- CHAPTER XXXIII. IN WHICH THE MYSTERY IS SOLVED.
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IN WHICH THE MYSTERY IS SOLVED.
THIS startling piece of intelligence falling like an electric shock on the ears of at least three of those who heard it, still appeared to affect them very differently.
Rachel, who had been taken so unexpectedly into the embrace of Mr. Northland that she had no time to remonstrate, burst | | 384 from it again, with an energy which almost amounted to violence, as she turned with blazing eyes and confronted Mrs. Craven, and the question, Is this true? came vehemently from her parted lips.
Cecil, who had grown very pale when his cousin spoke, started forward ejaculating—
"Cousin Gus! Good heavens! it is impossible!" whilst his mother, apparently unable to meet the eyes of either of them, buried her face in the bedclothes, repeating, in a burst of grief, "Oh! dearest Gus! why didn't you put it off until to-morrow? I asked you to put it off until to-morrow."
But Raymond Norreys had been so utterly unprepared for the disclosure, and although he listened to the various phrases used, attached so little meaning to their import, that he appeared the least moved of any at the scene which was being acted before him. Standing apart, with folded arms, and lip that had curled proudly at the entrance of his wife, he no more believed what he had heard than the others dared to disbelieve it. Mr. Northland had travelled to Brighton by rail, against the advice of the profession, and his head was suffering in consequence. He was mad—they were all mad together, excepting, indeed, himself. So he argued as he quietly stood still, and was the only incredulous one there.
Presently the voice of Mr. Northland was heard again—
"It is better so, Margaret; it's over now, and I'm deucedly glad of it. I received your letters, my dear, and was hurrying down here to-day, with quite another purpose in my head—quite another purpose, when the accident happened; and then, as I lay crushed beneath the carriages, thinking every minute would be my last, I seemed to see the extent of my selfishness (of the selfishness of my whole life). It came before me as clear as day, and I swore I wouldn't sleep until I had done as you asked me, and acknowledged my daughter before the world; and now I have done it."
"Oh! no, dear Gustavus," sobbed Mrs. Craven, "not selfish; don't say that; always the best and the kindest of men."
Good and kind he may have, and doubtless had been, but weak and erring to a degree, and on his deathbed Gustavus Northland knew it for a truth. He was about to silence his cousin, and beg her not to flatter him, when Raymond's voice was heard.| | 385
"Mrs. Craven," it said, "are we to take this communication on Mr. Northland's part as a pleasantry, or a fact? Because if the latter, you are keeping us in unnecessary suspense."
"He is right," said the wounded man. "Margaret, tell them the rest."
Then Mrs. Craven rose from her kneeling attitude, and seeing three pairs of eyes turned expectantly towards her, looked like a stag brought to bay by its pursuers. Still more so, when she reared her head, almost defiantly, and shook her hair away from her forehead, and said, gazing steadily forward the while—
"It is a fact; you know it all now—Rachel Norreys is the daughter of Gustavus Northland and myself. I have been his wife for the last four-and-twenty years."
"His wife!" cried Rachel, springing to her side. "Oh! Mrs. Craven, say those words again!"
"His wife!" re-echoed the voice of her son. "Thank God, mother! I can stand anything now," and he tried to take her in his arms. But she turned from him and from Rachel, and threw her arm round the nerveless form of Gustavus Northland, as though she would shelter him from even their reproaches.
"Oh! of what have they suspected me?" she exclaimed. "Gustavus I what have my children been thinking of me?"
"Nothing but what might have been expected from the complication of evils my conduct has brought upon you, Margaret," he replied. "But cheer up, my dear, it's over now."
"Mother," said Rachel, faintly, as she touched Mrs. Craven on the arm; "mother (whom I have known for mine for so many silent, heartbreaking months), will you not speak to me? Will you not acknowledge me for your child?"
"My darling!" exclaimed Mrs. Craven, as she turned and caught the girl fondly in her embrace. "My only daughter, my heart has yearned over you, Rachel, ever since we have been separated; and the hardest trial in my life has been my inability to acknowledge you as my best possession. Gus, dear, give her your blessing. This is the first time, since | | 386 the hour of her birth, that we have been permitted to say together and openly, 'God bless our child
"You all seem to be coming to a very comfortable understanding between yourselves," interposed Raymond Norreys, who felt more and more mystified as the various greetings were given and acknowledged; "but you seem to have forgotten that I may require a little information as to the re that I now hear the lady, whom I always knew, and married as the daughter of Dr. Browne, addressed as the daughter of Mr. Northland. I am perfectly in the dark, and feel I have as good a right as any one to demand some explanation of the mystery."
