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[-25-]

CHAPTER CXLVI.

    THE BATH. THE HOUSEKEEPER.

    IT was scarcely light when the rector of Saint David's rose from a couch where visions of a most voluptuous nature had filled his sleep.
    Having hastily dressed himself, he descended from his room with the intention of seeking the fine frosty air of the garden to cool his heated brain.
    But as he proceeded along a passage leading to the landing of the first flight of stairs, he heard a light step slowly descending the upper flight; and the next moment, the voice of Ellen speaking fondly to her child, fell upon his ear. [-26-]
    For nurses and mothers will talk to babes of even a few months old although the innocents comprehend them not!
    Reginald stepped into the recess formed by the door of one of the bed-chambers in that spacious mansion; and scarcely had he concealed himself there when he saw Ellen, with the child in her arms, pass across the landing at the end of the passage, and enter a room on the other side.
    She wore a loose dressing-gown of snowy whiteness, which was confined by a band round her delicate waist, and was fastened up to the throat: her little feet had been hastily thrust into a pair of buff morocco slippers; and her long shining hair flowed over her shoulders and down her back.
    The licentious eyes of the clergyman followed her from the foot of the stairs to the room which she entered; and even plunged with eager curiosity into that chamber during the moment that the door was open as she went in.
    That glance enabled him to perceive that there was a bath in the apartment to which Ellen had proceeded with her child.
    Indeed, the young lady, ever since her residence at Markham Place, had availed herself of the luxury of the bathing-room which that mansion possessed: and every morning she immersed her beautiful person in the refreshing element, which she enjoyed in its natural state in summer, but which was rendered slightly tepid for her in winter.
    When the rector beheld her descend in that bewitching negligee, her hair unconfined, and floating at will her small, round, polished ankles glancing between the white drapery and the little slippers, and the child, with merely a thick shawl thrown about it, in her arms, and when he observed the bath in that chamber which she entered, be immediately comprehended her intention.
    Without a moment's hesitation he stole softly from the recess where he had concealed himself, and approached the door of the bath-room.
    His greedy eyes were applied to the key-hole; and his licentious glance plunged into the depths of that sacred privacy.
    The unsuspecting Ellen was warbling cheerfully to her child.
    She dipped her hand into the water, which Marian had prepared for her, and found the degree of heat agreeable to her wishes.
    Then she placed the towels near the fire to warm.
    Reginald watched her proceedings with the most ardent curiosity: the very luxury of the unhallowed enjoyment which he experienced caused an oppression at his chest; his heart beat quickly; his brain seemed to throb with violence.
    The fires of gross sensuality raged madly in his breast.
    Ellen's preparations were now completed.
    With her charming white hand she put back her hair from her forehead.
    Then, as she still retained the child on her left arm, with her right hand she loosened the strings which closed her dressing-gown round the neck and the band which confined it at the waist.
    While thus occupied, she was partly turned towards the door; and all the treasures of her bosom were revealed to the ardent gaze of the rector.
    His desires were now inflamed to that pitch when they almost become ungovernable. He felt that could he possess that charming creature, he would care not for the result even though he forced he, to compliance with his wishes, and murder and suicide followed, the murder of her, and the suicide of himself!
    He was about to grasp the handle of the door, when he remembered that he had heard the key turn in the lock immediately after she had entered the room.
    He gnashed his teeth with rage.
    And now the drapery had fallen from her shoulders, and the whole of her voluptuous form, naked to the waist, was exposed to his view.
    He could have broken down the door, had he not feared to alarm the other inmates of the house.
    He literally trembled under the Influence of his fierce desires.
    How he envied Oh! how he envied the innocent babe which the fond mother pressed to that bosom swelling, warm, and glowing!
    And now she prepared to step into the bath: but, while he was waiting with fervent avidity for the moment when the whole of the drapery should fall from her form, a step suddenly resounded upon the stairs.
    He started like a guilty wretch away from the door: and, perceiving that the footsteps descended the upper flight, he precipitated himself down the stairs.
    Rushing across the ball, he sought the garden, where he wandered up and down, a thousand wild feelings agitating his breast.
    He determined that Ellen should be his; but he was not collected enough to deliberate upon the means of accomplishing his resolution, so busy was his imagination in conjuring up the most voluptuous idealities, which were all prompted by the real scene the contemplation whereof had been interrupted.
    He fancied that he beheld the lovely young mother immersed in the bath the water agitated by her polished limbs-each ripple kissing some charm, even as she herself kissed her babe!
    Then he imagined he saw her step forth like a Venus from the ocean her cheeks flushed with animation her long glossy hair floating in rich undulations over her ivory shoulders.
    "My God!" he exclaimed, at length, "I shall grow mad under the influence of this fascination! One kiss from her lips were worth ten thousand of the meretricious embraces which Cecilia yields so willingly. Oh! Ellen would not surrender herself without many prayers much entreaty and, perhaps, force; but Cecilia falls into my arms without a struggle! Enjoyment with her is not increased by previous bashfulness; she does not fire the soul by one moment of resistance. But Ellen so coy, so difficult to win, so full of confidence in herself, in spite of that one fault which accident betrayed to me, Ellen, so young and inexperienced in the ways of passion, Oh! she were a conquest worth every sacrifice that man could make!"
