Richard Blackmore.

Clara Vaughan. Volume 3 of 3



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Landing at Gibraltar, I kept clear of my countrymen, not that I dislike them, but because-well I cannot tell why; and strolled away to the Spanish and Moorish quarters.

It was a windy evening, and in front of a low refreshment house some sailors and Spanish girls were dancing. A squabble arose among them; something I think it was about a young girl's dress. Knives were drawn, and two men were stabbed in less than the time I am speaking. I just saved the life of one, just saved it by half an inch. A fine-looking Spaniard lay under a Moor, who had tripped him up in their quick way. The point of the knife had flashed through the Spaniard's shirt and his flesh was cut, before the swing of my stick-upwards luckily-had jerked the Moor off his body. If I had struck downwards, or a millionth part of a second later, the blade would have stood in the heart. But I knew those fellows by this time. The Moor lay senseless from the quick upper-cut on his temples, and the knife was quivering where the impulse had failed it.

Now if Petro and I held deliberate choice-"proairesis" Oxford calls it-not to be turned into knife-sheaths, our only chance of developing into action that undeniable process of "nous," was to be found in the policy, vulgarly called "cut and run." At a shrill signal, from ship and from shore, the Moors came swarming silently and swiftly. Their yellow slippers and coffee-coloured legs seemed set upon springs by excitement. Some of the Spaniards stood bravely by us, and with their aid we hurried the wounded man into our boat, and pushed off just in time. Unlike the Corsican peasants, our pursuers carried no fire-arms, and before they could get any, we were at safe distance.

Having sent for an English surgeon, we kept the poor sailor on board the yacht, until he was quite out of danger. We Britons are not, as a general rule, an over-grateful race; we hate to be under an obligation, and too often illustrate the great philosopher's saying, that the doer feels more good will than the receiver of a kindness. Moreover, the Spaniards, in the neighbourhood of the Rock, could hardly be expected to love us, even if we were accustomed, which it is needless to say we are not, to treat them with decent courtesy. Therefore I was surprised at the deep and warm gratitude of this wounded man. A thing that enhanced his debt to me-for life, in my opinion, is very little to owe-was that he loved a young girl, the one over whom they had quarrelled, and he was about to marry her.

Discovering who I was, for he knew nothing of me at first, he saw that he could be of no little service to me. The only obstacle was a solemn oath; but from this, he believed, he could soon obtain release. With an Englishman's honest and honourable repugnance to any breach of faith, I was long reluctant to encourage this absolution. But the thought of my helpless children, robbed of their inheritance, and, still worse, of a father's love, and dependant on the caprice of a superstitious villain, this, and the recollection of my desolating wrongs, overpowered all scruples.

And is it not a wiser course, and more truly Christian, to port the helm than to cross the bows of another man's religion, at any rate so long as it be Christian also, though frogged in a pensioner's coat?

Being duly absolved-for which he would not allow me to pay-the Spanish sailor told me all he knew. He had been Lepardo's mate, on many a smuggling run, and in many an act of piracy off the coast of Barbary. But he had never liked his captain, no one ever did; though all the crew admired him as the cleverest man in the world. After the felucca was sold and her crew dispersed, the mate had followed for a while the fortunes of Lepardo. He told me things about him which I knew not how to believe. However, I will not repeat them, because they do not seem to bear upon my story. The name of my little girl he could not remember, for he was not at the christening, and she was always called the baby. Being a good-natured man he took kindly to the children, and told me anecdotes of them which brought the tears to my eyes.

After two or three months spent at Naples, they all left suddenly for Palermo, on account, as the mate believed, of my unexpected arrival; and here he lost sight of his commander, for tired by this time of an idle life, and seeing no chance of any more roving adventures, he accepted a berth in a brig bound for the Pir?us, and now after many shifts and changes was first mate of a fruit vessel sailing from Zante to London. The most important part to me of all his communication was that, on their previous voyage, they had carried to England Lepardo Della Croce and my two dear children. That murderer and kidnapper had taken the lead in some conspiracy against the government of the Two Sicilies, and through the treachery of an accomplice had been obliged to fly for his life. Disguising himself he contrived to reach Gibraltar, and took refuge on English ground. He was now very poor and in great distress, but still clung to the children, of whom he appeared to be fond, and who believed him to be their father. The "Duo Brachiones" touching there, as usual, for supplies, Lepardo met his old mate ashore; and begged for a passage to England. They took him to London, and there of course lost sight of him. He was greatly altered, the mate said, from the Lepardo of old. Morose and reserved he had always been; but now misfortune had covered him with a skin-deep philosophy. But his eyes contracted and sparkled as of yore, whenever my name was mentioned; and the mate knew what his intention was, in case he should find me a happy man. The simple mate was still more surprised at the alteration in my children; as pretty a pair, he said, as ever he set eyes on. But they were kept most jealously from the notice of the crew, and even from their ancient friend's attentions; they were never allowed to be on the deck, except when the berths were being cleaned. They seemed to fear their reputed father, a great deal more than they loved him.