"Of course," exclaimed Cecil. "Mother, this news has been long enough delayed already! Make short work of it now, and let us hear all there is to hear."
"Directly, Cecil, directly," she replied. "Mr. Norreys, I ought to apologize to you, I suppose, but in the first excitement of such a confession you must make allowances for our not having eyes or ears for any one but our immediate selves. I hope that the miserable misunderstandings which have cropped up amongst us lately will be fully accounted for, when you have heard my history. My name is Margaret Northland—Rachel and Cecil are brother and sister."
"Good God!" exclained [sic] Raymond, as the thought of all the misery the want of such knowledge had occasioned, flashed upon his mind. "Rachel! why did you not tell me this before?"
But although he appealed to her thus directly, Rachel turned away from him, and professed to be occupied with something relating to the comfort of her newly-found father.
"Because her lips were sealed by an oath," answered Mrs. Craven, quickly, "which Rachel to save her happiness even, dared not break. Oh! Raymond, could you have trusted her, things might have been different; but I do not blame you. Circumstances were brought, by the treachery of that woman, so strongly against them both, that I feel I am the only one open to censure in the matter."
"No, Margaret, by Jove! you are not," said the feeble voice of her husband; "it was for love of me you did it."
"I am the only one to blame," repeated Mrs. Craven. | | 387 "Cecil, my dearest boy, don't look at me like that. I have greatly wronged you both. I repent of it this day."
With her eyes fixed upon her son, and addressing herself to him, as if he of all those present, most demanded explanation and reparation at her hands, Margaret Craven proceeded—
"I did not love your father, Cecil; and marrying him was the first wrong step in my career. I had loved my Cousin Gustavus before that, and pledged my faith to him; but neither of us had any money, and, therefore, we were told it could not be. Your father must have guessed at something of the truth, for when he died and left me free to choose again, I found by his will, that in the event of a second marriage, every farthing of the jointure he left me, as well as the property of Craven Court, was to pass from my hands into those of your guardians, and I was to be left penniless,"
"It was a cruel will—an infamous will!" said Cecil, hotly, to whom his father was but a name, and the love of his mother a household word.
"Hush! dear," she replied; "a man has a right to do as he chooses with his own, and the infamy lay with those who tried to circumvent by a dishonourable action, his dying wishes."
"That's me!" interposed poor Cousin Gus.
"Not you, not you, my dearest," cried Mrs. Craven, flying to his side and folding him in her embrace, and then turning to her auditors, she continued—
"However blameworthy the remainder of my story may seem to be, however culpable the subsequent actions I have to relate, remember, that throughout, it was my thought and my doing. My husband there is blameless of everything, except of loving me too much."
Not one there present believed the generous lie; but they admired the nobility of purpose which had dictated it, and suffered it to pass unnoticed. Then she continued—
"When I was a widow, and we met again, we loved each other, if possible, better than before, and often lamenting over our inability to marry (both being so poor), we came at last to the proposal and carrying out of a secret marriage. | | 388 Oh! Cecil, I am so ashamed to tell you this part of my history; but you were such a child, I did not consider, in the furtherance of my own selfish designs, how forgetful I was of your interests. Can you ever forgive me?"
"If there is any need of my forgiveness, mother, above that of others," he replied, "you have it freely. But go on with your story, for we are impatient."
"We were married privately, and for a while there seemed no chance of our secret being discovered; but in the course of another year I found that I was likely to become a mother, and at first feared that everything must be disclosed. But amongst my old admirers and most intimate friends was poor Alfred Browne, and to him, being a doctor, I at last, under a promise of secrecy, summoned courage to confess my dilemma. He was a single man, single (so he said) for my sake, and he not only promised to attend me during my confinement, but offered to take my infant and bring it up as his own. And when (whilst purporting to be away on a visit in the country) my little daughter was born, he did as we had agreed he should do; and carried off my baby and her nurse to his own home, and brought her up as his own. Yes, for this—for the sake of possessing a few luxuries and comforts, which have never brought me a moment's happiness, I consented to give up my daughter for life to the man whom she called 'father.'"
