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Title: World's End: A Story in Three Books
Author: Jefferies, Richard
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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World’s End

by Richard Jefferies

A Story in Three Books


Contents

 Book I. Facts
 Chapter 1
 Chapter 2
 Chapter 3
 Chapter 4
 Chapter 5
 Chapter 6
 Chapter 7
 Chapter 8
 Chapter 9
 Chapter 10
 Chapter 11
 Chapter 12
 Chapter 13
 Chapter 14
 Chapter 15

 Book II. Persons
 Chapter 1
 Chapter 2
 Chapter 3
 Chapter 4
 Chapter 5
 Chapter 6
 Chapter 7
 Chapter 8
 Chapter 9
 Chapter 10
 Chapter 11
 Chapter 12
 Chapter 13
 Chapter 14
 Chapter 15

 Book III. Results
 Chapter 1
 Chapter 2
 Chapter 3
 Chapter 4
 Chapter 5
 Chapter 6
 Chapter 7
 Chapter 8
 Chapter 9
 Chapter 10
 Chapter 11
 Chapter 12
 Chapter 13
 Chapter 14



Book I. Facts.



Chapter One.


It is not generally known that the mighty city of Stirmingham owes its
existence to a water-rat. Stirmingham has a population of half a
million, and is the workshop of the earth. It is a proud city, and its
press-men have traced its origin back into the dim vista of the past,
far before Alfred the Great’s time, somewhere in the days of those
monarchs who came from Troy, and whose deeds Holinshed so minutely
chronicles.

But this is all trash and nonsense, and is a cunning device of the able
editors aforesaid, who confound—for their own purposes—the city proper
with the tiny hamlet of Wolf’s Glow. This little village or cluster of
houses, which now forms a part, and the dirtiest part, of the city, can
indeed be traced through Hundred Rolls, Domesday Book, and Saxon
Charters, almost down to the time of the Romans. But Stirmingham, the
prosperous and proud Stirmingham, which thinks that the world could not
exist without its watches and guns, its plated goods, its monster
factories and mills, which sends cargoes to Timbuctoo, and supplies
Java and Malabar with idols—this vast place, whose nickname is a
by-word for cheating, for fair outward show and no real solidity, owes
its existence to a water-rat. This is a fact. And it happened in this
way.

Once upon a time there was a wide expanse of utterly useless land, flat
as this sheet of paper, without a trace of subsoil or any kind of earth
in which so much as a blade of grass could grow. It was utterly dry and
sterile—not a tree nor a shrub to shelter a cow or a horse, and all men
avoided it as a waste and desolate place. It was the very abomination
of desolation, and no one would have been surprised to have seen satyrs
and other strange creatures diverting themselves thereon. Around one
edge of this plain there flowed a brook, so small that one could hardly
call it by that name. A dainty lady from Belgravia could have easily
stepped across it without soiling the sole of her boot.

At one spot beside this brook there grew a willow tree. This tree was a
picture in itself, and would have made the fortune of any artist who
would have condescended to make a loving study of it. The trunk had
been of very large size, but now resembled a canoe standing upon end,
for nearly one half had decayed, and the crumbling wood had
disappeared, leaving a hollow stem. The stem was itself dead and
decaying, except one thin streak of green, up which the golden sap of
life still ran, and invigorated the ancient head of the tree to send
forth yellow buds and pointed leaves. Up one side of the hollow trunk
an ivy creeper had climbed to the top, and was fast hanging festoons
from bough to bough.

In the vast mass of decaying wood at the top or head of the tree a
briar had taken root—its seed no doubt dropped by some thrush—and its
prickly shoots hung over and drooped to the ground in luxuriance of
growth. The hardy fern had also found a lodging here, and its dull
green leaves, which they say grow most by moonlight, formed a species
of crown to the dying tree.

This willow was the paradise of such birds as live upon insects, for
they abounded in the decaying wood; and at the top a wild pigeon had
built its nest. As years went by, the willow bent more and more over
the brook. The water washing the soil out from between its roots formed
a hollow space, where a slight eddy scooped out a deeper hole, in which
the vermillion—throated stickleback or minnow disported and watched the
mouth of its nest. This eddy also weakened the tree by undermining it
at its foundation. The ivy grew thicker till it formed a perfect bush
upon the top, and this in the winter afforded a hold for the wind to
shake the tree by. The wind would have passed harmlessly through the
slender branches, but the ivy, even in winter, the season of storms,
left something against which it could rage with effect. Finally came
the water-rat.

If Stirmingham objects to owe its origin to a water-rat, it may at
least congratulate itself upon the fact that it was a good old English
rat—none of your modern parvenu, grey Hanoverian rascals. It was, in
fact, before the Norwegian rat, which had been imported in the holds of
vessels, had obtained undisputed sway over the country. It had,
however, already driven the darker aboriginal inhabitants away from the
cultivated places to take refuge in the woods and streams. It is odd
that in the animal kingdom also, even in the rat economy, the darker
hued race should give way to the lighter. However, as in Stirmingham
the smoke is so great that the ladies when they walk abroad carry
parasols up to keep the blacks from falling on and disfiguring their
complexion, there can after all be no disgrace in the water-rat
ancestry.

This dark coloured water-rat, finding his position less and less secure
at the adjacent barn on account of the attacks of the grey invaders,
one fine day migrated, with Mrs Rat and all the Master and Missy rats,
down to the stream. Peeping and sniffing about for a pleasant retreat,
he chose the neighbourhood of the willow tree. I cannot stay here to
discuss whether or no he was led to the tree by some mystic beckoning
hand—some supernatural presentiment; but to the tree he went, and
Stirmingham was founded. Two or three burrows—small round
holes—sufficed to house Mr Rat and his family, but these ran right
under the willow, and of course still further weakened it.

In course of time the family flourished exceedingly, and Mr Rat became
a great-great-great-grandpapa to ever so many minor Frisky Tails. These
Frisky Tails finding the ancient quarter too much straightened for
comfort, began to scratch further tunnels, and succeeded pretty well in
opening additional honeycombs, till presently progress was stayed by a
root of the tree. Now they had gnawed through and scratched away half a
dozen other roots, and never paused to sniff more particularly at this
than the others. But it so happened that this root was the one which
supplied the green streak up the trunk of the tree with the golden sap
of life drawn by mysterious chemical processes from the earth. Frisky
Tails gnawed this root asunder, and cut off the supply of sap. The
green streak up the trunk withered and died, and the last stay of the
willow was gone. It only remained for the first savage south-wester of
winter to finish the mischief.

The south-wester came, and over went the trunk, crash across the brook.
At first this was very awkward for the rats, as thereby most of their
subterranean dwellings became torn up and exposed. But very soon a
geological change occurred.

The tree had fallen obliquely across the stream, and its ponderous
head, or top, choked up the bed, or very nearly. The sand and small
sticks, leaves, and so on, brought down by the current, filled up the
crevices left by the tree, and a perfect dam was formed.

Now, as stated before, the ground thereabout was nearly level, and so
worthless in character that no man ever troubled his head about it. No
one came to see the dam or remove it. The result was the brook
overflowed, and then finding this level plateau, instead of eating out
a new channel, it spread abroad, and formed first a good-sized puddle,
then a pond, then something like a flood, and, as time went by, a
marsh. This marsh extended over a space of ground fully a mile long,
and altogether covered some nine hundred acres.

The rats, sagacious creatures, instead of deserting their colony,
showed that they possessed that species of wisdom which the Greek sage
said was superior to all other knowledge—namely, the knowledge how to
turn an evil to a good. Exploring this shallow lake which their
carelessness had caused, they found several places still
unsubmerged—islands, in fact. To one of these they swam, dug out new
catacombs, and being now quite safe from interruption, and protected
upon all sides, the Malthusian laws of population had full play, and
soon proved its force, for the whole place swarmed with them. The
axiom, however, that at the very point when empires are apparently most
prosperous, their destruction is near at hand, to some extent applied
even to the dominion of the water-rat. They were no longer to be the
sole undisturbed possessors.

Arguing _à priori_, one would have concluded that if this waste land
was worthless before, now it was a marsh, and miasmatic vapours arose
from it, it would be still more avoided. But the facts were exactly
opposite. So soon as ever the water had spread over the level plain,
and had well soaked into the sterile soil, there began to spring up
tough aquatic grasses, commonly called bull-polls, from a supposed
resemblance between their tangled appearance and the rough hair that
hangs over the poll of a bull.

These grasses are gregarious—that is to say, they prefer to grow in
huge bunches. Each bunch increasing year after year, forms in time a
small hillock or tuft, and, the roots spreading and spreading, these
hillocks of grass almost covered the lake, leaving only narrow channels
of water between. Upon these innumerable frogs and toads crawled up out
of the water, and they were the chosen resorts of newts.

In summer time the blue dragon-fly wheeled in mazes over them, or,
while settled on the stiff blades of grass, looked like a species of
blossom. The current of the brook brought down seeds, and soon the tall
reed began to rear its slender stem, and rustle its feathery head in
the breeze. The sedges came also, and fringed the marsh with a border
of green.

Meantime, the root which the rats had gnawed asunder beneath the
ancient willow tree, felt the power of spring, and made one more
effort. Freed from the incubus of the dead trunk, it threw out a shoot
of its own. From this shoot there proceeded other shoots; and, in
short, after a while the islands in the marsh became covered with
willow trees and osier-beds. The reeds grew apace, and by the time the
islands were clothed with willow, the rest of the marsh was occupied by
them, saving only the fringe of sedge, and the almost immortal
bull-polls, which were as tough as leather, and which nothing could
kill.

Now, also, animal life began to people the once-deserted waste. With
the sedges came the sedge-warblers; with the willows came the
brook-sparrows; and above all, came the wild-fowl. The heron stalked to
and fro between the bull-polls; the ducks swam in and out; the
moor-hens took up their residence; and in winter the widgeons and
snipes visited the place in myriads.

It was now time for man. And man came. He came first in the person of
here and there a cotter, who cut himself a huge bundle of reeds for
fuel, to mend his thatch, or litter his pig; then in the person of the
poacher—if it could be called poaching to hunt where no one
preserved—who, with long-barrelled gun, brass-fitted and flint-locked,
brought down half a dozen ducks at once, and then waded in after them.

One day a travelling gipsy tribe came by, and encamped for the night
close to the marsh. In this tribe there was a man who, in his way,
possessed the genius of Alexander the Great. Alexander chancing to pass
a landlocked harbour utterly neglected, saw at a glance its
capabilities, and built a city which is renowned to this day.

This gipsy fellow, who was only a gipsy by marriage, saw this
unoccupied marsh, with its wild-fowl, its fish, and, above all, its
willows, and at once fixed upon it as a promising spot.

He was a basket-maker by trade.

He waded in to one of the islets, carrying his infant in his arms, and
followed by his wife, who carried his tools. He set up his tent-pole,
and in time superseded it with a cottage of sod, roofed with reeds. All
day he made baskets of willow and flags, in the evening he shot ducks
and widgeon. The baskets he sold in the towns, the ducks he ate. One or
two others followed his example.

The gipsy tribe made it a rule to come that way twice a year to
purchase the baskets and retail them all over the country. The original
settlers had sons, and the sons took possession of other islets, built
sod cottages, of wattle-and-daub, and married wives, till there were
ten or twelve settlements upon the islands; and these ten or twelve,
all in a rude sort of way, gave the chieftainship to the original
basket-maker, whose name happened to be Baskette.

These people, in the heart of a midland county, lived almost exactly
the life that was led at the same period by the dwellers in the fen
countries to the eastward. It was a rude existence, but it was free and
independent, and not without a charm to those who had been born and
bred in it. Even this unenviable life was, however, to be disturbed.
Two mighty giants were preparing, like the ogres in the fairy tales, to
eat up the defenceless population. The lid of a certain tea-kettle had
puffed up and down, and Steam had been born. The other ogre was called
Legal Rights, and began to bite first.



Chapter Two.


So long as this waste land was tenanted only by the “owl and the
bittern,” Legal Rights slumbered. The moment man put his foot upon it
the ogre woke up, for it is not permitted to that miserable two-legged
creature to rest in peace anywhere in this realm.

The village of Wolf’s Glow was distant about a mile and a quarter from
the old willow tree whose fall had dammed up the brook and caused the
marsh. The brook, in fact, ran past the village, and supplied more than
one farmhouse with water. These farms were of the poorest class—mere
stretches of pasture-land, and such pasture which a well-fed donkey
would despise!

The poorest farm, in appearance at all events, was Wick—a large but
tumbledown place, roofed with grey slates, which, stood apart from the
village. It was the largest house in the place, and yet seemed the most
poverty-stricken. The grey slates were falling off. The roof-tree had
cracked and bent, the lattice windows were broken, and the holes
stuffed up with bundles of hay and straw. The garden was choked with
weeds, and the very apple trees in the orchard were withering away.

Old Sibbold, the owner and occupier, was detested by the entire
village, and by no one more than his two sons. He was a miser, and yet
nothing seemed to prosper with him; and pare and save as much as he
would he could make no accumulation. His sons were the only labourers
he employed, though his farm was the largest thereabouts, and he paid
them only in lodging and food, and not much of the latter.

The eldest, Arthur, chafed bitterly under this treatment, for he
appears, from the scanty records that remain of him, to have been a lad
of spirit and energy.

The second son, James, was of a grosser nature, and his mind was
chiefly occupied with eating and drinking. He had an implicit faith in
the wealth of his father, and submitted patiently to all these
hardships and rough treatment in the hope of ingratiating himself with
the old man, and perhaps supplanting Arthur in his will—that is, so far
as his money was concerned, for the land, as the villagers said, “went
by heirship”—i.e. was entailed—but who would care for such land?

Arthur saw the game and did nothing to prevent it; on the contrary, he
took a certain pleasure in irritating the savage and morose old man,
whom he thoroughly despised. Perhaps what happened in the future was a
punishment for this unfilial conduct, however much it was provoked.

The mother, it must be understood, had long been dead, and there was no
mediator between the stern old man and his fiery-tempered son. Old
Sibbold was descended of a good family—one that had once held a
position, not only in the county but in the country—and he dwelt much
on the past, recalling the time when a Sibbold had held a bishop a
prisoner for King John.

He pored over the deeds in his old oak chest—a press, which stood on
four carved legs, and was closed with a ponderous padlock. That chest,
if it could be found now, would be worth its weight, not in gold
merely, but in diamonds. At that time these deeds and parchments were
of little value; they related mostly to by-gone days, and Arthur
ridiculed his father’s patient study of their crabbed handwriting.

What was the use of dwelling on the past?—up and speculate on the
present!

Irritated beyond measure, old Sibbold would reply that half the county
belonged to him, and he could prove it. All that they could see from
that window was his.

“Why,” said Arthur, “all we can see is the Lea, which is as barren as
the crown of my hat, except in weeds and bulrushes!”

“Barren or not, they’re mine,” said Sibbold, closing his chest; “and I
will make those squatters pay!”

For the Lea was that piece of waste ground which the brook had
overflowed, and in a sense rendered fertile.

From that hour began a persecution of the basket-makers who had settled
on the little islets in the marsh. Sibbold had an undoubted parchment
right—whether he had a moral and true right to a place he had never
touched with spade or plough is a different matter. He claimed a rent.
The cotters refused to pay. Their chieftain, old Will Baskette, wanted
to compromise matters, and offered a small quit-rent.

Now every one knows that quit-rent and rent are very different things
in a legal point of view. A man who pays rent can be served with notice
to quit. A man who pays quit-rent has a claim upon the soil, and cannot
be ejected. Sibbold refused the quit-rent, and had the squatters served
with a notice. They went on cutting reeds, weaving baskets, and
shooting wild-fowl, just the same; till one day old Sibbold,
accompanied with a posse of constables (there were no police in those
days), walked into the marsh with his jack-boots on; and, while one of
the cotters was absent selling his baskets, began to tear the little
hut down, despite the curses of the women and the wailing of the
children. But the hut, as it happened, was stronger in reality than
appearance, and resisted the attack, till one of the constables
suggested fire.

A burning brand from the cottage hearth was applied by old Sibbold
himself to the reed thatch, and in a moment up shot a fierce blaze
which left nothing but ashes, and sod walls two feet high. One can
imagine the temper a man of gipsy blood would be in when, on returning
home, he found his children crying and the women silent, sitting among
the ruins. From that hour a spirit of revenge took possession of the
dwellers in this Dismal Swamp of hostility to the village.

Hitherto these half savage people had paid of their own free will a
kind of tribute to the regular house-folk of Wolf’s Glow. The farmers’
wives received useful presents of baskets and clothes-pegs, and every
now and then half a dozen wild ducks were found on the threshold in the
morning. The clergyman was treated in a similar manner; and being known
to have a penchant for snipes and woodcocks, his table was well
supplied in the season. Sometimes there were other things left in a
mysterious way at the door—such as a bladder full of the finest brandy
or Hollands gin, or a packet of tobacco or snuff.

This was generally after the visit of the gipsy tribe, who were
smugglers to a considerable extent. No farmer ever missed a lamb or a
horse: such property was far safer since the settlement of the Dismal
Swamp.

But now the village had attacked the Swamp, the Swamp retaliated on the
village, and a regular war commenced. The farmers’ sheep began to
disappear—none so often as old Sibbold’s. Once a valuable horse of his
was lost. This drove him to the verge of frenzy. He went down to the
Swamp, and presently returned swearing and vowing vengeance—he had been
shot at. This aroused the clergyman into action. He went to the Swamp,
and was received with respect. He talked of conciliation, and reproved
them, especially speaking of the sin of murder. They listened, but
utterly scouted the idea.

“We steal,” they said, openly. “It is our revenge; but we do not
murder. Sibbold was not fired at. One of our young men was seeking
ducks—he did not know that Sibbold at the same moment was creeping
noiselessly through the reeds to fire our huts. He shot at the ducks,
and some of the pellets glanced off Sibbold’s jack-boots. That’s the
truth.”

And it was the truth. But Sibbold vowed vengeance, and was heard to say
that he would have their blood. He refused to see the clergyman who
came to mediate and explain. He accused him of complicity, and reviled
him.

James, as usual, agreed with and seconded him. Arthur sided with the
squatters, and said so openly. Sibbold cursed him. Arthur said
pointedly that when he inherited the land the squatters should be
unmolested. Sibbold struck him with an ash stick.

Arthur left the house and went to the Swamp. He called on old Will
Baskette, and expressed his hatred of his father’s tyranny. He asked to
be taught to make baskets, and to be initiated into the gipsy
mysteries. He was a quick lad, and they took an interest in teaching
him. He soon knew how to make two or three kinds of baskets, learnt the
gipsy language, and imbibed their singular traditions.

Meantime the war continued. At first the farmers and villagers put up
with patience with their thefts, considering that it was Sibbold’s
fault. But repeated losses exasperated them. If one of the Dismal Swamp
people was seen abroad he was set upon and maltreated, beaten black and
blue. Savage dogs were hounded at them. Sibbold was encouraged to eject
them. He tried to get a posse of constables to do so, but the
constables hung back. They had heard the story of the shooting at
Sibbold; they knew these men to be desperate characters; and most of
them had had presents of brandy and tobacco, and ribbons for their
wives.

They could not be got to move. That was a lawless age in outlying
places. Finding this, the village began to contemplate a raid _en
masse_ upon the Swamp. Nothing was talked of in the alehouse but
fighting. Men compared the length of their gun-barrels, and put up
marks to prove the range of their shot. The younger men were ready for
the fray, the elders hesitated. They looked at their thatched houses,
at their barns and ricks. The insurance companies had not then
penetrated into the most obscure nooks and corners.

After all, the Swamp people were not unsupported: they were a branch of
a tribe. If they were seriously injured the tribe might return, and no
one could calculate the consequences.

So the foray was put off from day to day. But the news that it was
meditated soon reached the Swamp, and made the dwellers there more
desperate than ever. Their thefts grew to such a height that nothing
was safe. The geese and turkeys disappeared; wheat was stolen from the
barns; sheep were taken by the dozen, and no trace could be found. Now
and then a horse disappeared. It came to such a pitch that the very
beer in the barrels, the cider in the cellar, was not safe, but was
taken nightly.

Old Sibbold, of course, suffered most. Tapping a cider barrel, he found
it quite empty. The old man was beside himself with rage; but he said
nothing. He studied retaliation. He watched his barns—the wheat seemed
to disappear under his very eyes. One night as he was returning from
his barn, carrying his long-barrelled flint-lock under his arm, he
fancied he saw a gleam of light in the ivy, which almost hid the cellar
window. Stealthily he peeped through. There was a man stooping down,
drawing off the cider from a barrel into a bucket.

Old Sibbold’s lips compressed; a fire came into his eyes. He grasped
his gun. Just then the thief held up the candle in his left hand, and
revealed the features of old Will Baskette, the very chief of the
Swamp. Sibbold hated him more particularly because he knew that Arthur
frequented his hut. Up went the long gun. The gleam of light from the
candle guided the aim. The muzzle was close to the lattice window. A
cruel eye glanced along the barrel, a finger was on the trigger. The
flint struck the steel with a sharp snick—a spark flew out—an
explosion—the window-glass smashed—a cloud of smoke—one groan, and all
was still.

Sibbold rushed round the house, opened the door gently, locked it
behind him, and stole upstairs. On the landing he met his youngest son
James. For a moment they looked at one another. The young man spoke
first.

“Quick, and load your gun,” he said. “Then put it in the rack and get
into bed. Give me your breeches.”

They wore breeches and gaiters in those days.

The old man did as he was bid. The gun was put in the rack; old Sibbold
got into bed. James took his breeches, poured a bucket of water on
them, and hung them up in the wide chimney—the embers still glowed on
the hearth. Then he stole upstairs.

“Arthur is out,” he whispered, as he passed the old man’s bedroom.

Ten minutes passed. Then there arose clatter of feet and a shouting.

“Farmer! farmer! your house is a-fire. The thatch be caught alight.”

James opened the window, yawned, and asked what was the matter.

“Father’s asleep,” he said, as if not comprehending them. “He got wet
in the brook, and went to bed early. Can’t ye come in the morning?”

But the others soon roused the house.

The thatch had indeed caught over the cellar window; but fortunately it
was nearly covered with moss and weeds, and was easily put out.

Then some one noticed the smashed window. “Who was it fired?” they
asked. “We heard a shot, and thought it was the swampers. We were
watching our sheep and barns. Then we saw this fire in your thatch, and
ran. Who was it fired? How came the window smashed like this? How came
the thatch alight?” James answered, “He really did not know. He had
heard no shot, he slept sound, knew nothing of the thatch being on
fire, and they would have been burnt in their beds if it had not been
for their kind neighbours.” Old Sibbold stood and shivered in his
shirt, his breeches were wet. The neighbours came in.

“I’ll go upstairs and fetch father a blanket to wrap his knees in,”
said James. “Father, thee blow the embers up; John Andrews, thee knows
where the cellar is: give ’em the key, father, and do you go, John, and
draw some cider.”

Away went John Andrews with the lantern, and came back with a face
white as a sheet, just as James got downstairs. There was a dead man in
the cellar, in a flood of gore and cider!

The result was a coroner’s inquiry; the thefts and so forth might have
gone on for ever, but death could not be disregarded. Even in that
lawless age, death was attended to. An inquest was held, and the jury
was composed of the farmers of the village. Suspicion fell very
strongly upon old Sibbold. The Swamp people openly denounced him as the
murderer. His neighbours, much as they hated the Swamp, believed in
their hearts that they were right; and not all their class prejudice
could overcome the innate horror they felt in his presence. More than
one had heard him say he would have blood. Now there was blood enough.

Still there was not enough evidence to arrest Sibbold. The Swamp people
said he would run away, and if he did they would watch him and bring
him back. But Sibbold did nothing of the kind. He faced the inquiry
with a stern dignity which imposed on some.

First came the medical evidence. The doctor proved that the shot had
entered the left side, just below the heart, and had passed downwards.
It had entered all together—the pellets not spread about, but close
together, like a bullet, which proved that the gun had been fired very
close. Death must have been absolutely instantaneous. Deceased was in a
stooping posture when he received the charge.

The constable who had examined the premises, declared it as his
belief—as, indeed, it was the belief of everyone present—that the shot
had been fired from without the window. The shot itself could not have
smashed every pane—that was the concussion. The thatch had been
doubtless set on fire by a piece of the paper which had been used as
wadding.

When this had been said there was nothing more to be done, at least so
the jury thought. Suspect Sibbold as much as they would, they were
determined to protect him if possible. This was partly class-feeling,
and partly remembrance of the provocation.

But the Coroner was not to be put off so easily. He had Sibbold called,
and questioned him closely. He called James also, but they both stuck
to their tale; they had never heard the shot, etc. The Coroner sent for
Sibbold’s gun, keeping Sibbold and James at the inn where the inquest
was held meantime. It was brought. It told no tales: it was loaded.
Finally, the Coroner, still dissatisfied and vaguely suspicious, called
_Arthur_ Sibbold, who, white as a sheet, was sitting near on a bench
watching the proceedings.

He started at his name and looked round, but finally came forward.
Where had he been that night? He was at Bassett, a small town six miles
distant. What was his business there? what time did he leave? and so
on. Arthur answered, but not so clearly as was desired. He contradicted
himself as to the time at which he left Bassett, and got confused.

The Coroner’s suspicions shifted upon him. He must have arrived about
the time the shot was heard, yet he did not go indoors, did not show
himself till breakfast-time next morning. James vouched for that,
unasked. What was he doing all night?

Suspicion fell very strong on Arthur. But at this moment the wife of
the deceased started forward and declared her belief in his innocence,
recounting how he had learnt basket-making, etc, of the dead man, and
they had been on the most friendly terms.

Still, said the Coroner, he might have mistaken his man in the
uncertain light. Had he a gun? It was shown that the three Sibbolds had
but one gun; that Arthur never used a gun, being of a tender nature,
and often expressing his dislike to see birds wantonly slaughtered.

The Sibbolds were then, with the other witnesses, ordered out, and the
Coroner addressed the jury.

He told them plainly where his suspicions lay: one of the Sibbolds, he
was certain, did the deed, but which? Two were in bed, or at least were
to all appearance in bed, and one point in their favour was that the
thatch was alight. Now, if they had known that, they would hardly have
lain till the neighbours came up. The third was out that night, and,
according to his own showing, must have returned about the time the
murder was committed. But in his favour it was urged that he was on the
best of terms with the deceased; that he had no gun of his own; that he
disliked the use of a gun. He said much more, but these were the chief
points, and particularly he laid down the law. They must not imagine
because a man was stealing that thereby his life was at any one’s
mercy. If a struggle took place, and the thief was killed in the
struggle, there were then several loopholes of escape from the penalty
of the law. First, it might be called chance-medley; next, there would
be a doubt whether the stab or shot was not given in self-defence, and
was not intended to kill. But in this case there was every appearance
of deliberate murder. The thief had been spied at the cask; the
murderer had coolly aimed along his gun and fired, hitting his man in a
vital part, evidently of design and aforethought.

He then left the jury to their deliberations. They talked it over half
an hour in a sullen manner, and then _returned an open verdict_—“Found
dead.” The Coroner remonstrated, and recommended that at least it
should be “Wilful murder against persons unknown,” but they were
obstinate.

That verdict stands to this day. The dread spectre of the gallows
vanished from Wolf’s Glow. Old Will Baskette was buried in the
churchyard, and his funeral was attended by the whole of the Swamp
people and half the village. And over their ale the farmers whispered
that it served the old thief right, but they avoided old Sibbold. The
work of the rats had already brought fruit in bloodshed.



Chapter Three.


In these days such a verdict and such an ending to a tragedy would be
out of the question; but there were no police in those times to take up
a case if it chanced to slip by the Coroner. Once past the Coroner, and
the criminal was practically safe. The county officers were never in a
hurry for such prosecutions, for a gallows cost at least 300 pounds.
They wanted a public prosecutor then ten times more than we do now.
Sibbold was shunned by the very men who had acquitted him; but there is
no reason to suppose he ever felt remorse. He was made of that kind of
stuff of which the men in armour, his ancestors, were composed, who
thought little or nothing of human life. But one day he met Arthur, his
eldest son, face to face upon the stairs. It was the first time they
had met since the inquest—Arthur had avoided the place, and wandered
about a good deal by himself, till some simple folk began to think that
it was he who had committed the deed, and that his conscience was
troubling him.

This meeting on the stairs took place by accident one morning—Sibbold
was going to pass, but Arthur put his hand on his shoulder, “I saw you
do it,” he said. He had just entered the rick yard when the shot was
fired. He had held his peace, but his mind could not rest. “I cannot
stay here,” he said, “I am going. I shall never see you again.”

Old Sibbold stood like a stone; but presently put his hand in his
pocket and held out his purse.

“No,” said Arthur; “not a penny of that, it would be blood money.”

He went, and evil report went after him. Perhaps it was James who
fanned the flame, but for years afterwards it was always believed that
Arthur had shot the basket-maker. Only the Swamp people combated the
notion. Arthur was one of them, and understood their language—it was
impossible. Not to have to return to these times, it will be, perhaps,
best to at once finish with old Sibbold; though the event did not
really happen till some time after Arthur’s departure.

Sibbold went to a fair at some twenty miles distance—a yearly custom of
his; and returning home in the evening, he was met by highwaymen, it is
supposed, and refusing to give up his money bag, was shot. At all
events his horse came home riderless, and the body of the old man was
found on the heath divested of every article of value. Suspicion at
once fell on his known enemies, the Swamp people. Their cottages were
searched and nothing found. Their men were interrogated, but had all
been either at home or in another direction. Calm reason put down
Sibbold’s death to misadventure with highwaymen, common enough in those
times; but there were those who always held that it was done in
revenge, as it was believed that the gipsies retained the old vendetta
creed.

As Arthur did not return, James took possession, and went on as usual;
but he did not disturb the Swamp settlement. He avoided them, and they
avoided him.

When Will Baskette was shot he left a widow and two sons, one of them
was strong and hardy, the other, about sixteen, was delicate and unfit
for rough outdoor life. This fact was well-known to the clergyman at
Wolf’s Glow, the Rev. Ralph Boteler, who was really a
benevolently-minded man.

The widow and her eldest son joined the gipsy tribe and abandoned the
Swamp. The Rev. Ralph Boteler took the delicate Romy Baskette into his
service as man of all work, meaning to help in the garden and clean the
parson’s nag. Romy could not read, and the parson taught him—also to
write. Being quiet and good-looking, the lad won on the vicar, who
after a time found himself taking a deep interest in the friendless
orphan. It ended in Romy leaving the garden and the stable, and being
domiciled in the studio, where the parson filled his head with
learning, not forgetting Latin and Greek.

The vicar was a single man, middle-aged, with very little thought
beyond his own personal comfort, except that he liked to see the hounds
throw off, being too stout to follow them. He had, however, one hobby;
and, like other men who are moderate enough upon other topics, he was
violence itself upon this. Of all the hobbies in the world, this
parson’s fancy was geology—then just beginning to emerge as a real
science.

The neighbours thought the vicar was as mad as a March hare on this one
point. He grubbed up the earth in forty places with a small mattock he
had made on purpose at the village blacksmith’s. He broke every stone
in the district with a hammer which the same artisan made for him.

His craze was that the neighbourhood of Wolf’s Glow was rich in the two
great stores of nature which make countries powerful—i.e. in Coal and
Iron. He proved it in twenty ways. First, the very taste of the water,
and the colour of the earth in the streams; by the nodules of dark,
heavy stone which abounded; by the oily substance often found floating
on the surface of ponds—rock oil; by the strata and the character of
the fossils; by actual analysis of materials picked up by himself;
lastly, by archaeology.

Wolf’s Glow! What was the meaning of that singular name? The only Glow
in the county. Wolf was, perhaps, a man’s name in the centuries since.
But Glow? Glow was, without a doubt, the ancient British for _coal_.

The people who argued against him—and they were all he met—ridiculed
the idea of the ancient Britons knowing anything of coal. Boteler
produced his authorities to show that they, and their conquerors the
Romans, were perfectly familiar with that mineral. Wolf’s Glow was, in
fact, Wolf’s Coal Pit. “Very well,” said the Objectors, “show us the
coal pit, and we’ll believe.” This the vicar could not do, and was held
to be mad accordingly.

But all this talking, and searching, and analysing made a deep
impression upon the mind of young Romy Baskette, who was now hard upon
twenty years of age. Boteler, really desirous of pushing the lad on,
sent him to London, whither Arthur Sibbold had preceded him, and placed
him, at a high premium, in the care of a friend of his, who was in the
iron trade. Romy grew and prospered, and being of a serious disposition
saved all the money he could lay hands on. Presently old Boteler died,
and left him, not all, but a great share of his worldly wealth. With
this he bought a share in the iron business, and became a partner.
Wealth rolled in upon him, and at an early period of life he retired
from active labour, married, and bought an estate a few miles from
Wolf’s Glow.

In his leisure hours the memory of the old days with the vicar
returned. He resolved to test the vicar’s theory. He purchased a small
piece of land in Wolf’s Glow parish, sank a shaft, and sure enough came
upon _coal_.

This discovery revivified the whole man. He cast off sloth, forgot all
about retirement, and plunged into business again. Another search,
conducted by practical hands, proved the existence of iron.

There was a _furore_. Collieries were started; iron furnaces set going.
It was just at the dawn of the great iron and coal trade. The railways
had been started, and the demand was greater than the supply. Romy
Baskette and Company soon employed two thousand hands coal-digging and
iron-smelting. The man, in fact, wore himself out at the trade of
money-making. He could not rest. Night and day his brain was at work:
An accidental conversation with one of his workmen suggested to him a
new idea. The smiths of the time could not make nails fast enough for
all the building that was going on. This workman had been a sailor in
his day, and had seen nails abroad which were made in batches by
machinery, instead of slowly and laboriously, one by one, by hand.

Baskette caught at the idea. He studied and learnt what he could. He
made a voyage himself abroad, and soon mastered the secret. He erected
machinery, and _cut_ nails were first made. The consumption was
enormous. The business of this Baskette and Company became so large
that it almost passed out of control. Meantime other firms had come and
settled, bought land, dug up coal, and set up smelting furnaces. In ten
years the population from being absolutely nil rose to thirty-five
thousand people. By this time Romy had killed himself. But that
mattered little, for he had left a son, and a son who inherited all his
genius, and was—if anything still “harder in the mouth.” He was named,
from his mother’s family, Sternhold Baskette.

Sternhold picked up the plough-handle which had dropped from his
father’s grasp, and continued the good work, never once looking back.
But although equally clever, the bent of his genius was different from
that of old Romy. Romy was at heart a speculator, and believed in
personal property. Sternhold was a Conservative, and put his faith in
real property, houses, and land. He kept up the old forges and
collieries, but he started no new ones. He invested the money in land
and houses, particularly the latter. His life may be summed up in two
strokes of genius—the first was bringing the iron horse to Stirmingham,
as the new town was called; the second was the building lease
investment.

It is hard to give the pre-eminence to either. They were both profound
schemes—neither would have been complete without the other. He did not
originate the idea of the railway—that was done for him—but he put it
on its legs, and he brought it to the centre of the town.

The original scheme almost omitted Stirmingham. Railways were not then
fully understood; their projectors had such vast ideas in their heads,
they aimed at long trunk lines, and so this railroad was to connect
London, the sea, and a certain large town—larger than Stirmingham then,
but now nothing beside the modern city.

Sternhold, as the largest shareholder, and as finding the capital to
get through Parliament, prevailed to have the course altered so as to
sweep by Stirmingham. He knew that this would improve his property
there at least fifty per cent. But he had other ideas in his head. The
line could not be finished under three years, and in those three years
it was his intention to become possessed of the whole ground upon which
the town of Stirmingham stood. He foresaw that it would become a mighty
centre. He braced up his nerves, and prepared to spend his darling
hoards like water.

One by one the fields, the plots, the houses, became his; and the greed
growing on him, he cast longing eyes on the adjacent marsh, now called
Glow’s Lea.

The solicitors he employed tried to restrain his infatuation. They
represented to him that even his vast wealth could not sustain this
more than kingly expenditure, and as to the marsh, it was sheer madness
to purchase it. In vain. Perhaps a tinge of pride had something to do
with it. He would buy up the rotten old Swamp where his progenitor had
dwelt, drain it, and cover it with mansions.

But now came a difficulty—the title to the ground was not all that
could be wished. James had been dead some years, but it was well-known
that had Arthur returned—if Arthur still lived, or his heirs—that James
had no right. He had enjoyed the farm and the land, such as it was,
unmolested, all his life. He had married, and had eight sons. Six of
these had married since, and most of them had children.

As none could claim the property, they all found a miserable livelihood
upon it, somehow or other. They had degenerated into a condition little
better than that of the squatters in the Swamp.

Three families lived in the farmhouse, constantly quarrelling; two made
their dwelling in the cowsheds, slightly improved; one boiled the pot
in the great carthouse, and the two single men slept in the barn. Such
a condition of slovenliness and dirt it would be hard to equal. And the
language, the fighting, and the immorality are better left undescribed!
The clergyman of Wolfs Glow wished them further.

To these wretches the offers of Sternhold Baskette came like the
promised land. He held out 300 pounds apiece, on condition that they
would jointly sign the deed and then go to America. They jumped at it.
The solicitor warned Baskette that the contract was not sound. He
asked, in reply, if any one could produce the deed under which the
property descended by “heirship.” No one could. Somehow or other it had
been lost.

In less than a month eight Sibbolds, with their wives and families,
were _en route_ to the United States, and Sternhold took possession.
Then came the Swamp settlement difficulty.

At first Baskette thought of carrying matters with a high hand. The
squatters said they had lived there for two generations, or nearly so,
and had paid no rent. They had a right. Sternhold remembered that they
were of his clan. He gave them the same terms as the Sibbolds—and they
took them. Three hundred pounds to such miserable wretches seemed an El
Dorado.

They signed a deed, and went to America, filling up half a vessel, for
there were seventeen heads of families, and children _ad libitum_.

Thus Sternhold bought the farm and the Swamp for 7500 pounds. His aim
in getting them to America was that no question of right might crop
up—for the Cunard line was not then what it is now, and the passage was
expensive and protracted. He reckoned that they would spend the money
soon after landing, and never have a chance of returning.

Meantime the railway came to a standstill. There had been
inflation—vast sums of promotion money had been squandered in the usual
reckless manner, and ruin stared the shareholders in the face. To
Sternhold it meant absolute loss of all, and above everything, of
prestige.

Already the keen business men of the place began to sneer at him. At
any cost the railway must be kept on its legs. He sacrificed a large
share of his wealth, and the works recommenced. The old swamp, or
marsh, was drained.

Sternhold had determined to make this the Belgravia of Stirmingham, and
had the plans prepared accordingly. They were something gigantic in
costliness and magnificence. His best friends warned and begged him to
desist. No; he would go on. Stirmingham would become the finest city in
England, and he should be the richest man in Europe. Up rose palatial
mansions, broad streets, splendid club-houses—even the foundations of a
theatre were laid. And all this was begun at once. Otherwise, Sternhold
was afraid that the compass of an ordinary life would not enable him to
see these vast designs finished. So that one might walk through streets
with whole blocks of houses only one story high.

Everything went on swimmingly, till suddenly the mania for speculation
which had taken possession of all the kingdom received a sudden check
by the failure of a certain famous railway king.

As if by magic, all the mighty works at Stirmingham ceased, and
Sternhold grew sombre, and wandered about with dejected step. His
friends, men of business, reminded him of their former warnings. He
bent his head, bit his lip, and said only, “Wait!”

Meantime the line had been constructed, but was not opened. The metals
were down, but the stations were not built, and the locomotives had not
arrived. Everybody was going smash. Several collieries failed; land and
houses became cheap. Sternhold invested his uttermost in the same
property—bought houses, till he had barely enough to keep him in bread
and cheese. Still they laughed and jeered at him, and still he said
only, “Wait!”

This place, this swamp, seemed to be fated to demonstrate over and over
again at one time the futility of human calculation, and at another
what enormous things can be accomplished by the efforts of a clever
man.



Chapter Four.


The owner of three parts of Stirmingham—now a monstrous overgrown city,
just building a cathedral—actually had nothing but a little bread and
cheese for supper. There were people who condoled with him, and offered
to lend him sums of money—not large, but very useful to a starving man,
one would have thought. He shrugged his shoulders and said, “Thank you;
I’ll wait.”

Certain keen speculators tried to come round him in twenty different
ways. They represented that all this mass of bricks and mortar—this
unfinished Belgravia—really was not worth owning; no one could ever
find the coin to finish the plans, and house property had depreciated
ninety per cent.

“Very true,” said Sternhold. “Good morning, gentlemen.”

He held on like grim death. Men of genius always do—mark Caesar, and
all of them. ’Tis the bulldog that wins.

By-and-by things began to take a turn. The markets looked up. Iron and
coal got brisker. The first locomotive was put on the line, then
another, and another; London could be reached in two hours, goods could
be transmitted in six, instead of thirty by the old canal or turnpike.

The Stock Exchange got busy again. You could hear the masons and
bricklayers—chink, tink, tinkle, as their trowels chipped off the
edges—singing away in chorus. The whistle of the engines was never
silent. Vast clouds of smoke hung over the country from the factories
and furnaces. Two or three new trades were introduced—among others, the
placed goods, cheap jewellery, and idol-making businesses, and
trade-guns for Africa. Rents began to rise; in two years they went up
forty per cent. The place got a name throughout the length and breadth
of the kingdom, and a Name is everything to a town as well as to an
individual.

But by a curious contradiction, just as his property began to rise in
value, and his investment looked promising, Sternhold grew melancholy
and walked about more wretched than ever. The truth soon leaked out—he
had no money to complete his half-finished streets and blocks of
houses. Nothing could induce him to borrow; not a halfpenny would he
take from any man.

There the streets and houses, the theatres, club-houses, magnificent
mansions, huge hotels, languished, half-finished, some a story, some
two stories high, exposed to wind and weather. In the midst of a great
city there was all this desolation, as if an enemy had wreaked his
vengeance on this quarter only.

Large as were the sums derived from his other properties—houses and
shops and land, which were occupied—it was all eaten up in the attempt
to finish this _marble_ Rome in the middle of a brick Babylon. Heavy
amounts too had to be disbursed to keep the railway going, for it did
not pay a fraction of dividend yet. Men of business pressed on
Sternhold. “Let us complete the place,” they said. “Sell it to us on
building leases; no one man can do the whole. Then we will form three
or four companies or syndicates, lease it of you, complete the
buildings, and after seventy years the whole will revert to you or your
heirs.”

Still Sternhold hesitated. At last he did lease a street or two in this
way to a company, who went to work like mad, paid the masons and
bricklayers double wages, kept them at it day and night, and speedily
were paying twenty per cent, dividends on their shares out of the rents
of the completed buildings. This caused a rush. Company after company
was formed. They gave Sternhold heavy premiums for the privilege to buy
of him; even then it was difficult to get him to grant the leases. When
he did accept the terms and the ready cash, every halfpenny of it went
to complete streets on his own account; and so he lived, as it were,
from hand to mouth.

After all this excitement and rush, after some thousands of workmen
were put at it, they did not seem to make much impression upon the huge
desolation of brick and mortar. Streets and squares rose up, and still
there were acres upon acres of wilderness, foundations half-dug out and
full of dirty water, walls three feet high, cellars extending heaven
only knew where.

People came for miles to see it, and called it “Baskette’s Folly.”
After a while, however, they carefully avoided it, and called it
something worse—i.e. “The Rookery;” for all the scum and ruffianism of
an exceptionally scummy and ruffianly residuum chose it as their
stronghold. Thieves and worse—ill-conditioned women—crowds of lads,
gipsies, pedlars—the catalogue would be as long as Homer’s—took up
their residence in these foundations and cellars. They seized on the
planks which were lying about in enormous piles, and roofed over the
low walls; and where planks would not do they got canvas.

Now, it is well-known that this class of people do not do much harm
when they are scattered about and separated here, there, and everywhere
over a city; but as soon as they are concentrated in one spot, then it
becomes serious. Gangs are formed, they increase in boldness; the
police are defied, and not a house is safe.

This place became a crying evil. The papers raved about it, the police
(there were police now) complained and reported it to head-quarters.
There was a universal clamour. By this time Stirmingham had got a
corporation, aldermen, and mayor, who met in a gorgeous Guildhall, and
were all sharp men of business. Now the corporation began to move in
this matter of “Baskette’s Folly.” Outside people gave them the credit
of being good citizens, animated by patriotic motives, anxious for the
honour of their town, and desirous of repressing crime. Keen thinkers
knew better—the Corporation was not above a good stroke of business.
However, what they did was this: After a great deal of talk and
palaver, and passing resolutions, and consulting attorneys, and
goodness knows what, one morning a deputation waited upon Sternhold
Baskette, Esq, at his hotel (he always lived at an hotel), and laid
before him a handsome proposition. It was to the effect that he should
lease them the said “Folly,” or incomplete embryo city, for a term of
years, in consideration whereof they would pay down a certain sum, and
contract to erect buildings according to plans and specifications
agreed upon, the whole to revert in seventy years to Sternhold or his
heirs.

Sternhold fought hard—he asked for extravagant terms, and had to be
brought to reason by a threat of an appeal by the Corporation to
Parliament for a private Act.

This sobered him, for he was never quite happy in his secret mind about
his title. Terms were agreed upon, the earnest money paid, and the
masons began to work. Then suddenly there was an uproar. The companies
or syndicates who had leased portions of the estate grew alarmed lest
this enormous undertaking should, when finished, depreciate their
property. They cast about for means of opposing it. It is said—but I
cannot believe it—that they gave secret pay to the thieves and ruffians
in the cellars to fight the masons and bricklayers, and drive them off.

At all events serious collisions occurred. But the Corporation was too
strong. They telegraphed to London and got reinforcements, and carried
the entrenchments by storm.

Then, so goes the discreditable rumour, the companies bribed the masons
and bricklayers, who built so badly that every now and then houses fell
in, and there was a fine loss! Finally they got up an agitation, cried
down the Corporation for wasting public funds, and, what was far more
serious, brought high legal authority to prove that _as a Corporation_
they had no power to pledge themselves to such terms as they had, or
indeed to enter into such a contract without polling the whole city.

This alarmed the Corporation. There were secret meetings and long
faces. But if one lawyer discovers a difficulty, another can always
suggest a way round the corner. The Corporation went to Parliament, and
got a private Act; but they did not go as a body. They went through
Sternhold, who was persuaded; and indeed it looked plausible, that by
so doing, and by getting the sanction of the House of Commons, he
improved his own title.

Then the Corporation smiled, and built away faster than ever. In the
course of an almost incredibly short time the vast plans of Sternhold
were completed by the various companies, by the Corporation, and by
himself; for every penny he got as premium, every penny of ground-rent,
every penny from his collieries, iron furnaces, and cut-nail factories,
went in bricks and mortar. It was the most magnificent scheme, perhaps,
ever started by a single man. The city was proud of it. Like Augustus,
he had found it brick, and left it marble.

Yet, in reality, he was no richer. The largest owner, probably, of
house property in the world, he could but just pay his way at his
hotel. Although he had a fine country house (which old Romy had
purchased) in the suburbs, he never used it—it was let. He preferred a
hotel as a single man because there was no trouble to look after
servants, etc. He lived in the most economical manner—being obliged to,
in fact.

Yet this very economy increased the popular belief in his riches. He
was a miser. Give a man that name, let it once stick to him, and there
is no limit to the fables that will be eagerly received as truth. Give
a dog a bad name and hang him. Call a man a miser, and, if he is so
inclined, he can roll in borrowed money, dine every day on presents of
game and fish, and marry any one he chooses. I only wish I had the
reputation.

No one listened to Sternhold’s constant reiteration of what was
true—that he was really poor. It was looked upon as the usual
stock-in-trade language of a miser. His fame spread. Popular rumour
magnified and magnified the tale till it became like a chapter from the
Arabian Nights.

After all, there was some grain of truth in it. If he could have
grasped all that was his, he would have surpassed all that was said
about his riches.

At last the _Stirmingham Daily News_ hit upon a good idea to
out-distance its great rival the _Stirmingham Daily Post_. This idea
was a “Life of Sternhold Baskette, the Miser of Stirmingham.” After,
the editor had considered a little, he struck out “miser,” and wrote
“capitalist”—it had a bigger sound.

The manuscript was carefully got up in secret by the able editor and
two of his staff, who watched Sternhold like detectives, and noted all
his peculiarities of physiognomy and manner. They knew—these able
editors know everything—that the public are particularly curious how
much salt and pepper their heroes use, what colour necktie they wear,
and so on. As the editor said, they wanted to make Sternhold the one
grand central figure—perfect, complete in every detail. And they did
it.

They traced his origin and pedigree—this last was not quite accurate,
but near enough. They devoted 150 pages to a mere catalogue of his
houses, his streets, his squares, club-houses, theatres, hotels,
railways, collieries, ironworks, nail factories, estates, country
mansions, etc. They wrote 200 pages of speculations as to the actual
value of this enormous property; and modestly put the total figure at
“something under twenty millions, and will be worth half as much again
in ten years.” They did not forget the building leases; when these fell
in, said the memoir, he or his heirs would have an income of 750,000
pounds per annum.

They carefully chronicled the fact that the capitalist had never
married, that he had no son or daughter, that he was growing old, or,
at least, past middle age, and had never been known to recognise any
one as his relation (having, in fact, shipped the whole family to
America). What a glorious thing this would be for some lucky fellow!
They finished up with a photograph of Sternhold himself. This was
difficult to obtain. He was a morose, retiring man—he had never, so far
as was known, had his portrait taken. It was quite certain that no
persuasion would induce him to sit for it. The able editor, however,
was not to be done. On some pretext or other Sternhold was got to the
office of the paper, and while he sat conversing with the editor, the
photographer “took him” through a hole made for the purpose in the
wooden partition between the editor’s and sub-editor’s room. As
Sternhold was quite unconscious, the portrait was really a very good
one. Suddenly the world was taken by storm with a “Life of Sternhold
Baskette, the Capitalist of Stirmingham. His enormous riches, pedigree,
etc, 500 pages, post octavo, illustrated, price 7 shillings 6 pence.”

The able editor did not confine himself to Stirmingham. Before the book
was announced he made his London arrangements, also with the lessees of
the railway bookstalls. At one and the same moment of time, one morning
Stirmingham woke up to find itself placarded with huge yellow bills
(the _News_ was Liberal then—it turned its coat later on—and boasted
that John Bright had been to the office), boys ran about distributing
handbills at every door, men stood at the street corners handing them
to everybody who passed.

Flaring posters were stuck up at every railway station in the kingdom;
ditto in London. The dead walls and hoardings were covered with yellow
paper printed in letters a foot long. Three hundred agents, boys,
girls, and men, walked all over the metropolis crying incessantly
“Twenty Millions of Money,” and handing bills and cards to every one.
The _Athenaeum, Saturday Review, Spectator_, and _Times_; every paper,
magazine, review; every large paper in the country had an
advertisement. The result was something extraordinary.

The name of Sternhold Baskette was on everybody’s lips. His “Twenty
Millions of Money” echoed from mouth to mouth, from Land’s End to John
o’ Groats. It crossed the Channel, it crossed the Alps, it crossed the
Atlantic and the Pacific. It was heard on the Peak of Teneriffe, and in
the cities of India.

The New York firms seized on it as a mine of wealth. The book,
reprinted, was sold from the Hudson River to the Rocky Mountains, and
to the mouth of the Mississippi for twenty cents. The circulation was
even larger in the United States than in Britain, for there everybody
worshipped the dollar. The able editor made his fortune. The book ran
through thirty editions, and wore out two printing machines and three
sets of type. The two gentlemen of the staff who had assisted in the
compilation had a fair share, and speedily put on airs. They claimed
the authorship, though the idea had certainly originated with the
editor. There was a quarrel. They left, being offered higher salaries
in this way:—The other paper, the _Post_, though blue in principles,
grew green with envy, and tried to disparage as much as possible. They
offered these respectable gentlemen large incomes to cut the book to
pieces that they themselves had written. No one could do it better—no
one understood the weak points, and the humbug of the thing so well.
The fellows went to work with a will. The upshot was a little warfare
between the Sternholders and the anti-Sternholders. The _News_ upheld
Sternhold, stuck to everything it had stated, and added more. The
_Post_ disparaged him in every possible way. This newspaper war had its
results, as we shall presently see. For the present these two noble
principled young men, who first wrote a book for pay and then engaged
to chop it into mincemeat for pay, may be left to search and search
into the Baskette by-gone history for fresh foul matter to pour forth
on the hero of Stirmingham.



Chapter Five.


“The Hero of Stirmingham;” so the _News_ dubbed him; so it became the
fashion, either in ridicule or in earnest, to call him. People came
from all parts to see him. Every one who, on business or pleasure, came
to the city, tried to lodge at the hotel where he lived, or at least
called there on the chance of meeting the mortal representative of
Twenty Millions Sterling. The hotel proprietor, who had previously lost
money by him, and execrated his economy, now reaped a golden harvest,
and found his business so large that he set about building a monster
place at one side of the original premises, for he was afraid to pull
it down lest the capitalist should leave.

Now a curious psychological change was wrought by all this in old
Sternhold’s character. Up till this period of his life he had been one
of the most retiring and reserved of men, morose, self-absorbed,
shrinking from observation. He now became devoured with an insatiable
vanity. He could not shake off the habit of economy, the frugal manner
of living, which, he had so long practised; but his mind underwent a
complete revolution.

It has often been observed that when a man makes one particular subject
his study, in course of time that which was once clear grows obscure,
and instead of acquiring extraordinary insight, he loses all method,
and wanders.

Something of the kind was the case with Sternhold. All his life had
been devoted to the one great object of owning a city, of being the
largest proprietor of houses and streets in the world. His whole
thought, energy, strength, patience—his entire being—had been
concentrated upon this end. In actual fact, it was not attained yet,
for he was practically only the nominal owner; but the publication of
this book acted in a singular manner upon his brain. He grew to believe
that he really was all that the “Life” represented him to be—i.e. the
most extraordinary man the world had ever seen.

He attempted no state, he set up no carriage; he stuck to his old
confined apartments at the hotel he had always frequented; but he lived
in an ideal life of sovereign grandeur. He talked as though he were a
monarch—an absolute autocrat—as if all the inhabitants of Stirmingham
were his subjects; and boasted that he could turn two hundred thousand
people out of doors by a single word.

In plain language, he lost his head; in still plainer language, he went
harmlessly mad—not so mad that any one even hinted at such a thing.
There was no lunacy in his appearance or daily life; but the great
chords of the mind were undoubtedly at this period of his existence
quite deranged.

He really was getting rich now. The houses he had himself completed,
with the premiums paid for building leases, began to return a
considerable profit. The income from his collieries and factories was
so large, that even bricks and mortar could not altogether absorb it.
Perhaps he was in receipt of three thousand pounds per annum, or more.
But now, unfortunately, just as the fruits of his labour were fast
ripening, this abominable book upset it all.

There can be no doubt that the editor of the _Stirmingham Daily News_,
with the best intentions in the world, dealt his Hero two mortal
wounds. In the first place, he drove him mad. Sternhold spent days and
nights studying how he could exceed what he had already done.

Dressed in a workman’s garb for disguise, he explored the whole
neighbourhood of Stirmingham, seeking fresh land to purchase. His
object was to get it cheap, for he knew that if there was the slightest
suspicion that he was after it, a high price would be asked. In some
instances he succeeded. One or two cases are known where he bought,
with singular judgment and remarkable shrewdness, large tracts for very
small sums. He paid only one-fifth on completion, leaving the remainder
on mortgage. This enabled him to buy five times as much at once as
would have otherwise been possible.

But there were sharp fellows in Stirmingham, who watched the capitalist
like hawks, and soon spied out what was going on. Their game was to
first discover in what direction Sternhold was buying in secret, then
to forestall him, and nearly double the price when he arrived.

In this way Sternhold got rid of every shilling of his income. Even
then he might have prospered; but, as bad luck would have it, the
railway, after two millions of money had been sunk on it, actually
began to pay dividends of three and a half per cent, then four, then
six; for a clever fellow had got at the helm, and was forcing up the
market so as to make hay while the sun shone.

Sternhold was in raptures with railways. Some sharp young men of
forty-five and fifty immediately laid their heads together, and
projected a second railway at almost right angles—not such a bad idea,
but one likely to cause enormous outlay. They represented to Sternhold
that this new line would treble the value of the property he had
recently bought, extending for some miles beyond the city. He jumped at
it. The Bill was got through Parliament. One half of these sharp young
men were lawyers, the other half engineers and contractors.

Sternhold deposited the money, and they shared it between them. When
the money was exhausted the railway languished. This exasperated old
Baskette. For the first time in his life he borrowed money, and did it
on a royal scale;—I am almost afraid to say how much, and certainly it
seems odd how people could advance so much knowing his circumstances.

However, he got it. He bought up all the shares, and became practically
owner of the new line. He completed it, and rode on the first
locomotive in triumph, surrounded by his parasites. For alas! he had
yielded to parasites at last, who flattered and fooled him to
perfection. This was the state of affairs when the second mortal wound
was given.

It happened in this way. The “Life of Sternhold Baskette, Esq,” had, as
was stated, got abroad, and penetrated even to the Rocky Mountains. It
was quoted, and long extracts made from it in the cheap press—they had
a cheap press in the United States thirty years before we had, which
accounts for the larger proportion of educated or partly educated
people, and the wider spread of intelligence. After a while, somehow or
other, the marvellous story reached the ears of one or two persons who
happened to sign their names Baskette, and they began to say to
themselves, “What the deuce is this? We rather guess we come from
Stirmingham or somewhere thereabouts. Now, why shouldn’t we share in
this mine of wealth?”

The sharp Yankee intellect began to have “idees.” Most of the cotters
whom Sternhold had transhipped to America thirty years or more
previous, were dead and buried—that is to say, the old people were.

The air of America is too thin and fine, and the life too fast, for
middle-aged men who have been accustomed to the foggy atmosphere and
the slow passage of events in the Old Country. But it is a tremendous
place for increase of population.

The United States are only just a century old, and they have a
population larger than Great Britain, which has a history of twenty
centuries, or nearly so.

So it happened that, although the old people were dead, the tribe had
marvellously increased. Half who were transhipped had borne the name of
Baskette. This same question was asked in forty or fifty places at
once—“My name is Baskette; why should not I share?”

These people had, of course, little or no recollection of the deed
signed by their forefathers: and if they had had a perfect knowledge,
such a trifling difficulty as that was not one calculated to appal a
Yankee’s ingenuity. When once the question had been asked it was
repeated, and grew and grew, and passed from man to man, made its
appearance in the newspapers, who even went so far as to say that the
finest city in England, the very workshop of the Britishers, belonged
to United States citizens.

Some editor keener than the rest, or who had read the book more
carefully, pointed out that the capitalist had no heirs living, that he
had never been married, and no one knew to whom all this vast wealth
would descend.

Twenty millions sterling begging a heir! This was enough to set the
American mind aflame. It was just like applying a lighted match to one
of their petroleum wells.

The paragraph flew from paper to paper, was quoted, conned, and talked
over. Men grew excited. Presently, here and there one who considered
that he had some claim began to steal off to England to make inquiries.
The Cunard were running now, though they had not yet invented the
“ocean highway,” by keeping to a course nothing to the north or south
of a certain line. Passage was very quick, and not dear. In a little
time the fact that one or two had started oozed out, then others
followed, and were joined by a lawyer or so, till at last fourteen or
fifteen keen fellows reached Stirmingham.

Now mark the acuteness of the American mind! Instead of announcing
their arrival, every one of these fellows kept quiet, and said not a
word! When they met each other in the streets they only smiled. They
were not going to alarm the game.

These gentlemen were not long in Stirmingham before they found out that
the _Stirmingham Daily Post_ was a deadly enemy of old Sternhold. To
the office of the second able editor they tramped accordingly.

There they learnt a good deal; but in return the editor pumped
something out of them, and, being well up in the matter, sniffed out
their objects. He chuckled and rubbed his hands together. Here was a
chance for an awful smash at the _News_.

One fine morning out came a leading article referring also to several
columns of other matter on the same subject, headed “The Heirs of
Stirmingham.”

Being Blue, you see, the _Post_ affected to abominate United States’
Republicanism and all the American institutions. This article recounted
the visit of the dozen or so of possible claimants, described them so
minutely that no one could help recognising them, and wound up with a
tremendous peroration calling upon all good citizens to do their best
to prevent the renowned city of Stirmingham falling into the hands of
the Yankees!

Such property as Sternhold’s, the article argued, was of national
importance; and although the individual should not be interfered with,
the nation should see that its rights were not tampered with. There was
danger of such tampering, for who knew what an _infirm, old_ man like
Sternhold might not be led to sign by interested parties? At his age he
could not be expected to possess the decision and mental firmness of
earlier years. This was a cruel hit at Sternhold’s mental weakness,
which had begun to grow apparent.

An endeavour should be made to find an English heir, and that there was
such an heir they (the staff of the _Post_) firmly believed. Two
gentlemen of the staff (meaning thereby the late writers for the
_News_), who had devoted some time to the matter, had made a certain
important discovery. This was nothing less than the fact that Sternhold
had had an uncle! This in big capital letters.


An Uncle. Then followed a little bit of genealogy, in approved fashion,
with dashes, lines, etc—the meaning of which was that Sternhold’s
father, old Romy Baskette, had had a brother, who, when the original
Will Baskette was shot, had departed into the unknown with his mother.

What had become of Romy’s brother? The probability was that by this
time he was dead and buried. But there was also the probability that he
had married and had children. Those children, if they existed, were
undoubtedly the nearest heirs of Sternhold Baskette, Esq, now residing
at Dodd’s Hotel, South Street. As an earnest of the anxiety of the
_Post_ to preserve the good city of Stirmingham from Yankee
contamination, they now offered three rewards:—First, fifty pounds for
proof of Romy’s brother’s death; secondly, one hundred pounds for proof
of Romy’s brother’s marriage, if he had married; thirdly, one hundred
and fifty pounds for the identification of his child or children. This
was repeated as an advertisement in the outer sheet, and was kept in
type for months.

It deserves notice as being the first advertisement which appeared in
the Great Baskette Claim Case—the first of a crop of advertisements
which in time became a regular source of income to newspaper
proprietors.

When this leading article and advertisement, supported by several
columns of descriptive matter and genealogies was laid on the breakfast
tables of half Stirmingham, it caused a sensation. The city suddenly
woke up to the fact that as soon as old Sternhold died half the place
would have no owner.

The Yankee visitors now had no further reason for concealment. They
went about openly making inquiries. They were fêted at hotel bars and
in billiard rooms. They called upon Sternhold bodily—_en masse_—forced
themselves into his apartment, though, he shut the door with his own
hands in their faces, shook him by the hand, patted him on the
shoulder, called him “Colonel,” and asked him what he would take to
drink!

They walked round him, admired him from every point of view, stuck
their fingers in his ribs, and really meant no harm, though their
manners were not quite of the drawing-room order.

They cut up the old man’s favourite armchair, whittled it up, to carry
away as souvenirs. They appropriated his books—his own particular
penholder, with which he had written every letter and signed every deed
for fifty years, disappeared, and was afterwards advertised as on show
at Barnum’s in New York City, as the Pen which could sign a cheque for
Twenty Millions!

When at last they did leave, one popped back, and asked if the
“Colonel” believed this story about his _Uncle_? He was sure he had
never had an uncle, wasn’t he? The old man sat silent, which the
inquirer took for once as a negative, and wrote a letter to the _News_,
denying the existence of Romy’s brother.

Poor old Sternhold was found by the landlord, old Dodd, sitting in his
chair, which was all cut and slashed, two hours afterwards, staring
straight at the wall.

Dodd feared he had an attack of paralysis, and ran for the nearest
doctor; but it was nothing but literally speechless indignation. After
a while he got up and walked about the room, and took a little dry
sherry—his favourite wine. But the mortal wound Number 2 had been
given. Henceforth the one great question in Sternhold’s mind was his
heir.



Chapter Six.


His heir! Sternhold seriously believed that he had no living relations.
It is often said that poor people have plenty of children, while the
rich, to whom they would be welcome, have few or none. This was
certainly a case in point. The poor Baskettes, who had been shipped to
America, had a whole tribe of descendants. Here was a man who,
nominally at least, was the largest owner of property known, who was
childless, and had already reached and exceeded the allotted age of
man.

Sternhold was seventy-two. He looked back and ransacked his memory. He
had never heard anything of this uncle, his father’s brother; his
mother’s friends were all dead. There was not a soul for whom he cared
a snap of his fingers. Firstly, he had no relations; secondly, he had
no friends, for Sternhold, wide as was his circle of acquaintances, had
never been known to visit any one. His life had been solitary and
self-absorbed.

Now, for the first time, he felt his loneliness, and understood that he
was a solitary being. Who should be his heir? Who should succeed to
that mighty edifice he had slowly built up? The architect had been
obliged to be content with gazing upon the outside of his work only;
but the successor, if he only lived the usual time, would revel in
realised magnificence unsurpassed. The old man was quite staggered, and
went about as in a dream.

The idea once started, there were plenty who improved upon it. The
Corporation at their meetings incidentally alluded to the matter, and
it was delicately suggested that Sternhold would crown his memory with
ineffable glory if he devised his vast estate to the city. Such a
bequest in a few years would make the place absolutely free from
taxation. The rents would meet poor’s-rates, gas-rates, water-rates,
sanitary-rates, and all. One gentleman read an elaborate series of
statistics, proving that the income from the property, when once the
building leases fell in, would not only free the city from local, but
almost, if not quite, from imperial taxation. There were many instances
in history of kings, as rewards for great services, issuing an order
that certain towns should be exempt from the payment of taxes for a
series of years. Sternhold had it thus in his power to display really
regal munificence.

Other gentlemen of more radical leanings cried “Shame!” on the mere
fact of one man being permitted to attain such powers. It was absurd
for one man to possess such gigantic wealth, and for several hundred
thousand to live from hand to mouth. The people should share it, not as
a gift, but as a right; it should be seized for the benefit of the
community.

The Corporation people were much too knowing to talk like this. They
went to work in a clever way. First, they contrived various great
banquets, to which Sternhold was invited, and at which he was put in
the seat of honour and lauded to the skies. Next, they formed a
committee and erected a statue in a prominent place to the founder of
Stirmingham, and unveiled it with immense ceremony. Certain funds had
been previously set apart for the building of a public library; this
being completed about that time, was named the Sternhold Institute. An
open space or “park,” which the Corporation had been obliged to provide
for the seething multitudes who were so closely crowded together, was
called the Sternhold Public Park. Yet Sternhold never subscribed a
farthing to either of these.

Nothing was left undone to turn his head. His portrait, life-size,
painted in oil, was hung up in the Council-hall; medals were struck to
commemorate his birthday. The Corporation were not alone in their
endeavours; other disinterested parties were hard at work. Most
energetic of all were the religious people. Chapel projectors,
preachers, church extension societies, missionary associations, flew at
his throat. His letter-box was flooded; his door was for ever
resounding with knocking and ringing. The sound of the true clerical
nasal twang was never silent in his anteroom. The hospitals came down
on him flat in one lump, more particularly those establishments which
publicly boast that they never solicit assistance, and are supported by
voluntary contributions caused by prayer.

The dodge is to publish the _fact_ as loudly as possible. To proclaim
that the institution urgently wants a few thousands is not begging. A
list of all the charities that recommended themselves to his notice
would fill three chapters: then the patentees—the literary people who
were prepared to write memoirs, biographies, etc—would have to be
omitted.

Now here is a singular paradox. If a poor wretched mortal, barely
clothed in rags, his shoes off his feet, starring with hunger,
houseless, homeless, who hath not where to lay his head, asks you for a
copper, it means seven days’ imprisonment as a rogue. If all the
clergymen and ministers, the secretaries, and so forth, come in crowds
begging for hundreds and thousands, it is meritorious, and is
applauded.

Now this is worthy of study as a phenomenon of society. But these were
not all. Sternhold had another class of applicants, whom we will not
call ladies, or even women, but _females_ (what a hateful word female
is), who approached him pretty much as the Shah was approached by every
post while in London and Paris.

He was deluged with photographs of females. Not disreputable characters
either—not of Drury Lane or Haymarket distinction, but of that class
who use the columns of the newspapers to advertise their matrimonial
propensities. Tall, short, dark, light, stout, thin, they poured in
upon him by hundreds; all ready, willing, and waiting.

Most were “thoroughly domesticated and musical;” some were penetrated
with the serious responsibilities of the position of a wife; others
were filled with hopes of the life to come (having failed in this).

Some men would have enjoyed all this; some would have smiled; others
would have flung the lot into the waste-basket. Sternhold was too
methodical and too much imbued with business habits to take anything as
a good joke. He read every letter, looked at every photograph, numbered
and docketed them, and carefully put them away.

Other efforts were made to get at him. He had parasites—men who hung on
him—lickspittles. To a certain extent he yielded to the titillation of
incessant laudation; and, if he did not encourage, did not repel them.
They never ceased to fan his now predominant vanity. They argued that
the Corporation and all the rest were influenced by selfish motives
(which was true). They begged him not to forget what was due to
himself—not to annihilate and obliterate himself. It was true he was
aged; but aged men—especially men who had led temperate lives like
himself—frequently had children. In plain words, they one and all
persuaded him to marry; and they one and all had a petticoated friend
who would just suit him.

Sternhold seemed very impassive and immoveable; but the fact was that
all this had stirred him deeply. He began to seriously contemplate
marriage. He brooded over the idea. He was not a sentimental man; he
had not even a spark of what is called human nature in the sense of
desiring to see merry children playing around him. But he looked upon
himself as a mighty monarch; and as a mighty monarch he wished more and
more every day to found not only a kingdom, but a dynasty.

This appears to be a weakness from which even the greatest of men are
not exempt. Napoleon the Great could not resist the idea. It is the one
sole object of almost all such men whose history is recorded.
Occasionally they succeed; more often it destroys them. Some say
Cromwell had hopes in that direction.

So far the parasites, the photographs, the stir that was made about it,
affected Sternhold. But if he was mad, he was mad in his own way. He
was not to be led by the nose; but those who knew him best could see
that he was meditating action.

Dodd, the landlord of the hotel, was constantly bothered and worried
for his opinion on the subject. At last, said Dodd, “I think the
Corporation have wasted their money.” And they had.

In this unromantic country the human form divine has not that
opportunity to display itself which was graciously afforded to the
youth of both sexes in the classic days of Greece, when the virgins of
Sparta, their lovely limbs anointed with oil, wrestled nude in the
arena.

The nearest approach to those “good old times” which our modern prudery
admits, is the short skirts and the “tights” of the ballet.

Sternhold, deeply pondering, arrived at the notion, true or false, that
the wife for him must possess physical development.

This is a delicate subject to dwell on; but I think he was mistaken
when he visited the theatres seeking such a person. He might have found
ladies, not _females_ nor women, but ladies in a rank of life nearer or
above his own, who exulted in the beauty of their form, and were
endowed with Nature’s richest gifts of shape. But he was a child in
such a search: his ideas were rude and primitive to the last degree. At
all events, the fact remains.

It was found out afterwards that he had visited every theatre in
London, but finally was suited on the boards of a fourth-rate “gaff” in
Stirmingham itself.

There was a girl there—or rather a woman, for she was all
five-and-twenty—who was certainly as fine a specimen of _female_
humanity as ever walked. Tall, but not too tall, she presented a
splendid development of bust, torso, and limbs. Her skin was of that
peculiar dusky hue—not dark, but dusky—which gives the idea of intense
vitality. Her eyes were as coals of fire—large, black, deep-set, under
heavy eyebrows. Her hair at a distance was superb—like night in hue,
and glossy, curling in rich masses. Examined closer it was coarse, like
wire. Her nose was the worse feature; it wanted shape, definition. It
was a decided _retroussé_, and _thick_; but in the flush of her
brilliant colour, her really grand carriage, this was passed over. Her
lips were scarlet, and pouted with a tempting impudence.

This was the very woman Sternhold sought. She was vitality itself
impersonified. He saw her, offered his hand, and was instantly
accepted. He wished her to keep it quiet; and notwithstanding her
feminine triumph she managed to do so, and not a soul in Stirmingham
guessed what was in the wind.

