Produced by Andrea Ball, Christine Bell & Marc D'Hoogheat https://www.freeliterature.org (From images generouslymade available by the Internet Archive)
LOST SIR MASSINGBERD.
A Romance of Real Life.
IN TWO VOLUMES.
SAMPSON LOW, SON, AND MARSTON,
14, LUDGATE HILL.
LOST SIR MASSINGBERD.
OUT OF MIND, OUT OF SIGHT.
Notwithstanding the baronet's polite invitation, and although Mr. Longdid not return, as expected, upon the ensuing morning, I felt noinclination to exchange my solitude for the society of Mr. Gilmore atbowls. I was, indeed, rather curious to see the bowling-green, which Ihad heard from my tutor was one of the very finest in England, fenced inby wondrous walls of yew; but, to arrive there, it was necessary to passclose to the Hall, and, consequently, to run great risk of meeting SirMassingberd, my repugnance to whom had returned with tenfold strengthsince the preceding day. My reason, it is true, could suggest nopossible harm from my having enclosed his letter to Marmaduke, but stillan indefinable dread of what I had done oppressed me. I could notimagine in what manner I could have been outwitted; but a certainmalignant exultation in Sir Massingberd's face when he was taking hisleave, haunted my memory, and rendered hateful the idea of meeting itagain. Moreover, the companionship of Gilmore, the butler, was notattractive. He bore a very bad character with the villagers, among whomhe was said to emulate in a humble manner the vices of his lord andmaster; he had been his companion and confidential servant for a greatnumber of years, and it was not to be wondered at, even supposing thathe commenced that servitude as an honest man, that his principlesshould have been sapped by the communication.
Those who had known Richard Gilmore best and longest, however, averredthat his nature had not been the least impaired by this companionship,inasmuch as it had been always as bad as bad could be. I never saw hispale secretive face, with the thin lips tightly closed, as if to preventthe escape of one truant word, without reflecting what a repository ofdark and wicked deeds that keeper of Sir Massingberd's conscience needsmust be. Such men usually hold such masters in their own hands; for theyknow too much about them, and it is that species of knowledge which,above all others, is power. But it was not so in this case; theantecedents of Gilmore's master were probably as evil as those of anyperson who has ever kept a valet, but there was this peculiarity aboutthe baronet--that he cared little or nothing whether people knew them ornot. When a thoroughly unprincipled man has arrived at the stage ofbeing entirely indifferent to what his fellow-creatures think of him, hehas touched his zenith; he is as much a hero to his _valet-de-chambre_as to anybody else. It was Gilmore's nature to be reticent; but, for allSir Massingberd cared, he might have ascended the steps at thestone-cross at Crittenden upon market-day, and held forth upon thesubject of his master's peccadillos. Sir Massingberd stood no more infear of him than of any other man; otherwise, he would scarcely haveused such frightful language to him as he did whenever the spirit-casehad not been properly replenished, or he happened to mislay the key ofhis own cigar-chest. It was no delicate tending that the lord ofFairburn Hall required; no accurate arrangement of evening garments erehe returned from shooting; no slippers placed in front of the fire. Ashe was attired in the morning, so he remained throughout the day, and,if it were the poaching season, throughout the night also. He never wasill, and only very rarely was he so overcome with liquor as to requireany assistance in retiring. The putting Sir Massingberd to bed must havebeen a bad quarter of an hour for Mr. Gilmore. I have mentioned thatwhen I paid my only visit to the Hall, the front-door bell was answeredby the butler with very commendable swiftness, under the impression thatit was his master; and, indeed, it was rumoured that, on more than oneoccasion, the baronet had felled his faithful domestic like an ox, fordilatoriness. Wonder was sometimes expressed that Mr. Gilmore, who wassupposed, as the phrase goes, to have feathered his nest very agreeablyduring his master's prosperous days, should cleave to him in his presentpoverty--the mere sentiment of attachment being deemed scarcely strongenough to retain his gratuitous services; but the reply commonly made tothis was, I have no doubt, correct--namely, that, however matters mightseem, Mr. Richard Gilmore, we might be well assured, knew his ownbusiness best, and on which side his bread was buttered.
