The Grim House by Molesworth, Mrs.
The Grim House By Mrs Molesworth Illustrations by Warwick Goble Published by J. Nisbet and Co.. This edition dated 1906.
The Grim House, by Mrs Molesworth.
________________________________________________________________________ THE GRIM HOUSE, BY MRS MOLESWORTH.
"SUCH NICE-LOOKING PEOPLE."
"Yes," said my father, "there is no doubt about it; it is the best thing to do. So that is decided."
The "yes" was no expression of agreement with any one but himself. It was simply the emphatic reiteration of the decision he had already arrived at.
He folded up the letter he had been reading, and replaced it carefully and methodically in its envelope, then glanced round the breakfast-table with the slightly defiant, slightly deprecating, yet nevertheless wholly good-tempered air which we all knew well--_so_ well that not one of us would have dreamt of wasting time or energy by beating his or her wings against the bars of the dear man's resolute determination.
Some faces fell a little, others expressed philosophic resignation, one or two, perhaps, a kind of subdued exhilaration; but no one said anything except mother, who replied quietly, as was her wont--
"Very well; I daresay you are right."
Then ensued a little talk as to the details of the proposal, or rather decision, just announced, and five minutes later the family group had dispersed.
The one face on which something more than resignation had been distinctly legible was that of my youngest brother, Moore.
He was only fourteen, an age at which--for boy nature especially--it does not take much provocation to get up one's spirits to some pitch of agreeable excitement and expectancy. He ran after me as I left the dining-room, and followed me down the long cold stone passage leading to what he and my other brothers and I myself considered our own quarters. Then, as he overtook me, he slipped his hand through my arm.
"Do you mind, Reggie?" he said in a tone of some deprecation of his own satisfaction. "I think you might be a _little_ pleased--any way for my sake. It's awfully jolly for _me_."
"Then I will be pleased, really pleased, my poor old Othello," I replied, heartily, I think. For Moore was our baby and pet, and we thought him irresistible. He was so pretty--everybody said that he, and not I, should have been the girl, if only one girl there was to be among us. He was fair-haired and fair-complexioned, yet not insipid looking, for his eyes were deeply blue, or at least appeared so, thanks to their bordering of dark eyelashes. "Irish eyes," though in other respects Moore's beauty was decidedly of the Saxon type. He had a right to his Irish eyes, as the rest of us to our Irish locks and browner skin. For Irish we were, _really_ so as to ancestry, and in many particulars as to inherited character, though none of us, not even my parents since their childhood, had ever been in Ireland.
Moore's face beamed, and lost its half-apologetic expression.
"Good old Reggie," he said. "Then I'll let myself be jolly right out, however Terry and Horry and Ger grumble at mother and you going away before the holidays are over," and he showed signs of whooping or hurrahing or something of the kind, which I hastened to nip in the bud.
"You had better be quiet about it, however you feel," I said warningly, "or father will begin to think you don't need change and rest, and all that kind of thing, after all."
"No, he won't," the boy replied confidently. "He never goes back once he's settled a thing. You know he never does, Reggie. Sometimes," and here certain reminiscences momentarily sobered his expression, "sometimes I wish he would--"
"And," I continued, "you'd better not let Terence and Gerald hear you talk of holidays. They don't own to anything but vacations now."
"That's just because they're not really grown-up," said Moore shrewdly; "at least not out in the world. Look at Jocelyn now--he might give himself airs. But he always talks of his holidays when he comes home. He very seldom even calls it `leave,' though he is--how old is he now, Rex? Twenty-five? Yes--eleven years older than I."
"We're all getting very old," I said. "I shall be eighteen next spring. Can you believe it? And there's only Horace between you and me. We shall all be grown-up before we know where we are, Moore." And I sighed as I said it. I did not want to be grown-up or to come out. Life suited me very well indeed just as it was, especially since we had left off going abroad every winter, and part of the summer too, sometimes, for mother's health. She had been so much stronger of late years, that we had been able to settle down in our own home, which I loved better than any place in the world, both for its own sake and because here I could enjoy to the full the society of my five brothers whenever "holidays" or vacations or leaves allowed them to be with us. So perhaps it is not to be wondered at that my father's breakfast-table fiat was something of a disappointment to me, though to many girls of my age it would have been received with delight. For it was the announcement of his decision that we were to set out on our travels again, to spend the next few months at least, out of England, at some German baths in the first place, and later on at one of the usual winter resorts for invalids.
Mother had flagged of late, or at least father thought so, and Moore, on the eve of public school life and always delicate, had not mended matters by catching whooping-cough at his preparatory school and having it badly. It would never do for him to start on his new career "below par," said my father; better delay it for a few months than have him break down and be sent home again with everything interrupted; in which argument no doubt there was great common-sense.
"Yes," I went on, "we shall all be grown-up in no time, and then dreadful things will happen. You and Horry will go off goodness knows where, and I shall be left alone. You are my last rose of summer, Moore. Not that I ever cared as much for Terence and Gerald as for you and Horace as companions. Terry has always been a bit of a prig, and Gerald too mad about soldiering, even though he doesn't find it easy to pass his examinations. Horace and you are my special brothers, aren't you, Othello?"
Moore squeezed my arm in token of affection. He was like a girl in many of his ways as well as in his looks--demonstrative and caressing, yet brave as a lion and essentially manly.
"You'll have _me_ for ages yet," he said consolingly, "at least for holidays; and perhaps the dreadful things won't all be on the side of us boys. You'll be going and getting married, Reggie, once you're grown-up. Oh, _how_ I shall hate your husband!"
I could not help laughing at his vehemence.
"Wait till he exists to be hated," I said. "You really needn't trouble about _him_. Perhaps there will never be such a person. Anyway, girls don't often marry as young as I am, so you can count upon me quite as securely as I can count upon you."
How lightly we spoke!
"And we shall have a longer time together now, thanks to going to these baths and places, than since I first went to school, four years ago. So after all you should count it a compliment to yourself, Rex, that I am so pleased about it."
Once my father decided upon anything, there was no danger of his letting the grass grow under his feet, or any one else's, till it was accomplished. We were then in early autumn; there was no time to be lost if we were to benefit by the waters of Weissbad. So within a very few days of the morning which had brought the great doctor's letter of advice, we found ourselves there--my parents, Moore, and myself, though father only stayed to see us comfortably installed, promising to return when the time came for our further move to winter quarters.
I have no intention of describing the quaint little watering-place. It had its own peculiarities, of course, as every place, no less than every individual, has, but in a general way it was like scores of others. And these general characteristics are now-a-days too familiar to be interesting--now-a-days, when an intimate acquaintance with Western Europe by no means gives one a right to rank as having travelled to any noticeable extent.
It was a nice little place, cheery and homely. We liked it better than we had expected, partly, no doubt, because we were specially favoured as to weather; partly, or greatly, perhaps I should say, because the beneficial effects of the place on my mother and brother became quickly and most satisfactorily visible.
But my peculiar interest in Weissbad, looking back upon it through a vista of many years as I now do, dates from a certain day, the precursor of a friendship which has taken rank as one of the great influences on my life.
It was mother who first drew our attention to certain newcomers into our little world for the time being. Any arrival was promptly noticed by that time, as many of the visitors had already left, and but for the unusually lovely weather, Weissbad would already have been almost deserted. I remember that day so well.
Moore and I had been a long walk--it was delightful to see how the boy's strength was returning--and when we came in, we found mother seated as usual at the wide window of our cheerful little sitting-room overlooking the "square," with its gardens in the centre, which was the great feature of the little town. She looked up brightly as we came in--not that that was in any way remarkable--when did mother not greet us brightly?--her face full of interest as if she had something pleasant to tell, which set at rest my fears that our long absence might have made her anxious.
"I have been amusing myself," she said, "by watching some new arrivals at this hotel. I saw them first in the courtyard when I was coming in from my walk, and something about them struck me at once. They looked so much more interesting than the other people here."
"Are they English?" I asked. "Certainly, the other English here still are the stupidest of the stupid. Not one young person among them."
I sat down as I spoke, for I was feeling rather tired, and quite ready for a little gossip.
"Oh, but," said mother, "you won't have to complain of that any more. Two, at least, are quite young,--sisters evidently, both very pretty, the younger one especially--she doesn't look much older than you, Regina--an elderly father, and another man, about thirty I should say, the brother, or possibly the husband, of the elder girl. I had only a glimpse of them at first, but since then I have been watching them from the window. They have been strolling all over the place, peering in at all the little shops in the square, so delighted with the novelty of everything evidently, as if they had never been abroad before. _The_ one that took my fancy so specially was the younger one. I never saw a sweeter face!"
"We must find out who they are," I said; "but you know, mamma, I never care much about making friends with other girls; I understand boys so much better."
"And they're so much nicer," added Moore; "girls are so--so affected and stuck-up, except, of course, Reggie."
"What do you know about them?" I said. "Less even than I!"
"I know what the fellows at school say about their sisters. Of course they are very fond of them--lots of them, at least--and some of them are very jolly about games and things like that. But they do sit upon their brothers all the same. Lots do!"
"Perhaps it is not a very bad thing for the brothers sometimes," said mother. "I often wish you had had a sister, Regina, or failing that, a few really nice girl friends. Even _one_ would be a great advantage to you."
I felt just a little nettled. Dear mother sometimes took up an idea too enthusiastically, and I did not in those days perhaps sufficiently appreciate the steady good judgment underlying her apparent impulsiveness.
"Oh, mamma," I said, "things are all right as they are. I don't want a sister, and I never have wanted one. And if we make friends with these people who have struck you so, please let it be in a general way. I don't want _any_ girl friend?"
"You are certainly very premature?" said mother, smiling. "Probably enough they are only here for a night on their way somewhere else; and even if they were staying here, it by no means follows that we should become acquainted at all, though I own to being unusually attracted by their faces and general look. There was something pretty about the whole group."
Mother's gentleness disarmed me, as it always did. I felt a little ashamed of myself. Nor was I, to tell the truth, devoid of curiosity as to these newcomers. It is almost laughable to find how, in a temporarily restricted life, such as one leads at a quiet watering-place, one's dormant love of gossip and inquisitiveness about one's neighbours assert themselves!
Yes, there they were! I "spotted" them at once, as Moore would have said, when we entered the long dining-room, where supper was served at separate tables to each little party, and in my heart I at once endorsed mother's opinion. They were all so nice-looking and so happy. The elder of the two girls--for a girl she looked--I almost immediately decided must be the wife of the younger man; something indefinable in his attitude and tone towards her suggesting a husband rather than a brother. The father, an elderly man, with grey hair, and delicate, somewhat wasted features, whose expression told of much sorrow, past rather than present, was not the least attractive of the quartette; his face lighted up with a charming smile when he spoke to or glanced at his daughters, both of whom, as mother had said, were decidedly pretty.
No, that is not the word for the younger one; "lovely," suits her far better, and before I had been five minutes in the same room with her, I more than endorsed mother's opinion.
"She is perfectly sweet," I thought to myself. "I wonder what her name is, and I wonder if we shall get to know them. I don't know that I wish it; I am perfectly sure she would not care for me. I would just seem a sort of tomboy to her. She looks so dreadfully--just what she should look! Such dear little white hands!" and I glanced at my own brown fingers and thought of my sunburnt face, with, for almost the first time in my life, a touch of shame. After all, perhaps mamma was in the right in her advocacy of parasols and veils, and above all, gloves!
Then the sound of the voices which reached us from the newcomers' table struck me with a sense of contrast, not altogether flattering to myself. The tones were so soft though clear, the slight laughter breaking out from time to time so gentle though gay, and entirely unaffected.
"Yes," I replied in answer to mother's--"Well, what do you think of them?"--as we were slowly making our way upstairs again to our own quarters, "Yes, you were quite right, mamma; they are most attractive-looking people, and the little one is the prettiest person I have ever seen. But I don't want to get to know them! They wouldn't care for us, at least not for me. Of course they would like _you_, and they would feel bound to be polite to me, which I should hate."
Mother only smiled. She very often only smiled when I began what she called "working myself up" for no cause at all. But in her heart I think--indeed she owned to it afterwards--she was not a little pleased at the impression which she saw had already been made upon me.
"I daresay they'll be gone by to-morrow; I hope they will," said Moore consolingly. He was always so extraordinarily quick in perceiving any little thing that annoyed me. "_I_ don't see anything so wonderful about that girl," he went on; "she is just a dressed-up sort of young lady. I am perfectly certain she can't play cricket or ride a pony bare-back like you, Reggie."
"I daresay not," I said. "And I almost wish I couldn't!" I added to myself rather ruefully.
But to-morrow came and they were not gone, nor apparently had they any intention of leaving, for we overheard them talking about excursions they were proposing to make in the neighbourhood, and the words "next week" occurred more than once.
I felt rather cross and dissatisfied that day, I remember. Perhaps I had over-walked myself--very probably so; and now and then I caught mamma's eyes glancing at me with a somewhat perturbed expression.
"Are you not feeling well, Regina?" she said at last, when I had answered some little question rather snappishly, I fear.
"Of course I am quite well, mother, dear," I replied; "I am only rather cross, and I don't know why. I would rather you would scold me than seem anxious about me! Everybody has moods. I--well, yes, perhaps I was thinking a little about that girl. It must be nice to be so graceful and charming?"
"My poor, dear child," said mother, "don't distress yourself so needlessly! You know very well we would rather have our tomboy than any other girl in the world, though there is no reason why you should not be graceful and charming too, in your own way. You are very young still; you have plenty of time before you; but I do feel that it would be a great help to you, now especially, to have _some_ girl friends."
I was beginning to feel it too, and did not repulse the suggestion, as I might have done even twenty-four hours previously.
"But it can't be helped," I said; "girl companions haven't come in my way. You know there are scarcely any young people at all in our neighbourhood at home."
"I know," said mother regretfully, "and with our having been away so much, I seem to have rather fallen out of touch with my own old friends, some of whom have daughters of about your age. I have been thinking a great deal about it lately."
No more was said at the time, but I still felt far from anxious to make acquaintance with the new arrivals. The very thought of it overpowered me with shyness.
Strange to say, the acquaintance was brought about by the only one of us three who had seen nothing to admire in the pretty sisters.
I think it was on the third day after they had come, that Moore burst into our room one afternoon, his face rosy with excitement.
"Mother?" he said, "Reggie! I--I really couldn't help it, but--I couldn't be rude, you know! Those people that you've been talking about--the girl you think so pretty--well, they were sitting near me while I was having my afternoon coffee,"--Moore loved of all things to have his coffee out in the garden by himself at a little table--"and listening to the band, and I heard them talking about the excursion to Oberwald, where we went last week, you know, and they were all in a muddle about it. They wanted to walk part of the way, and they had a map that they couldn't make out; and at last one of them--the youngish-looking man, turned to me and said, `If you have been here some time, perhaps you can explain this route to us,' and of course I could, and I put them right in a minute. I told them the best way was to drive to that funny little inn where we had dinner, you remember, and then to walk the rest up to the view place, and get their carriage again when they came back; and they thanked me awfully, and--" Here Moore paused at last, half out of breathlessness, half, I shrewdly suspected, because he felt a little shy of relating the sequel of his story. "They're not bad sort of people," he concluded somewhat lamely, "and I think the girl _is_ rather pretty when you see her close to."
"_Rather_ pretty," I repeated; "why, she's perfectly lovely, my dear boy. But you haven't finished. What more have you to tell? Did they invite you to be their guide?"
I spoke jestingly, but, to my surprise, I saw that my words had hit the mark, for Moore's fair face, which was already flushed with excitement, grew still redder.
"Not exactly," he said; "but I saw they'd have _liked_ to ask me, so I said if it would be any good I wouldn't mind going with them--it's to-morrow they want to go--and--and--that I daresayed my sister would come too."
"Moore!" I exclaimed, aghast. And "My dear boy!" said mother.
Our exclamations put Moore on the defensive.
"Well," he said, rather indignantly, "I don't see that there's any harm in it. You've been awfully wanting to know them--"
"I'm sure _I_ haven't," I interrupted.
"Well, any way, you were awfully down on me because I didn't think the girl was the most beautiful person in the world. And I don't think she is stuck-up, after all I'm sure you'd like her very much, and they seemed quite pleased when I said you'd come too--quite jolly about it. I told them mother couldn't walk so far, and that we had come here because she'd been ill."
"Indeed! and what did you _not_ tell them?" I said, in an icy tone. But my heart misgave me as soon as I had uttered the words--Moore looked so thoroughly unhappy. Mother, as usual, interposed to smooth things down.
"After all, there is no harm done," she said. "I see no objection to Moore's going with them, and we can easily make some little excuse for you, Regina, if it is necessary. To begin with, there would not be room for so many in the carriage."
"Oh, yes, there would," said Moore, dejectedly. "They're going to have a much bigger one, which holds five inside and one on the box--or even two--by the driver. And the girl looked so pleased when I said you'd come. _I_ shall feel as ashamed as anything if you don't; I know that, Reggie."
I had not the heart to tell him it was his own fault, and mother just said to him that he might trust her to put it all right. So in a minute or two he brightened up again, and it seemed as if the matter were at an end.
It was not so, however. When a thing is to be, it often seems as if even the most trivial events conspire to lead up to it. So it was in this case.
At supper that evening Moore turned his chair, so that he--or at least his face--should not be visible by his new acquaintances. I was sorry for him; he was feeling rather "small" and mortified, I could see, and I wished I had not snubbed his boyish officiousness so unmercifully. I had almost arrived at the point of hoping that some occasion would offer itself for endorsing his friendly overtures, when my glance fell on an envelope lying--hitherto unnoticed--by my plate, and I realised by a flash of inspiration that here in my hands was the very opportunity I had been thinking of.
It was a letter addressed to--
"James Wynyard, Esq., Hotel Augusta, Weissbad, etc, etc."
I felt certain it was for one of the two men at the neighbouring table, and _almost_ certain, though I had no grounds for being so, that it was for the elder, the father of the two young women. And even if I were mistaken, its having been deposited on our table gave an excellent excuse for speaking to them. Letters, as a rule, came in the morning-- English letters, that is to say--but there was a second post late in the evening, and anything it brought was laid on the supper-tables. I touched mother's arm and showed her the address, saying in a low voice, "Shall I ask if it is for _them_?" when to my surprise she started. "Wynyard?" she said, "James Wynyard! Why, that was the name of Maud Prideaux's husband. How curious if--if it should be--"
She glanced up. Her face was aglow with excitement, as had been Moore's. But before she finished her sentence, I saw a look of new expectancy in her eyes, and turning in the same direction, I caught sight of "the father," as we called him, coming towards us, a letter in _his_ hand also, and a look of inquiry and surprise in his face.
"I think," he was beginning, as he reached our table. But mother cut him short.
"Yes," she exclaimed, "you _are_ Mr Wynyard, and I--you must remember me?--I am your Maud's old friend--Geraldine Terence--now Geraldine Fitzmaurice."
AN EMBRYO NOVELIST.
So it was. A minute or two's conversation sufficed to establish for each the other's identity, and to gather up the loosened threads of former acquaintanceship. Worse than loosened indeed, for mother's face grew sad when Mr Wynyard told her of the death of her old friend, Maud, his wife, which had occurred several years previously.
"I had no idea of it," she said. "We were so much abroad for some years that many changes may have taken place without my hearing of them. And curiously enough, I have been thinking of her--of your wife, Mr Wynyard, quite specially of late."
"Don't you find that that is often the case?" was the reply. "When some old link is about to be renewed, one has a sort of foreshadowing of it. Was it possibly," he added with a little hesitation, "the involuntary association of some likeness to _her_ in either of my daughters, if you have happened to notice them?"
"Who could help doing so?" said mother in her pretty, gracious manner. "But no," she went on, "I don't think it was that! It was even before your arrival here that I was thinking of Maud. When I know them better I shall probably see some likeness in your daughters, but it has not struck me."
"We think Margaret the most like her," said the father. "Margaret is Mrs Percy--she and her husband are travelling with us," and he nodded his head in the direction of his own party. "But your supper will be getting cold--"
"Come up to our sitting-room afterwards," said mother, "for our mutual introductions."
And so they did, and before I fell asleep that night I knew all about them, and had--I may as well confess it once for all--fallen over head and ears in love with the younger girl, Isabel!
Our guesses had been, as has been shown, correct so far as they went. The party of four were wonderfully "untravelled" for even those days. And the charm of novelty greatly enhanced their enjoyment of Weissbad and its neighbourhood. Mr Percy and his wife were thoroughly pleasant young people, and on further acquaintance, mother saw much in the latter that recalled her old friend.
But Isabel it is less easy to describe, and I will scarcely attempt to do so. To some extent her appearance, her very beauty, did her injustice, for it was difficult to believe that it could exist side by side with such complete unaffectedness and simplicity, such entire absence of vanity. She knew--she could not but know--that she was lovely, but she scarcely thought about it, _herself_ in any way occupying a far smaller place in her thought than is the case with many a woman whose small claims on admiration one would imagine likely to beget humility and self-forgetfulness.
And the next day found Moore and myself most willing members of the excursion party to Oberwald. How well I remember it all! My shyness melted away like morning mist in the happy geniality of our companions, above all of Isabel. She was just enough older than I to make it natural that she should take a little the lead in some ways. She had seen more of society than I of course, quietly though they lived at home, and since her sister's marriage, the fact of being in charge of her father's house had given her a little air of importance which was quaint and pretty.
Before that pleasant day was over we had compared notes on almost every department of girl-life. I had confided to her my newly awakened feelings of dissatisfaction as to my want of feminine tastes and tendency to "tomboyishness," and she on her side had told me that she was often afraid of growing too prim or narrow-minded in the well-arranged regularity of her own home-life.
"That was why," she said, "I was so glad to travel a little. I feel as if I needed to rough it in some ways. Father is too careful of me, too unselfish. I am afraid I have always been a spoilt child, and having no brothers, you see, may make me selfish without knowing it!"
She looked up at me anxiously with her sweet brown eyes. What was it they reminded me of? I had already noticed that her people called her by some peculiar pet name; I had not caught it exactly.
"What is it that your sister and father call you sometimes?" I said. "Is it `Ella'?"
Isabel blushed a little.
"_No_," she said, "it is Zella. Rather a silly name, I am afraid. It came from a fancy of father's that my eyes were like a gazelle's."
"And so they are!" I exclaimed; "that is the look I have seen in them-- some dogs have it too! I don't think it is at all a silly name. Will you let me call you by it sometimes?" for of course under the circumstances there had been no question of anything but "Isabel" and "Regina" between us from the first.
"Of course you may, if you like," she said. "But--" and she hesitated.
"But what?" I asked.
"You mustn't be vexed with me," she replied, "if I can't promise to call you `Reggie,' as your brother does. I don't like it--and Regina is such a pretty name and uncommon too."
"Mother never calls me anything else," I said, "but I am afraid I _am_ half a boy. You must civilise me--mother will be eternally grateful to you if you do."
"I don't think you need civilising," said Isabel; "but perhaps in our different ways we may do each other good. I do hope your people will let you come to stay with us when we go home."
"I should love it of all things," I said. "I have scarcely ever paid any visits, and I have seen very little of England except quite near our own home. Is it very pretty where you live?"
"Not so much pretty as picturesque," Isabel replied. "To begin with, it is very, very out of the way; we are six miles from a railway station of any kind, and sixteen from an important one. But papa's people have lived there for so long, that it doesn't seem out of the way to us. It is a place that changes very little."
"Then it is to be hoped that you have some nice and interesting neighbours," I said. "Near us there are so few young people."
"And there are not many near Millflowers either," said Isabel; "at least not within a good long drive. I hope you would not find it dull. There are interesting walks, if you care for wild, rugged scenery. The village itself is quite tiny. There is only one house of any importance besides the vicarage and ours, and that is--no good," she added, rather abruptly.
"Why not?" I inquired. "Is it uninhabited?"
"No," she replied. "The same people have lived in it for a great many years. They were there before father came into possession, on my uncle's death. But--" and again she paused.
My curiosity was aroused.
"Do tell me about them," I said.
"Well, yes, I don't see why I shouldn't," answered Isabel. "Father always tells us not to gossip about the Grim House, but you are sure to notice it when you come, so I may as well prepare you beforehand."
"The Grim House!" I exclaimed. "Is that the real name? Do tell me all about it. Is it haunted? It _must_ be."
"No," said Isabel, shaking her hood. "It _isn't_ haunted. At least I have never heard that it _was_. The real name is `Grimsthorpe'-- Grimsthorpe House or Hall, I am not sure which; but it _is_ always called `The Grim House,' and has been, papa says, ever since he can remember. And it seems to suit the present inhabitants and the strange mystery there is about them."
I was all ears by this time, and scarcely dared to speak for fear of interrupting Isabel.
"Yes," I said; "do go on."
"There is so little to tell," she said; "that _is_ the mystery. These people came there about twenty years ago. The house had been uninhabited for some time before that. It belonged to some one whose affairs had gone wrong, and there was some difficulty about letting it. And it was a good deal out of repair. Still there was no prejudice against it except that it was and is an extraordinarily dreary-looking place. Perhaps that was the attraction to the strange people who did take it. Our old gardener has told us about their coming. One day a gentleman arrived by train and drove out to our village. He went over the Grim House all by himself--there was only an old woman at the lodge who kept the keys, and he wouldn't let her go through the house with him. He was only about an hour there altogether, and then he drove back to the station as fast as he could."
"What was he like?" I could not help asking. "Did any one ever tell you?"
"I don't need to be told," was the unexpected reply. "I have seen him for myself once a week ever since I can remember. At church, I mean," she went on, smiling at my puzzled expression. "They do come to church--all of them--and this one is the eldest of them. Of course he must have been younger-looking twenty years ago. Well, a few days after this stranger's first appearance, workmen arrived at the Grim House, a whole lot of them, Scart--that's our gardener--says. Some of them from a good distance, and they set to at the house and got it into order in no time. All at the new tenant's expense. Scart always says it must have cost a `sight of money.' I don't fancy much was done in the way of making it pretty, for by all accounts, or rather by the few accounts that ever reach us, it is as plain and severe inside as it is grim outside. But any way, it was put into thorough repair, and then--they all came! They arrived late at night, so that no one knew anything about it till the next day."
Isabel stopped. I think she enjoyed the impression which she saw her story was making upon me.
"And who were the `all'?" I asked.
"Four people," she replied. "Two men and two women--brothers and sisters they were soon known to be. None of them very young even then, and now the sisters both look fifty at least, and the elder brother older than that; the youngest-looking of them is the second brother. They arrived, as I say, twenty years ago, and from that day to this-- would you believe it, Regina?--they have _never_ set foot outside their garden wall, except to come to church every Sunday morning, which they do in all weathers. There is a standing order at the inn for a fly to come for them every Sunday all the year round."
"How extraordinary!" I exclaimed. "Has no one any idea why they behave so strangely? Are any of them out of their minds? Did none of the neighbours call on them?"
"Yes," said Isabel, replying to my last question first. "Several people tried to do so, but they were always met at the lodge by the information that the ladies could not see any one, and the calls were never returned. Of course all sorts of wild stories got about, but papa does not believe that there is the least foundation for any of them; and `out of their minds!' Oh, no! none of them are that."
"But what do they do? How can they live? It must be so terribly monotonous?"
"I suppose that they have got used to it," said Isabel. "And the grounds round the house are very large. Perhaps if they have come through some fearful sorrow or tragedy, the mere feeling of peace must be a boon that we ordinary people can scarcely understand. And they seem devoted to each other. One cannot but hear a little gossip, for they make a point of engaging servants from the immediate neighbourhood, and these all say that they are very kindly treated, and that the Greys--that is the name of the family--`are real gentry!' The only fault the servants find is, that it is very dull; but still, as they are allowed a good deal of freedom, they generally stay some years."
"It was rather clever not to bring any servants with them," I said. "Generally in stories of this kind they have some old family confidant bound over to secrecy."
"Yes," said Isabel smiling. "But you forget _my_ story is not fiction, but fact. It has been better than fiction to me though," she went on, "it has been a perpetual romance before my eyes all my life." Just then, as far as I remember, we were interrupted. I think that was all that Isabel told me that first day, of the strange story. But it had taken a great hold upon my imagination, and though I did not speak of it at home--I was not sure that I had any right to do so--my mind was full of it. And it was not long before the opportunity came for asking further questions about the Grim House and its occupants.
For now, during the two or three weeks that remained of our stay at Weissbad, our new friends and we were almost inseparable, and when father joined us again, the intimacy by no means decreased, and I could see that he, quite as much as mother, approved of Isabel's companionship for me. It was tacitly agreed by the elders of both parties that the friendship was to be encouraged, and that when we were again settled at home I should be allowed to pay a visit to the Wynyards.
And whenever we spoke of this visit-to-be, the subject of the Grim House was sure to be reverted to.
"I am looking forward tremendously to staying with you," I said one day to Isabel; "but do you know, even if I were not sure that I should enjoy it in other ways, I should be dreadfully disappointed not to go to Millflowers. I am so exceedingly interested about that queer family, I keep thinking and thinking about them and wondering what their secret _can_ be."
Isabel looked a very little troubled.
"I hope I didn't do wrong in telling it you," she said. "I mean I hope it hasn't taken too great a hold on your imagination. Papa has always warned us so much not to think more than we can help about it. He cannot bear any sort of gossip, and he has very strong feelings about respecting these poor people's wish for secrecy and silence. And we have got accustomed to the mystery to a great extent."
"But there are some things," I persisted, "that you can't help knowing about them, without any prying into their affairs. Do they never get any letters, and is `Grey' their real name, do you think?"
It was scarcely fair of me, perhaps, to put these questions to my friend, for, after all, her natural curiosity about her strange neighbours was only dormant. I saw that she hesitated to reply, so I hastened to add assurances of my discretion.
"You need not be afraid of my ever gossipping about the Grim House," I said. "I have not even mentioned it at home. But one _can't_ help wondering about it. Do tell me all you know yourself."
"I think I have told you all there is to tell," said Isabel. "Nobody knows if `Grey' is their real name or not; and as for their getting letters, I believe they never do--at any rate, not that we have ever heard of. They are _good_ people, of that I am sure. The sisters' faces are so gentle, though dreadfully sad. The eldest brother is stern-looking, but the younger one looks kind, though very grave. And they are very charitable; the people in the village say they are sure of help from the Grim House whenever they are in trouble. The Greys make their servants tell them of any illness or special poverty; and they are sensible too, the vicar says, in what they do."
"And have none of their servants ever told over anything?"
"There seems nothing to tell," said Isabel. "It is just a very quiet regular house. Things seem to go on from year's end to year's end just the same."
"It is too extraordinary," I exclaimed, "and dreadfully sad."
"And it will grow sadder and sadder as time passes," Isabel replied. "They can't all live for ever, and when it comes to the _last_ one left there alone! It makes one shiver to think of it."
"But perhaps," I said, "the secret doesn't really concern them all? Perhaps if the eldest brother died the others would be free? They may in some way be sacrificed for him?"
But Isabel shook her head.
"I don't think so," she said. "The only strong feeling I have about it is that they are all suffering together through some one else's fault. They are so devoted to each other--there is never a breath of any discussion or quarrelling, and that _would_ have been heard of through the servants."
This was the last talk we had on the subject before the time came for our new friends to turn homewards. We parted with great regrets on both sides, and many a wish on ours--on mine, at least--that we, like them, were bound for England on leaving Weissbad; but that was not our case. Father was more determined than ever that the winter must be spent in the South, though we had begun to hope that the great improvement in our invalids already achieved would have brought about his consent to our all going home again. We quitted Weissbad a few days after the Wynyards, escorted by father, who left us again as soon as he had seen us installed for the second time--this time at one of the smaller, and in those days less-frequented, winter places on the Riviera.
The four or five months we spent there passed uneventfully--much as former winters had done in the years when sojourning in the South was a regular institution for us. Nothing so interesting as our meeting with the Wynyards at Weissbad happened to us; and indeed, but for one incident, trivial and scarcely noticed at the time, but which after-occurrences recalled to my memory, I should have no occasion to linger on our stay in the South.
The incident was the following.
The hotel at which we were staying was a small one, though comfortably managed on almost entirely English rules, for the visitors, many of whom came there year after year, were rarely of any other nationality than our own. It was therefore impossible, and would have savoured of churlishness and affectation, to keep ourselves apart, or to be on other terms than those of friendly acquaintanceship with our fellow-guests. None of them, however, were very interesting. On the whole, those whom we "took to" the most were a mother and two sons--quite young fellows, one about Moore's age, the other a year or two older. It was for the sake of the elder one that they were spending the winter abroad, as a very severe illness had left him much in the state that we had dreaded for Moore himself, and the similarity of the circumstances naturally induced sympathy between us.