Sternhold went to London, got a special licence, and the pair were
married in Sternhold’s private apartments at his hotel in the presence
of three people only, one of whom was the astounded Dodd. They left by
the next train for London, where the bride went to Regent Street to
choose her trousseau, with her husband at her side.

Not a bell was rung in Stirmingham. The news spread like wildfire, and
confounded the city. People gathered at the corners of the streets.

“He is certainly mad,” they said. Most of them were in some way
disappointed.

“He may be,” said a keener one than the rest; “he may be—but _she_ is
not.”



Chapter Seven.


Lucia Marese, now Mrs Sternhold Baskette, was the daughter of an
Italian father and an English mother, and had a tolerably accurate
acquaintance with Leicester Square and Soho. She was not an absolutely
bad woman in the coarsest sense of the term—at least not at that time,
she had far too much ambition to destroy her chance so early in life.
Physiologists may here discuss the question as to whether any latent
trace of the old gipsy blood of the Baskettes had in any way influenced
Sternhold in his choice. Ambitious as she was, and possessed of that
species of beauty which always takes with the multitude, Lucia had
hitherto been a failure. Just as in literature and in art, the greatest
genius has to wait till opportunity offers, and often eats its own
heart in the misery of waiting, so she had striven and fought to get to
the front, and yet was still a stroller when Sternhold saw her. She
knew that if only once she could have made her appearance on the London
boards, with her gorgeous beauty fully displayed, and assisted by dress
and music, that she should certainly triumph. But she could not get
there.

Other girls less favoured by Nature, but more by circumstance, and by
the fickle and unaccountable tastes of certain wealthy individuals, had
forestalled her, and she stored up in her mind bitter hatred of several
of these who had snubbed and sneered at her.

The fairy prince of her dream, however, came at last in the person of
an old man of three score years and ten, and she snapped him up in a
trice. No doubt, like all Stirmingham, she entertained the most
fabulous ideas of Sternhold’s wealth.

These dreams were destined to be rudely shattered. She seems to have
had pretty much her own way at first. Doubtless the old man was as wax
in her hands, till his former habits began to pull at him. She had one
good trait at all events, if it could be called good—the first use she
made of her new position was to provide for her family, or rather for
the only member of it in England.

This was Aurelian Marese, her brother, who must have been a man of some
talent and energy, for despite all obstacles of poverty he contrived to
pass his examination and obtain a diploma from the College of Surgeons.
He came to Stirmingham, and with the assistance of Sternhold’s purse
set up as a mad doctor, in plain parlance, or in softer language,
established a private lunatic asylum. Oddly enough, it would seem that
notwithstanding the immense population of the city, there was not till
that time any establishment of the kind in the place, and the result
was that Aurelian prospered. He certainly was a clever fellow, as will
be presently seen, though some fancy he over-reached himself. When at
last Sternhold, worn out with the unwonted gaieties into which Lucia
plunged him, showed unmistakable signs of weariness, and desired to
return to Stirmingham, she yielded with a good grace. She reckoned that
he could not last long, and it was her game to keep him in good temper;
for she had learnt by this time that he had the power to dispose of his
property just as he chose.

We can easily imagine the restlessness of this creature confined in the
dull atmosphere of three or four rooms at Dodd’s Hotel, South Street.
But she bore it, and to her it was a species of martyrdom—the very
reverse of what she had pictured.

After a while, as time went on, whispers began to fly about—people
elevated their eyebrows and asked questions under their breath,
exchanged nods and winks. The fact was apparent; Sternhold could scarce
contain himself for joy. There was an undoubted prospect of The Heir.
The old man got madder than ever—that is, in the sense of
self-laudation. He could not admire himself sufficiently. The artful
woman played upon him, you may be sure; at all events there was a deed
of gift executed at this time conveying to her certain valuable estates
lying outside the city, and tolerably unencumbered. Why she came to
select those particular estates which were not half so valuable as
others she might have had, was known only to herself then; but
doubtless Aurelian had heard about the Yankee claims, and advised her
to take what was safe. These estates were, in fact, bought with old
Romy’s money made by the nail factory, and were quite apart from the
rest.

About this time, also, Sternhold left Dodd’s Hotel. This was another
evidence of her power over him. The best joke was, that although there
was old Romy’s country mansion about five miles from Stirmingham,
although Sternhold had since purchased four other mansions, and had
nominally street upon street of houses in the town, he had not a place
to take his wife to. He was obliged to rent one of his own houses of
the company who had built it on a building lease.

Mrs Sternhold now had her great wish gratified to some extent. She was
the observed of all observers. They tell you tales now in Stirmingham
of her extravagance, and the lengths she went. Her carriages, her
horses, her servants, her dinners, parties, and what not, were the one
topic of conversation. Even old-fashioned, straitlaced people found
their objections overcome by curiosity, and accepted her invitations.

Old Sternhold was never visible at these gatherings; but he rejoiced in
them. He was proud of his wife. He looked upon her as a prodigy. He
gave her the reins. But personally he practically returned to his old
habits. He still retained his old apartments at Dodd’s; and there he
might be found, at almost all hours, sitting at his desk, and eagerly,
joyously receiving every visitor who came to tell him of some fresh
extravagance, some fresh frolic of his wife’s!

How was all this expenditure supported, since his actual income was so
small? By a series of loans, which there were always men ready to
offer, and whose terms Sternhold always signed. Once or twice he did
remonstrate, but darling Lucia went into tears, and her brother
Aurelian assured him that, in her state of health, any vexation was
dangerous, etc. Aurelian, through the Sternhold connexion, was now a
fashionable physician.

At last the event happened, and a son was born. The memory of the week
succeeding that day will not soon pass away in Stirmingham.

Old Sternhold, himself a most temperate man, declared that he would
make every one in the city tipsy; and he practically succeeded. He had
barrels of ale and gallons of spirits and wine offered free to all
comers at every public-house and tavern. He had booths erected in an
open field just outside the town, for dancing and other amusements, and
here refreshments of all kinds were served out gratis.

The police were in despair. The cells overflowed, and would hold no
more, and the streets reeled with drunken men, and still more drunken
women.

This saturnalia reigned for four days, and would soon have
culminated—at least, so the police declared—in a general sack of the
city by the congregated ruffians. A detachment of dragoons was actually
sent for, and encamped in Saint George’s Square, with their horses and
arms ready at a moment’s notice. But it all passed off quietly; and
from that hour Sternhold, and more particularly the infant son, became
the idol of the populace.

They still look back with regret to those four days of unlimited
licence, and swear by the son of Sternhold.

This boy was named John Marese Baskette, but was always called Marese.
Singularly enough, the birth of this child, which one would have
prophesied would have completed the hold Lucia had over the father, was
the beginning of the difficulties between them. It began in his very
nursery. Proud of her handsome figure, and still looking forward to
popular triumphs, Lucia flatly refused to nurse the infant herself.

This caused a terrible quarrel. Old Sternhold had old-fashioned ideas.
But there is no need to linger on this. Lucia, of course, had her own
way, and Sternhold retired to sulk at Dodd’s Hotel. From that time the
chink widened, and the mutual distrust strengthened.

There never was any real doubt that the boy was legitimate; but some
devil whispered the question in Sternhold’s mind, and, he brooded over
it. I say some devil, but, in actual fact, it was one of those
parasites who have been once or twice alluded to. Is there anything
that class will stop at in the hope of a few formal lines in a rich
man’s will?

It was their game to destroy Lucia. The plan was cunningly formed. As
if by accident, passages in Lucia’s previous life, when she was a
stroller, were alluded to in Sternhold’s presence.

He grew excited, and eager to hear more; to probe her supposed
dishonour. The parasites distinctly refused; it was too serious a
matter. Still, if he wished to hear—it was common talk—all he had to do
was to go into the billiard rooms. Some of the fellows there did not
know him by sight, and they were sure to talk about it.

Sternhold went. Of all the sights in the world, to see that old man
making a miserable attempt to play billiards while his ears were
acutely listening to the infamous tales purposely started to inflame
him, nothing could be more deplorable. The upshot was he grew downright
mad, but not so mad that anything could be done with him. He watched
over Lucia like a hawk. She could not move; her life became really
burdensome.

It must be remembered that at that time she really was, though wild
enough in blood, perfectly stainless in fact. The temper in the woman
was long restrained. In the first place, she wanted his money; in the
next place, there was her son, whom she loved with all the vigour of
her nature. She bore it for a year or two, then the devil in her began
to stir.

Old Sternhold, who had watched and inquired hour by hour all this time,
had found nothing wrong; but this very fact was turned against her by
those devils, his lickspittles. They represented that this was part of
her cunning—that she had determined he should have no hold upon her, in
order that her son might inherit. They reminded Sternhold that,
although he could not divorce her, he could alter his will. Here they
rather overshot the mark, because he began to reflect that if he cut
off his son the old question would arise—To whom should he leave his
city, as he called it?

The miserable dilemma haunted and worried his already weakened brain
and body till he grew a shadow, and Lucia had hopes that he would die.
But he did not; in a month or two the natural strength of his
constitution brought him round.

All this time Lucia was in dread about his will. Aurelian astute and
cunning as he was hardly knew what to advise or how to act. He had his
spies—for he was wealthy now to a certain degree, and could afford it.
He had his strong suspicions that some of the companies who had leased
the property for building had a hand in the persecution of Lucia, and
in the inflammation of Sternhold’s jealousy. It was certainly their
interest to get the boy disinherited. Aurelian began to grow seriously
alarmed. Sternhold was stronger and better—perhaps if he had had
Aurelian for physician he would not have recovered so fast; but with
his distrust of Lucia, came an equal distrust of her brother, and he
would not acknowledge him.

Aurelian looked at it like this: Sternhold was now about seventy-five,
and had no organic disease. His father, Romy, had lived to a ripe old
age; his grandfather, the basket-maker, though shot in the prime of
life, came of a hardy, half-gipsy stock. The chances were that
Sternhold, with all the comforts that money could buy, would live
another ten years. This very worry, this jealousy, by keeping his
mental faculties alive, might contribute to longevity. In ten years, in
a year, in a month, what might not happen?

His greatest fear was in Lucia herself, who had shown signs of late
that she must burst forth. If she did, and without his being near her,
there was no knowing what indiscretion she might not commit. It was
even suspicious that Sternhold had recovered. It looked as if he had
made up his mind, and had signed a will averse to Lucia’s interest and
his son’s—had settled it and dismissed it. This was a terrible thought,
this last. When he suggested the possibility of it to Lucia, you should
have seen her. She raved; her features swelled up and grew inflamed;
her frame dilated; her blood seemed as if it would burst the veins:
till at last she hissed out, “I’ll kill him!” and fell fainting.

Aurelian determined one point at once. There must be no more delay;
action was the order. But what? Suppose the worst. Suppose the will
already made, and against Lucia’s interests, what was the course to be
taken? Why, to accumulate evidence to invalidate it. _Prove him mad_!



Chapter Eight.


The idea having been once entertained, grew and grew, till it
overshadowed everything else. The singular circumstance then happened
of one man slowly and carefully collecting evidence during another’s
lifetime to prove him insane the moment he died.

Aurelian placed his principal reliance upon the violent jealousy
Sternhold had exhibited. So vehement and irregulated a passion founded
upon mere phantasms of the imagination, was in itself strong
presumptive proof of an unsound mind. He had no difficulty in finding
witnesses to Sternhold’s outrageous conduct. The old man had been seen
walking up and down the street, on the opposite side of the pavement to
the house in which Lucia lived, for hours and hours at a time, simply
watching. He had been heard to use violent and threatening language. He
had made himself ill. The mind was so overwrought by excitement that it
reacted upon the body, and it was some time before the balance was
restored—if indeed it could ever be restored.

There were many trifling little things of manner—of fidgetiness—absurd
personal habits—which, taken in conjunction with the bad temper he had
displayed, went to make up the case. Aurelian added to this the vanity
Sternhold had of late openly indulged in. This was notorious, and had
become a by-word.

But when Aurelian had written all this out upon paper—when he had, as
it were, prepared his brief—his shrewd sense told him that in truth it
was very weak evidence. Any lawyer employed for the defence could
easily find arguments to upset the whole.

Day by day, as he thought it over, his reliance upon the insanity
resource grew less and less—and yet he could not see what else there
was to do. He racked his brain. The man, like others, was in fact
fascinated by the enormous property at stake: he could not get it out
of his mind. It haunted him day and night. He ransacked his memory,
called up all his reading, all his observation, all that he had
heard—every expedient and plan that had come under his notice for
gaining an end.

For a time, however, it was in vain. It is often the case that when we
seek an idea it flies from us, and will not be constrained, not even by
weeks of the deeply-pondering state. Often the more we think upon a
subject, the less we seem to see our way clear. And so it was with him.

Sometimes a little change of scene, even a little manual exercise, will
stimulate the imagination. So it was with him.

He had an important and serious case to attend—a rich patient underwent
an operation at his hands, and the physician grew so absorbed with his
delicate manipulation and in genuine delight in his own skill, that
Lucia and the property passed for a day or two completely out of his
memory. This was followed by profound slumber, and next morning he
awoke with the answer to the great question staring him in the face.

If Sternhold was not mad enough now, why not drive him mad? If he was
driven frantic and shut up in an asylum, Lucia’s son would to a
certainty inherit the property. Possibly he (Aurelian) might be
appointed trustee—he, as uncle, would be a guardian, and probably the
only one. He might also have the pleasure of receiving Sternhold into
his own retreat for lunatics; and so, while furthering the interests of
his sister and nephew, do himself a good turn. The idea enraptured him.

Aurelian possessed the true scientific mind which is incapable of
feeling. Some thinkers believe that the true artistic mind, the highest
artistic mind, is also incapable of feeling. It is so absorbed in its
own realisation of one idea, that it loses all consciousness of
possible suffering in others. He never doubted for an instant that it
was in his power to attain the proposed object—it was only to _let
Lucia loose_. Let her loose—a little way. Let her loose under strict
supervision—under the constant surveillance of himself, his son, a
youth of twenty whom he was training up in the right road, and perhaps
of other witnesses.

There was such a thing as divorce—this might not destroy the child’s
right, but it would place him out of Lucia’s hands. There must be no
handle for Lucia’s enemies to grasp at. She must be manoeuvred so as to
make Sternhold frantic without committing herself.

Lucia was aflame for such a course. She had restrained herself for
years. She was burning to be free, on fire for “life” and excitement;
above all, for admiration, for praise—the intoxicating breath of the
multitude that cheers to the echo! The Stage! the dance—music—the fiery
gaze of a thousand eyes following each motion! There must have been
something of the true artist in her. The grandest position, the most
unlimited wealth, would not have satisfied her without the stage.

She had married Sternhold in the hope of appearing as other women did
in the theatres owned by their lovers. She had tried to broach the
subject to Sternhold; he had held up his hands in horror, and she
constrained herself and bided her time.

Nearly four years now—four years! The coarse jests, the loud laughter,
the shouts and screams and cat-calls of the low threepenny gaff or
music hall from which she had been snatched—even such a life as that
seemed to her far, far superior to this irksome confinement, this
slavery which was not even gilded. Aurelian was right in his conjecture
that she could not be much longer held in—she must burst out.

Half-formed schemes had been working themselves into shape in her mind
for months past. She would leave her boy with Aurelian, take her jewels
and sables, sell them, borrow money upon the estate which Sternhold had
made hers by deed of gift, go to London or Paris, and plunge headlong
into “life,” paying any price for the one grand ambition of her
existence.

The craving—the _fury_, it might almost be called—the furious desire
for admiration from men which seized upon her at times, would
certainly, sooner or later, have hurled her on to a desperate step.

At this moment Aurelian came with his carefully-considered plan. She
met him open-armed. With one blow she could avenge herself upon
Sternhold, with one blow gratify herself and destroy him—destroy him
body and soul. This moment—this hour!

But not so fast. First, Aurelian obtained the money—no small sum. Next,
said he, this thing must not be done by halves. It was useless for her
to appear on some small stage; she must at one bound become the talk of
all the town. This required care, thought, and organisation. Those
great successes that seemed so suddenly attained without an effort, as
by a wave of the hand, had really been preceded by months and months of
preparation, and depended in great part upon the matured judgment and
clever advice of men who had watched the public for years.

Impatient as she was, Lucia again controlled herself, and did as she
was bid. Aurelian made it his business first to discover where she
could appear with most effect. He soon selected the place, Paris! he
obtained an interview with the proper authorities, and confided to them
a part of his secret. They saw their way to profit, and agreed.

The next thing was the character she should take, and the second, the
season. This last the manager, or rather owner, who was in raptures
with the thing, easily decided. It must be at the height of the Paris
season. He was a popular man, who could gather together a mighty crowd
of his own acquaintances.

If poor Sternhold, sitting in his apartment at Dodd’s Hotel, could have
heard these “fast” young men discussing the approaching appearance of
his wife, Aurelian would have gone no further.

The choice of character Aurelian insisted upon deciding, and he chose
Lady Godiva. As has been stated, Lucia had extraordinary hair, both for
length and abundance, and, unlike long hair generally, it was curly.
Had it been fine and delicate hair she could have boasted that few
women in Europe could equal her. The coarseness of its texture would
not be visible upon the stage.

She had really a magnificent figure. The character of Lady Godiva was
one exactly fitted for her. It is needless to say that there was little
or no acting—no study of parts, no insight into the meaning required,
as in the case of Shakespeare’s heroines. The piece was simply a
spectacle devised to bring out one central figure into the boldest
relief.

The greatest difficulty the conspirators—for so they may be fairly
called—had to contend with was the necessity of keeping Sternhold
completely in the dark, and yet at the same time getting together a
large audience, which could only be done by advertising. But Aurelian
was capable of dealing with more difficult dilemmas than this. His plan
was very simple and yet effective. The manager had a piece in his
_répertoire_ which, owing to the fame or infamy of a certain
fascinating lady, was the rage of the town. Suddenly this creature
disappeared—went off to Vienna with a titled gentleman—and after
blazing as a meteor of the first water there for a short time, as
suddenly dropped out of sight altogether.

The manager, at Aurelian’s suggestion, gave out that this lady had
turned up, and was going to again act at his house on a certain night.

The excitement was intense. It was an awful falsehood, for the poor
girl was in reality dead. (She met with her death under some strange
and suspicious circumstances, which were, by influence, suppressed.)
Her beauty, great as it was, had lost its charm in the tomb; yet her
name, in flaring letters, was prominent all over Paris.

The deception was kept up to the very end; and the company of the
theatre, by dint of double pay, were got to carry it out to perfection.
An exceptional number of waiters were, however, hired, and no one but
the manager and Aurelian had any idea what the object of this troop of
apparently idle fellows could be.

The house filled to the last seat. The poor dead girl’s name was on
every lip—her frailties were discussed with horrid flippancy; the
orchestra began, and Lucia Marese Baskette robed, or rather unrobed, as
Lady Godiva.

The owner of the theatre was there, and with him a whole host of men
about town, most of whom were partly in the secret, but not quite.

Just before the time arrived for the curtain to rise, this troop of
idle waiters entered the arena, swarmed into the boxes, into the
galleries and pit, distributing to every single individual who had
entered a handbill, announcing that, instead of Miss, “Mrs Sternhold
Baskette, the beautiful wife of Sternhold Baskette, Esq, the richest
man in the world, the owner of twenty millions sterling worth of
property, would appear as Lady Godiva; a part for which her splendid
physique and magnificent hair peculiarly fitted her.” At the same
moment a large poster was put out in front of the curtain, bearing the
same announcement.

The effect was singular. The house, which had been full of noise
before, became as still as death. People were astounded. They could not
believe it possible; yet, at the same time, they knew that the manager
dared not play a trick. Theatres had been wrecked before now by
indignant audiences. They waited in silence.

The curtain rose. I cannot pause to describe the gradual enthusiasm
which arose, nor to draw a picture of the grand _tableau_. But there
are many living who remember that memorable night, who declare that
anything equal to it has never been seen upon the stage.

Lucia rode on a milk-white palfrey, and looked extraordinarily
handsome. The house rose—the audience went mad. Recalled and recalled,
again and again that white palfrey paced to and fro, and the mighty
multitude would not allow the scene to pass.

The mesmeric influence of the excitement filled Lucia with a glowing
beauty; with a brilliance which made her seem a goddess—of her order.
No one remarked whether the piece was properly gone through after this.
I think it was not. From all that I can learn, I believe the audience
watched Godiva to and fro till the palfrey or its rider grew exhausted,
and then left _en masse_.

Paris was aflame next day. The papers said nothing—they were wise.
There is, however, something more powerful even than the newspaper—it
is conversation. Lucia had got conversation—her name was heard
everywhere. It was not only the acting, or show—it could not be called
acting—it was the fact of her position as Sternhold’s wife. She stood
upon the pinnacle of his fame for wealth, brazen and shameless in the
eyes of the world. Brazen and shameless, yet secure; for Aurelian never
left her. He watched her himself. His son—his paid servants—did the
same; not from fear of her indiscretion, but in order to appear as
witnesses if any proceedings should take place.

Next night and next night, and again on the third night, this
extraordinary spectacle was repeated. The crowds that came to the doors
could not be admitted. But by this time the leading papers had felt the
pulse of the people—not the excitable populace, but the steady
_people_. With one consent they rushed at the exhibition with lance in
rest. Improper was the softest insinuation. They were undoubtedly
right. The moment they took this tone all the press followed, and
before the week was over those who had the power had prohibited the
performance.



Chapter Nine.


The exhibition was stopped, but the end had been attained—Lucia was
famous. The manager and Aurelian had foreseen the inevitable official
veto, and had prepared for it. They had arranged for her to appear as
Cleopatra; it was a part which could be made to suit her admirably by
leaving Shakespeare’s text out of the question, and studying spectacle
instead.

It is a singular fact that Sternhold had no idea of what was going on
until the fourth or fifth day. He was told that Lucia had left
Stirmingham with her brother for a short visit to Paris, and paid
little or no attention to it. For the first day or two the papers had
been silent. At last the news reached him.

What Dodd had previously feared now happened—he was struck down with a
slight attack of paralysis, which affected one side. Some persons said
it was a merciful infliction, as it prevented him from witnessing his
wife’s disgrace with his own eyes. They were wrong. His body was bent,
but his mind was torn with contending and frenzied passions. The sense
of outrage—of outrage upon his dignity—was perhaps the strongest. That
after all his labour and self-denial, after long, long years of slowly
building up a property such as his, which rendered him in his own
estimation not one whit inferior to a king; that he should be insulted,
his name dragged in the dirt, his wife a spectacle for all Paris!

Sternhold had the vaguest ideas of stage proprieties and theatrical
morality. He had not a doubt but that Lucia was already an abandoned
woman. There were plenty who urged upon him to commence a suit for
divorce, though in reality it was extremely doubtful whether there were
sufficient grounds for anything beyond a judicial separation.

But Sternhold was filled with one consuming desire—to see her with his
own eyes. Whether it was this passion, or whether it was the natural
strength of his constitution, certain it is that in a marvellously
short time after the attack, he had himself conveyed to Paris, and sat,
a miserable, haggard, broken-down old man, in a box at the theatre the
same night, watching his wife upon the stage. He did this night after
night. A species of fascination seemed to carry him there to sit
silent, brooding over the utter wreck of his great schemes.

After a while he went suddenly back to Stirmingham without a word,
without so much as seeking an interview with Lucia, or issuing any
instructions as to what was to be done. He went back to his old
apartments at Dodd’s Hotel. He shut himself up, refusing to see even
the wretched parasites who had sown the seed of this mischief. It was
an instinctive attempt to return to the old, old habit, the ancient
self-concentration, apart from the world. But it failed. So soon as
ever he began to read his letters, to look into his accounts, every
figure, every transaction reminded him of Lucia and her extravagance;
the follies she had been guilty of, and the no less greater folly he
had himself yielded to in granting her every wish, thereby involving
his affairs in the most hopeless confusion. The attempt failed. He
rushed again from his retreat to seek her. Then he heard that she was
in Vienna performing. He got there, supported by his attendants.
Doubtless the physical fatigue of the journey irritated his nerves; at
all events, there seems no doubt that when he reached Vienna he was for
the time absolutely mad.

He went to the theatre. He saw Lucia as Godiva, just as she had been
seen in Paris. He was alone in his box. Deliberately he levelled a
pistol, resting the barrel upon the edge of the balustrade. As the
incense of praise and adulation rose up, as the pageant moved to and
fro, the deadly weapon was aimed at the central figure. He fired, and
the house was in commotion.

Those who know what happens when a full theatre is alarmed and excited
will require no description; those who have not seen it cannot imagine
it.

A second report, and the curling smoke caused a rush to the box, and
the occupant was found upon the floor, as was thought, dead. Lucia
alone was calm and cool. The bullet had not passed even near her; the
distance was great and the aim unsteady; the ball had struck a screen,
and did no injury. She dismounted and advanced to the footlights,
extended her hands, and in a few words begged the audience to be calm.
Speedily they saw her thus, as it were, in their very arms.

The theatre rang with acclamation. If it had been a scene prepared it
could not have succeeded better.

There were threats and loud cries of rage against the man who had fired
at her.

“Do not injure him,” she said, at the top of her full, deep voice; “he
is mad!” For she guessed in a moment who it was.

In a few minutes the whole thing was understood. Continental people are
quick at comprehending—an old husband, a young wife—bah! An attempt
first at murder, then at suicide—bah! What could he have done better
calculated to put Lucia upon the pedestal of fame?

Sternhold was not dead; not even injured. The ball he had fired at
himself had not touched him. He had fallen exhausted. When he became
physically conscious, he was raving mad.

There was no doubt about it this time. It was a pitiable sight.

Aurelian insisted upon seeing him: even he shuddered. The old man was
muttering gibberish to himself. Half his grey hair was gone, for before
he could be stayed he had dragged it out. His arms and limbs were
pinioned, but his body shook with a trembling convulsive movement. The
deed was done.

Aurelian braced himself up, and hastened at once to Lucia. He knew he
should have a struggle with her, and hoped that in the conflict he
should forget the sight he had left. He had determined to at once
withdraw her from the stage. The victory was won; there must be no more
risk.

The conflict between the brother and sister was terrible. She raged,
her frame swelled; she had tasted triumph, and the draught is more
intoxicating even than the taste of blood. She would go on.

But he was resolute, and he won. That very day he took her to
England—took is the right word, for it was necessary to use physical
force at times. He got her to her house at Stirmingham, and never left
her till she had grown more composed.

Sternhold was in an asylum. Aurelian thought that he would surely die;
but he did not.

Aurelian then began to scheme to get him in his own “retreat.”
Possession was nine points of the law. He went to Vienna at once before
any one guessed his object, obtained the proper permit, and in six days
deposited the wretched being in his asylum in the suburbs of
Stirmingham. Once there, thought Aurelian, let them get him out if they
can.

The fact was soon known; and there was an excitement. The parasites,
disappointed and raging, did their best to inflame the populace. There
was a growl, and the police began to prepare for an attack upon the
asylum; but, after all, the moment any of them reflected, they said,
“Why, it’s all right; the poor fellow is mad. He could not be in better
hands.” The plan of a popular tumult fell through.

The parasites next tried the law, but found that Aurelian had been
before them: he had all the proper documents; he could not be touched.

Next the companies began to stir. They were uncertain what to do, and
whether it was better for their interests that Sternhold should be in
his brother-in-law’s custody or not.

That astute gentleman very soon learnt what was passing in their minds,
and he had a very good conception of what could be effected by powerful
combination.

He opened negotiations with them. He pointed out to them privately that
the real point at issue was not Sternhold, but the boy—the heir—for no
one doubted the legitimacy. Who was to have the custody of the heir?

Clever Aurelian hoped that by making friends with the companies who
held the building leases that there would be no opposition to his
holding the boy—to his guardianship of the estate. He had strong
grounds to go upon. To all intents and purposes he was the nearest
relation. If the boy died, and no son of the phantom brother of Romy
turned up, _perhaps_ he might have a claim to the estate.

He gave the companies to understand that if he had the guardianship of
the boy their interests should be most carefully studied.

They appeared favourable. The step was taken. The boy remained with his
mother; his mother remained in her house, seeing Aurelian daily, and
indeed watched by his _employés_.

No change took place. Aurelian congratulated himself that all was going
on favourably. The boy, who had little or no idea of the meaning of the
word “father,” was constantly at Aurelian’s residence—the asylum where
his parent was confined—playing with Aurelian’s son, who was carefully
instructed to please him, and indeed was sharp enough already to
require little instruction.

Sternhold lingered in his melancholy state. He was no longer
violent—simply dejected. He did not seem able to answer the simplest
question. If asked if he was hungry, he would stare, and say something
relating to his school-days.

And this was the man who had built Stirmingham. For five years he
remained in this state, and then suddenly brightened up; and it was
thought and _feared_ that he would recover the use of his faculties. It
lasted but three days. In that short time he wrote three important
documents.

The first was a statement to the effect that he had wronged Lucia. He
now saw his folly—he had been led into his persecution of her by
designing people, and blamed himself for his subsequent conduct. He
earnestly entreated her forgiveness. The second was a species of family
history, short but complete, refuting the claims of the American
Baskettes. They were indeed of the same name, he wrote, but not of the
same blood. The truth was that the cotters who had lived in the Swamp,
now covered with mansions, had no name. They were half gipsies; they
had no registered or baptismal name.

Will Baskette, who had been shot, was the chief man among them, and
gradually they came by the country people to be called by his name.
They were not blood relations in any sense of the term. This paper also
gave the writer’s views of his transactions with the Sibbolds and the
cotters or “Baskettes,” and concluded with the firmly expressed
conviction—the honest statement of a man near his end—that his title
was irrefutable, and he knew of no genuine claim.

The third document was his Will. For now it appeared that hitherto he
had never made a will at all. It was extremely short, but terse and
unmistakable. It left the whole of his property, real and personal
(with the single exception of the gift to Lucia), to his son, John
Marese Baskette.

The will Aurelian took care was properly attested, and by independent
witnesses whom he sent for.

On the fourth day old Sternhold died, quietly and without a word. He
was buried, and hardly was he in the tomb before the battle began. The
companies at once cut off all connection with Aurelian. They had
reckoned upon his managing to get their terms at all events extended,
as he had promised. The Corporation refused any honours to the dead
king, and all eagerly sought about for the means of dividing the spoil.

After all their consultations, not all the subtlety of twenty
solicitors could suggest any feasible plan—the old man had baffled them
at last. It was useless to plead that he was insane, and actually in an
asylum at the moment of executing the will. What was the good even if
such a plea was successful—if the will was upset, the property would
descend to the boy just the same. There seemed no way of getting at it.

But at last a weak point was found. It was a time when a great deal of
commotion was made about the Roman Catholic question and the religious
education of minors. Now Lucia was certainly half a foreigner, and it
was believed she was a Catholic. Aurelian was certainly a Catholic.
With all his cunning he had not foreseen this, and he had allowed
himself to become a somewhat prominent member of the Catholic community
in Stirmingham. He had no religion, but it paid him. Catholics are rich
people, and when rich people go insane they are profitable. So he was
caught in his own trap.

There was an agitation got up among the ultra-Protestant community.
Funds were started to release the heir from the clasp of Rome. The
companies, the Corporation, all joined in the outcry. The question was
made a national one by the newspapers. But there was one difficulty:
the law required that there should be a person to sue. After much
trouble this person was selected in one of the Baskettes of American
origin, who had settled in Stirmingham, and claimed to be a nearer
relation than Aurelian.

The battle was long and furious, and cost heavy sums. No expense was
spared on either side, and the estate got still further encumbered. It
promised to be a drawn battle; but at last, having passed all the
tribunals, it began to approach the place of power, and to be discussed
in the Ministerial Cabinet. There was a man there who desired to obtain
the Catholic vote of Ireland, and the Aurelian party began to boast
already of success. But this very boasting spoilt their game. The
Ministry lost the confidence of the people, the House followed suit, a
new Ministry came into place, and the final decision was against the
Catholic, or, as they termed themselves, legitimate party—for they said
the uncle and the mother were the legitimate guardians.

The result was in truth disappointing to all the parties. The boy was
made a ward of Chancery, proper receivers of the estate were appointed,
and the companies who had begun to exult were entrapped. The lad was
taken from his mother and uncle, and sent to Eton to prepare for
college.

Thus a new element of complexity was added to the already chaotic state
of this vast estate.



Chapter Ten.


If ever there was a life that illustrated the oft-quoted phrase “poor
humanity,” it was that of Sternhold Baskette. But this is not the place
to moralise—we must hasten on. The orchestra has nearly finished the
overture; the play will soon begin.

Lucia had now no longer any reason for restraint. Her boy was safe—safe
as the laws of a great country could make him—certain to inherit a
property which by the time he was forty would be of value surpassing
calculation. She rejoiced in it, gloried in it. To her it was more
welcome than the confirmed guardianship of Aurelian would have been,
because it left her free.

The lad was at Eton, and happy—far happier than he could have been
elsewhere. His mother immediately commenced a course which led her by a
rapid descent to the lowest degradation.

She returned to Paris. Aurelian felt it was useless now to interfere,
neither could he afford more expense.

She easily got upon the stage again, and became more popular than ever.
At the age of forty she was even more handsome than in her youth. Her
features had been refined by the passage of time and by the restraint
to which she had been subjected. Her form was more fully developed.

It is unpleasant to linger on this woman’s disgrace. She formed a
_liaison_ with a rich foreign gentleman, retired with him from Paris
after a time, and the _Stirmingham Daily Post_, which pursued the
Baskettes with unmitigated hatred year after year, did not fail to
chronicle the birth of a son.

Aurelian, baffled, was not beaten. He was a resolute and patient man.
Like the famous Carthaginian father, he brought up his son and educated
him to consider the Baskette estates as the one object of his
attention—only in this case it was not for destruction, but for
preservation.

When young John Marese Baskette, the heir, after distinguishing himself
at Eton, was sent higher up the Thames to Oxford, Aurelian immediately
placed his son, Theodore Marese, at the same college.

The result was exactly as he had foreseen. The heir formed a bond of
friendship—such as it is in these days—with Theodore. Their one topic
of conversation was the estate.

John was full of the most romantic notions. He was in youth a really
exemplary lad—clever, hard-working, winning to himself the good will of
all men. Theodore had a genuine liking for his cousin—then, at all
events, though probably in after life the attachment he professed was
chiefly caused by self interest.

John was full of ambitious dreams. His vivid imagination had been
worked upon by the talk among his companions about the famous owner of
twenty millions sterling—his father. Upon an old bookstall he obtained
a copy of “The Life of Sternhold Baskette,” now out of print. It
inflamed him to the uttermost. There was good metal in the boy if he
had only had friends and parents to put it to proper use. He formed the
most extraordinary schemes as to what he would do with this wealth when
he became of age, and stepped at one bound into the full enjoyment of
it, as he supposed he should.

It was all to be used for the alleviation of the misery of the world,
for the relief of the poor, for the succouring of the afflicted, the
advancement of all means that could mitigate the penalties attaching to
human existence.

As time wore on, however, these benevolent intentions received their
first check.

He reached his twenty-first birthday. He claimed his birthright, and
was refused. Briefly, the reason was because the companies and the
American claimants had entered pleas, and because also the property was
terribly encumbered, and would require long years of nursing yet before
it could be cleared, and this nursing the higher Courts insisted upon.

Instead of the magnificent income he expected, the young man received
two thousand pounds per annum only. It struck his nature a heavy blow,
and did much to pervert it, for he looked upon it in the sense of a
shameful injustice. With Theodore he left college; at all events he was
now his own master, and entered “life.”

Every one knows what “life” is to a young man of twenty-one with two
thousand a year certain—the power of borrowing to a wide margin, and no
monitor to check and retard the inevitable course.

Theodore was much older—fully thirty at this time; but he was as eager
for enjoyment, and perhaps more so.

To make the story short, they ran through every species of
extravagance—visited Paris, Vienna, and all the continental centres of
dissipation.

Ten whole years passed away. John Marese Baskette was by this time a
thorough man of the world, deeply in debt, brilliant and fascinating in
manner, false and selfish to the backbone. He inherited his mother’s
beauty. A tall, broad, well-made man, dark curling hair, large dark
eyes, and large eyelashes, bronzed complexion, which, when he was
excited, glowed with almost womanly brilliance; strong as a lion,
gentle in manner, and fierce as a tiger under the velvet glove.
Polished and plausible, there were those who deemed him shallow and
wholly concerned with the pleasure of the hour; but they were mistaken.

John Marese Baskette had rubbed off all the soft and good aspirations
of his boyhood; but the ambition which was at the bottom of those
schemes remained, and had intensified tenfold. He was burning with
ambition. The hereditary mind of the Baskettes, their brain power, had
descended to him in full vigour (though hitherto he had wasted it), and
he also inherited their thirst for wealth. But his idea of obtaining it
was totally opposed to the family tradition. The family tradition was a
private life devoted with the patience and self-denial of a martyr to
the accumulation of gold.

Marese’s one absorbing idea was power. To be a ruler, a statesman, a
leader, was his one consuming desire. As a ruler he thought, as a
member of the Cabinet, it would be easy for him to affect the market in
his favour, for Marese was a gambler already upon a gigantic scale. The
Stock Exchange and the Bourse were his arena.

The intense vanity of the man, which led him to seriously hope even for
the English Premiership, was, doubtless, a _trait_ derived from his
mother. “If I had my rights,” he was accustomed to say to Theodore, “I
should be not only the wealthiest man in England, but in Europe and
America. My father’s property has more than doubled in value. In
England the wealthiest man at once takes a position above crowds of
clever people who have nothing but their talents. Without any conceit,
I can safely say that I am clever. A clever, wealthy man is so great a
rarity that my elevation is a certainty. But nothing can be done
without money. At present my wealth is a shadow only. The one thing,
Theodore, is money. Our Stock Exchange labour is, in a sense, wasted;
our operations are not large enough. What we make is barely sufficient
to provide us with common luxuries (he did not pretend to say
necessities) and to keep our creditors quiet. Nothing remains for
bolder actions. I am thirty, and I have not yet entered the House.”

This last remark was always the conclusion of his reflections. In a
sense, it was like Caesar lamenting upon seeing a statue of
Alexander—that he had done nothing at an age when Alexander had
conquered the world. He had not even the means to fight the enemies who
withheld his birthright from him. The bitterness engendered of these
wrongs, the constant brooding over the career that was lost to him,
obscured what little moral sense had been left in him after the course
of life he had been through; and the once gentle boy was now ripe for
any guilt. The verse so often upon the lips of the tyrant was for ever
in his mind, and perpetually escaped him unconsciously—

Be just, unless a kingdom tempt to break the laws,
For sovereign power alone can justify the cause.


Like his father Sternhold, he looked upon the undisputed possession of
such an estate as conferring powers and position nothing inferior to
that of a monarch. His dislike to all things American—in consequence of
the claims, now more loudly proclaimed than ever, of the Baskettes from
the States—grew to be almost a monomania. He wished that the United
States people had but one neck, that he might destroy them all at
once—applying the Roman emperor’s saying to his own affairs.

His especially favourite study was “The Prince” of Machiavelli, which
he always carried with him. His copy was annotated with a scheme for
applying the instructions therein given to modern times—the outline of
the original requiring much modification to suit the changes in the
constitution of society. Some day he hoped to utilise the labours of
the man whose name has become the familiar soubriquet of the Devil.

Theodore, whom Aurelian had made qualify as a surgeon, was imbued with
an inherited taste for recondite research. He would return from a wild
scene of debauchery at early dawn, and drawing the curtains and
lighting his lamp to exclude daylight, plunge into the devious paths of
forbidden science. Keen and shrewd as he was, he did not disdain even
alchemy, bringing to the crude ideas of the ancients all the knowledge
of the moderns. Cruel by nature, he excelled in the manipulation of the
dissecting knife, and in the cities upon the Continent where their
wanderings led them, lost no opportunity of practising with the
resident medical men, or of studying those wonderful museums which are
concealed in certain places abroad. Marese was the fiery charger, ready
to dash at every obstacle Theodore was the charioteer—the head which
guided and suggested. Yet all their concentrated thought could not
devise a method by which Marese might obtain the full enjoyment of his
estate. Briefly, this was the condition of Marese’s mind and his
position, when the death of Aurelian took place, and a letter reached
them written by him in his last hours, entreating their return to
Stirmingham for reasons connected with the estate. They went, and a
woman went with them as far as London—a woman whom we must meet
hereafter, but who shall be avoided as much as possible.

They arrived at Stirmingham unannounced, and examined the papers which
the deceased had particularly recommended to their study. Aurelian, as
has been said, was baffled but not beaten. The fascination of the vast
estate held his mind, as it held so many others, in an iron vice. The
whole of his life was devoted to it. He had searched and searched back
into the past, groping from point to point, and he had accumulated such
a mass of evidence as had never been suspected.

He knew far more even than poor Sternhold, who had occupied himself
exclusively with the future.

Marese and Theodore, living quietly in the residence attached to the
asylum for the insane, which Aurelian had continued to keep, carefully
studied these papers by the light of the lucid commentary the dead man
had left. It is needless to recount the whole of the contents—most of
them are known already to the reader. But the substance of it all was
that three great dangers menaced the estate. The first was the claims
of the Baskettes from America.

The evidence which Aurelian had collected was clear that the land they
had occupied in the Swamp had been practically theirs, since they had
paid no rent; but as to their power of handing it over to Sternhold, it
was extremely questionable. The second great danger was the claim of a
new tribe that had recently started up—the descendants of James
Sibbold, who had also expatriated themselves.

It was doubtful if the transfer made by their ancestors could be
maintained, and for this simple reason—it was doubtful whether James
Sibbold himself had any right to the property his sons sold to
Sternhold. He was not the eldest son. The eldest son, Arthur, had
disappeared for a number of years; but there was not the slightest
proof that he had died childless. Far from it. Aurelian, incessantly
searching, had found out what no one else yet knew—that Arthur had
married, had had children, and that one at least of his descendants was
living but a short time since.

When Marese had read thus far his countenance turned livid, and
Theodore feared he would have fallen in a fit. The savage passions
inherited from his mother surged up in his frame, and overmastered him.
He was ill for days, almost unconscious—the shock was so great, his
passion so fierce—but presently recovering, read on.

Aurelian had traced Arthur in his wanderings, had traced his
marriage—but there was one loophole. Do what he might, Aurelian could
not discover _where_ Arthur had married. It was in London, but a minute
search failed to discover the church, and the register could not be
found.

This fact, and the fact of the long silence, the absence of any claim
being put forward, led Aurelian to believe that there really was no
legal marriage—that it was only reputed. He hoped as much, at all
events.

There was another loophole—the deed which old Sibbold had so treasured
in his padlocked oaken chest—the deed which settled the inheritance (on
the female as well as the male)—had disappeared. Sternhold had searched
for it and failed. It was lost. If the marriage could not be proved,
and if the deed was really lost, then there was no danger from Arthur
Sibbold’s descendants; but there remained those “ifs.” Also, if
Arthur’s claim was put aside, then the succession would of course
belong to his brother James Sibbold’s descendants: but then again came
in the question—Could these Sibbolds sign away (to Sternhold) an
inheritance which at the time was _entailed_?

Aurelian finished with several hints and schemes which need not be gone
into here, and indeed were never carried out. But his one great point
throughout was a warning against the living descendant of Arthur
Sibbold, whose name and present address he had discovered and left for
Marese, and against the companies who held the leases. “For,” said he,
“these companies would foster any and every claim against the estate;
anything to bar the succession of Marese, the heir, in order to obtain
a grant or extension of time from the courts of law, to enable them to
hold the property till the succession to the estate was established.”
These companies were so rich and powerful that it was difficult to
contend against them. Their strength was money, their weapons were the
various claimants.

“Therefore,” wrote Aurelian, “the first thing is money, and I wish my
property to be used freely for this end, convinced that you will do
Theodore full justice; and I bid you, if possible, to take the
_weapons_ of the companies out of their hands. Without the claimants
they are powerless.”

These papers, and the facts and reflections they contained, made the
deepest impression upon Marese and Theodore. In secret they walked
through the city of Stirmingham, and marked its wealth, its vastness,
its trade and population.

“And nearly all this is mine,” whispered Marese, pale as death in his
subdued excitement. He had to hold Theodore’s arm to sustain his body,
for, strong as he was, he trembled.

Next day they left for London, for Marese could not bear the
Tantalus-like view of the wealth which was and was not his. In London
they thought and planned as only such men seeking such an end can think
and plan.



Chapter Eleven.


While Marese and Theodore are maturing their plans, it will conduce to
the easier comprehension of the horrible, complicated events which
followed, if the past history of the estate be briefly summed up in
such a manner that this chapter can be used for reference.

In the commencement, nearly a century previous to the present time, we
have seen old Sibbold, the morose miser, gloating over his money, and
studying his title-deeds. These gave him an unquestioned right to the
farm he occupied, and to the Swamp, or waste land, which had been
squatted on by Will Baskette and his companions. This right mainly
depended, though not entirely, upon a certain deed of entail. Without
that deed Sibbold had still sufficient evidence to prove his right to
his farm, but not to the Swamp; without that deed there was no fixed
succession—that is to say, he could have devised it to any one he
chose.

There was, therefore, just the possibility that, hating his eldest son
Arthur, he had himself destroyed this deed, in order to prepare the way
for his second son, James. But against this supposition there was the
known character of the man, which led one to imagine that he would
rather have died than give up the smallest fraction of his possessions.
At all events, this deed was missing, as were several others of little
or no value, such as expired leases of fields to tenants, which had
once been kept in Sibbold’s oaken press, under padlock and key.

When Sibbold met with his death at the hands of highwaymen, the farm
and waste lands, in the natural course of things, would have passed to
his eldest son, Arthur, but he having disappeared, and not appearing to
make a claim, James Sibbold, the younger son, took the property. The
majority of people always thought, from the fact of Arthur’s not
returning to claim his birthright, that he had had a hand in the
slaughter of old Will Baskette, and that his conscience drove him away.

James Sibbold, after a while, married, and had several sons. In time he
died, and these sons, though married, still all remained living on the
farmstead, or in the outhouses; for as it was known that James’ right
was doubtful, they could not agree about the succession, and preferred
to live like pigs rather than go to law and have it settled, since the
result was so uncertain. At the same time the squatters, basket-makers,
reed-cutters, clothes-peg makers, etc, who resided in the Swamp which
the rat had caused, had considerably increased in numbers, and were
always called, after their former chief, by the name of Baskette.

This chief at the date of his death had two sons. The eldest went off
with his mother, and joined the original gipsy tribe; the youngest,
whose name or nickname was Romy, entered the service of the clergyman.
The eldest was never heard of more; but Romy prospered, and in early
middle age bought an estate and country mansion, not far from his
birthplace.

It was he who opened up the concealed mineral wealth of coal and iron,
and thus, as everything goes by contradiction in this world, it
happened that the descendant of gipsies, notorious for their wandering
habits and dislike of houses, was the founder of one of the largest
cities in the world.

He married with every legal formality, and his son, Sternhold Baskette,
imbued with the firmest convictions that in the future the young city
would prosper to an unprecedented extent, employed the whole of the
wealth he inherited in purchasing land and erecting houses.

In the course of his transactions he desired to purchase the Wick Farm,
where old Sibbold had dwelt, and the Swamp where the Baskette tribe
flourished. Finding the title of the vendors imperfect, he devised the
strongest safeguard he could think of, which was to make all the
Sibbolds then living or known, to sign one document, and all the
reputed Baskettes to sign another. He then transhipped them all to
America—first, to get complete possession; secondly, in the hope that
they would never return to trouble him.

He proceeded to drain the Swamp, and to convert it into the Belgravia
of Stirmingham. But this project required an enormous expenditure, and
just at that moment the first railway to the place, which he had
largely supported, came to a standstill, and ate up all his available
capital. When, therefore, a return of commercial prosperity took place,
he found it impossible alone to complete the vast scheme of streets,
squares, etc, which had been commenced.

Then the building lease plan was resorted to—the very keystone of all
this curious history. First, the Corporation of the city took a large
slice of the uncompleted property of him on a building lease for a term
of years, on the expiration of which the whole reverted to him or his
heirs (practically his heirs, as he was not likely to live to the age
of 120 years).

After they had commenced building some uncertainty arose as to whether
or no they had the power to enter into such an agreement; they could
bind themselves, but could they bind their successors in office? This
took place, it must be remembered, long, long before the recent
sanitary legislation, which gives such extensive powers to local
bodies.

In order to confirm their proceedings they obtained a private Act of
Parliament, which, when it was drawn up, seemed to be worded clearly
enough. But every one knows that after the lapse of thirty years or
less, words in an inexplicable manner seem to lose their meaning, and
to become capable of more than one interpretation. This is perhaps
because the persons who read them are influenced unconsciously by a
series of circumstances which did not exist at the time the document
was composed.

At any rate, at the date when Marese and Theodore were thinking and
scheming, there had already been a great deal of contention over the
precise scope of several sentences in this Act: a part of which arose
over the question of repairs to the buildings, and partly as to
whether, by a little straining, the seventy years of the lease might
not be construed to mean practically for ever.

This little straining was managed in this way. When did the lease
commence? Had not each successive Mayor got the right to say, “This
lease, as interpreted by the Private Act, means, not seventy years from
the days of my predecessor, but seventy years from the commencement of
my term of office.” By this way of looking at it, so long as there was
a Mayor the Corporation would always have seventy years to look forward
to.

Of course all such reasoning was nothing but pure sophistry; but then
most law is sophistry, and sophistry when supported by a rich body of
men and called Vested Interest, is often much stronger than the highly
belauded and really feeble truth.

Here was a tough Gordian knot, to add to the already difficult question
of original title. But this was only the preface to the complications
to follow. There still remained, after the Corporation had taken a
part, a huge howling wilderness of streets with walls two feet high.
Companies or syndicates were formed (eight companies in all)—perhaps
they had better be called in modern parlance building societies—who
took this howling wilderness on the same system of building leases, to
fall in at a certain date.

Apparently in this case it was all plain, straightforward sailing; but
not so. Sternhold Baskette got into difficulties over Railway Number 2,
and had to borrow money. He also had to borrow money to complete
portions of the estate which he had kept in his own hands, and to
acquire lands just outside the city. Lastly, he had to borrow money to
support the extravagance of his wife. In the aggregate these sums were
something enormous.

At the moment of borrowing he was under the impression that he had
dealt with independent persons—with financiers, in fact, of London,
being so assured by his solicitors. These solicitors had had a pretty
picking out of his railways and estates; they had grown fat and
prosperous upon him, and might, one would have thought, have been
trusted to serve him honestly.

But no—whenever was there a friendship formed in business? Ostensibly,
the financiers who advanced the cash were independent; in reality, they
acted for certain of these very aforesaid building societies who had
taken the building leases! Four at least of them had their money thus
out upon good security; and Sternhold, unknowingly at first, owed them
a large fortune.

For their own interest they had proved easy creditors. They had not
called in the loans; not a fraction of the original sums borrowed from
them to complete Railway Number 2, to finish houses, buy fresh lands,
to pay for Lucia’s extravagance, had been repaid. Very little of the
interest had been cleared off; none while Sternhold lived. They knew
that they were safe. The railway was now paying a fair dividend, the
houses and lands had trebled in value; as for Lucia’s waste it was
small in comparison—when they chose to call in their money they could
seize upon property to twice the amount due, even with added interest.

But they did not choose to call in their money. The leases were now
approaching the day of expiration. They knew that the trustees of
Sternhold’s estate had not one tithe of the cash required to meet their
demands: they would be compelled to submit to one of two things—first,
they must yield up a good part of the estate, or they must grant an
extension of the leases—either of which would suit the societies
exactly.

They intended to push matters in such a way as to compel the trustees
to extend the term, in order to retain both halves, as it were, of the
estate under their control. This was Gordian knot Number 3. How was the
heir to come by his own through all this? It was impossible, unless he
could scrape together sufficient money to pay off the loans which had
been contracted by his father. He would then be in a position to claim
the property held by the trustees at the expiration of the leases,
which was now fast approaching.

The other four companies had got wind of this nice little arrangement,
and it upset them extremely. They had not been half so shrewd as their
fellows, and that was a bitter reflection. They foresaw their valuable
properties passing away from them, while the other societies held fast
to their share. It was gall and wormwood.

But they were not to be outdone in the Art of Entanglement. Sternhold
was dead; they could not lend him money. But the heir, our friend
Marese, was living, and living “fast;” and not only that, he was
speculating heavily upon the Stock Exchange. Here was a fine opening.
With careful and judicious management they bought up all Marese’s
debts; they lent him money to a large amount through their agents,
keeping themselves in the background out of sight; and they had
gentlemen always on the watch on the Exchange, whose business it was to
tempt Marese into apparently good bargains with floating paper.

Not content with this, they had still further secured themselves. They
had allied themselves with a certain powerful and enterprising railway
company. This company had hitherto been shut out of Stirmingham, and
were extremely desirous of getting access to it. These second four
societies combined, and declared that in the interests of the
properties committed to their charge (save the mark!) it was essential
that there should be more direct railway communication with a certain
district which it is immaterial to name, and that there should be a
station close to their portion of the estate, the other stations being
at some distance. The enterprising railway company would guarantee good
terms if the trustees of the estate would enter into agreement with
them.

The upshot was that another Act of Parliament was obtained by the
influence of the said powerful railway company, authorising this line,
station, and agreement. It was now argued that this Act and agreement
would override the original building leases; especially as the railway
company were prepared to prove that they had not yet reaped any
reasonable benefit, and, unless the leases were extended, would be
serious losers. As they had immense interest in the House, they were
likely enough to gain their point. Here were two more Gordian knots,
Numbers 4 and 5!

Then there was the list of claimants to the estate, which had now been
swelled from all parts of the world, and the series of suits and pleas,
and Heaven knows what other litigation threatened by them, making
Gordian knot Number 6. Finally, the estate was in Chancery. Knot Number
7.

Here was a pleasant prospect for the heir! To put all the rest on one
side, on the day that the building leases expired, and he stepped
forward to claim his rights, the building societies would present him
with the following neat little bill:—


“After all,” said Marese to Theodore, as they planned and schemed, and
smoked cigars at 120 shillings the hundred, “after all, old fellow,
this is but one year’s income if I could only get possession. And I
believe we could finance the thing and raise the money without
difficulty, if it were not for those cursed, hateful claimants from
America and elsewhere. The Jews fight shy on account of the title
difficulty. If we could but get rid of those claimants!”



Chapter Twelve.


There was once a very wise man who invented what was considered a
saying almost inspired, which was afterwards inculcated as a most
important lesson by mighty princes upon their sons, and continues to be
constantly quoted in our day with approval—it is, that “Unity is
strength.” But the strength of the claimants to the Baskette estate
consisted in the number of their scattered forces.

All that Marese, the heir, could have desired was that by some means
they could be condensed into one person, and thus destroyed at a blow.
They had increased as the years went by in a geometrical ratio, till
the total formed a small battalion.

When the idea of making claims upon the estate first arose in America,
there were already quite fifty families who in one way or another
thought they had “rights.” About a dozen visited Stirmingham, and all
but drove poor old Sternhold frantic. That was a generation ago, and
the tribe had nearly trebled. Mothers of children who had the remotest
possible chance of a share in the prize took care to have them
christened Baskette or Sternhold. There were Sternhold Baskette Browns,
Baskette Johnsons, Baskette Stirmingham Slicks, English Baskette
Williamsons, and every possible combination of Baskette.

Those who, either by the male or female side, really could show some
species of proof that they were descended from the seventeen squatters
who were transhipped to the States now numbered no less than one
hundred and forty-three individuals—men, women, and children. To
distinguish themselves from other claimants, they called themselves
“The True Swampers.”

But in addition to these, there was a host of other Baskettes, who in
one way or another foisted in their names. There were Baskets, Bascots,
Buscots, Biscuits, Buschcotts, Bosquettes—every conceivable variation
of spelling from every State and territory, who declared that they were
related to the parent stem of Will Baskette, the squatter, who was shot
by old Sibbold. These might be called for distinction the
pseudo-Baskettes.

Then among the True Swampers there was an inner circle, who professed
to have prominent “rights” on account of their progenitors having been
more nearly related to the original Will Baskette. They argued that the
others were not true Baskettes, and had only adopted that name from the
chief, while they were real blood Baskettes.

In addition, there was another host of people who made a virtue of
proclaiming that they were not named Baskette. They did not profess to
be named Baskette—they did not take a name which was not theirs! They
were Washingtons, Curries, Bolters, Gregorys, Jamesons, and so on. But
they had claims because their father’s wives were of the Baskette
blood.

Finally, there was another sub-division who loudly maintained that half
of the original cotters who landed in New York were not Baskettes, but
Gibbs, Webbes, Colborns, and so on, and that they were the descendants
of these people. And there were some who went the length of declaring
that they were descended from two alleged illegitimate sons of old Romy
Baskette!

The Baskette Battalion was therefore made up of—1st. The Pure Blood
Baskettes; 2nd. The True Swampers; 3rd. Demi-Baskettes, who had that
name added to another; 4th. Nominal Baskettes, whose names had an
accidental resemblance; 5th. The Feminine Baskettes, descended from
women of Baskette strain; 6th. Independent Squatters, not Baskettes,
but companions; 7th. Illegitimate Baskettes!

Then there were the Sibbolds—such a catalogue! These had been slower to
wake up to their “rights” than the Baskettes, but when they did
discover them they came in crowds. First, there were the descendants,
in a straight line, of the eight sons of James Sibbold, shipped (six
with families) to New York. They had multiplied exceedingly, and there
was no end to them. The simply Sibbolds, as we may call them, numbered
no less than two hundred and eighteen, all told—men, women, and
children. Every one of these had some register, some old book—many of
these books were worm-eaten copies of Tom Paine’s “Rights of Man”—some
piece of paper or other to prove that they had the blood of James
Sibbold in their veins.

Then there were all the ramifications, pretty much like the Baskette
branches; innumerable cadets distantly related, innumerable people
whose wife’s uncle’s mother or cousin’s name was Sibbold; and all the
various Sibbolde, Sibboldes, Sibald, Sigbeld, Sybels, Sibils, Sibelus,
Sibilsons, _ad libitum_. Illegitimate Sibbolds were as plentiful as
blackberries, and all ready to argue the merits of the case with
revolver and bowie. If the Baskettes made up a battalion, the Sibbolds
formed an army!

Between these two great divisions there was the bitterest enmity. The
Baskettes derided the claims of the Sibbolds; the Sibbolds derided
those of the Baskettes. The Sibbolds told the Baskettes that they were
an ill-conditioned lot; if they had been respectable people, and really
his relations, old Sternhold would never have shipped them to America
out of his sight. The Baskettes retorted that the Sibbolds were ashamed
to stay in England, for they were the sons of a murderer; they were the
descendants of a dastardly coward, who shot a man through a window. The
Sibbolds snarled, and pointed out that the great chief of the Baskettes
was nothing but a thief, caught in the act and deservedly punished; a
lot of semi-gipsies, rogues, and vagabonds. Their very name showed that
they were but basket-makers; they were not even pure gipsy
blood—miserable squatters on another man’s property.

Blows were not unfrequently exchanged in the saloons and
drinking-stores over these quarrels. The result was the formation of
two distinct societies, each determined to prosecute its own claim and
to oust the other at all hazards. The Baskette battalion relied upon
the admitted non-payment of rent by their forefathers to upset all
subsequent agreements, and they agreed also that this agreement which
their forefathers had signed was not binding on the remote descendants.
The document was obtained by trickery, and the land was not put to the
use the vendors had understood it was to be put, as the representatives
now alleged, to simple agricultural purposes. Further, each of those
who signed the document only gave up his cottage and the small plot of
garden round it; they did not sell the waste land between the islands.

The Sibbolds principal argument was that their forefathers could not
sign away an entailed estate without previously cutting off the entail,
and it was acknowledged that this had not been done. But, said the
Baskettes, there was a question if the land ever was entailed; let the
Sibbolds produce the deed, and if it was not entailed, where was their
claim?

Each of these divisions formed itself into a society, with a regular
committee and place of meeting, a minute-book to record accumulated
evidence, legal gentlemen to advise, corresponding secretaries, and
Heaven knows what. They actually issued gazettes—printed sheets of
intelligence. There was the _Baskette Gazette_ and the _Sibbold
Gazette_, which papers carefully recorded all deaths, marriages, and
new claims. There was a complete organisation, and a—fine thing it was
for the lawyers and some few sharp young men.

Of late these societies had received more or less cordial overtures
from the eight building societies at Stirmingham who held the leases.
The first four societies encouraged the Baskette battalion, the second
held out hopes to the Sibbolds. The cunning building societies, without
committing themselves, desired nothing better than protracted
litigation between these claimants and the heir, in the certainty that
meantime they should reap the benefit.

Among the American corps of claimants there were men of all
classes—from common labourers, saloon-keepers, etc, up to judges,
editors, financiers, merchants; and many of them were clever,
far-seeing persons, who, without putting any weight upon the somewhat
strained “rights” they professed to believe in, still thought that
there was “something in it, you know,” and money might be got by
persistent agitation, if it was only hush-money.

Throughout many turbulent States there was at one time quite a feeling
aroused against England (which added its venom to the unfortunate
_Alabama_ business), as having unjustly kept what was due to American
citizens. These societies had their regular agents in Stirmingham and
London, whose duty it was to report every change that took place, every
variation of the case, and to accumulate evidence and transmit it.
These bulletins were received by the “caucuses,” and sometimes printed
in the _Gazettes_.

Besides these regular organisations, who had money at disposal and were
really formidable, there were several free lances careering over the
country, representing themselves as the sons of the elder brother of
Romy Baskette, the brother who had disappeared with the gipsies. These
were downright impostors, and yet got a living out of the case. Several
lecturers also promenaded the States, who made a good thing of it by
giving a popular version of the story, illustrated by a diorama of
incidents in the lives of the principal actors, from the shooting of
Will Baskette to the appearance of Lucia Marese as Lady Godiva. It was
singular that no one presented himself as a descendant of Arthur
Sibbold; he seemed to have been quite forgotten. So much for America.

From Australia there came, time after time, the most startling reports,
as is usual when any _cause célèbre_ is proceeding in the Old World.
Now, it was a miner at the diggings who had made extraordinary
disclosures; now, some shepherd on a sheep-run, after a fit of illness,
found his memory returned, and recollected where important deeds were
deposited.

Nothing, however, came of it. The principal seats of disturbance were
America and England; for England produced a crop of what we may call
Provisional, or Partial Claimants. Here and there, scattered all over
the country—from Kent to Cornwall, from Hampshire to
Northumberland—were people of the name of Baskette, which is a very
ancient English cognomen, and to be found in every collection of
surnames.

Most of these were of little or no consequence, but one or two held
good positions as gentlemen or merchants. None of these latter made the
shadow of a pretence to the estate, but they were fond of speculating
as to their possible remote connection with the now famous Baskette
stock; and some said that if anything did turn up, if any practical
results followed the American attempt, it would be as well to be
prepared to take a share in the spoil.

There were also at least three impostors—utter scoundrels, who obtained
a profusion of drink and some sustenance from credulous fools in
tap-rooms by pretending that they were descendants of the elder brother
of Romy Baskette. They had not the shadow of a proof, and ought to have
been treated to a dose of “cell.”

A gipsy tribe, a travelling clan which went about the country with
shooting galleries, merry-go-rounds, peep-shows, and so on, were in the
habit of proclaiming that they were the very identical tribe from whom
offshoots settled in the historical swamp at Wolf’s Glow, in order to
attract custom.

Certain persons in and around Stirmingham, whose fathers or ancestors
had sold lands to Sternhold Baskette—lands now worth ten, and in some
cases a thousand, times the price he had given for them—had a
fallacious idea that if the title of the heir was upset, they would
have a chance of regaining possession, or at least of an additional
payment for the property.

They formed themselves into a loosely-compacted society to protect
their interest. It was remarkable that in England, as in America, no
one set up a claim to be the descendant of Arthur Sibbold. The real
danger was from America, the land of organisation.

But in England there was a class of persons who, without possessing any
personal interest in the matter, made it their especial business to
collect all the “ana” that could be discovered, and gained a livelihood
out of their study of the case. More than one private inquiry office in
London received large fees from New York clients to make special
investigations. The credulity of mankind is exhibited in a striking
manner in the support given to these offices. How should they be
supposed to be so devotedly attached to the cause of one client? What
is to prevent them having fifty, all with the same end, and from
selling the information gained from one to the other?

There were men who made it a speciality of their trade to collect all
books, pamphlets, pictures, lectures, genealogies, deeds, documents,
letters, papers, _souvenirs_—anything and everything, from Sternhold
Baskette’s old hat upwards, that could be twisted into relation with
the case.

Those who have never had any leaning towards antiquarian research have
no idea of the enormous business done in this way—not only in reference
to great cases of this kind, but in reference to matters that would
appear to an outsider as absolutely not worth a thought. There is
scarcely a scrap of written or printed paper of the last century, or up
to within fifty years of the present date, which has not got its value
to such a collector, for he knows there will be fools to buy them.
Sometimes it happens that an apparently worthless piece of paper or
parchment, bought as waste, turns out, under his sharp eye, to be a
really awkward thing for some owner of property unless he purchases it.

There were lawyers in a peculiar way of business who did not disdain
this species of work, and presently they may cross our path. Such men
were in constant communication with people on the other side of the
Atlantic, where there is, year by year, an increasing desire manifested
to trace out genealogies.

The year in which, in the ordinary course of events, the building
societies and the Corporation must relinquish their expired leases was
now fast approaching. Some such person as has been described was seized
with a brilliant idea, and made haste to advertise it. Why should not
all the claimants to the estate meet on the disputed spot at this
critical moment? Why should there not be a regular family council, the
largest and most important that had ever taken place? The idea was a
good one, and spread like wildfire. The newspapers took it up; the
American societies thought highly of it. Nothing like a grand
demonstration.

The upshot was that Stirmingham began to look forward to the assembling
of these would-be monarchs of the city, which was finally, after much
discussion, fixed for the next New Year’s Day.

This New Year’s Day was fast approaching, while Marese and Theodore
planned.



Chapter Thirteen.


The grand family council was to be held at Stirmingham on the coming
New Year’s Day. How difficult it is to trace the genesis of an idea! It
does not seem to have any regular growth—to begin with a seed and cast
out roots, a stem, branches, leaves; it shoots now one way, now this,
like those curious creatures revealed by the microscope, or like the
germs of fungi. Upon the original thought odd branches are engrafted,
accidental circumstances suggest new developments, till at last the
full completed idea bears no sort of resemblance to what might have
been expected from the embryo.

How the idea was first started neither Marese nor Theodore could tell,
nor how it was communicated from one to the other. There is a method of
communication which is not dependent upon direct speech; there is a way
of talking at a subject without mentioning it. When two clever men’s
minds are full of one absorbing topic it does not require formal
sentences to convey their conceptions. They did not seem even to
actually talk of it, and yet it grew and grew, till it overshadowed
them like a vast gloomy mountain.

It would not be just to so much as hint at a latent insanity in these
men’s minds, for it would partly absolve them from responsibility, and
would dispose their judges to regard their crimes leniently. Certainly
no one, if asked to do so, could have pointed out two keener men of the
world than these. Yet, somehow, despite one’s reluctance to afford them
the shadow of an excuse, there does creep in the conviction that such a
ghastly conception could only be formed in a brain lacking the moral
organs, if such an expression may be used, in a brain unbalanced with
natural human sympathy.

Marese’s father, old Sternhold, had certainly been mad at one period of
his career. His mother, Lucia, had exhibited a vanity so overweening,
and a temper so intense, that at times it resembled lunacy. It may have
been that, along with the mental powers of calculation and invention
which distinguished old Romy and Sternhold, Marese had also inherited
the mental weakness of Sternhold and Lucia.

Theodore had shown a taste for extraordinary studies usually avoided by
healthy-minded men. His father, Aurelian, had passed the whole of his
time with insane patients, and it is said that too much contact with
mad people reacts upon the sane. He had early initiated his son into
the mysteries of that sad science of the mind which deals with its
deficiencies. The son’s youth had been passed in constant intercourse
with those harmless and, so to say, _reasonable_ lunatics who are to be
met with in the homes and at the dinner-tables of medical men, and
whose partial sanity and occasional singular flashes of unnatural
intelligence are perhaps more calculated to affect the minds of others
than the vagaries of the downright mad.

In one short sentence, this terrible crime, which was looming over
Marese and Theodore, was nothing less than the deliberate intention to
destroy the whole of the claimants to the estate at once. How it
originated it is difficult to imagine, but it did. It might perhaps be
partly traced to the injunction in Aurelian’s papers to take the
weapons out of the hands of the companies; or partly to the
oft-expressed wish of Marese’s, after the Roman emperor, that all the
claimants had but one neck, so that he might cut it. The said emperor
has much to answer for.

The announced gathering of the claimants at Stirmingham certainly
seemed to bring them all within the reach of the fowler’s net, if he
could but cast it aright. Marese and Theodore had half-formed ideas of
blowing the whole company into the air as they sat at council in the
Sternhold Hall on New Year’s Day, something after the fashion of Guy
Fawkes, but with a deadlier compound than he had at his
disposal—nitro-glycerine or dynamite; especially the first might be
trusted to do the work much more effectually than gunpowder, which was
also more difficult to conceal on account of its bulk.

It will barely be believed that these two men, in the height of the
nineteenth century, calmly examined the vault under that famous hall,
in order to see if it was fitted for the purpose. This hall or
assembly-room had been finished about the time that the agitation
commenced over the heir to the estate, just before Sternhold had
married, when the Corporation heaped flattery upon him. It had been
named after him.

It was a fine room, not too large, and yet of sufficient size to seat
an audience. The object was to afford a concert-room for dramatic and
theatrical performances, and also for balls. As the site was valuable,
and every particle of space had to be utilised in the centre of this
mighty city, it had been built over vaults, which were intended for
bonded warehouses; but partly on account of the high rent asked, and
partly because of the dampness of the cellars—the site was the very
centre of the old Swamp—had never been occupied. The access was bad,
and there was no place for a display or advertisement, which was
another reason why the cellars had not let. There was a certain amount
of propriety in holding what was to be called “The Grand Centennial
Family Council” in this hall, built upon the centre of the ancient
Swamp, and named after the founder of the city.

Marese and Theodore, in disguise, examined the vaults, under the
pretence of being agents for London merchants desirous of opening
business in Stirmingham. There was hardly any necessity for this
precaution, for it was so many years since they had openly resided in
the place that few would have recognised them.

To their great surprise, these vaults, whose gloomy darkness they
explored by the light of lanterns, extended in one vast cavern, under
the whole of the hall. Instead of a series of cellars, there was one
huge cavern. This was occasioned by the flooring not being supported
upon brick arches, as would have been architecturally preferable, but
upon timber posts, or pillars. The place had, in fact, been put up
hastily, and the vaults were never completed. The timber pillars were
placed in regular order, and it had been intended to build brick
partitions; but as no one seemed to care to occupy the cellars, this
had never been done. The floor was extremely damp, and the whole
appearance of the place repulsive. Snails, toads, and slimy reptiles
crawled about, and this under the very stage above, upon which music,
song, and dance were wont to enliven the gay hearts of the audiences.

One great obstacle to the idea of blowing up the place was the height
of these timber posts, which was full eighteen feet, so that the roof
of the vault was high over head, and any explosives, to produce the
full effect, would have to be piled up on casks or stands. Then the
hall was larger than they had supposed, and it was apparent that the
coming council would occupy but a portion of it, and perhaps change
that portion now and then, so that it would be uncertain where to place
the nitro-glycerine.

The idea, looked at from a distance and in the abstract, seemed
feasible enough; but when they came to face the physical difficulties,
it was found to be hard of realisation. There was the danger of getting
the explosives into the place, the danger of detection, and, finally,
the chance of an accident hoisting the engineer with his own petard,
especially at that time of the year when nitro-glycerine was
notoriously dangerous on account of the crystals which cold formed upon
its surface, and the least jar or shake was sufficient to cause an
explosion. Obviously, the plan was a cumbrous one, and without
hesitation it was abandoned.