Upon hearing this last particular I seized the mate by the hand, and felt something rise in my throat: I was so delighted to learn that the pirate had not succeeded in carrying nature by boarding. The next day I left Petro to see to the hardware business-to which we were bound by charter-while I set sail in the "Duo Brachiones" for the arms of my darling little ones.

CHAPTER XVIII

They put me in the very hammock where that murderer of all my happiness had slept, and no wonder that I could find no rest there. Soon as I knew the reason, I was allowed to change, and crept into the little berth where my innocent pets had lain in each other's arms. Here I slept much better than a king, for I even fancied that it smelt of Lily. If little Lily, as she shall be called, whatever the rogues have christened her, if my little beauty-for that I am sure she must be-ever comes to light, when I am in my grave, remember one thing, Clara, you will find her breath and general fragrance just as her mother's were. Such things are hereditary, especially among women.

After a long and stormy passage, and a fortnight spent in repairing at Bordeaux, we passed the familiar Essex marshes by night, and were off the Custom House by the last day of the year. When that tedious work was over-talk as we please of the douane, our own is as bad as most of them-feeling quite out of my latitude, and not a bit like an Englishman, I betook myself to a tavern near London Bridge. There everything seemed new, and I could not walk the streets without yawing into the wrong tide. But one old London custom held its ground with time. Papers a week and a fortnight old still strayed about in the coffee-room. Being told that the journals of that day were "in hand," as they always are, I took up a weekly paper of some ten days back to yawn over it till supper time. It was too late for me to think of disturbing Peter Green by a sudden arrival, and so I had ordered a bed at this hotel.

The weekly gazette in my hand was one of those which use the shears with diligence and method. Under the heading "Provincial News," I found the following paragraph: -

"SEASONABLE BENEVOLENCE. – We understand that in these times of severe and unmerited pressure upon the agricultural interest-the true back-bone of old England-the head of one of our most ancient and respected county families has announced his intention of remitting to all his tenantry no less than twenty per cent. upon their rentals. He has also bespoken a lavish and most princely repast-shall we say dinner-to be provided on Christmas eve for every man, woman, and child upon his large domain. When we announce that mine host of the Elephant is to be major domo, and our respected townsman George Jenkins, who purchased as our readers are aware the gold medal ox at Smithfield, is to cater for the occasion, need we say anything more? At the risk of gratuitous insult to the intelligence of the county, we must subjoin that the honoured gentleman to whom we allude is Henry Valentine Vaughan, Esquire, of Vaughan Park. Is not such a man, the representative of time-honoured sentiments, and who to a distinguished degree adds the experience of continental travel, is not such a man, we ask, a thousand times fitter to express in the Senate the opinions and wishes of this great county, than the scion, we had almost said spawn, of the Manchester mushrooms, whom a Castle that shall be nameless is attempting to foist on the county? We pause for a reply. -Gloucester Argus."

My dear brother's distinguished degree was that of B.A. after a narrow escape from pluck. Clara, don't look offended. Your father had very good abilities, but spent most of his Oxford time in pigeon matches at the Weirs, and expeditions to Bagley wood, which later in life he would have looked upon as felonious.

This paltry puff would never have been reprinted by a London journal of eminence and influence, but for the suggestion at the end, which happened just to hit the sentiments of the more exalted editor. Now this weekly paper was sure to circulate among refugees from the continent, by reason of its well-known antipathy towards them; and there happened to be in this very number a violent tirade against our Government for displaying what we delight to call the mighty ?gis of England. I saw the danger at once, and my heart turned sick within me. My gay and harmless brother in the midst of his Christmas rejoicings, and a stealthy murderer creeping perhaps at that very moment towards him.