It was Moore, of course, who first made friends, beginning with the younger boy, and Mrs Payne, the mother, speedily followed it up by thanking us for some little kindness we happened to show her son.
"It is so dull for him here," she said, "as his brother is not able to do much. I almost wish we had left him at home at school. But it would have been dreary for him at Christmas--his father and my eldest son are such terribly busy people. Lawyers generally are, I suppose--and we hoped that Leo would have some chance of improving his French here, as he is going to a public school at Easter."
Mother confided to her in return Moore's prospects. Mrs Payne was a gentle, rather childish woman, of the type whom very clever men are often credited with preferring as wives, and we soon came to the conclusion that the old saying was exemplified in the present case. The sons, the elder one in particular, were decidedly intelligent above the average, and their admiration for their father and elder brother fully equalled that of their mother. Rupert, the invalid, took a great fancy to me, and before long I was the recipient of many of his secret hopes and aspirations, the most intense of which was that he should become a novelist.
"You see, Miss Fitzmaurice," he said to me one day, "I have already, and would have increasingly, material ready to my hand. You don't know what extraordinary stories lawyers come across! Many of them there is no breach of confidence in repeating, and my brother Clarence has told me bits of others quite as strange as any fiction."
"Or stranger," I remarked, for at that moment Isabel's description of the Grim House and its inhabitants came into my mind.
"Yes," said Rupert, "you are right. Some stories are `too strange not to be true.' And you see I could piece bits together, so that nobody could possibly recognise anything. My father knows _one_ story which he says he can't tell us--I believe he says so partly to tantalise us-- which he declares would make a first-rate sensational novel."
"And will he never be able to tell it to you?" I inquired, more for the sake of seeming interested in poor Rupert's conversation than because I cared to hear. The young fellow was rather of the "old-fashioned" order; there was a certain quaintness in his way of speaking which was not without its charm, though now and then he tired my patience a little. He was so unlike anything of "boy" kind I had ever come across.
"I don't know," he said gravely. "_Perhaps_, if all the people it concerns were dead. But they are none of them very old; some, I believe, still almost young."
"Then you _do_ know something about it, after all," I replied, my interest increasing.
"_Scarcely_ anything," said Rupert; "only this much, that it is a secret which affects a whole family, and that my father and one other are the only beings who are in their confidence. He has told Clarence and me that some day he may have to tell us--when he gets very old, or if his memory were failing. Two outsiders must know it."
"And yet it affects a whole family," I repeated. "They must be a very reticent set of people."
"More than that--it has darkened the life of a whole family; that, I think, was my father's exact expression," said Rupert eagerly. "I often and often think about it, and wonder what the secret can be."
As he said the words there suddenly flashed across my mind the remembrance of an almost similar exclamation that I had recently heard. Yes--it was Isabel speaking of the Grim House and its inhabitants. _What_ a strange coincidence it would be if the family Rupert was speaking of should be the same people! Too strange to be possible, I thought, for I have greater belief, now that I have seen more of life, in coincidences than I had then.
But the idea did not remain in my mind. I dismissed it as too wildly improbable, and Rupert talked on about his contemplated works of fiction and their "plots" in so interesting a way, that the "stranger than fiction" story I had come across was for the time completely forgotten by me.
Our "banishment," as I sometimes, in a rather discontented mood, called our stay abroad, came to an end rather sooner than we had expected, thanks to an unusually early and genial spring, which made even father think that it would be safe for mother to return to England. Moore, by this time, was in rollicking health and quite fit for school. And to me our home-going was considerably damped by the knowledge that it meant parting with my last playfellow.
After all, the winter had passed pleasantly enough; the Paynes had helped to enliven it. But mother looked rather askance at my friendship with them.
"Boys again!" she said half-laughingly. "Always boys, Regina! I wish there had been a _Miss_ Payne."
"She wouldn't have been half as nice as Isabel Wynyard," I replied. "And Rupert is really not like a boy; his whole interest is in books and things of that kind. But you should be pleased, mamma, that I have made _one_ real girl friend at last."
"So I am," was the reply--"very pleased."
"If only they lived nearer us," I said with a sigh. "I shall be dreadfully dull at home when Moore goes."
"Poor Regina!" said mother. "Well, we must find something to cheer you up."
And though I did not then know it, I believe that it was this conversation that made her determine to arrange for my promised visit to Millflowers as soon as possible. She never thought of herself, though home without _any_ child in it seemed scarcely home to her.
The first few weeks, however, of our return were very bright and happy. It was delightful to have Moore so thoroughly his old self, and two of the other boys were with us for Easter; and best of all, the brother whom I cannot describe as a "boy," as he was already twenty-five-- Jocelyn--our "eldest," and I must almost say "dearest."
He was deputed to take Moore to his new school, and very proud Moore was of him as an escort.
"How I wish I could go to Winchester with you both," I said the evening before they were to leave. "I really do think, Jocelyn," for it was to him I was talking, "it was a great mistake that I was not a boy after all, though I have been trying my best lately to make myself into a `young lady'! Has mamma told you so? For every one of us, from oldest to youngest, confided in Jocelyn. I put the question with some little anxiety, for my brother's approval was very dear to me."
He smiled as he replied--
"Of course mother has told me of the new leaves you've been turning over--ever so many of them, though all in the same direction, and I intended to compliment you on the great improvement in your style of hairdressing and the general smartness of your appearance! Don't be discouraged, my dear child. `Rome wasn't built in a day!'"
"And it will take a great many days, if ever, I suppose you mean," I said rather ruefully, "to turn a tomboy into a oh! whatever she should be."
"But by what I hear," said Jocelyn, "you have got a first-rate model before you in the person of Miss Wynyard. I am very glad you are going to stay with them so soon."
I opened my eyes at this.
"So soon?" I repeated. "I have not been told anything about it."
"Well, don't let out that I told you, then," said Jocelyn. "I suspect mother must have been keeping it for a surprise to cheer you up after the boy and I leave to-morrow. I believe they are arranging for you to go very shortly. You will enjoy it, won't you?"
"_I_ hope so," I replied. "As far as Isabel is concerned, I am sure I shall. But I have found out that I am very shy. I think I am rather afraid of Mr Wynyard. He has brought up his own daughters to be such pinks of perfection! I am sure that he won't approve of frivolous conversation. I remember Isabel saying how he disliked gossip. And oh! by-the-bye," I broke off, "that reminds me, Jocelyn! There is such a queer story, a regular mystery where the Wynyards live."
"Do you mean that the house is haunted?" said Jocelyn, laughingly.
"Oh, no; it is not about their own house, but a house near, in the neighbourhood. `Grimsthorpe,' I think, is its proper name. I wonder if I might tell you about it? It isn't exactly a secret, but I have never mentioned it to mamma. Mr Wynyard might blame Isabel for gossipping if he found that mother had heard of it."
"As I am not likely to see Mr Wynyard, I think you may safely tell me the story, whatever it is," said Jocelyn.
I was delighted to do so.
"To begin with," I said, "the very name of the place--I don't mean its proper name, but the corruption of it, for the whole neighbourhood calls it the `Grim House'--is enough to rouse one's curiosity!" And then I went on to relate the strange circumstances I had been told of.
My brother listened attentively, and with evident interest.
"What a queer story!" he said. "It suggests all manner of hidden tragedies. What a life for those poor men, even if they have done anything to deserve it! I can't help pitying them more than the sisters."
"The younger one is dreadfully delicate," I said, "so perhaps his life any way would have been a dull one. He is crippled somehow. I had the feeling that the elder brother, the eldest of them all, was the cause of their imprisoned life. But Isabel maintains that they are all suffering together for some one else. I do wonder if it will ever be explained!"
"There must be many mysteries," said Jocelyn, "that are never cleared up, but certainly this is a very curious one. Don't let Moore hear of it if there is any chance of _his_ ever going to the place; he could never rest contented till he got inside the Grim House. He'd be scaling the walls, and goodness knows what all, and would certainly get himself into trouble."
"I don't think that he or any one could feel more curiosity about it than I do," I said. "Isabel has got accustomed to it in all these years, but even _she_ says she has fits of wondering and wondering about these queer people."
"And possibly," said Jocelyn thoughtfully, "possibly the root of it all is nothing very terrible. The poor things may have got morbid about it, whereas if they could make up their minds to consult some outsider it might all be put right. It is extraordinary how brooding over troubles magnifies and increases them."
Jocelyn was wise beyond his years, and what he said impressed me.
"It seems a pity that no one--Mr Wynyard, for instance, or the clergyman of the place, if he is a sensible man--tries to help them," I said. "I know I couldn't live beside four miserable-looking people for twenty years without trying to gain their confidence."
"It may have been tried," remarked my brother. "But of course that sort of thing cannot be forced. It would require great tact and experience. Don't go on thinking about it too much, Reggie, or it will get on your brain; and whatever you do, don't attempt any investigation of the secret."
I did not reply. To tell the truth, words had added a new incentive to my great wish to unravel the mystery. What a good work it would be to get these poor lives out into the sunshine again! I was very young and very self-confident in some ways, and I did not then know that the onlookers whom I had tacitly reproached with indifference had already done their best in the direction of offering help.
The next day my brothers left us, and but for the anticipation of the pleasure in store for me which Jocelyn had told me of, I should have felt very low-spirited indeed. The morning following turned my hope into certainty. Mother opened a letter at the breakfast-table whose contents she read with evident satisfaction. In it was enclosed a note in Isabel's handwriting which mother passed on to me. It was quite short, just expressing her pleasure at the prospect of seeing me "so soon," and a few words added as a postscript increased my own excitement and satisfaction in the prospect of my visit to Millflowers. These were the words:--"I am doubly glad you are coming now," she wrote, "because something very strange, or rather unusual, has happened in connection with our local mystery, and I do so want to tell you about it. I am afraid I am a gossip at heart!"
I felt my face grow red with eagerness. Mother watching me, naturally attributed my excitement solely to pleasure at the invitation.
I thought you would be delighted, she said, full of sympathy _as_ usual. "I have purposely not spoken of it to you before till it was quite settled. There was a little uncertainty about Isabel's plans, as her sisters had talked of taking her away to pay some visits, but in the end this has been given up. So it is all right. You will start about this day week with Maple. It is rather a long journey, but Mr Wynyard has let me know all the trains. You will get there by daylight."
"Oh, I shouldn't mind how late I travelled with Maple," I said, for my maid had been with us since my childhood; though indeed, to tell the truth, my love of adventure would have found a good deal of attraction in the idea of travelling quite alone.
And the next few days passed quickly and pleasantly, mother sharing to the full my own happy expectations.
It _was_ a long journey, for the Wynyards' home was as decidedly in the North as ours was in the South. But I enjoyed it, especially when we got into a part of the world that was quite new to me. For though I had travelled so much, there had been no great variety in our movements, which had always been southwards. My own country was but little known to me.
The evening was drawing in when we reached our last stopping-place, the nearest station to Millflowers, by name Scart Bridge. And here a pleasant surprise awaited me, for on the platform stood Isabel herself, all smiles and welcome--"prettier than ever," I thought to myself as I kissed her.
"How nice of you to have come yourself," I said, "for it is a long drive, isn't it?"
"Not so very long, after all," she replied. "I always enjoy meeting people so much--it is not like seeing them off. _You_ have had a long journey, though," she went on. "Aren't you very tired?"
"Not a bit," I replied. "It has all been so new to me. I have never been in this sort of country before."
By this time we were seated in the waggonette, which Isabel informed me she had assured her father I should much prefer to a close carriage.
"It is really not cold now," Isabel went on. "The evenings are getting quite long. And it is so nice, on coming to a new place, to know something of your surroundings at once, don't you think? In a brougham one sees nothing."
I looked about me with the greatest interest. It was the "North Country" unmistakably. Wild and hilly, bare to some extent, though here and there we caught sight of short stretches of forest land, for during a great part of the drive to Millflowers the view was very extensive. But the aspect of things in general was not cold or repellent, even to my southern eyes, for I saw the country to advantage in the clear sweet light of a mild spring evening.
"I think it is delicious," I said enthusiastically. And as after a time we came to a great stretch of moorland, I grew even more enthusiastic. "Oh how charming!" I exclaimed. "It seems so beautifully free and open--the air is so exquisitely fresh and scented--yes, is it not scented, Isabel?"
"_I_ always fancy it is," she replied, "though it is too early in the year yet for the scent--the gorse! O Regina! you should see it when the gorse and heather are out!"
"Yes," I agreed. "It must be lovely. But do tell me," I went on, for my thoughts in those days were very erratic, "shall we pass the Grim House on our way? And O Isabel! do tell me what has happened there! You alluded to something in your letter."
A slight, the very slightest touch on my foot, and a glance at my friend's face checked me. I remembered that we were not alone, for Maple was in the waggonette with us, and I felt ashamed of my stupid indiscretion.
"You mean Grimsthorpe?" said Isabel quietly. "No, we do not pass that way. Not that there is much to see if we did; it is a very ugly house, though an old one. Indeed the houses about here are rarely picturesque, though I think ours is pretty inside, and so is the vicarage. There are no other at all large houses near us. Millflowers, you know, is a very tiny village. Did I ever tell you what some people believe to be the origin of the name?" she added with a smile. But I could see that my questions had made her a little uncomfortable and that she was anxious to change the conversation.
"No," I replied, feeling rather small. "I have wondered about it once or twice. It _is_ an odd name."
"There is a legend," Isabel said, "that long, long ago some French refugees settled in this out-of-the-way part of the world, and set to work to distil `scented waters' from the sweet-smelling plants and flowers--there is any quantity of thyme about here--they found, and that to their production they gave the name of `Millefleurs'--a name still used for a well-known scent, of course. At that time there were only two or three cottages where our village now is, and the story goes that these poor French people's secret gave its name to the place, getting corrupted into `Millflowers.'"
"How curious! I wonder if it is true," I said.
Isabel seemed dubious as to this.
"Papa says it sounds rather as if the story had been made up to suit the name," she said.
"Then is your own house not _very_ old?" I inquired.
"Not very--about eighty or a hundred years old," she replied. "It was originally just a sort of shooting-box--for our family has owned land about here for longer than that--and then my great-uncle took it into his head to enlarge it and make it his home. Grimsthorpe House is older; _it_ was originally a large farmhouse--indeed it is not, to look at, much better than that now, though the grounds are extensive."
We had crossed the moor by this time, and the rest of the way was along a more sheltered road bordered with trees, and here and there a glimpse of cultivated fields, altogether a different kind of landscape, more like what I was accustomed to at my own home, and a few minutes more brought us to the entrance of the Manor-house as the Wynyards' place was now called.
As we passed through the lodge-gates, Isabel leant towards me and whispered--
"The Grim House is half-a-mile farther on, on the edge of another part of the moor."
Her father was standing at the front door to receive us. His welcome was most cordial and courtly, but I felt even more strongly than before that it would be very difficult for me to be at ease with him; and so I said, in other words, to Isabel when we were alone in the room she had taken me up to. A charming room it was, with windows on two sides, from one of which a peep of the moorland, with rising ground in the distance, was to be had, as Isabel pointed out to me.
"Yes," I said, as I threw myself into a tempting arm-chair, "it is all delightful; only, Isabel, I do wish I didn't feel so shy of your father!"
"I can't understand it," she said. "I mean, I can't understand your feeling _shy_ of him. He is so exceedingly kind and gentle. At the same time--" she hesitated.
"What?" I asked quickly.
"I _could_ understand," she replied, "feeling afraid of him if one had done anything wrong--more afraid than if he were severe. When I was a small child and got into scrapes, as all children do sometimes, his look of almost perplexed distress made me feel worse, far worse, than if he had scolded me in a commonplace way."
"O Isabel!" I exclaimed, "you are making me feel far more frightened than before! I must be _awfully_ careful while I'm here not to shock Mr Wynyard in _any_ way. But I am so thoughtless and forgetful; and that reminds me how stupid it was of me to allude to the Grim House mystery before Maple."
"Yes," said Isabel, "I thought it best to give you a hint. I was sure you wouldn't mind; for the best of servants gossip, and I should not have liked your maid to tell our servants that you and I had been talking about the Greys, though she is pretty sure to hear something about them while she is here. But, dear Regina, you really mustn't take up the idea that papa is alarming! He is so pleased to have you here, and has said to me more than once that he hoped you would make me less of `an old woman,' which he says I am in danger of becoming. I get anxious about the housekeeping and things like that, and sometimes papa says I am not enough out of doors."
My spirits rose at this. I asked nothing better than to be out of doors from morning till night in this beautifully wild district.
"Your father won't have to complain of your leading too quiet a life if he leaves you to me," I said laughingly. "And the very first time we go out, Isabel, you will promise, won't you, to show me the Grim House! And oh!" I went on, "you haven't yet told me what has happened there just lately."
"It sounds so little to tell," said Isabel; "but if you could realise the utter isolation of these poor people, you would understand the sensation it has made. It is simply that they have had visitors for the first time in the memory of man!"
"What sort of visitors?" I asked eagerly.
"Two men--gentlemen--an old and a young one! They stayed at Grimsthorpe one night. They drove up in a fly from the station, and it fetched them again the next morning. You see I have kept my eyes and ears open as regards the mystery, for your benefit."
"Did you see these men?" I asked.
"I am not quite sure, but I think I did see one of them," was the reply. "I had been in the village, and coming home I met a stranger who asked me the way to the church. Our church is rather curious; nobody quite knows how it came to be there, it is so big a church for so tiny a place."
"What was he like?" I inquired, thinking to myself that I should have been much more excited over the incident than Isabel appeared to be.
"It was almost dusk," she answered. "But his voice was a very pleasant and cultivated one. He was young, and I think good-looking. I was half inclined to ask him if he was a stranger in the neighbourhood or something of that sort, for I saw he had come down a path which only leads to the Grim House, though it wasn't till the next day that we heard of the wonderful event. It was Strott, of course, who told me of it!"
"I wonder who he was!" I said thoughtfully. "It certainly makes the whole still more interesting if they are beginning to have any communication with the outside world."
"There is one thing," said Isabel, "that I forgot to tell you. They really must be good people, for on one occasion they did break through their rule of never leaving their own grounds. It was when little Tony at the vicarage fell off a haystack and they feared for his life; he was insensible for many hours, and his mother was in despair. That same afternoon the fly drove up to the vicarage, and, to Mrs Franklin's astonishment, the Misses Grey were announced! She could scarcely believe her ears, and she has often told me that the very excitement of their coming did her good."
"How very queer it is that you forgot to tell me of it before!" I could not help interrupting.
"I just did forget," said Isabel calmly. "You see we are so used to the Grim House strangeness that it doesn't strike us in the same way as it strikes you."
"And what were they like?" I asked, "and what had they come for?"
"To express their sympathy, and find out if they could be of any use," said Isabel. "Mrs Franklin was greatly touched. Of course their faces were quite familiar, but she had never heard their voices before. She said they were very, very gentle and apologetic, and pathetically timid. There were tears in their eyes, and they murmured something about being so fond of children, and that their own younger brother had had an accident as a boy, which had injured him lastingly. There was nothing they could do to help, though Mrs Franklin said she wished she could have invented something. She thanked them, of course, heartily, and the next day they sent down for news of Tony, by that time out of danger, and Mrs Franklin began to hope it would lead to some intercourse with these poor sad ladies. But no; the Grim House closed up again, and from that day to this they have never been seen except at church."
"Then it appears that the only way to decoy them out of their den would be for some of you to get very ill, or have an accident or trouble of some kind," I said rather thoughtlessly.
Isabel gave a little shiver.
"Don't talk of such things!" she exclaimed. "I am afraid I am naturally rather cowardly. I don't know if you have found that out yet, Regina? You mustn't despise me for it. Margaret consoles me by saying that she thinks it was the effect on my nerves of mamma's sudden death. I was such a little girl at the time, and it was so terribly sad--seeing her apparently quite well one evening, and being told the next morning that I should never see her again."
"Did you _not_ see her?" I asked in a lowered voice. Sorrow of this kind had never come near our happy family circle, and the mere allusion to it filled me with awe.
Isabel shook her head.
"No," she replied. "They thought it better not, but I am not sure that it was so. Margaret says she looked lovely. I could not understand it; she seemed to have disappeared, and yet I was frightened to ask any one about it. For nights and nights I lay awake wondering where she had gone, or rather _how_ she had gone; for of course they assured me that she was in a happy world. But it was so dreadful to me that she had gone without saying good-bye. I think I scarcely believed what I was told."
"Poor little Zella!" I said tenderly. "I think indeed it was enough to shake your nerves."
There was no more time for talking, as at that moment the dressing-bell sounded. But the conversation had left its mark on me. All through the evening, which was a very bright and pleasant one, and during which my shyness in Mr Wynyard's presence began to fade a little--all through that first evening the thought of the poor "Grey ladies," as I had begun to call them to myself, never left me. The picture of them in their pathetic timidity touched me curiously. And how good they must be to have made such an effort as that of going to the vicarage because there was trouble there!
And when I went to bed my meditations took an even more definite shape.
"I wonder how those four poor things are spending this evening," I thought. "So near us and yet so far off. I wonder if they have a piano or anything of that sort to pass the time. It _would_ be a good work, surely it would be, to get to know them, and break down the dreadful barrier they have placed round themselves. It seems so probable that they are exaggerating their troubles, whatever these may be."
"TRESPASSERS WILL BE PROSECUTED."
The next few days passed very pleasantly. The weather was fine though rather cold, but the fresh bracing feeling of the air seemed to suit the place, and I enjoyed its invigorating effect to the full. It was before the days of bicycles, but Isabel had a little pony-cart and a sturdy, sure-footed pony, in which we managed to get over the ground in a wonderful way. Hilly roads and rough ground were no obstacles to our progress; sometimes even, we ourselves lifted the cart over some specially awkward place, the pony seeming quite to enter into the fun of the thing.
We walked, too, quite long distances now and then, and several times, both walking and driving, we passed the high walls which surrounded Grimsthorpe House, the object of so much curiosity and speculation on my part.
As Isabel had warned me, there was but little to be seen of the house itself, except from one side, where a rise in the road enabled passers-by to look down, as it were, on the place.
And worthy of its name did it look,--"grim" indeed, as it was called.
It was a square grey building, with narrow windows in straight rows. There was nothing about it in the very least picturesque or attractive, for it was far too modern to at all suggest anything mediaeval or mysterious; it was just thoroughly ugly and forbidding. Yet to me it was full of fascination. We never passed the point of view in question without my begging Isabel to stop and have a good look at it, which at last she began to be rather unwilling to do.
"I think really it is getting on your brain, Regina," she said. "I almost wish I had never told you anything about it."
"As if any one could have helped noticing it," I exclaimed. "But for the neatly kept grounds"--for neat they were, so far as one could see, though with nothing ornamental about them at this season at least--"one could be tempted to think it was a prison or a workhouse."
"Prisons and workhouses are models of neatness, I believe," said Isabel. "But certainly these gardens could not belong to anything of the kind. And there are flowers at one side of the house later on in the year. I have an idea that the younger brother--the cripple--looks after them."
"Have you ever seen him gardening?" I asked eagerly.
Isabel shook her head.
"Oh, no," she replied, "I have never seen one of the family except in church."
"I am longing for Sunday," I said. For though I had already been more than a week at Millflowers, I had not yet been to the village church, as on my first Sunday there we had driven some miles in a different direction, by Mr Wynyard's wish, to hear a noted preacher who happened to be visiting in that neighbourhood.
We were standing just then, Isabel and I, on the rising ground I have spoken of, and my eyes were fixed on Grimsthorpe.
"No," I went on, "I have never seen anything so strange. It might be an enchanted--not `palace,' it is too ugly for that. I don't know what to call it. We have stood here some minutes, and there has not been the very slightest sign of life to be seen or heard. Not even a dog barking. How do they manage to make even their servants as noiseless and invisible as themselves?"
"You are drawing on your imagination a little," said Isabel, smiling. "There _is_ a gardener mowing the grass in that corner. See!" and she pointed it out, "and--yes! there is the baker's cart driving up the back entrance."
I was almost disappointed by her matter-of-factness.
"You are so desperately unromantic," I said impatiently. "You needn't have pointed out the gardener and the baker!" And in my own mind I thought that I would keep my curiosity more to myself in the future. "I don't believe Isabel would at all sympathise in any plan for getting to know these people!" but in this I did her injustice.
That very evening, just as it was beginning to get dusk, Isabel was called away by her father, as not infrequently happened, to do some writing for him. I was not inclined to stay indoors, so I ran upstairs to fetch my outdoor things, telling Isabel as I went, that I was going for a stroll on my own account, to pass the time that she was with her father.
Scarcely conscious of any intention of the kind, I turned nevertheless in the direction of the mysterious house. It was too late to have climbed up the hilly road referred to; besides, the fading light would have made it impossible to distinguish anything. So I contented myself with skirting the high wall of the grounds on the side nearer the Manor-house. I had walked about three-quarters of a mile, and was beginning to think it was time to return, when, standing still for a moment in consideration, I heard, in the perfect silence which seemed to pervade the locality, the sound of approaching footsteps. I glanced round, but no one was to be seen on the road, and as the steps drew nearer and more distinct, I became aware that they were those of some one on the inner side of the wall. I stood listening more and more intently, when, to my surprise and almost alarm, a figure appeared before me on the path, several yards beyond the spot I had reached. It was that of a person who had emerged from within; the fact being, though I was not then aware of it, that there was a door in the wall a little farther on.
Half confused, half frightened by this sudden apparition, I remained motionless, in what must have appeared a bewildered way to the newcomer. But before my fears had time to increase, the sound of a voice, unmistakably that of a gentleman, reassured me. Till he was close to me it was too dusky to distinguish his features clearly, but I saw him lift his hat as he approached.
"Excuse me," he said. "May I ask if you have possibly seen a pocket-book on the path about here? I think I must have dropped it--not far off--an hour or two ago, and very few people pass this way."
My curiosity, as well as my sympathy, was at once awakened.
"It must be," I thought to myself, "one of the Greys. Perhaps they come out here more than is known, for a little change. How I wish I had found the pocket-book; it might have been an opening!"
But to him I could only reply--
"No, I am sorry I have seen nothing of the kind. It has been almost too dark, though, to see it, as I have only just now come straight up the road."
Even now, close as we were, I could not distinguish his face very clearly, for the waning light was still further decreased by clouds. I saw, however, that he was anxious and worried, though, looking at him as attentively as I dared, I was surprised to see that he was not an elderly man, as from Isabel's description the older brother must be.
"And it cannot be the younger," I thought, "as he is crippled, and this man walks quite easily."
He thanked me, and passing me, again raising his hat, walked quickly along the road, down which I was about to retrace my steps.
I waited a moment or two, and then followed him at a more leisurely pace. But I had not gone more than a hundred yards or so when I saw again his figure emerging from the gloom before me. In spite of myself I felt a little afraid. The modern ghost is so very material and commonplace in appearance, by all accounts, that one may easily mistake it for a real flesh and blood personality.
"Can this path be haunted?" I asked myself, and as the stranger came nearer I involuntarily shrank up a little towards the wall.
But as he was passing, the cheerful tones of his voice dispelled my misgivings. He made an almost imperceptible pause in his quick pace, exclaiming--
"I have found it! So sorry to have troubled you!" then hurried on, doubtless to enter the grounds at the same spot whence he had emerged, and where my common-sense told me there must be a door of some kind.
"I shall make Isabel come this way to-morrow to look for it," I said to myself, and I hurried home, eager to relate to her my exciting adventure.
She was looking out for me, walking up and down the drive.
"I could have come with you if you had waited five minutes. Papa only wanted me for a moment or two, after all. It is rather too dark for you to be out alone, and I didn't know which way you had gone," she said.
"O Isabel!" I exclaimed. "Something so interesting has happened;" and I quickly related the incident, my friend listening attentively.
"Was it a Grey or a ghost?" I ended up half jokingly, but Isabel's face was full of grave consideration.
"I never _heard_ of a ghost in or about the Grim House," she said seriously. "But still less can I think it was one of the Grey brothers. The elder one is _quite_ old-looking, peculiarly worn and haggard, and the other, as I have told you, though he has a sweet, calm face, is an unmistakable cripple. He walks very slowly, and generally with a crutch."
"It is very mysterious, then," I replied, "though I shall not feel satisfied that it was not the elder brother till I have seen him for myself on Sunday. Do let me sit where I can have a good view of them, Isabel. I promise you I will peep at them most discreetly."
Isabel smiled, but seemed nevertheless a little disapproving.
"I hope they won't occupy your thoughts during the whole of church-time," she said.
"No, no," I replied. "Of course I wouldn't let it be so. Though naturally what has happened this evening makes me more anxious than ever to see them."
Fortunately for my peace of mind, this day was already Friday. I had not, therefore, long to wait. Millflowers church still belonged to the old order of things. There were two or three square pews, cushioned and curtained, for the "upper ten" of the village, one of which, of course, was appropriated to the Manor-house, and another to Grimsthorpe; and Isabel kindly arranged, not without some conscientious scruples, I fear, however, that I should occupy the corner whence the melancholy quartette could best be seen. She made a little plan of the church and the pews the evening before, for my benefit.
But without anything of this kind--almost, I think, without having been on the look-out for the denizens of the Grim House at all--they would, it seems to me, at once have attracted my attention. Indeed, at the first moment, I felt surprised that every one in the church did not turn round to look at them, forgetting the many years--years more than my whole existence--during which the solemn little procession of the four sad-faced people had, Sunday after Sunday, made their way up the aisle to the gloomy old pew. No--sad I can scarcely call them all, without making one exception. The face of the younger brother was, as Isabel had said, not only sweet, but calm and peaceful in expression, though he appeared pathetically delicate, with large soft eyes and almost colourless complexion.
"_He_ is not the guilty one, if guilty one there is," I decided. "_He_ is not the cause of the family unhappiness and isolation. I should say he is a sort of saint, happy to bear for the sake of others."
Then my eyes turned to the elder brother. The sisters I had already glanced at, and found them exactly what I had expected from Isabel's description--refined, rather insignificant-looking, inexpressibly melancholy; but the face of the senior of the party was in a sense the most interesting of all. He was evidently a strong man, well-made and originally powerful. But his frame was prematurely bent, the lines of his fine features were worn and furrowed. It was a good face, but the expression had become almost fiercely defiant and hard.
I made up my mind on the spot--I think I am naturally gifted with a certain amount of insight into character and idiosyncrasies--I made up my mind on the spot that Isabel was mistaken.
"It _is_ the elder brother," I mentally ejaculated, "who is at the root of it all! He is the most miserable of the four, because he feels that he has brought their trouble upon them. But nevertheless it would be very difficult to believe that that man has ever done anything mean or dishonourable." And I felt that the personal sight of the Grey family had to me only deepened the mystery. And then a sudden recollection flashed across my mind--the man I had met, the young man who had lost his pocket-book, was _not_ one of the group in the square pew! Who was he? A ghost, after all?
I said so to Isabel, as, the service over, we walked home. The Greys, I noticed, left their places with the very first who quitted the church, and by the time we had reached the porch, the village fly containing them was already some little way along the road.
"They always do so," said Isabel, as she pointed it out to me, "and the people have come to understand it and fall back a little to let them pass. But as to who it was that you met the other evening, I must own, Regina, I am completely puzzled. Suppose you tell papa about it and see what he says?"
Mr Wynyard was a little behind us, talking to Mr Franklin.
"Oh, no, no," I exclaimed, putting out a hand to stop her, as I fancied she was turning towards her father, "oh, _no_, Isabel. You know your father hates gossip, and he would be sure to ask why I had chosen that lonely road, and we couldn't help letting him see that I _am_ awfully interested in the Grim House; and then, if the least thing was said about our thinking the man was perhaps a ghost, he would never forget it--he would think it _so_ silly." Isabel laughed, but yielded to my wishes.
"Papa is not nearly as prosaic and prim as you think," she said. "But I am quite sure it wasn't a ghost, Regina."
"Then how did he get through the wall?" I inquired.
She shook her head.
"I can't say," she replied. "There may be a door there. As far as I remember, the wall at that part is a good deal overgrown with ivy. And the door, if there is one, is pretty certainly very seldom used, so it may be almost invisible."
"Let us go that way to-morrow and look," I suggested, to which Isabel assented. "Though all the same," I added regretfully, "if there were a dozen doors, that would not explain what the man was doing at the Grim House, or what has become of him."
"He may have been a tax-collector," said Isabel provokingly. She could be mischievous now and then.
"Nonsense!" I replied. "He was unmistakably a _gentleman_, as I have told you. And after all, they have had visitors, as you know."
