THE ADMIRAL’S OPINION.—THE REQUEST OF CHARLES.
Charles then sought the admiral, whom he found with his hands behind him, pacing to and fro in one of the long walks of the garden, evidently in a very unsettled state of mind. When Charles appeared, he quickened his pace, and looked in such a state of unusual perplexity that it was quite ridiculous to observe him.
“I suppose, uncle, you have made up your mind thoroughly by this time?”
“Well, I don’t know that.”
“Why, you have had long enough surely to think over it. I have not troubled you soon.”
“Well, I cannot exactly say you have, but, somehow or another, I don’t think very fast, and I have an unfortunate propensity after a time of coming exactly round to where I began.”
“Then, to tell the truth, uncle, you can come to no sort of conclusion.”
“And what may that be?”
“Why, that you are right in one thing, Charles, which is, that having sent a challenge to this fellow of a vampyre, you must fight him.”
“I suspect that that is a conclusion you had from the first, uncle?”
“Because it is an obvious and a natural one. All your doubts, and trouble, and perplexities, have been to try and find some excuse for not entertaining that opinion, and now that you really find it in vain to make it, I trust that you will accede as you first promised to do, and not seek by any means to thwart me.”
“I will not thwart you, my boy, although in my opinion you ought not to fight with a vampyre.”
“Never mind that. We cannot urge that as a valid excuse, so long as he chooses to deny being one. And after all, if he be really wrongfully suspected, you must admit that he is a very injured man.”
“Injured!—nonsense. If he is not a vampyre, he’s some other out-of-the-way sort of fish, you may depend. He’s the oddest-looking fellow ever I came across in all my born days, ashore or afloat.”
“Yes, he is: and yet, when I come to look at the thing again in my mind, some droll sights that I have seen come across my memory. The sea is the place for wonders and for mysteries. Why, we see more in a day and a night there, than you landsmen could contrive to make a whole twelvemonth’s wonder of.”
“But you never saw a vampyre, uncle?”
“Well, I don’t know that. I didn’t know anything about vampyres till I came here; but that was my ignorance, you know. There might have been lots of vampyres where I’ve been, for all I know.”
“Oh, certainly; but as regards this duel, will you wait now until to-morrow morning, before you take any further steps in the matter?”
“Till to-morrow morning?”
“Why, only a little while ago, you were all eagerness to have something done off-hand.”
“Just so; but now I have a particular reason for waiting until to-morrow morning.”
“Have you? Well, as you please, boy—as you please. Have everything your own way.”
“You are very kind, uncle; and now I have another favour to ask of you.”
“What is it?”
“Why, you know that Henry Bannerworth receives but a very small sum out of the whole proceeds of the estate here, which ought, but for his father’s extravagance, to be wholly at his disposal.”
“So I have heard.”
“I am certain he is at present distressed for money, and I have not much. Will you lend me fifty pounds, uncle, until my own affairs are sufficiently arranged to enable you to pay yourself again?”
“Will I! of course I will.”
“I wish to offer that sum as an accommodation to Henry. From me, I dare say he will receive it freely, because he must be convinced how freely it is offered; and, besides, they look upon me now almost as a member of the family in consequence of my engagement with Flora.”
“Certainly, and quite correct too: there’s a fifty-pound note, my boy; take it, and do what you like with it, and when you want any more, come to me for it.”
“I knew I could trespass thus far on your kindness, uncle.”
“Trespass! It’s no trespass at all.”
“Well, we will not fall out about the terms in which I cannot help expressing my gratitude to you for many favours. To-morrow, you will arrange the duel for me.”
“As you please. I don’t altogether like going to that fellow’s house again.”
“Well, then, we can manage, I dare say, by note.”
“Very good. Do so. He puts me in mind altogether of a circumstance that happened a good while ago, when I was at sea, and not so old a man as I am now.”
“Puts you in mind of a circumstance, uncle?”
“Yes; he’s something like a fellow that figured in an affair that I know a good deal about; only I do think as my chap was more mysterious by a d——d sight than this one.”
“Oh, dear, yes. When anything happens in an odd way at sea, it is as odd again as anything that occurs on land, my boy, you may depend.”
“Oh, you only fancy that, uncle, because you have spent so long a time at sea.”
“No, I don’t imagine it, you rascal. What can you have on shore equal to what we have at sea? Why, the sights that come before us would make you landsmen’s hairs stand up on end, and never come down again.”
“In the ocean, do you mean, that you see those sights, uncle?”
“To be sure. I was once in the southern ocean, in a small frigate, looking out for a seventy-four we were to join company with, when a man at the mast-head sung out that he saw her on the larboard bow. Well, we thought it was all right enough, and made away that quarter, when what do you think it turned out to be?”
“I really cannot say.”
“The head of a fish.”
“Yes! a d——d deal bigger than the hull of a vessel. He was swimming along with his head just what I dare say he considered a shaving or so out of the water.”
“But where were the sails, uncle?”
“Yes; your man at the mast-head must have been a poor seaman not to have missed the sails.”
“All, that’s one of your shore-going ideas, now. You know nothing whatever about it. I’ll tell you where the sails were, master Charley.”
“Well, I should like to know.”
“The spray, then, that he dashed up with a pair of fins that were close to his head, was in such a quantity, and so white, that they looked just like sails.”
“Ah! you may say ‘oh!’ but we all saw him—the whole ship’s crew; and we sailed alongside of him for some time, till he got tired of us, and suddenly dived down, making such a vortex in the water, that the ship shook again, and seemed for about a minute as if she was inclined to follow him to the bottom of the sea.”
“And what do you suppose it was, uncle?”
“How should I know?”
“Did you ever see it again?”
“Never; though others have caught a glimpse of him now and then in the same ocean, but never came so near him as we did, that ever I heard of, at all events. They may have done so.”
“It is singular!”
“Singular or not, it’s a fool to what I can tell you. Why, I’ve seen things that, if I were to set about describing them to you, you would say I was making up a romance.”
“Oh, no; it’s quite impossible, uncle, any one could ever suspect you of such a thing.”
“You’d believe me, would you?”
“Of course I would.”
“Then here goes. I’ll just tell you now of a circumstance that I haven’t liked to mention to anybody yet.”
“Indeed! why so?”
“Because I didn’t want to be continually fighting people for not believing it; but here you have it:—”
We were outward bound; a good ship, a good captain, and good messmates, you know, go far towards making a prosperous voyage a pleasant and happy one, and on this occasion we had every reasonable prospect of all.
Our hands were all tried men—they had been sailors from infancy; none of your French craft, that serve an apprenticeship and then become land lubbers again. Oh, no, they were stanch and true, and loved the ocean as the sluggard loves his bed, or the lover his mistress.
Ay, and for the matter of that, the love was a more enduring and a more healthy love, for it increased with years, and made men love one another, and they would stand by each other while they had a limb to lift—while they were able to chew a quid or wink an eye, leave alone wag a pigtail.
We were outward bound for Ceylon, with cargo, and were to bring spices and other matters home from the Indian market. The ship was new and good—a pretty craft; she sat like a duck upon the water, and a stiff breeze carried her along the surface of the waves without your rocking, and pitching, and tossing, like an old wash-tub at a mill-tail, as I have had the misfortune to sail in more than once afore.
