by Ada Cambridge
They sat in their American buggy at the turn of an English road—an
Australian bride and bridegroom, on their wedding tour. It was a bit of
the "old country" that had not been syndicated and modernized since the
bridegroom had seen it last—when he was a young fellow at Cambridge,
paying visits to the houses of his university chums because his own
home was inaccessible. Tall hedges embraced the ripening wheat-fields
still; brambly ditches yawned beneath them. There were dense woods
hereabouts that made green tunnels of the road, and there were thickets
of fern and wild vines and bushes—acres of unprofitable beauty—under
the useless trees. The spot was a joy to the sentimental wayfarer, and
Mrs. Wingate's gaze meant rapture not expressible in words.
"This," she sighed, "is England, Billy."
She meant that this was the England of her romantic dreams—England
as described to her by exiled parents and in scores of delightful
"And this," said Billy, "is the place I told you of."
He pointed with his whip.
Just below and before them rose an ancient gateway, iron and stone,
with much heraldic ornament. An ivy-mantled lodge with curly
chimney-stacks stood immediately within; and beyond, sloping gently
upward for a mile or more, a straight, grassed drive between thick
woods—a beautiful green vista, three times as wide as an ordinary park
avenue—was closed, on an elevated horizon, by the indistinct but
imposing mass of a great grey house, one of those "stately homes of
England" which are our pride and boast. It was a lovely picture, and a
lovely atmosphere through which to view it—tinted with the hues of
approaching sunset on a late summer day. A few head of deer were
browsing quietly on the shadow-patterned sward; thrushes were calling
to each other from wood to wood; partridges flying homeward to their
nests in the corn, disturbed by the sound of the horses' hoofs.
"There it is," said the bridegroom, his eyes kindling, his voice
full of feeling, evoked by thronging memories of the splendid days of
youth. "And you should see it when the pink may is out and those woods
full of rhododendron in flower! Look at that grass ride—the deer like
to come out there to feed, though they hide in the fern to rest—and
what a stretch for a gallop! There wasn't the shooting in my time that
there is now, but many a jolly day have I had with Walter Desailly in
those fields over there, walking up our birds with one old dog through
the turnips and stubble. You see that water shining through the trees?
There was duck there; we shot them with a rook rifle by moonlight out
of a bedroom window, and scared the maids with the row we made; once we
caught a forty-two pound pike on a night-line; Walter had been fishing
for it all his life, and found three sets of his tackle rusted in its
jaws. The old squire had it stuffed for a curiosity. I wonder if Walter
has it still, and whether he ever thinks of those old days?"
The speaker sighed inaudibly. He was a fine man, in his prime,
inclining to stoutness, and with a suspicion of frost upon his short
brown beard. "Those old days" were nearly twenty years ago.
"You ought to call upon him," said Mrs. Wingate, "and remind him of
them. I'm sure he would be delighted, if you were such friends as that.
Then you could show me over. Probably he would invite us to stay with
him. At any rate, he might be able to advise us about a place for
This pair, it must be explained, were wealthy, as was the case with
many Australians at that date—a period now indicated in the
conversation of their countrymen is "the good times"—he a lucky
Queensland pastoralist, she an heiress of the Silver Boom, both rather
new to prosperity of this kind, but too naturally nice to be vulgarized
by it. Neither had any of the gross ambitions common to persons in
their case, but both desired keenly to enjoy their money. They had just
concluded a most successful London season, without having been
presented at Court or made notorious in society papers; and they were
now touring the country behind their own horses, mainly for rest and
independence, and to see what was to be seen, but also in search of a
good house in a sporting neighbourhood, where they might make a home
and entertain their friends during the shooting and hunting seasons.
Mrs. Wingate's dream of luxury was to live in a medieval castle, with
history around her in the atmosphere of refined, aristocratic,
old-England life, as she had romantically imagined it. Mr. Wingate
craved for gun and rod and a straight run after a stout fox—the joys
of his early manhood, which memory had idealized—but was mainly bent
at present upon pleasing his wife. They gazed together at the most
attractive "place" they had yet seen, with thoughts of proprietorship
that they felt were absurd and vain. Windsor Castle seemed as likely to
be to let as the old mansion of the Desaillys, which had not wanted a
master of the name for at least four hundred years.
"Why don't you call on him?" urged the bride. "To have been college
friends surely is introduction enough?"
"We parted on bad terms," replied Wingate, with an air of reserve.
"What does that matter, after all these hundreds of years? You are
not Corsican vendetta people. English gentlemen quarrel and have done
with it; they don't bear malice for a lifetime. I am sure he has
forgotten the whole thing long ago. Unless," she added, with a glance
at her husband's face, "unless it was something very desperate indeed.
Was it? Oh, I believe it was! A woman, of course. If you don't want to
tell me, Billy, you need not."
Billy's left arm curled round the bride's slim waist.
"You are such a dear, kind little soul, Nettie, that I really don't
mind telling you," he said, after a pause. "You'll believe me, I know,
when I declare on my honour that it wasn't my fault. And, besides, it
was before your time, sweetheart; almost before you were born, indeed."
"Yes, Billy; I know I am not the first, by thousands!"
"Oh, not quite so many as that! Just—well, never mind—there's
only you now, pet—only you for evermore." He kissed her at this point,
for it was a lonely bit of road where they had stopped to look at the
view and breathe the horses. And she returned his caress with a laugh,
much comforted by the reflection that the particular lady referred to,
if still alive, would be forty by this time, if not more.
"She was the daughter of a Cambridge bookseller," confessed Billy.
"It don't sound much, but a truer lady never stepped. We called her
'the Princess,' because she treated us all with such crushing dignity.
Lots of us were gone on her: really, I think, just because of that; but
Walter Desailly cut me out. At any rate, he said something that made me
stop going there, so that I mightn't seem to be interfering with him.
Of course I imagined it was just a little affair, like others, and
never thought he would dream of marrying her, because the Desaillys are
such great folks and so proud of their pedigree. But he did. I suppose
she is living there now in state as my lady, and forgets that she ever
waited in her father's shop. But, no—she wouldn't; she hadn't an ounce
of that sort of snobbishness in her."
"Go on," said Mrs. Wingate, breaking a meditative pause. "There is
no motive for quarrel, so far. I hope I am not strait-laced, Billy
dear, and you couldn't make me jealous if you tried; but I do hope you
did not elope with her afterwards."
"I did nothing, Nettie, that you would not have approved of, had
you been there and known all the circumstances. Walter did not know all
the circumstances, and a man won't believe the word of his best friend
in these cases, if appearances are against him. Come to that, I don't
blame him. I wouldn't myself. It was a chapter of accidents all
through. In the first place, I never thought of Lexie Baird again after
I left Cambridge. I came home—"
"And got engaged to that fat woman who is now Mrs. Ross."
"She was not a fat woman then. Let us keep to the point, if you
please. But perhaps you don't care to hear about it?"
"Oh, I do—I do! I never was more interested in anything. And I
think it is so good and dear of you, Billy, not to mind telling me."
She slipped her hand within his elbow, and laid her fair young
cheek upon his very large coat sleeve. She really was a sweet little
bride, incapable of a mean thought about her husband, as he well knew.
"I came home, and took to business, and did not return to England
for a couple of years and more. I went then because—no, not because of
any woman, fat or thin, as I see you would insinuate—though it was not
nice to live in a place where a fascinating widow was employing lawyers
to write her letters to you. At any rate—well, look here, Nettie;
young men will be young men, just as boys will be boys—they can't help
it; and you needn't rake up old follies now that I've grown wise. Yes,
I'm wise now. You are a witness to it. All those blunders were teaching
me your value, don't you see? Perhaps I had better not tell you any
more. It was stupid to mention the subject."
She apologized so prettily for having dared to laugh, and urged him
with such obvious sincerity not to tell her any more if he would rather
not, that he proceeded with his little tale immediately.
"I went to shoot at a place not far from here, and a girl in the
house told me that young Desailly had married a low barmaid, and been
cut by his family for it. I was quite staggered by the news, because
he'd been a fastidious sort of fellow, and I wanted to find him and
cheer him up a bit; but no one knew where he was. The girl, Miss
Balcombe—her father was the rector here—she was awfully bitter. It
seems Walter had wanted to marry her at one time, and his people
wouldn't have it. She was no end of a pretty girl, but there was
something about her—she reminded me of a silky cat; and the way she
talked of poor Lexie—I didn't know it was Lexie then—was fiendish. A
low barmaid, indeed! No wonder I hadn't a notion what was coming. By
the way, she honoured me with a particular regard. It's not for me to
say it, but if I'd liked—however, I didn't."
"Sure?" Mrs. Wingate questioned cautiously.
"Quite sure. She gave me the creeps sometimes when she used to
smile. It was a perfectly heavenly smile, if you can understand, but
she just put it on and off like a mask, and it was always the same for
all purposes. She'd look really like an angel with that smile on, and
her fair hair, and complexion like a lily; and all the time you'd have
a cold feeling that she was thinking she'd like to strangle you. At
least, that's how I felt when I was trying not to make love to her—I
mean to resist her inducements to—I mean—but you know what I mean."
"Perfectly, Billy dear."
"Oh, she was a little devil, that girl! I know she was, though she
was a parson's daughter. To look at her father, a real old-style
rector, fat and red, fond of good living and not too fond of work—the
commonplace personified—you'd really feel doubts as to whether he
could be her father. Same with her mother, a meek little goose of a
woman, who just fell down before her child and worshipped her. But a
dear little soul for all that. We got on capitally together. She
invited me to visit them at that old rectory over there"—pointing with
his whip to a church tower in the landscape—"and I got a sprained
wrist from a hunting fall first time I went out that season, and she
nursed me as if I were a son of her own. What are you smiling at,
"Nothing, dearest. I didn't know I smiled."
"And it was while I was there that everything happened. The very
day I arrived they told me that Walter had been forgiven and taken
back, because his wife—that low barmaid, you know!—had had a son, and
somebody had reported that it was a fine child, and the old squire,
being naturally anxious about the succession, thought it time to set
things straight. Nobody had seen them yet, but there was to be a small
dinner party that night to meet them, and I had been invited. Well, you
can imagine my feelings when I stood with the others round the fire in
the hall—I wish you could have a sight of that hall, Nettie!—to see,
coming down the stairs by Walter's side, our princess—and looking it
too, by George!—instead of the vulgar creature I had been expecting. I
never was so struck all of a heap in my life. As for Geraldine
Balcombe, oh, it was rich to see her smiling when Mrs. Walter Desailly
was introduced to her! I had walked there with her—up that very grass
ride you see before you, which is a good deal longer than it looks—and
all the way she had been dancing on her toes, as it were, full of the
triumph she was going to have over them all, and especially over the
wife Walter had taken instead of her; she couldn't keep her elation
within decent bounds. Dress!—I believe you. A regular ball gown of
white satin, the best she'd got, and pearls round her neck—a lovely
neck it was, too—and flowers out of the greenhouse. She'd got herself
up regardless, thinking how mad Walter would be when he compared her
with the low person, and how old Sir Thomas and my lady would curse the
stratagems they had used so successfully to keep her out of the family.
She quite thought she was going to have a rich revenge on the lot of
them that night. And there was Lexie, looking like a real princess, in
her plain black gown, with hardly any neck showing, putting everybody
in the shade. Oh, she was a beautiful woman, Nettie! There was no
mistake bout it. Even Geraldine, though her vanity was like a
rhinoceros' hide, felt it directly she saw her; and I know she hated
poor Lexie like poison from that moment. There was no love lost on the
other side either. When Lexie heard her calling 'Walter' here and
'Walter' there, like a cooing dove, I understood the look in her eyes.
She was quick enough to smell a rat, and she wasn't the sort of woman
to be trifled with. I can tell you she walked into that house all on
fire with the humiliations they had made her suffer before they knew
her, and if she didn't make them eat humble pie, from the great Sir
Thomas downwards, I'm a Dutchman. Do you think she'd have her child
sent for to be introduced and inspected? Not a bit of it. Everybody was
dying to see the heir, for whose sake she had been condoned and
acknowledged, and she calmly refused to have him disturbed out of his
regular habits. Sir Thomas himself said, with his queer smile—he and
she became very good friends afterwards—that he supposed they'd have
to go on their knees at the nursery door before she'd deign to show it.
Oh, she was a match for Miss Geraldine—except that she was all open
and above board, and Geraldine was so secret and treacherous. I know
that girl began to make mischief between husband and wife—and
me—before we'd been an hour together. Of course Lexie vas very pleased
to see me."
"Why? if you don't mind my asking, Billy."
"Well, you see I was an old friend, and I was not so grand as the
Desaillys. Though she was not bit afraid of them, their stately ways
oppressed her Besides, she was angry with them for the way they had
repudiated her, and too proud to submit to be suddenly patronized and
tolerated, and to make herself cheap to them all at once. Moreover,
Walter behaved like an idiot. Instead of keeping near her, to pilot her
about and help her to understand the strange ways, he sat the whole
blessed evening in Geraldine Balcombe's pocket. Her doing, of course,
but that didn't excuse him. He was her husband, and he ought to have
backed her up. I know she felt it. In fact, I could see plainly that
they were not as happy together as they should have been. Walter would
have liked to talk to me about that—he did tell me he'd had a devil of
a time keeping house on a bachelor's allowance—but I always shut him
up straight. He was a selfish fellow, Walter Desailly. She was
infinitely too good for him."
He paused, gazing at the grey pile on the horizon, unconscious of
the creeping twilight that had begun to blot it out. His wife heaved a
pensive little sigh. He did not hear it.
"They asked me to The Chase to stay. By degrees the house filled,
for Sir Thomas tried to make up to her for past slights and to bring
the county families to receive and respect her. Men came to shoot, and
there were parties given. Somehow Geraldine was always there, and she
was always with Walter. The fellow must have been mad, or else the
little cat had some power of witchcraft in her. To neglect a woman like
Lexie, and she his wife, for such an unwholesome,
cold-blooded—however, she wasn't cold-blooded to him. I do think she
loved him as far as she could love anybody. I know she turned against
me as soon as ever he came home—regularly hated me, in fact—partly, I
suppose, because I sided with Lexie, whom she hated more. Why, the very
last time I ever saw her, when I went to say goodbye, she was
deliberately burning a fichu thing of Venetian lace just because I had
given it to her—a valuable piece, mind you, of a rare pattern, that I
had been stupid enough to pay a lot of money for; stuffing it into the
fire, she was, and ramming it down with the poker, as if it was so much
"An extraordinary way to show spite!" Mrs. Wingate ejaculated. "And
she did not scorn your offering in the first instance?"
"It wasn't my offering. She almost wheedled it out of me—admired
it so much that for very shame I had to give it to her. It wasn't meant
for her at all."
"That makes it still more extraordinary. If it had been Mrs.
Walter's lace, I could understand it. For whom did you mean it, dear?"
"I don't know. Not for her, at any rate. But she got it, and seemed
to think no end of it too—always wore it when she wanted to be extra
smart. That very night she had had it on, over a blue silk dress. In a
paroxysm of rage she just tore it off her shoulders and destroyed it. I
asked her why, and she said because she did not want anything that
reminded her of me. When I asked her why again, she said something
implying that I had paid her attentions and then thrown her over. Which
was a lie. But I was so upset myself that I didn't care what she said
or what she thought. I left The Chase that night and went to the
Himalayas, and I don't know where—the farthest off that I could get.
And I never heard a word of the Desaillys from that day to this. Oh,
yes, I heard that Sir Thomas was dead—that's all."
"But you haven't told me what happened, Billy?"
"Oh, nothing much happened. I stayed a little while the first
time—not long; you can't stay in a house when you see your host
growing cool to you—getting utterly unfounded suspicions of you into
his head. I went on to other places, and wandered about a bit; looked
up her people at Cambridge, to tell them about her and how she was
settling down. They were a nice family, none the worse for being
tradespeople—three jolly young sisters, who were so proud of her rise
in life; and when they asked me to stay a few days with them, I did, of
course. She didn't know I was there, but one day—it was winter time,
and I'd just come in from my old college chapel with two of the
girls—we found her in the sitting-room, crying in her mother's lap as
if her heart would break. She had come home because she could not bear
it—Geraldine, you know—and said she was going to stay awhile and have
a rest; but they were so awfully afraid she would make a breach with
her husband and offend the Desaillys that they implored her not to. I
went out of the room to leave them together, but presently they called
me back, and she was quite recovered and calm. She made some excuse for
her sudden visit, and said she must return before night—it was nearly
night already—and would I look up the trains for her. She had the
child with her, and, of course, she had remembered about his being the
heir and belonging to The Chase in spite of her; and she was keener now
than anybody to retrieve her false step. For it was a false step, and
she, who was always so sensible and courageous, must have been
fearfully treated to make her take it. I never knew what they did to
her. They, I say. But Walter was a gentleman when not bewitched by that
fiend of a girl.