Sagacious, however, as this gentleman doubtless was, I did not fancy himas a companion to play bowls with; and, instead of going in thedirection of the bowling-green, I took my way to Fairburn Chase. I hadnot set foot within it for more than a year, and the season was muchfurther advanced then when I had last been there. The stillness whichpervaded it in summertime was now broken by the flutter of the fallingleaf and the plash of the chestnuts on the moist and sodden ground; theautumn rains had long set in; there was that "drip, drip, drip" in thewoods which so mournfully reminds us that the summer, with all its lifeand warmth, has passed away; and the dank earth was sighing from beneathits load of tangled leaves, which, "hanging so light and hanging sohigh," but lately danced in the sunny air. The presentiment of evilwhich overshadowed me was deepened by the melancholy of Nature. I movedslowly through the drippling fern towards the heronry; from the littleisland suddenly flew forth, not the stately birds who ordinarily reignedthere, but a pair of ravens. I knew that such had taken up theirresidence in the old church tower, for I had seen them flying in and outof its narrow ivied window-slits; but their appearance in the presentlocality was most unexpected. I was far from being superstitious, but Iwould rather have seen any other birds just then. A few steps furtherbrought me to that bend in the stream which had been such a favouritehaunt of mine before I had dreamed there so unpleasantly. The lime-treesstood ragged and bare, and weeping silently, deprived of their summerbee-music; the sparkling sand, wherein I had seen the mysteriousfootprints, was dark and damp; a few steps further brought me to thestepping-stones, by which that unknown visitant must have crossed over,if she were indeed of mortal mould; the wood upon the other side was nolonger impenetrable to sight; and through its skeleton arms I could seesome building of considerable size at no great distance. I knew wheresuch of the keepers and gardeners as lived upon the estate resided, andit puzzled me to imagine to what purpose this cottage was assigned.
While I hesitated as to whether I should cross the turbid and swollencurrent, whose waters almost entirely covered the stepping-stones, alaugh prolonged and shrill burst forth from the very direction in whichI was looking. It was the same mocking cry, never to be forgotten, whichI had heard at that very spot some fifteen months before. Anywhere else,I should have recognized it; but in that place it was impossible todoubt its identity. Knife-like, it clove the humid and unwilling air;and, before the sound had ceased, a short, sharp shriek succeededit--the cry of a smitten human creature. In a moment I had crossed thestream, and was forcing my way through the wood. As I drew nearer, Iperceived the edifi
ce before me was of stone, and with a slated roof,instead of being built with clay, and thatched, as were the rest of SirMassingberd's cottages. There was no attempt at ornamentation, but theplace was unusually substantial for its size, the door being studdedwith nails, while the window upon either side of it was protected byiron bars.
I was just emerging from the fringe of the wood, when another soundsmote on my ear, which caused me to pause at once, and remain where thetrunk of an elm tree intervened between me and the cottage; it wasmerely the bark of a dog, but it checked my philanthropic enthusiasmupon the instant. There was no mistaking that wheezy note, telling ofcanine infirmity, and days prolonged far beyond the ordinary span ofdogs. Besides there was but one dog permitted to be at large in FairburnChase. It was the execrable Grimjaw. I could see him from my place ofconcealment turning his almost sightless eyes in my direction as he satat the cottage door. Immediately afterwards, it opened, and out cameRichard Gilmore; he looked about him suspiciously, but having convincedhimself that there was nobody in the neighbourhood, he administered akick to Grimjaw's ribs, reproached him in strong language for havingmade a causeless disturbance, and turning the key, and pocketing it,walked away by a footpath that doubtless led, although by no meansdirectly, to the Hall. He had a dog-whip in his hand when I first sawhim, which I thought was an odd thing for a butler to carry, and heseemed to think so, too, for he put it in a side-pocket before hestarted, and buttoned it up. Grimjaw, gathering his stiffened limbstogether, slowly followed him, not without turning his grey head everand anon towards my covert, but without venturing again to express hissuspicions. I waited until the charming pair were out of sight, ere Iadvanced to the cottage.
The door of course, was fast; so, approaching the right-hand window, Icautiously looked in through its iron bars; there was no casementwhatever, therefore all the objects which the room contained were asclear to me as though I were in it. I beheld a sitting-room, thefurniture of which was costly, and had been evidently intended for amuch larger apartment, but which in variety was scanty enough. At amahogany table, which retained little more of polish than if it had justbeen sawn from its trunk in Honduras, sat an ancient female, with herback towards me, supporting her chin on both hands; a cold chicken in ametal dish was before her, but neither a plate nor knife and fork; shewas muttering something in a low tone to herself, which, if it was agrace, must have been a very long one. Her hair was scanty, and white assnow, but hung down almost to the ground; she was miserably thin; andher clothes, although they had once been of rich material, were raggedand old.
