Clara Vaughan. Volume 1 of 3
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All this I learned from Mr. and Mrs. Elton during my second visit, for Mrs. Elton was too good a wife to dispense with her husband's judgment. Also I saw their daughter, a pleasing delicate girl; they learned of course some parts of my story, and were most kind and affectionate to me; and I am proud to have preserved their friendship to the present time. But as they take no prominent share in the drama of my life, henceforth they will not be presented upon its stage.
As I returned up the Villa Road, thinking of all I had heard, and feeling down at heart, something cold was gently placed in my ungloved hand. Turning in surprise and fright I saw an enormous dog, wagging his tail, and looking at me with magnificent brown eyes. Those great brown eyes were begging clearly for the honour of my acquaintance, and that huge muzzle was deposited as a gage of love. As I stooped to ascertain his sentiments, he gravely raised one mighty paw and offered it to me delicately, with a little sigh of self-approval. Upon my accepting it frankly and begging to congratulate him upon his noble appearance and evident moral excellence, he put out his tongue, a brilliant red one, and gave me a serious kiss. Then he shrugged his shoulders and looked with patient contempt at a nicely-dressed young lady, who was exerting her lungs at a silver whistle some fifty yards down the road. "Go, good dog," I said with a smile, "run, that's a good dog, your Mistress wants you immediately." "Let her wait," he said with his eyes, "I am not in a hurry this morning, and she doesn't know what to do with her time. However, if you think it would be rude of me-" And with that he resumed a long bone, laid aside while he chatted to me, tucked it lengthwise in his mouth, like a tobacco-pipe, and after shaking hands again, and saying "Now don't forget me," the great dog trotted away sedately, flourishing his tail on high, like a plume of Pampas grass. At the corner of the railings he overtook his young Mistress, whose features I could not descry; though from her air and walk I knew that she must be a pretty girl. A good-tempered one too she seemed to be, for she only shook her little whip lightly at the dog, who made an excursion across the road and sniffed at a heap of dust.
Although Ann Maples was not so very talkative, it would be romantic to suppose that Mrs. Shelfer had failed to learn my entire history, so far at least as her cousin knew it.
Having now disposed of one Grove Street, I was about to try the same rude tactics with another, viz. that in Hackney; when my landlady gave a little nervous knock, and hurried into the room. "Oh, Miss Vaughan, is it about them willains you are wandering about and taking on so, and frightening all of us nearly to death?"
"Mrs. Shelfer, I shall feel obliged by your leaving me to manage my own affairs."
"Bless you, Miss, so I will. I wouldn't have them on my mind for the Bank of England, and Guildhall, paved with Lombard Street, and so I told Charley last night.Right, my good friend, quite right, you may depend upon it." Here she tapped her forehead, and looked mysterious.
"That being so, Mrs. Shelfer, I need say nothing more;" and with that I was going away.
"No, no, to be sure not. Only listen to me, Miss, one minute; and I knows more about willains, a deal more than you do of course, Miss. Why, ever since that rogue who come to Miss Minto's with brandyballs and rabbitskins on a stick."
"Once more, Mrs. Shelfer, I have no time to spare for gossip-"
"Gossip! No, no, Miss Vaughan; if you ever heard any one say Patty Shelfer was a 'gossip,' I'll thank you for their name. Gossip! A mercy on me with all I has to do, and the days drawing in so, and how they does charge for the gas, and the directors holds a meeting first Tuesday in every month, and fills up the pipes with spittle, that's the reason it sputters so, Charley told me."
"Good bye, Mrs. Shelfer."
"No, no. One minute, Miss Vaughan; you are always in such a hurry. What Charley and me was talking about last night was this. My Uncle John, a very high class man, first-rate, first-rate, Miss Vaughan, has been for ever so long in the detective police. There's nothing he don't know of what goes on in London, from the rats as comes up the drain pipes to the Queen getting up on her throne. A wonderful man he is. I said t'other day-"
"Is he like you, Mrs. Shelfer?"
"Like me, my good friend! No, no. And I wouldn't be like him for something. With all them state secrets upon him. Why he daren't sneeze out of his hat. But if you'll only put off going again till to-morrow, he'll be here this very night about the plate they stole in the Square. And I'm sure you can't do better than hear what he thinks about you. He'll be sure to know all that was done at the time. Bless you, he has got to make all the returns; what that is, I don't know. It's a kind of tobacco Charley says, that they smokes in the Queen's pipe. But I think it's the convicts as returns from Botany Bay."
