- CHAPTER XXIX. WHAT THEY THOUGHT OF IT AT ABBEY LODGE.
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WHAT THEY THOUGHT OF IT AT ABBEY LODGE.
CHRISTINE NORREYS, returning with her mother from her afternoon drive, on that particular evening which had seen Rachel fly from the shelter of the Abbey Lodge, as if she was a guilty creature, was more than usually impatient to | | 339 rejoin her sister-in-law. For there had been a talk of Raymond taking both of them to some entertainment at no distant date, and the (to women) all-important subjects of dresses, and bonnets, and trimmings, had been brought under consideration in consequence, and Christine, being more interested in the matter than Rachel, had been trusted to make the needful selections, and was anxious to know if they would entirely meet with the sanction of her sister-in-law. And so, having passed that hurrying, trembling figure in the fog, without further recognition of its individuality, and reached the Abbey Lodge, Christine sprung up the hall steps and the bedroom staircase almost in a breath, calling upon Rachel as she went. She burst without ceremony into the room which the latter occupied, and vexed at not finding her there, down she darted again into the hall, which Mrs. Norreys had, by that time, slowly gained.
"Where is Rachel, mamma?"
"My dear Christine," replied her mother, in her matter-of-fact voice, "how very much more reasonable it would be, if you would first think of removing those heavy wrappings before you heat yourself by running up and downstairs. How often I have warned you, that that is the very means by which you so frequently take cold. Not even your furs off—how very, very thoughtless of you, my dear."
"But I want to speak to Rachel, mamma, and show her this ribbon. I shall have to write to Madame Elise this evening, you know."
"Your sister-in-law is doubtless in the drawing-room or the dining-room, my dear, since she is not upstairs."
But impetuous Christine by this time had thrown both doors open, and discovered both rooms empty.
"No, she is not, mamma," she said, advancing to the hall-door again, and peering into the darkness of the covered pathway. "Where is that stupid old Benson? Of course, standing chattering with the coachman. Benson!"
The old servant heard the fresh ringing voice of his young mistress, and closing the iron gate, hastened to receive her commands.
"Benson! where is Mrs. Raymond?" exclaimed Christine, as soon as the man was within reasonable hearing.| | 340
"Mrs. Raymond, miss? I don't know, I'm sure, miss. Mr. and Mrs. Raymond Norreys were both in the dining-room about an hour or so ago, but I have not seen them since. I thought they were upstairs, miss."
"Where can she be, mamma?" inquired Christine of her mother, almost fretfully.
"Are you sure you have thoroughly searched the upstairs rooms, my dear?" was the placid rejoinder.
"Quite sure, but I'll look again;" and she bounded to the upper floor for the second time, followed by Mrs. Norreys. There they found their dressing-room fires lighted, and their lady's-maid in waiting, but no Raymond—no Rachel—not even any news of them.
"I'm sure for my part I haven't as much as set eyes on Mr. Norreys, nor yet on Mrs. Norreys, for the whole day," was the reply of their abigail to the eager questioning put to her, "and can't say whether they went out or not."
"Ring for Martha," suggested Christine.
"Mrs. Raymond's maid is out, miss," was the prim reply, made with very compressed lips and the general air of proceeding from an injured individual.
"They must have gone out themselves, mamma," at last concluded Christine, "and we shall not see them before dinner; and it must be nearly time for that now, so I will go and dress."
"A very strange proceeding, or so it appears to me," remarked her mother, "that Raymond should take Rachel out at this hour, and when she had already refused to accompany us for our drive—very strange and very unprecedented! but I suppose your brother knows what he is about; but a drive in a hackney cab, full of draughts (for he never could have been so mad as to take her out walking), is what I call anything but prudent at this time of the year, and for a delicate creature like Rachel."
"Oh! she will not come to any harm, mamma, depend upon it. I only hope she may be here before the post goes out, or I shall have to decide about those trimmings all by myself;" and Christine, more vexed than alarmed, vanished into her own room.