"Oh, it is you, is it?" observed she, with a grave distinctness, instrong contrast to her late excited and mocking tones. "If I had knownthat you were coming, young gentleman, I would have put on my bracelets.The family jewels are not all gone to the pawnbroker's, as is generallybelieved. Besides, you should never insult people because they are poor,or mad; one would not be either one or the other, you know, if one couldhelp it."
"Heaven forbid, madam, that I should offer you any insult," said I,touched by the evident misfortune of this poor creature. "I merely ranhither because I heard the cry, as I thought, of some one in distress."
"Ah, that was the dog, sir," replied the old woman cheerfully; "thebutler was correcting his dog, and it howled a little. Of course itcould not have been me--certainly not; Sir Massingberd is so excessivelyanxious that I should have everything that is good for me; he said thatwith his own lips. And what a handsome mouth he has, except when helooks at _you_."
"Why at me?" cried I. "He has no cause to dislike me, has he!"
"No cause!" cried the old woman, coming closer to the bars, and loweringher voice to a confidential whisper. "Oh no--not if you were dead. Inever wished you worse than myself; no, not when my poor baby died, andI could not weep. I feel that now; if I could only weep, as in the goodold times with my husband! There was plenty of good weepingthen--plenty."
"But why should you wish me dead, madam, who have never done you anyharm?"
"No harm? What not to have taken the title from my boy? No harm, whenbut for you, he would have been the heir to house and land! Why, lookyou, if it had not been for something, I would have driven Gilmore'sknife into you that day when you were sleeping under the limes. That wasthe very place where I used to meet my love--let me see, how many yearsago?"
The eager eyes for one instant ceased to glitter; some fragment of amemory of the past claimed the restless brain; then once more sherambled on. "One, two, three, four--he never struck me more than fourtimes; that's true, I swear."
"And what was the something that prevented you from killing me when Iwas asleep by the heron's island?" inquired I.
"What was it?" replied the old woman sadly. "Did you not cry, 'Mother,mother,' in your sleep, to make me think of my boy? I wept at that; justone tear. He might have been such another as yourself--with thesame--Why, what's the matter with your forehead? What have you donewith your horseshoe? Every Heath wears one of them; then why not you,young Marmaduke?"
"My name is not Heath," said I; "you are taking me for somebody else."
"Dear me--dear me, what a mistake! The fact is, that living in a houseaffects one's sight. Now, let me guess. If you are not Marmaduke Heath,you must be...--What a dark skin you have, and what kind eyes!" Shelooked suspiciously round the room, and laying her finger on her lip,observed beneath her breath: "You are not Stanley Carew, are you? Theytold me he was hung, but I know better than that. I have seen him sincea hundred times. To be hung for nothing must be a terrible thing; buthow much worse to be hung for love!"
"I am not Stanley Carew," said I; "I am Peter Meredith, who lives withMr. Long at the Rectory."
"I never happen to have heard your name before, sir," replied the oldwoman, mincingly; "perhaps you have never heard mine. Permit me tointroduce myself. Don't suppose that our people don't know good manners,I am Sinnamenta--Lady Heath."
"Madam," said I, deeply moved, "I apprehended as much. If I can do youany service, be sure that the will shall not be wanting. Pray, tell mewhat shall I do?"
"Well," returned the poor creature, quickly, "Marmaduke Heath should bekilled at once, that is all important. We have been thinking of nothingelse, my husband and I. But perhaps you have done it already." (How Ishrank from that random shaft.) "If so, I have no further desire exceptto get out. If I could only be once more in the greenwood, my hair wouldreassume its natural colour. That is why Mr. Gilmore is so careful tokeep me thus locked up. If my husband only saw me with my black hairagain--it reached to the ground, sir--matters would be very different. Ithink I have already observed that it is not customary to watch a ladywhile she is partaking of refreshment."
With that, she once more seated herself at the table, with her back tome; and judging thereby that my presence was distasteful to her, andhaving no notion of h
ow I could possibly give her any aid, I withdrewfrom the sad scene. I had not, however, gone many steps, when she calledme back again through the iron bars.
"Mr. Meredith," said she, "you arrived somewhat unexpectedly. It is tothat circumstance alone, I beg to repeat, that you must attribute theabsence of bracelets. My very best regards to all your family.Sinnamenta, you know--Lady Heath."