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THE WAY OUT OF IT
"My father! my father! I must see my father. Who are you, that dare to keep me out? Let me know the worst, and try to bear it. What are any of you to him?"
"But, my dear child," Lord Southdown answered, holding the door against poor Faith, as she strove to enter the room of death, "wait just one minute, until we have lifted him to the sofa, and let us bring your poor sister out."
"I have no sister. She has killed my father, and the best thing she can do is to die. I feel that I could shoot her, if I had a pistol. Let me see him, where he lies."
"But, my poor dear, you must think of others. Your dear father is beyond all help. Your gallant lover lies on the grass. They hope to bring him round, God willing! Go where you can be of use."
"How cruel you are! You must want to drive me mad. Let his father and mother see to him, while I see to my own father. If you had a daughter, you would understand. Am I crying? Do I even tremble?"
The Marquis offered his arm, and she took it in fear of falling, though she did not tremble; so he led her to her father's last repose. The poor Admiral lay by the open window, with his head upon a stool which Faith had worked. The ghastly wound was in his broad smooth forehead, and his fair round cheeks were white with death. But the heart had not quite ceased to beat, and some remnant of the mind still hovered somewhere in the lacerated brain. Stubbard, sobbing like a child, was lifting and clumsily chafing one numb hand; while his wife, who had sponged the wound, was making the white curls wave with a fan she had shaped from a long official paper found upon the floor.
Dolly was recovering from her swoon, and sat upon a stool by the bookcase, faintly wondering what had happened, but afraid to ask or think. The corner of the bookcase, and the burly form of Stubbard, concealed the window from her, and the torpid oppression which ensues upon a fit lay between her and her agony. Faith, as she passed, darted one glance at her, not of pity, not of love, but of cold contempt and satisfaction at her misery.
Then Faith, the quiet and gentle maid, the tranquil and the self-controlled (whom every one had charged with want of heart, because she had borne her own grief so well), stood with the body of her father at her feet, and uttered an exceeding bitter cry. The others had seen enough of grief, as every human being must, but nothing half so sad as this. They feared to look at her face, and durst not open lips to comfort her.
"Don't speak. Don't look at him. You have no right here. When he comes to himself, he will want none but me. I have always done everything for him since dear mother died; and I shall get him to sit up. He will be so much better when he sits up. I can get him to do it, if you will only go. Oh, father, father, it is your own Faith come to make you well, dear, if you will only look at me!"
As she took his cold limp hand and kissed it, and wiped a red splash from his soft white hair, the dying man felt, by nature's feeling, that he was being touched by a child of his. A faint gleam flitted through the dimness of his eyes, which he had not the power to close, and the longing to say "farewell" contended with the drooping of the underlip. She was sure that he whispered, "Bless you, darling!" though nobody else could have made it out; but a sudden rush of tears improved her hearing, as rain brings higher voices down.
"Dolly too!" he seemed to whisper next; and Faith made a sign to Mrs. Stubbard. Then Dolly was brought, and fell upon her knees, at the other side of her father, and did not know how to lament as yet, and was scarcely sure of having anything to mourn. But she spread out her hands, as if for somebody to take them, and bowed her pale face, and closed her lips, that she might be rebuked without answering.
Her father knew her; and his yearning was not to rebuke, but to bless and comfort her. He had forgotten everything, except that he was dying, with a daughter at each side of him. This appeared to make him very happy, about everything, except those two. He could not be expected to have much mind left; but the last of it was busy for his children's good. Once more he tried to see them both, and whispered his last message to them--"Forgive and love each other."
Faith bowed her head, as his fell back, and silently offered to kiss her sister; but Dolly neither moved nor looked at her. "As you please," said Faith; "and perhaps you would like to see a little more of your handiwork."
For even as she spoke, her lover's body was carried past the window, with his father and mother on either side, supporting his limp arms and sobbing. Then Dolly arose, and with one hand grasping the selvage of the curtain, fixed one long gaze upon her father's corpse. There were no tears in her eyes, no sign of anguish in her face, no proof that she knew or felt what she had done. And without a word she left the room.
"Hard to the last, even hard to you!" cried Faith, as her tears fell upon the cold forehead. "Oh, darling, how could you have loved her so?"
"It is not hardness; it is madness. Follow your sister," Lord Southdown said. "We have had calamities enough."
But Faith was fighting with all her strength against an attack of hysterics, and fetching long gasps to control herself. "I will go," replied Mrs. Stubbard; "this poor child is quite unfit. What on earth is become of Lady Scudamore? A doctor's widow might have done some good."