No, no, we were well laden, and well pleased, and weighed anchor with light hearts and a hearty cheer.
Away we went down the river, and soon rounded the North Foreland, and stood out in the Channel. The breeze was a steady and stiff one, and carried us through the water as though it had been made for us.
“Jack,” said I to a messmate of mine, as he stood looking at the skies, then at the sails, and finally at the water, with a graver air than I thought was at all consistent with the occasion or circumstances.
“Well,” he replied.
“What ails you? You seem as melancholy as if we were about to cast lots who should be eaten first. Are you well enough?”
“I am hearty enough, thank Heaven,” he said, “but I don’t like this breeze.”
“Don’t like the breeze!” said I; “why, mate, it is as good and kind a breeze as ever filled a sail. What would you have, a gale?”
“No, no; I fear that.”
“With such a ship, and such a set of hearty able seamen, I think we could manage to weather out the stiffest gale that ever whistled through a yard.”
“That may be; I hope it is, and I really believe and think so.”
“Then what makes you so infernally mopish and melancholy?”
“I don’t know, but can’t help it. It seems to me as though there was something hanging over us, and I can’t tell what.”
“Yes, there are the colours, Jack, at the masthead; they are flying over us with a hearty breeze.”
“Ah! ah!” said Jack, looking up at the colours, and then went away without saying anything more, for he had some piece of duty to perform.
I thought my messmate had something on his mind that caused him to feel sad and uncomfortable, and I took no more notice of it; indeed, in the course of a day or two he was as merry as any of the rest, and had no more melancholy that I could perceive, but was as comfortable as anybody.
We had a gale off the coast of Biscay, and rode it out without the loss of a spar or a yard; indeed, without the slightest accident or rent of any kind.
“Now, Jack, what do you think of our vessel?” said I.
“She’s like a duck upon water, rises and falls with the waves, and doesn’t tumble up and down like a hoop over stones.”
“No, no; she goes smoothly and sweetly; she is a gallant craft, and this is her first voyage, and I predict a prosperous one.”
“I hope so,” he said.
Well, we went on prosperously enough for about three weeks; the ocean was as calm and as smooth as a meadow, the breeze light but good, and we stemmed along majestically over the deep blue waters, and passed coast after coast, though all around was nothing but the apparently pathless main in sight.
“A better sailer I never stepped into,” said the captain one day; “it would be a pleasure to live and die in such a vessel.”
Well, as I said, we had been three weeks or thereabouts, when one morning, after the sun was up and the decks washed, we saw a strange man sitting on one of the water-casks that were on deck, for, being full, we were compelled to stow some of them on deck.
You may guess those on deck did a little more than stare at this strange and unexpected apparition. By jingo, I never saw men open their eyes wider in all my life, nor was I any exception to the rule. I stared, as well I might; but we said nothing for some minutes, and the stranger looked calmly on us, and then cocked his eye with a nautical air up at the sky, as if he expected to receive a twopenny-post letter from St. Michael, or a billet doux from the Virgin Mary.
“Where has he come from?” said one of the men in a low tone to his companion, who was standing by him at that moment.
“How can I tell?” replied his companion. “He may have dropped from the clouds; he seems to be examining the road; perhaps he is going back.”
The stranger sat all this time with the most extreme and provoking coolness and unconcern; he deigned us but a passing notice, but it was very slight.
He was a tall, spare man—what is termed long and lathy—but he was evidently a powerful man. He had a broad chest, and long, sinewy arms, a hooked nose, and a black, eagle eye. His hair was curly, but frosted by age; it seemed as though it had been tinged with white at the extremities, but he was hale and active otherwise, to judge from appearances.
Notwithstanding all this, there was a singular repulsiveness about him that I could not imagine the cause, or describe; at the same time there was an air of determination in his wild and singular-looking eyes, and over their whole there was decidedly an air and an appearance so sinister as to be positively disagreeable.
“Well,” said I, after we had stood some minutes, “where did you come from, shipmate?”
He looked at me and then up at the sky, in a knowing manner.
“Come, come, that won’t do; you have none of Peter Wilkins’s wings, and couldn’t come on the aerial dodge; it won’t do; how did you get here?”
He gave me an awful wink, and made a sort of involuntary movement, which jumped him up a few inches, and he bumped down again on the water-cask.
“That’s as much as to say,” thought I, “that he’s sat himself on it.”
“I’ll go and inform the captain,” said I, “of this affair; he’ll hardly believe me when I tell him, I am sure.”
So saying, I left the deck and went to the cabin, where the captain was at breakfast, and related to him what I had seen respecting the stranger. The captain looked at me with an air of disbelief, and said,—
“What?—do you mean to say there’s a man on board we haven’t seen before?”
“Yes, I do, captain. I never saw him afore, and he’s sitting beating his heels on the water-cask on deck.”
“He is, I assure you, sir; and he won’t answer any questions.”
“I’ll see to that. I’ll see if I can’t make the lubber say something, providing his tongue’s not cut out. But how came he on board? Confound it, he can’t be the devil, and dropped from the moon.”
“Don’t know, captain,” said I. “He is evil-looking enough, to my mind, to be the father of evil, but it’s ill bespeaking attentions from that quarter at any time.”
“Go on, lad; I’ll come up after you.”
I left the cabin, and I heard the captain coming after me. When I got on deck, I saw he had not moved from the place where I left him. There was a general commotion among the crew when they beard of the occurrence, and all crowded round him, save the man at the wheel, who had to remain at his post.
The captain now came forward, and the men fell a little back as he approached. For a moment the captain stood silent, attentively examining the stranger, who was excessively cool, and stood the scrutiny with the same unconcern that he would had the captain been looking at his watch.
“Well, my man,” said the captain, “how did you come here?”
“I’m part of the cargo,” he said, with an indescribable leer.
“Part of the cargo be d——d!” said the captain, in sudden rage, for he thought the stranger was coming his jokes too strong. “I know you are not in the bills of lading.”
“I’m contraband,” replied the stranger; “and my uncle’s the great chain of Tartary.”
The captain stared, as well he might, and did not speak for some minutes; all the while the stranger kept kicking his heels against the water-casks and squinting up at the skies; it made us feel very queer.
“Well, I must confess you are not in the regular way of trading.”
“Oh, no,” said the stranger; “I am contraband—entirely contraband.”
“And how did you come on board?”
At this question the stranger again looked curiously up at the skies, and continued to do so for more than a minute; he then turned his gaze upon the captain.
“No, no,” said the captain; “eloquent dumb show won’t do with me; you didn’t come, like Mother Shipton, upon a birch broom. How did you come on board my vessel?”
“I walked on board,” said the stranger.
“You walked on board; and where did you conceal yourself?”
“Very good; and why didn’t you stay below altogether?”
“Because I wanted fresh air. I’m in a delicate state of health, you see; it doesn’t do to stay in a confined place too long.”
“Confound the binnacle!” said the captain; it was his usual oath when anything bothered him, and he could not make it out. “Confound the binnacle!—what a delicate-looking animal you are. I wish you had stayed where you were; your delicacy would have been all the same to me. Delicate, indeed!”