"Well, I took her home. I had to, because the only man in her
family was ill, and she couldn't be allowed to knock about railway
stations alone at that hour. Besides, she was so perfectly innocent and
unconscious of wrong that she asked me to escort her. We had the child
with us, and we hardly spoke the whole way; she was full of her
thoughts, so was I, neither of us could mention what they were, though
we were such old friends. I wished with all my soul that I could leave
her outside her gates, but I dared not suggest it; I had to go on right
to the house, or put ideas into her head that she was above dreaming
of. And Walter received us, and you can imagine how much he believed of
the explanation we had to give; he just turned on his heel and walked
away, leaving us standing together in the great hall. And I saw
Geraldine Balcombe up in the gallery, looking down and smiling.
"Of course Lexie knew then. She was as white as a sheet. Poor girl!
Poor girl! But I never saw such bravery in a woman, and she was more
like a princess than ever. I had already arranged to sleep at the inn
in the village—the Desailly Arms, where we will put up now, if it is
still in existence—taking on the fly we had got at the station; and
she just quietly bade me good-night, and thanked me for taking such
good care of her; and I left her—left her alone to bear it all.
"However, I went to The Chase next day. I could not rest, and I
determined to have it out with Walter. So I did, and so lost control of
myself that I did her more harm than good, but she forgave me that.
Look here, Nettie, I will make a clean breast of it—it is over and
done with these twenty years, so you needn't be jealous—but I was hard
hit. I was damned hard hit."
"And told her?"
"Good heavens, no! I'd have cut my throat sooner. But seeing her in
all that trouble—burning to help her, and not able to—I think she got
a notion, just at the last She encouraged me to travel. She was so
kind, never reproaching me, but I knew what she meant. She wished me to
go away, and never come back. And I did—for twenty years, at any rate.
This is the first time—what? Oh, you precious little noodle! You don't
mean to tell me you are jealous, after all? Now, Nettie, I'll let you
into another dead secret: for fifteen, at least, out of those twenty
years I haven't cared a single, solitary straw about her, not even
enough to inquire of anybody whether she was alive or dead. And surely
to goodness you don't suppose I am going to do it now?"
"You are a faithless wretch," Mrs. Wingate ejaculated, wetting his
cheek with the tip of an eyelash. "I suppose fifteen other women—oh, I
begin to see what I have done in marrying a handsome husband! But one
thing I insist on, Billy—I will see Lady Desailly with my own eyes
before we leave this place, and so shall you. Call up that man who is
going along the road, and ask him if the family is home."
William Wingate had a feeling that he would rather inquire about
his old sweetheart elsewhere than at the buggy side on the public
highway. And so, finding his wife firm in demanding the immediate
satisfaction of her curiosity, and that he should be confronted at the
earliest opportunity with a woman old enough to be her mother—another
Mrs. Ross with an immeasurable waist—he said he would seek information
at the lodge, where he might find some one who remembered him. She
approved, and took the reins. He jumped down, and the ivied cottage
with the Tudor chimneys swallowed him. It was all but dark when he
reappeared, and yet she saw at once that he had had a shock.
"Ah," she cried sympathetically, "your Lexie is dead!"
"Worse," he groaned, as he swung himself into the buggy.
"Unutterably worse! But I don't believe it. It's incredible. Nettie,
what do you think they say?—that she eloped years ago with a foreigner
who was staying in the house; that she left the child, who is now a
young man, and that she took one of the most valuable of the family
jewels with her—a diamond necklace, with five star-rubies in it. I
remember it well. The old man, when he was reconciled to her, and
wishing everybody to look up to her as if she had been born to the
position, gave it to her and asked her to wear it; she had it on the
very last time I ever saw her. This fellow—he is only a young keeper,
speaking from hearsay and gossip—says Walter would not have her
followed—scorned to interfere with her, both because he was too proud
and because her lover had been his friend—and let the necklace go with
her, and that nothing has been heard of either of them since. As if
Lexie, of all people, would carry off property! I laughed at the idea.
I told the fellow I didn't believe a word of such a story. I don't.
I'll lay my life there's been a mistake somewhere."
"She was an impulsive woman," Mrs. Wingate remarked thoughtfully.
"See how she rushed home in a fit of impatience, and repented the next
moment and rushed back again. And perhaps they drove her to
"It is conceivable," he returned, "she might have done a mad thing
in sheer desperation, though I should have thought she'd have sooner
killed herself. They say that she and the man were seen going off
together—though, if it was in the night, it may easily have been a
case of mistaken identity. But supposing she left the child—she would
have to do that if she wanted to get free herself, for the heir they
must have recovered—which is sufficiently incredible, seeing what a
devoted mother she was, she would certainly never have taken a scrap of
Desailly property with her. That I will stake my head on, and every
penny I possess."
"The man may have been the culprit there, Billy."
"Oh, it's awful!" he moaned, evidently cut to the heart. "I wish I
could see Walter himself. But he's in Scotland with his son. This place
is deserted—has been nearly all the time. The other day they opened it
just to celebrate the boy's coming of age in the great hall, after some
customs of the family; but it was all locked up directly afterwards,
and stands there empty and falling into decay. Walter lives in London
and abroad mostly, and when here, at the Dower House, a house near one
of the other gates, where an aunt of his used to live. The old folks
are both dead. There's a new rector too, but Geraldine Balcombe is
alive and married. Well, my pet, you must be dying of hunger and
fatigue. Let's be off to the Desailly Arms and a good supper, if they
can give us one. After all, it is no concern of ours, I suppose."
"It has occurred to me that it may concern us closely," Mrs.
Wingate said, in a matter-of-fact tone, no longer dreaming of jealousy.
"If that house is empty, Billy, and Sir Walter cares so little what
becomes of it, why shouldn't we try to find out whether it won't suit
us? There must be an agent here somewhere who could give us
particulars, and through whom we might open negotiations for renting
it, if we found it to our taste and not too appallingly expensive."
Billy confessed himself struck by the idea, but inclined to
postpone the consideration of it to a future hour. He was upset and
preoccupied, also wearying for his dinner. So they drove through the
beautiful twilight, tinged now with the haze of a rising moon, to an
inn that he remembered, and were shortly absorbed in beef and bottled
porter, and the comforting sensation of being safe and snug together,
with the troubled world shut out. There are times when happy people
cannot be bothered to think of anything but themselves.
But when the landlady brought the coffee, she was induced to linger
and be interrogated, whereby further details were added to the Desailly
"Yes, sir, I remember when Sir Walter brought his wife and child to
The Chase. I was kitchen-maid there at the time, but I don't call to
mind your face, sir. My husband's father was butler; perhaps he'd
remember you, only he's in his second childhood, and, being paralysed,
can't make himself understood. Mrs. Walter, as she was then, did not
stay long; she ran away within the year. And her husband, he was so set
on her and so cut up that he never was the same man afterwards. He
never wanted to marry again. Though lots of people tried to persuade
him to get a divorce, he wouldn't."
"Was he very much cut up?" inquired Wingate gravely.
"They say so, sir. The servants who saw him were always speaking of
it. He seemed partly to blame himself, and I won't say that he's
perfection. You can't expect it of a gentleman in his position, with no
work to do to keep him out of mischief. He has brought young persons to
the Dower House at times, and we hear of goings-on in London that it's
best to take no notice of. But he did his duty by her, at any rate. He
made her an honest woman, in spite of everything; he wouldn't take the
law to her when she turned against him and disgraced a fine old family
that had done her only too much honour; and as for that poor abandoned
child of hers, why, he dotes on the very ground that Master Thomas
walks on. Ah, let's hope that dear young man will make a better choice
than his father did! He's the finest lad in the whole county, though he
does come of a bad mother."
"If you are speaking of Sir Walter's son by his wife, Miss
Alexandra Baird," said Wingate, slowly and with emphasis, "he comes of
a mother who was simply one of the best women that ever lived. I had
the privilege of knowing her well."
"Indeed, sir! But the best o' women don't do what she did—not as a
rule, sir—-do they?"
The fat landlady, who regarded the peccadilloes of the male person
with such extreme indulgence, smiled austerely.
"I have yet to be convinced that she did do it," said Billy, who,
as he spoke, felt the hand of his little wife slipped into his, and
grasped it gratefully.
"As to that, sir, there's the evidence of parties that saw them go
off together. A lady staying in the house happened to be standing at
her bedroom window, which she had opened, because it was bright
moon-light and the garden looking so pretty, and she heard voices on
the terrace underneath, close to a door at the foot of a private
staircase; and when she looked down, there was Mrs. Walter and the
young man, quite plain, so as nobody could mistake them. She had on the
same white cloak that she'd left the hall with, the stairs and passages
being draughty, and it slipped off her shoulders, and the lady saw the
diamond necklace shining. The young man, he struck a match to see how
to lock the door again, and that showed their faces clear. And the best
proof was that neither of them was ever seen again, sir."
"And the lady did not give the alarm?"
"She said nothing about it because she hoped they'd come back
before they were found out and scandals made, and because Mrs. Walter
was in the habit of going to her family when she was in a temper with
her husband; and they did have words that day. Sir Walter had his
suspicions of the young man, and taxed her with it. They all thought at
first that she'd gone to Cambridge, and the lady that knew she hadn't
said the same, just out of kindness and to give the woman a chance.
Besides, she couldn't bear to be the one to break the news. However,
she had to do it at last, when they found out by letters that came for
Mrs. Walter from her mother that she'd never been there."
"Poor mother!" Wingate ejaculated. "Nettie, we must go and see her.
I want to hear both sides."
"So do I," cried Nettie, with cordial sympathy.
"Dead, sir; dead, ma'am," said the landlady, "many years ago; both
her father and mother, and the business sold. There are no Bairds in
It was Nettie who asked the next and most important question.
"Mrs. Venn, was the lady you mention the only person who saw the
elopement with her own eyes?"
Mrs. Venn said she believed the lady was the only person who
actually so saw it, but a servant in the house—the baby's nurse—heard
the door of the private staircase shut. It was in the wing Mrs. Walter
occupied—a whole wing that old Sir Thomas had set apart for her and
her husband's use, so that they could live independently, as if in
their own house, when they felt disposed. The nurse had gone to bed in
the nursery with the child; the noise of the door woke her, and she
thought it was her master going into his dressing-room. But as it
happened, Sir Walter—Mr. Walter as he was then—had gone to London
unbeknown to her, and was away all that night—came home, poor man, to
find the bird flown!"
"And who was that lady?" Mrs. Wingate inquired, in a tone of voice
that made her Billy sit up and prick his ears.
"Mrs. George Desailly, ma'am. She married a cousin of the squire's.
A good-for-nothing he is too, though he does belong to the family, and
stands next to Master Thomas too, worse luck."
Billy had heard already who Mrs. George Desailly was, and he seemed
to spring out of his seat. "Aha! I thought so—I thought so! Which took
place first, Mrs. Venn, her marriage or the elopement—the alleged
"The elopement, sir—years and years before. Miss Balcombe married
quite late in life—that is, late for a lady so good looking and
"Two, sir, only—a girl and boy. The poor little boy is not quite
right, they say, but of course she thinks the world of him."
"And Walter swallowed all her damned lies? I beg your pardon; I
can't help using strong language. Because I can see, as plainly as that
you are standing there, that Mrs. George Desailly invented that
elopement for her own purposes. Don't you see it, Nettie? You remember
what I told you?"—with a significant nod.
"Sir," said Mrs. Venn, "you are like many other people—speaking,
evil of that lady without knowing anything about her."
"I not know anything about her!" laughed Wingate grimly.
"Without knowing anything of the circumstances that, you say,
happened after your time. As a matter of fact, Mrs. Walter and she were
the best of friends. She has told me so herself."
"Oh," said Wingate. And he seemed to wink at Nettie from the corner
of a sombre eye.
"And she could have had no interest whatever in injuring Mrs.
Walter—in telling lies about her, as you call it."
"Unless her lies caused Mrs. Walter's husband to divorce her."
"Which they didn't."
"No. But she could not have foreseen that."
"And never thought of such disgraceful things. Besides, sir, if her
story was an invention, how do you account for Mrs. Walter's
disappearance? She went away that night, and the young foreign
gentleman went away that night, and they've never been heard of since.
That's the truth, at any rate; and if you can find any explanation of
it but the one that anybody who knows the world—"
"I can find another without any trouble," Wingate broke in. "The
fellow may have been a villain—a foreigner generally is—and enticed
her away, and murdered her for the sake of the necklace."
"Not one who loved her. The whole house knew that he loved her, and
that her husband had quarrelled with both of them because he'd found it
Wingate's face fell slowly, and he heaved a restless sigh. "It is
strange—it is indeed strange!" he ejaculated. Then, with an air of
sudden resolution, he asked where Mrs. George Desailly might be found.
"I am going," said he darkly, "to the fountain head."
Mrs. George, he was then informed, had no settled habitation of her
own, her husband being a rolling stone, living by his wits and from
hand to mouth, a frequenter of Continental gaming places and a sponger
upon his friends; but it so happened that she was at this moment
staying at the old rectory which used to be her home.
"They were both at the coming of age," said the landlady, "though
they weren't invited, and the squire was very angry when he saw them
there. He's the best of landlords, and kindness itself to everybody
else, but he does hate those George Desaillys so that it's like a
madness with him. The other squires don't think it looks well at all,
seeing that Mr. George is his own blood, and so near the title too. And
his poor wife—goodness knows she has troubles enough without Sir
Walter making more for her."
"What! Does he hate her too? You don't say so!"
"Like poison, sir. And all for nothing, I'm convinced. She once
invited young Master Thomas to stay with her when he was home for his
holidays and his father was away, and he got a bad cold, and told his
father in a letter that his sheets were that damp you could have wrung
them. Well, supposing they were damp—any careless hussy of a housemaid
might have done it, and the missus never known. Desailly ladies don't
make the beds. But Sir Walter, he got it into his head then that she
wanted to kill the boy so that her own might succeed, and now it's a
regular monomania with him. He keeps Master Thomas always under his
eye, and he's given orders that neither she nor her husband are to set
foot on the property. Any gatekeeper that lets them through even into
the park is to lose his place directly. I call it a shame—though he is
Sir Walter and my husband's landlord. She's a lady, like any other
lady, and a Desailly moreover, and a sweet, gentle creature, incapable
of doing such things as she's accused of. She was sitting in this
parlour only. yesterday, talking to me about it, and saying how she
missed her dear mother, and how nice it was to be in her childhood's
home again. For my part, I hate to see people despised and insulted
just because they're poor. Why shouldn't she walk in the park if she's
a mind? And why shouldn't she go into the house as well as the rats and
mice? Now that she's here, she just pines to wander alone through the
old rooms where she had such happy days when she was a girl, and she
was asking me whether I could not manage it for her, through my
husband, who's that trusted by the agent that he could get the keys at
any time he wished. I'm sure I was willing enough, and I did all I
could, but there's no man here that'll go against the squire. It went
to my heart to see her pleading for such a little thing, and having to
disappoint her. She said she supposed Sir Walter was afraid she'd steal
something; but the tears were in her eyes, poor thing, and she trembled
all over. There's nothing to steal except what nobody could carry away.
The valuable small things are all well locked up, or at the Dower
House, or in the bank. A burning shame, I call it."
"It is," said Wingate, smiling strangely. "And she is staying at
the rectory, you say?"
"Yes, sir; at least, she was yesterday. The rector now is Mr.
Martin, a bachelor gentleman; he was tutor to Master Thomas before he
went to Eton. He never saw Mrs. George till the other day, at the
coming of age; but he was told how the squire had treated her, and was
very indignant, and offered her his arm as she was leaving the hall,
and asked her to honour him by making use of his house."
"How did the squire treat her?" inquired Wingate. "I used to know
him pretty well, but I never thought him a man to be rude to ladies."
"This was what he did," said Mrs. Venn. "She and her husband came
to The Chase because it was sort of open house at the coming of
age—though the house is so empty and out of repair that only the great
hall, the state drawing-room, and the kitchens were actually used—and
because they hoped, she said, that on such an occasion the family might
be reconciled. They wanted to congratulate Master Thomas, and to drink
his health, and so make up all quarrels, and start fresh as friends.
However, we noticed they were not at the banquet—the company this time
was only the people on the estate, and a few friends of Master
Thomas's, very different from the coming of ages that used to
be—though we had seen them go in amongst the first, and it appears
that Sir Walter didn't know they were there at all. But while the
speeches were going on some one whispered to Master Thomas, and Master
Thomas whispered to his father, and the squire looked as black as
thunder, and as soon as the banquet was over ran up the stairs. They
were not using the upper part of the house, and poor Mrs. George had
taken the opportunity to have a quiet stroll through the rooms, the
scenes of her happy days, poor thing! She was looking out of a window,
and thinking of the past, when she used to be petted by Sir Thomas and
my lady as if she were their own daughter, when up comes Sir Walter,
and orders her out of the place just as if she was a common tramp. And
she without even her husband to defend her. Mr. George had changed his
mind about speaking to his cousin before so many people, and had left
while everybody was at the banquet, and gone back to London, so that
she was all alone by herself. She says he abused her shameful, but
there was nobody to hear what they said till the rector met them in the
gallery over the hall. Master Thomas had told the rector what was going
on, for you must know that he doesn't hold with the way his father
treats Mrs. George, which is real scandalous, though I oughtn't to say
it, being an old servant of the family. Mr. Martin, he ran upstairs to
see what he could do, and there was poor Mrs. George crying, and Sir
Walter calling Mr. Blackett, the agent, to come and lock all the doors,
and give the keys to him. He says he wouldn't trust her not to lay
dynamite about the place, and blow them all up—which shows how mad he
is in his spite against her. For anybody can see that a gentler
creature never walked. Mr. Martin, he says he won't break bread in the
house again while Sir Walter is master, though he did give him the
living; and Master Thomas looked so ashamed, poor young gentleman! They
say he had words with his father afterwards, though they are that fond
of each other that they're more like twin brothers than parent and
"This," remarked Wingate, "is strangely unlike the Walter Desailly
that I used to know. However—"
He looked at his watch, and then at his wife, and then at the
landlady, who was so enjoying her own loquacity.
