THE PIT TOWN CORONET:
A Family Mystery.
CHARLES J. WILLS,
Author ofIn the Land of the Lion and Sun, etc.
In Three Volumes.
Ward and Downey,12, York Street, Covent Garden, London, W.C.1888
[The right of translation is reserved, and the Dramatic Copyrightprotected.]
Printed byKelly and Co., Gate Street, Lincoln's Inn Fields, W.C.;and Middle Mill, Kingston-on-Thames.
I.--A HORRIBLE SCANDAL 1
II.--AT THE PARSONAGE 27
III.--HOW THEY CAME HOME 51
IV.--THE RETURN OF THE WANDERER 73
V.--THE MISSES SLEEK DROP IN 94
VI.--THE SLEEKS IN ARCADIA 117
VII.--HAGGARD COMES INTO HIS OWN 138
VIII.--THE VICAR TRIES PUFFIN 167
IX.--MR. PUFFIN HUNTS A BUTTERFLY 190
X.--A RATHER SHADY CHARACTER 213
XI.--ESAU WAS THE FIRSTBORN 236
XII.--IN ST. JOHN'S WOOD 276
THE PIT TOWN CORONET.
A HORRIBLE SCANDAL.
Dull as the life of the little chateau on the lake necessarily was, yetGeorgie Haggard did not suffer from _ennui_. She seemed in fact torather revel in the quietude, and to luxuriate in the seclusion of theSwiss villa, after the fatigues and excitements of a busy London seasonand the turmoil and the incidental worries which must always attend anextended foreign tour, even when it is taken for pleasure, and whenexpense is no object. The position of the villa was sufficientlyromantic; behind it were the snow-covered Alps, Mont Blanc alwaysclearly visible; and all in front stretched the lake with its gloriousblue water of that intense azure which is only seen on this Geneva lake.Why it should be so very blue is, and always will be, a mystery; ofcourse it has been explained by scientific people in various mannerssatisfactory to themselves, but the fact remains that the lake is of adeeper blue than any other European water, and strange to say theintense colour is just as apparent in the shallowest parts. One may rowover a place not more than a yard deep, where the bottom is clearlyperceptible, but the waters are as blue as ever, a deep unnaturalultramarine blue, a blue which is seen only here and in the choicestspecimens of the Oriental turquoise.
The establishment at the Villa Lambert consisted of the permanent staffof the place, the aged Savoyard and his wife, who spoke an abominableand unintelligible patois; these two people were the Gibeonites of thevilla. At earliest dawn the pair rose and toiled till an hour aftersunset. The man worked in the garden, broke the firewood, drew waterfrom the well, attended to the ponies, and wore the face of a martyr.The woman got through the labours of four ordinary English servants, shewas cook, housekeeper, housemaid, and an entire staff in herself; shespoke to no one save her morose husband and Haggard's polyglot Swissservant; she scrubbed, she polished her numerous brazen pots and panstill they shone like mirrors; every particle of woodwork in the housewas washed and polished by her, till it resembled that seen in the Dutchvillage of Broek. But the great delight of the pair was the waxing andpolishing of the curious inlaid parquet flooring of the _salon_ whichlooked upon the lake. Lucy Warrender had been considerably surprisedwhen she saw this process for the first time. A strange hissing noise,which continued for some minutes, gradually diminished in intensity, andthen ceased altogether, only to recommence with renewed vigour,surprised the two girls as they sat at breakfast. What can it be,Georgie? she remarked in astonishment to her cousin.
It's in the next room, I think, dear, said the young matron; but it'svery easy to see. She opened the door of the _salon_. Husband and wife,with portentous gravity, the woman having her skirts well tucked up,their arms a-kimbo, were apparently skating up and down the room. Tothem it was evidently a very serious business; they never smiled, butthe perspiration streamed from their foreheads as they flew up and down.A large flat brush was attached to each foot of either. They werepolishing the floor, and their appearance was sufficiently ludicrous.Lucy looked at her cousin; the absurdity of the scene was too much forher; she closed the door and laughed till she cried.