But the main idea, that of getting rid of the claimants at one blow,
was not abandoned; it grew and grew, and occupied their minds day and
night. At last the thought of transferring the Guy Fawkes expedient
from the land to the ocean, which, once the deed was successfully
accomplished, would tell no tale, occurred to them.

The claimants must come over on shipboard, if only they could be got
into one or even two ships; and if these vessels sank upon the voyage
suddenly without a warning! This was certainly much safer for the
conspirators, as no trace would be left, and it was surer of success,
because in the hall some of the victims might escape—at sea they could
scarcely do so. They ran over in their minds the various methods of
scuttling ships which have been invented from time to time.

There was the good old simple plan of boring holes in the bottom with
augurs. There was the devilish coal-shell. A box painted to resemble
coal, but really containing powder, was thrown among the coal, and when
placed in the furnace blew up the boiler, and destroyed the ship. There
was the ship-rat—a contrivance by which the very motion of the vessel
caused an augur in a box to bore its way through, and so cause a leak.
Some benevolent socialists, anxious for the welfare of man, had also
promulgated a notion of exploding nitro-glycerine by clockwork,
arranged to go so long, and set to act just as the vessel was farthest
from land.

But all these seemed to Marese and Theodore clumsy, risky, and, what
was worse, uncertain of operation. It was reserved for Marese to
suggest the deadliest of all destructive engines, and he arrived at its
conception in this way. He had, as it were, a double mind. He was
liable to flashes of inspiration—such as it was—to sudden ideas which
shot through him without endeavour. He had also the power of
concentrating his thoughts, and bringing the regular forms of logic to
his assistance. But this latter method he could only practise with the
aid of pen and ink; and it was his constant habit, whenever
contemplating an important step, such as a coup upon the Exchange, to
write out his plans in a regular sequence, just as he wished them to
take place.

This written guide he corrected and enlarged until it seemed beyond any
further improvement; and then shutting his eyes to all consequences,
resolutely avoiding those secret promptings which suggest that
something has been left undone, he was accustomed to rush at the matter
in hand, and dispose of it with bold, unhesitating strokes. This method
certainly had its advantages, but it had also the disadvantage that if
by any accident his notes fell into other hands, he was lost.

Nevertheless, after thinking and thinking in vain over this great
problem, and failing of any very brilliant flash of intelligence,
Marese at last resorted to his favourite system, and sought the
solution by the aid of pen and ink. First he wrote at the top of his
rough draft—

“What is it that I desire? Define it. Definition: to destroy the
claimants. Who are the claimants? A body of men. How is a body of men
to be destroyed? In the same way as a single person. How is man
destroyed? By the knife, by bullets, by explosives, by garotting, by
fire, by water, by poison, narcotics.”

Such were his rough premises. Then he laid the pen down and thought.
Why not set the vessels these men were coming over in on fire? That at
first seemed to him a most feasible plan, far superior to the uncertain
action of explosives. It required some arrangement, which he felt
confident the scientific knowledge of Theodore could easily supply, to
cause the flames to break out at the proper moment.

He began to grow enraptured with it. It seemed so easy and sure. Then,
picturing in his mind the vessel sinking, the thought occurred to him
that if the risk was to be run, something might as well be got out of
it. Why not put a cargo on board insured far beyond its value, and so
kill two birds with one stone?

At one blow to destroy his enemies and fill his own pockets was superb
triumph! He called Theodore and explained the idea to him. Theodore was
struck with it—especially with the notion of making a profit out of the
risk. He was, however, considerably opposed to the insurance dodge, on
the ground that it had been tried so often, and people had got so keen
that it was ten to one if some suspicion did not arise, especially when
it was seen what an object it would be to Marese to secure the
destruction of the passengers. Some other plan must be adopted.
Suppose, for instance, they took Marese’s yacht and followed the
vessel, and after its partial destruction, if they could secure only
partial destruction, put in a claim for salvage. To do this they must
encounter serious difficulties, but it would be far less risky.

Marese wished to know what substances they could employ to produce a
fire which could not be extinguished without some special chemical
composition. Theodore produced a series of manuscript volumes
containing the notes which he had accumulated during his long and
curious studies. He turned them over one by one, extracting such
information as appeared applicable to their purpose, while Marese,
waiting for his friend’s reply, amused himself by reading pieces here
and there. It was while thus employed that the devilish means by which
their end could be obtained occurred to him.



Chapter Fourteen.


He happened to light on a volume of notes made upon the remarkable
properties of gases. They began with a description of those curious
caves and even meadows abroad wherein no animal can live, and the place
is strewn with the bones of birds and beasts who have incautiously
entered the infected circle. This effect was proved to proceed from a
vapour which rose up from the earth, and was no sooner breathed than it
produced asphyxiation. Animals who inhaled it fell as if shot, so
sudden was the action.

Gases as deleterious were often generated in wells, caves, and confined
places, such as the huge tuns or casks used by brewers to keep their
beer in, and which had often proved fatal to the men who attempted to
scour them out.

Theodore believed that the cold shiver which some persons affected to
feel upon entering a churchyard and passing over the graves of the
dead, was caused by the presence of a gas in small quantities, evolved
from the decaying remains beneath the feet. Then there were gases which
upon inhalation caused a profound slumber; others which had precisely
an opposite result, and made the patient lively and brisk; and others
which rendered the person who took them perfectly insensible to
surgical operations.

Marese, a man who had never paid the least regard to science, was
deeply struck with these facts, with which the veriest tyro in
chemistry is well acquainted. But he did what no tyro or even advanced
student would perhaps have done—he applied his discovery—for so it was
to him—to his own circumstances.

There are, says Bacon, three modes of reading—one to pass away an idle
hour, one to acquire a knowledge of a subject, and the third and the
most advantageous method is always to keep your own ends in view, and
to apply everything to your object.

In these gases Marese found his desideratum. His engine of destruction
burst upon his mind, as it were, complete in a moment. Some such
poisonous gas should be shipped on board these vessels, closely
confined in a box or other receptacle, and at the proper moment
liberated, to spread throughout the steamer a subtle vapour which no
man could see coming, and against which strength, skill, and discipline
would be perfectly powerless.

Theodore, looking up, saw a change upon Marese’s countenance, and
immediately knew that something had occurred to him. The heir was pale
as death; his own conception, so ghastly and treacherous, filled him
with a nameless horror at the same moment that he never hesitated in
his purpose.

After a while he took up a pen and added to his already written
premises the conclusion—his idea in a few brief sentences—and handed it
to Theodore. He left it to Theodore to select the gas, and to arrange
the mechanical details. He had sown the seed, the other must patiently
tend it. And the other did patiently tend it; and this is what it grew
to.

The name of the gas which Theodore at last, after much thought, fixed
upon shall not be here disclosed; for although it is well-known to
chemists, and any one who can read could easily find it, there is no
knowing what imitations might not spring up if they were aware of the
means being so ready at hand.

Though suicide is such a simple and obvious expedient in difficulties,
yet there are scores who do not commit it because they never think of
it. If some kind friend suggested the pistol or the knife they would at
once employ it.

Gas had one property which rendered it peculiarly fitted for the
purpose in view. Being elastic, it could be compressed to a great
extent, and thus an immense volume might be contained in a small
compass. Therefore the case or receptacle to hold the vapour poison
need not be of large dimensions; and this was a matter of some
importance.

The gas chosen was not in any way explosive; on the contrary, it had
the property of extinguishing any light which was placed in it—there
was thus no danger of any accidental circumstance causing an explosion
at an awkward moment. It was absolutely safe—the operator ran no risk,
provided always that he did not inhale the vapour.

Theodore sketched out a case about three feet square, which was to be
formed of an outer box of deal, and an inner skin of thin iron. Into
this case, which would be tolerably strong, he proposed to pump a vast
volume of gas, taking care that the pressure should not exceed the
power of the box to withstand. The aperture through which it had been
pumped was then to be hermetically sealed with molten lead.

The greatest difficulty was to provide for the escape of the devilish
vapour at the proper moment; and this caused the projectors much
reflection. Clockwork was objectionable; it was liable to injury from
jars and shakes. Cases of this character, which looked strong and
substantial, and would be placed in the hold, would be certain to
receive the roughest of usage.

At one time he conceived the idea of relying upon the cupidity of the
seamen. It was suspected that many of the accidents which had taken
place at sea, and caused the destruction of hundreds by fire, had
arisen through dishonest seamen or _employés_ on board going at night
with a candle into the compartment where valuable goods were stowed,
and dropping sparks.

Why not utilise this propensity? Mark the case “watches,” “jewellery,”
or “bullion,” cause it to be surrounded with a certain amount of
mystery and precaution enough to engender suspicion; and leave the rest
to the chisel and drill of the would-be thief.

But this, though clever, was too uncertain. Another idea which occurred
to him was to have a wooden case only, but a strong one, and to confine
in a small hole prepared for the purpose one of the boring insects,
which in a certain time would be sure to eat its way through and leave
an aperture.

This, too, was more ingenious than practicable. He was delayed for a
time. Accident solved the difficulty. Passing through the streets, he
was stopped by a crowd which had collected around a quack doctor.

“See,” cried the vendor of patent vegetable pills, “here is the horrid
stuff the allopathists, the doctors and physicians sell to you at high
prices. Here is a common drug used by them in this phial. I will pour
some of the liquid upon the hard stone pavement—just see how it acts
upon the granite, and then guess how your wretched stomachs must be
abused.”

He poured it on the stone—the crowd pressed forward, and saw it eat a
hole. “Aquafortis,” thought Theodore, and the idea was his—aquafortis
was the agent he wanted.

He passed on, and left the crowd thoroughly convinced of the tricks
played by the medical faculty, and purchasing largely of the vegetable
pills. Theodore had found a substance which would eat through his iron
and wood cases, and leave an aperture—a substance, too, whose action
was equal, and could be regulated to a sufficiently accurate extent.

Upon reflection, however, and after making several experiments, he did
not employ ordinary aquafortis, but another acid equally powerful, and
which was still more regular in its action. He tried the experiment
time after time, till at last he obtained the proper strength, and
fixed the requisite amount of acid to eat through a given thickness of
iron and wood in a certain time. He repeated the experiment till he was
absolutely certain of the result.

The plan had now grown delightfully clear and well-defined—the infernal
machine became of the simplest construction. All that had to be done
was to place the acid in the case confined in a small and very thin
copper vessel (lined with an enamel to resist it), which was to be
screwed to one side of the case, then pump the gas in, hermetically
seal it, heave the whole thing on board the steamer, and leave it to
work its way. Delightfully simple!

He called Marese to look over his drawings, and to witness his
experiments with the acid. Marese was enchanted; his confidence in
Theodore’s scientific resources was confirmed. There was, however, one
question he asked—Was the gas so strong and so poisonous that the small
quantity confined in a case three feet square would destroy a whole
ship’s company? Would not the gas escape, rise up, and dissipate itself
through the port-holes, up the hatchways, and be further weakened by
the breezes that blew and caused draught in various places between
decks? These ocean steamers were very roomy.

Theodore was delighted to have an opportunity of explaining the
properties and nature of the vapour to his friend. The peculiarity of
this gas was that, although an invisible fluid, it was extremely
heavy—it was heavier far than atmospheric air. He easily proved that a
gas might be heavier than air by a well-known experiment with a vapour
(not the one to be used in this case) which he poured out of a glass
phial over a candle. The invisible gas descended and extinguished the
candle; There was not the slightest chance of the poison-vapour
escaping quickly through ports or up hatchways. It would, as it were,
cling to the vessel. The pressure inside the case would cause it to
issue rapidly from the aperture eaten out by the acid. It would then
diffuse itself laterally, and gradually penetrate into every crevice
and corner of the ship. The effect would be that one by one every
person on board would inhale it, and in an instant, let the quantity
breathed be never so small, down he would drop, or grow rigid as he
sat—unconscious was the word Theodore used as an euphemism for death.
He did not mention another effect it would have, lest the horror of it
should cause even Marese to falter.

Theodore traced out the probable course of events on board the fated
vessel. First, the persons working or living in the cabins and places
nearest the case would feel the effect and succumb. Then there would be
alarm and excitement—others would rush to the spot, and they would
immediately fall, just as the birds and beast did who entered those
fatal caves abroad. One man on board, perhaps, might detect the
cause—the surgeon, or any doctor who chanced to be a passenger—and
might cry out to man the boats and escape; but who, in the hurry and
excitement, would heed him?—he would not have time to escape himself,
much less to explain the danger to others. It was doubtful whether even
so much as a signal of distress would be hoisted. The crew, the
officers, the passengers would be so completely puzzled, so utterly at
their wit’s end, that no course would suggest itself to them before it
was too late.

In this respect the gas had an immense advantage over any apparatus
which would set the ship on fire. Let the fire be never so rapid, one
boat at least might get away, and on that boat the very person whom it
was most desirable should seek the floor of the ocean. Moreover, fire
could be seen from a vast distance, and might attract attention from
other vessels, who by day would observe the smoke, and by night the
glare of the flames.

But in this case probably not so much as a flag would be hoisted. One
by one the seamen and passengers, the captain and officers, would
succumb to the invisible vapour, first becoming weak and helpless, and
next “unconscious.” The steersman would fall at the wheel. The engineer
would drop at his engine; the stoker as he shovelled up the coal; the
passenger would lie in his berth. And the steamer, so long as the fuel
in the furnace lasted, would pursue her way unguided over the waves;
finally, after a few hours, to float a derelict at the mercy of the
wind.

There was a completeness, a finish, an elaboration of detail about this
scheme which fascinated the conspirators. It was so novel, daring, and
yet safe, it enchanted them. When at last the great horror was
discovered, what risk would there be? Nothing on board would excite
suspicion. The gas had actually no smell; besides, long before anything
was discovered, it would have dissipated itself.

Even if the whole of the cargo was examined, the case itself would
offer, no handle to an inquirer. The powerful acid would have eaten its
way out, and nothing would be left but a small empty case with a hole
in it. Nothing need show who consigned the case. Better still: Marese’s
yacht would follow the doomed steamer, keeping close on pretence of the
safety of having company in a voyage across the Atlantic.

They would easily know when the desired result was obtained by the view
of the steamer rolling helplessly in the trough of the waves. By the
time that was the case some hours would have elapsed after the
catastrophe, and various pretences could be arranged to avoid
immediately proceeding on board—especially as from a distance nothing
would look the matter—and by then the poisonous vapour would have
dissipated itself, or so mixed with the air as to have lost its fatal
power. They would then take charge of the vessel and bring it into
port, and claim the salvage.

If they contrived to select a vessel which carried a valuable cargo,
that salvage money would be something extremely large in amount, added
to the value of the steamer itself. They might manoeuvre to get such a
cargo stored. This would be far superior to the clumsy dodge of sinking
the ship and claiming the insurance money.

As to getting the case on board, it was as easy as could be. Having
proceeded to New York in Marese’s yacht, taking with them the necessary
apparatus for producing the gas (which was very simple), and pumping it
into the case, they could ascertain the hour of the steamer’s
departure, fill the case, regulate the acid for say four, or perhaps
three days, and send it on board only a little while before she
started. They would then, on board the yacht, proceed to sea on a
cruise and keep the steamer in sight.

Delightfully simple! Perfectly complete and scientific in every detail!

Marese once again asked if the gas was really so powerful? Theodore
referred to his note-books, and showed him an extract from a newspaper
not of so very remote a date, wherein it was stated that at a
conference of the various leading European Powers it had been resolved
not to employ certain implements in warfare, such as explosive shells
or bullets under a certain size, and poisonous gases or vapours which
could be thrown into a fortress or town in shells. Marese was
convinced, and regarded the engine as perfect.

Thus did two men deliberately plan out the destruction of several
hundreds of their fellow-beings without one single thought or
reflection upon the misery and suffering they would cause, or upon the
intrinsic villainy of the act.

Well was it suggested by a French thinker that certain natures are
incapable of feeling, incapable of remorse so long as they remain
“faithful to the logic of their type”—i.e. faithful to their own
selfish interests and passions.



Chapter Fifteen.


With his own hands Theodore constructed the infernal machine and
prepared the materials for generating the deadly vapour at the shortest
notice. This, the first part of the scheme, having been settled, there
remained two great difficulties to overcome. The first was to get the
claimants on board one vessel—travelling in a body; and the second was
to secure their passage by a steamer carrying a valuable cargo, so as
to increase the gain of salvage money to the utmost.

It was not easy to manage the first matter; the latter Marese thought
he saw his way through. It happened just then that the payment of the
war indemnity to Germany caused a great drain of gold from this
country; the value of the precious metals consequently rose, and the
imports increased to meet the demand. Gold and silver came in large
quantities from New York, both in coin and bullion—especially silver.

Marese intended to take advantage of this fact. By means of certain
Stock Exchange operations, with which he was perfectly familiar, having
employed them previously on several occasions, he arranged that a very
large amount of bullion should be transmitted to London from New York
by the splendid steamer _Lucca_, due to start on December 3rd.

It must be understood that this bullion was not to be despatched to
Marese, and that he did not appear in the transaction as having any
direct connection with it. He had, in fact, arranged to lose a small
sum of money, in order to render the importation of bullion
particularly profitable in the week ending December 17th—profitable not
to him, but to those speculators who deal in precious metal just as
others do in corn or calico. Marese omitted no precaution, Spared no
pains, and used the whole of his natural and acquired cunning to render
this operation a certainty.

The next thing was to tempt the claimants to travel by the steamer
_Lucca_. After considerable hesitation, Marese at last determined to
open negotiations with the leading men amongst them. He did not do this
in his own person, but through his solicitors. It was represented to
the managers of the Baskette and Sibbold Lodges that really their
claims and the interests of the heir—i.e. Marese—were not so divergent
as had been supposed. The heir was quite as much excluded from the
enjoyment of the property as they were, and finding the building
societies determined, by every means in their power, to put off the day
when they must yield up possession, he wished to make common cause
against these companies.

Nor was this statement altogether fictitious. The idea of strengthening
the hands of the claimants, and making common cause with them, had
often occurred to Marese, for the sole purpose of taking the weapons of
the companies out of their hands, as Aurelian had advised.

No sooner was this overture on the part of the heir received in America
than both Lodges at once responded, and without a moment’s hesitation
fell into the snare laid for them. To us, who are acquainted with the
infamous designs of Marese, such conduct seems almost senile; but it
must be remembered that these men on the other side of the Atlantic had
not the slightest suspicion of the deadly engine which had been
preparing.

To some extent the sudden overture of the heir caused a cessation of
hostilities between the two Lodges, and when Marese’s second offer
arrived they held a species of jubilee. This offer was nothing less
than to convey the whole of the claimants at his own expense, and added
that he had already notified to the owners of the _Lucca_ that he might
require the entire passage accommodation, or nearly, of that vessel. To
the Americans this came as an immense boon. There were many of them
comparatively poor men, to whom the cost of the voyage was a serious
matter, and who had already begun to hesitate at the prospect before
them.

The diabolical foresight of Marese and Theodore had guessed as much.
They said to each other, “Half the claimants will not come—only those
who are tolerably well off. Then what will be the use of our scheme? We
shall destroy only a few, and from the remaining individuals a new crop
will spring up to vex us. We must get them all—all!”

This offer was accepted with a _fanfaronnade_ of gratitude. It had one
inestimable advantage—it secured the passage of the claimants by the
vessel Marese had chosen. The enthusiasm on the other side of the
Atlantic was raised to its highest pitch when the heir announced his
intention of coming to New York in his yacht, to see that the
arrangements, for his friends were properly carried out.

Preparations were at once made to give him an ovation. The authorities
of New York city gave orders to do him honour. The papers published
biographies of “this distinguished man, upon whom the eyes of all the
world were fixed,” and who had lately “covered himself with glory by
displaying a grand generosity towards the offshoots of the parent
stem.”

It often happens that in America the descendants of particular families
are gathered in and around certain districts, where they form the main
part of the population. This was the case with the Baskettes and
Sibbolds. The Baskettes chiefly inhabited Caben, a small township west
of Philadelphia, and the Sibbolds were mostly to be found at Tandanap,
near the shores of Lake Michigan. Numbers of both tribes of course were
scattered over the whole country, but these were the strongholds. To
suit both parties, and to tend to remove the jealousies which had so
long raged, it was arranged that all should meet at Imola, a place
about midway and within a hundred and twenty miles of New York, about a
week previous to the embarkation.

At Imola (named after a Continental town) there resided perhaps the
wealthiest member of the Baskette and Sibbold tribes, for he could
claim relationship with both—he offered hospitality to them all; and in
return it was agreed that this Reginald Bunker Sibbold Baskette, Esq,
should be instituted the leader or president of the expedition. After
the mobilisation of the forces at Imola, the army was to move on New
York on the 2nd December, and embark the same evening on board the
_Lucca_ steamship.

The whole scheme was now complete, and extremely promising it looked;
everything had turned out well. Marese had ascertained by secret
inquiries that the bullion had been ordered, and that the owners of the
_Lucca_ had contracted, under a heavy bond, to deliver it at a certain
date. The Lodges had, for a time at least, fused their differences. The
engine of destruction was finished, together with a duplicate in case
of accident. How extremely simple it looked! Nothing in the world but a
strong deal box, apparently nailed together in the usual manner, about
a yard square, or a little less. Just such a box as a seaman or
passenger, if it chanced to lie about, would choose to sit down on and
smoke a pipe. The rough deal planks of which it was made were not even
planed smooth—simply a strong packing-case. The conspirators
congratulated themselves upon the approaching execution of their
schemes, and the success which seemed certain to attend them.

But now Theodore discovered a serious oversight. Reading through
Aurelian’s papers a second time, he came upon that passage which
detailed all that could be learnt of the descendants of Arthur Sibbold.
This Arthur, Aurelian wrote, or his descendants, was the most dangerous
of all. He was the man who ought to have succeeded to the farm which
James Sibbold took possession of. James, or James’s sons, had not the
slightest right to dispose of the farm to Sternhold Baskette; they were
selling what did not belong to them. Arthur was of course dead, but
Arthur’s heirs still lived; and then followed the address and further
particulars.

These heirs were at present quiet; but if they discovered the register
of Arthur’s marriage, Aurelian could not see what was to prevent them
from putting in a claim far superior either to Marese’s or to that of
any other person. Even if they could not get possession, the Courts
would certainly order an immense sum to be paid to them, as
compensation; and Aurelian thought himself that nothing in the world
could prevent them taking the property which stood on the site of the
farm, if not the Swamp. The property on the site of the farm, he
thought, must go.

“Now,” said Theodore, “what is the use of destroying the American
claimants _en masse_ if this even greater danger is to be allowed to
remain close at home, within easy reach of the estate, ready at any
moment to burst upon us and render nugatory all our risk and labour?”

Marese was thunderstruck. For a time it seemed that their enemies were
hydra-headed—no sooner was one head cut off than three sprouted up in
the place. But the man was not one to be daunted. This also must be
done, he said. They had not much time now to lose. It was already the
middle of September, and a fortnight must be reckoned for the passage
of the yacht to New York. They spent anxious days and nights
considering a variety of plans. There is not time to unravel the
strange mazes of the mind and trace the genesis of the idea which at
last suggested itself to Theodore. It was only one degree less
ingenious, and if anything still more horrible, than the infernal
machine of Marese.

Theodore still continued the asylum at Stirmingham. It was an important
source of income, in fact. In that asylum there were confined lunatics
of all degrees of insanity, most of them having wealthy friends, and
some the representatives of large properties. Among these was one more
remarkable than the rest. He was the representative of a long line of
lunatics, or semi-lunatics. Popular tradition accused a progenitor
living two centuries before of a crime too dark to be mentioned, and
believed that the lunacy of his descendants was a special punishment
from heaven. This particular individual had seemed tolerably sane till
he was permitted to marry—a cruel thing. He then rapidly developed his
inherited tendencies, living as a married man, left more free from
restraint by friends and others.

Though the owner of broad acres and lovely woodlands, he delighted in
the society of tinkers, and was himself a clever hand at mending pots
and kettles. He had such a fancy for tinkering that he actually
promenaded the country for miles in company with gipsies, calling at
the farmhouses—on his own tenants—asking for things to mend.

He was also absurdly fond of dogs, and filled the house with
them—especially the large mastiff breed, of which he was particularly
enraptured, till no one could approach it, and his poor wife was
frightened out of her senses. Tinkering, fondling these dogs, and
playing the tin whistle occupied his time. His money he scattered far
and wide among the gipsies, pedlars, and tinkers, and gave enormous
sums for the pure-bred mastiffs.

The countenance of the man expressed the most intense melancholy—that
hopeless incurable vacancy of look which is seen on the features of
some monkeys while in captivity. His face, and the shape of his head,
in fact, much resembled a monkey’s; and the ears protruding from the
side of the skull, very large and ill-formed, completed the
resemblance. He had a favourite resort in one of the woods surrounding
the family mansion. Through this wood there ran a stream, and a tree
had fallen across it, making a natural bridge.

On this tree, over the stream, he would perch himself astride, his feet
nearly in the water, and play for hours upon the tin whistle, while his
troop of dogs disported in the woods around. He had a wonderful
instinct of music, and really played in a marvellous manner upon this
simple instrument, exhibiting skill even in the choice of the
whistle—for it is difficult to find one that has a mellow tone.

The spectacle of this being, sitting on the tree trunk in the gloom of
the woods, his long legs dangling down to the water, with his
melancholy baboon face, performing extraordinary fantasias upon a tin
whistle, could hardly be matched.

But he was as cunning as he was mad. Probably from his companions, the
gipsies, he had learnt that his ancestors had all been confined in the
madhouse. He had sufficient sense to foresee that the moment a son was
born to his wife he would himself be confined. But, with the inherent
insanity of his nature, he thought that by killing the wife or the son
he should escape this danger.

So soon as ever the wretched wife’s confinement approached he slew
her—and slew her in true fantastic fashion. With his tinker’s hammer he
drove a nail into her head as she slept. He fled from the place, but
was captured; and that was the last time Odo Lechester used his
tinker’s hammer for some time to come. The dreadful deed, the sight of
blood, had developed in him the homicidal tendency—he tried hard to
stab his captors. In Aurelian’s asylum at Stirmingham he desperately
wounded a warder.

This was the being Theodore selected for his purpose. The man had made
many violent attempts to escape—he was like a wild beast in a cage,
pacing to and fro.

Theodore went down to Stirmingham to his private residence, which
adjoined the asylum, to prepare his tool for the deed. It was easy for
him, as a physician and the owner of the establishment, to have full
and private access to Odo Lechester. He had a fortnight for his task.
In that time he succeeded in impressing upon Odo’s mind that the
persons whose name and address he gave him were those who were
responsible for his confinement.

It was not his (Theodore’s) fault that he was confined—it was the fault
of these persons, and upon them the punishment should fall. The man
imbibed the idea thoroughly: he brooded over revenge if ever he should
get free. His one-sided mind became absorbed in two great overmastering
passions—to revenge his captivity, and to recover his favourite dogs.

Theodore assured him that if ever these persons were out of the way he
would be at once reinstalled in his position, and might wander at his
sweet will, tinkering and playing his whistle.

Theodore’s plan was to let this irresponsible murderer out at large
upon the world. The obnoxious persons would be removed, and no one
could be punished. He arranged for the escape of Odo Lechester at about
the date he and Marese would start for New York.

Their plans were now complete. Theodore, in order to obtain the
lunatic’s goodwill, had restored to him his whistle; and he roamed to
and fro in the court of the asylum, examining the high walls, stone by
stone, for a crevice of escape, while his rapid fingers manipulated
interminable airs of the merriest kind.


When the engineer approached the ancient Swamp with his level and
theodolite, and was followed by an army of workmen in short corduroys
and slops, who cleared away the rushes and bull-polls, swept off the
willow-beds and watercress, drove the waterfowl away and plucked up the
reeds and sedges, then the water-rat knew that his time was come. The
teeth that had nibbled away at the willow-tree root till it fell and
blocked up the stream, would nibble no more. The nimble feet and black
eyes would be seen no more biding among the flags, or plunging out of
sight into the water as a footstep was heard.

The lake which the water-rat had made, with its islands and its
cotters, was in its way useful, and not altogether despicable. The poor
basket-makers, humble as they were, made good and useful baskets,
mended pots and pans, split good clothes-pegs, and injured no man till
Sibbold fired that fatal shot.

From that hour a curse seemed to hang over the place. A vast city, full
of seething human life, had taken the place of the swamp and the
bullrushes; the hearths of the poor cotters were gone, and huge hotels,
club-houses, theatres, were there instead. Progress and
development—yes; but with development came crime.

Under that overgrown city there extended a system of tunnels,
sewers—some large enough to drive a horse and cart down them, others
hardly large enough to admit the band. But they extended everywhere.
Under the busy street, under the quiet office where the only sound was
the scratching of the pen, or the buzz of a fly “in th’ pane;” under
the gay theatre and the gossiping club-house there was not a spot that
was not undermined.

And in these subterranean catacombs there dwelt a race nearly as
numerous as the human hive above, who worked and gnawed in the dark;
they were the domains of the successors of the little furred creatures
which nibbled down the ancient willow tree. The grey sewer-rat worked
and multiplied exceedingly beneath this mighty city. The grey rat was
worse than the water-rat.

He had his human prototypes. What were Marese and Theodore but
sewer-rats working in secret, in the dark underground, out of sight,
whose presence could hardly be detected by a faint occasional
scratching or rustle?

Beside these there were a numerous company of lesser men and masculine
brutes, and female fiends, burrowing, fighting in the dark places of
this mighty city, whose presence was made known at times by faint
sounds of shrieking or devilish glee which rose up, as it were, from
the bowels of the earth. The reign of the harmless water-rat was over.
The rule of the sewer-rat was now in full force.


End of Volume One.



Book II.—Persons.



Chapter One.


Forty-three miles as the crow flies, south of Stirmingham, there stands
upon the lonely Downs a solitary, lichen-grown post, originally
intended to direct wayfarers upon those trackless wastes.

In winter, when the herbage, always short, was shortest, and when the
ground was softened by rain, there might be detected the ruts left by
waggon wheels crossing each other in various directions; but road, or
path properly so-called, there was none, and a stranger might as well
have been placed on the desert of the Sahara. For time, and the rain
blown with tremendous force across these open Downs by the wind, had
all but obliterated the painted letters upon the cross-arms, and none
but those acquainted with the country could have understood the
fragmentary inscriptions.

Some mischievous ploughboys or shepherd lads, tired of arranging flints
in fanciful rows, or cutting their names upon the turf, had improved
the shining hour by climbing up this post, pulling out the arms, and
inserting them in the opposite mortices, thereby making the poor post
an unwitting liar. This same section of the population had also
energetically pelted all the milestones for far around with flints,
till the graven letters upon them were beaten out. Such wooden wit was
their only resource in a place where _Punch_ never penetrated; for this
lonesome spot was appropriately named World’s End, or, it was locally
pronounced, Wurdel’s End.

The undulating downs surrounded it upon every side, dotted here and
there at long distances with farmsteads and a few cottages, and now and
then a small village or hamlet of ten or a dozen houses grouped
together in a “combe,” or narrow valley, where there happened to be a
spring of water and a “bourne” or stream. Yet World’s End was not
altogether to be despised. In this out-of-the-way place there was
perhaps the finest natural racecourse in England, to which the uneven
uphill course at Epsom, made famous by the Derby, was but an exercise
ground.

A level stretch of sweet, elastic turf, half a mile wide, ran in a line
something like half a horse-shoe, under the steep Downs, for a distance
of two miles, unimpeded by hedge, ditch, or enclosed field, and
obstructed only in a few spots by thick bushes of furze and a few
scattered hawthorn trees.

A spectator standing upon the Downs had the whole of this Plain, as it
was called, at once under his eye; could see a horse start and watch it
gallop to the goal. From an ancient earthwork camp or “castle,” this
Down was known as Berbury Hill, and the level plain was often called
Berbury racecourse.

For from time immemorial rustic sports, and local races between the
horses of the neighbouring farmers, had taken place twice a year under
the Berbury Hill. The sports were held in the early spring; the races
proper, according to custom, came off in October. They were of the most
primitive character, as may be judged from the following poster, which
the kindness of a printer and bookbinder at Barnham—the nearest
town—enables us to present to the reader. He had preserved a copy of
it, having returned the original to the committee, who sat at the
Shepherd’s Bush Inn upon the Downs:—

“Take Notiss. The Public is hereby Invite to the Grand open and Hurdle
Rases and Steple-Chaces at Wurdel’s End which is to come off on Wensday
after old Michelmuss Day. All particlars of the Stewards which is
Martin Brown, William Smith, Philip Lewis, Ted Pontin. Illegul Beting
is stoped.”

This copy had in the corner, “Please print two Score and send by
Carrier,” and the unfortunate printer, ashamed to issue such a
circular, sent it back with an amended form for approval; but the
carrier forgot the letter, and it was not delivered till a week after
the event—not that much was lost by the failure to give this species of
publicity to the races. The day was well-known to all those who were
likely to attend. The half-dozen gipsies, with the cocoanut sticks and
gingerbread stall, duly arrived, and took up their quarters in a fir
copse where the ground was dry, and the tree-trunks sheltered them
somewhat from the breeze which always blows over the Downs.

Most of the spectators were hill men. There still lingers the old feud
between the hill and vale—not so fierce, toned down to an occasional
growl—but Nature herself seems to have provided a never-ceasing ground
of quarrel. These two races, the hill and the vale men, must always put
up opposing prayers to heaven. The vale prays for fine and dry weather;
the hill prays for wet. How then can they possibly agree? Not more than
three knots of men and half a dozen wenches came up from the vale, and
these gave pretty good evidence that they had called _en route_ at the
Shepherd’s Bush, for they were singing in chorus the lament of the
young woman who went to the trysting place to meet her faithless
swain:—

But what was there to make her sad?
The gate was there, but not the lad;
Which made poor Mary to sigh and to say
Young William shan’t be mine!


The committee were in a moveable shepherd’s hut on wheels, where also
was the weighing-room and the weights, some of which were stone
“quarters.”

Just where the judges post was erected the course was roped for a
hundred yards to ensure the horses arriving at the right place, but
otherwise it was open. By the side of these ropes the traps and
four-wheelers and ramshackle gigs of the farmers were drawn up, with
their wives and daughters, who had come to see the fun.

Among these there was one pony-carriage drawn by two handsome ponies,
with a peacock’s feather behind their ears and silver bells on the
harness, which, simple enough in itself, had a stylish look beside
these battered and worn-out vehicles. It belonged to Jason Waldron, who
was generally credited with “Esquire” after his name, and the lady who
sat alone in it was his daughter Violet. Mr Waldron was not there.

Violet was attended by a young man, plainly dressed, very pale, whose
slight frame gave him an effeminate appearance in contrast with the
burly forms, and weather-beaten faces of those acquaintances who from
time to time nodded and spoke as they passed. The pony-carriage was
drawn up under an ancient hawthorn tree, whose gnarled and twisted
trunk, slow in growth, may have witnessed the formation of the
entrenchment on the hill by the Britons themselves. The first frosts of
autumn had blackened the leaves, and the mingling of the grey of the
trunk and its lichen with the dark colour of the leaves and the red
peggles or berries, under a warm, glowing, mellow sunshine, caused the
tree to assume a peculiar bronze-like tint.

It may be that the sun in all his broad domains did not shine that day
upon a more lovely being than Violet Waldron. Aymer Malet, the young
man at her side—whose Norman name ill-assorted with his coarse
garments, too plainly speaking of poverty—would have sworn that her
equal did not walk the earth, and he would have had good warrant for
his belief.

Poor Aymer was out of place in that rude throng, and tormented himself
with fears lest he should appear despicable in her eyes, as so inferior
to those stalwart men in size and strength. He should have known
better; but he was young and had lived so long with those who despised
him that a habit of self-depreciation had insensibly grown upon him. It
is needless to go back into his pedigree. He was well descended, but an
orphan and friendless, except for the single uncle who had given a roof
and a bed to lie on to his sister’s child.

Martin Brown was a well-meaning man, honest and sturdy, but totally
incapable of comprehending that all men are not absorbed in sheep and
turnips. He was moderately well off, but, like all true farmers, frugal
to the extreme. Never a penny did Aymer get from him. Martin would have
said: “Thee doesn’t work; thee doesn’t even mind a few ewes. If thee’ll
go bird-keeping I’ll pay thee.”

Aymer wished for work, but not work of that class. He remembered one
golden year spent in London with a friend of his dead father (who had
lost his all by horse-racing), where he was permitted to read at will
in a magnificent library, and was supplied with money to visit those
art-galleries and collections in which his heart delighted. The friend
died; the widow had no interest in him, and Aymer returned to the
turnips, and sheep. But even in that brief period the impulse had been
given; the seed had been sown and had fallen in fertile ground, which
gave increase a hundredfold.

The boy—he was but twenty then—was a born genius. He could not help it;
it would force him on. What he wanted was books. He could get no money
to purchase them; circulating libraries had not yet established
agencies upon the open Downs. By a strange contradiction he became a
poacher, and the cleverest hand at setting a wire for miles. Tenants
were not allowed to shoot in that district, but they might course hares
as much as they pleased.

Aymer wired the ground game, sold them to the carriers who went by, and
through the carriers got books slowly and one by one from the county
town. In this way he bought many of Bohn’s fine series—the finest and
most useful, perhaps, ever issued—he read Plato and Aristotle, Livy,
Xenophon—the poets, the philosophers, the dramatists of ancient Rome
and Greece; and although it was not in their original tongue, the vivid
imagination of the man carried him back to their day, and enabled him
to realise those stirring scenes, to feel their passions, and
comprehend their arguments. He bought also most of the English poets, a
few historians, and a large number of scientific works, for he was
devoured with an eager curiosity to understand the stars that shone so
brilliantly upon those hills—the phenomena of Nature with which he was
brought in daily contact. When he had mastered a book, his friends the
carriers, who called at the Shepherd’s Bush, took it back to the county
town and resold it for half-price, and these small sums went towards
fresh purchases.

It may have been that these very untoward circumstances which would, to
all appearance, have checked the growth of his mind, actually tended to
assist it. He saw—he felt Nature. The wind, that whistled through the
grass and sighed in the tops of the dark fir trees, spoke to him in a
mystic language. The great sun, in unclouded splendour slowly passing
over the wide, endless hills, told him a part of the secret. His books
were not read, in the common sense of the term: they were _thought_
through. Not a sentence but was thought over, examined, and its full
meaning grasped and firmly imprinted on the memory.

Poor Aymer! How desperately he longed to escape! How the soft summer
breeze seemed to woo him onwards he knew not whither! How the sun
seemed to beckon, till he fancied he could hear the echo of the surge
as it roared on the far-distant beach!

He did escape once—only for a little while, to be forced ignominiously
back again, amid the jeers of his acquaintances. This happened before
he knew Violet. By dint of catching hares and rabbits, and by selling
off an accumulation of books, and by disposing of his gold watch—his
only property—he managed to get some twenty pounds, and with that sum
went straight to Florence.

It was in spring, just before the warm summer comes, and he revelled in
the beauty of Italian skies and landscapes as he travelled. But his
destination was the Palazzo, which contains the statue of ideal woman,
known as the Venus de Medici. He stood before the living marble, rapt
in thought, and then suddenly burst into tears.

This was perhaps childish. He had his faults; he was extremely proud
and oversensitive. The sudden transition from the harsh and rude life
at World’s End, among the weather-beaten and rough-speaking rustics, to
this new world of inexpressible beauty, overcame him. Hastily he
brushed those tears away, and recovered himself; but not so quickly as
to escape the observation of two sad grey eyes. Inadvertently, as he
stood before the statue, he had interfered with the line of sight of a
lady who was engaged in sketching. She had paused, and noticing his
rapt attention, made no sign that he had interrupted her work. Thus she
witnessed his weakness; and being a person of a thoughtful, perhaps too
thoughtful, turn, she wondered at and pondered over it.

Day by day Aymer, while his funds lasted and he could stay in Florence,
came and stood before the statue, lingering for hours in its close
vicinity; so that the artist, as she sketched, had the fullest
opportunity of noting the strong contrast between his delicate,
intellectual features and slight, tall frame, and the coarse dress he
wore. Growing interested, she instructed her attendants to make
inquiries, and they easily elicited the name of the stranger, and the
place from which he had come.

By a curious coincidence, it so happened that the lady-artist herself
was the owner of a family mansion, and moderately large estate but a
few miles from Aymer’s home. He was, in fact, perfectly familiar with
her name, which was a household word at World’s End, where
distinguished names were few; but moving in his low sphere he had never
seen her face.

Lady Lechester—Agnes Lechester to her friends—was “lord of herself,
that heritage of woe,” and being of an artistic turn of mind, had spent
much of her time upon the Continent; another reason being certain
unhappy matters connected with the history of the family mansion. She
was much struck with the singularity of a mere lad of low and poor
estate thus coming to Florence, obviously from pure love of the
beautiful. Nothing approaching to affection sprang up in her mind; it
must be distinctly understood that her interest was of a different
character entirely. But from that moment Aymer unconsciously became the
subject of a certain amount of surveillance. He deemed himself despised
and unnoticed by all; but there was one who had not forgotten him.

Those happy days in lovely Florence passed like a dream. Even by living
on a few fruits and a little bread alone, the scanty stock of money he
had carried with him could not be made to last for ever. Barely a month
of pure, unalloyed pleasure—pure in every sense of the term—and poor
Aymer, who knew not how to get employment in a foreign city, was
obliged to return, and Agnes Lechester saw him no more standing in rapt
admiration before the famous statue.

Aymer reached Dover with five shillings in his pocket, and walked the
whole of the distance, one hundred and fifty miles, to World’s End,
often sleeping out at night under a rick. Slight as he was in frame, he
possessed considerable power of enduring fatigue, and had a way of
lounging idly along the road, abstracted in thought, and so walking
mile after mile, till he woke up at his destination.

They laughed him to scorn at World’s End. The poor fellow wandered
about in the daytime on the Downs, hiding in the fir copses, lying on
the ancient earthwork entrenchment, and dreaming of his fair Florence,
so many hundreds of miles away. He grew dejected and hopeless till he
saw Violet. Then in time, the very destiny he deemed so harsh in
confining him to that rude spot seemed even superior to the glorious
possibilities he had hoped for. For Violet took the place of the marble
goddess; yet there never was a beauty less like the Venus de Medici.
Lovely as are the ideals men have created for themselves, it sometimes
happens that Nature presents us with a rare gem, surpassing those cold
conceptions of the mind as far as the sun is above the earth.



Chapter Two.


Violet returned from a long visit to friends near London just about the
time that Aymer reached home, weary and footsore, from Dover. Although
The Place, as Jason Waldron’s house was called, was but two miles from
World’s End, Aymer had never seen her. She was but rarely at home, for
Waldron had given her the best education money could buy, and this
necessitated much absence from her native hills. But, education and
visits over, Violet, with a happy heart, returned to the dear old home
at last.

It was on one lovely afternoon in May that Aymer saw her for the first
time. He was lying upon the ground hidden in the brake which grew round
the hedge of a fir copse on the Downs. Through this copse there ran a
narrow green lane or track. He was reading his favourite little book of
poetry—one that he always carried in his pocket—the tiny edition of
Shakespeare’s Poems and Sonnets, published by William James Brown,
thirty years since, and now out of print.

Somehow the spirit of those sonnets and that peculiar poetry had
penetrated into his mind. The little book was annotated on its narrow
margin with notes in his own handwriting, and he knew the greater part
of it by heart. He had just read the sonnet beginning—

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red.
* * * * *
And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
As she belied with false compare,


when the sound of horse’s hoofs made him look up.

A lady, riding on a black horse, had entered the green lane, and was
passing slowly at a walk. It was Violet. Waldron. All that English
beauty which seemed to pervade the poetry of wonderful Will, to Aymer’s
fancy appeared to be hers. She passed him, and was gone, but her
presence was left behind.

Aymer could not have analysed her then—if asked, he could have barely
recounted the colour of her hair. Yet she dwelt with him—hovered about
him; he fed upon the remembrance of her until he had seen her again. By
slow degrees he grew to understand the reason of her surpassing
loveliness—to note the separate features, to examine the colours and
the lines that composed this enchanting picture. A new life dawned upon
him—a new worship, so to say.

It happened that Martin Brown had some business to transact with Jason
Waldron. Waldron bore the reputation of being a “scholard;” he was
known to be comparatively wealthy; he did not mix with the society of
World’s End; and he was held in some sort of awe by the rude and
uneducated residents in the locality.

Much as he despised that useless Aymer Malet, Martin in his secret
heart felt that he was better fitted to meet and talk with Mr Waldron
than himself. Aymer was, therefore, accredited to The Place. He went
with no little trepidation, knowing that it was Violet’s home, and
sharing to some extent the local hesitation to meet Waldron, who, being
an invalid, he had never seen. Mr Waldron received him with a cordial
courtesy, which quickly put him at his ease. When the grey-haired,
handsome old man, sitting in his Bath-chair in the shadow of a sycamore
tree, extended his hand and said: “I had some slight knowledge of your
father, Mr Malet—he came of a good family,” poor Aymer forgot his
coarse dress, and exhibited the bearing of a born gentleman. He could
not help admiring the garden in which he found his host. This evidently
genuine admiration pleased Waldron extremely, for the garden had been
the solace of his retired manhood, and of his helpless age. He began to
talk about it directly.

“It is the trees,” he said; “it is the trees that make it look well.
Trees are really far more beautiful than flowers. I planted most of
them; you have heard the Eastern saying, Mr Malet—that those who plant
trees live long. That yew-hedge?—no; I did not plant that. Such hedges
are rare now—that hedge has been growing fully a hundred years—the
stems, if you will look, are of immense size. To my mind, the old
English yew is a greater favourite than the many foreign evergreens now
introduced. The filbert walk?—yes; I planted that. Come and see me in a
few months’ time, and you shall crack as many as you choose. The old
house picturesque?—it is: I wish I had a sketch of it. You draw?—a
little; now try. Take out your pocket-book—ah! I see you have a regular
artist’s sketchbook.”

To tell the honest truth, Aymer was not a little pleased to have the
opportunity of exhibiting his skill before some one who could
appreciate it. He was a natural draughtsman. I do not think he ever,
even in later and more fortunate days, attempted colours; but with
pencil and crayon, or pen and ink, he was inimitable. Once at work with
his pencil, Aymer grew absorbed and forgot everything—even the presence
of the invalid, who watched him with interest. The gables and the roof,
the curious mullioned windows, the chimney-stacks, the coat of arms and
fantastic gargoyles, then the trees and arbours grew upon the paper.

“Ah! that’s my window,” said a low voice.

His pencil slipped and made a thick stroke—he looked round, it was
Violet.

For the first time he looked into her eyes and met her face to face. He
could not draw. His hand would not keep steady; he blamed it to the
heat of the summer sun. Violet declared it was her fault.

Mr Waldron seized the incomplete sketch, and insisted upon Mr Malet
(the title, humble as it was, was pleasant to Aymer’s ears) returning
to finish it next day.

In his confusion Aymer somehow got away, and then remembered that the
sketchbook he had left behind was full of drawings, and amongst them
there were two that brought a flush to his brow as he thought of them.
One was Violet on horseback; the other a profile of her face. He wished
to return and claim his book, and yet he hesitated. A sweet uncertainty
as to what she would think mastered him. He dared not venture back. The
next day passed, and the next—still he did not go—a week, a fortnight.

He could not summon up courage. Then came a note for “A. Malet,
Esq”—that “Esq” subjected him to bitter ridicule from rude old
Martin—from Mr Waldron, inquiring if he had been ill, and begging him
to visit at The Place, according to promise.

There was no escape. He went; and from that hour the intimacy increased
and ripened till not a day passed without some part of it being spent
with the Waldrons. Violet had seen her portrait in the sketchbook, but
she said not a word. She made Aymer draw everything that took her
fancy. Once he was bold enough to ask to sketch her hand. She blushed,
and became all dignity; Aymer cowered. He was not bold enough. How
could he be? With barely a shilling in his pocket, rough corduroy
trousers, an old battered hat, a black coat almost green from long
exposure to sun and rain;—after years of ridicule and jeering how could
he face her?

His heart was full, but his lips dared not speak. His timidity and
over-sensitiveness made him blind to signs and tokens that would have
been instantly apparent to others of harder mould. He never saw the
overtures that the growing love in Violet’s breast compelled her to
offer. He tormented himself day and night with thinking how to compass
and obtain her love, when it was his already.

The one great difficulty was his poverty. Think how he would, he could
discover no method by which it could be remedied. He had no means of
obtaining employment, and employment would imply absence from her. How
could he make her love him? He turned to his faithful friend and
adviser, dear old Will. The tiny volume of poems was carefully scanned,
and he lit upon those verses commencing—

When as thine eye hath chose the dame
And stall’d the deer that thou shouldst strike.


He asked himself if he had done as the lover was advised—

And when thou com’st thy tale to tell
Smooth not thy tongue with filed talk.


Certainly he had not attempted to beguile her with insinuating
flattery—

But plainly say thou lov’st her well,
And set her person forth to sale.


This he had not done. How dare he say he loved her well? He had not the
courage to praise her person.

And to her will frame all thy ways.


This he was willing and ready enough to do. He believed he had done so
already; but read on—

Spare not to spend, and chiefly there
Where thy desert may merit praise
By ringing in thy lady’s ear.


Here he was at a standstill. He could not spend; he could not even
dress as a gentleman. He could not make her rich and beautiful
presents.

The strongest castle, tower, and town
The golden bullet beats it down.


He had no golden bullets—to him the castle was therefore impregnable.

Serve always with assured trust,
And in thy suit be humble, true—


Advice such as this last he could and did follow conscientiously.

Have you not heard it said full oft,
A woman’s nay doth stand for nought?—


Encouraging to those who could press the question, but he had not even
courage to get the first nay. It was the “golden bullet”—the lack of
the power to spend—the miserable poverty which pressed upon him with a
leaden weight. He did his best to follow infallible Will’s advice. He
snared twenty hares and sold them; he had still a small gold
pencil-case left—it had belonged to his mother. He sold that also.

On foot he walked forty miles to Reading, and spent the whole proceeds
in the purchase of a pair of fine jet bracelets, which his instinct
told him would look well upon Violet’s white wrist. When he had got
them, came the difficulty—how could he give them to her? At last he
employed a shepherd lad to leave a parcel for Miss Waldron.

He kept away several days, but love was more powerful than shame. He
went.

With Violet he strolled up the long shady filbert walk, with the
clusters, now ripe, hanging overhead. His heart beat fast, but he said
nothing. On her part she was silent. Suddenly she lifted up her arm and
reached after a cluster of the nuts high up. Her sleeve fell down; the
beautiful arm was bare to the elbow, and there was the bracelet!

Her eyes met his; a lovely colour suffused her cheek. An uncontrollable
impulse seized him. He caught her hand and kissed it. Why linger? No
one can tell how these things come about. Their lips met, and it is
enough.

That was the happiest autumn Aymer ever knew. Even now he looks back at
its sweetness with a species of regret. The sunshine was warmer, the
blue of the sky richer, the yellow mist that hung over the landscape
softer, the bee went by with a joyous hum, the crimson-and-gold of the
dying leaves was more brilliant than ever it had been before or since.
Love lent his palette to Nature, and the world was aglow with colour.
How delicious it is to see everything through the medium, and in the
company of a noble girl just ripening into womanhood! I remember one
such summer—

But age with his stealing steps
Has clawed me in his clutch.


She was very beautiful; it is hard to describe her. It was not perhaps
so much the features, the hue of the hair, the colour of the eye, the
complexion, or even the shape, as the life, the vitality, the wonderful
freshness which seemed to throw a sudden light over her, as when the
sunshine falls upon a bed of flowers:—

            Idalian Aphrodite, beautiful,
Fresh as the foam, new-bathed in Paphian wells,
With rosy, slender fingers backward drew
From her warm brows and bosom, her deep hair
Ambrosial, golden round her lucid throat
And shoulder: from the violets her light foot
Shone rosy-white, and o’er her rounded form
Between the shadows of the vine-bunches
Floated the glowing sunlights as she moved.


The modern taste for catalogues compels me to name the colour of her
eye and hair. Her eye was full, large, and lustrous; that deep black so
rarely seen—an eye that gave quick expression to the emotions of the
heart—that flashed with laughter, or melted with tenderness. Her hair
was not quite golden; it was properly brown, but so near the true
golden that a little sunlight lit it up with a glossy radiance
impossible to express in words. The complexion was that lovely mingling
of red and white, which the prince in the fairy tale prayed his
lady-love might have, when he saw the crimson blood of a raven he had
slain, staining the translucent marble slab upon which it had fallen.
The nose was nearly straight; the lips full and scarlet. She was tall,
but not too tall. It is difficult for a woman to have a good carriage
unless she be of moderate height. Enough of the catalogue system.

They visited all the places in the neighbourhood where Aymer’s pencil
could find a subject. Now it was a grand old beech tree; now only a
grey stone, set up centuries and centuries since as a “stone of
memorial” by races long reduced to ashes; now The Towers, the home of
Lady Lechester. With them always went Dando, Waldron’s favourite dog, a
huge mastiff, who gambolled about in unwieldly antics at Violet’s feet.

Aymer listened to her as she played. He sat by the invalid under the
shadow of the sycamore tree near the open window, where he could see
her sitting at the piano, pouring forth the music of Mendelssohn in
that peculiar monotonous cadence which marks the master’s works and
fills the mind with a pleasant melancholy. Now and then her head
turned, a glance met his, and then the long eyelashes drooped again.
Presently out she would come with a rush, making old Dando (short for
Dandolo) bound and bark with delight as he raced her round the green,
tearing her flowing dress with his teeth, and whisking away when she
tried to catch him.

The grace of her motions, the suppleness of her lithe form, filled
Aymer’s heart with a fierce desire to clasp her waist and devour her
lips, while the invalid laughed aloud at the heavy bounds of his dog.
The old man saw clearly what was going forward, yet he did not put
forth his hand to stay it. They were a happy trio that summer and
autumn at World’s End.



Chapter Three.


The summer passed away, as all things do, the winter, and the spring
blossomed afresh, and still the course of true love ran smooth with
Aymer and Violet.

The winter had been only one degree less pleasant than the summer.
Violet had a beautiful voice; Aymer’s was not nearly so fine: still, it
was fairly good, and scarcely an evening passed without duets and solos
on the pianoforte, while old Waldron, animated for the time beyond his
wont, accompanied them upon the violin. He had an instrument which,
next to his daughter and his dog Dando, he valued above all things. It
was by Guarnerius, and he handled it with more care than a mother does
her infant, expatiating upon the quality of the wood, the sycamore and
pine, the beauty of the varnish, the peculiar, inimitable curl of the
scroll, which had genius in its very twist.

Aymer was a ready listener. In the first place, he had grown to look
upon Waldron in the light that he would have regarded an affectionate
and beneficent father. Then he was, above all things, anxious to please
Violet, and he knew that she adored the Silver Fleece, as she called
him, in laughing allusion to his odd Christian name, Jason, and to his
grey hairs. And, lastly, he really did feel a curiosity and a desire to
learn.

Sometimes Aymer gave Violet lessons in drawing, and she repaid him with
lessons in French and music, being proficient in both.

After a while Waldron discovered that this boy, without means or
friends, had made himself acquainted with the classics, and had even
journeyed as a pilgrim to the shrines of ancient art at Florence.

At this he was highly pleased. He at once set to work to ground Aymer
in the original languages in which Plato and Livy wrote. He taught him
to appreciate the delicate allusions, and exquisite turn of diction, of
Horace. He corrected the crude ideas which the self-instructed student
had formed, and opened to him the wide field of modern criticism. The
effect upon Aymer’s mind was most beneficial, and the old man, while
teaching the youth, felt his heart, already predisposed, yearning
towards him more and more.

To Violet this was especially a happy omen, for she, above all things,
loved her only parent, and had not ceased to fear lest her affection
for Aymer should be met by his disapproval. As time went on, the ties
of intimacy still further strengthened.

Waldron was now often seen in deep thought, and left the young people
more to themselves. He busied himself with pen and ink, with
calculations and figures, to the subject-matter of which he did not ask
their attention.

Even yet Aymer had not thought of marriage; even yet he had not
overcome his constitutional sensitiveness so much as to contemplate
such a possibility. It was enough to dwell in the sunshine of her
presence. Thoroughly happy in her love, he never thought of to-morrow.
Perhaps it is a matter to be regretted that we cannot always remain in
this state—ever enjoying the ideal without approaching nearer to the
realisation, for the realisation, let it be never so glorious, is of
the earth, earthy.

It is quite true that women like courage, and that boldness often goes
a long way; but it is questionable whether with high-bred natures a
subdued, quiet, and delicate manner does not go still further. Aymer
was incapable of self-laudation, of that detestable conceit which some
think it proper to show when they have made what they are pleased to
call “a conquest.” Pity the poor castles that have stooped to them!

His happiness had but one alloy—the perpetual remembrance of his own
unworthiness, the immeasurable difference in his worldly position,
which made it a presumption in him even to frequent her presence, much
less to bask in her love. There were plenty who did not fail to remind
him of this discrepancy in their mutual positions, for his intimacy at
The Place could not, of course, pass unnoticed.

Martin Brown said nothing whatever. If there was any alteration in his
manner as the truth dawned on him, it was in favour of Aymer. With such
men everything is judged by results. While Aymer went about sketching
alone, he despised him and his pencil; the moment the very same talent
obtained him the notice of those in a superior station, then Aymer was
do longer such a fool. Martin said nothing. He refrained from his
former jeers, and abstained from telling Aymer to go and mind the
sheep.

It was also to his advantage that Aymer should get rich acquaintances,
and so possibly obtain a livelihood, and relieve him of an expense,
which, however small, was always a bitter subject with him.

But there were others—farmers’ sons—in the district who did not spare
Aymer. They despised him; they could not understand him; and they hated
him for his luck in carrying off the squire’s daughter. They credited
him with the most mercenary motives, and called him a beggarly upstart.
If Aymer chanced to pass near them he was saluted with ironical bows
and cheers, and hats were obsequiously doffed to “My Lord Muck,” or “My
Lord Would-Be.”

He made no reply, but the insult went home. He knew that there was a
great deal of ground for this treatment. He knew that his conduct must
appear in such a light to others; and yet how welcome they always made
him at The Place. He questioned himself if he was doing right;
sometimes his pride said “Go; carve yourself a fortune, and then return
for her;” but love, strong love always conquered and drove him forward.
He deemed that, with the exception of Violet and Waldron, all the world
looked upon him with contempt. He was wrong.

In the spring, Violet began to ride again over the Downs. This habit
for a moment again lowered Aymer in his own estimation, for he had no
horse to accompany her. What was his delight and astonishment when one
day Violet took him to the stables and asked him how he liked the new
grey horse. It was a handsome animal—Aymer admired it, as in duty
bound, and as, indeed, he could not help, yet with a heart full of
mortification, when Violet whispered that papa had bought it for him to
ride with her. She flung her arms, in her own impulsive way, round his
neck, kissed him, and rushed away to don her riding-habit before he
could recover from his astonishment.

It was true. In an hour’s time they were galloping over the soft
springy turf of the Downs, trying the paces of the grey, who proved
faster than the black. The rides were repeated day by day; and it often
happened that, while thus enjoying themselves, they passed one or more
of those very persons who had so often insulted Aymer.

Instead of sitting firmer and with pride in his saddle, Aymer felt that
he all the more deserved their censure, and looked the other way as he
went by.

He did not know that there was one eye at least that watched him with
pleasure, and with something like a quiet envy. It was the same grey
eye that had observed, him in the Palazzo at Florence.

Agnes Lechester had returned to England to spend some time at the old
Towers, and had not failed to make inquiries for the young pilgrim who,
in coarse garb, she had seen at the shrine of art. She heard of the
intimacy with Waldron, whom she had once or twice spoken to; and as the
lovers rode slowly beneath her grand and comfortless home, she sat at
her window, and paused in her art-work, and looked down upon them and
sighed. She could not but envy them their joy and youth, their path
strewn with roses and lighted by love. She had no need to envy Violet’s
beauty, for, although no longer young, Agnes Lechester was a fine
woman. It was the life, the full glowing life, she deemed so desirable.
And she rejoiced that the poor pilgrim had found so fair a lady-love.
So that there was one eye at least which, unknown to Aymer, watched him
with a quiet pleasure and approval. Had he known it, it would have
encouraged him greatly. By precipitating matters it might have
prevented—but let us proceed.

Jason Waldron knew that his daughter loved, and was beloved. He was no
ordinary man. His life had been spent far from those money-making
centres where, in time, the best of natures loses its original bias,
and sees nothing but gold. Age, he believed, had given him some power
of penetration; and in Aymer he thought he had found one in a
thousand—one with whom his darling daughter’s future would be safe. “He
will not follow the universal idol,” thought the old man. “He will be
content with art and literature, with nature and with Violet. I can see
nothing in store for them but the happiest of lives.” He waited long,
expecting Aymer to approach the subject in some distant manner. At last
he comprehended his reluctance. “He is poor and proud—he is afraid, and
no wonder,” he thought. “He shall not suffer for that.”

The benevolent old man, anxious only to complete the happiness of those
he loved, resolved to be the first, and to hold out a welcoming hand.
One day he called for Aymer to his study, and motioning him to a seat,
averted his face, not to confuse him, and said that he had long seen
the mutual affection between Violet and him. He understood why Aymer
had refrained from taking him into his confidence—he could appreciate
the difficulties of his position. Without any hesitation, he approved
of Violet’s choice. His own years had now begun to weigh upon him, and
he grew daily more anxious that Violet should be settled. He proposed,
therefore, that if Aymer would not mind the arrangement, they should be
united as speedily as possible, and that after a short trip they should
return and live with him at The Place. He could not spare Violet
entirely—he must hear the sound of her voice, and see the light of her
eyes, while yet the power to do so remained with him. He was not really
rich. In that poor district, indeed, he appeared so, but it was only by
comparison. Were he to be placed in some great city, side by side with
the men whose trade was gold, his little all would sink into the utmost
insignificance. Beside rude rustics, who lived from hand to mouth,
content if they paid the rent, and perhaps put by a hundred guineas in
the county bant, he was well off; but not when weighed against the
world.

He had but the house he dwelt in, a few acres of surrounding pasture,
and three thousand pounds placed out on loan. This money brought in a
good interest, but he had lately thought of calling it in for greater
safety, as he felt himself to be getting old in every sense of the
term.

It was obvious, therefore, that on the score of expense alone it would
be difficult for him to give a dower to Violet sufficient to support a
second home. If they could be happy with him, why he should be content.

He turned and held out his hand to Aymer. Aymer took it, but could say
nothing. He was literally overwhelmed. To him, after so long a
solitude, after so much contempt, this marvellous good fortune was
overpowering. Jason pretended not to notice his confusion.

“We understand one another,” he said. “It is agreed, is it not?”

Despite all his attempts, Aymer could but incline his head.

“It is a lovely day—take Violet for a ride to Berbury camp.”

How Aymer managed to convey what had passed to Violet he never knew,
but that was the longest ride they ever had together, and it was dark
before The Place was reached.

Aymer did not go home after quitting Violet. He walked away upon the
Downs until safe from observation, then threw himself upon the sward,
and poured out his heart in thanksgiving. When he had grown a little
calmer he leant against a beech-trunk and gazed at the stars. In that
short hour upon the solitary Downs he lived a whole lifetime of
happiness. There are some of us who can remember such hours—they occur
but once to any human being.

To do the rough residents of the district justice, so soon as it was
understood to be settled that they were to be married, then the tone of
the place changed, and they no longer insulted and annoyed him. Some
wished him joy and happiness: not without a tinge of envy at his good
fortune, expressed in the rude language of the hills, “I wish I had
thee luck, lad.”

It was generally agreed that when the marriage took place there should
be an arch erected and decorated with flowers, for the bride and
bridegroom to pass under; that the path through the churchyard should
be strewn with roses, that volleys of firearms should be discharged,
and the day kept as a holiday. This was settled at the Shepherd’s Bush
over foaming jugs of ale.

“Arter all,” said an old fellow, “he bean’t such a bad sort o’ chap. A’
mind a’ tuk a main bit o’ trouble loike to pull a ewe o’ mine out of a
ditch where hur laid on hur back.”

“Ay, ay!” said another; “and a’ drawed my little Kittie on the kitchen
wall wi’ a bit o’ charcoal as natural as ever hur walked—zo let’s gie
’un a rouser, chaps, and no mistake!”

This was how it happened that at World’s End Races that fateful year,
early in October, a delicate-looking young man, commonly dressed, stood
beside the pretty pony-carriage under the hawthorn tree. The marriage
was fixed for that day week.



Chapter Four.


The marriage would have taken place earlier but for two circumstances:
first, the difficulty of obtaining the wedding outfit for Violet in
that out-of-the-way place; and secondly, because Jason insisted upon
some important alterations being made in the old house, in order to
render it more comfortable for his children.

There is no event in life which causes so much discussion, such
pleasant anticipation, as the marriage-day; and at The Place there was
not a single thing left unmentioned; every detail of the ceremony was
talked over, and it was a standing joke of Jason’s to tell Violet to
study her prayer-book, a remark that never failed to make the blood
mount to her forehead.

She grew somewhat pensive as the final moment approached—with all her
youth and spirits, with all the happy omens that accompanied the course
of her love, she could not view this, the most important step she would
ever take, always with thoughtless levity. She became silent and
thoughtful, gave up riding, and devoted herself almost exclusively to
attending upon Jason, till Aymer—silly fellow!—grew jealous, and
declared it was unkind of her to look forward to the wedding-day as if
it was a sentence of imprisonment.

Mr Waldron had lived so retired that there was some little difficulty
in fixing upon a representative to give Violet away, for as an invalid
he could not himself go to the church; and this was the only thing he
was heard to regret—that he should not see Violet married. However, he
consoled himself with the thought that he should see her immediately
afterwards, as the church was hardly half a mile distant, down in a
narrow combe or valley. After some reflection, Mr Waldron decided upon
asking his solicitor, Mr Merton, of Barnham, to act as his
representative and give the bride away.

Merton, who was an old bachelor, was really delighted at the idea, but
with true professional mendacity made an immense virtue of the
sacrifice of time it entailed. He really was so busy with a great law
case just coming on that really—but then his old friend Waldron, and
lovely Miss Violet—duty pulled him one way and inclination another, and
beauty, as was proper, triumphed.

Violet had few acquaintances, and it was more difficult still to find
her a bridesmaid—not that there were not plenty ready to fill that
onerous post—but she disliked the idea of a stranger. Mr Merton, the
solicitor, solved the difficulty by suggesting a niece of his, a merry
girl whom Violet had met once or twice.

Aymer could not do less than ask old Martin Brown to stand as his best
man, never dreaming that he would accept the task. But what was his
surprise when Martin declared that he should enjoy the fun, and would
rather miss Barnham fair than not be there. He came out tolerably
handsome for him; he offered Aymer a five-pound note to purchase a
suitable dress! This note Aymer very respectfully declined to take, and
the farmer, half repenting of his generosity, did not press him too
hard. Yet he could not help expressing his wonder as to how Aymer meant
to appear at church. “Thee bisn’t a-goin’ to marry th’ squire’s darter
in thee ould hat?”

Aymer smiled and said nothing. Fortune had aided him in this way too.
After endless disappointments and “returned with thanks,” he had
suddenly received a cheque for a sketch of his which had been accepted
by an illustrated paper. Immediately afterwards came another cheque for
a short story accepted by a magazine. This success, small as it was,
elated him, if anything, more than the approaching marriage-day. He had
tried, and tried, and tried, and failed again and again, till he
despaired and ceased to make the attempt, till the necessity of
obtaining some clothes drove him to the last desperate venture. He was
elated beyond measure. A successful author, a successful artist, and
just about to marry the most beautiful woman in the world!

He resolved to tell Violet nothing about it, but to show her the sketch
and the story as they were upon their trip. Thus it was that he was
independent of Martini grudging generosity. Fortune did not stop even
here. As if determined to shower delight upon him—to make up at one
blow for the cruel isolation, the miserable restraint he had
undergone—she never seemed to tire of opening up fresh vistas of
pleasure. Both Violet and Aymer would have been satisfied, and more
than satisfied, with a simple visit to the seaside; but Jason was not
so easily pleased. His daughter was his life—nothing was too good for
her—and, besides, such an event happened but once in a lifetime, and it
was fit and proper that it be accompanied with memorable circumstances.
He announced his intention of sending his children to Florence.

To Florence, the beautiful city, which dwelt for ever in Aymer’s
dreams—the city he had described time after time to Violet, till the
girl thought it the finest upon earth. He was to revisit Florence, and
to revisit it with Violet! His heart was full—it would have been
impossible to add another blessing.

Violet raced about the house and the garden, teasing Dando to
distraction—all her pensiveness dispelled, murmuring “Florence” at
every turn. What further joy could there be in store?—it was
impossible. It is almost safe to say that these two were the happiest
in England. Well they might be. They had all upon their side—i.e.,
youth.

Violet was to be married upon her twenty-first birthday; Aymer was
twenty-three only. Money—not riches—but sufficient for an easy life.
Italy in view—the land of the artist and the poet! It was like a fairy
dream!

The days flew by. The dresses came—oh, what eager discussions and
conferences there were over the dresses! All the farmers’ daughters and
wives in the neighbourhood to whom Violet was even distantly known,
claimed the privilege to see the trousseau. In London it would have
been overlooked—there all things are upon a grand scale.

At World’s End the ladies were never tired of descanting upon the
glories of the silk and satin, the lace and tulle. How can a wretched,
unsympathising man describe the sensation produced by Violet’s wedding
outfit?

The dear girl was in ecstasies. Waldron had gone to the utmost limit of
his purse—his friend Merton even frowned a little—but he argued it was
only for once—just this once—he must be permitted a little extravagance
on Violet’s marriage-day.

Aymer was again plagued with his old tormentors—they did not sneer or
jeer at him, but he had to run the gauntlet of rude jokes and rustic
wit. He forgave them, and asked as many as he could to the breakfast.

The breakfast was to be laid out in that very apartment the window of
which opened upon the garden near the sycamore tree, where he had sat
so many times listening to Violet playing upon the pianoforte. There
was of course a cake, and there was to be what had never before been
seen or tasted at World’s End from time immemorial—i.e., several dozens
of champagne.

If the wedding outfit caused a sensation among the ladies, this
champagne was all the talk among the men. They thought of nothing
else—it was the subject of endless allusions and unabating
anticipation. Here and there was one who could say he had tasted the
wine—when after a good hunting spin Lord So-and-So had asked the
sportsmen to refresh themselves at his mansion. But the majority had
not the faintest notion of what it was like, and formed the most
fantastic expectations. There were a few who doubted whether there
would be any champagne, and treated it as a myth, till the servants at
The Place, proud of their importance, admitted some favoured
individuals who were regaled in secret with—the taste?—no, but the view
only of certain tall bottles dressed in rosy tissue paper, upon the
removal of which stood out the far-famed silver-foil, and doubt was no
more. World’s End was full of its first champagne treat.

Old Martin Brown swelled up into a person of enormous importance, as
being the nearest relative of the bridegroom; he was looked upon as an
oracle, and his remarks listened to with intense interest at the
nightly tobacco parliament at the Shepherd’s Bush.

The carriers took fabulous reports of what was to happen at World’s End
all over the district, and scores of honest people made up their minds
to trudge to Bury Wick Church.

Aymer was no longer knocked up at five in the morning, as was the
custom, to breakfast at six. He was undisturbed. No more jeers and
contempt—he was treated with deference. “My nevvy” was a success;
Martin spoke of his “nevvy” as if the connection did him honour.

I hope among the readers of this history there will be many ladies who
can remember their feelings on the approach of the marriage-day. Let
them kindly recall those moments of wild excitement, of trepidation
lest some accident should happen, of a half-hesitation, of a desire to
plunge at once and get it over—and approximately they will understand
Violet’s heart.

Even yet Fortune had not exhausted her favours. On the morning of
World’s End Races, just one short week before the day, there came a
letter in an unknown handwriting, addressed to Aymer Malet, Esq,
enclosing five ten-pound notes from an anonymous donor, who wished him
every felicity, and advised him to persevere in his art studies.

