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[-211-] 

CHAPTER CXCIX.

THE ORPHAN'S FILIAL LOVE.

    The evening was calm, fresh, and dry: the heavens were covered with stars; and objects were visible at a considerable distance.
    A few minutes before the wished-for hour, Katherine, Ellen, and the farmer reached the hill at the foot of which was the place of appointment.
    Then Kate left them and proceeded alone, while her two friends hastened by a circuitous route to gain a clump of trees which would enable them to remain concealed within a distance of fifty yards of the spot where Kate was to meet the old woman.
    The young girl pursued her way  her heart palpitating with varied emotions,  vague alarm, excited hope, and all the re-awakened convictions of her orphan state.
    She reached the foot of the hill, and in a few minutes beheld a human form emerging, as it were, from the obscurity at a distance-  the dim outline gradually defining itself into a positive shape, and at length showing the figure of the old woman whom she had seen in the morning.
    "You have done well to obey my summons, Miss," said the hag, as she approached the timid and trembling girl, "But let me look well on your countenance  let me be satisfied that it is indeed Katherine Wilmot."
    When Kate turned towards the moon, and parted the light chesnut hair which clustered around her countenance; so that a pure flood of silvery lustre streamed on all the features of that sweetly interesting face  a sight too hallowed for the foul-souled harridan to gaze upon!
    It was as if the veil of the Holy of Holies, in the Jewish temple, were lifted before some being fresh from the grossest pollutions of the world.
    " Yes  I am satisfied!" murmured the hag. "You are Katherine Wilmot  the Katherine whom I saw and recognised this morning. I feared lest your artful friend, Ellen Monroe, less timid than yourself, might have come to play your part."
    Wherefore should you speak ill of Miss Monroe?" inquired Katherine, mildly. "Malicious allusions to my friends will not serve as a passport to my confidence."
    "Well, well," maid the hag, "we will speak no more on that subject. It was for other purposes that I sought this interview. Tell me, Miss  do you remember your mother!"
    "I remember her, with that faint and dim knowledge which consists only of many vague and dubious impressions," replied Kate, in a deeply plaintive tone. "I was but four years of age when God snatched her from me; and it was not until I was old enough to feel her loss, that my memory began to exert itself to the utmost to recall every incident which I could associate with her kindness towards me. For kind she must have been  because every reminiscence which my mind has ever been able to shadow forth concerning her, fills my heart with grateful tenderness and love. Oh! I have sate for hours  in the solitude of my own chamber  endeavouring to fit the volatile ideas which at times flash through my memory in reference to the past,  until I have seemed to connect them in a regular chain;  and then I have fancied that at the end of the vista of years through which my mental glances retrospected, I could define a beautiful but melancholy countenance  the mild blue eyes weeping, and the lips smiling sweetly, over me  the gentle hand smoothing down my hair, and caressing my cheeks,  and all this in a manner so touching, so plaintive, so softly sorrowful, that the picture fills my soul with sad fears lest my mother was not happy! And [-212-] there have been times, too," continued Kate, tears trickling down her cheeks, "when it appeared to me, that I could remember the fervent tenderness with which my mother clasped me in her arms  fondled me  played with me-did all she could to make me laugh  and then wept bitterly, because my infantine joy was so exuberant! Yes  these and many other things of the same kind have I pondered on and treasured up as holy memories of the past;  and then the dread thought has suddenly flashed to my brain, that I have been merely worshipping the images of my own fond creation. At such times, I have gone down upon my knees  I have prayed that these ideas might really be reflections of the long-gone truth,  bright reflections which had been cast in the mirror of my mind during the days of my infancy! Oh! it would grieve me sadly  it would wring my soul with anguish  it would fill my heart with desolation, were I to be led to the fearful conviction that all those pleasing-painful glimpses of my mother's presence and my mother's love are not, the reminiscences of reality, but the creations of a fond and credulous imagination."
    "Your memory has not deceived you, Miss," said the old woman. "Your mother fondled and caressed you  smiled and wept over you, in the manner you have described."
    "Oh! thank you  thank you for that assurance!" exclaimed Katherine, forgetting, in the enthusiasm of her filial, but orphan, love, all her late repugnance to that old woman: "again, I say, thank you! You know not the consolation you have imparted to me! Oh! were it possible to recall from the tomb that dear mother who fondled and caressed me  smiled and wept over me, I would give all the remainder of my life for one day of her presence here  one day of her love! When I think that she is really gone for ever  that no tears and no prayers can bring her back  ah! it seems as if there were an anguish in my heart which no human sympathy can ever soothe. But you knew my mother, then?" added Kate, suddenly; "you knew her  did you not? Oh! tell me of her: I could never weary of hearing you speak of her."