"Well, Mrs. Shelfer, I'll think of what you say, and I am much obliged to you for the suggestion; but I can't bear the idea of coming before the Police again, with a matter in which they failed so signally."
"But you know, my good friend, it need not be put on the books at all. He'll tell us what he thinks of it, private like, and for the love of the thing."
"If I see him at all, I must beg to see him alone."
"To be sure, my good friend. Quite right, Miss Vaughan, quite right. I'm sure I would rather have the plumber's ladle put to my ear, than one of them horrible secrets."
"Mrs. Shelfer, have I told you any? Now remember, if you ever again allude to this subject before me, I leave your house that day. You ought to know better, Mrs. Shelfer."
"You are quite right, Miss Vaughan; I ask your pardon, you are quite right. The very words as Charley said to me the other night. 'You ought to have knowed better, Patty, that you did.'"
Away she went, smoothing her apron, patting the fray of her hair-for she never wore side-combs-and mumbling down the stairs. "Quite right, my good friend, quite right, I ought to have knowed better, poor thing."
She brought up my dinner and tea, without a single word, but with many sly glances at me from her quick grey eyes. Once or twice she was at the point of speaking, and the dry smile she always spoke with fluttered upon her face; but she closed her lips firmly and even bit them to keep herself in. I could scarcely help laughing, for I liked the odd little thing; but she was so free with her tongue, that the lesson was sadly wanted.
Late in the evening, she came to say that Inspector Cutting was there, and would come up if I wished it. Upon my request he came, and one look was enough to show that his niece had not misdescribed him. An elderly man, but active looking and wiry, with nothing remarkable in his features, except the clear cast of his forehead and the firm set of his mouth. But the quick intelligence that shot from his eyes made it seem waste of time to finish telling him anything. For this reason, polite though he was, it became unpleasant to talk to him. It was something like shooting at divers-as my father used to describe it-for whom the flash of the gun is enough.
Yet he never once stopped or hurried me, until my tale was done, and all my thoughts laid bare. Then he asked to see all my relics and vestiges of the deed; even my gordit did not escape him.
"L.D.O." he said shortly, "do you speak Italian?'
"I can read it, but not speak it."
"Is it commoner for Italian surnames to begin with an O, or with a C?"
"There are plenty beginning with both; but more I should think with a C."
When all my particulars had been told, and all my evidence shown, I asked with breathless interest-for my confidence in him grew fast-what his opinion was.
"Allow me, young lady, to put a few questions to you, on matters you have not mentioned. Forgive me, if they pain you. I believe you feel that they will not be impertinent."
I promised to answer without reserve.
"What was your mother's personal appearance?"
"Most winning and delicate."
"How old was she at the time of her marriage?"
"Twenty-one, I believe."
"How old was your father then?"
"How many years were they married?"
"When did your guardian first leave England?"
"In the course of a year or two after the marriage."
"Had there been any misunderstanding between him and your father?"
"None, that I ever heard of."
"Did your father, at any time, travel on the continent?"
"Only in Switzerland, and part of Italy, during his wedding tour."
"Your guardian returned, I believe, at intervals to England?" I had never told him this.
"Yes. At least I suppose so, or he would not have been in London."
"Did he visit then at Vaughan Park?"
"Not once within my memory."
"Thank you. I will ask no more. It is a strange story; but I have known several much more strange. Of one thing be assured. I shall catch the criminal. I need not tell you that I heard much of this case at the time."
"Were you sent down to Gloucestershire?"
"No. If I had been-well, I will not say. But I was not then in my present position. Had I been so, it would have become my special department."
"Pray keep me no more in suspense. Tell me what you think."
"That I must not do, or you should know it at once, for my opinion is formed. It would be a breach of duty for me to tell you now."
"Oh," I cried in my disappointment, "I wish I had never seen you."
"Young lady, you have done your duty in placing the matter before me, and some day you will rejoice that you did so. One piece of advice I will give you: change your name immediately, before even the tradesmen about here know it."
"Change my name, Inspector Cutting! Do you think I am ashamed of my name?"
"Certainly not. You have shown great intelligence when a mere child; exert but a little now, and you will see the good sense, or rather the necessity, of my recommendation. When you have gained your object, you may resume your name with pride. You have given your information, Miss Vaughan, as clearly as ever I knew a female give it."
If I detest anything, in the way of small things, it is to be called a "female." So I said coldly; "Inspector Cutting, I thank you for the compliment. It would be strange indeed if I could not tell with precision, what I have thought of all my life."
