- CHAPTER XX. A MYSTERY SOMEWHERE.
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A MYSTERY SOMEWHERE.
THERE was a gentleman there whom Rachel did not in the least remember to have seen before, although she had often done so in the days of her childhood, and a very strange gentleman she thought him to be, even upon her first ac- | | 221 quaintance with him, for he kept bobbing about from behind one lady's skirt to another, as soon as she turned her eyes in his direction, as if he wished to avoid an introduction to her. Cecil Craven and Raymond Norreys were so busy talking together that the former did not seem to notice anything, and it was not until Mrs. Craven appeared to join her guests that the behaviour of the strange gentleman was commented upon.
"Gus," she said, as soon as she entered the room, and saw him apparently trying to hide himself amongst some sofa cushions at one end of it, "Cousin Gus, have you not shaken hands yet with your little friend Rachel Norreys and her husband?"
Then the strange gentleman advanced almost sheepishly, and giving a hasty salutation to Rachel, turned to Raymond, and almost fastened upon his hand.
"I knew your father, sir," he kept on repeating, as he shook it again and again. "I am exceedingly glad to make your acquaintance. I knew your father years ago; we were boys at school together, sir, and lads at college, and I am exceedingly pleased to see you here, Mr. Norreys, I am, indeed, and—I knew your father so very well. You are very like him." And then he set to shaking poor Raymond's hand again, until it was nearly shaken off. Meanwhile the dinner was announced, and the formalities of society began.
"Cecil, my dear," said Mrs. Craven, "you will take Mrs.Norreys, if you please, and—"
"That sounds funny, doesn't it, Rachel?" he whispered, as he took her on his arm, and led the way into the dining-room.
They were quite alone that evening, with the exception of Mrs. Arundel, and the dinner passed off very quietly. Rachel did not talk much; she felt unaccountably timid and reserved, and all efforts to draw her into conversation failed, although Cecil was at her right hand. The ones who talked the most appeared to be Cousin Gus and Raymond Norreys, who kept up the ball famously, and Mrs. Arundel, whose tongue ran incessantly as she alternately addressed Mrs.Craven and Rachel. The latter would not have been so silent but for one circumstance, which occurred so often that at last it was a source of positive distress to her, and this was that whenever she raised her eyes from her plate, she found | | 222 those of the strange gentleman (whose name she had now gathered from her right-hand neighbour to be Mr. Northland) invariably fixed upon her. He always appeared painfully conscious when thus caught—would almost blush in his feeling of awkwardness, and hurriedly withdrawing his gaze, apply himself to eating and talking with such renewed energy, that being in general rather an uncommunicative individual, he quite astonished his relatives. But still the next time that Rachel raised her eyes the same result was sure to ensue, till she grew quite nervous herself, and blushed a great deal more than he did. Once she thought she encountered the eyes of Mrs. Craven turned with displeased surprise upon her offending cousin, but if so, Mr. Northland did not appear to take the hint, for he still continued to stare at the new guest. And somehow, although it confused her, Rachel could not feel very angry at the interest she seemed to have awakened in his breast. The glances he directed towards her were so very far from anything like impertinent curiosity, that they only excited her sympathy in return. His large, soft, brown eyes were so pensive and womanlike in their expression, his whole demeanour so subdued and melancholy, that she began to experience a feeling of compassion for the stranger before she was aware of it herself. She thought that she should like to know him better—to ask him why he looked at her so earnestly—to learn if he had any grief, or had experienced some great loss of which her face reminded him. She smiled to herself when occasionally roused from such reveries as the above by Cecil asking her to take wine, or Mrs. Arundel from the other side of the table recalling some regimental circumstance to her remembrance,—smiled to think that she should be dreaming of fanciful probabilities respecting a man she had hardly ever seen before that evening, and of whom she knew nothing. All this time Rachel had spoken very little to Mrs. Craven, or she to her. The spell of silence, which seemed at the dinner-table to have affected so many of the party, had fallen upon the hostess also, and she had scarcely joined in the conversation. But when the ladies had retreated to the drawing-room, and Mrs. Arundel, in order to keep up her character of a loving mother (a character she found very inconvenient at | | 223 times), had affirmed that she must run home "just for one moment to see her sweet Emily safely to bed, if dear Mrs. Craven would kindly excuse her," and Lady Frances had wandered away alone upon the terrace at the back of the house, in hopes somebody might see and join her there, Rachel found herself for the first time alone with Mrs. Craven.
