styles drew up, sprung into the saddle, and would have galloped off in the opposite direction, confident that no horse of Mr Coningham's could overtake my Lilith. But the moment I was in the saddle, I remembered there was a pile of books on the window-sill of my uncle's room, belonging to the library at the Hall, and I stopped a moment to give Styles the direction to take them home at once, and, having asked a word of Miss Pease, to request her, with my kind regards, to see them safely deposited amongst the rest. In consequence of this delay, just as I set off at full speed from the door, Mr Coningham rode round the corner of the house.
'What a devil of a hurry you are in, Mr Cumbermede!' he cried. 'I was just coming to see you. Can't you spare me a word?'
I was forced to pull up, and reply as civilly as might be.
'I am only going for a ride,' I said, 'and will go part of your way with you if you like.'
'Thank you. That will suit me admirably, I am going Gastford way. Have you ever been there?'
'No,' I answered. 'I have only just heard the name of the village.'
'It is a pretty place. But there's the oddest old church you ever saw, within a couple of miles of it—alone in the middle of a forest—or at least it was a forest not long ago. It is mostly young trees now. There isn't a house within a mile of it, and the nearest stands as lonely as the church—quite a place to suit the fancy of a poet like you! Come along and see it. You may as well go one way as another, if you only want a ride.'
'How far is it?' I asked.
'Only seven or eight miles across country. I can take you all the way through lanes and fields.'
Perplexed or angry I was always disinclined for speech; and it was only after things had arranged themselves in my mind, or I had mastered my indignation, that I would begin to feel communicative. But something prudential inside warned me that I could not afford to lose any friend I had; and although I was not prepared to confide my wrongs to Mr Coningham, I felt I might some day be glad of his counsel.
My companion chatted away, lauded my mare, asked if I had seen Clara lately, and how the library was getting on. I answered him carelessly, without even a hint at my troubles.
'You seem out of spirits, Mr Cumbermede?' he said. 'You've been taking too little exercise. Let's have a canter. It will do you good. Here's a nice bit of sward.'
I was only too ready to embrace the excuse for dropping a conversation towards which I was unable to contribute my share.
Having reached a small roadside inn, we gave our horses a little refreshment; after which, crossing a field or two by jumping the stiles, we entered the loveliest lane I had ever seen. It was so narrow that there was just room for horses to pass each other, and covered with the greenest sward rarely trodden. It ran through the midst of a wilderness of tall hazels. They stood up on both sides of it, straight and trim as walls, high above our heads as we sat on our horses; and the lane was so serpentine that we could never see further than a few yards ahead; while, towards the end, it kept turning so much in one direction that we seemed to be following the circumference of a little circle. It ceased at length at a small double-leaved gate of iron, to which we tied our horses before entering the churchyard. But instead of a neat burial-place, which the whole approach would have given us to expect, we found a desert. The grass was of extraordinary coarseness, and mingled with quantities of vile-looking weeds. Several of the graves had not even a spot of green upon them, but were mere heaps of yellow earth in huge lumps, mixed with large stones. There was not above a score of graves in the whole place, two or three of which only had gravestones on them. One lay open, with the rough yellow lumps all about it, and completed the desolation. The church was nearly square—small, but shapeless, with but four latticed windows, two on one side, one in the other, and the fourth in the east end. It was built partly of bricks and partly of flint stones, the walls bowed and bent, and the roof waved and broken. Its old age had gathered none of the graces of age to soften its natural ugliness, or elevate its insignificance. Except a few lichens, there was not a mark of vegetation about it. Not a single ivy leaf grew on its spotted and wasted walls. It gave a hopeless, pagan expression to the whole landscape—for it stood on a rising ground, from which we had an extensive prospect of height and hollow, cornfield and pasture and wood, away to the dim blue horizon.
'You don't find it enlivening, do you—eh?' said my companion.
'I never saw such a frightfully desolate spot,' I said, 'to have yet the appearance of a place of Christian worship. It looks as if there were a curse upon it. Are all those the graves of suicides and murderers? It cannot surely be consecrated ground?'
'It's not nice,' he said. 'I didn't expect you to like it. I only said it was odd.'
'Is there any service held in it?' I asked.
'Yes—once a fortnight or so. The rector has another living a few miles off.'
'Where can the congregation come from?'
'Hardly from anywhere. There ain't generally more than five or six, I believe. Let's have a look at the inside of it.'
'The windows are much too high, and no foothold.'
'We'll go in.'
'Where can you get the key? It must be a mile off at least, by your own account. There's no house nearer than that, you say.'
He made me no reply, but going to the only flat gravestone, which stood on short thick pillars, he put his hand beneath it, and drew out a great rusty key.
'Country lawyers know a secret or two,' he said.
'Not always much worth knowing,' I rejoined,—'if the inside be no better than the outside.'
'We'll have a look, anyhow,' he said, as he turned the key in the dry lock.
The door snarled on its hinges, and disclosed a space drearier certainly, and if possible uglier, than its promise.