But the second dinner-bell rang, and the solemn Benson | | 341 had announced that meal to be on table, and still the missing husband and wife had not returned.
"Shall we wait for them?" was the question that both mother and daughter simultaneously put to one another, but were each unable to decide.
But a stricter catechism having been instituted, through Benson, of all the servants, and resulted in nothing more than had been before elucidated, namely, that no one knew anything about the movements of either Mr. or Mrs. Norreys, the ladies resolved to sit down to their dinner without them. But it was a dull meal, rendered still duller by their uncertainty.
"Depend upon it," said Christine, determined to make light of the matter, "that Raymond came home unexpectedly with tickets for the play, or something of that sort, and we were so late that they could not wait for us. He has often said lately that he would take us both there; but I shall give them a good scolding when they return for daring to go without me."
"But in that case, my dear, surely your brother or sister would have left a note to inform us of the fact," suggested Mrs. Norreys.
"Too much hurried, perhaps," said Christine, shrugging her shoulders—"and after all it is very tiresome to be for ever obliged to account for one's actions in this world."
"Not when you are staying in another person's house, Christine," returned Mrs. Norreys, with one of her most proper expressions. "A lady can never show too much deference to the established rules of the house she is residing in, nor to the wishes of its mistress. Politeness and punctuality cost little, and are the mainsprings by which the quiet and peace of a well-ordered household are maintained." Which speech only confirmed Christine in the opinion she had held from childhood, that her mother ranked the sins of being late for breakfast or dinner, alongside with the breakage of the ten commandments, and was not quite certain yet even in her own mind, for which transgressions the wicked would be most likely to risk their salvation.
In the course of time, ten o'clock and prayers arrived on the same stroke together, and then as the line of domestics | | 342 filed into the dining-room to listen to the long discourse which Mrs. Norreys read to them every evening, their mistress perceived that Martha Green (as she was there known) was not amongst them.
"Where is Mrs. Raymond's maid?" she inquired, before she commenced reading.
"Not hin yet, ma'am," was the ready answer, triumphantly but acidly delivered by the lady's-maid who was "hin."
Mrs. Norreys slowly shook her head as she adjusted her spectacles and gave vent to that unmistakeable sound which is caused by a boxing-match between the tongue and the teeth, and is expressive of impatience when uttered fast, and of a righteous but mild dissatisfaction when uttered slow.
But Martha's place was empty, and no "clucking" could fill it, and therefore the prayers proceeded without her, and were concluded.
"Benson, turn off the gas," were Mrs. Norreys' words—delivered, according to her usual custom, as soon as the servants had left the room again.
"Oh, mamma! do wait till they come in," pleaded Christine; "it is half-past ten now, and none of the theatres are open after eleven. They will want some supper, too, on their return."
"My dear Christine," replied her mother, "your brother and sister know the regulations of the Lodge as well as I do. If they choose to transgress them, they must suffer the penalty. The supper-tray was on the table for half an hour, and the time that it is served, as well as the hours for prayers and bed, are familiar both to Raymond and Rachel, therefore there can be no necessity for delay on their account. Turn off the gas, Benson." And consequently the gas was turned off, and the servants retired to their beds, wondering if anything was the matter, and what could have become of the young master and his wife.
Mrs. Norreys immediately betook herself to her own room, and assuming a formidable-looking night-cap and dressing-gown, settled herself in the arm-chair before the fire, with her Bible in her hand, as calmly and sedately as if every one belonging to the house was as comfortably disposed of as she was.| | 343
She was an excellent woman and mother, but the rules of her establishment had been infringed without notice given, and the offence, in her eyes, was not a light one; so often, too, as she had made her mind known upon the subject.