She tried to overcome her shyness and appear at ease, and, in consequence, attempted to say something; but the "something" fell flat, and then there was a dead silence between them—broken presently, however, by Mrs. Craven, who, advancing to the sofa where Rachel sat, and taking a seat beside the girl, laid her hand upon hers.
"I hope you are glad to come here, my dear," she said, softly. (And Rachel, as softly answered "Yes.") I knew your dear father many, many years ago—indeed, before you were born, Rachel, and it was a great grief to me to hear of his death. It must have been a great grief to you, my dear."
"Indeed it was," faltered poor Rachel. "I sometimes feel as if I should never get over it."
"Don't say that," said Mrs. Craven, nervously. "You are young, my dear child, and the young soon forget. But he was very kind and good to me in days when we were boy and girl together, and I wish that I could in some measure make up to you, Rachel, for his loss. If you could look on me as on——"
"Oh, no!—oh, no!" exclaimed Rachel, shrinking from her, and hiding her face in her hands, "I couldn't, indeed."
Mrs. Craven uttered a sharp sound, which was almost like a cry.
"Oh, child, don't shrink from me!" she said; "I did not mean to hurt your feelings. I do not suppose you could ever look on me as you have done on him."
"Oh no, indeed," said Rachel again, her face still hidden from the lamplight, "not on you, or on any one!"
"I do not expect it," replied Mrs. Craven, taking no notice of this second interruption; "but if you could look on me as a friend, Rachel, as your best friend, and promise to apply to me in any trouble, I should be so happy thus to try and pay off part of the great debt I owe his memory. You have no mother, dear child."| | 224
"God knows that I have not!" said the girl, sobbing; and her sudden distress seemed greatly to affect her friend.
"Poor, poor child!" she exclaimed, putting her arm around her. "Let me be your mother, Rachel, for his sake! I have no daughter." (As she said the words the girl stirred in her embrace uneasily.) "If I had I should have liked her to be just like yourself; the same eyes, the same mouth, the same shade of hair; and having none, and seeing you thus, I feel as if I could love you almost as well as if you had been mine. May I love you, Rachel? May I please myself sometimes by fancying that you are my daughter, and that the day may come when you will look on me as you might have done on your own mother, had she lived?"
"She never lived for me," said Rachel, sadly, though her sobs had ceased.
"I know she did not, Rachel; therefore never having known another, it will be all the easier for you to look on me as such. Is it a bargain?"
"I will try to love you," was the reply, in a tone which sounded almost ungrateful. "I cannot promise more."
But Mrs. Craven appeared to be satisfied with the agreement, and kissed her several times in return. And yet this conversation did not make Rachel's timidity, in the presence of the woman who wished to be her friend, less. Indeed, as the days went on, notwithstanding all Mrs. Craven's endeavour to the contrary, it rather seemed to increase than to diminish.