'Really, Mr Coningham,' I said, 'I don't see why you should have brought me to look at this place.'
'It answered for a bait, at all events. You've had a good long ride, which was the best thing for you. Look what a wretched little vestry that is!'
It was but a corner of the east end, divided off by a faded red curtain.
'I suppose they keep a parish register here,' he said. 'Let us have a look.'
Behind the curtain hung a dirty surplice and a gown. In the corner stood a desk like the schoolmaster's in a village school. There was a shelf with a few vellum-bound books on it, and nothing else, not even a chair in the place.
'Yes; there they are!' he said, as he took down one of the volumes from the shelf. 'This one comes to a close in the middle of the last century. I dare say there is something in this, now, that would be interesting enough to somebody. Who knows how many properties it might make change hands?'
'Not many, I should think. Those matters are pretty well seen to now.'
'By some one or other—not always the rightful heirs. Life is full of the strangest facts, Mr Cumbermede. If I were a novelist, now, like you, my experience would make me dare a good deal more in the way of invention than any novelist I happen to have read. Look there, for instance.'
He pointed to the top of the last page, or rather the last half of the cover. I read as follows:
'Mr Wilfrid Cumbermede Daryll, of the Parish of [——] second son of Sir Richard Daryll of Moldwarp Hall in the County of [——] and Mistress Elizabeth Woodruffe were married by a license Jan. 15.'
'I don't know the name of Daryll,' I said.
'It was your own great-grandfather's name,' he returned. 'I happen to know that much.'
'You knew this was here, Mr Coningham,' I said. 'That is why you brought me here.'
'You are right. I did know it. Was I wrong in thinking it would interest you?'
'Certainly not. I am obliged to you. But why this mystery? Why not have told me what you wanted me to go for?'
'I will why you in turn. Why should I have wanted to show you now more than any other time what I have known for as many years almost as you have lived? You spoke of a ride—why shouldn't I give a direction to it that might pay you for your trouble? And why shouldn't I have a little amusement out of it if I pleased? Why shouldn't I enjoy your surprise at finding in a place you had hardly heard of, and would certainly count most uninteresting, the record of a fact that concerned your own existence so nearly? There!'
'I confess it interests me more than you will easily think—inasmuch as it seems to offer to account for things that have greatly puzzled me for some time. I have of late met with several hints of a connection at one time or other between the Moat and the Hall, but these hints were so isolated that I could weave no theory to connect them. Now I dare say they will clear themselves up.'
'Not a doubt of-that, if you set about it in earnest.'
'How did he come to drop his surname?'
'That has to be accounted for.'
'It follows—does it not?—that I am of the same blood as the present possessors of Moldwarp Hall?'
'You are—but the relation is not a close one,' said Mr Coningham.
'Sir Giles was but distantly related to the stock of which you come.'
'Then—but I must turn it over in my mind. I am rather in a maze.'
'You have got some papers at the Moat?' he said—interrogatively.
'Yes; my friend Osborne has been looking over them. He found out this much—that there was once some connection between the Moat and the Hall, but at a far earlier date than this points to, or any of the hints to which I just now referred. The other day, when I dined at Sir Giles's, Mr Alderforge said that Cumbermede was a name belonging to Sir Giles's ancestry—or something to that effect; but that again could have had nothing to do with those papers, or with the Moat at all.'
Here I stopped, for I could not bring myself to refer to the sword. It was not merely that the subject was too painful: of all things I did not want to be cross-questioned by my lawyer-companion.
'It is not amongst those you will find anything of importance, I suspect. Did your great-grandmother—the same, no doubt, whose marriage is here registered—leave no letters or papers behind her?'
'I've come upon a few letters. I don't know if there is anything more.'
'You haven't read them, apparently.'
'I have not. I've been always going to read them, but I haven't opened one of them yet.'
'Then I recommend you—that is, if you care for an interesting piece of family history—to read those letters carefully, that is constructively.'
'What do you mean?'
'I mean—putting two and two together, and seeing what comes of it; trying to make everything fit into one, you know.'
'Yes. I understand you. But how do you happen to know that those letters contain a history, or that it will prove interesting when I have found it?'
'All family history ought to be interesting—at least to the last of his race,' he returned, replying only to the latter half of my question.' It must, for one thing, make him feel his duty to his ancestors more strongly.'
'His duty to marry, I suppose you mean?' I said with some inward bitterness. 'But to tell the truth, I don't think the inheritance worth it in my case.'
'It might be better,' he said, with an expression which seemed odd beside the simplicity of the words.
'Ah! you think then to urge me to make money; and for the sake of my dead ancestors increase the inheritance of those that may come after me? But I believe I am already as diligent as is good for me—that is, in the main, for I have been losing time of late.'
'I meant no such thing, Mr Cumbermede. I should be very doubtful whether any amount of success in literature would enable you to restore the fortunes of your family.'
'Were they so very ponderous, do you think? But in truth I have little ambition of that sort. All I will readily confess to is a strong desire not to shirk what work falls to my share in the world.'
'Yes,' he said, in a thoughtful manner—'if one only knew what his share of the work was.'