But even if it were so, was there not some chance of Lepardo discovering his mistake, when in the neighbourhood where the Vaughans were so well known? Yes, some chance there was, but very little. Bound upon such an errand he would not dare to show himself, or to make any inquiries, even if they seemed needful. And the mention by that cursed gossip of what he called "continental travel" – your father's wedding tour-would banish all doubt of identity, had any been entertained. Even supposing that cold-blooded fiend should meet my poor brother, face to face, in the open daylight, it was not likely that he would be undeceived. Lepardo and I had met only once, and then in hot encounter. My brother was like me in figure, in face, and in voice; and though I was somewhat taller and much darker of complexion, the former difference would not attract attention, unless we stood side by side; the latter would of course be attributed to the effects of climate. From the gamekeeper's evidence, I am now inclined to believe that Lepardo, while lurking in the lower coppice, among the holly bushes, must have cast his evil eyes on your poor father's face, and convinced himself that he beheld his enemy.

Flurried and frightened, I looked at the date of the paper. It was twelve days old. Possibly I might yet be in time, for most likely the murderer would set out on foot, according to Corsican practice, with the travel-stone bound on his knee. Even if he had travelled in modern fashion, he would probably lurk and lie in ambush about the house, enduring hunger and cold and privation, until his moment came. Could I leave for Gloucester that night? No, the last train would have started, before I could get to Paddington. So I resolved to go by the morning express, which would take me to Gloucester by middle day.

After a sleepless night, I was up betimes in the morning, and went through the form of breakfast while the cab was sent for. Presently a waiter came in with the morning papers, the papers of New Year's-day, 1843. What I saw and what my feelings were, you, my poor child, can too well imagine. That day I could not bear to go. It was cowardly of me, and perhaps unmanly; but I could not face your mother's grief and the desolate household. Therefore I persuaded myself that I had discharged my duty, by visiting all the London police stations, and leaving the best description I could give of Lepardo. The following day I left London, and arrived, as perhaps you remember, long after dark, and during a heavy fall of snow. There at the very threshold I began amiss with you, for I outraged your childish pride by mistaking you for the housekeeper's daughter. With a well-born child's high self-esteem, and making no allowance for the dim light, you believed it to be a sham intended to mortify you; and it poisoned your heart towards me. But you were wholly mistaken. My mind was full of your mother and of the terrible blow to her; to you, whom I had never seen, and scarcely even heard of, I never gave a thought; except the mistaken one that you were not old enough to be sensible of your loss. Little did I imagine what a fount of resolute will, and deep feeling, found a vent in the kicks and screams of the large-eyed minnikin, that would not be ordered away.

You are entitled, Clara, to know all that I have done towards the discovery of your father's assassin, and all that I can tell to aid your own pursuit. The hair found in your mother's grasp was beyond a doubt Lepardo's; that laid upon your father's bosom was, of course, my Lily's. It was to show that her supposed seduction had been expiated. The one thing that most surprised me was that the murderer left no token, no symbol of himself. In a Vendetta murder they almost always do, as a mark of triumph and a gage to the victim's family. Hence I believed that Signor Dezio was not killed in Vendetta, but by his nephew for gain. How Lepardo got into the house I have no idea, or rather I had none, until you told me of the secret passage, and Mrs. Daldy's entrance. Till then I always thought that he had clambered up, as he did at Veduta tower. But unless there was a traitor in the household, he must have been there more than once, to have known so well your father's sleeping room.

It would have been waste of time for me to concern myself about the county police. That body of well-conducted navvies-Lepardo would have outwitted them, when he was five years old. Neither did I meddle with the coroner and his jury, but left them to their own devices and indigenous intellect. These displayed themselves in much puzzle-headed cross-questioning, sagacious looks, and nods, and winks of acute reservation. It was, as most often it is, a bulldog after a hare. Lepardo might safely have been in the midst of them, asked for a chair, and made suggestions. as "amicus curi?."

But with the London police it was somewhat different. They showed some little acumen, but their fundamental error is this-they pride themselves on their intelligence. No man of any real depth ever does such a thing as this. He knows very well that whatever he is, there are half a million more so; that the age of exceptional intellects expired, at least in this country, with Mr. Edmund Burke, and is not likely to rise from the dead. Now we are all pretty much good useful clods on a level: education, like all good husbandry, tends to pulverisation; and if the collective produce is greater, let us be at once thankful and humble.

The London police, being proud of their intelligence, declared that there could be no doubt about their catching the criminal. They laughed at my belief that he might walk through the midst of them, while they would touch their hats to him, and beg him to look after his handkerchief. At one time, I think, they were really on his track, and I went to London, and stayed there, and did my best to help them. But they were all too late; Lepardo, if he it were, had left for Paris the week before. To Paris I followed, but found no trace of him there. Then I went on to Corsica, thinking it likely that he would return to his old piratical ways. Moreover, I wanted to see how my children's estates were managed, and to revisit St. Katharine's.