She shrunk from all the attention offered her, as if it hurt her to receive a favour from the hands of her hostess. She frequented her own apartment very much, and when below-stairs, was shy, silent, and retiring. Especially did she seem after that first evening to dread being left alone in Mrs. Craven's company, and the slightest signal of such a calamity was sufficient to send Rachel flying out of the room, into the garden, or up the stairs,—anywhere to avoid a tête-à-tête. This conduct on her part was observed not only by Mrs. Craven, to whom, with her desire to benefit her old friend's daughter, it gave great pain, but also by others—by Cecil, and Mrs. Arundel, and Raymond Norreys. But at this time Rachel (if she was suffering) suffered alone. If | | 225 she shrunk from giving her confidence to her hostess, she shrunk as much from her ci-devant bosom friend, Eliza Arundel; for in her heart, with regard to that lady, there was springing up a seed of distrust,—small, indeed, at the present moment, but still there, and incompatible with anything like unreserve. And to her husband Rachel was becoming a mystery. He could understand her former indifference, and even dislike of him; but he could not imagine what should make her now appear nervous and anxious to avoid him, who never pressed his company upon her. What should induce her to blush and falter when she spoke to him,—to tremble if he came upon her suddenly,—to indulge (as he knew she did) in long fits of weeping by night, and melancholy depression by day? He attributed these signs to her longing to be free from the yoke he had imposed upon her—her aversion to his presence—her despair at the impossibility of regaining her freedom. These thoughts hung heavily upon the heart of Raymond Norreys. Night after night, when his wife imagined he was asleep in his dressing-room, would he be sitting up wide awake listening to the sobs she tried to stifle with the bed-clothes, and to the pacing of her naked feet upon the carpet,—longing to rush in and comfort her, but not daring to do so, as he thought he was the very cause of her distress. How often he cursed the late which led him on to enchain the heart and hand of so inexperienced a girl, only to find that what he had secured, though worth nothing, was yet that which neither he nor she could rid themselves of again. If he could have shattered those rivets for her, how soon he would have done it, even had his own heart withered in the process. But they were forged, and no amount of strength nor force of longing could undo the link. It never struck Raymond that Rachel's depression arose, not so much from her dislike of himself as her preference for another. He was too honourable, too upright in his own nature, to suspect his neighbour of faults he would have scorned to commit himself. The best and the truest in the world are always those who are easiest hoodwinked. The man who suspects his wife or his friend at every turn requires looking after himself; and Raymond Norreys was both good and true.| | 226
And yet, as if to aid him to suspect, it was to Cecil Craven, and him alone, that Rachel at this time even admitted that she suffered pain, and he (notwithstanding that he was greatly engrossed in his flirtation with Lady Frances) could not help observing, in common with the rest, that her eyes often told tales of her sleepless, restless nights, and that her spirits were not at their usual ebb. And when he noticed the circumstance to her, she never denied it, as to others.
"Of course I am unhappy," she would say, "and you know the reason why, Cecil. Leave me alone, and take no notice of me: it is the kindest thing you can do. I shall be better when I get back to Brompton."
But low-spirited as she was, Rachel was not so totally absorbed in her own troubles as to be unable to take any notice of what was going on around her, and one or two things which she observed during her visit to Craven Court puzzled her not a little. Foremost amongst these was Mrs. Craven's treatment of her son. If she had simply idolized Cecil (as many mothers are foolish enough to do when they have but one creature on whom to lavish the riches of their love), Rachel would have thought it only natural; and if, following up this course of action, she had lavished presents without number or reserve upon him, it would still have appeared the most likely thing to happen, possessing the wealth that she did. But, without evincing the first clause, Mrs. Craven carried the second to an extravagant excess. It was not that she did not love Cecil, and dearly (the fact has been already stated); but she did not defy him by any manner of means: on the contrary, with all her care and thought for his comfort and happiness, she appeared to, and did, think a great deal more of the intellect of Rachel Norreys than that of her son. And yet, with respect to lavishing money upon him, and at times most unnecessarily, his mother seemed unusually foolish. Major Craven had a liberal income of his own,—an income which made poorer men wonder why on earth he continued to slave in the army when he might enjoy himself at home. But people's ideas of enjoyment differ, and Cecil's was to follow his profession. Whilst in it, he was celebrated for being the most extravagant officer in the Bays (a regi- | | 227 ment not generally quoted for its quiet and economical habits). He had always kept the most valuable horses in his stable, given the best dinners and the most expensive presents of any one in that corps, and, when on leave in England, his mode of living far exceeded in splendour anything which his foreign services could boast of. But Mrs. Craven, instead of checking him in his expenditure (for even thousands come occasionally to an end), only appeared to encourage him in fresh extravagances, by heaping useless luxuries upon him, and, as far as Rachel could see, without any object in thus indulging him. One particular instance made a deep impression upon her mind. At the period of their visit to the Court, Major Craven had nearly a dozen horses, hacks and hunters, for his groom and himself, located in the stables there. One afternoon the whole party had been looking over his stud, which comprised some very valuable animals, and was well worth seeing; and whilst discussing their merits at the dinner-table, their owner remarked, carelessly, that he had been very nearly adding to their number the day before, when he had been up in London.