The remark was unexpected, and I began to feel a little more interest in him.
'Hadn't you better take a copy of that entry?' he said.
'Yes—perhaps I had. But I have no materials.'
It did not strike me that attorneys do not usually, like excise-men, carry about an ink-bottle, when he drew one from the breast-pocket of his coat, along with a folded sheet of writing-paper, which he opened and spread out on the desk. I took the pen he offered me, and copied the entry.
When I had finished, he said—
'Leave room under it for the attestation of the parson. We can get that another time, if necessary. Then write, "Copied by me"—and then your name and the date. It may be useful some time. Take it home and lay it with your grandmother's papers.'
'There can be no harm in that,' I said, as I folded it up, and put it in my pocket. 'I am greatly obliged to you for bringing me here, Mr Coningham. Though I am not ambitious of restoring the family to a grandeur of which every record has departed, I am quite sufficiently interested in its history, and shall consequently take care of this document.'
'Mind you read your grandmother's papers, though,' he said.
'I will,' I answered.
He replaced the volume on the shelf, and we left the church; he locked the door and replaced the key under the gravestone; we mounted our horses, and after riding with me about half the way to the Moat, he took his leave at a point where our roads, diverged. I resolved to devote that very evening, partly in the hope of distracting my thoughts, to the reading of my grandmother's letters.
When I reached home I found Charley there, as I had expected.
But a change had again come over him. He was nervous, restless, apparently anxious. I questioned him about his mother and sister. He had met them as planned, and had, he assured me, done his utmost to impress them with the truth concerning me. But he had found his mother incredulous, and had been unable to discover from her how much she had heard; while Mary maintained an obstinate silence, and, as he said, looked more stupid than usual. He did not tell me that Clara had accompanied them so far, and that he had walked with her back to the entrance of the park. This I heard afterwards. When we had talked a while over the sword-business—for we could not well keep off it long—Charley seeming all the time more uncomfortable than ever, he said, perhaps merely to turn the talk into a more pleasant channel—
By the way, where have you put your folio? I've been looking for it ever since I came in, but I can't find it. A new reading started up in my head the other day, and I want to try it both with the print and the context.'
'It's in my room,' I answered, 'I will go and fetch it.'
'We will go together,' he said.
I looked where I thought I had laid it, but there it was not. A pang of foreboding terror invaded me. Charley told me afterwards that I turned as white as a sheet. I looked everywhere, but in vain; ran and searched my uncle's room, and then Charley's, but still in vain; and at last, all at once, remembered with certainty that two nights before I had laid it on the window-sill in my uncle's room. I shouted for Styles, but he was gone home with the mare, and I had to wait, in little short of agony, until he returned. The moment he entered I began to question him.
'You took those books home, Styles?' I said, as quietly as I could, anxious not to startle him, lest it should interfere with the just action of his memory.
'Yes, sir. I took them at once, and gave them into Miss Pease's own hands;—at least I suppose it was Miss Pease. She wasn't a young lady, sir.'
'All right, I dare say. How many were there of them?'
'I told you five,' I said, trembling with apprehension and wrath.
'You said four or five, and I never thought but the six were to go. They were all together on the window-sill.'
I stood speechless. Charley took up the questioning.
'What sized books were they?' he asked.
'Pretty biggish—one of them quite a large one—the same I've seen you, gentlemen, more than once, putting your heads together over. At least it looked like it.'
'Charley started up and began pacing about the room. Styles saw he had committed some dreadful mistake, and began a blundering expression of regret, but neither of us took any notice of him, and he crept out in dismay.
It was some time before either of us could utter a word. The loss of the sword was a trifle to this. Beyond a doubt the precious tome was now lying in the library of Moldwarp Hall—amongst old friends and companions, possibly—where years on years might elapse before one loving hand would open it, or any eyes gaze on it with reverence.
'Lost, Charley!' I said at last.—'Irrecoverably lost!'
'I will go and fetch it,' he cried, starting up. 'I will tell Clara to bring it out to me. It is beyond endurance this. Why should you not go and claim what both of us can take our oath to as yours?'
'You forget, Charley, how the sword-affair cripples us—and how the claiming of this volume would only render their belief with regard to the other the more probable. You forget, too, that I might have placed it in the chest first, and, above all, that the name on the title-page is the same as the initials on the blade of the sword,—the same as my own.'
'Yes—I see it won't do. And yet if I were to represent the thing to Sir Giles?—He doesn't care for old books——'
'You forget again, Charley, that the volume is of great money-value. Perhaps my late slip has made me fastidious; but though the book be mine—and if I had it, the proof of the contrary would lie with them—I could not take advantage of Sir Giles's ignorance to recover it.'
'I might, however, get Clara—she is a favourite with him, you know—'
'I will not hear of it,' I said, interrupting him, and he was forced to yield.
'No, Charley,' I said again; 'I must just bear it. Harder things have been borne, and men have got through the world and out of it notwithstanding. If there isn't another world, why should we care much for the loss of what must go with the rest?—and if there is, why should we care at all?'
