English Literature

Ralph Wilton’s Weird by Mrs. Alexander

Ralph Wilton's Weird by Mrs. Alexander.jpg

CHAPTER I.

The yellow sunlight of a crisp October day was lighting up the faded though rich hangings, and the abundant but somewhat blackened gilding, of a large study or morning-room in one of the stately mansions of Mayfair, nearly fourteen years ago.

Bookcases and escritoires, writing-tables and reading-tables more or less convenient, easy-chairs, print-stands furnished with well-filled portfolios, pictures, bronzes, all the signs and tokens of wealth, were there, but nothing new. An impress of extinct vitality was stamped upon the chamber and all it contained. The very fire burned with a dull, continuous glow, neither flaming nor crackling.

On one side of this fire, his back to the light, in a high leathern chair, sat an old man. Originally slight in frame, he now looked attenuated. His blue, brass-buttoned coat, though evidently from the hands of an artist, hung loosely upon him. His thin gray hair[Pg 2] was carelessly brushed back from a brow not high but peculiarly wide, a straight, refined nose, a square-cut chin, a thin-lipped, slightly cruel mouth, a tint of the deadliest pallor—all these combined to make his countenance at once attractive and repellent. There was a certain dignity in his attitude as he leaned against the side of the large chair, in which he was almost lost, one thin, small white hand resting on the arm of his seat, the other playing, in a manner evidently habitual, with a couple of seals hanging in by-gone fashion from a black ribbon.

He was gazing at the fire, and listening to a meek looking semi-genteel young man, who, seated at a table with a neatly folded packet of papers before him, was reading aloud from a letter. But the lecture was interrupted.

The door was thrown open by an archdeaconal butler, who announced, in a suppressed voice and impressive manner, “Colonel Wilton, my lord.”

Whereupon entered a soldierly looking man, above middle height, his broad shoulders and compact waist, duly displayed by an incomparably fitting frock-coat, closely buttoned, and worn with the indescribable carriage that life-long assured position and habitual command only can bestow. A bold, sunburnt, and somewhat aquiline face, a pair of eagle-like brown eyes, and plenty of red-brown wavy hair, whisker, and[Pg 3] moustache, entitled the possessor to be termed by partial comrades “a good-looking fellow.”

The old nobleman stood up, and, raising his cold, steely, keen blue eyes, with an extension of his thin lips intended for a smile, held out his slight, fine hand.

“I am glad to see Colonel Wilton,” he said, in a low, sweet voice, which must have been peculiarly charming before age had thinned its tones.—”You may leave us, Mr. Robbins,” he added; whereupon the young man at the writing-table took up his papers and departed.—”I am obliged to you,” continued Lord St. George, “for obeying my summons so promptly; it was more than I expected, considering how often you must have been in town without calling upon your recluse kinsman.”

“My dear lord,” said Colonel Wilton, with a frank smile, taking the chair placed for him, “I never thought a visit from me would be acceptable. I supposed that I must excite the natural aversion which is generally felt for junior and unendowed relatives, so I kept out of the way.” Colonel Wilton’s voice was not unlike his host’s, though deeper and richer.

“Unendowed or not, you are almost the only relative who has never asked me a favor,” returned the old man.

“Had I wanted anything I suppose I should have[Pg 4] asked for it,” said Colonel Wilton, good-humoredly; “but my ambition is professional, and fortune has favored me beyond my deserts.”

“You are a young colonel.”

“Only brevet.”

“Ay, I remember; you got your first step after that affair of the rifle-pits.”

“Exactly; then I volunteered for our second battalion when the mutiny broke out, saw a good deal of very unpleasant service, was slightly hit, got fever, more from fatigue than wounds, was ordered home on sick leave, and found my brevet awaiting me. I have just returned from the German baths—and now, my lord, I am at your service.”

“You want to know why I sent for you—you shall hear presently;” the old men paused abruptly. “You are like, and yet unlike, your father,” he resumed; “you know, I suppose, that, although but first cousins, we might have been brothers, we hated each other so well?”

“I have heard something of it,” returned Wilton, coolly, though the smiling, frank expression passed from his face; “but I have lived so much among strangers that I am lamentably ignorant of the family hatreds.”

