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A Group of Noble Dames by Thomas Hardy

Part 4 out of 4

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late Sir John, heard the rumour, and came down from the place near
London to which he latterly had retired, with the express purpose of
calling upon Sir William Hervy, now staying in Casterbridge.

He stated that, at the request of a relative of Sir John's, who
wished to be assured on the matter by reason of its suddenness, he
had, with the assistance of a surgeon, made a private examination of
Sir John's body immediately after his decease, and found that it had
resulted from purely natural causes. Nobody at this time had
breathed a suspicion of foul play, and therefore nothing was said
which might afterwards have established her innocence.

It being thus placed beyond doubt that this beautiful and noble lady
had been done to death by a vile scandal that was wholly unfounded,
her husband was stung with a dreadful remorse at the share he had
taken in her misfortunes, and left the country anew, this time never
to return alive. He survived her but a few years, and his body was
brought home and buried beside his wife's under the tomb which is
still visible in the parish church. Until lately there was a good
portrait of her, in weeds for her first husband, with a cross in her
hand, at the ancestral seat of her family, where she was much
pitied, as she deserved to be. Yet there were some severe enough to
say--and these not unjust persons in other respects--that though
unquestionably innocent of the crime imputed to her, she had shown
an unseemly wantonness in contracting three marriages in such rapid
succession; that the untrue suspicion might have been ordered by
Providence (who often works indirectly) as a punishment for her
self-indulgence. Upon that point I have no opinion to offer.

The reverend the Vice-President, however, the tale being ended,
offered as his opinion that her fate ought to be quite clearly
recognized as a punishment. So thought the Churchwarden, and also
the quiet gentleman sitting near. The latter knew many other
instances in point, one of which could be narrated in a few words.

DAME THE NINTH: THE DUCHESS OF HAMPTONSHIRE
By the Quiet Gentleman

Some fifty years ago, the then Duke of Hamptonshire, fifth of that
title, was incontestibly the head man in his county, and
particularly in the neighbourhood of Batton. He came of the ancient
and loyal family of Saxelbye, which, before its ennoblement, had
numbered many knightly and ecclesiastical celebrities in its male
line. It would have occupied a painstaking county historian a whole
afternoon to take rubbings of the numerous effigies and heraldic
devices graven to their memory on the brasses, tablets, and altar-
tombs in the aisle of the parish-church. The Duke himself, however,
was a man little attracted by ancient chronicles in stone and metal,
even when they concerned his own beginnings. He allowed his mind to
linger by preference on the many graceless and unedifying pleasures
which his position placed at his command. He could on occasion
close the mouths of his dependents by a good bomb-like oath, and he
argued doggedly with the parson on the virtues of cock-fighting and
baiting the bull.

This nobleman's personal appearance was somewhat impressive. His
complexion was that of the copper-beech tree. His frame was
stalwart, though slightly stooping. His mouth was large, and he
carried an unpolished sapling as his walking-stick, except when he
carried a spud for cutting up any thistle he encountered on his
walks. His castle stood in the midst of a park, surrounded by dusky
elms, except to the southward; and when the moon shone out, the
gleaming stone facade, backed by heavy boughs, was visible from the
distant high road as a white spot on the surface of darkness.
Though called a castle, the building was little fortified, and had
been erected with greater eye to internal convenience than those
crannied places of defence to which the name strictly appertains.
It was a castellated mansion as regular as a chessboard on its
ground-plan, ornamented with make-believe bastions and
machicolations, behind which were stacks of battlemented chimneys.
On still mornings, at the fire-lighting hour, when ghostly house-
maids stalk the corridors, and thin streaks of light through the
shutter-chinks lend startling winks and smiles to ancestors on
canvas, twelve or fifteen thin stems of blue smoke sprouted upwards
from these chimney-tops, and spread into a flat canopy on high.
Around the site stretched ten thousand acres of good, fat,
unimpeachable soil, plentiful in glades and lawns wherever visible
from the castle-windows, and merging in homely arable where screened
from the too curious eye by ingeniously-contrived plantations.

Some way behind the owner of all this came the second man in the
parish, the rector, the Honourable and Reverend Mr. Oldbourne, a
widower, over stiff and stern for a clergyman, whose severe white
neckcloth, well-kept gray hair, and right-lined face betokened none
of those sympathetic traits whereon depends so much of a parson's
power to do good among his fellow-creatures. The last, far-removed
man of the series--altogether the Neptune of these local primaries--
was the curate, Mr. Alwyn Hill. He was a handsome young deacon with
curly hair, dreamy eyes--so dreamy that to look long into them was
like ascending and floating among summer clouds--a complexion as
fresh as a flower, and a chin absolutely beardless. Though his age
was about twenty-five, he looked not much over nineteen.

The rector had a daughter called Emmeline, of so sweet and simple a
nature that her beauty was discovered, measured, and inventoried by
almost everybody in that part of the country before it was suspected
by herself to exist. She had been bred in comparative solitude; a
rencounter with men troubled and confused her. Whenever a strange
visitor came to her father's house she slipped into the orchard and
remained till he was gone, ridiculing her weakness in apostrophes,
but unable to overcome it. Her virtues lay in no resistant force of
character, but in a natural inappetency for evil things, which to
her were as unmeaning as joints of flesh to a herbivorous creature.
Her charms of person, manner, and mind, had been clear for some time
to the Antinous in orders, and no less so to the Duke, who, though
scandalously ignorant of dainty phrases, ever showing a clumsy
manner towards the gentler sex, and, in short, not at all a lady's
man, took fire to a degree that was wellnigh terrible at sudden
sight of Emmeline, a short time after she was turned seventeen.

It occurred one afternoon at the corner of a shrubbery between the
castle and the rectory, where the Duke was standing to watch the
heaving of a mole, when the fair girl brushed past at a distance of
a few yards, in the full light of the sun, and without hat or
bonnet. The Duke went home like a man who had seen a spirit. He
ascended to the picture-gallery of his castle, and there passed some
time in staring at the bygone beauties of his line as if he had
never before considered what an important part those specimens of
womankind had played in the evolution of the Saxelbye race. He
dined alone, drank rather freely, and declared to himself that
Emmeline Oldbourne must be his.

Meanwhile there had unfortunately arisen between the curate and this
girl some sweet and secret understanding. Particulars of the
attachment remained unknown then and always, but it was plainly not
approved of by her father. His procedure was cold, hard, and
inexorable. Soon the curate disappeared from the parish, almost
suddenly, after bitter and hard words had been heard to pass between
him and the rector one evening in the garden, intermingled with
which, like the cries of the dying in the din of battle, were the
beseeching sobs of a woman. Not long after this it was announced
that a marriage between the Duke and Miss Oldbourne was to be
solemnized at a surprisingly early date.

The wedding-day came and passed; and she was a Duchess. Nobody
seemed to think of the ousted man during the day, or else those who
thought of him concealed their meditations. Some of the less
subservient ones were disposed to speak in a jocular manner of the
august husband and wife, others to make correct and pretty speeches
about them, according as their sex and nature dictated. But in the
evening, the ringers in the belfry, with whom Alwyn had been a
favourite, eased their minds a little concerning the gentle young
man, and the possible regrets of the woman he had loved.

'Don't you see something wrong in it all?' said the third bell as he
wiped his face. 'I know well enough where she would have liked to
stable her horses to-night, when they have done their journey.'

'That is, you would know if you could tell where young Mr. Hill is
living, which is known to none in the parish.'

'Except to the lady that this ring o' grandsire triples is in honour
of.'

Yet these friendly cottagers were at this time far from suspecting
the real dimensions of Emmeline's misery, nor was it clear even to
those who came into much closer communion with her than they, so
well had she concealed her heart-sickness. But bride and bridegroom
had not long been home at the castle when the young wife's
unhappiness became plainly enough perceptible. Her maids and men
said that she was in the habit of turning to the wainscot and
shedding stupid scalding tears at a time when a right-minded lady
would have been overhauling her wardrobe. She prayed earnestly in
the great church-pew, where she sat lonely and insignificant as a
mouse in a cell, instead of counting her rings, falling asleep, or
amusing herself in silent laughter at the queer old people in the
congregation, as previous beauties of the family had done in their
time. She seemed to care no more for eating and drinking out of
crystal and silver than from a service of earthen vessels. Her head
was, in truth, full of something else; and that such was the case
was only too obvious to the Duke, her husband. At first he would
only taunt her for her folly in thinking of that milk-and-water
parson; but as time went on his charges took a more positive shape.
He would not believe her assurance that she had in no way
communicated with her former lover, nor he with her, since their
parting in the presence of her father. This led to some strange
scenes between them which need not be detailed; their result was
soon to take a catastrophic shape.