"Yes, but they came openly, and were driven to and from the station. If this _were_ a visitor, he has managed to come and go in a most mysterious way. No, it is much more likely to have been a tax-collector. You could not see him plainly, you know."
"Would a man like that have a private key for a private door?" I said. "Don't be so silly, Zella."
"Well, we need not quarrel about it till we are sure there _is_ a door," Isabel replied good-humouredly. "In the meantime, tell me what you think of the poor Greys, now that you have seen them for yourself?"
"I _will_ tell you," I replied impressively. "To begin with, the sisters are just what you said; they must have been pretty, one of them at least, in a fair, gentle way, and the younger brother's face is almost saintly. I have got those three pretty clearly defined. But,"-- and here my voice deepened, I feel sure--"_the_ one is the elder brother! He is at the bottom of it all;" and I went on to mention what I had noticed in his expression and bearing. "Don't you remember my telling you so even before I had any reason for it? It was an intuition."
Isabel seemed considerably impressed.
"Yes," she replied. "I do remember what you said; but you know, Regina, you do give the reins to your imagination sometimes, and I, I suppose, am very matter-of-fact. So you see I didn't think very much of your idea, as you had then _no_ grounds for it. But now I allow that it _does_ seem probable Mr Grey's face is all you say; it tells of cruel struggle, and endurance too, while the others rather express patience and resignation. He must--the elder one, I mean--have been very good-looking."
"He has a very high-bred look," I agreed. "But, Isabel, who can my stranger have been? Is it possible that there is a fifth member of the party who is kept dark altogether?"
Isabel shook her head.
"Quite impossible, I should say; besides, the man you met was young. He could not have been reared up there from boyhood."
"He may have joined them lately," I said; but on reflection I decided that even this was improbable. "No," I went on, "I am sure he does not live there. There was a cheery, open-air sound in his voice. I think he was very nice-looking. Tall and a very good figure, that I am sure of."
Suddenly Isabel gave a little exclamation.
"What's the matter?" I cried.
"Only something that has just struck me," was the reply. "How stupid of me not to have thought of it before. I do believe that your man, Regina, was the younger of the two visitors who came to the Grim House not long ago!"
"Why should you think so?" I asked, a little desirous perhaps that my _trouvaille_ should be entirely my own. "Especially as you said yourself that the others came and went openly?"
"I don't quite know," said Isabel slowly. "It was something in your way of describing him just now that seemed to recall the man who asked me the way to the church."
Fortunately perhaps, at this moment Mr Wynyard overtook us, and our thoughts, which were becoming too absorbed in the mysterious subject, were for the time being distracted. Not for very long, however. The next morning found us, as we had planned, starting off on a search expedition.
The door in the wall was the object of our quest, and on the way to the spot where it must be, if it existed at all, I pointed out to Isabel the exact place where I had met the stranger, and the distance down the road that he had gone to look for his lost property.
"You see," I explained, "if he were a ghost, this would be of importance, for everybody knows that ghosts are restricted to certain limits; and after all, dusk though it was, it was rather curious that I had not noticed the pocket-book, which seemed a pretty big one, as he waved it in his hand."
"I can't say that what you tell of him sounds at all ghost-like," said Isabel. "He was too prosaic surely! However, what we have to do is to find if the door was a material reality or not."
"If it isn't," I said emphatically, "I shall be certain he was not a real person. And if so, there must be some legend about this path which we must set to work to disinter."
My heart beat rather faster than usual as we approached the place in the wall whence the unknown man seemed to come out, and for a few minutes our search was unsuccessful. No door was to be seen. The growth of ivy was very thick just there. I stood back a little at last, and surveyed the wall from a short distance, and at one spot it seemed to me that there was a slight break in the line. I kept my eye as closely as possible fixed on this spot while I approached it, and pushed gently against the ivy with my hand.
Yes, I had not been mistaken; but I got a start as I suddenly felt what seemed a bit of the wall itself yielding to my touch. I started back with a little exclamation which brought Isabel to my side.
"What is it?" she exclaimed. "Have you found it?"
"I have found something," I said, and on examining more closely, it proved to be the suspected door, overgrown with ivy indeed, practically indistinguishable from the outside, but in good order nevertheless, moving on its hinges smoothly and noiselessly.
It opened inwards of course, and, strange to say, it was open, as has been shown.
"I wonder if he forgot to lock it," I said, "or if it is always left unfastened."
I pushed it farther ajar as I spoke, Isabel pressing forward eagerly.
"Now," I said triumphantly, "we shall get a peep inside the enchanted ground. This _is_ a `find' of mine. Confess, Zella, that I have done more in a few days towards unearthing the mystery than you in twice as many years."
But Isabel looked too frightened to take the matter lightly.
"Don't speak so loud, Regina," she said in a half whisper; "some one may be near us, inside."
She was quite pale with excitement, yet, timid though she was, her curiosity, as well as mine, was thoroughly awakened.
"We may as well glance in," she went on, "if we are very, very careful. Just give a look round, Regina," and she drew back to allow me to do so.
I obeyed her cautiously. All seemed safe; there was no one in view or within hearing.
"It is all right," I said, withdrawing my head; "we may go in a few steps, I am sure, without danger."
"Well, first draw-to the door a little," said Isabel sensibly, "for fear of any passer-by noticing that it is open."
When we found ourselves fairly within the grounds, we looked at each other before we looked at anything else. I could not repress a half-nervous laugh.
"Don't you feel like a detective or a conspirator?" I said.
Isabel grew still more frightened.
"Oh, if _you_ are going to begin to feel like that," she exclaimed, "we had better go back at once. I am trembling so that I can scarcely stand."
I was very far from wishing her to put her threat into execution, so I at once hid my nervousness and replied lightly, though still speaking in low tones--
"You are too silly! Who could blame us for glancing inside an open garden-door? And at worst, you have never said that the Grim House people were at all ogreish! See there, Isabel; do let us go as far as that clump of bushes. I have an idea that from behind them we could see the house."
I walked on a few steps boldly, my companion following me more leisurely. My idea was correct, as we rounded the clump in question, we did come into view of the house, and--of something else too.
AN UNEXPECTED ALLY.
At some little distance from where we now stood was a sort of terrace-walk, for this side of the house, though not that of the front entrance, was evidently intended to be the best. The windows looking out this way were somewhat wider, one or two reaching to the ground, as if to give easy egress from the rooms within.
At one side of the walk was a carefully kept piece of lawn; on the other--that nearest the house--a border, even at this early season presenting a lovely, and, in contrast to the severity and gloom of the building itself, an almost startling blaze of colour. It was filled with spring flowers, tulips, hyacinths, etc, beautifully arranged, so that the groups and their shades harmonised perfectly together. It was evidently a sheltered spot, and evidently, too, this bit of garden ground was most carefully tended. One felt by instinct that it was somebody's pet or hobby.
"How lovely!" Zella exclaimed under her breath. "I had no idea that there were flowers at this side. Naturally so, for of course we couldn't see it from the road. We have no spring show to compare with this at the Manor-house, Regina!" And she was moving on eagerly, forgetting in her excitement for she was a great gardener--that we were trespassers, when suddenly there broke on our ears the peculiar sound of "tap tap" coming round the other side of the house, and in another moment we caught sight of the slowly approaching figure of the younger Mr Grey, the cripple brother, with his crutch.
In less time than it takes to tell it, we had fled--fled ignominiously-- too startled to know whether we were ashamed of ourselves or only alarmed.
But as soon as we had reached the friendly shelter of the farther side of the bushes, my audacity reasserted itself.
"Stop, Isabel," I whispered. "Do let us see what he is going to do. He can't possibly have caught sight of us."
"I don't know that," returned Isabel, who was all in a quiver. "He may have _heard_ us, if he didn't see us--the sound of our skirts as we rushed off, in this perfect silence." And so it appeared. For, as we stood there peeping out, we saw that the newcomer stopped short and seemed to be listening attentively.
"Good gracious?" I ejaculated, "he has heard us. There is something rather uncanny about him. I dare say he has extra-acute eyes and ears-- delicate people often have--for we made next to no sound. But we must stay here for the present," I continued, rather pleased, in spite of our alarm, that we were forced into remaining where we were, as with care it was quite possible to watch the newcomer.
"Do be quiet," said Isabel in a whisper, speaking, for once, almost crossly. "Your voice will be heard if you don't take care."
I subsided meekly enough, for I felt conscious that in my excitement I had not been very cautious. So we stood there like two naughty children, as indeed in a sense we were, furtively watching the poor man's movements. It was touching to see him. He walked and stooped with difficulty, but his heart was evidently in his work as he carefully removed any dead flowers and leaves and raised here and there a drooping tulip in need of support, standing still now and then, while he drew back a few paces, to enjoy apparently the whole beautiful effect of the lovely colours.
"I dare say," I thought to myself, for I did not venture to speak at all,--"I dare say he is an artist as well as an amateur gardener. If so, he is not so much to be pitied after all, though he must long sometimes to pull down that hideous house!"
He went on quietly attending to the borders for some little time, having apparently reassured himself as to the sounds he had heard. And at last, when he had moved on a little, Isabel touched my arm, whispering--
"Don't you think we might go now?"
I agreed, and we were on the point of stealing away, when another little incident revived our curiosity, and made us stop short. We heard a whistle; in response to it the cripple raised himself from bending over a flower-bed and listened. The whistle was repeated, and then Mr Grey called out--
"Here I am--waiting for you."
"Your brother wants you for a moment," was the reply, in a man's voice undoubtedly, though assuredly not that of a servant. "He won't keep us long, and then we can--" But the rest of the sentence was inaudible.
The cripple moved in the direction of the voice, and as he turned the corner of the house, the tap of his crutches growing fainter, we heard a cheery voice greeting him and the sound of laughter, to our amazement, reached our ears.
"There now!" I exclaimed. "Perhaps you'll be convinced at last, Isabel! There _is_ a fifth person living in that house."
"Wait till we are outside to talk about it, for goodness' sake," said Isabel. "I never knew any one so impulsive as you are, Regina."
But I was too elated by what I considered our successful investigations, even though to some extent they had but deepened the mystery, to take offence.
We closed the door in the wall cautiously, for I was rather afraid of its shutting with a spring, and thus debarring us from ever making use of it again. And as soon as we were safely outside I took up the thread of my discourse.
"You see, Isabel," I went on, "the person who whistled and called was a _man_ evidently, and a gentleman, and assuredly not the elder brother, as he spoke of him. I believe in my heart that it was the very man I met the other day--possibly the one you met some time ago."
Isabel looked perplexed and a little worried. Her nerves had suffered with the morning's excitement and adventures, which in my case had only stimulated my curiosity and audacity.
"Perhaps so," she replied; "but really, Regina, I wish you'd forget about it. I never felt so ashamed and frightened in my life as when we were hiding behind these bushes."
"I do think you are exaggerating," I said, gently I hope; for though I was rather provoked by her want of adventurous spirit, as I called it to myself, I was also sorry for her, and at the bottom of my heart I almost think I felt a little guilty for involving her in anything that her father would disapprove of. Possibly, too, though I did not acknowledge it to myself, the salve which I applied to my own misgivings was not altogether effectual, though I proceeded to use it for Isabel's benefit.
"Don't you see," I continued, "we may perhaps be on the way to be of real use to these poor people by finding out a little more about them? I would not have minded--indeed I was almost hoping for it--if the cripple Mr Grey _had_ seen us and asked what we wanted."
"Oh," exclaimed Isabel, "I should have died of shame!"
"Not at all," I replied. "We could easily have said that we were tempted by the open doorway to take a look at the grounds; or even," I proceeded, "we might have asked him if he knew that the door had been left open, as we felt sure it was not intended to be!"
"That would have been," said Isabel sharply, "not--"
"You are not to say that it would have been untrue," I interrupted rather indignantly. "It would only have been part of the truth, I allow, but still--"
"Oh, well, don't let us quarrel about it," said Isabel, smiling; "but I do think, Regina, we had better not continue our investigations; we might get ourselves, and possibly other people, into trouble somehow."
"Ourselves perhaps," I agreed, "but not other people, that I can see. And I don't mind risking something myself, if it could do any good."
"It might do harm," Isabel persisted. "Whatever it is, the motive must be of the strongest--the Greys', I mean--which compels them to live as they do. And any attempt at breaking down the barrier might lead to mischief that we cannot picture to ourselves, so completely in the dark as we are."
I did not agree with her, or perhaps, to speak more accurately, my true judgment was more than half convinced, but my self-will would not allow me to be guided by it.
The result was, that I felt, and probably appeared, very cross. But an unexpected distraction of my thoughts was in store. That afternoon's post brought two letters for me, both with the same news, though from different sources. One was from mother and one from Moore.
They announced that an epidemic of some kind, though not of a very serious nature, had broken out in his "house," and that the boys were disbanded for two or three weeks, Moore amongst them, as no exceptions could be made under the circumstances, though as it was an illness he had already had, he was considered proof against infection.
"He is coming home," wrote my mother, "at once. It is a great pity, and I shall not know what to do with him alone here. He will miss you so dreadfully. If it were not a shame to propose it, I should be inclined to shorten your visit."
And Moore's lamentations were even more outspoken.
"Do come back as soon as ever you can, Reggie," he wrote. "I really can't stand home without you, and you can go back to Millflowers again later."
I looked up gravely.
"Isabel," I exclaimed, "I must go home;" and I told her what my letter contained.
Isabel looked greatly distressed.
"Oh, no, Regina," she replied, "you cannot leave us yet. You have been here barely a fortnight, and you were to stay five or six weeks at least. I should feel so unhappy if you left just now," she went on, "for--I don't quite know how it is--I feel as if I had been rather disagreeable to you about that tiresome old Grim House, but I am sure I didn't mean to be so. Only--"
"You are quite right," I replied; "quite right not to do anything that you are at all afraid might vex your father;" at which Isabel's face cleared. She little suspected that I was saying to myself that I, not being Mr Wynyard's daughter, was not restricted in the same way.
"I am so glad," she said, "that you see it that way now, for that _is_ my principal reason, though it is true too that I am naturally cowardly in some ways. I have not got your spirit and love of adventure. But as to your going home now, it really cannot be thought of. We must plan something. Stay! I have got an idea. Wait here a moment, Regina; I will be back directly."
She ran off to look for her father, I felt sure. We were sitting in the drawing-room; it was nearly tea-time, and in a few moments she reappeared, followed by Mr Wynyard, her face fall of pleasure.
"It is all right," she began. "I knew it would be. Regina, Moore is to come here as soon as it can be managed. Father says so."
"Yes," Mr Wynyard agreed, "it is by far the best solution of the difficulty. There is no fear of infection. Isabel has had all these childish illnesses long ago--and you too, Regina, I suppose? Otherwise your mother would not think of your returning home to meet your brother."
"Yes," I answered, "Moore and I, and Horry, I think, had scarlet fever and all these things together. It would be quite delightful to have Moore here, if you are sure he would not be at all in the way. He is really not a tiresome kind of boy, I must say."
"No, indeed," exclaimed Isabel. "We saw that at Weissbad, when he was so often alone with you and me, Regina, and quite content with our society."
"In some ways," I said, "the others call me more of a boy than him at home;" and I reddened a little, feeling half ashamed of the confession before Mr Wynyard. But he did not seem to mind it; rather the other way indeed.
"It would do Zella no harm to have a little of the boy element instilled into her," he said with a smile. "But there is no time to be lost in arranging this new plan. Let me see! Must Moore go home first? Yes, I suppose it is on the way."
"I think it would be better," I replied. "Winchester is really only a short way from home, and he is sure to want to pick up things there. I do hope father won't think it too far for him to come for so short a time."
"It need not be so short a time, as far as we are concerned," said Mr Wynyard hospitably. "But of course the boy will have to get back to school again whenever he can. I'll tell you what," he went on, "I will write to your father myself, which I think will ensure Moore's being allowed to come."
"Oh, thank you," I said gratefully, and indeed I felt so.
"Your father is _very_ kind," I said to Isabel when we were by ourselves. "I am getting to feel much less afraid of him."
Isabel looked pleased at this.
"I told you so," she said. "I can't imagine being afraid of him unless I knew I was doing something wrong."
Her words recalled our discussion about the Grim House.
"I know," I thought to myself, "who _would_ sympathise with me about it to the full, and that's Moore. I wonder if I dare tell him."
Then another warning returned to my mind--that of Jocelyn.
"How curious that he should have thought of such a possibility as Moore's coming here," I said to myself. "I feel half inclined to look at things from the `Kismet' point of view. `What is to be, will be.' If Moore's coming here helps me to go on with my investigations without involving Isabel, which I now see I have no right to do, it will seem as if it was all _meant_. That's to say, if I make up my mind to tell him about it, in spite of Jocelyn's fatherly advice."
And in my heart I think I knew that I should never have the resolution to keep the fascinating subject to myself, once Moore was on the spot.
All came to pass as we had hoped. Moore arrived, brimful of delight, and very much inclined to think the epidemic at school an unlimited subject of congratulation. He was looking very well, I was pleased to see--altogether in a mood for viewing everything with rose-coloured spectacles.
"This _is_ a jolly place, Regina," he confided to me when we were strolling about the first morning after his arrival, I acting "cicerone," as Isabel was engaged in her housekeeping cares. "Now I hope you'll give me some credit for knowing what I'm about when I make friends with people! Do you remember how angry you were that day at Weissbad when I came in and told you I had been speaking to the Wynyards? Even mother looked rather funny about it."
"What nonsense!" I exclaimed. "Angry! I wasn't the least angry! I was only rather shy at the idea of making new acquaintances."
"And the Paynes," Moore resumed, "they were thoroughly nice people too. By-the-bye, Reggie, I forgot to tell you that Leo, the youngest, is almost sure to come to my `house' next term. I knew that he was down for Winchester, but I had no idea we'd be together. It isn't quite certain yet--it depends on a vacancy."
"That will be nice for you," I replied, half absently. Not that I had not taken in what he said, but that his mention of the Payne family had recalled to me Rupert's talk of sensational stories, "facts stranger than fiction," which had come to his knowledge, and I began wishing that I could see him again to talk over the Millflowers mystery, now that I had seen for myself the Grim House and its inhabitants. But on that occasion I did not allude to it to Moore.
For some days our pleasantest anticipations were realised. Moore proved a great acquisition in our drives and walks. Mr Wynyard encouraged to the full everything of the kind, and gratified me more than once by saying that active exercise in the open air, and all that sort of thing, was "so good for Isabel."
"A little roughing it would really do her no harm," he said. "She is as unselfish and conscientious as she can be, but life has been in some ways perhaps too sheltered for her. I don't know how she could ever stand alone, as she may have to do any day," he added with a little sigh which touched me.
"But you are not at all old, Mr Wynyard," I said, rather brusquely perhaps. "You can't be older than father, and we look upon him as--oh! quite a young man. Then, too, Margaret, Mrs Percy, and her husband are devoted to dear Zella!"
"Yes," he agreed, "but still the best of brothers and sisters are not like a parent, and I suppose, to confess the truth, I have spoilt Zella a little. Circumstances seemed to make it inevitable."
I knew that he alluded to his wife's death, so I said no more. But the effect of this little conversation was, I now see, somewhat to increase my own self-confidence, and rather to lead me to think more than heretofore that in some ways Isabel was babyish, and almost morbid in her scrupulous conscientiousness.
Between us, with the best intentions in the world, her father and I at this juncture went rather to an extreme with poor Isabel. She was very far from being as strong as I constitutionally, and when she hung back, as happened now and then, from any scheme of long walks or drives, which Moore and I, in spite of his past delicacy, felt quite equal to, we urged her joining us, Mr Wynyard always endorsing what was said.
"You mustn't be lazy, my dear child," he would say rallyingly; "now that you have got companions you must profit by them."
And she always gave in, accusing herself of want of energy and spirit, when in reality she was not fit for what she attempted.
I have often felt sorry, now that years and greater experience have taught me better--I have often felt sorry to think of the efforts dear little Isabel must have made in order to keep up with us and to please her father. But after all, no very great harm was done, for the poor child caught cold one day through getting drenched in a thunderstorm, which necessitated a visit from the doctor, who had known her all her life, and who pronounced her decidedly "below par."
Any suggestion of chest danger terrified Mr Wynyard, for Zella's mother had died of consumption; so her catching cold was probably a benefit in disguise, as it put a stop once for all to her forcing herself to do more than she was able for. She took it to heart so much, that Moore and I felt on our mettle to prove to her, and indeed also to Mr Wynyard, who blamed himself almost unduly, that we could manage to amuse ourselves very well indeed in spite of our regret at her absence. For fully a week she was not able to go out at all, and during that week-- well, I must narrate what happened circumstantially.
I think it was on one of our expeditions before Isabel fell ill, and not many days after his arrival, that Moore, on our return to Millflowers one evening down the hill-road, noticed the Grim House for the first time. Hitherto I had not mentioned it to him. I think I was secretly a little afraid of awakening his curiosity on the subject, and conscious that if I talked of it at all, I should probably be tempted to tell him all I knew.
He stopped short, I remember, at the point on the road whence the best, in fact the only, view of the place was attainable.
"What a gloomy-looking house!" he exclaimed. "It might be a small prison or a private lunatic asylum."
"On the contrary," said Isabel. "Such places, asylums at least, are now-a-days very cheerful-looking, I believe."
"But what _is_ the place?" he asked, and Isabel told him, shortly enough, that it was a private residence, though its inhabitants kept very much to themselves, and then she changed the subject. Something in her tone, however, must have struck him, though she said so little, for afterwards, when we were alone--I cannot quite remember if it were the same day, or not till we were again passing the spot--he alluded to it.
"Is there anything queer about that house?" he inquired. "Isabel seemed mysterious! Is it haunted or anything of that kind? How jolly it would be if it were," and his eyes gleamed. "I'd find my way into it somehow, and make the fellows stare at my adventures when I get back to school."
"No," I said cautiously, "it is not haunted;" but my tone--perhaps I did it purposely--only stimulated his inquisitiveness.
He glanced at me suspiciously.
"It is _something_, then?" he exclaimed. "And you know about it, and don't mean to tell me! It's too bad! You know you can trust me if it's a secret."
"It isn't exactly a secret," I replied. "But if I do tell you, Moore, you must promise me--solemn word of honour--that you'll not--"
I stopped and hesitated. It was rather difficult to say what I wanted him to promise, for the very suggestion that he was _not_ to think of doing certain things was enough to put them into his head.
"Promise you what?" he asked, seeing my hesitation.
"Well," I resumed, "that you won't do anything in the way of trying to discover the mystery--for a mystery there is--without telling me."
The word was enough. The boy would have promised me anything and everything under its fascinating influence.
"Of course I will," he replied. "Honour bright! So fire away, Regina."
So I did as he asked, and before we reached home, my brother was as fully versed in the whole details of the queer story as I was myself, inclusive of my own bit of adventure, the advent of the stranger; not to speak of a very fair amount of entirely groundless speculations which I had got into the habit of indulging in.
THE BLACK CURTAIN.
Moore listened in almost breathless silence, only interrupted now and then by muttered ejaculations, and when I had finished he looked up, his eyes sparkling, and said solemnly--
"It's as good as a haunted house any day, Reggie. I never heard such a jolly mystery. Close at hand too! I do wish I had been with you the day you got inside. I fancy I can see you and Isabel scuttering off like two frightened rabbits," and here he broke out laughing.
This I did not altogether approve of.
"If you treat it in that way," I said severely, "I shall wish I had not told you anything about it. It is no laughing matter, that I can see. It is terribly sad to think of these poor people being forced, or thinking they are forced, to lead such a life. I should be so glad to find out any way of helping them."
My tone sobered the boy, but he did not pretend to be influenced by any such high motives as those which I persuaded myself actuated _me_, far more than idle curiosity.
"I don't see that you or any stranger could possibly be of the least use to them," he said. "All the same I'd give anything to find out about it, and I don't see but what we might make some investigations without doing any one any harm. You are plucky enough for anything--not like Isabel; and just supposing, Reggie, that there _is_ somebody shut up there that no one has ever seen; that man you met might be a kind of a keeper."
"He was a gentleman," I replied.
"He might have been some sort of a doctor," said Moore consideringly.
"And don't think for a moment," I said, without noticing his last remark, "that they are the kind of people to do anything wicked or cruel. They are the sufferers themselves, of that I am certain."
"I'll have a good look at them in church next Sunday," he replied. "I do remember noticing them in their big square pew, and thinking they looked gloomy and queer, but I could not see them very well from where I sat. Have you been back to the door in the wall again to see if it is still open?"
I shook my head.
"No," I replied, "I have kept quite out of the way of it since Isabel got so frightened. Indeed I have not spoken to her about it for some time, and I have often thought how much I should like to tell you about it; I knew you'd be so interested. Only, Moore--remember what you have promised," I added impressively.
"Of course I shall," he replied. "You've never known me break my word, now, have you, Reggie?"
"No," I allowed.
"And I'm not going to do such a thing this time," he continued. "Besides, it would be a mean sort of trick to start anything on my own account, and keep you out of the fun."
"It is not _fun_ I am thinking of," I replied, with some indignation.
"Oh well, you know what I mean. You'd like awfully to find out what is at the bottom of it all, and so would I. We needn't say more than that. I don't suppose we _shall_ find out anything, but the mere idea of it is so interesting. I wonder what the house is like inside. Are the windows barred, do you know?"
"Not that I have seen," I replied. "Certainly not on the side where Isabel and I were. And you can see for yourself that there's nothing of the kind on this side," for, as I said, we were standing on the hilly ground from which two sides of the Grim House were fairly well within view. "No, Moore, I don't believe in your theory of some one being shut up there. It would have come out to a certainty through the servants. I told you they have no old servants of their own; they just get them in the neighbourhood like other people."
Moore whistled softly and swung his legs about. When I said we were "standing," I should rather have said "sitting," he on the top of a high gate, the entrance to a sloping field, I on the lower step of a stile at one side. I detected a note of incredulity in his manner.
"No," I repeated, "I am certain there is no one shut up there--not even a--"
"Oh I don't know--a tiger, or a pet boa constrictor, as there was in a story I read the other day," I said carelessly. "Anything you like. No, there is nothing in _that_ idea, Moore."
"Well," he replied, "we shall see, or very likely we shall _not_ see. But at worst I'm determined to have a go at finding out _something_ before I leave Millflowers, and of course you will help me, Reggie. You see I can't do anything on my own account because of my promise to you."
I trusted him, yet I felt uneasy, and almost began to regret my confidences. He would certainly not _mean_ to break his word, but still--he might be sorely tempted, and he was only a boy. If, for instance, he was passing the door in the wall and found it ajar, what boy nature could resist, like Bluebeard's wife, peeping in; and once within the enchanted precincts! No, I had myself to thank for it; I had laid the train, and I must see to the consequences.
"There is really nothing to do," I began, trying, now that it was too late, to wet-blanket the boy's curiosity.
"There's lots to find out," he interrupted. "You have been thinking and wondering ever so much about it yourself. You know you have. And if I keep my promise, as of course I shall, you mustn't fight off poking about a bit, to see what we can see. We needn't get into mischief or bother anybody. Isabel and her father need never know we go near the place. _I_ should never do anything half as risky as you and she did the other day."
"What is it you want to do?" I asked, with a curious mixture of feelings. I was afraid, though I scarcely knew what I was afraid of, and yet in a sense pleased to be, as it were, forced into prosecuting some investigation into the mystery which had so fascinated my imagination.
Moore did not at once reply. At some risk to his equilibrium, he managed to raise himself to a standing position on one of the higher bars of the gate, and gazed before him intently. Of course I did not need to be told in what direction he was gazing.
"It seems to me," he said at last, "so far as I can understand from your description the spot where the door is--it seems to me that if we got in by it, we could creep round to the front of the house--I mean to a part from where we could have a good view of the front, and see the windows and anything there is to be seen--behind the bushes, without coming out into the open at all. That would be grand, wouldn't it, Reggie?"
My first impulse was to exclaim delightedly in agreement, but there came misgivings again. I had not, so far, contemplated anything so audacious. Still, Moore, as he turned towards me interrogatively, must have seen the gleam in my eyes. He was as sharp as a needle.
"Oh," I replied, "that would really be trespass. We must not do as much as that--just supposing we were seen? What could we say for ourselves?"
"Just supposing we are _not_ seen," he said with boyish pertness. "Nonsense, Reggie--trust me for that."
"Or if there are dogs about," I went on.
"You'd have seen them, or they would have scented you that other day to a certainty. Besides, if there were, dogs always like me. I can always smooth them down," which was true enough. I had seen it tested more than once. Moore was one of those persons naturally gifted with a curious power over animals. "I don't say," he continued, evidently anxious to impress me with his caution and sobriety of judgment, "that I'd care to tackle a bloodhound or even a mastiff. But it's most unlikely that they have any fellows of the kind about the place. It would be known."
This too was a reasonable presumption. Still I shook my head.
"All the same, we shall be doing a thing we have no right to be doing," I persisted.
Moore shrugged his shoulders.
"If you go at it like that, there are a good many things we'd better not do," he said. "We've no _right_ to pick mushrooms in old Porson's fields at home, but no one has ever found fault with us for it."
"Oh, that's quite different," I replied. "However," for I was anxious to drop the subject as far as possible, knowing by experience that once Moore got into an argument it was not easy to dislodge him without giving in entirely, "the first thing to be done is to look for the door in the wall, for if it is locked, there's an end to everything," though as I said the words, Jocelyn's ominous prediction, "he'd be scaling the walls and goodness only knows what," returned to my memory. "That was a stupid speech of mine," I said to myself. "Just the thing to start him on some wild scheme."
And I now began to hope fervently, from the side of expediency as well as of curiosity, that the door should _not_ be locked.
Moore took no apparent notice of my last remark, but after events proved that he had not only heard, but thoroughly digested it.
We had no opportunity of prosecuting our researches that day or the next. For "to-morrow" turned out an appallingly wet day--so drivingly rainy and wretched, that even Moore's ardour was damped, and he stayed indoors contentedly enough. I did not know how he was amusing himself, but he told me afterwards that he had been making a "plan" of Grimsthorpe House, or rather of its position and grounds so far as he had been able to get them into his head from his own observations and my descriptions. He had also made preparations for the adventure he was determined not to be balked of, in other ways. He stuffed his pockets with strong cord, an old geological hammer and chisel of Mr Wynyard's, which he had found in a drawer and taken possession of with Isabel's leave, a feather and small bottle of oil, and all the unused keys he could lay hands on, and, last not least, in spite of his contempt for my suggestion, a large piece of dog-biscuit, to be on the safe side in case of canine opposition to our visit.
And the next afternoon I found myself "in" for it. There was no evasion of my promise even had I heartily wished to get out of it.
It was not very early when we set off, as I had in the first place been for a drive with Isabel, the doctor having given leave for this as soon as the weather grew milder, and to-day had turned out peculiarly fine after the storms of yesterday.
Moore was waiting for me when we came in.
"I want Reggie to go a little walk with me," he said, half apologetically, to Isabel. "She wasn't out all yesterday, and she'll be getting too fat if she doesn't have exercise."
Isabel laughed. At that stage in my career there seemed little likelihood of the danger he alluded to. For strong and wiry as I was, I was decidedly thin.
"Don't be late for tea," she said, as we turned away; but Moore called back--
"Don't expect us till half-past five; it is more than four already. It doesn't matter about tea."
"Speak for yourself," I said to him when we were out of hearing. "I do mind about tea, and I don't suppose you've got a private invitation from the Greys to have it with them."
"Who knows!" said Moore jokingly. "Perhaps they'll fall in love with us at first sight and ask us to go in."
Even though I knew he was joking, what he said startled me. I stopped short in the path and turned round, facing him.
"Don't talk nonsense," I said warningly.
"Who began it?" he replied. "I was only following up what you said."
"Well, but seriously," I resumed. "I hope you are not in a wild humour, Moore, meaning to do anything reckless?"
"Of course not," he said reassuringly. "To-day I _mean_ to do nothing whatever but spy the ground. But do let us walk faster. How far have we to go?"
"Not above half a mile or so to where the wall begins," I replied. "And then, oh! it can't be above a few hundred yards to the place where the door is, only if we are to find it we must walk slowly when we get near there."
The road looked almost more lonely to-day than when I had been there before. There was not the slightest sign of life or movement as far as we could see beyond us.
"I could believe that no one had passed this way for weeks," I said to Moore. "Did you ever see such a lonely place?"
"That is probably why they have made the door on this side," he replied. "I dare say they come out at night, and walk up and down like ghosts!"
"I'm sure they don't," I answered, "and _they_ didn't make the door. It's as old as the wall itself, as you can see by the ivy. Now don't talk any more; I want to give all my attention to looking for it."