"Such a splendid mare," he said, "one of the Earl of——'s stud. He wants a stiffish price for her——six hundred pounds; but I defy any one to pick out a fault in the animal's make and disposition. She is perfect."
"Why didn't you buy her, Cecil?" inquired his mother.
"Oh, I don't know," he rejoined, and as if he was perfectly indifferent upon the matter. "There is not a vacant stall in the stable, in the first place; and I've no use for her, in the second. My horses are all eating their heads off, as it is, and I have to pay men to exercise them. By-the-bye," he added, turning to Rachel, "you said you would ride with me if I got you a lady's horse, and I've found you a beauty. My little grey Arab, mother. We had a skirt on him this afternoon, and he went as quietly as if he had been used to it all his life. You must come out with me to-morrow, Mrs. Norreys."
Nothing more was said on the subject of the Earl of——'s mare until a few days afterwards, when one morning Cecil exclaimed, abruptly, at breakfast—
"Thank you, mother, for your present, though I told you | | 228 I didn't want her. You'll have to keep her in exercise for me now; for I'm hanged if I can do any more in the riding way. I seem to be in the pig-skin from morning till night."
Mrs. Craven smiled, and said, "Nonsense!" and she had hoped he would be more grateful; and Rachel asked what the present might be.
"Why, what should I see," replied Cecil, "when I walked into the stables this morning, but my head groom grinning from ear to ear, and the Earl of——'s mare (that pretty animal I spoke of the other day,—the 'Queen of Scots' they call her) in the loose box. I asked how she got there, and heard that my mother sent up to London to buy her for me yesterday; though how she managed to find out names, addresses, and prices beats me altogether. And what the deuce I'm to do with the 'Queen of Scots,' now I've got her, I don't know either."
And this was the nonchalant, don't-care style in which Cecil received most of his mother's presents; but Mrs. Craven appeared, on her part, to think it all right so long as he accepted them at her hands: yet why she should throw away six hundred pounds on a horse which her son had positively said he did not care to possess, was past Rachel's comprehension; but this was only one instance out of many such. In the meanwhile Cecil Craven had procured mounts for Lady Frances and Rachel Norreys. And a riding-party being organized, the four younger people took that exercise almost daily. On such occasions Mr. Northland, being generally absorbed in his meerschaum and dressing-gown, and lost in some of the surrounding shrubberies or garden-paths, Mrs. Arundel would be Mrs. Craven's only companion, and strove to make the time pass quicker by engaging her friend in innocent small-talk.
"How do you think dear Rachel is looking to-day, Mrs. Craven," she commenced at one of these conferences, "better?"
"Is Rachel Norreys ill?" Mrs. Craven questioned.
"Well, not precisely ill, perhaps, but certainly far from what she should be. She was very different formerly. I have known the dear girl for years, Mrs. Craven, as you have heard, and she used to be such a merry, light-hearted creature."| | 229
"I have often had her to stay here, as a little girl," Mrs. Craven replied, "and always thought her disposition subject to very fitful changes. Sometimes she was boisterously rude; at others, unnaturally quiet and shy. I never attributed it to anything but her temperament, which is very excitable."
"Ah! perhaps so. As a child I knew nothing of her, of course; but as a woman I have associated with her a great deal. Oh, Mrs. Craven! you should have seen us at Gibraltar—we were inseparable—riding, driving, or walking, your dear son and dear Rachel and myself were like brother and sisters. Exactly—one would have thought to see us—that we were just that—brother and sisters."
Her listener started, perhaps at the idea of such a sister for her Cecil as the woman before her, but she only answered—
"Yes, indeed; and if dear Rachel had not been a married lady, I should have been just a little afraid for Major Craven's heart."
Mrs. Craven started again, and this time the cause was evident, for she laid her hand upon the widow's arm, and exclaimed—
"Oh! Mrs. Arundel, pray don't say that!"