Lord St. George looked up, and played more rapidly with his seals. “I have been a broken man for[Pg 5] many years,” he resumed, after a short pause, “and latterly a complete recluse. Men are such knaves, and life is such a round of folly, amusement, and ambition, and ‘lofty aspirations,’ as modern scribblers have it, such dust and ashes, that I can with unusual truth say I am weary! I dare say you are wondering why I inflict this Jeremiad upon you—I hardly know myself; however, it is finished. I suppose you are aware that a very small portion of my property is attached to the title of St. George?”

Colonel Wilton bowed, and listened with increasing interest. “My Worzelshire estates and Welsh mines,” continued the old lord, “came to me through my mother, and are to dispose of as I choose. A ruined tower and some worthless moorland is all that will come by right to you. It is in my power to make you that most wretched of failures—a poor nobleman, or to bequeath you means to ruffle it with the best.”

“You must do as seems best in your eyes,” said Colonel Wilton, with the same good-humored, well-bred independence which had characterized his manner all through the interview, when the peer stopped, as if for a reply.

“I am by no means inclined to separate my property from my title—but it is all in my own hands—I have no claims upon me—no nearer relative than yourself. All that I have heard of you is tolerably[Pg 6] creditable to the family name, and I am inclined to give you the means to keep up the old title. There is one point, however, on which I should like you to understand and conform to my wishes. You are, of course, aware of the circumstance which has blighted my life—the latter half of it?”

Although it seemed impossible that any living cheek could be paler than Lord St. George’s, it grew a shade more ghastly as he spoke.

“Yes, yes,” returned Colonel Wilton, with a sort of quick sympathy. “Do not, if possible, distress yourself by alluding to it.”

“I must, Ralph—I must!” It was the first time the viscount had called him by his name; and he continued, in a firm but low voice: “When my daughter, my only child, flung herself into an abyss of infamy by her disgraceful marriage, I at once and forever renounced her. Now I only care that the inheritors of my name and property may at least be free from the taint of inferior race: promise me you will marry a gentlewoman, a girl of some unblemished family, which, though they are few, can still be found—promise me this, and I will leave you all I possess.”

“My dear lord, it is not necessary to promise. Poor as I am, I should never dream of marrying a plebeian; but I would rather not marry for some years[Pg 7] to come. I am little more than thirty; you must really leave me a longer spell of liberty.”

“All young men are alike,” returned Lord St. George. “You put off the evil day until you are too old to see your children grow up, or to guide them, or be anything but a semi-living mummy, fit only to sign checks for other people to expend. Be ruled by me; accept my conditions, quit the army, spend the coming season among the best country-houses, pick out a suitable wife—as my heir, you can choose—go into Parliament, a Crimean man will be well received by country constituencies, and you will be well before the world by the time I make way for you. I say nothing,” added the old peer, with an air of courtly humility, “of the gratitude such a course would enlist from me personally. I have no claim of that description to urge upon you.”

“Your present intentions constitute a tolerable strong claim,” replied Wilton, smiling. “At any rate I should be very happy to please you, and I heartily wish you could will away your title as your estates. However, on the subject of marriage, I can make no promise; at present, the mere fact of being tied seems to me to outweigh all other advantages. I hope my bluntness does not offend you. I should be sorry to do so. You see, there is a strong dash of the Bohemian in my nature, though I am not without ambition, and[Pg 8] I am quite aware that a penniless peer is a most unfortunate devil. Still I cannot make up my mind to matrimony. Nevertheless, apart from promises, I do not think any man can be more averse to the idea of marrying out of his own class than I am.”

There was a moment’s pause, Lord St. George looking keenly at his companion.

“I do not think you seem likely to commit so egregious an error; but it is impossible to rely on the prudence or common sense of any man; though you are certainly past the age when men will sacrifice much for women. So I must be content with probabilities.”

Another short pause, during which Colonel Wilton took up his hat, which he had laid on the carpet beside him.

“Stay,” said the old peer. “It is long since I have endured to see any of my own people, and the effort cost me something. Now you are here, tell me where are your sisters, your brother?”

“My brother, poor fellow! he died of fever before he left college. My sisters are both married, the eldest to General Ogilvie—he is in command at Montreal—and Gertrude to the Dean of ——.”

“I remember hearing of the first marriage,” returned Lord St. George. “I was then in Greece.”

He continued to ask for various persons, [Pg 9]respecting very few of whom Colonel Wilton could give any information. Meantime the light was fading, and Lord St. George’s visitor growing somewhat impatient.