Christine, on the contrary, with no desire or notion of retiring to rest, remained in her room fully robed, but without occupation, as she listened anxiously for the stoppage at their gate of some one of the numerous cabs which unceasingly rattled along the road; or walked out on the dark landing and leant over the head of the staircase, as she waited for her brother and sister's return.
It came at last. When she had been thus kept expectant for about an hour, she heard the magic latch-key's welcome sound, crying "open sesame," first to the garden-gate, and then to the hall-door; and as the latter obeyed its commands, she sprang, candle in hand, down the staircase, the better to welcome her sister into the inhospitable-looking and darkened hall. But when she reached it, she only saw Raymond; his latch-key had in some manner caught in the lock, and as he was attempting to extricate it by violence, he did not appear to be in the best of humours.
"Confound this key," he exclaimed, "it's always playing me this trick now; why on earth can't those servants oil the lock?"
"Raymond!" said Christine, alarmed at not seeing her sister-in-law, "where is Rachel?"
"How should I know?" he answered, roughly; "in her room, I suppose. I have not seen her since this afternoon." And as he extricated the offending key by a tremendous wrench, he hurt his wrist, and swore an oath, although beneath his breath.
"She is not, then," replied Christine quickly, and now thoroughly frightened to find her brother was no wiser than themselves upon the subject. "Rachel was not at home when we returned at six o'clock, Raymond; and she has never been home since, no more has Martha; we thought, of course, she had gone out with you. Where can she be?"
Her brother had turned his face towards her as she spoke, and Christine now saw that it was very pale, and that his eyes were bloodshot. And when he answered her, his voice | | 344 was harsh and rough, and quite unlike his usual gentle tones.
"What do you say?" he exclaimed, grasping her arm in his surprise—"Rachel not in the house—not been home tonight! What does it mean, Christine? where has she gone to?"
"That is the question I asked you?" returned his sister: "how can we tell? but come upstairs to mamma, Raymond, and do not look so wild, because you frighten me." And the hand which grasped her arm, was trembling almost as much as her own, as he mechanically obeyed her request, and followed her to their mother's room. When he reached it, he flung himself into a chair, but did not speak.
"Mamma," said Christine, whose face was white as ashes, but whose heart was stronger at that moment than her brother's, "mamma, don't be alarmed, but there is some mistake here, we have both been mistaken; Raymond—that is, Rachel—has not been with Raymond, and he has not seen her since this afternoon; but it will all come right, mamma, it is sure to come right—pray don't look so terrified; there is Raymond to be comforted,—think of that."
Ay! think of that, noble women, in your first distress and horror,—think that there is a man requiring help and comfort, and put aside your own fears, your foolish fancies and nervousness, and rise up strong to succour in the time of need.
The face of old Mrs. Norreys grew calm again at her daughter's appeal; her trembling limbs steadied themselves, and she rose from her chair, and approached that whereon her son had thrown himself, burying his face in the arms which he had laid across its back.
"Raymond, my dearest boy," she said, trying in vain to hide the quivering in her voice, "you mustn't give way like this; it is, very unaccountable and alarming, but only because we are kept in ignorance of its cause. It may be attributable to a mistake, or an accident, or thoughtlessness, that dear Rachel has been forced to pass a night away from her home; but depend upon it, we shall see or hear of her with to-morrow's sun, and she will be very careful, I am sure, in future, not to give us such a fright again. There can be nothing wrong, my dear; take comfort—it is too soon to fret about it—we shall hear everything to-morrow."| | 345
And then Christine's sweet coaxing voice was heard.
"Raymond, dear, what is it after all—only a matter of a few hours, since she was down here, well and happy. Nothing very bad can have occurred in so short a time. She may have gone out, intending to return to dinner or soon after, and forgot the time, or missed her opportunity, or—oh! a thousand chances might turn up to detain her that we have no imagination of, nor shall have, till she tells us of them herself. But, in the meanwhile, she has Martha with her, and therefore she is not alone, which is one great comfort."