This extraordinary gift, so totally unexpected, filled Aymer with
astonishment. It seemed as if it had dropped from the skies, for he had
not the remotest suspicion that Lady Lechester was watching him with
interest.

At last the day came. Violet was awake at the earliest dawn, and saw
the sun rise, clear and cloudless, from the window. It was one of those
days which sometimes occur in autumn, with all the beauty and warmth of
summer, without its burning heat, and made still more delicious by the
sensation of idle drowsiness—a day for lotos eating. The beech trees
already showed an orange tint in places; the maples were turning
scarlet; the oaks had a trace of buff. The rooks lazily cawed as they
flew off with the acorns, the hills were half hidden with a yellowy
vapour, and a few distant fleecy clouds, far up, floated in the azure.
A dream-like, luxurious day, such as happens but once a year!

Violet was up with the sun—how could she rest? Miss Merton was with
her, chatting gaily. Oh, the mysteries of the toilet! my feeble pen
must leave that topic to imagination. All I can say is, that it seemed
as if it never would be completed, notwithstanding the reiterated
warnings of Jason that the time was going fast.

There came one more pleasant surprise.

A strange man on horseback was seen riding up to The Place. This was so
rare an event that Violet’s heart beat fast, fearing lest even at the
eleventh hour something should happen to cause delay. She waited; her
hands trembled. Even the delicious toilet had to be suspended.

Footsteps came up the staircase, and then the maidservant, bearing in
her hand a small parcel, advanced to Miss Waldron. With trembling
fingers she cut the string—it was a delicate casket of mother-of-pearl.
The key was in it; she opened the lid, and an involuntary exclamation
of surprise and admiration burst from her lips.

There lay the loveliest necklace of pearls that ever the sun had shone
upon. Rich, costly pearls—pearls that were exactly fitted above all
jewels for her—pearls that she had always wished for—pearls! They were
round her neck in a moment.

Miss Merton was in raptures; the maidservant lost her wits, and ran
downstairs calling every one to go up and see Miss Vi’let “in them
shiners!”

For a while, in the surprise and wonder, the donor had been forgotten.
Under the necklace was a delicate pink note, offering Lady Lechester’s
sincere desire that Miss Waldron would long wear her little present,
and wishing her every good thing. When the wedding trip was over, would
_Mrs_ Aymer Malet let her know that she might call?

Violet was not perfect any more than other girls; she had naturally a
vein of pride; she did feel no little elation at this auspicious mark
of attention and regard from a person in Lady Lechester’s position. The
rank of the donor added to the value of the gift.

Mr Waldron was much affected by this token of esteem. He could not
express his pleasure to the giver, because her messenger had galloped
off the moment he had delivered the parcel. The importance of the
bride, great enough before, immediately rose ninety per cent, in the
eyes of Miss Merton, and a hundred and fifty per cent, in the eyes of
the lower classes.

Mr Waldron, examining the pearls with the eye of a connoisseur, valued
them at the very lowest at two hundred guineas. The involuntary tears
of the poor pilgrim at the shrine of art had indeed solidified into
gems!

The news flew over the adjacent village of Bury Wick; the servants at
The Place spread it abroad, and in ten minutes it was known far and
wide. The excitement was intense. Champagne was grand enough—but
pearls! World’s End went wild! Champagne and pearls in one day! The
whole place turned out to give the bride a triumphant reception.

Aymer was forgotten in the excitement over Violet: forgotten, but not
by the bride. All she wished was to be able to show him her present—but
etiquette forbade his being sent for on that particular morning; he
must meet her at the church.

At the church—goodness! these pearls had delayed the toilet, and ten
o’clock had struck. At eleven—ah! at eleven!

Mr Merton had not arrived yet. He had arranged to bring his carriage;
at The Place they had nothing grander than the pony-carriage. Mr
Merton, anxious to do the thing well, as he expressed it, had sent word
that he should bring his carriage and pair of greys, to take the bride
to the church.

From the earliest dawn the bells at Bury Church had been going from
time to time; and every now and then there was a scattered fire of
musketry, like skirmishing; it was the young farmers and their friends
arriving with their guns, and saluting.

But at a quarter-past ten there was a commotion. The bells burst out
merrier than ever; there was volley after volley of musketry, and
cheering which penetrated even to the chamber of the bride, where she
sat before the mirror with the pearls round her neck. It was Merton
driving up in style, with his greys decorated with wedding favours.

Bang! clang! shout, and hurrah! The hand from Barnham struck up. “See
the Conquering Hero comes!” There never was such a glorious day before
or since at World’s End.

“Nevvy,” said old Martin, already a little warm, and slapping Aymer on
the back, “nevvy, my buoy! Thee bist th’ luckiest dog in
Inglandt—champagne and purls—Ha! ha! ha!”



Chapter Five.


There was an attempt at order, but it was an utter failure. The men
came crowding after Merton’s carriage shouting and firing guns, the
horses snorted, and when Violet glanced from the window, the excitement
of the scene made her hesitate and draw back.

Merton—a regular _lady’s bachelor_, so to say—was equal to the
occasion; it was not the first at which he had assisted. He at once
became the soul of the ceremonies. He congratulated Waldron, hastened
everybody, went into the apartment where the breakfast was laid out,
and with his own hands re-arranged it to his satisfaction, shouting out
all the time to the bride to make haste.

She came at last. How few brides look well in their wedding-dresses.
Even girls who are undeniably handsome fail to stand the trying ordeal;
but Violet was so happy, so radiant, she could not help but appear to
the best advantage.

Poor old Jason’s lip quivered as he gazed at his girl’s face—for the
last time as _his_—his lip quivered, and the words of his blessing
would not come; his throat swelled, and a tear gathered in his eye. She
bent and kissed him, turned and crossed the threshold.

Waldron wheeled himself to the large open window, and watched her walk
to the carriage along the carpet, put down that her feet might not
touch the ground.

Who shall presume to analyse the feelings of that proud and happy old
man? The carriage moved, the crowd shouted, the guns fired; he wheeled
his chair a little round, and his head leant forward. Was he thinking
of a day twenty-two years ago, when he—not a young man, but still full
of hope—led another fair bride to the altar; a bride who had long since
left him?

It was an ovation—a triumph all the way along that short half-mile to
the church: particularly as they entered the village. The greys pranced
slowly, lifting their hoofs well up, champing the bit, proud of their
burden. The bride and Miss Merton sat on one seat, Mr Merton on the
other. All the men and boys and children, all the shepherds and
ploughboys for miles and miles, who had gathered together, set up a
shout. The bells rang merrily, the guns popped and banged,
handkerchiefs were waved. Across the village street, but a few yards
from the churchyard lych-gate, they had erected an arch—as had been
determined on at the Shepherd’s Bush—an arch that would have done
credit to more pretentious places, with the motto, “Joy be with you.”

The bride dismounted at the lych-gate, which was itself covered with
flowers, and set her foot upon the scarlet cloth which the good old
vicar had himself provided, and which was laid down right to the porch.

The churchyard was full of children, chiefly girls, all carrying roses
and flowers to strew the path of the happy couple when they emerged
united. In the porch the ringers stood, four on each side, with their
hands upon the ropes ready to clash forth the news that the deed was
done. The old old clerk was there, in his black suit, which had done
duty on so many occasions.

She entered the little church—small, but extremely ancient. She passed
the antique font, her light footstep pressed upon the recumbent brazen
image of a knight of other days. The venerable vicar advanced to meet
her, the sunshine falling on his grey head. But where was Aymer? Surely
all must be well: but she could not see him—not for the moment.
True-hearted, loving Violet had looked for Aymer with his old battered
hat, in the corduroy trousers and the green coat she had known him in
so long.

For the moment she barely recognised the handsome, gentlemanly man
before her. It was Aymer—oh yes, it was Aymer—and how noble he looked
now that he was dressed as became him. Her heart gave another bound of
joy—involuntarily she stepped forward; what could be wanting to
complete her happiness that day? Certainly it would have been hard to
have named one single thing as lacking—not one. The pews were full of
women of all classes—they had been mostly reserved for them—the men
finding standing room as best they could; and a buzz of admiration went
round the church as Violet came into fall view. Her dress was good—it
was nothing to belles who flourish in Belgravia; but at World’s
End—goodness, it was Paris itself.

That costume formed the one great topic of conversation for years
afterwards. I know nothing of these things; but Miss Merton told me a
few days ago that the bride wore a wreath of white rosebuds and myrtle
upon her lovely head, and a veil of real Brussels lace. Her earrings
were of rubies and diamonds—a present that morning from gallant Mr
Merton. She had a plain locket (with a portrait of Waldron), and wore
the splendid necklace of pearls, the gift of Lady Lechester.

Her dress was white satin, trimmed with Brussels lace, and her feet
were shod in satin boots. Of course the “rosy, slender fingers” were
cased in the traditional white kid, and around her wrist was a bracelet
of solid dull gold—the bridegroom’s present, only delivered just as she
stepped into the carriage. She carried a bouquet of stephanotis,
orange, and myrtle.

It is very likely I have misunderstood Miss Merton’s lively
description, but I think that the above was something like it. Miss
Merton herself wore a white silk trimmed with turquoise, blue, a gold
locket with monogram in turquoise and pearls, and earrings to match—a
gift from Mr Waldron—and a bouquet, I think, chiefly of white roses and
jessamine.

It was a lovely sight. The sunshine fell upon the bride as she advanced
up the aisle—fell upon her through the antique panes which softened and
mellowed the light. Never did a fairer bride mount the chancel steps.

Aymer waited for her. Till now Violet had been comparatively calm; but
now, face to face with the clergyman robed in white, near to the altar
and its holy associations, as the first tones of his sonorous voice
fell upon her ear, what wonder that her knees trembled and the blood
forsook her cheek. Aymer surreptitiously, and before he had a right in
etiquette to do so, touched her hand gently—it strengthened and revived
her; she blushed slightly, and the vicar’s voice, as he gazed upon her
beauty, involuntarily softened and fell. While his lips uttered the
oft-repeated words, so known by heart that the book in his hand was
unneeded, his soul offered up a prayer that this fair creature—yes,
just this one—should be spared those pains and miseries which were
ordained upon the human race.

The flag upon the church tower waved in the gentle breeze; the children
were marshalled beside the path in two long rows, with their hands full
of flowers; the women in the cottages were hunting up the old slippers
and shoes; the men looked to the caps upon the nipples of their guns;
the handsome greys snorted at the gate; and the grand old sun, above
all, bathed the village in a flood of light. I cannot linger over it
longer.

The solemn adjuration was put, the question asked, and Aymer in an
audible voice replied, “I will.” The still more solemn adjuration to
the woman was repeated—it is but a few words, but it conveys a world of
meaning, it sums up a lifetime—and Violet’s answer was upon her lips,
when, before she could form the words, the chancel side-door burst
open, and there—

There before her very eyes, before the bride to whom that day was
consecrated, who for that one day was by all law human and divine to be
kept from all miserable things, there stood an awe-struck, gasping man,
whose white shirt-front was one broad sheet of crimson blood.

It is difficult to gather together, from the confused narratives of
those who were present, what really happened in consecutive order, but
this is nearly it. Not only was his shirt-front blood, but his grey
hair and partially bald head were spotted that awful red, and his
trembling hands dripped—the blood literally dripped from them on to the
stone pavement. For one awful moment there was a pause—utter silence.
The man staggered forward and said in broken tones, but audible over
the whole church—

“Miss Violet; your father is _dead_!” And the bride dropped like a
stone before Aymer at her side, or Merton just behind, could grasp her
arm. She was down upon the cold stone floor, her wedding-dress all
crumpled up, her wreath fallen off, the light of life and love gone
from her eyes, the happy glow from her cheek. Even in that moment the
clergyman’s heart smote him. His impious prayer! That this one because
of her beauty should be spared—and struck down before his very eyes in
the midst of her joy and triumph. All that they could see in the body
of the church was a shapeless heap of satin where but a moment before
had stood the most envied of them all.

Aymer knelt and lifted her head; it lay helpless upon his hands. As he
did so the wedding-ring, which he had ready, slipped unnoticed from his
grasp and was lost. When it was missed, days afterwards, and a search
was instituted, it could not be found, and this the superstitious
treasured up as a remarkable fact.

Merton raised her up; her frame was limp and helpless in their arms.
They carried her to the vestry and brought water. Miss Merton,
trembling as she was, did not faint; but, good, brave girl, did her
best.

In the excitement over the bride, even the man who had brought this
awful news was for the moment forgotten. When they looked for him he
was leaning against the altar-rails, as if about to fall, and some of
the blood was spotted on the sacred altar-cloth. The men rushed at him;
the women, afraid, held back and watched what new harm must come. They
deemed that it was some horrible creature; they could not believe that
it was only the old gardener at The Place—Waldron’s oldest servant.

Only the gardener. He was as helpless as themselves. He had
over-exerted himself running to the church with his dreadful tidings,
and being subject to heart disease, he could barely stand, and only
gasp out that “Master was killed, and quite dead!”

The men, finding nothing could be got from him, ran out, and made
direct for The Place. Some leapt on their horses, but those on foot
crossing the meadow, as the gardener had done, got there first. All the
men made for The Place—all the women stayed to see what would become of
the bride.

It was a dead faint, but it was not long before she came to, and
immediately insisted upon being taken home. They would have detained
her in the vestry till at least confirmation of the dreadful
intelligence had arrived. But no, she begged and prayed them to take
her; and fearing lest uncertainty should do more harm than certainty,
they half-led, half-carried her from the church.

There was not a dry eye among the sympathising women who had
remained—not one among those rude, half-educated people whose heart was
not bursting with sorrow for the poor shrinking form that was borne
through their midst.

But a few short moments since, and how proud and happy had she been
advancing up the aisle! The children were gone from the churchyard;
their flowers cast away, not in the pathway of the bride, but on the
graves. In their haste, they had trod upon the scarlet cloth laid down,
and discoloured and stained it. The ringers had deserted the
bell-ropes, the village street was empty and silent—only the
unconscious flag waved upon the tower, and the arch stood for them to
pass beneath, with its motto—now a bitter mockery—“Joy be with you!”

The carriage rolled along the road, and as they approached The Place,
Merton began to recover his professional calm; and the return of his
mind to a more normal state was marked by doubt—Was it true?

But no sooner had they entered the garden than he saw it was. The faces
of the knots of men, their low, hushed voices, all told but one
tale—death had been there!

They tried to get Violet to go upstairs to her own room, but she would
not. “I must see him!” was her cry. “I must see him!”

She pushed through them. All gave way before her. Not _there_, surely?
Yes, there—in the very room where the wedding-breakfast was laid out,
where the cake stood upon the table, and the champagne-bottles at the
side; there, in the place of joy, was the dead—dead in his armchair,
close to the window, with a ghastly wound upon the once-peaceful brow!

She threw up her hands—she uttered a great cry. Those that heard it say
it rings even now in their ears. She threw herself upon him. The
crimson blood dyed her veil, as it hung loose and torn, and tinged the
innocent pearls around her neck with its terrible hue. She fainted the
second time, and would have fallen, but Aymer caught her; and they bore
her upstairs, unconscious even of her misery.

The Place was silent. The guns were not fired, the bells were stilled.
Men moved with careful footsteps, women hushed their voices, and in the
stillness they heard the church clock slowly striking the hour of noon.
At that moment she should have been returning, radiant and blissful in
triumph, to meet the welcome from her father’s lips.

There was one that could not understand it—one dumb beast that could
not be driven away. It was Dando, the mastiff dog. Strangely enough, he
avoided the chamber of the dead, and crouched at the door of Violet’s
room.

When Merton saw it he said, “Let the dog go in; maybe, he will relieve
her a little.”

But Violet, lying on a couch, conscious now and tearless, despairing in
the darkened room, motioned him away. “Take him away,” she said. “If he
had been faithful, he would have watched and guarded.”

It was a natural thought, but it was not just. Poor Dando, like the
rest, had gone to the church with the crowd; and just at the moment
when he was most wanted, then he was absent from his duty.

The great sun still bathed the village in a flood of light, the fleecy
clouds sailed slowly in the azure, the yellow mist hung over the
distant hills, and the leaves now and again rustled to the ground. But
the chamber that should have resounded with laughter and joy was
darkened. One more human leaf had fallen from the earthly tree of life.
Once more those that were left behind were worse off than those that
were taken. In the words of the dear old ballad—

My summer’s day, in lusty May,
Is darked afore the noon.



Chapter Six.


Great horror fell upon the whole neighbourhood of World’s End. Not the
oldest man or woman could remember such a deed in their midst. Hitherto
the spectre of Murder had avoided those grand old hills. There was no
memory of such a thing. The nearest approach to it, which the gossips
at the Shepherd’s Bush could recall to mind, had happened long before
the days of the oldest of them all.

There was one, and one only, who declared that in his youth his father
left him in charge of the hayfield one beautiful summer’s day, to go
and see a man hung on the gallows. It was the custom then to erect the
gallows at, or very near, the spot where the crime was supposed to have
been committed; often at the cross roads.

His father told him—and having heard the tale so often it was still
fresh in his memory—that the gallows in this case was built in a narrow
lane, close to a gateway, through which the murderer had fired the
fatal shot at his victim. The spot was known to that day as Deadman’s
Gate.

There was an immense crowd collected to witness the execution, and the
sun shone brilliantly on the ghastly machine. The murderer, as seems to
have been the fashion in those times, at the foot of the gallows
declared his innocence; and there were not wanting people who, in
despite of the evidence, believed him.

Just after the horrible ceremony was finished, and the lifeless body
swung to and fro, there burst a thunderstorm upon the crowd, which
scattered in all directions.

Two men took refuge under a tall tree. One said, “This is dangerous,”
and went out into the field; before the other could follow he was
struck dead by the lightning, so that there were now two corpses.

This man chanced to be one of the principal witnesses against the
murderer, and superstition firmly believed that the thunderstorm marked
the Divine wrath at the execution of an innocent man.

“The moment before,” said the narrator, “the sky was perfectly clear;
the storm came without the slightest warning.” The fact being that the
crowd were so intent upon the spectacle before them that they had not
noticed the gathering clouds.

“Ay,” concluded the narrator, who evidently shared in the superstition,
“it be an awful thing to bear witness about blood. There be them about
here as I wouldn’t stand in their shoes!”

A dead silence followed. Men understood what he meant. Already public
suspicion had fallen upon the gardener.

And Violet? Violet was calm and tearless, but heart-broken. She would
not see Aymer till the third day—it was the morning of the inquest,
though she did not know it. She saw him in her own room, still
darkened. A thrush was singing loud and clear in the tree below the
window. The sun still shone as it had done upon the bridal day, but the
room was dark.

Miss Merton, despite her horror, had remained by her friend. She left
the apartment as Aymer entered, Violet could not speak to him. Her head
drooped on his shoulder, and convulsive sobs shook her form.

It is better to leave them together. The soled wedding-dress, the
beautiful pearl necklace tinged with the horrible hue of blood, had
been carefully put out of sight. People were searching for the
wedding-ring in the chancel at the church, but could not find it.

The inquest was held at the Shepherd’s Bush. As had been the case at
another inquest a century before, held at a place then almost as
retired—at Wolf’s Glow—so here the jury was formed of the farmers of
the district.

Bury Wick village was so small it had no inn, which was accounted for
by the fact that no through road ran by it. The village inn was half a
mile from the houses, alone by itself, on the edge of the highway. The
Shepherd’s Bush was small, merely a cottage made into a tavern, and the
largest room barely held the jury.

It is not material to us to go into every detail; the main features of
that painful inquiry will be sufficient.

The jury having been sworn, proceeded in solemn procession to The
Place. They entered noiselessly, not to disturb “Miss Vi’let,” for whom
the sympathy was heartfelt. They viewed the body of the good old man,
cut down at the very hour when the crowning desire of his heart was in
the act of realisation.

Such juries usually hurry through their task, shrinking from the view
of the dead which the law compels upon them—a miserable duty, and often
quite useless. But in this case they lingered in the room.

Saying little or nothing, they collected in groups of two or three
around the coffin, wistfully gazing upon the features of the dead. For
the features were placid, notwithstanding the terrible wound upon the
top of the head. The peace of his life clung to him even in a violent
death.

There was not one man there who could remember a single word or deed by
which the dead had injured any human being. Quiet, retired, benevolent,
largely subscribing in an unostentatious manner to the village
charities, ready always with a helping hand to the poor—surely he ought
to have been secure? What motive could there be?

They returned to the Shepherd’s Bush. The Coroner asked for the
evidence of the person who had last seen the deceased alive. It was at
once apparent that numbers had seen him.

Mr Merton, who attended, self-employed, to watch the case for Violet,
and from attachment to his deceased friend—was selected as a
representative of the many. He deposed that he had last seen the
deceased alive at quarter to eleven on the marriage-day, at the moment
that the bride took leave of her father, and received his blessing.
This simple statement produced a profound impression. The deceased, who
little thought that that parting would last for ever, was then sitting
as usual in his armchair, which he could wheel about as he chose, close
to the open window—almost _in_ the window—and as witness escorted the
bride to her carriage, he looked back and saw the deceased had partly
turned round, so that the back of his head was towards the window. He
had then his velvet skullcap off, and witness believed that he was
engaged in silent prayer. This statement also naturally produced a
profound effect. The deceased’s head was partially bald, and the little
hair he had was grey. The day was very warm and sultry.

Mr Merton paused, and the next witness was the first person who had
seen the deceased after the fatal attack. This was the gardener. He
appeared in court, visibly shaking, bearing the marks of recent
excitement upon his countenance. He was an aged man, clad in corduroys
and grey, much-worn coat—not the suit he had worn on the wedding-day.
His name was Edward Jenkins. His wife pressed hard to be admitted to
the court, but was forbidden, and remained without, wringing her hands
and sobbing. This witness was much confused, and his answers were
difficult to get—not from reluctance to speak, but from excitement and
fear. He produced an unfavourable impression upon the Coroner, which
the medical man in court observing, remarked that he had recently
attended the witness for heart disease at the request of the deceased,
who took a great interest in his old servant. Even this, however, did
not altogether succeed—there was an evident feeling against the man.

His evidence, when reduced to writing, was singularly simple, vague,
and unsatisfactory. Why had he not gone to the church to see the
wedding, as it appeared every single person had done, not even
excepting the dog Dando? He had much desired to see the marriage of his
young mistress; but being the only man-servant, it was his duty to see
to the wines and to the table; and at the time when the carriage
started he was in the garden cutting fresh flowers, for the purpose of
strewing the lady’s footpath when she returned and descended from the
carriage, and also to decorate the breakfast table. How long was it
after the carriage started that anything happened? It seemed barely a
minute. He was in a remote part of the garden, hastily working,
when—almost immediately after the carriage started—he happened to look
up, and saw a stranger on the green in front of the house.

“Stay,” said the Coroner. “Describe that person.”

This he could not do. The glimpse he had caught was obtained through
the boughs and branches of several trees and shrubs. He could not say
whether the stranger was tall or short, dark or light, or what dress he
wore; but he had a vague idea that he had a dirty, grey coat on.

This was an unfortunate remark, for the witness at that moment wore
such a coat.

He could not say whether he had a hat or a cap on, nor what colour
trousers he wore. The stranger appeared to cross the green diagonally
towards the house.

“What did witness do?”

For a moment he did nothing—it did not strike him as anything
extraordinary. That morning there had been scores of people about the
house, and numbers of strangers whom he did not know. They were
attracted by the talk about the wedding, and he thought no harm. He
went on with his work as hastily as he could, for he still hoped to
have finished in time to make a short cut across the fields, and see a
part of the marriage ceremony.

He became so excited with the wish to see the ceremony that he left
part of his work undone. As he went he had to pass the open window of
the dining-room, where “master” was sitting. He was running, and
actually passed the window without noticing anything; but before he had
got to the front door he heard a groan. He ran back, and found his
master prone on the floor of the apartment, in a pool of blood. He had
evidently fallen out of his armchair forwards—started up and fallen.
Witness, excessively frightened, lifted him up, and placed him in the
chair, and it was in so doing that his shirt-front became saturated
with the sanguinary stream, which also dyed his hands. He had on a
shirt-front and a black suit, in order to wait at table at the
wedding-breakfast. “Master” never spoke or groaned again. So soon as he
was placed in the armchair his head dropped on one side as if quite
dead, and witness then ran as fast as he could to the church, and
crossed the fields by a short cut which brought him to the
chancel-door.

The stranger, who had crossed, the narrow “green” or lawn before the
house, had entirely disappeared, and he saw nothing of him in the
house. In his haste and confusion, he did not see with what the deed
had been committed.

This was the substance of his evidence. Cross-examine him as they
might, neither the Coroner nor the jury, nor Mr Merton, could get any
further light. The witness was evidently much perturbed. There were
those who thought his manner that of a guilty man—or, at least, of a
man who knew more than he chose to tell. On the other hand, it might be
the manner of an aged and weakly man, greatly upset in mind and body by
the frightful discovery he had made. All the jury knew the relations
between the witness and the deceased. Jenkins had lived in the service
of the Waldrons all his life, as had his father before him, and the
deceased had always exhibited the greatest interest in his welfare. He
had good wages, an easy occupation, and was well cared for in every
way. The most suspicious could conceive of no ground of quarrel or
ill-will.

The Coroner directed the witness to remain in attendance, and the first
person who had seen the deceased after the alarm was given was called.

This was Phillip Lewis, a farmer’s son (one of the stewards at World’s
End Races), who being swift of foot had outstripped the others in the
run from the church to The Place.

Phillip Lewis found the deceased in his armchair, with his head
drooping on one side—just as the gardener Jenkins described; only this
witness at once caught sight of the weapon with which the fatal blow
was given. It was lying on the ground, just outside the open window,
stained with blood, and was now produced by the constable who had taken
charge of it. It was a small bill-hook, not so large as would be used
in cutting hedges, but much the same shape.

The edge of a bill-hook, as every one knows, curves inward like a
sickle, and at the end the blade forms a sharp point, or spike. It is,
therefore, a fearful instrument with which to deliver a blow upon a
bare head.

Phillip Lewis said that the gardener Jenkins recognised this hook as
his—the one he usually employed to lop the yew trees, and other
favourite trees of the deceased, and for general work in the
shrubberies.

This piece of evidence made the jury look very sternly upon Jenkins. He
was asked if it was his, and at once admitted it. Where had he left it
last? He would not be quite sure, but he believed in the tool-house,
which was close to the gate in the garden wall, which led out into the
fields. He had used it that morning.

There was a distinct movement among the jury. They evidently began to
suspect Jenkins.

The medical man, Dr Parker, was the last witness. He had examined the
wound the deceased had received. There was first an incised wound,
three inches long, on the top of the skull, extending along the very
crown of the head. This wound was not deep, and, though serious, might
not have proved mortal. At the end of this wound there was a small
space not cut at all, but an inch farther, just at the top of the
forehead, was a deep wound, which had penetrated to the brain, and must
have caused almost instantaneous death.

These peculiar wounds were precisely such as would have been made if a
person had approached the deceased from behind, and struck him on the
bare head with the bill-hook produced. He did not think that there was
more than one blow. He thought that the deceased when he received the
blow must have started up mechanically, and, losing power, fell forward
on to the floor. He did not think that the deceased had suffered much
pain. There would not be time. The point or spike-like end of the hook
had stuck deep into the brain. He had examined the hook, and found
clotted gore and a few grey hairs upon the blade.

This concluded the evidence, and the court was cleared—after the
Coroner had whispered a few words to the police, several members of
which force were present.

The Coroner then summed up the evidence, and in a few brief but
terribly powerful sentences pointed out that suspicion could only
attach to one man. This man was left alone. He had every opportunity.
The tale of the alleged stranger on the lawn bore every mark of being
apocryphal. It was obviously a clumsy invention. The witness, who at
first could not give any idea whatever as to how the stranger was
dressed, had, when pressed, in a manner identified himself as the
stranger, by describing him as wearing a grey coat.

In conclusion, he would add that the country had been scoured by the
police in the three days that had elapsed, and they had failed to find
any trace of the supposed stranger. He then left the jury to
deliberate, and going out into the air, met Mr Merton, who was more
firmly convinced than the Coroner as to the guilt of Jenkins.

“There was no motive,” he admitted, as they talked it over, walking
slowly down the road; “but crimes were not always committed from
apparent motives. On the contrary, out of ten such crimes seven would,
if investigated, seem to be committed from very inadequate motives. How
could they tell that Waldron had not called to the gardener _after_ the
carriage had left, and that then a quarrel took place?” He was
determined to see that justice was done to his dead friend.

But while the Coroner and Merton thus strolled along together a new
complexion had been put upon affairs. The wretched wife of Jenkins, who
had heard the muttered communications of the police, and saw that they
kept a close look-out upon her husband, had listened as near the door
as she could get, and so heard the summing-up of the Coroner.
Distracted and out of her mind with terror, a resource occurred to her
that would never have been thought of by one less excited. She rushed
from the place like mad. “Poor old Sally has lost her head,” said the
hangers about. She ran across the fields, scrambled through the hedges,
reached The Place, tore upstairs, and threw herself upon Violet,
beseeching her for the love of God to save her poor husband.

Till that moment Violet had not the least idea that Jenkins, who had
carried her in his arms many a time when she was a child, and was more
like an old friend than a servant, was under any suspicion. She rose up
at once and went downstairs, the first time since the wedding-day.
Aymer and Miss Merton tried to stay her.

“Hush!” she said; “it is my duty.”

She was obliged to pass the fatal window; she burst into tears, but
hurried on. Aymer went with her, and assisted her along the very same
route that Sally had come—over ditches and through the gaps in the
hedges. Violet reached the Shepherd’s Bush bareheaded, panting.
Involuntarily, the crowd hanging about, one and all, boors that they
were, took off their hats. She knocked at the door where the jury sat
astounded, they admitted her. Strung up to the highest pitch she burst
upon them, cowed them, overcame them.

“He is innocent!” she cried, in the full tones of her beautiful voice.
“He is innocent; let him go free! He served the dead for fifty years;
they never quarrelled; they were, like old friends, not master and man.
I am the daughter of the dead. I tell you with my whole heart and soul
that that man _must_ be innocent; if you injure him, it is you who are
murderers!”

She turned and left the room; many started forward to help her, but she
clung to Aymer’s arm and he got her home as quickly as he might.

It was a noble thing. It was a truly great spectacle to see that young
girl standing there and defending the poor fellow upon whom cruel
suspicion had fallen, notwithstanding her own irreparable loss. Its
effect upon the jury was immediate and irremovable. They were silent
for a time. Then one after another found twenty loopholes of doubt
where before they had been so positive. After all, why should not the
gardener’s story be true? It was a simple, artless tale; not one that
would be concocted.

One juryman, who had served on the jury at the Quarter Sessions,
remembered a great counsel in some important case laying it down as an
axiom, that if a man made up a story to defend himself it was always
too complete, too full of detail. Said the juryman: “If Jenkins had
made up his story, he would have told us what the stranger wore, what
colour hat, what sort of trousers, and every particular. There was a
total absence of motive. Jenkins was a quiet, inoffensive man, whom
they had all known for years and years. Very likely, indeed, for
strangers to come to The Place on that day, the fame of which had been
talked of everywhere. Perhaps the fellow wished to steal the plate on
the breakfast table, and was surprised to find the invalid there.
Hearing the gardener coming, he would make off at once, which accounted
for the fact that not a single thing was stolen. Why should they
condemn one of their own parish on such trivial evidence?” This was the
right key, the _local_ one.

When the Coroner was at last called in, he was astounded at the verdict
delivered to him by the foreman—“Wilful murder against a person, or
persons, unknown.” He argued with them, but in vain; the twelve had
made up their minds and were firm as a rock. He had to submit with a
bad grace!

Poor Sally had a moment of joy, and clasped her husband’s neck, but it
was of brief duration. A minute afterwards the police sergeant present
tapped Jenkins on the shoulder, and took him in custody on a charge of
murder.

This is the peculiarity of the law in such cases. A suspected person
has to run the gauntlet of two bodies—first, the coroner’s jury; next,
the magistrates. Many a wretch who has escaped the one has been trapped
by the other to his doom.

The handcuffs were slipped on the gardener’s wrists and he was led away
unresistingly, followed by his weeping wife and a crowd of the
villagers.

As the jury emerged from the Shepherd’s Bush, which was not till
afternoon—for they had stayed to spend their ninepenny fees—there
struck on their ears a mournful sound. It was the tolling of the
village bell. The medical man had recommended immediate interment. Only
three days before those bells had merrily rung for the daughter’s
bridal; now they tolled for the father’s burial. They hastened to the
church and watched the solemn ceremony. The low broken voice of the
vicar failed at the words, as they stood by the open vault—“He cometh
up, and is cut down, like a flower; he fleeth as it were a shadow... In
the midst of life we are in death;” and the rest of the service was
nearly inaudible.



Chapter Seven.


Every one knows what a dull monotony of sorrow succeeds to a great
loss. Perhaps it was fortunate for Violet that her mind was in some
small measure withdrawn from too consuming grief by the unfortunate
position of the poor old gardener. Over the very grave of the dead, as
it were, she quarrelled—the word is hardly too strong—with Merton.

Mr Merton was bitter against Jenkins. His professional mind, always
ready to put the worst aspect upon anything, quick to suspect and slow
to relinquish an idea, was convinced of the gardener’s guilt. In his
zeal for the memory of his poor friend, he forgot that he might be
injuring an innocent man. He even went so far as to speak strongly to
Violet about her visit to the jury. Surely she should have been the
last to protect the murderer. He said something like this in the heat
of his temper, and regretted it afterwards. It was cruel, unjust, and
inconsiderate. Violet simply left the room and refused to see him.

Merton left the house in a rage, and resolved to spare nothing to
convict the miserable gardener. Now this quarrel produced certain
events—it set on foot another chain of circumstances. Violet was now
alone at The Place. Miss Merton could not stay longer. Before she went
she asked if she should send back the dog Dando, which Merton had taken
to Barnham. Violet, still bitter, in an unreasoning way, against the
dog, said no.

“Then,” said Miss Merton, “may I take him with me to Torquay?”

She had taken a fancy to the dog. Violet was quite willing—anything so
that he did not return to vex her with memories of the dead. Miss
Merton took him home, sorry for her friend, and yet glad to quit that
dismal house and neighbourhood.

Next day there came a note from Mr Merton, in which the writer, in a
formal way, expressed regret if he had uttered anything which had
annoyed her, and asked her to accompany Miss Merton to Torquay for
change of scene. Violet thanked him, but refused.

Aymer saw her every day. She did not give way to tears and fits of
excited sorrow, but a dull weakness seemed to have taken possession of
her. All the old spirit and joy had left her. She wandered about
listlessly, stunned, in fact. All the interest she took was in poor
Jenkins’ fate. Aymer, at her wish, went to Barnham, and engaged a
lawyer to defend him. This soon reached Merton’s ears, and annoyed him
exceedingly; though, to do him justice, he was at that very hour
striving to put Violet’s affairs into order.

Those affairs were—unknown to her—in a most critical state. The
deceased, as he had told Aymer, had three thousand pounds out at
interest, as he believed, upon good security, but which he thought of
calling in. This money had been advanced to a Mr Joseph Herring, a
large farmer at Belthrop, some ten miles from World’s End.

Mr Herring was a successful man and a good man; at all events he had no
worse failing than an inordinate love of foxhunting. He had a large
family, six sons and eight daughters, but there always seemed to be
plenty for them. They lived and dressed well, rode out to the Meet, and
one by one, as the sons grew older, they were placed in farms.
Foxhunting men, with the reputation of some means, can always find
favour in the eyes of landlords. If any one had been asked to point out
a fortunate family in that county, he would at once have placed his
finger upon the name of Herring.

The original home farm, where dwelt old Herring and his wife, four of
the daughters, and one son, who really managed it, was of good size,
fertile, and easily rented. The eldest son, Albert Herring, who was
married and had children, occupied a fine farm at no great distance;
and the two other sons had a smaller farm between them, and with them
lived the other four sisters. Of course it was understood that these
farms had been stocked partly with borrowed money; but that was a
common thing, and there was every indication that all the family were
prospering.

It was to this Joseph Herring that Mr Waldron had advanced three
thousand pounds, taking ample security, as was believed, upon stock,
and upon a small estate which belonged to Herring’s wife. Merton
recommended this Herring as a client of his, and conducted the
operation. Waldron had given Merton notice that he wished to withdraw
the money; but Merton, not thinking there was any hurry, had not
mentioned it to Joseph, when there came this awful catastrophe at
World’s End and drove the matter entirely out of his head. But his
attention was drawn back to it in an equally sudden manner. Old Joseph
Herring, the foxhunter, while out with the hounds, put his horse at a
double mound where there appeared to be a gap. This gap had been caused
by cutting down an elm tree, and he imagined that the trunk had been
removed.

The morning had been cold, and although the ground was not hard there
had been what is called a “duck’s frost” in places. The horse’s hoofs
slipped upon the level butt of the tree, which had been sawn off; the
animal fell heavily, and upon his side.

In all probability, even then he would not have been much injured—for
falls in the hunting-field are as common as blackberries—had it not
been for the trunk of the elm tree. His back, in some way, came against
and across the trunk with the weight of the horse upon him, and the
spine was broken. He was carried home upon a hurdle, still living, and
quite conscious.

A more terrible spectacle could not be conceived than this strong burly
man lying upon his bed, conscious, and speaking at times faintly,
without a visible wound, and yet with the certainty of death.

His sons and daughters gathered round him; all were at hand except the
eldest, Albert, and he was sent for. Joseph, who had seen too many
accidents not to know he was doomed, even if it had not been visible
upon the faces of his wife and children, betrayed the greatest
uneasiness. He kept asking for “Albert” and for “Merton.” Messenger
after messenger was despatched after both, and still they did not come.

Merton, when the messenger reached him, was in the Petty Sessional
Court at Barnham, watching the preliminary proceedings against poor
Jenkins, which happened to take place that day. He was much excited.

The lawyer whom Aymer had engaged to defend Jenkins was a professional
rival—a keen and clever man, and he had so worked up the case, and
suggested so many doubts and probabilities that the Bench of
magistrates hesitated to commit him.

It was in the thick of the fight that the messenger from the death-bed
arrived. Will it be believed, so great was the professional rivalry
between these men, and so determined was Merton to succeed in
committing poor Jenkins, that he paused, he hesitated, finally he
waited till the case was finished.

“After all,” he said to himself, “very likely the accident to Joseph is
much exaggerated—people always lose their heads at such times. At all
events his neck’s not broken, and he’s alive; the messenger doesn’t
know exactly where he’s hurt. There’s no particular hurry.”

But it so happened that there _was_ a particular cause for hurry. While
Merton persuaded himself that he was looking after the cause of his
murdered friend and revenging him, that friend’s dearest one—his
Violet—was fast losing her patrimony. Even when the second messenger
came with more exact intelligence, Merton thought—“Sometimes men lie
for days with broken backs, and what does he want me for? His will is
made; I’ve got it in my office, and a very just will it is. All his
affairs are arranged, I believe. It’s all fuss and fidget.”

However, he ordered his carriage to wait at the door of the Court, and
half an hour afterwards the Bench reappeared.

The Chairman said that although there was very little evidence against
the prisoner Jenkins, although his character had been proved excellent,
and although his solicitor had most ably conducted the defence, yet the
Bench felt that the crime was one too serious for them to think of
dismissing a suspected person. The prisoner would be committed for
trial at the Assizes, which fortunately for him came on that day
fortnight.

A smile of triumph lit up Merton’s face as he gathered up his papers.
The rival solicitor smiled too, and assured Aymer who was present to
tell Violet what happened, that the grand jury would be certain to
throw out the bill. There was not a tittle of evidence against the
prisoner.

With this assurance Aymer mounted and rode back to Violet. At the same
time Merton, telling his coachman not to distress the horses, drove
leisurely towards the death-bed, where he had been so anxiously
expected for hours.

The scene at that death-bed was extremely dreadful. The poor dying man
gradually became more and more restless and excited; nor could all the
efforts of Dr Parker, the persuasions of the clergyman, nor the tears
of his wife and children, keep him calm.

The thought of death—the idea of preparing for the hereafter never
seemed to occur to him. His one wish was to see “Albert” and “Merton;”
till feverish and his eye glittering with excitement, all that he could
ejaculate was those two names.

He remained for four hours quite conscious, and able to converse; then
suddenly there was a change, and he lost the power of answering
questions, though still faintly repeating those names. The scene was
very shocking.

“Why doesn’t Albert come?” said poor Mrs Herring. “He might have been
here two hours ago. If Merton would not, Albert, my son, might have
come.”

What do you suppose Albert was doing at that moment? It is incredible,
but it is true. He was in the field superintending the placing of two
new steam ploughing engines and their tackle, watching the trial of the
new engines, as they tore up the soil with the deep plough. They had
arrived that morning, just purchased; and had it not been for their
coming, he would have been in the hunting-field with his father when
the accident happened.

He could not, or would not, leave his engines. He busied about with
them—now riding himself upon the plough, now watching the drivers of
the engines, now causing experiments to be made with the scarifier. He
paid little attention to the first messenger. “Tell them I’ll be
there,” he said. Another and another messenger, still Albert remained
with his plough.

“He asks for me, does he?” he said. “I’ll be there directly.” Still he
made no haste. After quitting the engines he went out of his path to
visit a flock of fat sheep, and putting up a covey of partridges in the
stubble, stayed to mark them down.

At the house he calmly refreshed himself with cheese and ale. As he
mounted his horse another messenger came, this time with a note from Dr
Parker. Albert mounted with much bustle, and made off at a gallop. Two
miles on the way he pulled up to a walk, met his shepherd, and had a
talk with him about the ewes; then the farrier on his nag, and
described to him the lameness of a carthorse. All this time his father
lay dying. Strange and unaccountable indifference!

Merton reached Belthrop Farm first, and was too late. Joseph Herring
was dead. He had died without even so much as listening to the words of
the clergyman—yet he had to all appearance been a good, and even pious
man while in health. Why was he so strangely warped upon his death-bed?

“Oh! Albert—Albert, my son, my son! Why did you linger?” cried poor Mrs
Herring as he entered.

“Father?” said Albert, questioningly.

She shook her head.

“Ah!” said the son; and it sounded like a sigh of relief.

Let the grief for the dead be never so great, there quickly follows the
commonplace realities of money and affairs to be settled.

The dead man’s will was read by Merton. It was a fair and just will.
Next came the investigation into his effects, and then came the
revelation. Joseph Herring left no effects. This discovery fell upon
his wife, three of the sons, and all the daughters, like a thunderbolt.
They had always believed they should be left tolerably provided for.
But when all the debts were paid there would not be a ten-pound note.

They began to murmur, and to question, as well they might. What had
become of the three thousand pounds Herring had had of Waldron? They
did not know that their father had borrowed so much as that; they knew
there was a loan from Waldron, but never suspected the amount.

Merton, hard as it was, felt that he must draw that money in; and who
was to pay it? Why, there were no effects whatever. To pay the other
debts would take all the money that could be got, and part of the stock
must be sold even then.

But this three thousand pounds. To make that good all the stock, the
corn, the implements—everything would have to be sold; including Mrs
Herring’s little estate, and the small sums that had been advanced to
the two sons who lived on one farm must be withdrawn. It was complete
ruin—ruin without reserve.

They were literally stunned, and knew not which way to turn. They could
not understand, neither could Merton, what had become of the three
thousand pounds; there was not a scrap of paper to show. Joseph had
never been a good accountant—few farmers are; but one would have
thought that he would have preserved some record of such a sum. But
no—not a scrap.

Then, as said before, these children began to murmur, as well they
might. Then they began to understand, or guess dimly at the
extraordinary excitement of the dying man. It was this that weighed
upon his mind, and caused him to continually call for his eldest son
and for Merton, in order that he might make some provision.

There grew up a certain feeling against Albert. Why had he not come at
once—if he had done so, perhaps this might have been averted. A vague
distrust and suspicion of him arose. It was intensified by the
knowledge that he alone was safe. He had had a longer start and a
better farm; he had the reputation of having even saved a little money.
No injury could befall him. Yet they had not got the slightest evidence
against him in any way; but a coolness—a decided coolness arose between
the brothers and sisters, and Albert, which Albert, on his part, made
no effort to remove. Ill-natured people said he was only too glad to
quarrel with them, so as to have a pretext for refusing them
assistance.

It happened, however, that one day a strange gentleman called upon
Robert and John, the two brothers, who worked one farm together. He was
an agent of an agricultural implement manufactory in a distant county,
and his object was to induce them to purchase implements of
him—especially steam traction engines. The poor brothers smiled in a
melancholy way at the very idea. They buy engines—they should soon
scarcely be able to buy bread! The agent expressed his surprise.

“But your brother seems a wealthy man,” he said. “He paid for his
engines in cash.”

“In cash!” they cried. “He told us that he paid one-fifth only, and the
rest remained in bills.”

The agent saw he had got on delicate ground; but they pressed him, and
he could not very well escape. It then came out that Albert had paid
sixteen hundred pounds in hard cash for the engines, by which, as the
factory had been pressed for money, he got them at little more than
two-thirds of the value, which was considered to be two thousand three
hundred pounds.

The brothers were simply astounded. They went home and talked it over
with the fourth son, who managed the Belthrop Farm. They could not
understand how Albert came to have so much ready cash. At last the
conclusion forced itself upon them—the three thousand pounds borrowed
from Waldron must have been lent by their father to Albert. They
remembered that something had been said of an opening Albert had heard
of, to add another farm to his already large tenancy.

This was the secret—poor old Joseph, a bad accountant, had given the
money to Albert, and, never thinking of dying, had postponed drawing up
the proper deeds. Without a moment’s delay they proceeded in a body to
Albert’s residence. He received them in an off-hand manner—utterly
denied that he had had the money, challenged them to find the proof,
and finally threatened if they set such a tale about the county to
prosecute them for slander. This was too much.

It is wretched to chronicle these things; but they must be written.
High words were followed by blows; there was a fight between the eldest
and the next in succession, and both being strong men, they were much
knocked about. The other brothers, maddened with their loss, actually
cheered on their representative, and stripped to take his place as soon
as he should be fatigued. But at that moment poor old Mrs Joseph
Herring, who had feared this, arrived, driving up in a pony-carriage,
and sprang between the combatants. She received a severe blow, but she
separated them, and they parted with menacing gestures.

Once back at Belthrop, a kind of family council was held. Merton was
sent for, but nothing could be done. There was not a scrap of proof
that Albert had had the money. Mrs Joseph, went to him, reasoned with
him, entreated him. He turned a deaf ear to her remonstrances, and
cursed her to her face. The miserable woman returned to her despairing
younger children, and never recovered the terrible blow which the
selfish, and inhuman conduct of her eldest son had inflicted upon her.
Ruin stared them in the face. Waldron’s loan was due, and everything
was already advertised for sale.



Chapter Eight.


How suddenly the leaves go in the autumn! They linger on the trees till
we almost cheat ourselves into the belief that we shall escape the
inevitable winter; that for once the inexorable march of events will be
stayed, till some morning we wake up and look forth, and lo! a wind has
arisen, and the leaves are gone.

Absorbed in the one miserable topic—the one thought of Waldron’s
terrible fate—Violet and Aymer spent several weeks almost
unconsciously. When at last they, as it were, woke up and looked forth,
the actual tangible leaves upon the trees had disappeared, and, like
them, the green leaves of their lives had been shaken down and had
perished.

Even yet they had one consolation—they had themselves. The catastrophe
that had happened at the very eleventh hour, at the moment when their
affection and their hope was about to be realised, after all had only
drawn them closer together. She was more dependent upon him than ever.
There was no kind Jason to fly to now; the resources he could command
were gone for ever. Had Aymer been as selfish as he was unselfish, that
very fact would not have been without its pleasure. She could come to
him only now in trouble, and she did come to him.

It may be that all that happy summer which they had spent together,
strolling about, sketching under the beech and fir; all that happy
winter, with its music and song; all the merry spring, with its rides,
had not called forth such deep and abiding love between these two as
was brought into existence by these weeks of sorrow, the first frosts
of their year. They were constantly together; they were both orphans
now; they had nothing but themselves. It was natural that they should
grow all in all to each other.

There was one subject that was never alluded to between them, and that
was the interrupted marriage. It was too painful for Violet, too
delicate a subject for Aymer to mention. It was in both their minds,
yet neither spoke of it. They were, and they were not, married. In a
sense—in the sense of the publication of the banns; in the sense of the
public procession to the church, the sanction of friends, the presence
of the people—in this sense they were married. But the words “I will”
had never left Violet’s lips, however willing they were to utter the
phrase; and, above all, the ring had never been placed upon her finger.
Nor could that ring be found. They were half married.

It was a strange and exceptional case, perhaps unequalled. Morally,
Violet felt that she was his legally, Aymer feared that she was not
his. He feared it, because he knew that it would be impossible to
persuade Violet to undergo the ceremony a second time, till the memory
of that dreadful day had softened and somewhat faded. It might be
months, perhaps years. The disappointment to him was almost more than
he could bear. To be so near, to have the prize within his reach, and
then to be dashed aside with the merciless hand of fate.

It would not be well that the ancient belief in destiny should again
bear sway in our time; it is contrary to the thought of the period, and
yet hourly, daily, weekly, all our lives, we seem to move, and live,
and have our being amidst circumstances that march on and on, and are
utterly beyond our power to control or guide. “Circumstances beyond my
power to control” is a household phrase—we hear it at the hearth, on
the mart, in the council-chamber. And what _are_ circumstances? Why are
these apparently trivial things out of our power? Why do they
perpetually evolve other circumstances, till a chain forms itself—a
net, a web—as visible, and as tangible, as if it had been actually
woven by the three sisters of antique mythology.

The unseen, awful, inscrutable _necessity_ which, heedless alike of
gods and men, marches with irresistible tread through the wonderful
dramas of Sophocles, seems to have survived the twilight of the gods,
survived the age of miracles and supernatural events. Of all that the
ancients venerated and feared, necessity alone remains a factor in
modern life. What can our brightest flashes of intelligence, our
inventions, our steam engine and telegraph, effect when confronted with
those “circumstances over which we have no control?” It is our
nineteenth-century euphemism for the Fate of the ancient world.

It is not well that we should scrutinise too closely the state of poor
Aymer’s mind. His joy and elation before that terrible day were too
great not for the fall to be felt severely. The iron of it entered into
his soul. For one moment he almost hoped against hope.

The clergyman who had officiated at the interrupted bridal came daily
to see Violet, and his true piety, his quiet parental manner, soothed
and comforted her. He whispered to Aymer that it would be well if the
marriage ceremony were completed in private, as could be done by
special licence.

Aymer naturally grasped at the idea. He had still twenty pounds left of
the gift which had been sent to him anonymously. He was eager to spend
it upon the special licence, but he confessed that he dared not mention
it to Violet.

The vicar undertook that task, but failed completely. Violet begged him
to spare her—to desist; she could not—not yet.

After that day she was more and more tender and affectionate to Aymer,
as if to make up to him for his loss. She said that he must take
heart—they had no need to be unhappy. In a little while, but not
yet—not yet, while that fearful vision was still floating before her
eyes. But Aymer must be happy. They had sufficient. _He_ had left them
all he had. That was another reason why they should wait, in affection
for his memory. They could see each other daily—their future would be
together. And Aymer, miserable as he was, was forced to be content.

Merton had not been to The Place. Not one word had he said about the
difficulty in Herring’s affairs, and the loss of the three thousand
pounds. Violet was utterly ignorant that her fortune was gone. She
spoke very bitterly of Merton. “If he had loved poor papa,” she said,
“he would never have persecuted his faithful servant,” for nothing
could shake her belief in Jenkins’ innocence, and she did all she could
to comfort the poor gardener’s desolate wife.

Merton, on his part, did not care to approach her after the share he
had had in the commitment of Jenkins, and because he hesitated, he
dreaded to face her, and to tell her that her fortune, entrusted to his
hands, was gone. He blamed himself greatly, and yet he would not own
it. He ought to have hastened to Herring’s death-bed. Had that dying
man but left one written word, to say that Albert had had the money,
all would have been well.

In the fierce attempt to revenge his old friend, he had irreparably
injured that friend’s daughter, and he dreaded the inevitable
disclosure. He put it off till the last, hoping against hope, and doing
all that his lawyer’s ingenuity could suggest to recover some part of
the amount. In endeavouring to succeed in this, he pressed hard—very
hard—upon the Herring family. He pushed them sorely, and spared not. He
was bitterly exasperated against them. Unjustly, he openly accused them
of a plot to rob his client and dishonour him.

He abused the dead man as one who had repented too late upon his
death-bed. He would take everything—down to the smallest article.
Neither the persuasions of the sons, the tears of the daughters, nor
the silent despair of the widow could move him. Of all this Violet knew
nothing.

It happened that one evening not long after the lamp had been lit at
The Place, that there was heard a slight tapping or knocking at the
front door. Now, this door was close to the window where the terrible
deed had been committed. By this door the bride had stepped forth in
all her gay attire; by this door the corpse of her father had been
carried forth. Villagers, and all isolated people, are superstitious;
the beliefs of those days, when all people were more isolated than they
are now, linger amongst them. By common consent, this door was avoided
by day and night. A dread destiny seemed to hang over those who passed
beneath its portal. It had been kept locked since the funeral—no one
had used it.

Violet and Aymer, sitting in the breakfast-parlour—which was the most
comfortable room in the house—were reading, and looked up mutually at
the sound of those unwonted knocks. They listened. There was a pause;
and then the taps were repeated. They were so gentle, so muffled, that
they doubted the evidence of their ears—and yet surely it was a
knocking.

The servants in the kitchen heard the taps, and they cowered over the
fire and looked fearfully at each other.

One thing was certain—no person who knew The Place, no one from the
village, would come to that door. If it was any mortal man or woman, it
must be a stranger; and the last time a stranger had crossed the
“green,” all knew what had happened. If it was not a stranger, then it
must be the spirit of poor “master.” They were determined not to hear.

The taps were repeated. Violet and Aymer looked at each other.

Something very like a moan penetrated into the apartment. Aymer
immediately rose and went to the front door. He asked if any one was
without; there was no answer. He opened the door; the bitter wind,
bearing with it flakes of snow, drove into his face. For a moment, in
the darkness, he could distinguish nothing; the next, brave as he was,
he recoiled; for there lay what looked like a body at his feet.
Overcoming his dread he stooped and touched—a woman’s dress. He lifted
her up—the form was heavy and inanimate in his hands.

“Violet, dear!” he said, “it is a woman—she has fainted; may I bring
her in?”

Violet’s sympathies were at once on the alert. The woman was carried in
and laid upon the rug before the fire, the servant came crowding in to
render assistance brandy was brought, and the stranger opened her eyes
and moaned faintly. Then they saw that, although stained with travel
and damp from exposure to the drifting snow her dress was that of a
lady.

Under the influence of the warm fire and the brandy she soon recovered
sufficiently to sit up. She was not handsome nor young her best
features were a broad, intellectual looking forehead, and fine dark
eyes. So soon as ever she was strong enough to speak she turned to
Violet, and begged to be alone with her for a little while.

Aymer, with all a lover’s suspicions, demurred, but Violet insisted,
and he had to be content with remaining within easy call.

He had no sooner left the room than the lady, for such she appeared to
be, fell upon her knees at Violet’s feet, and begged her for the sake
of her father’s memory to show mercy.

“Oh! spare us,” cried the unhappy creature, bursting into tears, and
wringing her hands, “spare us—we are penniless. Indeed we did not do it
purposely. We never knew—I am Esther Herring!”

It was long before Violet could gather her meaning from these
incoherent sentences. At last, under her kind words and gentle
questions, Esther became calmer and explained the miserable state of
affairs. Violet sighed deeply. In one moment her hopes were dashed to
the ground: her money was gone; how could she and Aymer—

But she bore up bravely, and listened patiently to Esther’s story. How
the widow’s heart was breaking, how the sons were despairing, and the
daughters looking forward to begging their bread. How the sale
approached—only five days more; and that thinking, and thinking day and
night over the misery of it, Esther had at last fled to Violet for
mercy—to Violet, who was ignorant of the whole matter. Fled on foot—for
all their horses were seized—on that wild winter afternoon, facing the
bitter wind, the snow, and the steep hills for ten long miles to
World’s End. Fled to fling herself at Violet’s feet, and beg for mercy
upon the widow and the fatherless children. The fatigue and her
excitement had proved too much, and she had fainted at the very door.
Esther dwelt much upon Mr Merton’s cruelty, for his insults had out her
to the quick.

Violet became very pale. She went to the door and called softly,
“Aymer.” He came, and Esther attempted to dry her tears. Violet told
him all, and took his hand.

“This cannot be,” she said; “this surely must not be. I will do—we will
do—as of a surety my father would have done. The innocent shall not
suffer for the guilty. We, Aymer and I, will give up our claim. Tell
them at your home to be comforted and to fear not.”

Esther saw that her mission was accomplished, and the reaction set in.
She became ill and feverish. Violet had her taken upstairs and waited
upon her. Aymer was left alone. He walked to the window, opened the
shutters, and looked forth. The scud flew over the sky, and the wan
moon was now hidden, and now shone forth with a pale feeble light. The
heart within him was very bitter. He did not repent the renunciation
which he had confirmed; he felt that it was right and just. But it was
a terrible blow. It cut away the very ground from beneath his feet.

The poor fellow—he was poor Aymer again now—looked forward to the
future. What could he do? The talents he possessed were useless, or
nearly useless, in a pecuniary sense. Unable to earn sufficient to
support himself, how could he marry Violet? The thought was maddening.
To continue in the old, old life at Wick Farm without a prospect was
impossible. To wander a beggar from door to door would be preferable.
When he found that Violet could not leave Esther, he walked home to
Wick Farm; over the wild and open Downs, and his heart went up in a
great and bitter cry.

The blow that had struck down poor Waldron had struck him down also. It
is ever thus with evil. The circle widens, and no man knows where it
will end. Yet he did not falter.

Next day Violet wrote a curt letter to Mr Merton, requesting him to
forbear proceedings, and upbraiding him for his cruelty. She desired
that he would relinquish the charge of her affairs.

Merton, had he so chosen, might have made a difficulty about this—under
the will of Waldron—but he did not. He was, to say truth, glad of a
pretext to wash his hands of a matter in which he had figured so ill.

Violet sent for the same solicitor who had defended Jenkins, Mr
Broughton, and desired him to see that proceedings were stayed. The
Herrings were saved. Esther was sent home in the pony-carriage with the
good tidings. Other debts, unsuspected before, ate up most of the
effects of Joseph Herring. The widow’s little property had to be sold
to meet them. With the trifle that was left they removed to the farm
where the two brothers worked together, and by dint of careful
management escaped starvation. Neither were they unhappy, for
misfortune and a common injury bound them closer together—all but the
widow, who never overcame the duplicity of her eldest son.

Their conduct towards Violet appears extremely selfish, but it must be
remembered that Waldron had borne the reputation of being a rich man.
They never dreamt that they had taken Violet’s all. But so it was. The
dear, dear ponies had to be sold, the servants dismissed; Violet could
not keep the house on, and in that isolated position it was difficult
to let it, even at a nominal rent.

Her friends in London made no sign. She had been a favoured guest while
Waldron lived and was reputed wealthy. Now they had lost sight of her.

To Aymer all this was as gall and wormwood. It was a comment upon his
own weakness, and impotency to aid the only one he loved. He wrote, he
sketched; but now with the strange inconsistency of fortune these works
were returned, as “not up to the standard required.” Perhaps his
misfortunes affected his skilfulness. He knew not which way to turn. At
home—if Wick Farm could be called home—the old state of things began to
gradually return. The old covert sneers and hints at his uselessness
crept again into the daily conversation. Martin, like Hercules—

Rude, unrefined in speech.
Judging all wisdom by its last results,


looked upon him as a failure, and treated him accordingly. To do the
young men justice, those who had formerly taunted him now never lost an
opportunity of expressing their regret. Poor Aymer felt this worse than
their sneers and gibes. He had the fault of pride, and yet he
depreciated himself habitually. He was punished severely for his brief
period of elation. What hurt him most was his helplessness to aid
Violet. And Violet, noble girl! was calm, resigned, fearless in her
trust—strong in her love of Aymer.

But the inevitable approached—“the circumstances over which we have no
control.” The day was coming when she must go, and go—whither?



Chapter Nine.


Down to one firm faith in this day of scepticism and cynicism. It may
be a despicable weakness—that cannot be helped—but nothing will ever
overthrow it. My faith is firm in the good which is possible in woman.

There is much vice, much evil, much folly; but, after all, these faults
are chiefly caused by weakness, therefore they are more or less
excusable. It is difficult for women to do good—so many and so complex
are the restraints which surround them as in a net—yet they do it. Were
I in sorrow, in trouble, or in fear, to them I should go, as
hundreds—ay, countless numbers—have previously gone, certain of
assistance if assistance were possible, and of compassion and sympathy,
even if my crimes were too evil to speak of.

There was heard one afternoon at The Place the roll of
carriage-wheels—a sound that had not been heard since the fatal bridal
day. It was a damp, cold day, and Violet had been unable to go out. A
fog hung over the fields, creeping slowly along the fallows, clinging
in shapeless clouds upon the hill tops. There was no rain, but the bare
hedges were dripping large drops of water condensed from the mist, and
the dead leaves upon the ground were soddened with damp. On such days
as these, when she could not walk out and dispel her gloom by exercise,
Violet naturally felt the loss of poor Jason the more.

Aymer could not be always with her. Although their intercourse was
little, if at all, fettered by the etiquette which would have barred it
in more civilised neighbourhoods, yet he could not be always at The
Place, and of late he had been working hard at sketches and literary
matters, which occupied time and kept him from her side.

She was very lonely, longing for the evening, when he would be certain
to come. The roll of these carriage-wheels was therefore an event.
Looking from the window upstairs—that very window whence, in all the
splendour of her beauty and her wedding-dress, she had timidly glanced
forth to watch the approach of the greys—she saw a stylish brougham
rapidly nearing the house, and as it came nearer recognised the horses,
and knew it was Lady Lechester’s.

Agnes, not waiting for the footman to announce her visit, sprang out,
and walked at once to the front door. Once more there came a tapping at
that dread portal.

Conquering her fluttering heart, Violet, in a maze of bewilderment,
opened it herself. Agnes held out her hand, and kissed her twice upon
the cheek and forehead.

“Forgive me!” she said. “Forgive me for coming so soon after—. But I
wanted to see you; I had much to say to you.”

Violet began to thank her in a confused way for the pearl necklace.
Agnes stopped her; it was not that—it was about Violet herself that she
had come to talk. Even in her surprise and confusion, Violet could not
help thinking that Agnes was very beautiful. It was a species of beauty
that was precisely the opposite of Violet’s. Both gained by the
contrast of the other’s style.

Agnes Lechester was at least thirty—she might have been a year or two
older—and there hovered over her countenance an indefinable air of
melancholy, as if the memory of a past sorrow was for ever before her
mind. There was not a wrinkle, not a groove upon her pale brow, but the
impress of pain was none the less unmistakable upon her features. Her
hair was very dark, as near as possible to the raven’s hue, so often
spoken of, so rarely seen. Her eyes were large and grey, deep-set under
delicate eyebrows, well-marked, and slightly arching. Her forehead high
and intellectual. The features, the nose and mouth, were small and
well-made, the ears especially delicate. High blood and long descent
spoke out clearly in her every aspect, down even to the quiet subdued
manner—the exquisite tact, and consideration for others, which
distinguished her in conversation and in daily life.

She was about the same height as Violet, but appeared taller, being
more slightly made. She wore a simple black-silk, extremely plain, and
one mourning-ring—no other jewellery.

Violet, whose position was not a little embarrassing, found herself in
a few moments entirely at her ease, and conversing as with an old
friend. Agnes did not in a direct manner recall the terrible past, but
she had a way of asking what may be called sympathising questions,
which quickly drew forth Violet’s confidence.

For the first time she found a sister to whom she could express her
feelings unrestrainedly; and even that brief hour of companionship did
her much good. Not till all trace of distant formality had been
removed, not till there had been a certain degree of familiarity
established between them, did Agnes allude to the real object of her
visit. She had come to ask Violet as a favour—so she put it—to spend a
little time with her. The Towers were so very, very lonely—she said
this in a tone that was evidently sincere—she had so few visitors,
practically none, and she should be so glad if Violet would come.
Violet saw in an instant that it was really out of kindness to her that
the invitation was given; she wished to accept it, and yet hesitated.
Agnes pressed her. Then she remembered Aymer—what would he say? If she
went, he would be alone—he would not see her, and she would not see
him. Thinking of him, a slight blush rose to her cheek. Perhaps Agnes
guessed what was passing in her mind, for she said—

“Mr Malet will, of course, come and see us—often. You must ask his
permission, you know. I will come again to-morrow and fetch you in the
brougham.”

So it was practically settled, and Agnes, after a warm farewell,
departed. Violet waited for Aymer, almost fearing he would upbraid her;
but then the separation would only be for a little time. A little time!

When Agnes Lechester came to ask her to The Towers, she came with a
full knowledge of Violet’s position—of her monetary loss, and of the
noble self-sacrifice she had made.

It chanced—“circumstances over which we have no control” again—that Mr
Broughton, to whom Violet had transferred her affairs, had succeeded to
the business of an uncle, an elder Mr Broughton, who was almost the
hereditary solicitor of the Lechester family. The position was one of
great emolument, and gave some social precedence; hence, perhaps, part
of the jealousy exhibited towards him by Mr Merton—an older man, and
not so fortunate. From him Agnes learnt the whole of the details. The
frightful catastrophe—the mystery of the murder of poor Waldron—had
greatly impressed her, and the sad circumstances of the interrupted
bridal trebled the interest she had taken in Violet and Aymer. She had
instructed Broughton to inform her of everything, and especially of how
matters stood with Violet now her father was no more. As he had now the
charge of Violet’s affairs, it was easy for him to do this; and being a
comparatively young man, and with a heart not yet quite dead to
feeling, he was himself much interested in the woman who could so
willingly give up the last fragment of her fortune.

Agnes Lechester was deeply impressed by Violet’s generosity and
abrogation of self—she felt the warmest sympathy and desire to assist
her—she really was anxious to make her acquaintance, and the result was
her visit to The Place. Ostensibly the invitation was for a little time
only; but Agnes knew that the house, which alone was left to Violet,
could not support her, and intended to prolong the invitation
indefinitely. She really was lonely, and really did look forward to a
companion in whom she could trust.

Aymer was overjoyed when he heard what had happened, and insisted upon
Violet accepting the invitation. Violet’s isolation, and the daily
increasing awkwardness of her position, troubled him greatly. He knew
not what to do for her. Here was a resource—a haven of safety for a
while at least. Never mind about himself—doubtless he could see her
sometimes; so long as she was safe and comfortable he should be happy,
much happier even than in their present unrestricted intercourse—though
this was said with a sigh.

He lingered long with her that evening, longer than he had ever done
before; it was the last, perhaps, they should ever spend together in
that house, which was still very dear to them, notwithstanding the
tragedy it had witnessed. The time came at last when they must
separate. It was the saddest walk that night that he had ever had
across the Downs. They were enveloped in a thick mist—only instinct and
long use kept him in the path—an impenetrable gloom hung over him. Even
the fir trees were silent; there was no breeze to stir them, to produce
that low sighing sound that seems to mean so much to those who will
pause and listen.

The morrow was brighter; there was a little sunshine, clouded and
feeble, but still there was a little. It would be difficult to explain
the process by which it came about. There are means of communication
between persons without direct words. Thus it happened that almost by a
species of volition, Agnes Lechester, Violet, and Aymer, before the
hour to depart arrived, walked slowly and mournfully to the old, old
church, across the meadows by the well-worn path, which the morning’s
frost had left hard and dry. Since that terrible day Violet had never
been—she could not. But now, somehow, with this newly-found companion,
strengthened by two loving hearts, one on either side, it seemed to her
as if a holy peace might perhaps descend upon her if she could visit
her father’s tomb.

With her face hidden by a thick veil, the tears standing in her eyes,
the poor girl walked between them. Few words passed—silence was more
natural and fitting than speech. They met two or three persons, all of
whom knew Violet and Aymer; but these paid the homage to sorrow which
the rudest tender, and went by silently, raising their hats. No one
interrupted them; no one stared with vulgar curiosity. These three were
alone—alone with the memory of the dead. And strangely enough, all
three were orphans. It was Agnes Lechester who reminded them of that
fact as they stood before the tomb; it was, she said in a low voice,
another bond of union between them.

The inscription had not yet been put up; the slab was plain. Their
visit was very short; it was more than Violet could bear. The tomb was
just without the church. Agnes motioned to Aymer to leave them; he
walked away a few paces. Together the two women entered the church;
they were alone in the sacred edifice. With slow steps poor Violet,
leaning on Agnes’s arm and sobbing bitterly, walked up that very aisle,
over that very figure of the ancient knight in brass, past the antique
font—the very aisle where she had gone in all her wedding splendour
amid the admiration of the gathered crowd. And now she came again—came
with a stranger—in silence and sorrow, to kneel on the steps that led
up to the chancel to pray as best her throbbing heart would permit. Was
that prayer more for the living, or the dead?

Violet had been reared a Protestant in the Articles of the Church of
England, yet I question whether in that supreme moment her soul was not
fuller of prayer for him who had gone before, than for herself and
those who still lingered on earth. Those among us who can remember
bitter hours of agony, say truly for whom have _they_ prayed? Let us
not penetrate further into the sanctuary of sorrow.

The carriage rolled away, and Aymer was alone. He watched it go down
into the valley out of sight. He turned and ascended the Downs, not
daring to look back upon the old, old house. At the summit he could
command an extended view. Far away the white road ran up over a hill,
and he could see a black dot crawling slowly up it. He knew it was the
carriage; he watched it reach the top and disappear over the brow—then
she was gone.

For the first time since love had arisen in his heart he was separated
from her. It was true that it was not total separation. They were bound
together by ties which nothing could sever, and yet—the happy past was
gone, to return no more. He was at liberty to see her at The Towers;
Agnes Lechester had done her best to impress upon him that he could
come whenever he chose, and would be always welcome. But Aymer had the
vaguest ideas of what life with the upper ranks was like; he had a
vague shrinking from entering this house; he felt that he should be
restrained and at a loss. There could never be that free intercourse
between him and Violet that had existed. He felt in his heart that she
would never more return to The Place. The house was to be closed that
evening; would it ever be opened again?

He crushed back his despair as best he could, and went home to his
cold, lonely room at the Wick Farm. Martin grudged him a fire even.
Aymer crushed back his heart, and tried to work. It was very difficult.
When the hand and the body are numbed with physical cold, when the
heart is chilled with grief, it is hard indeed to call the fancy into
play and to amuse others. Was it not Goldsmith who wrote the “Vicar of
Wakefield” to pay the expenses of his parent’s funeral?

Perhaps no greater proof of his wonderful genius could be given than is
presented by that oft-repeated and simple anecdote. Only a transcendant
genius could have forced itself out under such miserable circumstances.
Aymer certainly had talent, perhaps even genius, but he had not yet
found his opportunity—he was not quite certain wherein his ability
really lay. All his efforts were tentative. They failed one and
all—failed just at the moment when what he most wanted was a little
encouragement. He did not spare himself; he worked the whole day,
saving only an hour put aside to walk upon the Downs for health’s sake.

He had still fifteen pounds remaining of the munificent, and anonymous
present he had received. This he husbanded with the utmost care; it was
his capital, his all. With it he formed schemes of reaching London, and
finding employment. He only waited till a work upon which he was now
engaged was finished before he started. Now Violet was gone, there was
no inducement to remain at World’s End; far better to go out and face
hard facts, and conquer them.

But as the days went by, and the work was half finished, a deadly
despair seemed to seize him. Of what use was it? Every slow post that
reached that almost forgotten spot returned to him work rejected and
despised. His sketches, he was told, “wanted spirit;” his literary
labours “wanted finish, and bore marks of haste.”