"Can you tell me, Mrs. Venn, whether Sir Walter still keeps the
Mrs. Venn supposed not, as he was out of the country. She thought
Mr. Blackett would have them, and was sure there would be no difficulty
in getting leave to look over the house, if Mr. Wingate wished to do
so. It was only Mrs. George who was shut out, lest she should plant
dynamite upon the premises.
"Well," said Billy, who craved impatiently for a pipe and a quiet
gossip with his wife, "what do you say to a little stroll before
turning in, Nettie? It is a lovely night, and I don't feel a bit like
sleep at present."
"Nor I," said Nettie, also anxious to dispense with the landlady,
and not knowing how to do it politely. "Supper has made a new creature
of me. I could walk miles. Only I'm afraid we might be keeping Mrs.
The landlady offered to leave a key under a doormat, and otherwise
to meet the wishes of a customer who had been at college with the
squire, and whose whole equipment betokened wealth, and of the pretty
young wife who was so considerate for other people She took them, with
many apologies, through back passages and a kitchen to show them the
door, the key, and the mat, and where they would find matches and their
bedroom candle, incidentally bringing to their notice certain members
of her family circle. These the strangers affected to ignore, from
motives of delicacy, until a very old man, who was being helped to bed
by a pair of stalwart grandchildren, actually blocked their path.
"This," said Mrs. Venn, "is my husband's father, that must have
been butler at The Chase when you were there, sir. But I suppose you
wouldn't have known him again. He's close on eighty-four, and was a
faithful servant of the family from the time he cleaned the knives when
he was only ten. Grandpa!"—raising her voice to a loud
"Hush-sh!" cried Wingate fiercely. And she stopped.
"We have to bawl at him, sir, to make him hear. But it's not much
use. He gets deafer and deafer, and his memory is quite gone. He won't
know you. Oh, but he does, though! Look at him!"
Grandpa was evidently acting in an unusual way. He pointed a
claw-like finger at Wingate's massive chest, glared up at him with his
rheumy eyes, wagged his head, made strange gabbling sounds, and pulled
at the arms supporting him, evidently in high excitement.
"Well, old gentleman, and how do you do?" Wingate jauntily
addressed him, taking the trembling hand and sawing it up and down. "It
is very flattering to me to think that I've changed so little. Hey?
What? Look here, Mrs. Venn, if I were you I'd get him off to bed as
soon as possible. He looks to me as if he were going to have a fit."
The Venn family removed the patriarch, with soothing words to him
and apologies to the guest, explaining that the old man was quite
childish, and not accountable for his vagaries. And the bride and
bridegroom escaped, to their relief and pleasure, into the calm night.
Talking of Lexie Desailly and her fate, in which the one had become
as much interested as the other, Mr. and Mrs. Wingate found their way
almost unconsciously to the gates through which they had gazed, a few
hours earlier, at what they supposed to be her home. It was now
invisible amongst the distant shades, but half a mile of the green ride
lay fair beneath the moon, looking like a lawn for elves to dance on.
Nettie held two of the great bars in her little hands, and peered
between them wistfully. Billy's eyes, over the top of her head,
searched the night with equal eagerness. The Chase was laying a spell
upon them both. The young lodge-keeper heard them talking, and came out
to reconnoitre. Wingate accosted him, asking leave to enter the
enclosure. The request was at once granted to an old friend of the
squire's, who was exhorted to take his own time, and return when it
pleased him. The man had some business of his own on hand, which would
keep him up for an hour or two, and was willing to wait upon the
"We shall have time, then, to get a peep at the house," Nettie
joyfully exclaimed. She was "dying," as she called it, for that
"Perhaps, if we look sharp," said Billy. "But the length of this
avenue is about three times what it looks."
And they set off to walk it at a swinging pace, keeping the middle
of the grass, to be as far as possible from the black shadows of the
woods on either side. Nettie held tight to her stalwart husband's hand,
and after a little only spoke in low tones, glancing hither and thither
in a furtive way, with occasional jumps and starts; for the sense of
mystery was upon her—delightful certainly, enchantingly English, but a
little uncanny, all the same. Bushes to right and left rustled as they
passed; twigs snapped; owls went by with no sound of wings,
phantom-like; couching forms of deer arose, loomed for a moment, and
disappeared. These latter were the most romantic feature of The Chase
to her Australian mind, but an antlered buck in twilight, showing
himself unexpectedly and merely as something alive and large, brings,
as she expressed it, one's heart into one's mouth.
The spectacle of the old mansion, when they reached the inner
enclosure of garden surrounding it, enhanced this sense of phantasmal
things, the general awesomeness of the expedition and the hour. It was
indeed the ideal haunted house. Nettie said she had seen the very
"moral" of it, under that title, in an old volume of the Illustrated
London News. Ivy cloaked embattled walls and hung ragged wreaths from
projections of ornamental stonework; towers and chimney-stacks rose
majestic from the mass, cutting large blocks out of the pellucid sky.
Moss and weeds showed clear in the chinks of the flagged terraces, and
unpruned growths from the once trim parterres overran the pillared
balustrades and short flights of shallow steps leading from one level
to another. A rusty gate hung awry on a broken hinge; gravel paths were
all but obliterated; storm-strewn twigs and branches of trees lay where
the wind had tossed them, bedded in rank grass; and over all this
desolation the broad windows gazed blankly, from under their stone
brows, like open eyes of the dead.
"What a change!" Wingate muttered, in an awed voice; "oh, what a
change! I cannot understand it. For the boy's sake, if not for his
own—for common decency's sake—he might have kept such a beautiful
place from going to rack and ruin like this! He doesn't deserve to own
it. Well, I don't think we'll try to make a home here, sweetheart."
"Oh, no!" whispered Nettie, shivering within the arm he had thrown
Nevertheless, he looked about him with a keen business eye, trying
to measure the extent of the dilapidation, and what it would cost to
put the place in habitable repair. And while thus engaged, detached for
the moment from the sentiment of the scene, Nettie startled him with a
sudden cry and a clutch upon his arm. In an instant she was within the
rampart of that arm, as behind a padlocked door.
"Hullo!" he cried; "what's the matter?"
"Look!" she gasped. "Oh, look!"
He looked hurriedly hither and thither, not knowing what she meant.
"Hey? Where? I don't see anything."
"It's gone," she said, in the same dry-throated whisper. "But I saw
it quite plainly—in that great window—the one hanging out on the wall
"Saw what, child? Oh, this is getting on your nerves!"
"Billy, you may disbelieve me if you like, but I did see it—a
light like a candle—in that window at the end of the wing. Watch;
perhaps we shall see it again."
They stared steadily for several minutes, and saw no light except
the moonlight, which was very clear and bright. In the silence they
heard rustlings in the bushes near them, and, above all other noises,
the thumping of their hearts.
"That," said Billy, in a low voice, "is the wing where Lexie lived.
The big window belongs to what used to be her bedroom—a great room,
that was three parts sitting-room, one of the finest in the house. If
you really saw a candle in it, of course some one must be there. But
they certainly told me it was all shut up."
As he spoke they simultaneously detected a figure gliding across a
moon-lighted corner of the terrace beneath the window. It was such a
shadow of a figure, and came and went so swiftly, that they barely
identified it as human, and were unable to distinguish sex. Nettie
smothered a shriek in her husband's breast.
"I say, this looks very suspicious," he exclaimed excitedly, while
trying to soothe her alarm. "There are some little games going on that
the authorities don't know anything about, evidently.
Poachers—burglars—somebody taking advantage of the empty house for
"Oh, Billy, come away, come away! They might see us, and you are
unarmed, and we are so far from help!"
"Nonsense, pet! Don't be a little goose. Well, we'll go at once,
dear—only just let me run up and see where that fellow went to, first.
It would be cowardly to leave them to do no one knows what mischief,
and not lift a hand to prevent it. You stay here in shelter, and I'll
be back in two minutes."
But Nettie, mustering a fair stock of native courage, declared that
if he must go on such an errand, she would go too. Never would she be
separated from her husband, whatever happened. They would die together,
if need were.
Wingate would have preferred to make a sortie by himself—it would
have been the sooner over, and he could have dealt summarily with any
difficulty encountered; the presence of his wife made an irksome
caution necessary. However, her wish was law; and he lifted her over
the rusted gate upon which they had been leaning, and set her little
feet upon a path that led, by two flights of massive steps, to the
terrace under the wing that had been Lexie's private dwelling, and the
particular window in which Nettie had seen the light. Here they
proceeded softly, the man holding his companion behind him with a firm
grip, and keeping one eye on the window and the other on the bushes to
right and left, until they reached the moonlit corner where the figure
had been seen. Here Billy stopped and pounced upon something—something
that lay coiled on the weedy pavement under the shadow of the
balustrade like one of his native snakes. He pulled it out into the
light, and lo, a rope of many fathoms, new and strong, with a long thin
cord attached to it, weighted at the end—similar to the tackle with
which ships make fast to tug or wharf, but of inferior weight and
"Burglars, of course," he remarked, delighted with his find. "Some
of them must have got in, and others are outside; every window on the
ground floor is barred like a prison, so I suppose they are hauling
themselves into that upper one with the rope. But how the dickens did
the first one get through? It projects so far from the wall that the
ivy wouldn't help. They must have got the line over something, but I
can't see what. And the casements are shut. There are two, in the lower
part, opening like doors. Lexie loved to have them open; she was so
fond of fresh air! By the way, there's the door of the little staircase
that they say she eloped by; is that shut, I wonder?"
It was—hard and fast. And, when he ran half round the house, and
ran back, before Nettie had time to feel deserted, he found all doors
and windows wearing the same impenetrable look. And no sign of life was
visible, nor further trace of the supposed marauders. In spite of
which, common prudence dictated a retreat under the circumstances.
"If I were alone," said Billy, "I'd get to the bottom of this, but
I can't expose you to the tender mercies of a burglar at bay. The best
thing to be done is to get you safe to the inn, and then come back with
what men I can muster, and thoroughly search the place. We will take
the rascals' rope with us, at any rate, and trust they haven't got
He quickly made a coil of the rope and slung it over his shoulder.
With the other arm he embraced his wife and propelled her homeward.
Along the cracked and weedy flags, down the moss-grown steps, through
the wilderness of a garden they scurried, as if themselves detected
housebreakers; and neither of them enjoyed the romance of the situation
in the least. Bright as the moon was, their path to the rusty gate,
through the rank, dank shrubberies, was a more fearsome passage than
before; and when, at a spot where the branches closed above their
heads, they heard a rustle and a movement as of some creature tracking
them, Nettie's heart failed her, and she screamed aloud. Billy
thereupon dropped his load of rope, clasped his wife to his breast,
planted his feet firmly, and glared from side to side.
"Who's there?" he called sharply.
No answer. No sound.
"Who's that?" he repeated, in a still louder tone.
They listened with all their tingling ears, but heard nothing.
"A rabbit, or a bird, or perhaps one of the deer out of the woods,"
he murmured soothingly. "Why, child, what's come to you?"
But his own voice was a trifle unsteady. Eager to stand and fight
any danger that he could see, this shadow business unnerved him.
A mile in twenty minutes was their rate of travel down the long
chase to the lodge, and the little star that was Abel Rowe's parlour
lamp, on which they kept their eyes fixed steadily all the way, was a
great comfort to them. The young keeper came out to meet them, and
speaking both at once and rather breathlessly, they poured the story of
their adventure into his ears. He received it without visible surprise
or concern, and did not agree with Mr. Wingate that a midnight
expedition was necessary.
"Oh, you saw that light in the window!" he exclaimed, with much
gravity. "I was wondering whether you would. I was out last night,
looking at some traps, and saw it myself; and several other people have
seen it. The conclusion they've come to is that the old house is
haunted, sir. I don't hold with ghosts myself, but that's the common
"Haunted be blowed!" was Wingate's rude rejoinder; and he showed
the rope, which was mysterious without being supernatural, and
described how they had seen a man "scoot" round a corner of the house.
"Besides," said he, "if ghosts were allowed to carry matches and
candles, they'd burn the places down."
"I suppose there are ghosts of lights as well as ghosts of people,
if there are ghosts at all," argued Abel Rowe. "Be that as it may, no
mortal hand lit that light you saw, sir, if it was in the big window of
the west wing you saw it. Because why? The day after it was first seen,
Mr. Blackett and a whole posse of people, thinking just as you do that
burglars were in the house, went in and all over it, and tried every
lock and bolt, and thoroughly ransacked the whole place; and they
proved that nobody could possibly have been there. Especially in that
room where the window is; that was locked up tighter than any. Sir
Walter doesn't like to have people prying there. It used to be his
"There must be a hiding-place in it," said Wingate.
"There is not, sir, begging your pardon. Every bit of wall and
floor was tapped and tested; some of the boards were ripped up. Mr.
Blackett satisfied himself that there was no hiding-place."
Then they had got out of the window with the rope in the meantime."
"No, sir; for the casements were found fastened on the inside."
"Well, but here's the rope to speak for itself. It was lying close
under the window. It is quite new—just out of the shop—no doubt
bought on purpose. What do you suppose it was doing there? And the
fellow we saw running? Must he be a ghost too?"
"I can't account for him, nor for the rope," Mr. Rowe admitted,
fingering the latter in an abstracted way. "I thought nobody cared to
go near the place of a night, since there's been this talk of the ghost
in the window. I'll see Mr. Blackett about it in the morning—"
"I will see him also," broke in Wingate, with a significant glance
at his wife. "And I will keep the rope, if you please. It is my
evidence, you see. I intend to sift this thing to the bottom, ghost and
He was about to leave, when Mrs. Rowe, the keeper's mother, having
risen from bed and dressed in haste, in order to find out what was
doing at this hour of the night, entered the parlour, curtsied, looked
from one to another with an expectant smile, and then caught sight of
the coil of rope and pounced upon it.
"Why, if this ain't the clothes line that was stole last night!"
she ejaculated, with round eyes and uplifted hands. "Why, Abel,
wherever did you find it?"
"This gentleman found it, mother, in the garden at The Chase."
"Lor! Right away up there! Whatever—"
"Was it yours?" interposed Wingate eagerly.
"No, sir, the rector's. His housekeeper bought it new last week,
and the very first time she used it she had it stole. Strange to say,
the linen that was a-hanging on it—for myself, I don't believe in
leaving your clothes out all night—was left on the grass, and only the
"Only the line was required," said Billy. "But how do you know it
is the same?"
"Because there wasn't another new clothes line in the place."
"I suppose rope is used for other purposes. Probably this was
brought to The Chase from quite another direction."
"And to The Chase, of all places!"
She desired ardently to enter upon a long discussion, covering the
matter of the ghost, but sudden reticence had fallen upon the visitor.
He affected surprise to find it near upon midnight, and concern that
his wife was so late up after a journey, and took a hasty leave,
carrying his rope with him. As soon as they were both upon the
high-road, out of ear-shot of the lodge, he said to his wife,
"Nettie, either that fellow is in league with the burglars, or
Geraldine Balcombe has some game on hand. One or the other."
"Then it must be Geraldine Balcombe," said Nettie, "for I am
convinced that Abel Rowe is as honest as the day."
"How are you convinced?" her husband asked.
"By the look of his face—the way he speaks—everything."
"Woman's instinct!" laughed Billy. "Now I think his manner most
suspicious: his disinclination to have the matter inquired into—his
preposterous suggestion that the candle-man is a ghost—everything, as
you would say. But things look black against the rector's house too. We
will interview Mrs. George Desailly to-morrow morning, and get
particulars concerning the larceny of the clothes line. I'm awfully
curious to see her, apart from that. I wonder how she'll receive me,
and what she looks like now? She was uncommonly pretty as a girl, in
her white-cat style. And I'll make her tell that story about Lexie
before I've done—and watch how she does it. I can't get it out of my
mind somehow that it's all a pack of lies."
"But what then, Billy?"
"Oh, God knows! I believe she was enticed away by that foreign
fellow—on some charitable errand perhaps—and murdered for the
necklace. That, to me, is far more likely than the other thing. And
they never seem to have thought of it! Fancy, never thinking of it, and
never lifting a hand or taking a step to find her!"
"I suppose they had more reason than you know of," suggested
Nettie, saying to herself, with an inward sigh, "How he harps upon that
woman! How impossible he thinks it for her to have done wrong!"
They found Mrs. Venn's door-key under the mat, and slipped through
the house to bed, and tried to sleep. Nettie succeeded, for she was
only twenty-two and her heart was at rest—she did not seriously
concern herself about her handsome husband's past; Billy declared in
the morning that the feather mattress had defeated him, and that if
they stayed another night in that place he should lie on the floor. He
took a nip of whisky before breakfast, to clear his brain of morbid
thoughts that had haunted him through the dark hours.