'Very fine, Wilfrid! but when you come to the practice—why, the less said the better.'
'But that is the very point: we don't come to the practice. If we did, then the ground of it would be proved unobjectionable.'
'True;—but if the practice be unattainable—'
'It would take much proving to prove that to my—dissatisfaction I should say; and more failure besides, I can tell you, than there will be time for in this world. If it were proved, however—don't you see it would disprove both suppositions equally? If such a philosophical spirit be unattainable, it discredits both sides of the alternative on either of which it would have been reasonable.'
'There is a sophism there of course, but I am not in the mood for pulling your logic to pieces,' returned Charley, still pacing up and down the room.
In sum, nothing would come of all our talk but the assurance that the volume was equally irrecoverable with the sword, and indeed with my poor character—at least, in the eyes of my immediate neighbours.
THE LETTERS AND THEIR STORY.
As soon as Charley went to bed, I betook myself to my grandmother's room, in which, before discovering my loss, I had told Styles to kindle a fire. I had said nothing to Charley about my ride, and the old church, and the marriage-register. For the time, indeed, I had almost lost what small interest I had taken in the matter—my new bereavement was so absorbing and painful; but feeling certain, when he left me, that I should not be able to sleep, but would be tormented all night by innumerable mental mosquitoes if I made the attempt, and bethinking me of my former resolution, I proceeded to carry it out.
The fire was burning brightly, and my reading lamp was on the table, ready to be lighted. But I sat down first in my grandmother's chair and mused for I know not how long. At length my wandering thoughts rehearsed again the excursion with Mr Coningham. I pulled the copy of the marriage-entry from my pocket, and in reading it over again, my curiosity was sufficiently roused to send me to the bureau. I lighted my lamp at last, unlocked what had seemed to my childhood a treasury of unknown marvels, took from it the packet of yellow withered letters, and sat down again by the fire to read, in my great-grandmother's chair, the letters of Wilfrid Cumbermede Daryll—for so he signed himself in all of them—my great-grandfather. There were amongst them a few of her own in reply to his—badly written and badly spelt, but perfectly intelligible. I will not transcribe any of them—I have them to show if needful—but not at my command at the present moment;—for I am writing neither where I commenced my story—on the outskirts of an ancient city, nor at the Moat, but in a dreary old square in London; and those letters lie locked again in the old bureau, and have lain unvisited through thousands of desolate days and slow creeping nights, in that room which I cannot help feeling sometimes as if the ghost of that high-spirited, restless-hearted grandmother of mine must now and then revisit, sitting in the same old chair, and wondering to find how far it was all receded from her—wondering, also, to think what a work she made, through her long and weary life, about things that look to her now such trifles.
I do not then transcribe any of the letters, but give, in a connected form, what seem to me the facts I gathered from them; not hesitating to present, where they are required, self-evident conclusions as if they were facts mentioned in them. I repeat that none of my names are real, although they all point at the real names.
Wilfrid Cumbermede was the second son of Richard and Mary Daryll of Moldwarp Hall. He was baptized Cumbermede from the desire to keep in memory the name of a celebrated ancestor, the owner, in fact, of the disputed sword—itself alluded to in the letters,—who had been more mindful of the supposed rights of his king than the next king was of the privations undergone for his sake, for Moldwarp Hall at least was never recovered from the Roundhead branch of the family into whose possession it had drifted. In the change, however, which creeps on with new generations, there had been in the family a re-action of sentiment in favour of the more distinguished of its progenitors; and Richard Daryll, a man of fierce temper and overbearing disposition, had named his son after the cavalier. A tyrant in his family, at least in the judgment of the writers of those letters, he apparently found no trouble either with his wife or his eldest or youngest son; while, whether his own fault or not, it was very evident that from Wilfrid his annoyances had been numerous.
A legal feud had for some time existed between the Ahab of Moldwarp Hall and the Naboth of the Moat, the descendant of an ancient yeoman family of good blood, and indeed related to the Darylls themselves, of the name of Woodruffe. Sir Richard had cast covetous eyes upon the field surrounding Stephen's comparatively humble abode, which had at one time formed a part of the Moldwarp property. In searching through some old parchments, he had found, or rather, I suppose, persuaded himself he had found, sufficient evidence that this part of the property of the Moat, then of considerable size, had been willed away in contempt of the entail which covered it, and belonged by right to himself and his heirs. He had therefore instituted proceedings to recover possession, during the progress of which their usual bickerings and disputes augmented in fierceness. A decision having at length been given in favour of the weaker party, the mortification of Sir Richard was unendurable to himself, and his wrath and unreasonableness, in consequence, equally unendurable to his family. One may then imagine the paroxysm of rage with which he was seized when he discovered that, during the whole of the legal process, his son Wilfrid had been making love to Elizabeth Woodruffe, the only child of his enemy. In Wilfrid's letters, the part of the story which follows is fully detailed for Elizabeth's information, of which the reason is also plain—that the writer had spent such a brief period afterwards in Elizabeth's society that he had not been able for very shame to recount the particulars.