The innocent creature laughed lightly.
"My dear Mrs. Craven, pray don't look so frightened. I only said 'if' Rachel had not been married; but she was, and so there could be no danger. Why, fie! you look quite pale. I'm very naughty to have alarmed you so."
And indeed Mrs. Craven did look quite pale, and overcome from the horrid thought which the widow's words had suggested to her.
"I talk too fast for you," recommenced that lady, presently, "but you must never think much of anything I say. We military ladies are famous for being rattles, you know. But now that I have said so much, perhaps, I had better finish my little talkee-talkee, and then you will see what small cause there was for alarm. Dear Rachel was married very young, you see, and left many years without her husband (who, I'm sure, is a most charming fellow, now he's come), and I must confess, at one time, I was just a little afraid, lest | | 230 Mr. Cecil's handsome face and figure might not be productive of mischief in that quarter (for a woman's heart is an easy prey, dear Mrs. Craven), but I talked to her once or twice—and——. There, that's all, my dear friend—Rachel is a sweet girl, devoted to me, and a word to her perhaps from my mouth has more effect than twenty would from that of another person. At any rate, no harm was done. Mr. Norreys arrived, claimed his pretty little wife, Major Craven returned home and commenced to court Lady Frances Morgan, and here they all are, as happy as can be."
And here the widow sighed profoundly, as though even in thinking of happiness she dared not trust herself; but there was a devil in the eye to which she gently applied her pocket handkerchief. Yet artful as she was herself, she was quite taken aback by the show of gratitude which Mrs. Craven exhibited on account of the salvation of her son.
With her eyes brimful of tears, she seized the hand of Eliza Arundel and kissed her on the cheek.
"Oh! God bless you!" she said, fervently, and more than once, "for what you did for both of them. You have been a friend indeed."
Mrs. Arundel tried to laugh off her confusion at receiving this little homage. "Why, my dear creature," she exclaimed, "you don't suppose that anything could happen to dear Rachel whilst I was by, do you? I should be a friend worth having otherwise. And really there was nothing to speak of, after all. Rachel is but a thoughtless girl, you know, and very careless of the world's opinion; so, perhaps, is Mr. Cecil, but I don't think it was much talked of."
"Good heavens! it never came to be talked of, did it?" said Mrs. Craven, horror-struck at the idea.
"No, no, dear friend; or if so, soon forgotten. In a regiment every little trifle is discussed, but do not be afraid for our dear Rachel. I myself, I know, was over-anxious and fidgety about the matter, and yet I can laugh at it now, you see. But I positively wont talk to you another minute on the subject, so let us change it at once. How do you like Mr. Norreys?"
"Very much, indeed," returned poor Mrs. Craven, who was still white, and upset from the news she had received. | | 231 "He seems a delightful young man, from the little I have seen of him; so animated and full of talk, and very attentive to his wife."
"Ah! so I said directly I saw him, and how I had to talk to, and scold that naughty little Rachel, to be sure, for the way she used to go on about that poor fellow before he had even returned."
"Not in abuse of him, I hope," Mrs. Craven said, with renewed anxiety.
The widow smiled. "Well, I suppose we mustn't say ladies 'abuse' a gentleman when they speak against him; but she was a very naughty, self-willed girl, and used to get into a dreadful state of mind whenever his name was alluded to. But nous avons change tout cela. They seem very happy together now."
"Do they?" said Mrs. Craven, thoughtfully. "Poor Rachel!"
"Now, my dear friend," resumed her tormentor, "you must not let my little Rachel know that I have mentioned these things to you, or my pet will be angry with me, and that is what I could not bear. Promise me that you will be discreet."
"Certainly I will!" replied Mrs. Craven. "In the first place I have not Rachel's confidence; and in the second, would not think of wounding her feelings unnecessarily if I had. But here they come home from their ride."
