- CHAPTER XXV. A TERRIBLE SUSPICION.
|<< chapter 24||< chapter 1||chapter 26 >||chapter 37 >>|
A TERRIBLE SUSPICION.
"Is that your maid's lover, Rachel, sneaking about outside the garden Avail now?" inquired Raymond Norreys, returning suddenly to the house one evening just as he had quitted it, and addressing his wife—"a fellow in a drab-coloured greatcoat, with a black velvet collar; because if it is, I think I know him. "
Rachel, in her wish to benefit Martha, by having some conclusive proof to put before her that the man who wrote, and walked, and made love to her, was not a proper acquaintance to pursue, had enlisted her husband in the cause, and asked him to try and find out what it was impossible she could do herself, who the man, calling himself Tom White, was, and what his character and occupation; and, although Raymond had pooh-poohed the idea as Quixotic, and asked Rachel why she could not dismiss the woman at once, and have done with her, he had, nevertheless, kept his eyes open when he left and returned to the Abbey Lodge at night, on the chance of catching sight of the figure which was said to haunt its environs so often.
"I am sure I cannot tell," replied Rachel, speaking in a low voice, for this little business had been a secret between the husband and wife, and had drawn them closer together in familiar intercourse than anything had done yet; "I have never seen the man, you know, Raymond, but I can ask Martha. Describe him to me."
"A tall fellow, rather fair, with a reddish face, and dressed as I said before. If it is the man I mean, he has a scar on | | 290 his forehead, across the eyebrow, where the hair has never grown. I do not know him by name, though I meet him pretty nearly every night at some place or other, and I am almost certain the person I met just now was he, and that he recognised me also, for he shrunk away into the shadow as I passed him, and pulled his hat over his eyes. If I am right, Rachel, tell your maid from me to give him up, or leave the house, for he is a man no virtuous woman, high or low, should speak to."
"I will ask Martha directly," said Rachel, quite excited at her husband's news; "but it is no use your waiting, Raymond, if the man is gone."
"Nor if he were still there," rejoined her husband; "for it is no affair of mine—our business lies with her, and not him. However, I will tell you more about him to-morrow," and he left the house again as he spoke.
When Rachel summoned her maid that evening, and asked her hurriedly if the description that her master had given tallied with that of her acquaintance, mingling, as she put her series of questions, greatcoats and red complexions, black velvet collars and fair hair, in one breath—and winding up with the unanswerable fact that the gentleman in question had a remarkable scar over his eyebrow, poor Martha could not bear up against such a weight of evidence, and immediately confessed that she thought the person mentioned must be Mr. Tom White, particularly as she had parted with him beneath the garden wall at the identical moment that she heard her master's step coming towards the iron gate.
"Then if that is the case, Martha, Mr. Norreys says that you must either give up his acquaintance or leave my service, for he is not a fit person for you to know; but I should be very sorry to lose you, Martha, all the same."
Of course Martha curtsied and cried, and said she was willing to do anything that was right and just, but that she could not help hoping that her master had made a mistake about the individuality of the man in question.
But when Raymond saw his wife on the next morning, he told her that he had made no such thing; that, although it was difficult to ascertain the man's real name (for gentlemen are shy of letting themselves be known by their patro- | | 291 nymics in places of doubtful resort), there was no doubt about his being the same that he had at first supposed him to be: that he was a great gambler and a great drunkard—a gentleman by birth, but not by manners—and a man of known habits of dissipation and most indifferent fame.
"You can repeat what I have told you to your maid, Rachel; but let her understand that it is a final decision on your part, for I am quite satisfied as to the character of her admirer, whatever she may be herself."
But when Rachel came to tell Martha the further particulars that her husband had ascertained, the girl's grief was so excessive, and her entreaties that Mrs. Norreys would not dismiss her from her service until she had allowed her to speak once more to him, so urgent, that she had not the heart to make the decision final.
"Well, once more, Martha, then," she said—"only once more, and if you cannot satisfy yourself or me after that, we must really part."
