"His uncle, the General, came down and took possession, and for a time it seemed as if the curse of the Carnes had died out, and indeed no further tragedies have taken place in the family, but several of its members have been unlike other men, suffering from fits of morose gloom or violent passion. The father of Reginald, the present Squire, was of a bright and jovial character, and during the thirty years that he was possessor of The Hold was so popular in this part of the country that the old stories have been almost forgotten, and it is generally believed that the curse of the Carnes has died out."
"The present owner," Mr. Gulston asked; "what sort of a man is he?"
"I don't know nothing about him," the old man replied; "he is since my time."
"He is about eight-and-twenty," the landlord said. "Some folks say one thing about him, some another; I says nothing. He certainly ain't like his father, who, as he rode through the village, had a word for every one; while the young Squire looks as if he was thinking so much that he didn't even know that the village stood here. The servants of The Hold speak well of him – he seems kind and thoughtful when he is in the humour, but he is often silent and dull, and it is not many men who would be dull with Miss Margaret. She is one of the brightest and highest spirited young ladies in the county. There's no one but has a good word for her. I think the Squire studies harder than is good for him. They say he is always reading, and he doesn't hunt or shoot; and natural enough when a man shuts himself up and takes no exercise to speak of, he gets out of sorts and dull like; anyhow, there's nothing wrong about him. He's just as sane and sensible as you and I."
After waiting for two days longer and finding the wet weather continue, Mr. Gulston packed up his rods and fishing tackle and returned to Plymouth. He had learned little more about the family at The Hold, beyond the fact that Mrs. Mervyn, who inhabited a house standing half a mile further up the valley, was the aunt of Reginald and Margaret Carne, she having been a sister of the late possessor of The Hold. In her youth she had been, people said, the counterpart of her niece, and it was not therefore wonderful that Clithero Mervyn had, in spite of the advice of his friends and the reputation of the Carnes, taken what was considered in the county the hazardous step of making her his wife.
This step he had never repented, for she had, like her brother, been one of the most popular persons in that part of the county, and a universal favourite. The Mervyn estate had years before formed part of that of the Carnes, but had been separated from it in the time of Sir Edgar's grandson, who had been as fond of London life and as keen a gambler as his ancestor.
The day before he started, as he was standing at the door of the hotel, Reginald Carne and his sister had ridden past; they seemed to care no more for the weather than did the people of the village, and were laughing and talking gaily as they passed, and Charles Gulston thought to himself that he had never in all his travels seen a brighter and prettier face than that of the girl.
He thought often of the face that day, but he was not given to romance, and when he had once returned to his active duties as first lieutenant of H.M.S.
"Here, Gulston, this is more in your line than mine. It's an invitation to a ball, for myself and some of my officers, from Mrs. Mervyn. I have met her twice at the Admiral's, and she is a very charming woman, but as her place is more than twenty miles away and a long distance from a railway station, I certainly do not feel disposed to make the journey. They are, I believe, a good county family. She has two pretty daughters and a son – a captain in the Borderers, who came into garrison about a month ago; so I have no doubt the soldiers will put in a strong appearance."
"I know the place, sir," Gulston said; "it's not far from Carnesford, the village where I was away fishing the other day, and as I heard a good deal about them I think I will take advantage of the invitation. I dare say Mr. Lucas will be glad to go too, if you can spare him."
"Certainly, any of them you like, Gulston, but don't take any of the midshipmen; you see Mrs. Mervyn has invited my officers, but as the soldiers are likely to show up in strength, I don't suppose she wants too many of us."
"We have an invitation to a ball, doctor," Lieutenant Gulston said after leaving the captain, to their ship's doctor, "for the 20th, at a Mrs. Mervyn's. The captain says we had better not go more than three. Personally I rather want to go. So Hilton of course must remain on board, and Lucas can go. I know you like these things, although you are not a dancing man. As a rule it goes sorely against my conscience taking such a useless person as one of our representatives; but upon the present occasion it does not matter, as there is a son of the house in the Borderers; and, of course, they will put in an appearance in strength."