Their buggy having no seat for a servant, and the English-feeling
morning—a mixture of delicate mist and sunshine—being more inviting
than usual, they agreed to do their errands to the rectory and the
agent's house on foot. And they set forth early, without confiding
their business and late experiences to their garrulous landlady,
Wingate being still under the impression that a police case impended in
which anybody might be involved.
Their first call was upon the interesting Geraldine Balcombe that
was, and Wingate was almost certain that he saw her face at an upper
window as they passed through the well-remembered garden, where the
beech tree under which she used to make afternoon tea was beginning to
turn yellow, and the myriad chrysanthemum buds opening into bloom.
Great, therefore, was their disappointment when the genial rector, who
received them in his study, presently intimated that she was too unwell
to come downstairs. His mention of the fact that she had seen the linen
taken from the lost line, when gazing at the moon from her bedroom
window—unfortunately assuming that it was the housekeeper who, for
fear of thieves, was bringing it indoors—saved Wingate the awkwardness
of introducing her name, and gave him his opportunity to explain that
she was an old friend. His touching account of his intimacy with her
and her family in past years—of how he had been a guest in this very
house, treated like a son, and how interesting he found it to return to
the old scenes and revive the happy memories connected
therewith—caused Mr. Martin to send a message to Mrs. Desailly, with
the expectation that she would make a special effort in response; but
her answer, long delayed, was that she begged Mr. Wingate would excuse
her, and the report of the servant to the effect that the lady had had
a kind of fainting fit at the moment of hearing his name.
Wingate expressed his sorrow for this state of things, looking
becomingly grave, but revealing a certain elation at the back of his
gravity to Nettie's watchful eye. His air of sympathy and his claim to
old friendship had the anticipated result of drawing confidences from
Mr. Martin which he would not have reposed in a stranger.
"I daresay," said he, "you are aware of the sad dissensions in the
Wingate said he was, implying a complete knowledge of all their
"She suffers terribly," the rector continued, shaking his head;
"more than Sir Walter can have any idea of, or he would never treat her
so cruelly as he does."
"I cannot realize his character, as you and others paint it," said
Wingate. "I was his chosen comrade for years when we were both young
men, and never knew a kinder-hearted fellow. He must have greatly
"He has, evidently. To hound a poor, weak woman into her grave or
the mad-house—no man worthy of the name of man, let alone a gentleman,
and one with a kind heart, could stoop to such cowardly, such infamous
The warmth with which this speech was delivered suggested to
Wingate that the fascinating Geraldine had not yet outgrown her
"I am quite sure," he said, "that my old friend could not stoop to
that, however changed. There must be a misunderstanding somewhere.
Possibly you are not acquainted with all the circumstances."
"Pardon me. Mrs. Desailly has herself done me the honour to confide
the whole matter to me, without reserve."
"I see," murmured Billy, with another look at his wife, who sat out
of the discussion as far as her host's politeness allowed.
"And I have the evidence of my own eyes, Mr. Wingate—of her
terrible state of health, the result of these constant trials. They
have so preyed upon a highly nervous constitution that the brain seems
to have become incapable of rest. She is a martyr to insomnia in its
most acute form."
"I am really awfully sorry to hear it," remarked Wingate, in a
commiserating tone, and with all his wits on the alert.
"Yes. She has taken to walking in her sleep—when she does
sleep—which greatly alarms me. And one doesn't know what to do in such
a case, especially in my situation. I am afraid to lock her in, lest
she should fall out of the window or have an accident with the candle.
She naturally, objects to have a servant with her at night, and opiates
she has a horror of—so have I. I have known the habit of taking
morphia to entirely destroy all moral principle and self-restraint. I
would rather any one belonging to me poisoned himself outright than
take a single dose of it."
"You have really proved the somnambulism?" Wingate queried gently.
"Beyond a doubt. I met her on the road a few nights ago, hours
after she had retired to bed—I was called from mine to attend a dying
parishioner—and she told me she had no idea how she had got there. It
is a most serious symptom in her case. I have tried to impress this
upon her, and to persuade her to seek medical advice."
"And won't she?"
"She wishes to give herself a fair trial of the country first. She
thinks her native air and the peace and quiet of her present life are
doing her good, and will soon restore her altogether. I am bound to say
I don't. I think the disorganization of the nervous system increases
daily. Indeed, if her husband does not come very soon, I must send for
him, or else for a good doctor, for my own satisfaction."
"Does she expect her husband soon?"
"Any day. But he is rather an erratic person, as perhaps you know.
I proposed to fetch her daughter to keep her company, but she won't
hear of it. She thinks it bad for the child to be shut up with a
nervous invalid. Perhaps it is. But I am sure it is advisable to have
some one to stay with her. It would relieve me of much responsibility,
and keep her from brooding and fretting so much."
"I should insist upon it," said Wingate, "if I were you. By the
way, you don't think she may have taken the clothes line herself, when
walking in her sleep?"
"Oh, no; certainly not. She was awake and looking from the window
when she saw the thief, and that was one of her better nights. But last
night she must have been out again. We did not hear her moving, but my
housekeeper says there is no doubt about it. She judges by the state of
her clothes and shoes. And she seems this morning to be prostrate with
exhaustion, though she stayed in the house all yesterday."
"I should certainly get a doctor at once," said Wingate, rising,
"and make him insist on her being watched at night. Your housekeeper
looks a lady-like person; Mrs. Desailly could not object to her having
a bed in her room, under the circumstances. But the best thing, of
course, would be to send for her husband to come and take her home."
"I cannot be inhospitable," the poor rector faltered, "if the
change of air is really doing her any good. But—well, I must talk
matters over with her when she gets up."
"And pray command me, if I can be of any use," said Wingate. "As an
old friend, you know—"
"Oh, thank you, thank you! Where are you staying? Won't you take
lunch with me? Pray do—you and Mrs. Wingate—and perhaps Mrs. Desailly
might then be well enough to come down. She will be deeply
disappointed, I am sure, to miss seeing you. Everything connected with
her happy girlhood is so intensely interesting to her. And I should
like to show you the church and the improvements I have made. You will
find things looking very different from what they were in poor old
The visitors pleaded the pressing nature of their business with the
squire's agent, which turned the conversation upon the burglars, the
ghost, and contingent matters, delaying their departure for another
half-hour. But engagements were entered into for an exchange of
hospitalities when convenient, while the rector walked with them to his
garden gate, gathering flowers for Nettie by the way; and before
separating cordial offers of assistance in their respective
difficulties were provisionally accepted on both sides. As Wingate
shook hands with his new friend, promising to call again later to
report progress in the affair of the rope, he saw a face in an upper
window, peeping from behind a blind. While he tried to draw Nettie's
attention to it, it disappeared.
"But I know that profile," he said, when they were again upon the
road, "and I see the whole thing as clear as day. It isn't
burglars—it's some fight going on between Walter and her—I should
imagine for the possession of something he's got locked up at The
Chase. Compromising documents, perhaps. Well, though it doesn't seem
exactly chivalrous, and though I don't owe him any service, but quite
the contrary, I am going to be on Walter's side. And we'll stop here,
Nettie, if you have no objection, till we get through with the affair."
"Oh!, I have no objection," Nettie cried heartily; "far from it! I
wouldn't go away now for fifty pounds. I never was so interested in
anything in all my life."
Mr. Blackett was stout and elderly and a good deal crippled by
rheumatism, but he had young, keen eyes, deep set under intellectual
brows, and with those eyes received Wingate as at the muzzle of a
double-barrelled gun. The boyish face of twenty years ago was now lean
and tanned, maturely dignified, wearing a slightly grizzled moustache
and beard that had formerly been absent from it; but the agent—who had
been the agent for more than twenty years, and deserved his reputation
for an almost miraculous sharp-sightedness—instantly knew it for the
same, though he had only seen it once. When the name belonging to it
was announced to him, he concentrated upon the visitor a steely gaze
that was unpleasant and disconcerting. Though Wingate gave himself no
airs, it nettled him to be looked at in this way; he consequently
remained standing, and stated his errand in the briefest terms, Nettie
meanwhile lingering near the door, glancing at bookshelves and
affecting not to listen. The rude master of the house did not rise from
his arm-chair, but it presently appeared that he could only do so with
difficulty, owing to physical ailments. The story of the rope, the
candle in the window, and the visible figure of the supposed burglar
was told again, but the information gathered at the rectory was
withheld. Wingate said he thought it his duty to report what he had
seen; he also desired to assist in the search which he presumed would
immediately be set on foot to discover what was wrong.
"You may not be aware," he said stiffly, "that I am an old friend
of Sir Walter Desailly's."
Mr. Blackett replied that he was quite aware of it, still
transfixing the visitor with steadfast, steely eyes.
"I remember your coming here, Mr. Wingate, rather more than twenty
years ago—it was your last visit, was it not?—and also your
departure. Also your departure, Mr. Wingate."
"You have the advantage of me," Wingate returned, with his easy
courtesy; "I have no recollection of having seen you before."
"I was Sir Thomas's agent, in succession to my father," said the
old man. "I was cognisant, sir, of all the family affairs."
"The family affairs, I hear, took a sad turn after I left,"
Mr. Blackett did not answer, but stared more strangely than before.
Wingate thought the look referred to the elopement, and added, with
warmth: "But I, for one, refuse to believe that Mrs. Walter Desailly
was to blame. I knew her well, and never knew a better woman—a perfect
English lady, if ever there was one, in spite of her people being
shop-keepers. The circumstances may be as they have been described to
me, but I am convinced that the popular theory is a wrong one."
The agent seemed much agitated by this reference to the great
scandal. Twice he opened his mouth to speak, and shut it without doing
so; the gnarled hand on his writing table closed and unclosed sharply;
he drew his brows together; his eyes flashed upon Nettie's pretty
figure, which had not yet been invited to rest itself.
"You are married to this lady?" he jerked out.
Wingate bowed, while he wondered if it were not his duty to feel
insulted by the question on her behalf.
"I must apologise for asking it," the old man continued, with a
tremble in his voice, "but will she mind leaving us for a short time?
There are some important matters—the drawing-room is just across the
hall—I think my wife is at home—"
He hoisted himself with difficulty out of his chair to reach a bell
button, but before he could get at it, and before Wingate could explain
that Mrs. Wingate had an equal interest with him in the proceedings,
the lady had disappeared.
"I will wait for you on the road, Billy," said she, with fiery
cheeks and an icy smile, and next minute was out of the house and
marching along the highway in wrath. "If these are your English
manners," she intended to say to Billy when she saw him again, "give me
Australia." For it seemed to her that he was too much in the habit of
glorifying England and its institutions (including its women) at the
expense of his own country.
She had promised to wait for him on the road, and did so for nearly
three-quarters of an hour, learning every hedgerow leaf and every blade
of wayside grass by heart, exhausting all the charms of the harvest
landscape. But when the little watch pinned to the breast of her neat
tweed coat, as also an inward monitor of equal infallibility, informed
her that it was one o'clock and lunch time, she decided to leave him to
his devices. Doubtless he and that rude old man were so absorbed in
their reminiscences of the incomparable Mrs. Walter as to forget that a
mere every-day young woman with an appetite existed. She returned to
the inn, ordered the cutlets to be served and the bottle of Bass
opened, and sat down to begin her meal alone—for the first time since
she had been Billy's wife.
"I really could not wait any longer," she called out, when the
sitting-room door opened to admit the laggard. But a glance at her
husband's face caused her voice to change its note. "Oh, my dear boy!
what is the matter with you?"
Instead of falling upon the beer and cutlets, Billy fell in a
headlong fashion upon the horsehair sofa, planted his elbows on his
knees, dropped his face in his hands, and sobbed audibly—one sob only,
no more, but enough to pierce her heart. She was instantly beside him,
trying to span his huge back with her little arm, to pull his strong
fingers from their tight clasp upon his brow.
"Darling! darling! Tell me! Tell your Nettie! What is it, precious
one?" She cooed like a courting turtle-dove, pressing her cheek to his
shoulder and his ear.
"Oh, Nettie, I have had a blow! I have had an awful shock!" he
groaned, with a long up-drawing of the breath. "A bolt from the blue,
and no mistake!" He raised himself and looked at her, with something
wild in his eyes. "Who do you think the foreigner was, Nettie?"
"The—the man she el—"
"Me—me!" he burst out, in the grammar of strong emotion. "They
actually believed that she ran away with ME!"
"And called you a foreigner?" cried Nettie. "What cheek! Just like
these ignorant English people! As if we were not just as much English
as they are!"
"But don't you see, child? They have been supposing we went away
together, because it seems we were missed at the same time. That cursed
talk about foreigners has been putting me off the scent; but I might
have known—I did know—that Geraldine's tale was a pack of lies—of a
piece with her tale of how she saw the linen taken off the clothes
line. It was she who swore she had seen us sneaking away together, and
made Walter believe it—when no one knows better how I went than she
does, for she accompanied me part of the way. Oh, that little devil is
at the bottom of it all!"
"But where, then—"
"Ah, that's the point! that's the point! That's the awful part of
it! If Lexie didn't elope with me—as certainly she didn't, and no
other man has been mentioned in the case—what, in the name of God, did
become of her?" He struck his knee with a clenched fist. "But I'll find
out, Nettie; I'll find out, if I take years to do it, and it costs me
my last penny."
"Sir Walter will surely see to that," said Nettie softly. "She was
"We have telegraphed for Walter," said Wingate, for the first time
turning an eye upon the luncheon table. "Yes, of course he will see to
it; for I find he really did appreciate her, appearances
notwithstanding, and from the moment he lost her turned against
Geraldine as if he suspected something, and has shunned and hated her
ever since. But we can help him. There is plenty to do before he comes.
That woman is up to mischief at this moment, though we don't know what.
It can't be anything that concerns poor Lexie now, but it may lead us
to a clue. We've got to hunt for all fresh clues now. And Blackett is
as convinced as I am that our best course is to stick like wax to her.
Her story, you see, being proved untrue, is damning evidence against
herself—looks as if she either put poor Lexie out of the way, or knows
who did. I am going to have a policeman this afternoon to go over the
house with me, and I am going to sleep in that room where we saw the
"I with you," said Mrs. Wingate, putting a tumbler of fresh beer
into his unsteady hand.
"My pet, I can't expose you—"
"Now, Billy, let us understand one another," she broke in, with an
inflexible air to which he was unaccustomed; and forthwith she stated a
case in words that made an impression upon him. The result was what
Rudyard Kipling would call an "interlude" of unwonted duration and
intensity—a general concession of her right, as a bride on her
honeymoon, to anything she liked to ask for, on the part of the
husband; and on the part of the wife, a renewed conviction that he was
the best and dearest of living men, despite his little weaknesses. She
sat on his knee while he ate his lunch as best he could with one hand;
then she filled his pipe, and put a cushion under his head.
"Now," said she, "try if you can remember all that happened that
night at The Chase. It may help us to an idea. You never told me
before, by the way, that Miss Balcombe was with you when you left, and
that is a most important detail."
"Well, it was this way, Nettie. You know I had a scrimmage with
Walter. I wanted to explain about the Cambridge journey, and to stand
up for Lexie, and it's always a mistake to begin putting things of that
sort into words, especially as we were situated. I stood up for her too
much—because I saw he was taking it all wrong—and I lost my temper,
and said things I wouldn't forgive myself, if any man said them to me.
As for him, he couldn't have insulted me more than he did. So, of
course, there it stood. That was in the morning. There was nothing for
me but to clear out as soon as possible, and I went back to the
inn—this inn, and this room too, only different people. I packed up
for London, had some bread and cheese, and started to go by the next
train. But just as I'd settled in my corner, I saw Walter's dog-cart
tearing along the road, and I knew he was trying to catch the train
too; and I hated the thought of travelling with him, or near him, after
the row we'd had; besides—well, I'll tell you the honest truth,
Nettie—it was a chance to have a word with Lexie that I could not
resist. I didn't do anything behind Walter's back that I wouldn't have
done before his face, but for her sake I couldn't go near her while he
was there misjudging us, and it was a cowardly thing to make off
without even bidding her good-bye—looked like deserting her in her
trouble, and owning to wrong things. At any rate, I jumped out of the
carriage, and kept out of sight until Walter got in. Then, when the
train was gone, I went outside, and spoke to the groom. He said his
master had been called to town on business, but was expected back next
morning. My luggage had gone on in the van, so I telegraphed to London
to have it looked after on arrival, and walked across the fields to The
Chase. I daresay they made capital out of all that afterwards."
"You may be certain that they did," said Nettie, "and you can't
blame them either."
"No, of course. Still, you mustn't forget that The Chase was Sir
Thomas's house then, and not Walter's, and that the old gentleman and I
were the best of friends. He was out when I arrived, and I just asked
straight for Lexie, so as not to waste time. The man took me to her
boudoir—she didn't use it much, because she liked her big bedroom to
sit in—and no one came to disturb us. We had a—a talk—"
He paused absent-mindedly. The silence was broken by a plaintive
"Ah, Billy! Billy!"
"Yes, pet, I know. But it was twenty years ago, and I've got over
it this many a day."
"I don't believe you have got over it yet, Billy."