"Indeed, ma'am!" exclaimed the poor girl, sobbing, "I wish to do what's right. I'm nearly heartbroken about it myself. I'd have slaved for him, and cared for him, and been turned out of every place I ever went to for his sake, if he had only been true to me; but if he's been telling me falsehoods, why, I think it will kill my love for him outright only to come to the knowledge of such. But I can't quite believe it yet, ma'am; I can't bring myself to think so badly of him without further proofs."
Her mistress tried to soothe her, although she had no consolation to give her, and she readily agreed that Martha should go the next day, unbidden—for this one time only—to the rooms where she had once had an interview with Mr. White before, and try to wrest the truth from his own lips.
"And if I do that, ma'am," she said, in conclusion, "I shall be satisfied ever afterwards."
The rooms were at the other side of London, and the girl Was gone some hours. When she returned, Rachel was surprised that she did not seek her presence to relate the issue of her journey, but Martha never appeared. Going into her bedroom at dusk, her mistress perceived her busy over the contents of a chest of drawers.| | 292
"Well, Martha?" she said, interrogatively.
Her maid turned round upon her almost as if she were angry; certainly, as if she had received some insult, though not from Rachel's hands.
"Please don't speak to me of it, ma'am!" she exclaimed, passionately; "please never mention it again, or I shall go out of my mind."
"But I must know from yourself whether you are to remain in my service or not, Martha. You know the conditions."
The girl came towards her mistress, in the dusk, and fell upon her knees, sobbing bitterly.
"Yes; please, ma'am, if you will—for ever. You are the only one as ever I saw that seems to take any real interest in me. Who else should I go to? But please don't speak to me about it, or I shall die!"
And in the violence of her emotion, and the working in her face occasioned by her wounded pride and betrayed feeling, Martha Wilson really looked as if she could be capable, under aggravation, of making away with herself. The mood of ill-concealed passion and dark remorse which seemed to possess her servant made Rachel timid, and she said no more to her that night. But the next day, when she had cooled down a little, Martha sought her mistress of her own accord, and told her all she wished to know. How when she went to the rooms of the man who had said he loved her, thus unexpectedly, she had met, not with him—not with reproaches—with cruel truths, or abuse—but with something much worse in her feminine ideas—with a woman, who had made it pretty plain to her, and in unvarnished language, who she was, and why she had a better right to be there than Martha herself.
"Not that I wished to stop one minute, ma'am, after I heard who she was," said the poor girl, proudly; "and I wouldn't enter those doors again, nor listen to what he has to say, by word or letter, for all the wealth of India. But I thought I'd better write plainly and tell him what I feel; and please, ma'am, I've got a few little trifles here as he gave me" (and here poor Martha produced a miscellaneous heap of presents, from a gaudy Paris shawl down to a gold locket and a photographic book), "and if you'd be kind enough to | | 293 let me make them up into a parcel, with my letters, and take them this evening to the Parcels Delivery Office—I am thinking it's the last time I'll trouble you to give me leave to go walking for some weeks to come."
And then, as Rachel began to approve her resolution and to compassionate her for its necessity, Martha gave a tremendous gulp and said, whilst her full lips trembled—
"I'd rather never speak of it again, ma'am! please to forget as I ever kept company with any one—for I did love him very truly, and I must allow that he hasn't behaved as he should have done to me. I am very much obliged to you, ma'am, for all your kindness—but I know I can get over it, if I try—and I mean to do it." And with the same resolution, born of Pride, which would have taken her unmoved to the gallows, Martha Wilson turned energetically upon her heel, and left the room, bearing her ill-fated presents with her.
But Rachel, with all her pity, was very elate at the success of her undertaking. She felt that this girl, in whom she took a lively interest, had been saved, perhaps from a fate worse than the gallows, and through her agency. She was anxious to communicate the determination that Martha Wilson had arrived at to her husband, who had also interested himself, for her sake, on her maid's behalf, and full of this intention she ran downstairs to find him. She was not disappointed, for he was in the dining-room, and alone—apparently engaged in reading some letters which he had just received by the afternoon's post. As Rachel had flown downstairs, brimful of her good news, and feeling more than ordinarily brave after the success of her undertaking, the thought flashed through her mind that she might now find courage to tell Raymond that love-secret which was also oppressing her own heart.
