Chapter 25




VANISHED.

    Where there is no place
      For the glow-worm to lie,
    Where there is no space
      For receipt of a fly,
    Where the midge dares not venture
      Lest herself fast she lay,
    If Love come, he will enter
      And find out the way.--OLD SONG.


Major Delavie and his eldest daughter were sitting down to supper in the twilight, when a trampling of horses was heard in the lane a carriage was seen at the gate, and up the pathway came a slender youthful figure, in a scarlet coat, with an arm in a sling.

"It is!--yes, it is!" exclaimed Betty: "Sir Amyas himself!"

In spite of his lameness, the Major had opened the door before Palmer could reach it; but his greeting and inquiry were cut short by the young man's breathless question: "Is she here?"

"Who?"

"My wife--my love. Your daughter, sweet Aurelia! Ah! it was my one hope."

"Come in, come in, sir," entreated Betty, seeing how fearfully pale he grew. "What has befallen you, and where is my sister?"

"Would that I knew! I trusted to have found her here; but now, sir, you will come with me and find her!"

"I do not understand you, sir," said the Major severely, "nor how you are concerned in the matter. My daughter is the wife of your uncle, Mr. Belamour, and if, as I fear, you bear the marks of a duel in consequence of any levity towards her, I shall not find it easy to forgive."

"On my word and honour it is no such thing," said the youth, raising a face full of frank innocence: "Your daughter is my wife, my most dear and precious wife, with full consent and knowledge of my uncle. I was married to her in his clothes, in the darkened room, our names being the same!"

"Was this your promise?" Betty exclaimed.

"Miss Delavie, to the best of my ability I have kept my promise. Your sister has never seen me, nor to her knowledge spoken with me."

"These are riddles, young man," said the Major sternly. "If all be not well with my innocent child, I shall know how to demand an account."

"Sir," said the youth: "I swear to you that she is the same innocent maiden as when she left you. Oh!" he added with a gesture of earnest entreaty, "blame me as you will, only trace her."

"Sit down, and let us hear," said Betty kindly, pushing a chair towards him and pouring out a glass of wine. He sank into the first, but waved aside the second, becoming however so pale that the Major sprang to hold the wine to his lips saying: "Drink, boy, I say!"

"Not unless you forgive me," he replied in a hoarse, exhausted voice.

"Forgive! Of course, I forgive, if you have done no wrong by my child. I see, I see, 'tis not wilfully. You have been hurt in her defence."

"Not exactly," he said: "I have much to tell," but the words came slowly, and there was a dazed weariness about his eye that made Betty say, in spite of her anxiety--"You cannot till you have eaten and rested. If only one word to say where she is!"

"Oh! that I could! My hope was to find her here," and he was choked by a great strangling sob, which his youthful manhood sought to restrain.

Betty perceived that he was far from being recovered from the injury he had suffered, and did her best to restrain her own and her father's anxiety till she had persuaded him to swallow some of the excellent coffee which Nannerl always made at sight of a guest. To her father's questions meantime, he had answered that he had broken his arm ten days ago, but he could not wait, he had posted down as soon as he could move.

"You ought to sleep before you tell us farther," said the Major, speaking from a strong sense of the duties of a host; but he was relieved when the youth answered, "You are very good, sir, but I could not sleep till you know all."

"Speak, then," said the Major, "I cannot look at your honest young countenance and think you guilty of more than disobedient folly; but I fear it may have cost my poor child very dear! Is it your mother that you dread?"

"I would be thankful even to know her in my mother's keeping!" he said.

"Is there no mistake?" said the Major; "my daughter, Mrs. Arden, saw her at Brentford, safe and blooming."

"Oh, that was before--before--" said Sir Amyas, "the day before she fled from my mother at Bowstead, and has been seen no more."