"You are the last person who should say that, or think it," he
remonstrated, drawing her to his knee again, and settling her
comfortably in a favourite place and pose. "And, besides, she's dead—I
know she is dead. Nothing but death would have taken her from the
child. You can't be jealous of a dead woman."
"Oh, can't I? But I won't, Billy—indeed, I won't! It was only my
nonsense. You are mine now, and that's all I care about. Listen, dear,
I've thought of something. There is that lake where you caught the big
pike—I expect that, being so unhappy, she committed suicide by
drowning herself in it. That would account for her sudden
disappearance, and her never being seen or traced. Billy, I have
thought of another thing. Perhaps it was because—but, no, I won't say
"Say it, Nettie."
"She might have been broken-hearted at losing you."
Wingate drew in his breath, and went red and pale, but controlled
"No," he said, reluctantly impartial, "there was no motive of that
sort. I'll tell the honest truth, Nettie—I did let myself go that last
time that we were together, though I tried my utmost not to. But she
never did; on the contrary, she pulled me up in her firm, kind way,
lectured me like a mother she did—tried to make me see there were good
things still to live for, and that she trusted me for a gentleman,
and—and so on. Oh, she was not the sort of person to play fast and
loose with matrimony and motherhood—not she; nor yet of the flimsy
stuff that suicides are made of. Still, it's an idea. When Walter
comes, of course he'll leave no stone unturned, and the lake must be
emptied if necessary. But then why did Geraldine concoct that elaborate
story? She must have had some object."
"She was staying in the house, you say?"
"Yes; and, unfortunately, knew about my having gone away before
lunch, and come back after Walter had left the house, and being shown
up to Lexie's private sitting-room, and staying such a long time with
her—things she could twist and turn to suit her tale. I did not know
how late it was till I heard the dressing-bell ring, and then, when I
tried to get away quietly, I ran up against the old lady and Geraldine,
who were pacing up and down the terrace in the evening sun. They were
both ready for dinner, and the girl had got that lace on which I
afterwards found her stuffing into the fire—"
"Ah! I want to hear more about that lace," Nettie interposed, with
the air of a detective on a strong scent.
"Oh, that was nothing; I must have offended her in the course of
the evening," said Wingate absently. "I know I was a surly boor, not
fit for ladies' company; but they made me stay. The old people knew
nothing of any quarrel, and couldn't understand why I should make off
just before dinner, and pooh-poohed my excuse that I wasn't dressed. It
was weak of me, I know, but I let myself be tempted; and after all
Lexie went upstairs while the squire and I were talking over our wine,
and never showed again. I particularly wanted to say something to her
that I had forgotten, so I stayed late. I went to the smoking-room with
the old man. At last he proposed that I should remain for the night,
and some things of Walter's were put out for me, and we went to our
rooms, and the house was closed. Oh, yes; I know how contemptible it
was! But at the time every other feeling was swallowed up in my longing
to put right a misunderstanding that I thought Lexie was labouring
under—to have all straight between us before I went away for good; in
fact, I wanted to tell her I meant to try and do, and be, all she
wished. I thought, as it was the last time—but I was an ass and a
fool, and very nearly a villain, too. I might have compromised her
worse; perhaps I did. Somebody else besides Geraldine
Balcombe—somebody who wasn't a liar—may have seen me messing about
the west wing at three in the morning—"
"What? You don't surely mean to say—"
"No, of course I don't. All I did was to write a letter to her, and
take it to her boudoir and slip it into a blotting case on her writing
table, walking softly in my socks, so as not to wake anybody. I made
sure that the whole place was dead asleep, for I hadn't heard a sound
for hours. But as I was getting back to my room, I saw a glimmer of
light through the crack of a door—a curtain rather. There's a queer
little circular room at an angle of the stairs where they run into the
gallery that goes round the great hall; it's like one huge bay window
with the bay enclosed; a big portière hangs across the entrance, which
you can loop back or not, as you like; just the little nook for sitting
out dances in, if there were balls in the hall, which would be a
magnificent place for them, with a wooden floor. It isn't a private
room, and yet it is; and they always had a fire there in fire weather.
Having windows all round—the room seemed to be built of the stone
mullions, with a little churchy ceiling—it was beautifully light and
cheerful, and it had a lovely view. We were always meeting there on our
way to other rooms, and going downstairs to dinner, and so on. There
were two or three lounge chairs in it, and a small table—no room for
other furniture. Lady Desailly used to read the Times there of a
morning, and sometimes have afternoon tea there, when there was no
company, instead of in the hall. Well, though it wasn't cold yet, the
fires were all going, and there had been one in this little room that
evening. I had been there to look for Lexie after dinner, and saw it
burning. And it was here where I saw the light at three in the morning.
The curtain was down, but just one ray came through, like a finger. It
seemed to me like a finger beckoning me to her. I made sure that she
was there, and I stole up without a sound and put the curtain back a
little. I had not undressed, of course."
"And saw Miss Balcombe burning the Venetian lace?"
"Yes. She was standing over the fireplace, with a candle in one
hand and the lace in the other. She was holding it over the flame, and
it was flaring and frizzling up, very nearly all burnt. I could see she
had just taken it off, because otherwise she was fully dressed as when
she left the drawing-room; the blue bodice was plain and bare, and the
silk was torn where the lace had been stitched on, and wrenched off
"Billy dear, you think nothing of this lace business, but I think
it is the most suspicious of all the features of the case. Why should
she have burnt her own lace that she was so eager to get, and so proud
of when she did get it? And why secretly at three o'clock in the
morning? You said she did it in a fit of rage with you, but she would
not have been in a fit of rage—that sort of rage—for hours and hours
all by herself, with you or anybody. What had she been doing in the
meantime, do you suppose? Billy, do you know how I read the riddle?
There was blood on that lace."
Wingate shuddered. "Oh, don't talk of blood!" he implored.
"Besides, in that case, there would have been blood elsewhere. There
was none on her dress, I know, and evidently none was found. Blood is a
thing that cries out anywhere. The least trace would have altered
everything and set them hunting."
"Did she have a guilty look when you surprised her?"
"I don't know what you call a guilty look. Of course it gave her an
awful start when she heard the curtain move and saw me watching her.
Anybody would have looked scared under the circumstances at that
unearthly time o' night. She gave a loud catch of the breath, and then
dashed the lace into the coals and rammed it in with the poker. There
was still a little red fire left, and it caught, and was consumed
directly. I think she was anxious that I shouldn't see it was my
present to her, but I came a little too soon."
"And how did she explain herself?"
"At first she kept her back to me and said nothing. I was
embarrassed too. I would have crept away when I found it was she and
not Lexie; but when I saw she had seen me, and saw what she was doing,
I went in. I made believe that I was glad of the opportunity to say
good-bye to her before leaving in the morning, as I should probably
never come back again. The fact was, I guessed she knew pretty well
about me and Lexie, and I knew she was furiously jealous at having to
play second fiddle, and I wanted, for Lexie's sake, to square her if I
could. So I tried to be friendly, although I was so sick at heart, and
I asked why she was treating my gift to her in that way. She said—but
I told you what she said. If you want the honest truth, Nettie—it's
the first time I ever let on about a woman in a matter of this
kind—she did all she knew to make me believe that it wasn't Walter
"Made love to you, do you mean?"
"Like the very deuce. Said she was burning the fichu because the
sight of it in the glass over the mantel-piece made her desperate at my
treatment of her, and—and so on. I've known women throw themselves at
a fellow's head, but—by George! And I might have been fool enough,
Lord knows! if it hadn't been for feeling the way I did."
"If I recollect aright, you said she did go with you?"
"But not that way, of course not. Sit still, Nettie, until I've
finished. Oh, I give you leave to be jealous of Geraldine Balcombe all
you like. That won't hurt."
"Billy, you say she asked you to run away with her, and you
said—you distinctly said—you did."
"Madam, I said nothing of the kind. Stay here and be nice to me,
and I'll tell you exactly what occurred. After we had been talking in
the little room for a bit—"
"How much of a bit?"
"I don't know. But the mornings were still early, and all those
windows showed us the dawn coming. There had been a moon, as she says
in that precious tale of hers, but it had set long ago. She was
frightened lest we should be found up, and you may be sure I didn't
care about it either. Indeed, I was raging to get clear of the house
and her, and the whole blessed business, especially when I thought of
Walter coming home in a few hours. As you know, I had no luggage with
me. I was free to go directly I got an opportunity, and I made up my
mind to slip off somehow so as to catch an early train across the
fields. She seemed to know that I was trying to get away from her, for
she said if I wanted to go she could show me how to do so without
disturbing the house. I was so glad of any chance that I accepted the
offer, and when I had fetched my boots and things, she took me down
that very staircase and through the door which she says she saw me and
Lexie elope by. She knew that door well, evidently, for she had the key
with her, and locked and unlocked it as easily as if she did it every
day. The nurse may say she heard it bang, but it didn't bang that
"And she locked herself outside as well as you?"
"I thought she would say good-bye there, but she took a hat and
cloak from a peg and threw them on, and said she'd show me how to get
out of the park without passing the lodges. That's the way she's
getting in now, I expect, when Walter fancies he has guarded every
point. There's a door in the park wall where it joins the rectory
grounds; it's for the use of the rector when he likes, and she had the
key. That's where she let me out, and that's where she made her last
try; but I mustn't say any more about that. It still wanted nearly two
hours to the train. She said she could slip into the rectory and up to
her room—by another secret way, I suppose—and get some clothes. She
offered to be my servant—my anything—if I would take her with me. Oh,
but I am a cad to tell on her, though she is what she is! I got away
somehow, and struck across country, and walked I don't know where,
picked up the railway a dozen miles off, and took the train at a little
station I'd never been to before. And as soon as I got to London I fell
in with a friend just off to shoot wild sheep and goats in the
Himalayas, and I got my rifles and things ready in a day and went with
him—the beginning of long wanderings. And I hardly saw an English
paper, and never heard any news, and never wanted to. And—and I think
that's all, Nettie."
She put her arms round his neck, and kissed him, and thanked him.
She said she didn't think any husband could have told the honest truth
The Wingates drove in their own buggy to The Chase, where they were
met by Mr. Blackett's policeman, by whom they were escorted over the
great house. It was a great house, in more ways than one; and Nettie,
whose passion for things English was far greater than that of which she
had accused her husband, walked about with clasped hands and head
thrown back, uttering sighs and "ohs" and other senseless ejaculations,
in a state of rapture too profound for words.
The hall—the great hall, as it was properly termed—had been left
almost exactly as it was in what Billy called his time, and was
impressive enough for anything—especially in the dull light of a
threatening storm which had unexpectedly followed upon the bright
morning. It was not much unlike a church,—with a fireplace in it and
all the pews turned out. There was a screen like a rood-screen at the
lower end, dividing it from an outer vestibule; at the upper end the
massive staircase, down which Lexie had walked like a princess at her
husband's side, branched into galleries running down the sides. The
windows were mullioned and filled with old glass, partly stained; the
floor was of chequered stone; the roof a mass of oak beams, spreading
fan-wise in all directions. From the latter—very high up and
shadowed—hung banners, beautifully dilapidated. There were trophies of
arms on the walls, genuinely mediaeval; rows upon rows of family
portraits, with authentic dates to them, historic and notorious;
heraldic insignia on every hand, indisputably testifying that the
Desaillys were an ancient and a noble family. Altogether, there was a
fine, solemn, feudal air about the place, calculated to awe a colonial
person seeing it for the first time.
Having been so lately used for the coming-of-age festivities, dust
and cobwebs were not conspicuous; but the air struck cold and had a
musty, mouldy taint, causing Nettie to cry "Pah!" and put a perfumed
handkerchief to her nose.
"It is the very smell of murdered bodies," she declared, shivering.
"How do you know what the smell of murdered bodies is like?" her
husband asked her.
"Oh, by instinct," she replied.
"It's the smell of old age," he said, sniffing and peering about
him. "Powers above! It looks as if it might have been like this for a
They opened the shutters of the state drawing-room which had been
used in Lexie's honour on the night Wingate so well remembered—a place
of com- fortless splendour such as may still be found in certain royal
palaces which the changes of fifty years or so have respectfully passed
by. Here was desolation again. The floral carpet and much of the satiny
furniture had been removed, and most of the precious ornaments; what
were left stood shrouded in bags of calico, bulging and shapeless. But
the chandeliers, that weighed tons, and the cunning carved work of the
sumptuous ceiling and doorways, were exposed so were the panels of
tapestry said to be three hundred years old, and the famous pictures
that carried history on their faces—faces of Vandyke ladies in their
stately and beautiful Henrietta-Maria costumes; Lely ladies in flowing
and formless draperies, kept from flowing away altogether by a mere
taper-fingered hand; Gainsboroughs, Sir Joshuas, Romneys, with huge
heads and little scarves and fichus—Lexie's noble predecessors in that
most select of county families.
"Oh!" sighed Nettie Wingate, to all this forsaken beauty, "what a
drawing-room I could make of this! Billy, what do you say—?"
But when they went upstairs she was afraid to repeat the
suggestion. Here, where the rooms had not been opened for the
coming-of-age guests, the utterly undomestic, deserted, haunted-house
look of everything made the thought of the vulgarest Melbourne villa
grateful. Anything like a home seemed inconceivable in that forlorn and
fusty wilderness where rats squeaked in daytime, and spiders' webs,
drawn over the heavily leaded windows, shut wholesome sunshine out. In
every room carpets were rolled up, and only the heavy furniture left in
place—except in that most interesting room of all at the end of the
west wing, identified with Lexie in the past, and with the rope and
candle in the present, the place of the mystery which it was the object
of their expedition to solve. Here what carpet the moth had left still
clung to the floor, and curtains of flowered silk damask, that had been
old and faded in her time, still depended from the canopy of Lexie's
bed—a monumental structure of mahogany that must have been built where
it stood—and from the cornice spanning the bay of the big window,
which almost filled one end of the room and was the only light in it.
The great wardrobes and presses, the bow-legged toilet table, with its
oval mirror swinging between tall shafts, the sofa and the escritoire,
the very mattress and pillows of the vast bed, with the satin quilt
drawn over them—everything that she had used during her brief
occupancy of the apartment—seemed to have been left unaltered; and
Billy looked at all with a full heart and eyes that his wife did not
care to meet for a few minutes. The rooms that had been Walter's
dressing-room and the nurseries, adjoining each other in the passage
outside, communicated with hers by one door only, the only one in the
great room, corresponding at the one end to the only window at the
other. The long side walls were unbroken save by the chimney-piece,
which was the usual massive structure, sixteenth-century woodwork, with
ornamentation reaching to the ceiling, the hearth wide and the shaft
spacious, giving a far-off view of a disc of sky. The most casual
inspection showed the impossibility of any living thing, save birds,
being harboured there. The floor, as Wingate had been informed, had
been taken up in various places and put down again, the old carpet now
hiding the scars the window casements were fastened; and when he went
along the wainscot, rapping sharply on every panel, and standing still
to listen for the effect, the sound died immediately, with no hint of
"We've done that," the constable observed with a smile. "There's
nothing there, sir. Solid as a rock."
"What!" cried Wingate, "do you believe in ghosts, too?"
"No, sir; but I believe in the evidence of my senses. Those walls
don't hide anything. I've proved it."
They were lined from top to bottom with wood panelling, that had
been painted white and gilded in places, and was now soiled and
tarnished. In five of the panels, three on one side and two on the
other, the latter flanking the central chimney-piece, pictures were
embedded as in fixed frames. They were so old that it was impossible to
tell whether, as works of art, they were good or bad, for hardly an
outline was visible under the varnish, which seemed to be many coats
thick. Their blackened hues contrasted oddly with the white paint,
suggesting that the latter was a recent innovation in the chronology of
the house, and probably hid the beautiful texture and colour of old oak
or other valuable wood. The visitors passed them over with a glance.
"Well," said Wingate to the constable, "I think that's all for the
present. The place is empty now, whatever it may have been last night;
the windows are secure, and we will lock the door behind us safely.
When we have had something to eat, and gathered together a few things
that we may want, we will return here, and stay in this room till
morning. And if you will meet us with the keys, and share our watch, I
shall be infinitely obliged to you. Of course I'll make it well worth
"Don't you think, sir," suggested the constable, "that it'd be as
well for somebody to watch outside as well as in? That fellow with the
rope, that you saw in the garden, wants attending to."
"Certainly. I mean to keep a good look-out from the window. There
will be a splendid moon if these clouds clear off. The fewer we are the
better in a case of this sort. You don't catch fish if you make a
splash in the water."
"No, sir. But I think it's my business to look after the man rather
than the ghost, if it's all the same to you."
Wingate agreed that a policeman must be allowed to know his own
business best, and had a shrewd suspicion that this particular
policeman would rather deal single-handed with fifty corporeal thieves
of the most desperate character than with one indeterminate spectre
lighting its way about the deserted house with a harmless spectral
candle. So it was arranged that he should patrol the garden, with a
trusty friend for company, while husband and wife held the fort within.
At six o'clock of a summer evening the prospect had no terrors for the
latter. She was delighted to have gained permission to share such a
It was slightly otherwise at nine o'clock, however. Night was
closing in then, and with the night came the heavy storm that had been
slowly gathering during the afternoon. Sombre thunder clouds, riven
with red lightning, and a deep and swelling murmur in the air, were the
conditions attendant upon an uncomfortable start from the abode of Mrs.