    "Yes  I knew your mother well," was the answer: "I knew her before you were born."
    "And was she happy?" demanded Katherine, trembling at the question she thus put, for fear the reply should not be as she would wish it.
    "She knew happiness  and she was also acquainted with sorrow," said the hag: "but that is the lot of us all  that is the lot of us all!"
    "Poor mother!" murmured the young girl, with a profound sob: "it is then true that, in my infancy, I saw her weep as well as smile! Wherefore was she unhappy? Was she betrayed and neglected? But, oh! I tremble to ask those questions, which  "
    "To explain the cause of her sorrows would be to tell you all her history," answered the old woman; "and, ere I can do that, I have some questions to ask you, and  and some conditions to  to propose."
    The hag hesitated:  yes, even she, with her soul so hardened in the tan-pits of vice, as to be on all other occasions proof against the dews of sympathy,  even she hesitated, as if softened by the ingenuous and holy outpourings of that young orphan's filial love.
    "Speak  say quickly what you require of me," exclaimed Katherine; "and hasten to tell me of my parents  for in your letter you spoke of both my father and my mother."
    As Katherine entertained not the slightest recollection of her father, all her thoughts had ever been fixed on the memory of her mother;  but when she coupled the two names together  when she found her lips pronouncing the sacred denominations of father and mother in the same breath, there arose in her soul such varied and overpowering emotions that she dissolved into a violent agony of weeping.
    But that efflux of tears relieved the surcharged heart of the orphan; and, composing herself as quickly as she could, she exclaimed, "Speak, good woman  name your conditions: I am rich  and they shall be complied with,  so that you hasten to tell me of my parents!"
    "Did your mother leave no papers behind her  no letters  no private documents of any kind?" inquired the old hag.
    "Nothing,  nothing save the fragment of a note which she commenced when in a dying state, and which death did not permit her to finish," answered Katherine.
    "And that fragment  did it suggest no trace  "
    "Stay  I will repeat its contents to you," exclaimed Katherine; "the words are indelibly fixed upon my memory  Oh! how were it possible that I could ever forget them? Those words ran thus:  'Should my own gloomy presages prove true, and the warning of my medical attendant be well founded,  if, in a word, the hand of death be already extended to snatch me away thus in the prime of life, while my darling child is  :' there," continued Katherine, "is a blank, occasioned  alas! by the tears of my poor mother! Two or three lines are thus obliterated; and then appears a short  disjointed  but a most mysterious portion of a sentence, written thus:  'and inform Mr. Markham, whose abode is  .' There's not another word on the paper!" added the orphan.
    "Markham  Markham!" repeated the hag, as it sorely troubled by some reminiscence; "she mentioned the name of Markham in the letter she wrote on her death-bed? Young lady, did you ever hear more of that Mr. Markham?"
    "Inquiries were instituted at my mother's death," replied Kate; "but the Mr. Markham alluded to in the note could not be discovered. The name-the very name, however, seems to be of good omen to me; for one of that name,  who is now a noble of exalted rank, and the commander of a mighty army in a foreign land,  has been my best friend  my benefactor  my saviour. Yes-it is to Richard Markham  "
    "Ah! now I comprehend the cause of your intimacy with Miss Monroe," said the hag, hastily: "she resides with her father at the house of Mr. Richard Markham. And so," she continued in a musing tone,  "and so that same Mr. Richard Markham is your friend  your benefactor?"
    "Oh! what should I have been without him!" ejaculated Katherine. "When I was involved in that fearful situation, of which you have no doubt heard, he was the only one who came to me and said, 'I believe you to be innocent!' May heaven ever prosper him for that boundless philanthropy  that noble generosity which induced him to espouse the orphan's cause! Yes  to him I owed the development of my innocence  the unravelling of that terrible web of circumstantial evidence in which I was [-213-] entangled. He employed an active agent to collect evidence in my favour; and the measures which he adopted led to the results which must be known to you."
    "It is, then, as I thought," said the old woman, scarcely able to subdue a chuckle of delight. "You know but little concerning your mother  and nothing relative to your father."
    "And it is to receive precious communications of those points that I have met you now," exclaimed Katherine. "Let us lose no more time  my friends will grow uneasy at my prolonged absence! Speak  in the name of heaven, speak on a subject so near and dear to my heart."