He put his hand over his face, and bowed it on the table in such overpowering grief as checked the exclamations of horror and dismay and the wrathful demands that were rising to the lips of his auditors, and they only looked at one another in speechless sorrow. Presently he recovered enough to say, "Have patience with me, and I will try to explain all. My cousin, Miss Delavie, knows that I loved her sweet sister from the moment I saw her, and that I hurried to London in the hope of meeting her at my mother's house. On the contrary, my mother, finding it vain to deny all knowledge of her, led me to believe that she was boarded at a young ladies' school with my little sisters. I lived on the vain hope of the holidays, and meantime every effort was made to drive me into a marriage which my very soul abhorred, the contract being absolutely made by the two ladies, the mothers, without my participation, nay, against my protest. I was to be cajoled or else persecuted into it--sold, in fact, that my mother's debts might be paid before her husband's return! I knew my Uncle Belamour was my sole true personal guardian, though he had never acted further than by affixing his signature when needed. I ought to have gone long before to see him, but as I now understand, obstacles had been purposely placed in my way, while my neglectful reluctance was encouraged. It was in the forlorn hope of finding in him a resource that took me to Bowstead at last, and then it was that I learnt how far my mother could carry deception. There I found my sisters, and learnt that my own sweetest life had been placed there likewise. She was that afternoon visiting some old ladies, but my uncle represented that my meeting her could only cause her trouble and lead to her being removed. I was forced then to yield, having an engagement in London that it would have been fatal to break, but I came again at dark, and having sworn me to silence, he was forced to let me take advantage of the darkness of his chamber to listen to her enchanting voice. He promised to help me, as far as he had the power, in resisting the hateful Aresfield engagement, and he obtained the assistance of an old friend in making himself acquainted with the terms of his guardianship, and likewise of a letter my father had left for him. He has given me leave to show a part of it to you, sir," he added, "you will see that my father expressed a strong opinion that you were wronged in the matter of the estates, and declared that he had hoped to make some compensation by a contract between one of your daughters and my brother who died. He charged my uncle if possible to endeavour to bring about such a match between one of your children and myself. Thus, you see, I was acting in the strictest obedience. You shall see the letter at once, if I may bid my fellow Gray bring my pocket- book from my valise."

"I doubt not of your words, my young friend; your father was a gentleman of a high and scrupulous honour. But why all this hide- and-seek work?--I hate holes and corners!"

"You will see how we were driven, sir. My mother came in her turn to see my uncle, and obtain his sanction to her cherished plan, and when he absolutely refused, on account of Lady Aresfield's notorious character, if for no other, she made him understand that nothing would be easier than to get him declared a lunatic and thus to dispense with his consent. Then, finding how the sweet society of your dear daughter had restored him to new life and spirit, she devised the notable expedient of removing what she suspected to be the chief cause of my contumacy, by marrying the poor child to him. He scouted the idea as a preposterous and cruel sacrifice, but it presently appeared that Colonel Mar was ready to find her a debauched old lieutenant who would gladly marry--what do I say?--it profanes the word--but accept the young lady for a couple of hundred pounds. Then did I implore my uncle to seem to yield, and permit me to personate him at the ceremony. Our names being the same, and all being done in private and in the dark, the whole was quite possible, and it seemed the only means of saving her from a terrible fate."

"He might--or you might, have remembered that she had a father!" said the Major.

"True. But you were at a distance, and my mother's displeasure against you was to be deprecated."

"I had rather she had been offended fifty times than have had such practices with my poor little girl!" said Major Delavie. "No wonder the proposals struck me as strange and ambiguous. Whose writing was it?"

"Mine, at his dictation," said the youth. "He was unwilling, but my importunity was backed by my mother's threats, conveyed through Hargrave, that unless Aurelia became his wife she should be disposed of otherwise, and that his sanity might be inquired into. Hargrave, who is much attached to my uncle, and is in great awe of my Lady, was thoroughly frightened, and implored him to secure himself and the young lady by consenting, thinking, too, that anything that would rouse him would be beneficial."

"It is strange!" mused the Major. "A clear-headed punctilious man like your uncle, to lend himself to a false marriage! His ten years of melancholy must have changed him greatly!"

