"KEEP the American!" Miss Searle, in compliance with the injunction conveye_n her brother's telegram (with something certainly of telegraphic curtness), lost no time in expressing the pleasure it would give her that our frien_hould remain. "Really you must," she said; and forthwith repaired to th_ouse- keeper to give orders for the preparation of a room.
"But how in the world did he know of my being here?" my companion put to me.
I answered that he had probably heard from his solicitor of the other's visit.
"Mr. Simmons and that gentleman must have had another interview since you_rrival in England. Simmons, for reasons of his own, has made known to hi_our journey to this neighbourhood, and Mr. Searle, learning this, ha_mmediately taken for granted that you've formally presented yourself to hi_ister. He's hospitably inclined and wishes her to do the proper thing by you.
There may even," I went on, "be more in it than that. I've my little theor_hat he's the very phoenix of usurpers, that he has been very much struck wit_hat the experts have had to say for you, and that he wishes to have th_riginality of making over to you your share—so limited after all—of th_state."
"I give it up!" my friend mused. "Come what come will!"
"You, of course," said Miss Searle, reappearing and turning to me, "ar_ncluded in my brother's invitation. I've told them to see about a room fo_ou. Your luggage shall immediately be sent for."
It was arranged that I in person should be driven over to our little inn an_hat I should return with our effects in time to meet Mr. Searle at dinner. O_y arrival several hours later I was immediately conducted to my room. Th_ervant pointed out to me that it communicated by a door and a private passag_ith that of my fellow visitor. I made my way along this passage—a low narro_orridor with a broad latticed casement through which there streamed upon _eries of grotesquely sculptured oaken closets and cupboards the vivi_nimating glow of the western sun —knocked at his door and, getting no answer, opened it. In an armchair by the open window sat my friend asleep, his arm_nd legs relaxed and head dropped on his breast. It was a great relief to se_im rest thus from his rhapsodies, and I watched him for some moments befor_aking him. There was a faint glow of colour in his cheek and a ligh_xpressive parting of his lips, something nearer to ease and peace than I ha_et seen in him. It was almost happiness, it was almost health. I laid my han_n his arm and gently shook it. He opened his eyes, gazed at me a moment, vaguely recognised me, then closed them again. "Let me dream, let me dream!"
"What are you dreaming about?"
A moment passed before his answer came. "About a tall woman in a quaint blac_ress, with yellow hair and a sweet, sweet smile, and a soft low deliciou_oice! I'm in love with her."
"It's better to see her than to dream about her," I said. "Get up and dress; then we'll go down to dinner and meet her."
"Dinner—dinner—?" And he gradually opened his eyes again. "Yes, upon my word _hall dine!"
"Oh you're all right!" I declared for the twentieth time as he rose to hi_eet. "You'll live to bury Mr. Simmons." He told me he had spent the hours o_y absence with Miss Searle—they had strolled together half over the place.
"You must be very intimate," I smiled.
"She's intimate with ME. Goodness knows what rigmarole I've treated her to!"
They had parted an hour ago; since when, he believed, her brother had arrived.
The slow-fading twilight was still in the great drawing-room when we cam_own. The housekeeper had told us this apartment was rarely used, there bein_thers, smaller and more convenient, for the same needs. It seemed now, however, to be occupied in my comrade's honour. At the furthest end, rising t_he roof like a royal tomb in a cathedral, was a great chimney-piece o_hiselled white marble, yellowed by time, in which a light fire was crackling.
Before the fire stood a small short man, with his hands behind him; near hi_as Miss Searle, so transformed by her dress that at first I scarcely kne_er. There was in our entrance and reception something remarkably chilling an_olemn. We moved in silence up the long room; Mr. Searle advanced slowly, _ozen steps, to meet us; his sister stood motionless. I was conscious of he_asking her visage with a large white tinselled fan, and that her eyes, grav_nd enlarged, watched us intently over the top of it. The master of Lackle_rasped in silence the proffered hand of his kinsman and eyed him from head t_oot, suppressing, I noted, a start of surprise at his resemblance to Si_oshua's portrait. "This is a happy day." And then turning to me with an od_ittle sharp stare: "My cousin's friend is my friend." Miss Searle lowered he_an.
The first thing that struck me in Mr. Searle's appearance was his very limite_tature, which was less by half a head than that of his sister. The second wa_he preternatural redness of his hair and beard. They intermingled over hi_ars and surrounded his head like a huge lurid nimbus. His face was pale an_ttenuated, the face of a scholar, a dilettante, a comparer of points an_exts, a man who lives in a library bending over books and prints and medals.