And in a minute or two I exclaimed triumphantly; "Here it is, and--yes-- still unlocked!"
It must have called for some self-restraint on Moore's part not to shout "hurrah!" but we were well on our guard. We pushed the door open and entered cautiously, drawing it to behind us. We were well sheltered, as I have said, by the bushes skirting the wall. I crept along a few yards in the same direction as I had done the last time, my brother closely following me. Then we stopped, and I whispered to him that I thought it would be safe to peep out a little. He did so, keeping still well in the shade of the heavy clumps of evergreens farther inside the grounds. Then, after reconnoitring, he beckoned to me to come on.
"There isn't a creature about," he said, "and we can't be seen from the windows at this side. You needn't be so dreadfully frightened, Reggie."
"Oh, but it was just like this the last time," I whispered, "when all of a sudden we heard the cripple brother coming. No, Moore, I _won't_ go farther in!"
"Well, stay where you are for a bit," he replied. "I want to get a thoroughly good idea of the lie of the place;" and he certainly seemed to be doing his best to obtain this, his curly head bobbing backwards and forwards in all directions, while I stood on guard, tremulously listening for the slightest sound, extremely frightened, extremely interested, and intensely excited.
When Moore was satisfied that there was no more to be done from his present post of observation, we crept back again to the neighbourhood of the door. I flattered myself that he was now ready to go home, but I was mistaken.
"Now," he said, "I am going to explore for myself. You and Isabel didn't try the other side--to the left, I mean."
"O Moore," I exclaimed, "that is towards the front of the house!"
"I know that," he answered; "but that's just why I want to go that way. It's perfectly safe if we keep pretty near the wall;" and my curiosity surmounting my fears, I in my turn followed him for some little way. Then an unexpected thing happened! Suddenly, on our right hand, the border of bushes opened out into a sort of trellised passage, between trees, what in France is called a _tonnelle_, and at its end we perceived a glazed door, evidently leading into a conservatory.
I started back in affright, exclaiming, though in a whisper--
"I believe that leads straight into the house!"
"All the better," was Moore's unsympathising reply; "all the better if it does! I had no hope of such a find as this. Come along, Reggie, keep well to one side, and then no one could see us unless they were actually at the door looking out for us, which is _not_ likely to be the case."
But now I stood firm.
"I won't come a step farther," I said positively.
"Well, stay where you are," said my brother, "though I do think you're a goose, after having come so far, to stop short at the jolliest point! _I'm_ going on."
I caught hold of him. He was so excited by this time, though cool enough outwardly, that I was terrified of any war of words ensuing, the sound of which might have attracted attention at the house, so perfectly still and silent was everything about us.
"If--" I began, "if you will promise me, vow to me, that you will come back in five minutes, I'll make my way to the door again, and wait there for you."
"All right," was the reply; "I promise," and we separated, he creeping along as nimbly as a cat, while I retreated tremulously, looking over my shoulder every now and then as I did so, for as long as I could keep the boy in sight.
These five minutes--and I really don't think he exceeded them--seemed to me hours. My relief was indescribable when I heard his softly-uttered "Reggie," as he returned to me.
"Well?" I said interrogatively. "Was it worth the risk? I know I've been shaking here as if I had the palsy. I couldn't have stood it much longer."
"Worth the risk?" he repeated, cavalierly ignoring the mention of my tremors. "I should rather think so! Wait till we get outside, and then I'll tell you what I saw."
And in another moment, outside and in safety, we found ourselves carefully closing the door so that its unfastened condition should not attract attention, as Isabel and I had done on our first visit.
"What did you see?" I inquired at once. "None of the inhabitants, I suppose?"
"No," was the reply, "but traces of them. That glass door, Reggie, is the entrance to a long, narrow conservatory, which opens right into the house at the other end. It isn't much as far as plants go, just a lot of ferns and green things at one side, but there's a broad sort of walk, and I saw a pipe or two lying on a little table, and some books and seats. There was one long deck-chair kind of thing, belonging to the cripple brother most likely. Evidently it's a place that they keep for smoking and sitting in. I got close up to the other end and peeped in."
"O Moore!" I exclaimed, interested but horrified, "supposing you had been seen!"
"But I wasn't," he answered in his most matter-of-fact way. "There was nobody about, even in the room I peeped into--I couldn't make out if it was a sitting-room or a bedroom. It was dark and dullish-looking, as I think all the house must be; the windows are so narrow."
"Perhaps it's the cripple brother's room," I suggested; "bedroom and sitting-room in one, as he probably finds it difficult to go up and down stairs."
Moore seemed struck by my acuteness.
"Yes," he said. "I expect it is. It had the look of it."
"Well?" I continued, surprised at the silence which ensued, "go on!" for he seemed to be thinking deeply.
"What do you mean?" he replied. "`Go on' about what?"
"All that you saw, of course," I answered impatiently. "Don't begin thinking about it till you have told me the whole! Then we can discuss it together."
He looked up in surprise.
"There isn't any more to tell," he said. "I was only thinking to myself how queer it is altogether."
I gave a little laugh, half derisively.
"Why, that's what everybody thinks," I said, "who knows anything about it. There's nothing original in that."
"I didn't suppose there was," said Moore, beginning to get cross.
I was feeling cross too. I think one often does after any unusual strain or excitement, especially when it ends in nothing, as our present adventure now seemed to do.
"I thought," I continued unwisely, "that you had made some wonderful discovery, or at least that you thought yourself on the road to one, and now it has all ended in smoke!"
My tone must have been very provoking, but Moore was a queer boy in some ways. His irritation seemed to have disappeared.
"There is a certain proverb," he said oracularly, "which your words remind me of. `There is no smoke without fire.' What do you say to that?--Eh?--I beg your pardon. What did you remark?"
I had not remarked anything. I suppose I had muttered something inarticulate in my irritation.
"Don't be nonsensical," I said sharply. "You needn't begin hinting, with nothing to hint about!"
Moore was gazing in front of him, and when he spoke again I was really at a loss to tell whether he was in earnest or not.
"There was one thing I have not told you of," he said. "In one corner of the room there was a heavy, long black curtain--_black_," he repeated impressively. "It cut off that corner of the room as it were. There may be a door behind it leading to a staircase; there may be--a skeleton for all I know, or--goodness knows what!"
"Rubbish!" I exclaimed this time. "You are drawing on your imagination just to keep up the farce! I don't believe you even saw the curtain!" He faced round on me.
"Reggie!" he exclaimed, "I _did_ see a curtain, word of honour."
"Naturally," I replied, "most windows have curtains. You know what I mean. I don't believe you saw any unusual kind of curtain, or that it was black."
"I swear to you it was black, and a very unusual kind of curtain."
"Then why didn't you tell me of it before?" I inquired. "It may have looked black because the room was dark."
"I was thinking about it," he answered.
"You weren't," I retorted. "You only remembered about it when I said you had made no discoveries. If you had thought it was really mysterious you would have mentioned it straight off. Now do let us drop the whole thing, I'm getting tired of it."
In my heart I was disappointed. I had had in reality, in spite of my warnings to him, some hopes that Moore's rashness would at least have led to _something_ in the way of discovery. And by this time I had succeeded in making him angry.
"You will see," he muttered, and then as I ran off without waiting to hear more--"you will see," he called after me loudly, "if it is true that I can find out nothing. I am not such a fool as you think!"
But I still ran on, half laughing to myself at his boyish indignation, and heedless of his mysterious hints. Somehow, my own curiosity and interest in the Grim House mystery had diminished as Moore's increased. "Le jeu ne vaut pas la chandelle!" I thought to myself. "It is, anyway, not worth running the risk of getting into any disagreeables, and no doubt Mr Wynyard would be very annoyed if he knew where we had been this evening."
What a truism is the old saying, that "nothing is certain except the unforeseen," and yet how constantly one feels inclined to quote it to oneself even in everyday life! Two most unforeseen circumstances occurred during the first three weeks of my stay at Millflowers--Moore's joining me there, and now a sudden summons to Mr Wynyard and Isabel to go to Mr Percy's for some days.
I am not perfectly clear in my memory as to the reason of it. As far as I can recall, the cause was the sudden arrival of some important member of the family from a distance. However that may have been, the fact was that our host and his daughter were practically forced to go. They were very sorry. Mr Wynyard full of apologies, declaring that his sense of hospitality was outraged by this unfortunate necessity. But they were both very thankful that my young brother was with me, otherwise, Isabel declared, that they could _not_ have left me alone, and it might have ended in my visit being curtailed.
THE LOCKED DOOR.
The summons from Mr Percy reached the Manor-house the very morning after the escapade which I described in the last chapter, so Moore was still rather on cold terms with me when the departure of our hosts was announced.
Afterwards, though it had scarcely struck me at the time, I remembered that he had been rather silent when he heard of it, expressing but very little regret in the prospect of their absence. I recollect Isabel's turning to him and saying--
"You don't seem to mind it much, Moore; I feel rather hurt;" whereupon he grew red and said something rather confusedly about its only being for a few days; that we would manage to amuse ourselves all right, or words to that effect. But in the little bustle that ensued, the boy's peculiar manner, as I have said, made no great impression on me.
Isabel and her father started, I think, the next day. I remember standing in the porch with Moore to watch them off, and as soon as the carriage had disappeared down the drive, I turned to him with some little remark as to how odd it was for him and me to find ourselves alone for the first time in our lives, and that not at our own home.
"You must be your very nicest to me, Othello, do you hear, to prevent my feeling dull," I said, meaning to propitiate him after my sharpness on the evening of our last expedition, for I saw that the cloud had not yet disappeared.
"I shall be quite ready to do anything you like," he said, rather primly, "and yes, I think I can promise you that it will not be my fault if you have a _dull_ time."
"What do you mean?" I exclaimed, with a passing flash of misgiving; but he evaded a direct reply, though I fancied I heard him murmuring something practically inaudible.
"The best thing I can do," I thought to myself, "is to put some other things in his head, if he _is_ still planning any fresh investigations; and after all, I have his promise to do nothing without telling me." It did not then occur to me that the vague threat he had thrown out as to not letting the matter drop could be twisted by his boyish conscience into a definite announcement of his project.
I went on talking about the drive that had been proposed for us that afternoon in Isabel's pony-cart--a drive in a new direction, as to which Mr Wynyard had instructed us before he left. Moore answered with interest, even getting up a little argument as to the exact route we were to take. But still he was not _quite_ himself, nor did he become so during our expedition, though it passed off very successfully, without our losing our way or any other misfortune.
And during the evening that followed something in his manner continued to give me the same feeling of slight uneasiness. He did not seem to care to talk much, and looked himself out a book from among those in the library which Mr Wynyard had recommended to him, and then settled himself in a corner to enjoy it. I felt a little hurt and anxious too, though I hoped it only meant that his irritation with me had not entirely subsided.
"I wish I had never told him a word about that hateful old house or the stupid people that live in it. I dare say there is no mystery at all, and that they are just a parcel of half imbecile hypochondriacs," I thought to myself, feeling as if I must give vent, at least in thought, to my vexation towards _somebody_! And aloud I appealed to Moore--not captiously, as that would only have made things worse--but with a touch of reproach.
"I think you might talk to me a little, or play chess, or something sociable," I said brightly. "You might even read aloud. It is rather dull for me."
"I can't read aloud; you know I can't," he replied quietly enough. "I'll play chess if you like."
And so we did. But Moore did not put his usual spirit into it, and so when I checkmated him at the end of an hour or so, I did not feel as pleased as would have been the case in an ordinary way. For he played better than I. And soon after I said I felt tired, as I did, and got up to go to bed.
"How long are they,"--meaning of course our hosts--"going to stay away?" Moore said abruptly as we were bidding each other good-night.
"Three days--four at the most," I replied. "This is Tuesday. Yes, they quite hope to be back on Friday."
He murmured something unintelligible in reply, but I said no more. I was really tired, for our drive had been a long one, and over very rough roads for some considerable part of the day.
The next morning, however, I awoke quite refreshed again, and ready for another expedition of any kind.
"I must amuse Moore if he won't amuse me," I thought to myself. "Boys are terrible creatures for getting into mischief if they are idle, as the old hymn truly says," and I prepared to go downstairs to breakfast in excellent spirits.
But alas! the sunshine which had passed into my room while I was dressing had been but short-lived. Before we had finished breakfast the skies had clouded over into a very unpromising grey; long before noon it was hopeless.
"No chance of an expedition to-day!" I said, rather drearily, as I stood at the window gazing out, but Moore seemed inclined to take things philosophically.
"I'm afraid not," he said, as he joined me, his hands in his pockets, a somewhat superior air about him. "Not for you at least, Reggie. It may clear up by late afternoon, enough for me to get out a bit, but the roads will be terrible, it's coming down so heavily."
"I don't see why I shouldn't go out as well as you if it clears at all," I said. "You forget that I am less sensitive to cold than you, since you were ill!"
If I had thought a moment I would not have said this, knowing what boy nature is as to any precautionary measures for health. I was surprised that my not very tactful speech did not seem to annoy my brother.
"I don't know about that," was all he said in reply. "I'm ever so much tougher than I was, and at worst, I have the advantage over you of having no flapping skirts to soak up the wet."
No more was said just then. We got through the day comfortably enough. I amused myself, as one can always do on a wet day when away from one's people, by writing a long letter home; Moore entertaining himself, so far as I saw him during the morning, with a wonderful "find" in the shape of a collection of old bound volumes of _Punch_--dating back years before their present reader had honoured the world by his presence. I overheard him chuckling quietly to himself now and then, as he sat in his corner, and the sound was pleasant to my ears for more reasons than one. I was glad that he was not feeling bored, and I was relieved to think that the suppressed excitement which I had begun to suspect his manner had no existence except in my fancy.
"I don't believe," I said to myself with satisfaction, "I don't _think_ there can be anything brewing in his brain," and in this comfortable state of mind I passed the greater part of the day, reassuring myself now and then by taking a peep at the boy whenever I lost sight of him for many minutes at a time.
We had tea together, of course, very comfortably in the library, which we had chosen in preference to the drawing-room during our _tete-a-tete_ days, and Moore did full justice to the cakes which Isabel before she left home had taken care to order in profusion for his, or our, delectation.
The second post came in about five o'clock at Millflowers, and the outgoing post left at six. To-day brought an unexpected letter from mother, from whom I had already heard that very morning. This necessitated an addition to what I had previously written, as it concerned a matter of some little importance.
"I shall only just have time," I reflected, "to answer what mother asks before the bag goes," and for a moment or two I sat thinking over what I had to say, rather absorbed in it.
Moore meanwhile had strolled to the window, and stood there looking out; the post had brought nothing for him.
"It has cleared up," he remarked, "to some extent at least, but it doesn't look tempting. What do you say about going out, Reggie?"
I looked up doubtfully.
"I don't think I can," I replied; "by the time I have finished my letter it will be too late, and it looks misty and disagreeable enough already. I don't think you should go out either, Moore. It is just the sort of evening to catch cold in."
I spoke without misgiving, for my thoughts were running on my letters. Moore did not at once reply.
"I'll see about it," he said; "anyway I shan't go far, and I won't catch cold."
"Be sure you are in by six," I called back to him as I left the room.
And till close upon that hour my letters engrossed me, and when I had seen them safely despatched, and returned to the library, I scarcely gave a thought to anything else, till the timepiece striking the quarter past, made me begin to expect to hear Moore's footsteps every moment. But the clock's ticking went on to the half-hour without his coming.
"It is wrong of him," I began to think, "to stay out like this, when he knows I am all alone, especially after what I said." Then as my half-forgotten fears suddenly revived--"He can't have--oh! no, surely he would not think of anything of the kind; I am too fanciful," and I took up a book and tried to interest myself in it. But such tryings are generally of the nature of make-believe. Sometimes, indeed, any effort of the kind, like a half dose of chloroform, only seems to intensify the consciousness one would fain put aside. I grew more and more uneasy, and when once again the timepiece struck--this time the quarter to--I threw my book aside, and gave up pretending that I had no cause for misgiving. It was not raining now, and the sky, though darkening for the evening, seemed clearer. I soon made up my mind what to do, and hurried to my own room to fetch my wraps. On the way out I met one of the men-servants.
"I am afraid we may be a little late for dinner," I said. "My brother has stayed out so long. I am going to meet him. I know the way he has gone."
The young man, who was extremely obliging, as were all the servants of that well-managed household, offered to go off himself in search of the truant, but I shook my head.
"No, thank you," I replied; "I shall find him easily. He was not going far."
Yes, indeed, in my heart I did know "the way he had gone."
"O Moore," I said to myself, "you are _very_ naughty. It is really too bad. How I do wish I had been guided by Jocelyn's advice!" and feeling decidedly angry as well as frightened--the one sensation seeming to increase instead of lessening the other--I hurried on.
My destination, I need scarcely say, was the door in the wall, and all the way thither I kept straining my eyes in the vain hope of seeing the boy's figure emerging from the gathering gloom and coming to meet me. But no--I knew my point very accurately by now, and soon relaxed my pace, knowing that the door must be near at hand. And all the way from the Manor-house I had not met one living soul.
"It is a very lonely place," I thought, with a little shiver of nervousness. "None of the roads near home are as deserted. I don't think I should like to live all the year round in the North."
Then a new fear struck me. What if the door should be locked--should have been locked after Moore had entered the grounds? for that he had done so I had no manner of doubt. What if that were the explanation of his non-appearance? What _could_ I do?
But I did not allow myself to dwell on this cruel possibility, and in another moment it was set aside. I found the door, and it was unclosed!
Half my distress seemed to vanish with this discovery, though I grew more and more angry with my brother. Once inside, I stood still to consider, but not for long.
"He is sure to have gone to the left," I said to myself. "All his curiosity was to peep into the house again, and he could only do so through the _tonnelle_ and the long glass house;" so I crept along in the direction I decided upon, keeping close to the wall, between it and the shrubs which bordered it, as I have described, though it was now so dusky that my extreme precaution was scarcely called for. And before long I came to the passage between trees and bushes which we had lighted upon the last time.
It was not quite so dark here, for the real entrance to the _tonnelle_ was a fairly wide one at the side, and I could still clearly see the glazed door at the other end. I stood still, gazing before me--then taking courage I advanced a few steps, still keeping my eyes fixed on the door through which I seemed to feel by instinct that the truant would make his way out. And I was not disappointed. As I approached the conservatory pretty closely, the door moved, softly and noiselessly. I would scarcely have noticed its doing so but for the faint glimmer of light on the glass panes of its upper part. And, peering cautiously to right and left, then gazing straight before him, stood the naughty boy!
It took all my self-command to repress an exclamation, but I did so, only whispering--and in the silence, unbroken save for the drip of the still rain-laden leaves, even a whisper sounded portentously audible--"Moore, come at once. Don't you see me?"
See me! Of course he did. His eyes as well as his ears were as sharp as a Red Indian's--I can't find a better comparison--and a smile, half-triumphant, half-impish, broke over his face as he looked at me. He nodded reassuringly, and I think he was just going to speak, when suddenly, in the flash of a lightning gleam, it seemed to me, his whole expression changed. The smile vanished, a look almost of terror came over his face; he made a frantic gesture to me, which I interpreted rightly enough to mean, "get out of the way; hide yourself," and disappeared as completely as if he had not been there at all.
For half a second I stood, dazed and completely bewildered--rubbing my eyes to make sure that I _had_ seen him, that the whole thing had not been an extraordinary optical delusion, born of my nervous anxiety, or-- worse still--could it have been not Moore himself, but his ghost that I had seen? After all, what might not have happened to him in that mysterious secret house? There _was_ something abnormal about it, or rather about the lives of its inhabitants. Why, oh why had I told the boy anything about it, I thought with momentary anguish. But another instant reassured me as to this last foolish terror. It _was_ Moore himself--he had smiled in the mischievous way he sometimes did. How grateful I felt for that smile!
All these thoughts, as will readily be understood by those who have gone through similar crises, had flashed across my mind in far less time than it takes to write them.
The reason for Moore's alarm and sudden gesture of warning to me was still a mystery, when, as I stood motionless, awaiting I knew not what, there reached my ears a sound which, from where he was, he had become aware of some moments before--it was that of measured footsteps, slowly advancing from the inner end of the long conservatory. And then I realised my situation, and the necessity for effacing myself. I glanced around me. Moore had evidently taken refuge behind some of the plants inside, but I dared not follow him. Probably enough, there would only have been room to conceal one of us in the corner he had descried; for all I knew, he might be stretched on the ground at full length; a boy of his size is at great advantage in such a quandary, and Moore was not one to stick at much, at a pinch. No, less than an instant's reflection satisfied me that I must remain out of doors, and I pressed my way behind the greenery, at the part which appeared to me the thickest.
"There is not much fear of him or them"--for it seemed to me that the footsteps were those of more than one person, though accompanied by the tap of the crutch that I had heard on a previous occasion--"coming out," I thought. "It is getting chilly, and the cripple Mr Grey is very delicate." And I breathed a little more freely once I felt myself screened among the bushes; fortunately, too, my dress was dark.
Still my heart beat very much faster than usual as I heard the steps coming nearer and nearer. By peeping out cautiously I could see two figures at last, as they reached the open glass door and stood there. They were those of the brothers. How I prayed that they might remain where they were; but such was not to be the case. They halted for a moment or two on the threshold, as if undecided whether to turn or walk on, then, to my unspeakable consternation, they passed out along the _tonnelle_ past the very spot which I had only just quitted a moment or two before! Instinctively I drew myself together as if to grow as small as possible, scarcely daring to breathe for fear of being heard.
But they were talking, as I soon perceived, and to my further satisfaction, in absorbed though low tones--so absorbed that I question if any little unusual sound would have caught their attention, and after all, some slight rustling among the dripping leaves would have explained any disturbance I might involuntarily have caused.
My ears, however, were terribly on the alert, whatever theirs were not. I was in an agony lest Moore should betray his whereabouts. My fears for him and myself had completely swamped my curiosity. So it will be believed that I had no wish to overhear what the newcomers were saying. I would have stopped my ears if I had dared to do so, though, ashamed as I was of our position, I do not think it struck me in any very acute way at the time that I was forced into playing the part of an eavesdropper. And I really do not believe that in my intense engrossment I would have noticed the words that fell from the brothers, but for a peculiar circumstance--that of the mention of our own name!
One's own name, it is said, always catches one's attention more readily than any other word.
"Fitzmaurice," I heard the younger brother say, as if repeating it thoughtfully, though not in any tone of surprise. "Oh yes, I agree with you, but--"
"I know what you are going to say," interrupted the elder, "but don't say it. I sometimes almost regret having told even you my conviction that Ernest Fitzmaurice is the _only_ chance of my rehabilitation. I would not of course--I would die sooner than have had the girls" (afterwards the pathos of his thus speaking of the two poor faded little old maids, whom he could not disassociate from what then must have been a quarter of a century ago, struck me pitifully) "suspect my suspicion, my _conviction_, I may say. And nothing, Caryll, nothing would ever make me breathe it except to you."
The cripple sighed a deep sigh.
"I understand," he said, "and sympathise, especially as the chance of its being any use is so small, so very small."
"That young fellow," resumed the elder Mr Grey, "is clever and well-meaning; acute in a remarkable degree, to have discovered that I _have_ a secret on the subject even from his father. But the discussion tortures me, Caryll--yes, tortures me. I _would_ not take any steps in that quarter. He must surely understand now that his persistence is useless, worse than useless."
"I think he does," replied the other simply.
"And after all," he repeated half dreamily, "it is the smallest of chances. He may be dead, or undiscoverable. If what we have been talking of were the case, _he_ would of course have the strongest motives for keeping out of the way."
"I am not so sure of that," said the elder Mr Grey, after a moment's pause. "You forget that no one _dreamt_ of such a thing but myself. He kept perfectly clear. No, he may even be a prominent person by now, for all I know, in one of the colonies--I forget which he was bound for. But one thing is certain, the man who could do what I believe he did, and act with such fearful hypocrisy, must have slain his conscience long ago. There would be no use in tracing him, and even if there were--no! I do not think I could bring upon another, above all for Jessie's sake I could not, what I have gone through myself."
This was all I heard distinctly. I do not imagine either of them spoke again for some moments, and by that time they were back close to the conservatory, which they entered, the elder brother closing the door after him. I took this to be a sign that they were not coming out any more.
I cannot of course, at this distance of time, vouch for the perfect accuracy of the words I have quoted, but the sense of it is exact. I was in a state of nervous tension, in which my hearing was almost abnormally quick; then the mention of our own surname had of course startled me into even closer attention, and through all, my original curiosity was still in existence, though to some extent it had become dormant. So when the time came for the question to arise as to whether I was justified in making use of my unintentional eavesdropping, I felt no misgiving as to my capability of reporting it correctly.
But for the moment, as soon as the brothers had disappeared, everything in my mind gave way to the intense wish to make our escape. Would Moore come out? Must I summon him, or should I leave him to his fate and save myself?--for to me, as a lady, the whole situation was far more grave than for a mischievous schoolboy like my brother. I was revolving these alternatives in my mind when my perplexity was set at rest by the glass door opening cautiously, and Moore's face, somewhat paler than usual and portentously solemn, peering out. I pushed through the bushes so that he could see me, and said his name in the faintest of whispers. He heard me, and was beside me in a moment, not forgetting, however--I must say the boy had plenty of presence of mind--to close the door behind him. I did not speak--I was too angry to have done so in measured tones--so I said nothing, only grasping him by the arm to make sure of no evasion, as the two of us rushed down the _tonnelle_, till, breathless, I pulled up for a moment or two once I felt ourselves, comparatively speaking, safe, close against the wall and behind the shelter of the bushes bordering it.
Then I really could not contain myself, though I had _intended_ to keep silence until we were outside the grounds.
"Moore," I burst out, "how _could_ you? Breaking your promise and terrifying me, and, and--"
I could scarcely speak. I was on the point of tears, which under the circumstances I should have felt peculiarly humiliating.
The boy was distressed, and in reality, I think, not a little frightened. But he held his ground, nevertheless.
"No, Reggie," he replied, "you must not say I broke my word. I promised I would do nothing without letting you know. And I did let you know that I had not given it up, and that I meant to do more; you dared me to, you know you did, and I called after you, `you shall see if I find out nothing,' and you only laughed."
"I call that a mean quibble," I replied indignantly, though in my heart I felt that I had been wildly injudicious. "You did not tell me where you were going this evening before you came out."
"No," he replied, "I had not decided that I would come--word of honour, Reggie. And I am very sorry that I stayed so long--but--it was so tempting. I got in so easily, and everything seemed to favour it, and--"
"Moore," I exclaimed, "did you really go into the house? I am ashamed of you. It wasn't like a gentleman;" and indeed I felt aghast.
"Only into that first room," he replied deprecatingly. "I did so want to see what was behind that black curtain, though--you were right, Reggie--it isn't black, only very dark red."
"And what _was_ behind it?" I could not help asking.
"Something very queer," he answered eagerly, delighted to find that my curiosity was still in existence, "ropes and pulleys, horrid looking things. They reminded me of the Inquisition."
"I dare say it is only a shower-bath," I replied, "No, no, I thought of that. I am sure it isn't," he exclaimed. "I--" but here I stopped him.
"Moore," I interrupted, "we are mad to stand chattering here. Any moment some one may pass and hear us. Wait till we are safely outside the door."
He made no objection, and we hurried on as fast as the small space before us made it possible, and we reached the door without further ado.
With no misgiving I seized the handle--for there was a handle--to pull it open, when--never shall I forget my horror!--it resisted me.
The door was locked!
For a moment or two we stood, as people generally do in such a case, stupefied, paralysed, so to say, staring at each other blankly. Then there came a reaction of incredulity. It _could_ not be so.
"It must have stuck," said Moore, seizing the handle in his turn. But no! He shook and pulled and pushed in vain, there was no sign of yielding, not even the faintest creak. The door was a strong one, and the lock in good order.
Some one must have passed out since I entered--a gardener probably--with authority in the shape of a key, to fasten up for the night. There was no use in hiding from ourselves any longer the dire certainty that we were trapped, however involuntarily on the part of our captors.
"It must be the rule, I suppose, to lock up here late every evening. Moore, what have you got me into? It is far worse for me than for you."
"You shouldn't have followed me," he said half sulkily, then his better feelings reasserted themselves. "I am _awfully_ sorry, Reggie, dreadfully sorry, but don't lose heart yet. There are ways and means; the wall isn't so very high after all," and he stepped back a pace or two, and stood regarding it with anxious criticism.
"Yes," he said at last, "I thought so! It is lower a bit farther on. Either it is lower or the ground slopes upwards, which, as far as we are concerned, comes to the same thing; and now that all is shut up for the night, it's most unlikely that any one will be coming this way. We can go about things quietly, without fussing."
"What will they be thinking about us at the Manor-house!" I exclaimed. "There'll be a hue and cry over the neighbourhood if we don't return soon!"
"No fear?" said Moore reassuringly. "Servants' nerves are not so easily upset. They will just think we've missed our way, or something of that kind. Besides, I hope we shall not be so very late after all; once over the wall we can run all the way home. You can get over the ground nearly as fast as I can if you like, you know, Reggie!"
I felt that he was doing his best to keep up my spirits, and, in spite of everything, I was sorry for him; so I allowed him to take the lead, and followed him silently to the spot he had pointed out, where the wall certainly looked more easy to scale. Arrived there, Moore began feeling in his pockets; out came the stout piece of whipcord and the old geological hammer which I mentioned before, with which he started operations. The wall was rough and uneven, fortunately for us; I think it was of brick--there were already small ledges, so to say, here and there, one or two of which Moore chipped away at to make them deeper, with a great air of importance. I could have danced with impatience!
"We shall be here all night," I said at last, "if you are going on like that. I believe I could climb the wall as it is!" But he tapped on for a moment or two longer without replying.
"_Now_," he said, "I dare say you could! There are enough footholds, but of course I will go up first. Then, as I couldn't reach to your hands, I'll let down two long loops of cords to you, which you can pull yourself up by."
"No, thank you," I replied ungratefully. "I had much rather trust to clutching at the stones or the ivy." For though the ivy was cleared on this side, branches here and there came straggling over.
Moore took my snub quietly.
"You will see," he said, "once I am up, you'll be glad enough of the loops."
See I did not; for, alas! just as the boy was close to the top, something, I know not what--a loosened brick perhaps--gave way, and with a cry he fell heavily, poor child, down on to the ground beside where I stood. At first I was too terrified to think of anything but him; for a moment or two I thought he was killed, and my relief was great when he spoke.
"I'm not badly hurt, Reggie," he whispered; "my head's all right, it is only my--" and a little moan escaped him--"my ankle," he continued. "Can I have broken it?"
He sat up and began to examine it. Even in the dim light I could see that he was very pale.
"Oh!" he exclaimed, "if I could get my shoe off! My foot feels bursting!"
I was not altogether without experience in injuries of the kind. With so many brothers always coming to grief more or less, I had acquired a smattering of "first aid to the injured," as it is called nowadays. I stooped down, and getting Moore's pocket-knife from him, I cut the shoelaces, and rather deftly, I flattered myself, released the poor, already painfully swollen foot.
"No," I said, "I _think_ and hope it is only a bad sprain. But even if no worse, you cannot possibly attempt to stand, or drag yourself along with it in such a state."
"I don't think I could," he allowed, and he looked so nearly fainting that I grew desperate.
"I must go for help," I said, "whatever or whoever these people are! It is the only thing to do."
Moore was too utterly knocked over to remonstrate, and I felt it would be cruel and useless to reproach him. I started off, running as quickly as was safe in the increasing dusk, scarcely giving myself time to think how I could explain our unwarranted intrusion. Some instinct told me that it was better to go straight to the front door than through the conservatory. I did so, but before I had time to ring, I saw that it was standing wide open, and almost immediately two figures crossed the hall. They must have caught sight of me at once, for the foremost of them--it was the elder Mr Grey--came forward, amazement depicted on his face, and stood gazing at me for a moment as if unable to speak. His stupefaction gave me a sort of courage, or rather I felt the necessity of speech.
"I beg your pardon," I began. "I don't know how to explain, but--oh! my brother--he's quite a boy--has hurt himself badly. He has fallen from the top of your wall, and--and--somebody must come to help him!"
I could not utter another word. I felt myself beginning to choke and sob.
"How the--" Then the speaker checked himself. "What in the world was he doing at the top of the wall, and how did he get there? And how did you--" Here again he stopped. I think it dawned upon him at that moment that he was addressing a lady. Probably, too, it struck him that if some one was lying badly injured by some accident, the first thing to do was to see to him, and reserve explanations till after this had been done. But the poor man was terribly upset--as to _that_ there could be no doubt; and excited though I was, I was able to feel fearfully ashamed and penitent.
