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Chapter 4

SARAH WILSON left off crying, and looked down on the ground with a very red face. General Rolleston was amazed.

"Is she safe? Is who safe?" said he. "He means my mistress," replied Wilson, rather brusquely; and flounced out of the hall.

"She is safe, no thanks to you," said General Rolleston. "What were you doing under her window at this time of night?" And the harsh tone in which this question was put showed Seaton he was suspected. This wounded him, and he replied doggedly, "Lucky for you all I was there."

"That is no answer to my question," said the general sternly.

"It is all the answer I shall give you."

"Then I shall hand you over to the officer without another word."

"Do, sir, do," said Seaton bitterly; but he added more gently, "you will be sorry for it when you come to your senses."

At this moment Wilson entered with a message. "If you please, sir, Miss Rolleston says the robber had no beard. Miss have never noticed Seaton's face, but his beard she have; and, oh, if you please, sir, she begged me to ask him--Was it you that fired the pistol and shot the robber?"

The delivery of this ungrammatical message, but rational query was like a ray of light streaming into a dark place. It changed the whole aspect of things. As for Seaton, he received it as if Heaven was speaking to him through Wilson. His sullen air relaxed, the water stood in his eyes, he smiled affectionately, and said in a low, tender voice, "Tell her I heard some bad characters talking about this house--that was a month ago--so ever since then I have slept in the tool-house to watch. Yes, I shot the robber with my revolver, and I marked one or two more; but they were three to one; I think I must have got a blow on the head; for I felt nothing--"

Here he was interrupted by a violent scream from Wilson. She pointed downward, with her eyes glaring; and a little blood was seen to be trickling slowly over Seaton's stocking and shoe.

"Wounded," said the general's servant, Tom, in the business-like accent of one who had seen a thousand wounds.

"Oh, never mind that," said Seaton. "It can't he very deep, for I don't feel it;" then, fixing his eyes on General Rolleston, he said, in a voice that broke down suddenly, "There stands the only man who has wounded me to-night, to hurt me."

The way General Rolleston received this point-blank reproach surprised some persons present, who had observed only the imperious and iron side of his character. He hung his head in silence a moment; then, being discontented with himself, he went into a passion with his servants for standing idle. "Run away, you women," said he roughly. "Now, Tom, if you are good for anything, strip the man and stanch his wound. Andrew, a bottle of port, quick!"

Then, leaving him for a while in friendly hands, he went to his daughter and asked her if she saw any objection to a bed being made up in the house for the wounded convict.

"Oh, papa," said she, "why, of course not. I am all gratitude. What is he like, Wilson? for it is a most provoking thing, I never noticed his face, only his beautiful beard glittering in the sunshine ever so far off. Poor young man! Oh, yes, papa! send him to bed directly, and we will all nurse him. I never did any good in the world yet, and so why not begin at once?"

General Rolleston laughed at this squirt of enthusiasm from his staid daughter, and went off to give the requisite orders.

But Wilson followed him immediately and stopped him in the passage.

"If you please, sir, I think you had better not. I have something to tell you."

She then communicated to him by degrees her suspicion that James Seaton was in love with his daughter. He treated this with due ridicule at first; but she gave him one reason after another till she staggered him, and he went downstairs in a most mixed and puzzled frame of mind, inclined to laugh, inclined to be angry, inclined to be sorry.

The officer had just arrived, and was looking over some photographs to see if James Seaton was "one of his birds." Such, alas! was his expression.

At sight of this, Rolleston colored up; but extricated himself from the double difficulty with some skill. "Hexham," said he, "this poor fellow has behaved like a man, and got himself wounded in my service. You are to take him to the infirmary; but, mind, they must treat him like my own son, and nothing he asks for be denied him."

Seaton walked with feeble steps, and leaning on two men, to the infirmary; and General Rolleston ordered a cup of coffee, lighted a cigar and sat cogitating over this strange business and asking himself how he could get rid of this young madman and yet befriend him. As for Sarah Wilson, she went to bed discontented and wondering at her own bad judgment. She saw too late that if she had held her tongue Seaton would have been her patient and her prisoner; and as for Miss Rolleston, when it came to the point, why, she would never have nursed him except by proxy, and the proxy would have been Sarah Wilson.

However, the blunder blind passion had led her into was partially repaired by Miss Rolleston herself. When she heard, next day, where Seaton was gone, she lifted up her hands in amazement. "What could papa be thinking of to send our benefactor to a hospital?" And, after meditating awhile, she directed Wilson to cut a nosegay and carry it to Seaton. "He is a gardener;" said she innocently. "Of course he will miss his flowers sadly in that miserable place."

And she gave the same order every day, with a constancy that, you must know, formed part of this young lady's character. Soup, wine and jellies were sent from the kitchen every other day with equal pertinacity.

Wilson concealed the true donor of all those things and took the credit to herself. By this means she obtained the patient's gratitude, and he showed it so frankly she hoped to steal his love as well.

But no! his fancy and his heart remained true to the cold beauty he had served so well, and she had forgotten him, apparently.

This irritated Wilson at last, and she set to work to cure him with wholesome but bitter medicine. She sat down beside him one day, and said cheerfully, "We are all 'on the keyfeet' just now. Miss Rolleston's beau is come on a visit."

The patient opened his eyes with astonishment.

"Miss Rolleston's beau?"

"Ay, her intended. What, didn't you know, she is engaged to be married?"

"She engaged to be married?" gasped Seaton.

Wilson watched him with a remorseless eye.