Mrs. Haggard's maid was an invaluable servant, who understood her dutiesand never seemed to forget anything. Hephzibah seldom spoke; perhaps,like the parrot in the story, she thought the more. The girl was in herway religious. That valuable work, once so popular but now so seldomseen, The Dairyman's Daughter, was her only literature, but she seemedto be never tired of reading it.
Capt, the valet, was equally quiet in his way, equally dull. He did notdisdain to manufacture dainty little dishes for his young mistresses. Hewould row them about upon the lake. He was steward, footman, and generalfactotum. He never opened his mouth unless he was spoken to, and betweenhim and Hephzibah there appeared to be a good understanding; as thereader is aware they were keeping company.
Georgie and her cousin led quiet uneventful lives. They drove, theyboated, they wandered in their large garden; but they made no newacquaintances, and they lived the lives of hermits. Once a week therewas some slight excitement as to the arrival of news from the absenthusband; his letters came with praiseworthy regularity. He had arrivedsafely in Mexico; the value of his property had increased enormously. Hewas in treaty with half-a-dozen persons for the sale of his estates. Hecursed the delays of the Mexican lawyers, who seemed to do nothing butsmoke big cigars and swing themselves to sleep all day in hammocks. Hepathetically bemoaned the unavoidable separation from his dear Georgie.He wasn't having a bad time of it, the sport was undeniable. He had hada week with a friend at a place with an unpronounceable name. Then hedescribed the delights of the opera house, and the great success of thenew French dancer, Mademoiselle De Bondi. It seemed a pity to closefinally, when land was going up in value every day, and so on, and soon, and he was his dear Georgie's affectionate husband. This was theburden of all his communications, one letter was very much like another.Haggard was evidently enjoying himself, and his affectionate Georgie,though longing for his return, did not grudge him his pleasures.
Strange to say, though by force of circumstances thrown into an eternal_tete-a-tete_, the cousins never quarrelled. Georgie read and re-readher husband's letters. Lucy devoured one yellow-covered novel afteranother, and time crept slowly on. They had been four months at theSwiss villa.
It was the end of August. The two girls, they were but girls, sat on theterrace which overhung the lake. The sun was setting, as they satdreamily gazing upon the lovely scene, which had even distracted Lucy'sattention from the last naturalistic novel, which lay open on her lap.As she looked intently at the blue waters of the lake she sighed deeply.Georgie turned towards her and was startled to see that her lovely darkbrown eyes were filled with tears! Georgie placed her arm softly roundthe girl's neck, for she dearly loved her cousin, and gently said, Whatails you, darling?
But Lucy answered never a word, a violent burst of weeping was her onlyreply.
Lucy, never over strong at any time, had lately caused her cousinconsiderable anxiety; womanlike, Lucy fought against the growingweakness; till now she had hidden her increasing melancholy under anappearance of forced gaiety, which had not deceived her cousin, but onlyincreased her alarm.
The elder girl knelt at Lucy's feet--her own Lucy whom she still lookedupon in her heart as a little child.
Does anything worry you, darling? she said.
Trust me, Lucy; we are always friends, let me share this trouble.
I can't, faltered the girl, as she gnawed her lips, which trembled andturned pale; I think I shall drown myself.
Then Georgie took the blanched hand of the motherless girl, andentreated her.
Do tell me, darling; you must tell me, Lucy. Something is preying onyour mind; trust me, do trust me, pet.
Not then did Lucy Warrender tell her trouble to her cousin. But thatnight, unwillingly and ungraciously enough, she told her grief. Pale asa ghost, her fingers intertwined in a convulsive grip, she knelt by hercousin's bed and told her shameful story. She made her pitiful appeal.With dilated eyes, Georgina listened in terror to Lucy's confidence. Itwas the old tale. Lucy was about to become a mother; this was all shetold. Was it not enough? She looked imploringly up at her cousin as shewhispered:
You can save me, Georgie, if you will--if you love me, as I know youdo; and if you won't, there is nothing left for me but the lake, thecold, cruel lake. Here she laughed hysterically, and nestled to hercousin's breast.
The elder girl was struck dumb. The shame of it, the bitter shame ofthis accursed thing.