During the moment or two that had passed, the second person in the hall, a travelling-rug over his arm, had come forward. To him Mr Grey now turned.
"Have you heard?" he said. "Come with me. We must at all costs see what is the matter."
The younger man, for considerably such he was had taken it all in, though in silence.
"Where is the boy?" he said to me abruptly, though not uncourteously.
I pointed to the side of the grounds where Moore was lying.
"Over there," I said, "not far from the--the door in the wall. It is locked, and we were trying to climb over."
As I said this, the prelude to the inevitable confession, the misery and shame of the whole position almost overwhelmed me, in spite of my increasing anxiety about Moore's injuries. It was with great difficulty that I suppressed a sob.
The last speaker, less startled and bewildered than the hermit-like owner of the place, was naturally quicker to realise what I was feeling, and I think he heard the catch in my voice, and was sorry for me. He turned to the other.
"I will hurry on with this young lady, Mr Grey," he said, "and see what can be done. Perhaps you--"
"Yes, yes," our host interrupted. "I'll--I had better--the others might be startled, and--" I fancied I heard him mutter something about "the servants."
"I will follow you immediately," he went on, and as he spoke he dived back into the dim recesses of the gloomy hall and disappeared.
We--the younger man and I--hurried out. As we went, I felt that, however badly hurt my brother was, I must say something. So I began--
"I--I am so terribly ashamed," I said. "We had no right to come into the grounds at all. We are well punished. I--you see I got frightened about Moore, my brother, and I followed him in, and then--the door had been locked in the meantime, and--we thought we could climb over."
My companion assuredly _was_ very quick of apprehension. He glanced at me, and I could feel that his eyes were kind, dark as it was.
"Try not to distress yourself," he said very gently. "I do not see that you are the least to blame--rather the other way, indeed, for bravely entering the ogre's den," he laughed a little, evidently taking for granted that I was acquainted with the uncanny reputation of the place, "for your brother's sake, and--"
Here I interrupted him. I think, I _hope_, that I am really candid by nature. Unmerited praise is always painful and humiliating to me, as to all honestly-inclined folk.
"Oh!" I exclaimed, "please don't say that. If you knew--"
Then _he_ interrupted. I think he was terrified of my beginning to cry!
"One thing I do know," he said, "and that is, what boys are, and the inconceivable hobbles they get themselves and their belongings into. Let us hope your brother is not badly hurt after all. Ah! there he is," for his quick eyes had discerned Moore's half-prostrate form even before I had done more than peer about, knowing we must be near him.
"Moore," I exclaimed, "here we are. I--this gentleman will help us."
I spoke encouragingly. I was very sorry for him. I was answered by an exclamation of relief.
"O Reggie," he said, with something like a smothered sob, "I am so thankful. I thought you were never coming."
"Yes," said our new friend, who was already on his knees beside the boy, "under such circumstances time does not fly. Let me see! which foot is it? The left? Ah,"--for Moore must have winced even at his careful touch--"yes; a good thing you got the boot off. I am not a doctor--" (as to which fact I had had a slight doubt), "but I think it's not worse than a sprain. Of course the thing is to get you home at once. You live near here?"
"No," I began; "yes, I mean. We are staying at the Manor-house, Mr Wynyard's, in the village."
He shook his head.
"I don't know the neighbourhood at all," he said. "I have only been here two or three times, and only for a few hours together. Is the village--oh yes, I remember--is the Manor-house on the way to the church?"
"Yes," I replied, and I went on to explain, as well as I could, whereabouts stood our temporary home. Then a sudden remembrance flashed across me, and I exclaimed impulsively, "Was it not you whom I met a week or two ago out there?" and I nodded towards the road, "You had lost your pocket-book?"
"Exactly," he replied; "and you kindly looked for it. One good turn deserves another. I wonder how I can best help you and your brother just now. By-the-bye, my fly must be at the door by this time." He peered at his watch. "I am--I was to catch the London express, if possible."
"Oh don't," I began.
"It is not of enormous importance if I miss it," he said. "It's about the fly."
"Reggie," whispered Moore, "stoop down a moment."
I did no, and nodded in agreement.
"If," I began again--"the thing is--can we _possibly_ get Moore home without any one knowing about it? About how it happened, I mean? You don't know how perfectly horrible it would be for Mr Wynyard to know. He is very, very particular, and he would make no allowances or excuses." Here I unconsciously clasped my hands in entreaty. "If we were at home," I went on, "I would tell father and mamma all about it. Don't think I want to conceal it from them. But as visitors--and Moore is sure to be laid up here for some time."
"I see," said our friend thoughtfully. "It would be rather horrid for you. But--can you propose anything?"
"Mr Wynyard and his daughter are away," I replied. "We can't hide the _accident_ of course, but if we could hide that it was _here_. Oh, if we could!"
Moore echoed what I said. In his anxiety he sat up, almost forgetting the pain.
"If you could get me outside the wall," he said, "and then Reggie could fetch some one--there are cottages not far off--or I wouldn't even mind waiting while you went home," he added, turning to me.
"No, no," said the stranger, "that would never do. There must be no avoidable delay." He stopped a moment. "I think I have it!" he exclaimed, "and here comes Mr Grey. For his sake, too, it is best to avoid any gossip, as he is so sensitive. I will go and speak to him for a moment;" and he was moving away, when he turned towards me again. "Don't misunderstand him or them," he said quickly. "They are the kindest-hearted people in the world."
Then for two or three minutes Moore and I were left alone.
"I wonder what they are going to do," I said anxiously, for I saw that the two were talking together eagerly. "O Moore, I shall never, never for--"
"Forgive me?" said the boy, trying to smile, though he winced with pain as he did so. "Well, I suppose I must bear it."
"Nonsense?" I replied indignantly. "I was only going to say that I shall never forget this evening, not if I live to be a hundred. But I would not be so mean and cruel as to talk of never forgiving, when you are already so punished."
By this time Mr Grey and the stranger were close to us, the former looking, if possible, more gloomy and harassed than usual; by which term must be understood, so far as I am concerned, the expression of his face in church! His companion was still talking quickly, but I only heard the elder man's reply.
"Well, yes," were his words. "I suppose it is the best thing to do. The servants would make a wild story of it. The flyman--"--and here I think I detected a grim smile--"would probably give out that we set man-traps along the wall."
"We have thought of a plan, Miss--" began the young man, then stopped suddenly, realising that he had not heard our name. "We have thought of a plan which will obviate all that you are afraid of."
"The only objection to it," interrupted Mr Grey, turning to him, "being that _you_ will lose your train."
"That is really of no consequence," was the reply. "I can wire to my people from the station when to expect me."
Mr Grey's interruption annoyed me. I was all on tenter-hooks to hear the "plan," and I could see that the stranger sympathised with my impatience.
"It is this," he explained. "A fly is now waiting for me to take me to the station. Mr Grey and I will carry your brother outside, as carefully as possible. He must be carried somewhere, and a little bit down the road will be scarcely farther than back to the house. Then, as I pass in the fly, you must call out to me for help. I shall stop, and between us we will lift him in, and I will take you both home--to the Manor-house, I think you called it? So the driver will have nothing to tell except that his fare behaved with ordinary humanity," and here he smiled, nor was _his_ smile a grim one. "And on the way," he went on, "you must give me the doctor's address if you know it, so that I may send him as I pass through the village."
"There is no doctor in the village," said Mr Grey, "but you can save time nevertheless, as his house is close to the railway station."
"Thank you, oh! thank you so much," Moore and I exclaimed together, but that was all we had time for, for by now the two men were busied in lifting my brother, with the least possible jar to the poor foot, preparatory to carrying him outside. They were both strong men, and their gentleness and deftness, especially perhaps as regarded Mr Grey, struck me with admiration.
I followed the little cortege meekly enough to the fateful door in the wall. Here they halted, Mr Grey requesting me to unlock it with a key which he had handed to me before lifting Moore off the ground. Then we all passed through.
"Close it, if you please," said our host, for such he was, however unwillingly. "Draw it to, that is to say, and leave the key in the lock. It cannot shut itself."
I did as I was bid, and we proceeded down the road till we had reached an unsuspicious distance from the entrance in the wall, sufficiently near the corner which the fly must pass on its way to the station, for it to be easy to attract the driver's attention without any appearance of collusion. Then they placed Moore in as easy a position as possible; happily the excitement of all that had passed, aided by the stimulus of the brandy and water which Mr Grey had brought with him in a flask, had quite revived the patient, and he declared that the pain was much less severe.
"I am sorry to leave you," said the older man, as he lifted his hat in farewell, "but--considering everything, primarily of course your own wishes--it cannot be helped."
"And it will only be for a very few minutes that you will be alone," added the younger one.
"I do not mind in the least," I replied. "I only wish, O Mr Grey,"-- involuntarily almost the name escaped me, and at its sound he stopped and half moved--"will you not allow us to apologise to you--we shall probably not have another opportunity of doing so--for our unwarrantable, our impertinent--" (at this word I felt, rather than saw, that Moore grew red) "intrusion? I do not know how to express what I feel, nor how to thank you for your kindness."
"My dear young lady," replied the hermit, "pray do not take the matter so much to heart. Mr--my friend here, has explained it to me. I cannot see that you personally have anything whatever to reproach yourself with, and as for your brother--why," and for the first time the cold, almost hard, voice softened, "I know well the love of adventure and--and--" he seemed at a loss to find a word, evidently unwilling to supply so hurting a one as "curiosity"--"and all that sort of thing of young folk. You may rely on us to keep this affair to ourselves, and I trust the doctor's report will relieve your anxiety."
Then, for the second time, he lifted his hat, and in another moment both he and his companion had disappeared.
"Moore," I said, as soon as I was sure that the two were well out of hearing, "Moore, they--he--that poor man has been very, very good about it."
"Yes," he agreed, meekly enough at first, "he has. All the same, Reggie, I don't see that you need have spoken of what I did--it was only a bit of a lark after all--as `impertinent'."
"I did not apply it only to _you_," I replied. "I said _our_. And you needn't suppose I don't blame myself. I do, bitterly, and I shall do so as long as I live, for having tried to pry into these poor people's secret--above all, for having put it into your head to do so." Here Moore grunted, but he did not attempt any further defence. "You don't know how I hated being told I was not to blame at all, and not being able to confess that I was."
"Why weren't you able?" Moore asked.
"Because of course it would only have made it far worse for the Greys to hear how, after all these years, they are still talked over. And besides that, I should have had to bring in poor Isabel! But for _her_, I shouldn't have so much minded telling the other man how inquisitive I had been--only after all, there was really no time to explain."
"You can tell him in the fly, if you like," said Moore. I was not sure if he said it to tease me or if he were in earnest. I preferred to think the former, especially as it showed that he could not be in any very great suffering if he were equal to teasing!
"I wish the fly would come," was the only reply I condescended to make.
"So do I," began Moore, and his rather plaintive tone made me very sorry for him again.
"Is your foot--" I was just going to ask, when the welcome sound of approaching wheels caught my ears. Our unknown friend had lost no time!
"Here it is," I exclaimed, "I must run to meet it, Moore."
I was not a moment too soon. The man was driving quickly, and I inferred that the stranger had not ventured to prevent his doing so, as he doubtless was in hopes of still catching the train he had been ordered for. And the reception of my first call was not encouraging.
"Stop, please," I cried. "Do stop for a moment."
"Can't," was the reply; "I'm bound to catch the London express. You must send your order to the inn."
"It's not an order," I replied. "Some one, my brother, has had an accident, and is lying on the road," and I pointed towards the spot. "You must stop in common humanity. We are staying at the Manor-house, Mr Wynyard's."
By this time the man had probably found out that I was a lady--possibly even recognised me, as the Scart Bridge flys were sometimes used by the Wynyards for station-work. And in spite of his protest, he had slackened speed a little. This gave the occupant of the vehicle time to put his head out and ask questions--to the driver's disgust no doubt, little suspecting that his hirer, the principal in the matter of catching the express, had no expectation whatever of doing so.
"What's the matter?" he inquired.
"The lady says as there's some one been and hurted hisself down the lane," began the man. "We can send a man up from Hart's Cottages," and he pointed with his whip, "but if we stop, sir--"
"Stop!" was the interruption in imperative tones. "Of course we must," and he jumped out as he spoke. "Follow us," he said sharply to the driver, who thereupon proceeded to obey, murmuring some thing to the effect that the train would be gone, but that "it'll be no fault o' mine."
"Nobody said it would be," my companion called back, and then we walked on the few paces to where Moore was propped up in a half-sitting posture against the wall.
"I was as quick as possible," said the stranger, though already he hardly seemed such. Circumstances sometimes lead to familiarity so quickly. "Is he all right--the boy; your brother?"
"Yes," I said. "I don't think the pain is very bad. I am sure you have been wonderfully quick, and I don't know how to thank you. And how kind that poor Mr Grey has been!"
I felt my companion glance at me almost sharply.
"I told you," he said, "that they are the kindest-hearted people possible. But--may I ask why you speak of him as `poor Mr Grey'?"
I was surprised, almost startled by the question. I had somehow taken it for granted, not only that this visitor was completely _au fait_ of the Greys' peculiar position, but that he must be aware that the mystery concerning the Grim House was common talk in the neighbourhood.
"Oh!" I replied, rather lamely, "because, of course, everything about them seems so strange and sad!"
There was no time for him to reply, for we had now reached Moore, and at once set to work to get him into the fly, which drew up at the place where we stopped, the driver, rather snubbed by the very peremptory tone assumed by his "fare," was much on the alert to obtrude his benevolent instincts.
"Dear, dear!" he exclaimed. "It's a bad business. I'm afraid there's bones broke! Did you fall far, sir?" he went on, to Moore, evidently anxious to get all the information he could for the delectation of his cronies at the White Hart, or whatever was the name of the inn. But before Moore replied, our friend in need did so for him.
"You don't need to fall far to sprain your ankle," he remarked quickly, "and I hope it is nothing worse than that. A slip on level ground is quite enough sometimes."
"Yes," I agreed; "indeed I often wonder that we hold together as we do, considering our complicated bones and joints."
The driver, imagining himself gifted with great discrimination, evidently thought we were trying to encourage Moore, and took his cue accordingly.
"Young bones ain't so hard to mend as old ones," he said philosophically, as he closed the door; "and where shall I drive to if you please?"
"To Mr Wynyard's--the Manor-house," I answered promptly, and off we set, this time at a moderate speed, all thought of train-catching eliminated from our conductor's mind.
"THE MISSES GREY."
It was certainly a curious position, and now that my anxiety about Moore had to some extent calmed down, I could scarcely help smiling to myself as we jogged along, at the adventure which my injudiciousness and Moore's self-will had landed us in.
The road cleared a good deal as we approached our destination. I was able to get a better view of our companion than hitherto, while the shade of the trees had lessened the already waning light. He was young, under thirty, I thought to myself, decidedly pleasing in appearance, if not exactly handsome; but what struck me the most was a shadowy resemblance to some one I had seen, though, try as I might, I could not succeed in remembering to whom. Once or twice I fancied I descried the shadow of an amused smile crossing his own face, but before we stopped at the Manor-house door his expression grew more serious.
"You quite understand," he began, "and excuse me if it is unnecessary to remind you of it, that your own wish to--to keep all this business to ourselves, is thoroughly agreed to, indeed desired by--Mr Grey and his family?"
"Oh dear, yes," I replied eagerly, "and I am very thankful for it, but I don't feel as if we had been grateful enough to him. And--" with a little hesitation, "to yourself."
He made a slight gesture of deprecation of the latter part of my speech, but I went on--
"If you should be writing to Mr Grey, would you be so kind as to thank him again?"
"Certainly," he said cordially. "If I don't write it I will not forget to _say_ it, the next time I see him," and the rather unguarded inference of his words reminded me that letters were, so far as we knew, unknown at the Grim House.
So I contented myself with another "thank you." I should have liked to ask our friend's own name, but my courage failed me, and afterwards I was glad I had not done so; it might have savoured a little of seeking for information which had not been volunteered to us.
The hall-door stood open as we drove up to it, and one or two of the older servants, among them the housekeeper and butler, were looking out anxiously. Their faces cleared when they saw us, but clouded again when I jumped out and hurriedly volunteered some explanation of our late return, of which of course the word "accident" was the first to catch their ears.
"Dear, dear!" said the housekeeper, "what will Master and Miss Isabel say, with all their charges to me and Sims to take good care of you, Miss Fitzmaurice?"
"They will certainly not say it is your fault, or Sims', Mrs Bence," I replied; "and after all, I hope it is nothing very bad. We were very lucky to meet this gentleman, otherwise I could not have got my brother home nearly so quickly."
I indicated by a movement of my head in his direction our friend in need, who was now, with the butler's assistance, extricating Moore from the fly. Poor boy! he did look rather dilapidated! though both he and I tacitly agreed in trying to make the best of our misfortunes. It would have been impolitic in the highest degree to pile on the agony so as to have led to minute or detailed inquiry on the part of the servants.
By this time the stranger had got Moore on to a comfortable seat in the hall, where of such there was no lack.
"Now," he said, "I think the best thing I can do is to send you the doctor as quickly as possible, I know where to find him. I should advise you to let your brother stay where he is for a few minutes. Get him a cup of tea, or something to pull him together a little, before you carry him upstairs, and once there, put him to bed as quickly as possible, and just raise the injured foot on a pillow till the doctor sees it."
He glanced round as if to satisfy himself that he left us in good hands, and then, before I had time to do more than shake hands, he was gone.
"A nice-spoken young gentleman," said Mrs Bence approvingly, "but I've never seen him before. He must be a stranger in these parts. Do you know who he--"
But I interrupted her by a shake of my head.
"I have no idea who he is," I said. "He did not tell us his name. He has been extremely kind. I am only afraid that by stopping to help us he has lost his train. He was on his way to the station."
"If it was the evening express for London," said Sims, taking out his watch--Mrs Bence had gone off in quest of the prescribed cup of tea--"he certainly has, Miss. There is a slower one an hour later; he will be in plenty of time for that."
This information somewhat consoled me. I said nothing more, nor did Moore. And after a while we got him upstairs and settled in bed as comfortably as was possible under the circumstances.
The poor foot looked in very bad case when we had got it quite free, and Mrs Bence groaned over it in much distress. But when the doctor came our spirits rose again. It proved to be only a sprain, and not a _very_ severe one, though painful. Perfect quiet and minute attention to his orders would do wonders, he assured me, to my great relief.
"You are alone here for the present, I understand," he said. "Mr and Miss Wynyard are away?"
"Yes," I replied, "but only for a day or two. I believe they will be back by Saturday."
"By Saturday," he repeated. "Ah, well--by Saturday I think you will see great improvement. The swelling will have gone down, I hope. Let me see! How did you say it happened? A fall, was it?"
We had not said anything at all as to how it had happened, but luckily we were not called upon to reply, for Mrs Bence, who was a little deaf, came just then innocently to our aid by some inquiry as to the arrangements for the night. Should she or Sims sit up with Master Moore?
"Oh, no--no need of it," said the doctor. "He will probably sleep far better if he is left alone. Let him have a hand-bell within reach, and some one near enough to hear if he rings;" whereupon my own maid, who had been dying to be of use, came forward to suggest that she should sleep in a small dressing-room next door, and where she would hear the slightest sound. This was agreed to, then followed repeated directions from the doctor as to liniments and bandages, and then at last I gave in to Mrs Bence's reiterated entreaties that I would come downstairs and have a bit of dinner--Moore joining his voice to hers, and promising to eat something himself, though he owned that he was not feeling "exactly hungry."
I was terribly tired if not hungry, and I felt grateful for the unusual tact which made Sims and his underlings leave me alone once the good man had satisfied himself that everything I was in want of was within reach.
I had plenty to think of; not a little to blame myself for, though farther back than the actual events of this strange evening; still more to be very thankful about--how easily my young brother might have been, if not killed, at least terribly injured, crippled perhaps for life, by no greater an accident!
And the thought brought back to my mind again the mystery of the Grim House, made more real, more impressive, so to say, by the further glimpse I had had of its melancholy occupants. In spite of myself and my determination to oust all curiosity concerning them from my mind, the picture of the quartette, at that very moment sitting, probably in silence, around their dining-table, would force itself on to my brain. Could the mysterious secret have had to do with the accident which crippled the younger brother? No; somehow I felt sure it had not been that. The sisters, I remembered Isabel telling me, had referred to it quite simply on the one occasion when they had emerged to offer sympathy at the vicarage. No, the mystery did not lie in that direction. Then the words I had unwillingly overheard recurred to my memory. I had thought I would try to forget them, but this was beyond my power, and next best to doing so, an instinct seemed to tell me, was to remember them accurately; and this, for I had a retentive brain, I found I could easily do.
The mention of our own surname had naturally impressed them much more vividly on me.
"Ernest Fitzmaurice"--who could he be? I had never heard of him, I felt sure. Yet our name was not a commonplace one, and the great Irish family to which we belonged were very clannish, and kept up their knowledge of each other with considerable energy; my father did so, I well knew; some day perhaps I might ask him if he knew of any relative whose first name was Ernest.
"He must be a man of about father's age," I reflected, "or even a little older, if he is a contemporary of Mr Grey's." But by this time I was feeling very tired, very sleepy, and almost before I had finished eating, I felt that I _must_ go to bed, if I were to be fit to take my share in looking after and cheering poor Moore the next day.
"And I shall have to write home and tell them about it," I thought to myself. "Oh dear, oh dear! I wish I had never heard of the Grim House. I should like to forget its existence."
But this was not to be.
I woke the next morning considerably refreshed, and inclined to take a more cheerful view of things. Moore, I was glad to find, had had a fairly good night, all things considered, though his foot and ankle were of course still very inflamed and swollen. Mrs Bence and Maple, however, thought well of it in comparison with what it had been, and so long as he kept it motionless, my brother said that the pain was slight. I was just preparing to begin my letter to mother, when the sound of wheels--I was sitting near the window of the library, which at one side looked to the front--made me stop, my heart beating a little faster than usual from the idea that it might possibly be Isabel and her father returning sooner than we had expected them.
"Oh, no," I said to myself reassuringly, "of course it will only be the doctor," though in another moment the sight of the approaching vehicle revived my doubts and fears.
It was the fly again! I drew as near the window as I dared, while avoiding being seen, almost expecting to catch sight of the stranger, our good Samaritan, getting out, for it struck me that he might have had to stay the night after all, and had come up to inquire how Moore was getting on. But no, the driver himself got ponderously down and rang. It was certainly neither the doctor, the Wynyards, nor the stranger! Wild ideas rushed through my mind as to the possibility of its being father, or Jocelyn even, though half an instant's reflection showed me the absurdity of such a thing. Who could it be? From where I stood, the interior of the carriage was completely hidden from view. I heard the servant cross the hall, and as it were, _felt_ the little colloquy that ensued when the door was opened. Then the driver turned to the fly with the information he had received, and its occupants at last became visible.
They were--words fail me to describe my sensations--none other than the two little old maiden sisters from Grimsthorpe!
My first feeling was one of astonishment, my _second_ of fear! Was our secret known, then? Had Mr Grey broken his promise? But what _was_ his promise--in a moment I recalled his words, "You may rely on us to keep the affair to ourselves;" he had spoken in the plural. Still, what was the meaning then of this visit, which was certain to awaken the gossip and curiosity of the whole small neighbourhood? I felt utterly nonplussed, but I had no time in which to think over things; I was obliged to pull myself together as best I could, for the door was thrown open for the announcement, "The Misses Grey," and my little-looked-for visitors entered.
They were, at the first glance, curiously like each other, though afterwards I discerned several points of dissimilarity. The elder of the two--for naturally I at once so dubbed her in my own mind as she preceded her sister--had a much stronger face--strong in its very gentleness--though the younger was, or had been, decidedly the prettier. Except as to eyes--I never saw lovelier eyes than those of Miss Grey herself, as she drew near and looked up at me, for though not very tall, I was much taller than they. And with the first glance, all my misgivings as to the purport or unwisdom of their coming vanished.
"Miss--Fitzmaurice," she began, with a slight, the very slightest, hesitation. "I--we--this is my sister Beatrice--could not rest without hastening to offer our services and sympathy in this--most unfortunate accident, which," and here her voice grew peculiarly distinct, her words almost emphasised, "which we heard of this morning through the driver of the fly, which fortunately was passing the spot where your brother and you were," here she glanced at me again in a way which showed that her eyes could be keen as well as kind, and even--I could not feel sure if this was my fancy--not without a touch of humour in their depths. "One of our servants had occasion to visit the village this morning, and brought back the story, and--as I said, hearing that you were alone, we felt we must come to inquire for you ourselves--my brothers uniting with us in--in"--here she repeated the words--"sympathy and offers of service."
She had held out her hand at the opening of this rather long speech. I had of course taken it, and scarcely conscious of so doing, was still clasping it. And as for the third time she raised her lovely kind eyes to my face, I--it was very unconventional and undignified, and all the rest of it, I know--I burst into tears!
"Oh, Miss Grey!" I exclaimed. "You are far, far too kind. We--we don't--" how I longed to finish my sentence, "don't deserve it." But I dared not, for there flashed over me the remembrance that, if I confessed my own share in our impertinent intrusion, I should implicate Isabel, which I had no right whatever to do, and I stopped short. My tears, I think, standing me in good stead, as they gave a reason for my confusion, and increased the kind woman's pity. They were genuine enough, too, Heaven knows, for I had been putting considerable restraint on myself to keep them back hitherto, for every sake--Moore's especially.
I felt Miss Grey's other hand steal on to the top of mine, already in her clasp.
"My poor child," she said,--"excuse me for calling you so--do not take things so to heart, unless--unless, indeed, there is fresh cause for your distress?" and now her tone was full of anxiety. "I trust your brother is not worse? No injury to the head, or to the limbs, that did not show perhaps at first?"
I shook my head, and now a silly feeling of wishing to laugh came over me, when I thought of the excellent breakfast I had seen the naughty boy upstairs despatching, and his very comfortable condition, propped up with a story-book, at the present moment. No, my tears were not those of anxiety about him, but of very sincere shame and distress at the trouble we had caused these good kind people, who surely had a right to shut themselves up in their own domain if they chose, without being subjected to inquisitive espionage.
"Oh, no," I said at last, choking down my hysterical symptoms, "he is going on all right. In himself he is really very well indeed, and I _think_ his foot is improving. But you are standing all this time," and I drew forward a chair, Miss Beatrice Grey, who looked pale and nervous, having already sunk into a corner of a sofa.
"Jessie," she now said, speaking for the first time, and addressing her sister, "you are forgetting the liniment."
"By no means, my dear love," replied the elder one, "I am just coming to it," and from the folds of her mantle--a good but old-fashioned affair, as was every part of their attire--she produced a phial, neatly wrapped up, which she carefully unfolded. "This is a very excellent preparation," she continued, "for external application--_external_. If Dr Meeke has not called this morning, pray suggest it to him when he does so. He knows it of old, though probably he did not think of it in the present case. We distil it ourselves--my sister and I--not having"--here she coughed a little--that tiny cough was her only sign of nervousness--"as we have not," she resumed, "too much to do;" and here there came a little murmur about "a quiet country life," "we amuse ourselves with these sorts of things--distilling, and so on. We take a great interest in herbs, and we have some rare ones."
She tapped the little bottle as she spoke.
"There are some ingredients in here which are not to be met with every day," she said, with a funny little tone of self-congratulation, "as Dr Meeke knows!"
I thanked her warmly, of course, promising to ask the doctor to let us make use of her gift at once.
"And is there anything else," she went on, "that we can be of use in?" While from the sofa there came a little echo of--"Yes, so glad to be of use!"
I considered for a moment. It was so plainly to be seen that these good creatures would feel real pleasure in their offer being literally accepted.
"New milk," murmured Miss Beatrice, "to keep up his strength. It did wonders for our dear Caryll, long ago, when he--injured his spine. New milk with a spoonful of rum, first thing in the morning on waking."
Miss Grey--Miss Jessie I feel inclined to call her--turned a little sharply on her younger sister.
"My dear Beatrice," she exclaimed, "you forget. Everything of that kind of course is at Miss--Fitzmaurice's command."
"To be sure," was the reply. "Still--"
"I'm sure it would be an excellent thing," I said, as she paused, "but I do not think there is much fear of Moore's strength failing him, though he has been rather a delicate boy."
"I hope not," said Miss Jessie; "I hope not, indeed. Perhaps we felt unduly anxious, for in our case it was not till several days after the accident that the grave injury was discovered." I suppose my face must have betrayed a little alarm at this, for she hastened to reassure me.
"If Dr Meeke is satisfied, I am sure you may feel so," she said. "He is really a very competent man. We had no misgiving on that score; it was only hearing of you two young things being here alone, we felt we-- must inquire at first hand."
"You have been _most_ good and kind," I said. "I shall never be able to thank you--you _all_," after a moment's hesitation, "enough;" and though she said nothing, I _felt_ that she understood the under-sense of my words. I had it on the tip of my tongue to add that I hoped their friend had caught the later train, but a moment's reflection satisfied me that I must follow their cue, and make no allusion to the secret which their brother and I had agreed to preserve intact.
Then they both rose, saying they had detained me long enough; I must be anxious to rejoin my brother.
"We shall hear how he goes on," were Miss Jessie's last words, "as Dr Meeke calls now and then at present. We have a delicate young servant who requires care."
"Yes," I said impulsively, "and Mr Caryll Grey--I suppose he is never very strong?"
Both faces brightened perceptibly at the mention of his name.
"His condition does not vary much," said Miss Grey in her precise way, "and, thank God, he rarely suffers acutely. And what we should be still more thankful for--his nature is a quite wonderfully buoyant one."
"He is so very, very good," murmured the other little sister. "Always cheerful, always thinking of others, never of himself, dear fellow."
She lost her shyness and timidity as she spoke of him. It was really beautiful to see. I felt as I ran upstairs, eager to confide to Moore the details of the wonderful visit, that it was not only Mr Caryll Grey who was "so very, very good," but that I had indeed been entertaining angels!
Moore was of course intensely interested and excited by my story. I think it deepened, perhaps more even than the punishment he had brought on himself, the lesson he had received. For I heard a murmur as I concluded, in which the words, "caddish thing to do," were audible enough.
The doctor made his appearance shortly afterwards. He raised his eyebrows in surprise, which he was too discreet to express otherwise, when I related to him the visit from the Grim House, and by no means "pooh-poohed" the use of the medicament the kind woman had brought.
"I remember it," he said. "And in more than one case of sprain I have known it have a wonderfully good effect. Try it by all means, Miss Fitzmaurice, now that the inflammation has begun to subside; it is just the sort of thing we want, and you may safely continue its use, diluted with water of course, till you have emptied the bottle."
The next two or three days passed quietly, even monotonously. Moore was very patient, and I think I did my best to help him to be so. It was a relief when my home letter was written, and a still greater one when an answer to it had been received. I meant to tell mother the whole circumstances when I saw her again, by no means exonerating myself where I felt I had been to blame, but to enter into any explanation in a letter would have been out of the question. Besides--and as I arrived at this point in my cogitations a new idea struck me--had I any right to retail what Isabel had told me in confidence, without her permission, and would not the applying for this, risk the betrayal to her of my agreement with Mr Grey?
"Oh dear," I thought to myself, "what a labyrinth a little indiscretion may involve one in. I see now that I was not justified in telling Moore about Grimsthorpe. It was not faithful to Isabel, but with his being here on the spot and seeing the place for himself, it never struck me before in this light. No doubt he would have heard some gossip about it, but probably not enough to cause much curiosity. I shall really be very glad when we are both safely back at home again, and the whole thing forgotten, so far as ever can be. Moore has had his lesson anyway; I am certain he would never intrude on the Greys again, even if he were here for months. How very discreet those old ladies were! I suppose they have learnt it, poor things." For that there was a secret, and a very sad one, my recent experiences had in no way led me to doubt. "By the way," I went on in my own mind, "I wonder how they knew our name?" Then I recalled the little colloquy at the hall-door. "Of course," I reflected, "they must have asked for the young lady who was staying here, and naturally the footman would speak of me as `Miss Fitzmaurice'?" and later I discovered, by a little judicious inquiry through my own maid, that this had in fact been the case. Nor did I make the inquiry solely through curiosity. I had noticed the almost imperceptible hesitation in Miss Jessie's manner as she addressed me by name, and I could not forget--it was no use pretending to myself that I should ever do so--the mention of "Ernest Fitzmaurice" which I had overheard. "Something to do specially with Jessie," I had gathered.
