Clara Vaughan. Volume 3 of 3
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I fell upon the old man's neck-old he was, though not in years-and as I wept I kissed him. How could I have wronged him so, and how could I keep myself from loving one so long unhappy? If sorrow be the sponge of sin, his fault was wiped away.
At this time and place, I, Clara Vaughan, leap from the pillion of my Uncle's pensive mule, and am upon the curb-stone of my own strange life again. How I wandered with him through the olive groves of Corsica, how I wept for his loving Lily, that ancient Signor, and the stolen babes; and how, beyond the vomito of words, I loathed that fiend who had injured whom or what most I know not, unless it were his own soul, if he had any, and for God's sake I hope he had-all this, though I am too weak of language, will, perhaps, be understood.
To myself I would hardly confess the interest I could not discard in the pure and constant love of that impassioned pair; for what had I any longer to do with Pyramus and Thisbe? No more of love for me. You will not see me droop, and fret, and turn to a mossy green. No nonsense of that sort for me: I have a loop at either side entitled self-respect, which will keep my skirt from draggling. Neither will I rush into the opposite extreme, pronounce all love a bubble because my own has burst, take to low-necked dresses, and admire cats more than babies. No; I am only eighteen, not yet eighteen and a half; I have loved with all my heart, and a free true heart it is, albeit a hot and haughty one; if it be despised, outraged, and made nothing of, though I can never transfer, I will not turn it sour. The world is every whit as fair, children are quite as pretty, flowers have as rich a scent, and goodness as pure a charm, as if that silly maiden Clara had not leaped before she looked. And yet how I wish that I could only think so.
Before I go on with my tale, I must recur to one or two little matters, that everything may be as clear as it lies in my power to make it. For although I am but a "female," as Inspector Cutting observed, I am doing my best to make everything as clear as if told by a male.
In the first place then, when my Uncle had recovered from the exertion of telling his tale, I acquainted him with my discovery of the letters upon the bed-hangings. They confirmed his account of the fearful Vendetta usages, and explained the point which had been to him most mysterious.
Secondly, as to the anonymous letter which had led me first to London; like the detective policeman, he now attached but little importance to it. He had done his best, at the time, to trace the writer and follow the clue, if there were any. But he had met with no success. His reason for passing it on to me, was that he hoped to create some diversion of my thought, some break in the clouds of my sorrow.
Next, to show the full meaning of Mrs. Daldy's manoeuvres. Through her connexion-which she had carefully cultivated, when it began to seem worth her while-with her husband's kindred near Genoa, she had learned some portions of my poor Uncle's history; for, as he himself observed, the islanders are much addicted to gossip, as indeed all islanders are, and continentals too for that matter, especially in hot climates.Now there is no lack of intercourse between the Balagna and Genoa. Of course our chastened hypocrite made the most of her knowledge in a hundred ways, and by her sham sympathy and pretended aid-for up to the time of his illness the desolate father still sought and sought-she even secured some little influence over her brother-in-law. How often is it so: though we know people to be false, we do not believe, when our hearts are concerned, that they are so false to us. Moreover, when she found him shattered in body and mind by paralysis, she commenced an active bombardment, pulling out the tompions from every gun of mock religion. But, as in her treatment of me, she displayed, in spite of all her experience and trials, a sad ignorance of unregenerate human nature. My Uncle was not the man, palsied or no, to be terrified by a Calvinist: and he knew too much of her early days, and certain doings at Baden, to identify her at present with the angel that stands in the sun. And this prison-eyed mole made another mistake. Not content with one good gallery, she must needs work two runs, side by side, in a very mealy soil. The result was of course that they ran into one, and she had to dig her way out. If she had worked, heart and soul, for my Uncle's money only, which he rightly regarded as his own, and at his own disposal, I believe she might have got most of it. At any rate, under the will which I caught her carrying off, she was to take half of the large sum which he had laid by; I mean if his children did not come to light, and prove their legitimacy. But twenty-five thousand pounds would be nothing to her dear son, who had inherited his father's extravagance, or to herself, who loved high play. Therefore, believing me out of the field, she began to plot for the Vaughan estate as well, and furthermore for the magnificent property in Corsica. Of the Vaughan estates she had no chance-albeit she had the impudence to propose a compromise with me-of Veduta tower she had some prospect, if the right heirs, the poor children, should never appear, or establish their claim, and if she could procure the outlawry of Lepardo.
Believing my Uncle to be dying by inches, she made a bold stroke for possession of the most important documents; and, but for Giudice and me, no doubt she would have succeeded. But she had dashed far out of her depth, and had little chance now of reaching the coveted land. I hope she felt that everything was ordered for her good.