One dark quiet evening, about two months after the marriage, a man
entered the gate admitting from the highway to the park and avenue
which ran up to the house. He arrived within two hundred yards of
the walls, when he left the gravelled drive and drew near to the
castle by a roundabout path leading into a shrubbery. Here he stood
still. In a few minutes the strokes of the castle-clock resounded,
and then a female figure entered the same secluded nook from an
opposite direction. There the two indistinct persons leapt together
like a pair of dewdrops on a leaf; and then they stood apart, facing
each other, the woman looking down.

'Emmeline, you begged me to come, and here I am, Heaven forgive me!'
said the man hoarsely.

'You are going to emigrate, Alwyn,' she said in broken accents. 'I
have heard of it; you sail from Plymouth in three days in the
Western Glory?'

'Yes. I can live in England no longer. Life is as death to me
here,' says he.

'My life is even worse--worse than death. Death would not have
driven me to this extremity. Listen, Alwyn--I have sent for you to
beg to go with you, or at least to be near you--to do anything so
that it be not to stay here.'

'To go away with me?' he said in a startled tone.

'Yes, yes--or under your direction, or by your help in some way!
Don't be horrified at me--you must bear with me whilst I implore it.
Nothing short of cruelty would have driven me to this. I could have
borne my doom in silence had I been left unmolested; but he tortures
me, and I shall soon be in the grave if I cannot escape.'

To his shocked inquiry how her husband tortured her, the Duchess
said that it was by jealousy. 'He tries to wring admissions from me
concerning you,' she said, 'and will not believe that I have not
communicated with you since my engagement to him was settled by my
father, and I was forced to agree to it.'

The poor curate said that this was the heaviest news of all. 'He
has not personally ill-used you?' he asked.

'Yes,' she whispered.

'What has he done?'

She looked fearfully around, and said, sobbing: 'In trying to make
me confess to what I have never done, he adopts plans I dare not
describe for terrifying me into a weak state, so that I may own to
anything! I resolved to write to you, as I had no other friend.'
She added, with dreary irony, 'I thought I would give him some
ground for his suspicion, so as not to disgrace his judgment.'

'Do you really mean, Emmeline,' he tremblingly inquired, 'that you--
that you want to fly with me?'

'Can you think that I would act otherwise than in earnest at such a
time as this?'

He was silent for a minute or more. 'You must not go with me,' he
said.

'Why?'

'It would be sin.'

'It CANNOT be sin, for I have never wanted to commit sin in my life;
and it isn't likely I would begin now, when I pray every day to die
and be sent to Heaven out of my misery!'

'But it is wrong, Emmeline, all the same.'

'Is it wrong to run away from the fire that scorches you?'

'It would look wrong, at any rate, in this case.'

'Alwyn, Alwyn, take me, I beseech you!' she burst out. 'It is not
right in general, I know, but it is such an exceptional instance,
this. Why has such a severe strain been put upon me? I was doing
no harm, injuring no one, helping many people, and expecting
happiness; yet trouble came. Can it be that God holds me in
derision? I had no supporter--I gave way; and now my life is a
burden and a shame to me . . . Oh, if you only knew how much to me
this request to you is--how my life is wrapped up in it, you could
not deny me!'

'This is almost beyond endurance--Heaven support us,' he groaned.
'Emmy, you are the Duchess of Hamptonshire, the Duke of
Hamptonshire's wife; you must not go with me!'

'And am I then refused?--Oh, am I refused?' she cried frantically.
'Alwyn, Alwyn, do you say it indeed to me?'

'Yes, I do, dear, tender heart! I do most sadly say it. You must
not go. Forgive me, for there is no alternative but refusal.
Though I die, though you die, we must not fly together. It is
forbidden in God's law. Good-bye, for always and ever!'

He tore himself away, hastened from the shrubbery, and vanished
among the trees.

Three days after this meeting and farewell, Alwyn, his soft,
handsome features stamped with a haggard hardness that ten years of
ordinary wear and tear in the world could scarcely have produced,
sailed from Plymouth on a drizzling morning, in the passenger-ship
Western Glory. When the land had faded behind him he mechanically
endeavoured to school himself into a stoical frame of mind. His
attempt, backed up by the strong moral staying power that had
enabled him to resist the passionate temptation to which Emmeline,
in her reckless trustfulness, had exposed him, was rewarded by a
certain kind of success, though the murmuring stretch of waters
whereon he gazed day after day too often seemed to be articulating
to him in tones of her well-remembered voice.

He framed on his journey rules of conduct for reducing to mild
proportions the feverish regrets which would occasionally arise and
agitate him, when he indulged in visions of what might have been had
he not hearkened to the whispers of conscience. He fixed his
thoughts for so many hours a day on philosophical passages in the
volumes he had brought with him, allowing himself now and then a few
minutes' thought of Emmeline, with the strict yet reluctant
niggardliness of an ailing epicure proportioning the rank drinks
that cause his malady. The voyage was marked by the usual incidents
of a sailing-passage in those days--a storm, a calm, a man
overboard, a birth, and a funeral--the latter sad event being one in
which he, as the only clergyman on board, officiated, reading the
service ordained for the purpose. The ship duly arrived at Boston
early in the month following, and thence he proceeded to Providence
to seek out a distant relative.

After a short stay at Providence he returned again to Boston, and by
applying himself to a serious occupation made good progress in
shaking off the dreary melancholy which enveloped him even now.
Distracted and weakened in his beliefs by his recent experiences, he
decided that he could not for a time worthily fill the office of a
minister of religion, and applied for the mastership of a school.
Some introductions, given him before starting, were useful now, and
he soon became known as a respectable scholar and gentleman to the
trustees of one of the colleges. This ultimately led to his
retirement from the school and installation in the college as
Professor of rhetoric and oratory.

Here and thus he lived on, exerting himself solely because of a
conscientious determination to do his duty. He passed his winter
evenings in turning sonnets and elegies, often giving his thoughts
voice in 'Lines to an Unfortunate Lady,' while his summer leisure at
the same hour would be spent in watching the lengthening shadows
from his window, and fancifully comparing them with the shades of
his own life. If he walked, he mentally inquired which was the
eastern quarter of the landscape, and thought of two thousand miles
of water that way, and of what was beyond it. In a word he was at
all spare times dreaming of her who was only a memory to him, and
would probably never be more.

Nine years passed by, and under their wear and tear Alwyn Hill's
face lost a great many of the attractive characteristics which had
formerly distinguished it. He was kind to his pupils and affable to
all who came in contact with him; but the kernel of his life, his
secret, was kept as snugly shut up as though he had been dumb. In
talking to his acquaintances of England and his life there, he
omitted the episode of Batton Castle and Emmeline as if it had no
existence in his calendar at all. Though of towering importance to
himself, it had filled but a short and small fragment of time, an
ephemeral season which would have been wellnigh imperceptible, even
to him, at this distance, but for the incident it enshrined.

One day, at this date, when cursorily glancing over an old English
newspaper, he observed a paragraph which, short as it was, contained
for him whole tomes of thrilling information--rung with more
passion-stirring rhythm than the collected cantos of all the poets.
It was an announcement of the death of the Duke of Hamptonshire,
leaving behind him a widow, but no children.

The current of Alwyn's thoughts now completely changed. On looking
again at the newspaper he found it to be one that was sent him long
ago, and had been carelessly thrown aside. But for an accidental
overhauling of the waste journals in his study he might not have
known of the event for years. At this moment of reading the Duke
had already been dead seven months. Alwyn could now no longer bind
himself down to machine-made synecdoche, antithesis, and climax,
being full of spontaneous specimens of all these rhetorical forms,
which he dared not utter. Who shall wonder that his mind luxuriated
in dreams of a sweet possibility now laid open for the first time
these many years? for Emmeline was to him now as ever the one dear
thing in all the world. The issue of his silent romancing was that
he resolved to return to her at the very earliest moment.

