Clara Vaughan. Volume 3 of 3
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I do believe those men of Devon see nothing they admire, without thinking at once of their county.
At the front door, the butler met us, which surprised me rather, as being below his dignity. He was a trusty old servant, who had been under Thomas Henwood, and had come back to his place since the general turn-out of the household. Now he looked very grave and sad, and instead of leading me on, drew me aside in the hall. It was getting dark, and the fire in the west was dying. Great plumes of asparagus-shame it was to cut them-waved under the ancient mantel-piece.
"Bad news it is, Miss Clara" – they all seemed to call me that-"very bad news indeed, Miss. But I hope you was prepared for it."
"What do you mean?"
"Why, haven't you heard about poor master's death?"
"Dead, my dear uncle dead! Do you mean to say" – I could not finish the sentence.
"No, Miss, only to-day, and not as you thinks; no fit at all, nor paralyatic stroke. He went off quiet as a lamb, as near as could be three o'clock. He was very poorly before; but he had a deal to do, and would not give in on no account. He was sitting by himself in the study after breakfast, and at last he rang the bell, and told them to send me up. When I went in, he was bolt upright in his chair, with a beautiful smile on his face, but so pale, white I ought to say, Miss, and so weak he could hardly move. 'John,' he says, 'Yes, Sir,' says I; 'John,' he says again, 'you are a most respectable man, and I can trust you with anything in the world, John. Take this letter for Miss Vaughan, and put it with your own hands into her own, directly the moment she comes back. I am rather uneasy about the poor girl,' he says, as it were to himself. 'Which Miss Vaughan, Sir?' says I. 'Your mistress, John. Can't you see what is written on it? And now help me upstairs; and if ever I spoke to you harshly, John Hoxton, I ask your pardon for it. You will find as I haven't forgotten you.' And with that I helped him upstairs, Miss, and I had almost to carry him; and then he says, 'Help me to bed, John. I would like to die in my bed, and it will save some trouble. And let me look out of the window; what a lovely day it is, it reminds me quite of the South. So I set him up in the bed, Miss, handy altogether, and beautiful, and he could see two larks on the lawn, and he asked me what they was. Then he says, 'Thank you, John, you have done it wonderful well, and I hope they won't speak evil of me round this place, after I am gone. I have tried to do my duty, John, as between man and man: though I would be softer with them, if I had my time over again. Now send my daughter to me, though I wish I had seen my son, John. But I ought to be very thankful, and what's more, I am. All of you likes Miss Lily, unless they tell me stories, John.' 'Sir,' says I, 'we wusships her, though not like our own Miss Vaughan.'"
Ah, John Hoxton, did you say that to him, I wonder, or interpolate, ex post facto?
"So he looked very pleased at that, Miss, and he says again, 'John, let all that love her know that she is the living image of her mother.Now go and send her quickly; but John, take care not to frighten my little darling.' So I went and found Miss Lily got along with the Shetland pony and giving it bits of clover, and I sent her up and Jane too, for I was dreadfully frightened, and you away, Miss, at the time. And what come afterwards I can't tell, only no luncheon went up, and there was orders not to ring the bell for the servants' dinner; and I heard poor Miss Lily crying terrible all along the corridor, and I did hear say that his last words was, and he trying to raise his arms toward the window, 'Blessed be God, I can see my own Lily,' but she warn't that side of the bed, Miss; so he must have made some mistake."
"No. He meant her mother. Where is my cousin now?"
"In your own room, Miss, lying down, they tell me. She did take on so awful, Jane thought she would have died. But at last she brought her round a little, and persuaded her to lie down. She calls for you, Miss, every time she comes to herself."
I went straightway to the poor little dear, without even stopping to read the letter placed in my hands. The room in which she lay was dark; for Jane, who was watching in my little parlour, whispered to me that the poor child could not bear the lamp-light, her eyes were so weak and sore.
At first Lily did not know me; and it went to my heart, after all my own great sorrows, to hear the sad low moaning. She lay on my own little bed, with her pale face turned to the wall, her thick hair all over her shoulders, and both hands pressed to her heart. Annie Franks had been many times to ask for her, but Lily would not let her come in. Bending over I laid my cheek on Lily's, and softly whispered her name. At last she knew me, and took my hand, and turned her sweet lips to kiss me. Then she sobbed and cried most bitterly; but I saw that it did her good. By and by she said, with her fingers among my hair:
"Oh, Clara, isn't it hard to find him at last, and love him so, and only for three days, and then, and then-"
"And then, my pet, to let him go where his heart has been nearly twenty years. Would you be so selfish as to rob your mother of him? And to go so happy. I am sure he has. Come with me and see."