At a distance it might have passed for smooth and rather blankly composed; bu_n a nearer view it revealed a number of wrinkles, sharply etched an_cratched, of a singularly aged and refined effect. It was the complexion of _an of sixty. His nose was arched and delicate, identical almost with the nos_f my friend. His eyes, large and deep-set, had a kind of auburn glow, th_uggestion of a keen metal red-hot—or, more plainly, were full of temper an_pirit. Imagine this physiognomy—grave and solemn, grotesquely solemn, i_pite of the bushy brightness which made a sort of frame for it—set in motio_y a queer, quick, defiant, perfunctory, preoccupied smile, and you will hav_n imperfect notion of the remarkable presence of our host; something bette_orth seeing and knowing, I perceived as I quite breathlessly took him in, than anything we had yet encountered. How thoroughly I had entered int_ympathy with my poor picked-up friend, and how effectually I had associate_y sensibilities with his own, I had not suspected till, within the short fiv_inutes before the signal for dinner, I became aware, without his giving m_he least hint, of his placing himself on the defensive. To neither of us wa_r. Searle sympathetic. I might have guessed from her attitude that his siste_ntered into our thoughts. A marked change had been wrought in her since th_orning; during the hour, indeed—as I read in the light of the wonderin_lance he cast at her—that had elapsed since her parting with her cousin. Sh_ad not yet recovered from some great agitation. Her face was pale and she ha_learly been crying. These notes of trouble gave her a new and quite pervers_ignity, which was further enhanced by something complimentary an_ommemorative in her dress.
Whether it was taste or whether it was accident I know not; but the amiabl_reature, as she stood there half in the cool twilight, half in the arreste_low of the fire as it spent itself in the vastness of its marble cave, was _igure for a painter. She was habited in some faded splendour of sea-gree_rape and silk, a piece of millinery which, though it must have witnessed _umber of dull dinners, preserved still a festive air. Over her whit_houlders she wore an ancient web of the most precious and venerable lace an_bout her rounded throat a single series of large pearls. I went in with he_o dinner, and Mr. Searle, following with my friend, took his arm, as th_atter afterwards told me, and pretended jocosely to conduct him. As dinne_roceeded the feeling grew within me that a drama had begun to be played i_hich the three persons before me were actors—each of a really arduous part.
The character allotted to my friend, however, was certainly the least easy t_epresent with effect, though I overflowed with the desire that he shoul_cquit himself to his honour. I seemed to see him urge his faded faculties t_ake their cue and perform. The poor fellow tried to do himself credit mor_eriously than ever in his old best days. With Miss Searle, credulous passiv_nd pitying, he had finally flung aside all vanity and propriety and shown th_ottom of his fantastic heart. But with our host there might be no talking o_onsense nor taking of liberties; there and then, if ever, sat a consummat_onservative, breathing the fumes of hereditary privilege and security. For a_our, accordingly, I saw my poor protege attempt, all in pain, to meet a ne_ecorum. He set himself the task of appearing very American, in order that hi_ppreciation of everything Mr. Searle represented might seem purel_isinterested. What his kinsman had expected him to be I know not; but I mad_r. Searle out as annoyed, in spite of his exaggerated urbanity, at findin_im so harmless. Our host was not the man to show his hand, but I think hi_est card had been a certain implicit confidence that so provincial a parasit_ould hardly have good manners.
He led the conversation to the country we had left; rather as if a leash ha_een attached to the collar of some lumpish and half- domesticated animal th_endency of whose movements had to be recognised. He spoke of it indeed as o_ome fabled planet, alien to the British orbit, lately proclaimed to have th_dmixture of atmospheric gases required to support animal life, but not, sav_nder cover of a liberal afterthought, to be admitted into one's regula_onception of things. I, for my part, felt nothing but regret that the spheri_moothness of his universe should be disfigured by the extrusion even of suc_nconsiderable particles as ourselves.
"I knew in a general way of our having somehow ramified over there," Mr.
Searle mentioned; "but had scarcely followed it more than you pretend to pic_p the fruit your long-armed pear tree may drop, on the other side of you_all, in your neighbour's garden. There was a man I knew at Cambridge, a ver_dd fellow, a decent fellow too; he and I were rather cronies; I think h_fterwards went to the Middle States. They'll be, I suppose, about th_ississippi? At all events, there was that great-uncle of mine whom Sir Joshu_ainted. He went to America, but he never got there. He was lost at sea. Yo_ook enough like him to make one fancy he DID get there and that you've kep_im alive by one of those beastly processes—I think you have 'em over there: what do you call it, 'putting up' things? If you're he you've not done a wis_hing to show yourself here. He left a bad name behind him. There's a ghos_ho comes sobbing about the house every now and then, the ghost of one to who_e did a wrong."
"Oh mercy ON us!" cried Miss Searle in simple horror.
"Of course YOU know nothing of such things," he rather dryly allowed. "You'r_oo sound a sleeper to hear the sobbing of ghosts."
"I'm sure I should like immensely to hear the sobbing of a ghost," said m_riend, the light of his previous eagerness playing up into his eyes. "Wh_oes it sob? I feel as if that were what we've come above all to learn."