But he could not abandon his professional work on the instant. He
did not get really quite free from engagements till four months
later; but, though suffering throes of impatience continually, he
said to himself every day: 'If she has continued to love me nine
years she will love me ten; she will think the more tenderly of me
when her present hours of solitude shall have done their proper
work; old times will revive with the cessation of her recent
experience, and every day will favour my return.'

The enforced interval soon passed, and he duly arrived in England,
reaching the village of Batton on a certain winter day between
twelve and thirteen months subsequent to the time of the Duke's
death.

It was evening; yet such was Alwyn's impatience that he could not
forbear taking, this very night, one look at the castle which
Emmeline had entered as unhappy mistress ten years before. He
threaded the park trees, gazed in passing at well-known outlines
which rose against the dim sky, and was soon interested in observing
that lively country-people, in parties of two and three, were
walking before and behind him up the interlaced avenue to the castle
gateway. Knowing himself to be safe from recognition, Alwyn
inquired of one of these pedestrians what was going on.

'Her Grace gives her tenantry a ball to-night, to keep up the old
custom of the Duke and his father before him, which she does not
wish to change.'

'Indeed. Has she lived here entirely alone since the Duke's death?'

'Quite alone. But though she doesn't receive company herself, she
likes the village people to enjoy themselves, and often has 'em
here.'

'Kind-hearted, as always!' thought Alwyn.

On reaching the castle he found that the great gates at the
tradesmen's entrance were thrown back against the wall as if they
were never to be closed again; that the passages and rooms in that
wing were brilliantly lighted up, some of the numerous candles
guttering down over the green leaves which decorated them, and upon
the silk dresses of the happy farmers' wives as they passed beneath,
each on her husband's arm. Alwyn found no difficulty in marching in
along with the rest, the castle being Liberty Hall to-night. He
stood unobserved in a corner of the large apartment where dancing
was about to begin.

'Her Grace, though hardly out of mourning, will be sure to come down
and lead off the dance with neighbour Bates,' said one.

'Who is neighbour Bates?' asked Alwyn.

'An old man she respects much--the oldest of her tenant-farmers. He
was seventy-eight his last birthday.'

'Ah, to be sure!' said Alwyn, at his ease. 'I remember.'

The dancers formed in line, and waited. A door opened at the
farther end of the hall, and a lady in black silk came forth. She
bowed, smiled, and proceeded to the top of the dance.

'Who is that lady?' said Alwyn, in a puzzled tone. 'I thought you
told me that the Duchess of Hamptonshire--'

'That is the Duchess,' said his informant.

'But there is another?'

'No; there is no other.'

'But she is not the Duchess of Hamptonshire--who used to--' Alwyn's
tongue stuck to his mouth, he could get no farther.

'What's the matter?' said his acquaintance. Alwyn had retired, and
was supporting himself against the wall.

The wretched Alwyn murmured something about a stitch in his side
from walking. Then the music struck up, the dance went on, and his
neighbour became so interested in watching the movements of this
strange Duchess through its mazes as to forget Alwyn for a while.

It gave him an opportunity to brace himself up. He was a man who
had suffered, and he could suffer again. 'How came that person to
be your Duchess?' he asked in a firm, distinct voice, when he had
attained complete self-command. 'Where is her other Grace of
Hamptonshire? There certainly was another. I know it.'

'Oh, the previous one! Yes, yes. She ran away years and years ago
with the young curate. Mr. Hill was the young man's name, if I
recollect.'

'No! She never did. What do you mean by that?' he said.

'Yes, she certainly ran away. She met the curate in the shrubbery
about a couple of months after her marriage with the Duke. There
were folks who saw the meeting and heard some words of their talk.
They arranged to go, and she sailed from Plymouth with him a day or
two afterward.'

'That's not true.'

'Then 'tis the queerest lie ever told by man. Her father believed
and knew to his dying day that she went with him; and so did the
Duke, and everybody about here. Ay, there was a fine upset about it
at the time. The Duke traced her to Plymouth.'

'Traced her to Plymouth?'

'He traced her to Plymouth, and set on his spies; and they found
that she went to the shipping-office, and inquired if Mr. Alwyn Hill
had entered his name as passenger by the Western Glory; and when she
found that he had, she booked herself for the same ship, but not in
her real name. When the vessel had sailed a letter reached the Duke
from her, telling him what she had done. She never came back here
again. His Grace lived by himself a number of years, and married
this lady only twelve months before he died.'

Alwyn was in a state of indescribable bewilderment. But, unmanned
as he was, he called the next day on the, to him, spurious Duchess
of Hamptonshire. At first she was alarmed at his statement, then
cold, then she was won over by his condition to give confidence for
confidence. She showed him a letter which had been found among the
papers of the late Duke, corroborating what Alwyn's informant had
detailed. It was from Emmeline, bearing the postmarked date at
which the Western Glory sailed, and briefly stated that she had
emigrated by that ship to America.

Alwyn applied himself body and mind to unravel the remainder of the
mystery. The story repeated to him was always the same: 'She ran
away with the curate.' A strangely circumstantial piece of
intelligence was added to this when he had pushed his inquiries a
little further. There was given him the name of a waterman at
Plymouth, who had come forward at the time that she was missed and
sought for by her husband, and had stated that he put her on board
the Western Glory at dusk one evening before that vessel sailed.

After several days of search about the alleys and quays of Plymouth
Barbican, during which these impossible words, 'She ran off with the
curate,' became branded on his brain, Alwyn found this important
waterman. He was positive as to the truth of his story, still
remembering the incident well, and he described in detail the lady's
dress, as he had long ago described it to her husband, which
description corresponded in every particular with the dress worn by
Emmeline on the evening of their parting.

Before proceeding to the other side of the Atlantic to continue his
inquiries there, the puzzled and distracted Alwyn set himself to
ascertain the address of Captain Wheeler, who had commanded the
Western Glory in the year of Alwyn's voyage out, and immediately
wrote a letter to him on the subject.

The only circumstances which the sailor could recollect or discover
from his papers in connection with such a story were, that a woman
bearing the name which Alwyn had mentioned as fictitious certainly
did come aboard for a voyage he made about that time; that she took
a common berth among the poorest emigrants; that she died on the
voyage out, at about five days' sail from Plymouth; that she seemed
a lady in manners and education. Why she had not applied for a
first-class passage, why she had no trunks, they could not guess,
for though she had little money in her pocket she had that about her
which would have fetched it. 'We buried her at sea,' continued the
captain. 'A young parson, one of the cabin-passengers, read the
burial-service over her, I remember well.'

The whole scene and proceedings darted upon Alwyn's recollection in
a moment. It was a fine breezy morning on that long-past voyage
out, and he had been told that they were running at the rate of a
hundred and odd miles a day. The news went round that one of the
poor young women in the other part of the vessel was ill of fever,
and delirious. The tidings caused no little alarm among all the
passengers, for the sanitary conditions of the ship were anything
but satisfactory. Shortly after this the doctor announced that she
had died. Then Alwyn had learnt that she was laid out for burial in
great haste, because of the danger that would have been incurred by
delay. And next the funeral scene rose before him, and the
prominent part that he had taken in that solemn ceremony. The
captain had come to him, requesting him to officiate, as there was
no chaplain on board. This he had agreed to do; and as the sun went
down with a blaze in his face he read amidst them all assembled:
'We therefore commit her body to the deep, to be turned into
corruption, looking for the resurrection of the body when the sea
shall give up her dead.'

The captain also forwarded the addresses of the ship's matron and of
other persons who had been engaged on board at the date. To these
Alwyn went in the course of time. A categorical description of the
clothes of the dead truant, the colour of her hair, and other
things, extinguished for ever all hope of a mistake in identity.

At last, then, the course of events had become clear. On that
unhappy evening when he left Emmeline in the shrubbery, forbidding
her to follow him because it would be a sin, she must have
disobeyed. She must have followed at his heels silently through the
darkness, like a poor pet animal that will not be driven back. She
could have accumulated nothing for the journey more than she might
have carried in her hand; and thus poorly provided she must have
embarked. Her intention had doubtless been to make her presence on
board known to him as soon as she could muster courage to do so.

Thus the ten years' chapter of Alwyn Hill's romance wound itself up
under his eyes. That the poor young woman in the steerage had been
the young Duchess of Hamptonshire was never publicly disclosed.
Hill had no longer any reason for remaining in England, and soon
after left its shores with no intention to return. Previous to his
departure he confided his story to an old friend from his native
town--grandfather of the person who now relates it to you.