"Poor little woman! What may she not have suffered in life, and how brave she seems!" were my last waking thoughts that night.
CHANGE OF SCENE.
The Wynyards' return was after all delayed for a day or two, and this, as will be readily understood, I did not regret, as it gave more time for Moore's progress in convalescence. I had persuaded Mrs Bence and Sims, though not without some difficulty, to join me in keeping back the news of the accident from our hosts till we could tell it to them by word of mouth.
"It would only worry them," I said, "and do no conceivable good, and they are sure to come back the very first day possible."
And when they did arrive I felt doubly glad that I had taken this precaution, for Mr Wynyard was looking rather tired and depressed, and Isabel confided to me that the meeting his relative after an interval of a great many years had--as she expressed it--"taken it out of him" considerably, though the business matters which they had met to arrange had all been satisfactorily concluded.
Moore's misfortune did not strike them very seriously. Mr Wynyard never having had a son of his own, had an almost exaggerated idea of boys' spirits and love of adventure, and thought it very lucky indeed that Moore had got off with lesser injury than broken bones. He was preoccupied with his own thoughts just at that time, and once satisfied that everything had been done, and that my brother was in a fair way to a speedy recovery, allowed, so to say, the matter to drop, never even inquiring into the details of how it had happened, nor, rather to my surprise, did Isabel, though it was not till long afterwards that she confided to me the real grounds of her apparent lack of curiosity on the subject.
Both she and her father, however, were keenly interested, as indeed could not but have been the case, in my account of the visit I had received from the Misses Grey, and I felt again a peculiar gratitude to the kind-hearted ladies for the discretion and tact which had prevented a word, or even allusion, which I could not with perfect openness repeat to the Wynyards, as to this part of our experiences.
"They are really _very_ good," said Isabel heartily, when we were all talking it over together. "It is just the same kind way they behaved to the vicarage people, that time I told you of, several yours ago. Does it not make one wish, Regina, that anything could be done for these poor Greys towards removing the cloud that has hung over them for so long?"
"Yes, indeed," I said heartily, thinking to myself as I spoke that I had a good deal more reason than my friend knew of for endorsing what she said. And then again there seemed to re-echo through my brain the name "Ernest Fitzmaurice." Was it only a coincidence, or was it possible that there had ever been any connection between these brothers and sisters and a member of our own family? An unhappy connection, no doubt, possibly even a disgraceful secret of some kind, involving one who apparently had not been the sufferer.
And now, I think, my story will best be told by passing over some considerable interval of time with but a few words of notice.
Nothing farther occurred of any special interest during the remainder of our stay at the Manor-house. Moore's recovery had progressed most satisfactorily by the date of our return home, which was speedily followed, of course, by his going back to school for the remainder of the term, as he was practically perfectly sound again. And after full consideration I decided that I was behaving more honourably and loyally in not relating to any one the details of his accident, or rather of what had led to it. There was no occasion for doing so, in which the boy himself agreed with me, promising me faithfully to consider all that had occurred as a closed chapter in his life.
"It is what the Greys wished," I said, by way of impressing it upon him more forcibly, "and considering how very kindly and generously they behaved to us, the least we can do is to respect their wishes to the full. You must never speak of it, Moore, to any of your school-fellows."
He repeated his promise, and I felt satisfied that he would not forget it. He had had a lesson; all the same I was glad to know that he had overheard nothing of the dialogue which had so impressed me myself.
One thing I did, and feeling assured of the entire purity of my motive, I could not feel that I was wrong in this. Not many days after our return home, when I happened to find myself alone with father, I inquired, in as casual a tone as possible of him, if the name "Ernest" was a family one with us.
His manner was completely free from consciousness of any kind, as he replied after a moment or two's consideration--
"Well, no; I should scarcely call it such, though there have been one or two of the name among us. One, by-the-bye, whose career would scarcely add prestige to the name he bore, whatever it had been!"
"Who was he?" I said, "and what did he do?" speaking as quietly as I could, for I had no wish, naturally, to rouse any curiosity on my father's part.
"I scarcely know," he replied. "He was a distant cousin only, and he has long since disappeared. I fancy he was more weak than wicked, a tool in the hands of a thoroughly unprincipled man, but I never heard the details, nor would they be edifying to know. What put it into your head, Regina, to ask about the name? You are not thinking of getting up a family chronicle, are you?"
"Oh dear no," I said lightly. "I heard the name accidentally quite, and I just wondered if it belonged to any relation of ours;" and there, for the time being, the matter dropped.
The summer and autumn succeeding our visit to Millflowers passed uneventfully. One great disappointment they brought with them, and that was the impossibility of Isabel Wynyard coming to stay with us, as we had hoped might have been the case. I forget the special reasons for this. I think they must have been connected with her father's being less well than usual, for, looking back to that time as we have often done since, it seems as if the slow failure which ended a few years later in his death had begun to show itself that year. Soon after Christmas, however, Mr Wynyard went to pay a visit to the Percys, and then Isabel came to us. It was of course delightful to me to have her, and to reverse the roles of our previous time together, for I had now the pleasure--always, I think, a very great one--of acting hostess and _cicerone_ of our pretty neighbourhood--pretty at all seasons, even in midwinter, to my mind at least, in which opinion Isabel cordially agreed.
She had been the sweetest of little hostesses; she was the most charming of guests. Every-thing seemed to come right to her, and everybody liked her. I think she specially loved the filing of a mother in our home, above all a mother who had known hers.
"It must be so delightful, Regina," she said, a day or two after her arrival, "to have some one you can always appeal to, always consult, like Mrs Fitzmaurice, close at hand," and she gave a little sigh. "Papa is the dearest of fathers, and since Margaret's marriage he and I have been, as you know, everything to each other. Still, after all, a man isn't a woman, and over and over again I long for a mother."
"But you have your sister?" I said.
"Oh yes, of course," was the reply. "The best of sisters; but it cannot now be quite the same, no longer living together. She has her own home and separate interests. I shouldn't feel it right to trouble her about little things. And you can go to your mother for everything. I do so hate responsibility, and now it seems coming upon me more and more since father is less well than he used to be."
"I don't think," I answered, "that I have ever dreaded responsibility very much, perhaps because, so far, I have small experience of it! But I am likely to have to be rather `independent' before long. I don't think you will envy me, Isabel, when I tell you that this spring I am going up to London for a couple of months to be taken out by a cousin of mother's, whom I scarcely know, and already feel afraid of."
Isabel looked up with startled sympathy in her eyes.
"Oh yes, indeed," she said. "I _do_ pity you, or rather I would pity myself in your place. Why doesn't your mother take you out herself?"
Here it was my turn to sigh.
"She is not nearly strong enough," I said, "for anything of the kind. I have always known that something of the sort was before me sooner or later, and I don't look forward to it in the least."
"Poor Regina!" said Isabel. "In our different ways I don't think either you or I would ever care _very_ much for what is called `society'--I from cowardice, and you from--oh! from having so many other things that interest you--such a delightful home, where you are made so much of, and country things. _My_ only experience of London has been for quite a short time together, and under Margaret's wing. But then, Regina, you are much, much stronger-minded than I. I dare say in the end you will really enjoy it."
"Perhaps," I allowed. "I certainly should not care to live a very shut-up life, nor would you either, in any extreme. For instance," I went on, with a little self-consciousness, which, if Isabel perceived, she was clever enough to conceal that she did so, "for instance, we don't envy those poor little Miss Greys at Grimsthorpe. By-the-bye, you have not told me if you've heard anything of them."
I was not sorry for the opportunity of making this inquiry in an apparently off-hand way. I was really anxious to know about the Grim House people, and yet the feeling of our secret and the great dread of involuntarily breaking my agreement with them, made me almost nervously afraid of any mention of them.
"Yes," said Isabel, speaking, it seemed to me, more slowly and as it were consideringly than her wont. "Yes, I have been going to tell you ever since I came, but I have got to have a perhaps exaggerated dread of gossiping about them--only, you see, you do already know all _I_ do. Yes, we are more sorry for them than ever. The cripple one, the brother with the angelic face, has been so ill this winter. And the other three's poor faces have got sadder and sadder, and grimmer and grimmer, Sunday after Sunday."
"No," I exclaimed impulsively, "not _grimmer_; at least not the sisters; for theirs have never been grim. I think their expression is quite sweet."
"Do you?" said Isabel. "How do--oh, I was forgetting. Of course you saw them quite at close quarters that day they came down on a Good Samaritan visit when Moore hurt his foot _I_ have never managed to see them very distinctly; those old-fashioned bonnets of theirs hide them so. But the elder brother--_he_ is grim enough, at least."
"Ye-es," I replied half-dubiously, "I suppose so." I had lost my nervous feeling by now, and a certain curious spirit of defiance which I have always known to be latent in me, and which, were it not kept in check, might grow into a kind of recklessness, had been aroused by a touch of "dryness" in Isabel's tone. I felt inclined to disagree with her, to contradict her for the sake of doing so! So "ye-es," I repeated. "Perhaps so, but there is more in his face than grimness and melancholy. _I_ think there is dormant tenderness too."
"Dear me!" was Isabel's comment on this, "what good eyes you must have! I could never have detected all that."
"I have very good eyes," I replied, "and, naturally, your talking so much about the Greys sharpened them whenever I had a chance of using them in that quarter."
"Good eyes, and good ears, too," I thought to myself, and with the recollection of my eavesdropping, there awoke again the old sensation of shame, bringing with it quick repentance for my manner to Isabel, in which a rather ungenerous wish to remind her that her confidences had been the origin of my curiosity, had been a motive at work. "If she _does_ know anything about what really happened, it is just as well for her to take some of the blame," I had thought, "and I _have_ been faithful to her." But as usual, her gentleness still further disarmed me.
"I am afraid," she said next, "that the poor things _have_ increasing cause for anxiety and distress. Without cross-questioning Dr Meeke, which of course he wouldn't allow, I could not but gather from him that he is _very_ anxious about the younger brother. He, the lame Mr Grey, has not been at church for weeks past."
This news saddened me. Surely our escapade had in no way brought fresh trouble to the Grim House, even though indirectly? It might have rendered the elder man still more anxious and uneasy, and diminished what little cheerfulness his sisters and brother had managed to preserve among them. For I had never wavered in my first intuition, that Mr Grey himself was the centre of the mystery, and the words I had overheard had deepened this impression.
I turned to Isabel rather abruptly, as another thought struck me.
"Have they had any more visitors?" I asked. "Have you seen the man of the pocket-book again?"
Isabel shook her head.
"No," she replied; "I am pretty sure no one but Dr Meeke has crossed their threshold since you were with us. How _deadlily_ dull it must be for them--one day just like another all the year round, excepting the variety the seasons must bring!"
"And added to that," I said, "this winter, the daily suspense as to what the doctor would say about their brother, who is their darling, I am perfectly certain. Oh, poor people, poor people!"
After this conversation I do not think the Greys were alluded to again during Isabel's stay with us. She had told me all there was to tell, and even had there been more news, she would probably not have heard it, her father not being at Millflowers. The two or three weeks of her visit passed all too quickly, far too quickly for me, for more reasons than the pleasure of her society. She had scarcely left us when the preparations began for my stay in London, which, to suit our cousin's-- Lady Bretton's--arrangements, was to be rather earlier than had been originally intended. Mother was a little surprised at my distaste for the idea of it. She knew I was not specially shy, nor constitutionally timid, like dear little Isabel, and I myself could scarcely explain why the prospect had so little attraction for me.
"It is just that I shall feel `out of it all,'" I said, "and Lady Bretton will think me stupider than I am, and will wish she hadn't troubled herself about me! I know it will be like that, mother. I do wish you would give it up, even now."
But mother, as I have said, could be firm enough when occasion called for it, besides which, I well knew that any appeal to my father would be worse than useless, and only irritate him. So mother ignored my last sentence altogether.
"It is a very bad plan," she said quietly, "to put your own imaginings into your anticipations of another person's feelings towards or about you. Nothing is more misleading--it blocks the way to any sympathy between you. I know Regina Bretton very well, otherwise I would not have accepted her proposal. She is the sort of woman who will enjoy your inexperience, as well as"--mother went on, with a little mischief in her tone--"smartening you up generally. She loves being appealed to; then, too, she is your godmother, and _really_ thoroughly kind-hearted."
The remembrance of this and other reassuring remarks of a similar kind did comfort me a little. Still more so the sight of my godmother's kind, handsome face when I saw her for the first time coming downstairs to receive me on the afternoon of my arrival at her house. Nothing could have been more affectionate or _un_-alarming than her manner of welcome.
"I would have gone to the station to meet you," she said, "but it is often more embarrassing than pleasant, when people are not quite sure of each other by sight. Then I knew, too, that you had your maid with you, and indeed, dear, as regards actual travelling, you are far more experienced than I; you have had so much of it."
Trifling as was this remark, it helped to put me at my ease; it showed a wish on my hostess's part to say something pleasant and gratifying. Surely it would be well if there were a little more of this sort of thing among us English people? As a rule, we are so terribly afraid of agreeable impulses, reserving all approach to commendation or admiration till absolutely sure of good grounds for such. Yet the same caution does not hold on the converse side. An air of cold criticism, in itself more discouraging very often than an openly disagreeable remark, is as a rule accepted as correct. May it not be that in this particular people deceive themselves, and at the root of our unattractive reserve and so-called terror of flattering, there often lurks an underlying spirit of reluctance to discern or allow, even to ourselves, the best points of another? Still worse, not impossibly, in many instances some more or less specious touch of jealousy?
I have wandered a little from the case in point, which is scarcely a typical one. On my kind cousin's part there could have been no conceivable temptation to disparagement of me in any way. Not even of my youth, for its benefits were still practically hers. She had magnificent health, was still as pretty as she had ever been--some indeed said prettier; she was surrounded by friends, many of whom at least--most, let us hope--were attached to her by reason of her own unspoilt, unselfish character, far more than by that of her prosperous and important position.
There was but one blank page in her life. She had no children of her own, though the devotion of the best of husbands, as was hers, scarcely allowed her to realise this one great want.
Still, it was not everybody--by any means far from it--who would have had the kindly tact to receive me as she did, almost from the very first winning my confidence and setting me at my ease, amidst these new surroundings.
It was still quite early in the spring, and I did not feel overwhelmed by the contrast of town life with our almost exceptionally quiet one at home. This I was very glad of, though even in the midst of the season I doubt if my godmother would have allowed any extreme in the way of going out. What she did, she has often said, she liked to enjoy, and her happy nature was ready to do so. She threw herself with hearty interest into the many things which were new to me, though of course not so to her. I scarcely think any girl ever saw all best worth seeing in London under pleasanter auspices than I did.
And so the days and weeks passed on, bringing with them no twinge of home-sickness to me. My letters to mother and to Isabel, some of which, now faded and yellowing, have come into my hands again of late years, tell of a very happy passage in my life.
The time was already approaching for my return home, at least allusions had begun to be made to its probable date, when I one day received a note in an unfamiliar hand. I glanced at the signature as one sometimes does in such a case, before thoroughly mastering the contents.
But at the first moment it only added to my perplexity.
"Payne?" I repeated, "Edith Payne? who can she be?" Then the name of the southern resort where we had spent our last winter abroad caught my eye, also the words--"Rupert specially asks to be remembered to you"-- and recalled to me the recollection of the nice boys and their gentle little mother whom we had made friends with. Circumstances had, after all, not tended to keeping up the acquaintanceship hitherto, for the younger brother's joining Moore at school had been delayed till quite recently, though it was to this having now taken place that I owed the kind little letter and invitation which it contained.
Mrs Payne wrote, hoping that I would at least spend a day with them, if not two or three days; she would be so interested to hear my home news, and Rupert, the incipient novelist, was more than delighted at the idea of meeting me again.
Now, as it happened, and as really _does_ happen in fact as well as in fiction, though people are so fond of saying that coincidences principally exist in story-books, this proposal came just at the right time. When I told my godmother of it, I noticed at first a touch of hesitation in her manner.
"Mrs _Payne_?" she said. "Not _old_ friends of yours, are they? I don't remember about them."
I explained to her when and where we had met, adding that I believed the father was a lawyer of very good standing. Her face cleared.
"Oh yes!" she exclaimed. "I know who they are now, thoroughly good people, a little old-fashioned perhaps. And you think your parents would be quite pleased for you to renew the acquaintance?"
"I'm sure of it," I said; "but don't you think it would be enough to go there to luncheon one day? I am so perfectly happy here, I don't want to go anywhere else."
"Dear," was the reply, "I do like to hear you say so. Having you is almost"--and here the tiny shadow that sometimes crept into her eyes was for a moment perceptible--"_almost_ like having a daughter of my own. But as it happens--I know I may be quite frank with you--it would answer rather well for you to go to these good people for a couple of days or so. Say next Friday to the Monday after? Henry and I have a rather special invitation for those days, and though I had not dreamt of mentioning it to you, now that this has turned up, it all seems to fit in, for my husband would like me to go with him to his uncle's."
I was of course only too glad to be in no way a difficulty to my hosts, so I wrote at once both to Mrs Payne, suggesting the date named, and to mother, telling her what I had done in the matter. And all came to pass in accordance with our plan. The following Friday found me driving across the park to the rather sombre but stately square where the Paynes had lived for many years.
It was to some extent a new phase of London life, even with my small experience of it, to which I was introduced at Granville Square. The Paynes were open, as Lady Bretton had said, to a mild charge of "old-fashionedness" perhaps. Of this, save for my time with my godmother, I might scarcely have been conscious, but as things were, it added a certain interest, almost charm, to my days with them.
From the first I felt thoroughly at home; the whole atmosphere was in many ways home-like to me. For, to begin with, there was no daughter of the house, and the two sons at home on my first arrival were, or at least seemed to me, decidedly my juniors. The younger of them was very distinctly so, for he was the baby of the family, still at a day-school in London, and Rupert, my old acquaintance, though literally about my own age, I looked upon as much younger. In those days I think the feeling was more marked than at present, of girls arriving at maturity more quickly than their young men contemporaries.
There was no other guest at dinner that first night, as my host had taken places at the theatre for Mrs Payne, Rupert and myself. It was part of the _role_ in their kindly minds to give me all the entertainment possible, and I fully appreciated it, especially as I had not been often to the play while with the Brettons. The piece they had chosen, I need scarcely say, was unexceptionable in every way, something of a tragedy, as far as I remember, of good if not classical standing, and Mr Payne himself had selected it for my benefit. He was an elderly man, a good deal older than my father, in appearance and bearing at least, but I did not find him nearly as awe-inspiring as Mr Wynyard had seemed to me at first, very probably because in the present case my host was entirely without self-consciousness, or the touch of shyness which is almost inseparable from the kind of life which Isabel's father had led for so many years.
"If I had to go to law about anything," I remember thinking to myself, "which I devoutly hope will never be the case, Mr Payne is just the sort of man in whose hands I should feel perfectly safe!"
In his heart, I think Rupert was rather pleased than otherwise to be my only cavalier, though he impressed upon me dutifully, and no doubt sincerely, his regret that the elder brother, Clarence, of whom I could see that the whole family was immensely proud, had not been there to meet me.
"Is he out of London?" I asked, half carelessly, as we were sitting waiting for the curtain to rise, one of the unwritten laws of the Payne household being "always to be in good time at a theatre or a railway station"--or "is he only very busy?"
"He is very busy," Rupert replied. "I believe he is getting on splendidly, but to-day he is actually in the country on some very pressing affairs. He will be back to-morrow, though; he doesn't often stay away more than a night at a time; my father can't spare him."
"And how are you getting on yourself?" I was beginning; "how about--" at that moment I was interrupted by the rising of the curtain; but when it fell again I repeated my question, and in the intervals I was able to talk to Rupert without seeming to neglect his mother, who was happily engaged on her other side by her neighbour there, proving to be a pleasant acquaintance.
"How about your novels? Have you got any more good plots on hand?"
The form of my question was partly affected by the nature of the drama before us, which foreshadowed, even in the first act, a mysterious secret, handed on through more than one generation of an ancient family.
Rupert coloured a little.
"Good plots!" he repeated. "I have just scores of them. It is not that part of it I am at a loss about. It is my style I am unhappy and dissatisfied with. There is something--I don't know how to define it-- stilted and priggish, I am afraid, that I am painfully conscious of and yet cannot throw off. I have often thought how it would help me to talk my work over with you, if it would not bore you dreadfully. Even to read some of my MS. _Could_ you make up your mind to such a thing?"
I felt flattered, but a little surprised.
"_Bore_ me; it certainly would not," I replied. "But I am not the very least in the world a literary person."
"No," said Rupert eagerly, quite unconscious of anything uncomplimentary in what he was saying. "I know you are not, and that is just what I like. Your feeling--your intuitive perception is so fresh and natural!"
I could scarcely suppress a smile; the dear fellow's way of expressing himself _viva voce_, though he was quite unconscious of it, certainly laid him open to some extent to the charge of "stiltedness"--"priggish" I could not bear to call him, he was so genuine and really modest; the adjective "quaint" seemed to me to suit him better than any other.
"I should like very much to read some of your stories or sketches," I said, "or better still, you might read them to me, and then we could discuss them a little as we go on."
Then, for the time being, our conversation stopped but by the end of the next act--there were only three in all, as far as I remember--my interest in Rupert's confidences had been increased by that of the drama before us.
"By-the-bye," I said, almost before the curtain had fallen, "some parts of this play remind me a little of a story in real life you told me something of. And you half promised to tell me more some day."
I spoke and felt eagerly, for a strange idea had struck me--curiously enough as it may seem to any one unaccustomed to meditate on the vagaries of our brains and memories--for the first time. Was there not a certain amount of resemblance not only between the plot gradually unfolding before us, but between Rupert's _real_ story, little though I had heard of it, and the _real_ mystery with which I had come in contact, though of the facts connected with it I knew scarcely more?
My companion was flattered by my recollection of his confidences. But yet I saw that he looked a little uncomfortable.
"I know what you are referring to," he replied. "But--I haven't anything more to tell you, and I am afraid I can never hope to work up what I know so as to make any practical use of it. They are thinking after all," he went on a little shamefacedly, "now that I am so much stronger, of my going into my father's firm--under Clarence of course-- and the mere fact of my being in it would bar the way to my benefiting as a writer by any of the strange complications lawyers come across in their work."
I understood and appreciated his reticence, though it by no means tended--rather the other way indeed--to make an end of the idea that had suggested itself to me.
"It really does seem," I reflected, as I turned my attention again to the stage, "as if the Grim House business was fated to haunt me! This very play, and the coming across Rupert again, which has recalled his story!--no! it is no use my trying to put it away for good, I wonder how that poor Mr Caryll Grey is?" for, as I said, I had heard nothing more from Isabel on the subject since I had been in London.
Notwithstanding these preoccupations of mind, I thoroughly enjoyed my evening, which Rupert and his mother were pleased and gratified to hear.
"Now," said Mrs Payne, as we alighted at their own door, "you must get to bed as quickly as possible, my dear! I know it is not very late, but I don't want you to go back to Lady Bretton looking any less well for your two or three days with us. In the first place, however, come into the dining-room, where we shall find sandwiches or something of the kind," and she led the way thither, I following.
To my surprise, as she entered, she gave a little cry, not of alarm, but of astonishment and pleasure.
"My dear boy," she exclaimed, "so you have got back to-night after all! Miss Fitzmaurice," and she turned to me, "this is my eldest son, Clarence; we did not expect him home till to-morrow."
I came forward with no very great sensation of interest or curiosity, feeling, indeed, just a little bored at having to talk polite nothings to another stranger, when I was conscious of being rather sleepy and a little dazzled by the sudden light, after the pleasant darkness during the drive home. But no sooner had I caught a glimpse of the man who had risen from his seat on our entrance and was on the point of approaching me with outstretched hand in response to his mother's introduction, than all my wits and perceptions awoke to their keenest. I could scarcely repress an exclamation of amazement, for there stood before me the unknown whom Moore and I, and indeed Isabel herself, in the first place, had dubbed with so many designations--"the mysterious stranger"--"the man of the pocket-book"--"our good Samaritan," and so on!
And although Clarence Payne was in some respects more at a disadvantage than I, never having seen me except with a hat on, and, as far as I remember, a veil as well, it was instantly evident that he too recognised me!
"Miss--" he exclaimed, and his mother, thinking he had not caught my name, interrupted him before he had time to repeat it.
"Fitzmaurice," she interpolated.
"Miss Fitzmaurice," he resumed, "I am--" then stopped short.
We looked at each other, on both sides waiting for a cue, the young man evidently quite in the dark as to whether I would wish him to appear to recognise me or not, and I, for my part, feeling something of the same nature as regarded him. But we were both too naturally, I think I may say, ingenuous, too _young_ perhaps, to act a part without distinct reason. We gazed at each other for less time by far than it has taken me to describe the little scene, then--and after all I think it was the best ending of it--we both burst out laughing, the half-nervousness which had so culminated melting into real amusement as we caught sight of Mrs Payne's amazed face.
"My dearest Clarence!" she was beginning.
"What--what in the world--"--"is there to laugh at?" she was doubtless going to have continued, had her son not interrupted her, before even I had time to do so.
"We have met before!" he exclaimed, "though neither of us knew the other's name;" whereupon Mrs Payne's expression changed from amazement to perplexity.
"Met before?" she repeated. "How? Where? At some party perhaps?"
He glanced at me as if leaving the unavoidable explanation to me, both as to extent and character.
"No," I said, replying for him, "it was not at a party," and then, as there flashed across my mind the extreme probability of Moore and Clarence Payne meeting each other in the future, I felt that candour, up to a certain point, was the wisest and best for all concerned.
"It was when I was staying in the country," I went on, "not very long ago. My brother slipped and sprained his ankle, and your son, who was passing about the time, very kindly picked us up and took us safely home. It was not at my own home--there it wouldn't have mattered so much. We have always felt so grateful to you," I resumed, turning to "the man of the pocket-book."
Mrs Payne's mingled feelings were now gathered together in extreme interest, with a strong dash of satisfaction.
"Dear Clarence is always so anxious to help," she said, "and he always keeps his presence of mind."
"You make too much of it, Miss Fitzmaurice," he replied to me. "You have done so all through. The little service I rendered you was literally nothing, though indirectly I hope it may have been of use by obviating delay as to the doctor's seeing the injury--"
"Very _directly_, I should say;" and then for no special reason; I do not think my remark was particularly funny; we both laughed again.
By this time I, at least, was feeling quite at my ease, and so I think was my companion.
"So the doctor did come quickly?" he inquired, "and your brother is all right again by this time, I hope?" drawing forward a chair for me to the table, while his mother busied herself with the sandwiches and other things prepared for us, though listening the while with all her ears to these interesting reminiscences of ours.
"Oh dear, yes! It was not a bad affair after all. He was able to go back to school fairly soon, and his ankle seems quite strong now," I answered, as I helped myself to a biscuit.
"Was it your brother Moore?" Rupert inquired, and by his tone I perceived that he was not altogether pleased at this unexpected discovery of his senior's previous acquaintance with me.
"Yes," I answered. "Did _your_ brother--the one at school with him, I mean--never mention the accident?"
"I think not," said Rupert, at once responding to my little overture. "I should have been sure to remember it, though perhaps it was before Leo's going to Minchester."
"Of course it was," I replied. "I was forgetting how time goes. That is a sign of getting old, isn't it?" I added lightly, though in point of fact I was not sorry to hear of Moore's reticence as to the adventure which, except for his agreement with me, he would doubtless have found a highly spiced experience to relate and be listened to by his companions.
"I don't know," said Rupert rather gloomily. "We are all getting very old, I suppose. I often feel as if I were ninety, and I don't think I should much care if I were. Life is not so very entrancing, that I can see."
His brother glanced at him half-mischievously.
"Speak for yourself, if you please, my dear boy," he said. "Miss Fitzmaurice does not feel very antique and decrepit, I am quite sure. Nor do I. _I_ think life `grows upon one,' and becomes more and more interesting every new year one has of it."
"So do I," I exclaimed eagerly. "I used to dread getting big--I mean leaving off being a child"--and I felt that I blushed a little, as if I were talking egotistically--"but I think being grown-up is very nice after all."
"Yet there are plenty of sad things too," said Clarence gently. "Sometimes one feels as if it were scarcely fair that one should have so much and others so terribly little," and I _fancied_ he sighed a little.
"Dear Clarence," said his mother, "that is so like you," and she patted his head.
He was a very good son. I _felt_ that her remarks and manner irritated him a little, but he never showed it, so as to chill or hurt her in the least.
"He is so deeply interested in the poor," she continued, turning to me, "and in all the wonderful plans on foot now-a-days for improving their condition."
At this it seemed to me that Clarence Payne got rather red.
"My dear mother," he said, "you give me credit for far more virtues than I possess. But perhaps Miss Fitzmaurice knows already that all your home-farm poultry turn to swans, whatever they were to start with. I am afraid philanthropic schemes and I haven't had much to say to each other of late. And after all," here he spoke more slowly, and I knew that his words were tacitly addressed to me, "I doubt if my greatest sympathy is with the poor. It sounds hard-hearted perhaps, but there are, there must be, miseries which they could not feel in the same way as those of our own classes do," and again it seemed to me that I caught an almost inaudible sigh. And by one of those "brain-waves," as I believe it is now the fashion to call them, from that moment I felt convinced that he had been down at the Grim House again, and that troubles were thickening there.
There came another murmur of maternal admiration from Mrs Payne, but her son's last words had saddened me, and a moment or two later I owned to being tired and sleepy, and we bade each other good-night.
My first waking thoughts the next morning were that something strange and unexpected had happened. For a moment or two the unfamiliar room, with its handsome but heavy furniture, very different from the light chintz-hung quarters, with their pretty little adornments, which my godmother had prepared for me, added to my confusion of mind. Then, bit by bit, the events of the day before unrolled themselves in my memory.
"What can be the matter," I thought, "with the Greys? For I am perfectly certain that something new or worse _is_ the matter. And how can I find out? And what could I do to help them if I knew? Would it, could it ever be right and honourable to tell what I heard--that name?"
My heart beat faster at the very idea. I felt as if I _must_ confide my perplexities to some one; yet to do so to Clarence Payne would, I knew, be manifestly unfair, unless I could tell him the whole. Still, might there not be a sort of compromise? Under the circumstances, the very strange circumstances, of our both knowing what we did, though he little suspected the _possibly_ vital information I possessed--under the circumstances, surely there would be no breach of etiquette or even of good taste in my asking him if he had been there, and if my intuitions as to some new cause of distress were correct? For before I could even battle out the question with myself thoroughly as to whether anything would justify me in betraying my secret, I must know if the new complications I suspected lay in that direction. And Clarence was my only possible source of information. Isabel knew nothing, I felt sure, and it was not the least use applying to her.
So by the time I was dressed I had arrived at a kind of decision. I would lead the conversation round to our former meeting, on the first possible chance that offered itself of talking privately with the younger Mr Payne; a word from him would be enough to show me my ground. If he at once appeared determined to ignore all reference to the Greys and their affairs, I should, I feared, feel compelled to give up all hope of being of use. But this I did not anticipate. The covert allusions in his remarks the night before, which had at once struck me as more or less _intended_, made me instinctively certain that no expression of interest in his unfortunate clients on my part would be resented; nay more, that so long as I only mentioned them to himself alone, something of the kind would seem but natural and called for. Then again, perhaps the new trouble, whose existence I so strongly suspected, might be something quite open and unmysterious, concerning the health of the cripple brother or of some other of the family perhaps, which even their confidential lawyers--and such it was impossible to doubt was the Paynes' relation to them--might allude to, to any one who knew the Grimsthorpe people even by name only.
"It is clear that _they_ are the originals of Rupert's mysterious family," I said to myself, "but I will not come within a mile of allusion to them to _him_. It would not be fair. I don't believe, to begin with, that he knows anything, and I rather suspect from his manner yesterday that he is frightened at having told me the little he did. No; I can only try my ground with Clarence, no one else," and my spirits rose as the idea took form in my imagination of my old dreams perhaps coming true--of my acting the good fairy towards these poor people, for nearly a quarter of a century immured in their gloomy dwelling, owing to the evil machinations of--I started at the thought--a member of my own family!
"But if it be so," I went on, "the more grounds for my trying to help if I can;" and I went down to breakfast feeling quite strung up and prepared to act upon my resolution as quickly as possible, even while realising fully that it might call for some diplomacy, as unless I saw that my motives were likely to be sympathised in by Clarence Payne, I would say and do nothing, in _that_ direction at least.
I was met by disappointment. There was no one in the dining-room but Mrs Payne, who added to her other model qualities that of punctuality and early rising. I was, I suppose, a little late, but she greeted me most cordially.