“You must forgive me, my lord, if I bid you good-morning. But when I received your message I had arranged to run down to Scotland to-night for some grouse-shooting, and I am to dine early with an old brother-officer before starting.”

“Then I must not detain you,” replied Lord St. George, reluctantly. “I am glad I have seen you. I feel a little more satisfied about the future of my name and possessions. I wish you could meet my wishes completely. I am singularly without near relatives—singularly free from claims of any kind.”

Colonel Wilton had stood up as if in the act to go; he hesitated an instant, as his kinsman paused, and said, in a lower tone:

“I presume, then, my cousin—your daughter—left no children?”

“Do not dare to name her, sir!” cried the old man, fiercely, and grasping the arms of his chair with nervous, twitching fingers. “She has long ceased to live for me! She—the first woman in a long, unbroken line—that ever brought disgrace upon her name! Living or dead, I refuse all intelligence concerning her. Her children may exist, or not; the[Pg 10] poorest beggar that crawls in the street is more to me!”

“You have, certainly, a cruel disappointment to complain of, my lord,” said Wilton, gravely and firmly. “But the children would be sinless. You would not, I am sure, leave them to suffer poverty and—”

“I would—I would! I would stamp out the spawn of such a viper! There—there, leave me. I believe you are an honest gentleman; but this subject you must never touch again. Good-morning, Ralph! Let me see you on your return from the north.”

Colonel Wilton promised that he would call, and pressing the thin, wan hand extended to him, left the room.

About two hours later, a couple of gentlemen sat at dinner in a private room in Morley’s Hotel. The cheese period had been reached, and the sharp edge of appetite blunted. One, who seemed the host, was Ralph Wilton; the guest was a tall, rugged-looking, bony man, with shaggy eye-brows and a large hooked nose, slightly bent to one side, small, sharp, dark-gray eyes, grizzled black hair, and a wide mouth, with a strong projecting under-jaw. This does not sound like the perfection of manly beauty, yet Major Moncrief was not a bad-looking man.

[Pg 11]

“And when do you intend to join me, Moncrief?” said Colonel Wilton.

“Not later than this day week.”

“I hope not. For I have no fancy for being alone in my glory.”

The conversation flowed somewhat intermittently until the waiter, placing wine and olives on the table, left the friends alone.

“Help yourself,” said Colonel Wilton, pushing the claret toward Major Moncrief. “Do you know, I have had an interview with that curious old hermit, Lord St. George, to-day?”

“Indeed! How did that come about?”

“I found a note from him at the club this morning, inviting me, very politely, to call any day after three. So, as I hope not to see London again for some months, I went at once.”

“You are his heir, are you not?”

“To his barren title—yes; but he can will away his wealth as he likes. Poor old fellow! He had an only child, a lovely girl, I believe, and, after refusing some of the best matches in England, she ran off with an artist fellow who played the fiddle, or sang divinely, and the viscount never forgave her. I only know the general gossip, but I have been told she died in frightful poverty. I ventured to say a word in favor of the possible and probable children, and was soon pulled[Pg 12] up for my pains. How idiotic women are, and yet how keen and hard at times! This cousin of mine was not so very young either; she must have been four-and-twenty.”

“Women are quite incomprehensible,” ejaculated Moncrief.

Colonel Wilton laughed.

“Well, old St. George, it seems, sent for me to induce me to marry some ‘Clara Vere de Vere,’ in order to secure the sacred title and acres from falling into the hands of a half-breed inheritor. However, though I would not acknowledge his suzerainty by giving him the promise he wanted, he may be tolerably sure I would never marry a second-rate woman. I do not mean to say I care for rank, but good blood is essential.”

“I do not fancy you are much of a marrying man.”

“No! not at present. I shall come to it some day. I have been too busy to have had an attack of the love-fever for a long time.”

“You were badly hit in that affair with Lady Mary,” observed Moncrief.

“Well—yes! But I made a rapid recovery. Then, matrimony would be a different matter. In short, if Lord St. George will just give me a year or two more of liberty, I dare say I shall be ready to present him[Pg 13] with a bride of the desired pattern. I really have no democratic proclivities.”

“Ah ha, lad!” said Moncrief, in his unmistakable Scotch tones, “you must just ‘dree your weird.'”

