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"Heaven awards the vengeance due."
The weary days had begun to lengthen before the door of the hall was flung open, and little Phil, forgetting his bow at the door, rushed in, "Here's a big packet from foreign parts! Harry had to pay ever so much for it."
"I have wellnigh left off hoping," sighed the poor mother. "Tell me the worst at once."
"No fear, my lady," said her husband. "Thank God! 'Tis our son's hand."
There was the silence for a moment of intense relief, and then the little boy was called to cut the silk and break the seals.
Joy ineffable! There were three letters--for Master Philip Archfield, for Mistress Anne Jacobina Woodford, and for Sir Philip himself. The old gentleman glanced over it, caught the words 'better,' and 'coming home,' then failed to read through tears of joy as before through tears of sorrow, and was fain to hand the sheet to his old friend to be read aloud, while little Philip, handling as a treasure the first letter he had ever received, though as yet he was unable to decipher it, stood between his grandfather's knees listening as Dr. Woodford read--
DEAR AND HONOURED SIR--I must ask your pardon for leaving you without tidings so long, but while my recovery still hung in doubt I thought it would only distress you to hear of the fluctuations that I went through, and the pain to which the surgeons put me for a long time in vain. Indeed frequently I had no power either to think or speak, until at last with much difficulty, and little knowledge or volition of my own, my inestimable friend Graham brought me to Vienna, where I have at length been relieved from my troublesome companion, and am enjoying the utmost care and kindness from my friend's mother, a near kinswoman, as indeed he is himself, of the brave and lamented Viscount Dundee. My wound is healing finally, as I hope, and though I have not yet left my bed, my friends assure me that I am on the way to full and complete recovery, for which I am more thankful to the Almighty than I could have been before I knew what suffering and illness meant. As soon as I can ride again, which they tell me will be in a fortnight or three weeks, I mean to set forth on my way home. I cannot describe to you how I am longing after the sight of you all, nor how home-sick I have become. I never had time for it before, but I have lain for hours bringing all your faces before me, my father's, and mother's, my sister's, and that of her whom I hope to call my own; and figuring to myself that of the little one. I have thought much over my past life, and become sensible of much that was amiss, and while earnestly entreating your forgiveness, especially for having absented myself all these years, I hope to return so as to be more of a comfort than I was in the days of my rash and inconsiderate youth. I am of course at present invalided, but I want to consult you, honoured sir, before deciding whether it be expedient for me to resign my commission. How I thank and bless you for the permission you have given me, and the love you bear to my own heart's joy, no words can tell. It shall be the study of my life to be worthy of her and of you.-- And so no more from your loving and dutiful son, CHARLES ARCHFIELD.
Having drunk in these words with her ears, Anne left Phil to have his note interpreted by his grandparents, and fled away to enjoy her own in her chamber, yet it was as short as could be and as sweet.
Mine own, mine own sweet Anne, sweetheart of good old days, your letter gave me strength to go through with it. The doctors could not guess why I was so much better and smiled through all their torments. These are our first, I hope our last letters, for I shall soon follow them home, and mine own darling will be mine.-- Thine own, C. A.
She had but short time to dwell on it and kiss it, for little Philip was upon her, waving his letter, which he already knew by heart; and galloping all over the house to proclaim the good news to the old servants, who came crowding into the hall, trembling with joy, to ask if there were indeed tidings of Mr. Archfield's return, whereupon the glad father caused his grandson to carry each a full glass of wine to drink to the health of the young master.
Anne had at first felt only the surpassing rapture of the restoration of Charles, but there ensued another delight in the security his recovery gave to the life of his son. Sedley Archfield would not be likely to renew his attempt, and if only on that account the good news should be spread as widely as possible. She was the first to suggest the relief it would be to Mr. Fellowes, who had never divested himself of the feeling that he ought to have divined his pupil's intention.
Dr. Woodford offered to ride to Portchester with the news, and Sir Philip, in the gladness of his heart, proposed that Anne should go with him and see her friend.
Shall it be told how on the way Anne's mind was assailed by feminine misgivings whether three and twenty could be as fair in her soldier's eyes as seventeen had been? Old maidenhood came earlier then than in these days, and Anne knew that she was looked upon as an old waiting-gentlewoman or governess by the belles of Winchester. Her glass might tell her that her eyes were as softly brown, her hair as abundant, her cheek as clear and delicately moulded as ever, but there was no one to assure her that the early bloom had not passed away, and that she had not rather gained than lost in dignity of bearing and the stately poise of the head, which the jealous damsels called Court airs. "And should he be disappointed, I shall see it in his eyes," she said to herself, "and then his promise shall not bind him, though it will break my heart, and oh! how hard to resign my Phil to a strange stepmother." Still her heart was lighter than for many a long year, as she cantered along in the brisk March air, while the drops left by the departing frost glistened in the sunshine, and the sea lay stretched in a delicate gray haze. The old castle rose before her in its familiar home-like massiveness as they turned towards the Rectory, where in that sheltered spot the well-known clusters of crocuses were opening their golden hearts to the sunshine, and recalling the days when Anne was as sunny-hearted as they, and she felt as if she could be as bright again.