There was a silence, only broken by the monotonous ticking of thecarved Swiss clock and the deep sobs of the kneeling girl. There was asudden whiz of spinning wheels--Cuckoo! cuckoo! screamed the littlepainted bird derisively, as he appeared for an instant from his tiny boxto mark the hour. Both girls started at the inauspicious interruption.
I save you, my darling! How can I save you? And father, poor father.Oh, Lucy! how could you--how could you so deceive us all? But _he_ mustbe sent for--who is the man? He must marry you--he will marry you, ofcourse, at once, _this gentleman_!
But Lucy only sobbed the more.
He will never marry me, Georgie. You can save me, you alone!
She never named the man.
They talked on far into the night; and as they wept and whispered, thepainted wooden demon ever and again sprang from his box and startledthem with his discordant cry,
How could she refuse? Much against her will at last she yielded; sheagreed to deceive the absent husband who trusted her--that heartlesshusband whom she idolized. From that day forward the sound of a cuckooclock--the voice of the bird himself, as she heard him in thewoods--sounded in her ear as the cry of a mocking devil. Little did shedream that, in weakly yielding to her cousin's piteous entreaty, she wassowing the seed of which she and hers should reap the bitter harvest.
What could she do, poor girl? She felt it was her duty. Who can tell ifshe erred? If so, it was on mercy's side. Next morning Lucy was herselfagain; she was once more the buoyant, merry girl, who smiled andchattered, and sang her little scraps of French songs, making thesunshine of the house. The _roles_ were changed. Never again shall thelight of perfect happiness beam in Georgie Haggard's once honesteyes--those eyes now red with weeping, full of the secret sorrow of hercousin's bitter confidence. It is always painful to an honourable mindto play the part of a conspirator, and that thankless _role_ was nowforced upon poor Georgie--willy-nilly she had to do it. Lucy's fertilebrain teemed with plan, with plot, with stratagem; certain of ultimatelyconquering the scruples of her gentle and loving cousin, she hadevidently thought the matter out.
We ought to trust nobody, you know, said the younger girl, who hadsuddenly assumed the management of everything. Startled and horrified,Georgie had become in regard to her cousin, that born intriguer, but asclay in the hands of the potter. No, we ought not to, but we must. Ifever a girl in this world could keep her tongue between her teeth, it'sthat pale Hephzibah of ours, and trust her we must, there's nothing elsefor it.
Lucy's tongue, once loosed, never seemed to tire. Her despondency andmelancholy, her load of carking care, were all transferred as by thewave of a magician's wand to her cousin's shoulders. Alas! that cousin,that patient, loving cousin is perhaps destined to carry to her gravethe fardel of another's weakness, the punishment of a worthless woman'sfault.
Georgie, from that hour, was a changed girl. No more the once happy,loving eyes gazed on the younger girl with more than a mother's pride.From that day Georgie feared her cousin, and Lucy soon detected the newsentiment which she had unexpectedly inspired. The younger dictated, theelder acquiesced.
Georgie, she once suddenly said, when they were alone together on thelittle platform which hung over the blue waters of the lake, swear tome that you will never betray my secret. She clutched her cousin's handwith fierce insistance and stamped her little foot; swear to me, shesaid in a hoarse whisper, that never by word or letter you will revealmy secret--_our_ secret, she added with a smile. If ever a prettywoman's smile was devilish, Lucy Warrender's was, as she insisted onthis partnership in her guilt.
Have I ever deceived you, Lucy, that you should want me to swear?
But you shall swear, Georgie, she reiterated almost savagely. I havegone too far to hesitate at trifles now, and if you don't, you willnever see me more, she added menacingly, as she pointed to the lake.Her little figure seemed to increase in height, so sternly determinedwas her aspect.
Georgie cowered in mingled anxiety and horror.
Swear to me, she said, and she emphasized the command, for it was nolonger an entreaty, by a fierce clutch at her cousin's wrist, never toa soul till the day of your death will you breathe a word of it.Swear.
I do swear it, Lucy, replied the dominated victim, and she buried herface in her hands.
The next day the two English ladies left the Villa Lambert in an opencarriage.