Another point which seems to require some explanation, is the discovery by the assassin of the secret entrance, an access quite unknown to the family, the servants, or any other person, except, at a later time, Mrs. Daldy. The house, as I said before, was built upon the site and partly embodied the fabric of a still more ancient structure. Probably these narrow stairs, now enclosed in the basement of the eastern wall, had saved many a ripe priest from reeling, in the time of the Plantagenets. They led, I think, from the ancient chapel, long since destroyed, to the chaplain's room, and perhaps had been reopened secretly during the great rebellion, when the Vaughans were in hot trouble. Beatrice Vaughan, the cavalier's child, who was now supposed to begin her ghost walk at the eastern window, glided probably down this staircase, when, as the legend relates, she escaped mysteriously from the house, in her father's absence, roused the tenants, and surprised the Roundhead garrison in their beds. The house was soon retaken, and Beatrice, in her youthful beauty, given up to the brutal soldiers. She snapped a pistol at the Puritan officer, and flew like a bird along this corridor. At the end, while trying perhaps to draw the old oak slide-though nothing was said of this-she was caught by the gloating fanatics, and stabbed herself on the spot rather than yield to dishonour. The poor maiden's tomb is in the church, not far from the chancel arch, with some lines of quaint Latin upon it. Her lover, Sir William Desborough, slit that Puritan officer's nose and cut off both his ears. I wonder that he let him off so lightly; but perhaps it was all he was worth. Major Cecil Vaughan married again, and the direct line was re-established.
The chapel well, as it was called, dark and overhung with ivy, was a spring of limpid icy crystal, spanned by and forming a deep alcove in the ancient chapel wall, which, partly for its sake, and partly as a buttress for the east end of the house, had been left still standing. This old well had long time been disused, hiding, as it did, in a wild and neglected corner out of sight from the terrace walk; and the gardeners, who found the pump less troublesome, had condemned the water as too cold for their plants. The mouth, with its tangled veil of ivy and periwinkle, was also masked by a pile of the chapel ruins, now dignified with the name of a rockwork. Some steps of jagged stone led through the low black archway to the crouching water, which was so clear that it seemed to doubt which was itself and which was stone.
This peaceful, cold, unruffled well, formed the antechamber to the murderer's passage. For on the right-hand side, not to be seen in the darkness, and the sublustrous confusion, by any common eye, was a small niche and footing-place not a yard above the water. It needed some nerve and vigour to spring from the lowest stepping-stone sideways to this scarcely visible ledge. None, of the few whose eyes were good enough to espy it, would be tempted to hazard the leap, unless they knew or suspected that the facing would yield to the foot, that it was in fact a small door purposely coloured and jointed like the slimy green of the masonry. In this well the murderer must have lurked; and he might have done so from one year's end to another. There with the craft of his devilish race-my Uncle may admire them, but not I-and with their wonderful powers of sight, he must have found this entrance, and rejoiced in his hellish heart.
As for Mrs. Daldy, she found it out at the other end, most likely. Unless my memory fails me, I spoke long ago of some boards which sounded hollow to the ring of my childish knuckles. These were in the skirting-if that be the proper name for it-under the centre of the great oriel window. The oak slides, when pressed from below, ran in a groove with but little noise, and without much force being used: but it required some strength to move them on the side of the corridor. It was the sound of these sliding boards which had first drawn Judy's notice: but as they were in deep shadow, I neither perceived the opening, nor gave him the opportunity. That woman would never have dreamed of the thing, if she had not surprised me one day when I was prying about there; she must have returned alone, and being, as we have seen, a superior cabinet-maker, discovered the secret which baffled me. As I did not want Judy to catch cold by watching there any longer, I had this horrible passage walled up at either end, and built across in the middle.