A few members, including the Bookworm, seemed to be impressed by the
quiet gentleman's tale; but the member we have called the Spark--
who, by the way, was getting somewhat tinged with the light of other
days, and owned to eight-and-thirty--walked daintily about the room
instead of sitting down by the fire with the majority and said that
for his part he preferred something more lively than the last story-
-something in which such long-separated lovers were ultimately
united. He also liked stories that were more modern in their date
of action than those he had heard to-day.

Members immediately requested him to give them a specimen, to which
the Spark replied that he didn't mind, as far as that went. And
though the Vice-President, the Man of Family, the Colonel, and
others, looked at their watches, and said they must soon retire to
their respective quarters in the hotel adjoining, they all decided
to sit out the Spark's story.

DAME THE TENTH: THE HONOURABLE LAURA
By the Spark

It was a cold and gloomy Christmas Eve. The mass of cloud overhead
was almost impervious to such daylight as still lingered on; the
snow lay several inches deep upon the ground, and the slanting
downfall which still went on threatened to considerably increase its
thickness before the morning. The Prospect Hotel, a building
standing near the wild north coast of Lower Wessex, looked so lonely
and so useless at such a time as this that a passing wayfarer would
have been led to forget summer possibilities, and to wonder at the
commercial courage which could invest capital, on the basis of the
popular taste for the picturesque, in a country subject to such
dreary phases. That the district was alive with visitors in August
seemed but a dim tradition in weather so totally opposed to all that
tempts mankind from home. However, there the hotel stood immovable;
and the cliffs, creeks, and headlands which were the primary
attractions of the spot, rising in full view on the opposite side of
the valley, were now but stern angular outlines, while the townlet
in front was tinged over with a grimy dirtiness rather than the
pearly gray that in summer lent such beauty to its appearance.

Within the hotel commanding this outlook the landlord walked idly
about with his hands in his pockets, not in the least expectant of a
visitor, and yet unable to settle down to any occupation which
should compensate in some degree for the losses that winter idleness
entailed on his regular profession. So little, indeed, was anybody
expected, that the coffee-room waiter--a genteel boy, whose plated
buttons in summer were as close together upon the front of his short
jacket as peas in a pod--now appeared in the back yard,
metamorphosed into the unrecognizable shape of a rough country lad
in corduroys and hobnailed boots, sweeping the snow away, and
talking the local dialect in all its purity, quite oblivious of the
new polite accent he had learned in the hot weather from the well-
behaved visitors. The front door was closed, and, as if to express
still more fully the sealed and chrysalis state of the
establishment, a sand-bag was placed at the bottom to keep out the
insidious snowdrift, the wind setting in directly from that quarter.

The landlord, entering his own parlour, walked to the large fire
which it was absolutely necessary to keep up for his comfort, no
such blaze burning in the coffee-room or elsewhere, and after giving
it a stir returned to a table in the lobby, whereon lay the
visitors' book--now closed and pushed back against the wall. He
carelessly opened it; not a name had been entered there since the
19th of the previous November, and that was only the name of a man
who had arrived on a tricycle, who, indeed, had not been asked to
enter at all.

While he was engaged thus the evening grew darker; but before it was
as yet too dark to distinguish objects upon the road winding round
the back of the cliffs, the landlord perceived a black spot on the
distant white, which speedily enlarged itself and drew near. The
probabilities were that this vehicle--for a vehicle of some sort it
seemed to be--would pass by and pursue its way to the nearest
railway-town as others had done. But, contrary to the landlord's
expectation, as he stood conning it through the yet unshuttered
windows, the solitary object, on reaching the corner, turned into
the hotel-front, and drove up to the door.

It was a conveyance particularly unsuited to such a season and
weather, being nothing more substantial than an open basket-carriage
drawn by a single horse. Within sat two persons, of different
sexes, as could soon be discerned, in spite of their muffled attire.
The man held the reins, and the lady had got some shelter from the
storm by clinging close to his side. The landlord rang the
hostler's bell to attract the attention of the stable-man, for the
approach of the visitors had been deadened to noiselessness by the
snow, and when the hostler had come to the horse's head the
gentleman and lady alighted, the landlord meeting them in the hall.

The male stranger was a foreign-looking individual of about eight-
and-twenty. He was close-shaven, excepting a moustache, his
features being good, and even handsome. The lady, who stood timidly
behind him, seemed to be much younger--possibly not more than
eighteen, though it was difficult to judge either of her age or
appearance in her present wrappings.

The gentleman expressed his wish to stay till the morning,
explaining somewhat unnecessarily, considering that the house was an
inn, that they had been unexpectedly benighted on their drive. Such
a welcome being given them as landlords can give in dull times, the
latter ordered fires in the drawing and coffee-rooms, and went to
the boy in the yard, who soon scrubbed himself up, dragged his
disused jacket from its box, polished the buttons with his sleeve,
and appeared civilized in the hall. The lady was shown into a room
where she could take off her snow-damped garments, which she sent
down to be dried, her companion, meanwhile, putting a couple of
sovereigns on the table, as if anxious to make everything smooth and
comfortable at starting, and requesting that a private sitting-room
might be got ready. The landlord assured him that the best upstairs
parlour--usually public--should be kept private this evening, and
sent the maid to light the candles. Dinner was prepared for them,
and, at the gentleman's desire, served in the same apartment; where,
the young lady having joined him, they were left to the rest and
refreshment they seemed to need.

That something was peculiar in the relations of the pair had more
than once struck the landlord, though wherein that peculiarity lay
it was hard to decide. But that his guest was one who paid his way
readily had been proved by his conduct, and dismissing conjectures,
he turned to practical affairs.

About nine o'clock he re-entered the hall, and, everything being
done for the day, again walked up and down, occasionally gazing
through the glass door at the prospect without, to ascertain how the
weather was progressing. Contrary to prognostication, snow had
ceased falling, and, with the rising of the moon, the sky had
partially cleared, light fleeces of cloud drifting across the
silvery disk. There was every sign that a frost was going to set in
later on. For these reasons the distant rising road was even more
distinct now between its high banks than it had been in the
declining daylight. Not a track or rut broke the virgin surface of
the white mantle that lay along it, all marks left by the lately
arrived travellers having been speedily obliterated by the flakes
falling at the time.

And now the landlord beheld by the light of the moon a sight very
similar to that he had seen by the light of day. Again a black spot
was advancing down the road that margined the coast. He was in a
moment or two enabled to perceive that the present vehicle moved
onward at a more headlong pace than the little carriage which had
preceded it; next, that it was a brougham drawn by two powerful
horses; next, that this carriage, like the former one, was bound for
the hotel-door. This desirable feature of resemblance caused the
landlord to once more withdraw the sand-bag and advance into the
porch.

An old gentleman was the first to alight. He was followed by a
young one, and both unhesitatingly came forward.

'Has a young lady, less than nineteen years of age, recently arrived
here in the company of a man some years her senior?' asked the old
gentleman, in haste. 'A man cleanly shaven for the most part,
having the appearance of an opera-singer, and calling himself Signor
Smithozzi?'

'We have had arrivals lately,' said the landlord, in the tone of
having had twenty at least--not caring to acknowledge the attenuated
state of business that afflicted Prospect Hotel in winter.

'And among them can your memory recall two persons such as those I
describe?--the man a sort of baritone?'

'There certainly is or was a young couple staying in the hotel; but
I could not pronounce on the compass of the gentleman's voice.'

'No, no; of course not. I am quite bewildered. They arrived in a
basket-carriage, altogether badly provided?'

'They came in a carriage, I believe, as most of our visitors do.'

'Yes, yes. I must see them at once. Pardon my want of ceremony,
and show us in to where they are.'

'But, sir, you forget. Suppose the lady and gentleman I mean are
not the lady and gentleman you mean? It would be awkward to allow
you to rush in upon them just now while they are at dinner, and
might cause me to lose their future patronage.'

'True, true. They may not be the same persons. My anxiety, I
perceive, makes me rash in my assumptions!'

'Upon the whole, I think they must be the same, Uncle Quantock,'
said the young man, who had not till now spoken. And turning to the
landlord: 'You possibly have not such a large assemblage of
visitors here, on this somewhat forbidding evening, that you quite
forget how this couple arrived, and what the lady wore?' His tone
of addressing the landlord had in it a quiet frigidity that was not
without irony.

'Ah! what she wore; that's it, James. What did she wear?'