"Why, James," said she, after awhile, "did you think the likes of her would go through the world without a mate?"

Seaton made no reply but a moan, and lay back like one dead, utterly crushed by this cruel blow.

A buxom middle-aged nurse now came up and said, with a touch of severity, "Come, my good girl, no doubt you mean well, but you are doing ill. You had better leave him to us for the present."

On this hint Wilson bounced out and left the patient to his misery.

At her next visit she laid a nosegay on his bed and gossiped away, talking of everything in the world except Miss Rolleston.

At last she came to a pause, and Seaton laid his hand on her arm directly, and looking piteously in her face spoke his first word.

"Does she love him?"

"What, still harping on her?" said Wilson. "Well, she doesn't hate him, I suppose, or she would not marry him."

"For pity's sake don't trifle with me! Does she love him?"

"La, James, how can I tell? She mayn't love him quite as much as I could love a man that took my fancy" (here she cast a languishing glance on Seaton); "but I see no difference between her and other young ladies. Miss is very fond of her papa, for one thing; and he favors the match. Ay, and she likes her partner well enough. She is brighter like, now he is in the house, and she reads all her friends' letters to him ever so lovingly; and I do notice she leans on him out walking, a trifle more than there is any need for."

At this picture James Seaton writhed in his bed like some agonized creature under vivisection; but the woman, spurred by jealousy, and also by egotistical passion, had no mercy left for him.

"And why not?" continued she; "he is young and handsome and rich and he dotes on her. If you are really her friend you ought to be glad she is so well suited."

At this admonition the tears stood in Seaton's eyes, and after awhile he got strength to say, "I know I ought, I know it. If he is only worthy of her, as worthy as any man could be."

"That he is, James. Why, I'll be bound you have heard of him. It is young Mr. Wardlaw."

Seaton started up in bed. "Who? Wardlaw? what Wardlaw?"

"What Wardlaw? why, the great London merchant, his son. Leastways he manages the whole concern now, I hear; the old gentleman, he is retired by all accounts."

"CURSE HIM! CURSE HIM! CURSE HIM!" yelled James Seaton, with his eyes glaring fearfully and both hands beating the air.

Sarah Wilson recoiled with alarm.

"That angel marry him!" shrieked Seaton. "Never, while I live. I'll throttle him with these hands first."

What more his ungovernable fury would have uttered was interrupted by a rush of nurses and attendants, and Wilson was bundled out of the place with little ceremony.

He contrived, however, to hurl a word after her, accompanied with a look of concentrated rage and resolution.

"NEVER, I TELL YOU--WHILE I LIVE."

At her next visit to the hospital Wilson was refused admission by order of the head surgeon. She left her flowers daily all the same.

After a few days she thought the matter might have cooled, and, having a piece of news to communicate to Seaton with respect to Arthur Wardlaw, she asked to see that patient.

"Left the hospital this morning," was the reply.

"What, cured?"

"Why not? We have cured worse cases than his."

"Where has he gone to? Pray tell me."

"Oh, certainly." And inquiry was made. But the reply was, "Left no address."

Sarah Wilson, like many other women of high and low degree, had swift misgivings of mischief to come. She was taken with a fit of trembling, and had to sit down in the hall.

And, to tell the truth, she had cause to tremble; for that tongue of hers had launched two wild beasts--Jealousy and Revenge.

When she got better she went home, and, coward-like, said not a word to living soul.

That day, Arthur Wardlaw dined with General Rolleston and Helen. They were to be alone for a certain reason; and he came half an hour before dinner. Helen thought he would, and was ready for him on the lawn.

They walked arm-in-arm, talking of the happiness before them, and regretting a temporary separation that was to intervene. He was her father's choice, and she loved her father devotedly; he was her male property; and young ladies like that sort of property, especially when they see nothing to dislike in it. He loved her passionately, and that was her due, and pleased her and drew a gentle affection, if not a passion, from her in return. Yes, that lovely forehead did come very near young Wardlaw's shoulder more than once or twice as they strolled slowly up and down on the soft mossy turf.

And, on the other side of the hedge that bounded the lawn, a man lay crouched in the ditch and saw it all with gleaming eyes.

Just before the affianced ones went in, Helen said, "I have a little favor to ask you, dear. The poor man, Seaton, who fought the robbers and was wounded--papa says he is a man of education, and wanted to be a clerk or something. Could you find him a place?"

"I think I can," said Wardlaw; "indeed, I am sure. A line to White & Co. will do it; they want a shipping clerk."

"Oh, how good you are!" said Helen; and lifted her face all beaming with thanks.

The opportunity was tempting; the lover fond. Two faces met for a single moment, and one of the two burned for five minutes after.

The basilisk eyes saw the soft collision; but the owner of those eyes did not hear the words that earned him that torture. He lay still and bided his time.

General Rolleston's house stood clear of the town at the end of a short but narrow and tortuous lane. This situation had tempted the burglars whom Seaton baffled; and now it tempted Seaton.

Wardlaw must pass that way on leaving General Rolleston's house.

At a bend of the lane two twin elms stood out a foot or two from the hedge. Seaton got behind these at about ten o'clock and watched for him with a patience and immobility that boded ill.

His preparations for this encounter were singular. He had a close-shutting inkstand and a pen, and one sheet of paper, at the top of which he had written "Sydney," and the day of the month and year, leaving the rest blank. And he had the revolver with which he had shot the robber at Helen Rolleston's window; and a barrel of that arm was loaded with swan shot.


Charles Reade