Page images
PDF
EPUB

а

say—though what hills and dales have got to do with it is more than I can tell—and I was obliged to get rid of him.'

That's provoking. But if the people I want are anywhere within ten miles of this place, I don't suppose I should be long finding them. Yet the mere fact of two strangers coming here, and going on to some place called a farm, seems very slight ground to go upon. The month certainly corresponds with the time at which Mr. and Mrs. Holbrook came to Hampshire. Did you take any particular notice of them ?'

I took particular notice of the lady. She was as pretty a woman as ever I set eyes upon-quite a girl. I noticed that the gentleman was very careful and tender with her when he put her into the carriage, wrapping her up, and so on. He looked a good deal older than her, and I didn't much like his looks altogether.'

• Could you describe him ?'

"Wellno, sir. The time was short, and he was wrapped up a good deal; the collar of his overcoat turned up, and a scarf round his neck. He had dark eyes, I remember, and rather a stern look in them.'

This was rather too vague a description to make any impression upon Gilbert. It was something certainly to know that his rival had dark eyes, if indeed this man of whom the landlord spoke really were his rival. He had never been able to make any mental picture of the stranger who had come between him and his betrothed. He had been inclined to fancy that the man must needs be much handsomer than himself, possessed of every outward attribute calculated to subjugate the mind of an inexperienced girl like Marian; but the parish-clerk at Wygrove and Miss Long had both spoken in a disparaging tone of Mr. Holbrook's personal appearance; and, remembering this, he was fain to believe that Marian had been won by some charm more subtle than that of a handsome face.

He went on eating his dinner in silence for some little time, meditating upon what the landlord had told him. Then, as the man cleared the table, lingering over his work, as if eager to impart any stray scraps of information he might possess, Gilbert spoke to him again.

'I should have fancied that, as a settled inhabitant of the place, you would be likely to know every farm and farmhouse within ten miles—or within twenty miles,' he said.

• Well, sir, I daresay I do know the neighbourhood pretty well, in a general way. But I think, if I'd known the name of the place this lady and gentleman were going to, it would have struck me more than it did, and I should have remembered it. I was uncommonly busy through that afternoon, for it was market-day, and there were a mort of people going in and out. And I never did interfere much with the fly business; it was only by taking the gentleman

) а

out some soda-and-brandy that I came to take the notice I did of the lady's looks and his care of her. I know it was a ten-mile drive, and that I told the gentleman the fare, so as there might be no bother between him and William Tyler, my man, at the end ; and he agreed to it in a liberal off-hand kind of way, like a man who doesn't care much for money. As to farms within ten miles of here, there are a dozen at least, one way and another-some small, and some large.

• Do you know of any place in the ownership of a gentleman who would be likely to lend his house to a friend ?'

'I can't say I do, sir. They're tenant - farmers about here mostly, and rather a roughish lot, as you may say. There's a place over beyond Crosber, ten miles off and more; I don't know the name of it, or the person it belongs to; but I've noticed it many a time as I've driven by; a curious old-fashioned house, standing back off one of the lanes out of Crosber, with a large garden before it. A queer lonesome place altogether. I should take it to be two or three hundred years old ; and I shouldn't think the house had had money spent upon it within the memory of man.

. It's a dilapidated tumbledown old gazabo of a place, and yet there's a kind of prettiness about it in summer-time, when the garden is full of flowers. There's a river runs through some of the land about half a mile from the house.'

• What kind of a place is Crosber?'

• A bit of a village on the road from here to Portsmouth. The house I'm telling you about is a mile from Crosber at the least, away from the main road. There's two or three lanes or byroads about there, and it lies in one of them that turns sharp off by the Blue Boar, which is about the only inn where you can bait a horse thereabouts.'

• I'll ride over there to-morrow morning, and have a look at this queer old house.

You might give me the names of any other farms you know about this neighbourhood, and their occupants.'

This the landlord was very ready to do. He ran over the names of from ten to fifteen places, which Gilbert jotted down upon a leaf of his pocket-book, afterwards planning his route upon the map of the county which he carried for his guidance. He set out early the next morning under a low gray sky, with clouds in the distance that threatened rain. The road from the little market-town to Crosber possessed no especial beauty. The country was flat and uninteresting about here, and needed the glory of its summer verdure to brighten and embellish it. But Mr. Fenton did not give much thought to the scenes through which he went at this time; the world around and about him was all of one colour—the sunless gray which pervaded his own life. To-day the low dull sky and the threatening clouds far away upon the level horizon harmonised well

6

6

with his own thoughts—with the utter hopelessness of his mind. Hopelessness !-yes, that was the word. He had hazarded all upon this one chance, and its failure was the shipwreck of his life. The ruin was complete. He could not build-up a new scheme of happiness. In the full maturity of his manhood, his fate had come to him. He was not the kind of man who can survive the ruin of his plans, and begin afresh with other hopes and still fairer dreams. It was his nature to be constant. In all his life he had chosen for himself only one friend—in all his life he had loved but one

woman.

He came to the little village, with its low sloping-roofed cottages, whose upper stories abutted upon the road and overshadowed the casements below; and where here and there a few pennyworths of gingerbread, that seemed mouldy with the mould of ages, a glass pickle-bottle of bulls-eyes or sugar-sticks, and half a dozen penny bottles of ink, indicated the commercial tendencies of Crosber. A A little farther on, he came to a rickety-looking corner-house, with a steep thatched roof overgrown by stonecrop and other parasites, which was evidently the shop of the village, inasmuch as one side of the window exhibited a show of homely drapery, while the other side was devoted to groceries, and a shelf above laden with great sprawling loaves of bread. This establishment was also the post-office, and here Gilbert resolved to make his customary inquiries, when he had put up his horse.