“Yes, very,” said the stranger, coolly.
There was something so comic in the assertion of his delicateness of health, that we should all have laughed; but we were somewhat scared, and had not the inclination.
“How have you lived since you came on board?” inquired the captain.
“But how? What have you eaten? and what have you drank?”
“Nothing, I assure you. All I did while was below was—”
“Why, I sucked my thumbs like a polar bear in its winter quarters.”
And as he spoke the stranger put his two thumbs into his mouth, and extraordinary thumbs they were, too, for each would have filled an ordinary man’s mouth.
“These,” said the stranger, pulling them out, and gazing at them wistfully, and with a deep sigh he continued,—
“These were thumbs at one time; but they are nothing now to what they were.”
“Confound the binnacle!” muttered the captain to himself, and then he added, aloud,—
“It’s cheap living, however; but where are you going to, and why did you come aboard?”
“I wanted a cheap cruise, and I am going there and back.”
“Why, that’s where we are going,” said the captain.
“Then we are brothers,” exclaimed the stranger, hopping off the water-cask like a kangaroo, and bounding towards the captain, holding out his hand as though he would have shaken hands with him.
“No, no,” said the captain; “I can’t do it.”
“Can’t do it!” exclaimed the stranger, angrily. “What do you mean?”
“That I can’t have anything to do with contraband articles; I am a fair trader, and do all above board. I haven’t a chaplain on board, or he should offer up prayers for your preservation, and the recovery of your health, which seems so delicate.”
The stranger didn’t finish the sentence; he merely screwed his mouth up into an incomprehensible shape, and puffed out a lot of breath, with some force, and which sounded very much like a whistle: but, oh, what thick breath he had, it was as much like smoke as anything I ever saw, and so my shipmate said.
“I say, captain,” said the stranger, as he saw him pacing the deck.
“Just send me up some beef and biscuit, and some coffee royal—be sure it’s royal, do you hear, because I’m partial to brandy, it’s the only good thing there is on earth.”
I shall not easily forget the captain’s look as he turned towards the stranger, and gave his huge shoulders a shrug, as much as to say,—
“Well, I can’t help it now; he’s here, and I can’t throw him overboard.”
The coffee, beef, and biscuit were sent him, and the stranger seemed to eat them with great gout, and drank the coffee with much relish, and returned the things, saying,
“Your captain is an excellent cook; give him my compliments.”
I thought the captain would think that was but a left-handed compliment, and look more angry than pleased, but no notice was taken of it.
It was strange, but this man had impressed upon all in the vessel some singular notion of his being more than he should be—more than a mere mortal, and not one endeavoured to interfere with him; the captain was a stout and dare-devil a fellow as you would well met with, yet he seemed tacitly to acknowledge more than he would say, for he never after took any further notice of the stranger nor he of him.
They had barely any conversation, simply a civil word when they first met, and so forth; but there was little or no conversation of any kind between them.
The stranger slept upon deck, and lived upon deck entirely; he never once went below after we saw him, and his own account of being below so long.
This was very well, but the night-watch did not enjoy his society, and would have willingly dispensed with it at that hour so particularly lonely and dejected upon the broad ocean, and perhaps a thousand miles away from the nearest point of land.
At this dread and lonely hour, when no sound reaches the ear and disturbs the wrapt stillness of the night, save the whistling of the wind through the cordage, or an occasional dash of water against the vessel’s side, the thoughts of the sailor are fixed on far distant objects—his own native land and the friends and loved ones he has left behind him.
He then thinks of the wilderness before, behind, and around him; of the immense body of water, almost in places bottomless; gazing upon such a scene, and with thoughts as strange and indefinite as the very boundless expanse before him, it is no wonder if he should become superstitious; the time and place would, indeed unbidden, conjure up thoughts and feelings of a fearful character and intensity.
The stranger at such times would occupy his favourite seat on the water cask, and looking up at the sky and then on the ocean, and between whiles he would whistle a strange, wild, unknown melody.
The flesh of the sailors used to creep up in knots and bumps when they heard it; the wind used to whistle as an accompaniment and pronounce fearful sounds to their ears.
The wind had been highly favourable from the first, and since the stranger had been discovered it had blown fresh, and we went along at a rapid rate, stemming the water, and dashing the spray off from the bows, and cutting the water like a shark.
This was very singular to us, we couldn’t understand it, neither could the captain, and we looked very suspiciously at the stranger, and wished him at the bottom, for the freshness of the wind now became a gale, and yet the ship came through the water steadily, and away we went before the wind, as if the devil drove us; and mind I don’t mean to say he didn’t.
The gale increased to a hurricane, and though we had not a stitch of canvass out, yet we drove before the gale as if we had been shot out of the mouth of a gun.
The stranger still sat on the water casks, and all night long he kept up his infernal whistle. Now, sailors don’t like to hear any one whistle when there’s such a gale blowing over their heads—it’s like asking for more; but he would persist, and the louder and stronger the wind blew, the louder he whistled.
At length there came a storm of rain, lightning, and wind. We were tossed mountains high, and the foam rose over the vessel, and often entirely over our heads, and the men were lashed to their posts to prevent being washed away.
But the stranger still lay on the water casks, kicking his heels and whistling his infernal tune, always the same. He wasn’t washed away nor moved by the action of the water; indeed, we heartily hoped and expected to see both him and the water cask floated overboard at every minute; but, as the captain said,—
“Confound the binnacle! the old water tub seems as if it were screwed on to the deck, and won’t move off and he on the top of it.”
There was a strong inclination to throw him overboard, and the men conversed in low whispers, and came round the captain, saying,—
“We have come, captain, to ask you what you think of this strange man who has come so mysteriously on board?”
“I can’t tell what to think, lads; he’s past thinking about—he’s something above my comprehension altogether, I promise you.”
“Well, then, we are thinking much of the same thing, captain.”
“What do you mean?”
“That he ain’t exactly one of our sort.”
“No, he’s no sailor, certainly; and yet, for a land lubber, he’s about as rum a customer as ever I met with.”
“So he is, sir.”
“He stands salt water well; and I must say that I couldn’t lay a top of those water casks in that style very well.”
“Nor nobody amongst us, sir.”
“Well, then, he’s in nobody’s way, it he?—nobody wants to take his berth, I suppose?”
The men looked at each other somewhat blank; they didn’t understand the meaning at all—far from it; and the idea of any one’s wanting to take the stranger’s place on the water casks was so outrageously ludicrous, that at any other time they would have considered it a devilish good joke and have never ceased laughing at it.
He paused some minutes, and then one of them said,—
“It isn’t that we envy him his berth, captain, ‘cause nobody else could live there for a moment. Any one amongst us that had been there would have been washed overboard a thousand times over.”
“So they would,” said the captain.
“Well, sir, he’s more than us.”
“Very likely; but how can I help that?”
“We think he’s the main cause of all this racket in the heavens—the storm and hurricane; and that, in short, if he remains much longer we shall all sink.”
“I am sorry for it. I don’t think we are in any danger, and had the strange being any power to prevent it, he would assuredly do so, lest he got drowned.”