'I don't usually take stock of my guests' clothing,' replied the
landlord drily, for the ready money of the first arrival had
decidedly biassed him in favour of that gentleman's cause. 'You can
certainly see some of it if you want to,' he added carelessly, 'for
it is drying by the kitchen fire.'

Before the words were half out of his mouth the old gentleman had
exclaimed, 'Ah!' and precipitated himself along what seemed to be
the passage to the kitchen; but as this turned out to be only the
entrance to a dark china-closet, he hastily emerged again, after a
collision with the inn-crockery had told him of his mistake.

'I beg your pardon, I'm sure; but if you only knew my feelings
(which I cannot at present explain), you would make allowances.
Anything I have broken I will willingly pay for.'

'Don't mention it, sir,' said the landlord. And showing the way,
they adjourned to the kitchen without further parley. The eldest of
the party instantly seized the lady's cloak, that hung upon a
clothes-horse, exclaiming: 'Ah! yes, James, it is hers. I knew we
were on their track.'

'Yes, it is hers,' answered the nephew quietly, for he was much less
excited than his companion.

'Show us their room at once,' said the old man.

'William, have the lady and gentleman in the front sitting-room
finished dining?'

'Yes, sir, long ago,' said the hundred plated buttons.

'Then show up these gentlemen to them at once. You stay here to-
night, gentlemen, I presume? Shall the horses be taken out?'

'Feed the horses and wash their mouths. Whether we stay or not
depends upon circumstances,' said the placid younger man, as he
followed his uncle and the waiter to the staircase.

'I think, Nephew James,' said the former, as he paused with his foot
on the first step--'I think we had better not be announced, but take
them by surprise. She may go throwing herself out of the window, or
do some equally desperate thing!'

'Yes, certainly, we'll enter unannounced.' And he called back the
lad who preceded them.

'I cannot sufficiently thank you, James, for so effectually aiding
me in this pursuit!' exclaimed the old gentleman, taking the other
by the hand. 'My increasing infirmities would have hindered my
overtaking her to-night, had it not been for your timely aid.'

'I am only too happy, uncle, to have been of service to you in this
or any other matter. I only wish I could have accompanied you on a
pleasanter journey. However, it is advisable to go up to them at
once, or they may hear us.' And they softly ascended the stairs.

On the door being opened, a room too large to be comfortable, lit by
the best branch-candlesticks of the hotel, was disclosed, before the
fire of which apartment the truant couple were sitting, very
innocently looking over the hotel scrap-book and the album
containing views of the neighbourhood. No sooner had the old man
entered than the young lady--who now showed herself to be quite as
young as described, and remarkably prepossessing as to features--
perceptibly turned pale. When the nephew entered, she turned still
paler, as if she were going to faint. The young man described as an
opera-singer rose with grim civility, and placed chairs for his
visitors.

'Caught you, thank God!' said the old gentleman breathlessly.

'Yes, worse luck, my lord!' murmured Signor Smithozzi, in native
London-English, that distinguished alien having, in fact, first seen
the light in the vicinity of the City Road. 'She would have been
mine to-morrow. And I think that under the peculiar circumstances
it would be wiser--considering how soon the breath of scandal will
tarnish a lady's fame--to let her be mine to-morrow, just the same.'

'Never!' said the old man. 'Here is a lady under age, without
experience--child-like in her maiden innocence and virtue--whom you
have plied by your vile arts, till this morning at dawn--'

'Lord Quantock, were I not bound to respect your gray hairs--'

'Till this morning at dawn you tempted her away from her father's
roof. What blame can attach to her conduct that will not, on a full
explanation of the matter, be readily passed over in her and thrown
entirely on you? Laura, you return at once with me. I should not
have arrived, after all, early enough to deliver you, if it had not
been for the disinterestedness of your cousin, Captain Northbrook,
who, on my discovering your flight this morning, offered with a
promptitude for which I can never sufficiently thank him, to
accompany me on my journey, as the only male relative I have near
me. Come, do you hear? Put on your things; we are off at once.'

'I don't want to go!' pouted the young lady.

'I daresay you don't,' replied her father drily. 'But children
never know what's best for them. So come along, and trust to my
opinion.'

Laura was silent, and did not move, the opera gentleman looking
helplessly into the fire, and the lady's cousin sitting meditatively
calm, as the single one of the four whose position enabled him to
survey the whole escapade with the cool criticism of a comparative
outsider.

'I say to you, Laura, as the father of a daughter under age, that
you instantly come with me. What? Would you compel me to use
physical force to reclaim you?'

'I don't want to return!' again declared Laura.

'It is your duty to return nevertheless, and at once, I inform you.'

'I don't want to!'

'Now, dear Laura, this is what I say: return with me and your
cousin James quietly, like a good and repentant girl, and nothing
will be said. Nobody knows what has happened as yet, and if we
start at once, we shall be home before it is light to-morrow
morning. Come.'

'I am not obliged to come at your bidding, father, and I would
rather not!'

Now James, the cousin, during this dialogue might have been observed
to grow somewhat restless, and even impatient. More than once he
had parted his lips to speak, but second thoughts each time held him
back. The moment had come, however, when he could keep silence no
longer.

'Come, madam!' he spoke out, 'this farce with your father has, in my
opinion, gone on long enough. Just make no more ado, and step
downstairs with us.'

She gave herself an intractable little twist, and did not reply.

'By the Lord Harry, Laura, I won't stand this!' he said angrily.
'Come, get on your things before I come and compel you. There is a
kind of compulsion to which this talk is child's play. Come, madam-
-instantly, I say!'

The old nobleman turned to his nephew and said mildly: 'Leave me to
insist, James. It doesn't become you. I can speak to her sharply
enough, if I choose.'

James, however, did not heed his uncle, and went on to the
troublesome young woman: 'You say you don't want to come, indeed!
A pretty story to tell me, that! Come, march out of the room at
once, and leave that hulking fellow for me to deal with afterward.
Get on quickly--come!' and he advanced toward her as if to pull her
by the hand.

'Nay, nay,' expostulated Laura's father, much surprised at his
nephew's sudden demeanour. 'You take too much upon yourself. Leave
her to me.'

'I won't leave her to you any longer!'

'You have no right, James, to address either me or her in this way;
so just hold your tongue. Come, my dear.'

'I have every right!' insisted James.

'How do you make that out?'

'I have the right of a husband.'

'Whose husband?'

'Hers.'

'What?'

'She's my wife.'

'James!'

'Well, to cut a long story short, I may say that she secretly
married me, in spite of your lordship's prohibition, about three
months ago. And I must add that, though she cooled down rather
quickly, everything went on smoothly enough between us for some
time; in spite of the awkwardness of meeting only by stealth. We
were only waiting for a convenient moment to break the news to you
when this idle Adonis turned up, and after poisoning her mind
against me, brought her into this disgrace.'

Here the operatic luminary, who had sat in rather an abstracted and
nerveless attitude till the cousin made his declaration, fired up
and cried: 'I declare before Heaven that till this moment I never
knew she was a wife! I found her in her father's house an unhappy
girl--unhappy, as I believe, because of the loneliness and
dreariness of that establishment, and the want of society, and for
nothing else whatever. What this statement about her being your
wife means I am quite at a loss to understand. Are you indeed
married to him, Laura?'

Laura nodded from within her tearful handkerchief. 'It was because
of my anomalous position in being privately married to him,' she
sobbed, 'that I was unhappy at home--and--and I didn't like him so
well as I did at first--and I wished I could get out of the mess I
was in! And then I saw you a few times, and when you said, "We'll
run off," I thought I saw a way out of it all, and then I agreed to
come with you--oo-oo!'

'Well! well! well! And is this true?' murmured the bewildered old
nobleman, staring from James to Laura, and from Laura to James, as
if he fancied they might be figments of the imagination. 'Is this,
then, James, the secret of your kindness to your old uncle in
helping him to find his daughter? Good Heavens! What further
depths of duplicity are there left for a man to learn!'

'I have married her, Uncle Quantock, as I said,' answered James
coolly. 'The deed is done, and can't be undone by talking here.'

'Where were you married?'

'At St. Mary's, Toneborough.'

'When?'

'On the 29th of September, during the time she was visiting there.'

'Who married you?'

'I don't know. One of the curates--we were quite strangers to the
place. So, instead of my assisting you to recover her, you may as
well assist me.'