    "Listen attentively, young miss, to what I am about to say  listen attentively," returned the hag. "Now do not be alarmed at my words: you will see that I am disposed to act well towards you. The man who was with me this morning  ," and here the old woman cast a rapid glance around, and lowered her voice to a whisper,  "that man is a bad one, and he knows I am acquainted with all that concerns your parentage. He is avaricious, and desires to turn my knowledge to a good account."
    "I understand you," said Katherine: "he requires money. But are you influenced by him!"
    "I cannot explain all that, Miss: attend to what I choose to tell you  or may tell you  and you will act wisely," returned the old woman. "He is a desperate man  and I dare not offend him. He wants money; and money he must have  money he must have!"
    "How much will satisfy him!" asked Katherine. "And if I procure the sum that he needs, will you then tell me all you know in connexion with my parents!"
    "Wait a moment  wait a moment, Miss," said the hag. "I am but a poor  miserable  wretched-oppressed  starving creature myself  "
    "Again I understand you," interrupted Katherine, unable to subdue a tone expressive of contempt. "You declare yourself to be the possessor of a secret which nearly and dearly concerns me; and you intend to barter it for gold! But if I meet your demands in all respects,  if I satisfy that man who exercises such influence over you, and if I reward yourself,  what security can you give me that you are really acquainted with those particulars which you offer to communicate? what guarantee can you show that this first concession on my part will not be followed by increased demands on yours!"
    "I will convince you of my good faith," was the old woman's ready reply. "Give me wherewithal to satisfy that man; and the reward you intend for me need not be bestowed until I have told you all I know."
    "How much will that man require?" asked Katherine, wearied by this mercenary trading in matters which to her appeared so sacred.
    ' Give him a hundred pounds:  you are rich and can well afford it  for report says that you inherited the fortune of Reginald Tracy," exclaimed the hag.
    "And for yourself?" said Kate, impatiently.
    "Alack! I am a poor, starving old creature," was the answer; "I am miserable  very miserable! Give me wherewith to make my few remaining days happy  as I shall be able to show you great sources of comfort in the news I have to impart."
    "Listen, now, to me," said Kate, after a moment's hesitation. "I will give you that sum of one hundred pounds to enable you to satisfy the man of whom you speak; and, afterwards  if your communications should really and truly prove a source of comfort to me  I will reward you with a liberality surpassing your most sanguine expectations. But, alas! some delay must take place ere I can procure the funds from the solicitor who has my affairs in his charge; and, oh! I shall know no peace until your lips reveal those secrets which are to prove such sources of comfort to me."
    There was a temporary pause:  the old woman seemed to be reflecting upon the orphan's words, and the young girl herself was rapidly conjecturing of what nature the promised revelations could be. But how vain were all her attempts to assign a satisfactory solution to that enigma which the hag, like some horrible sphynx, had set before her!
    During this prolonged interview the early loveliness of the evening had yielded to one of those sudden variations peculiar to our island-climate at that season of the year:  the sky had become overcast-the moon no longer poured forth a flood of sweet silver lustre to light up the innocent countenance of the maiden, or to mock with its chaste halo the wrinkled expression of the foul hag.
    "But perhaps your solicitor may refuse you the advances which you need?" said the old woman at length.
    "No: he will not cast an obstacle in the way of aught which is to contribute to my happiness," answered Katherine. "I have seen him but twice, and, inexperienced as I am in the ways of life I feel confident that he possesses a kind and generous heart. Oh! if Richard  I mean, the Marquis of Estella  were in England now, I should not be compelled to wait many hours in suspense for the want of this money which you require."
    "The Marquis of Estella!" exclaimed the hag in astonishment: "who is he? and what connexion can he have with you?"
    "Have you not heard or read the news which have doubtless appeared in all the London journals?" inquired Katherine;  " those glorious news-"
    "Alack! dear Miss  I never read a newspaper, said the hag.
    "Then you are ignorant that the Richard Markham of whom we have been speaking, is a great noble  a poet of a foreign realm,  that the coronet of a Marquis has been conferred upon him for his gallant deeds  "
    "Well-a-day! this world sees strange ups and downs!" interrupted the hag. "Ah! Miss  lose no time in satisfying that man who was with me this morning, and I will tell you a secret that will be well worth all the gold you will have to give for its purchase. But what was that noise? did you not hear something!"