All was calm and peaceful. Lily's grave and her father's were blended in one rich herbage. There all the bloom of my life was drooping, like the yellow mountain-rose, whence if a single flower be plucked, all the other blossoms fall.

Count Gaffori received me kindly. His daughter was married and had two children, who played where Lily's boy and girl should by rights be playing. I could not bear it, and came away, having nothing now to care for. Wherever I went the world seemed much of a muchness to me; and to my own misfortunes the blood of my brother was added. I found the "Lilyflower" still under worthy Petro, and returned in her to England, and she still is mine. Petro would not come; he was too true a Corsican to leave the beloved island now his hair was grey. So I set him up at Calvi with a vessel of his own, and now and then I receive a letter from good Marcantonia. They have promised to watch for the reappearance of our fearful enemy; and Petro has sworn to shoot him, if ever he gets a chance.

After my return to England, I set to work with all my energy to improve this property. In this, if in nothing else, I have thoroughly succeeded. Much opposition I had to encounter; for the tenants regarded me as a mere interloper, and their hearts were with you and your mother. When I call them together to-morrow, as I intend to do, abandon all my right, title, and interest, and declare you their Signora, it is my firm belief that they will hardly think me worth cursing before they worship you. This old retainership is a thing to be proud and yet ashamed of. It is a folly that makes one glory in being a fool. Why, after you left for Devonshire (much, as you know, against my will), I could not ride out without being insulted, and even the boys called me "Jonathan Wild." But this was due, in some measure, to your father's gay geniality, and hearty good-will to all men, contrasted with my satiric and moody reserve. Neither were your youth, and sex, and helplessness, lost upon that chivalrous being-if he only knew his chivalry-the sturdy English yeoman.

Why did I let you go? Well, I believe it was one of the many mistakes of my life; but I had a number of reasons, though personal dislike of you was not, as you thought, one of them. No, my child, I have never disliked you; not even on the night when you came and denounced me, with the dagger in your hand. I must indeed have been worse than I am, if I could have nourished ill-will against a young thing, whom I had made an orphan. By some instinct, you knew from the first that the deed was mine, although I was not the doer. I would have loved you, if you would have let me, my heart yearned so over children. But of my reason for letting you go, the chiefest perhaps-setting aside that I could not stop you-was this consideration. For years I had longed, and craved in my heart of hearts, to tell your mother all, and obtain her gentle forgiveness. But any allusion-no matter how veiled and mantled-to the story of her loss threw her, as you know well, into a most peculiar state, wherein all the powers of mind and body seemed to be quite suspended. With a man's usual roughness of prescription for the more delicate sex, I believed firmly that total change of living, and air, and place, and habits, would relax this wonderful closure, secure my forgiveness, and re-establish her health. The shock I received at her death was almost as terrible as when my brother died. When I stood beside you at her grave, I was come with the full intention of telling you all my story, and begging you to return with me, and live once more in your father's house. But your behaviour to me was so cold and contemptuous, that I forgot my crushing debt to you; and humiliation became, for the moment, impossible. I meant, however, to have written to you that evening, before you should leave the village; but (as you now are aware) that very evening, I was smitten helpless. Partially recovering, after months of illness, I was deeply distressed to find that you had left your good friends in Devonshire, and were gone, my informants could not say whither. Neither had I learned your whereabouts up to the time of my last illness, when I was making inquiries, of which your enemy reaped the benefit. For the rest, you know that I never meant to rob you of your inheritance, though bigoted nonsense enables me. To-morrow, please God, I will put it out of my power to do so. Mrs. Daldy's motive you have long since perceived. Failing my children, and the attainted Lepardo, her son is the heir to all the lands of the Della Croce. She has held me much in her power, by her knowledge of parts of my history. Henry's baptismal entry, as well as that of my marriage, was in the packet she stole. One word more, my darling-and from an old man, who has wandered and suffered much, you will not think it impertinent. Leave your revenge to God. In His way-which we call wonderful, because the steps are unseen-He will accomplish it for you, as righteousness demands. Any interference of ours is a worm-cast in His avenue. Though I am stricken and dying, He, if so pleases Him, will bring me my children before I die, that I may bless Him, and tell my Lily."



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