Mr. Searle eyed his audience a moment gaugingly; he held the balance as t_easure his resources. He wished to do justice to his theme. With the lon_inger-nails of his left hand nervously playing against the tinkling crysta_f his wineglass and his conscious eyes betraying that, small and strange a_e sat there, he knew himself, to his pleasure and advantage, remarkabl_mpressive, he dropped into our untutored minds the sombre legend of hi_ouse. "Mr. Clement Searle, from all I gather, was a young man of grea_alents but a weak disposition. His mother was left a widow early in life, with two sons, of whom he was the elder and the more promising. She educate_im with the greatest affection and care. Of course when he came to manhoo_he wished him to marry well. His means were quite sufficient to enable him t_verlook the want of money in his wife; and Mrs. Searle selected a young lad_ho possessed, as she conceived, every good gift save a fortune—a fine prou_andsome girl, the daughter of an old friend, an old lover I suspect, of he_wn. Clement, however, as it appeared, had either chosen otherwise or was a_et unprepared to choose. The young lady opened upon him in vain the batter_f her attractions; in vain his mother urged her cause. Clement remained cold, insensible, inflexible. Mrs. Searle had a character which appears to have gon_ut of fashion in my family nowadays; she was a great manager, a maitresse- femme. A proud passionate imperious woman, she had had immense cares and eve_o many law-suits; they had sharpened her temper and her will. She suspecte_hat her son's affections had another object, and this object she began t_ate. Irritated by his stubborn defiance of her wishes she persisted in he_urpose. The more she watched him the more she was convinced he loved i_ecret. If he loved in secret of course he loved beneath him. He went abou_he place all sombre and sullen and brooding. At last, with the rashness of a_ngry woman, she threatened to bring the young lady of her choice—who, by th_ay, seems to have been no shrinking blossom—to stay in the house. A storm_cene was the result. He threatened that if she did so he would leave th_ountry and sail for America. She probably disbelieved him; she knew him to b_eak, but she overrated his weakness. At all events the rejected one arrive_nd Clement Searle departed. On a dark December day he took ship a_outhampton. The two women, desperate with rage and sorrow, sat alone in thi_ig house, mingling their tears and imprecations. A fortnight later, o_hristmas Eve, in the midst of a great snowstorm long famous in the country, something happened that quickened their bitterness. A young woman, battere_nd chilled by the storm, gained entrance to the house and, making her wa_nto the presence of the mistress and her guest, poured out her tale. She wa_ poor curate's daughter out of some little hole in Gloucestershire. Clemen_earle had loved her—loved her all too well! She had been turned out in wrat_rom her father's house; his mother at least might pity her—if not for hersel_hen for the child she was soon to bring forth. Hut the poor girl had been _econd time too trustful. The women, in scorn, in horror, with blows possibly, drove her forth again into the storm. In the storm she wandered and in th_eep snow she died. Her lover, as you know, perished in that hard winte_eather at sea; the news came to his mother late, but soon enough. We'r_aunted by the curate's daughter!"
Mr. Searle retailed this anecdote with infinite taste and point, the happies_rt; when he ceased there was a pause of some moments. "Ah well we may be!"
Miss Searle then mournfully murmured.
Searle blazed up into enthusiasm. "Of course, you know"—with which he began t_lush violently—"I should be sorry to claim any identity with the poor devi_y faithless namesake. But I should be immensely gratified if the young lady'_pirit, deceived by my resemblance, were to mistake me for her cruel lover.
She's welcome to the comfort of it. What one can do in the case I shall b_lad to do. But can a ghost haunt a ghost? I AM a ghost!"
Mr. Searle stared a moment and then had a subtle sneer. "I could almos_elieve you are!"
"Oh brother—and cousin!" cried Miss Searle with the gentlest yet mos_ppealing dignity. "How can you talk so horribly?" The horrible talk, however, evidently possessed a potent magic for my friend; and his imagination, checke_ while by the influence of his kinsman, began again to lead him a dance. Fro_his moment he ceased to steer his frail bark, to care what he said or how h_aid it, so long as he expressed his passionate appreciation of the scen_round him. As he kept up this strain I ceased even secretly to wish h_ouldn't. I have wondered since that I shouldn't have been annoyed by the wa_e reverted constantly to himself. But a great frankness, for the time, make_ts own law and a great passion its own channel. There was moreover a_rresponsible indescribable effect of beauty in everything his lips uttered.
Free alike from adulation and from envy, the essence of his discourse was _ivine apprehension, a romantic vision free as the flight of Ariel, of th_oetry of his companions' situation and their contrasted genera_rresponsiveness.
"How does the look of age come?" he suddenly broke out at dessert. "Does i_ome of itself, unobserved, unrecorded, unmeasured? Or do you woo it and se_aits and traps for it, and watch it like the dawning brownness of _eerschaum pipe, and make it fast, when it appears, just where it peeps out, and light a votive taper beneath it and give thanks to it daily? Or do yo_orbid it and fight it and resist it, and yet feel it settling and deepenin_bout you as irresistible as fate?"
"What the deuce is the man talking about?" said the smile of our host.
"I found a little grey hair this morning," Miss Searle incoherently prosed.
"Well then I hope you paid it every respect!" cried her visitor.
"I looked at it for a long time in my hand-glass," she answered with mor_resence of mind.
"Miss Searle can for many years to come afford to be amused at grey hairs," _nterposed in the hope of some greater ease. It had its effect. "Ten year_rom last Thursday I shall be forty-four," she almost comfortably smiled.
"Well, that's just what I am," said Searle. "If I had only come here ten year_go! I should have had more time to enjoy the feast, but I should have ha_ess appetite. I needed first to get famished."
"Oh why did you wait for that?" his entertainer asked. "To think of these te_ears that we might have been enjoying you!" At the vision of which waste an_oss Mr. Searle had a fine shrill laugh.
"Well," my friend explained, "I always had a notion—a stupid vulgar notion i_here ever was one—that to come abroad properly one had to have a pot o_oney. My pot was too nearly empty. At last I came with my empty pot!"
Mr. Searle had a wait for delicacy, but he proceeded. "You're reduced, you're—a—straitened?"
Our companion's very breath blew away the veil. "Reduced to nothing.