If these were useless, of what good was it to complete this book he was
writing? It would only end in another disappointment. He ceased to open
his letters; he flung them on one side. For a day or two he did
nothing—he wandered about on the open Downs, seeking consolation from
Nature, and finding none. At last, accusing himself of a lack of energy
and fortitude, he set to work again. So it was not till two days after
date that he read the following letter, which had been cast upon one
side with the rest:—

“2, Market Cross, Barnham.
    “Dear Sir,—I am requested by Mr Broughton to ask you to call upon
    him at your earliest convenience. He has some employment to offer
    you.
    “With esteem, etc, etc.”


He went. Broughton received him kindly, and explained that he wanted a
clerk, not so much for technical work as for correspondence, and to
give general assistance. Aymer being a novice and completely ignorant
of such duties, could not of course expect much salary. However, he
would have thirty-five shillings per week. This offer was made partly
through Lady Lechester’s influence, partly out of the interest he
himself took in Aymer. But a true lawyer, he could not help doing even
good as cheaply as possible. Aymer thanked him, and accepted the post.



Chapter Ten.


Aymer would in times gone by have regarded the employment he had now
obtained as a great step in advance, and have rejoiced accordingly. But
he had been too near the prize for it to give him even so much as hope
for the future. He _wished_ to be grateful for what he had got; he
tried to look upon it as a wonderful thing, but it was impossible. The
contrast between the actual, and what had been within his very grasp
was too intense.

It was an easy place. Beyond a little correspondence to write for Mr
Broughton, and sometimes a little copying, he had practically nothing
to do. His hours were short for the business—only from ten till four;
he had plenty of time at his own disposal.

The fact was that his salary came, not directly, but indirectly from
Lady Lechester, and he was favoured accordingly. If he had known this
he would have been still more dissatisfied.

The office in which he was placed was a kind of library or retiring
apartment, opening by double doors into Mr Broughton’s private room;
and he was often called upon to bear witness to certain transactions of
a strictly private nature, and in which the solicitor told him he
relied upon his honour as a gentleman, to preserve secrecy.

Broughton really meant him well, and did his best now and then to start
him on in the acquisition of a knowledge of the law. Books were put
into his hands, and he was told what parts of them to study, and had to
prepare extracts from them occasionally. Aymer did his best,
conscientiously, but he hated it—he hated it most thoroughly. It was
not altogether that the reading in these books was dry and
uninteresting to the last degree. Flat, tame, spiritless,
meaningless,—a mere collection of decisions, interpretations,
precedents—such they appeared at first. Aymer had talent and insight
sufficient to speedily observe that this forbidding aspect was not the
true one.

All these precedents, rules, decisions—these ten thousand subtle
distinctions—were much like the laws or rules of a game at chess. They
decided in what way a pawn should be moved or a bishop replaced. The
science of law seemed to him like a momentous game at chess, only the
pieces were living human creatures.

These subtle distinctions and technical divisions, formalities though
they appeared, had a meaning, and a deep one. Following his employer,
Mr Broughton, into the petty law courts at Barnham, he saw how the
right and the wrong, the sorrow or the joy of human beings depended
almost upon the quibble of a word, the incident of a slip of the pen.
It was a game—a game requiring long study, an iron memory, quick
observation, and quicker decision; and he hated it—hated it because the
right appeared to be of no consequence. Truth, and what he had always
thought was meant by justice, were left entirely out of sight.

It was not the man who had the right upon his side who won. If that was
the case, what use would there be for lawyers? Too often it was the man
who had the law upon his side, and the law only. He actually heard
magistrates, and even judges, expressing their regret that the law
compelled them to give decisions contrary to the true justice of the
cause before them.

By degrees he became aware of the extraordinary fact, that with all the
cumbrous system of law phrases—a system that requires a special
dictionary—there was not even a word to express what he understood as
justice; not even a word to express it!

Justice meant a decision according to the law, and not according to the
right or wrong of the particular case proceeding; equity meant a
decision based upon a complex, antiquated, unreasonable jumble of
obsolete customs. The sense of the word “equity”—as it is used in the
sublime prophecy, “With equity shall he judge the world”—was entirely
lost.

In the brief time that he had sat beside Mr Broughton in these Courts,
Aymer conceived an intense loathing for the whole system. After all,
what was the law, upon which so much was based, which over-rode equity,
justice, truth, and even conscience? What was this great fetish to
which every one bowed the knee—from the distinguished and learned judge
downwards, the judge who, in point of fact, admitted and regretted that
he decided against his conscience? It was principally precedent.
Because a man had once been hung for a murder committed in a certain
manner, men must always be hung for murder. Because a judge had once
given a verdict which, under the circumstances, was as _near the right_
as he dared to go (and our judges do this), then every one who came
after must be dealt with by this immovable standard.

The very passage of time itself—the changes introduced into society,
custom, and modes of thought in the course of the years—was in itself a
strong and all-sufficient argument against this fetish precedent.

That was not all. Aymer in his position—to a certain extent
confidential—had a glimpse behind the scenes. Quick of observation and
comprehension, he saw that even this game of argument, and precedent,
and quibble was not conducted honestly. He had heard and read so much
of the freedom, the liberty of England, the safety of the subject, the
equal justice meted out to all, that he was literally confounded when
the bare facts stared him in the face.

There was jobbery, corruption under the whole of it; there was class
prejudice operating in the minds of those on the judgment-seat; there
were a thousand-and-one small, invisible strings, which palled this way
and that behind the scenes. It was, after all, a species of Punch and
Judy show, moved by wires, and learnt by rote by the exhibitor.

It sickened and wearied him. Sitting on those hard benches, he longed
for liberty—longed to escape from the depressing influence of the
atmosphere of chicanery in which he was plunged. The very sight of
those hideous faces which are sure to congregate in the criminal
justice-room, seemed to weaken the fresh young spirit within him.

Yet, as said before, Mr Broughton used him kindly. He found Aymer
lodgings cheap and fairly comfortable. Aymer had often desired to
escape from his solitary room at Wick Farm; but even that cold, lonely
apartment was better than this. These four walls had no
association—they were walls only—partly concealed with a few common
prints. One of these, over the mantelpiece, looked down upon him as he
sat by his fire in the evening. He saw it night after night, till at
last that engraving seemed to almost live, and he watched to see when
the labour of the prisoner should be completed. For it was the picture
of the prisoner sitting in his cell upon a stone bench, painfully
chiselling out upon the stone wall—just where a single beam of sunlight
fell—the figure of Christ upon the Cross, with the rude tool of a
common iron nail.

He grew to understand the feelings and the thought, to sympathise in
the work of the prisoner in his dungeon. The solitary ray of sunshine
that fell upon his life was the love of Violet. He was himself
confined, imprisoned by the iron bars and the strong walls of poverty,
and the tools he had at hand for his labour of love were scanty and
rude. How could he in that contracted sphere, without travel, without
change of scene and conversation with other men, ever hope to find
materials for works with which to please the world, and obtain for
himself fame and position? He understood now the deep meaning of the
words put in Ulysses’ mouth—“I am a part of all that I have met.” They
applied with tenfold force to the artistic, and to the literary career.
It was only by extended experience, by contact with the wide, wide
world, that he could hope to comprehend what it wanted. Yet it
sometimes happened that even the prisoner in his cell, by sheer
self-concentration, and with the aid of the rude tools and material
within his reach, produced a work which could not be surpassed. The
poor prisoner of the picture reminded him constantly of this. He tried.
He thought and thought, till at last, in the quiet and solitude of his
lonely room, an idea did occur to him—not a very great or remarkable
idea either, but still one which, he felt, if properly carried out,
might produce substantial results.

Evening after evening, upon leaving the office, he laboured at his new
conception, illustrating his book with his own pencil, spending hour
after hour upon it far into the night. So absorbed was he upon it, that
he almost neglected Violet’s letters—almost, he could not quite—but his
notes were so short and so unlike his usual style, that she, with her
knowledge of his character, saw at once what he was doing, and kept
begging him not to overwork himself.

“Circumstances over which we have no control.” There are other
circumstances still more powerful—i.e., those circumstances which we
never even think of controlling, which happen so quietly and whose true
significance is so little apparent at the time, that we pass them by
without a thought.

It happened that Mr Broughton was engaged in a cause which necessitated
extracts to be made from a file of old newspapers. Being overworked
himself, and his staff also in full employment, he asked Aymer to do
this, and to do it especially well and carefully. Aymer began the work,
and at first found it dry enough, but as he got deeper into it, the
strange contrast presented by this contemporary chronicle with the
present day gradually forced itself upon him, and he ceased to cast
aside the papers so soon as the particular extract required was made.

Presently the idea occurred to him of writing an article for the London
papers, founded upon the curiosities of these old sheets of news. With
this view, after he had finished the work he was set to do, he got into
the habit of carrying two or three of the papers home, and re-reading
and studying them, and making notes by his own fireside. The file was
really interesting. It began in the year 1710. The _Barnham Chronicle_
was one of those extremely old papers published in county towns, which
live on from year to year without an effort, because they meet with no
opposition. The circle of its readers, in all probability, at that
date—more than a century and a half after its establishment—was
scarcely larger than in the first year of publication. It had been
taken and read by whole generations. The son found it taken by his
father, and when he succeeded to the farm, to the mill, or to the shop,
continued the old subscription.

Looked at in the light of the present day, when intelligence is flashed
from end to end of the kingdom in a few hours, the _Barnham Chronicle_
was all but ridiculous. Its news was a week old or more, stale and
unprofitable. It did not even advance so far as to have a London
letter; but perhaps that was no great loss to its readers.

Yet the _Barnham Chronicle_ was a “property” in more than one sense; it
paid, as well it might, at fourpence per copy, and with the monopoly of
auctioneer’s and lawyer’s advertisements in that district. And it could
boast of a more than patriarchal age.

Reading slowly, paragraph by paragraph, through this enormous file, his
note-book at his side, Aymer came upon one advertisement, simply
worded, and with no meretricious advantage given to it by large type or
other printer’s resource, yet which he read with a special interest. It
contained the name of Waldron, of The Place, Bury Wick; and that name
was sufficient to attract him. It ran thus:—

“Notice of Change of Name.—I, Arthur Sibbold, tea-dealer, of the City
of London, in the county of Middlesex, do hereby give notice, that it
is my intention to apply for permission to add to my present baptismal
names the name of Waldron, upon the occasion of my approaching marriage
with Miss Annica Waldron, of The Place, Bury Wick, co. B—, etc, etc.
And that I shall be henceforward known, called, and designated by the
name of Arthur Sibbold Waldron in all deeds, writings, etc, etc.”


To us who are acquainted with the history of the city of Stirmingham,
this entry has a wide significance; to Aymer it had none beyond the
mere fact of the mention of Waldron. He copied it into his note-book
with a mental resolve to show it to Violet, and thought no more of it.
An event that happened about this time made him forget all about what
appeared to him a trivial matter. This was the trial of Jenkins, the
gardener, for the murder of Jason Waldron. Mr Broughton, who was
engaged for the defence, to instruct counsel, naturally made much use
of Aymer’s local knowledge and perfect acquaintance with the details of
that terrible day, and was thereby furnished with fresh and
overwhelming arguments.

Aymer worked with a will, for he knew that Violet was much concerned
and extremely anxious as to the result, and he watched the proceedings
on the fateful day with intense interest. It is needless to
recapitulate the details of the case, which have been already given.
The result was an acquittal. The Judge summed up in favour of the
prisoner, observing that it was monstrous if a man must be condemned to
the last penalty of the law, because it so chanced that a tool
belonging to him had been snatched up as the readiest instrument for a
murderous attack. To his experience the murder did not appear at all in
the light of an ordinary crime. In the first place, there was an
apparent absence of motive. So far as was known, Waldron had no enemies
and no quarrel with any man. Evidently it was not committed with the
intention of theft, as not a single article had been missed. It
appeared to him like the unaccountable impulse of an unreasoning being;
in plain words, like the act of _a lunatic with homicidal tendencies_.
The jury unanimously acquitted the prisoner, and Aymer hastened to send
the news to Violet. He could not post with it himself, as Mr Broughton
had other cases to attend to.

Poor Jenkins was free—and lost. The shock had stunned him, and he was
too old and too much weakened by disease to ever recover from it. He
could not face his native village, the place where his family, though
humble, had for generations borne a good character. He had an almost
childish dread of meeting any one from Bury Wick or World’s End, and
even avoided Aymer, who sought him in the crowd.

How truly was it said that “service is no inheritance!” After two
generations of faithful service, these poor people were practically
exiled from home and friends, and this without fault of their own.
Violet would have gladly done what she could for the aged couple. They
might have, at all events, lived at The Place and taken care of the old
house, but she and Aymer lost sight of them entirely.

All that was known was that a few weeks after the acquittal, a waggon
came and fetched away their goods from the cottage, and Jenkins was
heard of no more—for the time. He had, in fact, found work, and buried
himself, as he hoped, for ever out of sight. There was a certain
natural pride in him, and it had been cruelly trampled upon. Suffer
what he might, he would not ask for aid—not even from Violet. And he
did suffer—he and his poor shattered wife. With not exactly a bad
character, but the stigma of “murder” clinging to him, he wandered
about seeking work, and nearly starved.

Even in Bury Wick, where he was so well-known, had he returned, he
would have found a certain amount of reluctance to receive him into the
old grooves. In distant villages where the dreadful tale of blood had
penetrated, and where the people had had little or no opportunity of
hearing the facts, there was still a strong prejudice against him; and
it must be owned that from an outsider’s point of view, it _did_ look
suspicious that he should have been alone near the house when the deed
was committed. So it was that he found it hard to get employment,
especially now the winter was come, and labour less in demand.

At length, worn-out and exhausted with hunger and wandering, he
accepted the wages of a boy from Albert Herring, and a waggon was sent
to fetch his goods.

Albert Herring had the reputation of being a hard master, and it was
well deserved. Hard work, long hours, small pay, and that given
grudgingly, and withheld on trivial pretences—these were the practices
which gained for him the hatred of the labouring population. Yet with
singular inconsistency they were always willing to work for him. This
is a phenomenon commonly to be observed—the worst of masters can always
command plenty of men.

With Jenkins it was a matter of necessity. If he could not get work he
must starve or go into the union—dreaded almost as much as the prison.
Albert kept him several days after his application—he would see about
it—he was in no hurry. He laid much stress upon the gardener’s age,
though the other assured him that willingness would compensate for that
Jenkins had been a gardener, not a labourer. It was doubtful if he
would understand his duties if he was put on to cut a hedge.

“Oh, yes!” said the old man, eagerly; “I can use an axe or a
bill-hook.”

“Ay, ay,” said Albert, brutally. “Thee can _use a bill-hook_, so I’ve
heard say.”

Jenkins bowed his head, and his lip quivered.

The upshot was that he was put on at nine shillings per week—one
shilling to be deducted for rent of a small cottage.



Chapter Eleven.


This trial of poor Jenkins took up Aymer’s time, so that he had no
leisure for his new book, which had to be laid aside; and when he was
in hopes of returning to it, another incident again interrupted him.
The work he had to do was very little after all; it was not the amount,
but the character of it, that he disliked.

Yet, notwithstanding his hatred of the law, he could not help imbibing
some small smattering which afterwards proved extremely serviceable.
The change from World’s End was also beneficial in another manner—it
opened his eyes to much that he had never suspected. If anything, his
inclination hitherto would have been to have taken most people pretty
much at their word. This may sound childish to the young men of the
period, who—in the habit of frequenting billiard saloons, horse-races,
card parties, hotels, and all places where people congregate—naturally
pick up a good deal of knowledge of the world sufficient to astonish
their parents, at all events.

Aymer certainly was not a model young man. Without a doubt, if he had
been placed where such amusements were easily accessible, he would have
done much as others of his age did; but it so happened that living at
World’s End, entirely out of society, he had no such opportunities.
After a month or so at Broughton’s office his eyes began to open, and
he saw that things are very different under the surface to what they
appear outwardly. He became less ready to accept what people said, or
did in the sense they wished others to see them, and commenced a habit
of deducting a large percentage from the price they put upon
themselves.

He had been three times to see Violet—staying only a few hours—and was
agreeably surprised with the pleasant reception he received from Lady
Lechester, who took an opportunity of informing him privately that she
wished Violet to continue with her. Violet was well, but dull. She was
no sentimental heroine to pine away at separation from Aymer; but it
was only natural that she should miss the old associations.
Particularly she begged Aymer not to overwork himself at night with his
private labour.

Lady Lechester seconded this, saying that she had known a gentleman
who, much of the same disposition as Aymer, had lost his wits through
incessant application. He was a relation of hers, and was now confined
in an asylum at Stirmingham. To save speculation, it will be as well to
at once mention that this person was not Odo Lechester.

Aymer’s reply was that he feared he should never complete his book, for
something always seemed to happen to delay it, and now he should soon
have to accompany Mr Broughton to Stirmingham.

It was in this way. Mr Broughton, before removing to Barnham, where he
inherited the practice and most of the fortune of a deceased uncle, had
lived in Stirmingham, working as the junior partner in a firm there. He
was no longer a partner, but still continued on friendly relations with
the firm; and having much confidence in his ability, they frequently
sent for him in difficult cases.

Now this firm—Messrs Shaw, Shaw, and Simson—had one very good client,
who had been to them almost equal to an estate, bringing in a yearly
income, and paying cash without dispute. This client, or rather these
clients, was one of those very building societies which had leased old
Sternhold Baskette’s incomplete houses for a term of years.

House property is, as every one knows, fruitful in causes of
litigation—repairs, defaulting tenants, disputes, and what not; and, in
addition, there is the task of collecting the rents, and a vast variety
of smaller pickings. All these Shaw, Shaw, and Simson had enjoyed for
fully half a century, till they had come to look upon them as their
legitimate right, and as certain to descend into the hands of their
successors. But as time went on, they began to get anxious, and to
perceive that there was a great deal of truth in the ancient maxim,
“This too shall pass away,” for the term of the lease, long as it was,
rapidly approached expiration.

Obviously, it was their interest to delay the delivering up of the
property to the heir, John Marese Baskette, as long as possible; and
they felt the stake to be so great, that they did not spare their own
money in the effort to oust him from his just claim.

Messrs Shaw, Shaw, and Simson were all three old and experienced
men—safe men, in every sense; but they hesitated to trust entirely to
their own ingenuity in this complicated business. They had, in fact,
entrusted it to Mr Broughton, who was not only more energetic, but was
full of resources which would never have occurred to such steady
persons as the three partners.

So it happened that, as the fall of the year advanced, Broughton had
his hands full of the building societies’ business, and had engaged to
proceed to Stirmingham as their legal representative, at the great
family council of the claimants in the Sternhold Hall, which was to
open in three or four days.

Another circumstance that brought Aymer into still closer contact with
the great case, was the fact that this firm of Shaw, Shaw, and Simson
had an American client, who was himself one of the claimants. His name
was another variation upon the old stem.

Anthony Baskelette was tolerably well to do. He had a great business,
and had large transactions with manufacturers in Stirmingham. These
necessitated an agent there, and Shaw, Shaw, and Simson had for years
looked after his affairs. He was one of the Original Swampers. He
really could prove his direct descent from one of old Will Baskette’s
cousins, and held ample documentary evidence; and being moderately
wealthy, thought he would have a trial at the monster estate at
Stirmingham. He instructed Shaw, Shaw, and Simson to get up his claim
in a legal form, and announced his intention of accompanying the body
of the claimants to England in the steamer _Lucca_, which had been so
generously chartered by Marese.

All the correspondence from him to Shaw and Company was sent on to
Barnham; and in this way Aymer, who had much to do with Broughton’s
correspondence, began to have some idea of the magnitude of the
interests at stake. Though constitutionally averse to the law, and
hating its formalities, he could not help feeling some considerable
excitement about this tremendous case, and perhaps showed more genuine
alacrity in executing Broughton’s instructions relating to it, than he
had with other matters.

At all events, Broughton told him that he should want him to act as his
clerk, or notary, during his approaching visit to Stirmingham. The
lawyer had begun to feel a certain amount of trust and confidence in
Aymer, who never failed to fulfil his orders, though obviously against
the grain, and especially as Aymer’s demeanour was quiet and
gentlemanly. If he did venture to throw out a suggestion, it was in the
most respectful and diffident manner.

In this way it happened that Aymer became well up in the _latter_ part
of the history of Stirmingham, especially in that section of the case
which concerned the Baskettes, and in time it grew to be almost the
leading thought in his mind. His letters to Violet were full of it. The
history was so romantic—so extraordinary, and yet so true—that it took
strong hold upon his imagination.

He looked forward with pleasure to his approaching visit to
Stirmingham. Like all men with any pretence to brains, though he
delighted in Nature and loved the country, there was a strong, almost
irresistible, desire within him to mingle in the vast crowds of cities,
to feel that indefinable “life” which animates the mass. A great city
to such a man as Aymer was like a wonderful book—an Arabian Night’s
tale, an endless romance which would afford inexhaustible pleasure in
the study of its characteristics.

Though it would involve at least a month’s absence from Violet, he
looked forward to the visit with impatience—not without a secret hope
that he might in some unexpected manner find a chance of rising in the
scale, and getting a little nearer to the object of his life.

He had a number of commissions to execute for Lady
Lechester—particularly one. This was to search the old bookstalls and
the curiosity shops, in out-of-the-way corners, for antique Bibles.
Agnes had a weakness, if it may be so-called, for collecting old
editions of the Bible, and possessed a large and extremely interesting
library filled with them. One or two particularly rare copies had
hitherto escaped her search, and if there was such a thing to be found
in Stirmingham she felt sure that Aymer would be precisely the man to
find it.

He had also a commission to purchase for her a few pictures, with which
to decorate the walls of a new wing she was adding to The Towers. She
had a curious dislike to the old family mansion, and yet wished to live
in the neighbourhood from a sense of duty. She held it as a doctrine
that the owners of large estates should pass a part of their time, at
all events, at home—there were so many ways in which they could do
good, not only by charity, but by encouraging local industries.

The new wing was being built to enable her to reside at home, and yet
gratify the innate dislike to The Towers which she cherished. Aymer’s
artistic taste was so marked that she felt confident he would select
her suitable pictures. There were plenty of old paintings in the
galleries of The Towers which could have been spared for the new wing,
but she preferred to be surrounded with fresh objects, even down to the
very footstool.

The day for the assembling of the great family council came nearer and
nearer, and the letters from Anthony Baskelette more frequent. The
daily papers, which Aymer saw now and read with the closest attention,
began to devote a space to notes upon the preparations, and some sent
specials to Stirmingham in advance, who described the city in a series
of sketches, which excited Aymer’s curiosity to the highest pitch.

News came at last that the claimants were assembling at Imola; then the
date of the sailing of the _Lucca_ came and passed. They knew that she
must sail upon that day, because her owners were under contract to
deliver the bullion entrusted to them on a fixed date in London, where
its approaching arrival had already had an appreciable effect upon the
money-market. Seven hundred thousand pounds in coin, in gold bars and
Mexican dollars, is a sum which cannot be transferred from one country
to another at once, without causing some fluctuations upon the
Exchange. The owners of the _Lucca_ were under a bond by which they
forfeited a heavy sum if the vessel did not start to time. Therefore
there was no doubt that the _Lucca_ had sailed, though no announcement
had reached London of the event, for it happened that the Atlantic
cables were out of order, and there were not then such a number of
cables as at present. Still, no one doubted for an instant that she was
upon the seas; and one well-known illustrated paper announced that a
special artist of theirs was on board, who, the moment he landed, would
present the public with sketches of the incidents of the voyage,
portraits of the claimants, and other subjects of interest. It was also
generally understood that the heir, in his yacht, had started from New
York to accompany the steamer.

What was Aymer’s surprise and regret, upon opening the paper on the
second morning after, to see the following telegram, one of the cables
having got into partial working order again:—

“New York, Tuesday Night.
    “The _Lucca_ sailed on Friday at noon, but _without_ the claimants.
    She brings the specie announced.”


Then there was an editorial note to the effect that several other words
of the telegram could not be read, on account of the unsatisfactory
state of the wires. The evening papers had further particulars:—

“The _Lucca_, and the yacht of John Marese Baskette, Esq, have passed
Sandy Hook. All well. A snow-storm blocked the line from Imola to New
York, and the claimants could not arrive in time. They follow per
_Saskatchewan_.”


Next day additional particulars came to hand. It appeared that the
heir, Marese, had on the Wednesday gone to Imola, and received an
ovation from the assembled claimants. He was to accompany them to New
York on the Friday, and to follow the _Lucca_ in his yacht. On Thursday
night there came a heavy fall of snow—and a strong wind, which caused
immense drifts. Notwithstanding these the special train, with Marese
and one hundred and fifty claimants, started from Imola with a
pilot-engine in front, the station-masters along the line having
telegraphed that they would clear it in time. They did partially
succeed in the attempt; but the storm came on again, the wires were
blown down; and telegraphic communication for a part of the way
interrupted.

In the thick snow the special crept along, with the pilot in front;
but, despite of all their caution, the pilot-engine ran into a drift
and stuck fast. The special came up, but there was no collision. To
proceed was, however, impossible; every moment made it more so, and
they began to fear lest the return to Imola should be also blocked up.

After much consultation it was decided to run back to Imola, and
proceed by a more circuitous route. There was just a chance that, if
this other route was clear of snow, they might get to New York in time.
They put on steam and pushed as fast as possible, and the consequence
was a narrow escape from a serious disaster. The wind, since they had
passed, had blown down a large pine tree, which fell across the line.
The engine of the special struck this tree, but being provided with
cow-guards, was not thrown off the line. Some of the machinery was,
however, damaged, and the special came to a standstill. After a long
delay, consequent on the interruption of telegraphic communication, a
second train was sent up, and the passengers re-embarked in it, and at
last got back to Imola. It was now, however, too late to reach New York
in time, especially as the longer route was equally encumbered with
drifts of snow. The result was that the _Lucca_ was obliged to start
without them.



Chapter Twelve.


The _Saskatchewan_ was to start on the next Friday. The claimants had
arrived at New York on the Sunday, after much trouble and a long
journey, having to make an immense détour. The council could not now
hold its first meeting on New Year’s Day, but was expected to assemble
on the 6th January (Twelfth Day).

For two days they were without intelligence at Barnham and Stirmingham,
the cables being wrong again, but on the third Aymer was sent for to
the private residence of Mr Broughton at seven in the morning. The
London dailies had not yet arrived, but he had received a private
telegram from Shaw, Shaw, and Simson, with the most extraordinary news.
The yacht of Mr Marese Baskette had brought the steamship _Lucca_ back
to port a derelict, having found her helpless on the high seas, with
every passenger and every one of the crew dead.

Presently the papers came and contained the same announcement, though
they one and all expressed a strong doubt as to the accuracy of the
news. By-and-by down came a second edition of the _Telegraph_,
repeating the former telegram, with additional particulars. By night it
was known as a fact over the length and breadth of the world, that the
_Lucca_ had been found lying like a log upon the waste of waters with a
crew of corpses—a veritable ship of the Dead. The ghastly news was only
too true. Excitement rose to the highest pitch; edition after edition
of the papers sold out; men congregated in groups, discussing this new
horror which had saddened civilisation. All were completely in the dark
as to how it had happened, and in the eagerness for further insight the
brief telegram announcing that the claimants had started on board the
_Saskatchewan_ was overlooked. There were plenty, however, who pointed
out to each other the fortunate escape the claimants had had. If the
snow had not fallen on that particular night; if the wires had not been
broken by the falling posts; if the pine tree had fallen on one side
instead of crossing the line, they would in all human probability have
one and all shared the fate of those on board the _Lucca_.

Only one circumstance caused any abatement of the intense alarm which
this fearful occurrence created. It was this: The greater portion of
the space allotted for passenger accommodation on the _Lucca_ had been
taken by Marese for the claimants, and as it was not certain up to the
last moment whether they would come or not, the ship started with less
than a third of her full complement of passengers. There was not,
therefore, such a death-roll as might have been; but, even as it was,
it was extended enough.

No one could understand how it had happened; not the slightest
explanation was given, and the public mind was exercised in speculating
upon the cause of the disaster. The passage from America to England had
long lost the character of a voyage. The height to which perfection had
been carried in the great steamship lines, was such that it had become
a mere ocean promenade. No one thought of danger; the perils of the
deep had been so thoroughly overcome. In the midst of this security
came a shattering blow, which dispelled the confidence slowly built up
by such an expenditure of skill and money as had perhaps never been
equalled in the history of the world. The mystery seemed impenetrable.
If the vessel had disappeared like the _City of Boston_; if it had
sunk, there would have been several explanations possible. But to be
brought back into port perfect, uninjured, and yet a derelict, with a
dead crew—it was inexplicable.

The _Saskatchewan_ arrived on the 2nd January, and with her came the
claimants—all but Marese—and these immediately proceeded to
Stirmingham. It was hoped that she would have brought fuller
particulars as to the fate of the _Lucca_; but having started on the
very day that the _Lucca_ returned to port, nothing more was known on
board than the simple fact.

On the 4th, however, another steamer came into Liverpool, bringing the
New York papers up to date, and the contents of these were at once
published in London.

By the steamer came a letter from Anthony Baskelette. He had left the
_Saskatchewan_ on hearing of the _Lucca’s_ return, in great anxiety
about some consignment he had made by her to his agent in Stirmingham.
He had met the heir, and had been invited to accompany him to England
on board his yacht, which would not reach Liverpool till the 9th. He
was full of the _Lucca_ catastrophe, and his long letter contained more
particulars than four papers.

Aymer read it with the deepest interest. It ran:—

“You will of course attend the council on the 6th, both in the interest
of the building society and of myself. I am delayed by the necessity of
seeing after the consignment I had made on board the unfortunate
_Lucca_, which consignment is too valuable to be left to agents. I am
in the greatest anxiety, because it is uncertain yet in what light the
rescue of the _Lucca_ will be regarded.

“There can be no doubt that if the owner of the yacht—Mr Marese
Baskette—likes, he can put in a heavy claim for salvage. The question
is—whether in his position as the ostensible heir, and as a gentleman,
he will insist upon his right, or, at all events, moderate his demands?

“I have met and conversed with him, and I gather from him that
personally he is averse to making any claim at all. He considers that
his yacht simply performed a duly, and a duly that was imperative upon
her captain. To take money from those unfortunate persons who had
consigned goods, or bullion in the _Lucca_ he thought would be contrary
to every sentiment of honour and humanity.

“But, unfortunately, he is not altogether a free agent. It appears that
at the time when the salvage of the _Lucca_ was effected, there was on
board the yacht a certain Mr Theodore Marese—a cousin of Mr Baskette’s,
who is only in moderate circumstances, and naturally looks upon the
event as a windfall which may never occur again—as I hope and pray it
never will.

“Mr Theodore Marese, it seems, performed some personal service in
rescuing the _Lucca_, and was considered to have run considerable risk
to his life.

“A certain sum will have no doubt to be paid to Mr Theodore, and I
cannot blame him if he insists upon his right. He was practically the
master of the yacht at the time, and it seems was on his way—with Mr
Baskette’s permission—to London, to attend to some very urgent business
there, which the catastrophe of the _Lucca_ has delayed and greatly
injured, causing him pecuniary loss.

“Then there is the captain of the yacht, and the crew. It is a fine
vessel—some 300 tons or more, I should think—a screw steamer, and very
fast. She carries a rather numerous crew, and all these are ravenous
for plunder, and it is hard to see how these claims are to be avoided.
Still further, it seems that Mr Baskette himself is not altogether a
free agent. He freely admitted to me that he was not without his
debts—as is probable enough to a man of fashion, with a certain
position to maintain.

“These creditors may take advantage of the _Lucca_ business to push
him, and say that he must take the salvage in order to meet their
demands. Of this he is greatly afraid.

“Baskette is a most pleasant man, easy to converse with, very open and
straightforward—quite a different person to what I should have
expected. He has been particularly agreeable to me, promising his best
efforts to curtail my loss, and has given me a cabin in his now famous
yacht, the _Gloire de Dijon_.

“I cannot drive the subject of the salvage from my mind. The saloons,
bars, hotels—everywhere people talk of nothing else. It has quite
eclipsed the tragedy, as well it might, from the magnitude of the sums
involved.

“First of all, there is the vessel herself—found upon the high seas, a
derelict, without a hand at the wheel or at the engines. She is a
splendid steamer, fully 3000 tons, and estimated at half a million of
dollars, or, say, 100,000 pounds. The cargo she carried was immensely
valuable—the bullion you know about: it was 718,000 pounds in exact
figures—but the cargo must be worth at least another 75,000 pounds.

“Then there is a very large amount of personal property, for half the
claimants who were to go by her had forwarded their luggage previously;
and there are the effects of the poor creatures who died. But these
last, Mr Baskette declares, shall under no circumstances be touched.
Happen what may, they are to be returned to the owners of their heirs
undiminished.

“Putting it all at the lowest estimate, the value of the vessel, the
bullion, and cargo cannot be less than 893,000 pounds; and the salvage
will equal a gigantic fortune.

“So far I have dealt only with the salvage question. I will now proceed
to give you a more detailed account than you will be able to get from
the papers, of the terrible fate which overtook the _Lucca_. These I
have learnt from Mr Baskette and from Mr Theodore Marese, who was on
the yacht.

“The reporters are, of course, incessant in their inquiries, but there
is much that has escaped them, as a certain amount of reticence must of
necessity be observed. These gentlemen have, however, made no reserve
to me—I must beg of you not to publish this letter, or any part of it,
lest there should appear to be a breach of confidence.

“It appears that the _Lucca_ started at noon on the Friday, as per
bond, with a full complement of crew, but a short list of passengers.
About two hours after she had left, the _Gloire de Dijon_ put out to
sea. Mr Baskette was at that time still at Imola, unable to get to New
York. He and his cousin, Mr T. Marese, were to have gone together in
the yacht to London, where Mr Theodore’s business was very pressing.

“When Mr Baskette found himself unable to reach New York, he
telegraphed to Mr Theodore telling him to take the yacht and go on to
London as had been previously arranged, thereby showing the same
character of consideration for others which he has since exhibited to
me.

“Mr Theodore put to sea in the _Gloire de Dijon_, and says that next
morning they overtook the _Lucca_, or nearly so, the yacht being
extremely swift. It occurred to him that, after all, as the Atlantic is
still the Atlantic, notwithstanding steam, and there are such things as
breaking machinery, it would be well to keep in company with a powerful
vessel like the _Lucca_ as far as the coast of Ireland.

“They did so, and even once spoke the steamship, which replied, ‘All
well.’ All that day the two ships were not half a mile apart, and the
night being moonlit, the _Gloire de Dijon_ followed close in the
other’s wake till about four in the morning, when, as often happens at
thick fog came on. Afraid of collision, the captain of the yacht now
slackened speed to about six knots, and kept a course a little to the
starboard of the steamer ahead.

“The fog continued very thick till past noon, and then suddenly lifted,
and they saw seven or eight sail in sight, one of which was the _Lucca_
on their port bow, and about four miles off. She was running, as usual,
at a good pace, and the sea being quiet, was making all thirteen knots.
The _Gloire de Dijon_ increased speed, and drew up to within a mile and
a half by three in the afternoon. The _Lucca_ then bore due east, and
they were in her wake. The wind was west, with a little southerly, and
just ahead of the _Lucca_ was a large square-rigged ship, with all sail
set, but making very little way on account of the trifling breeze.

“An extraordinary thing now happened. The _Lucca_ was observed by the
captain of the yacht to be making straight for the sailing ship ahead,
and had now got so close that a collision appeared inevitable. He
called to Mr Theodore, who came up from below. The _Lucca_ ran dead at
the sailing ship, though she was making thirteen knots to the other’s
four, and the slightest turn of her wheel would have carried her free.
On account of the direction of the wind, the ship was sailing almost
right before it, and the steamer appeared to be aiming at her stern.

“On the yacht they could see the crew of the sailing ship making
frantic signs over the quarter to the steamer, but not the slightest
notice was taken. The captain of the sailing ship had relied upon the
steamer giving way, as is usual, and had allowed her to come so close
that, it seems, he lost his head. Seeing this, the mate sang out to put
the helm a-starboard, and run straight before the wind. This was done,
and only just in time, for the steamer actually grazed her quarter, and
carried away their boom. Knowing that the captain of the _Lucca_ was an
old sailor, and a steady, experienced man, they were astonished at this
behaviour, especially as, without staying to inquire what damage had
been done, she kept on her course at still greater speed.

“The captain of the yacht now put on speed, being desirous of speaking
the steamer; but after an hour or two it was evident that the _Lucca_
was drawing ahead, and had increased her lead by at least a mile. They
could not understand this, as the yacht was notoriously faster, and it
became evident that the engineer of the _Lucca_ must have got his
safety-valve screwed-down.

“Night, as every one knows, falls rapidly at this time of the year, and
the darkness was increased by the fog, which now came on again. During
the evening all their conversation was upon the _Lucca_. Surely she
would not keep up her speed in such a fog as this? The yacht had
slackened, and was doing, as before, about six knots.

“The night wore on, till about two o’clock, when the wind freshened,
and blew half a gale. At four the fog cleared, and the watch reported
that the _Lucca_ was on their starboard quarter, a mile astern, with
her engines stopped. Mr Theodore was called, and came on deck. There
lay the steamer in the trough of the sea, rolling, heaving—so much so
that they wondered her sticks did not go. No smoke issued from her
funnel, and the steam-pipe gave no sign. The usual flag was flying, but
no signal was shown in answer to the _Gloire de Dijon’s_ inquiry. There
was no sail on her.

“It was at once evident that something was wrong, and Mr Theodore
ordered the yacht to be put about. They tried the signals, but, as I
said, no notice was taken. On approaching the _Lucca_, which had to be
done with some caution, as she slewed about in a helpless manner, and
was drifting before the sea, an extraordinary spectacle presented
itself. As she rolled, her deck came partly into view, and they saw,
with what feelings may be imagined, several men lying on the deck, and
thrown now this way, now that, as the rollers went under her, evidently
either dead or unconscious.

“Filled with alarm and excitement, they attempted to board the vessel,
but found it impossible. The waves made all but a clean breach over
her. She staggered like a drunken man, and swung now this way, now
that. Some of the standing rigging had given way, and they could hear
the masts creak. They were afraid to get under her lee in case they
should fall.

“At length the captain of the yacht thought of a plan. He got a hawser
ready with a loop, and watching his opportunity, ran the yacht close to
her bow, and with his own hand, at great risk, hurled the rope, and by
good luck the loop caught in the fluke of one of her anchors. They paid
the hawser out over the yacht’s stern, and gradually got her in tow. It
strained fearfully; but as soon as they had got the _Lucca_ before the
wind, they had her right enough, though there was even then some danger
of being pooped. The sea was high, but not so high that the jolly-boat
could live, and they manned her and boarded the _Lucca_.

“The sailors were eager enough to get on board, but so soon as they
were on deck the superstition of the sea seemed to seize them, and not
one would venture from the gangway; for towards the stern there lay the
bodies that they had seen, still and motionless, and evidently dead.

“A terrible mystery hung over the ship—terrible, indeed!”



Chapter Thirteen.


“Not one of the seamen could be got to go below, or to approach the
corpses on the deck; and even the mate, who did touch these last, had a
reluctance to descend. It was, however, necessary to get another hawser
attached to the _Lucca_, and this occupied some little time; and by
then the men became more accustomed to the ship, and at last, led by
the mate, they went down.

“At the foot of the staircase a terrible sight met their gaze. A heap
of people—seamen, passengers, all classes—lay huddled up together—dead.
They were piled one over the other in ghastly profusion, having been
probably flung about by the rolling of the ship when she got broadside
on. So great was the heap that they could not advance without either
stepping upon the bodies, or removing them; and in this emergency they
signalled to the yacht, which sent another boat, and in it came Mr
Theodore.

“He at once gave orders to make a passage and to explore the steamer
thoroughly, which was done, and done speedily, for the sailors, having
now conquered their superstitious fears, worked with a will. From that
heap thirty-five bodies were carried up on deck, and laid upon one side
in an awful row. They exhibited no traces of violence whatever. Their
faces were quite calm; though one or two had the eyeballs staring from
the head, as if they had struggled to escape suffocation.

“A search through the steamer revealed a cargo of the dead. Passengers
lay at the doors of their berths, some half-dressed; and five or six
were discovered in their berths, having evidently died while asleep.
The engineer lay on the floor of the engine-room with three
assistants—stiff, and with features grimly distorted. They had
apparently suffered more than the rest.

“The crew were found in various places. The captain lay near the
engine-room, as if he had been on his way to consult with the engineer
when death overtook him. Bodies were found all over the ship, and
exclamations constantly arose as the men discovered fresh corpses. The
air between decks was close and confined, and there was a fetid odour
which they supposed to arise from the bodies, and which forced them
sometimes to run on deck to breathe. This odour caused many of the
sailors to vomit, and one or two were really ill for a time.

“It appeared that the whole ship’s crew and all the passengers had
perished; but one of the sailors searching about found a man in the
wheelhouse on deck, who on being lifted up showed some slight trace of
life. The sailors crowded round, and the excitement was intense. Mr
Theodore, who is a physician by profession, lent the aid of his skill,
and after a while the man began to come round, though unable to speak.

“The captain of the yacht had now come on board, and a consultation was
held, at which it was decided to run back to New York. But as the wind
was strong and the sea high, and the hawsers strained a good deal, it
was arranged to put a part of the crew of the yacht on board the
_Lucca_, to get up steam in her boilers, and shape a course for the
States. To this the crew of the yacht strongly objected—they came aft
in a body and respectfully begged not to be asked to stay on board the
_Lucca_. They dreaded a similar fate to that which befel the crew and
passengers of that unfortunate steamer.

“The end of it was that Mr Theodore ordered the hawsers to be kept
attached, and the yacht was to partly tow the steamer and she was to
partly steam ahead herself—the steam was to be got up, and the engines
driven at half speed. This would ease the hawsers and the yacht, and at
the same time the crew on board the _Lucca_ would be in communication
with the yacht, and able to convey their wishes at once.

“All agreed to this. Steam was easily got up, and the _Lucca’s_ boilers
and her engines were soon working, for the machinery was found to be in
perfect order. By the time that this arrangement was perfected, and the
ships were, got well under weigh, the short day was nearly over, and
with the night came anew the superstitions of the sailors. They
murmured, and demurred to working a ship with a whole cargo of dead
bodies. They would not move even across the deck alone, and as to going
below it required them at once to face the mystery.

“After an hour or so a clamour arose to pitch the dead overboard. What
on earth was the use of keeping them? An abominable stench came up from
between decks, and many of them could barely stand it. Mr Theodore and
the captain begged them to be calm, but it was in vain. They rose _en
masse_, and in a short space of time every one of these dead bodies had
been heaved overboard.

“The gale had moderated, and the splash of each corpse as it fell into
the water could be distinctly heard on board the yacht ahead. Such
conduct cannot be too much deplored, and there was a talk of
prosecuting the men for mutiny; but, on the other hand, there appears
to be some excuse in the extraordinary and unprecedented horrors of the
situation.

“Mr Theodore remained on board the _Lucca_, doing all that science and
patience could do for the sole survivor, who proved to be the third
officer. Towards sunrise he rallied considerably, but Mr Theodore never
had any hopes, and advised the captain to take a note of his
depositions, which was done.

“His name, he said, was William Burrows, of Maine. He could only speak
a few sentences at a time, and that very faintly, but the substance of
it was that all went well with the _Lucca_ up till early that morning,
when first the fog came on. Very soon after the mist settled down, and
speed was reduced, there was a commotion below, and a report spread
through the ship that three men were dying. In ten minutes half a dozen
more were taken in this manner. They complained merely of inability to
breathe, and of a deadly weakness, and prayed to be taken on deck. This
was done; but then ten or twelve more were affected, and those who went
below to assist them up on deck fell victims at once to the same
strange disorder. Every one throughout the ship complained of a faint,
sickly odour, and no sooner was this inhaled than a deadly lethargy
seized upon them, and increased till they fell down and died. He
happened to be on deck in the wheelhouse at the time, and saw half a
dozen sailors and three of the passengers brought up, but remembered no
more, for the sickly smell invaded the deck. He heard a singing in his
ears, and the blood seemed to press heavily, as if driven upwards
against the roof of his skull. He remembered no more for some hours.
Then he, as it were, awoke, and got up on his legs, but again felt the
same lethargy, and fell. When the disorder first attacked the ship’s
company, the captain talked of stopping the steamer and signalling for
assistance; but it appeared to be useless, for the fog was so thick
that any flag, or rocket, or light would have been unnoticed at half a
cable’s distance. Preparations were made to fire a gun, and the steam
blast was ordered, but the engineer was dead, and no one would go
below. The captain then descended to go to the engine-room, and was
seen no more. Meantime the steamer continued her way. When he got on
his legs in the wheelhouse, it was just after the bow of the _Lucca_
had carried away the boom of an unknown sailing ship, and he could feel
that she was then going at a tremendous speed. The fog had cleared, and
if he had had strength enough he could have made signals, but the
deadly sleep came over him again, and he was unconscious till picked up
by the crew of the _Gloire de Dijon_.

“This was all he could tell, and it threw no light upon the cause of
the disaster. After he had signed this in a shaky hand—I have seen the
original document—he sank rapidly, and, despite of every remedy and
stimulant, died before noon. His body was the only one brought into
port, and it was interred yesterday in the presence of a vast assembly.
A _post-mortem_ examination failed to detect the slightest trace of
poison or indication of disease; and all those who assisted in removing
the dead bodies on board the _Lucca_, declare that they presented no
known symptoms of any epidemic—for the prevailing belief in New York at
first was that some epidemic had broken out—a kind of plague, which
destroyed its victims almost as soon as attacked. But for this there
seems no foundation whatever. None of the sailors of the yacht caught
the epidemic. One or two were unwell for a day or so, but are now well
and hearty.

“I think Mr Theodore’s suggestion the best that has been made—and it
gradually gains ground with educated men, though the mass cling to the
fanciful notion of foul play in some unheard-of way—Mr Theodore thinks
that it was caused by the generation of coal-damp, or some similar and
fatal gas, in the coal-bunkers of the _Lucca_; and everything seems to
favour this supposition. It is well-known that in cold
weather—especially in cold weather accompanied by fog—coal-damp in
mines is especially active and fatal. Most of the great explosions
which have destroyed hundreds at once have occurred in such a state of
the atmosphere.

“Now the fog which came on that fatal morning was peculiarly thick and
heavy, and it so happens that the coal in the _Lucca’s_ bunkers came
from a colliery where, only a fortnight ago, there was an explosion.
The vapour, or gas, or whatever it was that was thus generated, was not
the true coal-damp, or it would have been ignited by the furnaces of
the boilers, or at the cook’s fires; but in all probability it was
something very near akin to it. All the symptoms described by poor
Burrows, are those of blood-poisoning combined with suffocation, and
such would be the effects of a gas or vapour arising from coal. Fatal
effects arising from damp coal in close bunkers are on record; but this
is the worst ever heard of.

“It would seem that after the engineer and the crew fell into their
fatal slumbers, the steam in the boilers must have reached almost a
bursting pressure—the boilers being untended—and the engineer, in
falling, had opened the valve to the full, which accounts for the
extraordinary speed of the _Lucca_ when pursued by the yacht. Being a
very long vessel and sharp in the bows, and going at a very high speed,
she would naturally keep nearly a direct course, as there was little
wind or sea to interfere with her rudder. So soon as the fires burned
out the engines stopped, and the sea rising, she became entirely at the
mercy of the waves.

“When Burrows fell a victim he saw nine or ten men on deck lying prone
in a fatal sleep—when the _Gloire de Dijon_ sent a boat’s crew on board
there were but three bodies on deck; the rest had rolled, or been
washed, overboard.

“These are the principal particulars of this unprecedented catastrophe.
This is a long letter, but I am sure that you will be eager for news
upon the subject, and, to tell the truth, I cannot get it out of my
mind, and it relieves me to write it down.

“What a narrow escape we have all had. And especially me, for I came on
to New York from Imola before the rest started, and got clear through
without any snow. When it was found that they could not reach New York
in time, I was in doubt whether to go by the _Lucca_, or remain and
accompany the main body in the _Saskatchewan_. Accident decided. I met
an old friend whom I had not seen for years, and resolved to take
advantage of the delay, and spend a day or two with him. So I escaped.

“But had it not been for the snow-storm, which caused so much cursing
at the time, we should one and all have perished miserably. The
impression made upon us was so deep that just before the _Saskatchewan_
started the whole body of the claimants attended a special service at a
church here, when thanksgivings were offered for the escape they had
had, and prayers offered up for future safety.

“I look forward with much pleasure to my voyage in the _Gloire de
Dijon_ yacht, at Mr Baskette’s invitation. A finer, more gentlemanly
man does not exist; and I am greatly impressed with the learning of Mr
Theodore.”

Aymer was much struck with the contents of this letter of Anthony
Baskelette’s. The whole tragedy seemed to pass before his mind; his
vivid imagination called up a picture of the _Lucca_, steaming as fast
as bursting pressure could drive her with a crew of corpses across the
winter sea. He made an extract from it, and sent it to Violet. Next day
they were _en route_ for Stirmingham.

At the same moment the designer of this horrible event was steaming
across the Atlantic in his splendid yacht, gulling weak-minded, simple
Baskelette with highest notions of honour, and what not. When Marese
found that the snow had blocked the line and prevented access to New
York, his rage and disappointment knew no bounds; but he was
sufficiently master of himself to think and decide upon the course to
be pursued.

Although that part of the diabolical scheme which aimed at the
wholesale destruction of the claimants had failed, all the other
sections of it were in train to succeed. The bullion was shipped, the
cargo a rich one, the steamer herself valuable—no better prize could
ever fall to him. Therefore he telegraphed to Theodore in cypher to
proceed as had been arranged.

The infernal machine, concealed in the simple aspect of an ordinary
strong deal-box, was sent on board the _Lucca_, and everything happened
just as Theodore had foreseen. If the conspirators were somewhat
disturbed in their calculations by the snow-storm, on the other hand
their designs were assisted by the heavy fog which had occurred at sea.
Undoubtedly this fog rendered the poisonous gas escaping from the case
still more effective, as it would prevent it dispersing so rapidly, and
at the same time it hid any signals the _Lucca_ might have made.

Nothing more fortunate for the conspirators than this fog could have
happened, for its service did not end here—it furnished a plausible
explanation of what would have otherwise been inexplicable.

Theodore easily contrived the removal of the fatal case, now empty, on
board the _Gloire de Dijon_ after the _Lucca_ had returned to port. The
case had been consigned to Liverpool, which was the port the _Lucca_
was bound for, and the excuse for sending it by the _Lucca_ was all cut
and dried—i.e., that the _Gloire de Dijon_ was for London.

Nothing was more natural than that, after this narrow escape, it should
be wished to transfer the case to the _Gloire de Dijon_. This was done;
and while at sea Theodore quietly removed his machine and pitched it
into the water at night, and it sank in the abyss, being lined with
iron inside.

The question of salvage bid fair to occupy the Courts in New York for
some considerable time, and to be a boon to the lawyers; but the two
conspirators were far too keen to let their prize slip from them in
that way. They managed to have the matter referred to arbitration, and
the final result was that 400,000 pounds was awarded. This amount they
at once transferred to London, and with it plunged at once into fresh
schemes.



Chapter Fourteen.


The great city whose ownership was at stake, knew that the eagles were
gathered to the living carcase, and yet did not feel their presence.
What are one hundred and fifty people in a population of half a
million? They are lost, unless they march in order and attract
attention by blocking up the streets. Disband a regiment of the Line in
Saint Paul’s Churchyard at London, and in ten minutes it would
disappear, and no one would notice any unusual prevalence of red coats
on the pavements.

The newspaper people were woefully disappointed, for the Press were not
admitted. They revenged themselves with caricature portraits of the
claimants, and grotesque sketches of their manners and conduct.
Although the Press were excluded; there were several present who could
write shorthand, and amongst these was a clerk from the office of Shaw,
Shaw, and Simson, whose notes I have had the opportunity of consulting.

The Sternhold Hall, in which the council was held, was built, as has
been stated, upon a spot once the very centre of the Swamp, now
surrounded with noble streets of mansions and club-houses, theatres,
picture-galleries—the social centre of Stirmingham. The front—you can
buy a photograph of it for a shilling—is of the Ionic order of
architecture—that is, the modern mock Ionic—i.e., the basement is
supported by columns of that order, and above these the _façade_
consists of windows in the Gothic style, which are, after all, dumb
windows only. The guide-books call it magnificent; it is really simply
incongruous.

The whole of the first two days was spent by the one hundred and fifty
claimants in wrangling as to who should take the chair, how the
business should be conducted, who should be admitted and who should
not. All the minor differences suppressed while on the voyage broke out
afresh, the moment the eagles had scented the carcase. Two days’
glimpse at the wealth of Stirmingham, was sufficient to upset all the
artificial calm and friendship, which had been introduced by the
generous offers of Marese Baskette. One gentleman proposed that a
certain section of claimants should be wholly excluded from the hall.
This caused a hubbub, and if the incident had happened in the States
revolvers might have been used. The Original Swampers declared that
they would not sit under a chairman drawn from any other body but
themselves. The outer circle of Baskettes considered that the conceit
of the Swampers was something unbearable, and declined to support them
in any way. The Illegitimate Swampers alone supported the Originals, in
the hope of getting up by clinging to their coat-tails. The Primitive
Sibbolds were quite as determined to sit under no president but their
own, and, the ranks of the other Sibbolds were split up into twenty
parties. The clamour of tongues, the excitement, the hubbub was
astounding.

Aymer, as clerk to Mr Broughton, had a first-rate view of the whole,
for Shaw, Shaw, and Simson had provided for the comfort of their
representative by purchasing for the time the right to use the stage
entrance of the room. Their offices were for the nonce established in
the green-room. Their clients mounted upon the platform or stage, and
passed behind the curtain to private consultation. This astute
management upset the other seven companies, whose representatives had
to locate themselves as best they might in the midst of a stormy sea of
contending people. From the rear of the stage, just where the
stage-manager was accustomed to look out upon the audience and watch
the effect upon them of the play, Aymer had a good view of the crowd
below, and beheld men in every shade of cloth, with rolls of paper,
yellow deeds, or old books and quill pens in their hands, gesticulating
and chattering like the starlings at World’s End.

For two whole days the storm continued, till at last Mr Broughton
suggested that the debate should be conducted in sections; each party
to have its own president, secretary, committee, and reporter of
progress; each to sit apart from the others by means of screens, and
that there should be a central committee-room, to receive the reports
and tabulate them in order. This scheme was adopted, and something like
order began to prevail. Anthony Baskelette, Esq, who had now arrived
per the _Gloire de Dijon_, was pretty unanimously voted to the
presidentship of the central committee, or section, the members of
which were composed of representatives from every party. Screens were
provided at no little expense, and the great hall was portioned out
into thirty or forty pens, not unlike the high pews used of old in
village churches.

Aymer was intensely interested and amused, as he stood at his peep-hole
on the stage, from which he could see into every one of these pens, or
pews, and watch the eagerness of the disputes going on between the
actors in each.

The first great object the sections had in view was to reduce their
claims to something like shape and order; for this purpose each section
was numbered from 1 to 37, and was to deliver to the central section,
Number 38, a report or summary of the general principles and facts upon
which the members of the section based their claim. This summary of
claim, as it was called, was to be short, succinct, and clear; and to
be supported by minute extracts of evidence, by the vouchers of the
separate individuals, so to say, showing that the summary was correct.

These extracts of evidence attached to the summary were really not
extracts, but full copies, and had to contain the dates, names, method
of identification, and references to church registers, tombstones,
family Bibles, and so forth.

Aymer was astounded at the magnitude of these volumes of evidence—for
such, in fact, they were. He had an opportunity of just glancing at
them, as they were laid upon the table of the central section one after
another. The summaries were reasonable and tolerably well expressed.
The minutes of evidence were something overwhelming. A section would
send up in the course of a day—first, its summary and a pile of
folios—seventy or eighty large lawyer’s folios of evidence to be
attached to it. On the morrow it would beg for permission to add to its
evidence, and towards the afternoon up would come another huge bundle
of closely-written manuscript.

This would go on for several days, till the central committee at last
issued an order to receive no more evidence from section Number —.

Then section Number — would hold an indignation meeting and protest,
till the central committee was obliged to receive additional bundles of
so-called evidence. Half of this evidence was nothing better than
personal recollection.

The method pursued in the sections was delightfully simple and
gratifying to every member’s vanity. He was supplied with pen and ink,
and told to put down all he could recollect about his family. The
result was that in each section there were five or six people—and in
some more—all busily at work, writing autobiographies; and as everybody
considered himself of quite as much consequence as his neighbour, the
bulk of these autobiographies can easily be imagined.

If any one had taken the trouble to wade through these personal
histories, he would have been highly gratified with the fertility of
the United States in breeding truly benevolent, upright, and
distinguished men!

Out of all that one hundred and fifty there was not one who did not
merit the gratitude of his township at least, and some were fully
worthy of the President’s chair at the White House. Their labours for
the good of others were most carefully recorded—the subscriptions they
had made to local charities far away on the other side of the Atlantic,
to schoolhouses, and chapels, town-halls, and what not.

“There,” ran many a proud record,—“you will see my initials upon the
corner-stone—‘J.I.B.,’ for ‘Jonathan Ithuriel Baskette,’ and the date
(186-), which is in itself good evidence towards my case.”

All this mass of rubbish had to be sifted by the central, committee, to
be docketed, indexed, arranged, and a general analysis made of it.

They worked for a while without a murmur, and suddenly collapsed. It
was impossible to meet the flood of writing. Fancy one hundred and
fifty people writing their autobiographies all at once, and each
determined to do himself justice! Such a spectacle was never witnessed
since the world began, and was worthy of the nineteenth century. The
central committee flung up their hands in despair. A resource was
presently found in the printing-press.

When once the idea was started, the cry spread to all corners of the
hall, and rose in a volume of sound to be echoed from the roof. The
Press! The Spirit evoked by Faust which he could not control, nor any
who have followed him.

It was unanimously decided that everything should be printed—sectional
summaries, minutes of evidence, central committees analysis, solicitors
arguments, references and all. There was rejoicing in the printing
offices at Stirmingham that day. Now the _Stirmingham Daily Post_
reaped the reward of its long attack upon the family of the heir, upon
Sternhold Baskette, and Marese, his son. The contract was offered to
the _Daily Post_, the _Daily Post_ accepted it, and set to work, but
soon found it necessary to obtain the aid of other local printers.

Now a new source of delay and worry arose. The moment everybody knew
they were going into print—why is it print sounds so much better than
manuscript?—each and all wanted to revise and add to their histories.
First, all the sections had to receive back their summaries and minutes
of evidence, to be re-written, corrected, revised, and above all
extended. The scribbling of pens recommenced with redoubled vigour, and
now the printer’s devils appeared upon the scene. The cost of printing
the enormous mass of verbiage must have been something immense, but it
was cheerfully submitted to—because each man looked forward to the
pleasure of seeing himself in print.

Acres upon acres of proofs went in and out of the Sternhold Hall, and
meantime Aymer grew impatient and weary of it. His time was much more
occupied than at Barnham. He had to conduct all Broughton’s
correspondence, and when that was finished lend a hand in arranging the
minutes of evidence for the committee, who had applied for assistance
to the solicitors. He had only reckoned on a month at Stirmingham at
the outside. Already a fortnight had elapsed, and there seemed no sign
of the end.

His letters to Violet became tinged with a species of dull despair. All
this scribbling was to him the very acme of misery, the very winter of
discontent—meaningless, insufferable. There was no progress in it for
him: he could not find a minute’s spare time now to proceed with his
private work. Not a step was gained nearer Violet.

When at last the scribbling was over; when the proofs had been read and
re-read and corrected till the compositors went mad; then the
speechifying had to begin. This to Aymer was even more wearisome than
the other. For Mr Broughton having discovered his literary talent,
employed him to listen to the debate and write a daily _précis_ of its
progress, which it would be less trouble to him to read than the
copious and interminable notes of the shorthand writer.

This order compelled Aymer to pay close attention to every speech from
first to last; and as they one and all followed the American plan of
writing out their speeches and reading them, most were of inordinate
length. To suit the speakers a new arrangement of the hall had to be
made. The screens were now removed, and the sections placed in a kind
of semi-circle, with the central section in front. Those who desired to
speak gave in their names, and were called upon by the president in
regular rotation.

The first subject discussed was the method to be pursued. Some
recommended that the whole body of claimants should combine and present
their claims _en masse_. Others thought that this plan might sacrifice
those who had good claims to those who had bad ones. Many were for
forming a committee, chosen from the various sections, to remain in
England and instruct the solicitors; others were for forming at once a
committee of solicitors.

After four or five days of fierce discussion the subject was still
unsettled, and a new one occupied its place. This was—how should the
plunder be divided? Such a topic seemed to outsiders very much like
reckoning the chickens before they were hatched. But not so to these
enthusiastic gentlemen. They were certain of wresting the properly from
the hands of the “Britishers,” who had so long kept them out of their
rights—the Stars and Stripes would yet float over the city of
Stirmingham, and the President of the United States should be invited
to a grand dinner in that very hall!

The division of the property caused more dissension than everything
else taken together. One section—that of the Original Swampers—declared
that it _would_ have, nothing should prevent its having, the whole of
the streets, etc, built on the site of the Swamp. The Sibbolds cared
not a rap for the Swamp; they _would_ have all the property which had
grown upon the site of old Sibbold’s farm at Wolfs Glow. The
Illegitimates claimed pieces here and there, corresponding to the
islands of the Swamp. Some one proposed that the meeting should be
provided with maps of Stirmingham, and the idea was unanimously
adopted.

Then came the day of the surveyors. One vast map was ordered—it had to
be made in sections—and was estimated to cover, when extended, a mile
in length by three hundred yards in breadth; and then it did not
satisfy some of the claimants. Then followed a terrible wrangle over
the maps. Everybody wanted to mark his possession upon it with red ink,
and these red ink lines invariably interfered with one another. One
gentleman proposed, with true American ingenuity, to have the map
traced in squares—like the outlying territories and backwoods of
America—and to assign to each section a square! But this was too equal
a mode to satisfy the more grasping.

Finally, it was resolved that all the minutes of evidence should be
gone through by the central committee, and that they should sketch out
those portions of the city to which each section was entitled. This
took some time. At the end of that time the great Sternhold Hall
presented an extraordinary spectacle. The walls of the hall, from the
ceiling to the floor, and all round, and the very ceiling itself, were
papered with these sections of the map, each strongly marked with lines
in red ink. Near the stage there was a vast library of books, reaching
half-way to the ceiling; this was composed of the summaries, minutes of
evidence, etc.

All round the room wandered the claimants in knots of two or three,
examining their claims as marked upon the sections of the map. Many had
opera-glasses to distinguish the claims which were “skyed;” some
affected to lie down on their backs and examine the ceiling with
telescopes; scores had their volume of evidence in their hands, and
were trying to discover upon what principle the central committee had
apportioned out the city.

Of course there was a general outcry of dissatisfaction—one section had
too much, another too little, and some sections, it was contended, had
no right to any. The meeting then resolved that each section should
visit the spaces marked out for its claim, and should report to the
central committee upon its value. Away went the sections, and there
might have been seen five or six gentlemen in one street, and ten or
twelve round the corner, with maps and pencils, talking eagerly, and
curiously scanning the shops and houses—poking their noses into back
courts and alleys—measuring the frontage of club-houses and theatres.
The result was an uproar, for each section declared that the other had
had a more valuable portion of the city given to it; and one utterly
rejected its section, for it had got the Wolf’s Glow district—the
lowest den in Stirmingham!

After a long discussion, it was at last arranged that each section
should retain, _pro tem_, its claim as marked out, and that _token the
property was realised_, any excess of one section over the other should
be equally divided. These people actually contemplated the possibility
of putting the city up to auction! To such lengths will the desire of
wealth drive the astutest of men, blinding their eyes to their own
absurdity.

After these preliminary points were settled, the meeting at last
resolved itself into a committee of the whole house, and proceeded to
business. The first business was to verify the evidence. This
necessitated visits to the churches, and public record office to make
extracts, etc, and two days were set apart for that purpose. It was a
rich harvest for the parish clerks of Stirmingham, and especially for
the fortunate clerk at Wolf’s Glow. After this the meeting, beginning
to be alarmed at the enormous expense it had incurred, resolved on
action, and with that object it decided to hold a secret session, and
to exclude all persons not strictly claimants.

This relieved Aymer from his wearisome task of chronicling the
proceedings; but he could not leave or get a day to visit Violet. As he
left the hall he stopped a moment to look at the stock-in-trade of an
itinerant bookseller, who had established his track in front of the
building since the family congress began. His stock was principally
genealogical, antiquarian, and topographical—mostly old rubbish, that
no one would imagine to be worth a sixpence, and yet which, among a
certain class, commands a good sale.

The title of a more modern-looking volume caught Aymer’s eye. It was “A
Fortune for a Shilling,” and consisted of a list of unclaimed estates,
next of kin, persons advertised for, etc. He weighed it in his hand—it
tempted him; yet he despised himself for his weakness. But Violet? He
should serve her best by saving his shilling. He put it down, and went
his way.



Chapter Fifteen.


Their mouths watered for the great city, yet it seemed no nearer to
them than when three thousand miles away on the other side of the
Atlantic. They talked loudly of their rights, but there was the little
difficulty of possession, which is sometimes a trifle more than nine
points of the law. I have conversed with unreasonable members of a
certain Church, which claims to be universal, who considered that half
England—half the vast domains owned by lords and ladies, by the two
hundred and fifty proprietors of Great Britain—was really the property
of the Church, if she had her rights.

There are those who consider that Algeria ought to belong to the Arabs,
that Africa belongs to the blacks, and India to the Hindoos. Sat there
comes this awkward item of possession. You have to buy the man in
possession out, or else pitch him out; and the difficulty in this case
was that there were so many in possession. Eight companies and a
Corporation are not easily ejected.

The fact was, the grand family council was a farce, and fell through.
Even as a demonstration it completely failed. The members of it might
just as well have stayed at home, and sent a monster petition to the
House of Lords, several hundred yards long (as per the usual custom
now-a-days), and their progress would have been about as great.

The _Stirmingham Daily News_, which had published the life of Sternhold
Baskette, and defended his legitimate line, poured bitter satire upon
it, and held the whole business up to ridicule—as well it might. The
_News_ was now Conservative. The intense self-conceit of the Yankees—to
imagine that they were going to quietly take possession of a great
English city, and hoist the Stars and Stripes on Saint George’s
Cathedral at Stirmingham!

The American gentlemen fumed and fussed, and uttered threats of making
the Stirmingham claim a feature in the next Presidential election—it
should “leave the low sphere of personal contention, and enter the
arena of political discussion;” so they said. It should be a new
_Alabama_ case; and if they could not have Stirmingham, they would
have—the Dollars!

Meantime the dollars disappeared rather rapidly, and, after a month or
six weeks of these endless wranglings in the Sternhold Hall, there
began to be symptoms of an early break-up. First, three or four, then
ten, then a dozen, crept off, and quietly sailed for New York, lighter
in pocket, and looking rather foolish. The body, however, of the
claimants could not break up in that ignominious manner. It was
necessary for them to do something to mark the fact that they had been
there, at all events.

The final result was that they appointed a committee of solicitors—one
for each section that chose to be represented. Twenty-two sections did
choose, and twenty-two solicitors formed the English committee who were
to promote the claims of one hundred and fifty able-bodied Baskettes
and Sibboldians, who represented about three times that number of women
and children. Then they held a banquet in the Sternhold Hall, and
invited the Mayor of Stirmingham, who, however, was very busy that
evening, and “deeply regretted” his inability to be present. The
council then broke up, and departed for New York.

Aymer was indeed glad; now he should be able to see Violet again, and
resume his book so long laid aside. But no; there came a new surprise.
A certain recalcitrant borough in the West returned unexpectedly a
member of the wrong colour to Parliament, and the House was dissolved,
and writs were issued for a general election. Three days afterwards an
address appeared in the _Stirmingham Daily News_, announcing Marese
Baskette as a candidate for that place in the Conservative interest.
The heir had resolved to enter the House if possible, and his
proclamation fell on Stirmingham, not like a thunderbolt, but like the
very apple of discord dropped from heaven.

First, it upset poor Aymer’s little plans and hopes. The companies were
desperately alarmed, and not without reason; for if Marese got into
Parliament he would, no doubt, very quickly become in himself a power,
and would be supported by his party in his claim upon the building
societies. It would be to the interest of his party that he should
obtain his property—it would be so much substantial gain to them.
Practically, Marese Baskette would have the important borough of
Stirmingham in his pocket; therefore the party would be sure to do all
they could to get his claim fully admitted. Imagine that party in
power; fancy the chief at the head of Government!

Every one knows that justice and equity are immaculate in England, and
that no strain is ever put upon them for political purposes, or to
gratify political supporters. The fact is so well understood, so
patent, that it is unnecessary to adduce any proof of it. But there is,
nevertheless, a certain indefinite feeling that the complexion of the
political party in power extends very widely, and penetrates into
quarters supposed to be remote from its centre. Whichever happens to be
uppermost—but let us not even think such treasonable things.

At all events the companies had a real dread—a heartfelt fear—lest
Marese Baskette should get into Parliament, and so obtain political
support to his claim. They had foreseen something of the kind; they had
dreaded its happening any time ever since he came of age; but they had
reckoned that his known poverty would keep him out, especially as there
was a very popular landlord in the county, Sir Jasper Norton, who, with
another prominent supporter of the Liberal Government, had hitherto
proved invincible. It had hung over their heads for years; now it had
fallen, and fallen, of all other times, just at the very moment when
their leases were on the point of expiring. A more unfortunate moment
for them could not have been chosen. With one consent they resolved to
fight him tooth and nail. This was fatal to poor Aymer’s hopes. For the
company (Number 6) which employed Shaw, Shaw, and Simson could not
possibly spare Mr Broughton’s energetic spirit; he must help them fight
the coming man. Broughton, seeing good fees and some sport, resolved,
to stay, and with him poor Aymer had to remain.

The whole city was in a ferment. Marese Baskette’s name was upon every
lip, and as the murmur swelled into a roar it grew into something very
like a cheer for the heir. That cheer penetrated the thick walls of
many a fashionable villa and mansion, and was listened to with
ill-concealed anxiety. Many a portly gentleman, dressed in the tailor’s
best, with broad shirt-front, gold studs, and heavy ring, rubicund with
good living, as he stood upon his hearth-rug, with his back to the
fire, in the midst of his family circle, surrounded with luxury, grew
thoughtful and absent as that dull distant roar reached his ears.
Banker and speculator, city man, merchant, ironworker, coalowner,
millowner, heard and trembled. For the first time they began to
comprehend the meaning of the word Mob.

That word is well understood in America; twice it has been thoroughly
spelt and learnt by heart in France. Will it ever be learnt in England?
Outside those thick walls and strong shutters in the dingy street or
dimly-lit suburban road, where the bitter winter wind drove the cold
rain and sleet along, there roamed abroad a mighty monster roused from
his den. They heard and trembled. Before that monster the safeguards of
civilisation are as cobwebs. He may be scotched with Horse Guards and
Snider rifles, beaten back into his caverns; but of what avail is that
after the mischief is done? In sober earnest, the middle classes began
to fear for the safety of Stirmingham. You see, the grey sewer-rats had
undermined it from end to end!

It happened that the ironmasters and the coalowners, and some of the
millowners, had held out long and successfully against a mighty strike:
a strike that extended almost to a million of hearths and homes. They
had won in the struggle, but the mind of the monster was bitter against
them. They were Liberal—nearly all. Let them and their candidates keep
a good look-out!

It happened also that the winter was hard and cold, work scarce,
provisions dear; everything was wrong. It is at such times that, in
exact opposition to all rules, the grey rat flourishes!

Finally, it happened that the party who had so strangely abdicated
power just at the time when they seemed so firmly fixed, had committed
a singularly, an exceptionally, unpopular act. They had robbed the poor
man of his beer! They had curtailed his hours for drinking it, and to
all appearance in an arbitrary way. Rumour said that they contemplated
an alliance with the Cold Water Pump—that horror of horrors, the
Temperance party. They had robbed the poor man of his beer! And the
grey rat showed his teeth.