    "It seemed to me that there was a rustling along the path," replied Katherine, in a hasty and timid whisper. "Oh! you would not do me any harm-you have not been deceiving me? My God! how cruel would it be to lead the orphan into danger by the allurements of fond hopes respecting the memory of her parents!"
    "Silence, Miss  listen!" said the hag in a subdued but earnest tone: "I mean you no harm."
    Then they both held their breath;  but all was still  not a sound met their ears, save the low mur-[-214-]mur of the breeze which had sprung up within the last few minutes.
    "It is nothing," observed the old woman. "But why should you mistrust me?"
    "Pardon me if I wrong you," returned Kate:"  you are a stranger to me  and, although you may mean to serve me, your proceedings are conducted with so much mystery  so much secrecy  that I must be forgiven if vague suspicions-"
    "I know it  I know it," interrupted this old woman; and after a short pause, she added, "Yes  I will ensure your confidence, Miss; and then you will understand my sincerity. That man who was with me this morning discovered your place of abode at my desire. He demanded to be present at our interview; but I refused  for reasons of my own. I assured him I would speak to you alone, or not at all. I was therefore compelled, this morning, in his presence, to insist on having none by to overhear the business that made me seek you; and the same reason forced me to stipulate that you should meet me this evening unaccompanied by any of your friends. For if I had permitted one to be present at our interview, then there was no reason to exclude another; and that man might have insisted on being a witness as well as any companion of yours."
    "If that be the only reason for this mystery," observed Katherine, considerably relieved by the old woman's explanation, "you cannot object to Miss Monroe accompanying me on the next occasion of our meeting."
    "No," answered the old woman; "that may not be, for the man who is to be satisfied with money will watch me at a distance when we meet again. But, afterwards  at any future interview that may be necessary  Miss Monroe may accompany you."
    "I understand you," said Kate. "To-morrow evening I will meet you again  here-and at the same hour. I shall then doubtless be prepared to give you the amount necessary to satisfy that man's avarice; and his interference will be disposed of. It will afterwards remain for you to satisfy me  and for me to reward you."
    "Agreed, young lady  agreed!" answered the old woman. "We have now no more to say  except," she added, as a sudden thought struck her,  "except that, should the man insist on speaking to you to-morrow evening, you need not tell him that you have any intention of bestowing a separate recompense on me."
    "I hope that he will not dare to approach me," said Katherine, indignantly; "and, were he to force his disagreeable presence upon me, I should scarcely permit myself to be catechised by him."
    "'T is well, Miss," returned the hag, apparently well pleased with the resolute manner of the young orphan.
    They then separated.
    The old woman went one way; and Katherine proceeded direct to the clump of trees where Ellen and the farmer were concealed;  for it was now so dark that there was no fear of the direction she took being observed.
    It may be naturally supposed that Ellen and Mr. Bennet were deeply anxious to be made acquainted with the particulars of an interview concerning which they had some few misgivings.
    On the return of the trio to the farm-house, they round Mrs. Bennet very uneasy on Kate's account. The appearance of the young maiden re-assured the good-hearted woman; and Katherine then gave a detailed account of all that had passed between herself and the hag.
    The impression produced was, that there was really a legitimate foundation for the old woman's proceedings, and that she was actually possessed of secrets touching Kate's parentage. The agreement that the recompense was only to be awarded to her after she had made the promised communications, was considered a proof of good faith; and Kate's promise to supply the sum demanded in the first instance to satisfy the avarice of the Resurrection Man, met with the approval of her friends.
    "To-morrow, then," said Kate, "I must repair to London, and procure the necessary funds from Mr. Wharton. You will accompany me, Ellen!"
    "That journey is not requisite," observed the farmer. "Mr. Wharton would demand an explanation of the business for which the money is intended; and he would only view it with the calm and severe eye of a lawyer. He might even go so far as to insist upon having those persons arrested as extortioners. He might not fully appreciate your filial anxiety, Kate, to risk every chance to know more of the authors of your being. I can well comprehend your feelings; and, after all, the venture is but a hundred pounds  for the old woman is to make her revelations before she receives a recompense. No  you shall say nothing to Mr. Wharton on the subject. I am going to London to-morrow; and on my return I will supply you with the sum required."
    It is needless to say that Katherine expressed her gratitude to Mr. Bennet for his goodness; and Ellen readily promised to stay at the farm for a day or two longer, until the pending mysteries should be cleared up. Mr. Bennet moreover undertook to call at Markham Place, with a note from Ellen to relieve Mr. Monroe of any anxiety which he might feel on her account, as her absence from home would be protracted beyond the time originally contemplated.    

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