In Mrs. Fellowes's parlour they found an unexpected guest, no other than Mrs. Oakshott.
'Gadding about' not being the fashion of the Archfield household, Anne had not seen the lady for several years, and was agreeably surprised by her appearance. Perhaps the marks of smallpox had faded, perhaps motherhood had given expression, and what had been gaunt ungainliness in the maiden had rounded into a certain importance in the matron, nor had her dress, though quiet, any of the Puritan rigid ugliness that had been complained of, and though certainly not beautiful, she was a person to inspire respect.
It was explained that she was waiting for her husband, who was gone with Mr. Fellowes to speak to the officer in command of the soldiers at the castle. "For," said she, "I am quite convinced that there is something that ought to be brought to light, and it may be in that vault."
Anne's heart gave such a throb as almost choked her.
Dr. Woodford asked what the lady meant.
"Well, sir, when spirits and things 'tis not well to talk of are starting up and about here, there, and everywhere, 'tis plain there must be cause for it."
"I do not quite take your meaning, madam."
"Ah, well! you gentlemen, reverend ones especially, are the last to hear such things. There's the poor old Major, he won't believe a word of it, but you know, Mistress Woodford. I see it in your face. Have you seen anything?"
"Not here, not now," faltered Anne. "You have, Mrs. Fellowes?"
"I have heard of some foolish fright of the maids," said Naomi, "partly their own fancy, or perhaps caught from the sentry. There is no keeping those giddy girls from running after the soldiers."
Perhaps Naomi hoped by throwing out this hint to conduct her visitors off into the safer topic of domestic delinquencies, but Mrs. Oakshott was far too earnest to be thus diverted, and she exclaimed, "Ah, they saw him, I'll warrant!"
"Him?" the Doctor asked innocently.
"Him or his likeness," said Mrs. Oakshott, "my poor brother-in-law, Peregrine Oakshott; you remember him, sir? He always said, poor lad, that you and Mrs. Woodford were kinder to him than his own flesh and blood, except his uncle, Sir Peregrine. For my part, I never did give in to all the nonsense folk talked about his being a changeling or at best a limb of Satan. He had more spirit and sense than the rest of them, and they led him the life of a dog, though they knew no better. If I had had him at Emsworth, I would have shown them what he was;" and she sighed heavily. "Well, I did not so much wonder when he disappeared, I made sure that he could bear it no longer and had run away. I waited as long as there was any reason, till there should be tidings of him, and only took his brother at last because I found they could not do without me at home."
Remarkable frankness! but it struck both the Doctor and Anne that if Peregrine could have submitted, his life might have been freer and less unhappy than he had expected, though Mrs. Martha spoke the broadest Hampshire.
Naomi asked, "Then you no longer think that he ran away?"
"No, madam; I am certain there was worse than that. You remember the night of the bonfire for the Bishops' acquittal, Miss Woodford?"
"Indeed I do."
"Well, he was never seen again after that, as you know. The place was full of wild folk. There was brawling right and left."
"Were you there?" asked Anne surprised.
"Yes; in my coach with my uncle and aunt that lived with me, though, except Robin, none of the young sparks would come near me, except some that I knew were after my pockets," said Martha, with a good- humoured laugh. "Properly frightened we were too by the brawling sailors ere we got home! Now, what could be more likely than that some of them got hold of poor Perry? You know he always would go about with the rapier he brought from Germany, with amber set in the hilt, and the mosaic snuff-box he got in Italy, and what could be looked for but that the poor dear lad should be put out of the way for the sake of these gewgaws?" This supposition was gratifying to Anne, but her uncle must needs ask why Mrs. Oakshott thought so more than before.
"Because," she said impressively, "there is no doubt but that he has been seen, and not in the flesh, once and again, and always about these ruins."
"By whom, madam, may I ask?"