Marese Baskette issued his _pronunciamento_, and at once opened the
campaign. Everybody read it, from the club-house to the grimy bar of
the lowest public-house. The club-house smiled, and said, “Clever;” the
pot-house cheered, and cried, “He’s our man.” He _was_ their man. Even
yet, at this distance of time, there lingered in the minds of the
populace a distinct recollection of the great saturnalia which had been
held in the days of old Sternhold Baskette, when their candidate was
born.

History magnifies itself as time rolls on; the memory of that brief
hour of unlimited riot had grown till it remained the one green spot in
the life of the Stirmingham populace. This was the very man—this was
the very infant whose advent, almost a generation ago, had been
celebrated with rejoicings such as no king or queen in these degenerate
days ever offered to the people.

When old Sternhold Baskette in the joy of his heart poured out wine in
gallons, spirits in casks, and beer in rivers, he baptised his son
Marese, the Child of the People. And it bore fruit at this great
distance of time.

John Marese Baskette was, as we know, a clever man; he had a still more
subtle man at his elbow. Between them they composed his address and his
first oration. Be sure they did not forget the memory so dear to the
people. Not one single thing was omitted which could tend to identify
Marese Baskette with the populace. The combination of capital against
them, the hard winter and price of provisions, all were skilfully
turned to advantage; and, above all, the beer. When the publicans had
read his address they one and all said, “He’s our man.” Licensed
victuallers, beer-house keepers, “off the premises” men, gin-palace,
eating-house, restaurant, hotel—all joined hands and marched in chorus,
praising the man who promised to turn on the beer.

For he’s a jolly good fellow,
And so say all of us!


But Marese Baskette did not wholly rely upon the poorer classes: he
gained the goodwill, or at least the neutrality, of two-thirds of the
middle classes, by openly declaring that when he came into his
property, as he grandly designated half the city, he should devote
one-third of it to the relief of local taxation, to form a kind of
common fund for sewers, gas, water, poor-rates, paving, etc. He went
further—this he did not promulgate openly, but he caused it to be
spread industriously abroad from house to house—and said that, when he
inherited his rights, the house rents should be reduced from their
present exorbitant figure.

Now it was notorious that the companies only waited to see whether they
could tide over the year of expiration of their leases before they
raised the rents. The arrow therefore went home. Baskette had hit the
nail upon the head. The other party began to threaten petitions for
bribery—contending that these promises were nothing short of it.

The _Daily Post_ published a leader on “Glaring Corruption and
Wholesale Venality.” Baskette and Theodore smiled. What would be the
use of unseating him if, as they clearly saw, the opposite party was
gone to utter destruction?

Baskette met with a triumphant reception at his first meeting. Whenever
he appeared in the streets he was cheered to the echo.

The building societies and the Corporation were desperately alarmed.
Though so bitterly opposed to each other at ordinary times, a common
fear gave them unity. They held a secret meeting—at least they thought
it was secret, but such things are impossible in our time. The pen is
everywhere—its sharp point penetrates through the thickest wall. They
united, formed themselves into an association, voted funds—secret
also—hired speakers and hired roughs.

It all leaked out. The _Stirmingham Daily News_—Baskette’s paper—came
out with a report and a leader, and held up the poor heir to the
commiseration of the people. See what a combination against
him!—anything to keep him out of his rights. Hired speakers to talk him
down—hired roughs to knock him on the head. Vested interests arrayed
against him—poor heir! How deeply to be pitied! How greatly to be
sympathised with! The paper used stronger language than this, and
hinted at “gangs of foul conspirators,” but that was not gentlemanly.

The exposure was worth a thousand votes to Baskette. But though
exposed, the Corporation and the companies never ceased their efforts.
Between them they comprised almost all of the rich employers of labour.
They had one terrible engine—a fearful instrument of oppression and
torture—invented in our modern days, in order that we may not get free
and “become as gods.” They put on the screw.

There is not a working man in England, from the hedger and ditcher, and
the wretch who breaks the flints by the roadside, up to the best paid
clerk or manager of a bank—not one single man who receives wages from
another—who does not know the meaning of that word.

Let no one imagine that the “screw” is confined in its operation to the
needy artisan or the labourer. It extends into all ranks of society,
poisons every family circle, tortures every tenant and householder—all
who in any way depend for comfort, luxury, or peace upon another
person. There is but one rank who are free—the few who, whether for
wages or as tenants, never have to look to others.

Society is divided into two sections—the first, infinitely numerous,
and the second, infinitely few—i.e., the Screwed-down, and the
Screw-drivers. Now, the Corporation and the companies were the
screw-drivers, and they twisted the horrible engine up tight.

Perhaps they gave it one turn too many; at all events the mob set up a
yell. They formed processions and marched about the streets with
bundles of screws, strung like bunches of keys, at the end of poles.
Squibs flew in all directions—too personal to be quoted here. Somebody
wrote a parody on “John Brown’s Knapsack”—representing old Sternhold
Baskette as John Brown, and his soul as marching on. This, set to
music, resounded in every corner.

It is sad, but it is true. Everything might still have gone off pretty
quiet, had it not been for religion, or rather pseudo-religion. There
were in the city vast numbers of workmen of the lowest class from
Ireland, and when the watchwords “Orangemen” and “Papists” are
mentioned, every one will understand. Fights occurred hourly—a grand
battle-royal was imminent. The grey rats did all they could to foster
the animosity, and got up sham quarrels to set fire to the excited
passions of the mob. Their game was riot, in order that they might
plunder. While the fools were fighting and the wise men trying to put
them down, the grey rats meant to make off with all they could get.

Aymer, having by this time made for himself some little reputation for
intelligence and quick observation, was sent out by the committee, of
which Broughton was chairman, to watch the temper of the people; to
penetrate into all the corners and out-of-the-way places; to hang on
the skirts of the crowd and pick up their hopes and wishes, and to make
reports from time to time as anything struck him. He was even to bring
in the lampoons and squibs that were circulated, and, if possible, to
spy out the secret doings of the other party—a commission which gave
him liberty to roam. He wished to be gone, but this was better than the
close office-work. He should see something of life; he should see man
face to face. (In gilded salons and well-bred society it is only the
profile one sees—the full face is averted.) He put on his roughest
suit, took his note-book, and strolled out into the city.

The first thing he had to report was that an insinuation which had been
spread abroad against Baskette was actually working in his favour. It
had been thrown out that he was upon too familiar terms with a certain
lady, singer and actress, the fame of whose wonderful beauty was
sullied with suspicions of her frailty. With a certain section of the
people, who prided themselves upon being “English to the backbone,”
this was resented as unfair. With a far larger portion it was at once
believed, and, amid sly nods and winks, taken as another proof that
Baskette was one of themselves.

Aymer wandered about the city; he saw its horrors, its crime. At such a
period the sin, the wickedness and misery which commonly lurks in
corners, came out and flaunted in the daylight. A great horror fell
upon him—a horror of the drunkenness, the cursing, the immorality, the
fierce brutishness. He shuddered. Not that he was himself pure, but he
was sensitive and quick to understand, to see beneath the surface. He
was of an age when the mind deals with broad generalities. If this was
the state of one city only—then, poor England!

His imagination pictured a time when this monster might be uppermost.
One night he ascended the tower of a great brewery and looked down upon
the city, all flaring with gas. Up from the depth came the shouting,
the hum of thousands, the tramp of the multitudes. He looked afar. The
horizon was bright with blazing fires—the sky red with a crimson and
yellow glow. Not a star, was visible, a dense cloud of smoke hid
everything. The iron furnaces shot forth their glowing flames, the
engines puffed and snorted. He thought of Violet and trembled: when the
monster was let loose, what then?

He descended and wandered away he knew not exactly whither, but he
found himself towards midnight mixed in a crowd around the police
station. Jammed in amid, the throng he was shoved against the wall, but
fortunately a lamp-post preserved him from the crush. However, he could
not move. The gas-light fell upon the wall and lit up the proclamations
of “V.R.”—the advertisements of missing and lost, the descriptions of
persons who were wanted, etc.

One sheet, half-defaced with the wind and rain and mud splashed against
it, caught his eye—

“Escaped,” so ran the fragment, “from... mingham Asylum, a lunatic of
homicidal tendencies... Stabbed a warder... killed his wife by driving
a nail into her head... Is at large. His description—Long grey hair,
restless eye, peculiar ears, walks with a shambling gait, and has a
melancholy expression of countenance. Plays fantastic airs upon a tin
whistle, and is particularly fond of tinkering.”

A new bill, “Two Hundred Pounds Reward,” for the apprehension of a
defaulting bank manager, blotted out the rest.

But Aymer had read enough. A sickening sensation seized him—this
horrible being loose upon society, tinkering, playing upon a tin
whistle, and driving nails into women’s heads! In his ears sounded the
din of tremendous shouts, “Baskette for ever!” and he saw a carriage go
by from which the horses had been taken, and in which a man was
standing upright, with his hat off, bowing. It was Marese Baskette
returning from an evening meeting, and dragged in his carriage by the
mob to his hotel.

Aymer caught a glance of his dark eye flashing with triumph, and it
left an unpleasant impression upon him. But the shouts rose up to the
thick cloud of smoke overhead—“Baskette for ever! Baskette for ever!”

“Oh! my love,” wrote Aymer to Violet, “this is, indeed, an awful place.
I begin to live in dread of my fellow-creatures. Not for worlds—no, not
for worlds, would I be the owner of this city (as so many are striving
to be), lest I should be held, partly at least, responsible hereafter
for its miseries, its crimes, its drunkenness, its nameless,
indefinable horrors.”

These words, read by what afterwards happened, are remarkable. Aymer’s
last vision of Stirmingham was the same man drawn again in his carriage
amid tenfold louder shouts than before, “Baskette for ever!” He headed
the poll by over 1000 votes.


The grey rats were triumphant.

End of Volume Two.



Book III.—Results.



Chapter One.


After a life in which each day was spent in happy anticipation of the
pleasures of the next, the calm, quiet existence at The Towers would
have been dull and cheerless to Violet. But following so soon upon the
death of Waldron, under such awful circumstances, the life with Lady
Lechester seemed to her, for a while at least, like that in a haven of
refuge where the storm without could not reach. And had Aymer been
there, or near at hand, she would in a quiet way have been happy.

For Lady Lechester was singularly kind. She made no show of sympathy,
she did not ask, as some pretentiously hospitable people do every
morning, if she were comfortable and had all she wished. But Agnes
possessed a rare and delicate tact, the power of perceiving what others
felt, of anticipating their smallest fancies.

She accommodated herself and her habits to Violet, and there grew up
between them a firm friendship, and more than that—a companionship.
Agnes kept no secret from Violet. Violet had none to hide from her.

There was one topic only which Violet never of her own volition
approached, but she was perfectly aware that something of the kind was
going on. In an indefinable manner she had learnt that Agnes had a
suitor. It came to her knowledge that he was extremely wealthy, but low
born in comparison with her long descent. How Agnes looked upon him it
was hard to say. She was fully five-and-thirty, and that is an age at
which women begin to feel that now, if ever, is the time when they must
choose a companion.

On the other hand it is an age when the glamour of early hope and
youthful fancy, are hardly likely to gild the first figure that
approaches with a beauty not really its own. It is an age when the mind
can choose calmly and deliberately, in the true sense of the word.
Violet had never seen this man, or heard his name, but she knew that
there was correspondence between them, for she had seen the letters
with a foreign postmark. She gathered that he was in America. After
which Agnes whispered that he would shortly be home, and would visit
her.

“He is very handsome,” she said, for the first time speaking directly
upon the subject. “He is a man who could not be passed in a crowd, even
were it not for exceptional circumstances surrounding him. And yet. I
do not know—I do not know.”

Then she was silent again for several days, but presently approached
the inevitable topic again.

Would it be possible for a woman to really banish that topic from her
mind? Agnes could the more easily confide in Violet, because she was
fully aware of her love for Aymer. It is easier to speak to those who
have had similar experiences, than to those who are as yet ignorant.

“He is in England, now,” said Agnes, one day. “He is not far distant.
Why should I conceal it any longer? Your friend Mr Malet meets him
daily, I daresay; he is a candidate for Stirmingham. It is Mr Marese
Baskette.”

“I must congratulate you,” said Violet. “He is the richest man in the
world, is he not?”

“He will be if he succeeds in obtaining his rights. To tell you the
truth, I think the great battle he is fighting with these companies and
claimants, gives me more interest in him than—than—well, I don’t know.
You will see him soon. He will come directly the election is over. Now
you know why I took so much interest in your letters from Mr Malet,
describing the course of the family council. But I think he is wrong,
dear, in the last that you showed me. I think I should like to be the
owner of that great city—it is true there would be responsibilities,
but then there would be opportunities, he forgets that. Think what one
could do—the misery to be alleviated, the crime to be hunted out, the
great work that would be possible.”

Her eyes flashed, her form dilated. It was easy to see that to the
ambition innate in her nature, the idea of having an immense city to
reign over, as it were, like the princesses of old, was almost
irresistible. A true, good woman she was, but it would have been
impossible for her not to have been ambitions.

“With _his_ talent,” she said—becoming freer upon the subject the
longer she dwelt upon it—“with _his_ talent, for he is undoubtedly a
clever man, with the love the populace there have for him, with my long
descent—perhaps the longest in the county—which enables me to claim
kindred with powerful families, with a seat in Parliament, there seems
no reasonable limit to what we might not do. That is the way to put it.
You shall see his letters.”

Violet read them. Marese Baskette was gifted with the power of
detecting the points which pleased those he conversed or corresponded
with, and upon these he dwelt and dilated. It was this that made his
speeches so successful in Stirmingham. As he spoke he noted those
passages and allusions which awoke the enthusiasm of the audience. Next
time he omitted those sentiments which had failed to attract attention,
and confined himself to those which were applauded. In half a dozen
trials he produced a speech, every word of which was cheered to the
echo.

So, in his intercourse with Agnes Lechester, the same faculty of
perceiving what pleased, led him to disregard the ordinary method of
lovers; he avoided all mention, or almost avoided, expressions of
affection, or of love, and harped upon the string which he had found
vibrated most willingly in her breast. The theme was ample and he did
not hesitate to work upon it. He compared his position and that of
Agnes when united, and when his rights were conceded, to that of the
royal reigning dukes of Italy a hundred years ago—dukes whose territory
in area was not large, but whose power within that area was absolute.

The city of Stirmingham was in effect a grander possession than Parma
or Milan; far more valuable estimated in coin, far more influential
estimated by the extent of its commerce. Without a doubt, when once he
had obtained possession, the Government would soon recognise his claims
and confer upon him a coronet, unless indeed Agnes preferred a career
of perhaps greater power in the House of Commons. He candidly admitted
his ignoble descent.

“My ancestor,” he wrote, “was a poor basket-maker; there is no attempt
on my part to conceal the fact. I am perfectly well aware that upon the
score of blood I am far, far, your inferior, and unable to offer a
single claim to equality. The Lechesters, I know, were powerful
auxiliaries of William, the Conqueror of England. The name is preserved
in the Roll of Battle Abbey; it occupies an important place in the
‘early chronicles.’ Heralds have blazoned its arms, genealogists
recorded its descent, poets have sung its fame. Yet remember, even in
this view of the matter, that the great William himself, the feudal
lord of the Lechesters, was descended upon the mother’s side from a
tanner. I cannot compare my father, grand old Sternhold, with William
the Conqueror; and yet, in this age when wealth is what provinces and
conquered countries used to be, perhaps there may be some faint
resemblance.”

Then he went on:—“I will not disguise from you the fact that in your
long descent, and in your connections with the highest families in the
land—not even excepting ancient royalty—I place much of my hope for
recovering my legitimate possessions and for fighting my myriad
enemies. To me the alliance is simply invaluable. To yourself I would
fain hope it would not be without its charms. I do not approach you
with a boy’s silly affection expressed in rhyme and love-sick glances.
I do not follow your footsteps from place to place. It is long since I
have had even ten minutes conversation with you. I have treated you as
I should an equal (not in position, for there you are superior), but as
my equal in mind and ability; not as your sex is commonly treated. I
have not wooed you as a woman. I have asked you to be my partner,
something more than my partner in the kingdom—for so in fact it
is—which is mine by right.”

This tone was exactly fitted to the mind of the person he addressed.
Delicate and full of benevolence, kind, thoughtful, anxious always for
others good, there was still at the root of Agnes Lechester’s mind a
strong vaulting ambition. An ambition which some said had warped her
mind with overweening pride, which had cut her off from the natural
sphere in which she should have moved, leaving her with little or no
society, and which, if rumour spoke correctly, had in earlier days
forced her to stifle the heart that beat responsive to another’s love.

To Violet, this calm, reasoning courtship, full of coronets and crowns,
thinking of nothing but power, was inexplicable. Her heart wrapped up
in Aymer, she could not understand this species of barter—of long
descent and good family against wealth and property. It seemed
unnatural—almost a kind of sacrilege. She fancied that Agnes was not
without twinges of conscience, not without hesitation, and naturally
put down her apparent vacillation to feelings, similar to those which
would have animated herself under the same circumstances.

This is not the place to argue upon marriage; but in passing it does
appear that both sides are right and both wrong. It does not of
necessity follow that marriage must be for love only; but on the other
hand it does not follow that marriage should be for convenience always,
and never for affection. In the present instance, to all appearance the
parties were exactly fitted to each other. It was notorious that
although Lady Lechester had a sufficient income for all her purposes,
and even a superfluity, that the revenue from her large estates was
greatly reduced by encumbrances upon it. There were surmises that this
comparatively inadequate income was one reason why Agnes saw so little
society; she was too proud to mingle in a circle for which her purse
was unfitted.

Marese, the moment he had an opportunity, did not lose this chance
either. In a letter, which Violet was permitted to read, he gradually
and by degrees approached the subject of the mortgages and other
encumbrances upon the Lechester estates. Instead of being an obstacle,
this very fact, he argued, was one reason why their union was
singularly appropriate. At the same moment that her family and
connections gave him a position for which otherwise he might have
striven in vain, his wealth (Marese always kept up the belief in others
that he was, even at present, extremely wealthy) would free those
ancient estates, and restore them to their pristine splendour.

Then came a brief telegram, announcing that he had won the
representation of Stirmingham by a majority of 1000 votes. Agnes was
visibly elated. She moved with a prouder step—there was a slight flush
upon her usually pale cheek. It was a proof of his genius—of that
godlike genius which commands men. He possessed the same qualities
which in the ages past had made the Lechesters members of the ruling
race.

Violet saw that the balance bowed in his favour. If he were to come
now—and he did come.

Scarcely three days after the election, Marese drove up to The Towers,
and was received with a stately courtesy—a proud indifference which
bewildered Violet. She knew, or thought she knew, that Agnes’s heart
was beating with excitement—yet how calm, how distant and formal she
appeared.

Violet looked with interest upon Marese, having heard so much of him
from Aymer and Agnes.

On his part, meeting her attentive gaze and hearing her name, Marese
slightly started, recovered himself, and bowed profoundly. His
attention was wholly bestowed upon Lechester; the conversation between
them seemed to Violet constrained and cold to the last degree. She
could not help acknowledging that Marese was a handsome man—far
handsomer in features and figure than was Aymer. But how different! In
her heart of hearts she pitied poor Agnes if such was her choice.

They betrayed no desire whatever to be alone; on the contrary, Agnes
particularly desired Violet to remain in the apartment with them. Their
talk was of distant things, till it travelled round to the scene of
Marese’s candidature, and finally fixed itself upon the great case.
Marese was extremely sanguine in his language, and indeed he was so in
reality. He had gained two important steps he said. In the first place
he had partly paid off the claims of the companies for expenses
incurred during their tenure of the leases, on the pretence of
improving the estate. These expenses reached a preposterous figure; he
had succeeded in getting them taxed and considerably reduced, and he
had also succeeded in obtaining an order from the Court of Chancery
that the payment of these claims should be made by instalments. He
casually mentioned that the first instalment of 100,000 pounds had been
paid yesterday. The second step was his admittance to Parliament,
which, properly worked, would enable him to obtain the support of the
party now in power.

Still further, the great family council had blown over without result.
The mountain had been in labour, and a mouse had sprung forth. That
spectre which had hovered over the city of Stirmingham so long—the
spectre of the American claims—had at last put in its appearance, and
was found to be hollow and unsubstantial. He did not think there was
anything more to be dreaded from that spectral host. The building
societies even, despaired of being able to prolong the contest by
supporting the American claims. They could no longer refuse to give up
possession on the ground that they did not know who was the true heir.
It could not be denied who was the heir.

Marese stayed but one afternoon. He was too wise to make himself
common. Before he went he formally asked for a private interview. What
passed Violet easily gathered from what Agnes said to her afterwards.

“Mr Broughton will be here in a day or two,” she said; “tell Mr Malet
to come with him. The mortgages I have told you of are to be paid off;
Broughton will manage it.”

From which it was evident that a definite understanding had been come
to with Marese. Agnes was silent and thoughtful all the evening.
Towards the hour when they usually retired, she called Violet to the
window, and put her arm round her neck.

“Suppose,” she said, “all the meadows and hills you see out there were
yours, and had been your ancestors for so many centuries—remember, too,
that we may die however well we feel—should you like to think that the
estate would then fall into the helpless hands of one of two lunatics?”

It was clear that the natural hope of children to inherit had
influenced her. Violet had heard something of the lunacy inherent in
certain branches of the Lechester family:



Chapter Two.


The manner in which Marese Baskette became acquainted with Lady
Lechester affords another instance of those “circumstances over which
we have no control,” which have already been so strongly illustrated in
this history. In the course of his purchases of land and property, old
Sternhold Baskette was so shrewd and far-seeing, and so difficult to
impose upon, that only once did he make any considerable mistake.

It happened that among other land which he bought at no great distance
from Stirmingham, there was a small plot of not much more than two
acres, which was included in a large area, and not specified
particularly in the agreement. This plot had been in the hands of
tenants who had lived so long upon it that they believed they had
acquired a prescriptive right. They sold their right to a person whom
we may call A, and A sold it in common with other property to Sternhold
Baskette. The thing was done, no questions asked, and apparently no one
thought anything more about it. But what piece of land is there so
small that it can escape the eagle eye of an English lawyer? And
especially when that lawyer is a new broom, and a rising man determined
to make his mark.

So it happened that Mr Broughton, Lady Lechester’s new solicitor (and
successor to his uncle’s practice), in going over the map of the
estate, and comparing it with older maps, found out that there was a
certain two-acre piece missing; and being anxious to recommend himself
to so good a client as Lady Agnes, lost no time in tracing out the clue
to it.

He had not much difficulty in discovering the facts of the case, but it
was very soon apparent to his legal knowledge that although the
documentary claim of Lady Agnes, and her moral right, were
indisputable, yet the whole value of the little property would probably
be swallowed up in costs, if an attempt was made to recover it. He
represented the fact to her, but Lady Agnes at once instructed him to
proceed.

The same over-mastering pride which was the one fault of her character,
lent an almost sacred value to every piece of land, however small,
which had once formed part of the estate of her ancestors. Not one rood
of ground would she have parted with, not one perch should remain in
the hands of strangers whilst she had the means of disputing
possession. Yet this was the very woman who, with open-handed
generosity, was ever ready to succour or assist the poor, and would not
hesitate to spend large sums of money to give another person a
pleasure.

Mr Broughton went to law and quickly found it a tough job, for this was
one of those small properties which old Sternhold had been able to keep
in his own hands, and his son Marese was not disposed to part with it,
especially as with lapse of time—although situated far from the city
proper—it had increased in value some twenty-five per cent.

Broughton advised Lady Agnes not to go to the inevitable expense of
protracted litigation; but she was firm, and the battle began in the
Courts, when suddenly, as the forces advanced to the fight, the enemy
gave in and surrendered without firing a shot.

It was a piece of Theodore’s work. That subtle brain of his had
perceived a means by which Marese might, if he played his cards
rightly, obtain the value of this little plot of land ten times over.
Why not marry this Lady Lechester? She would give him exactly what he
wanted—a position and connections among the nobility which all the
wealth of old Sternhold could not buy.

“Who is Lady Lechester?” asked Marese.

Theodore told him. He knew, because in the asylum at Stirmingham there
were two lunatics of that family, the most profitable of the patients
the asylum contained.

“If any accident should happen to either of those patients,” said
Theodore, “Lady Lechester’s property would be doubled; if an accident
happen to both of them, it would be trebled. Accidents sometimes happen
in the best regulated asylums. The easiest way to get rid of a lunatic
who exhibits homicidal tendencies is—to let him escape. He kills two or
three, and then—he cuts his own throat. With a lunatic who has not got
homicidal tendencies, and whose madness is, between ourselves, a
_matter of opinion_—with such persons there are other methods; but no
matter, get Lady Lechester first.” And Marese, seeing that his
(Theodore’s) words were good, did as he was advised.

One day there called at The Towers a gentleman, who was received by
Lady Agnes in the most distant manner, for she recognised his name as
that of her opponent. Marese met her with a species of mingled
deference and pride, exactly suited to the person he addressed. He
begged pardon for his intrusion; he felt that an apology was due to
Lady Lechester which written words could not convey. His lawyers had
involved him in a mistaken and ungentlemanly contest. When he had
learnt that his antagonist was a lady, and a lady of distinguished
position, he had looked into the matter personally, and at once saw
that whatever claim the chicanery of the law gave him, was far
over-balanced by the moral and social right of Lady Lechester. He had
at once stayed proceedings, had ordered his solicitors to immediately
restore possession to Lady Lechester, and had come in person to offer
his sincere apology for the trouble he had inadvertently caused.

Be sure that Marese’s personal appearance had something to do with his
success. At all events Lady Agnes was deeply impressed with his
conduct, which she easily ascribed to a nobility of mind; and not to be
outdone, while she freely accepted the land, she insisted upon
disbursing a sum sufficient to cover the money that had been spent on
it.

From that hour Marese was a favoured visitor at The Towers. He came but
rarely, but when he came his presence lingered after him. His name, as
the heir of Stirmingham, was constantly before her in the papers and on
everyone’s lips. Add to this his own deep artifice, and it is not to be
wondered at that he made progress.

At last it came to pass that Broughton was engaged in arranging the
clearing off of certain heavy incumbrances upon the Lechester estate,
with money which Marese had received for salvage of the _Lucca_. Such
an arrangement could only mean marriage.

Not long after Marese’s visit to The Towers, Aymer arrived with
Broughton, bringing with him a collection of pictures, old Bibles, and
some few bronzes for Lady Lechester, and a heart full of affection for
Violet. He was invited to stay several days, and did so, and for that
brief time the joys they had shared at The Place seemed to return. The
weather of early spring was too chilly for much out-of-door exercise;
but they had all the vast structure of The Towers to wander
over—galleries and corridors, vast rooms where they were unlikely to be
interrupted, for now the new wing had been built, very few of the
servants ever entered the old rooms, and Lady Agnes never. Aymer had
come with his mind full of a thousand things he had to say—of love, of
hope, of projects that he had formed, and yet when they were together,
and the silent rooms invited him to speak, he found himself instead
listening to Violet’s low voice as she told him all about her life at
The Towers, and her feelings for him. It was natural that, the first
pleasures of their meeting over, Violet should speak of Lady Agnes, and
Aymer of the heir, with whose fortunes he had of late seemed to be
mixed up. Violet was full of a subject which she had long wanted to
confide to Aymer, and yet hardly liked to write. It was about some
singularities of Lady Agnes.

She was very kind, very affectionate and considerate, and yet, Violet
said, it seemed to those who lived with her constantly that she had
something for ever preying upon her mind. She was subject to fits of
silence and abstraction, which would seize her at unaccountable times,
and she would then rise and withdraw, and shut herself up in her own
room for hours; and once for as long an two days she remained thus
secluded.

At such times she generally used a small room in the new wing, the key
of which never left her hands, and which no one entered but herself.
Another singular habit which she had was going out at night, or after
dusk, into the most unfrequented portion of the park. She would seem to
be seized with a sudden desire to escape all notice and observation,
would put on her hat, wrap herself in a plain shawl, and let the
weather be what it might, go forth alone. The servants were so well
acquainted with this habit that they never offered to accompany
her—indeed, it was part of the household etiquette to affect not to
notice her at these times. Her absence rarely exceeded an hour, but
knowing that poachers were often abroad, Violet owned that these
nocturnal rambles filled her with alarm while they lasted. Another
peculiar thing was that Lady Agnes seemed at times as if she believed
there was a third person in the room, invisible to others. Once, Violet
going into her apartment, surprised her talking in an excited tone, and
found to her astonishment that there was no one near her. She was about
to retire, when she was transfixed with astonishment to see that Agnes
held a naked sword in her hand, which she would point at some invisible
object, and then speak softly in a tongue that Violet did not
understand, but believed to be Latin. Violet saw that she was not
perceived. Agnes’ eyes were wide open, but fixed and staring, as if she
saw and yet did not see. Afraid, and yet unwilling to call assistance,
Violet remained in the ante-chamber, and presently there was a profound
silence. She cautiously went in and found the sword returned to its
position over the mantelpiece, and Lady Agnes fast asleep in her
armchair.

What ought she to do? Ought the family physician, Dr Parker, to be made
acquainted with these facts, or was it best to pass them unnoticed?
Violet was half afraid to say so, but at these times an ill-defined
dread would arise lest Agnes’ mind was partly affected. Insanity was
well known to run in the Lechester family. Violet’s gentle and
affectionate mind was filled with fear lest her benefactress should
suffer some injury. What had she better do?

It was a difficult question, and Aymer could not answer it. To him,
Lady Lechester appeared to be of perfectly sound mind; he could hardly
believe the strange things Violet had told him. At all events it would
be best not to take any action at present; better wait and watch if
these symptoms developed themselves. Violet should keep as close a
watch upon Lady Agnes as was compatible with not arousing her
suspicions, and yet—

The selfishness of the true lover came to the surface. He did not like
to leave his love in a house where the mistress was certainly given to
odd habits, and might possibly be really insane—not even though that
mistress had shown the most disinterested and affectionate interest in
her. But what could he do? His time was up, he must return to Broughton
and recommence the old dreary round of labour, to recommence the book
he was writing in his solitary apartments. The poor fellow was very
miserable at parting, though Agnes asked him to come when he chose.

Violet was less moved than her lover. The truth was she had an
unlimited confidence in Aymer’s genius, and believed it would triumph
over every obstacle.

It was very strange, but these symptoms she had described to Aymer,
seemed to increase and strengthen directly afterwards. Lady Lechester
seemed to desire more and more to be alone: she wandered more
frequently out into the park, not only by night but in the open
daylight; and Violet watching her, and yet ashamed to watch, learnt
which way her steps tended, and was always prepared, if any alarm was
given, to start at once for the spot.

That spot was about half-a-mile, perhaps a little more, from The
Towers, and just within the park walls. It was concealed from The
Towers by the intervening trees which dotted the park, but there was no
wood or copse to pass through in reaching it.

Wherever a rapid river eats its way through a hilly country, and where
streams dash down from the hills to join it, there singular tunnels, or
whatever the proper name may be, are often found. The Ise (obviously a
corruption of Ouse) was a narrow, clear stream, extremely rapid, and
confined between high banks, which made it, for two-thirds of its
career, practically inaccessible.

At this particular place, in days gone by, it appeared as if a stream,
perhaps flowing from some long extinct glacier, had cut its way down to
the river by boring a narrow, circular tunnel through the bank of the
river. This tunnel was narrow at the top, not larger than would admit
the body of a man, but widened as it descended, till where it reached
the river there was a considerable cave, and any one kneeling on the
sward above could look down upon the water of the river in the dim
light, and hear its gurgling, murmuring sound rise up, greatly
increased in volume by the acoustic properties of the tunnel, which
somewhat resembled the famed Ear of Dionysius, though of course
irregular in shape. When the river was swollen with rain or snow, the
water came halfway up the tunnel, and the gurgling noise then rose into
a hissing, bubbling sound, like that from a huge cauldron of boiling
water. Hence, perhaps, its popular name of “Pot.” Such “Pots” are to be
found, more or less varied in construction, in many parts of England,
and generally associated with some local tradition of supernatural
beings, or of ancient heroes.

This particular funnel was known as Kickwell Pot—an apparently
unmeaning name. The antiquaries, however, would have it that Kickwell
was a degenerate form of Cwichhelm, the name of a famous chieftain in
the days when the Saxons and Britons fought for the fairest isle of the
sea. Probably, they added, Cwichhelm, in one of his numerous battles,
was defeated, and perhaps forced to take refuge in this very cave,
which was accessible in a canoe or small boat from below, and may have
been larger and more capable of habitation then than in our time. At
all events, Kickwell Pot had a bad name in the neighbourhood, and there
were traditions that more than one man had lost his life, by attempting
to descend its precipitous sides in search of treasure temptingly
displayed by a dwarf. This may or may not have been founded upon some
old worship of a water-spirit or cave-god. The effect was that the
common people shunned the spot.

It was a wild place. The beech trees and the great hawthorns, which
half-filled that side of the park, completely hid all view of the
mansion, and on the right and left were steep downs, so thinly clad
with vegetation that the chalk was bare in places. In front swirled
along the dark river, whose bank rose twenty feet almost sheer cliff,
and opposite was a plantation of fir. On the left hand, facing the fir
plantation, was the low stone wall of the park which ended here. Near
the mouth of “The Pot,” round which some one had built up a
loosely-compacted wall of a few stones without mortar, to keep sheep
from falling in, was the trunk of a decayed oak tree, once vast in size
and reaching to a noble height, now a mere stump, but still retaining a
certain weird grandeur. Its hollow trunk formed a natural hut, facing
“The Pot” and the dark fir plantation.

This was a singular spot for the mistress of that fair estate to
frequent almost at all hours of the day and night. No wonder that
Violet, having ascertained its character, grew more and more alarmed,
and kept a closer watch.



Chapter Three.


When even the most strictly logical mind looks round and investigates
the phenomena attending its own existence, perhaps the first fact to
attract attention by its strongly marked prominence, is the remarkable
loneliness of man. He stands alone. He may have brethren, but they are
far below, and like Joseph’s seen in the dream, must bow the knee to
his state. There extends, as it were, behind him a vast army of bird,
beast, reptile, fish, and insect, thronging the broad earth in
countless myriads, whose ancestry goes back into periods of time which
cannot be expressed by notation. And every one of these, from the
tiniest insect to the majestic elephant, is man’s intellectual
inferior; so that he stands alone on a pedestal on the apex of a huge
pyramid of animal life. He looks back—there are millions of inferior
creatures. He looks forward—where is his superior? His mind easily
grasps the idea of a superior, but where is it? He cannot see, feel,
touch, or in any way indisputably prove the existence of a superior
being, or race of beings. Yet the mind within is so wonderful and so
complex, that it _will_ not accept the conclusion that he really stands
alone; that he is the completion and the keystone of creation. A little
thought convinces him of his own shortcomings, tells him how far he is
from perfection, and the analogy of all things teaches him almost
instinctively to look above into the Unknown for a superior being, or a
race of beings. It is contrary to all reason and logic, to all analogy
and all imagination, that there should be so many myriads behind, and
nothing in _front_. There must be beings in front of him in the scale
of existence, just as he is in front of the beings in his rear. Where
are they?

The answer to that question has peopled the whole universe with
invisible beings. The solid earth beneath our feet has, according to
one form of mythology, its gnomes and dwarfs, low of stature, grimy of
aspect, but mighty in strength; or it has its Pluto and its Proserpine,
its Titans struggling under Etna. The air and the sky above us teem
with such shapes; they follow us night and day as our good and evil
genii, or they engage in mighty battles—Armageddons of the angels in
the empyrean, echoes of whose thundering charges reach our ears on
earth.

Such a belief has existed from the earliest days; it has spread over
the whole world, it dwells in our midst at this very hour; for what is
the so-called spiritualism but a new development of the oldest of all
creeds? Even the very atheists, or those who deny the existence of a
Supreme Deity—all-creating, all-sustaining—even these admit that there
is no logical argument conclusively proving that there are not races of
beings superior to our imperfect bodies. Modern science goes a step
farther, and all but positively asserts that there are such creatures.
It has long speculated as to the possibility of life in some shape or
another in the stars and suns of the firmament. One grey-headed
veteran, foremost in the ranks of the hardest of all science (anatomy),
gravely, and step by step, argues out and demonstrates the fact, that
all known living beings are developed, as it were, from one archetypal
skeleton. And he concludes with the remarkable statement that,
according to all laws of geometry (another hard science), this
archetypal skeleton is not exhausted yet; it is still capable of
further modification, of fresh development—nay, even that the strange
beings with wings and wheels seen by Ezekiel in his vision, are
possibilities of the same skeleton. The belief in itself is therefore
not a matter for ridicule, however much we may deplore some of the
forms which it has taken.

Violet, watch how she might, never learnt the whole secret of Agnes
Lechester’s apparent vagaries. The genesis of an idea in the mind is
difficult to trace; but substantially the circumstances were these.

Fifteen years since, Lady Agnes Lechester was seen and loved by a
certain Walter de Warren, a cornet in a dragoon regiment: a lad of good
family but miserably poor. Agnes returned his affection: her heart
responded to his love, but her pride forbade a marriage. He was not
only poor, but had no kind of distinction: nothing whatever to mark him
out from the common herd of men except a handsome face and figure. Even
then the innate pride of the Lechesters was stirring in Agnes’s inner
mind, and love as she might, nothing would induce her to listen to him.

This disposition on her part was encouraged by the trustees of the
estate, or rather guardians, who, under pretence of keeping up the
dignity of the family, represented to her that such a union would be
disgraceful. Let the young man win his spurs, and then his poverty
would be no obstacle in their sight. They had an object in view in
retarding the marriage of their ward. It was true that no salary or
commission was allowed for the management of the estate; but all wise
men know that there are ways and means of making a profit in an
indirect manner. Evil report said that more than one of the mortgages
which encumbered the property had been incurred, not from necessity, or
from the consequences of extravagance, but simply in order that these
parties might receive a handsome gratuity for the permission given to
put out large sums at a safe interest.

De Warren was deeply affected when Agnes calmly told him her view of
the matter, admitted without reserve that she liked him—loved she could
not say, though that was the truth—but added that marriage or further
intercourse was impossible, so long as he remained unknown and unheard
of among men.

He kissed her hand, and swore to win distinction or to perish. He at
once exchanged or volunteered—I forget which, but I think the
latter—into a detachment going to China.

When once Agnes had received a letter, which had travelled with its
message of love and admiration over those thousands and thousands of
miles of ocean, then she realised how she had cut herself off from her
own darling; and her heart, before so cold and hard, softened, and was
full of miserable forebodings. She lost much of her youthful beauty—the
incessant anxiety that gnawed at her heart deprived her cheeks of their
bloom, and her form of its graceful lines. She grew pale, even haggard,
and people whispered that the heiress was fast going into a decline.
Hours and hours she spent alone in the room of the old mansion where
the parting had taken place. Sitting there in the Blue Room, as it was
called, her mind filled with pictures of war and its dangers, her soul
ever strung up to the highest pitch of anxious waiting, what wonder was
it that Agnes began to see visions and to dream dreams—visions that she
never mentioned, dreams that she never told. It would be easy to argue
that what happened was a mere coincidence; that her fears had excited
her mind; and that if the actual event had not lent a factitious
importance to the affair, it would have passed as a mental delusion.

Certain it was that in May, about ten months after De Warren’s
departure, Agnes grew suddenly cheerful—the very opposite to what she
had been. She sang and played, and danced about the old house. She said
that something had told her that De Warren was coming home. No letter
had reached her to that effect; the war was still going on, and yet she
was perfectly certain that for some reason or other the cornet was
returning—and, what was better, was returning covered with honours.
Those in the house looked upon this sudden change of spirits and manner
as a certain sign that something would happen to the heiress, and her
faithful old nurse (dead before Violet’s advent) kept a close watch
upon her.

One day, a curious thing happened. In the midst of lunch, Lady Agnes
sprang up from table with a joyful but hysterical laugh, and declared
that Walter was coming on horseback, and she must go and meet him.
Quick as thought she had her hat on, and rushed out of the house, the
nurse following at a little distance, anxious to see what would happen.

Lady Agnes walked swiftly across the park to a little wicket-gate in
the wall, where Warren used to meet her. Then she stopped and looked
along the path, while the nurse hid behind the trunk of a beech tree at
a short distance. In a few minutes Agnes cried out, “I hear him—I hear
him; it is his footstep.” Then a minute afterwards she flung out her
arms as if embracing some one, and cried, and seemed to kiss the air,
uttering warm words of affection. The nurse saw nothing—only a light
puff of wind stirred the leaves and caused a rustling.

Agnes in a few moments turned to the right, and began to walk, or
rather glide, as it seemed to the excited fancy of the nurse, at a
swift pace, all the while talking as if to some person who accompanied
her, and every now and then pausing to throw her arms round his neck,
and uttering an hysterical sob. She made straight for “The Pot,” and
went quickly round the oak stump. The nurse followed rapidly, and as
she peeped round the oak there was Lady Agnes facing her on the other
side of “The Pot,” with both arms extended and her face white as death.
“Walter,” she said, distinctly; “Walter, what does that red spot on
your forehead mean? Are you angry?” Then she fell prone on the grass in
a dead faint, and the nurse had immense trouble to get her home again.

Just a month afterwards came the news that Walter was dead, having been
shot in the _forehead_ with a ball from a matchlock while leading on
his men. He had won much praise by his desperate courage, and the last
despatch recommended him for promotion, and for the Cross for saving
life under heavy fire.

Now, looked at dispassionately by others, the whole incident resolves
itself into a case of excitement and over-anxiety acting upon a
naturally sensitive organisation. But it was easy to see how to Lady
Agnes the affair wore a very different light. To her the imaginary
shape, invisible to others, which had met her at the little
wicket-gate, was real—the spirit of her lover, which had come from the
wilds of China, over thousands of miles, to acquaint her in dumb show
of the destruction of its body.

From that moment she became a devout believer in the power of the dead
to revisit their friends. She was not alarmed. On the contrary, the
thought soothed her. She expected and waited for Walter’s second
approach, and spoke lovingly when he came again. For he, or the
unsubstantial vision in his form, did come again and again, and always
in one of two places—in the Blue Room, or beside “The Pot.” That
strange freak of Nature had been the favourite resort of the lovers in
the bygone time. Agnes counted the time for the approach of the spirit;
those who waited upon her could tell when she believed the time for the
appearance was near, by the peculiar light in her eyes, and the glow
upon her cheek. At such times the superstitious servants hastened to
get out of the room. After a while Agnes became conscious that these
things were noticed and commented upon, and it became her practice,
when she felt the time coming, to retire to her own room and lock
herself in.

Reflecting upon these periodical visits of what she really believed was
the spirit of her dead lover, Agnes naturally went on to consider the
whole question of the existence of supernatural beings. She purchased
works upon demonology and witchcraft, and being an accomplished scholar
did not confine her studies to her own language, but read deeply in
Agrippa, and the necromancers of the Middle Ages. There were those who
said that while upon the Continent she plunged into these forbidden
mysteries, and found in the recesses of foreign capitals, men with whom
there still lingered the knowledge how to control the spirits of the
air. In part this was true; whether self-deceived or not, it was
certain that Agnes really believed there were genii with whom she could
converse almost at pleasure. How was it then that, always anxious for
Warren’s presence, she yet disliked The Towers?

Soon after she began to study these magical books, and to attempt to
penetrate the veil which covers the ethereal world from the eyes of
poor humanity, it appeared to her that whenever Walter came, his face
wore a sad aspect, almost of upbraiding. And beside him there rose up a
Darkness: something without form and void, and yet which was
there—something which chilled her blood. After a while it began to take
the shape of a thin column of darkness; even in the broad sunlight
there was this spot where no light would penetrate. It came too without
Walter; it rose up in the middle of the room where she sat—a dark
presence, a shadow which haunted her everywhere.

I cannot explain this; I can only record that it was the case. It was
this that made Agnes dislike The Towers, and live in the new wing. Yet
even there she did not escape. The shadow took a shape.

There is a sentence in a certain grand old book, which prays that we
may be delivered from the pestilence which walketh in darkness. The
thought of that is awful enough. But there is something more awful
still. Ancient books, which mention such things in a far-off manner, as
if one were speaking under the breath, refer in a dim way to the
noonday phantom—the phantom which meets the huntsman at midday in the
green and shady wood; which stops the maiden at the fountain with her
pitcher, in the glare of the sunbeams; which addresses the shepherd
suddenly upon the hillside as he watches his sheep under the blue vault
of the sky. To the darkness and the night, the spirits seem to have a
natural claim—it is their realm; the boldest of us have sometimes felt
an unaccountable creeping in the thick darkness. But at noonday, when
one would naturally feel safe, by one’s side in the daylight, this is a
thousand times worse. The noonday phantom came to Agnes. The dark
shadow, the thin column of darkness like smoke, took to itself a shape.



Chapter Four.


Ever since the world began it has been the belief of mankind that
desolate places are the special haunt of supernatural beings. To this
day the merchants who travel upon camels across the deserts of the
East, are firmly persuaded that they can hear strange voices calling
them from among the sandhills, and that at dusk wild figures may be
seen gliding over the ruins of long-lost cities. It is useless to
demonstrate that the curious noises of the desert, are caused by the
tension which the dead silence causes upon the nerves of the ear, or by
the shifting of the sand, and the currents of air which the heated
surface of the sand makes whirl about. The belief is so natural that it
cannot be entirely eradicated. In the olden times in our own fair
England, and not so very long ago either, there was not a wild and
unfrequented place which had not got its spirit. The woods had their
elves and wild huntsmen, the meadows their fairies, the fountains their
nymphs, the rocks and caves their dwarfs, and the air at night was
crowded with witches travelling to and fro.

Let any one who possesses a vivid imagination and a highly-wrought
nervous system, even now, in this nineteenth century, with all the
advantages of learning and science, go and sit among the rocks, or in
the depths of the wood and think of immortality, and all that that word
really means, and by-and-by a mysterious awe will creep into the mind,
and it will half believe in the possibility of seeing or meeting
something—_something_—it knows not exactly what.

Agnes Lechester went into the desolate places fully expecting to meet
her lover, and she met—

A more desolate place than the Kickwell Pot could not easily be found
in highly-cultivated England, so near to an inhabited mansion. Even in
winter, when the leaves were off the trees, there was not a place where
a view could be got of it from the mansion, and when there the visitor
was, to all intents and purposes, isolated from the world. In summer it
was still more hidden, for the thick leaves above, and the tall brake
fern growing luxuriantly beneath, obstructed the view, and it was
impossible to see for more than a dozen yards. There was but one spot
from whence it was possible to overlook “The Pot,” and that was from
the summit of the Down on the right. But this Down was totally
deserted. The very sheep kept aloof from it. Its steep sides were
almost inaccessible even to their nimble feet, and the soil was so
thin—that no herbage grew to reward the bold climber. Shepherds kept
their flocks away from that neighbourhood, for if a sheep lost its
footing and stumbled, there was no escape. The body must roll and
rebound till it reached the swift river below, which running between
steep banks was not easy to get at, and death by drowning was certain.
In the course of time many had been lost in this way, and now care was
taken that the flocks should not travel in that direction. Animal life
almost entirely avoided the bare chalk cliffs. Sometimes a hawk would
linger on the edge, as it were, poising himself on his wings but a few
feet above the ridge, as if glorying in defiance of the depth below.
Sometimes a solitary crow would alight upon the hill, to devour the
spoil it had carried off, in peace and undisturbed. In the fir
plantation on the other side of the river a few pigeons built, and now
and then a loud jay chattered, and a squirrel peeped out from the
topmost branches among the cones. The woodpecker might be heard now and
then tapping in the great beech trees, and a brown rabbit would start
out from among the fern. But so far as man was concerned the spot was
totally desolate: no path passed near, the common people avoided it. It
was a desolate place.

In summer time a place to meditate in. To sit upon the sward, leaning
back against the vast trunk of the dead oak tree, listening to the
gentle murmur of the river, as it rose up out of the mouth of “The Pot”
close to the feet. In winter a weird and sinister spot, when the trees
were bare and dark, the fir trees gloomy and black, when the snow
lodged in great drifts upon the Downs, and the murmur of the river rose
to a dull, sullen roar, resounding up the strange, natural funnel. When
the grey clouds hung over the sky, and the mist clung to the hill, and
the occasional gusts of bitter wind rustled the dead beech leaves—then
indeed it was a desolate place. It was here that the darkness, the thin
column of smoke-like darkness, began to grow into form and shape; and
as it took to itself a figure, so the vision of poor Walter faded away,
and lost its distinctness of outline.

Agnes saw before her a something that was half-human and half-divine;
and yet which a species of instinct told her was not wholly good,
perhaps only apparently good. The face was human and yet not human—so
much grander, nobler, full of passions, stronger, more irresistible
than ever yet played upon the features of a man. The brow spoke of
power illimitable, of foresight infinite, of design, and deep,
fathomless thought. The chin and mouth spoke of iron will, of strength
to rive the solid rock and overthrow a tower, of a purpose relentlessly
pursued. The eyes were unbearable, searching, burning like a flame of
fire. The form uncertain, ill-defined, yet full of a flowing grace and
majestic grandeur. It was winged. There was a general resemblance
between this being and those strange creatures—half man, half
deity—which are depicted upon the slabs from the palace at Nineveh;
only that those pictures are flat and tame, spiritless, mere outline
representations. This was full of an intense vitality—a magnetic
vigour.

It did not speak; yet she understood its thoughts and its wishes. They
filled her with a swelling hope, and yet with unutterable dread:—to
place herself willingly, unhesitatingly, without a grain of distrust,
within those arms; to be folded to its breast; to feel the wings spread
out, and to rush with breathless haste into space, seeking the home of
the immortals, the bride of a spirit. The pride of her mind found an
unspeakable joy in the belief that such a fate was possible for
her—nay, was ever waiting for her—it was but for her to step forward,
and in a moment—

The illimitable ambition of her soul urged her on. She never doubted
the possibility—“And the sons of God saw that the daughters of men were
fair”—what happened then could happen now. Yet something held her back,
and that something was Walter—the faint indistinct vision of Walter. He
seemed to shake his head mournfully, to beckon with his hand, to grow
paler and unhappy, as her frame of mind disposed her more and more to
join the ineffable being which stood before her. The warfare, as it
were; the struggle between the two grew insupportable; she was torn
with conflicting thoughts, doubts, and fears. This was one reason why
she so earnestly desired companionship; and in the presence of Violet
she found temporary relief.

The offer of Marese Baskette introduced a new element of trouble and
confusion in her mind. She had, as it were, a double existence; she
lived two lives. One, visible to others with men and woman, mortal like
herself; the other, unseen, was spent with the spirit of the dead, and
with a spirit which had never known mortality. Yet it was not two
minds, but one mind; for all through this dual nature there ran the
same master chord. As in the physical life, so in the mental. In the
physical life, the proud position Marese offered her attracted her
irresistibly; so, in the mental life, the figure of Walter grew fainter
and fainter, and that of the Genius, offering supremacy and
superiority, became more distinct, larger, and more powerful. The
struggle now lay between Marese and the Genius—the vision of the dead
Walter faded entirely away. Which should she choose—an earthly kingdom,
or little less, with opportunities such as had never before fallen to
the lot of a mortal; or should she soar up into the empyrean on the
breast of that wonderful and glorious being who grew brighter, more
lovely, the longer she gazed upon him?

It was the spirit she went to meet by day and night at the side of “The
Pot.”

It was the belief among the ancients that persons afflicted with
certain diseases, or of unsound mind, were possessed by spirits; and
still further, they seem to have quite understood that the possessed
person had, as it were, two evils at once. The disease was not the
spirit, nor the spirit the disease. These were distinct. Those who
could exorcise the spirit had also to cure the disease, though the one
generally followed the other.

It is hard to understand the intense reality of the vision seen by
Agnes, except upon some similar theory. That the inherent insanity of
the Lechester family had developed itself in her mind, unsuspected by
others, there can be no doubt; but even to the persons who are subject
to illusions of the mind, the reality of their visions is seldom, if
ever, so absolutely believed in as these were by Lady Agnes. There is
just the possibility, even atheists will not deny the _possibility_—but
it is better not to argue the matter. It is sad, indeed, to record the
affliction which had fallen upon this most estimable and generous
woman, if we regard it as insanity only; if we go a step further, and
admit the possibility alluded to, it is sadder still.

At home, in the new wing, the darkness rarely came now, though there
was the sense of a presence. It was by the side of “The Pot” that the
figure showed itself fully. It rose up from the strange funnel, as if a
mist hardened and solidified into shape. It stood before her silent,
yet speaking unutterable things.

In the cold winter, when the sky was grey with cloud, the firs black
and gloomy, and the drifted snow lay in heaps upon the Downs, there
mingled with the sullen roar of the river resounding up “The Pot,” a
voice from this mysterious being, which in the savage, fierce
desolation of that place spoke of a pride, of an ambition, which rose
above even utter failure and degradation. Of a strength of mind which
gloried even in its fall; which defied the very heavens in its
grandeur; which could not be subdued—immortal in its pride.

As the spring stole on and the soft rain fell, as the buds sprang forth
and the thrush sang with joy, the figure grew brighter; an intense
vitality seemed to pass from it to her—a glow of life which said, “Come
with me; we will wander amid forests such as earth even in its youth
never saw, by the shore of lakes such as mortal eye never gazed upon;
we will revel in an immortal youth—in a sunshine inconceivable in
beauty.”

It was but a step to those arms; she longed, yet she did not take it.
At night, when the sky glittered with stars and a solitary planet
beamed in the west, the eyes of the shape grew into blazing coals, and
her soul was aware that it was thinking of unutterable mysteries, of
knowledge locked up for ages and ages, in the infinite space beyond
those points of light. Oh, to penetrate into that silent chamber, to
walk with reverent footsteps in that library of the universe, to read
the wondrous truths written there—to read which was, in itself, life
eternal! This, in brief, the spirit spoke to her.

It will now be understood why the strange behaviour of Lady Agnes
seemed to grow stranger after the last visit of Marese Baskette and her
practical acceptance of his offer. The moment she had in a manner given
her hand to him, the claims of the other and supernatural life appeared
to be infinitely superior—as is the common case when one has decided,
the other course always seems preferable. Yet she could not easily
withdraw from her word, nor indeed did she altogether wish to do so;
and this indecision drove her into a restless frame of mind. Her visits
to “The Pot” became more and more frequent—some times she would go
there four times in the course of the day, and once again in the
evening. She shut herself in her private room—the one room Violet was
never asked to enter—for hours almost every day. There was a restless
gleam in her eyes, usually so mild and pleasant.

One evening, after a more than ordinarily restless day had been spent,
Agnes suddenly rose up, and retired to her private room. This was
usually her custom before going out alone into the park, but on this
occasion, Violet watching her, saw to her intense surprise that,
instead of leaving the house, she unlocked a door which led into the
old mansion, and entered the long deserted apartments of The Towers
proper. Such a step would have been under any ordinary circumstances
nothing to take notice of, but Violet had gradually worked herself up
into a state of alarm, and this unusual proceeding created more
surmises in her mind even than the lonely walks in the darkness. She
slipped out of the house thinking to watch Agnes’ progress through The
Towers by the light she carried, which would show which rooms she went
into. It fell out exactly as she had supposed—she saw the light of the
little lamp flit about from window to window and along the corridors,
now disappearing from sight entirely, and now suddenly flickering out
again, till at last it stopped in what Violet well knew was the Blue
Room. This room was so called from the colour employed in decorating
the walls. They were painted instead of being papered, much in the same
style as the houses at Pompeii, only in larger panels, and the ground
colour was blue. From the lawn in front of the house Violet could just
see Agnes seated at a table in this room, and before her was a small
desk—a desk she had often noticed in that room, thinking how
incongruous a plain gentleman’s writing-desk, with brass handles,
looked amidst the elegant furniture and decorations.

Out of this desk Agnes was taking what, at that distance, Violet could
only conjecture were letters, and burning them one by one in the flame
of the lamp.

Presently she paused, and Violet saw her kiss something which looked
like a curl of chestnut hair. Then not fancying her self-imposed task
of watching her benefactress, and convinced that there was no danger,
Violet stole away.

Agnes was, in fact, destroying her memorials of Walter De Warren, which
she had kept in his own desk in the room in which she had last seen him
alive. She had determined to cast aside all remembrance of him; his
memory should not embarrass her in the course she would pursue. Freed
from the slightest control by him, she thought that she would be the
better able to choose between the earthly and the immortal destinies
offered to her. Yet she still lingered, still hesitated. She could not
say to Marese “I will,” nor could she say “I will not.” She permitted
his money to be used in freeing her estate of encumbrance, and this
gave him a moral claim upon her hand. After that was done, it seemed to
her that the spirit who visited her at “The Pot” visibly frowned, and
the great eyes were full of reproach.

What was this feeble earthly glory to that which was offered to her in
the sky? She had chosen wrongly, contrary to the spirit of the proud
and ambitious Lechesters; she was acting in opposition to the
traditions of her race. Marese, after all, was a low-born upstart. The
ancestry of the spirit had no beginning and no end. Again she
hesitated.

About this time there came a letter from Miss Merton, dated Torquay,
written in a formal but polite manner, begging to be informed what she
had better do with the dog Dando. She did not wish to get rid of
him—she had become quite attached to the dog and he to her—but she was
not the actual owner, and she did not like the responsibility of having
so valuable an animal with her.

It seemed as if the value of the dog was well known, for at least two
deliberate attempts had been made to steal it within a few days. And
these attempts had not a little alarmed Miss Merton. To find that her
steps were watched and followed by a wild-looking tramp, or tinker
fellow, bent upon carrying off the dog was, to say the least, extremely
unpleasant.

The man—an ill-looking fellow—was always about the house, and would not
go away. He played a tin whistle, and whenever the dog heard some
peculiar notes, he became greatly excited, and began to dance about in
a curious manner. Not only that, but if the tramp varied the tune in
some way, then the dog grew frantic to run after him, and twice she had
the utmost difficulty to recover him.

What was she to do? She did not like to part with the dog, and yet
really it was very awkward.

Violet in reply asked Miss Merton to send her Dando. She had now got
over her prejudice against him and felt that her anger had been unjust.
She should like to have him back again. As to the tramp, she was not
surprised, for she remembered that her poor father had bought the dog,
when quite young, from a band of strolling gipsies, and there were
certain tunes which had always excited him to dance and frisk about as
if he had been trained to do so.

Violet, of course, asked Lady Lechester’s permission, whose reply was
that she should be glad to have the dog; there was plenty of room for
him, and he would be company, and add to the safety of the somewhat
lonely Towers. Violet herself thought that it would be a great
advantage if Dando should happen to please Agnes’ fancy; he might be
allowed to accompany her in her lonely dark walks, and would be some
protection.

A week afterwards Dando came, and at once recognised Violet. He had
grown considerably larger, and was a fine, noble animal.

As Violet had hoped, Agnes took a great fancy to him, and the dog
returning it, they became inseparable companions. This _relieved_
Violet of much of her anxiety.



Chapter Five.


A fortnight after Dando’s establishment at The Towers, Aymer came. He
looked ill, pale, and careworn, and at once announced that he had left
Mr Broughton, and was going to London, literally to seek his fortune.

The monotony had at last proved too much for him, and worse than that
was the miserable thought that, after all this work and patience, he
was no nearer to Violet. Perhaps after ten or fifteen years of
unremitting labour, nine-tenths of which time must be spent at a
distance from her, he might, if his health lasted and no accident
happened, be in receipt of one hundred and fifty pounds per annum; and
how much more forward would he be then?

Not all the poverty and restraint of the years upon Wick Farm at
World’s End, not all the terrible disappointment on the very day when
every hope seemed on the point of realisation; nothing could dull his
vivid imagination, or make him abate one iota of the future which he
had marked out for Violet.

In truth, she wondered why he had never asked her to come to him—to be
married and live with him in his humble lodgings at Barnham. She would
have been happy and content. But to Aymer the idea was impossible. All
the romance of his life was woven around her head; he would not bring
her to miserable back rooms, to a confined narrow life in a third-class
street. It would have been to admit that his whole being was a failure;
that he had formed hopes and dreamed dreams beyond his power ever to
grasp, and his spirit was not yet broken to that. No, he would struggle
and work, and bear anything for Violet’s sake. Anything but this
miserable monotony without progress. Had there been progress, however
slow, he might have tamed his impatient mind and forced himself to
endure it.

Day after day passed, the nights came and went, and each morning found
him precisely in the same position as before. His organisation was too
sensitive, too highly wrought, eager, nervous, for the dull plodding of
daily life. He chafed against it, till dark circles formed themselves
under his eyelids—circles which sleep would not remove. These were
partly caused by overwork.

Broughton, on returning from Stirmingham, found his affairs at Barnham
had got into a fearful state of muddle, and Aymer had to assist him to
clear the Augean stable of accumulated correspondence, and satisfy
neglected clients. Often, after a long day’s work, he had to carry
accounts or correspondence home with him and finish it there, and then
after that he would open his own plain simple desk—much such a desk as
the one that had belonged to poor Cornet De Warren—and resume his
interrupted MS.

After a while it became unbearable; the poor fellow grew desperate. He
might not have so soon given way, had not a slight attack of illness,
not sufficient to confine him in-doors, added to the tension of his
nerves. He determined to stay on until his MS was finished—till the
last word had been written, and the last sketch elaborated—then he
would go to London, no matter what became of him. If all else failed he
could, at the last, return to Wick Farm; they would give him a bed and
a crust, and he would be no worse off than before.

He toiled at his book at midnight, and long hours afterwards, when the
good people of Barnham town were calmly sleeping the sleep of the just,
and permitting the talent in their midst to eat its own heart. At last
it was finished, and he left.

Mr Broughton wished him to stay, offered to increase his salary, said
that he had become really useful, and even, as a personal favour,
begged him to remain. Aymer thanked him sincerely, but was firm—he must
go. So far as was possible he explained to Broughton the reason, and
the lawyer, hard as he was, had sufficient power of understanding
others to perceive the real state of affairs. He warned Aymer that
certain disappointment awaited him in London, that no publisher would
issue a book by an unknown author unless paid for it. Aymer shook his
head sadly—he had known that well enough long ago, but he must go.

Broughton shook hands with him, gave him a five-pound note over and
above his salary, and told him if in distress, as he prophesied he
would certainly soon be, to write to him, or else return.

Aymer again thanked him, packed his modest little portmanteau, and
taking with him his manuscript, went to The Towers to say farewell to
Violet.

When Agnes understood the course he had decided on, she said that she
thought he had done right. To any other she should have said
differently; to any other of a less highly organised mind she should
have said, “Why, you cannot find a better opening.” But what would have
been meat to others was poison to Aymer. Therefore she applauded his
resolution, and told him to go forth and conquer, but first to stay a
few days with Violet.

This language greatly cheered poor Aymer, and for a few days he was in
a species of Paradise.

It was not even yet fully spring—the wind was cold at times, but still
they could go out freely; and with Violet at his side, and Dando
bounding along in front, it seemed almost like a return to the old
joyous times at World’s End.

The hours flew by, and when the last day came it seemed as if but a few
minutes had elapsed. It happened to be a wet day—the spring showers
were falling steadily, and, unable to go out, they rambled into the old
mansion, and strolled from room to room.

The groom had been ordered to get the dog-cart out by a certain time to
take Aymer seven miles to the nearest railway station. That station was
but a small one, and two up-trains only stopped there in the course of
the day—if he missed this he would not reach London that night.

Forgetful of time, perhaps half purposely forgetful, Aymer lingered on,
and could not tear himself away.

At length the groom, tired of waiting in the rain, and anxious about
the time, waived all ceremony, and came to seek his passenger.

Aymer pressed Violet’s hand, kissed it, and was gone, not daring to
look back.

The wheels grated on the gravel, and Violet remained where he had left
her.

Agnes came presently and found her, and started. The farewell had been
given in the Blue Room.

“You did not say farewell here?” said Agnes, with emphasis.

Violet admitted it.

“Good Heavens—what an evil omen!” muttered Agnes, and drew her from the
spot.

From that very room De Warren had gone, forth to his fate: from that
room Aymer had started to win himself a way in the world.

It was late at night when he reached London. Nothing could be done till
the morning. As he had no experience of the ways of the metropolis,
Aymer naturally paid about half as much again as was necessary, and
reckoning up his slender stock of money, foresaw that he could not long
remain in town at this rate.

Mr Broughton had given him a written introduction to a firm of
law-publishers and stationers with whom he dealt—not that they would be
of any use to him in themselves, but in the idea that they might have
connections who could serve him.

Upon these gentlemen he waited in the morning, and was fairly well
received. They gave him a note to another firm who were in a more
popular line of business. Aymer trudged thither, and found these people
very off-handed and very busy. They glanced at his manuscript—not in
their line. Had he anything that would be likely to take with
boys?—illustrated fiction sold best for boys and girls. Ah, well! they
were sorry and very busy. Suppose he tried so-and-so?

This process, or pretty much the same process, was repeated for two or
three days, until poor Aymer, naturally enough, lost heart.

As he left one publisher’s shop, a clerk, who was writing at his desk
near the door, noticed his careworn look, and having once gone through
a somewhat similar experience, and seeing “gentleman” marked upon his
features, asked him if he would show him the work.

Aymer did so. The clerk, an experienced man, turned over the
illustrations carefully, and then appeared to ponder.

“These are good,” he said; “they would certainly take if they were
published. But so also would a great many other things. The difficulty
is to get them published, unless you have a name. Now take my advice—It
is useless carrying the MS from door to door. You may tramp over London
without success. Your best plan will be to bring it out at your own
cost; once out you will get a reputation, and then you can sell your
next. I don’t want to be personal, but have you any money? I see—you
have a little. Well, you need not pay all the cost. Go to
so-and-so—offer them, let me see, such-and-such a sum, and not a
shilling more, and your business is done.”

Aymer, as he walked along busy Fleet Street and up into the Strand,
thought over this advice, and it sounded reasonable enough—too
reasonable. For he had so little money. When all he had saved from the
gift of fifty pounds, his salary, and Broughton’s present, were added
together, he had but forty-seven pounds. Out of this he was advised to
expend forty pounds in one lump; to him it seemed like risking a
fortune. But Violet? His book? He could not help, even after all his
disappointments, feeling a certain faith in his book.

Westwards he walked, past the famous bronze lions, and the idea came
into his mind—How did the hero of Trafalgar win his fame? Was it not by
courage only—simple courage? On, then. He went to the firm mentioned.
They haggled for a larger sum; but Aymer was firm, for the simple
reason that he had no more to give. Then they wanted a few days to
consider.

This he could not refuse; and these days passed slowly, while his stock
of money diminished every hour. Finally they agreed to publish the
work, but bound him down to such conditions, that it was hard to see
how he could recover a tenth part of his investment, much less obtain a
profit. He signed the agreement, paid the money, and walked forth.

He went up the steps to the National Gallery, barely knowing what he
did. He stood and gazed down upon the great square, with the lions and
the fountains, and the busy stream of human life flowing for ever round
it. A proud feeling swelled up within. At last his book would be seen
and read, his name would be known, and then—Violet!

Days and weeks went by, and yet no proofs came to his humble lodgings,
or rather sleeping place, for all day he wandered to and fro in the
great city. When he called at the publishers’ office they treated him
with supercilious indifference, and—“Really did not know that the
immediate appearance of the little book was so important.” There were
other works they had had in hand previously, and which must have
priority.

Aymer wandered about, not only into the great thoroughfares and the
famous streets of the City and West End, but eastwards down to the
docks, filled with curiosity, observing everything, storing his mind
with facts and characteristics for future use, and meantime
starving—for it was rapidly coming to that; and the descent was
facilitated by a misfortune which befell him in Shoreditch, where, as
he was standing near a passage or court in a crowd, a thief made off
with three pounds out of his remaining five.

It is easy to say—Why did not Aymer get work? But how was he to do so
with no money to advertise, no introductions, no kind of security to
give, a perfect stranger? He did try. He called upon some firms who
advertised in the _Telegraph_. The very first question was—Where do you
come from? The country! That answer was sufficient. They wanted a man
up to London work and to the ways of the City. Aymer modestly said he
could learn. “Yes,” they replied, “and we must pay for your education.
Good morning.”

Economise as much as he would, the two pounds left dwindled and
dwindled, till the inevitable end came, and the last half sovereign
melted into five shillings, the five shillings into half-a-crown, the
half-a-crown into a single solitary shilling. Driven to the last
extremity, Aymer hit upon the idea of manual labour. He was not a
powerful man, he could not lift a heavy weight, but he could bear a
great deal of fatigue. He looked round him, he saw hundreds at work,
and yet there did not seem any place where he could go and ask for
employment.

By a kind of instinct he wandered down to the river and along the
wharves. There he saw men busy unloading the barges and smaller craft.
Summoning up courage, he spoke to one of the labourers, who stared, and
then burst into a broad grin. Aymer turned away, but was called back.
The ganger looked him up and down and offered him half-a-crown a day;
the others earned three shillings and sixpence and four shillings, but
they were strong, strapping fellows. Aymer accepted it, for indeed he
could not help himself and in a few minutes the poet, author, artist,
with his coat off, was rolling small casks across the wharf. At first
he was awkward, and hurt himself; the rest laughed at him, but
good-humouredly. Some offered him beer.

At six o’clock he, with the rest, was called to a small office and
received his day’s wages—two shillings and sixpence. He made a meal,
the first that day, at a cheap eating-house, and then set out to return
to his wretched lodgings, tired, worn out, miserable, yet not
despairing, for he had found a means which would enable him to live,
and to wait—to wait till the book came out.

For a fortnight Aymer worked at the wharf, and had become a favourite
with the men. Noting his handiness and activity, and seeing that he was
well educated, he was now put into an office of some little trust, to
check the goods as they were landed, and received an advance of
eighteen-pence, making a daily wage of four shillings. This seemed an
immense improvement; but he was obliged to borrow a week’s extra salary
in advance to buy a new pair of boots, and was therefore very little
better off.

Strolling slowly one evening up Cannon Street, Aymer met the great
stream of city men and merchants, clerks and agents, which at that time
pours out of the warehouses and offices, setting across London Bridge
towards the suburbs.

He walked slowly, all but despondently. It was already a week since he
had written to Violet—that in itself was a strong proof of his
condition of mind. It is very easy for those who have got everything,
to pray each Sunday against envy, and to repeat with unction the
response after the command not to covet thy neighbour’s goods. It is a
different matter when one is practically destitute, when the mere value
of the chain that hangs so daintily from my lady’s neck—ay, the price
of the muff that warms her delicate hands—would be as a fortune, and
lift the heart up out of the mire.

He could not help thinking that if he had but the money, the value, of
a single much-despised pony that drew a greengrocer’s cart he should be
almost a prince.

He passed under Temple Bar, and entered the busy Strand, walking, as it
happened—events always happen, and no one can say what that word really
means—on the right hand pavement, facing westwards. Painfully and
wearily walking, he came to the church where the pavement makes a
détour, and hesitated for a moment whether to cross to the other side
or go round the church, and decided, as the road was dirty, and his old
boots thin and full of holes, to follow the pavement. “Circumstances
over which we have no control”—these circumstances generally commence
in the smallest, least noticeable trifles. It so happened—there it is
again—will anyone explain why it so happened?—that as he reached the
entrance to Holywell Street, he glanced up it, and saw for the first
time that avenue of old books. The author’s instinct made him first
pause, and then go up it—he was tired, but he must go and look. Dingy
and dirty, but tempting to a man whose library had been obtained by
wiring hares. He thought, with a sigh, how many more books he could
have bought with his money had he known of the existence of this cheap
mart, or had he had any access to it. Here was Bohn’s Plato—for which
he had paid a hardly got thirty shillings—marked up at fifteen
shillings, slightly soiled it was true, but what did that matter? Here
was old Herodotus—Bohn’s—marked at eighteen-pence, the very book which
had cost him three hares, including carriage. The margins were all
scribbled over—odd faces and odder animals rudely sketched in pen and
ink, evidently some schoolboy’s crib. But what did that matter, so long
as the text was complete—he cared for nothing but the text. As he
lingered and heard the bells chiming seven o’clock, his eye caught
sight of a little book called “A Fortune for a Shilling.”