'Never! never!' said Lord Quantock. 'Madam, and sir, I beg to tell
you that I wash my hands of the whole affair! If you are man and
wife, as it seems you are, get reconciled as best you may. I have
no more to say or do with either of you. I leave you, Laura, in the
hands of your husband, and much joy may you bring him; though the
situation, I own, is not encouraging.'

Saying this, the indignant speaker pushed back his chair against the
table with such force that the candlesticks rocked on their bases,
and left the room.

Laura's wet eyes roved from one of the young men to the other, who
now stood glaring face to face, and, being much frightened at their
aspect, slipped out of the room after her father. Him, however, she
could hear going out of the front door, and, not knowing where to
take shelter, she crept into the darkness of an adjoining bedroom,
and there awaited events with a palpitating heart.

Meanwhile the two men remaining in the sitting-room drew nearer to
each other, and the opera-singer broke the silence by saying, 'How
could you insult me in the way you did, calling me a fellow, and
accusing me of poisoning her mind toward you, when you knew very
well I was as ignorant of your relation to her as an unborn babe?'

'Oh yes, you were quite ignorant; I can believe that readily,'
sneered Laura's husband.

'I here call Heaven to witness that I never knew!'

'Recitativo--the rhythm excellent, and the tone well sustained. Is
it likely that any man could win the confidence of a young fool her
age, and not get that out of her? Preposterous! Tell it to the
most improved new pit-stalls.'

'Captain Northbrook, your insinuations are as despicable as your
wretched person!' cried the baritone, losing all patience. And
springing forward he slapped the captain in the face with the palm
of his hand.

Northbrook flinched but slightly, and calmly using his handkerchief
to learn if his nose was bleeding, said, 'I quite expected this
insult, so I came prepared.' And he drew forth from a black valise
which he carried in his hand a small case of pistols.

The baritone started at the unexpected sight, but recovering from
his surprise said, 'Very well, as you will,' though perhaps his tone
showed a slight want of confidence.

'Now,' continued the husband, quite confidingly, 'we want no parade,
no nonsense, you know. Therefore we'll dispense with seconds?'

The signor slightly nodded.

'Do you know this part of the country well?' Cousin James went on,
in the same cool and still manner. 'If you don't, I do. Quite at
the bottom of the rocks out there, just beyond the stream which
falls over them to the shore, is a smooth sandy space, not so much
shut in as to be out of the moonlight; and the way down to it from
this side is over steps cut in the cliff; and we can find our way
down without trouble. We--we two--will find our way down; but only
one of us will find his way up, you understand?'

'Quite.'

'Then suppose we start; the sooner it is over the better. We can
order supper before we go out--supper for two; for though we are
three at present--'

'Three?'

'Yes; you and I and she--'

'Oh yes.'

'--We shall be only two by and by; so that, as I say, we will order
supper for two; for the lady and a gentleman. Whichever comes back
alive will tap at her door, and call her in to share the repast with
him--she's not off the premises. But we must not alarm her now; and
above all things we must not let the inn-people see us go out; it
would look so odd for two to go out, and only one come in. Ha! ha!'

'Ha! ha! exactly.'

'Are you ready?'

'Oh--quite.'

'Then I'll lead the way.'

He went softly to the door and downstairs, ordering supper to be
ready in an hour, as he had said; then making a feint of returning
to the room again, he beckoned to the singer, and together they
slipped out of the house by a side door.

The sky was now quite clear, and the wheelmarks of the brougham
which had borne away Laura's father, Lord Quantock, remained
distinctly visible. Soon the verge of the down was reached, the
captain leading the way, and the baritone following silently,
casting furtive glances at his companion, and beyond him at the
scene ahead. In due course they arrived at the chasm in the cliff
which formed the waterfall. The outlook here was wild and
picturesque in the extreme, and fully justified the many praises,
paintings, and photographic views to which the spot had given birth.
What in summer was charmingly green and gray, was now rendered weird
and fantastic by the snow.

From their feet the cascade plunged downward almost vertically to a
depth of eighty or a hundred feet before finally losing itself in
the sand, and though the stream was but small, its impact upon
jutting rocks in its descent divided it into a hundred spirts and
splashes that sent up a mist into the upper air. A few marginal
drippings had been frozen into icicles, but the centre flowed on
unimpeded.

The operatic artist looked down as he halted, but his thoughts were
plainly not of the beauty of the scene. His companion with the
pistols was immediately in front of him, and there was no handrail
on the side of the path toward the chasm. Obeying a quick impulse,
he stretched out his arm, and with a superhuman thrust sent Laura's
husband reeling over. A whirling human shape, diminishing downward
in the moon's rays farther and farther toward invisibility, a smack-
smack upon the projecting ledges of rock--at first louder and
heavier than that of the brook, and then scarcely to be
distinguished from it--then a cessation, then the splashing of the
stream as before, and the accompanying murmur of the sea, were all
the incidents that disturbed the customary flow of the little
waterfall.

The singer waited in a fixed attitude for a few minutes, then
turning, he rapidly retraced his steps over the intervening upland
toward the road, and in less than a quarter of an hour was at the
door of the hotel. Slipping quietly in as the clock struck ten, he
said to the landlord, over the bar hatchway -

'The bill as soon as you can let me have it, including charges for
the supper that was ordered, though we cannot stay to eat it, I am
sorry to say.' He added with forced gaiety, 'The lady's father and
cousin have thought better of intercepting the marriage, and after
quarrelling with each other have gone home independently.'

'Well done, sir!' said the landlord, who still sided with this
customer in preference to those who had given trouble and barely
paid for baiting the horses. '"Love will find out the way!" as the
saying is. Wish you joy, sir!'

Signor Smithozzi went upstairs, and on entering the sitting-room
found that Laura had crept out from the dark adjoining chamber in
his absence. She looked up at him with eyes red from weeping, and
with symptoms of alarm.

'What is it?--where is he?' she said apprehensively.

'Captain Northbrook has gone back. He says he will have no more to
do with you.'

'And I am quite abandoned by them!--and they'll forget me, and
nobody care about me any more!' She began to cry afresh.

'But it is the luckiest thing that could have happened. All is just
as it was before they came disturbing us. But, Laura, you ought to
have told me about that private marriage, though it is all the same
now; it will be dissolved, of course. You are a wid--virtually a
widow.'

'It is no use to reproach me for what is past. What am I to do
now?'

'We go at once to Cliff-Martin. The horse has rested thoroughly
these last three hours, and he will have no difficulty in doing an
additional half-dozen miles. We shall be there before twelve, and
there are late taverns in the place, no doubt. There we'll sell
both horse and carriage to-morrow morning; and go by the coach to
Downstaple. Once in the train we are safe.'

'I agree to anything,' she said listlessly.

In about ten minutes the horse was put in, the bill paid, the lady's
dried wraps put round her, and the journey resumed.

When about a mile on their way, they saw a glimmering light in
advance of them. 'I wonder what that is?' said the baritone, whose
manner had latterly become nervous, every sound and sight causing
him to turn his head.

'It is only a turnpike,' said she. 'That light is the lamp kept
burning over the door.'

'Of course, of course, dearest. How stupid I am!'

On reaching the gate they perceived that a man on foot had
approached it, apparently by some more direct path than the roadway
they pursued, and was, at the moment they drew up, standing in
conversation with the gatekeeper.

'It is quite impossible that he could fall over the cliff by
accident or the will of God on such a light night as this,' the
pedestrian was saying. 'These two children I tell you of saw two
men go along the path toward the waterfall, and ten minutes later
only one of 'em came back, walking fast, like a man who wanted to
get out of the way because he had done something queer. There is no
manner of doubt that he pushed the other man over, and, mark me, it
will soon cause a hue and cry for that man.'

The candle shone in the face of the Signor and showed that there had
arisen upon it a film of ghastliness. Laura, glancing toward him
for a few moments observed it, till, the gatekeeper having
mechanically swung open the gate, her companion drove through, and
they were soon again enveloped in the white silence.

Her conductor had said to Laura, just before, that he meant to
inquire the way at this turnpike; but he had certainly not done so.

As soon as they had gone a little farther the omission, intentional
or not, began to cause them some trouble. Beyond the secluded
district which they now traversed ran the more frequented road,
where progress would be easy, the snow being probably already beaten
there to some extent by traffic; but they had not yet reached it,
and having no one to guide them their journey began to appear less
feasible than it had done before starting. When the little lane
which they had entered ascended another hill, and seemed to wind
round in a direction contrary to the expected route to Cliff-Martin,
the question grew serious. Ever since overhearing the conversation
at the turnpike, Laura had maintained a perfect silence, and had
even shrunk somewhat away from the side of her lover.