"Is Martha missing also?" inquired Raymond, still in the same harsh voice, lifting his head for a moment from the shelter of his arms.
"Yes, and has been for as long a time as Rachel; and therefore I think they must have gone, and will certainly return, together. Don't be frightened about her, dear Raymond; it will all be right to-morrow."
"It will not" he answered, rising from his seat, and almost pushing away the gentle arms, which love had laid about him. "You neither of you know as much as I do about the matter, or you would not talk such folly."
"Raymond, what do you know?" exclaimed Mrs. Norreys, with inconceivable terror in her voice.
"Mother," he said, turning towards her, "you should never have heard it from my lips as long as concealment was possible; but I see now, by her flight, that Rachel intends it to be known. She is under a terrible suspicion, mother, and her present conduct makes it look very like a certainty."
And then he related (what is unnecessary to be repeated here) how he had received the anonymous letters that afternoon, and the particulars of his subsequent interviews with Rachel. He did not make any comment upon his story; he brought forward no opinions of his own, and deduced no inferences for their enlightenment; he simply told the facts, and nothing more; but throughout his narrative he never used the term "my wife," or spoke once as if he thought Rachel's fair fame would ever be re-established in his eyes. Christine listened, with the pitying tears standing in her own; but his mother's face grew sterner with every word he uttered, This was a disgrace she had never dreamt of, as liable to | | 346 spring from the hasty and ill-judged marriage of her son. This was a blot that had never been known before to rest upon the wife of a Norreys; and with her starched ideas and unspotted name, the mother of Raymond was the very last woman in the world, on any pretence, to pity or excuse it.
As he finished his narrative, and glanced towards her face, now stony and unsympathetic, he saw there that she had completely locked up her heart, and steeled it against any soft or generous doubts which might arise about the truth of the case (however much appearances were against Rachel); and he resolved that, having told so much—discharged a stern but necessary duty—he would trouble her with no surmises of his own, no possible excuses for the absent; no appeals to her woman's heart to pity so much youth and tenderness and beauty, laid low and dishonoured, in the view of a harsh, ill-judging world. No! he had told his tale of misery—his mother might think Rachel what she would, but, hardly as he thought of her himself, he could not stay to hear reproaches heaped upon her now, and so, with the conclusion of his narrative, he left the room.
"That is all I know," he said, as he did so. "I received the letters, and she could not deny them, and I do not expect now ever to know much more. She intended, probably, by her subsequent disappearance, to tell me what she had not the courage to confess. But deeply as I feel all this, I am too great a coward, mother, to hear your comments on her history, or commiserations for my loss; and the greatest kindness you can show me from this hour, is to forbear from all allusion to my misery or myself."
And then the door slammed upon him, and before another word had passed between them he was gone.
Mrs. Norreys gazed at Christine in rigid silence as Raymond left them, and Christine gazed upon her mother, but neither spoke. At last the older lady said, in tones of mixed solemnity and grief—
"This is, indeed, a heavy judgment on us. We have often been unfortunate before, in the world's opinion, but never guilty—never guilty."
"Mamma," said Christine, indignantly, "you do not mean to say that you believe my sister to be really culpable in this business?"| | 347
"Do not call her your sister, Christine, I implore you," returned her mother; "she is no sister of yours, thank God! Guilty! Why, what does her own husband think about her?"
"He loves her, and is blinded by his love and by his fears," replied Christine; "besides, he is a man, and cannot understand a woman as a woman can. I know there are plenty of guilty wives, mamma, walking this world and undiscovered; but they do not go about like Rachel—not with the same honest, unflinching eyes; the same straightforward, outspoken tongues—not with such courageous hearts, mamma, fearless of detection, and unconscious even of being suspected. No! I never will believe it! Until she tells me so with her own lips, I never will believe that she is less innocent than I am, of this offence or any other."