“So must every one,” returned Wilton, rising to fill his cigar-case from a box that stood upon the sideboard. “But I think I have survived the spooney period, and have sown my wild oats—not that I have had more than a mere handful to dispose of. On the whole, I have been a pattern man—eh, old fellow?”

“Hum! There have been more extensive crops,” returned the major, doubtfully. “Still, do not be too sure of yourself.”

“Oh, I am safe enough. And, besides,” he continued, returning to the table and filling his glass, “I am very particularly anxious that Lord St. George should leave me something wherewith to regild the faded honors of his ancient peerage. I confess to a mortal dread of being a poor peer. If my old kinsman does not leave me his property, I will never adopt the title, but be plain ‘Ralph Wilton’ to the end of the chapter.”

“You might do worse,” said Moncrief, dryly. “As I said before, you must ‘dree your weird.'”

“Halloa!” cried Wilton, suddenly; “half-past seven, by Jove! I shall have a close shave to catch the train!” He rang the bell, ordered a cab; hastily[Pg 14]donning his overcoat and thrusting his cigar-case into the breast-pocket, he shook hands heartily with his friend. “Good-by, old fellow; come as soon as you can, and let the moorland breeze sweep the cobwebs from your brain. You are too solemn by half for so good a comrade—good-by!”

It was a very close shave; but Ralph Wilton was just in time. The bell had rung before he had taken his ticket, after seeing a favorite pointer properly disposed of. “Here you are, sir,” cried a porter, opening the door of a carriage. Wilton jumped in, and the door was slammed. “Stop! I say, porter,” he shouted, as he glanced at the only other occupant, thinking to himself, “An unprotected female! this is too formidable!” But his voice was drowned in the loud panting of the engine, and they were off. “It cannot be helped,” he thought, and set about arranging himself as comfortably as he could.

His companion was a young lady, he perceived, as his eyes became accustomed to the lamp-light. She was in black, and rather thinly clad for a night-journey. Her bonnet lay in the netting overhead. And a blue scarf was loosely tied over her head and ears. She seemed already asleep, though Wilton was dimly aware that she had opened a pair of large dark eyes to look at him. She was a serious drawback to the comfort of his journey. But for her he could make a bed of[Pg 15] the cushions, and stretch himself at full length; but for her he could solace himself with unlimited cigars, and enjoy the freedom of loneliness. Thinking thus, he stooped forward to take up an evening paper he had snatched at the last moment, and his cigar-case fell from his pocket. His obnoxious fellow-traveller opened her eyes. “If you smoke,” she said, “do not mind me; it may help me to sleep.” With a slight shiver she closed her eyes again, apparently without hearing Wilton’s thanks, while his unspoken maledictions on the ill chance that placed her in the same carriage were, in some mysterious way, silenced and arrested by the charm of a soft, sweet voice, delicate yet full, with a certain sadness in its tones, and an accent not quite English. “A gentlewoman, I imagine,” thought Wilton, as he moved from his place to the centre seat opposite her to be nearer the light. There was something touching in the childlike abandonment of her attitude; her head lay back in the angle of the division she occupied; her face was very pale, and a dark shade under the eyes bespoke fatigue. Long black lashes fringed her closed eyes, curling back at the ends, and all of color was concentrated in her delicately-curved lips. Ralph Wilton could not help glancing from his paper to her face, and forming conjectures respecting her. Why did her people let so fair, so young a creature wander about by herself?[Pg 16] But he was by no means old enough to adopt a fatherly view of so pretty a subject. She must be seventeen or eighteen—here his companion murmured in her sleep, and sighed deeply; while Wilton, with a sudden access of chivalrous modesty, reproaching himself for presuming upon her unconsciousness to scan so closely the tender, childlike face that lay hushed before him, withdrew to his original position. Here he tried to read, but the face and figure of the old recluse nobleman flitted between him and his paper, and the bittersweet of his tone sounded again in his ears—what depths of disappointment and mortification that old man must have fathomed! Well, worse endings might have come about than the union of Lord St. George’s title and property in his (Ralph Wilton’s) favor; and, if he ever inherited these good things, he would certainly look up his erring cousin’s children. These meditations were varied by sundry glances at his companion, vague conjectures concerning her. How soft and gentle her mouth looked! Yet there was a good deal of power in the wide, smooth forehead and delicately but clearly marked dark-brown eyebrows. As Wilton looked he perceived her shiver, without waking, and make a sleepy effort to fold her shawl closer. The night was growing colder, and Wilton, observing a small portion of the window next his companion open, rose to shut it. In moving to accomplish this, he[Pg 17] touched the slumberer’s foot. She opened her eyes with a sleepy, startled look—great, dark, lustrous eyes, which seemed to banish the childlike expression of her face.