"A man can make himself very useful at a ball, even if he doesn't dance, Gulston," the doctor said. "Young fellows always think chits of girls are the only section of the female sex who should be thought of. Who is going to look after their mothers, if there are only boys present? The conversation of a sensible man like myself is quite as great a treat to the chaperones as is the pleasure of hopping about the room with you to the girls. The conceit and selfishness of you lads surprise me more and more, there are literally no bounds to them. How far is this place off?"
"It's about twenty miles by road, or about fifteen by train, and eight or nine to drive afterwards. I happen to know about the place, as it's close to the village where I was fishing a fortnight ago."
"Then I think the chaperones will have to do without me, Gulston. I am fond of studying human nature, but if that involves staying up all night and coming back in the morning, the special section of human nature there presented must go unstudied."
"I have been thinking that one can manage without that, doctor. There is a very snug little inn where I was stopping in the village, less than a mile from the house. I propose that we go over in the afternoon, dine at the inn, and dress there. Then we can get a trap to take us up to the Mervyns', and can either walk or drive down again after it is over, or come back by train with the others, according to the hour and how we feel when the ball is over."
"Well, that alters the case, lad, and under those conditions I will be one of the party."
Ronald Mervyn was, perhaps, the most popular man in his regiment. They were proud of him as one of the most daring steeplechase riders in the service, and as a man who had greatly distinguished himself by a deed of desperate valour in India. He was far and away the best cricketer in the corps; he could sing a capital song, and was an excellent musician and the most pleasant of companions. He was always ready to do his friends a service, and many a newly-joined subaltern who got into a scrape had been helped out by Ronald Mervyn's purse. And yet at times, as even those who most liked and admired him could not but admit, Ronald Mervyn was a queer fellow. His fits were few and far between, but when they occurred he was altogether unlike himself. While they lasted, he would scarce exchange a word with a soul, but shut himself in his room, or, as soon as parade was over, mounted his horse and rode off, not to return probably until late at night.
Mervyn's moods were the subject of many a quiet joke among the young officers of the regiment. Some declared that he must have committed a murder somewhere, and was occasionally troubled in his conscience; while some insisted that Mervyn's strange behaviour was only assumed in order that he might be the more appreciated at other times. Among the two or three officers of the regiment who came from that part of the country, and knew something of the family history of the Mervyns, it was whispered that he had inherited some slight share of the curse of the Carnes. Not that he was mad in the slightest degree – no one would think of saying that of Ronald Mervyn – but he had certainly queer moods. Perhaps the knowledge that there was a taint in his blood affected him, and in course of time he began to brood over it.
When this mood was on him, soon after joining the regiment, he himself had spoken to the doctor about it.
"Do you know, doctor, I am a horrible sufferer from liver complaint?"
"You don't look it, Mervyn," the surgeon replied; "your skin is clear, and your eye is bright. You are always taking exercise, your muscles are as hard as nails. I cannot believe that there is much the matter with you."
"I assure you, doctor, that at times for two or three days I am fit for nothing. I get into such a state that I am not fit to exchange a word with a human being, and could quarrel with my best friend if he spoke to me. I have tried all sorts of medicines, but nothing seems to cure me. I suppose it's liver; I don't know what else it can be. I have spoken about it to the Major, and asked him if at any time he sees me look grumpy, to say a word to the mess, and ask them to leave me to myself; but I do wish you could give me something."
The doctor had recommended courses of various foreign waters, and had given him instructions to bathe his head when he felt it coming on; but nothing had availed. Once a year, or sometimes oftener, Ronald retired for two or three days, and then emerged as well and cheerful as before.
Once, when the attack had been particularly severe, he had again consulted the doctor, this time telling him the history of his family on his mother's side, and asking him frankly whether he thought these periodical attacks had any connection with the family taint. The doctor, who had already heard the story in confidence from one of the two men who knew it, replied:
"Well, Mervyn, I suppose that there's some sort of distant connection between the two things, but I do not think you are likely to be seriously affected. I think you can set your mind at ease on that score. A man of so vigorous a frame as you are, and leading so active and healthy a life, is certainly not a likely subject for insanity. You should dismiss the matter altogether from your mind, old fellow. Many men with a more than usual amount of animal spirits suffer at times from fits of depression. In your case, perhaps due, to some extent, to your family history, these fits of depression are more severe than usual. Probably the very circumstance that you know this history has something to do with it, for when the depression – which is, as I have said, not uncommon in the case of men with high spirits, and is, in fact, a sort of reaction – comes over you, no doubt the thought of the taint in the blood occurs to you, preys upon your mind, and deeply intensifies your depression."