    The rector's reverie was suddenly interrupted by the voice of Whittingham summoning him to the breakfast-room.
    Thither he proceeded; and there Ellen, now attired in a simple but captivating morning-dress, presided. [-27-]
    Little did she imagine that the privacy of her bath had been invaded violated by the glance of that man who now seated himself next to her, and whose sanctity was deemed to be above all question.
    Little, either, did her father and friend suppose that there was one present who had vowed that she should be his, and who, in connection with that determination, had entertained no thought of marriage.
    The ramble in the garden had so far cooled the rector's brain, that nothing in his behaviour towards Ellen was calculated to excite observation; but, from time to time, when unperceived, he cast upon her a glance of fervent admiration a long, fixed, devouring glance, which denoted profound passion.
    At length the hour for departure arrived; and his carriage drove round to the front door.
    The rain of the preceding evening had changed to frost during the night; the morning was fine, fresh, and healthy, though intensely cold; there was hence no shadow of an excuse for a longer stay.
    The rector expressed his thanks for the hospitality which he had experienced, with that politeness which so eminently characterised his manners; and when he shook hands with Ellen, he pressed hers gently.
    She thought that he intended to convey a sort of assurance that the secret which he had detected on the previous day, was sacred with him; and she cast upon him a rapid glance, expressive of gratitude.
    Reginald then stepped into the carriage, which immediately rolled rapidly away towards London.
    Upon his arrival at home, he proceeded straight to his study, whither he was immediately followed by the old housekeeper.
    "Leave me leave me, Mrs. Kenrick," said the rector; "I wish to be alone."
    "I thought something had happened, sir," observed the old woman, fidgetting about the room, for with senile pertinacity she was resolved to say that she had upon her mind: "I thought so," she continued, "because this is the first time you ever stayed out all night without sending me word what kept you."
    "I am not aware that I owe you an account of my actions, Mrs. Kenrick," said the rector, who, like all guilty persons, was half afraid that his conduct was suspected by the old woman.
    "Certainly not, sir; and I never asked it. But after all the years I have been with you, and the confidence you have always reposed in me until within the last week or two," added the old housekeeper, "I was afraid lest I had done something to offend you."
    "No such thing," said the rector, somewhat softened. "But as the cares of my ministry multiply upon me "
    "Ah! sir, they must have multiplied of late," interrupted the old woman; "for you're not the same man you were."
    "How do you mean!" demanded Reginald, now once more irritated.
    "You have seemed restless, unsettled, and unhappy, for some two or three weeks past, sir," answered the housekeeper, wiping away a tear from her eye. "And then you are not so regular in your habits as you were: you go out and come oftener;-sometimes you stay out till very late; at others you come home, send me up to bed, and say that you yourself are going to rest; nevertheless, I hear you about the house "
    "Nonsense!" ejaculated Reginald, struck by the imprudence of which he had been guilty in admitting Lady Cecilia into his abode. "Do not make yourself unhappy, Mrs. Kenrick: nothing ails me, I can assure you. But-tell me," he added, half afraid to ask the question; "have you heard any one remark I mean, make any observation that is, speak as you do about me "
    "Well, sir, if you wish for the truth," returned the housekeeper, "I must say that the clerk questioned me yesterday morning about you."
    "The clerk!" ejaculated Reginald; "and what did he say?"
    "Oh! he merely thought that you had something on your mind some annoyance which worried you "
    "He is an impertinent fellow!" cried the rector, thrown off his guard by the alarming announcement that a change in his behaviour had been observed.
    "He only speaks out of kindness, sir as I do," observed the housekeeper, with a deep sigh.
    "Well, well, Mrs. Kenrick," said the rector, vexed at his own impatience: "I was wrong to mistrust the excellence of his motives. To tell the truth, I have had some little cause of vexation the loss of a large sum through the perfidy of a pretended friend and "
    The rector floundered in the midst of his falsehood; but the old housekeeper readily believed him, and was rejoiced to think that he had at length honoured her with his confidence in respect to the cause of that restlessness which she had mistaken for a secret grief.
    "But no one else has made any remark, my dear Mrs. Kenrick?" said the rector, in a tone of conciliation; "I mean no one has questioned you or "
    "Only Lady Cecilia Harborough sent yesterday afternoon to request you to call upon her, sir."
    "Ah! well!"
    "And of course I said to her servant-maid that you were not at home. She came back in the evening, and seemed much disappointed that you were still absent. Then she returned again, saying that her mistress was Ill and wished to consult you upon business."
    "And what did you tell her, Mrs. Kenrick?"
    "That you had not returned, sir," answered the housekeeeper, surprised at the question, as if there were any thing else to tell save the truth. "The servant-maid seemed more and more disappointed, and called again as early as eight o'clock this morning.