'Why don't you talk, Laura,' he said with forced buoyancy, 'and
suggest the way we should go?'

'Oh yes, I will,' she responded, a curious fearfulness being audible
in her voice.

After this she uttered a few occasional sentences which seemed to
persuade him that she suspected nothing. At last he drew rein, and
the weary horse stood still.

'We are in a fix,' he said.

She answered eagerly: 'I'll hold the reins while you run forward to
the top of the ridge, and see if the road takes a favourable turn
beyond. It would give the horse a few minutes' rest, and if you
find out no change in the direction, we will retrace this lane, and
take the other turning.'

The expedient seemed a good one in the circumstances, especially
when recommended by the singular eagerness of her voice; and placing
the reins in her hands--a quite unnecessary precaution, considering
the state of their hack--he stepped out and went forward through the
snow till she could see no more of him.

No sooner was he gone than Laura, with a rapidity which contrasted
strangely with her previous stillness, made fast the reins to the
corner of the phaeton, and slipping out on the opposite side, ran
back with all her might down the hill, till, coming to an opening in
the fence, she scrambled through it, and plunged into the copse
which bordered this portion of the lane. Here she stood in hiding
under one of the large bushes, clinging so closely to its umbrage as
to seem but a portion of its mass, and listening intently for the
faintest sound of pursuit. But nothing disturbed the stillness save
the occasional slipping of gathered snow from the boughs, or the
rustle of some wild animal over the crisp flake-bespattered herbage.
At length, apparently convinced that her former companion was either
unable to find her, or not anxious to do so, in the present strange
state of affairs, she crept out from the bushes, and in less than an
hour found herself again approaching the door of the Prospect Hotel.

As she drew near, Laura could see that, far from being wrapped in
darkness, as she might have expected, there were ample signs that
all the tenants were on the alert, lights moving about the open
space in front. Satisfaction was expressed in her face when she
discerned that no reappearance of her baritone and his pony-carriage
was causing this sensation; but it speedily gave way to grief and
dismay when she saw by the lights the form of a man borne on a
stretcher by two others into the porch of the hotel.

'I have caused all this,' she murmured between her quivering lips.
'He has murdered him!' Running forward to the door, she hastily
asked of the first person she met if the man on the stretcher was
dead.

'No, miss,' said the labourer addressed, eyeing her up and down as
an unexpected apparition. 'He is still alive, they say, but not
sensible. He either fell or was pushed over the waterfall; 'tis
thoughted he was pushed. He is the gentleman who came here just now
with the old lord, and went out afterward (as is thoughted) with a
stranger who had come a little earlier. Anyhow, that's as I had
it.'

Laura entered the house, and acknowledging without the least reserve
that she was the injured man's wife, had soon installed herself as
head nurse by the bed on which he lay. When the two surgeons who
had been sent for arrived, she learned from them that his wounds
were so severe as to leave but a slender hope of recovery, it being
little short of miraculous that he was not killed on the spot, which
his enemy had evidently reckoned to be the case. She knew who that
enemy was, and shuddered.

Laura watched all night, but her husband knew nothing of her
presence. During the next day he slightly recognized her, and in
the evening was able to speak. He informed the surgeons that, as
was surmised, he had been pushed over the cascade by Signor
Smithozzi; but he communicated nothing to her who nursed him, not
even replying to her remarks; he nodded courteously at any act of
attention she rendered, and that was all.

In a day or two it was declared that everything favoured his
recovery, notwithstanding the severity of his injuries. Full search
was made for Smithozzi, but as yet there was no intelligence of his
whereabouts, though the repentant Laura communicated all she knew.
As far as could be judged, he had come back to the carriage after
searching out the way, and finding the young lady missing, had
looked about for her till he was tired; then had driven on to Cliff-
Martin, sold the horse and carriage next morning, and disappeared,
probably by one of the departing coaches which ran thence to the
nearest station, the only difference from his original programme
being that he had gone alone.

During the days and weeks of that long and tedious recovery, Laura
watched by her husband's bedside with a zeal and assiduity which
would have considerably extenuated any fault save one of such
magnitude as hers. That her husband did not forgive her was soon
obvious. Nothing that she could do in the way of smoothing pillows,
easing his position, shifting bandages, or administering draughts,
could win from him more than a few measured words of thankfulness,
such as he would probably have uttered to any other woman on earth
who had performed these particular services for him.

'Dear, dear James,' she said one day, bending her face upon the bed
in an excess of emotion. 'How you have suffered! It has been too
cruel. I am more glad you are getting better than I can say. I
have prayed for it--and I am sorry for what I have done; I am
innocent of the worst, and--I hope you will not think me so very
bad, James!'

'Oh no. On the contrary, I shall think you very good--as a nurse,'
he answered, the caustic severity of his tone being apparent through
its weakness.

Laura let fall two or three silent tears, and said no more that day.

Somehow or other Signor Smithozzi seemed to be making good his
escape. It transpired that he had not taken a passage in either of
the suspected coaches, though he had certainly got out of the
county; altogether, the chance of finding him was problematical.

Not only did Captain Northbrook survive his injuries, but it soon
appeared that in the course of a few weeks he would find himself
little if any the worse for the catastrophe. It could also be seen
that Laura, while secretly hoping for her husband's forgiveness for
a piece of folly of which she saw the enormity more clearly every
day, was in great doubt as to what her future relations with him
would be. Moreover, to add to the complication, whilst she, as a
runaway wife, was unforgiven by her husband, she and her husband, as
a runaway couple, were unforgiven by her father, who had never once
communicated with either of them since his departure from the inn.
But her immediate anxiety was to win the pardon of her husband, who
possibly might be bearing in mind, as he lay upon his couch, the
familiar words of Brabantio, 'She has deceived her father, and may
thee.'

Matters went on thus till Captain Northbrook was able to walk about.
He then removed with his wife to quiet apartments on the south
coast, and here his recovery was rapid. Walking up the cliffs one
day, supporting him by her arm as usual, she said to him, simply,
'James, if I go on as I am going now, and always attend to your
smallest want, and never think of anything but devotion to you, will
you--try to like me a little?'

'It is a thing I must carefully consider,' he said, with the same
gloomy dryness which characterized all his words to her now. 'When
I have considered, I will tell you.'

He did not tell her that evening, though she lingered long at her
routine work of making his bedroom comfortable, putting the light so
that it would not shine into his eyes, seeing him fall asleep, and
then retiring noiselessly to her own chamber. When they met in the
morning at breakfast, and she had asked him as usual how he had
passed the night, she added timidly, in the silence which followed
his reply, 'Have you considered?'

'No, I have not considered sufficiently to give you an answer.'

Laura sighed, but to no purpose; and the day wore on with intense
heaviness to her, and the customary modicum of strength gained to
him.

The next morning she put the same question, and looked up
despairingly in his face, as though her whole life hung upon his
reply.

'Yes, I have considered,' he said.

'Ah!'

'We must part.'

'O James!'

'I cannot forgive you; no man would. Enough is settled upon you to
keep you in comfort, whatever your father may do. I shall sell out,
and disappear from this hemisphere.'

'You have absolutely decided?' she asked miserably. 'I have nobody
now to c-c-care for--'

'I have absolutely decided,' he shortly returned. 'We had better
part here. You will go back to your father. There is no reason why
I should accompany you, since my presence would only stand in the
way of the forgiveness he will probably grant you if you appear
before him alone. We will say farewell to each other in three days
from this time. I have calculated on being ready to go on that
day.'

Bowed down with trouble, she withdrew to her room, and the three
days were passed by her husband in writing letters and attending to
other business-matters, saying hardly a word to her the while. The
morning of departure came; but before the horses had been put in to
take the severed twain in different directions, out of sight of each
other, possibly for ever, the postman arrived with the morning
letters.

There was one for the captain; none for her--there were never any
for her. However, on this occasion something was enclosed for her
in his, which he handed her. She read it and looked up helpless.

'My dear father--is dead!' she said. In a few moments she added, in
a whisper, 'I must go to the Manor to bury him . . . Will you go
with me, James?'