“But we think if he were thrown overboard all would be well.”
“Yes, captain, you may depend upon it he’s the cause of all the mischief. Throw him overboard and that’s all we want.”
“I shall not throw him overboard, even if I could do such a thing; and I am by no means sure of anything of the kind.”
“We do not ask it, sir.”
“What do you desire?”
“Leave to throw him overboard—it is to save our own lives.”
“I can’t let you do any such thing; he’s in nobody’s way.”
“But he’s always a whistling. Only hark now, and in such a hurricane as this, it is dreadful to think of it. What else can we do, sir?—he’s not human.”
At this moment, the stranger’s whistling came clear upon their ears; there was the same wild, unearthly notes as before, but the cadences were stronger, and there was a supernatural clearness in all the tones.
“There now,” said another, “he’s kicking the water cask with his heels.”
“Confound the binnacle!” said the captain; “it sounds like short peals of thunder. Go and talk to him, lads.”
“And if that won’t do, sir, may we—”
“Don’t ask me any questions. I don’t think a score of the best men that were ever born could move him.”
“I don’t mind trying,” said one.
Upon this the whole of the men moved to the spot where the water casks were standing and the stranger lay.
There was he, whistling like fury, and, at the same time, beating his heels to the tune against the empty casks. We came up to him, and he took no notice of us at all, but kept on in the same way.
“Hilloa!” shouted one.
“Hilloa!” shouted another.
No notice, however, was taken of us, and one of our number, a big, herculean fellow, an Irishman, seized him by the leg, either to make him get up, or, as we thought, to give him a lift over our heads into the sea.
However, he had scarcely got his fingers round the calf of the leg, when the stranger pinched his leg so tight against the water cask, that he could not move, and was as effectually pinned as if he had been nailed there. The stranger, after he had finished a bar of the music, rose gradually to a sitting posture, and without the aid of his hands, and looking the unlucky fellow in the face, he said,—
“Well, what do you want?”
“My hand,” said the fellow.
“Take it then,” he said.
He did take it, and we saw that there was blood on it.
The stranger stretched out his left hand, and taking him by the breech, he lifted him, without any effort, upon the water-cask beside him.
We all stared at this, and couldn’t help it; and we were quite convinced we could not throw him overboard, but he would probably have no difficulty in throwing us overboard.
“Well, what do you want?” he again exclaimed to us all.
We looked at one another, and had scarce courage to speak; at length I said,—
“We wish you to leave off whistling.”
“Leave off whistling!” he said. “And why should I do anything of the kind?”
“Because it brings the wind.”
“Ha! ha! why, that’s the very reason I am whistling, to bring the wind.”
“But we don’t want so much.”
“Pho! pho! you don’t know what’s good for you—it’s a beautiful breeze, and not a bit too stiff.”
“It’s a hurricane.”
“But it is.”
“Now you see how I’ll prove you are wrong in a minute. You see my hair, don’t you?” he said, after he took off his cap. “Very well, look now.”
He got up on the water-cask, and stood bolt upright; and running his fingers through his hair, made it all stand straight on end.
“Confound the binnacle!” said the captain, “if ever I saw the like.”
“There,” said the stranger, triumphantly, “don’t tell me there’s any wind to signify; don’t you see, it doesn’t even move one of my grey hairs; and if it blew as hard as you say, I am certain it would move a hair.”
“Confound the binnacle!” muttered the captain as he walked away. “D—n the cabouse, if he ain’t older than I am—he’s too many for me and everybody else.”
“Are you satisfied?”
What could we say?—we turned away and left the place, and stood at our quarters—there was no help for it—we were impelled to grin and abide by it.
As soon as we had left the place he put his cap on again and sat down on the water-casks, and then took leave of his prisoner, whom he set free, and there lay at full length on his back, with his legs hanging down. Once more he began to whistle most furiously, and beat time with his feet.
For full three weeks did he continue at this game night and day, without any interruption, save such as he required to consume enough coffee royal, junk, and biscuit, as would have served three hearty men.
Well, about that time, one night the whistling ceased and he began to sing—oh! it was singing—such a voice! Gog and Magog in Guildhall, London, when they spoke were nothing to him—it was awful; but the wind calmed down to a fresh and stiff breeze. He continued at this game for three whole days and nights, and on the fourth it ceased, and when we went to take his coffee royal to him he was gone.
We hunted about everywhere, but he was entirely gone, and in three weeks after we safely cast anchor, having performed our voyage in a good month under the usual time; and had it been an old vessel she would have leaked and stinted like a tub from the straining; however, we were glad enough to get in, and were curiously inquisitive as to what was put in our vessel to come back with, for as the captain said,—
“Confound the binnacle! I’ll have no more contraband articles if I can help it.”
THE MEETING BY MOONLIGHT IN THE PARK.—THE TURRET WINDOW IN THE HALL.—THE LETTERS.
The old admiral showed such a strong disposition to take offence at Charles if he should presume, for a moment, to doubt the truth of the narrative that was thus communicated to him, that the latter would not anger him by so doing, but confined his observations upon it to saying that he considered it was very wonderful, and very extraordinary, and so on, which very well satisfied the old man.
The day was now, however, getting far advanced, and Charles Holland began to think of his engagement with the vampyre. He read and read the letter over and over again, but he could not come to a correct conclusion as to whether it intended to imply that he, Sir Francis Varney, would wish to fight him at the hour and place mentioned, or merely give him a meeting as a preliminary step.
He was rather, on the whole, inclined to think that some explanation would be offered by Varney, but at all events he persevered in his determination of going well armed, lest anything in the shape of treachery should be intended.
As nothing of any importance occurred now in the interval of time till nearly midnight, we will at once step to that time, and our readers will suppose it to be a quarter to twelve o’clock at night, and young Charles Holland on the point of leaving the house, to keep his appointment by the pollard oak, with the mysterious Sir Francis Varney.
He placed his loaded pistols conveniently in his pocket, so that at a moment’s notice he could lay hands on them, and then wrapping himself up in a travelling cloak he had brought with him to Bannerworth Hall, he prepared to leave his chamber.
The moon still shone, although now somewhat on the wane, and although there were certainly many clouds in the sky they were but of a light fleecy character, and very little interrupted the rays of light that came from the nearly full disc of the moon.
From his window he could not perceive the spot in the park where he was to meet Varney, because the room in which he was occupied not a sufficiently high place in the house to enable him to look over a belt of trees that stopped the view. From almost any of the upper windows the pollard oak could be seen.
It so happened now that the admiral had been placed in a room immediately above the one occupied by his nephew, and, as his mind was full of how he should manage with regard to arranging the preliminaries of the duel between Charles and Varney on the morrow, he found it difficult to sleep; and after remaining in bed about twenty minutes, and finding that each moment he was only getting more and more restless, he adopted a course which he always did under such circumstances.
He rose and dressed himself again, intending to sit up for an hour and then turn into bed and try a second time to get to sleep. But he had no means of getting a light, so he drew the heavy curtain from before the window, and let in as much of the moonlight as he could.
This window commanded a most beautiful and extensive view, for from it the eye could carry completely over the tops of the tallest trees, so that there was no interruption whatever to the prospect, which was as extensive as it was delightful.