"We have to be very regular," she said, "as Mr Payne and my eldest son go off pointedly, though I did want Clarence to give himself a little latitude this morning after his long journey. And Felix, our baby, is due at school at nine o'clock, though he has not very far to go. And Rupert--" she was continuing, but I am afraid I cut her short.
"I am so sorry," I said. "I could easily have hurried a little if I had known." And I really _was_ feeling sorry, though not from any sense of penitence, as Mrs Payne evidently supposed.
"Oh! Rupert is not down yet," she said. "I am afraid he has got into rather lazy ways;" and she went on talking about the improvement in his health, their plans for his future, etc, without discovering that I was not giving my full attention, for my whole mind was running on the chances of a talk with Clarence, and how it was to be managed without letting him himself suspect that anything of the kind was premeditated on my part. I had not realised the difference between town and country life, between busy, and so to say, idle people. At home, or on any country visit, nothing would have been easier, but here I foresaw all sorts of difficulties, and my spirits flagged.
"You're tired, my dear, I am afraid," said my kind hostess, but, luckily perhaps, at that moment Rupert made his appearance. He glanced round the room, and I could not help a slight feeling of amusement at the gratification I detected in his face when he saw that his mother and I were alone.
"I may lay my account," I thought, "to a good morning of literary confidences and aspirations, not to speak of criticism. But after all, I may turn it to some purpose. I don't want to involve the boy in any way, but I dare say I am adroit enough to find out something from him which may help to guide me a little," and my greeting of the young fellow was probably proportionally hearty, for his face lightened up still more, and half-way through our meal--for his mother's breakfast was a thing of the past--he begged her to leave the care of me in his hands.
"I'm sure Miss Fitzmaurice won't mind," he said affably. "Will you?" he added, turning to me, to which I replied by a smile, as he expected. "Mother is fidgeting to see the housekeeper; I know her little ways so well, especially as it is Saturday, and father and Clarence, not to speak of Felix, will probably all come home to luncheon, and dinner is pretty sure to be unusually early or unusually late."
Mrs Payne laughed, but evidently he had hit the mark, for with a word of excuse to me she left us, and Rupert busied himself with pouring out a second cup of coffee for me, and attending scrupulously to all my wants.
I saw an opening to getting a little information, and profited by it.
"What do you generally do on Saturday afternoons?" I said. "Do you go off to cricket matches or football matches, or--oh! I know what you're going to say, that I shouldn't jumble up seasons in that sort of way. And I do know better, but I am asking for general information. I don't suppose you all stay at home doing nothing!"
"Well, to-day, as I happen to know," he replied importantly, "they have designs upon you in the shape of a Spring Flower Show at the Botanical Gardens. I don't suppose you'll care about it, but mother is one of those people who would be miserable if she did not arrange amusement for her guests; so, my dear Miss Fitzmaurice, you will have to make the best of it."
"I shall like it very much," I replied. "Which of you will be going? You, I suppose?"
"Well, no," he said, "I'm afraid not. I really am rather busy just now, and--that sort of thing is a change for Clarence after his office work. So, as you won't see much of me for the rest of the day, is it presumptuous of me to hope that will let me go over some of my work with for half-an-hour or so this morning? The library at the back of the house is really a pleasant room for a quiet talk--or, if you keep to your kind proposal of letting me read aloud to you, I should be most grateful."
A FLOWER SHOW.
Rupert's proposal was just what I was hoping for. I responded most cordially, feeling half ashamed of my real motive for so doing when I saw the unmistakable gratification in his eyes. So I resolved to do my best--but a small "best" at most--to help him, especially when, on following him to the library, I saw the little preparations he had already made there for my comfort, which he was half anxious, half shy about.
The season was still early enough in the year for the weather to be very uncertain, if indeed in this so-called "temperate" zone of ours it is ever anything else. It was chilly enough to make a little fire acceptable, particularly in the large book-lined room with its heavy furniture and hangings and northern aspect. And to this my young host had seen. The flames danced merrily upwards, and a small table and eminently comfortable leathern arm-chair were drawn up at one side of the hearth.
"Now," said Rupert, as he stooped for a footstool,--"now, Miss Fitzmaurice, make yourself thoroughly comfortable if you can, so as the better to bear the victimising before you."
"Nonsense!" I said, laughing. "I don't feel the least like a victim; still less, however, like a judge! I shall just think you are giving me a pleasant morning's entertainment. But first, before we settle down, let me make a little tour of the room. New rooms, as well as new places of every kind, interest me," and I strolled round, glancing up at the shelves, and here and there stopping to read the title of one of the well-bound, mostly venerable-looking volumes.
"It is an ugly old room," said Rupert. "You see, my people don't go in for modernising in any way. But still I think there is a charm about these gloomy, stately old London rooms."
"Of course there is," I replied, for though the new order of things as to house decoration and so on was in its earliest infancy, on that very account perhaps its crudities were already frequently visible and jarring. "I love a room which you _feel_ has been the same for more than one generation. Whose corner is that?" I went on, as I perceived a neat, not ugly, but very business-like writing-table with chair to match, in a nook facing the book-shelves, and near one of the windows. "Yours?"
"No," Rupert replied. "That is where Clarence writes when he has to bring work home, as sometimes happens. Mother doesn't approve of our sitting up in our own rooms. She never has allowed it--she's afraid of our falling asleep and setting fire to the house, though I don't see that the risk isn't pretty much the same downstairs as well as upstairs."
"Oh, I don't know that," I said; "it would take a good deal to make _these_ burn," and I touched the thick woollen draperies of the window as I spoke. Half unconsciously I had moved a little nearer to the writing-table, and the postmark of a large bluish-coloured envelope caught my eyes, which, as I have said, are, or at least were, in those days very quick. It was that of "Millflowers." I felt myself blush, though I am quite sure Rupert did not notice it; indeed the room was too dusky for him to have done so, and a feeling of annoyance went through me. "I seem fated to do mean things," I thought. "Eavesdropping, and now reading what I have no right to see," though, after all, the word I had noticed did no more than confirm what I was already instinctively convinced of--that the Paynes were the legal advisers of the Grimsthorpe family.
I turned back quickly towards the fireplace.
"How hard your brother must work," I said, as I settled myself in the roomy chair.
"Yes," Rupert replied--by this time he was arranging a sheaf or two of papers on the small table--"yes, he does, lately especially, for father's partner died some months ago, which has given Clarence more to do, but better position too, of course."
"Oh, indeed," I replied, while I added to myself, "No doubt, then, he _now_ knows the Grey affairs and secrets, so far as Mr Grey allows them to be known. For I remember Rupert telling me that _two_ were in the mysterious family's confidence, and that in time to come it might fall to his share to be one of the two."
"He has some variety in his work, though," I went on. "At least he seems to travel a good deal."
"Now and then it happens so," said Rupert. "This winter he has had some long journeys--some old clients of ours--not able to travel up to town. And I fancy he is rather worried--a member of the family is very ill just now."
My heart went down. "It must be that poor Caryll," I thought, with melancholy misgiving.
"Why, it seems nearly as bad as being a doctor," I said, with assumed carelessness.
"Worse," replied Rupert impressively. "You see, in nine cases out of ten a doctor doesn't come in for family secrets as a lawyer does. That is why I shall feel it so tantalising to get hold of materials for such _lovely_ plots."
I could scarcely help smiling at the boyish emphasis he laid on the adjective.
"Well," I replied, "you must do your best. Can't you take a bit here and a bit there, and weave them together in such a way that nobody could possibly recognise the individuals or circumstances that had suggested the story?"
"Yes," said Rupert doubtfully. "I suppose that is the sort of thing one has to do, though my instinct would rather go with idealising, so to say, or dramatising some history in its entirety." He stopped, and seemed to be thinking, and I knew by intuition that the subject of his meditations was the Grim House, and the tragedy or tragedies connected with it. But I felt that it would be unjustifiable to lead him on to say more, and after all, I had already found out as much as I had really expected. Clarence Payne had been at Millflowers again, and fresh or additional trouble was brewing there--to himself alone would it be right to apply for details as to this. And gradually my vague plans as to how to set to work concentrated themselves into simplicity. I determined to ask Clarence, without beating about the bush, if or what he could tell me more. And then I must judge for myself--possibly even appeal to him himself to decide for me, if, on my side, I had any right to reveal or even hint at any part of the secret having come into my possession as it had done?
For the moment, courtesy and good-nature demanded that I should put my own preoccupations on one side, and give my best attention to Rupert and his literary ambitions, and I think I succeeded in gratifying him. I dare say it was better for myself not to go on planning and considering over this matter, which seemed to have seized my thoughts and imaginations in an almost inexplicable way from the very first mention of it by Isabel Wynyard at Weissbad.
So the morning passed pleasantly enough. There was nothing in any of Rupert's stories or sketches to recall the mystery I had come to feel so strangely connected with; I imagine that he kept off any approach to this special subject for his skill on purpose. And between us we worked up one or two slighter things, _not_, as the event proved, unsuccessfully. Rupert's first triumph in the literary world was the acceptance by one of the then few serials of good standing of a story we gave our best attention to that morning. Poor boy! how grateful he was, and how delighted when he was able to write to tell me of this, some weeks later!
The day turned out beautifully fine and mild, which I was glad of. For if it had been rainy, Mrs Payne's project for the afternoon would probably have been given up, or at least would scarcely have helped my private arrangement in the direction I was hoping for.
"We might as well sit in the stiff old drawing-room all the afternoon as in a stuffy tent at a flower show," I thought to myself, "so far as any opportunity for saying a word that everybody wouldn't hear is concerned."
My hostess told me that luncheon would be half-an-hour later than usual, to suit her husband and son's convenience.
"I am so glad," she went on, "that it is such a lovely day, quite bright and sunny," and as she spoke, she drew down a blind with housewifely consideration for the rich old velvet carpet in the drawing-room where I had been writing since released by Rupert. "It will show off some of your pretty things to advantage, my dear, though you must take care to have something in the way of a wrap with you too, as one never knows how the weather may change at this time of year."
And to tell the truth, my reflections when she joined me had been on similar lines--what should I wear that would be becoming and suitable, and light enough and warm enough all in one? For my apprenticeship to society, under Lady Bretton's judicious superintendence, had not been thrown away. Nor was I indifferent to the effect I might personally have on Clarence Payne.
"I don't want him to think me an unfinished school-girl," I said to myself. "And he has never really seen me in the daytime. Both times he met me at Millflowers it was dusk, and all the better, as I was muffled up like an old woman."
The result of my cogitations proved satisfactory, as far as my hostess was concerned.
"What a pretty dress!" she exclaimed admiringly, as I came downstairs all ready attired, a few minutes before luncheon-time. "That shade of blue is charming and very uncommon too, and the hat goes so well with it I suppose you always get your things from London even for the country?" Whereupon a little clothes talk followed, in the middle of which the front door opened, and Clarence let himself in with his latch-key.
I looked at him with interest--men, as well as women, sometimes impress one very differently according to even trivial circumstances--such as time of day, different dress, or so on.
Yes, there could be no doubt as to his good looks. Being dark myself, except for the blue Irish eyes, which I own to being a little proud of, I have naturally always had a predilection for fairness in others. Clarence Payne was scarcely perhaps to be described as "fair." To begin with, notwithstanding his office life, he managed to have a pleasant touch of sunburn, always desirable to my mind in a man. He had bright, rather keen, hazel eyes, and bright hair, one may almost say, to match. The colour of the hair is now a thing of the past, but the keen yet kindly eyes are still unchanged.
Luncheon was not a very long affair that day. We soon found ourselves bowling along, though at a sober pace, in the big landau, somewhat old-fashioned but eminently comfortable, like everything belonging to the Payne household. We were a party of four, my host and hostess, Clarence and myself. But it was not dull. Mr Payne had a real gift for interesting and sympathetic conversation, and, like his elder son, a very decided touch of humour, somewhat wanting, I am afraid, in Rupert, and dear Mrs Payne had an almost equally happy gift or knack--that of never being in the way, for what she perhaps lacked in intellectual power was more than recompensed for by her never-failing fund of intuitive sympathy.
"It is really a pleasure," said Mr Payne, as we were approaching our destination, "to get thoroughly out of the city by daylight, if but once a week."
"Yes," said Clarence, "every evil has its good. We shouldn't enjoy it as much if we had more of it--of this sort of thing, I mean. But you are luckier than I, father, in some ways," and turning to me he went on, "My father has such a wonderful capacity for throwing things off. I don't think business matters trouble you one bit, sir, once you have left papers and letters behind you," he continued, to Mr Payne.
The elder man laughed. He evidently looked upon this as a great compliment.
"It has been acquired, my dear boy," he said; "I have trained myself to it, and so will you in process of time. It doesn't come easy just at first."
I noted these remarks, feeling that they might nerve me in good purpose for what I had in view, and when, after a few minutes spent together in admiring the great central trophy of spring flowers, supposed to be the special object of the exhibition, we separated naturally enough, and I found myself practically speaking, alone with Clarence, it did not seem "forced" for me to revert to it.
"Don't you think," I began, "that if one has anything on one's mind it seems very much worse when one is physically tired?"
The words were commonplace and trite, but they did not seem to strike my companion in that light.
"Yes," he said, "I do think so certainly, but it is rather curious that you should say it just now, for the same thought was passing through my own mind. I have been worried and anxious lately, and feeling rather envious of my father's more placid temperament, but I dare say a great deal of it is simple over-fatigue. I have had a lot of railway travelling this week."
And in those days there was more ground than at present for what he said. People were less inured to trains, and many of the present inventions for lessening the jar and friction were still wanting.
"Had you a long journey yesterday?" I inquired, tentatively.
He glanced at me as he replied--
"Yes, I came right through from Millflowers."
"By the express I hope, this time, however," I answered with a smile. "Oh, Mr Payne," I went on, in a tone of relief, "I am so glad you have mentioned it. I am so longing to know something about the Grim-- Grimsthorpe and those poor people, and I have been wondering how I could ask you, without committing any terrible breach of--etiquette, or whatever it is I should call it."
He did not laugh or smile, but took my question in sober earnest, which I was very glad of.
"Ask me anything you like," he said quietly. "Your doing so cannot infringe any rule, written or unwritten. As to what I may be able to answer, that is a different matter, but I know you will not misunderstand if I am unable to say much. Perhaps I may ask you a question in the first place? Have you heard anything of--the Greys lately? Your friends, their neighbours, are still at the Manor-house I suppose--they are residents there, are they not?"
"Oh dear, yes," I replied. "The Wynyards have been at Millflowers from time immemorial. So of course they know all that any outsider can know about Grimsthorpe. But Mr Wynyard put down gossip with an iron hand-- that was why Moore--my brother--and I were _so_ grateful to Mr Grey for agreeing that nothing should be said about that--that inexcusable intrusion."
"Your brother is only a schoolboy, when all is said and done," said Clarence, as I momentarily hesitated.
I felt my face grow red, but I don't think he noticed it.
"Ah!" I exclaimed, "you don't know all--you judge too leniently. Some day perhaps," but then I broke off abruptly. There was time enough for confessing my own foolish share in the affair; what I had to do at present was not to lose the opportunity. "I must answer your question," I resumed. "No, I have not heard anything at all for many weeks; the Wynyards have been away, and it is not probable that Miss Wynyard had anything to tell me, though she does know that I am greatly interested in the Grim House people."
Clarence smiled a little.
"Oh! that's what they call the place, is it?" he said; "I had not heard it before. You see I know nothing of the neighbourhood or of what is said about them there. I go down solely on business, and never prolong my stay unnecessarily. Then," he added, "does Miss Wynyard not know anything about the real circumstances of your brother's accident?"
"Of course not," I replied, with a touch of indignation. "Have you forgotten my arrangement with Mr Grey? That no one but themselves, and you of course, and Moore and I, should know about it. Why, even when the little old sisters came over so kindly the next morning, they did not hint in the very slightest degree that they had heard anything of it except from outside sources!"
But my rather sharp retort and reproachful manner only seemed to amuse my companion again.
"Yes," he said, "I gathered as much from Miss Grey's account of the visit. It must have been quite a little comedy in its way."
"It was very, very _kind_ of them," I said, not yet quite smoothed down.
"Of course it was," he replied, "as I think I have had the pleasure of telling you before, they are the very kindest people in the world. That is why one feels so specially for them in their troubles. But please forgive me for supposing that you took Miss Wynyard into your confidence--I spoke thoughtlessly. Then you had not even heard of poor Caryll Grey's serious illness?"
"Oh yes, I had," I exclaimed. "I meant to have said so, but I am afraid I've got a very confused way of talking."
I glanced round half nervously, for I had a worried feeling that his father and mother would be looking for us, and wondering where we were. Clarence seemed to understand intuitively.
"There is no hurry," he said gently, "my father and mother are perfectly happy by themselves. It is an old joke among us that they are always ready for a little bit of honeymooning. Let us sit down--it's more comfortable when one wants to talk."
I did so. There was a quiet corner where we were practically completely alone. I could see, and I was not sorry for it, that Clarence Payne was really interested--professionally so, I may almost say; his quick instinct had detected something more than ordinary kindly feeling or curiosity of any kind in my tone about the matter, and it made it easier for me to continue.
"Yes," I repeated, "I did know about the younger brother's illness, and I should like to hear more. Indeed anything that you feel you can tell me. Is he getting better? Do you think he will recover? Isabel Wynyard only told me that the doctor looked very grave when she or her father inquired about him."
Clarence thought for a moment before replying. I waited anxiously.
"He is certainly very seriously ill," he said at last. "But these delicate people often pull through where stronger ones snap. But--I fear there are complications which are unfavourable."
"Do you mean," I said eagerly, "anything connected with the whole affair? The mystery, whatever it is? For of course that there is a mystery is no secret. You said I might ask you anything," I concluded apologetically, for it seemed to me that his face by this time grew earnest, grew increasingly so, as I went on speaking.
"Yes, yes," he said quickly, "it wasn't that I was thinking of. You are quite right to speak openly, and yet"--and he turned and looked me fully in the face--"we are both fencing a little, Miss Fitzmaurice, I feel, after all. My impression is that you know something more than so far you have been able to allow. Tell me, is it not so? And on my side, I will confide to you that I believe Caryll Grey would have a much better chance if his mind were more at ease."
I sat and pondered deeply.
"Yes, Mr Payne," I replied. "Something has come to my knowledge. I cannot yet tell you _how_. And I am miserable at not knowing what is right to do. I _feared_ you would say what you have just done, and I would give anything to feel justified in telling you all I know, for little as it is, it may be of enormous importance. But is one, can one ever be justified in making use of what one was not intended to hear?"
I looked up at him, feeling that anxiety for his decision was imprinted on every feature of my face.
"I must think it over," he replied slowly. "I can scarcely feel that I am disinterested in the matter. It has engrossed me so much of late. Professionally of course, and beyond that from my strong personal friendship for this family. I must think it over," he repeated.
"But is there time for that?" I asked, with a sort of disappointment that he had not at once authorised me, as it were, to tell all. "Is not the younger brother in a very critical state? If anything can be done for him, should it not be done at once?"
"In the way of easing his mind, you mean, I suppose?" Clarence asked. "It is difficult for me to reply, being so much in the dark as I am. Any sort of excitement would have to be avoided, and after all what you could tell me might be useless."
"I don't think so," I said breathlessly, and at the words I saw his face redden a little, as if sharing my feelings. But he shook his head, evidently repressing his eagerness with a strong hand.
"No," he said, "honestly I can't say that there is any _very_ pressing need for deciding what you have put before me. For the moment the poor fellow must be kept quiet. He _is_ gaining ground a little, I think, physically, from what I learned by the last accounts. And the rest of them are really wonderful, admirable, in their calm and courage," and here again he smiled. "You could scarcely associate the elder brother with the word `cheerful,' could you?" he said. "But really, since Caryll's illness he has nearly approached seeming so, all out of devotion."
What a picture his words brought before me! How I longed to feel free to begin to cut the knot! For that I held in my hands the possibility of doing so was becoming more and more impressed upon me; not that I could have given any practical or conclusive grounds for this feeling! But then, all through the strange affair with which I had become associated, I had been conscious of a conviction that somehow or other I was, to put it in commonplace words, intended to "see it through?"
Time had passed more rapidly than we realised in the interest of our talk. Something, the striking of a clock probably, made Clarence start and look at his watch.
"Yes," he said, "we had better be looking out for the others. First let us make a tour of the place, the exhibition, I mean; we have only seen one house, and we must not be in utter ignorance of the rest."
I got up almost before he had finished speaking. I had a wholesome fear of any cross-questioning on Mrs Payne's part, though it had not occurred to me, as it might perhaps have done to a more experienced young woman, that she might be annoyed by my unduly monopolising her son. But I felt too excited and eager to have replied in a commonplace way, and as we strolled round the tents, vaguely admiring the beautiful groups of flowers and plants they contained, and glancing from side to side in quest of our seniors, I made no pretence of conversation with my companion, and he too was very silent. It was only at the last moment of our solitude, just when we caught sight at last of his father and mother coming towards us, that Clarence slackened his pace a little, and said gently--
"Don't worry about this too much. I am quite sure that when people really want to do what is right and best, things are shaped for us into guidance. I have often found it so in life, though my experience hasn't been a very long one as yet."
I felt grateful for his kindness, though I did not reply. There was more on my mind than he understood; the reproachful consciousness of my own foolish presumption was not absent from my mind, paradoxical as this may sound in conjunction with the feeling I have alluded to, of being destined--intended--to be an instrument in the deliverance of the prisoners of the Grim House.
"I _need_ not have mixed myself up in it in the least," I thought; "and why, after things have gone on quietly enough with them for so many years apparently, should Caryll go and fall ill in this serious way, and place me in such a tangle of perplexity? For, of course, it does not take much putting two and two together to see that what the poor thing is longing and praying for is to have his brother cleared from the mysterious cloud over him."
As will be remembered, the words I had overheard clearly pointed to the elder Mr Grey being the centre of the trouble--my own instinctive conviction since my first glimpse of the four faces in the square pew at Millflowers church.
Mrs Payne's first words relieved my immediate apprehension. She looked serenely content, and pleased with herself and everybody else, us truants included.
"Is it not a charming show?" she said. "I have never seen a prettier. Your father and I, Clarence, are feeling more eager than ever about the little country-house we often talk of. How I should enjoy managing the garden!"
THE BEGINNING OF THE END.
I awoke the next morning with a certain feeling of relief. Clarence Payne, it is true, had given me no definite advice as yet, but it was a comfort to know that he, to a great extent, understood and certainly sympathised with my position. Then, too, I was thankful to have his assurance that Caryll Grey's condition was not quite such a critical one as I had begun to fear; not improbably indeed, if any action were taken on the knowledge that had come to me, even if it affected the whole fortunes of the Grey family satisfactorily, it might have to be kept secret from the younger brother till he had progressed further towards the partial recovery which there now seemed some hope of. And in the meantime, I felt well content to rest on my oars for a little, knowing that I had done what I could for the best. There was something bracing and strengthening in Clarence's simple belief that when one so acted, direction--guidance--call it what you will, would come.
I shall always remember that Sunday in Granville Square. Owing possibly, in part, to the sort of nervous tension I had worked myself up to, now succeeded by a reaction to comparative restfulness, it has left on my memory an association of peculiar peacefulness. To a country-bred person, in those days perhaps more than now, the quiet of the London streets on a Sunday struck me agreeably, and this quiet one I enjoyed to the full in my present quarters. The old-fashioned square was almost as silent as in the middle of the night, and indoors, though the Paynes were far from puritanical either in belief or practice, the first day of the week was observed somewhat strictly, in the sense, above all, of its being reposeful and calm for the whole household, servants as well as masters. Not that at my godmother's the true spirit of the fourth commandment was set aside, but she was of a different nature, and seemed to belong to a different order of things, socially speaking.
It never occurred to my present host and hostess to attend any church but their legitimate parish one, whither we all dutifully bent our steps to the appointed places. There was no waiting in the aisle, no pushing or crowding, however decorously veiled. The service now-a-days, no doubt, would strike most people as dull, and by no means soul-stirring, and perhaps to a great extent so it was! But all things in this world have their two sides. There was something dignified and reverent about the whole proceedings, which I have always remembered with a certain admiration; appreciative of, and I hope grateful, though I am, for the more abundant life and light which have in such things come to us in the latter half of the present century. I don't remember anything about the sermon, except that it was gentle and mildly instructive, the preacher giving one the impression of being a scholar and a gentleman of the old school. But whatever it was, it suited me that day. So did the whole course of things. The quiet little walk home across the square; the simple, though carefully served, cold luncheon; the afternoon in my own room, where, as the day was chilly, a nice little fire greeted me. Then the comfortable, somewhat "schoolroom-like" five o'clock tea, to which one or two intimate friends dropped in. Church again later, for those who felt equal to it, of which I was not one, and supper, followed by some favourite hymns, led by Mrs Payne's sweet voice, and accompanied by Rupert on a chamber-organ installed for the purpose in the library.
I liked it all.
I had no private talk with Clarence that day, and when I came down to breakfast on the Monday morning, though I had intended to be very early, I found he had already gone. I felt a little disappointed, but that was all. There was something about him which gave one a feeling of security and stability. I felt certain he would not forget a syllable of what had passed between us--that he was not the kind of character to do so, even if his own keen interest and sympathy had not been involved in the matter, as I knew that they so thoroughly were.
That evening there was a little dinner-party in my honour. I was to leave the next morning, and Mrs Payne had exerted herself to get together a few friends whom she knew intimately enough to invite at short notice. There was one remarkably pretty girl, the daughter or niece of the senior partner in the Payne firm, whose death, a year or so ago, Rupert had told me of. She was something of an heiress, the same informant told me; in _his_ opinion the man she was just going to be married to was not "half good enough for her."
"Had it been _Clarence_ now," he proceeded to say, with the funny little half-patronising air, which, in conjunction somehow with his literary aspirations, was so amusing, "one would not have wondered."
"But she looks exceedingly happy," I ventured to remark.
"That's just it," said Rupert irritably. "If it had been Clarence now, one could understand her looking as if nobody had ever been going to be married before."
As he spoke, the last-named person crossed the room to us.
"What's the matter, Rupert?" he said. "You look rather at war with the world. I fancy I caught the sound of my own name--have I done anything to ruffle his feathers, Miss Fitzmaurice?"
I smiled; indeed I was on the point of laughing outright, Rupert looked so cross.
"No," I said, "not that I know of, except--the being yourself, and not somebody else, or rather not being in somebody else's shoes at the present time."
I am afraid my raillery was far from being oil on the waters of Rupert's irritation. It was getting late; some of the guests had already left. Rupert got up with some murmured excuse and joined his mother at the other side of the room, whereupon Clarence took his place, so matters had fallen out luckily for me, though I had had no intention of driving Rupert away.
"Is he really annoyed at anything?" asked the elder brother.
"Oh, no!" I replied, "nothing of the slightest consequence. But I think he would like to be wire-puller to living puppets as well as to those of his own creation, sometimes."
"I suppose there's a touch of that about us all," said Clarence, and though he spoke lightly, I think we both felt that the remark was rather curiously appropriate at the present juncture of the drama, of which we were longing to see the denouement.
"Just at present," I said half ruefully, "I am longing, as you know, to be told whether I should pull wires at all or not."
"Yes, yes," he said quickly, "I know. Don't think I am forgetting about it. I am expecting letters to-morrow even. May I write to you? I am sorry to hear you are leaving us so soon. Will you tell me your address?"
I did so, understanding that he did not wish to apply to his mother for it.
"Write to me?" I repeated. "Yes, indeed, I hope you will. Come to see me if necessary; indeed I almost think it's sure to be so."
I was feeling less philosophical about the whole business than I had done. Fully as my sympathy was enlisted, there were times when the fact of being in the least mixed up in the unhappy affair weighed on me so uncomfortably, that I felt inclined to throw it off altogether, and the knowledge that I had brought it upon myself by no means diminished this discomfort; such knowledge never does, which truth I wish our well-intentioned friends would sometimes lay to heart!
But Clarence's next words had again a calming effect.
"I don't know how it is," he said. "I can give neither rhyme nor reason for it, but I have a strong persuasion, as I think I said before, that events are working up in that direction, to clear the ground. We must just be a little patient."
And he was right, as the conclusion of my little history will show. The feeling, the inward persuasion to which he alluded may seem fantastic, but I have noticed in life that such premonitions are by no means limited to superstitious or highly imaginative people. They come sometimes, or are sent, to the best-balanced minds among us, and in such cases of course with double force, bringing with them strenuous demand on our respect and attention. I thanked Clarence, for I felt it a compliment that he should thus trust me--he, an acute and practical man--with the avowal of what many would have set aside as too fanciful to be worthy of any consideration.
And from that time--I must again use a rather trite expression--"the plot began to thicken"--palpably so; though, as when the clouds gather together for a final burst, the thickening, as before long we were thankful to feel able to hope, was preliminary to a dispersion of the long, long heavy gloom hanging over an innocent group, with whom circumstances had led to several, unconnected with its members by any natural ties, feeling deep sympathy for, myself among them.
I returned to Lady Bretton's the next morning. I felt sorry to leave my new friends, though the regret was mitigated by their heartily-expressed hopes that we should meet again--hopes which I was sure would be realised, as I could so thoroughly respond to them, and I knew that I had but to say a word to secure my kind parents' co-operation in any plan for continuing the intercourse.
My godmother was pleased, unfeignedly and rather specially so, it seemed to me, to have me with her again. She cross-questioned me a little more than was usual with her as to the Granville Square people, and was not _quite_ as cordial about them as I could have wished, which somewhat perplexed me.
"Very nice! oh yes, I have no doubt they are very nice, excellent people," she said, "and it will do you no harm, Reggie, dear," for she sometimes condescended to use my brother's pet name. It had rather taken her fancy, and then, too, she being my name-mother as well as godmother, the abbreviation diminished confusion--"no harm to see something of other kinds of society. There are so many _shades_ of it in London, even among the well-bred, unexceptionable people."
Still I felt that her tone was not thoroughly cordial, especially when she added consideringly--
"I thought the young fellow, the one who wants to write novels, was the eldest son?"
"Oh, no!" I replied. "Clarence Payne is some years older, and I--" but I stopped short. I had been on the point of adding, "I have met him before," but under the circumstances of that meeting, I quickly remembered that it was better not to do so.
I think it was the next day but one that I received a letter from my father. The sight of his handwriting gave me a little start, for it was very rarely indeed that he was one of my correspondents when I was away from home, as he left all letter-writing, as far as I was concerned, to my mother, who had rather an old-fashioned love of it, in consequence of which, what she wrote was always interesting.
"I hope mamma is not ill," I thought, as I opened the envelope; fortunately I was alone at the time, for the contents of the sheet before me were indeed surprising. I have it still, so I think I will here transcribe at least some part of it.
To begin with, it was headed, "Private and confidential," which, had I been less disinterestedly engrossed at once by the nature of the communication, would have filled me with no little pride, for my father, though in his heart he had a high respect for sensible women, was rather chary of allowing that many such existed.
"My dear child," it went on, "after some consideration, I have made up my mind to confide to you--I may almost say consult you about--a rather strange occurrence. Do you remember some little time before you left home asking me if I knew anything of a certain `Ernest Fitzmaurice,' whom you had heard casually referred to? You did not even know if he were a member of our own family or not; you gave me no special reason for the inquiry, and after telling you the little I remembered about the man in question (always supposing that it was the same individual), I thought no more of the matter, and probably never should have done so again, but for what I have to tell you. I received yesterday a letter written to dictation, but signed by the owner of the name, _i.e._ Ernest Fitzmaurice himself. Its contents are in a sense private, though the writer in no way debars me from acting upon them--in fact, that I should do so, and that without delay, is the motive of his communication. The letter is dated from an hotel at Liverpool, where he has recently arrived, and where he is delayed by serious, indeed he hints probably fatal illness. He has been in bad health for some time, but in no anticipation of anything sudden, so came over from Australia to prosecute certain inquiries leading to the reparation of a terrible wrong which he committed many years ago in this country. Of this wrong he gives me a rough idea, but reserves details till we meet, or at least till he receives a reply to his letter. It may seem strange that he has picked me out, distant relation as I am, for his confidence, but this he explains satisfactorily enough, his own immediate family having to a great extent died out, and such as remain very difficult to trace, whereas we, from our long residence in the same spot, and my county position, were easily found. The man is not poor--rather, I should infer, very rich. He has a wife and family in the colonies, known and respected there, as he has been himself, but under a different name, which he does not tell me. His narrative, slightly as he gives it, fills me with horror and indignation, though this attempt at reparation, tardy as it is, should, I suppose, make us pity him. What a burden he must have carried about all these years of outward success and prosperity! Now, my dear Regina, if there is anything you can tell me, I depend upon your doing so. I may be mistaken in hoping that the coincidence of your naming this man will lead to anything, but, on the other hand, I have a strange persuasion that it may do so. Let me know at once if my conjecture is correct."