"Less than you suppose, sir; but you will remember that my mother is esteemed as a terrible power by all concerned with her. Even when she seemed to love me tenderly, I was made to know what it was to cross her will, and alas! she always carries her point."

"It did seem a mode of protection," said Betty, more kindly.

"And" added the youth, "my uncle impressed on me from the first that he only consented on condition the I treated this wedlock as betrothal alone, never met my sweet love save in his dark room, and never revealed myself to her. He said it was a mere expedient for guarding her until I shall come of age, or Mr. Wayland comes home, when I shall woo her openly, and if needful, repeat the ceremony with her full knowledge. Meanwhile I wrote the whole to my stepfather, and am amazed that he has never written nor come home."

"That is the only rational thing I have heard," said the Major. "Though--did your uncle expect your young blood to keep the terms?"

"Indeed, sir, I was frightened enough the first evening that I ventured on any advances, for they startled her enough to make her swoon away. I carried her from her room, and my uncle dragged me back before the colour came back to that lovely face so that the women might come to her. That was the only time I ever saw her save through the chinks of the shutters. Judge of the distraction I lived in!"

Betty looked shocked, but her father chuckled a little, though he maintained his tone of censure "And may I inquire how often these distracting interviews took place?"

"Cruelly seldom for one to whom they were life itself! Mar is, as you know, colonel of my corps, and my liberty has been restrained as much as possible; I believe I have been oftener on guard and on court-martial than any officer of my standing in the service; but about once in a fortnight I could contrive to ride down to a little wayside inn where I kept a fresh horse, also a livery coat and hat. I tied up my horse in a barn on the borders of the park, and put on a black vizard, so as to pass for my uncle's negro in the dark. I could get admittance to my uncle's rooms unknown to any servant save faithful Jumbo--who has been the sole depository of our secret. However, since my mother's return from Bath, where the compact with Lady Aresfield was fully determined, the persecution has been fiercer. I may have aroused suspicion by failing to act my part when she triumphantly announced my uncle's marriage to me, or else by my unabated resistance to the little termagant who is to be forced on me. At any rate, I have been so intolerably watched whenever I was not on duty, that my hours of bliss became rarer than ever. Well, sir, my uncle charges me with indiscretion, and says my ardour aroused unreasonable suspicions. He was constantly anxious, and would baulk me in my happiest and most tantalising moments by making some excuse for breaking up the evening, and then would drive me frantic by asking whether he was to keep up my character for consistency in my absence. However, ten days since, the twelfth of May, after three weeks' unendurable detention in town on one pretext or another, I escaped, and made my way to Bowstead at last. My uncle told me that he had been obliged unwillingly to consent to our precious charge going to meet her sister at Brentford, and that she was but newly come home. Presently she entered, but scarcely had I accosted her before a blaze broke out close to us. The flame caught the dry old curtains, they flamed up like tinder, and as I leaped up on a table to tear them down, it gave way with me, I got a blow on the head, and knew no more. It seems that my uncle, as soon as the fire was out, finding that my arm was broken, set out to send the groom for the doctor--he being used to range the park at night. The stupid fellow, coming home half tipsy from the village, saw his white hair and beard in the moonlight, took him for a ghost, and ran off headlong. Thereupon my uncle, with new energy in the time of need, saddled the horse, changed his dressing-gown with the groom's coat, and rode off to Brentford. Then, finding that Dr. Hunter was not within, he actually went on to London, where Dr. Sandys, who had attended him ever since his would, forced him to go to bed, and to remain there till his own return. Thus my darling had no one to protect her, when, an hour or so after the accident, my mother suddenly appeared. Spies had been set on me by Mar, and so soon as they had brought intelligence of my movements she had hurried off from Ranelagh, in full dress, just as she was, to track and surprise me. My uncle, having gone by the bridle path, had not met her, and I was only beginning to return to my senses. I have a dim recollection of hearing my mother threatening and accusing Aurelia, and striving to interfere, but I was as one bound down, and all after that is blank to me. When my understanding again became clear, I could only learn that my mother had locked her into her own room, whence she had escaped, and"--with a groan--"nothing has been heard of her since!" Again he dropped his head on his hand as one in utter dejection.