From that day Mrs. Craven threw every obstacle that she possibly could in the way of Rachel Norreys joining the riding-party; at the same time that she tried as much as lay in her power to further her son's intimacy with Lady Frances Morgan. The two latter were very anxious that a dance at the Court should be given, and Mrs. Craven was desirous of obliging them; but a difficulty lay in the way, in the shape of Rachel Norreys, who had been promised, if she would accept the invitation, that no festivity should take place there during her stay, in consideration of her deep mourning. But it was now going on lor three months since Dr. Browne had died, and Rachel was no stickler for outward forms and ceremonies. She attached no importance whatever to the depth of her mourning, and thought the whole system of wearing black in most cases so | | 232 monstrously abused, by being adopted where no tears were shed, that she often wished that society did not so strictly demand its observance. She did not feel inclined for a dance herself, because her heart was still very sore, and so she told her hostess; but she in no way connected it with the memory of her father, and rather than prevent the other young people having their enjoyment, would certainly appear at any entertainment which was given at the Court; and, as she was a guest in the house, Mrs. Craven could not have issued cards for one otherwise. But in compliment to her, it was agreed that the dance should only be a "carpet hop," and follow a dinner-party; by that means, appearing less of a pre-arranged festivity than it would otherwise have done. And Mrs. Craven, in settling all this, and talking to Rachel about it, was so considerate of her feelings, and so tender in her mention of her dead father, that her kindness overcame the girl, who burst into tears. Contrary to her late avoidance of her hostess, they happened that day to be alone, and Rachel could not hide her distress.
"My dear child I" exclaimed her friend, "if the mere thought of it gives you such pain, it shall certainly not be. Consider that settled."
"Oh, no, Mrs. Craven!" was the hysterical answer; "it isn't that indeed. It is nothing to me if they dance, or sing, or play, so long as he is not there. It was only your mentioning his name so kindly that overcame me for a moment. I am all right again now;" and she sat up and passed her hand across her brow, as if she was determined not to break down again.
Notwithstanding the evident restraint which had been lately evinced in the girl's manner towards herself, Mrs. Craven could not but make another attempt to comfort her and gain her confidence.
"My dear Rachel," she said, tenderly, "it makes me very unhappy to see you so. You nurse your grief too much, my dear; you pass bad nights, I can see, and allow sad thoughts to haunt you by day. In losing your father, I know you lost what you most cared for; but, after all, death is not the greatest affliction that can befall our dear ones, and heaven never intended the young to weep long for the old Try to think more of his happiness, my child, and less——"| | 233
"It is not that—it is not that at all!" said Rachel, interrupting her with convulsive sobs. "Oh, Mrs. Craven, it is not that!"
"Will you not then tell me what it is, dear Rachel?" continued her kind friend, drawing nearer to her; "perhaps if you did, I might be able to comfort you. It has given me pain to see how you avoid me, although I asked your leave to let me look upon you as a daughter, and I feel—believe me, Rachel, I really feel, almost as if I were your mother. If you could confide in me as you would have done in him who is gone, I might be able to disperse some of the cloud which hangs over you at present; at all events, you would feel that you were deeply sympathized with, from whatever source your trouble springs. What is it, dearest child? Tell me."
But there was no answer to the question, except those deep, deep sobs which rose from the sofa-cushion, where Rachel had buried her face.
"Is it anything to do with your home, Rachel? Anything about your husband?"
Still there was no reply.
"Is it about Raymond, Rachel? You married him too young, my child—(God pardon those who might have saved you from it). Do you love him?"
The question had never been put to Rachel before by any friend in England. Mrs. Norreys and Christine had taken it tor granted that she did so, Eliza Arundel that she did not; and Raymond himself had never mooted the idea since the first night they had met, and she had answered, "No." But coming as it did now, from almost alien lips, and yet with a true, tender pathos in the inquiry, it seemed to go straight home to the girl's heart. It seemed to force its way there, and make her ask herself the reason of her present trouble; of the new strange feelings which had crept upon her the last few weeks; of her anxiety, her restlessness, her resentment of her husband's coldness, and thence to wrest a true and honest answer.
And so uplifting her slight form from the sofa-cushion, only to throw it down again with a fresh burst of grief as she thought how little Raymond regarded her, the cry of Rachel was—
"Oh, yes—indeed, I do—indeed, indeed, I do, with all my heart and soul!"
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