"That is so, doctor. When I am in that state my one thought is that I am going mad, and I sometimes feel then as if it would be best to blow out my brains and have done with it."
"Don't let such a fancy enter your head, Mervyn," the doctor said, earnestly. "I can assure you that I think you have no chance whatever of becoming insane. The fits of depression are of course troublesome and annoying, but they are few and far apart, and at all other times you are perfectly well and healthy. You should, therefore, regard it as I do – as a sort of reaction, very common among men of your sanguine temperament, and due in a very slight degree to the malady formerly existent in your family. I have watched you closely since you came to the regiment, and, believe me, that I do not say it solely to reassure you when I affirm that it is my full belief and conviction that you are as sane as other men, and it is likely that as you get on in life these fits of depression will altogether disappear. You see both your mother and uncle were perfectly free from any suspicion of a taint, and it is more than probable that it has altogether died out. At any rate the chances are slight indeed of its reappearing in your case."
"Thank you, doctor; you can imagine what a relief your words are to me. I don't worry about it at other times, and indeed feel so thoroughly well, that I could laugh at the idea were it mooted; but during these moods of mine it has tried me horribly. If you don't mind, I will get you to write your opinion down, so that next time the fit seizes me I can read it over, and assure myself that my apprehensions are unfounded."
Certainly no one would associate the idea of insanity with Ronald Mervyn, as upon the day before the ball at his mother's house he sat on the edge of the ante-room table, and laughed and talked with a group of five young officers gathered round him.
"Mind, you fellows must catch the seven o'clock train, or else you will be too late. There will be eight miles to drive; I will have a trap there to meet you, and you won't be there long before the others begin to arrive. We are not fashionable in our part of the county. We shall have enough partners for you to begin to dance by half-past nine, and I can promise you as pretty partners as you can find in any ball-room in England. When you have been quartered here a bit longer you will be ready to admit the truth of the general opinion, that, in point of pretty women, Devonshire can hold its own against any county in England. No, there is no fear whatever of your coming in too great strength. Of course, in Plymouth here, one can overdo the thing, but when one gets beyond the beat of the garrison, men are at a premium. I saw my mother's list; if it had not been for the regiment the female element would have predominated terribly. The army and navy, India and the colonies, to say nothing of all-devouring London, are the scourges of the country; the younger sons take wings to themselves and fly, and the spinsters are left lamenting."
"I think there is more push and go among younger sons than there is in the elders," one of the young officers said.
"They have not got the same responsibilities," Ronald laughed. "It is easy to see you are a younger son, Charley; there's a jaunty air about your forage cap and a swagger in your walk, that would tell any observant person that you are free from all responsibilities, and could, as the Latin grammar says, sing before a robber."
There was a general laugh, for Charley Mansfield was notoriously in a general state of impecuniosity. He, himself, joined merrily in the laugh.
"I can certainly say," he replied, "'He who steals my purse steals trash;' but I don't think he would get even that without a tussle. Still, what I said is true, I think. I know my elder brother is a fearfully stately personage, who, on the strength of two years' difference of age, and his heirship, takes upon himself periodically to inflict ponderous words of wisdom upon me. I think a lot of them are like that; but after all, as I tell him, it's the younger sons who have made England what it is. We won her battles and furnished her colonies, and have done pretty nearly everything that has been done; while the elder sons have only turned into respectable landowners and prosy magistrates."
"Very well, Charley, the sentiments do you honour," another laughed; "but there, the assembly is sounding. Waiter, bring me a glass of sherry; your sentiments have so impressed me, Charley, that I intend to drink solemnly to the success of second sons."
"You are not on duty, are you, Mervyn?"
"No, I am starting in half an hour to get home. I shall be wanted to aid in the final preparations. Well, I shall see you all to morrow night. Don't forget the seven o'clock train. I expect we shall keep it up till between three and four. Then you can smoke a cigar, and at five the carriages will be ready to take you to the station to catch the first train back, and you will be here in time for a tub and a change before early parade."