    "This morning!" echoed Reginald, seriously annoyed at this repetition of visits from Lady Cecilia's confidential servant.
    "Yes, sir; and when I said that you had not been home all night, she appeared quite surprised," continued the housekeeper.
    "And you told her that I had not been home all night!" mused Reginald. "What must Lady Cecilia think?"
    "Think sir?" cried the housekeeper, more surprised still at her master's observations. "You can owe no account of your actions, sir, to Lady Cecilia Harborough."
    "Oh! no certainly not," stammered the rector [-28-] cruelly embarrassed: "I only thought that evil tongues "
    "The Reverend Reginald Tracy is above calumny," said the housekeeper, who was as proud of her master as she was attached to him.
    "True-true, Mrs. Kenrick," exclaimed the rector. "And yet but, after all no matter. I will go and call in Tavistock Square at once; and then I can explain "
    Up to this moment the housekeeper had spoken in the full conviction that annoyance alone was the cause of her master's recent change of behaviour and present singularity of manners; but his increasing embarrassment the strangeness of his observations relative to Lady Cecilia his anxiety lest she should entertain an evil idea concerning his absence from home, added to a certain vague rumour which had reached her ears relative to the lightness of that lady's character, all these circumstances, united with the fact of Cecilia having sent so often to request Mr. Tracy to call upon her, suddenly engendered a suspicion of the truth in the house-keeper's mind.
    "Before you go out again, sir," said the house-keeper, wishing to discard that suspicion, and therefore hastening to change the conversation to another topic, "I should mention to you that yesterday afternoon between one and two o'clock Katherine Wilmot arrived here "
    "Indeed! What, so soon?" exclaimed the rector.
    "And as she assured me that you had only a few hours before offered her a situation in your household," continued Mrs. Kenrick, "I did not hesitate to take her in. Besides, she is a good girl, and I am not sorry that she should leave her uncle's roof."
    "Then you approve of my arrangement, Mrs. Kenrick?" said Reginald.
    "Certainly, sir if I have the right to approve or disapprove," answered the old lady, who, in spite of the natural excellence of her heart, was somewhat piqued at not having been previously consulted upon the subject: then, ashamed of this littleness of feeling, she hastily added, "But the poor girl has a sad story to tell, sir, about the way in which she left her uncle; and, with your permission, I will send her up to you."
    "Do so," said the rector, not sorry to be relieved of the presence of his housekeeper, in whose manner his guilty conscience made him see a peculiarity which filled his mind with apprehension.
    In a few minutes Katherine Wilmot entered the rector's study.
    Her story was brief but painful.
    "After you left, sir, I sate thinking upon your very great kindness and that of Mr. Markham, and how happy I should be to have an opportunity of convincing you both that I was anxious to deserve all you proposed to do for me. The hours slipped away; and for the first time I forgot to prepare my uncle's dinner punctually to the minute. I know that I was wrong, sir but I had so much to think about, both past and future! Well, sir, one o'clock struck; and nothing was ready. I started up, and did my best. But in a few minutes my uncle and cousin came in. My uncle, sir, was rather cross-indeed, if I must speak the truth, very cross; because his son had absolutely refused to assist him in his morning's work. I need not say, sir," continued the girl, with a shudder, "what that work was. The first thing my uncle did was to ask if his dinner was ready? I told him the whole truth, but assured him that not many minutes would elapse before it would be ready. You do not want to know, sir, all he said to me; it is quite sufficient to say that he turned me out of doors. I cried, and begged very hard to part from him in friendship for, after all, sir, he is my nearest relation on the face of the earth and, then, he brought me up! But he closed the door, and would not listen to me."
    Katherine ceased, and wiped her eyes.
    The poor girl had said nothing of the terrific beating which the executioner inflicted upon Gibbet the moment they returned home, and then upon Katherine herself before he thrust her out of the house.
    "Have you brought away your mother's letter with you, Katherine?" inquired the rector, who during the maiden's simple narrative, had never taken his eyes off her.
    "My uncle sent round all my things in the evening, by my unfortunate cousin," replied Katherine; "and amongst the rest, my work-box where I keep the letter. It is safe in my possession, sir."
    "Take care of it, Kate," observed the rector; "who knows but that it may some day be of service?"
    "Oh! sir, and even if it should not," ejaculated the girl, "it is at all events the only memento I possess of my poor mother."
    "True you told me so," said Reginald, prolonging the conversation only because the presence of an interesting female had become his sole enjoyment. "And now, my dear," continued the rector, rising from his seat, and approaching her, "be steady conduct yourself well and you will find me a good master."
    "I will not be ungrateful, sir," returned Katherine.
    "And you must endeavour to relieve Mrs. Kenrick of all onerous duties as much as possible," said the rector. "Thus, you had better always answer my bell yourself, when the footman is not in the way."
    "I will make a point of doing so, sir," was the artless reply.
    The rector gave some more trivial directions, and dismissed his new domestic to her duties.
    He then hastened to Tavistock Square, to appease Lady Harborough, whose jealousy, he suspected, had been aroused by his absence from home.    

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