"Oh no, oh no. I cannot." And her lovely young form trembled, at the thought of visiting death.
"Yes, you can, if you only try, and I am sure that he would wish it. That you and I should kneel hand in hand and bless him, as others shall kneel some day by us. What, Lily afraid of her father! Then I have no fear of my Uncle."
God knows that I spoke so, not from harshness, only in the hope to do her good.
"If you really think he would wish it, dear-"
"Yes. It is a duty I owe him. He would be disappointed in me, if I failed."
"Oh, how he longed to see you once more, dear Clara, But he felt that you were safe, and he said you would come to see him, though he could not see you. He talked of you quite to the last; you and darling Conny."
"Conny will be here to-night."
"No! Oh I am so glad!" and a bright flash of joy shone forth from the eyes that were red with weeping. Something cold pushed quietly in between us, and then gave a sniff and a sigh. It was darling Judy's nose. He had learned in the lower regions, where he always dwelled in my absence, that Miss Clara was come home; and knowing my name as well as his own, he had set off at once in quest of me. After offering me his best love and respects, with the tip of his tongue, as he always did, he looked from one to the other of us, with his eyebrows raised in surprise, and the deepest sorrow and sympathy in his beautiful soft-brown pupils. I declare it made us cry more than ever.
"Oh, Clara," sobbed Lily at length, "he did howl so last night. Do you think he could have known it?"
His eyes dropped, as she was telling me. They always did, when he thought he had been a bad dog.
"Now go down, Judy; good little Judy, go to Mrs. Fletcher. A great friend of mine is with her."
Away he trotted obediently, and his tail recovered its flourish before he had got to the corner.
"Now, darling, let us go there," said the poor child, trembling again. "I would go anywhere with you."
Hand in hand we walked into my Uncle's chamber. Young as I was, and still thoughtless in many ways, twice before now had I gazed on the solemn face of death; but never, not even in my mother's holy countenance, saw I such perfect peace and bliss as dwelt in and seemed to smile from my dearest Uncle's lineaments. The life, in youth puffed here and there by every captious breeze of pride, in its prime becalmed awhile on the halycon deep of love, then tempest-tossed through the lonely dark, and shattered of late by blows from God, that life whose flaw of misanthropy and waste of high abilities had been redeemed, ennobled even, by a pure and perfect love-now it had bidden farewell to all below the clouds, calmly, happily, best of all-in faith.
We knelt beside the bed and prayed-Lily as a Catholic, Clara as a Protestant-that we, and all we loved, might have so blest an end. Then we both sat peacefully, with a happy awe upon us, in the dark recess behind the velvet curtains. Two wax candles were burning on the table towards the door, and by their light the face we loved, looked not wan, but glorious, as with a silver glory.
Clasping each the other's waist, and kissing away each other's tranquil tears, how long we sat there I know not, neither what high fluttering thoughts, thoughts or angels, which be they-stealthily a door was opened, not the door of heaven, not even the main door of the room we sat in, but a narrow side-door. Through it crept, with crawling caution, he whom most of all men I now despised and pitied. Lily did not hear his entrance, neither did she see him; but my eyes and ears were keen from many a call of danger. Stunned for a while by the heavy blow, that met me on my return, I had forgotten all about him; I mean, at least, all about his present design. I had indeed told the farmer, for it was only fair to do so, my object in bringing him down; and how I relied on his wonderful strength and courage, having then no other to help me; but since I got home, and heard the sad tidings, it seemed a mere thing for contempt. Not even Lepardo Della Croce could catch a departed spirit. So, and in the landslip of the mind, sapped by its own, and sliding swiftly into another's sorrow, I had not even ordered that the house should be watched at all; I had not even posted Giudice, who had a vendetta of his own, anywhere on guard.
With a stiletto still concealed, all but the handle on which the light fell, he approached the bed, wriggling along and crouching, as a cat or leopard would. Then he rose and stood upright at the side of the bed, not our side but the other, and glared upon his intended victim's face. I pushed Lily back behind the curtain as if with the weight of my bosom, while I watched the whole. Never in all my tempestuous life, of all the horrible things I have seen, and heard, and shuddered at, saw I anything so awful, so utterly beyond not only description, but conception, as that disdainful, arrogant face, when the truth burst on him. Not the body only, but the mind and soul-if God had cursed him with one-were smitten back all of a lump, as if he had leaped from a train at full speed into a firing cannon's mouth. Before he had time to recover, I advanced and faced him. All dressed in white I was, with my black hair below my waist, for I had thrown off my travelling frock, and taken what first came to hand. They tell me I look best in white, it shows my hair and eyes so.