No sooner had Sir Richard come to a knowledge of the hateful fact, evidently through one of his servants, than, suppressing the outburst of his rage for the moment, he sent for his son Wilfrid, and informed him, his lips quivering with suppressed passion, of the discovery he had made; accused him of having brought disgrace on the family, and of having been guilty of falsehood and treachery; and ordered him to go down on his knees and abjure the girl before heaven, or expect a father's vengeance.
But evidently Wilfrid was as little likely as any man to obey such a command. He boldly avowed his love for Elizabeth, and declared his intention of marrying her. His father, foaming with rage, ordered his servants to seize him. Overmastered in spite of his struggles, he bound him to a pillar, and taking a horse-whip, lashed him furiously; then, after his rage was thus in a measure appeased, ordered them to carry him to his bed. There he remained, hardly able to move, the whole of that night and the next day. On the following night, he made his escape from the Hall, and took refuge with a farmer-friend a few miles off—in the neighbourhood, probably, of Umberden Church.
Here I would suggest a conjecture of my own—namely, that my ancestor's room was the same I had occupied, so—fatally, shall I say?—to myself, on the only two occasions on which I had slept at the Hall; that he escaped by the stair to the roof, having first removed the tapestry from the door, as a memorial to himself and a sign to those he left; that he carried with him the sword and the volume—both probably lying in his room at the time, and the latter little valued by any other. But all this, I repeat, is pure conjecture.
As soon as he was sufficiently recovered, he communicated with Elizabeth, prevailed upon her to marry him at once at Umberden Church, and within a few days, as near as I could judge; left her to join, as a volunteer, the army of the Duke of Cumberland, then fighting the French in the Netherlands. Probably from a morbid fear lest the disgrace his father's brutality had inflicted should become known in his regiment, he dropped the surname of Daryll when he joined it; and—for what precise reasons I cannot be certain—his wife evidently never called herself by any other name than Cumbermede. Very likely she kept her marriage a secret, save from her own family, until the birth of my grandfather, which certainly took place before her husband's return. Indeed I am almost sure that he never returned from that campaign, but died fighting, not unlikely, at the battle of Laffeldt; and that my grannie's letters, which I found in the same packet, had been, by the kindness of some comrade, restored to the young widow.
When I had finished reading the letters, and had again thrown myself back in the old chair, I began to wonder why nothing of all this should ever have been told me. That the whole history should have dropped out of the knowledge of the family, would have been natural enough, had my great-grandmother, as well as my great-grandfather, died in youth; but that she should have outlived her son, dying only after I, the representative of the fourth generation, was a boy at school, and yet no whisper have reached me of these facts, appeared strange. A moment's reflection showed me that the causes and the reasons of the fact must have lain with my uncle. I could not but remember how both he and my aunt had sought to prevent me from seeing my grannie alone, and how the last had complained of this in terms far more comprehensible to me now than they were then. But what could have been the reasons for this their obstruction of the natural flow of tradition? They remained wrapped in a mystery which the outburst from it of an occasional gleam of conjectural light only served to deepen.
The letters lying open on the table before me, my eyes rested upon one of the dates—the third day of March, 1747. It struck me that this date involved a discrepancy with that of the copy I had made from the register. I referred to it, and found my suspicion correct. According to the copy, my ancestors were not married until the 15th of January, 1748. I must have made a blunder—and yet I could hardly believe I had, for I had reason to consider myself accurate. If there was no mistake, I should have to reconstruct my facts, and draw fresh conclusions.
By this time, however, I was getting tired and sleepy and cold; my lamp was nearly out; my fire was quite gone; and the first of a frosty dawn was beginning to break in the east. I rose and replaced the papers, reserving all further thought on the matter for a condition of circumstances more favourable to a correct judgment. I blew out the lamp, groped my way to bed in the dark, and was soon fast asleep, in despite of insult, mortification, perplexity, and loss.
ONLY A LINK.
It may be said of the body in regard of sleep as well as in regard of death, 'It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power.' For me, the next morning, I could almost have said, 'I was sown in dishonour and raised in glory.' No one can deny the power of the wearied body to paralyze the soul; but I have a correlate theory which I love, and which I expect to find true—that, while the body wearies the mind, it is the mind that restores vigour to the body, and then, like the man who has built him a stately palace, rejoices to dwell in it. I believe that, if there be a living, conscious love at the heart of the universe, the mind, in the quiescence of its consciousness in sleep, comes into a less disturbed contact with its origin, the heart of the creation; whence gifted with calmness and strength for itself, it grows able to impart comfort and restoration to the weary frame. The cessation of labour affords but the necessary occasion; makes it possible, as it were, for the occupant of an outlying station in the wilderness to return to his father's house for fresh supplies of all that is needful for life and energy. The child-soul goes home at night, and returns in the morning to the labours of the school. Mere physical rest could never of its own negative self build up the frame in such light and vigour as come through sleep.