"My dear Christine," replied her mother, "your championship does credit to your own warm heart, but you are prejudiced, my love, in this unhappy girl's favour, and cannot be considered an impartial judge. You heard what your brother said. Her own silence at once condemned her; it did not require her subsequent flight to convince poor Raymond of the fatal truth. It is an awful blow—I scarcely know yet what to think or do. I feel as if it was too fearful a thing even to command belief."
"I don't feel—I know," rejoined Christine, stoutly. "Mamma, if Rachel is what you think her, never have faith in your own sex again."
And then Mrs. Norreys tried to set the fallacy of such an argument before her daughter's eyes; to direct her attention to the object such anonymous letters could have in view, excepting that of doing a prudent, if not a kind action; but with all her sophistries, Christine's cry continued to be the same.
"What you say may be true in other cases, but in this I don't believe it, and I wont believe it. Rachel is as pure as I am;" and in the same belief she left her to retire to her own room.
But not just yet—not till she had crept on tiptoe to her brother's dressing-room; and, having ascertained that he was still up, had softly opened the door, and as softly entered. Not until she had seen Raymond leaning in a dejected attitude against the table, his head upon his hands, his gaze directed | | 348 into vacancy, and having seen him thus, had closed the door behind her, and going up to him, taken that weary head between her kindly hands, laid it on her warm young bosom, and when there pressed on it a shower of soft womanly caresses, that told him more than words could have the power to do.
"Dearest Raymond," she whispered; "my own dear brother, I do not believe it. I could stake my life to-night upon her innocence—my earthly happiness upon her love for you. For I have seen further, being a woman, than you perhaps have ever done; and I feel to Rachel as I should have felt towards a sister of my very own. I don't believe a word of it, dear Raymond; upon my honour I do not."
In her firm trust in the goodness of her brother's wife, and in her own youthful ignorance of the darker shades of guilt, Christine had no idea but that Raymond believed as she did, and sorrowed most because others would not credit Rachel with the virtue that he did himself. He had passed no comments on his tale whilst telling it; he had only related facts. It never struck his sister that he could really think the woman whom he loved so much had been so cruelly false to him, and so crafty in the concealment of her guilt. But although Raymond, with a man's lesser powers of credulity, where his jealousy has been so roughly used, and his honour is at stake, could not respond to his sister's appeal, or say he also relied on Rachel's innocence, he yet could hear the sweet, soft, womanly accents, pleading so unconsciously (because it was evidently imagined that no plea was needed) for his absent wife—for the woman he so passionately loved, and who he had often wished that day he had seen lie dead at his feet, before he had lived to know her false to him. As the endearing accents of Christine reached his ears, and through them, the inmost recesses of his heart, the barriers of his pride, and attempted hardness, broke down before them, and Raymond Norreys sobbed upon her bosom like a little child—as he had never sobbed since the days when corrections or disappointments had the power to bring the tears into his eyes—as men never sob, except the iron from a woman's hand has entered in their souls—as but one woman in the world has power to thrust it, in the soul of any one man.| | 349
"Oh! Christine," cried Raymond Norreys, clinging to his sister as if he were the weaker vessel, and her tender womanhood the rock to which he looked for safety, "I have loved her from such a very child; I have thought upon and remembered her through so many weary years of expectation; I have tried to be so forbearing and so tender with her since we met—and has it been for this? Have I loved her for this only? to break my heart at last. God knows how faithful I have been to her! I never saw the woman except Rachel who cost me a thought, and now the thought of her will blast her memory to my dying day. Oh! sister, I wish that I had died before I knew it; I wish I could have seen her dead, and remembered and mourned her, only for her perished youth and loveliness; before I had lived to think upon what she has been—upon what she might have been (had I never crossed her path and put a check upon her inclinations), and then waked up, only to remember what my darling has become—to what her fatal vow to me has led her." And far into the silence of that night, nothing else was heard except the convulsive sobs which broke unrestrainedly from Raymond's breast, and the laboured painful beating of the faithful heart he leant on.
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