He musingly looked out of the window. 'I suppose it is an awkward
and melancholy undertaking for a woman alone,' he said coldly.
'Well, well--my poor uncle!--Yes, I'll go with you, and see you
through the business.'

So they went off together instead of asunder, as planned. It is
unnecessary to record the details of the journey, or of the sad week
which followed it at her father's house. Lord Quantock's seat was a
fine old mansion standing in its own park, and there were plenty of
opportunities for husband and wife either to avoid each other, or to
get reconciled if they were so minded, which one of them was at
least. Captain Northbrook was not present at the reading of the
will. She came to him afterward, and found him packing up his
papers, intending to start next morning, now that he had seen her
through the turmoil occasioned by her father's death.

'He has left me everything that he could!' she said to her husband.
'James, will you forgive me now, and stay?'

'I cannot stay.'

'Why not?'

'I cannot stay,' he repeated.

'But why?'

'I don't like you.'

He acted up to his word. When she came downstairs the next morning
she was told that he had gone.

Laura bore her double bereavement as best she could. The vast
mansion in which she had hitherto lived, with all its historic
contents, had gone to her father's successor in the title; but her
own was no unhandsome one. Around lay the undulating park, studded
with trees a dozen times her own age; beyond it, the wood; beyond
the wood, the farms. All this fair and quiet scene was hers. She
nevertheless remained a lonely, repentant, depressed being, who
would have given the greater part of everything she possessed to
ensure the presence and affection of that husband whose very
austerity and phlegm--qualities that had formerly led to the
alienation between them--seemed now to be adorable features in his
character.

She hoped and hoped again, but all to no purpose. Captain
Northbrook did not alter his mind and return. He was quite a
different sort of man from one who altered his mind; that she was at
last despairingly forced to admit. And then she left off hoping,
and settled down to a mechanical routine of existence which in some
measure dulled her grief; but at the expense of all her natural
animation and the sprightly wilfulness which had once charmed those
who knew her, though it was perhaps all the while a factor in the
production of her unhappiness.

To say that her beauty quite departed as the years rolled on would
be to overstate the truth. Time is not a merciful master, as we all
know, and he was not likely to act exceptionally in the case of a
woman who had mental troubles to bear in addition to the ordinary
weight of years. Be this as it may, eleven other winters came and
went, and Laura Northbrook remained the lonely mistress of house and
lands without once hearing of her husband. Every probability seemed
to favour the assumption that he had died in some foreign land; and
offers for her hand were not few as the probability verged on
certainty with the long lapse of time. But the idea of remarriage
seemed never to have entered her head for a moment. Whether she
continued to hope even now for his return could not be distinctly
ascertained; at all events she lived a life unmodified in the
slightest degree from that of the first six months of his absence.

This twelfth year of Laura's loneliness, and the thirtieth of her
life drew on apace, and the season approached that had seen the
unhappy adventure for which she so long had suffered. Christmas
promised to be rather wet than cold, and the trees on the outskirts
of Laura's estate dripped monotonously from day to day upon the
turnpike-road which bordered them. On an afternoon in this week
between three and four o'clock a hired fly might have been seen
driving along the highway at this point, and on reaching the top of
the hill it stopped. A gentleman of middle age alighted from the
vehicle.

'You need drive no farther,' he said to the coachman. 'The rain
seems to have nearly ceased. I'll stroll a little way, and return
on foot to the inn by dinner-time.'

The flyman touched his hat, turned the horse, and drove back as
directed. When he was out of sight, the gentleman walked on, but he
had not gone far before the rain again came down pitilessly, though
of this the pedestrian took little heed, going leisurely onward till
he reached Laura's park gate, which he passed through. The clouds
were thick and the days were short, so that by the time he stood in
front of the mansion it was dark. In addition to this his
appearance, which on alighting from the carriage had been
untarnished, partook now of the character of a drenched wayfarer not
too well blessed with this world's goods. He halted for no more
than a moment at the front entrance, and going round to the
servants' quarter, as if he had a preconceived purpose in so doing,
there rang the bell. When a page came to him he inquired if they
would kindly allow him to dry himself by the kitchen fire.

The page retired, and after a murmured colloquy returned with the
cook, who informed the wet and muddy man that though it was not her
custom to admit strangers, she should have no particular objection
to his drying himself; the night being so damp and gloomy.
Therefore the wayfarer entered and sat down by the fire.

'The owner of this house is a very rich gentleman, no doubt?' he
asked, as he watched the meat turning on the spit.

''Tis not a gentleman, but a lady,' said the cook.

'A widow, I presume?'

'A sort of widow. Poor soul, her husband is gone abroad, and has
never been heard of for many years.'

'She sees plenty of company, no doubt, to make up for his absence?'

'No, indeed--hardly a soul. Service here is as bad as being in a
nunnery.'

In short, the wayfarer, who had at first been so coldly received,
contrived by his frank and engaging manner to draw the ladies of the
kitchen into a most confidential conversation, in which Laura's
history was minutely detailed, from the day of her husband's
departure to the present. The salient feature in all their
discourse was her unflagging devotion to his memory.

Having apparently learned all that he wanted to know--among other
things that she was at this moment, as always, alone--the traveller
said he was quite dry; and thanking the servants for their kindness,
departed as he had come. On emerging into the darkness he did not,
however, go down the avenue by which he had arrived. He simply
walked round to the front door. There he rang, and the door was
opened to him by a man-servant whom he had not seen during his
sojourn at the other end of the house.

In answer to the servant's inquiry for his name, he said
ceremoniously, 'Will you tell The Honourable Mrs. Northbrook that
the man she nursed many years ago, after a frightful accident, has
called to thank her?'

The footman retreated, and it was rather a long time before any
further signs of attention were apparent. Then he was shown into
the drawing-room, and the door closed behind him.

On the couch was Laura, trembling and pale. She parted her lips and
held out her hands to him, but could not speak. But he did not
require speech, and in a moment they were in each other's arms.

Strange news circulated through that mansion and the neighbouring
town on the next and following days. But the world has a way of
getting used to things, and the intelligence of the return of The
Honourable Mrs. Northbrook's long-absent husband was soon received
with comparative calm.

A few days more brought Christmas, and the forlorn home of Laura
Northbrook blazed from basement to attic with light and
cheerfulness. Not that the house was overcrowded with visitors, but
many were present, and the apathy of a dozen years came at length to
an end. The animation which set in thus at the close of the old
year did not diminish on the arrival of the new; and by the time its
twelve months had likewise run the course of its predecessors, a son
had been added to the dwindled line of the Northbrook family.

At the conclusion of this narrative the Spark was thanked, with a
manner of some surprise, for nobody had credited him with a taste
for tale-telling. Though it had been resolved that this story
should be the last, a few of the weather-bound listeners were for
sitting on into the small hours over their pipes and glasses, and
raking up yet more episodes of family history. But the majority
murmured reasons for soon getting to their lodgings.

It was quite dark without, except in the immediate neighbourhood of
the feeble street-lamps, and before a few shop-windows which had
been hardily kept open in spite of the obvious unlikelihood of any
chance customer traversing the muddy thoroughfares at that hour.

By one, by two, and by three the benighted members of the Field-Club
rose from their seats, shook hands, made appointments, and dropped
away to their respective quarters, free or hired, hoping for a fair
morrow. It would probably be not until the next summer meeting,
months away in the future, that the easy intercourse which now
existed between them all would repeat itself. The crimson maltster,
for instance, knew that on the following market-day his friends the
President, the Rural Dean, and the bookworm would pass him in the
street, if they met him, with the barest nod of civility, the
President and the Colonel for social reasons, the bookworm for
intellectual reasons, and the Rural Dean for moral ones, the latter
being a staunch teetotaller, dead against John Barleycorn. The
sentimental member knew that when, on his rambles, he met his friend
the bookworm with a pocket-copy of something or other under his
nose, the latter would not love his companionship as he had done to-
day; and the President, the aristocrat, and the farmer knew that
affairs political, sporting, domestic, or agricultural would exclude
for a long time all rumination on the characters of dames gone to
dust for scores of years, however beautiful and noble they may have
been in their day.

The last member at length departed, the attendant at the museum
lowered the fire, the curator locked up the rooms, and soon there
was only a single pirouetting flame on the top of a single coal to
make the bones of the ichthyosaurus seem to leap, the stuffed birds
to wink, and to draw a smile from the varnished skulls of
Vespasian's soldiery.

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