"Now," she thought to herself, "will be a good opportunity, if he is alone—for he will look pleased at what I have to tell him (I know he will, because he is so generous), and then I shall have to thank him, and whilst I thank him, surely it will not be so hard to say—'Dear Raymond, I love you—indeed I do.' Not if his eyes look kind as they did yesterday. I am sure it will not, and any way I will try; it is but a few words to say—and then it will be all over." | | 294 Full of this great idea, Rachel burst almost breathless into the dining-room, and saw her husband as has been described, alone, and busied with his letters. He did not look up as she entered, but that was too trivial a circumstance for her to feel alarmed at, and she stepped towards him, her cheeks glowing like a rose, her bright eyes lighted up with intelligence and affection.
"Raymond!" she exclaimed, "I have something to tell you. I want to speak to you."
He raised his eyes then—and encountering her graceful little figure and excited face, he gave a heavy sigh and rose to confront her. But when his glance met Rachel's, she felt her own grow dull and misty; for his was cooler, sterner, and more distant than she had ever seen it look before.
"I also want to speak to you," he said, with a grand displeasure in his voice. "By this afternoon's post I received this letter—and I want your explanation of its contents." And as he spoke, he threw two or three separate sheets of paper upon the table, and a tiny packet amongst them tied up in cotton wool and cardboard.
Rachel looked at them and him in blank amazement.
"Raymond," she exclaimed, hurriedly, "what do you mean—what have I to do with these letters, or they with me? who wrote them?"
"Of that, perhaps, you will be the better able to judge after you have examined them," he continued, coldly. "I have no knowledge on the subject, and no wish to ascertain any. All that I am desirous of hearing is your denial of their contents;" and he took up a newspaper and pretended to read it, with the intention of proving that he was perfectly at his ease, but in reality to hide the rapid changes which were taking place in his countenance.
Rachel Norreys felt that she was the subject of some accusation, but had no idea of what. The very knowledge, though, that Raymond considered there was a doubt of her being able to refute the charge brought against her (whatever it might be), brought all her natural pride, heightened by the consciousness of her own innocence, to her aid, and she advanced towards the table where the papers lay with a bearing that was eminently haughty.| | 295
"If the contents consist of any imputations against me hitherto unknown to yourself," she said, indignantly, "I can deny them before I know what they are."
His face, hidden by the large sheet of newspaper, assumed a look of triumph as he heard her words, but he merely answered—
"Be so good as to read them first, Rachel, and we will discuss the truth of them afterwards;" and applied himself afresh to his reading.
And then, with one wounded look at the newspaper, of mingled love and indignation, Rachel took the letters in her hand and commenced to peruse them. But the first paper she glanced at she let fall again upon the table with a cry of half horror and half fear. At that sound the face behind the newspaper blanched with its distress, but Raymond neither moved nor spoke. The words which had so appalled Rachel were headed "copy," and ran thus:—
"Jack saw Harris at orderly hour this morning, and heard the bad news. How my heart bleeds for you, my dearest girl. But you are a naughty little puss to run to Master Cecil Craven for consolation. I have no doubt he was an immense comfort to you, and that he found a certain lady's bedroom a very pleasant billet, but that's a sort of game you mustn't play at too often, Miss Rachel, or you'll find it dangerous. I shouldn't be at all surprised myself if Master C. C. presents himself at the window to-morrow morning again, armed with a fresh stock of consolation. You sly puss!"
And here the "copy" ended.