Venn, who, having supplied certain demands, was wild with curiosity to
know what for—the only fact confided to her being the intention of her
guests to "camp out," which seemed about the last thing likely in the
state of the weather. Half-way up the green chase, the horses, already
at their fastest trot, delighting in the longest stretch of sward they
had ever felt under their feet, were encouraged to break into a gallop;
and the deserted stables were reached just as the furious rain began to
fall. Here they found the constable and Abel Rowe, his chosen
mate—declared to be the best available—looking far from happy. They
helped Wingate to shelter his buggy, and make the horses comfortable,
and then to carry the contents of the vehicle into the house.
How the great hall clanged to the tread of their hob-nailed boots!
And the aspect of the place, in the light of one candle and a
bull's-eye lantern—the hollow silence and darkness filled with the
sound of rushing rain—how eerie it was! When such rain falls on your
roof at night, particularly with trees about, you can always hear
voices in it, gabbling to each other, if you like to listen for them;
here they seemed to shout overhead, like wild birds passing over—a
ride of vallkyries above the storm; and the empty house reverberated
till one could well fancy that kindred spirits within it were answering
to the call. Nevertheless, Billy enticed his evidently uneasy comrades
to remain while the downpour lasted, keeping them in heart with the
whisky flask. He earnestly advised them to remain inside for the night,
and watch the terrace from a ground-floor window; but they preferred
the risk of rheumatism and pneumonia in a damp summer-house outside.
It wouldn't do, they said, with sheepish smiles, to make themselves
too comfortable, since they had to keep awake all night.
"Very well; only if you catch your deaths don't blame me," said
Billy testily. He had scorned to plead nervousness on his own account,
but was more and more conscious that it would have been a satisfaction
to have his guards on the inner side of the locked doors during the
"Look sharp that you do keep awake," he besought them, as they
turned to go. "Don't take your eye off that terrace and the window for
a moment. And cooee—that is, call out to me, if you see anything
suspicious. I will do the same. Good-night! Take the mackintosh rug
He let them out into the sweet-smelling, rain-washed night, closed
the heavy door upon them and turned the key with a vindictive wrench,
reflecting with pleasure that their cowardice, as he supposed it, had
cut them off from the support of his courage, companionship and
revolver; then he and Nettie, crowding into each other's pockets, sat
down to hearten themselves with a little supper.
"I've got some more whisky here," he said, rummaging, "and I'm
going to give you some, old girl. I am wishing, do you know, that I'd
left you with Mrs. Venn after all."
"Why, Billy? I am not frightened. I wouldn't have stayed at home,
away from you, for anything; nothing should have induced me. But I do
think," speaking rather tremulously, "that those men might have kept us
company the first night!"
"I can easily make them, if you wish. I can drive them in by
threatening to shoot them if they won't come. But that wouldn't help
much, and I suppose it really is an advantage to have the house watched
outside. Don't you feel safe with only me, sweetheart?"
He put his arm around her as she sat upon his knee, and she dropped
a package of sandwiches to the floor in order to kiss him adequately.
"Oh, I do, I do!" she cried, and honestly meant it, for never had
her bridegroom shown himself so much of a man and a husband as he was
doing now. "But this place"—they were in the great hall, for the
security of a wide outlook all round them—"oh, Billy dear, this place
is so, so creepy!"
It certainly was—even Billy confessed it; far more so in the
moonlight than in the rain. No ordinary imagination could withstand the
effect—the conjunction of effects—presented.
"We won't stay here any longer," he murmured soothingly. "We'll go
to bed. Here, drink,"—holding a potent tumbler to her lips. "I know it
is nasty, but it will do you good. Now just one little sandwich to
please me. That's right! You feel better now, don't you? You are not
nervous now, are you?"
Gladdened to the heart by his serious anxiety, responsively
solicitous for his ease of mind, she assured him that she feared
nothing so long as her husband was with her. In the silent hug that
followed they touched a deeper note than had yet sounded in the merry
music of their joint lives.
"Brave girl! Come along, then; stick close to me. There's nothing
whatever to be afraid of. It's only that the place looks so big and
grand, and feels so full of its old stories somehow. This is the sort
of thing that makes people feel religious in cathedrals, when they are
quite cold and callous in a common modern church. Just imagine that
you've been locked into Melbourne Town Hall by mistake, and see how
little you will care then!"
"I can't. This is like being in another world."
"It's the same old world—the same 'so-called nineteenth century';
and we're just as safe as—hullo!"
"Confound the thing! All right, all right; it's only one of the
buggy lamps; I didn't see it was there." He had knocked it from a pile
of bedclothes to the floor, and the glass and metal rang upon the bare
stone. Echoes in the roof and galleries were like a flock of startled
birds taking wing at the noise.
"That ought to be a warning to the ghosts," he growled, in a vexed
tone; "the very thing I didn't want to give them. Wait a bit, Nettie;
listen a moment."
They stood quite still, in their small island of light, peering
into the sea of shadows round them. The flame of the candle glowed up
into their handsome faces, so alive and alert, but left dark, as in
ambush, the eyes of the dead Desaillys watching the intruders from the
wall. Brighter every moment shone the moon through the blazoned
windows, sharper its embroidery of cross-bars and lattice-work came out
upon the pavement under them; and the lighter it grew, the more like a
haunted place it looked. Oh, how different things appear at night from
what they do by day! Billy wished again that he had left Nettie with
Mrs. Venn. "Listen!" he said, holding her tightly with one hand and the
butt of his revolver with the other. But they heard nothing, except
their hearts beating.
So they started on their voyage to the west wing. Their supper had
done them so much good that they dared to blow the candle out and find
their way by the light of the moon; for, as Billy said, if they were to
catch that ghost, it was necessary to stalk him carefully.
"But don't think of such rot," he hastened to add. "If you hear
anything, mind, it will be the dripping of the rain, or the mice and
rats, or the wind in chimneys and keyholes, or the windows shaking, or
the old boards creaking and cracking underfoot. Natural causes,
"Oh! I'm not afraid of ghosts," boasted Nettie, whom whisky had
made valiant for the moment. "Nor of anything else—with you."
She carried the candlestick and matches, her dressing-bag and
wraps; Billy had loaded himself with all their bedclothes, but kept his
right hand free. They walked in their stockinged feet and talked in
whispers. The first sensation, as of cold water down her spine, came to
Nettie as they passed the little room at the angle of the stairs. No
curtain masked it now, and the moonlight poured through its encircling
windows in a melodramatic way.
"That's where I saw her burning the lace," said Wingate, pointing.
"Oh, don't!" gasped Nettie, seeing in her mind's eye the lace with
blood-stains on it. All the tragical story, as her young fancy composed
it, seemed to act itself again before her; she dared not look into the
little room, lest she should behold the spirit of midnight murder
bending over the hearth. Oh, this was indeed an uncanny place to be
astray in at such an hour!
They reached, or all but reached, their destination in the west
wing, creeping past the little well staircase and the row of doors to
the carefully locked door at the end of the passage. Suddenly both
stood motionless, arrested in the self-same instant; and Nettie uttered
an involuntary exclamation which Wingate instantly suppressed.
"What was that?"
A sound which, if anywhere outside their own imaginations, was
inside the sealed chamber, and not wind or mice or rain-drops now. The
noise, a deep rumble, was as if some one were dragging a solid, smooth
piece of furniture over the floor, rather like the sound of an
earthquake, and the feel of it too. A distinct vibration was
communicated to the pair, who were as yet some dozen yards from the
spot whence the movement seemed to proceed, the air being at the same
time filled with a muffled hum, swelling for a moment and then ceasing
suddenly, leaving the tomb-like silence as before. It might have been
an earthquake, or it might have been thunder, the tail end of the
recent storm; but our adventurers did not think of either possibility.
"They've got in before us," whispered Wingate, dropping the
bedclothes where he stood, and getting a grip of his revolver. "Steady
now. Don't be frightened. Light the candle. Quick!"
He turned the heavy handle of the door, expecting to find it
unfastened. But it was not unfastened; it was just as he had left it.
Stooping, with the candle at his eye, he peered into the keyhole, and
saw that no key obstructed it. Then he snatched his own from his
pocket, wrenched it round in the lock, and threw the door wide open.
No one was visible. The room was silent and empty of everything but
what they had left there in the afternoon; nothing had been moved. They
stood for a minute or two just within the door, which, when they had
brought in the bedclothes, they closed and locked behind them, staring
up and down and from side to side; then, holding his wife's hand,
Wingate approached the fireplace cautiously and looked up the wide
shaft of the chimney, holding the candle high above his head.
"Nothing there," he whispered.
Then he tip-toed to the window, which he examined closely. No one,
he found, could have got out that way. The two casements were both
closed. He took hold of each handle of the iron catches and moved it up
and down; both worked well, but both had been in their sockets, and no
draughts could have displaced them. Opening one door-like lattice, he
reached his head out; the window, resting on a bracket of heraldic
stone-work, was thirty feet up in the wall, at least, projecting into
the air, with nothing under it but flag pavements. Any burglar
departing by that route would do so to certain suicide.
"What could it have been?" faltered Nettie, whose little heart was
"Thunder, I expect. It must have been thunder."
"It didn't sound like thunder, Billy. It stopped too suddenly."
"Couldn't have been anything else," he insisted, with some
impatience; but he still prowled about uneasily.
"If any of the village people are watching the house," said Nettie,
as she placed the candle on the dressing-table, not far from the
window, "they will say the ghost is here to-night, at any rate."
"Blow it out," cried Wingate, and he extinguished the little flame
himself as he spoke. "Let us watch for an hour or two. The moon is
light enough for anything, and it's as well—ha!"
They stood like statues, listening, and heard the voices of the men
from the terrace beneath. Wingate put his head out of the window and
hailed them. "Cooee! You fellows there—what's up?"
"We've only found another rope, sir. An old one this time."
"Oh, have you? Anything else?"
"Nothing else, sir. We heard a rustling and thought we saw
somebody, but it was a mistake. We'll keep a good look-out, sir."
"Just scour the place well before you settle yourselves down, and
report to me in half an hour."
They did so, but had nothing further to report.
"All right inside, sir?" the constable kindly inquired.
"As right as a trivet," was the ostentatiously cheerful reply.
"Did you light a candle and put it out just now, sir?"
"Of course I did. We like the moonlight best. You had better come
along, you and Rowe, and sleep up here near us."
"Thank you, sir. It's very comfortable outside, sir."
"All right. Please yourselves. Good-night!"
Wingate turned from the window, and he and Nettie made their bed by
the light of the moon. They made it within the monstrous four-poster
that had been Lexie's marriage couch for the few sad and splendid weeks
that seemed to have been her last; the hair mattress and the big down
pillows were dry and wholesome-smelling, for something seemed to have
preserved the air in this room fresher than that of the rest of the
houses—a circumstance, however, which did not strike them at the time.
As they spread their inadequate blankets and linen, and tucked the old
silk curtains back behind the bedhead and the wall, they talked of
various matters, but never mentioned Lexie.
When all preparations were made, they were still reluctant to go to
bed. They sat together on Lexie's sofa in the window, and let the cool,
clean air flow over them. They gazed at the high, clear sky and the
beautiful moon-touched clouds, at the wide-branching "English" trees
that were such a constant joy, and those majestic angles of wall with
the ivy on them, the wet leaves twinkling where they caught the light.
They sniffed the perfume of the rain, exhaled from earth and flowers,
the sweetest of all sweet things to an Australian nose. And, with their
late unsettled nerves composed, they remembered they were bride and
bridegroom, and that, wherever they were, they carried their home
shrine with them, as the snails, now coming out in such myriads,
carried their shells upon their backs.
"It only wants a nightingale to make it perfect," sighed Nettie,
slowly drawing hairpins from her chestnut plaits.
The nightingale had done his courting for that year; he was
gone—only just gone—and would be heard no more in English gardens
till April came again. But her lover beside her had no difficulty in
proving to her that nightingales were, after all, superfluous.
At about midnight they lit the candle once more Wingate opened the
door to take a last look into the corridor, and before he shut it laid
a piece of paper over the outer keyhole, and stuck it down with some
strips torn from the edge of a sheet of postage stamps. Then, locking
it inside with the greatest care, he placed the key by the bedside,
along with candle and matches and the loaded revolver. They
extinguished the light, and, feeling safe and satisfied, lay down to
sleep in each other's arms.
That first night in the haunted chamber was not so romantic in its
incidents as the second one, and yet it was far from being commonplace.
The occupants found it impossible to feel at home in such surroundings.
They fidgetted through the long six hours, listening, watching,
talking, dozing in brief snatches, waking on the threshold of dreams to
cry, "Phew, how hot it is!" and disturb each other by asking whether he
or she was asleep or not. And the mice were distracting. But for the
testimony of universal experience, it would have been hard to believe
they were mice, rushing and raging over the floor, and scratching and
squealing behind the wainscot in that rampageous manner. The present
auditors had no doubt about it—blessed them in choice language without
feeling any necessity to light the candle. Perhaps it was the familiar
domestic associations of the noise which lulled them into their first
sleep, when their ears had become accustomed to the noise itself. At
any rate, they slept. It seemed to themselves that they had been off
guard for about five minutes, when first Nettie, and then her husband,
awoke to a sensation of something having happened during their absence.
There was a subdued creaking, as when one tries to open a door or
window without being heard—a little cracking noise, then silence, then
"There's some one in the room," whispered Nettie, her dry tongue
cleaving to the roof of her mouth.
"Hush-sh-sh!" breathed Wingate in her ear, and he drew himself up
softly into a sitting posture. The moon was obscured at this moment,
and from their bed by the fireplace, nearer to the door than the
window, they could see nothing distinctly.
Again they heard the creaking noise—a noise that certainly had not
disturbed them before they went to sleep—and Wingate cautiously felt
for the matches. He was not alarmed, but he trembled with the effort
that he made not to betray himself by an untimely movement. He managed
to secure the match-box without rattling it against the candlestick,
and to open and close it without a tinkle; then he sat up in bed with a
match in his hand, ready to strike the instant he heard the creaking
sound again. After long suspense it was repeated, and, with his
straining eyes fixed upon the door whence he believed it to come, he
dashed the match upon the box, expecting to reveal the form of
Geraldine Desailly or an accomplice in the act of creeping into the
room. But he dashed with too much vigour; the match-head snapped
without exploding, and fell off upon the sheet. He did not swear, as he
felt inclined to do, but listened for a moment eagerly. Again there was
the creaking sound, not so loud this time, but continued for several
seconds instead of for one. He seized another match, struck it
successfully, and held the little flame high, rising on one knee as he
did so, and he saw that the door was closed and the room unchanged. He
then lit the candle and got out of bed to explore more thoroughly,
Nettie following close behind him; but the strictest search discovered
nothing. The bit of paper was still over the outside keyhole,
untouched; the passage doors were shut and fastened; the passage and
the little staircase were empty and silent; the haunted room revealed
no sign of any human presence, save their own.
"It must have been the mice," said Wingate, as he locked their own
door afresh; and he bade his wife go back to bed.
"It was not a bit like mice," she objected timidly.
"Well, there's nobody about, at any rate."
So they returned to their pillows, and, listening for a long time,
heard no more noises except such as mice ordinarily make in their
nibblings at dry woodwork and their scamperings to and fro. Rain began
to patter down again, and to tinkle upon the window.
"Perhaps it was the rain," said Wingate.
"Perhaps," suggested Nettie hopefully, "it was the furniture
creaking after being moved and pulled about. I had a wicker chair in my
bedroom once that used to make noises the whole night if I had been
sitting in it before I went to bed."
"Oh, very likely. I daresay that was it."
Wingate turned over to go to sleep.
His wife, less satisfied, lay awake for some time longer, and then
she, too, dozed again; but she had troubled dreams of ghosts and
burglars that startled her into sudden recognition of the white moonlit
and black shadows of the haunted room at very short intervals. On one
of these occasions she crept to Billy, and whispered his name into his
ear. He was slumbering lightly, but in a moment checked his audible
breathing and brought all his senses to attention. There was a noise in
the air again, but not the same noise as before. It was a sort of
pulsation, half a sigh and half a snore, rising and falling gently and
evenly, like the heavy breathing of some sleeping animal, and it seemed
to come from under the floor.
"If we were in the bush," said Wingate, "I should say it was an
opossum. It is exactly like the noise they make in the trees at night,
just outside your window."
"It must be a dog," said Nettie.
"Yes. Or—" he was trying to think of an English equivalent for an
opossum, "or a squirrel out of the woods."
They were both sure that it was not man, woman, or ghost; so
Wingate picked up one of his boots and flung it noisily across the
floor, crying "Shoo!" loudly as he did so. Instantly the noise stopped,
there was the sound of a stealthy, creeping movement, and all was
"A squirrel," said Wingate again. "An old place like this, deserted
for so long, and standing in the middle of these lonely woods, must be
alive with creatures making a shelter of it. No wonder there are
Then they went to sleep for the last time, and awoke in daylight,
safe and sound, satisfied with the issue of their adventure.