"He was a father, indeed, to me," murmured Rachel; "no one could have been dearer."
"You would not have loved your own father, probably, half so well," interposed Cousin Gus, dejectedly.
"Oh! don't say that," replied Rachel. "How can you tell, since I never had the opportunity?" (And she reddened as she recalled the last interview she had had with him in the shrubbery, and the indignation she had then felt at his supposed liberty.) "And forgive me," she added, turning to Mrs. Craven, "that I have ever dared to have a thought with regard to yourself, that was not pure, and true, and honourable. I might have known my mother would be such."
"Forgive you, Rachel?" replied Mrs. Craven,mournfully; "it is your parents who should kneel for forgiveness to you this night, and have done so, in spirit, years ago. Alfred Browne then took my deserted little girl, and reared her as | | 389 his own. He did not, at that time, belong to the 3rd Royal Bays. When he joined that corps, Rachel was several years old, and no one knew but that she was his own orphaned child. But since that time, I may truly say that I have led a miserable life; although I have been thankful to know, that through our means, my little girl enjoyed all the comforts and luxuries of this world; yet her heart, the possession of which I so much coveted, I had given over into the keeping of another. And for this, for the knowledge that I had a husband I dared not own, and a daughter whom I dared not say I loved, I have borne a guilty, uneasy conscience, that has never lost sight, for one moment, of the fact that I was defrauding my son of his lawful possessions. Cecil, I have tried to make it up to you by a useless liberality; but that is no excuse for me. Henceforward, of course, Craven Court and the income which goes with it, will belong to you alone. I know you will not be hard, my dearest boy, in pressing demands which you might justly claim of me; but if I go to jail for it, from this day my name is Margaret Northland, and my place is by the side of my acknowledged husband. Would to God, I had never been tempted to do other than acknowledge him! But it was for your sake, dear Gustavus—Heaven knows it was, and for yours only." And then, the recital of her shame and sin concluded, the unhappy woman sank down, overpowered, by his side.
Cecil was the next to speak.
"Mother," he said frankly, "you know me too well, I hope, to think that I should press demands upon you or your husband, so let that pass. You have made me so happy to-night by the confession that your name is Northland, and that my sister Rachel is the child of wedded parents, that I can only thank Heaven for the knowledge, and think any means cheap, by which I have arrived at it."
"Cecil, how could you think otherwise?" his mother said, reproachfully.
"How could I not think otherwise, you mean, mother; judge for yourself. You placed me in Browne's regiment with a wish, I now presume, that my sister and myself should become intimate friends."
"He promised me—Alfred promised me—that he would further your intimacy by every means in his power," she interposed eagerly.| | 390
"Under the circumstances, it was scarcely wise, perhaps," he answered shortly; "however, we need not discuss the matter now; he fulfilled his promise to you. Watching together one day by Browne's death-bed, he (being partially delirious at the time) told us that he was not Rachel's father, and that we were brother and sister. At first, naturally we disbelieved him; but afterwards, on pressing him (when more sensible) for an explanation of his words, he became alarmed at the information we had acquired, and whilst admitting its truth, refused steadfastly to tell us any more, and further, bound us by a most solemn oath, repeated again in the last hour of his life, that we should never reveal what he had said to any one, or under any circumstances, as we hoped for Heaven. What could we think after that? I appeal to all here. Rachel was my sister—I was her brother, but we had no means of discovering anything further. Mother, what could we think, excepting that a great sin lay at your door, and that Rachel was a child you were ashamed to own? and that belief bound us closer together, perhaps than, under ordinary circumstances, we should have been; for I felt that the day might possibly arrive when she would have no counsellor or protector but myself."
And Cecil scowled (as much as it was possible for his soft blue eyes and fair eyebrows to scowl) at Raymond Norreys, who still stood, apart and silent, with strange feelings of remorse and self-reproach stirring in his breast, and making it throb with a sensation not unakin to pain, as the words he listened to, rendered the dark past every moment clearer and more distinct.