She caught it up again and looked at it, and let it drop, when she had mastered its contents, without a word except low exclamation of "My God!" which escaped her lips when she had finished it. She had turned deadly pale though during the process, and as she reached forth her hand for sheet of paper, it trembled visibly. She knew it would contain some fresh charge against her, for the whole of the injury intended had Hashed through her quick understanding directly she had seen of what the first was a transcription; but just then her head was too giddy, her heart too troubled, herself altogether taken too much by surprise, to have time to stop and think who was her enemy.| | 296
The next paper she examined was in her husband's handwriting, and was part of a torn and disregarded letter—
"I shall write to you—
and that when we next
right that I have now to sign myself,
"What is this folly all about?" she said; finding her tongue when the foregoing scrap had passed through her hands. "This is simply part of a torn letter that some one, God knows why, must have extracted from my waste-paper basket months ago. It is one of your old letters, Raymond."
"I know it," he replied, shortly.
The next piece of writing that she examined was not so easily recognised by her. It was a letter written in a coarse and unfamiliar hand, and purported to be addressed to Raymond Norreys from a friend; but it bore no signature or date, and was indited on a common sheet of note-paper. Rachel turned it over and over, as if she was trying to guess at its transcriber, before she set herself to read it through. It was as follows:—
"SIR,—This comes from a friend. Don't take Mrs. Norreys to Craven Court too often, and if you wish to know the reason of my warning, ask her yourself, if (when you were away, and she was with the regiment in Gibraltar) Major Craven was not in the habit of going into her bedroom, of kissing her, calling her by her Christian name, and otherwise misbehaving himself. If she denies it, show her the enclosed note and gold stud; the one was addressed to herself, the other was found beneath her bed. I need not say to whom it belonged, as it bears his monogram. To prove that I have a right to warn you, and am telling the truth, I send a piece of one of your own letters found thrown away by her hand. Major Craven is about to marry a noble young lady, which, under these circumstances, is not right, so I have taken the liberty of apprizing the Countess of Riversdale and also Mrs. Craven of the above facts.'I am, sir, yours, etc., "A WELL-WISHER."
The handwriting of the foregoing epistle was so formal and unlike that of an educated person, and at the same time the phraseology was so correct, that Rachel, coupling both circumstances with the facts mentioned, had no hesitation in fixing the deed of darkness upon the shoulders of Caroline Wilson, particularly as the woman's dislike of herself was so well known. She was very very white when she had finished reading the words of the "Well-wisher," but she summoned sufficient courage to untie next the little packet of card and cotton wool, from which fell Cecil's gold stud, with his monogram, C. C, deeply and plainly cut into the metal. She had been already too much shocked and astonished by what she had become acquainted with to feel any fresh surprise at its appearance.
"How strange!" she murmured to herself, as she took it up and examined it, remembering the circumstances under which it had been lost, "how very strange! It can come from no other than that fiend, Caroline Wilson." And then apparently remembering that her husband was waiting for her explanation of these facts, she turned towards him hastily. "Raymond, you do not believe what this letter insinuates?"
"I believe nothing as yet, Rachel. I only wait for your denial to utterly disbelieve the whole. Is it true, or not?"
"What?" she said, with an increasing agitation, as she remembered that she could not deny the stubborn facts, however false the deduction drawn from them.
"That note," continued Raymond. "Did you ever receive one like it?"
"Yes, from Elise—we wrote to each other constantly. This is a copy of one of hers."
"But the allusion in it—to—to—Craven—what truth is there in that?"
"None that I need be ashamed of," said Rachel, more boldly, as she saw the necessity for boldness. "It is true that Cecil Craven did come into my bedroom when I was very unhappy about my father's illness; but Elise made a great deal more out of the circumstance than it was worth."
"Was that, stud found beneath your bed, Rachel?"
"I do not know," she answered. "I have not seen it since the day that Major Craven lost it."| | 298
"It is his, then?"
She bowed her head in silence. An intense horror was creeping over her as the unanswerable nature of the evidence gathered against her innocence broke upon her mind.
"Where was it lost?"
"In my room. At the same time I spoke of before."
"Has Craven ever kissed you, Rachel?" She made no reply, but coloured visibly. "Will you answer me?" exclaimed Raymond, rising, and throwing away his newspaper.
"Sometimes," she faltered.
"Sometimes!" he shouted. "Good Heavens, do you dare to stand there and tell me 'sometimes,' as if sometimes were nothing? Am I to understand that that man has been in your bedroom, has kissed you, has called you 'Rachel,' and that your names have been pulled through the dirt together?"