It was from no blessed vision that I woke the next morning, but from a deep and dreamless sleep. Yet the moment I became aware of myself and the world, I felt strong and courageous, and I began at once to look my affairs in the face. Concerning that which was first in consequence, I soon satisfied myself: I could not see that I had committed any serious fault in the whole affair. I was not at all sure that a lie in defence of the innocent, and to prevent the knowledge of what no one had any right to know, was wrong—seeing such involves no injustice on the one side, and does justice on the other. I have seen reason since to change my mind, and count my liberty restricted to silence—not extending, that is, to the denial or assertion of what the will of God, inasmuch as it exists or does not exist, may have declared to be or not to be the fact. I now think that to lie is, as it were, to snatch the reins out of God's hand.
At all events, however, I had done the Brothertons no wrong. 'What matter, then,' I said to myself, 'of what they believe me guilty, so long as before God and my own conscience I am clear and clean?'
Next came the practical part:—What was I to do? To right myself either in respect of their opinion, or in respect of my lost property, was more hopeless than important, and I hardly wasted two thoughts upon that. But I could not remain where I was, and soon came to the resolution to go with Charley to London at once, and taking lodgings in some obscure recess near the Inns of Court, there to give myself to work, and work alone, in the foolish hope that one day fame might buttress reputation. In this resolution I was more influenced by the desire to be near the brother of Mary Osborne than the desire to be near my friend Charley, strong as that was. I expected thus to hear of her oftener, and even cherished the hope of coming to hear from her—of inducing her to honour me with a word or two of immediate communication. For I could see no reason why her opinions should prevent her from corresponding with one who, whatever might or might not seem to him true, yet cared for the truth, and must treat with respect every form in which he could descry its predominating presence.
I would have asked Charley to set out with me that very day, but for the desire to clear up the discrepancy between the date of my ancestor's letters, all written within the same year, and that of the copy I had made of the registration of their marriage—with which object I would compare the copy and the original. I wished also to have some talk with Mr Coningham concerning the contents of the letters which at his urgency I had now read. I got up and wrote to him therefore, asking him to ride with me again to Umberden Church, as soon as he could make it convenient, and sent Styles off at once on the mare to carry the note to Minstercombe, and bring me back an answer.
As we sat over our breakfast, Charley said suddenly, 'Clara was regretting yesterday that she had not seen the Moat. She said you had asked her once, but had never spoken of it again.'
'And now I suppose she thinks, because I'm in disgrace with her friends at the Hall, that she mustn't come near me,' I said, with another bitterness than belonged to the words.
'Wilfrid!' he said reproachfully; 'she didn't say anything of the sort. I will write and ask her if she couldn't contrive to come over. She might meet us at the park gates.'
'No,' I returned; 'there isn't time. I mean to go back to London—perhaps to-morrow evening. It is like turning you out, Charley, but we shall be nearer each other in town than we were last time.'
'I am delighted to hear it,' he said. 'I had been thinking myself that I had better go back this evening. My father is expected home in a day or two, and it would be just like him to steal a march on my chambers. Yes, I think I shall go to-night.'
'Very well, old boy,' I answered. 'That will make it all right. It's a pity we couldn't take the journey together, but it doesn't matter much. I shall follow you as soon as I can.'
'Why can't you go with me?' he asked.
Thereupon I gave him a full report of my excursion with Mr Coningham, and the after reading of the letters, with my reason for wishing to examine the register again; telling him that I had asked Mr Coningham to ride with me once more to Umberden Church.
When Styles returned, he informed me that Mr Coningham at first proposed to ride back with him, but probably bethinking himself that another sixteen miles would be too much for my mare, had changed his mind and sent me the message that he would be with me early the next day.
After Charley was gone, I spent the evening in a thorough search of the old bureau. I found in it several quaint ornaments besides those already mentioned, but only one thing which any relation to my story would justify specific mention of—namely, an ivory label, discoloured with age, on which was traceable the very number Sir Giles had read from the scabbard of Sir Wilfrid's sword. Clearly, then, my sword was the one mentioned in the book, and as clearly it had not been at Moldwarp Hall for a long time before I lost it there. If I were in any fear as to my reader's acceptance of my story, I should rejoice in the possession of that label more than in the restoration of sword or book; but amidst all my troubles, I have as yet been able to rely upon her justice and her knowledge of myself. Yes—I must mention one thing more I found—a long, sharp-pointed, straight-backed, snake-edged Indian dagger, inlaid with silver—a fierce, dangerous, almost venomous-looking weapon, in a curious case of old green morocco. It also may have once belonged to the armoury of Moldwarp Hall. I took it with me when I left my grannie's room, and laid it in the portmanteau I was going to take to London.
My only difficulty was what to do with Lilith; but I resolved for the mean time to leave her, as before, in the care of Styles, who seemed almost as fond of her as I was myself.