Straitened to the clothes on my back!"
"You don't say so!" said Mr. Searle with a large vague gasp. "Well—well—well!"
he added in a voice which might have meant everything or nothing; and then, i_is whimsical way, went on to finish a glass of wine. His searching eye, as h_rank, met mine, and for a moment we each rather deeply sounded the other, t_he effect no doubt of a slight embarrassment. "And you," he said by way o_arrying this off—"how about YOUR wardrobe?"
"Oh his!" cried my friend; "his wardrobe's immense. He could dress up _egiment!" He had drunk more champagne—I admit that the champagne wa_ood—than was from any point of view to have been desired. He was rapidl_rifting beyond any tacit dissuasion of mine. He was feverish and rash, an_ll attempt to direct would now simply irritate him. As we rose from the tabl_e caught my troubled look. Passing his arm for a moment into mine, "This i_he great night!" he strangely and softly said; "the night and the crisis tha_ill settle me."
Mr. Searle had caused the whole lower portion of the house to be thrown ope_nd a multitude of lights to be placed in convenient and effective positions.
Such a marshalled wealth of ancient candlesticks and flambeaux I had neve_eheld. Niched against the dusky wainscots, casting great luminous circle_pon the pendent stiffness of sombre tapestries, enhancing and completing wit_dmirable effect the variety and mystery of the great ancient house, the_eemed to people the wide rooms, as our little group passed slowly from one t_nother, with a dim expectant presence. We had thus, in spite of everything, _onderful hour of it. Mr. Searle at once assumed the part of cicerone, and—_ad not hitherto done him justice—Mr. Searle became almost agreeable. While _ingered behind with his sister he walked in advance with his kinsman. It wa_s if he had said: "Well, if you want the old place you shall have it—so fa_s the impression goes!" He spared us no thrill—I had almost said no pang—o_hat experience. Carrying a tall silver candlestick in his left hand, h_aised it and lowered it and cast the light hither and thither, upon picture_nd hangings and carvings and cornices. He knew his house to perfection. H_ouched upon a hundred traditions and memories, he threw off a cloud of ric_eference to its earlier occupants. He threw off again, in his easy elegan_ay, a dozen—happily lighter—anecdotes. His relative attended with a broodin_eference. Miss Searle and I meanwhile were not wholly silent.
"I suppose that by this time you and your cousin are almost old friends," _emarked.
She trifled a moment with her fan and then raised her kind small eyes. "Ol_riends—yet at the same time strangely new! My cousin, my cousin"—and he_oice lingered on the word—"it seems so strange to call him my cousin afte_hinking these many years that I've no one in the world but my brother. Bu_e's really so very odd!"
"It's not so much he as—well, as his situation, that deserves that name," _ried to reason.
"I'm so sorry for his situation. I wish I could help it in some way. H_nterests me so much." She gave a sweet-sounding sigh. "I wish I could hav_nown him sooner—and better. He tells me he's but the shadow of what he use_o be."
I wondered if he had been consciously practising on the sensibilities of thi_entle creature. If he had I believed he had gained his point. But hi_osition had in fact become to my sense so precarious that I hardly venture_o be glad. "His better self just now seems again to be taking shape," I said.
"It will have been a good deed on your part if you help to restore him to al_e ought to be."
She met my idea blankly. "Dear me, what can I do?"
"Be a friend to him. Let him like you, let him love you. I dare say you see i_im now much to pity and to wonder at. But let him simply enjoy a while th_rateful sense of your nearness and dearness. He'll be a better and stronge_an for it, and then you can love him, you can esteem him, withou_estriction."
She fairly frowned for helplessness. "It's a hard part for poor stupid me t_lay!"
Her almost infantine innocence left me no choice but to be absolutely frank.
"Did you ever play any part at all?"
She blushed as if I had been reproaching her with her insignificance. "Never!
I think I've hardly lived."
"You've begun to live now perhaps. You've begun to care for something els_han your old-fashioned habits. Pardon me if I seem rather meddlesome; yo_now we Americans are very rough and ready. It's a great moment. I wish yo_oy!"
"I could almost believe you're laughing at me. I feel more trouble than joy."
"Why do you feel trouble?"
She paused with her eyes fixed on our companions. "My cousin's arrival's _reat disturbance," she said at last.
"You mean you did wrong in coming to meet him? In that case the fault's mine.
He had no intention of giving you the opportunity."
"I certainly took too much on myself. But I can't find it in my heart t_egret it. I never shall regret it! I did the only thing I COULD, heave_orgive me!"
"Heaven bless you, Miss Searle! Is any harm to come of it? I did the evil; le_e bear the brunt!"
She shook her head gravely. "You don't know my brother!"
"The sooner I master the subject the better then," I said. I couldn't hel_elieving myself—at least by the tone of my voice —of the antipathy wit_hich, decidedly, this gentleman had inspired me. "Not perhaps that we shoul_et on so well together!" After which, as she turned away, "Are you VERY muc_fraid of him?" I added.
She gave me a shuddering sidelong glance. "He's looking at me!"
He was placed with his back to us, holding a large Venetian hand- mirror, framed in chiselled silver, which he had taken from a shelf of antiquities, just at such an angle that he caught the reflexion of his sister's person. I_as evident that I too was under his attention, and was resolved I wouldn't b_uspected for nothing. "Miss Searle," I said with urgency, "promise m_omething."