Even the admiral, who never would confess to seeing much beauty in scenery where water formed not a large portion of it, could not resist opening his window and looking out, with a considerable degree of admiration, upon wood and dale, as they were illuminated by the moon’s rays, softened, and rendered, if anything, more beautiful by the light vapours, through which they had to struggle to make their way.
Charles Holland, in order to avoid the likelihood of meeting with any one who would question him as to where he was going, determined upon leaving his room by the balcony, which, as we are aware, presented ample facilities for his so doing.
He cast a glance at the portrait in the panel before he left the apartment, and then saying,—
“For you, dear Flora, for you I essay this meeting with the fearful original of that portrait,” he immediately opened his window, and stepped out on to the balcony.
Young and active as was Charles Holland, to descend from that balcony presented to him no difficulty whatever, and he was, in a very few moments, safe in the garden of Bannerworth Hall.
He never thought, for a moment, to look up, or he would, in an instant, have seen the white head of his old uncle, as it was projected over the sill of the window of his chamber.
The drop of Charles from the balcony of his window, just made sufficient noise to attract the admiral’s attention, and, then, before he could think of making any alarm, he saw Charles walking hastily across a grass plot, which was sufficiently in the light of the moon to enable the admiral at once to recognise him, and leave no sort of doubt as to his positive identity.
Of course, upon discovering that it was Charles, the necessity for making an alarm no longer existed, and, indeed, not knowing what it was that had induced him to leave his chamber, a moment’s reflection suggested to him the propriety of not even calling to Charles, lest he should defeat some discovery which he might be about to make.
“He has heard something, or seen something,” thought the admiral, “and is gone to find out what it is. I only wish I was with him; but up here I can do nothing at all, that’s quite clear.”
Charles, he saw, walked very rapidly, and like a man who has some fixed destination which he wishes to reach as quickly as possible.
When he dived among the trees which skirted one side of the flower gardens, the admiral was more puzzled than ever, and he said—
“Now where on earth is he off to? He is fully dressed, and has his cloak about him.”
After a few moments’ reflection he decided that, having seen something suspicious, Charles must have got up, and dressed himself, to fathom it.
The moment this idea became fairly impressed upon his mind, he left his bedroom, and descended to where one of the brothers he knew was sitting up, keeping watch during the night. It was Henry who was so on guard; and when the admiral came into the room, he uttered an expression of surprise to find him up, for it was now some time past twelve o’clock.
“I have come to tell you that Charles has left the house,” said the admiral.
“Left the house?”
“Yes; I saw him just now go across the garden.”
“And you are sure it was he?”
“Quite sure. I saw him by the moonlight cross the green plot.”
“Then you may depend he has seen or heard something, and gone alone to find out what it is rather than give any alarm.”
“That is just what I think.”
“It must be so. I will follow him, if you can show me exactly which way he went.”
“That I can easily. And in case I should have made any mistake, which it is not at all likely, we can go to his room first and see if it is empty.”
“A good thought, certainly; that will at once put an end to all doubt upon the question.”
They both immediately proceeded to Charles’s room, and then the admiral’s accuracy of identification of his nephew was immediately proved by finding that Charles was not there, and that the window was wide open.
“You see I am right,” said the admiral.
“You are,” cried Henry; “but what have we here?”
“Here on the dressing-table. Here are no less than three letters, all laid as it on purpose to catch the eye of the first one who might enter the room.”
“You perceive them?”
Henry held them to the light, and after a moment’s inspection of them, he said, in a voice of much surprise,—
“Good God! what is the meaning of this?”
“The meaning of what?”
“The letters are addressed to parties in the house here. Do you not see?”
“One to Admiral Bell—”
“Another to me, and the third to my sister Flora. There is some new mystery here.”
The admiral looked at the superscription of one of the letters which was handed to him in silent amazement. Then he cried,—
“Set down the light, and let us read them.”
Henry did so, and then they simultaneously opened the epistles which were severally addressed to them. There was a silence, as of the very grave, for some moments, and then the old admiral staggered to a seat, as he exclaimed,—
“Am I dreaming—am I dreaming?”
“Is this possible?” said Henry, in a voice of deep emotion, as he allowed the note addressed to him to drop on to the floor.
“D—n it, what does yours say?” cried the old admiral, in a louder tone.
“Read it—what says yours?”
“Read it—I’m amazed.”
The letters were exchanged, and read by each with the same breathless attention they had bestowed upon their own; after which, they both looked at each other in silence, pictures of amazement, and the most absolute state of bewilderment.
Not to keep our readers in suspense, we at once transcribe each of these letters.
The one to the admiral contained these words,—
“MY DEAR UNCLE,
“Of course you will perceive the prudence of keeping this letter to yourself, but the fact is, I have now made up my mind to leave Bannerworth Hall.
“Flora Bannerworth is not now the person she was when first I knew her and loved her. Such being the case, and she having altered, not I, she cannot accuse me of fickleness.
“I still love the Flora Bannerworth I first knew, but I cannot make my wife one who is subject to the visitations of a vampyre.
“I have remained here long enough now to satisfy myself that this vampyre business is no delusion. I am quite convinced that it is a positive fact, and that, after death, Flora will herself become one of the horrible existences known by that name.
“I will communicate to you from the first large city on the continent whither I am going, at which I make any stay, and in the meantime, make what excuses you like at Bannerworth Hall, which I advise you to leave as quickly as you can, and believe me to be, my dear uncle, yours truly,
Henry’s letter was this:—
“MY DEAR SIR,
“If you calmly and dispassionately consider the painful and distressing circumstances in which your family are placed, I am sure that, far from blaming me for the step which this note will announce to you I have taken, you will be the first to give me credit for acting with an amount of prudence and foresight which was highly necessary under the circumstances.
“If the supposed visits of a vampyre to your sister Flora had turned out, as first I hoped they would, a delusion and been in any satisfactory manner explained away I should certainly have felt pride and pleasure in fulfilling my engagement to that young lady.
“You must, however, yourself feel that the amount of evidence in favour of a belief that an actual vampyre has visited Flora, enforces a conviction of its truth.
“I cannot, therefore, make her my wife under such very singular circumstances.
“Perhaps you may blame me for not taking at once advantage of the permission given me to forego my engagement when first I came to your house; but the fact is, I did not then in the least believe in the existence of the vampyre, but since a positive conviction of that most painful fact has now forced itself upon me, I beg to decline the honour of an alliance which I had at one time looked forward to with the most considerable satisfaction.
“I shall be on the continent as fast as conveyances can take me, therefore, should you entertain any romantic notions of calling me to an account for a course of proceeding I think perfectly and fully justifiable, you will not find me.
“Accept the assurances of my respect for yourself and pity for your sister, and believe me to be, my dear sir, your sincere friend,
These two letters might well make the admiral stare at Henry Bannerworth, and Henry stare at him.
An occurrence so utterly and entirely unexpected by both of them, was enough to make them doubt the evidence of their own senses. But there were the letters, as a damning evidence of the outrageous fact, and Charles Holland was gone.