Having thus made good my arrears, I am at liberty to proceed. When my Uncle had paused from his many sorrows, which he did with a mellow dignity not yet understood by me; and when I, in the fervour of youth, had offered much comfort kindly received, but far better let alone, I asked him for one thing only: – the most minute and accurate description he could give of that Lepardo Della Croce. His answer was as follows: -
"My dear, I have seen him once only, and that more than twenty years ago, and in an interview of some excitement" – I should think so indeed, when one tried to kill the other-"but I will describe him to the best of my recollection. He is rather a tall man, at least of about my own height, but more lightly built than myself. His hands and feet are remarkably small and elegant. His face is of the true Italian type, a keen oval with a straight nose, and plenty of width between the eyes, which are large and very dark. His forehead is not massive, but well-formed, and much whiter than the rest of his face. The expression of his countenance is that of shrewdness and versatility, with a quickness eager to save both you and himself from the trouble of completing your sentence. But all this is common enough. One thing I saw, or fancied, which is not quite so common. As I dealt him that blow with my fist, my eyes for one flash met his, and his leaped towards one another, as if he had a strong cast in them. Before that, and afterwards too, there was no appearance of any distortion: if there were any at that moment, it arose from the start of terror or fury jerking the muscles awry. His voice is flexible and persuasive, and soft as a serpent-charmer's. I think he must be a most arrogant man; profoundly convinced of his own abilities, but seldom caring to vindicate them. Just the man to get on in the world, if he were only what is called respectable. Just the man to break a woman's heart, and crush the spirit of a meek and humble child. Ah, I would forgive him his sins against me, though not his wrongs towards you, if I could only learn that he had been kind to my children."
This description dwelt on my mind for days and days of thinking. It did not altogether apply to the man whom I had observed so closely at the meeting of the conspirators. That man was of middle height, and though his face was oval, there was scarcely the average width between the eyes. And he did not seem to me like an arrogant man, cold except when excited; but rather of a hasty, impassioned nature, sure to do its utmost in trifles. Could it be that I had watched and hated the wrong man? It might be so; and it was not unlikely that Mr. Cutting himself knew not which was the guilty one. Like most of the London policemen-my Uncle had taught me this-he was too proud of his sagacity to be in truth very sagacious. Experience he had, and all that; but he would not have done in Paris. The real depth, that goes below, and yet allows for the depth of another, must be in the nature, can rarely exist in a small one, and in a large one is seldom worked but for theoretical purposes. Therefore shallow men overreach in daily life, and fancy they have blinded those who know them thoroughly, and know themselves as well.
So far as my experience goes, large-natured men abhor cunning so much, that they fear to work the depth of their own intelligence, because it seems akin to it. So they are cheated every day, as a strong man yields to the push of a child; and the fools who cheat them chuckle in the idea that they have done it by fine sagacity, and without the victim's knowledge.
At my earnest entreaty, the idea of assembling the tenants especially was allowed to drop, and I was to be inducted at the Midsummer dinner, which was very near at hand. A deed had been prepared by the London solicitors, reciting the facts and assuring all the estate to me, as my father's proper heiress. My Uncle also desired to settle upon me all the personal property, except a sum of 10,000*l.*, which he would reserve for his children, to enable them, if ever they should be found, to establish their claims in Corsica: then if the son obtained his rights, his sister was to have the money with all expenditure made good by him. But I would not hear of it. It would have made me a rogue. By his skill and economy, my Uncle, during the nine years of his management, had saved more than 50,000*l.* from the proceeds of the estate. But he had added at least an equal amount to the value of the land, by carrying out most judiciously the improvements begun by my father; and the whole was now considered the best-managed estate in Gloucestershire.
Therefore, when he abandoned his legal right, in the most honourable manner, it would have been horribly shabby and unlike a Vaughan, to hold him accountable for the back rents. I begged him to leave the whole of it for the benefit of his poor children, requesting only, and unnecessarily, that the hypocrite might not have sixpence. Another thing I entreated, that he would prolong his guardianship, and stewardship, if his health allowed it, until I should be of age, that is to say, for two years and a half. Seeing how earnestly I desired it, he undertook to do so, though he made the promise with a melancholy smile, adding that he hoped his children would be found ere then, if he was to see them at all.
When the rent-dinner was over, and the glasses had been replaced, my Uncle, who had not been there as usual, led me into the great old hall. Feeble as he was, he entered with a grace and courtesy not always to be discovered in the mien of princes. The supper-as the farmers called it-had not begun till six o'clock; and now the evening sunshine glanced through the western window, and between the bunches of stoning grapes into the narrow doorway, stealing in from the Vinery with sandals of leafy pattern. The hall was decked with roses, no other flower but roses; yet who could want any other, when every known rose was there? Even the bright yellow blossoms of the Corsican rock-rose, a plant so sensitive that to steal one flower is to kill all the rest. From time out of mind, some feudal custom of tenure by the rose had been handed down in our family.