The doctor's widow was doing good elsewhere. In the first rush from the dining-room, Lady Scudamore had been pushed back by no less a person than Mrs. Stubbard; when at last she reached the study door she found it closed against her, and entering the next room, saw the flash of the pistol fired at Twemlow. Bravely hurrying to the spot by the nearest outlet she could find, she became at once entirely occupied with this new disaster. For two men who ran up with a carriage lamp declared that the gentleman was as dead as a door-nail, and hastened to make good their words by swinging him up heels over head. But the lady made them set him down and support his head, while she bathed the wound, and sent to the house for his father and mother, and when he could be safely brought in-doors, helped with her soft hands beneath his hair, and then became so engrossed with him that the arrival of her long-lost son was for several hours unknown to her.
For so many things coming all at once were enough to upset any one. Urgent despatches came hot for the hand that now was cold for ever; not a moment to lose, when time had ceased for the man who was to urge it. There were plenty of officers there, but no one clearly entitled to take command. Moreover, the public service clashed with the personal rage of the moment. Some were for rushing to the stables, mounting every horse that could be found, and scouring the country, sword in hand, for that infernal murderer. Some, having just descried the flash of beacon from the headland, and heard the alarm-guns from shore and sea, were for hurrying to their regiments, or ships, or homes and families (according to the head-quarters of their life), while others put their coats on to ride for all the doctors in the county, who should fetch back the Admiral to this world, that he might tell everybody what to do. Scudamore stood with his urgent despatches in the large well-candled hall, and vainly desired to deliver them. "Send for the Marquis," suggested some one.
Lord Southdown came, without being sent for. "I shall take this duty upon myself," he said, "as Lord-Lieutenant of the county. Captain Stubbard, as commander of the nearest post, will come with me and read these orders. Gentlemen, see that your horses are ready, and have all of the Admiral's saddled. Captain Scudamore, you have discharged your trust, and doubtless ridden far and hard. My orders to you are a bottle of wine and a sirloin of roast beef at once."
For the sailor was now in very low condition, weary, and worried, and in want of food. Riding express, and changing horses twice, not once had he recruited the inner man, who was therefore quite unfit to wrestle with the power of sudden grief. When he heard of the Admiral's death, he staggered as if a horse had stumbled under him, and his legs being stiff from hard sticking to saddle, had as much as they could do to hold him up. Yet he felt that he could not do the right thing now, he could not go and deal with the expedient victuals, neither might he dare intrude upon the ladies now; so he went out to comfort himself by attending to the troubles of his foundered horse, and by shedding unseen among the trees the tears which had gathered in his gentle eyes.
According to the surest law of nature, that broken-down animal had been forgotten as soon as he was done with. He would have given his four legs--if he could legally dispose of them--for a single draught of sweet delicious rapturous ecstatic water; but his bloodshot eyes sought vainly, and his welted tongue found nothing wet, except the flakes of his own salt foam. Until, with the help of the moon, a sparkle (worth more to his mind than all the diamonds he could draw)--a sparkle of the purest water gleamed into his dim eyes from the distance. Recalling to his mind's eyes the grand date of his existence when he was a colt, and had a meadow to himself, with a sparkling river at the end of it, he set forth in good faith, and, although his legs were weary, "negotiated"--as the sporting writers say--the distance between him and the object of his desire. He had not the least idea that this had cost ten guineas--as much as his own good self was worth; for it happened to be the first dahlia seen in that part of the country. That gaudy flower at its first appearance made such a stir among gardeners that Mr. Swipes gave the Admiral no peace until he allowed him to order one. And so great was this gardener's pride in his profession that he would not take an order for a rooted slip or cutting, from the richest man in the neighbourhood, for less than half a guinea. Therefore Mr. Swipes was attending to the plant with the diligence of a wet-nurse, and the weather being dry, he had soaked it overhead, even before he did that duty to himself.
A man of no teeth can take his nourishment in soup; and nature, inverting her manifold devices--which she would much rather do than be beaten--has provided that a horse can chew his solids into liquids, if there is a drop of juice in their composition, when his artificial life has failed to supply him with the bucket. This horse, being very dry, laid his tongue to the water-drops that sparkled on the foliage. He found them delicious, and he longed for more, and very soon his ready mind suggested that the wet must have come out of the leaves, and there must be more there. Proceeding on this argument, he found it quite correct, and ten guineas' worth of dahlia was gone into his stomach by the time that Captain Scudamore came courteously to look after him.
Blyth, in equal ignorance of his sumptuous repast, gave him a pat of approval, and was turning his head towards the stable yard, when he saw a white figure gliding swiftly through the trees beyond the belt of shrubbery. Weary and melancholy as he was, and bewildered with the tumult of disasters, his heart bounded hotly as he perceived that the figure was that of his Dolly--Dolly, the one love of his life, stealing forth, probably to mourn alone the loss of her beloved father. As yet he knew nothing of her share in that sad tale, and therefore felt no anxiety at first about her purpose. He would not intrude upon her grief; he had no right to be her comforter; but still she should have some one to look after her, at that time of night, and with so much excitement and danger in the air. So the poor horse was again abandoned to his own resources, and being well used to such treatment, gazed as wistfully and delicately after the young man Scudamore as that young man gazed after his lady-love.