When I had read all this, I sat still for a few minutes with my brain in a whirl. Clarence had been right. My father's intuition, my own, were right; the whole thing was more than extraordinary! But it was no time for reflecting in this way; not a moment must be lost, considering the critical state this man was in, and the enormous consequence to the family at Millflowers of what he had to disclose. No reasonable person could doubt that the stories were one and the same; that the Ernest Fitzmaurice whose name I had overheard was this very man. I sat still, thinking earnestly what should be my first step, and by degrees things grew a little clearer.
"I must write to father, and get his leave to consult the Paynes," I thought, "and I shall strongly advise him, without asking my grounds for so doing as yet, to go down to Liverpool, and at least hear everything fully, and if necessary, get a `deposition,' or whatever they call it, from his cousin--how I hate calling him so!--which would be effectual or valid in case of his death before anything more can be done. And the moment my letter is written and posted, I must arrange to see Clarence, to have him prepared and ready for the necessary action. My own path is no longer doubtful; I shall not require to betray anything, only to help others in the right direction."
I set to work at once to write to my father, and having done so, I felt a little more at leisure in my mind, and other details began to take shape.
Yes, it seemed all happening very curiously, all to fit in, to prevent complication or confusion.
Ten to one "Grey" was not the real name of the family. How then, with all the goodwill in the world to help forward this tardy reparation, could my father have done anything effectual, except by public advertisement or some step of the kind which would have been horror for the principals in the affair? How, again, could the Paynes, father or son, even suspecting what they already did, have used their influence in any practical way had Mr Grey continued to refuse to give the name of the traitor he had so long concealed, but for my assurance that they were on the right track? Indeed the ins and outs of the possibilities and contingencies were too bewildering and useless to dwell upon. What _I_ had to do was simple enough. I calculated that if my father replied at once, as I felt sure he would--it was before the days of telegrams being privately employed to any appreciable extent--I should receive a letter the day after to-morrow by the first post, immediately upon which I must try to arrange to see Clarence, and probably his father.
So I wrote that same day to the former, telling him that I hoped he would be able to call on Thursday morning, on the chance, approaching a certainty, of my having something of great importance to talk over with him.
"It is better to write this to him," I reflected.
"It will prevent his pondering unnecessarily over what I have asked him to decide, and it will make his coming to see me much more likely."
This second letter written and sent, I gave a sigh of relief. I had done all I could for the present, and though still conscious of a good deal of nervous anxiety, or rather, perhaps, excitement, I felt more at rest, and freer to enjoy my kind godmother's plans for the day. The "season" was advancing now, and as the time for my return home was close at hand, these plans of hers for my amusement were multiplying hourly, so determined was she that the last part of my visit to her should in no way fall flat.
"I want you to want to come back again," she said to me that afternoon, as we drove off in her charming carriage to some pleasant party--what or where, I forget--and as she said it she glanced at me scrutinisingly. "I have just one fault to find with you," she continued, "tomboy though your mother called you, and as you called yourself, if I am not mistaken, before now--I am afraid there is some danger of your growing too sedate. That would never do, and to tell you the truth, the danger of it has struck me since your return from those good folk in Granville Square. I hope they have not put it into your wise little head, Reggie, that your godmother is too frivolous or fashionable, or any nonsense of that kind?"
"Oh _dear_, no," I replied emphatically and truthfully, though nevertheless something in her inquiry made me blush a little--not with any consciousness of a word, or the shadow of a word, having been said by the Paynes of the kind she alluded to, but because I knew I _had_ secret cause for "sedateness," as Lady Bretton called it; "preoccupation" would have been a more appropriate word. And also because I still felt the charm of the quiet, somewhat more serious tone of the peaceful and dignified home-life of my new friends, and in my heart hoped that my next visit to my godmother might mean one to them too. "Oh _dear_, no," I repeated, "they are not at all that kind of family. They seem to have nice feelings to and about everybody, as far as I can judge. Indeed, dearest godmother, I can't tell you how much I shall look forward to another visit to you. You have been so very, _very_ kind."
"That's all right, then," she replied. "And next time there must be no interruptions. I won't have you going off to Granville Square or anywhere. You won't care to do so. It isn't as if there were daughters in the family," and here there was a touch of inquiry in her tone; "that reminds me, by the way, that before you come again, I want to hunt up a few--even one or two--girl friends for you. You see I could scarcely do so before, till I knew you a little better and could judge what your tastes were, and so on."
"And the sort of girl friends you thought I needed! Evidently they will not be of the ultra-serious order," I reflected, with a little secret amusement. But aloud I just laughed, and begged my godmother to believe that no girl friends she could possibly hunt up or down for me would suit me half or a quarter as well as her own charming young-hearted self. "I have Isabel Wynyard now," I said, "and I do feel that she has made me much more like other people--other girls, I mean."
Lady Bretton glanced at me with affectionate approval.
"I don't think, dear," she said, "that in my eyes there would ever have been much room for improvement or alteration for the better, though I am sure--I knew her mother a little, you know--that Isabel must be a thoroughly nice companion for you. I only hope that some day--"
But here she stopped and hesitated.
"What?" I said, my curiosity aroused. "Do go on, dear godmother. I could never mind anything you would say."
She laughed, but there was a little constraint in her manner.
"I was only going to--to express a hope," she resumed, "that some day you may meet somebody as desirable for a different kind of companion as Isabel Wynyard is in _her_ way. A commonplace thing to say, and certainly in your case there is time enough! Don't be in a hurry about it, my dear."
It was not for a moment or two that I took in the drift of her remark, and she laughed again, this time more heartily, at my perplexed expression. I think she was pleased to see my entire absence of self-consciousness. But when her meaning became clear to me, and I turned it over in my mind after we got home, I felt a little surprised. What could she have got into her head to cause any allusion of the kind? I could not make it out.
The next day brought some enlightenment, and not of a pleasant kind. Certainly, if the Fates had destined me to interference for good in the affairs of the Grey family, it was not to be without annoyance and discomfort to myself!
In answer to my letter to him, I heard from Clarence Payne that he had arranged to call to see me on Thursday morning. It was of course necessary to mention this to my hostess, but in my real interest, and engrossment to a certain extent, in the matter, I made the little communication with perfect freedom from embarrassment, and I was really startled at my godmother's unmistakable surprise and disapproval.
"My dear child," she exclaimed, "what are you thinking of, or what is this young man thinking of? It is an extraordinary thing to do!"
I stood silent for a moment, realising that on the face of it the proceeding _was_ somewhat unconventional. But it would not be fair to let any blame for this rest on Clarence Payne.
"I am very sorry," I said, my colour rising, "but it is not anybody's fault but my own, if fault there is. I wrote to ask Mr Payne to come. It is entirely a matter of business--I would like to tell you all about it, but I don't think I can. It depends on a letter I have had from father, and I am expecting another to-morrow morning, which I hope I shall be able to show you at least part of, in explanation of what I have done."
But Lady Bretton, good as she was, was not perfect. She was irritated at the whole episode, and therefore not quite reasonable.
"I can scarcely think," she said, "that your father can have realised what he was putting upon you. If so, he should have written to me direct. Why, the very servants will gossip about it, and no wonder, as of course, from what you say, _I_ am not to make a third at the interview."
It was all I could do not to begin to cry, but I controlled myself as a new and, I thought, happy idea struck me.
"I have been very thoughtless, I'm afraid," I said penitently, "but if you understood the whole thing, and before long I hope I may be able to tell you about it, I _don't_ think you would be vexed with me." I stopped short, forgetting that I had not introduced my new project.
"What is to be done?" said my godmother, still rather coldly.
"Oh!" I exclaimed, "I was just going to tell you what I think I can do. I will write to Clar--to the younger Mr Payne, I mean, and ask him to beg his father to come with him. _That_ would put it all right, would it not?"
"It would certainly give the interview its proper character," she allowed, "that of a purely business one. But in taking all this upon you, my dear child," and I was glad to hear her more natural tone again, "are you quite sure that you know what you are about?"
"Yes," I replied, decidedly, and I meant it. "Sooner or later," I said to myself, "Mr Payne must be told everything. And if father's letter is what I am sure it must be, `sooner' will be pretty surely better than `later.'"
My dreams, I well remember, were not of a very tranquil nature that night. I felt distressed at having managed for the first time, during my stay with her, to annoy my kind godmother, and I felt miserable and mortified at the bare shadow of a suggestion that my writing to Clarence Payne, asking him to call, as I had done, was, to say the least, unconventional, if not unladylike. For remember, I am writing of fully thirty or forty years ago, when the position of young girls of our class was very different from what it now is--though I cannot quite allow that in every way the alteration seems to me for the better.
My correspondent had not, it is true, in the faintest degree appeared to think I had done anything unusual, but then I felt that he was a man of peculiarly chivalrous temperament. _Had_ he thought so he would have done his best to prevent my finding it out.
"Perhaps," I said to myself, "he looks upon me as very childish and inexperienced, and makes allowance on this account." This idea was not a pleasant one either, but my common-sense dismissed it. "No," I thought, "he does not think me silly, or he would not have talked to me about all this as he has done."
But I felt very glad that I had written to ask the elder Mr Payne to come too, though my latest waking reflection was a hearty longing that I had never mixed myself up for good or bad in the Millflowers mystery.
And a strange thing happened, as if to reprove me for the mingling of selfishness in this wish.
I dreamt that as I was sitting alone in my godmother's drawing-room waiting for my expected visitors, the door opened silently, and in came--walking slowly and with evident effort--Caryll Grey, or--a shiver went through me even in my sleep--his ghost. I saw him distinctly--more distinctly than I had ever done in my waking hours. His poor face looked very drawn and white, the gentle eyes unnaturally large and wistful.
"Miss Fitzmaurice," I thought he said, "regret nothing. Go through with it, I beseech you, and oh! for Heaven's sake, make him tell."
Then the vision disappeared, and I seemed to be again alone in the room--waiting.
Whom did he mean by "him"? His brother, or the already praying-to-confess traitor? I could not say, but it did not matter. I threw my misgivings and regrets aside, resolved to do my best. And when I awoke in the morning, the impression of my dream had in no way grown fainter.
It is a great comfort in life to have to do with people whose attitude of mind, whose action even, one can predicate with an amount of probability almost amounting to certainty; whom, in other words, one can "count upon" in unforeseen circumstances or complications. And when this species of confidence, of mutual trust, founded upon mutual knowledge, exists between members of the same family, it is a great link; in some ways even a stronger one than the bond of mutual affection. This I realised fully when I received my father's letter. It was just what I had hoped for. He said frankly that he wished I could have told him more, but cordially approved of and authorised my consulting the Paynes. Furthermore, he announced his intention of setting off for Liverpool at once, giving me an address there, at which to communicate with him.
So as I sat in the drawing-room, waiting, as in my dream, I felt fully prepared for the coming interview.
Yes, it was curiously like my dream; when the door at last opened, I would scarcely have felt surprised had it been to admit the pathetic figure of Caryll Grey. But no! the visionary picture was reversed. There entered the much more substantial person of Mr Payne the elder, followed by his son. Had I felt less intent on the business in hand, I would almost have been amused at the combination of "professionalness" and friendliness in the bearing of the former as he greeted me. He was evidently brimful of curiosity and interest, which sentiments, nevertheless, were to some extent tempered by his difficulty in believing that a young girl like myself could have much of importance to communicate, and as to how far his son had thought it well to take him into his confidence I was of course in the dark.
"You wish to see me, my dear young lady?" Mr Payne, senior, began, after we had shaken hands, "and I made a point of attending to your behest at once."
There was a kind of "remember my time is valuable," in the words and manner, which I was quick to recognise.
"Yes," I said. "It is very good of you to have trusted me by doing so, and I will not lose a moment. I think the best way of coming to the point is by showing you the letter I received from my father an hour ago, and after you have read it--it contains, so to say, my credentials--I will show you his former one."
I handed him the envelope, which he received in silence, at once drawing out the sheet it contained, which he read with the greatest attention. In _this_ letter, curiously enough, the name of Ernest Fitzmaurice was not mentioned, my father only alluding to his relative as "that unhappy man." So a certain perplexity naturally mingled with Mr Payne's expression of close interest and expectation, and when he had finished reading it, he held out his hand, without speaking, for the second, that is to say for the _first_ letter, which I had already unfolded in readiness for his perusal.
And now indeed the dramatic interest of the situation rose visibly. As his eyes fell on the words, "Ernest Fitzmaurice," I saw the colour plainly spread over his face, though he was no longer a young, and certainly not an emotional man.
Then there came a sound like a gasp, the colour receding as quickly as it had come, leaving him almost pallid.
"Ernest Fitzmaurice!" The words, though scarcely above a murmur, caught my ears at once. "Good God! the last man, the last human being one could have suspected. Can it be?"
I, though no lawyer, nor gifted with special instinct of the detective kind, had not lost any shadow of the expressions following each other on his face, nor of the words of his almost involuntary exclamations, and of course I was much better prepared than my companions for the probable incidents of the interview, and therefore to some extent at an advantage. So I waited for a moment or two while Mr Payne handed the letters to his son, and, still without addressing me, sat motionless, save for a slightly nervous tapping of his fingers on the table, his eyes fixed before him, till Clarence, with a gleam of something almost approaching triumph, laid the papers down in front of his father, with the two words only, into which, however, his tone infused a big amount of meaning--
Then the father turned to me.
"I am so amazed," he said, and his voice shook a little in spite of his professional self-control, "so amazed, as to what all this points to, as to feel almost stunned for the moment. May I ask you, Miss Fitzmaurice, as to what the knowledge was which, so far, I gather by these," and he tapped the letters as he spoke, "you have had the courage and resolution to keep to yourself? And still further, how did you come by it?"
I shook my head. I had anticipated some such inquiry as the first result of his reading the letters, and I was prepared for it.
"Mr Payne," I said earnestly, "I have thought it well out. I do not see that it is necessary for me to tell even you what you have just asked. You see I have withheld it from my own father, and he does not press it. The whole thing is, or may be, now well in train. You and he--my father, I mean--with the benefit of your advice and experience, can follow it out to the end, without my having to tell what I should be thankful to keep silent about. The information, or the knowledge, came to me accidentally. I was never intended to hear or to know what I did hear and do know. What, in point of fact, you now know yourself. If I have been able, as I think I have been, to start things, or rather to help things on in the right direction, by doing away with the difficulty that this man, Ernest Fitzmaurice, might have had in tracing--well, you know whom--I shall feel thankful and grateful for the rest of my life."
"As to that," was Mr Payne's reply, "there can be no manner of doubt; whereas, but for your intervention, time of the most precious might have been lost. The whole _eclaircissement_, in short, delayed till, in the eyes of those chiefly concerned, it had lost its greatest value for them! But, excuse me, I still feel almost stupefied. It will take a little time for this extraordinary aspect of things to get into focus with me."
"Yes," I replied, "I can understand that."
I said no more, hoping--for of course I cannot pretend that I felt no curiosity, no legitimate interest rather, in the further unfolding of the mystery--hoping that I was going to hear more. But such for the moment was not to be, though Mr Payne seemed by instinct to guess that I might be expecting him to volunteer some explanation, for his next words were in deprecation, almost in apology, for his not offering anything of the kind.
"I wish," he said, "that I could talk the whole thing out with you. That is not yet in my power. And," with a resumption of his friendly, less professional manner, "if I may say so, you have shown yourself such a sensible girl that I am sure you will understand the delay, though eventually it will be only due to you to hear the whole sad history."
At this juncture, for the first time almost, Clarence spoke.
"If you have no objection, father," he said, "it may be as well for Miss Fitzmaurice to understand that it is only of recent date that we have again been drawn into personal relations with the--Grey family. And I myself," and he turned to me, "have only made their acquaintance within the last year or so."
"I thought so," was my reply, "for however carefully they have hedged themselves round, there could not but be gossip about the Grim House. The neighbours were quite aware of your first visit there!"
Mr Payne, senior, pricked up his ears at what I said.
"Indeed!" he remarked drily. But then his tone altered again. "I think I may tell you a little more, which, if you have not already suspected it, you are sure to hear through your father; that is, that `Grey' is not the real name of the family."
I bent my head in agreement; I _had_ thought so. "And," resumed Clarence, "the business which has taken us down, I more frequently than my father, has no connection with the old affair." He glanced at Mr Payne, as if for acquiescence in his continuing. "Not very long ago, they--the elder brother--came into possession of a large estate, which we manage for him. Not that for many, many years past, twenty-five or thirty, I suppose--"
"Fully twenty-five," interposed the elder Mr Payne.
"--They have been at all poor," continued Clarence. "And now they are really very wealthy."
"I am glad to hear it," I said simply. "Then, that poor Caryll can have _everything_ that money can do to make him well, or at least to soften his suffering?"
"Yes," Clarence replied, with emphasis on the words, "everything that money can do, but even money cannot always buy peace of mind."
He said no more, for at that moment his father took out his watch and consulted it with a business-like air.
"Miss Fitzmaurice will excuse us, I am sure," he said, "if we discuss practical matters in her presence." I half rose from my seat.
"Shall I leave you?" I said; but this they at once both negatived.
"On the contrary," said Clarence. "We shall be very much indebted to you if you will stay while we settle what is best to be done."
"And I should very much like to hear it," I said, seating myself again.
"The first thing, it seems to me," the younger man continued, "is for one of us to go down to Liverpool, and at once to see Mr Fitzmaurice-- your father, of course, I mean. Shall I do so, father?"
Mr Payne considered.
"You, I think, Clarence," he said after a moment, "can do as well as, or better than I. Can you get off this afternoon?"
"Certainly," answered his son. "I can reach Liverpool a little before midnight I think, and if in the meantime you, Miss Fitzmaurice, will write to your father, it will help on matters greatly. Please say I will go to the same hotel that he is at, so that I shall be ready for a talk with him as early as he likes to-morrow morning. And if," now addressing Mr Payne, "I find, as I quite expect, that things are already satisfactorily in train--" He glanced at me as he spoke, and I replied to the tacit inquiry.
"Yes," I said, "I am sure you will find them so. My father is not one to let the grass grow under his feet in a case like this; he is too Irish!" and I smiled. "Very likely you will find that he has had the deposition--is that the word?--formally taken, and that what will fall to your share more directly will be deciding how to act towards the other side."
"I," said Mr Payne, "will hold myself in readiness to go down to Millflowers at a moment's notice from you, Clarence. Perhaps it would be best for us to meet there?"
"Just what I was going to say," replied his son. "Poor Caryll, it is to be hoped, is not in quite such a critical state as--as the new actor in the scene, but still I own to feeling desperately anxious, most unprofessionally excited," and he smiled, "to see the thing through for the `Grim House' people!"
"Is that what you call the place?" said his father. "Humph! Not a bad idea!"
"It did not originate with me," said Clarence.
"And certainly not with me," I said half-laughingly. "It seems to have been the local name of the place for ever so long."
Mr Payne glanced at me. I could feel that he was--I beg pardon of his kind memory even now, dear good man, for my disrespect--I could feel that he was dying of curiosity to learn how much I know of Millflowers and its neighbourhood, and I had a slightly mischievous satisfaction in keeping him in the dark. It was a sort of tit-for-tat; for after all, my own eagerness to hear the whole story could not but be greater than his, already in possession as he was of the main facts. And as I surreptitiously peeped from behind the drawing-room curtains at the father and son, as they walked down the street together, talking eagerly, I did wish I could hear what they were saying to each other!
But I had no time to spare for any useless conjectures of this kind. There was my father to write to, and my letter must be careful and well considered; and this done, there was my godmother's still somewhat ruffled plumage to smoothe down, for she was not yet _quite_ her most approving and delightful self to me. And I began to realise for almost the first time in my life that I was feeling very tired--overstrained, I think, and suffering from a sort of reaction from the too great consciousness of responsibility of the last few days.
My godmother's instincts were as quick as her sympathy was sure. She met me as I was carrying my letter downstairs, to ask her if I might have it posted at once. I had a babyish feeling that it would be a relief to know it in the safe possession of her Majesty's post-office, till it should reach its destination the next morning.
"Certainly," was Lady Bretton's reply, as she took it from me. "It shall be sent off at once."
"It is to father," I explained. "There is no hurry, I know. He is at Liverpool."
"At Liverpool?" she repeated, in a tone of surprise.
"Yes," I said, "he is there on this business that I can't tell you about, and the younger Mr Payne is to join him there to-night."
I was glad to be able to tell her this, and I think it thoroughly satisfied her. The kindly caressing look and tone returned to her eyes and voice.
"You're looking tired, dear," she said, almost tenderly, "and, dear me, yes!--you leave me the day after to-morrow. I wish this annoying business had not cropped up just at the end of your visit--you were so blooming last week, before you set off to that Granville Square."
"I am a little tired," I said, "but I shall be all right again now. The business is out of my hands."
"You quaint little person," said Lady Bretton. "You and business! It seems too absurd! Now go and lie down till luncheon-time; you know I never coddle, but there are exceptions to all rules."
I was not sorry to do as she told me; I rather suspect I fell asleep. I know that I felt quite myself again by the afternoon, and when I said good-bye to my dear hostess on Saturday, she expressed her satisfaction at seeing me looking so well.
"So they will trust you to me again, and that before very long, I hope," were her last words.
No letters had reached me on these intervening days; none at least, except one from mother, in which, to my great delight, she said there were good hopes of father's return home late on that same day.
"If so," I thought to myself, "I shall soon hear all," and in my heart I know that, though I was by no means devoid of curiosity--curiosity, too, naturally intensified by the events of the last week or two--my deepest feeling was an earnest desire to learn that the victims of a bad man's treachery were now in the way, so far as was still possible, of having the terrible cloud removed from their lives.
"That poor Caryll," I said, over and over again. "I can never forget his face as I saw it in my dream."
My home-coming was very pleasant. Mother was so delighted to have me with her again, and I to be with her.
"It seems all to have been so successful," she said. "Regina Bretton is really a godmother worth having. You are looking so well, and your dress is so pretty." It was one of those chosen for me in London, and I felt pleased at mother's approval.
"I am sure you will like all I have got," I said. "Lady Bretton has such good taste, and knows so exactly where to go for everything, and just what to get."
There was only one little damper on the satisfaction of my return, and that but a passing one. Father was not expected till very late that night, too late for me to see him. For we were old-fashioned enough in those days to think that a railway journey, of even a few hours' duration, must be tiring, and mother made me go to bed at least an hour sooner than my usual reasonable time. And I fell asleep almost at once.
I awoke suddenly. I had, in fact, been awakened, though I did not know it, by the sound of the carriage returning from the station, whither it had gone to fetch father, and the sound of the clock striking twelve fell on my ear a minute or two later. Then, for, as I think I have said, my hearing was very quick, I heard a little bustle in the hall, and the sort of rustle and flutter through the house which tell of an arrival. Then father's voice, and a murmur of welcome which must have been from mother, followed by a quick run up the stairs--father had the agile movements of a much younger man--and the cheery sound of voices down the corridor. _Voices_, whose were they? Father's of course I distinguished at once, but whose was the second? Certainly not our immaculate butler or either of his subordinates, who would never have ventured to laugh in the august presence of their master! But I was too sleepy to trouble myself farther.
"One of the boys must have come unexpectedly," I thought as I composed myself again. "Perhaps Dad sent for Jocelyn to help him at Liverpool, after all; he may have needed him."
My long night's rest left me quite ready to get up at my usual hour, and I ran down to the dining-room, anxious to learn all I could about father's return. This would have to be gleaned in the first place from the servants no doubt, for mother was sure to be tired, and not improbably too much so to appear at breakfast. But punctual as I was, some one was there before me, standing in the window, looking out at our pretty garden, never prettier than in the spring, above all with the early morning light. A tall, well-knit figure familiar to me somehow.
"Jocelyn!" I exclaimed, my eldest brother's personality being the first that occurred to me, "so it was you after all! Did father send for you?"
He turned; no, it was not Jocelyn? "I am so sorry," he said, though the regret expressed was tempered by a smile, "I am so sorry to disappoint you, but I can't help it! You see I am only myself--not `Jocelyn'?"
Though I did not say so, I cannot but confess that the disappointment was scarcely worthy of the name, for the unexpected guest was Clarence Payne!
"Oh, how delightful!" was my first thought; "now I am going to hear all! And things must have gone rightly--he looks in such good spirits--Dad and he must have taken to each other."
But even while these ideas rushed across my mind, I was conscious, simultaneously, as it were, of extreme surprise, and this, I suppose, must have been the prominent expression of my face, for the newcomer looked just a shade crestfallen.
"I am so sorry," he began again, and this pulled me together.
"Please don't say that," I exclaimed; "you make me feel so rude, and indeed I don't mean to be so. I was only, well, very surprised. But I am very pleased, for ever so many reasons. To begin with, I feel sure things went well at Liverpool, otherwise you would not be here, and-- and--what about the poor Greys, and did you and father travel here together? and--oh I have such a lot of questions to ask. I feel half-choking with them," and I sat down, really feeling almost overwhelmed with the rush of thoughts and "wonderings" in my brain.
"You shall ask what you please, and I scarcely think, that there will be anything which we--or I--will not be able to answer," he said kindly. "Indeed, it was partly, greatly, to satisfy your most natural wish-- right--to hear more, that I have come here."
I felt my cheeks grow red.
"It is very good of you to put it in that way, Mr Payne," I said. "I felt so ashamed when your father commended me the other day; even you do not fully know how wrong and foolish I was. No one does except Moore and myself. No, scarcely Moore. I should like you to know the whole of it, but you see I don't want to bring in Isabel Wynyard, and possibly expose her to blame for having gossipped." I stopped in consideration. "Perhaps," I resumed, "no one need ever know any more," and I looked up at him as I said so.
"I think very decidedly that no one need ever hear or think any more of that part of it," was his reassuring reply. "I can put it all together pretty well, if it is any satisfaction to you for me to say so. And your father is content to ask you no more than the fact of certain knowledge having come to you that was not intended for you, and, after all, `all's well that ends well,'" and here he smiled.
"Then it has or is going to end well?" I said eagerly.
At my words he grew grave again.
"Yes," he replied, "though," he hesitated a moment, "I don't want to seem heartless, and death is always awe-inspiring, especially in such circumstances as we have just seen it--your father and I, I mean."
"Then he _is_ dead?" I said breathlessly. "That unhappy man, Ernest Fitzmaurice?"
Clarence bent his head.
"An hour or two after I saw him," he replied, "he died. But--truly repentant."
I felt shocked, and for a moment or two we did not speak.
Then "I am so glad you were in time to be with father," I said.
"Thank you," he replied. "I think I was of use to him, though he had done excellently. Got the deposition fully drawn out, signed and witnessed, so that there was scarcely anything for me to do at Liverpool, and therefore, armed with my full credentials, I hurried off to Millflowers, where _my_ father met me. But as to this part of it, Mr Fitzmaurice and I must tell it to you together, more at leisure," for just then the servant came into the room with the breakfast trays.
"Only one word," I said eagerly. "It went off well? And that poor Caryll?"
"Wonderfully well. You would scarcely believe how wise and tender my father was."
Dad joined us at breakfast, declaring he was not tired at all, and as soon as it was over, we three adjoined to his own den, where I learnt for the first time the details of the Grim House mystery.
Perhaps it will be best that I should give it in simple narrative style, though, as can readily be imagined, the story related to me was not uninterrupted by a good many questions on my aide.
These were the facts:--
Many years before, the elder Mr Grey, whose real name was that of a well-known Welsh family, the Gwynneths of Maerdoc, to which he belonged, had fallen into terrible trouble. He was poor at the time, though with good prospects, well-intentioned, honourable and affectionate, but dangerously reckless and impulsive, and in consequence of this, though from no actual wrong-doing of his own, seriously, considering his circumstances, in debt. The details of his position need not be entered into, as they bear little upon his history, beyond saying that they were shared, more than shared indeed, and had been greatly caused by a friend of his, the Ernest Fitzmaurice of my narrative. But Ernest was a man of very different character. He was calculating and unscrupulous, thought highly of in some quarters even, though not by his own family, as my father recollected. The two, by an unfortunate coincidence, were staying in the same house on a visit, when their troubles came to a crisis. An extraordinary robbery took place--I am not sufficiently "up" in such matters to give full particulars as to the nature of the bonds or documents stolen, but they were such as _might_ have been utilised with safety by the thief. Such, however, was not the case. They were traced to young Gwynneth, who was arrested, tried, and sentenced to ten years' penal servitude. The blow fell on his family with appalling horror. But no one, not even his devoted sisters or his boy brother Caryll, his nearest relations, felt it more terribly to all appearance than his friend, Fitzmaurice, at that time the _fiance_ of Jessie Gwynneth. He exerted himself frantically to have the sentence mitigated, but to no avail. And the dogged silence maintained by the prisoner, whose whole nature seemed changed, added enormously to the weight of evidence against him. What his sisters thought during the term of his imprisonment never transpired. Afterwards, I have always suspected, and as far as regards the brother I indeed _know_, that his family came to believe him entirely innocent.
Things grew easier for them, materially speaking, by a moderate fortune being left to them shortly before the elder brother's imprisonment terminated. But he came back to them an utterly crushed, broken, and aged man, to find the "girls" he had left in little better case than himself. Only the youngest of the four, Caryll, despite the accident which had made him a life-long cripple, retained any cheerful or hopeful hold on life.
Then came the decision of the four to cling together at all costs; to hide themselves from the world, giving up everything but each other. Ernest Fitzmaurice had disappeared shortly after his victim's imprisonment began, carrying with him, as was revealed by his dying deposition, a comparatively trifling portion of his theft, which he had had time to realise, and on which, thanks to his skill and adroitness, was founded the large fortune he eventually made. He was never heard of again while alive by the Gwynneths.
With Mr Payne's help, Grimsthorpe House was taken for the brothers and sisters under the name of "Grey," and there for twenty years they had lived their strange and isolated life, refusing even to alter its tenor when the second and much more important fortune became theirs. Why, it may be asked, did the elder brother--Justin was his name--never attempt to clear himself? I can scarcely say. Mr Payne, in lapse of time, had become convinced of his client's innocence, and had often, but vainly, prayed for full confidence. His own opinion was, I think, that Mr Gwynneth's brain had grown morbid on the point. Not improbably, too, the poor man's seeing that even this old friend and adviser had not the most shadowy suspicion of the real culprit, may have helped to seal his lips.
"Poor Ernest!" Mr Payne used to say sometimes, "if _he_ were still alive, he would have been back with us to join me in urging you to tell the whole. But he must be dead--indeed, Gwynneth, I think it broke his heart."
"What torture it must have been to him to listen to me," the kind-hearted man added, when he told us this. "No, Caryll was his only confidant, I feel sure."
"And did you suspect no one else?" I remember asking.
"Yes, a certain man-servant did not escape all suspicion of collusion," was the reply. "But he, we knew as a fact, was dead, and the mere allusion to him was enough to excite Gwynneth painfully. He swore he would never move a finger to clear himself, unless Providence itself interposed."
"Which it did," said Clarence. This fragment of conversation took place some time later, when I was again a guest at Granville Square.
Well, it "ended well," as far as could be so late in the day.
The Gwynneths left Millflowers and went to live at their own beautiful house. And there, as they deserved, they were respected by all whom they allowed to know them, loved by the very few whom they admitted to intimacy. But the iron had entered too deeply into the souls of the three elder ones for them ever to be "like other people." Caryll and the younger sister are still living, very old but very peaceful, happy in making others so.
Publicity, so far as it could serve any good purpose, was given to Ernest Fitzmaurice's statement. But the more than a quarter of a century that had passed had almost obliterated the once famous trial from the world's short memory--better so, perhaps.
One trivial question I remember putting to Clarence that Sunday morning. "What was the mystery of the `black curtain'?"
"Oh, an arrangement of some gymnastic kind, which it had been hoped might be of service to poor Caryll's crippled leg."
My next visit to London, though again under my godmother's auspices, had a definite object--the choosing of my _trousseau_. Clarence has been my husband for--ah, I must not say how many years! Lady Bretton was not pleased at first, but she "came round" by degrees, and now--she is _quite_ an old lady, but a very pretty and alert one--she is more than proud of the great name he has won for himself, and always ready to say that her godchild's is one of the happiest marriages she has ever known.
One exception--no, one addition I may make to this. My Isabel became my sister-in-law, and Jocelyn and she are our life-long and dearest friends.