She turned upon me with a start and a look that seemed to beg me to spare her.
"Oh don't ask me—please don't!" It was as if she were standing on the edge o_ place where the ground had suddenly fallen away, and had been called upon t_ake a leap. I felt retreat was impossible, however, and that it was th_reater kindness to assist her to jump.
"Promise me," I repeated.
Still with her eyes she protested. "Oh what a dreadful day!" she cried a_ast.
"Promise me to let him speak to you alone if he should ask you— any wish yo_ay suspect on your brother's part notwithstanding." She coloured deeply. "Yo_ean he has something so particular to say?"
"Something so particular!"
"Well, poor cousin! But promise me."
"I promise," she said, and moved away across the long room and out of th_oor.
"You're in time to hear the most delightful story," Searle began to me as _ejoined him and his host. They were standing before an old sombre portrait o_ lady in the dress of Queen Anne's time, whose ill-painted flesh-tints showe_ivid, in the candle- light, against her dark drapery and background. "This i_rs. Margaret Searle—a sort of Beatrix Esmond—qui se passait ses fantaisies.
She married a paltry Frenchman, a penniless fiddler, in the teeth of her whol_amily. Pretty Mrs. Margaret, you must have been a woman of courage! Upon m_ord, she looks like Miss Searle! But pray go on. What came of it all?"
Our companion watched him with an air of distaste for his boisterous homag_nd of pity for his crude imagination. But he took up the tale with a_ffective dryness: "I found a year ago, in a box of very old papers, a lette_rom the lady in question to a certain Cynthia Searle, her elder sister. I_as dated from Paris and dreadfully ill-spelled. It contained a mos_assionate appeal for pecuniary assistance. She had just had a baby, she wa_tarving and dreadfully neglected by her husband—she cursed the day she ha_eft England. It was a most dismal production. I never heard she found mean_o return."
"So much for marrying a Frenchman!" I said sententiously.
Our host had one of his waits. "This is the only lady of the family who eve_as taken in by an adventurer."
"Does Miss Searle know her history?" asked my friend with a stare at th_ounded whiteness of the heroine's cheek.
"Miss Searle knows nothing!" said our host with expression.
"She shall know at least the tale of Mrs. Margaret," their guest returned; an_e walked rapidly away in search of her.
Mr. Searle and I pursued our march through the lighted rooms. "You've found _ousin with a vengeance," I doubtless awkwardly enough laughed.
"Ah a vengeance?" my entertainer stiffly repeated.
"I mean that he takes as keen an interest in your annals and possessions a_ourself."
"Oh exactly so! He tells me he's a bad invalid," he added in a moment. "_hould never have supposed it."
"Within the past few hours he's a changed man. Your beautiful house, you_xtreme kindness, have refreshed him immensely." Mr. Searle uttered the vagu_jaculation with which self- conscious Britons so often betray the concussio_f any especial courtesy of speech. But he followed this by a sudden odd glar_nd the sharp declaration: "I'm an honest man!" I was quite prepared t_ssent; but he went on with a fury of frankness, as if it were the first tim_n his life he had opened himself to any one, as if the process were highl_isagreeable and he were hurrying through it as a task. "An honest man, min_ou! I know nothing about Mr. Clement Searle! I never expected to see him. H_as been to me a—a—!" And here he paused to select a word which should vividl_nough express what, for good or for ill, his kinsman represented. "He ha_een to me an Amazement! I've no doubt he's a most amiable man. You'll no_eny, however, that he's a very extraordinary sort of person. I'm sorry he'_ll. I'm sorry he's poor. He's my fiftieth cousin. Well and good. I'm a_onest man. He shall not have it to say that he wasn't received at my house."
"He too, thank heaven, is an honest man!" I smiled.
"Why the devil then," cried Mr. Searle, turning almost fiercely on me, "has h_ut forward this underhand claim to my property?"
The question, quite ringing out, flashed backward a gleam of light upon th_emeanour of our host and the suppressed agitation of his sister. In a_nstant the jealous gentleman revealed itself. For a moment I was so surprise_nd scandalised at the directness of his attack that I lacked words to reply.
As soon as he had spoken indeed Mr. Searle appeared to feel he had bee_anting in form. "Pardon me," he began afresh, "if I speak of this matter wit_eat. But I've been more disgusted than I can say to hear, as I heard thi_orning from my solicitor, of the extraordinary proceedings of Mr. Clemen_earle. Gracious goodness, sir, for what does the man take me? He pretends t_he Lord knows what fantastic admiration for my place. Let him then show hi_espect for it by not taking too many liberties! Let him, with his high-flow_arade of loyalty, imagine a tithe of what _I_ feel! I love my estate; it's m_assion, my conscience, my life! Am I to divide it up at this time of day wit_ beggarly foreigner—a man without means, without appearance, without proof, _retender, an adventurer, a chattering mountebank? I thought America boaste_aving lands for all men! Upon my soul, sir, I've never been so shocked in m_ife."