The faithful Capt was told to be ready for their return in a few days'time. Considerably to his astonishment, he did not accompany them. Asthe carriage drove away the valet lighted one of those long andpeculiarly nasty cigars which his countrymen seem so much to enjoy. Hestood watching the carriage rapt in meditation, and his face wore apuzzled air. Then he did what no economic Switzer has probably donebefore or since--he actually flung away the still burning abomination.Then he spat upon the ground, and with an exaggerated shrug of hisshoulders re-entered the house.
The carriage took the ladies and their maid to a small town, sometwelve miles off. They put up at the hotel. Next morning they tooktickets by the steamer to Geneva, but less than half-way they got out ata small village, Auray, a little place totally devoid of interest, amere hamlet never visited by the tourist; here they took a lodging,humble enough, but clean, in the house of a well-to-do widow. It wasfrom this lodging that Georgie posted a letter containing the followingadvertisement, which appeared in the _Times_:
At the Villa Lambert, Canton of Geneva, Switzerland, the wife of Reginald Haggard, Esq., of a son. August 20, 18--.
The cousins exchanged _roles_. Lucy became Madame Haggard, while Georgiewas addressed by the discreet Hephzibah as Mademoiselle Warrender.
The whole thing had evidently been carefully planned by Lucy for sometime previously. She had even with infinite art written numerous lettersto their relatives and friends, in which she dilated upon the strangereticence of dear Georgie as to the whole matter. Needless to saythese letters were all dated from the Villa Lambert. In her letter toHaggard, and in her more formal communication to the head of the family,the old earl at Walls End Castle, she explained how her cousin had keptthe whole matter secret as a surprise for her husband; and how she, theguileless Lucy, had been unwillingly compelled to participate in thedeception. All was thus satisfactorily explained as the whim of theyoung wife.
How she had purchased the silence of the invaluable maid it is difficultto say, whether by bribes, promises or cajolery; but Hephzibah Walliswas the servant of the Warrenders, born and bred on their land, discreetand silent.
In ten days they returned to the villa, Mrs. Haggard wrapped up as ayoung convalescent mother; the little bastard clothed in purple and finelinen as became his expectations as Reginald Haggard's heir. Georgiewas pale, great black rings surrounded her eyes; she leant heavily onthe arm of the invaluable Capt, as she stepped out of the carriage whichhad conveyed her from the nearest wharf. But Lucy's cheery laugh, thoughit failed to bring a smile to the face of her cousin, soon dominated theinhabitants of the Villa Lambert. Hephzibah, full of that added dignitywhich every woman assumes as the guardian of an infant, sat enthronedbefore a blazing fire, for in Switzerland in August the evenings arechilly. It was her custom never to address Mr. Capt, save on officialmatters, when a third person was present. On the present occasion shewent further than this, for she declined even to answer him.
Capt had bustled about, had brought in the luggage, had handed theirletters to his mistresses, had received the thanks of Miss LucyWarrender for his tasteful floral decoration of the little _salon_, andhad then suddenly subsided into an attitude of respectful admiration infront of Haggard's supposed heir. To no man or male person, save perhapsto their own fathers or their medical attendants, are very young infantsobjects of interest; we may therefore safely presume that Mr. Capt waseither really wrapped up in the severe charms of the student of theDairyman's Daughter, or that he had some occult and ulterior reasonfor remaining to study the little group at the fireside.
Ah, madame, exclaimed the major-domo, as he washed his hands in theair, you will not think it a liberty when I respectfully felicitateyou. But no answering smile appeared on Mrs. Haggard's face.
Certainly not, burst in the younger girl; you are the first of ourfriends to do so, Capt, she said, with an almost perceptible emphasison the word; but we are both of us knocked up with the bustle, so getus some tea at once.
The humbly sympathizing friend became once more the respectful servant,and hurried away to carry out his young mistress's behest.
Rouse yourself, Georgie, exclaimed the younger girl impatiently, youreally look very little like the mother of a possible heir to anearldom, she maliciously added.
But Georgie made no reply to her cousin's taunt, she merely extended hercolourless hands towards the blazing fire of logs.
A pile of letters lay upon the table; one by one Lucy's active fingerstore them open, one by one she read them to her silent cousin,enlivening them with a running fire of comment. As she read each onealoud, she planted a fresh dagger in her cousin's heart, but she wentsteadily on with an occupation which seemed congenial.