Almost immediately opposite this general emporium the sign of the Blue Boar swung proudly across the street in front of a low rather dilapidated - looking hostelry, with a wide frontage, and an archway leading into a spacious desolate yard, where one gloomy cock of Spanish descent was crowing hoarsely on the broken roof of a shed, surrounded by four or five shabby-looking hens, all in the most wobegone stage of moulting, and appearing as if eggs were utterly remote from their intentions. This Blue Boar was popularly supposed to have been a most distinguished and prosperous place in the coaching-days, when twenty coaches passed daily through the village of Crosber; and was even now much affected as a place of resort by the villagers, to the sore vexation of the rector and such good people as believed in the perfectibility of the human race and the ultimate suppression of public-houses.

Here Mr. Fenton dismounted, and surrendered his horse to the keeping of an unkempt bare-headed youth, who emerged from one of the dreary-looking buildings in the yard, announced himself as the hostler, and led off the steed in triumph to a wilderness of a stable, where the landlord's pony and a fine colony of rats were luxuriating in the space designed for some twelve or fifteen horses.

Having done this, Gilbert crossed the road to the post-office, where he found the proprietor, a deaf old man, weighing half-pounds

[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]
[ocr errors]

of sugar in the background, while a brisk sharp-looking girl stood behind the counter sorting a little packet of letters.

It was to the damsel, as the more intelligent of these two, that Gilbert addressed himself, beginning of course with the usual question, Did she know any one, a stranger, sojourning in that neighbourhood called Holbrook ?

The girl shook her head without a moment's hesitation. No, she knew no one of that name.

* And I suppose all the letters for people in this neighbourhood pass through your hands ?'

· Yes, sir, all of them; I couldn't have failed to notice if there had been any one of that name.'

Gilbert gave a little weary sigh. The information given him by the landlord of the White Swan had seemed to bring him so very near the object of his search, and here he was thrown back all at once upon the wide field of conjecture, not a whit nearer any certain knowledge.' It was true that Crosber was only one among several places within ten miles of the market-town, and the strangers who had been driven from the White Swan in March last might have gone to any one of those other localities.

His inquiries were not finished yet, however.

• There is an old house about a mile from here,' he said to the girl ; 'a house belonging to a farm, in the lane yonder that turns off by the Blue Boar. Have you any notion to whom it belongs, or who lives there ?'

* An old house in that lane across the way ?' the girl said, reflecting. That's Golder's-lane, and leads to Golder's-green. There's not many houses there ; it's rather a lonesome kind of place. Do you mean a big old-fashioned house standing far back in a garden ?'

• Yes ; that must be the place I want to know about.'

• It must be the Grange, surely. It was a gentleman's house once; but there's only a bailiff lives there now. The farm belongs to some gentleman down in Midlandshire, a baronet; I can't call to mind his name at this moment, though I've heard it often enough. Mr. Carly's daughter-Carly is the name of the bailiff at the Grange -comes here for all they want.'

Gilbert gave a little start at the name of Midlandshire. Lidford was in Midlandshire. Was it not likely to be a Midlandshire man who had lent Marian's husband his house ?

Do you know if these people at the Grange have had any one staying with them lately—any lodgers ?' he asked the girl.

* Yes; they have lodgers pretty well every summer. There were some people this year, a lady and gentleman; but they never seemed to have any letters, and I can't tell you their names.'

Are they living there still ?'
'I can't tell you that. I used to see them at church now and

[ocr errors]

then in the summer-time; but I haven't seen them lately. There's a church at Golder's-green almost as near, and they have been there.'

• Will you tell me what they were like ?' Gilbert asked eagerly.

His heart was beating loud and fast, making a painful tumult in his breast. He felt assured that he was on the track of the people whom the innkeeper had described to him ; the people who were, in

; all probability, Mr. and Mrs. Holbrook.

• The lady is very pretty and very young, quite a girl. The gentleman older, dark, and not handsome.'

• Yes. Has the lady gray eyes, and dark-brown hair, and a very bright expressive face ?'

• Yes, sir.'

"Pray try to remember the name of the gentleman to whom the Grange belongs. It is of great importance to me to know that.'

• I'll ask my father, sir,' the girl answered good-naturedly; 'he's pretty sure to know.'

She went across the shop to the old man who was weighing sugar, and bawled her question into his ear. He scratched his head in a meditative way for some moments.

* I've heard the name times and often,' he said, though I never set eyes upon the gentleman. William Carly has been bailiff at the Grange these twenty years, and I don't believe as the owner has ever come nigh the place in all that time. Let me see, it's a common name enough, though the gentleman is a baronight. Forster—that's it—Sir something Forster.'

• Sir David ?' cried Gilbert.
• You've hit it, sir. Sir David Forster-that's the gentleman.'

Sir David Forster! He had little doubt after this that the strangers at the Grange had been Marian and her husband. Treachery, blackest treachery, somewhere. He had questioned Sir David, and had received his positive assurance that this man Holbrook was unknown to him ; and now, against that there was the fact that the baronet was the owner of a place in Hampshire, to be taken in conjunction with that other fact that a place in Hampshire had been lent to Mr. Holbrook by a friend. At the very first he had been inclined to believe that Marian's lover must needs be one of the worthless bachelor crew with which the baronet was accustomed to surround himself. He had only abandoned that notion after his interview with Sir David Forster; and now it seemed that the baronet had deliberately lied to him. It was, of course, just possible that he was on a false scent after all, and that it was to some other part of the county Mr. Holbrook had brought his bride ; but such a coincidence seemed, at the least, highly improbable. There was no occasion for him to remain in doubt very long, however. At the Grange he must needs be able to obtain more definite information.

)

« PreviousContinue »