I paused for some moments before speaking, to allow his passion fully t_xpend itself and to flicker up again if it chose; for so far as I wa_oncerned in the whole awkward matter I but wanted to deal with hi_iscreetly. "Your apprehensions, sir," I said at last, "your not unnatura_urprise, perhaps, at the candour of our interest, have acted too much on you_erves. You're attacking a man of straw, a creature of unworthy illusion; though I'm sadly afraid you've wounded a man of spirit and conscience. Eithe_y friend has no valid claim on your estate, in which case your agitation i_uperfluous; or he HAS a valid claim—"
Mr. Searle seized my arm and glared at me; his pale face paler still with th_orror of my suggestion, his great eyes of alarm glowing and his strange re_air erect and quivering. "A valid claim!" he shouted. "Let him try it—let hi_ring it into court!"
We had emerged into the great hall and stood facing the main doorway. The doo_as open into the portico, through the stone archway of which I saw the garde_litter in the blue light of a full moon. As the master of the house uttere_he words I have just repeated my companion came slowly up into the porch fro_ithout, bareheaded, bright in the outer moonlight, dark in the shadow of th_rchway, and bright again in the lamplight at the entrance of the hall. As h_rossed the threshold the butler made an appearance at the head of th_taircase on our left, faltering visibly a moment at sight of Mr. Searle; after which, noting my friend, he gravely descended. He bore in his hand _mall silver tray. On the tray, gleaming in the light of the suspended lamp, lay a folded note. Clement Searle came forward, staring a little and startled, I think, by some quick nervous prevision of a catastrophe. The butler applie_he match to the train. He advanced to my fellow visitor, all solemnly, wit_he offer of his missive. Mr. Searle made a movement as if to spring forward, but controlled himself. "Tottenham!" he called in a strident voice.
"Yes, sir!" said Tottenham, halting.
"Stand where you are. For whom is that note?"
"For Mr. Clement Searle," said the butler, staring straight before him an_issociating himself from everything.
"Who gave it to you?"
"Mrs. Horridge, sir." This personage, I afterwards learned, was our friend th_ousekeeper.
"Who gave it Mrs. Horridge?"
There was on Tottenham's part just an infinitesimal pause before replying.
"My dear sir," broke in Searle, his equilibrium, his ancient ease, completel_estored by the crisis, "isn't that rather my business?"
"What happens in my house is my business, and detestable things seem to b_appening." Our host, it was clear, now so furiously detested them that I wa_fraid he would snatch the bone of contention without more ceremony. "Bring m_hat thing!" he cried; on which Tottenham stiffly moved to obey.
"Really this is too much!" broke out my companion, affronted and helpless.
So indeed it struck me, and before Mr. Searle had time to take the note _ossessed myself of it. "If you've no consideration for your sister let _tranger at least act for her." And I tore the disputed object into a doze_ieces.
"In the name of decency, what does this horrid business mean?" my companio_uavered.
Mr. Searle was about to open fire on him, but at that moment our hostes_ppeared on the staircase, summoned evidently by our high-pitched contentiou_oices. She had exchanged her dinner- dress for a dark wrapper, removed he_rnaments and begun to disarrange her hair, a thick tress of which escape_rom the comb. She hurried down with a pale questioning face. Feelin_istinctly that, for ourselves, immediate departure was in the air, an_ivining Mr. Tottenham to be a person of a few deep- seated instincts and o_uch latent energy, I seized the opportunity to request him, sotto voce, t_end a carriage to the door without delay. "And put up our things," I added.
Our host rushed at his sister and grabbed the white wrist that escaped fro_he loose sleeve of her dress. "What was in that note?" he quite hissed a_er.
Miss Searle looked first at its scattered fragments and then at her cousin.
"Did you read it?"
"No, but I thank you for it!" said Searle.
Her eyes, for an instant, communicated with his own as I think they had never, never communicated with any other source of meaning; then she transferred the_o her brother's face, where the sense went out of them, only to leave a dul_ad patience. But there was something even in this flat humility that seeme_o him to mock him, so that he flushed crimson with rage and spite and flun_er away. "You always were an idiot! Go to bed."
In poor Searle's face as well the gathered serenity had been by this time al_lighted and distorted and the reflected brightness of his happy day turned t_lank confusion. "Have I been dealing these three hours with a madman?" h_oefully cried.
"A madman, yes, if you will! A man mad with the love of his home and the sens_f its stability. I've held my tongue till now, but you've been too much fo_e. Who the devil are you, and what and why and whence?" the terrible littl_an continued. "From what paradise of fools do you come that you fancy I shal_ake over to you, for the asking, a part of my property and my life? I'_orsooth, you ridiculous person, to go shares with you? Prove you_reposterous claim! There isn't THAT in it!" And he kicked one of the bits o_aper on the floor.
Searle received this broadside gaping. Then turning away he went and seate_imself on a bench against the wall and rubbed his forehead amazedly. I looke_t my watch and listened for the wheels of our carriage.
But his kinsman was too launched to pull himself up. "Wasn't it enough tha_ou should have plotted against my rights? Need you have come into my ver_ouse to intrigue with my sister?"
My friend put his two hands to his face. "Oh, oh, oh!" he groaned while Mis_earle crossed rapidly and dropped on her knees at his side.
"Go to bed, you fool!" shrieked her brother.
"Dear cousin," she said, "it's cruel you're to have so to think of us!"
"Oh I shall think of YOU as you'd like!" He laid a hand on her head.
"I believe you've done nothing wrong," she brought bravely out.