"If you knew all——," she commenced.
"If I knew all!" he returned. "I do know all. I have seen that man's arm around your waist with my own eyes; I have heard rumours of your intimacy with him from the first day that I rejoined you—rumours that I would not credit without the evidence of my own senses; but I see it all now, as clear as the light of God's day. Why was I such a fool as not to have seen it before? This is the secret of the pleasant greeting you prepared for me on my arrival! This is the reason of your disquietude—your melancholy—your unfulfilled wifehood! I see it all!"
"No, no!" she cried; "it is not so—you are mistaken, Raymond!"
"What is it, then?" he answered. "Explain it away if you can. What is the problem of your interest in this man?" She could not speak. She shivered beneath the inward knowledge that she must not speak. "Explain it if you can," he repeated, in a voice of thunder, "or, by Heavens, consider everything at an end between us."
"Raymond," she said, and although her body trembled her voice was firm, "I cannot deny what these letters assert to be the truth. I see that I am caught in a terrible net, woven by some enemy of yours or mine, and there appears no means of escape for me. But my lips are sealed. I am bound by an oath, and I must not tell you, what (if I could) | | 299 would clear all your suspicions away directly. Cecil Craven has never made love to me—of that be certain. But it is all that I can tell you."
"Not made love to you!" exclaimed her husband. "How dare you say so, when by your own account he has kissed you, loitered in your bedroom—(Good God! that I should live to hear it!)—and his attentions been remarked by all the regiment. And it is not the first time, mind you, that I have heard rumours of this. Rachel, you must deny it, or you must not. I will have no betwixt and between in such a matter."
"I cannot deny it," she said, mournfully, and her attitude of despair had assumed so much the appearance of a consciousness of undisputable guilt, that her husband was misled by it.
"You cannot deny it," he repeated slowly. "You—the wife (or intended so to be) of an honourable man—cannot deny that in his absence (an absence during which, so help me Heaven, Rachel, I lived for you alone) you admitted a stranger to such familiar intercourse with yourself, that his unstained name (that you unworthily bore) was branded by the lookers-on, and linked with another's. You cannot deny that your lips (those lips which you should have kept sacred to myself) have been polluted by another man's touch, and that such an occurrence was so common as to be known amongst your household. As soon as you saw these letters you guessed they came from Mrs. Wilson. You were evidently aware that even your father's servants knew of your disgrace."
"My father himself knew of my intimacy with Cecil Craven, and approved of it," said Rachel, proudly. "I can say no more to you in my defence than that, Raymond."
"Oh, hush!" he exclaimed; "be silent. Don't try to lay upon the shoulders of the dead a fault which is yours alone. I know your father to have been an honest man, Rachel; would I could think the same of you as a woman."
Here his voice broke down, and the miserable sound overcame the girl, in her state of agitation and distress. And she had ran downstairs that evening with so different a hope—so great an expectation from this interview with her husband which was ending so sadly for them both.| | 300
"Raymond!" she screamed, as the signs of his emotion met her ear, and rushed almost into his very arms as she spoke. "Raymond, don't believe it, for God's sake don't believe it; it is not true! I never loved him as you think. I never loved a man in that way except yourself, and that but lately. You said that you would only hear it from my own lips, and I have been too foolish yet to tell you; but I do love you, Raymond, and I was coming down this very afternoon to tell you so, when you were reading those horrible, letters. Oh, Raymond, I love you! Believe it, if you will, or not; I love you only, and I will be your faithful wife henceforward, if you will only have it so." And Rachel's agitation and excitement gave way beneath a torrent of tears, half occasioned by her grief, half by her shame.
At any other time Raymond Norreys would have leapt with joy to hear those long-wished-for words bursting with so much mingled modesty and love from Rachel's trembling lips, and even now a flush of pleasure mounted to his dark forehead, which seemed for the moment almost to wipe out the remembrance of his impending misery. But only for a moment. In the next, he thought upon his wrong, and put her from him.
"Once more; will you deny the charge against you, Rachel?"