He believed that it was a spirit, the Vendetta spirit of the other side; and he cowered from me. I was the first to speak. "Lepardo Della Croce, it is the rebuke of heaven. Dust upon ashes; such is man's revenge. I have nursed, but scorn it now. Go in peace, and pray the Almighty that He be not like you. Stop; I will show you forth. You have a vindictive foe here, who would tear you to atoms."
I led the way, trembling at every corner lest we should meet Giudice; for I knew he would not obey me, if he once caught sight of this hated one. After standing silently, unable to take his eyes from the placid face of the dead, Lepardo began to follow me, walking as if in a dream. Meeting none, I led him forth along the corridor, down the end staircase, and out on the eastern terrace. There I waved him off, and pointed to the dark refuge of the shrubbery, beyond the mineral spring. The moonlight slept upon the black water narrowly threading the grass. Over our heads drooped the ivy, the creeper of oblivion. The murderer turned and looked at me; hitherto he had glided along with his head down, as in bewilderment. Oh that he had said one word of sorrow or repentance! He spoke not at all; but shuddered, as the ivy rustled above us. His face was pale as the moonlight. Did he see in me something higher than the spirit of Vendetta?
I pointed again to the trees, and urged him away from the house. He had two strong enemies there; a minute might make all the difference. Breaking as if from a spell, he waved his Italian cap, and his lithe strong figure was lost among the Portugal laurels. For a minute I stood there, wondering; then slowly went round the house-corner, and gazed at the grey stone mullions of the room which had been my father's.
I was still in the anguish of doubt and misgiving-what right had an ignorant girl like me to play judge and jury, or more, to absolve and release a crime against all humanity? – when a mighty form stood beside me, and Giudice, all bristle and fire, dashed forth from the door in the gable. With command and entreaty I called him, but he heard me not, neither looked at me; but scoured the ground like a shadow, quartering it as a pointer does, only he carried his nose down.
"Dang my slow bones," said the farmer, "but I'll have him yet, Miss. I seed him go, I'll soon find him."
"No, no. I won't have him stopped. He shall go free, and repent."
"By your lave, Miss, it can't be. A man as have done what he have, us has no right to play buff with. Never before did I go again your will, Miss; but axing your pardon, I must now. Look, the girt dog know better."
As the dog found the track and gave tongue, the farmer rushed from me and followed him, dashing headlong into the shrubbery, after leaping the mineral spring, at the very spot where the footprints had been. Judy and Farmer Huxtable were fast friends already; for that dog always made up his mind in a moment on the question of like and dislike.
For a time I was so horror-struck, that no power of motion was left. I knew that the farmer was quite unarmed, he carried not even a stick. Even with the great dog to help him, what could he do against fire-arms, which Lepardo was sure to have? What should I say to his wife and children, what should I say to myself, if John Huxtable fell a victim to that wily and desperate criminal?
Resolved to be present, if possible, I rushed down the narrow path which led to the little park-gate, where probably they would pass. I was right: they had passed, and flung it wide open. Breathless I looked around, for hence several tracks diverged. No living thing could I see or hear, but the beating of my heart, which seemed to be in my throat, and the hooting of an owl from the hollow elm at the corner. I flung myself down on the dewy grass, and strained my eyes in vain; until by some silver birch-trees on which the moonlight was glancing, I saw first a gliding figure that looked like a deer in the distance, then a tall man running rapidly. Away I made by a short cut for the "Witches' grave," as the end of the lake was called, for I knew that the path they were on led thither. Quite out of breath I was, for I had run more than half a mile, when I came full upon a scene, which would have robbed me of breath if I had any. At the end of a little dingle, under a willow-tree, and within a few feet of the water, stood Lepardo Della Croce, brought to bay at last. A few yards from him, Giudice was struggling furiously to escape the farmer's grasp; perhaps no other hand in England could have held him. His eyes kindled in the moonlight, like the red stars of a rocket, and a deep roar of baffled rage came from the surge of his chest, as he champed his monstrous fangs, and volleyed all the spring of his loins. The farmer leaned backward to hold him, and stayed himself by a tree-stump.
"Sharp now, surrender, wull e, man. In the name of of the Quane and the Lord Chafe Justice, and the High Shariff of Devon, I tell e surrender-dang this here dog-surrender, and I 'ont hoort e; and I 'ont let the girt dog."
Lepardo answered calmly, in a voice that made my blood cold:
"Do you value your life? If so, stand out of my way. I have death here for you, and five other dogs."