"Mrs. Fellowes's maids, as she knows, saw him once on the beach at night, just there. The sentry, who is Tom Hart, from our parish, saw a shape at the opening of the old vault before the keep and challenged him, when he vanished out of sight ere there was time to present a musket. There was once more, when one moonlight night our sexton, looking out of his cottage window, saw what he declares was none other than Master Perry standing among the graves of our family, as if, poor youth, he were asking why he was not among them. When I heard that, I said to my husband, 'Depend upon it,' says I, 'he met with his death that night, and was thrown into some hole, and that's the reason he cannot rest. If I pay a hundred pounds for it, I'll not give up till his poor corpse is found to have Christian burial, and I'll begin with the old vault at Portchester!' My good father, the Major, would not hear of it at first, nor my husband either, but 'tis my money, and I know how to tackle Robin."
It was with strangely mingled feelings that Anne listened. That search in the vault, inaugurated by faithful Martha, was what she had always felt ought to be made, and she had even promised to attempt it if the apparitions recurred. The notion of the deed being attributed to lawless sailors and smugglers or highwaymen, who were known to swarm in the neighbourhood, seemed to remove all danger of suspicion. Yet she could not divest herself of a vague sense of alarm at this stirring up of what had slept for seven years. Neither she nor her uncle deemed it needful to mention the appearance seen by little Philip, but to her surprise Naomi slowly and hesitatingly said it was very remarkable, that her husband having occasion to be at the church at dusk one evening just after Midsummer, had certainly seen a figure close to Mrs. Woodford's grave, and lost sight of it before he could speak of it. He thought nothing more of it till these reports began to be spread, but he had then recollected that it answered the descriptions given of the phantom.
Here the ladies were interrupted by the appearance of Mr. Fellowes and Robert Oakshott, now grown into a somewhat heavy but by no means foolish-looking young man.
"Well, madam," said he, in Hampshire as broad as his wife's, "you will have your will. Not that Captain Henslowe believes a word of your ghosts--not he; but he took fire when he heard of queer sights about the castle. He sent for the chap who stood sentry, and was downright sharp on him for not reporting what he had seen, and he is ordering out a sergeant's party to open the vault, so you may come and see, if you have any stomach for it."
"I could not but come!" said Madam Oakshott, who certainly did not look squeamish, but who was far more in earnest than her husband, and perhaps doubted whether without her presence the quest would be thorough. Anne was full of dread, and almost sick at the thought of what she might see, but she was far too anxious to stay away. Mrs. Fellowes made some excuse about the children for not accompanying them.
It always thrilled Anne to enter that old castle court, the familiar and beloved play-place of her childhood, full of memories of Charles and of Lucy, and containing in its wide precincts the churchyard where her mother lay. She moved along in a kind of dream, glad to be let alone, since Mr. Fellowes naturally attended Mrs. Oakshott, and Robert was fully occupied in explaining to the Doctor that he only gave in to this affair for the sake of pacifying madam, since women folk would have their little megrims. Assuredly that tall, solid, resolute figure stalking on in front, looked as little subject to megrims as any of her sex. Her determination had brought her husband thither, and her determination further carried the day, when the captain, after staring at the solid-looking turf, stamping on the one stone that was visible, and trampling down the bunch of nettles beside it, declared that the entrance had been so thoroughly stopped that it was of no use to dig farther. It was Madam Martha who demanded permission to offer the four soldiers a crown apiece if they opened the vault, a guinea each if they found anything. The captain could not choose but grant it, though with something of a sneer, and the work was begun. He walked up and down with Robert, joining in hopes that the lady would be satisfied before dinner- time. The two clergymen likewise walked together, arguing, as was their wont, on the credibility of apparitions. The two ladies stood in almost breathless watch, as the bricks that had covered in the opening were removed, and the dark hole brought to light. Contrary to expectation, when the opening had been enlarged, it was found that there were several steps of stone, and where they were broken away, there was a rude ladder.
A lantern was fetched from the guard-room in the bailey, and after much shaking and trying of the ladder, one of the soldiers descended, finding the place less deep than was commonly supposed, and soon calling out that he was at the bottom. Another followed him, and presently there was a shout. Something was found! "A rusty old chain, no doubt," grumbled Robert; but his wife shrieked. It was a sword in its sheath, the belt rotted, the clasp tarnished, but of silver. Mrs. Oakshott seized it at once, rubbed away the dust from the handle, and brought to light a glistening yellow piece of amber, which she mutely held up, and another touch of her handkerchief disclosed on a silver plate in the scabbard an oak- tree, the family crest, and the twisted cypher P. O. Her eyes were full of tears, and she did not speak. Anne, white and trembling, was forced to sink down on the stone, unnoticed by all, while Robert Oakshott, convinced indeed, hastily went down himself. The sword had been hidden in a sort of hollow under the remains of the broken stair. Thence likewise came to light the mouldy remnant of a broad hat and the quill of its plume, and what had once been a coat, even in its present state showing that it had been soaked through and through with blood, the same stains visible on the watch and the mosaic snuff-box. That was all; there was no purse, and no other garments, though, considering the condition of the coat, they might have been entirely destroyed by the rats and mice. There was indeed a fragment of a handkerchief, with the cypher worked on it, which Mrs. Oakshott showed to Anne with the tears in her eyes: "There! I worked that, though he never knew it. No! I know he did not like me! But I would have made him do so at last. I would have been so good to him. Poor fellow, that he should have been lying there all this time!"