To follow a person stealthily is not conducive to one's self-respect, but something in the lady's walk and gesture impelled the young sailor to follow her. She appeared to be hastening, with some set purpose, and without any heed of circumstance, towards a part of the grounds where no house was, no living creature for company, nor even a bench to rest upon. There was no foot-path in that direction, nor anything to go to, but the inland cliff that screened the Hall from northeastern winds, and at its foot a dark pool having no good name in the legends of the neighbourhood. Even Parson Twemlow would not go near it later than the afternoon milking of the cows, and Captain Zeb would much rather face a whole gale of wind in a twelve-foot boat than give one glance at its dead calm face when the moon like a ghost stood over it.
"She is going towards Corpse-walk pit," thought Scuddy--"a cheerful place at this time of night! She might even fall into it unawares, in her present state of distraction. I am absolutely bound to follow her."
Duty fell in with his wishes, as it has a knack of doing. Forgetting his weariness, he followed, and became more anxious at every step. For the maiden walked as in a dream, without regard of anything, herself more like a vision than a good substantial being. To escape Mrs. Stubbard she had gone upstairs and locked herself in her bedroom, and then slipped out without changing dress, but throwing a dark mantle over it. This had fallen off, and she had not cared to stop or think about it, but went on to her death exactly as she went in to dinner. Her dress of white silk took the moonlight with a soft gleam like itself, and her clustering curls (released from fashion by the power of passion) fell, like the shadows, on her sweet white neck. But she never even asked herself how she looked; she never turned round to admire her shadow: tomorrow she would throw no shade, but be one; and how she looked, or what she was, would matter, to the world she used to think so much of, never more.
Suddenly she passed from the moonlight into the blackness of a lonely thicket, and forced her way through it, without heed of bruise or rent. At the bottom of the steep lay the long dark pit, and she stood upon the brink and gazed into it. To a sane mind nothing could look less inviting. All above was air and light, freedom of the wind and play of moon with summer foliage; all below was gloom and horror, cold eternal stillness, and oblivion everlasting. Even the new white frock awoke no flutter upon that sullen breast.
Dolly heaved a sigh and shuddered, but she did not hesitate. Her mind was wandering, but her heart was fixed to make atonement, to give its life for the life destroyed, and to lie too deep for shame or sorrow. Suddenly a faint gleam caught her eyes. The sob of self-pity from her fair young breast had brought into view her cherished treasures, bright keepsakes of the girlish days when many a lover worshipped her. Taking from her neck the silken braid, she kissed them, and laid them on the bank. "They were all too good for me," she thought; "they shall not perish with me."
Then, with one long sigh, she called up all her fleeting courage, and sprang upon a fallen trunk which overhung the water. "There will be no Dan to save me now," she said as she reached the end of it. "Poor Dan! He will be sorry for me. This is the way out of it."
Her white satin shoes for a moment shone upon the black bark of the tree, and, with one despairing prayer to Heaven, she leaped into the liquid grave.
Dan was afar, but another was near, who loved her even more than Dan. Blyth Scudamore heard the plunge, and rushed to the brink of the pit, and tore his coat off. For a moment he saw nothing but black water heaving silently; then something white appeared, and moved, and a faint cry arose, and a hopeless struggle with engulfing death began.
"Keep still, don't struggle, only spread your arms, and throw your head back as far as you can," he cried, as he swam with long strokes towards her. But if she heard, she could not heed, as the lights of the deep sky came and went, and the choking water flashed between, and gurgled into her ears and mouth, and smothered her face with her own long hair. She dashed her poor helpless form about, and flung out her feet for something solid, and grasped in dim agony at the waves herself had made. Then her dress became heavily bagged with water, and the love of life was quenched, and the night of death enveloped her. Without a murmur, down she went, and the bubbles of her breath came up.
Scudamore uttered a bitter cry, for his heart was almost broken--within an arm's-length of his love, and she was gone for ever! For the moment he did not perceive that the clasp of despair must have drowned them both. Pointing his hands and throwing up his heels, he made one vain dive after her, then he knew that the pit was too deep for the bottom to be reached in that way. He swam to the trunk from which Dolly had leaped, and judging the distance by the sullen ripple, dashed in with a dive like a terrified frog. Like a bullet he sank to the bottom, and groped with three fathoms of water above him. Just as his lungs were giving out, he felt something soft and limp and round. Grasping this by the trailing hair, he struck mightily up for the surface, and drew a long breath, and sustained above water the head that fell back upon his panting breast.
Some three hours later, Dolly Darling lay in her own little bed, as pale as death, but sleeping the sleep of the world that sees the sun; while her only sister knelt by her side, weeping the tears of a higher world than that. "How could I be so brutal, and so hard?" sobbed Faith. "If father has seen it, will he ever forgive me? His last words were--'forgive, and love.'"
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