The ball at the Mervyns' was a brilliant one. The house was large, and as Mr. Mervyn had died four years before, and Ronald had since that time been absent on foreign service, it was a long time since an entertainment on a large scale had been given there to the county. A little to the disappointment of many of the young ladies in the neighbourhood, the military and naval officers did not come in uniform. There were two or three girls staying in the house, and one of them in the course of the evening, when she was dancing with Ronald, said:
"We all consider you have taken us in, Captain Mervyn. We made sure that you would all be in uniform. Of course those who live near Plymouth are accustomed to it, but in these parts the red coats are rather a novelty, and we feel we have been defrauded."
"We never go to balls, Miss Blackmoor, in uniform, except when they are regular naval or military balls, either given by our own regiment or some of the regiments in garrison, or by the navy. That is generally the rule though perhaps in some regiments it is not so strictly adhered to as with us."
"Then I consider that it is a fraud upon the public, Captain Mervyn. Gentlemen's dress is so dingy and monotonous that I consider it distinctly the duty of soldiers to give us a little light and colour when they get the chance."
"Very well, Miss Blackmoor, I will bear it in mind; and next time my mother gives a ball, the regiment, if it is within reach, shall come in uniform. By the way, do you know who is the man my cousin is dancing with? There are lots of faces I don't know here; being seven or eight years away makes a difference in a quiet country place."
"That is Mr. Gulston; he is first-lieutenant of the flagship at Plymouth. I know it because he was introduced to me early in the evening, and we danced together, and a capital dancer he is, too."
"He is an uncommonly good-looking fellow," Ronald said.
Margaret Carne seemed to think so, too, as she danced with him two or three times in the course of the evening, and went down to supper on his arm.
Ronald having, as the son of the house, to divide his attentions as much as possible, did not dance with his cousin. Lieutenant Gulston had been accompanied by the third-lieutenant, and by the doctor, who never missed an opportunity of going to a ball because, as he said, it gave him an opportunity of studying character.
"You see," he would argue, "on board a ship one gets only the one side of human nature. Sailors may differ a bit one from another, but they can all be divided into two or three classes – the steady honest fellow who tries to do his work well; the reckless fellow who is ready to do his work, but is up to every sort of mischief and devilment; and the lazy, loafing fellow who neglects his duty whenever he possibly can, and is always shamming sick in order to get off it. Some day or other I shall settle on shore and practise there, and I want to learn something about the people I shall have to deal with; besides, there's nothing more amusing than looking on at a ball when you have no idea of dancing yourself. It's astonishing what a lot of human nature you see if you do but keep your wits about you."
In the course of the evening he came up to the first-lieutenant.
"Who is that man you have just been talking to, Gulston? I have been watching him for some time. He has not been dancing, but has been standing in corners looking on."
"He is Mr. Carne, doctor; a cousin, or rather a nephew, of our hostess."
"Is he the brother of that pretty girl you have been dancing with?"
The lieutenant nodded.
"Then I am sorry for her," the surgeon said, bluntly.
"Sorry! What for?"
The surgeon answered by another question.
"Do you know anything about the family, Gulston?"
"I have heard something about them. Why?"
"Never mind now," the surgeon said. "I will tell you in the morning; it's hardly a question to discuss here," and he turned away before the lieutenant could ask further.
It was four o'clock before the dancing ceased and the last carriage rolled away. Then the military and naval men, and two or three visitors from Plymouth, gathered in the library, and smoked and talked for an hour, and were then conveyed to the station to catch the early train. The next day, as they were walking up and down the quarter-deck, the first-lieutenant said: "By the way, doctor, what was it you were going to say last night about the Carnes? You said you were sorry for Miss Carne, and asked me if I knew anything about the history of the family."
"Yes, that was it, Gulston; it wasn't the sort of thing to talk about there, especially as I understand the Mervyns are connections of the Carnes. The question I was going to ask you was this: You know their family history; is there any insanity in it?"
The lieutenant stopped suddenly in his walk with an exclamation of surprise and pain.