It was a catching title; he remembered seeing it lying upon the
itinerant bookseller’s stall in front of the Sternhold Hall. He looked
at it, weighed it in his hand. He smiled sadly at his own folly. He had
but fifteen pence in his pocket, and to think of throwing a whole
shilling away upon such a lottery! It was absurd—childish; and yet the
book fascinated him. The bookseller’s assistant came out, ostensibly to
dust the books—really to see that none were pocketed. Aymer ran his eye
down the pages of the book, feeling all the while as if he were
cheating the bookseller of his money. The assistant said, “Only one
shilling, sir; a chance for everybody, sir, in that book.” Aymer shut
his eyes to his own folly, paid the money, and returned into the Strand
with threepence left.



Chapter Six.


He repented his folly very speedily, for the landlady had advanced him
half-a-crown two days before for some necessaries, and now asked him
for the money.

Not all the hunger and thirst of downright destitution is so hard to
bear to a proud spirit as the insults of a petty creditor. He could not
taste his tea; the dry bread—he could not afford butter—stuck in his
throat. If he had not spent that shilling, he might have paid a part at
least of his debt.

He took up the book—the cause of his depression—and, still ashamed of
himself, began to search it for any reference to his own name. In vain;
Malet was not mentioned, there were no unclaimed legacies, no bank
dividends accumulating, no estates without an owner waiting for him to
take possession—it was an absolute blank. The shilling had been utterly
wasted.

As he sat thinking over his position, the idea occurred to him to see
what mention the book made of the great estate at Stirmingham.

There were pages upon pages devoted to Sibbolds and Baskettes, just as
he expected. Aymer ran down the list, recalling, as he went, the scenes
he had witnessed in the Sternhold Hall.

At the foot of one page was a short note in small type, and a name
which caught his eye—“Bury Wick Church.” He read it—it stated that it
was uncertain what had become of Arthur Sibbold, the heir by the
entail, and that inquiries had failed to elucidate his fate. There was
a statement, made on very little authority, that he had been buried in
Bury Wick Church, co. B—, but researches there had revealed nothing.
Either he had died a pauper, and had been interred without a tombstone,
or else _he had changed his name_. It was this last sentence that in an
instant threw a flood of light, as it were, into Aymer’s mind—_changed
his name_.

Full of excitement, he rushed to his little portmanteau, tore out his
note-book, and quickly found the memorandum made in the office of Mr
Broughton, at Barnham.

There was the explanation of the disappearance of Arthur Sibbold—there
was the advertisement in a small local newspaper of his intended
marriage and change of name. Doubtless he had afterwards been known as
Mr Waldron—had been buried as Waldron, and his death registered as
Waldron. As Waldron of The Place, World’s End! Then poor old Jason
Waldron, the kindest man that ever lived, was in reality the true heir
to the vast estate at Stirmingham.

Jason was dead, but Violet remained. Violet was the heiress. He sat,
perfectly overwhelmed with his own discovery, of which he never
entertained a moment’s doubt. He ransacked his memory of what he had
heard at the family council; tried to recall the evidence that had been
produced at that memorable _fiasco_; but found it hard to do so, for at
the time his mind was far away with Violet, and he had no personal
interest in the proceedings. Had he only known—what an opportunity he
would have had—he might have learnt the smallest particulars.

Thinking intently upon it, it seemed to him that the name of Arthur
Sibbold was rarely, if ever, mentioned at that conference, it was
always _James_ Sibbold; Arthur seemed to have dropped out of the list
altogether.

If he could read a copy of the “Life of Sternhold Baskette,” perhaps he
might be able to get a better understanding of the facts.

He deeply regretted now that he had not purchased a copy, as he might
have done so easily at Stirmingham, on the stall of the itinerant
bookseller. Then he had a little money; now he had none.

He called his landlady, took up his great coat, and gave it to
her—could she sell it? She looked it over, found many faults, but
finally went out with it. In half an hour she returned with eighteen
shillings.

Aymer had given three pounds for it just before his wedding-day. He
paid the old lady her half-crown, and hurried back to Holywell Street.
The book he wanted, however, was not so easily to be found. All had
heard of it—but no one had it.

In time he was directed to a man who dealt in genealogical works, sold
deeds, autographs, and similar trash. Here he found the book, and had a
haggle for it, finally securing it for seven shillings and sixpence;
the fellow would have been glad of three shillings, for it had been on
his shelves for years, but Aymer was burning with impatience. In the
preface he found a scanty account of the Sibbolds, not one-fifth as
much as he had reckoned upon, for the book was devoted to Sternhold,
the representative man of the Baskettes. There was, however, a pretty
accurate narrative of the murder of Will Baskette, and from that Aymer
incidentally obtained much that he wanted. Reflecting upon the murder,
and trying to put himself in Arthur Sibbold’s place, Aymer arrived at a
nearly perfect conception of the causes which led him to bury himself,
as it were, out of sight.

One of two things was clear—either Arthur Sibbold had actually
participated in the murder, and was afraid of evidence unexpectedly
turning up against him; or else he had been deeply hurt with the
suspicion that was cast upon him, and had resolved for ever to abandon
the home of his ancestors.

Probably he had travelled as far as possible from the scene of the
murder—perhaps to London (this was the case)—got employment, and, being
successful, finally married into the Waldron family, and changed his
name. He would naturally be reticent about his ancestors. The next
generation would forget all about it, and the third would never think
to inquire.

Had the vast estate been in existence before Arthur Sibbold’s death,
most probably he would have made himself known; but it was clear that
it had not grown to one-fiftieth part of its present magnificence till
long after.

The silence of Arthur Sibbold, and Arthur Sibbold’s descendant, was
thus readily and reasonably accounted for. Reading further, Aymer came
to the bargain which Sternhold Baskette had made with the sons of James
Sibbold, and of their transhipment to America. Here the legal knowledge
that he had picked up in the office of Mr Broughton enabled him to
perceive several points that would not otherwise have occurred to him.
That transaction was obviously null and void, if at the time it was
concluded either Arthur Sibbold, or Arthur Sibbold’s descendants, were
living. They were the lawful owners of the old farm at Wolf’s Glow, and
of the Dismal Swamp, and it was impossible for James Sibbold’s children
to transfer the estate to another person. All then that it was
necessary to prove was that Violet was the direct descendant of Arthur
Sibbold, and her claim would be at once irresistible. Then it occurred
to him that at the family council he had often heard mention made of a
certain deed of entail which was missing, and for which the members of
the Sibbold detachment had offered large sums of money.

The long, long hours and days that he had spent in the Sternhold Hall
chronicling the proceedings of the council, and which he had at the
time so heartily hated soon proved of the utmost value. He could at
once understand what was wanted, and perceive the value of the smallest
link of evidence. Here was one link obviously wanting—the deed. Without
that deed the descent of Violet from Arthur Sibbold was comparatively
of small account. It was possible that even then she might be a
co-heiress; but without that deed—which specially included female
heiresses—she would not be able to claim the entire estate. Yet even
then, as the direct descendant of the elder brother, her claim would be
extremely valuable, and far more likely to succeed than the very
distant chance of the American Sibbolds or Baskettes, all of whom
laboured under the disadvantage that their forefathers had sold their
birthright for a mess of pottage. Another and far more serious
difficulty which occurred to him as he thought over the matter, far
into the night, was the absence of proof of Arthur Sibbold’s marriage.
It was clear from the little book whose notes had opened his eyes, that
the register of the church at Bury Wick, World’s End, had been
searched, and no record found. His memorandum of the advertisement of
change of name described Arthur Sibbold as of Middlesex; the marriage
therefore might have taken place in London. Probably Sibbold had met
the Miss Waldron he had afterwards married in town. Where then was he
to find the register of marriage? Middlesex was a wide definition. How
many churches were there in Middlesex? What a Herculean labour to
search through them all!

He was too much excited to sleep. Despite of all these drawbacks—the
disappearance of the deed, and the absence of the marriage
certificate—there was no reasonable doubt that Violet was the heiress
of the Stirmingham estates. The difficulties that were in the way
appeared to him as nothing; he would force his way through them. She
should have her rights—and then! He would search every church in London
till he did find the register of Arthur Sibbold’s marriage. It must be
in existence somewhere. If it was in existence he would find it.
Towards two o’clock in the morning he fell asleep, and, as a result,
did not wake till ten next day. Hurrying to his daily task, he was met
with frowns and curses for neglect, and venturing to remonstrate, was
discharged upon the spot.

Here seemed an end at once to all his golden dreams. He walked back
into the City, and passing along Fleet Street, was stopped for a moment
by a crowd of people staring into the window of a print and bookshop,
and talking excitedly. A momentary curiosity led him to press through
the crowd, till he could obtain a view of the window. There he
saw—wonder of wonders—one of his own sketches, an illustration from his
book, greatly enlarged, and printed in colours. It was this that had
attracted the crowd. The humour and yet the pathos of the picture—the
touch of Nature which makes the whole world kin—had gone straight to
their hearts. On every side he heard the question, “Whose is it?”—“Who
drew it?”—“What’s the artist’s name?” Then the title of the book was
repeated, and “Who’s it by?”—“Who wrote it?”—“I’ll get a copy! Third
Edition already—it must be good.”

Gratified, wonder-stricken, proud, and yet bewildered, Aymer at last
got into the shop and made inquiries. Then he learnt that the publisher
had stolen a march upon him. They had never sent him the proofs; they
had in fact thought very little of the book, till one day it happened
(it happened again) a famous artist came into the office, and chanced
to turn over a leaf of the MS, which was lying where Aymer had left it,
on the publisher’s wide desk. This man had a world-wide reputation, and
feared no competitor; he could therefore do justice to others. He was
greatly struck with the sketches.

“This man will make hid fortune,” he said. “Why on earth do you let the
book lie here mouldering?”

The publisher said nothing, but next day the manuscript was put in
hand, hurried out, and well advertised. The first and second edition
sold out in a week, and Aymer heard nothing of it till accident led him
into the crowd round the shop window in Fleet Street.

It will be pardoned if I say that Aymer was prouder that day than ever
he had been in his life. He went straight to the publisher’s with a
glowing heart. The agreement had been that the publisher should have
two editions for his trouble and the use of his name; in the third, the
author and artist was to share. In point of fact, the publisher had
never dreamt of the book reaching even a second edition.

Aymer was received coldly. He asked for his share. Impossible—the
booksellers had not paid yet—the expense had been enormous—advertising,
etc, there would barely be a balance when all was said and done. Aymer
lost his temper, as well he might, and was very politely requested to
leave the premises. He did so, but hastened at once to his adviser—the
clerk who had told him to publish at his own risk. This man, or rather
gentleman, said he had expected him for days, and wondered why he had
not come.

“Wait till one o’clock,” said he, “and I will accompany you.”

At one they revisited the offices of the publisher. The upshot was that
Aymer was presented with a cheque for fifty pounds, being his own forty
pounds, and ten pounds additional.

“Now,” said his friend, “you call on my employers—I will mention your
name—and offer them a work you have in hand.”

Aymer did so, and obtained a commission to write a work for them, to be
illustrated by himself, and was presented with a twenty-pound note as
earnest-money. Thus in a few hours, from a penniless outcast, he found
himself with seventy pounds in his pocket—with a name, and with a
prospect of constant and highly remunerative employment. If this
continued, and of course it would—not all his disappointments could
quench his faith in his destiny—he would marry Violet almost
immediately. With this money he could search out, and establish her
claim; he would employ her own late employer, Mr Broughton. He was
anxious to write to Violet, but he had not tasted food that day yet. He
entered a restaurant and treated himself to a really good dinner, with
a little of the generous juice of the grape. Towards five o’clock he
sat himself down in his old room to write to Violet, and to Mr
Broughton.

He wrote and wrote and wrote, and still he could not conclude; his
heart was full, and he knew that there was a loving pair of eyes which
would read every line with delight. First about his book—sending, of
course, two copies by the same post—one for Violet, one for Lady
Lechester—telling Violet of the excitement it had caused, of the crowd
in the street, of the anxiety to learn the author’s name, of the first,
second, third edition, and the fourth in the press. Was it to be
wondered at that he dilated upon this subject?

Then he told her of his troubles, of his work at the wharf, and
explained why he had not written, and finally came to the discovery
that Violet was the heiress of Stirmingham. He had a difficult task to
explain to her how this arose; he had to review the whole history of
the case in as short a compass as possible, and to put the links of
evidence clearly, so that a non-technical mind could grasp them. He
finished with a declaration of his intention to spare neither trouble,
time, nor expense to establish Violet’s right; he would search every
church register in London; she should ride in her carriage yet. If only
poor Jason had been alive to rejoice in all this!

This was the same man, remember, who not many weeks before had written
to Violet from Stirmingham in the midst of the turmoil of the election,
expressing his deep sense of the responsibility that must of necessity
fall upon the owner of that marvellous city; he would not be that man
for worlds. The self-same man was now intent on nothing less than
becoming, through Violet, the very thing he had said he would not be at
any price. Still the same omnipotent circumstances over which we have
no control, and which can alter cases, and change the whole course of
man’s nature.

To Broughton he wrote in more businesslike style. He could not help
triumphing a little after the other’s positive prophecy of his failure;
he sent him also a copy of the third edition. But the mass of his
letter referred to Violet’s claim upon the estate, and went as fully
into details as he could possibly do. He referred Mr Broughton to the
number and date of the Barnham newspaper, which contained the
advertisement of Arthur Sibbold’s change of name. Would Mr Broughton
take up the case?

Who can trace the wonderful processes of the mind, especially when that
mind is excited by unusual events, by unusual indulgence, and by a long
previous course of hard thinking? That evening Aymer treated himself to
the theatre, and saw his beloved Shakespeare performed for the first
time. It was _Hamlet_—the greatest of all tragedies. Who can tell? It
may be that the intricate course of crime and bloodshed, he had seen
displayed upon the stage, had preternaturally excited him; had caused
him to think of such things. Perhaps the wine he had taken—a small
quantity indeed, but almost unprecedented for him—had quickened his
mental powers. Be it what it might, towards the grey dawn Aymer dreamt
a dream—inchoate, wild, frenzied, horrible, impossible to describe. But
he awoke with the drops of cold perspiration upon his forehead, with a
great horror clinging to him, and he asked himself the question—Who
murdered Jason Waldron, true heir to Stirmingham city? His legal
knowledge suggested the immediate reply—Those who had an interest and a
motive so to do. The man who had an interest was—John Marese Baskette.

There was not a shadow of proof, but Aymer rose that morning weighed
down with the firm moral conviction that it was he and no other who had
instigated the deed. He recalled to his mind the circumstances of that
mysterious crime—a crime which had never been even partially cleared
up. He thought of Violet—his Violet—the next heir. Oh, God! if she were
taken too. Should he go down to her at once? No; it was the fancy of
his distempered mind. He would conquer it. She was perfectly safe at
The Towers; and yet Marese came their sometimes. No; where could she be
safer than amid that household and troop of servants? But he wrote and
hinted his dark suspicions to her; warned her to be on her guard. This,
he said, he was determined upon—he would establish her right, and he
would punish the murderer of poor Jason. That very day he had commenced
his search among the churches.



Chapter Seven.


When Aymer’s first and longest letter reached The Towers, together with
the copy of his book, Violet could hardly contain herself with
pleasure. His triumph was her triumph—his fame her fame—and in the
excitement of the moment she but barely skimmed the remainder of his
letter, and did not realise the fact that she was the heiress to the
most valuable property in England. Her faith in Aymer had proved to be
well-founded; he had justified her confidence; his genius had conquered
every obstacle. As she had read Marese’s letters to Agnes, so it was
only natural that she should proudly show this letter to her.

Agnes fully sympathised with her, and declared that the sketches (she
had already looked cursorily through the copy of his book which Aymer
had sent her) were wonderfully good. But it was natural for her to be
less excited than Violet, and therefore it was that the second part of
the letter made a greater impression upon her. Violet the heiress of
the Stirmingham estate? It was impossible—a marvel undreamt of. Marese
was the heir—there could not be two—and in Marese she was personally
interested. Together they re-read that portion of Aymer’s letter, and
wondered and wondered still more. His line of argument seemed laid down
with remarkable precision, and there was no escape from his
conclusions—but were his premises correct; was he not mistaken in the
identity?

The whole thing appeared so strange and _bizarre_, that Agnes said she
really thought he must be romancing—drawing on his imagination, as he
had in the book she held in her hand.

Violet knew not what to think. She could not doubt Aymer. She warmly
defended him, and declared that he was incapable of playing such
practical jokes. She had a faint recollection of poor old Jason once
telling her that her great-grandfather’s name was Sibbold, or something
like that—she could not quite be sure of the name. She remembered it,
because Jason had instanced it as an example of the long periods of
time, that may be bridged by three or four persons’ successive
memories. He said that his father had conversed with this Sibbold, or
Sibald, and _he_ again had met in his youth an old man, who had fought
at Culloden in ’45. If it had not been for that circumstance, the name
would have escaped her altogether.

The more Agnes thought of it, the more she inclined to the view that
Aymer, overworked and poorly-fed, had become the subject of an
hallucination. It was impossible that Marese could lay open claim to be
the heir if this were the case—perfectly impossible. A gentleman of the
highest and most sensitive honour like Marese, would at once have
renounced all thought of the inheritance; he would have been only eager
to make compensation. Why, even Aymer said that the matter had never
been mentioned at the family council—surely that was in itself
sufficient proof. It was an insult to Marese—to herself—to credit such
nonsense. Aymer must be ill—over-excited.

Violet kept silence, with difficulty, from deference to her generous
friend; but she read the letter the third time, and it seemed to her
that, whether mistaken or not, Aymer had given good grounds for his
statement. She was silent, and this irritated Agnes, who had of late
been less considerate than was her wont. It seemed as if some inward
struggle had warped her nature—as if in vigorously, aggressively
defending Marese, she was defending herself.

The incident caused a coolness between them—the first that had sprung
up since Violet had been at The Towers. Violet was certainly as free
from false pride as Lady Lechester was eaten up with it; but even she
could not help dreaming over the fascinating idea that she was the
heiress of that vast estate, or at least a part of it. How happy they
would be! What books Aymer could write; what countries they could visit
together; what pleasures one hundredth part of that wealth would enable
them to enjoy! Thinking like this, her mind also became thoroughly
saturated with the idea of the Stirmingham estate. Like a vast
whirlpool, that estate seemed to have the power of gradually attracting
to itself atoms floating at an apparently safe distance, and of
engulfing them in the seething waters of contention.

In the morning came Aymer’s second letter, imputing the worst of all
crimes to Marese Baskette, or to his instigation.

Violet turned pale as she read it. Her lips quivered. All the whole
scene passed again before her eyes—the terrible scene in the
dining-room, where the wedding breakfast was laid out—the pool of blood
upon the carpet—Jason’s head lying helplessly against the back of the
armchair—the ghastly wound, upon the brow. Poor girl! Swift events and
the change of life, and her interest in Agnes, had in a manner chased
away the memory of that gloomy hour. Now it came back to her with full
force, and she reproached herself with a too ready
forgetfulness—reproached herself with neglecting the sacred duty of
endeavouring to discover the murderer. To her, the facts given by
Aymer—the interest, the motive—seemed irresistible. Not for a moment
did she question his conclusion. She thought of Marese as she had seen
him for a few hours: she remembered his start as he heard her name—it
was the start of conscious guilt, there was no doubt.

A great horror fell upon her—a horror only less great than had fallen
that miserable wedding-day. She had been in the presence of her
father’s murderer—she had eaten at the same table—she had shaken hands
with him. Above the loathing and detestation, the hatred and
abhorrence, there rose a horror—almost a fear. Next to being in the
presence of the corpse, being in the presence of the murderer was most
awful. She could not stay at The Towers—she could not remain, when at
any hour he might come, with blood upon his conscience if not upon his
actual hands—the blood of her beloved and kindly father. A bitter
dislike to The Towers fell upon her—a hatred of the place. It seemed as
if she had been entrapped into a position, where she was compelled to
associate with the one person of all others whom love, duty,
religion—all taught her to avoid. She must go—no matter where. She had
a little money—the remnant left after all. Jason’s debts had been
paid—only some fifty pounds, but it was enough. Mr Merton had sent it
to her with a formal note, after the affairs were wound up. At first
the idea occurred to her that she would go back and live at The Place
which was still hers; but no, that could not be—she could not, could
not live there; the spirit of the dead would cry out to her from the
very walls. She would go to some small village where living was cheap;
where she could take a little cottage; where her fifty pounds, and the
few pounds she received for the rent of the meadow at The Place, would
keep her—till Aymer succeeded, and could get her a home. She hesitated
to write to him—she half decided to keep her new address a secret; for
she knew that if he understood her purpose he would deprive himself of
necessaries to give her luxuries.

That very day she set to work to pack her trunk, pausing at times to
ask herself if she should, or should not, tell Lady Agnes that her
lover was a murderer. Well she knew that Agnes would draw herself up in
bitter scorn—would not deign even to listen to her—and yet it was wrong
to let her go on in the belief that Marese Baskette was the soul of
honour. Clearly it was her duty to warn Agnes of the terrible fate
which hung over her—to warn her from accepting a hand stained with the
blood of an innocent, unoffending man. One course was open to her, and
upon that she finally decided—it was to leave a note for Agnes,
enclosing Aymer’s letter.

It was Agnes’ constant practice to go for a drive about three in the
afternoon; Violet usually accompanied her. This day she feigned a
headache, and as soon as the carriage was out of sight sent for the
groom, and asked him to take her to the railway station.

The man at once got the dog-cart ready, and in half an hour, with her
trunk behind her, Violet was driving along the road. She would not look
back—she would not take a last glance at that horrible place. The
groom, in a respectful manner, hoped that Miss Waldron was not going to
leave them—she had made herself liked by all the servants at The
Towers. She said she must, and offered him a crown from her slender
store. The man lifted his hat, but refused to take the money.

This incident touched her deeply—she had forgotten that, in leaving The
Towers, she might also leave hearts that loved her. The groom wished to
stay and get her ticket, but she dismissed him, anxious that he should
not know her destination. Two hours afterwards she alighted at a little
station, or “road,” as it was called. “Belthrop Road” was two and a
half miles from Belthrop village; but she got a boy to carry her trunk,
and reached the place on foot just before dusk.

On the outskirts of Belthrop dwelt an old woman who in her youth had
lived at World’s End, and had carried Violet in her arms many and many
a time. She married, and removed to her husband’s parish, and was now a
widow.

Astonished beyond measure, but also delighted, the honest old lady
jumped at Violet’s proposal that she should be her lodger. The modest
sum per week which Violet offered seemed in that outlying spot a mine
of silver. Hannah Bond was only afraid lest her humble cottage should
be too small—she had really good furniture for a cottage, having had
many presents from the persons she had nursed, and particularly prided
herself upon her feather beds. Here Violet found an asylum—quiet and
retired, and yet not altogether uncomfortable. Her only fear was lest
Aymer should be alarmed, and she tried to devise some means of assuring
him of her safety, without letting him know her whereabouts.

Circumstances over which no one as usual had had any control, made that
spring a memorable one in the quiet annals of Belthrop. The great
agricultural labourers’ movement of the Eastern counties had extended
even to this village; a branch of the Union had been formed, meetings
held, and fiery language indulged in. The delegate despatched to
organise the branch, looked about him for a labourer of some little
education to officiate as secretary, and to receive the monthly
contributions from the members.

Chance again led him to fix upon poor old Edward Jenkins, the gardener,
who still worked for Mr Albert Herring, doing a man’s labour for a
boy’s pay. The gardener could write and read and cipher; he was a man
of some little intelligence, and, though a new comer, the working men
regarded him as a kind of “scholar.” He was just the very man, for he
was a man with a grievance. He very naturally resented what he
considered the harsh treatment he had met with after so many years
faithful service, and he equally resented the low pay which
circumstances compelled him to put up with. Jenkins became the
secretary of the branch, and this did not improve his relations with
Albert Herring. Always a harsh and unjust man, his temper of late had
been aroused by repeated losses—cattle had died, crops gone wrong;
above all, an investment he had made of a thousand pounds of the money
that should have been Violet’s, in some shares that promised well, had
turned out an utter failure. He therefore felt the gradual rise in
wages more severely than he would have done, and was particularly sore
against the Union. He abused Jenkins right and left, and yet did not
discharge him, for Jenkins was a cheap machine. His insults were so
coarse and so frequent that the poor old man lost his temper, and so
far forgot himself (as indeed he might very easily do) as to hope that
the Almighty would punish his tormentor, and _burn down, his home over
his head_.

Early in the spring the labourers struck, and the strike extended to
Belthrop. The months passed on, the farmers were in difficulty, and
meantime the wretched labourers were half-starved. Albert was furious,
for he could not get his wheat sown, and upon that crop he depended to
meet his engagements. Yet he was the one of all others, at a meeting
which was called, to persuade the farmers to hold out; and above all he
abused Jenkins, the secretary; called him a traitor, a firebrand, an
incendiary. The meeting broke up without result; and it was on that
very evening that Violet arrived. The third evening afterwards she was
suddenly called out by gossiping old Hannah Bond, who rushed in, in a
state of intense excitement—

“Farmer Herring’s ricks be all ablaze!”

Violet was dragged out by the old woman, and beheld a magnificent, and
yet a sad sight. Eight and thirty ricks, placed in a double row, were
on fire. About half had caught when she came out. As she stood
watching, with the glare in the sky reflected upon her face, she saw
the flames run along from one to another, till the whole rickyard was
one mass of roaring fire. The outbuildings, the stables, and
cow-houses, all thatched, caught soon after—finally the dwelling-house.

The farm being situated upon the Downs, the flames and sparks were seen
for miles and miles in the darkness of the night, and the glare in the
sky still farther. The whole countryside turned out in wonder and
alarm; hundreds and hundreds trooped over Down and meadow to the spot.
Efforts were made by scores of willing hands to stay the flames—efforts
which seemed ridiculously futile before that fearful blast; for with
the fire there rose a wind caused by the heated column of air
ascending, and the draught was like that of a furnace. Nothing could
have saved the place—not all the engines in London, even had there been
water; and the soil being chalky, and the situation elevated, there was
but one deep well. As it was, no engine reached the spot till long
after the fire was practically over—Barnham engine came in the grey of
the morning, having been raced over the hills fully fifteen miles. By
that time, all that was left of that noble farmhouse and rickyard, was
some two-score heaps of smoking ashes, smouldering and emitting intense
heat.

Hundreds upon hundreds stood looking on, and among them there moved
dark figures:—policemen—who had hastily gathered together.

And where was Albert Herring? Was he ruined? He at that moment recked
nothing of the fire. He was stooping—in a lowly cottage at a little
distance—over the form of his only son, a boy of ten. The family had
easily escaped before the dwelling-house took fire, and were, to all
intents and purposes, safe; but this lad slipped off, as a lad would
do, to follow his father, and watch the flames. A burning beam from one
of the outhouses struck him down. Albert heard a scream; turned, and
saw his boy beneath the flaring, glowing timber. He shrieked—literally
shrieked—and tore at the beam with his scorched hands till the flesh
came off.

At last the on-lookers lifted the beam. The lad was fearfully burnt—one
whole shoulder seemed injured—and the doctors gave no hope of his life.
(As I cannot return to this matter, it may be as well to state that he
did not die—he recovered slowly, but perfectly.) Yet what must the
agony of that man’s mind have been while the child lay upon the bed in
the lowly cottage? Let the fire roar and hiss, let roof-tree fall and
ruin come—life, flickering life more precious than the whole world—only
save him this one little life.

In the morning Albert turned like a wild beast at bay, shouting and
crying for vengeance. “Vengeance is mine, saith the Lord;” but when did
man ever hearken to that? He marked out Jenkins, the gardener; he
pointed him out to all. That was the man—had they not heard him say he
hoped Heaven would burn the farm over his head?

That was true; several had heard it. Jenkins had been the last to leave
the premises that night.

The gardener, utterly confounded, could not defend himself. The leader
of the Unionists! The police looked grave, and the upshot was he was
taken into custody.

Feeling ran high in the neighbourhood, as well it might. There were
grievances on both sides, and the great fire had stirred up all
uncharitableness. The justices’ room was crowded, and a riot was
feared. The Union had taken up poor Jenkins’ defence, and had sent down
a shrewd lawyer who put a bold face on it, but had little hope in his
heart. Suspicion was so strong against the prisoner.

His poor old wife was perhaps even more frenzied than she had been at
the coroner’s inquest. Such a circumstance as Violet’s arrival at
Belthrop, though trivial in itself, was, of course, known in the
village; she once again rushed to Violet for help. Violet, though
anxious to keep quiet, could not resist the appeal, she was herself
much excited and upset about the matter. She went with the miserable
wife to the Court, and being a lady, was accommodated with a good seat.
Out of her little stock she would have willingly paid for a lawyer, but
that was unnecessary. The counsel retained by the Union was a clever
man; but he could make no head against the unfortunate facts, and in
his anxiety to save the prisoner he made one great mistake—justifiable
perhaps—but a mistake. He asked who would profit by the fire, whose
interest was it? Was not hard cash better than ricks, and an uncertain
and falling market? In a word, he hinted that Albert himself had fired
the ricks.

A roar of denial rose from the farmers present, a deafening cheer from
the labourers. It was with difficulty that the crowd was silenced, and
when the proceedings were resumed, it was easy to see that the Bench
had been annoyed by this remark.

The solicitor on the other side got up, and asked the justices to
consider the previous character of this man the prisoner—who had been
on his trial for murder—was there a single person who would speak to
his good character?

“Yes,” said Violet, standing up. Amid intense surprise she was sworn.
“My name is Violet Waldron,” she said, nerving herself to the effort.
“I am the daughter of—of—the person who was—you understand me? I have
known this man for years—since I was a child. He and his served us
faithfully for two generations. He is incapable of such a crime—I
believe him innocent—he is a good man, but most unfortunate.”

She could not go further, her courage broke down. They did not
cross-examine her.

The prosecution professed great respect for Miss Waldron, whose
misfortunes were well known, but of what value was her testimony in
this case? She had not even seen Jenkins for a long time; circumstances
warped the best of natures.

The end was, that Jenkins was committed for trial at the assizes within
two months. Thus did circumstances again involve this victim of fate in
an iron net. Here again I must anticipate. Jenkins was sentenced at the
assizes to twelve months imprisonment with hard labour. Nevertheless
the imputation against Albert Herring was never quite forgotten; to
this day the poor believe it, and even the police shake their heads. At
all events he profited largely by it. The corn had been kept in the
hope that the markets would rise, but they had fallen. The
insurance-money saved him from irretrievable ruin.

The prisoner’s poor wife was reduced to utter beggary. Violet did her
best to keep her, but she could not pay the debts the gardener, with
his miserable pay, had of necessity contracted. Ten pounds still
remained unpaid. At last the poor woman bethought her of an ancient
treasure, an old bible;—would Miss Violet buy it? It really was
Violet’s—it had been lent by Violet’s grandmother to the poor woman,
and never returned. Violet at once remembered Lady Lechester’s fancy
for such books, and recommended her to take it to The Towers. The woman
went, and returned with the money.

Now, the immediate effect upon our history of this fire was that Violet
Waldron became a prominent name in the local paper published at
Barnham, and that local paper had been taken for years regularly at The
Towers. And at The Towers at that time Theodore Marese was temporarily
staying, under circumstances that will shortly appear.



Chapter Eight.


When Lady Lechester returned from her drive and learnt with intense
surprise that Violet was gone, her first thought was that she had been
hurt by the remarks made upon Aymer’s hallucination the previous
evening. Agnes reproached herself for her momentary irritation; but
when she found a note for her from Violet on her dressing-table, and
had read both it and the enclosed letter from Aymer, her anger was
thoroughly aroused.

Not unnaturally she took it in the worst sense, and looked upon it as a
downright insult. To pretend that a gentlemen of Marese’s position and
character was not the heir that he affirmed himself to be—that he had
wooed her under false pretences—that was bad taste enough, and utterly
unjustifiable. Still, it might have passed as the hallucination of an
over-tasked mind. But to deliberately accuse the same gentleman of the
blackest crime it was possible for human beings to commit, was
inexcusable.

All the pride of her nature rose up in almost savage resentment. Her
first impulse was to tear up the letters and burn them; but this she
refrained from doing, for on second thoughts they might be instrumental
in obtaining the punishment of the slanderer. It was all the more
bitter, because she felt that she had done her best both for Aymer and
Violet, and the latter she had really loved. Certainly Agnes was far
too proud and high-minded to regret for one moment a single shilling
that she had spent for the benefit of others; but the reflection of
Violet’s ingratitude did add a sharper sting. Agnes was in truth
touched in her tenderest place—her pride:—she engaged, or partially
engaged to a pretender, and worse than that, to a murderer—a Lechester,
impossible!

Before she had decided what to do, Mr Broughton arrived from Barnham,
bringing with him Aymer’s letter to him. He was utterly unprepared for
the mood in which he found Agnes, and unwittingly added fuel to the
fire by saying that he had searched the file of old newspapers, and
found the very advertisement mentioned by Aymer.

Lady Agnes’ indignation knew no bounds. She reproached him for even so
much as daring to investigate the matter—for deeming it possible that
anything of the kind could be. Let him leave the house immediately—she
regretted that she had demeaned herself so much as to admit him to see
her.

This aroused Mr Broughton—who was not without his professional
pride—and he answered rather smartly, that Lady Lechester seemed to be
forgetting the very dignity to which, she laid claim; and added that if
he should mention Aymer’s discovery to the building society in
Stirmingham, who were his clients, _they_ at least would think Miss
Waldron’s claim one well worth supporting. With this parting shot he
bowed and left the room.

No sooner was he gone, than Agnes took up her pen and wrote direct to
Marese Baskette, enclosing Aymer’s second letter—which accused Marese
of being the instigator of the murder—and giving the fullest
particulars she could remember of his first—relating to Violet’s claim.
She did not forget to describe her interview with Mr Broughton, nor to
mention his threat of the building society taking the matter up. She
assured him that she looked upon the matter as a hoax and an insult;
and only related the story to him in order that he might take the
proper proceedings to punish the author of the calumny.

This letter reached Marese at his club in London, and, hardened man
that he was, it filled him with well-founded alarm. Till that moment he
had believed that no one on earth was aware of the Waldron claims but
himself and Theodore, who had learnt it from perusal of his father
Aurelian’s papers. As for any one suspecting him of complicity in the
death of Jason Waldron, he had never dreamt that detection was
possible.

If ever a crime was managed skilfully, that had been; and as to the old
story that “murder will out,” it was of course an exploded
superstition. Had it been Aymer alone who was on his track, he would
not so much have cared; but Aymer had not kept the secret to himself:
he had written to a lawyer, giving his proofs; the lawyer had verified
one of them, at least, and Marese well knew what lawyers were. Then
there was the threat of the building society, just as he was on the
point of making a favourable composition with them, and was actually to
receive a surrender of some part of the property in a few weeks’ time.
He appreciated the full force of Broughton’s remark, repeated by Lady
Agnes, that the building society, his client, would be sure to support
Violet Waldron’s claim. Of course they would. A fresh litigation would
be set on foot, and possession of the estate indefinitely delayed; if
that was delayed, his marriage with Lady Lechester would be also thrown
back.

Yet despite all these serious reflections, Marese would have made
comparatively light of the matter had it not been for the accusation of
crime—for the fact that Aymer had obtained a faint glimpse of the
truth. He was not the man to hesitate one moment at crime, or to regret
it after it was done; but he dreaded detection, as well he might, for
from the height to which he had risen, and was about to rise, his fall
would be great indeed. He smiled at Lady Agnes’ suggestion that he
should prosecute Aymer for libel or slander. Prosecute him in open
court, and at once fix ten thousand eyes upon that dark story; perhaps
bring a hundred detectives, eager to hunt out the secrets of a rich
man, upon his track! That would be folly indeed.

Aymer must be silenced, and Violet removed; but not like that. The
first thing he did was to telegraph for Theodore, who came up by the
express from Stirmingham.

They had a long and anxious consultation. Theodore persuaded Marese to
go at once to The Towers to see Agnes and deny the imputation—to secure
her, in fact. Marese thought that this would hardly do; he knew Agnes
better than Theodore. She would think that he had put himself out
unnecessarily, that he had taken it too greatly to heart, and would
simply ask him why he had not at once instituted legal proceedings
against Aymer.

In his secret heart of hearts, Marese did not care to visit that
neighbourhood more often than was absolutely necessary. And he really
did think that Agnes’ transcendent pride would be better suited if he
treated the matter in an off-hand way, and dispatched only an agent to
represent him—a species of ambassador. Another reason was that
Broughton, if he was on the watch, would take Marese’s visit to The
Towers as a proof that there was something in it, else why should he be
so anxious to deny it?

Theodore was willing to go, and he did not long delay his departure.
“For all the time that we waste in thinking,” said Marese, “this
fellow, Malet, is at work. It will take him some time to search all the
London churches; but it may so happen that he may hit upon the very
entry he wants at the first church chance leads him to.”

There was no time to be lost. Very probably Aymer himself, of whose
whereabouts in London they were quite ignorant, might go down to The
Towers expecting to see his affianced, Violet. Theodore might meet him
there, and—

Above all things, Theodore was to so work upon Lady Agnes’ mind as to
turn this apparent disadvantage to a real good, and use it to
precipitate the marriage. Could not she be brought to see that her
proudest course would be to marry Marese, in despite of all these foul
calumnies, at once, in defiance? It would be difficult for Marese to
put this himself, but his agent could do so.

Theodore went to The Towers, and it fell out much as Marese had
foreseen. Agnes was gratified. Theodore said that Marese looked upon
the whole affair with the deepest contempt, and disdained to proceed.
The hallucination of that unfortunate young man, Aymer, would prove in
itself sufficient punishment for him. Marese desired no vengeance upon
a poverty-stricken youth whose brains were not very clear. Then he
delicately hinted at a more immediate marriage, and saw with
satisfaction that Agnes did not resent the idea, but seemed to ponder
over it.

But where was Violet? She had left The Towers, and no one there knew
her place of abode.

This disturbed Theodore. He wished to know what the enemy was doing; if
he could foresee their designs, then Marese was safe, because they
could be outwitted. It was awkward to have these persons working
against them in the dark—i.e., Violet, Aymer, and Broughton.

Violet had left no address. Agnes remembered Aymer’s, but Theodore
found on secret inquiry that he had moved. He waited at The Towers in
the hope that Malet might come. Being a man of versatile talent, and
clever in conversation, Lady Agnes was pleased with him, and invited
him to stay as long as was convenient.

While Theodore was at The Towers, the great fire happened at Belthrop,
and the flames were visible from the upper windows of the mansion,
where Lady Agnes, Theodore, and the servants watched them with
interest.

Shortly afterwards the Barnham paper was published, with a special
account of the preliminary examination of the supposed incendiary, poor
Jenkins, before the justices, and Theodore came across the name of
Violet Waldron. In this way he learnt that one of the parties, and the
most important, was at that moment living in an obscure village, not
much more than fifteen miles distant.

He was preparing to pay a visit to Belthrop—ostensibly to see the ruins
of the fire—when Aymer Malet arrived at The Towers.

His coming was very natural. He could not understand why he did not
hear from Violet. He had written to her fully twenty times, addressing
his letters to The Towers, and had received no answer. This greatly
alarmed him, and he resolved to go down and see her. All these letters
were meantime at the General Post Office in London.

Lady Agnes, determined to cut off every connection with Malet and
Violet, had given the servants strict orders not to take in any letters
addressed to either of them. Aymer’s letters, therefore, went back to
the local post office, and from thence to London, and doubtless in due
time they would have returned to him.

When he found himself with seventy pounds in his pocket, he had taken a
better lodging, having previously written to Violet to apprise her of
his removal, but as she never had his letter, her note to him was
delivered at the old address, and Aymer’s old landlady, irritated at
his leaving her, coolly put it on the fire.

Violet had only written once, for she too was astonished, and a little
hurt, because Aymer did not write to her, and in addition, she had been
much disturbed by the great fire and the trial of poor Jenkins. The
upshot was, that Aymer leaving his monotonous labour in the London
churches, took train and came down to the nearest station to The
Towers.

Never doubting his reception, he drove up to the mansion, and was
surprised beyond measure when the servants, respectfully and
regretfully, but firmly announced that Lady Lechester would not see
him. Where was Miss Waldron? Miss Waldron had left—the newspaper said
she was at Belthrop, but that was a day or two ago.

Bewildered, and not a little upset, Aymer mechanically turned on his
heel—he had dismissed his fly at the park gates—and set out to walk to
Belthrop. He had almost reached that very little wicket-gate where Lady
Lechester had met the apparition of Cornet De Warren, when he heard a
voice calling his name, and saw a gentleman hastily following him. It
was Theodore, who had requested the servants, and enforced his request
by a bribe, to at once inform him when Mr Malet called.

Theodore had a difficult task before him; but he approached it with
full confidence in himself. Without a moment’s delay he introduced
himself as Marese Baskette’s cousin, and at once noted the change that
passed over Aymer’s countenance. Ah!—then Mr Malet was aware of the
previous intimacy that had existed between him and Mr Baskette? That
intimacy was now at an end. He frankly admitted that he had come to The
Towers in the interest of Marese; but upon his arrival he had heard, to
his intense surprise, of Mr Malet’s discovery of the Waldron claim. To
him that claim appeared indisputable: he had written as much to Mr
Baskette, and the consequence was a quarrel. They had parted: and he
was now endeavouring to persuade Lady Lechester to break off her
association with that man.

He had heard with great interest the career of Mr Malet—he had seen his
book; and while he regretted his misfortunes, he rejoiced that
circumstances enabled him to offer Mr Malet a most lucrative and
remunerative post—a post that would at once give him ease and leisure
to promote his literary labours; which would supply him with funds to
continue his researches into the Waldron claims—and perhaps to bring
the guilty to justice; which would even—this in a delicate manner—it
would even permit of an immediate union with Miss Waldron.

Further, as this post was in the city of Stirmingham, Mr Malet would be
on the very spot, and within easy reach of London. The only difficulty
was that it required Mr Malet’s immediate presence in Stirmingham, as
it would be necessary to fill the place at once. Probably from the
direction of Mr Malet’s steps he was on his way to visit Belthrop, and
to congratulate the truly heroic Miss Waldron upon her gallant attempt
to save an innocent man from punishment. At the same time, perhaps, Mr
Malet would really serve Miss Waldron’s interest better by at once
proceeding to Stirmingham that very afternoon with Theodore.

What was this post? Mr Malet had been in Stirmingham, and was aware
that he (Theodore) had inherited a very large asylum for the insane
there. As he was himself averse to the science of the mind, he had
rarely resided on his property, but left the chief management to a
physician, and the accounts to a secretary. His secretary had left
about a month ago, and the affairs were in much confusion. He had great
pleasure in offering Mr Malet the place. The salary was seven hundred
and fifty pounds per annum, and residence. This residence was
sufficiently large for a married man.

Aymer modestly objected that he was hardly fit for so important a
trust.

Theodore said that he had read his book, and a man who was capable of
writing like that was capable of anything. Besides, he had heard of his
ability while in Mr Broughton’s service.

The end was that Aymer accepted the engagement, as indeed he could
hardly refuse it. Still he wished to see Violet. That was certainly
unfortunate; but could not Mr Malet write from the railway station and
send it by a messenger. On arrival in Stirmingham, and taking
possession of his place of trust, Mr Malet could at once write to Miss
Waldron to come, and there was plenty of room at the asylum, and more
than one respectable matron residing there with whom she could remain
until the marriage could take place. He was so sorry that Lady
Lechester cherished a prejudice against Mr Malet—that would wear off—he
had done his best to remove it. Still, at present, Mr Malet was not
welcome at The Towers. Would he so far stretch politeness as to stroll
gently on the road to the station? He (Theodore) would speedily
overtake him with a carriage.

An hour and a half afterwards Theodore and Aymer were _en route_ to
Stirmingham. Theodore had explained his sudden departure by a telegram.
He had received a telegram, it was true, as he constantly did; but it
was as usual a Stock Exchange report of no importance.

From the station Aymer sent a short note to Violet at Belthrop, by
special messenger, acquainting her with his good fortune.

They reached Stirmingham the same evening, and next day Aymer was
formally installed in possession of a bundle of papers, ledgers, and
account books, which he was to balance up. He was shown the secretary’s
residence—a fine house, closely adjoining the asylum—and at night he
wrote a glowing letter to Violet, enclosing money to pay her fare
first-class, and begging her to come at once.

On the second morning came a note telling him that she should start
that very day, and full of joyful anticipations. She would arrive
towards night. Aymer dined with Theodore, and took wine with him
afterwards. Presently he rose to prepare to go to the railway and meet
Violet. He reached his private room with a singular sensation in the
head, a swimming in his eyes, and a dryness of the tongue. He plunged
his face in cold water to recover himself; but it seemed to increase
the disorder. His head seemed to swell to an enormous size, and yet to
grow extremely light, till it felt like an inflated balloon, and seemed
as if it would lift him to the ceiling. Sitting down to try and steady
himself, he fancied that the chair rose in the air, and cried out in
alarm. He managed to pull the bell, and then felt as if he was carried
away to an immense distance, and could look down upon his body in the
room beneath.

A servant answered the bell, who stared at him, smiled, and said—“Ah,
your fit’s on at last.” Aymer’s last consciousness was that he was
talking very fast, without exactly knowing what he was saying. After
that there was a blank.

Meantime Violet was met by Theodore Marese at the railway station; and
a message in cipher flew along the wires to a certain club in London.
Marese Baskette breathed again, for the cipher read—“They are here.” A
simple sentence, but enough.



Chapter Nine.


A fashionable London newspaper came out one morning with the statement
that a marriage had been arranged in high life, and that preparations
were already in progress. J. Marese Baskette, Esq, of Stirmingham, and
Lady Agnes Lechester were to be shortly united in holy matrimony. This
announcement was of the very greatest value to Marese. Not all the
wealth, or reputed wealth he possessed—not even the honour of
representing so important a city, could obtain for him the position in
society which was secured by an alliance with the blue blood of
Lechester. His money affairs wore at once a more roseate aspect.

It was well known that Lady Lechester owned large estates, and they
were naturally reported to be even larger than they were. It was
whispered abroad that, under careful nursing, certain incumbrances had
been paid off, and that the rent-roll was now something extremely heavy
even for England, the land of long rent-rolls.

People who had previously fought a little shy of the handsome heir, and
asked hard terms to discount his paper, now pressed forward, and were
anxious to obtrude their services. At the clubs, persons who had
affected to ignore the richest man in the world as a matter of
principle, on account of his ignoble descent, now began to acknowledge
his existence, and to extend the tips of their aristocratic fingers. It
was remembered that the doubts and difficulties which had beset his
claim to the vast Stirmingham estate like a dark cloud, had of late in
great part cleared away. The family council had “burst up,” and there
were really no competitors in the field. Marese Baskette, Esq, in the
course of a year or two, so soon as the law affairs could be settled,
would be the richest man in the world.

At the clubs they freely discussed his wealth. When realised it would
put the Rothschilds, and Coutts, and Barings, and all the other famous
names—the Astors of New York and even the princes of India—into the
shade.

Stirmingham, the busiest city in England, surrounded with a triple belt
of iron furnaces, undermined with hundreds of miles of coal galleries,
was it possible to estimate the value of that wonderful place? Why, the
estate in the time of old Sternhold Baskette was roughly put at twenty
millions sterling—that was thirty years ago or more—what must it be
worth now? There really was no calculating it. Suppose he got but one
quarter of what he was entitled to—say property worth only five
millions—there was a fine thing. What on earth had the ladies been
thinking of all these years that they had not secured so rich a prize?

Lady Lechester was not a little envied. County families and others,
from whom she had kept aloof for years, overlooked the disrespect, and
called upon her with their congratulations. Invitations poured in upon
her; the whole county talked of nothing else but Lady Lechester’s
wedding; even the great fire was forgotten.

In London circles the name of Agnes Lechester, which from long
retirement had almost dropped out of memory, was revived, and the old
story of the attachment to the dragoon and his untimely end in the
East, was dug up and sent on its way from mansion to mansion. It was
nothing but pride that made her refuse poor De Warren who was a
handsomer man than Baskette, and came of quite as good a family as her
own. However, fortune seemed to favour these creatures—why, she must be
five-and-thirty; five-and-thirty, ay, closer on forty; older than
Marese—much older.

To Agnes, all the conversation that went on around, and the echo of
which reached her, was happiness itself. The intense pride and ambition
of her nature, which had partly kept her in retirement, blazed out in
all its native vigour. Her step was slow and stately; her manner grew
cold and haughty; her conversation distant. When poor old Jenkins’s
wife came with the ancient Bible, she bought it, indeed, and put it on
the library table, but barely looked at it. Six months before she would
have criticised it carefully, and entered a descriptive record of it in
the catalogue which she kept with her own hand. Now it was disdainfully
tossed upon one side.

A point that was sometimes discussed between these formal and distant
lovers was the place of their future residence, and as Lady Lechester
hated The Towers, and Marese said that the country house near
Stirmingham had of late been closely approached by the coal mines, it
was finally settled that they should reside in a mansion near Regent’s
Park, which belonged to Lady Lechester, until Marese could build a
suitable place. This he announced his intention of doing upon a
magnificent scale.

It was singular that old Sternhold, whose life was spent in adding
stone to stone and brick to brick, had never contemplated the idea of
building himself a palace.

His son determined to surpass all the mansions of England; and the
plans, when once they had been decided upon, were sent down to Lady
Lechester for her approval. They were placed upon a table in the
reception room, so that every visitor who called could not avoid seeing
them; and it became one of the pleasures of Agnes’ daily life to point
out the beauties of the new mansion, and to show her own sketches for
improvements. To such littleness did this once noble and generous
nature descend. The Stirmingham estate seemed to be endowed with the
power of degrading every character that came into contact with it.

It was understood that Lady Lechester was to lay the first stone of
this grand mansion when they returned from the wedding trip. They were
to go to Italy, and make excursions in the Mediterranean in Marese’s
yacht _Gloire de Dijon_, the name of which he now altered to _Agnes_.

Marese’s life at this time was one long continued triumph. The only
danger that had threatened him was crushed; both Aymer and Violet were
in safe keeping.

Theodore was still at Stirmingham watching them; perhaps a sterner
keeper than Theodore might turn the key upon one or both ere long. He
set his teeth firmly with a frown as he thought of that possibility.
Marese was not the man to be threatened with impunity. At all events
they were quite safe for a good length of time—till long after his
marriage. The marriage once over and he feared nothing. No scandal
could seriously injure him after that. He should be secured with a
triple wall of brass—of wealth, power, position.

The property at Stirmingham was falling into his hands like an
over-ripe pear. Let the companies strive how they might, they could no
longer discover any pretext to delay its surrender. The American
claimants had vanished into the distance—that great dread had departed.
He had paid off in hard cash a large share of the claims the building
societies made upon him, for expenses they had incurred in improving
the property. He had obtained a rule that the remainder of the claims
should be discharged by instalments; and as now in a short time he
should enjoy almost unlimited credit, there would be no difficulty in
raising the necessary sums.

With other societies he had corresponded; with the Corporation he was
on the best of terms, having used his influence in Parliament already
to pass a private bill of theirs, and they had no legal power to
prevent his seizure of his rights. With the rest of his creditors he
was not only on good terms—he was pressed to borrow more. Literally he
felt himself, as he surveyed his monetary affairs, the richest man in
the world.

Another success came to him. He had delivered his maiden speech in the
House, and whether it really was clever or appropriate, or whether
people were predisposed in his favour, certain it was that it had
produced an impression. The papers were full of it; the reviewers
considered it an omen of an honourable parliamentary career. It was
quoted from one end of the kingdom to the other. His party begun to
cast an eye upon him. Here was that rare combination—a rich man with
talent. Could they not turn him to account?

Then came the announcement of the engagement with Lechester, and they
went a step further, and said something must be done. Something was
forthwith done. An office was offered to him—not a high office, nor
very remunerative, but still an office; and one only a degree beneath
that of a Minister. It was well understood that no man ever filled that
post without subsequently becoming a Minister. It was a kind of
political cadetship. Marese accepted the office, and wrote to Lady
Lechester, who saw in this a new proof of the career in store for her;
and he received in reply the warmest note he had hitherto had.

Lastly, he was about to marry into one of the oldest families in
England. This marriage was the sure and certain prelude to a coronet;
not that he would take it till he had exhausted his powers, and felt it
time to retire to the House of Lords. Yet it was this marriage that
alone caused any anxiety to Marese. He grew, for him, nervously anxious
as the time approached. It certainly was not affection for her
personally; it was the extraordinary good fortune which now smiled upon
him. Once a gamester—still largely gambling upon the Stock Exchange—he
had imbibed a little of the superstition of the race. Hard as he
was—cool, self-possessed, and equal to any emergency—there arose in his
mind a certain feverish eagerness to get it over; not sufficient to
curtail his rest, or cause him to exhibit any outward sign, or even to
diminish his glory in his success; but there was just this dash of
uncertain bitter in the cup that was rising to his lip. He dared not
hurry on the ceremony, knowing Lady Lechester’s temperament too well:
he must await the arrival of the date that she herself had fixed.

There was some little difficulty at The Towers as to where the marriage
should take place. The church at Bury Wick was the natural resort,
easiest of access, and nearest; but Agnes, even in her pride and
self-will, could not altogether make up her mind to be married in that
church. The memory of the wedding-party so strangely and fearfully
interrupted there, had not yet died away. It would seem like a bad omen
to be married there.

Barnham was so far, and the vicar a Low Churchman, and not to her
taste. Marese suggested Stirmingham: but no, that would not do. My lady
would be married from her own ancestral Towers; and finally hit upon
the plan of resuscitating the ancient family chapel at The Towers, and
having the ceremony performed in it. This could be done by a special
licence: which, of course, was no obstacle. It was true that she
disliked and even hated The Towers; but the pride of family and long
descent overcame that feeling. She would be married in the old chapel.
Accordingly, workmen were sent for, and the sound of hammer and plane
resounded through the place. The chapel, disused ever since the
Lechesters left the Church of Rome—about a century ago—was completely
renovated, cleaned, painted, gilded, and adorned in every possible
manner.

Time flew, and Agnes’ pen was busy in marking the list of names of
those who were eligible to receive an invitation to the marriage. The
dresses were ordered. Agnes was very hard to please—even a simple
village maiden likes to exercise her choice for that once in her life.
Judge, then, of the difficulty of pleasing the mistress of The Towers,
soon to be the richest lady in the world. Nothing was good enough: the
orders were countermanded day after day, and nothing but the enormous
sums that were to be expended could have reconciled the tradesmen to
her incessant caprices.

Yet through all this loud sound of preparation, through all this silk
and satin, through everything that could be devised to make the heart
content, there penetrated a trouble. Agnes would at times retire to her
private room, and remain secluded for hours. After these solitary fits
her step was slower, and her countenance pale and melancholy, till she
gradually recovered herself. She had broken off her habit of visiting
the Kickwell Pot. It had been a great trial to her to do so; but she
had at last firmly made up her mind, and had conquered the singular
fascination which drew her thither. She had decided upon the earthly
career: she would close her eyes to the immortal one. But the memory of
the spirit was not so easily effaced: she mused on its shape, its
graceful, swaying elegance of motion, the glow in its wonderful eyes,
and felt at times the thrill of its electric touch. It required immense
strength of mind to resist the temptation to converse once more with
her phantom-lover.

Who that had for a moment contemplated the proud and happy position of
Lady Lechester, the observed of all observers, would have credited that
such a hankering, such an extraordinary belief, still possessed her
mind?

Time flew, and there remained but one brief week till the marriage day.
Marese was to come to The Towers on the morrow, and stay till the day
previous to the ceremony when he was, in obedience to the old
etiquette, to sleep at Barnham. For one day only would she be alone at
The Towers. Marese came; the hours flew; some little warmth infused
itself even into their cold intercourse. Just before dinner he left The
Towers for Barnham. After dark, Lady Agnes went out alone, wrapped in
her plaid shawl, and made her way to “The Pot.”

The morrow was her wedding-day, yet the old fascination had
conquered—she could not resist it. Once more, for the last time, she
would look upon the face of that glorious being, and beg his
forgiveness. It was May now—beautiful May. The beech trees were covered
with foliage, the air was soft and warm, and there was a delicate odour
at times of the hawthorn blossom borne upon the gentle breeze. Only in
places there was a low white mist, a dew hanging like a light cloud a
few feet above the earth. A thin column of such a mist hung over the
mouth of “The Pot,” spectral, ghost-like. There had been heavy rains
previously, and the river was swollen and turbid. Its roar came up in a
sullen hoarse murmur through the narrow tunnel. Over the steep down or
cliff there shone one lucent planet—the evening star.

Agnes stole out from among the fern and beech trees, and stood beside
the great decaying oak trunk, leaning lightly against it. Before her
but two steps was the mouth of “The Pot,” and over it hovered the thin
mist.

The old, old fascination fell upon her, the same half unconsciousness
of all surrounding things. The star grew dim, the roar of the river
receded to an immense distance, and then arose the spirit. What
intercourse they had cannot be told: whether she half yielded to the
desire to soar above this earthly ball, and stepped forward to his
embrace—whether she eagerly implored for pardon for her weakness,
dazzled by worldly glory.

The dog Dando had followed her unchidden. He alone of all that had
pertained to Aymer and Violet, Agnes had retained. He knew the old path
so well. He crouched so still at the foot of the great oak trunk. So
quietly, so heedlessly, taking no heed of the figure, the shadow that
stole onward in the dark beneath the beech trees—stole forward from
trunk to trunk, from bunch of fern to hawthorn bush.

A grey shadow in the form of a man—a crouching, stealthy, gliding
approach—yet the dog Dando made no sign. And Agnes stood with arms
extended almost over the mouth of “The Pot.” And the grey shadow
reached the hollow oak trunk.

In the left hand of this shadow was a _tin whistle_.



Chapter Ten.


After a while, Aymer awoke from the stupor into which the drug that had
been administered to him had thrown his senses. His awakening was more
painful than the first effects of the poison. His head felt as heavy as
lead, and there was a dull pain across his brow. A languid helplessness
seemed to possess his limbs, he could not walk across the room, and
with difficulty stretched out his hand to the bell-rope. Then all the
designs upon the wall-papering got mixed up before his eyes in a
fantastic dance, which made him giddy, till he was obliged to shut
them. His consciousness had as yet barely sufficiently returned for him
to notice that he was in a different apartment to any he had hitherto
occupied at the asylum. He must have had partial returns to
consciousness previously, for he found himself sitting in a large
armchair, half clad, and wearing a dressing-gown. A second pull at the
bell-rope brought footsteps outside the door, which sounded heavy upon
the boards, evidently uncarpeted. Then a key turned in the lock
outside, at the sound of that Aymer opened his eyes quickly, and a
strong-looking man, whom he had never seen before, peered in.

“Where is Mr Theodore?” said Aymer. “Is Miss Waldron come? Tell them I
am better. Ask her to see me. What has been the matter with me?”

“You’ve had one of your fits, sir,” replied the man, very civilly, but
in an indifferent tone.

“My fits! I never have fits. Why do you stand in the doorway? Why was
the door locked?”

“All right sir—don’t excite yourself. There, you see you can’t stand.
It’s your head, sir, your head.”

“Send me a doctor instantly,” said Aymer.

“A doctor? He’s been to see you three or four times.”

“Three or four times! How long have I been ill, then?”

“Oh, five days, I think. Let’s see, you were brought over here on the
Tuesday I remember—yes, five days.”

“Brought over here? What do you mean? Who the deuce _are_ you?” said
Aymer, for the first time growing suspicious, and standing up by dint
of effort.

“Do sit still, sir, and keep calm, or you’ll have another fit. My
name’s Davidson; I’m a warder; and I’ll take good care of you, sir, if
you’ll only keep quiet.”

The truth flashed into Aymer’s mind in an instant.

“Do you mean to say I am in the madhouse?” he asked, quietly.

“Well, no, sir, not quite so bad as that. This is an asylum, sir.”

“How did I get here?”

“You were carried over in your fit.”

“And where’s Miss Waldron? Tell her to come to me at once.”

“There’s no Miss Waldron, sir; your head is not quite clear yet.”

“What! you don’t mean to say that _you_ believe me mad?”

“Well, your papers is all right, sir.”

Aymer lost his temper, as well he might.

“Mr Theodore must be mad,” he said. “Tell him to come at once; no, I’ll
go to him.”

With an effort he reached the door; but Davidson easily kept him back
with one hand, in his weak state.

“Now do keep quiet, sir—do sit down.”

“I tell you I’m the secretary,” said Aymer, his breath coming fast and
thick, for he began to feel that he was trapped.

“Ay, ay, sir; they all say that, or something like it. You see, we
likes to get people to come quiet, without any noise. One gent came
here thinking it was his family mansion, and he was a duke. If you’ll
sit down, sir, I’ll get you anything you want.”

Poor Aymer was obliged to totter to his chair.

“And where’s Violet—where’s Miss Waldron?” he said.

“There isn’t no such person, sir. ’Tis your head; you’ll be better
presently. I’ll look in again by-and-by.”

The door shut, the lock turned. Aymer knew that he was a prisoner. For
a few minutes he really was mad, frenzied with unusual passion and
indignation, to be trapped like an animal lured on by provender, and
for what purpose? Ah, for what purpose? Violet—it must be Violet—her
claim to the Stirmingham estate. He was trapped that he might not
follow up the clue. Where was she? Doubtless spirited away somewhere,
or perhaps expecting him at Belthrop, thinking he was coming to her.
They would be sure to keep them as far apart as possible. Theodore was
Marese Baskette’s cousin, his friend, his confidant; he saw it all—he
had been drugged, stupefied, made to utter every species of nonsense,
to appear literally mad. He looked round the room; it was to all
appearance an ordinary apartment, except that the door was strong, and
without panels to weaken it. He staggered to the window, he put it up;
there were no bars, no iron rods to prevent him getting out; but he
looked down—a drop of twenty feet—into a narrow, stone-paved courtyard.
A bitter thought entered his mind: they would rather like him to commit
suicide out of that window. Opposite, about ten feet distant, ran an
immensely high stone wall, crenelated on the top, and over that he
could catch a glimpse of the blue May sky. He understood now why the
corridor was evidently uncarpeted; if by any means he should get out at
the door, his steps would sound, and give the alarm at once. He sat
down and tried to think; either the excitement, or the natural strength
of his constitution was fast overcoming the poison. His head was
clearer, and he could see distinctly, but his limbs were still feeble.
What could he do?

At this moment the key again turned in the lock, and Davidson entered,
bearing a tray with an appetising dinner.

“How do I know these things are not drugged also?” said Aymer.

“Drugged, sir? That’s always their delusion. Them’s good victuals. I’ll
taste if you like.” And he did so.

While his head was turned, Aymer, weak as he was, made a rush at the
door. The warder turned and seized him, and led him back to his chair
like a child. Aymer, mad with passion, threatened him, and snatched at
a knife upon the table.

“Ay, ay; steady, sir,” said the warder, quite coolly; “that’s no use,
my waistcoat is padded on purpose. I’ve had him padded ever since Mr
Odo made a stab at me. Now, now, sir, do be quiet; you’re only a
hurting yourself. Eat your dinner and get stronger, and maybe then you
can have a wrestle with me.”

He glanced with a half smile at Aymer’s slight, panting figure, and
then at his own sturdy proportions, winked, and withdrew.

As his steps died away in the passage, Aymer started to his feet in
intense astonishment. He had heard his own name; he could not believe
his senses—was he really mad?

“Aymer Malet, Esq.”

The voice was low, but distinct. It might come from the doorway, the
window, the wall, the ceiling. He was startled, but replied—

“Yes; I am here.”

“Young man,” said the voice, very low, but quite audible, “take my
advice: control your temper. If you stab a warder they will have a
pretext to keep you here all your lifetime.”

“Ah,” said Aymer; “thank you, I understand. But who are you?—who _are_
you?”

“I am a young old man. Who are you?”

“I am a young man,” said Aymer, growing curious, and for the moment
forgetting his position. “My name you know—I can’t tell how. I come
from World’s End.”

“Ah!” said the voice, sadly; “I had hoped you were sane.”

“So I am.”

“Why then say you came from the world’s end?”

“I did not. I said from World’s End; it is a place near Bury Wick.”

“You are sane then so far. I know _that_ World’s End very well. I only
tried you. I overheard your name when you were carried in. Now, answer
me. Why are you here?”

“There, that is what I want to know.”

“If you do not know, you are not sane. Cannot you see the motive for
your confinement?”

“Certainly I can. It is easy to see that.”

And Aymer briefly related the circumstances.

“And where is your Violet?”

“Doubtless at Belthrop, or spirited away—perhaps abroad. Far enough
from me, at all events.”

“Not so: she is in this very place.”

“I don’t believe it. They would keep her away.”

“I am sure of it. What should you do if you got out?”

“I should go straight to Belthrop—or, stay, perhaps I should go to Mr
Broughton. He would protect me.”

“Broughton—ah! he is a lawyer. I see you are sane. I must have a look
at you. Turn your face towards the picture of the ‘Last Supper.’”

Wondering and yet curious, Aymer did as he was bid. On the wall above a
side-board was a large copy of Vinci’s “Last Supper.” In a few seconds
the voice came again; and soon he found it came from the picture.

“I see you. I have read you. You have talent, perhaps genius; but your
chin is weak. You know not how to fight men. You do not comprehend that
men are beasts, and that it is necessary to be always fighting them.
Still you are sane, you are young—eat, and get strong—you will do. Your
name is familiar to me. Who was your father?”

Aymer told him. The voice replied—“I knew him—a clever man, and, excuse
me, a fool. How came you to reside at World’s End?”

Aymer told him. “But who are you?” he said, eagerly. “Let me see you
also.”

“Very well. Look at the dog under the table in the picture. Now.”

Aymer saw a slender white finger suddenly protruded through the body of
the dog.

“But I only see your finger.”

“Well, that is me. Don’t you know that the hand is the man, and the
claw is the beast? You can see by my finger that I have a hand.”

It was evident that the stranger was proud of his white hand and
slender finger.

“Who on earth are you?” said Aymer, beginning to get excited. “If you
do not answer me I will pull the picture down.”

“If you do, you will ruin us both.”

“Well, tell me who you are.”

“I am a prisoner like yourself. My name is, or was, for I am dead now,
Fulk Lechester.”

“Fulk Lechester—Lady Agnes’ cousin! Ah! I have heard of you,” said
Aymer. “You were very clever, and you went—well, I mean—”

“Ha! ha! ha! I will convince you that I am as sane as yourself—saner;
for what a goose you were to be so easily trapped.”

“So I certainly was.”

“Would you like to get out? Of course. So should I. Let me see. First,
I have seen you—your physiognomy is good; next, I have read of your
book, for I see the papers; thirdly, I knew your father, at least I
knew all about his career; fourthly, you come from World’s End, and
that is my neighbourhood; fifthly, you are young; sixthly, you are in
love, which is a strong stimulus to exertion. Yes, you will do. Now eat
your dinner; you must get strong.”

“I will not touch it till I see you. I will tear the picture down.”

“Oh, rash, headstrong! Lift it up instead.”

Aymer tried. “I can’t,” he said.

“No, because I have fixed it. Now try.”

The picture lifted easily, and Aymer was face to face with the
stranger. He saw a little man, a head and a half shorter than himself,
elegantly made, and dressed in the fashion. His brow was very broad and
high, his eyes dark and large, deeply set; his lips perfect. He had a
small moustache but no beard or whiskers. His complexion was the worst
part of his appearance; it was almost yellow. Fulk smiled, and showed
good teeth.

“I am yellow, I know,” he said. “So would you be if you had not been
out of doors for two years. I look forty, I know; I am really just
thirty-three. Nipped in the bud. Ha! ha! However, there is no time to
waste—the warder will return. Eat your dinner. Let us shake hands.”

Aymer readily extended his hand. Suddenly he said—

“How do I know that this is not a new trap?”

Fulk smiled sadly. “A week ago you believed everybody,” he said; “now
you run to the other extreme. That is youth. I am young; but I am also
old. Trouble makes men old, thought perhaps still older. For seven
years I have done nothing but think.”

“For seven years!” echoed Aymer, in horror. “Have you been here seven
years?”

“Yes; I was then twenty-six, now I am thirty-three. Ah! I blossomed too
fast. It is a bad sign, friend Aymer, when life is all roses too early;
the frosts are sure to come.”

“True,” said Aymer, thinking of his wedding-day, so strangely, so
dreadfully interrupted.

“I was a Secretary of State at twenty-six. I had everything—money,
youth, power, a career, a loving wife. A few hours changed it.”

“May I ask, how?”

“Certainly; companions in misfortune have no secrets. My wife was
thrown from her horse; her beautiful neck was broken. I had no son. We
Lechesters are perhaps a little wild. Odo was certainly wild. Well,
grief made me eccentric. I threw up my career. I was young then, like
you. I resigned; I went down to Cornwall; I built a hut among the
rocks, and said I would live a hermit’s life. I did so. I began to feel
better. The sea soothed me; I learnt much from Nature. You see, I had
lived hitherto all my days with men. If I had stayed there, I should
have written something great. But there were men who had their eyes on
me. My property is large, you know; trustees or guardians do not get
pay direct; but there are indirect profits in managing estates. My wife
was dead; her friends did not trouble to protect me. Perhaps I did seem
eccentric. Hermits are out of date. For years it has been the custom to
put Lechesters in an asylum. I was put here; but not so easily as you.
I fought; it was no use. I might as well have been calm.”

“And you have been here all these years?”

“All these years, but not without trying to escape. I pretended to be
harmlessly mad—quite satisfied with my condition. I was allowed to
wander in the grounds. One day I got up a tree, and before they could
follow I was on the wall, I dropped over but broke my leg. Well, I
recovered, but I still limp a little; after a while, I went into the
grounds with a keeper. I tried cunning. I became harmlessly mad
again—my fancy was to fly kites. To one kite I attached a long letter
with an account of my imprisonment. I let it loose, and it fell in the
midst of Stirmingham. But it was no good—it made a stir—people came
here, and I answered their questions calmly. No good. They were
determined to see that I was mad. If I misspelt a single word in a
sentence, it was a proof that a highly-educated mind had partially
broken down. Like you, I got violent—I tried to despatch a warder and
get out. Ever since then I have been in this room.”

“Two years?”

“Two years. Hush—eat your dinner—Davidson comes.”

The picture fell into its place, and Aymer tried to eat the dinner,
which had grown cold.



Chapter Eleven.


After Davidson was gone with the tray, Aymer could hear him opening
other doors along the corridor, and waited till all was quiet.

“Fulk!”

“Aymer!”

The picture was lifted, and Fulk’s head appeared in the orifice.

“Remember,” he said, “your first object is to get strong; unless you
get strong, neither of us can escape. Therefore, eat and drink, and
above all, sleep. If you fidget yourself, you will waste away. The
sooner you get strong, the sooner you will get out and find your
Violet. Push your armchair up close under this picture, and speak low,
lest a warder should steal along on tiptoe. Take a book in your hand as
if reading.”

Aymer did as he was told. Fulk’s head receded. “It is difficult for me
to keep long in that position,” he said; “I am not tall enough. But we
can talk just as well.”

“How came that hole in the wall?” asked Aymer.

“How came your book published?” said Fulk. “By the same
process—patience and perseverance. No credit to me though. When a man
is confined for two years in one room, he is glad enough of something
to do.”

“Why did you make such a hole—how did you do it? It was very clever.”

“It was very easy. The poker did a part, the steel to sharpen the
dinner knife did another part!”

“But were they not afraid to leave such instruments in your room?”

“Not they. Theodore knows very well that I am not mad. He knows that I
have too much mind to attempt suicide. As to the warders, they are
strong, their clothes are impenetrable to an ordinary stab. Besides, I
feign to be harmless, and at last worn out.”

“There is no poker in my room,” said Aymer, “and they have taken the
knives away.”

“That is because, as yet, they do not know your temperament. They think
they know mine. So far as conveniences, and even luxuries, are
concerned, certainly Theodore does not treat me amiss. I have
everything I could have if I were free—papers, books—everything but
tools or liberty—but I can improvise tools.”

“How is it they do not discover this hole in the wall?”

“Simply because on your side it is hidden by the picture, and behind
the picture I have preserved the papering. On my side, it is hidden by
a mirror; when I open the aperture, I unscrew the mirror.”