Nettie dressed provisionally, put a tin kettle to boil on a spirit
stove, and made tea, first for her husband and herself, and then for
the two men who had spent the night on the hard boards of the
summer-house, and whom Wingate went in search of as soon as he had
hurried on his clothes.
"Well, you fellows," he said airily, "now that you've got the light
of day to reassure you, perhaps you'll come into the house for a little
refreshment. Mrs. Wingate is brewing you a cup of tea; she thinks
you'll be wanting something after all you have gone through. We have
been as comfortable and snug as possible."
"Slept well, sir?" inquired Abel Rowe, as he and his companion
walked stiffly towards the house, having returned respectful greetings
and tendered thanks for the lady's kindness.
"Never better," replied Wingate.
"You didn't keep awake to watch—?"
"Of course I did. When I say I slept well, I mean that everything
was quiet. The mice made a bit of a rumpus, that's all."
"And your lady wasn't frightened, sir?"
"Not a bit. She isn't one of that sort. Besides, there was nothing
to frighten anybody."
Then he fetched his wife downstairs, taking the precaution to lock
their chamber door behind them, because she was leaving silver toilet
things and other valuables about; and she looked very fresh and
charming to the tired men as she stepped into the hall, carrying her
tea-basket in her arms. They saluted her with a shamefaced sense of her
moral superiority over themselves.
"I should like," said Wingate, emptying the remaining contents of
his spirit flask into the men's teacups, "to thoroughly satisfy your
minds as well as my own, to prove to everybody that the house is free
of ghosts, at any rate. It is just possible I may rent the place from
Sir Walter for a time, and I am well aware that we should have trouble
with servants, and so on, if any nonsense of that sort got about. I
suppose you won't object to sleeping with us here to-night, now that a
lady has not been afraid to do it, with only one arm to defend her?"
The men pocketed the insult implied, and professed themselves ready
to spend nights or days wherever duty called them. If the gentleman and
Mr. Blackett thought it better to guard the house from the inside than
from the outside, well and good. They were there to obey orders.
"Then I'll see Mr. Blackett in the course of the day, and let you
know the arrangements later. You can leave the keys with me; I will
lock up safely."
They left him the keys, and departed to their homes and breakfasts.
Then Wingate and Nettie enjoyed some hours of perfect independence and
delight; feeding and watering their horses, roaming about the neglected
grounds, where they found fresh footprints—unmistakable woman's
footprints—amongst the marks of the men's boots in the moist earth,
pointing as unmistakably to the rector's sleepwalker; wandering over
the extraordinary house, and rummaging its many nooks and corners, its
cupboards and cabinets, its wonderful relics of the romantic past;
until they felt so hungry as well as so intensely interested that they
determined not to waste time going home to luncheon, but to make shift
with the scraps of the provision basket.
They camped again in the great hall, sitting on their carriage
cushions and spreading a clean towel before them on the stone floor. It
reminded them, they said, of many a picnic in the beloved bush at home,
though it would have been hard to imagine a greater contrast. They
lifted baggy napkins and spread them open, disclosing curly-cornered
sandwiches, crumpled pasties, dry hunks of bread and cheese, with
fragments of other dainties similarly the worse for wear. Only that
Billy enjoyed the continual feast of a contented mind, Nettie would
have expected remarks on her housekeeping; but he was satisfied to eat
whatever she gave him, and only grumbled because there was not enough
"I will make some tea," she said. "I've got a screw left."
But he said he wanted something better than tea, and
retrospectively begrudged the whisky he had wasted over-night. So she
remembered that she had a medicinal flask in her dressing-bag upstairs,
and offered to go and fetch it.
"I'll go," cried Wingate, springing to his feet. "You couldn't
unlock the door with those bits of hands." And he tramped towards the
staircase at the end of the hall, and pounded up the shallow oak steps
to the gallery above and the western passage leading out of it, singing
as he went, filling the house with hollow noises. When he returned he
was holding a silver-mounted bottle between his eye and the light,
"Well, you're a nice sort of young person!" he exclaimed.
"Am I?" she replied. "And why?"
"Tippling on the quiet in this way, and all the time pretending to
your husband that the smell of spirits makes you sick."
"So it does. What are you talking about?"
"This flask's empty."
"It isn't. It's brimful. I haven't touched it since you filled it
for me in London."
Wingate solemnly turned it upside-down before her eyes. One drop
only splashed upon the pavement.
"Then some one has been at it."
"I don't know. I have never taken it out of its pocket since we
"The stopper was hardly screwed on at all."
"Oh dear! I hope it hasn't been leaking into the bag."
"No, I looked to see. The bag is all right. But don't you keep it
locked when you're going about in strange places? You ought. All those
fittings are solid, you know."
"I will in future," said Nettie. "But it's a nuisance. I do hate
not to be able to trust people."
"So do I," said Wingate. And they silently suspected a number of
honest persons, while Nettie strove to pacify the disappointed one with
a cup of tea.
It did not pacify him, so they put the horses to the buggy and
returned to the Desailly Arms, where he drank a whole bottle of beer
and was himself again.
Then Nettie, bathed and brushed, with stays off and an empire
tea-gown on, spent a pleasant afternoon with a novel. Wingate,
meanwhile, went to see Mr. Blackett. Mr. Martin, the housekeeper at the
Dower House, and his late colleague the constable, to arrange the
programme for the night. Time was required for the doing of so much
business, and Mrs. Venn was ready to dish up dinner when he returned
with his report.
"It's all right," he said. "Walter is hurrying home, but he can't
get here till late to-night; I don't suppose we shall see him till the
morning. He has telegraphed to Blackett that I am to have a free hand.
Dear old fellow! I am thankful he knows it wasn't me, at last. It will
be strange to see him after twenty years, and to see him under these
strange circumstances. He is leaving the boy behind—I'm glad of that;
it would have been difficult to talk of his mother before him, and he
might have hampered us in our dealings with Mrs. George, whom he seems,
like the rector, to regard as a persecuted angel, more or less. By the
way, I've done a good stroke in getting the rector to join our watch
to-night. He's awfully interested in the business, and burning to
help—feels, of course, that it's a parish matter in which he is
primarily concerned. But I told him to be sure and not breathe a word
to the lady. I said the mere suggestion of burglars and ghosts, of
anything being the matter, would be most injurious to her in her
nervous state. She's not sleeping any better, he says, but still
refuses to see a doctor or to have any one in her room. His being away
to-night will give her scope for enterprise; we shall be able to find
her out now, if we are very careful. I don't mean to let anybody watch
in the garden, to scare her off; I'll give her a chance to do whatever
it is she wants to do."
"Blow us up with dynamite?" cried Nettie.
"Oh, it isn't dynamite," he rejoined confidently. "There'd be no
sense in that. It's something that doesn't want to make a noise to
attract public attention. And"—with an exultant look—"old Walter will
be here to-night."
An unusually hearty dinner and an imperatively necessary cigar took
another hour from the daylight, and by the time Mrs. Venn had
replenished the picnic-basket, and been mercifully made acquainted with
a part of the truth as to the business connected with it, Wingate found
himself late for his appointment with the rector at The Chase. But the
horses were fresh and fast, and the way was short to-night. A groom was
in attendance to drive them back to the comfortable inn stables, for it
was not supposed to be any longer necessary to keep the means of escape
at hand; and husband and wife yawned luxuriously in anticipation of the
quiet night they were going to have. Their nerves were entirely
unaffected by its shadowy approach. It was delightful to hear the owl
hoot, and the stag, with his fighting antlers ready, challenge his
rival across a glimmering pool. The mystery of the thick woods to right
and left had no terrors in it; and the old house, when again it loomed
above them, was even as the Melbourne Town Hall to their placid
They found Mr. Martin kicking his heels in the porch, and took him
in, and entertained him, as if the place belonged to them; made him
smoke and drink, and eat delicacies provided on purpose for him out of
the basket, and join in pleasant talk and the telling of adventurous
tales; and Wingate fed Abel and the constable with equal hospitality,
after the manner of Australian hosts. Then, in good heart and
condition, they mounted the grand staircase in a body and dispersed
themselves to their respective posts. The rector was put into what used
to be Walter's dressing-room, the two men had shake-downs on the
passage floor, just outside the door of the large chamber that had been
Lexie's, which Wingate and Nettie had appropriated.
And now this pair felt that the time had come to relax and recruit
themselves after their exhausting day. Wingate sank into an arm-chair,
in slippers and shirt-sleeves, and lit his pipe. Nettie squatted on the
bed, and brushed her hair, and yawned contentedly. And they amused
themselves with plans for renting The Chase—which now seemed
altogether desirable—and discussed furniture and domestic
arrangements, and how they would have a real English Christmas in the
great hall, and invite all available Australians of their acquaintance
to come to it.
"Oh, I am so tired!" sighed Nettie at last.
"So am I," said Wingate, getting up to stretch himself "It's the
reaction after so much excitement. Well, we can sleep in peace
She tumbled into bed, and the heavy lids dropped over her sleepy
eyes. He for the last time stepped to the now unlocked door, and,
opening it for an inch or two, asked if they were "all right out
"All right," the three men responded promptly.
"Good-night, then. Call me if anything is the matter, but don't
make more noise than you can help. Mrs. Wingate is tired, and I don't
want her to be disturbed."
They bade him good-night, and he extinguished the candles on the
dressing-table. In ten minutes he and his wife were slumbering like a
pair of healthy infants. They could not have "gone off" more quickly
and soundly if they had taken opiates for the purpose.
Nevertheless, Nettie awoke in an hour—suddenly, with an
unaccountable sense of shock. Before she was able to think about it,
before she opened her eyes indeed, she knew she was not being roused
naturally, but had been frightened awake by some power of which her
physical senses were not as yet conscious. It was with a heart-shaking
thrill that she remembered where she was—the tragical haunted room,
and the pale moonbeams that only made it more so—and at the same
moment realized that she had been compelled to remember it. While far
away in dreamland, fancy free, something—something awful—had called
her back; she had no doubt about it, even while she did not know what
it was, hearing and seeing nothing. Her husband calmly snored beside
her, with his head rolled in the bedclothes; he had not felt the
presence in the air, and she was powerless to lift hand or voice to
Opening her eyes—every other muscle of the body being paralysed
with fright—she looked into the darkness straight before her, as with
an instinct for the quarter whence revelation would come. There was
nothing at the foot of the great bedstead, no footboard or rail, to
obstruct her view, but the moonlight was not strong enough to show her
the features of the room immediately. Gradually, however, the main
outlines faintly defined themselves—the division of wall from ceiling
and of panel from panel—until she could see the shape of the recess in
which the picture that faced her was embedded. While her fascinated
gaze was rivetted to this object, she saw a strange effect of broken
lights, or rather of broken shadows, quivering on and off its surface,
which still shone with old varnish; the next instant the picture was
gone! Not altogether gone, but, as it were, cut in two—the fact being
that it had been pushed up in a groove, as one pushes up the sash of a
window, leaving the lower half of the space void.
But not empty. Nettie knew now what it was that had chilled her
blood even while she slept. Peering out from that black hole were a
pair of eyes—there was a head belonging to them, but the eyes were all
she saw—shining fixedly, like those of a hungry wild beast watching
the time to spring; and it was at her they glared, with more and more
ferocious intentness as the power of the moon increased, while she lay
like a terror-stricken rabbit in the cage of a boa-constrictor, unable
to articulate even the little whisper that would have sufficed to
arouse her mate. She knew the eyes belonged to a man and not to a
ghost, and felt sure that she and Billy were going to be murdered, like
poor Lexie, as a penalty for meddling with that ghastly house, and that
she would only precipitate the catastrophe if she spoke or moved.
The eyes and hers confronted each other during a dozen
hammer-strokes of her bursting heart; then a hand became visible,
cautiously extended; a head followed, craning to right and left; a
naked foot stole out of the picture frame, and groped stealthily for
the floor. When she saw that, Nettie concluded that the end had come.
The spell that had paralysed her faculties seemed to snap and free her,
and she uttered a ringing shriek that Sir Walter might have heard at
the Dower House, where he had just arrived—a shriek which was answered
by an oath from the mysterious intruder, who had not seen that she was
The sound had not died before Wingate was out of bed, the rector,
Abel Rowe, and the constable, stumbling to their feet, bewildered and
quaking, all at sea for the moment as to what had occurred. Then the
occupants of the haunted chamber heard bare feet slapping the floor,
the crash of a chair overturned, the thump of a body against the door,
the rattle of the handle; and Wingate bawled excitedly, "Look out
there! Stop him! Stop him!" And then to the constable, who had the
revolver, "Don't shoot! Don't shoot! He can't get out!"
Even as he spoke the door was flung open, and the fugitive was seen
running down the passage, where a lighted stable lantern had been
placed for the night. Two of the guard, in the condition known as
flabbergasted, looked as if they had been knocked backwards and
breathless by the flying figure, and were not yet certain if it were
flesh and blood or ghost; but the expression of the rector's face as he
darted out of his room was even more astonished and astonishing. All
three set off in pursuit as fast as their legs could carry them; and a
strange sound it was in the dead of night—the echo, reverberating far
and wide, of that hurry-scurry through the hollow house, along the
gallery, and down the stairs where the moon made darkness visible.
Because Nettie held him back, praying not to be left alone with
that hole in the wall and its terrifying possibilities, Wingate did not
go for a minute or two, but he spent that minute in helping her into
her dressing-gown, and then they followed the chase together. A man in
his pyjama suit is already dressed for such emergencies.
The scuffle was over when they appeared upon the scene of action,
but a dramatic picture met their eyes as they came into the gallery at
the head of the grand staircase, and looked down into the hall. The
moon and the stable lantern that Wingate held above his head just, and
only just, revealed the size and sombre splendours of the place; the
policeman's bull's-eye did the rest. It was opened upon the face of the
central figure of the group gathered in the middle of the paved floor,
and that face was the only thing distinct in the vast obscurity. The
three men round it were shadows only. One shadow poured wine from a
bottle into a cup, another flitted about with the provision basket; the
third presented something to the Rembrandt face, and it opened unshaven
jaws and snatched it wolfishly.
"Why, who the dickens is that?" exclaimed Wingate.
"It's all right, Mr. Wingate," the rector called to him. "It's Mr.
George Desailly. He was locked in by accident on the day of the coming
of age, he says, and could not get out."
"And he's clean starved," cried Abel Rowe. "There's nothing at all
where his stomach ought to be."
"He hasn't been without food for a fortnight," Wingate whispered to
Nettie, as they ran down the stairs together. "And he could have got
out at least three days ago, if he had liked."
"Look!" she said breathlessly, and pointed to one of the great hall
windows. With the moon behind it, a figure was dimly visible; a swing
of the stable lantern showed a pair of peering eyes and a white nose
flattened upon the glass.
"Mr. Martin," said Wingate, "your guest is walking in her sleep
again. She is on the terrace there. Go out very quietly so as not to
startle her, which is bad for sleep-walkers, and bring her into
shelter, will you? Perhaps she is awake, and looking for her lost
husband; if so, you can tell her we have found him."
Full of concern for his interesting invalid, the rector bustled
towards one of the two archways through which one passed from the hall
to the vestibule and porch. Wingate hurried after him and threw open a
leaf of the heavy outer doors.
The fresh night air came pouring in, and with it the sound of
wheels and horses approaching rapidly, not over the grass, but along
another road reserved for carriages, entered at a gate near the gate of
the Dower House. The master had arrived.
The rector, engaged in what he considered his first duty, did not
return. Nettie, after some talk and a hasty toilet, was sent home to
the Desailly Arms in Sir Walter's carriage. The constable and his mate
retired from the hall, by order of their master. And so only the two
old friends, so strangely reunited, were left there, sitting side by
side on an oaken settle, with the prisoner sobbing and grovelling at
their feet. The lord of the manor, at eight and forty, looked older
than his years—he had lived fast—and his person, superficially
considered, was not imposing. Nature steadily refuses to be subservient
to the otherwise all-powerful; wherefore we behold princes who are
physically indistinguishable from peasants, and millionaires whom the
diseases of low people have rendered incapable of enjoying money. The
great Desaillys were of the best blood in the land, from a Heralds'
College point of view. Their pedigree was blue throughout as a teetotal
ribbon, until a bookseller's daughter came into it; yet the old Sir
Thomas, Walter's father, had been meagre and undersized, sandy-haired,
rat-nosed, puffy-eyed, pimply-skinned; in fact, just as common to look
at as common could be; and Walter's son, by the bookseller's daughter
aforesaid, was like a young king in a fairy tale. Walter himself might
have been taken for a prosperous butcher or publican, at a first
glance. But when you came to know him—only to know him for five
minutes—you perceived that breeding is not altogether a matter of
personal beauty, nor of manners either. That plain-featured,
bull-necked, beefy and beery man had a way of looking at people that
made them feel as worms before him. Race was potent, after all. Sir
Walter was Sir Walter, in short; throughout Norfolk, at any rate, this
sufficed to explain him.
Once upon a time his kinsman, George, had worn that distinguished
air, and possessed some of the moral qualities that almost necessarily
go with it; but a bad life and a bad woman had corrupted and destroyed
all, or nearly all. At this moment, overwhelmed with the effect of his
late terrible experiences, a trace of the lost virtue reappeared.