Mr Coningham was at my door by ten o'clock, and we set out together for Umberden Church. It was a cold clear morning. The dying Autumn was turning a bright thin defiant face upon the conquering Winter. I was in great spirits, my mind being full of Mary Osborne. At one moment I saw but her own ordinary face, only what I had used to regard as dulness I now interpreted as the possession of her soul in patience; at another I saw the glorified countenance of my Athanasia, knowing that, beneath the veil of the other, this, the real, the true face ever lay. Once in my sight the frost-clung flower had blossomed; in full ideal of glory it had shone for a moment, and then folding itself again away, had retired into the regions of faith. And while I knew that such could dawn out of such, how could I help hoping that from the face of the universe, however to my eyes it might sometimes seem to stare like the seven-days dead, one morn might dawn the unspeakable face which even Moses might not behold lest he should die of the great sight? The keen air, the bright sunshine, the swift motion—all combined to raise my spirits to an unwonted pitch; but it was a silent ecstasy, and I almost forgot the presence of Mr Coningham. When he spoke at last, I started.
'I thought from your letter you had something to tell me, Mr Cumbermede,' he said, coming alongside of me.
'Yes, to be sure. I have been reading my grannie's papers, as I told you.'
I recounted the substance of what I had found in them.
'Does it not strike you as rather strange that all this should have been kept a secret from you?' he asked.
'Very few know anything about their grandfathers,' I said; 'so I suppose very few fathers care to tell their children about them.'
'That is because there are so few concerning whom there is anything worth telling.'
'For my part,' I returned, 'I should think any fact concerning one of those who link me with the infinite past out of which I have come, invaluable. Even a fact which is not to the credit of an ancestor may be a precious discovery to the man who has in himself to fight the evil derived from it.'
'That, however, is a point of view rarely taken. What the ordinary man values is also rare; hence few regard their ancestry, or transmit any knowledge they may have of those who have gone before them to those that come after them.'
'My uncle, however, I suppose, told me nothing because, unlike the many, he prized neither wealth nor rank, nor what are commonly considered great deeds.'
'You are not far from the truth there,' said Mr Coningham in a significant tone.
'Then you know why he never told me anything!' I exclaimed.
'I do—from the best authority.'
'His own, you mean, I suppose.'
'But—but—I didn't know you were ever—at all—intimate with my uncle,' I said.
He laughed knowingly.
'You would say, if you didn't mind speaking the truth, that you thought your uncle disliked me—disapproved of me. Come, now—did he not try to make you avoid me? You needn't mind acknowledging the fact, for, when I have explained the reason of it, you will see that it involves no discredit to either of us.'
'I have no fear for my uncle.'
'You are honest, if not over-polite,' he rejoined. '—You do not feel so sure about my share. Well, I don't mind who knows it, for my part. I roused the repugnance, to the knowledge of which your silence confesses, merely by acting as any professional man ought to have acted—and with the best intentions. At the same time, all the blame I should ever think of casting upon him is that he allowed his high-strung, saintly, I had almost said superhuman ideas to stand in the way of his nephew's prosperity.'
'Perhaps he was afraid of that prosperity standing in the way of a better.'
'Precisely so. You understand him perfectly. He was one of the best and simplest-minded men in the world.'
'I am glad you do him that justice.'
'At the same time I do not think he intended you to remain in absolute ignorance of what I am going to tell you. But, you see, he died very suddenly. Besides, he could hardly expect I should hold my tongue after he was gone.'
'Perhaps, however, he might expect me not to cultivate your acquaintance,' I said, laughing to take the sting out of the words.
'You cannot accuse yourself of having taken any trouble in that direction,' he returned, laughing also.
'I believe, however,' I resumed, 'from what I can recall of things he said, especially on one occasion, on which he acknowledged the existence of a secret in which I was interested, he did not intend that I should always remain in ignorance of everything he thought proper to conceal from me then.'
'I presume you are right. I think his conduct in this respect arose chiefly from anxiety that the formation of your character should not be influenced by the knowledge of certain facts which might unsettle you, and prevent you from reaping the due advantages of study and self-dependence in youth. I cannot, however, believe that by being open with you I shall now be in any danger of thwarting his plans, for you have already proved yourself a wise, moderate, conscientious man, diligent and painstaking. Forgive me for appearing to praise you. I had no such intention. I was only uttering as a fact to be considered in the question, what upon my honour I thoroughly believe.'
'I should be happy in your good opinion, if I were able to appropriate it,' I said. 'But a man knows his own faults better than his neighbour knows his virtues.'
'Spoken like the man I took you for, Mr Cumbermede,' he rejoined gravely.
'But to return to the matter in hand,' I resumed; 'what can there be so dangerous in the few facts I have just come to the knowledge of, that my uncle should have cared to conceal them from me? That a man born in humble circumstances should come to know that he had distinguished ancestors, could hardly so fill him with false notions as to endanger his relation to the laws of his existence.'
'Of course—but you are too hasty. Those facts are of more importance than you are aware—involve other facts. Moldwarp Hall is your property, and not Sir Giles Brotherton's.'