"Fled! What has been done to trace her?" cried the Major.

"Nothing could be done till my mother was gone and my uncle returned. The delirium was on me, and whatever I tried to say turned to raving, all the worse if I saw or heard my mother, till Dr. Sandys forbade her coming near me. She was invited to the Queen's Sunday card party moreover, so she fortunately quitted Bowstead just before Mr. Belamour's return."

"Poor gentleman, he could do nothing," said Betty.

"Indeed I should have thought so, but it seems that he only needed a shock to rouse him. His state had become hypochondriacal, and this strong emotion has caused him to exert himself; and when he came into the daylight, he found he could bear it. I could scarce believe my eyes when, on awakening from a sleep, I found him by my bedside, promising me that if I would only remain still, he would use every endeavour to recover the dear one. He went first to Brentford, thinking she might have joined her sister there, but Mr. and Mrs. Arden had left it at the same time as she did. Then he travelled on to their Rectory at Rundell Canonicorum, thinking she might have followed them, but they had only just arrived, and had heard nothing of her; and he next sought her with his friend the Canon of Windsor, but all in vain. Meantime my mother had visited me, and denied all knowledge of her, only carrying away my little sisters, I believe because she found them on either side of my bed, telling me tales of their dear Cousin Aura's kindness. When my uncle returned to Bowstead I could bear inaction no longer, and profited by my sick leave to travel down hither, trusting that she might have found her way to her home, and longing to confess all and implore your pardon, sir,--and, alas! Your aid in seeking her."

With the large tears in his eyes, the youth rose from his chair as he spoke, and knelt on one knee before the Major, who exclaimed, extremely affected--"By all that is sacred, you have it, my dear boy. It is a wretched affair, but you meant to act honourably throughout, and you have suffered heavily. May God bless you both, and give us back my dear child. My Lady must have been very hard with her, to make her thus fly, all alone."

"You do not know, I suppose, any cause for so timid a creature preferring flight to a little restraint?"

"It seems," said Sir Amyas sadly, "that something the dear girl said gave colour to the charge of having caused the fire, and that my mother in her first passion threatened her with the constable!"

"My poor Aurelia! that might well scare her," cried Betty: "but how could it be?"

"They say she spoke of using something her sister had given her to discover what the mystery was that alarmed her."

"Ah! that gunpowder trick of Mr. Arden's--I always hated it!" exclaimed Betty.

"Gunpowder indeed!" growled the old soldier. "Well, if ever there's mischief among the children, Harriet is always at the bottom of it. I hope Mr. Belamour made her confess if she had a hand in it."

"I believe he did," said Sir Amyas.

"Just like her to set the match to the train and then run away," said the Major.

"Still, sir," said Betty, her womanhood roused to defence, "though I am angered and grieved enough that Harriet should have left Aurelia to face the consequences of the act she instigated, I must confess that even by Sir Amyas's own showing, if he will allow me to say so, my sisters were justified in wishing to understand the truth."

"That is what my uncle tells me," said the baronet. "He declares that if I had attended to his stipulations, restrained my fervour, or kept my distance, there would have been neither suspicion nor alarm. As if I had not restrained myself!"

"Ay, I dare say," said the Major, a little amused.

"Well, sir, what could a man do with most bewitching creature in the world, his own wife, too, on the next chair to him?"

There was a simplicity about the stripling--for he was hardly more-- which forced them to forgive him; besides, they were touched by his paleness and fatigue. His own man--a respectable elderly servant whom the Major recollected waiting on Sir Jovian--came to beg that his honour would sit up no longer, as he had been travelling since six in the morning, and was quite worn out. Indeed, so it proved; for when the Major and Betty not only promised to come with him on the search the next day, but bade him a kind affectionate good-night, the poor lad, all unused to kindness, fairly burst into tears, which all his dawning manhood could not restrain.




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