“I beg your pardon,” said Colonel Wilton; “but it is cold, and I thought you would like the window shut.”

“Oh, yes, thank you; it is very, very cold.” She sat up and rubbed her hands together, tying the blue scarf closer round her head, and thrusting carelessly under it a heavy tress of very dark-brown hair, that had become loosened, with utter disregard of appearances, as if only desirous of rest. “I am so, so weary,” she went on, “and I dream instead of sleeping.”

“That is probably because of your uneasy position,” said Wilton. “If you will allow me to arrange the cushions for you, I think you may rest better—I am an old traveller.”

“You are very good,” she returned, hesitatingly; “how do you mean?”

“I will show you;” and he proceeded to make supports for one of the unoccupied cushions with a walking-stick and umbrella so as to form a couch, and then rolled up his plaid loosely for an impromptu pillow. “Now,” he said, with frank good-nature, “you can rest really; and, if you will wrap yourself in my[Pg 18] cloak, I dare say you will soon forget you are in a railway-carriage.”

“Thank you very much,” she replied. “How good of you to take so much trouble—and your plaid, too! You have left yourself nothing!”

“Oh, I do not need anything! Take the cloak, and I wish you good-night.”

He checked an inclination to wrap it round her, lest she might think him too officious; and, smiling at the change in his own sentiments toward his fellow-traveller, withdrew to his original position.

“At least you can smoke,” said she, as she placed herself upon the couch he had improvised. “I really like the perfume of a cigar.”

Thus encouraged, Wilton drew forth his cigar-case and comforted himself with a weed, while he had the satisfaction of observing the perfect stillness of the rather shapeless mass of drapery made by his heavy cloak round the slender form slumbering beneath it. So they sped on into the night. Wilton’s cigar was finished; he threw the end from the window. Gazing a moment at the dim, uncanny trees and hedges as they flew past with ghastly rapidity, and settling himself in his corner, he too tried to sleep for a long time in vain. The past—the possible future—the absolute present—his sudden interest in his companion,[Pg 19] crowded and jostled each other in his thoughts, but gradually all became indistinct, and at last he slept.

Uneasily, though—visions of struggles—of men and horses dying—of a desperate necessity to carry an order from the general to a remote division, and the utter impossibility of getting his horse to move—dreams like these distracted him; at last a heavy battery on his left opened fire, and he woke.

Woke suddenly, completely, with a feeling that the end of everything was at hand. A noise of tearing and crashing filled his ears, mingled with shrieks and yells; the carriage heaved violently, first to one side, and then to the other, in which position it remained.

As Wilton sprang to his feet, his fellow-traveller started quickly to hers; and, grasping his arm, exclaimed, with a certain despairing calm that struck him even in such a moment: “Is it—is it death?”

He did not reply; but, holding on by the bar which supports the netting over the seats, he managed to open the door next him. It was on the upheaved side, and he found a heap of clay jammed under the step of the carriage.

“Come,” he exclaimed, “give me your hand!—lean on my shoulder—there is an open space beyond here.”

His fellow-traveller obeyed, silently and steadily.[Pg 20] Instinctively Wilton groped his way across what seemed a truck laden with earth and stones, and assisted his companion down the opposite side on to the grass-grown border of the line, which was open, and only fenced by a low bank and hedge. Placing her in safety, he turned to look at the scene of fear and confusion. A few yards ahead lay the massive fragments of the two engines heaped together, the foremost carriage smashed to pieces and already blazing, having caught light from the guard’s lamp, which had been overturned. Two other carriages, more or less injured, were, like the one he had just quitted, forced upon trucks laden with stone and clay. The passengers were scrambling over them, the women screaming, the men shouting directions and questions.

“If you will stay here, I will go and see if I can be of any use,” exclaimed Wilton. “You are quite safe, and I will return as soon as I can.”

She murmured something in reply as he went forward.

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