Lying there; but where, then, was he? No signs of any corpse were to be found, though one after another all the gentlemen descended to look, and Mrs. Oakshott was only withheld by her husband's urgent representations, and promise to superintend a diligent digging in the ground, so as to ascertain whether there had been a hasty burial there.
Altogether, Anne was so much astonished and appalled that she could hardly restrain herself, and her mind reverted to Bishop Ken's theory that Peregrine still lived; but this was contradicted by the appearance at Douai, which did not rest on the evidence of her single perceptions.
Mrs. Fellowes sent out an entreaty that they would come to dinner, and the gentlemen were actually base enough to wish to comply, so that the two ladies had no choice save to come with them, especially as the soldiers were unwilling to work on without their meal. Neither Mrs. Oakshott nor Anne felt as if they could swallow, and the polite pressure to eat was only preferable in Anne's eyes to the conversation on the discoveries that had been made, especially the conclusion arrived at by all, that though the purse and rings had not been found, the presence of the watch and snuff-box precluded the idea of robbery.
"These would be found on the body," said Mr. Oakshott. "I could swear to the purse. You remember, madam, your uncle bantering him about French ladies and their finery, asking whose token it was, and how black my father looked? Poor Perry, if my father could have had a little patience with him, he would not have gone roaming about and getting into brawls, and we need not be looking for him in yonder black pit."
"You'll never find him there, Master Robert," spoke out the old Oakwood servant, behind Mrs. Oakshott's chair, free and easy after the manner of the time.
"And wherefore not, Jonadab?" demanded his mistress, by no means surprised at the liberty.
"Why, ma'am, 'twas the seven years, you sees, and in course when them you wot of had power to carry him off, they could not take his sword, nor his hat, not they couldn't."
"How about his purse, then?" put in Dr. Woodford.
"I'll be bound you will find it yet, sir," responded Jonadab, by no means disconcerted, "leastways unless some two-legged fairies have got it."
At this some of the party found it impossible not to laugh, and this so upset poor Martha's composure that she was obliged to leave the table, and Anne was not sorry for the excuse of attending her, although there were stings of pain in all her rambling lamentations and conjectures.
Very tardily, according to the feelings of the anxious women, was the dinner finished, and their companions ready to take them out again. Indeed, Madam Oakshott at last repaired to the dining- parlour, and roused her husband from his glass of Spanish wine to renew the search. She would not listen to Mrs. Fellowes's advice not to go out again, and Anne could not abstain either from watching for what could not be other than grievous and mournful to behold.
The soldiers were called out again by their captain, and reinforced by the Rectory servant and Jonadab.
There was an interval of anxious prowling round the opening. Mr. Oakshott and the captain had gone down again, and found, what the military man was anxious about, that if there were passages to the outer air, they had been well blocked up and not re-opened.
Meantime the digging proceeded.
It was just at twilight that a voice below uttered an exclamation. Then came a pause. The old sergeant's voice ordered care and a pause, somewhere below the opening with, "Sir, the spades have hit upon a skull."
There was a shuddering pause. All the gentlemen except Dr. Woodford, who feared the chill, descended again. Mrs. Oakshott and Anne held each other's hands and trembled.
By and by Mr. Fellowes came up first. "We have found," he said, looking pale and grave, "a skeleton. Yes, a perfect skeleton, but no more--no remains except a fine dust."
And Robert Oakshott following, awe-struck and sorrowful, added, "Yes, there he is, poor Perry--all that is left of him--only his bones. No, madam, we must leave him there for the present; we cannot bring it up without preparation."
"You need not fear meddling curiosity, madam," said the captain. "I will post a sentry here to bar all entrance."
"Thanks, sir," said Robert. "That will be well till I can bury the poor fellow with all due respect by my mother and Oliver."
"And then I trust his spirit will have rest," said Martha Oakshott fervently. "And now home to your father. How will he bear it, sir?"
"I verily believe he will sleep the quieter for knowing for a certainty what has become of poor Peregrine," said her husband.
And Anne felt as if half her burthen of secrecy was gone when they all parted, starting early because the Black Gang rendered all the roads unsafe after dark.
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