"I've done what I could," Mr. Searle went on—"but it's arrant folly to preten_o friendship when this abomination lies between us. You were welcome to m_eat and my wine, but I wonder you could swallow them. The sight spoiled M_ppetite!" cried the master of Lackley with a laugh. "Proceed with you_rumpery case! My people in London are instructed and prepared."
"I shouldn't wonder if your case had improved a good deal since you gave i_p," I was moved to observe to Searle.
"Oho! you don't feign ignorance then?" and our insane entertainer shook hi_hining head at me. "It's very kind of you to give it up! Perhaps you'll als_ive up my sister!"
Searle sat staring in distress at his adversary. "Ah miserable man—I though_e had become such beautiful friends."
"Boh, you hypocrite!" screamed our host.
Searle seemed not to hear him. "Am I seriously expected," he slowly an_ainfully pursued, "to defend myself against the accusation of any rea_ndelicacy—to prove I've done nothing underhand or impudent? Think what yo_lease!" And he rose, with an effort, to his feet. "I know what YOU think!" h_dded to Miss Searle.
The wheels of the carriage resounded on the gravel, and at the same moment _ootman descended with our two portmanteaux. Mr. Tottenham followed him wit_ur hats and coats.
"Good God," our host broke out again, "you're not going away?"— an ejaculatio_hat, after all that had happened, had the grandest comicality. "Bless m_oul," he then remarked as artlessly, "of course you're going!"
"It's perhaps well," said Miss Searle with a great effort, inexpressibl_ouching in one for whom great efforts were visibly new and strange, "that _hould tell you what my poor little note contained."
"That matter of your note, madam," her brother interrupted, "you and I wil_ettle together!"
"Let me imagine all sorts of kind things!" Searle beautifully pleaded.
"Ah too much has been imagined!" she answered simply. "It was only a word o_arning. It was to tell you to go. I knew something painful was coming."
He took his hat. "The pains and the pleasures of this day," he said to hi_insman, "I shall equally never forget. Knowing you," and he offered his han_o Miss Searle, "has been the pleasure of pleasures. I hoped something mor_ight have come of it."
"A monstrous deal too much has come of it!" Mr. Searle irrepressibly declared.
His departing guest looked at him mildly, almost benignantly, from head t_oot, and then with closed eyes and some collapse of strength, "I'm afraid so, I can't stand more," he went on. I gave him my arm and we crossed th_hreshold. As we passed out I heard Miss Searle break into loud weeping.
"We shall hear from each other yet, I take it!" her brother pursued, harassin_ur retreat.
My friend stopped, turning round on him fiercely. "You very impossible man!"
he cried in his face.
"Do you mean to say you'll not prosecute?" Mr. Searle kept it up. "I shal_orce you to prosecute! I shall drag you into court, and you shall b_eaten—beaten—beaten!" Which grim reiteration followed us on our course.
We drove of course to the little wayside inn from which we had departed in th_orning so unencumbered, in all broad England, either with enemies or friends.
My companion, as the carriage rolled along, seemed overwhelmed and exhausted.
"What a beautiful horrible dream!" he confusedly wailed. "What a strang_wakening! What a long long day! What a hideous scene! Poor me! Poor woman!"
When we had resumed possession of our two little neighbouring rooms I aske_im whether Miss Searle's note had been the result of anything that had passe_etween them on his going to rejoin her. "I found her on the terrace," h_aid, "walking restlessly up and down in the moonlight. I was greatl_xcited—I hardly know what I said. I asked her, I think, if she knew the stor_f Margaret Searle. She seemed frightened and troubled, and she used just th_ords her brother had used—'I know nothing.' For the moment, somehow, I fel_s a man drunk. I stood before her and told her, with great emphasis, how poo_argaret had married a beggarly foreigner—all in obedience to her heart and i_efiance to her family. As I talked the sheeted moonlight seemed to clos_bout us, so that we stood there in a dream, in a world quite detached. Sh_rew younger, prettier, more attractive—I found myself talking all kinds o_onsense. Before I knew it I had gone very far. I was taking her hand an_alling her 'Margaret, dear Margaret!' She had said it was impossible, tha_he could do nothing, that she was a fool, a child, a slave. Then with _udden sense—it was odd how it came over me there—of the reality of m_onnexion with the place, I spoke of my claim against the estate. 'It exists,'
I declared, 'but I've given it up. Be generous! Pay me for my sacrifice.' Fo_n instant her face was radiant. 'If I marry you,' she asked, 'will it mak_verything right?' Of that I at once assured her—in our marriage the whol_ifficulty would melt away like a rain-drop in the great sea. 'Our marriage!'
she repeated in wonder; and the deep ring of her voice seemed to wake us u_nd show us our folly. 'I love you, but I shall never see you again,' sh_ried; and she hurried away with her face in her hands. I walked up and dow_he terrace for some moments, and then came in and met you. That's the onl_itchcraft I've used!"
The poor man was at once so roused and so shaken by the day's events that _elieved he would get little sleep. Conscious on my own part that I shouldn'_lose my eyes, I but partly undressed, stirred my fire and sat down to do som_riting. I heard the great clock in the little parlour below strike twelve, one, half- past one. Just as the vibration of this last stroke was dying o_he air the door of communication with Searle's room was flung open and m_ompanion stood on the threshold, pale as a corpse, in his nightshirt, shinin_ike a phantom against the darkness behind him. "Look well at me!" h_ntensely gasped; "touch me, embrace me, revere me! You see a man who has see_ ghost!"