'Then the apple was my own, after all!' I said to myself exultingly. It was a strange fantastic birth of conscience and memory—forgotten the same moment, and followed by an electric flash—not of hope, not of delight, not of pride, but of pure revenge. My whole frame quivered with the shock; yet for a moment I seemed to have the strength of a Hercules. In front of me was a stile through a high hedge: I turned Lilith's head to the hedge, struck my spurs into her, and over or through it, I know not which, she bounded. Already, with all the strength of will I could summon, I struggled to rid myself of the wicked feeling; and although I cannot pretend to have succeeded for long after, yet by the time Mr Coningham had popped over the stile, I was waiting for him, to all appearance, I believe, perfectly calm. He, on the other hand, from whatever cause, was actually trembling. His face was pale, and his eye flashing. Was it that he had roused me more effectually than he had hoped?
'Take care, take care, my boy,' he said, 'or you won't live to enjoy your own. Permit me the honour of shaking hands with Sir Wilfrid Cumbermede Daryll.'
After this ceremonial of prophetic investiture, we jogged away quietly, and he told me a long story about the death of the last proprietor, the degree in which Sir Giles was related to him, and his undisputed accession to the property. At that time, he said, my father was in very bad health, and indeed died within six months of it.
'I knew your father well, Mr Cumbermede,' he went on, '—one of the best of men, with more spirit, more ambition than your uncle. It was his wish that his child, if a boy, should be called Wilfrid,—for though they had been married five or six years, their only child was born after his death. Your uncle did not like the name, your mother told me, but made no objection to it. So you were named after your grandfather, and great-grandfather, and I don't know how many of the race besides.—When the last of the Darylls died—'
'Then,' I interrupted, 'my father was the heir.'
'No; you mistake: your uncle was the elder—Sir David Cumbermede Daryll, of Moldwarp Hall and The Moat,' said Mr Coningham, evidently bent on making the most of my rights.
'He never even told me he was the eldest,' I said. 'I always thought, from his coming home to manage the farm when my father was ill, that he was the second of the two sons.'
'On the contrary, he was several years older than your father, but taking more kindly to reading than farming, was sent by his father to Oxford to study for the Church, leaving the farm, as was tacitly understood, to descend to your father at your grandfather's death. After the idea of the Church was abandoned he took a situation, refusing altogether to subvert the order of things already established at the Moat. So you see you are not to suppose that he kept you back from any of your rights. They were his, not yours, while he lived.'
'I will not ask,' I said, 'why he did not enforce them. That is plain enough from what I know of his character. The more I think of that, the loftier and simpler it seems to grow. He could not bring himself to spend the energies of a soul meant for higher things on the assertion and recovery of earthly rights.'
'I rather differ from you there; and I do not know,' returned my companion, whose tone was far more serious than I had ever heard it before, 'whether the explanation I am going to offer will raise your uncle as much in your estimation as it does in mine. I confess I do not rank such self-denial as you attribute to him so highly as you do. On the contrary I count it a fault. How could the world go on if everybody was like your uncle?'
'If everybody was like my uncle, he would have been forced to accept the position,' I said; 'for there would have been no one to take it from him.'
'Perhaps. But you must not think Sir Giles knew anything of your uncle's claim. He knows nothing of it now.'
I had not thought of Sir Giles in connection with the matter—only of Geoffrey; and my heart recoiled from the notion of dispossessing the old man who, however misled with regard to me at last, had up till then shown me uniform kindness. In that moment I had almost resolved on taking no steps till after his death. But Mr Coningham soon made me forget Sir Giles in a fresh revelation of my uncle.
'Although,' he resumed, 'all you say of your uncle's indifference to this world and its affairs is indubitably correct, I do not believe, had there not been a prospect of your making your appearance, that he would have shirked the duty of occupying the property which was his both by law and by nature. But he knew it might be an expensive suit—for no one can tell by what tricks of the law such may be prolonged—in which case all the money he could command would soon be spent, and nothing left either to provide for your so-called aunt, for whom he had a great regard, or to give you that education, which, whether you were to succeed to the property or not, he counted indispensable. He cared far more, he said, about your having such a property in yourself as was at once personal and real, than for your having any amount of property out of yourself. Expostulation was of no use. I had previously learned—from the old lady herself—the true state of the case, and, upon the death of Sir Geoffrey Daryll, had at once communicated with him—which placed me in a position for urging him, as I did again and again, considerably to his irritation, to assert and prosecute his claim to the title and estates. I offered to take the whole risk upon myself; but he said that would be tantamount to giving up his personal liberty until the matter was settled, which might not be in his lifetime. I may just mention, however, that, besides his religious absorption, I strongly suspect there was another cause of his indifference to worldly affairs: I have grounds for thinking that he was disappointed in a more than ordinary attachment to a lady he met at Oxford—in station considerably above any prospects he had then. To return: he was resolved that, whatever might be your fate, you should not have to meet it without such preparation as he could afford you. As you have divined, he was most anxious that your character should have acquired some degree of firmness before you knew anything of the possibility of your inheriting a large property and historical name; and I may appropriate the credit of a negative share in the carrying out of his plans, for you will bear me witness how often I might have upset them by informing you of the facts of the case.'