They were the usual formal congratulations for the most part: one, fromthe old squire, gently blamed his daughter for not having taken herfather into her confidence; but the ways of women, my dear, aremysterious, and I suppose that explains it. As Lucy read the words thetears ran down her cousin's face.
One other letter yet remained; it was addressed in a crabbed hand; itscontents were as follows:
Walls End Castle.
MY DEAR CHILD,
Miss Warrender's letter has quite taken me by surprise; I had not the slightest inkling that I should have so soon to congratulate you both on the happy event. It gives me great pleasure to do so; though I have known you, my dear, for so short a time, you have inspired me with feelings of the liveliest affection. I need not say I am greatly gratified to hear that it is a little boy. The great terror of my old age, the not unremote possibility of the extinction of my house, which always preyed upon my mind, is now removed. I shall hope to welcome the little man here ere long, and with affectionate remembrance to your cousin,
I am, my dear child, Yours affectionately, PIT TOWN.
The ladies had retired for the night. A heavy mist hung over the lake,but a red spark moved slowly up and down the little terrace in front ofthe Villa Lambert; the spark indicated the presence of Mr. Capt, who wasawaiting with lover-like impatience the arrival of the discreetHephzibah. At length she appeared, muffled in a heavy shawl.
Have done, do, Capt, said the maiden with indignation, as the valetimprinted a salute on her pallid lips.
I haven't commenced, my beloved, yet, retorted he. Will it be anindiscretion to hope that Miss Hephzibah has enjoyed herself, and thatthe separation from her beloved Maurice has produced ever so slight adepression? said he as he attempted to take her hand.
Stuff, replied the Englishwoman with an indignant snort.
Here the conversation took a distinctly amatory turn, and would probablyhardly interest the reader. But, under the influences of the blind god,the stern student of the Dairyman's Daughter seemed to thaw. She tookthe proffered arm of her adorer, and, like all women in love, seemed toderive a pleasure from the peculiarly pungent aroma of his cigar.
And how did we pass our time, my Hephzibah; did we amuse ourselves?Have you nothing to tell me, my beloved, nothing to _confide_ to me?
The lady's maid shook her head. Except that I've been worked off mylegs as you may suppose, what can I have to tell you?
Ah! remarked the valet. I can fancy that my Hephzibah always fulfilsher duties to her mistress, but perhaps my too perfect angel forgetsthat between betrothed persons there should be no secrets.
You don't mean to say you're jealous, Capt? she exclaimed, as sheraised her face to his.
My love, you are discretion itself; I know you never betray a secret.
If I had one, Capt, _you_ would worm it out of me, she said with asmile and a perceptible pressure on his arm.
Yes, my love, I _should_ worm it out, he replied with intention.
Hephzibah took no notice of this remark.
The mist is very damp, and I am very tired, Maurice; I must be goingin; my mistress will wonder what has become of me, so good-night.
The valet kissed the girl. Good-bye, my love, he said. I think youhad better have trusted me. Good-bye.
Good-night, or good-bye, if you prefer it, Mr. Capt, replied thelady's maid with dignity.
Good-bye, my dear, good-bye, _till we meet again_.
Hephzibah hurried into the house.
The valet continued his walk up and down the little terrace; he wasimmersed in thought, he still smoked his cigar, but unconsciously; hewas suddenly roused from his reflections by the fire almost touching hislips. With a curse, he flung the end into the waters, and watched itdisappear with a hiss. Then he walked briskly into the house.
The next morning Mr. Capt had disappeared. There was nothing wrong withthe plate. On the carefully arranged breakfast table lay an envelopedirected to Mrs. Haggard; it contained the man's account book, balancedto a farthing; a small sum of money due from him to his mistress, andhis keys.
What does he mean by this? said Lucy to her cousin.
Mrs. Haggard made no answer, but turning to Hephzibah, she said coldly,Where is Capt?
Please, ma'am, I don't know; he's taken his things with him, and Ithink he is gone. I hope there is nothing wrong, said the girl, herpale face working with suppressed emotion.
Then Mrs. Haggard fainted.