It was the admiral who first recovered from the stunning effect of the epistles, and he, with a gesture of perfect fury, exclaimed,—
“The scoundrel—the cold-blooded villain! I renounce him for ever! he is no nephew of mine; he is some d——d imposter! Nobody with a dash of my family blood in his veins would have acted so to save himself from a thousand deaths.”
“Who shall we trust now,” said Henry, “when those whom we take to our inmost hearts deceive us thus? This is the greatest shock I have yet received. If there be a pang greater than another, surely it is to be found in the faithlessness and heartlessness of one we loved and trusted.”
“He is a scoundrel!” roared the admiral. “D—n him, he’ll die on a dunghill, and that’s too good a place for him. I cast him off—I’ll find him out, and old as I am, I’ll fight him—I’ll wring his neck, the rascal; and, as for poor dear Miss Flora, God bless her! I’ll—I’ll marry her myself, and make her an admiral.—I’ll marry her myself. Oh, that I should be uncle to such a rascal!”
“Calm yourself,” said Henry, “no one can blame you.”
“Yes, you can; I had no right to be his uncle, and I was an old fool to love him.”
The old man sat down, and his voice became broken with emotion as he said,—
“Sir, I tell you I would have died willingly rather than this should have happened. This will kill me now,—I shall die now of shame and grief.”
Tears gushed from the admiral’s eyes and the sight of the noble old man’s emotion did much to calm the anger of Henry which, although he said but little, was boiling at his heart like a volcano.
“Admiral Bell,” he said, “you have nothing to do with this business; we can not blame you for the heartlessness of another. I have but one favour to ask of you.”
“What—what can I do?”
“Say no more about him at all.”
“I can’t help saying something about him. You ought to turn me out of the house.”
“Heaven forbid! What for?”
“Because I’m his uncle—his d——d old fool of an uncle, that always thought so much of him.”
“Nay, my good sir, that was a fault on the right side, and cannot discredit you. I thought him the most perfect of human beings.”
“Oh, if I could but have guessed this.”
“It was impossible. Such duplicity never was equalled in this world—it was impossible to foresee it.”
“Hold—hold! did he give you fifty pounds?”
“Did he give you fifty pounds?”
“Give me fifty pounds! Most decidedly not; what made you think of such a thing?”
“Because to-day he borrowed fifty pounds of me, he said, to lend to you.”
“I never heard of the transaction until this moment.”
“No, doubt, sir, he wanted that amount to expedite his progress abroad.”
“Well, now, damme, if an angel had come to me and said ‘Hilloa! Admiral Bell, your nephew, Charles Holland, is a thundering rogue,’ I should have said ‘You’re a liar!’“
“This is fighting against facts, my dear sir. He is gone—mention him no more; forget him, as I shall endeavour myself to do, and persuade my poor sister to do.”
“Poor girl! what can we say to her?”
“Nothing, but give her all the letters, and let her be at once satisfied of the worthlessness of him she loved.”
“The best way. Her woman’s pride will then come to her help.”
“I hope it will. She is of an honourable race, and I am sure she will not condescend to shed a tear for such a man as Charles Holland has proved himself to be.”
“D—n him, I’ll find him out, and make him fight you. He shall give you satisfaction.”
“No? But he shall.”
“I cannot fight with him.”
“Certainly not. He is too far beneath me now. I cannot fight on honourable terms with one whom I despise as too dishonourable to contend with. I have nothing now but silence and contempt.”
“I have though, for I’ll break his neck when I see him, or he shall break mine. The villain! I’m ashamed to stay here, my young friend.”
“How mistaken a view you take of this matter, my dear sir. As Admiral Bell, a gentleman, a brave officer, and a man of the purest and most unblemished honour, you confer a distinction upon us by your presence here.”
The admiral wrung Henry by the hand, as he said,—
“To-morrow—wait till to-morrow; we will talk over this matter to morrow—I cannot to-night, I have not patience; but to-morrow, my dear boy, we will have it all out. God bless you. Good night.”
THE NOBLE CONFIDENCE OF FLORA BANNERWORTH IN HER LOVER.—HER OPINION OF THE THREE LETTERS.—THE ADMIRAL’S ADMIRATION.
To describe the feelings of Henry Bannerworth on the occasion of this apparent defalcation from the path of rectitude and honour by his friend, as he had fondly imagined Charles Holland to be, would be next to impossible.
If, as we have taken occasion to say, it be a positive fact, that a noble and a generous mind feels more acutely any heartlessness of this description from one on whom it has placed implicit confidence, than the most deliberate and wicked of injuries from absolute strangers, we can easily conceive that Henry Bannerworth was precisely the person to feel most acutely the conduct which all circumstances appeared to fix upon Charles Holland, upon whose faith, truth, and honour, he would have staked his very existence but a few short hours before.
With such a bewildered sensation that he scarcely knew where he walked or whither to betake himself, did he repair to his own chamber, and there he strove, with what energy he was able to bring to the task, to find out some excuses, if he could, for Charles’s conduct. But he could find none. View it in what light he would, it presented but a picture of the most heartless selfishness it had ever been his lot to encounter.
The tone of the letters, too, which Charles had written, materially aggravated the moral delinquency of which he had been guilty; belief, far better, had he not attempted an excuse at all than have attempted such excuses as were there put down in those epistles.
A more cold blooded, dishonourable proceeding could not possibly be conceived.
It would appear, that while he entertained a doubt with regard to the reality of the visitation of the vampyre to Flora Bannerworth, he had been willing to take to himself abundance of credit for the most honourable feelings, and to induce a belief in the minds of all that an exalted feeling of honour, as well as a true affection that would know no change, kept him at the feet of her whom he loved.
Like some braggart, who, when there is no danger, is a very hero, but who, the moment he feels convinced he will be actually and truly called upon for an exhibition of his much-vaunted prowess, had Charles Holland deserted the beautiful girl who, if anything, had now certainly, in her misfortunes, a far higher claim upon his kindly feeling than before.
Henry could not sleep, although, at the request of George, who offered to keep watch for him the remainder of the night he attempted to do so.
He in vain said to himself, “I will banish from my mind this most unworthy subject. I have told Admiral Bell that contempt is the only feeling I can now have for his nephew, and yet I now find myself dwelling upon him, and upon his conduct, with a perseverance which is a foe to my repose.”
At length came the welcome and beautiful light of day, and Henry rose fevered and unrefreshed.
His first impulse now was to hold a consultation with his brother George, as to what was to be done, and George advised that Mr. Marchdale, who as yet knew nothing of the matter, should be immediately informed of it, and consulted, as being probably better qualified than either of them to come to a just, a cool, and a reasonable opinion upon the painful circumstance, which it could not be expected that either of them would be able to view calmly.
“Let it be so, then,” said Henry; “Mr. Marchdale shall decide for us.”
They at once sought this friend of the family, who was in his own bed-room, and when Henry knocked at the door, Marchdale opened it hurriedly, eagerly inquiring what was the matter.
“There is no alarm,” said Henry. “We have only come to tell you of a circumstance which has occurred during the night, and which will somewhat surprise you.”
“Nothing calamitous, I hope?”
“Vexatious; and yet, I think it is a matter upon which we ought almost to congratulate ourselves. Read those two letters, and give us your candid opinion upon them.”