All the guests rose as we passed, which made me rather nervous, albeit I knew every one of them from my childhood up. Then my Uncle, leaning on me, spoke a few words from the step, plain and simple words without flourish or pretence. What he said was known long since, and had been thoroughly discussed in every house of the village. He finished by setting me in the black oak chair of state-which he had never used-and presenting me with a rose; then he turned round and proposed my health. When I took the rose, an exquisite crested moss, kissed it and placed it in my bosom, according to the usage, such a shout arose, such an English hurrah, that it must have echoed to the other bank of the distant Severn. At first I was quite frightened, then I burst into tears as I thought of him whose chair I sat in, whose memory still was echoing in that mighty shout. It was not only love of right, or sympathy with a helpless girl, that moved those honest bosoms, but the remembrance of him who had been so pleasant to them, humble, kind and just, in one word, a gentleman.
But as they came up, one by one, and begged to take my hand, and wished me joy and long life with all their hearts, I found that I was right in one thing; I knew them better than my Uncle did. Instead of being rude or cold to him, as he expected, they almost overwhelmed him with praise and admiration. But all this I must not dwell on, for my story hurries hence, and its path is not through roses.
Annie Franks, who still was with us, and did not mean to go until she had finished all the Froissart novels, and such a dear good girl she was, that we hoped they would last for ever, Annie Franks brought me next day two letters of aspect strange to "good society." One I knew at a glance to be from Tossil's Barton, though the flourishes were amazing, and the lead-pencil lines rubbed out. The other, a work of far less ambition and industry, was an utter stranger; so of course I took it first. Nevertheless, I will treat of it last, because it opens the stormy era.
Dear Sally's gossip is not to be served up whole. Even if it were interesting to others as to me, my space permits no dalliance with farm-yards, no idyls of Timothy Badcock, nay, nor even the stern iambics of Ebenezer Dawe. Only to be just and clear, I may not slur it all. The direction was remarkable. The farmer was always afraid of not being duly explicit, for he believed that letters were delivered throughout England as in the parish of Trentisoe; where all, except those for the parson and Tossil's Barton farm, were set upside down in the window at Pewter Will's, the most public-house in the place. The idea was ingenious, and, I believe, original-having been suggested by the Queen's boy, whose head Mrs. Huxtable punched. It was that no one could read the name upside down, except the owner of the name and therefore of the letter. Sound or not, I cannot say, having had no experience; but there was this to be said for it, that no one would try the puzzle who did not expect a letter, unless indeed he were of precocious genius, and from that Trentisoe was quite safe.
Upon the present "papper-scrawl," after a long description of me, patronymical, local, and personal, the following injunctions and menaces were added, "Not be stuck tops I turve I on no account in no public house. She be in her own house now again, thank God and dang them as turned her out I say, so mind you carr it there. A deal of money there be in it, and no fear of Joe because he knows it, and there lives a man in Gloucestershire knows me well by the name of Thomas Henwood. Best look sharp I say. I be up to every one of you. John Huxtable his name, no mark this time. God save the queen."
So the farmer had actually learned to write, although as yet to a strictly limited extent. Of course he had not written any of the above except his name; but that was his, and did him credit, though it nearly described a circle.
After the warmest congratulations and returning the five-pound note, which I had sent for interest, with an indignant inquiry from father whether I took him for a Jew, and after several anecdotes and some histories of butter sold at Ilfracombe market, Sally proceeded thus:
"Now what do you think, Miss Clara dear? No you never would guess as long as you live-father are going to London town, and me, and Jack, and Beany Dawe. None of us have slept two grunts of a pig, ever since it were made up, only father, and he always sleep without turning. Now mind if I tell you all about it, you must not tell again, Miss Clara, because there is ever so much money upon it, and we do hear they have put it on some London paper and no business of theirs. Two great gentlefolks, the greatest of any about these parts, have been and made up a bet for my father to wrestle along with a great big chap as they calls the North Country champion. Seems as some great Northern lord was boasting in London one dinner-time, Speaker's dinner they called it because there were a deaf and dumb dinner next day, this here great lord was telling up as how Sam Richardson were the strongest man in the world. So our Sir Arthur spake up for Devonshire, and laid him a quart-pot full of sovereigns as he would find a better man in the West country. And so I don't know the rights of it, nor father nor mother either, but it was made up atwixt them that Farmer Huxtable, that's my father, Miss, should try this great North country chap at the time of the great Xabition-you never showed me the way to spell it, Miss, so I go by the light of nature, as you used to say, Miss-and should take best of three falls for 200*l.* a side. That will be 400*l.* for us, when father gets it, and all his expenses paid, and they say the other folk won't allow no kicking, so he must be a soft-shelled chap; but father feel no call to hurt him, if so be he can help it. Mother don't want father to go, but he say he be bound for the honour of old Devonshire, or maybe they will take a man not good enough to make a standard.
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