I saw the barrel of a large revolver, with a stream of light upon it. He held it steadily as a tobacco-pipe. I am glad he owned some courage. For my life, I could not stir. All the breath in my body was gone.
"Dear heart alaive. Thiccy man must be a fule," said the farmer quite contemplatively. "Don't e know who I be? Do e reckon they peppermint twistesses can hurt Jan Uxtable? I seed ever so many in a smarl shop window to Lunnon. Surrender now wull e, thou shalt have fair traial to Hexeter, as a Davonshire man have took e, and a dale more nor e desarves. Sharp now: I be afeared of the girt dog getting loose. Dang you dog. Ston up a bit." And the farmer approached him coolly, trailing the dog along; as if what the murderer held in his hand was a stick of Spanish liquorice.
"Fool, if you pass that stump, your great carcase shall lie on it."
"Fire away," said the farmer, "I knowed you was a coward, and I be glad it be so. Now mind, if so be you shuts, I lets the dog go, honour braight, because e dunno what fair play be. But if e harken to rason, I'll give e one chance more. I'll tie up the dog with my braces to thiccy tree-allers wear cart rope I does-and I'll tak e Quane's prisoner, with my left hond, and t'other never out of my breeches pocket; look e, zee, laike thiccy."
And the farmer buried his right hand in his capacious trowsery. The Corsican seemed astonished.
"Fool-hardy clown, worthy son of a bull-headed country, stop at the stump-then, take that."
Out blazed the pistol with a loud ring, and I saw that the farmer was struck. He let go the dog, and leaped up; his right hand fell on Lepardo's temple, and seemed to crush the skull in, – another shot at the same instant and down fell the farmer heavily. "Great God," I screamed, and leaped forward. But Giudice was loose to avenge him, though I could swear that it was on a corpse. Corpse or living body, over and over it rolled, with the dog's fangs in its throat. I heard a gurgle, a tearing, and grinding, and then a loud splash in the water. The dog, and the murderer, both of man and dog, sunk in the lake together. Twenty feet out from the shore rose above water one moment, drawn ghastly white in the moonbeams, the last view seen till the judgment-day of the face of Lepardo Della Croce.
Almost drowned himself-for he would not release his father's murderer, while a gasp was in him-staggered at last to the shore my noble and true dog Giudice. He fell down awhile, to recover his breath, then shook himself gratefully, tottered to me, where I knelt at the farmer's side, and wagged his tail for approval. The water from his chest and stomach dripped on the farmer's upturned face, and for a moment revived him.
"No belt, no tino lad, I 'ont tak' it. Zimth laike a ticket for chating. I dunno as I'd tak' the mony, if it warn't for the poor chillers, naine chillers now, and anither a-coomin. Mustn't drink no more beer, but Beany shall have his'n." And his head fell back on my lap, and I felt sure that he was dead. How I screamed and shrieked, till I lay beside him, with Judy licking my face, none can tell but the gamekeepers, who had heard the shots, and came hurrying.
Of this lower end of the lake they happened to be most jealous; for a brood of pintail ducks, very rare I believe in England, had been hatched here this summer, and no one was allowed to go near them. Poor Judy kept all the men aloof, till I was able to speak to him. Then I perceived that he as well was bleeding, wounded perhaps by the poniard as he leaped on his enemy's breast. It had entered just under the shoulder, and narrowly missed the heart.
They took us at once towards the house, carrying the farmer and Judy on the wooden floodgates of the stream called the "Witches' brook," which here fell into the lake. As we entered the avenue, being obliged to take the broad way, though much further round, we heard a carriage coming. It was the one I had sent for Conrad, with a hurried note to break the sad news of his father's death. He had been detained in London by a challenge he found from Lepardo; which was of course a stratagem to keep him out of the way. How delighted I was to see his calm brave face again, as he leaped down, and took my tottering form in his arms. In a minute he understood everything, and knew what was best to be done. He would not allow them to place the poor farmer in the carriage, as they foolishly wanted to do; but laid the rude litter down, examined the wounds by the lamplight, and bound them up most cleverly with the appliances of the moment.
"Oh, Conrad, will he die?"
"No, my darling, I hope not; but he must if they had let him bleed so much longer."
"I never heard that you were a surgeon, Conny."
"Could I call myself a sculptor, without having studied anatomy? My dearest one, how you tremble! Go home in the carriage, and give directions for us. A room downstairs, with a wide doorway, and plenty of air. I will stay with them, and see that they bear him gently. Poor Judy may go with you."
Thus Conrad saw for the first time the hearth and home of his ancestors, with his father lying dead there, and his avenger carried helpless. But I met him at the door. Did that comfort you just a little, my darling?
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