Henry placed in Mr. Marchdale’s hands the letter addressed to himself, as well as that to the admiral.
Marchdale read them both with marked attention, but he did not exhibit in his countenance so much surprise as regret.
When he had finished, Henry said to him,—
“Well, Marchdale, what think you of this new and extraordinary episode in our affairs?”
“My dear young friends,” said Marchdale, in a voice of great emotion, “I know not what to say to you. I have no doubt but that you are both of you much astonished at the receipt of these letters, and equally so at the sudden absence of Charles Holland.”
“And are not you?”
“Not so much as you, doubtless, are. The fact is, I never did entertain a favourable opinion of the young man, and he knew it. I have been accustomed to the study of human nature under a variety of aspects; I have made it a matter of deep, and I may add, sorrowful, contemplation, to study and remark those minor shades of character which commonly escape observation wholly. And, I repeat, I always had a bad opinion of Charles Holland, which he guessed, and hence he conceived a hatred to me, which more than once, as you cannot but remember, showed itself in little acts of opposition and hostility.”
“You much surprise me.”
“I expected to do so. But you cannot help remembering that at one time I was on the point of leaving here solely on his account.”
“You were so.”
“Indeed I should have done so, but that I reasoned with myself upon the subject, and subdued the impulse of the anger which some years ago, when I had not seen so much of the world, would have guided me.”
“But why did you not impart to us your suspicions? We should at least, then, have been prepared for such a contingency as has occurred.”
“Place yourself in my position, and then yourself what you would have done. Suspicion is one of those hideous things which all men should be most specially careful not only how they entertain at all, but how they give expression to. Besides, whatever may be the amount of one’s own internal conviction with regard to the character of any one, there is just a possibility that one may be wrong.”
“That possibility ought to keep any one silent who has nothing but suspicion to go upon, however cautious it may make him, as regards his dealings with the individual. I only suspected from little minute shades of character, that would peep out in spite of him, that Charles Holland was not the honourable man he would fain have had everybody believe him to be.”
“And had you from the first such a feeling?”
“It is very strange.”
“Yes; and what is more strange still, is that he from the first seemed to know it; and despite a caution which I could see he always kept uppermost in his thoughts, he could not help speaking tartly to me at times.”
“I have noticed that,” said George.
“You may depend it is a fact,” added Marchdale, “that nothing so much excites the deadly and desperate hatred of a man who is acting a hypocritical part, as the suspicion, well grounded or not, that another sees and understands the secret impulses of his dishonourable heart.”
“I cannot blame you, or any one else, Mr. Marchdale,” said Henry, “that you did not give utterance to your secret thoughts, but I do wish that you had done so.”
“Nay, dear Henry,” replied Mr. Marchdale, “believe me, I have made this matter a subject of deep thought, and have abundance of reasons why I ought not to have spoken to you upon the subject.”
“Indeed I have, and not among the least important is the one, that if I had acquainted you with my suspicions, you would have found yourself in the painful position of acting a hypocritical part yourself towards this Charles Holland, for you must either have kept the secret that he was suspected, or you must have shewn it to him by your behaviour.”
“Well, well. I dare say, Marchdale, you acted for the best. What shall we do now?”
“Can you doubt?”
“I was thinking of letting Flora at once know the absolute and complete worthlessness of her lover, so that she could have no difficulty in at once tearing herself from him by the assistance of the natural pride which would surely come to her aid, upon finding herself so much deceived.”
“The test may be possible.”
“You think so?”
“I do, indeed.”
“Here is a letter, which of course remains unopened, addressed to Flora by Charles Holland. The admiral rather thought it would hurt her feelings to deliver her such an epistle, but I must confess I am of a contrary opinion upon that point, and think now the more evidence she has of the utter worthlessness of him who professed to love her with so much disinterested affection, the better it will be for her.”
“You could not, possibly, Henry, have taken a more sensible view of the subject.”
“I am glad you agree with me.”
“No reasonable man could do otherwise, and from what I have seen of Admiral Bell, I am sure, upon reflection, he will be of the same opinion.”
“Then it shall be so. The first shock to poor Flora may be severe, but we shall then have the consolation of knowing that it is the only one, and that in knowing the very worst, she has no more on that score to apprehend. Alas, alas! the hand of misfortune now appears to have pressed heavily upon us indeed. What in the name of all that is unlucky and disastrous, will happen next, I wonder?”
“What can happen?” said Marchdale; “I think you have now got rid of the greatest evil of all—a false friend.”
“We have, indeed.”
“Go, then, to Flora; assure her that in the affection of others who know no falsehood, she will find a solace from every ill. Assure her that there are hearts that will place themselves between her and every misfortune.”
Mr. Marchdale was much affected as he spoke. Probably he felt deeper than he chose to express the misfortunes of that family for whom he entertained so much friendship. He turned aside his head to hide the traces of emotion which, despite even his great powers of self-command, would shew themselves upon his handsome and intelligent countenance. Then it appeared as if his noble indignation had got, for a few brief moments, the better of all prudence, and he exclaimed,—
“The villain! the worse than villain! who would, with a thousand artifices, make himself beloved by a young, unsuspecting, and beautiful girl, but then to leave her to the bitterness of regret, that she had ever given such a man a place in her esteem. The heartless ruffian!”
“Be calm, Mr. Marchdale, I pray you be calm,” said George; “I never saw you so much moved.”
“Excuse me,” he said, “excuse me; I am much moved, and I am human. I cannot always, let me strive my utmost, place a curb upon my feelings.”
“They are feelings which do you honour.”
“Nay, nay, I am foolish to have suffered myself to be led away into such a hasty expression of them. I am accustomed to feel acutely and to feel deeply, but it is seldom I am so much overcome as this.”
“Will you accompany us to the breakfast room at once, Mr. Marchdale, where we will make this communication to Flora; you will then be able to judge by her manner of receiving it, what it will be best to say to her.”
“Come, then, and pray be calm. The least that is said upon this painful and harassing subject, after this morning, will be the best.”
“You are right—you are right.”
Mr. Marchdale hastily put on his coat. He was dressed, with the exception of that one article of apparel, when the brothers came to his chamber, and then he came to the breakfast-parlour where the painful communication was to be made to Flora of her lover’s faithlessness.
Flora was already seated in that apartment. Indeed, she had been accustomed to meet Charles Holland there before others of the family made their appearance, but, alas! this morning the kind and tender lover was not there.
The expression that sat upon the countenances of her brothers, and of Mr. Marchdale, was quite sufficient to convince her that something more serious than usual had occurred, and she at the moment turned very pale. Marchdale observed this change of change of countenance in her, and he advanced towards her, saying,—
“Calm yourself, Flora, we have something to communicate to you, but it is a something which should excite indignation, and no other feeling, in your breast.”
“Brother, what is the meaning of this?” said Flora, turning aside from Marchdale, and withdrawing the hand which he would have taken.
“I would rather have Admiral Bell here before I say anything,” said Henry, “regarding a matter in which he cannot but feel much interested personally.”
“Here he is,” said the admiral, who at that moment had opened the door of the breakfast room. “Here he is, so now fire away, and don’t spare the enemy.”