"But only knowing you to be my mother," now pleaded the thrilling voice of Rachel, "I have felt towards you all the depth and fulness of a daughter's love, notwithstanding the misery that I have experienced from the knowledge of the stigma (which I supposed to rest) upon my birth. I will not say that I have never remembered it, except to pity you and myself for having been forbid by fate to comfort one another by mutual affection. I will not say that I have never unwished myself your child, or thought of you and my unknown father without feelings of the deepest reverence and love, because I have suffered very deeply during my short lifetime, and suf- | | 391 fering is hard to bear in secret and alone. I have been brought up by the most indulgent of guardians, and permitted to be wild and wayward from my youth, and, perhaps, too inconsequent of the result of any action upon which I had set my mind; but I can lay my hand upon my heart, and truly say, that in all my doubts and fears; in the anxious suspense that the secret knowledge of my birth has given me, and the cruel suspicion under which it has lately thrown me, I have never harboured such regret for myself—I have never shed such tears for my own sufferings, as I have done for the shame and disgrace of which my unhappy birth (or so I imagined) must have been to you the cause."
Speaking thus—her beaming eyes fixed upon the face of Mrs. Craven—her sympathetic voice falling and rising, in mellow cadence with the spirit of her words—how Raymond, gazing upon Rachel's animated features, drank in every tone she uttered, and infinitely longed to rush forward, and, falling at her feet, implore her to turn the same glances upon him, if only for a moment! How, when he saw Mrs. Craven throw her arms about the graceful, drooping figure, and lay her weary, conscience-stricken head upon the throbbing breast, did he sigh that the same shelter were open to his embrace—the same pillow to his aching head! But Rachel's mother, answering her, he still stood listening in silent anxiety, as if he expected to hear some hope for himself issue from her lips.
"My dearest Rachel," she said, "I feel that what you say is true, because I know your worth, my dear. I knew it long before we met this time, from the assurances of my dear old friend. Throughout your life (though you were unaware of it) I have felt most deeply with you. At the time of your hasty marriage——"
("Ah!" exclaimed Rachel, and the exclamation was so like the offspring of a sudden pang, that Raymond's heart stood still to hear it.)
"——In all your little troubles, or your childish illnesses, there have always been anxious hearts at home to learn the upshot and the issue of them all. You believe it, do you not?"
"I do," she answered. "Let me prove it to you, mother, by the remainder of my life. I ask nothing better than to | | 392 stay by your side, and show you what a daughter's love can be."
But Raymond was spared the pain of hearing these last words, for as the women were whispering to, and caressing one another, Cecil Craven had approached him, and with his usual frank generosity, been the first to extend the hand of reconciliation.
"Norreys," he said, "you have heard everything. I suppose to-night sees all this misery set right again. You have, I know, no personal enmity towards myself, and you will not refuse my hand, since we are brothers."
The other's grasp went out with immediate cordiality, and clasped his in a firm pressure.
"I hope you know me too well to doubt it, Craven, and sufficient of the circumstances under which this misunderstanding arose, to justify me in my suspicion and demand of an explanation. But as to this night setting matters right again, I doubt if a lifetime will do that."
"My dear fellow, what do you mean?" asked Cecil Craven, in astonishment.
"Look at Rachel," was the reply; "watch her face when I speak to her, and tell me then, if with so much inherent pride in her nature, there is any reason to hope that she will ever forgive me for even suspecting her."
Cecil did look, and thought the aspect of affairs appeared unpromising, particularly as his mother seemed to be urging Rachel to some step to which a haughty refusal was plainly depicted in her face. But glancing round, he saw something else which diverted him from his former observation. Gustavus Northland, whom they all seemed (in the engrossing nature of their conferences) to have for the while forgotten, was lying back upon his pillows, appearing now that the excitement of telling the story of his daughter's birth was over, considerably worse for the reaction.
"Mother!" exclaimed Cecil, directing her attention to the fact, "look at——at your husband. This has been too much for him; we had best send for Sherard at once."
"I said so, from the first," exclaimed Raymond. "Give me the address, Mrs. Craven, and I will go for him directly."
He felt restless and out of place amongst them, and longed | | 393 to be actively employed. Mrs. Craven at first demurred about giving him such trouble, but it was no moment for ceremony Mr. Northland was evidently becoming much worse, and she was unwilling for her son to leave her, and so with a few words of gratitude to Raymond, she directed his steps to the medical man's house, and in another minute he was clear of the Marine Parade, and on his way to summon Dr. Sherard.
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