“But how did you know there was a picture on this side?”

“A person who was confined as you are told me.”

“Was he sane then? What became of him?”

“Don’t ask me. He was sane. It was a terrible disappointment when he
went.”

“But did he not return to get you out?”

“You do not comprehend. He lies in the grave. It is my belief—but I
should alarm you.”

“They killed him?”

“Well, not so violent as that. He died—that is it—before our
arrangements were complete.”

“Then you have tried to escape with others?”

“Yes, three times, and three times accident has baulked it. For that
reason I wish you to get strong speedily, lest you should be removed to
another room—”

“Or the grave!”

“Let us talk on other subjects. You do not ask how the hole was made,
nor why. I will tell you. In the first place, it was made because I had
hopes of escaping through your room, which was then unoccupied, and the
door left open. That was vain, for it was afterwards occupied; then the
hole was enlarged to let me and one of your predecessors converse, and
to let him get into my room, as you will have to do.”

“Why?”

“Because your window is a French one; mine has a bar or upright up the
centre, which is an essential element of escape.”

“Go on—how did you make the hole?”

“With the steel and with the poker—grinding the bricks into dust, and
mingling the dust with the ashes of the fire, so that the warder
himself carried them away.”

“And why not escape this way?”

“Because, in the first place, the door of that room is kept locked;
secondly, because it opens also into the same corridor, and at the end
of that corridor is the guard-room, where there is always a warder.
Your bell rings in that room.”

“How did you learn all these things?”

“How did you learn all the little traits of human nature, which the
reviewers say you put in your book? By observation, of course. I had to
walk along that corridor to reach the grounds, when I was allowed to go
out.”

“But you could bore a hole into the corridor?”

“Yes, and the bits of broken plaster would tell the story—that would be
simple. Besides, to what end? Once I thought of boring _under_ the
corridor.”

“How do that?”

“By lifting up one of the planks of the floor here; there is a space
between the flooring and the ceiling, and that corridor has a kind of
tunnel along under it. What for? why the hot-water pipes, to warm the
cells, are carried along it—the cells of the violent, whose rooms have
no fire-grates—that is of no use, for the tunnel at one end comes to
the furnaces, where there is usually a man, neither could I get through
the heat. At the other there is the thick outer wall of stone, and just
beneath is Theodore’s own room—his ears are sharp. Useless, my friend.
This knowledge of the premises seems to you wonderful, simply because
you have been here so short a time. Why, I have never seen the outside
of this side of the building, except a partial glimpse when I was
brought, gagged and bound, in a closed carriage; yet look at this.”

He handed to Aymer a sheet of paper, on which was an elevation plan.

“I can’t see how you got at this,” said Aymer, beginning to have a high
opinion of the other’s ability.

“It was difficult; but patience and observation will accomplish all
things. I learnt much of the outline by the shadow on the ground. Here
is another plan, more minute; this is a ground plan.”

Aymer examined it.

“Why, you have got even the locks and bolts of the doors,” he said, in
admiration.

“Yes, I should have made a splendid burglar—what a career lost!”

“But,” said Aymer, “I see here ‘water-canal’ marked. I have seen that
canal; why, it runs just outside the high wall just across the
courtyard here.”

“Ay, and that is the awkward part of it. First, a narrow courtyard or
chasm to bridge; then a high wall to surmount; then a broad and deep
canal—especially broad here, for, as you will see on the plan, there is
a double width of water for the barges to turn round in. Finally, an
unknown maze of streets.”

“Not unknown,” said Aymer. “I can be of some use there;” and he told
Fulk of his residence in Stirmingham during the family council and the
election. He had a fair knowledge of the streets.

“That is extremely fortunate,” said Fulk. “You must trace out a plan
for me, in case we should get separated. So you were at the family
council—I read much of it in the papers which they allow me. By-the-by,
Marese Baskette is about to marry my cousin. I wonder she has escaped
the asylum so long—the common fate of us poor Lechesters. Tell me now
about your Violet’s claim.”

Aymer did so.

Fulk mused a little while.

“I begin to see daylight,” he said. “I see much that I did not
previously comprehend. If we only wait, and keep watching, everything
comes plain in time. Waldron—I knew the Waldrons well—very respectable
people, and well descended. Waldron is mentioned in Domesday—Waleran
Venator—i.e., Walron, the Huntsman. Jason Waldron—I wonder if I had
better tell you what I know?—he was murdered, and—but you will not rest
nor eat.”

“I shall certainly not eat or sleep unless you tell me.”

“Very well, but do keep calm; we shall be out all the sooner, unless
indeed some unforeseen circumstance stops it, as it has hitherto done.
_Ay di me_!”

“Do you know anything of Jason Waldron’s murder?” asked Aymer,
impatiently.

“I do; you have yourself told me. I had my suspicions—almost
certainty—before, but I could not see the motive; now I see the
motive—poor, miserable Odo!”

“Odo! what has Odo, to do with it? Do go on; I am wild.”

“Very well. Odo Lechester murdered your friend Jason Waldron!”

“But Odo Lechester is in a lunatic asylum, incurable.”

“Odo Lechester was in this very asylum, but he escaped nearly a year
ago. He escaped by permission.”

“I am in the dark—explain.”

“By permission, directed to destroy Jason Waldron. He had homicidal
tendencies, you know.”

“Homicidal tendencies!—escaped! Stay a minute, let me think. I remember
now. Oh! what a fool I have been. Why, I saw the description of him
posted up against the police station in Stirmingham, during the
election; it was partly destroyed—evidently an old bill. I see—I see.
But why should Odo Lechester kill Jason?”

“He was instructed to do so. Your dear friend Theodore, who so kindly
offered you a secretaryship at seven hundred and fifty pounds a year,
told him to do so.”

“Why—how—how could he—”

“Work on Odo’s mind? Easily enough. Poor Odo—he is a beast, born in the
shape of a man: it is not his fault—he is not responsible. Odo is a
tinker and a whistler; he is at home among the gipsies and the woods,
playing on his tin whistle, mending pots and kettles. His three great
passions are tinkering, dogs, and—liberty. Theodore simply assured him
that it was Waldron who was the cause of his confinement. Jason dead,
Odo would be for ever free. Shall I add one more word? If Jason’s
daughter were also dead, Odo would be still safer in his freedom.”

“Good God! he may be killing her now. Let me out—help me.”

“Silence! Be quiet. She is safe—your cries will ruin all. She is safe
in this very building.”

“Impossible—I can’t believe it; it is all a blind. I must go to
Belthrop; I must see Broughton. Good God, how weak I am!”

He fell exhausted back into his chair.

“How foolish of you!” said Fulk, gently. “But I can understand it. Now,
I will tell you how I learnt all this. It was very simple. When I found
that there was no escape through your room, I tried the other wall. I
removed the clock from the bracket, and bored a small hole. Frequently
I had to stop, because I heard voices. I found the next room to mine
was one of Theodore’s own private apartments: it is the sitting-room,
in fact. Beyond it is his laboratory. I should like to know what is in
that laboratory: if we escape, I _will_ know. He and Marese used to
meet here and converse. I heard them; I listened. I tell you I heard
things that would make your flesh creep. Are you better?”

“Yes; oh, that I was stronger! There is wine on the table. Do you think
I might drink it safely?”

“Certainly not; but you had better pretend that you have. Pour some
behind the grate; get rid of it somehow, or they will put the poison in
your food. Well, I heard things about a certain ship, the _Lucca_.”

“The _Lucca_—she was found a derelict.”

“Yes, I know; I could tell you how she became a derelict. But Odo.
Well, I heard them discuss that plan. He was to be instructed, and then
allowed to escape. He did escape. I only wish I was strong, and could
climb like him. What he did, you know. If he is still at large, I will
wager a hundred pounds I find him. I know his old haunts. But I could
not understand the object of—of—I see now. Waldron was the descendant
of Arthur Sibbold. Are you superstitious? No. Well, I am—a little. In
this case, now, does it not seem as if the blood of old Will Baskette,
shot at the cider barrel, had revenged itself from generation to
generation? Stirmingham was, as it were, founded with blood. Your poor
friend Jason was a descendant of the murderer Sibbold, who shot the
thief; and here is a Baskette continuing the vendetta.”

“For God’s sake, tell me how to escape.”

“I will. But is it not Fate? Look at the chain of
events—‘circumstances’ they are called now: the ancients called them
Fate, Sophocles called them Necessity. But you are eager about
escaping. Hush—they are coming!”

The picture dropped; Aymer looked down at his book. Davidson entered,
and asked him how he felt. He replied better, and asked if Miss Waldron
was in the asylum?

Davidson smiled. “Still on that, sir? I tell you honestly that no such
person is here.”

He looked Aymer in the face, and Aymer believed him. Davidson lit the
gas, left several newspapers and books, and retired. So soon as his
steps had died away, the picture was lifted again.

“I told you so,” said Aymer; “she is not here. He evidently spoke the
truth.”

“He did so—so far as he knew. But this is an immense building; and you
forget—you were not brought here at first—there is a residence, as they
call it, detached. Davidson’s duties never take him there, unless
specially sent for.”

“Well, well; let me escape, that is all.”

“You have looked out of window; you have seen the courtyard—the wall.
You know that beyond the wall is the canal: all that is plain in your
mind?”

“It is. First, we must get across the courtyard, then we must climb the
wall, then descend and swim the canal.”

“Ah,” said Fulk, “I cannot swim.”

“I can,” said Aymer; “I learnt in the sea.” He remembered his few
bright months of wandering before he had met Violet.

“I am glad of it, though I had provided for that. The bladders that
would have supported you, can carry our dry clothes to change.”

“The bladders—have you got some to float you?”

“I have; but, first of all, the courtyard and the wall. We must not
descend into the courtyard, because at one end there is a
window—Theodore’s window—and he is here now; at the other it opens on
the grounds, and warders are sometimes about. It is the wall we must
attack.”

“All we want now is a rope and a grapnel.”

“I have a rope and a grapnel. Where? In my bed. What rope? Bell-rope
partly, partly bed cording. How did I get it? By being mad. By picking
everything to pieces with my fingers, as mad people will. They humoured
me, and I secreted half the pieces while they carelessly removed the
other. I have a long, strong rope; long enough to go up the wall and
down the other side. I have also a grapnel.”

“That is fortunate. How did you make a grapnel?”

“I did not make it; the warder brought it to me. You wonder. But you
noticed the crenelated wall: that is the secret. My grapnel is simply a
very long, strong ruler, such as are used in keeping ledgers, and in
some mechanical drawing; I had it ostensibly for drawing. This ruler
must be tied across the rope; when the rope is flung over the wall, the
ruler will catch across the crenelation. There is the grapnel. The rope
at its lower end will be fastened to the upright pillar, or whatever
the technical name may be, which divides my window into two. There’s
the ladder.”

“And the swimming bladders?”

“I made them out of an old Macintosh, which I also tore up: I sewed
them together. Mad people have whims: one of mine was to mend my own
clothes; so I got needles and thread. They are also in my bed. They
have simply to be inflated with air; they have cords to fasten to the
body.”

“How clever! I should never have thought of such things. But why did
you not escape before I came? You had all the materials required.”

“True—all the means; but not the physical strength, nor the physical
courage. I could not do it without a companion to assist me. You forget
my leg was broken; it is still weak. You forget that I have been
confined without exercise for two years—enough to weaken any man; and I
was never strong. I used to envy Odo as he climbed trees, like the wild
man of the woods he is by nature. Besides, I wanted courage; don’t
despise me. I have moral courage, but I have no physical courage. I
jumped from the wall—yes; but under extreme excitement—this must be
done coolly; and I could not climb the rope. You must climb first, and
drag me up by sheer force.”

“I will do it somehow,” said Aymer. “But why not tie loops in the rope
for your feet and hands? Is it long enough?”

“Plenty; I never thought of that. Two heads are better than one. I will
do that this very night. How long do you think it will take you to
recover yourself?”

“I will try it to-morrow,” said Aymer.

“No; that is too soon. Say the night after. We must go as early in the
evening as is compatible with being unseen, so as to have the whole
night to escape in. Now sleep. I shall not say another word.”

He withdrew, and Aymer vainly tried to slumber. He could not sleep till
morning, and he did not wake till far into the day. His breakfast was
waiting for him. As he sat down to it with a better appetite, Fulk
spoke to him from the picture.

“You look better,” he said; “your long sleep has refreshed you. Shall
we try it to-night? I own I am afraid lest some trifle should delay
us.”

“To-night, certainly,” said Aymer. “I feel quite well now. It was
simply a heaviness—a drowsiness—a narcotic, perhaps. Let it be
to-night. I must go to Violet.”

“Ah, Violet!” sighed Fulk. “That was my poor wife’s name too. I shall
love your Violet. I will help you. I know more of the world than you
do.”

The day passed slowly. They conversed in low tones nearly all the time.
Aymer, led on by Fulk’s gentle ways, frankly told him all his
struggles, his disappointments, his hopes. Fulk was deeply interested.
At last he said—

“At ten we will do it, or perish. I have a mind,” he said, “to let you
go alone; you are stronger than I am. Very likely my nervousness or
weakness will spoil the whole enterprise; but you could do it
certainly.”

“I will not hear of such a thing,” said Aymer; “I will not attempt it
without you. Do you think I am a cur?”

The dusk fell gradually—so slowly that it tried Aymer’s patience
terribly. Davidson lit the gas, and left him the evening paper.

“Glad to see you getting better, sir,” he said, civilly.

He withdrew, and nothing now remained between them and the task except
the twilight. Aymer kept urging to commence. Fulk thought it was not
dark enough. At half-past nine a cloud came over the sky.

“_Now_,” said Fulk; “I have got the rope ready. Take the picture down,
and scramble through the hole. No; hand me your change of dress first.
There is the rope.”

Aymer had no difficulty in getting through, and at once picked up the
rope. At one end he found a heavy knob of coal fastened.

“That is to throw it up by,” said Fulk, “and to make the rope hang down
the other side. I hid it for that purpose.”

Fulk put the window open, shading the gas by the blind. Aymer coiled up
the rope on his left arm to let it run out easily; and was glad now of
the physical education he had unwillingly imbibed at old Martin
Brown’s. Many a time he had cast the cart-line over a tall waggon-load
of straw. He looked out, measured the height, and hurled the knob of
coal. It flew straight up into the air, carrying with it the destinies
of two men, like a shot from a mortar over a ship in distress. A moment
of suspense—it cleared the wall, the rope ran out quickly, till but a
few feet were left in Aymer’s hands. Fulk opened the other half of the
window; the rope was passed round the upright and secured. Next the
air-belt had to be fastened under Fulk’s chest and inflated. Aymer tied
his change of clothes and Fulk’s in the other air-belt, and adjusted
them to his back. These incumbrances gave him some little uneasiness.
He pulled at the rope—it was firm; the ruler had caught the
crenelations. Then arose the difficulty as to who should go first;
Aymer, with a lurking suspicion lest Fulk’s heart should fail,
compelled him to take the lead. He helped him at the window, and saw a
new danger. Their shadows were projected on the wall opposite; if any
one looked that way it would be seen in an instant that something was
going forward. Below on the right was a bow window, and from this bow
window a stream of light fell upon the rope. However it was too late to
hesitate.

Folk clung like a cat till he got his foot into the first loop, then he
went up fairly well. As soon as he was up, and Aymer could see his form
dimly astride of the wall, he followed. Halfway up, as he looked down,
he saw a man in the bow window approach and draw down the blind. If he
had looked out he must have seen the rope and Aymer, but he did not.
When the blinds were down the rope became invisible. With a beating
heart Aymer found himself at the top of the wall, astride, facing Fulk,
who pressed his hand.

“I feel all right now we have started,” he whispered; “I think I shall
manage it yet.”

There were no loops for the descent. Aymer, after one glance at the
city lights before him, slid down first, and let himself into the water
gently. He adjusted the load on his back on the float: then shook the
line as a signal to Fulk, who came halfway down well, but his nervous
excitement overcame him, and he rather fell than slid the remainder,
reaching the water with a splash. His head did not go under, but they
feared lest any one had heard it. In a few seconds, as all was quiet,
Aymer struck out, pushing the float in front and dragging Fulk behind.
He had no load to support, but simply to force his way through the
water. It was chilly, but not so cold as he had feared. It smelt
unpleasant—some chemical works discharged into it. Though a fairly good
swimmer, Aymer had a hard struggle to cross the broad canal, and more
than once paused to recover his strength. At last they landed on the
towing path, and without a moment’s delay got over a low wall into some
back garden and changed their clothes, wrapping the wet things round a
loose brick from the wall and dropping them in the water. They then
made haste along the towing path, Aymer leading, and emerged at a
bridge into a broad thoroughfare, gaslit but deserted.

“Come on,” whispered Aymer. “There is the station; we shall catch the
up 10:15 train to London.”

“Is that the station?” said Fulk. “Then here we part. Good-by.”

“Part? What do you mean?”

“I mean this: that I owe you my liberty—I shall repay you. I shall stay
here and watch for your Violet—I am sure she is here.”

It was useless arguing with him: Fulk was determined.

“I shall easily hide in this great city,” he said. “We shall be on the
watch in two places at once—you at Belthrop and World’s End, and I
here. Make haste. By-the-by, can you lend me a pound or two? I have no
money with me.”

Aymer insisted upon dividing the sixty-five pounds he had left. Then
they shook hands.

“Stay,” said Fulk, “our rendezvous?—Where shall we meet again?
Quick!—your train.”

“At The Place, World’s End,” said Aymer at a venture, and with one more
rapid handshake ran off. He caught his train, and by one in the morning
was in London.

Poor Fulk, wandering he hardly knew where on the look out for a quiet
inn, came suddenly into a crowded street, and amidst a number of
carriages evidently waiting. He looked up—it was some theatre or other.
There was a large poster announcing that the famous singer Mademoiselle
F—o would perform that evening in the Sternhold Hall, and as he read,
he heard a loud encore which reached even to the street.

“I remember her,” he thought. “I saw her at Vienna the year before I
was captured. They said she was this Marese Baskette’s mistress—a
splendid creature. I’ve half a mind—I haven’t heard a song for so
long—”

He hesitated. Prudence told him to go away; but talk of prudence to a
man who has just escaped into liberty! He walked in; the performance
was nearly over, but he paid and went into the pit. “After all,” he
tried to persuade himself, “there’s more safety in a crowd. When I go
out, I can take a cab and drive to an hotel and say I’ve lost my train
through the theatre; that will account for my having no luggage.”

As he struggled in among the crowd, he glanced up at the boxes; his
pushing caused a little movement, and people in the boxes looked down.
He caught an eye watching him—he turned pale. It was Theodore, who rose
at once and left his box. Poor Fulk gasped for breath; he pushed to get
out. The audience was annoyed at the movement and disturbance—some
gentlemen held him down—the notes of the singer’s voice floated over,
musically sweet. Poor Fulk!



Chapter Twelve.


Science, as illustrated by the printing press, the telegraph, the
railway, is a double-edged sword. At the same moment that it puts an
enormous power in the hands of the good man, it also offers an equal
advantage to the evil disposed.

Theodore Marese was a man of science; and he was a typical man of
science—hard, clear, bright, pitiless as the dissecting knife.
Unfortunately, he applied his knowledge and his undoubted ability to
the worst of uses. One pursuit to which he had devoted special effort,
and over which he had spent many thoughtful hours, was the problem how
to dispose of a dead human body. There was an old superstitious saying
that the earth will not hide blood—it will out. Theodore was of a
different opinion. Science had conquered everything: science could
conquer this. Yet it certainly was a difficult task. Did you ever
contemplate the difficulty? Suppose you slay your enemy—slay him
secretly, effectually: now, what next? Try to bury it: the loose earth
speaks for itself. Exhalations will rise. Quicklime it, and hasten its
decomposition: there will remain, perhaps, only a brass button, or some
coin left in the pocket. Throw it into the water: it will rise to the
surface. Burn it, and all the city will know from the odour. The more
you think over it, the more difficult it will appear. But Theodore had
found the solution.

In that laboratory of his which Fulk wished to explore, and which was a
harmless-looking room—without so much as a phial or a microscope in
view, there was at one corner, not very far from the fireplace, a long
upright cupboard, reaching from the floor to the ceiling. Or, rather,
the cupboard rose about halfway, and a bookcase reached the remainder.
It was a shallow cupboard. There were no locks to the doors. Any one
could pull them open, and see a few trifles within—such trifles as
might be found in any bachelor’s room. The bookcase was also shallow,
but there was depth enough back for some rows of books. The books were
harmless enough—mostly medical works, just such works as any one can
purchase who cares to. Nothing certainly here to excite suspicion. Yet
behind that cupboard and bookcase was concealed the most deadly,
insidious, awful engine ever constructed by man—an engine about which
no secrecy exists either, and which living men have seen in operation;
which has been described in the papers; and which the legislature must
put down, or strictly regulate.

Upon removing one of the books, Theodore had merely to push aside a
small brass plate, which looked like part of a hinge, and there was a
keyhole; turn the key, and the whole cupboard swung bodily out into the
room. It was, in fact, a blind, placed in front of a narrow inner door,
which rose to the ceiling. When the door was open, there stood revealed
an iron box, not unlike an extremely long coffin, placed on end. There
was a keyhole—two key-holes—to this iron box. Open the first, and there
was a large cavity, tall enough for a man to sit on a bar which went
across it, without his head touching the iron roof. In this iron roof
there was an opening, not unlike a small grating. Put the key in the
second keyhole, above the first, and there was the apparatus, greatly
improved by Theodore, but in substance the same as used in other
places—the apparatus for absorbing the smell of the gases which arise
from a human body when consumed by heat. Every one knows that if the
smoke of a pipe be passed through water in a peculiar way, it loses its
pungency, and you can inhale it with more comfort: this is the hookah.
Everybody also knows that manufacturers in great towns are compelled to
consume their own smoke, and all have seen a lump of loaf sugar suck up
a spoonful of tea. A combination of these principles formed Theodore’s
deadly engine, which was nothing more or less than a private cremation
stove. The ordinary fire in the harmless-looking fireplace produced
sufficient heat, when a draught was caused by turning a winch with a
multiplying wheel placed at the lower part of the cupboard, just
beneath the cavity which was to receive the body. This body, made
thoroughly insensible and unconscious by being saturated with
chloroform or strong drugs—or, if you like, still more insensible with
a trifle of arsenic—had merely to be lifted into its iron coffin, the
door closed, the blast applied, and in a couple of hours or so there
would remain a little heap of ashes, and a little melted metal, brass
buttons, coins, and such like, things easily dropped into a canal, dust
easily mixed with the ashes under the grate. Now, where was all that
superstitious nonsense about the difficulty of getting rid of a dead
body?

Whether Theodore had ever used this awful engine was never known; but
it existed, and it may exist at this present hour in other equally
unsuspected places. What I say is, that the legislature should take
cremation in hand. If any one had been shut up in that iron box
alive—only stupefied for a few minutes with a drug, put in asleep; if
they had been awakened by the red-hot iron, of what use would their
screams have been—deadened by the confinement, deadened by thick walls?

“I am extremely sorry,” said Theodore Marese, meeting Violet at the
railway station, and handing her to a carriage; “I regret very much
that Mr Malet could not come. He has, in fact, gone upon a special
mission. A gentleman in the Isle of Man, who owed us a large sum, died
suddenly; his affairs are in confusion, and Mr Malet was obliged to
start this afternoon to see to our debt. I am the bearer of his
regrets. At all events, he will not be absent more than a week.”

Violet was naturally much disappointed, but after all, it was only a
week or ten days, and they treated her with great courtesy at the
residence at the asylum. A matron was always ready to afford her
companionship; no intrusion was made upon her privacy. Theodore
occasionally called upon her in the most respectful way. Books, papers,
anything she seemed to wish for came at once. The matron, a lady-like
person, took her into the town to do some shopping. Everything but a
letter from Aymer. However, that was easily explained—the sea-post was
always uncertain. Theodore took her over a great part of the asylum;
she was astonished at its size, and the number of its inmates. It
saddened her, and she still more longed for Aymer to return.

Why it was that she was not confined like Aymer was never wholly
explained, but there is some reason to think that Marese Baskette had a
faint idea of marrying her himself. He was, as we have seen, nervous
about his marriage with Lady Lechester: lest anything should happen to
prevent or delay it. This girl, Violet, he well knew, had a good claim
to the estate; suppose he married her? She was a second string to his
bow. As to the rumour of his being her father’s murderer, he would
trust to his own wit and handsome face to overcome that. He never
questioned his power to have her if he chose—but Lady Lechester first.
Theodore had therefore his instructions to treat her well, and give her
seeming liberty, and above all to keep her in good temper. Theodore did
as he was bid. This seems the natural solution of the problem. If she
had known that Aymer was so near!

It happened at this time that, on the seventh day after Violet’s
arrival, the famous singer, Mademoiselle F—o, of whom all the world was
talking, was to sing for one night only in the Sternhold Hall.
Theodore, finding that she was getting restless and thoughtful, seized
upon this opportunity to while away her gloom. He proposed that she
should accompany him to the theatre or hall, and Violet, who had never
heard an opera in her life, was naturally enough delighted to go. They
went, and as it chanced it was the very night that Aymer and poor Fulk
chose to make their escape. Thus it was that Theodore’s eye caught
sight of Fulk, the moment the commotion caused by his late entrance
attracted his attention. Violet was extremely pleased; the notes of the
music and song filled her with an exquisite enjoyment. She was very
beautiful, leaning over the front of her box, and scores of glasses
were directed at her. Had she known that at that very moment Aymer was
risking his life to escape!

The difficulty in this history-writing is to describe two or three
events at the same moment. The eye can only read one line at a time,
how then are you to bring two scenes at once before it? Some allowance
must be made for the infirmities of the pen. There were two scenes
proceeding at the moment that Theodore’s eye fell upon Fulk—three
scenes, if you reckon the opera on the stage. First, poor Fulk
shivering with terror, struggling to escape, the crowd round execrating
him, his mind in a whirl, reproaching himself with his folly, and the
tall figure of Theodore, who had come down from the box, pointing him
out to an attendant and pushing forward to seize him. On the stage, La
Sonnambula was uttering her sweetest trill; Marese Baskette’s mistress
in the full height of her glory, with hundreds upon hundreds of the
élite of that great city intent upon her every accent—hundreds upon
hundreds of well-dressed, fashionable, wealthy ladies and gentlemen,
most of whom knew her connection with Marese, the popular M.P., were
there. This very knowledge attracted them in shoals. This was scene
two.

The third scene was underneath. There in the darkness and gloom of the
cellars, amid the slimy pools of water, the hideous fungi, the
loathsome toads and creeping things, the grey sewer-rats were at work.
You have seen a ship launched—she stands firm as a rock till the last
wedge is knocked away, then glides into the water. Something of the
same kind was going on here beneath the feet of several hundred human
beings. These musty cellars and vaults under the Sternhold Hall, with
their awkward approach, had been let at last. A London firm had given a
small sum for them, and established a store of whisky casks. A dozen or
so of whisky casks had been rolled down, a name put upon the door, and
an advertisement in the newspaper. Nobody could do business with this
firm, their terms were too high. The whisky casks, in truth, contained
pure spring water. It was an excuse, however, for men in rough jackets,
who had evidently been at work, to go in and out of these vaults, and
to take with them saws and chisels, hammers, and other harmless tools.
The firm was, in fact, composed of a dozen or more of the sharpest
sewer-rats in Stirmingham. Their little game was so delightfully
simple—only a little gnawing to be done! When Theodore and Baskette
went down into this place, they found the floor supported by timber
pillars. Their idea was to blow it up. The sewer-rats were much
cleverer—their idea was to saw through the wooden pillars, and let the
roof or floor down, and with it many hundred shrieking, maimed, and
mutilated human beings. How simple great ideas appear when once they
are described! There is nothing novel in the idea either: the holy
Saint Dunstan tried it at Calne, and found it answer admirably.

Some say odd accidents have happened to grand stands at race meetings,
through iron bolts being inadvertently removed. When hundreds of
well-dressed, fashionable people, ladies and gentlemen, with gold rings
and diamonds, earrings and bracelets, watches, money, bank-notes, and
similar valuables about them, not to mention rich cloaks and perhaps
furs, were shrieking, struggling, groaning, maimed, mutilated, and
broken to pieces, with jagged ends and splinters of deal sticking into
their bodies, how nice and benevolent it would be to go in among and
assist them; to lift up the broken arm, and lighten it of the massive
gold bracelet; to pull the horrid splinter out of the leg, and extract
the well-filled purse; to alleviate the agony of the bruised shoulder
or the broken back, and remove the choice fur or necklace of diamonds!
Thoughtful of the sewer-rats to provide this banquet of Christian
charity!

The one difficulty had been to get the several hundred people there.
They had all in readiness for months, watching. They had it ready while
the family council sat, and had deliberated about knocking the last
wedge out at that time, but on reflection it was doubtful whether the
Americans had much coin about them. Finally, one shrewd sewer-rat hit
upon the idea of engaging Mademoiselle F—o to come down and sing. They
paid her one hundred pounds in advance, with travelling expenses to
come afterwards; and it would have been a good speculation in itself,
for they took three hundred and fifty pounds, including the boxes.
These boxes were a worry. They could not be let down, they were not
built on wooden pillars; however, it was easy to shut one of the
folding-doors at the entrance, and let the bolt drop into the
stone—easy to raise a cry of “Fire!”—easy to imagine the crush at the
door.

Easy also for me to enter into a catalogue of broken limbs, ribs,
fractures, contusions, gashes, etc, etc—I shall leave it to the
surgical imagination. But when hundreds of people, closely packed, are
suddenly precipitated eighteen feet, amid splintering planks and
crushing beams, it is probable that the hospitals will be full. This
was the third scene preparing underneath.

Just as Fulk felt Theodore close to him—just as F—o uttered her
sweetest trill—just as Violet was in the height of her enjoyment—the
grey rat gave his last nibble—the last wedge was knocked away; and the
floor went down. Poor Violet saw it all. She saw fourteen hundred hands
suddenly thrown up into the air; she heard one awful cry, she felt the
box tremble and vibrate, and the whole audience sank—sank as into one
great pit. She turned deadly pale; she clung with both hands to the
balustrade; but she did not faint. It was all too quick.

Fulk was in a stooping position, struggling to escape. That saved him.
He fell with his body across a joist, which with a few others had not
been sawn—some few had to be left to keep the floor apparently safe.
His arms flew out in front, his legs struggling behind; he was poised
on the centre of his body. At any other time one might have laughed. In
that terrible moment the instinctive love of life endowed him with
unusual strength. He knew not how he did it, but he got astride of the
joist; he worked himself along it; he reached one of the slender iron
columns or shafts which supported the boxes and gallery. He who
mistrusted his power to climb a rope, in that hour of horrors went up
that shaft with ease, assisted by the scroll-work on it. He got into
the very box where Violet sat, with straining eyes gazing into that
bottomless pit. Exhausted, he fell on his knees beside her. Exhausted,
he heard the cry of “Fire!”—heard the rush to the doors. He remained on
his knees, gazing, like her, down into the pit.

The cry that rose up—the shouts, the groans, the shrieks—will ring in
Fulk’s ears till his death. Violet never heard a sound; her whole
faculties were concentrated in her eyes. Heaps of human beings
striving, heaving; fragments of dresses, opera cloaks fluttering from
joists in mid-air; splinters with pieces of torn coats—Ah! I cannot
write it; and she dares not tell me. One dares not dwell on this scene.
One more word only. Fulk glanced at the stage: still the lights burnt
there; the painted scene was untouched; the singer, F—o, had fled by
the stage staircase.

It is odd, but the idea since came to me—she was the cheese; the hall,
the trap. The simile will hardly bear close investigation.

It was those few minutes that Fulk and Violet spent in motionless
horror that saved them. They thereby escaped the crush at the door;
that is to say, they escaped being in it; it was impossible to go out
without seeing it. Fulk recovered himself a little: his first instinct
was that of a gentleman—the lady beside him. He caught her arm, and
dragged her up from her seat; and she came with him unresistingly out
of the box into the corridor: he could feel her whole frame tremble.
Perhaps, reasoning after the event, they might as well have sat still;
but remember the awful cry of fire, the instinctive desire to escape,
and that Fulk was still fearful of being re-captured! They reached the
staircase—descended it to within a few feet of the passage. There they
saw a black mass, writhing, heaving: it was a mass of men and women who
had fallen, and been trodden down. It extended along the whole passage
to the open air. Then Violet fainted, and hung in his arms inert,
helpless. Poor girl! it was enough to unnerve the boldest man. Fulk
grasped her round the waist—he was short remember—he struggled with
her; got his feet on that awful floor of moving bodies; he stumbled,
and staggered towards the air, gasping for breath, dragging,
half-trailing her behind him. He cried for help—his arms failed him;
his poor, weak leg—the one that had been broken—slipped down into a
crevice between two fallen men, and strive how he would he could not
get it out. A mist swam before his eyes; but he did not let go—gallant
little Fulk!

Strong arms seized him. Cabmen, police, coachmen, grooms—idlers who had
rushed to the doors—seized him, and pulled him out, and set him on his
legs, and pushed the brandy flask between his teeth. And still Fulk
instinctively held tight to his burden.

“Where shall I drive you, sir?” said one cabman.

“To—I don’t know. Where is a good hotel?”

“The ‘Dragon,’ sir.”

“Help to lift her in.”

Fifteen minutes afterwards they were at the “Dragon.” Fortunate,
indeed; for all the city—the great city—was pouring in vast crowds to
that horrible doorway; and those who were extricated found it difficult
to get away.

Fulk and Violet were well cared for at the “Dragon,” as, indeed, they
would be after so terrible a catastrophe had brought out all the
sympathy there was latent in that city. Besides, they were
well-dressed, and Fulk was found to have money in his pocket-money, to
do them justice, not one farthing of which was touched while he and
Violet lay in adjoining rooms helpless—for they were helpless, utterly
exhausted for six whole days. When Fulk, conscious that he must be
stirring, did pull himself together and got out of bed, and into the
sitting apartment, the first thing he saw was a newspaper on the table,
the _Stirmingham Daily News_, which had come out with a deep line of
black round every page, and in which was a list of the dead and
wounded; the killed were very few in proportion to the injured. Fulk
looked for Theodore Marese; he found his name among the dead. Theodore
was gone to his account; he had been found on the floor of the vault
face downwards, quite dead. There was a deep wound in his forehead, and
it was thought that, in falling, his head had struck the iron-bound
edge of one of the supposed whisky casks.

Violet, when she heard that Fulk was up, came out of her room and held
out her hand. She was still dreadfully pale; but Fulk thought he had
never seen a more beautiful face. She thanked him with tears in her
eyes; and Fulk in vain tried to make her think that he had done
nothing. “I was up yesterday,” she said, “but I could not go till you
were better. Now, will you please take me back to the asylum?”

“The asylum?” said Fulk, in amazement.

“Yes; Mr Theodore will be anxious about me. I sent a message yesterday
to him, but I have had no reply.”

“Theodore Marese is dead,” said Fulk, quietly. “I trust you have had
nothing to do with him?”

“Dead!” Violet shuddered. “But I must go to the asylum; perhaps Aymer
has returned.”

“Aymer—what Aymer?”

An explanation followed, which will be readily understood. It was long
before Violet could believe him; till at last his reiterated
statements, and the little incidents he related, shook her incredulity.
Even then she was partially doubtful, till Fulk chanced to look at the
paper on the table. There was an advertisement in large type—“Escaped
from the Asylum, Fulk Lechester and Aymer Malet.” She could no longer
doubt.

“How miserably I have been deceived,” she said, and burst into tears.

Fulk was greatly shocked.

“You see now that I must hasten away,” he said. “Doubtless this great
catastrophe has occupied men’s minds, and interfered to prevent a
strict search; but now I have found you it is a folly to remain here.
My rendezvous with Aymer is at The Place, World’s End. We will go to
World’s End at once.”

“Aymer will be there?” said Violet, brightening a little.

“Yes, Aymer will be there,” said Fulk.

That evening they paid the bill—to the honour of the “Dragon,” it was a
very small one—and reached the station in a fly. The same train that
had taken Aymer to London took them also. They stayed that night at an
hotel, and next afternoon travelled down to the little station nearest
to World’s End. Another fly took them to the outskirts of Bury Wick
village; and from thence they walked to The Place. Violet’s heart sank;
it was dark, not a light in the window, not a sign of life; the doors
were fast. They broke a pane of glass, and Fulk opened the window, got
in, and unbolted one of the back doors. Fulk had taken the precaution
to bring with him a few provisions, and had also bought the local
paper—_The Barnham Chronicle_—and stuffed it in with the ham in the
basket, for he was anxious to read about his cousin Lady Agnes’
marriage. Violet made a fire, and got some tea: she had provided that.
Where was Aymer?

A strange night that at The Place. Fulk felt safer now he was out of
the city: but Violet had too vivid a memory of the past. In the very
house where so many happy hours had been passed she was alone with a
perfect stranger, or one who was a stranger but a little while before.
And Aymer?

“Where could Aymer be?” was the question she constantly asked.

Fulk said, “Aymer was doubtless at Belthrop, trying to find her.”

“But Hannah Bond knows I started for Stirmingham,” objected Violet. “If
Aymer should see her, and go back to Stirmingham. I must write to
her—or will you?”

“I will go and see her,” said Fulk; “certainly I will. But remember
that I am in hiding; it must be at night. Wait till to-morrow night.
Give Aymer that little time to come, then I will go.”

“Hannah must come and live here with me,” said Violet, musingly. “I
think I shall stay at The Place till—till—where is your newspaper?”

“I—I—burnt it,” said Fulk. “I burnt it helping you to light the fire.”

It was the truth, yet it was a lie. He had burnt it, that Violet might
not see something in it. Aymer was not at Belthrop. Aymer’s name was in
the paper.

“How shall I amuse you?” said Violet. “This is my home; I must amuse
you. I will play to you one of the airs that Aymer likes. Poor Aymer!”
she added, half to herself.

The gentle, melancholy music of Mendelssohn filled the room from the
long unused piano.

“Poor Aymer!” repeated Fulk to himself. Poor Aymer, indeed!



Chapter Thirteen.


At twelve o’clock of the night before his wedding-day, Marese Baskette
was galloping, fast as his best thorough-bred could carry him, from
Barnham town to The Towers. Barely had he settled himself at his hotel
to think over the coming day, than a message summoned him to return. It
was a splendid night—warm, still, the sky full of stars, and a faint
odour of the hawthorn blossom in the air. The thin mist that Lady
Lechester had seen had descended into the hollows, and as Marese rode
through it, it reached to his saddle-bow. The horse rushed on, hidden
in the cloud that covered the earth; the rider sat above it. Far behind
clattered the groom, who had fetched him in hot haste.

“Lady Lechester is lost!” Such was his brief message, and not all
Marese’s sharp questioning could elicit anything more, for the simple
reason that nothing more was known. About eight o’clock she had been
seen to leave the house, and the servants took no particular notice of
it, expecting her to return in a short time, as she usually did. As she
usually did I—this was the first time Marese had heard of the nocturnal
walks of his bride. It was a mystery to him: it angered him. A man of
plots and stratagems, he was always more or less suspicious of others.
An hour had passed, and Lady Lechester did not return. The guests—and
they were numerous that night at The Towers—asked for her; the
household still kept their mistress’s secret, but two ventured out to
seek her. They went to the well-known spot, they saw the oak trunk,
they heard the roar of the river—but Lady Lechester was not there. An
anxious consultation took place; butler, footmen, the upper servants
held a whispered discussion. At last the gamekeeper was sent for: if
Lady Lechester happened to see him, she would not be annoyed; if she
met any of the others, and fancied they had been watching her, it would
cost them their places. The guests were put off with various excuses.
Time passed: the gamekeeper reported the park clear, and not a trace of
Lady Agnes. The truth could no longer be concealed. The alarm and
excitement among the wedding guests may easily be imagined. All the
gentlemen at once put on their hats, and with lanterns and brandy
flasks proceeded to search the park in every direction. A man was
despatched post-haste on the swiftest horse for the bridegroom. One
gentleman rode with him to Barnham, woke up the police, and instructed
them to be on the alert, but, if possible, to keep matters quiet.
Especially they were to look out for the dog Dando, who was known to
have accompanied Lady Agnes, but had not returned.

Marese reached The Towers about one in the morning. During his ride he
had mastered his feelings; he had crushed down the superstitious
presentiment which warned him that all was in vain. He had not felt so
unusually nervous about this marriage for nothing. But he mastered
himself. One of his maxims was never to regret the past, but to apply
the mind with iron will to make the best of the present. He called the
servants, naturally taking the lead, and made them tell him all they
knew. Then for the first time Lady Agnes’ strange visits to “The Pot”
became known; and at once the gloomiest forebodings filled the minds of
the guests. She was drowned; she had fallen down “The Pot.” The idea
grew and grew, till it became the one belief. Marese himself could not
doubt it. It was a strange and solemn conclave they held, at that hour
of the night, in the hall at The Towers, Marese standing in the midst,
his face pale but composed, the guests crowding round him, the servants
coming up one by one to be examined. The great clock at The Towers
tolled two, and there stepped silently into the room a stranger,
plainly dressed, but remarkably upright, with an air of authority—the
Superintendent of police from Barnham. A silence followed his entrance.
He marked it, and said that he had brought drags to search the
river—was there a boat anywhere to be obtained?

There was no boat. The Ise ran so swift and was so shallow at ordinary
times, and lay so deep down between its banks, that no one cared to
keep a boat. The nearest known was a little punt four miles down the
river, where it enlarged into a small lake. A man was despatched to
borrow it, and pole it up the rapid stream; he could not reach “The
Pot,” work as hard as he might, under three hours. All the gentlemen
and not a few of the ladies, too excited to sit quietly within, went
with the Superintendent across the park to “The Pot,” and watched the
drags used. The Superintendent asked them to stand back a moment while
he examined the ground round the mouth of the funnel. He did so
carefully; the grass had left no mark of a footstep, there was not a
trace of a struggle, not a scrap of dress hanging to a twig, or a
broken ornament. Then the drags were dropped down the strange funnel
into the roaring water, and under the quiet stars the wedding guests
gathered in a circle, watching the police as they searched the cave in
vain. Neither drag nor pole could detect anything at the bottom; the
light of the strongest bull’s-eye failed to show any trace that a body
had fallen down that narrow crevice; no stones or earth recently
dislodged, not a particle of dress or shawl here either.

By this time the ladies were tired, and shivered in the early morning
breeze; they retired, but the gentlemen, greatly excited, stayed and
assisted to fish the river Ise downwards for miles. The body would
surely be carried with the current: but no, not a trace. The bright sun
of the glorious May morning found them still at the mournful task. This
was the wedding morning. The thrushes burst into song; the cuckoo flew
over with his merry cry; dewdrops glittered like gems upon the bushes,
and the lovely May bloom scented the breeze. A wedding morn indeed!—but
where was the bride? More than one glanced for a moment from the turbid
river up to the deep azure of the sky, and the natural thought that
followed need not be described. They met the punt at last—but it was
useless. The man who poled it up had kept a close look out; nothing had
floated by.

“We shall not find it,” said the Superintendent, “till the flood
subsides.”

Even yet there was one hope as they walked sadly back to The Towers:
the dog Dando—where was he? It was reasonable to think that if Lady
Lechester had fallen into the river, the dog would presently return to
The Towers. If he did not return, there was still hope that she had
wandered in some other direction, or had met with an accident—sprained
her ankle, or broken her leg in the woods, perhaps. This idea had
occurred to the Superintendent and to Marese long before, and the
gamekeeper, with eight or ten willing assistants, had been searching
the woods for hours. As they neared The Towers it was obvious from the
group of people talking excitedly before the entrance that something
had happened. A policeman came towards them, leading Dando in a leash.

He had but just arrived in a trap from Barnham town. Questions poured
out from a hundred lips; it was difficult to get an explanation, but it
was understood at last. The Superintendent on leaving Barnham had not
omitted to warn the men on their heats in the town to look out for a
dog—Lady Lechester’s well-known dog—merely as a forlorn hope, never
dreaming that Dando would wander thither. But a little after sunrise,
perhaps about six o’clock, the dog Dando walked up the high street of
Barnham behind a man wearing a grey suit, who knocked at the door of Mr
Broughton’s private residence. Before the knock was answered the man in
the grey suit was in custody, and the dog secured. The man in the grey
suit struggled violently—fought like a wild beast, which still further
prejudiced the police against him, and was with difficulty handcuffed,
manacled, and conveyed to the station-house on a stretcher. No one to
look at his slight figure would have thought him capable of such savage
battling. He asked perpetually for Mr Broughton, declared that he was
not mad—which was strange, as no one had accused him of that failing,
and refused to give his name—another trait that looked ill. When asked
if he had seen Lady Lechester he denied all knowledge of such a person.
The dog had followed him just as any other dog might. As to the road he
had come he was obstinately silent. The police had not waited to waste
further inquiries upon him, but hastened to The Towers with the news
for their chief.

His face fell immediately. “I fear,” he said, “that Lady Lechester is
indeed lost. The dog would never have left her unless. However, we have
now got a clue.”

Marese gave up all hope; yet with his old cool self-possession before
he started with the Superintendent for Barnham, he wrote out a telegram
and despatched it to Theodore, briefly acquainting him with what had
happened, and asking him to be especially agreeable _to that
person_—meaning Violet, whose value as a second string to the bow had
risen at once. This telegram was despatched to a dead man: Theodore had
been killed the night before in the Sternhold Hall, but in the
confusion and the difficulty of at once identifying bodies, no news had
been sent to Marese.

With the Superintendent, Marese went into the cell at the police
station, and saw Aymer Malet handcuffed and manacled. Poor Aymer,
indeed! His hair was rough over his forehead, his cheeks stained with
blood from a scratch received in the struggle, his whole look wild in
the extreme. He saw Marese Baskette, the murderer, the man who had
confined him. Is it to be wondered at that he grew excited? He said
nothing, but his face worked, and his teeth ground together. Marese
looked at him steadily, almost with a smile. In that moment, swift as
it passed, he debated upon his best course. Truth, or what he called
truth, was the safest, although it would save Aymer’s life.

“I know this man,” he said. “He is a lunatic; he has escaped from my
cousin’s asylum at Stirmingham. He is very dangerous: without a doubt,
this is the guilty party.”

Aymer denied it. All his efforts were to make people believe that he
was not mad. As yet he had no conception of the darker shadow hanging
over him: his one idea was, that he had been pursued and captured—that
he should be sent back to the asylum. Therefore he had refused to give
his name, or to describe the road by which he had come to Barnham. This
very mistake increased the suspicion against him of a knowledge of Lady
Lechester’s disappearance. It will now be understood why Fulk burnt the
paper that Violet might not read it, and why The Place was dark and
cheerless when they reached it. These events had happened just before
they arrived.

Marese never lost his presence of mind for a moment, not even when he
heard of Theodore’s awful death. Turn the mind to the present, was his
maxim: do the best with it you can. His one concern was the
disappearance of Violet: still he felt certain that he should be able
to trace her. At present, the one thing needful was to crush Aymer
Malet. He held that enemy now in the hollow of his hand: he should
“taste his finger,” as the Orientals say.

The magistrates on hearing the evidence at once made out a warrant, and
Aymer was remanded, while the search went on for the body, which still
eluded all search. Upon the third day, however, some important evidence
turned up, and it was thought best to take it in the presence of the
prisoner. Aymer was in consequence led into the large apartment used
for such purposes at the police station, still wearing the handcuffs,
for Marese had industriously spread the belief that he was a dangerous
lunatic. The general public were not admitted; but a few gentlemen were
present, and among these was Mr Broughton, who at once recognised
Aymer, rough as his present appearance wan, and came forward and spoke
to him. Aymer asked him to defend him, and Broughton, to his credit,
said he would. To his credit, for his interest in the Lechester estates
was large.

The magistrates seeing so respectable a solicitor as Mr Broughton
taking an interest in the prisoner, consulted, and to Marese’s intense
disgust offered to allow the prisoner half an hour to confer with his
attorney. In that brief period poor Aymer had to relate his confinement
and his escape. Broughton listened attentively; then he said—

“Your story is strange, almost incredible; still you are in a position
where nothing will do you much good but public opinion. My usual advice
would be to reserve your defence; my present advice to you is to tell
the Bench exactly what you have told me, only much more fully. There
are no reporters admitted; but I will see that your statement is
published. I believe you myself. If the public show any signs of
believing you, the prosecutors will withdraw. It is your only chance;
for, to be candid, the evidence is terribly against you.”

They returned to the justice-room. The first witness called was the
policeman who had detected Aymer and the dog in the street. He
described Aymer as walking very fast, and dodging from house to house
as if trying to escape notice. This was point Number 1 against him.
Then came the evidence as to his furious struggle with the police. One
constable could barely make himself understood; a blow straight from
the shoulder had knocked a tooth out, and his voice sounded hollow and
indistinct. Such a violent resistance obviously indicated a guilty
conscience. This was point Number 2 against him. Next it was stated,
and stated with perfect truth, that the prisoner had refused to give
his name, his place of residence, or any information about himself; and
that, finally, he had totally denied even so much as knowing that there
was such a person as Lady Lechester. He had tried to conceal his
identity in every way, and had deliberately told an untruth, for after
living so long at World’s End, how could he have failed to know Lady
Lechester? This was point Number 3. Then he gave a very vague,
unsatisfactory account of how the dog had followed him. He declared
that the dog was a strange dog to him—that he had never seen it before.
Now this must be also a wilful falsehood. Point Number 4. But the
darkest evidence of all was reserved to the last. There was brought
into the room an “iron-witted” ploughboy, with a shock head of light
hair, small eyes, heavy jowl, and low forehead—the very class of
witness most to be dreaded, for nothing on earth can make them
understand that it is possible for them to be mistaken.

The ploughboy, Andrew Hornblow by name, told his story
straightforwardly enough. He said that he had been to the “Shepherd’s
Bush” that fateful evening, after work; that he had a pint and a half
of ale, but was not any the worse for liquor. That at about half-past
seven, or a little earlier, he left the “Shepherd’s Bush” inn to return
to the farmhouse where he slept. He went across the fields and Downs,
and his path led him over a section of the park. As he passed a fir
copse he heard some one playing on a tin whistle in a most peculiar
way. He was curious: to see who it was, and got into the copse. The
moment his footsteps were heard the whistle stopped; but pushing aside
the boughs, he caught a glimpse of a tallish man, in a grey suit—a
dirty-grey suit—who seemed anxious to avoid observation, and plunged
into the dark recesses of the copse. He didn’t think much of it at the
time; but it so happened that the spot where he had seen the man was
within a hundred yards of “The Pot;” and talking of the disappearance
of Lady Lechester to his master, the fact had got to the knowledge of
the police. Had he seen that man since? Not till he had come into the
room; and he pointed at the prisoner, who indeed wore a grey suit,
somewhat travel-stained and frayed in places, as if from passage
through hedges or woods.

Mr Broughton cross-examined this witness at great length, and with his
accustomed shrewdness—but in vain, the ploughboy was certain the
prisoner was the man. All that could be got from him was, that he had
not distinctly seen the face of the man in the copse, but he was
tallish, and wore a dirty-grey suit. This established the fact that the
prisoner was near about the spot, where Lady Lechester had disappeared
somewhere within half an hour of that mysterious event.

Point Number 6 was still more convincing. Upon the prisoner being
searched, there was found upon him a tin whistle. The whistle was
produced, and was of a peculiar construction: when blown, it gave a
singular sound, more musical than the ordinary whistle. It was covered
with sketches—apparently engraved with a sharp tool—of dogs, some of
them very spirited and faithful outline representations. It was well
known that the prisoner was a good draughtsman. The only point that
remained to be established was the death of Lady Lechester. The body
had not been found.

Upon this evidence the police very properly asked for a remand till the
body was discovered.

Mr Broughton immediately applied for bail.

The Bench asked upon what grounds, and this gave Aymer an opportunity
to tell his tale. Remember, that all this time Marese Baskette was
sitting side by side with the magistrates, who naturally felt for his
position, and treated him with exceptional courtesy.

When Aymer began, Marese objected on the ground that the prisoner was a
lunatic escaped from Stirmingham Asylum, and that these wild
statements, if they got into print, would do him harm. The Bench
assured him that nothing the prisoner—whose wild appearance proved the
condition of his mind—could say would prejudice him in their
estimation, and as there were no reporters present nothing could get
abroad. It was better to let the prisoner tell his tale; he might
inadvertently disclose the fate of poor Lady Lechester. It was true
that the prisoner being a lunatic would escape the extreme penalty of
the law, but it was very desirable to learn all that could be known of
poor Lady Agnes. Marese had to be satisfied, and to listen while Aymer,
in clear, forcible language, told his story, hinting broadly at
Marese’s complicity in the death of Jason Waldron, and describing the
manner in which he had been trapped, and his escape. The Bench listened
with an incredulous air, as well they might. The man was evidently
mad—quite mad. Finally, Aymer came to his arrival at Belthrop late in
the afternoon of the day after he had got out of the asylum. Finding
Violet was not at Hannah Bond’s, and greatly alarmed, he was at a loss
what to do. To go back to Stirmingham was extremely dangerous for fear
of re-capture, and he hesitated for a while. At last, after partaking
of refreshment given to him by old Hannah, he had started for Barnham
with the intention of calling on Mr Broughton and taking his advice.
Halfway to Barnham it had occurred to him that perhaps Violet after all
was at The Towers, and he diverged from his course and approached the
mansion, as he supposed, about one in the morning. He saw a number of
people about and in commotion, and afraid of being recognised and
captured altered his mind again, and turned to go to Barnham across the
Downs. In doing so he admitted that he had passed near “The Pot,” but
not at the time stated by the ploughboy—half-past seven in the
evening—but half-past one in the morning. As he walked through the
grass he saw something glistening, and picked up the tin whistle found
upon him. He should not have taken the trouble to carry it away had it
not been for the curious figures on it, which, being a light night, he
could just distinguish. As he came up the side of the Downs, just as he
passed The Giant’s Ring—i.e., a circle of stones set on edge—some
ancient monument—he was overtaken by the dog Dando, who jumped and
fawned upon him with delight as an old friend, and followed him to
Barnham where he was captured by the police. He had resisted them
because he thought they were under orders to return him to the asylum.
The dog Dando limped a little, and he had noticed that his back showed
signs of a severe recent beating. Hannah Bond could prove that he did
not leave Belthrop till nearly or quite eight, and it was impossible
for him to get to “The Pot,” ten miles, in less than three hours,
across a rough country. His dress was dirty and torn because he had
walked quite twenty miles when arrested, and passed through several
coppices. Upon this Mr Broughton asked for bail, and offered himself in
any sum they might name. But the Bench could not get over the fact of
the asylum—the prisoner was a dangerous lunatic; even if his story was
true he was a lunatic. No; the prisoner was removed to his cell pending
the discovery of the body of Lady Lechester. All that Broughton could
do was to order his carriage and set out for Belthrop to find Hannah
Bond.

Poor Aymer. It was Violet he thought of still. But events press so
quickly, it is impossible to pause and analyse his emotion. The next
day about noon, Mr Broughton came into the cell with a grave look upon
his face, and carrying a large parcel in his hand. Aymer begged him to
tell him the truth at once. Mr Broughton told him that first the body
of Lady Lechester had been found. A more careful search by boat near
“The Pot” had discovered it. Instead of being carried down by the
current, an eddy at the cave had thrown it up against the course of the
stream a few yards, and lodged it behind a boulder. There were no marks
of violence: she had simply been drowned. Secondly, he had been to
Belthrop, and found Hannah Bond’s cottage shut up, the old lady gone,
and not a trace of her to be found, though he had searched the villages
for miles round. Thirdly, the book parcel in his hand had been to
London to Aymer’s address there, and had been returned to him, Aymer
having left instructions that his letters should be sent to Mr
Broughton. Upon removing the outer wrapper, there was the name and
address of Aymer Malet, Esq, written in the handwriting of the dead
Lady Lechester.



Chapter Fourteen.


Fulk had a difficult game to play. In the first place, his motions were
restricted by the dread of Marese’s emissaries: he could only go out at
night. He wished to preserve Violet from a knowledge of Aymer’s
misfortune, and yet to go to work himself to release his friend. The
first thing to do was to get Hannah Bond to The Place, for clearly
Violet could not remain there alone with him. Knowing the country well,
he had no difficulty on the night after their arrival—the very night
after the preliminary examination of Aymer Malet—in finding his way to
Belthrop. He explained the circumstances to Hannah, who at once packed
up a few things, and walked back with him over the Downs to The Place,
without awakening one of her neighbours. This was how Hannah Bond
disappeared.

Fulk’s knowledge of the circumstances under which Aymer had been
arrested was very meagre, but on the third day the _Barnham Chronicle_
came out, and Hannah got him a copy. In it was a full, almost verbatim,
account of the preliminary examination, furnished, in fact, by Mr
Broughton. Over this paper Fulk spent the greater part of the night
thinking. He shut himself up in a room at The Place on the pretence
that he had letters to write, and studied the report, line for line and
word for word. After an hour or two, his eye became irresistibly
attracted by a little paragraph in small type, evidently added at the
last moment before going to press. It was but a few lines, announcing
that the dog Dando had again disappeared from The Towers. He had been
chained up carefully as was supposed, but he had gone in the night.
This little paragraph fixed Fulk’s attention. He tried to follow the
dog’s motions. Why, when Lady Lechester fell down “The Pot,” did not
the dog return to The Towers? Why did he turn up at The Giant’s Ring,
with a limp in one leg, as if from a kick, and his back bearing marks
of a severe beating? How came that odd and peculiar whistle in the
grass—how came there to be two men in grey, one at half-past seven, the
other at half-past one? The ploughboy had heard a peculiar whistling.
By degrees the conviction forced itself into his mind that the other
than in grey—the half-past seven man—must have been no other than his
cousin Odo. All the facts answered to such a theory. A tallish man,
playing upon a tin whistle; the dog—the dog was of the very breed that
Odo had such a fancy for. The beating—doubtless the dog had been
attracted by Odo, but had refused to obey him, and had been kicked and
thrashed till he ran off, and crossed Aymer’s path. The Giant’s Ring
had actually been one of Odo’s favourite haunts before he was confined.
It was a wild and desolate spot. Fulk saw it all now clearly. Obviously
Odo was still lingering about, perhaps trying to find the whistle he
had dropped—obviously Odo had stolen the dog Dando from the The Towers
a second time. If he could find Dando, he could find Odo; and Odo
found, then Aymer’s release was a matter of time only. Fulk meditated,
and at last resolved upon his course—he would visit the haunts which he
knew Odo used to favour. But Odo was a strong and powerful man, endowed
with singular physical strength, Fulk was little, and by no means
strong. Art must conquer Nature. Fulk prepared a cord with a noose, the
use of which he had learnt years and years before in a trip to South
America. It was a lasso, in fact.

Then followed an anxious time. Violet grew more and more restless.
Although The Place was so retired, yet people began to know that it was
again inhabited. Fulk had heard of strangers being seen about, and he
at once guessed that Marese had his spies searching for Aymer Malet’s
companion in the escape. Every night he went out upon his strange
errand, hunting the wild man of the woods. Meantime, an inquest was
held upon poor Lady Lechester, and a verdict of murder returned against
Aymer Malet. Days and nights passed, and hunt and search how he would,
still Odo eluded him.

It was a warm, beautiful evening. The same lucent planet that had so
often shone upon Lady Lechester during her visit to the fatal “Pot,”
glittered in the western sky: but its beams were somewhat dimmed by the
new moon, whose crescent was on the point of disappearing below the
horizon. Fulk, pushing slowly and sadly through the woods and copses,
inhaled the fragrance of the pine tree. The rabbits scattered at his
approach; now and then a wood pigeon rose into the air, with a
tremendous clatter. In the open it was still light; under the trees a
dusky shadow brooded. At a distance, he could faintly hear the sound of
rushing water, and the fidgety chirping of the restless brook-sparrows
and sedge-warblers. Suddenly there rose a shrill, piping sound; and
Fulk started, and his heart for a moment stood still. He listened; then
came a strange weird music—if music it could be called—for in its
indescribable cadences it reminded him of the playing of the savages in
far-off shores, visited years ago. But he recognised it in an instant.
He had heard Odo play similar notes when they were boys. Gently,
gently, he crept through the brushwood, and holding a branch aside,
looked down from the bank upon the stream. It rushed along swiftly with
a murmuring sound, reflecting upon its surface the image of the bright
planet. The sedges and reeds rustled in the light breeze; and there was
Odo. Across the stream there was a fallen tree—the very tree Odo had
loved in his youth—and astride upon that tree sat the Beast-Man, his
feet nearly touching the water, playing upon a tin whistle. Before him
was the dog Dando, standing on his hind legs, and moving in grotesque
time to the music. Odo reproached the dog, and told him that he was an
unworthy son of his father, and could not dance half so well—had he
already forgotten his beating? But perhaps it was the fault of his
whistle. Ah, he had lost his best whistle—the one he had made with
selected tin, and ornamented with pictures of his dogs—among them
Dando’s father, who danced so much better. Then he muttered incoherent,
half-articulate sounds to the dog, sighed deeply, and began to play
again. Poor Odo!

Fulk hesitated. There was a large soul in his little body—he pitied the
poor fellow before him from the bottom of his heart. All that singular
being wanted was the open air, and freedom to play his tin whistle,
fondle his dogs, roam in the woods, and tinker up pots and kettles. Had
he been permitted to follow these inclinations, it was doubtful if he
would ever have committed crime; but civilisation would not permit it.
For a whole year he had been roaming from wood to wood, from wilderness
to wilderness, whistling, tinkering sometimes, always happy in simple
freedom. Probably he had destroyed Lady Agnes to obtain the dog, the
progenitor of which appeared to have been a favourite in old times. But
Fulk reflected that, while he hesitated, Aymer languished in the cell,
Violet was wearing her heart out, and his own liberty was endangered.
Moreover, there was a duty to society: such beings must not go wholly
at large, or no one would be safe.

The lasso hissed through the air, the noose dropped round Odo’s neck,
and was drawn tight in an instant. It had taken his neck and one
shoulder. He roared aloud with pain and anger, but the cord choked him.
His arms struck out, but he had nothing to grasp. He was dragged on
shore in a moment. He floundered—leapt up, and fell again, tearing at
the rope like a wild beast taken in the toils. With a swift, dexterous
turn of the hand, Fulk wound the cord about his arms and legs, much as
a spider might its web about a fly, till Odo lay panting on the sward,
helpless, but still hoarsely murmuring and grunting. Then Fulk loosened
the lasso round his neck, and proceeded to tie the limbs tighten,
finally binding him hard and fast to a tree. Odo’s frame quivered; and
Fulk, in the dim light, fancied that great tears gathered in his eyes.
After binding Odo, there was still a piece of the rope left: with this
Fulk secured the dog, which, frightened and astonished, had cowered on
the earth. Dando evidently had no affection for Odo: he had been wiled
away by gipsy arts only. Then, leading Dando, Fulk set off at a run,
tearing through wood and hedge, mounting the steep Downs, fast as his
strength could carry him, away for Barnham town.

At that very time, late into the night, Mr Broughton was conferring
with the prisoner in his cell. He had been sent for in haste, and went
quickly fearing lest Aymer should be ill. The parcel addressed to Aymer
Malet in Lady Lechester’s handwriting was a large antique Bible, which
Aymer recognised in a moment as having belonged to old Jenkins, the
gardener at The Place. He had seen it lying about, but had taken no
notice of it. It was in fact the very Bible Lady Agnes had purchased of
the gardener’s wife when left in destitution by her husband’s
imprisonment. Inside the Bible was a short formal note, dated the very
day in the evening of which Lady Agnes was drowned, stating that the
writer when she bought the book was unaware to whom it had belonged,
and therefore returned it to Aymer’s address—not knowing Violet’s—as
she desired to retain nothing of theirs. She added that she would
return the dog Dando if they would receive it, and tell her where to
send it. Aymer, having no occupation in his cell but melancholy
thoughts and anxious cares about Violet, naturally turned over the
leaves of the noble old book, and looking at it closer than before he
found at the end, upon one of the spare leaves, a curious inscription
which purported to be a copy from a tomb. It was in Latin, English, and
Greek—a strange, fantastic mixture—and when translated, read to the
effect that Arthur Sibbold Waldron, whilom of Wolf’s Glow, born
Sibbold, afterwards Sibbold Waldron, was married at Saint S— Church,
Middlesex, and was buried at Penge in Kent—with dates, and the usual
sentiments. The entry in the Bible simply added: “Copy of ye
inscription, now defaced. Mem. To have the same re-cut. B.W.” Here was
the clue Aymer had searched for in vain, thrown into his hands, by the
operation of those strange and mysterious circumstances over which no
one has any control. He sent for Mr Broughton; and so it was that when
Fulk found that gentleman it was in the cell. The surprise of Aymer,
and his pleasure at seeing Fulk, his still greater joy and relief when
Fulk in his first sentence announced that Violet was safe, can easily
be imagined. Mr Broughton had no sooner heard Fulk’s explanation than
he at once comprehended the importance of securing Odo. He and Fulk
with two assistants drove as near the wood as practicable, and after
much trouble safely lodged the unfortunate lunatic in the hands of the
police. Fulk remained with Broughton, who very considerately went in
his carriage in the morning over to The Place, and brought Violet and
Hannah Bond to his own private residence in Barnham.

At the inquiry that followed, the first step was the release of Aymer
on bail, on the testimony of Hannah Bond, that he had not left the
cottage at Belthrop till eight o’clock. The ploughboy, when shown Odo,
at once declared that this was the man he had seen—“A’ had such mortal
big ears—a’ minded that, now.” And Marese? His position became
extremely awkward. It was easy to declare that Aymer was a lunatic; but
when Fulk was produced—when the clever escape was related in exactly
the same manner by both—when Fulk added what he had overheard about the
murder of Jason Waldron, Marese could not but notice that the
magistrates and the Court looked coldly upon him. He claimed them both
as escaped lunatics. Said the Bench—

“We don’t see what right you have to them. The owner of the asylum is
dead. We will take it upon ourselves to say, that the lunatics, for
lunatics, have a remarkably sane way of talking.”

The result was, that Marese withdrew; the more he meddled with the
matter, the worse it became for him. To add to the evil complexion of
affairs, Odo confessed in his cell to the murder of Jason Waldron. He
strenuously denied having touched Lady Agnes; he declared that his sole
object was the dog. The dog was the descendant of an old favourite, and
he had once followed Miss Merton to Torquay to get it. But as he stole
round from behind the oak trunk to seize the dog, Lady Agnes saw him,
started, missed her footing, and fell down “The Pot.” He knew her—she
was his cousin, and he had no feeling against her. In all probability
this story was true, as no marks of violence were found on the body.
But he frankly confessed hitting Jason Waldron on the head with the
bill-hook; and stated exactly what Fulk had already said—that he was
told by Theodore Marese, if he killed that man, _and his daughter_
(Aymer shuddered), he should be always free. He had laid in wait for
the daughter; but she was out of his reach at The Towers.

Odo concluded with a cunning wink, and called Mr Broughton to come
near. He whispered to him that he should be the richest man in the
world if he would give him liberty. Broughton humoured the miserable
creature, and told the rest to leave the cell.

Then Odo disclosed his bribe. He said that years ago the gipsies with
whom he consorted had shown him a deed, to which they attached a
species of superstitious reverence, and asked him to read it, it being
in law characters, and in Latin. It was a deed conferring an entail
upon the estate at Wolfs Glow—“the very estate,” whispered Odo, “that
all the people are trying for.”

Odo ascertained that this deed had been stolen by Romy Baskette’s elder
brother—the man who, with his mother, left the Swamp when old Will
Baskette was shot—stolen with the intention of injuring the Sibbolds,
his father’s murderers. He had watched old Sibbold poring over this
deed, therefore thought it valuable, seized his opportunity, and stole
it. With the strangest, maddest mixture of shrewdness and lunacy, Odo
in his turn stole the deed from the gipsies who had preserved it, and
held it, to be used as a bribe in case he should be captured. He now
offered it to Broughton, if Broughton would only let him go free.

The lawyer must be forgiven if he told a falsehood, and promised. Odo
told him where the deed was hidden; and, as he had described, so they
found it. In that tree which had fallen across the stream where he had
used to sit astride and whistle, halfway across was a knot. This knot
with his tools he had cut out—excavated a cavity, and used the knot to
hide it; so that the closest inspection must have failed to find it.
They found the tree and the knot. They got the knot out; there was a
small tin box—Odo’s own workmanship—and in the box was the long-lost
deed.

Poor Odo of course never got his freedom; but there were friends who
saw that he was as well cared for as under the circumstances was
possible. Who could harbour revenge against such a creature? He was but
the instrument in the hands of others, and not truly guilty of poor
Jason’s death. That lay at the door of Marese and Theodore. Theodore
was dead. Morally speaking, Fulk slew Marese. He wrote a full account
of what he had overheard, and it was published in a great London paper.
The asylum was searched, and the holes in the wall found as described.
By this letter Fulk secured two objects: first his own liberty in
future—for popular opinion rose with irresistible violence in his
favour; secondly, he destroyed Marese. Yet it was not the murder of
Jason Waldron which did it; it was the _Lucca_. There were people who
had lost heavily over the _Lucca_, these people pursued Marese
Baskette, threatened him with criminal, civil, and every kind of
proceedings. He fled, escaping arrest by a few hours only, taking with
him five thousand pounds in gold. He is believed to have reached
California, but has not been heard of since. Whether the Nemesis of
these modern days—“circumstances over which we have no
control”—engulfed him in still deadlier ruin, was never known. His
fall, as it was, was great indeed.

By the death of Lady Agnes Lechester, Fulk succeeded to her estates,
which, added to those already his, made him one of the largest
landholders in the county. If he survives Odo, he will be a still more
wealthy man. He never left Aymer’s side till all was well.

Aymer and Violet were married in the autumn—married in the quietest
manner, and, aided pecuniarily by Fulk, left for the south of France,
there to try and efface the memory of the awful event that had
embittered the path of their love. Fulk joined them with a yacht two
months later on. They are very, very happy, but it is in a subdued and
quiet manner. It is hardly possible for them yet, even in the sunny
south, to feel so abundantly joyous as would be natural to their youth.
But as the time rolls on they will gradually supplant the old unhappy
memories with fresh and pleasant pictures.

The last letter from Fulk announced that the sea breezes and the fresh
air had begun to work wonders with his complexion, and that he hoped
ere long to throw off the horrid yellow produced by his confinement,
and resume his proper colour. That was natural in Fulk; the proverb
says that little men are often conceited. Yellow or rosy, or brown, he
will always be the dearest friend of Aymer and Violet.


And the great estate—the city of Stirmingham? To this very hour that
Gordian knot remains untied; to this very hour claimants every now and
then startle the world with extraordinary statements; and the companies
having nothing else to do, have fallen to loggerheads between
themselves, and spend their vast incomes in litigation. But aided by
Fulk’s money, and the influence his family connections possessed,
Violet did at last receive a portion of her rights; the chain of
evidence proving her descent from Arthur Sibbold was completed down to
the smallest link.

The Corporation of Stirmingham, after much law and talk, were finally
compelled to acknowledge her claim. By arbitration it was settled that
they were to pay her eight thousand pounds per annum for ten years, and
at the expiration of that period, ten thousand pounds per annum to
herself and heirs, in perpetual ground rent. The companies still hold
out, but it is only as to the amount they shall contribute in the same
way; and they will have to come to terms. Violet will thus receive a
large income without compromising her rights, which are specially
reserved. She has not forgotten poor Jenkins, whose Bible gave the clue
to the register of Arthur Sibbold’s marriage. The old man is at last
recompensed for his long-suffering—the imprisonment expired in due
time. He and his wife live in the old cottage at The Place, tending the
gardens as of yore, being made comfortable with an ample provision from
Violet.

Violet and Aymer once a year visit The Place and the tomb of poor
Jason. They have taken a mansion at Tunbridge Wells, but spend much
time in Aymer’s beloved Florence, with Fulk. They love the old house,
and yet they do not care to live where everything recalls such gloomy
memories as at The Place.


The End.





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