"Excuse me, Miss, it would not be strange at all, in a female. And now I will wish you 'good night.' You shall hear from me when needful. Meanwhile, I will take charge of these articles."
He began, in the coolest manner, to pack up my sacred relics, dagger, casts, and all.
"Indeed you won't," I cried, "you shall not have one of them. What are you thinking of?"
He went on with his packing. I saw he was resolute; so was I. I sprang to the door, locked it, and put the key in my pocket. He said nothing, but smiled.
"Now," I exclaimed in triumph, "you cannot take those away, unless you dare to outrage a young lady."
I was wholly mistaken. He passed by, without touching me, drew some instrument from his waistcoat pocket, and the door stood open before him. All my treasures were in his left hand. I flew at, and snatched them, and then let go with a scream. A gush of blood poured from my hand. He had taken the dagger folded in paper only, and I was cut to the bone. I sank on a chair and fainted.
When I came to myself, Mrs. Shelfer was kneeling before me, with her feet in a basin of water, while two other basins, and numberless towels, were round. Mrs. Shelfer was rubbing my other hand, and crying and talking desperately about her bad luck that day, and a man with eyes crossed whom she had met in the morning. In the background stood Mr. Shelfer himself, whom I had hitherto failed to see, though I believe he had seen me often. He had a pipe in his mouth about a yard long, and seemed wholly undisturbed. "All right, old 'ooman," he said deliberately through his nose, as he saw that I perceived him, "she'll do now, if you don't make too much rumpus." And with that he disappeared, and I had time to pity myself. The hand the poor farmer used so to admire, and which I was proud of no doubt, in my way, lay in a dishcloth covered and oozing with blood. But my relics were on the table, all safe. A quick step was heard on the stairs, and Inspector Cutting came in, carrying a small phial.
"Out of the way, Patty," he cried, "you are doing more harm than good."
He took up a basin of cold water, and poured half the contents of the little phial into it.
"Now hold her arm up, Patty, as high as you can. I never knew arnica fail."
My hand was put into the water, and the bleeding was stanched in a minute or two. However he kept it there for a quarter of an hour, till it was quite benumbed.
"Now you may look at your hand, Miss Vaughan; it will not be disfigured at all. There will be no inflammation. Patty, fetch me some cambric and the best lard; put the young lady to bed at once, and prop her arm up a little."
I looked at my hand, and found three parallel gashes across it, for every edge of the weapon was keen. But only one wound was deep, viz. that across the palm, which was very deep under the thumb. I have the mark of it still. All the wounds were edged with a narrow yellow line.
"Inspector Cutting," I cried, "no power will move me from here, until you promise not to steal my property. Stealing it is, and nothing else. You have no warrant, and my information to you was wholly unofficial."
The last word seemed to move him. They all like big words, however clear-headed they are.
"Miss Vaughan, under these special circumstances, I will promise what you require; upon condition that you give me accurate drawings, for I see that you can make them."
"Certainly, when my hand is well enough."
"Believe me, I am deeply concerned at what has occurred. But the fault was all your own. How dare you obstruct the Police? But I wish some of my fellows had only half your spirit. A little more experience, and nothing will escape you. Come, Miss Vaughan, though you are a lady, or rather because you are one, give me your left hand, in token that you forgive me."
I did so with all my heart. I liked him much better since I had defeated him; and I saw that it was well worth the pain, for he would do his utmost to make amends. He wished me good night with a most respectful bow. "I will come and inquire how you are to-morrow, Miss Vaughan. Patty, quiet, and coolness, and change the lard frequently. No doctor, if you please; and above all hold your queer little tongue."
"Never fear me, Uncle John; you are right, my good friend, it is a little tongue, but no queerer than my neighbours."
Inspector Cutting would have formed a far lower opinion of my spirit, if he had seen how I cried that night; not from the pain of the wounds, I am sure, but to think of the fuss dear mother would have made about them.
In spite of the arnica, my cuts were not healed for a month; not enough, I mean, for me to handle a pencil. Mr. Cutting, when he came, according to promise, told me something to quiet me, because I was so feverish. Whether he believed it, or only acted medically, was more than I could decide. The opinion he gave me, or the substance of it, was this.
That the deed was done, not for money, or worldly advantage in any way, but for revenge. Here I thought of Mrs. Daldy. What wrong the revenge was wreaked for, he could not even guess, or at any rate would not hint to me.