"I cannot deny," she repeated, sadly. "What I have already said is true."
And then his transitory flush of pleasure died away, and he only remembered that the woman before him had once been false, and was probably false again. Her avowal of love for himself was only a piece of feminine acting, an artful ruse to turn away his anger and his accusation from her, and by taking advantage of his weakness, to shield herself from the consequences of her crime.
Else, why had the confession been delayed till now? And, thinking thus, he flung himself away from her, and exclaimed, impetuously—
"Then come no more with your false tales of love for me, and me only; when to deny this accusation would be so foul a lie, that even your double nature revolts from it. You have deceived me, Rachel, grossly and most unwarrantably deceived me, and I trust your words no more. You have | | 301 laid yourself open to the worst suspicions, and to having them made public: you have for ever closed all intimacy with the Cravens for us, and raised up a barrier between yourself and me which will take a weary while to brake down again. Go! I'll have none of your love; I want none of it; keep it for the next man that thinks it worth his while to receive it at your hands."
Rachel stood paralyzed. She had betrayed her cherished secret. She had told this man, her husband, after a mighty effort, that she loved him, and he had spurned her love—refused it—stung and insulted her into the bargain.
This girl was proud by nature, and self-willed, and dominant. She had not been used to stoop to offer, still less to be refused; and although the worst phases of her character had lately been kept in abeyance (not only by the melancholy turn her mind had taken, but also by her growing love for Raymond), they were only so kept, not uprooted. And now they came into full force and action. Rachel Norreys in her every-day mood was an uncertain creature to deal with; but Rachel Norreys, roused as she was now, by the man she had learned almost to worship, was a Fury—not a woman. Despised, rejected, cast out from his embrace, to tell her love for whom she had made so great a struggle! She could scarcely understand such treatment, and understanding it, she could not bear it. With lire flashing from her irradiated eyes, with her delicate nostrils distended, and her tender hands clenched upon one another, she confronted Raymond Norreys, and forced him to listen to her. Her words were few, but she said them almost as solemnly as if she knew they were to be her last.
"Raymond, tell me all the truth. Of what do you suspect me?"
"God knows," he answered, passionately. "I don't know myself where suspicion ends and certainty commences;" and gathering up the scattered papers as he spoke, he left the room.
She looked after him for a few moments as if she had been turned to marble, the heavy breathing which lifted the folds across her bosom being the only signs of life she gave. And when he had left her presence and the house (as she could hear him shortly do), Rachel walked deliberately upstairs to | | 302 her bedroom, and assumed her walking garb. She was permitted to do so undisturbed, for Martha Wilson had gone to the office with her parcel, and her mother and sister-in-law were out for their usual drive. And then she took her purse out of her pocket, and mechanically counted its contents.
Yes, there was plenty there for her purpose. She had always a liberal supply of money accorded her by Raymond. When she had finished her preparations, she deliberately turned to leave the house. The one great pervading idea in her mind being that she would no longer bear his name, nor eat his bread, nor live beneath his roof, whilst this great stigma lay upon her head, and that she must seek those who could remove it from her, and if they refused to do so, she would die. But she could not carry out her purpose altogether so bravely as she had first intended.
"Suspected," she said to herself, to raise her courage as she descended the staircase, "suspected of all wrong and openly rejected, and by Raymond, whilst I, with oath-bound lips, am powerless to cry out or save myself!"
"Oh, father! would that you had died before you spoke, and buried your cruel secret with you in the grave. Oh, Raymond!" she added, with clasped hands and streaming eyes, as she passed the oaken doors, and knew that the next minute would see her beyond the iron portals, which she might never again cross—"Oh, Raymond! dearest love (who could have been scarce dearer than my husband), God for ever protect and keep you, though you should never know my innocence, or we two meet again!" And then with a low stifled cry of, "Father, would we were together!" Rachel Norreys passed, without further comment or warning, from the gates of her husband's home, into the stream of mingled life which flows along the streets of the Great City.
|<< chapter 24||< chapter 1||chapter 26 >||chapter 37 >>|