“And Charles?” said Flora, “where is Charles?”
“D—n Charles!” cried the admiral, who had not been much accustomed to control his feelings.
“Hush! hush!” said Henry; “my dear sir, bush! do not indulge now in any invectives. Flora, here are three letters; you will see that the one which is unopened is addressed to yourself. However, we wish you to read the whole three of them, and then to form your own free and unbiased opinion.”
Flora looked as pale as a marble statue, when she took the letters into her hands. She let the two that were open fall on the table before her, while she eagerly broke the seal of that which was addressed to herself.
Henry, with an instinctive delicacy, beckoned every one present to the window, so that Flora had not the pain of feeling that any eyes were fixed upon her but those of her mother, who had just come into the room, while she was perusing those documents which told such a tale of heartless dissimulation.
“My dear child,” said Mrs. Bannerworth, “you are ill.”
“Hush! mother—hush!” said Flora, “let me know all.”
She read the whole of the letters through, and then, as the last one dropped from her grasp, she exclaimed,—
“Oh, God! oh, God! what is all that has occurred compared to this? Charles—Charles—Charles!”
“Flora!” exclaimed Henry, suddenly turning from the window. “Flora, is this worthy of you?”
“Heaven now support me!”
“Is this worthy of the name you bear Flora? I should have thought, and I did hope, that woman’s pride would have supported you.”
“Let me implore you,” added Marchdale, “to summon indignation to your aid, Miss Bannerworth.”
“Charles—Charles—Charles!” she again exclaimed, as she wrung her hands despairingly.
“Flora, if anything could add a sting to my already irritated feelings,” said Henry, “this conduct of yours would.”
“Henry—brother, what mean you? Are you mad?”
“Are you, Flora?”
“God, I wish now that I was.”
“You have read those letters, and yet you call upon the name of him who wrote them with frantic tenderness.”
“Yes, yes,” she cried; “frantic tenderness is the word. It is with frantic tenderness I call upon his name, and ever will.—Charles! Charles!—dear Charles!”
“This surpasses all belief,” said Marchdale.
“It is the frenzy of grief,” added George; “but I did not expect it of her. Flora—Flora, think again.”
“Think—think—the rush of thought distracts. Whence came these letters?—where did you find these most disgraceful forgeries?”
“Forgeries!” exclaimed Henry; and he staggered back, as if some one bad struck him a blow.
“Yes, forgeries!” screamed Flora. “What has become of Charles Holland? Has he been murdered by some secret enemy, and then these most vile fabrications made up in his name? Oh, Charles, Charles, are you lost to me for ever?”
“Good God!” said Henry; “I did not think of that”
“Madness!—madness!” cried Marchdale.
“Hold!” shouted the admiral. “Let me speak to her.”
He pushed every one aside, and advanced to Flora. He seized both her hands in his own, and in a tone of voice that was struggling with feeling, he cried,—
“Look at me, my dear; I’m an old man old enough to be your grandfather, so you needn’t mind looking me steadily in the face. Look at me, I want to ask you a question.”
Flora raised her beautiful eyes, and looked the old weather-beaten admiral full in the face.
Oh! what a striking contrast did those two persons present to each other. That young and beautiful girl, with her small, delicate, childlike hands clasped, and completely hidden in the huge ones of the old sailor, the white, smooth skin contrasting wonderfully with his wrinkled, hardened features.
“My dear,” he cried, “you have read those—those d——d letters, my dear?”
“I have, sir.”
“And what do you think of them?”
“They were not written by Charles Holland, your nephew.”
A choking sensation seemed to come over the old man, and he tried to speak, but in vain. He shook the hands of the young girl violently, until he saw that he was hurting her, and then, before she could be aware of what he was about, he gave her a kiss on the cheek, as he cried,—
“God bless you—God bless you! You are the sweetest, dearest little creature that ever was, or that ever will be, and I’m a d——d old fool, that’s what I am. These letters were not written by my nephew, Charles. He is incapable of writing them, and, d—n me, I shall take shame to myself as long as I live for ever thinking so.”
“Dear sir,” said Flora, who somehow or another did not seem at all offended at the kiss which the old man had given her; “dear sir, how could you believe, for one moment, that they came from him? There has been some desperate villany on foot. Where is he?—oh, find him, if he be yet alive. If they who have thus striven to steal from him that honour, which is the jewel of his heart, have murdered him, seek them out, sir, in the sacred name of justice, I implore you.”
“I will—I will. I don’t renounce him; he is my nephew still—Charles Holland—my own dear sister’s son; and you are the best girl, God bless you, that ever breathed. He loved you—he loves you still; and if he’s above ground, poor fellow, he shall yet tell you himself he never saw those infamous letters.”
“You—you will seek for him?” sobbed Flora, and the tears gushed from her eyes. “Upon you, sir, who, as I do, feel assured of his innocence, I alone rely. If all the world say he is guilty, we will not think so.”
“I’m d——d if we do.”
Henry had sat down by the table, and, with his hands clasped together, seemed in an agony of thought.
He was now roused by a thump on the back by the admiral, who cried,—
“What do you think, now, old fellow? D—n it, things look a little different now.”
“As God is my judge,” said Henry, holding up his hands, “I know not what to think, but my heart and feelings all go with you and with Flora, in your opinion of the innocence of Charles Holland.”
“I knew you would say that, because you could not possibly help it, my dear boy. Now we are all right again, and all we have got to do is to find out which way the enemy has gone, and then give chase to him.”
“Mr. Marchdale, what do you think of this new suggestion,” said George to that gentleman.
“Pray, excuse me,” was his reply; “I would much rather not be called upon to give an opinion.”
“Why, what do you mean by that?” said the admiral.
“Precisely what I say, sir.”
“D—n me, we had a fellow once in the combined fleets, who never had an opinion till after something had happened, and then he always said that was just what he thought.”
“I was never in the combined, or any other fleet, sir,” said Marchdale, coldly.
“Who the devil said you were?” roared the admiral.
Marchdale merely hawed.
“However,” added the admiral, “I don’t care, and never did, for anybody’s opinion, when I know I am right. I’d back this dear girl here for opinions, and good feelings, and courage to express them, against all the world, I would, any day. If I was not the old hulk I am, I would take a cruise in any latitude under the sun, if it was only for the chance of meeting with just such another.”
“Oh, lose no time!” said Flora. “If Charles is not to be found in the house, lose no time in searching for him, I pray you; seek him, wherever there is the remotest probability he may chance to be. Do not let him think he is deserted.”
“Not a bit of it,” cried the admiral. “You make your mind easy, my dear. If he’s above ground, we shall find him out, you may depend upon it. Come along master Henry, you and I will consider what had best be done in this uncommonly ugly matter.”
Henry and George followed the admiral from the breakfast-room, leaving Marchdale there, who looked serious and full of melancholy thought.
It was quite clear that he considered Flora had spoken from the generous warmth of her affection as regarded Charles Holland, and not from the convictions which reason would have enforced her to feel.
When he was now alone with her and Mrs. Bannerworth, he spoke in a feeling and affectionate tone regarding the painful and inexplicable events which had transpired.