"In the name of God, don't ask me any questions," he implored
hysterically, kneeling up on Wingate's buggy cushions, which had been
made a couch for his exhausted frame. "My mouth is shut, Walter. I
simply can't explain. For your own sake, for Tom's sake, for the sake
of the old family, don't try to understand anything! Oh, why didn't I
throw myself out of the window and break my neck! My God, what I've
gone through! I think I'm mad! I hadn't bite or sup for three days and
nights, till I got a thimbleful of brandy this morning. I dropped the
rope—I hadn't anything to get out by—and she couldn't throw another
up. Walter, old Walter—we were boys together—give me enough to go out
of the country with, and I'll never let you see my face again, nor hers
"I understand," Sir Walter said, gravely studying the wild-eyed,
bristly, grimy face before him. "You won't turn dog on your own wife.
That's all right. But I know, without having to ask anybody, that she's
at the bottom of it. She knew of that cupboard, which is more than I
did, and that something worth having was in it."
"Nothing, Walter; nothing, nothing, I swear!"
"What! You had your labour for your pains? Or was there any other
little game on? But we'll find all that out for ourselves when we've
time to go into things. I'll just ask you one question, one that's easy
to answer. Have you been doing any mischief to the house or to anything
belonging to the house? Dynamite, or anything of that sort, hey? On
your honour, George, as a man and a gentleman and a Desailly of The
Chase, if you've got such a thing as honour left."
Mr. George Desailly hoped, dramatically, that he might die in slow
torment, and be damned for ever, if he had done a single mortal thing.
"I know you don't believe me," he said, "but it's as true as that you
are sitting there."
Sir Walter did believe him, and dismissed such trifles as ropes and
cupboards from his mind. "Very well," said he. "Now look here; I'll let
you go, and I'll give you enough to get out of the country with, and an
income to live on while you keep out, on one condition."
The face of the degraded wretch who had once been a gentleman shone
with hope, then clouded with sudden fear.
"What's that?" he muttered.
"On condition," said Sir Walter slowly and emphatically, "that you
tell me all you know about my wife's disappearance."
A pause followed this sentence, during which the two judges looked
at the culprit closely. He moistened a dry throat, and returned answer
to the effect that Mr. Wingate was the person to question on that
"Pass Mr. Wingate, if you please. That's played out."
The blanched cheek went whiter under its film of grime, but the
man, seeing the corner he was being driven to, did the best his
shattered condition allowed of to avoid it.
"Why should Mr. Wingate be passed? Everybody knew that he went off
with her. You knew it yourself, and had good reason to."
"I know now that he didn't, as I ought to have known from the
first. I did him and her a gross and fatal injustice, for which I shall
never forgive myself, and never be able to make amends."
"Who says so?"
The fellow cackled in a ghastly way, but his face was grey with
fright. "And you take his word against the testimony—"
"Of Mrs. George Desailly? I should rather think so."
"Well, it's your business, not mine. I know nothing of what
happened, except what I've been told. How on earth should I? I was in
Paris all the time. I never so much as set eyes on your wife. I was in
Paris all the time."
"I know you were; but other people were not—other people in whose
confidence you are, or you would not be in your present situation. Look
here, George, Lexie met with foul play that night—there is no doubt
that she did, either in my mind or Mr. Wingate's—otherwise she would
have come back, or we should have heard of her somewhere; and you've
got to tell us just what you know about it. You understand me?"
The wretched man understood well enough, but said to himself that
he was still man enough not to turn dog on his own wife—blind, like
all users of that figure of speech, to the fact that meanness and
treachery are the attributes of men, never of dogs. Wingate, watching
him steadily, said, in a quiet voice,—
"Where did you say you dropped the rope, Mr. Desailly?"
Mr. Desailly gasped audibly, "What rope?"
"You said you had a rope, and dropped it, and therefore could not
let yourself out."
"I don't know what I've been saying. I've been all but starved to
death, and I think my mind's going. I hadn't any rope. I said my wife
tried to throw a rope up to me, when she found I'd been locked in—"
"Oh, come, George, let's have done with that farce of being locked
in!" his cousin angrily interrupted. "Answer Mr. Wingate's question."
"I'll not answer any of his damned questions!" was the excited
retort. "If it hadn't been for him—oh, my God!—I should have been
safe in France by this time."
"Tell me," said Wingate, with the same calmly concentrated air,
"was it out of the window that you dropped your rope, when trying to
descend by it through the only exit left to you?"
"Of course it was—only you confuse me so that I don't know what
I'm saying. I was trying to carry it through one casement to the other,
so as to get it round the stone, don't you know, and the reach was too
long, and it slipped clean out of my hands, and dropped on to the
terrace. You found it there your self."
"Well, of all the cool liars that ever I came across—!"
"Hush, Wingate! let me conduct this business will you?" his friend
whispered. "Lies won't serve him; we can test them all. Come, George,
either here or in a court of justice—whichever you like. Never mind
about ropes and rubbish now. Tell me, what has become of my
wife?—that's the point I want cleared up first."
"Excuse me, Walter," said Wingate earnestly, I must know where he
dropped that rope."
"Why, out of the window, man! Didn't he just say so?"
"And you could see he was lying as plain as the nose on his face.
He didn't drop it out of the window; he dropped it somewhere else, and
he doesn't want to say where."
"There's no other place where he could have dropped it, since the
door of that room was locked."
"Exactly; that's what struck me. He knows of a place that we don't
know of; and, perhaps, if we find that place we shall find out
something about Lexie. We will explore your closet, sir, and see for
ourselves whether it's as empty as you say it is—whether it's a closet
at all, in fact, or an entrance to one of those secret passages, or
secret chamber places—"
He stopped dead, with a sharp exclamation, for he saw that his
random shot had hit the bull's-eye. Sir Walter saw it, too. Both men
rose in their stern excitement and stood over the swooning figure on
the buggy cushions, and forced a confession out of it as one squeezes
water from a flabby sponge.
Yes, there was a passage out of the closet, and it led to a—a—a
place. Walter might remember that there was always a tradition in the
family about a secret chamber, though no one believed it because it
could not be found. That, perhaps, was on account of old Sir Thomas
coming unexpectedly into the property, inheriting from an uncle he had
never seen. Doubtless that uncle knew, but, dying suddenly, took the
secret with him. He (George) hadn't an idea of it up to a fortnight
ago, and never was so knocked all of a heap in his life as he was when
Jerry told him about it. How had she found it out? He was sure he
didn't know. It was when she was a girl, and used to potter about The
Chase to amuse herself when the family was away, with only a
housekeeper in charge. She was always fond of nosing round, and poking
into things, and there wasn't much that escaped her eye. She noticed a
little hole under the moulding of a panel, close to the floor, and she
had the curiosity to stick a hairpin up and, when she found it went all
the way, a skewer or something, till she saw the picture shake—that
was how it came about, he thought. At any rate she did make the
discovery, and she kept it to herself, because it was a convenient
place to stow letters and things in that she didn't want anybody to
find. Unfortunately, she showed it to Mrs. Walter. Odd? Oh, well,
perhaps she couldn't help herself. He thought she had been getting
something out of it, or putting something in, when Mrs. Walter came
into the room and surprised her. It was Mrs. Walter's bedroom, and
Jerry thought it would never do to let her see the closet without
warning her what a dangerous place it was to go into. It looked just
like an ordinary closet from the outside, but it ran off to the left
into the dark, and some way along there was a—a place. It had a
trap-door over it, like a cellar door, flush with the floor, and not
showing when it was closed unless you looked for the cracks carefully.
Yes, perhaps, an oubliette, only the flap opened upwards in the
ordinary way, instead of sinking treacherously underfoot—fortunately,
because Jerry only found it out by feeling it shake as she stepped on
it. The hinges had got rusty and loose—one was gone altogether now; so
that it couldn't be fixed up as it was before. It was not a sewage
drain, or well, or place for running water from the roof, because it
was dry all through, and the bottom hard. Deep? Oh, very—going right
down below the cellars, apparently, like a mine shaft. Jerry, after no
end of trouble in prising the trap-door up, and lodging it against the
wall, tried to sound its depth with a long fishing-line and sinker, and
couldn't find it. It was she who put the thing out of gear, messing
there by herself, and once she had shifted it up, it was too heavy to
So the hole was always open after that; and when Jerry had shown it
to Mrs. Walter, and gone to bed, she couldn't rest for the fear that
Mrs. Walter would commit suicide by throwing herself down it Why?
Because the poor woman was mad with grief about something or other, and
just in the state of mind to make away with herself. Oh, he didn't know
anything about Mrs. Walter's disposition—whether she was the sort of
person to do such a thing, or whether she wasn't; he could only tell
the tale as it was told to him. She certainly was awfully cut up—there
was no need for him to say more in present company—and poured out her
troubles to her friend, as was only natural. What friend? Why, the only
one she had at The Chase, so far as he could make out. People might
pretend to think a lot of her now, but when she was alive—all right:
if the cap fitted, well and good. As he was saying, Jerry went to bed,
but could not sleep for worrying about the poor thing she had left
sobbing fit to break her heart; so she got up to go and see if she was
all right. And there she found her just rushing into the closet,
calling out that her husband had cast her off, and she could not live
any longer, and was going to throw herself down the well, and have done
with it. Likely? Anything and everything was likely with a woman in
hysterics; you never could tell what they'd do in a moment of
desperation. Those that weren't there to see could not possibly know.
Yes, it was a pity they were not there, as much for Jerry's sake as for
Mrs. Walter's. It was because she was alone, with no witness to prove
that she hadn't murdered Mrs. Walter herself, that Jerry was obliged to
invent the tale of the elopement. He did not, of course, justify her in
the course she took—far from it; but he expected that if they, Sir
Walter and Wingate, had been in her cruel position, they would have
done the same.
What happened? He could see they knew well enough what happened. An
awful thing; but those who drove her to it were responsible, not he.
Jerry ran after her to try to save her, but was just a second too late.
On the very edge of the hole she caught hold of her, but Mrs. Walter
fought to get loose, and very nearly carried Jerry down too. In the
struggle Jerry's dress was torn—some trimmings on the sleeve, or
something—and that, as well as all the other circumstances, when she
came to think of them, made the affair look so black against her that
she simply daren't tell anybody about it. She had been having tiffs
with Mrs. Walter, and nobody knew they had made their quarrel up; and
nobody knew about the closet and the hole; and altogether—well, one
could understand her being afraid to speak. It would have taken a brave
person to do it; and, if not done at the first moment, every moment
that passed made it more impossible. The house was quiet as the grave;
she was certain no one would believe her, especially with a bit of her
dress in the hole; and so she shut the picture, and she took the torn
stuff off her dress and burnt it—oh, Mr. Wingate might well smile! Mr.
Wingate knew something about that. He, George Desailly, could inform
Mr. Wingate that it was owing to his conduct that night, in insulting a
lady whom he found alone and unprotected in a deserted part of the
house, that those who had made a scapegoat of him had done so without
the slightest shadow of compunction or regret.
"Have you anything to say to that, Billy?" Sir Walter inquired at
Wingate said he had not—at present—and urged his friend to
proceed to the investigation of those circumstances in which the
prisoner was directly implicated.
But here it was most difficult to get him to be frank. These,
evidently, were the damning circumstances from his point of view. He
squirmed and sobbed, and cursed his madness and folly, and pleaded the
bitter poverty that alone could have driven him to such deeds as he had
been found out in. Walter had never known, and never would know, what
it was to be dunned by Jew cads at every turn—to have no means to
bring up his children properly—to see disgrace and ruin staring him in
the face. It was not for one who had rolled in luxury all his life to
understand the temptations of a man driven desperate by misfortunes
that were no fault of his own. And so on.
At last it came out. Poor Lexie had gone to her doom in evening
dress, with a jewel of great value round her beautiful neck; and Mr.
and Mrs. George Desailly, in the extremity of their needs and as a last
resource, had proposed to retrieve that jewel, dissect it, and turn the
stones into money. Jerry had disclosed the dread secret of twenty
years, and, when he had somewhat recovered from the shock, her husband
had consented to the fearful enterprise which he never, never, never
would have entered upon or dreamed of but for the straits that he was
in. They prepared food, lights, and a suitable rope—the latter
concealed under the lady's skirts—and got into the house on the
coming-of-age morning, mingling with the invited guests. While the
banquet was in progress, and the coast consequently clear, they
successfully surmounted what they had supposed their greatest
difficulty. Jerry opened the closet, showed the hole, explained the
mechanism of the picture and the details of the business generally, and
shut her accomplice up, before Sir Walter, being made aware of her
proximity, found her, turned her out of his wife's room, and locked the
door behind her. Anticipating this locking of doors,—instructing her
husband not to proceed until he was sure of having the house to
himself,—she had arranged that he was to let himself out of the window
by the rope he had used to let himself down the hole, if no better
means of exit were available, when his job was done.
His job! Great heavens, what a job! He did not realize the horror
of it until it was too late. When the revels of the day were over—when
night came, and that voiceless solitude, filled with spirits of the
dead—his nerve failed him. Trying to fasten a rope to an iron ring
just within the mouth of the well, evidently put there on purpose to
fasten ropes to—hurrying to get the thing over and done with as
quickly as possible—he fumbled and bungled, and it slipped out of his
hands. It slipped and fell to the bottom of the shaft—he heard it hit
the bottom—and there he was, helpless. The bottom, he declared, in
reply to questions, was at least sixty feet from the top, and no one
falling that distance could possibly have lived an instant.
He thought of tearing up curtains or carpet to make another ladder,
but he had plenty of food then, and was afraid to do anything until he
had conferred with Jerry, who came in a few days to see what had
delayed him. She came by night, to escape observation, and spoke to him
from the terrace. She was very angry when she heard of his accident,
but forbade him on any account to leave traces of his errand in the
house, or to leave the house without the necklace. She said she would
manage somehow to throw up a line with another rope attached, and that
he was to wait where he was until she did so, taking every care not to
betray himself or her. But she was hindered in various ways, and when.
at last things seemed to be going right, the sudden interposition of
the Wingates frustrated and ruined all.
"My last hope," said George Desailly, "was to slip out while the
doors would open from the inside, even if I had to do it by degrees,
from one hiding-place to another; and to-night I was too hungry to wait
any longer. I thought Mr. and Mrs. Wingate both asleep, and didn't know
of the fellows in the passage. And—and that's all, Walter. And I wish
you'd take your revolver and put a bullet through my head!"
A few minutes later, Sir Walter and Wingate, with hands that did
not fumble and bungle, fastened a rope to the iron ring in the
well-mouth, and went down into Lexie's grave. It was not an oubliette,
after all, but a perpendicular route to another secret passage, a
subterranean tunnel, the door to which was found at the base of the
shaft. That door had been locked for, perhaps, hundreds of years, and
the mystery on the further side of it does not belong to this story.
Lexie never got so far. The light of two candles, waved slowly to and
fro, revealed her poor bones lying before it, flattened out upon the
slimy floor—flattened by a heavy rope that had fallen upon and
disjointed them. An eyeless skull, that kept no record of her lovely
face except the white teeth that grinned so horribly, still adhered to
the thing that had been a neck of snow; and there, between the jaw and
the mouldy garments, the diamonds and the star-rubies glittered
resplendent, alive and immortal in the dust of death. The famous jewel,
the strands of chestnut hair, the yet identifiable colour and texture
of the silken gown and the embroidered slippers—above all, the thick
wedding ring with the initials inside it—proved to her old lovers, as
they would have to prove to the world at large, that a part, at least,
of the story they had just heard was true. But when they disentangled
from the bones of one skeleton hand a much-torn fragment of Venetian
"Am I," said Sir Walter, "to consent to the theory this piece of
evidence so plainly gives the lie to? To let it be supposed that she
was the woman to commit suicide in a fit of hysterics, and I the brute
to drive her to it?"
"I have been thinking it over," said Wingate, "and I don't see what
else is to be done. There were no witnesses."
And, in the final result, Mrs. George Desailly's word was taken as
against all evidence to the contrary. There were protracted and
sensational legal proceedings, in the course of which she had to un-
dergo a trial that must have crushed and ruined—socially ruined, at
the least—an ordinary woman, with the witness of a bad conscience
against her; but she was no ordinary woman. Even Nettie Wingate, on
first beholding her in the flesh, falling under the spell of that
beautiful smile (tempered with tears and a black dress), exclaimed,
"What! Is that the she-devil you have been telling me about?
Impossible!" Everybody said "impossible," or thought it. Sir Walter
himself—Wingate also—were glad to the heart when they found she was
not to be put in prison, or otherwise openly degraded, although they
knew they had no justification for such weakness, and that her victory
had cost them dear.
When all was over, and the excitement of the affair allayed,
Wingate and Nettie still thought they would like to rent The Chase and
make an English Christmas in it. But the owner, when approached on the
subject, announced an intention to put his old house in order and go to
live there himself immediately. He was about to be married again, with
a view to having several more sons, if possible, the engagement of
young Thomas to do likewise being already satisfactorily arranged. Sir
Walter sits now in the chancel of his parish church on Sundays with
quite a family around him, and "Sacred to the Memory of Alexandra
Desailly" shines from a marble tablet over his head. She had, of
course, been virtually supplanted for many a year before her bones were
coffined in state and laid in the vault underfoot with those of his