That the straightest clue to the mystery was to be sought in Italy, where my guardian's track should be followed carefully. The idea of forcing, or worming, the truth from him was rejected at once through my description of his character; although the Inspector quite agreed with me, that, even if guiltless of the crime, Mr. Edgar Vaughan knew all about it now.
That no importance should be attached to the anonymous letter from London; in accordance with my promise to Mrs. Elton, I did not mention the Polish lady's name; and Mr. Cutting did not press me to do so, for he firmly believed from what I said that she had made a mistake in the address she gave, and would not help us now, even if we could find her. That nevertheless a strict watch should be kept in London, whither flock nine-tenths of the foreigners who ever set foot in this country. London moreover was likely, ere long, to draw nearly all the migratory strangers to the business or pleasure of next year's "Great Exhibition," provided only that it should prove successful, as the Inspector thought it would.
As for my enemy being attracted by works of industry, it seemed to me quite against nature that a base assassin should care for art or science, or any national progress. But the remembrance of several cases, among the dark annals I used to delight in, soon proved to me my error; while the long experience of a man, versed from his youth in criminal ways, convicted me of presumption.
To put myself more on a level with fraud, and stealth, and mystery, I did a thing for which I felt guilty to myself and my mother. I changed my name. But, in spite of Inspector Cutting, I did not travel out of the family. My father's second name was "Valentine," taken from his mother. This name I assumed in a shorter form, becoming "Clara Valence;" it saved change of initials and a world of trouble, and I felt warmer in it, because it seemed to have been my father's. In the neighbourhood I knew no one except Mrs. Elton, to whom (as I grew intimate with her) I partly explained my reasons. As for Mrs. Shelfer, she was delighted at the change. She said that her Uncle John had christened me, that it sounded much prettier, and would always remind her of Valentines. Nevertheless I longed for the day when I might call myself "Clara Vaughan" once more.
By the time I was able to go about freely again and use my hand as of old, it was the middle of November. The first use I made of my pencil was to copy most carefully all that Inspector Cutting required. He promised to keep these drawings, and indeed the whole matter, most jealously to himself; by which term he meant, as I afterwards found, Inspector Cutting and those to whom he was bound to report.
What I now wanted was money, to send an adroit inquirer throughout the North of Italy, and other parts where my guardian's shifting abode had been. I knew that he dwelt awhile at Pisa, Genoa, and Milan, also at an obscure little village named "Calva," which I could not find in the maps. All I had learned of his rovings was from the lessons my father would give me sometimes, when he used to say, "Now, Tooty, put your finger on Uncle Edgar." To every one, but myself, it seemed a strange thing that after so many wanderings, Mr. Edgar Vaughan had brought no valet, major domo, or courier, no dependant or retainer of any kind, and not even a foreign friend to England, or at any rate to Vaughan Park.
But now for the needful resources-the only chance of procuring them lay in my young and partly self-tutored art. I braced myself with the remembrance, that while none of my family ever laid claim to genius, the limner's faculty had never been wanting among them. Inferior gifts are often as heirlooms in the blood, though high original power follows no vein except its own. The latter none of us ever possessed; but taste and the knack of adaptation had seldom been alienated. Observation too, in a small way, and the love of nature seemed inborn in us all. My father's drawings were perfect, but for the one thing wanted; and in sketches from outdoor nature that want was less perceived. My grandfather had been known among the few amateurs of the day as a skilful colourist. As to habits of observation, a little tale handed down in our family will show that they had existed in one of its members seven generations ago.
In the autumn of 1651, when King Charles was stealing along from Colonel Wyndham's house to the coast of Hampshire and Sussex, the little band was overtaken by nightfall, somewhere near the New Forest. It was shortly after the narrow escape of the King from that observant blacksmith, who saw that his horse was shod with North-country iron. Though he was taking it easily, his three trusty friends knew well that a Roundhead Squadron was near, and that his last chance depended on speed and night travel. What could they do now in the tempestuous darkness? They were in a tract thinly inhabited, half woodland, half heather, and the road was hopelessly lost. No rain fell as yet it was true, and the wind was waiting for rain, but the lightning came fitfully from the horizon all round. The King alone was on horseback, his three companions afoot. They stood still in doubt and terror, for they could not tell north from south. Suddenly Major Cecil Vaughan espied a faint gleam familiar to him of old in the waste land round Vaughan Park. To an accurate eye there could be little doubt as to the source of the lambent light-flame it could not be called. It played in a pale yet constant stream on a certain kind of moss, known to botanists, not to me, for the waste lands have been reclaimed. This light is to be seen at no time, except when the air is surcharged with electricity.
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