"Gracious goodness, what do you mean?"
"Write it down!" he went on. "There, take your pen. Put it into dreadfu_ords. How do I look? Am I human? Am I pale? Am I red? Am I speaking English?
A ghost, sir! Do you understand?"
I confess there came upon me by contact a kind of supernatural shock. I shal_lways feel by the whole communication of it that I too have seen a ghost. M_irst movement—I can smile at it now —was to spring to the door, close i_uickly and turn the key upon the gaping blackness from which Searle ha_merged. I seized his two hands; they were wet with perspiration. I pushed m_hair to the fire and forced him to sit down in it; then I got on my knees an_eld his hands as firmly as possible. They trembled and quivered; his eye_ere fixed save that the pupil dilated and contracted with extraordinar_orce. I asked no questions, but waited there, very curious for what he woul_ay. At last he spoke. "I'm not frightened, but I'm—oh excited! This is life!
This is living! My nerves—my heart—my brain! They're throbbing —don't you fee_t? Do you tingle? Are you hot? Are you cold? Hold me tight—tight—tight! _hall tremble away into waves— into surges—and know all the secrets of thing_nd all the reasons and all the mysteries!" He paused a moment and then wen_n: "A woman—as clear as that candle: no, far clearer! In a blue dress, with _lack mantle on her head and a little black muff. Young and wonderfull_retty, pale and ill; with the sadness of all the women who ever loved an_uffered pleading and accusing in her wet-looking eyes. God knows I never di_ny such thing! But she took me for my elder, for the other Clement. She cam_o me here as she would have come to me there. She wrung her hands and sh_poke to me 'marry me!' she moaned; 'marry me and put an end to my shame!' _at up in bed, just as I sit here, looked at her, heard her—heard her voic_elt away, watched her figure fade away. Bless us and save us! Here I be!"
I made no attempt either to explain or to criticise this extraordinar_assage. It's enough that I yielded for the hour to the strange force of m_riend's emotion. On the whole I think my own vision was the more interestin_f the two. He beheld but the transient irresponsible spectre—I beheld th_uman subject hot from the spectral presence. Yet I soon recovered m_udgement sufficiently to be moved again to try to guard him against th_esults of excitement and exposure. It was easily agreed that he was not fo_he night to return to his room, and I made him fairly comfortable in hi_lace by my fire. Wishing above all to preserve him from a chill I removed m_edding and wrapped him in the blankets and counterpane. I had no nerve_ither for writing or for sleep; so I put out my lights, renewed the fuel an_at down on the opposite side of the hearth. I found it a great and hig_olemnity just to watch my companion. Silent, swathed and muffled to his chin, he sat rigid and erect with the dignity of his adventure. For the most par_is eyes were closed; though from time to time he would open them with _teady expansion and stare, never blinking, into the flame, as if he agai_eheld without terror the image of the little woman with the muff. Hi_adaverous emaciated face, his tragic wrinkles intensified by the upward glo_rom the hearth, his distorted moustache, his extraordinary gravity and _ertain fantastical air as the red light flickered over him, all re-enforce_is fine likeness to the vision-haunted knight of La Mancha when laid up afte_ome grand exploit. The night passed wholly without speech. Toward its close _lept for half an hour. When I awoke the awakened birds had begun to twitte_nd Searle, unperturbed, sat staring at me. We exchanged a long look, and _elt with a pang that his glittering eyes had tasted their last of natura_leep. "How is it? Are you comfortable?" I nevertheless asked.
He fixed me for a long time without replying and then spoke with a wea_xtravagance and with such pauses between his words as might have represente_he slow prompting of an inner voice. "You asked me when you first knew m_hat I was. 'Nothing,' I said, 'nothing of any consequence.' Nothing I'v_lways supposed myself to be. But I've wronged myself—I'm a great exception.
I'm a haunted man!"
If sleep had passed out of his eyes I felt with even a deeper pang that sanit_ad abandoned his spirit. From this moment I was prepared for the worst. Ther_ere in my friend, however, such confirmed habits of mildness that I foun_yself not in the least fearing he would prove unmanageable. As morning bega_ully to dawn upon us I brought our curious vigil to a close. Searle was s_nfeebled that I gave him my hands to help him out of his chair, and h_etained them for some moments after rising to his feet, unable as he seeme_o keep his balance. "Well," he said," I've been once favoured, but don'_hink I shall be favoured again. I shall soon be myself as fit to 'appear' a_ny of them. I shall haunt the master of Lackley! It can only mean one thing— that they're getting ready for me on the other side of the grave."
When I touched the question of breakfast he replied that he had his breakfas_n his pocket; and he drew from his travelling-bag a phial of morphine. H_ook a strong dose and went to bed. At noon I found him on foot again, dressed, shaved, much refreshed. "Poor fellow," he said, "you've got more tha_ou bargained for— not only a man with a grievance but a man with a ghost.
Well, it won't be for long!" It had of course promptly become a questio_hither we should now direct our steps. "As I've so little time," he argue_or this, "I should like to see the best, the best alone." I answered tha_ither for time or eternity I had always supposed Oxford to represent th_nglish maximum, and for Oxford in the course of an hour we accordingl_eparted.