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[-259-] 

CHAPTER CCXV.

THE VOICES IN THE RUINS.

    It would be impossible to conceive the existence of a more wretched woman than Adeline Ravensworth.
    Though wealth and title were hers,  though every luxury and every pleasure were within her reach,  though with jewels of inestimable value she might deck herself at will, and thus enhance her natural charms,  still, still was she the prey to a constant agony of mind which rendered life intolerable.
    For it is not all the wealth of India,  nor all the luxuries and pleasures of oriental palaces,  nor all the diamonds that ever sparkled over the brow of beauty,  it is not these that can impart tranquillity to the soul, nor give peace to the conscience.
    Such was the bitter truth that Adeline was now compelled to acknowledge!
    Shortly after the departure of Colonel Cholmondeley, which occurred at about four o'clock in the afternoon, Lady Ravensworth felt so deeply the want of undisturbed solitude for her meditations and of fresh air to relieve the stifling sensation which oppressed her, that she determined to take along walk through the quiet fields.
    Hastily slipping on a plain straw bonnet and a thick warm shawl, she left the house unperceived by her torturess, Lydia Hutchinson.
    Passing through the spacious gardens at the back of the mansion, she gained the open fields, where the cold fresh breeze somewhat revived her drooping spirits.
    "Heaven grant that the babe which now agitates in my bosom may prove a son!" she thought, as she cast a hasty but proud glance around: "or else the broad lands which I now behold, and the soil on which my feet now tread, will stand but a poor chance of remaining long beneath my control. Yes  they would pass away to one whom I have never seen  whom I have never known save by name  and who could not possibly be supposed to entertain any sympathy for me! But if my babe should prove a boy  if he should live, too  then adieu to all thy hopes and chances, Gilbert Vernon."
    These reflections led to a variety of others  all connected with Adeline's interests or her sorrows.
    So profoundly was she plunged in her painful reverie, and at the same time so invigorated did she feel by the freshness of the air, that she insensibly prolonged her walk until the shades of evening gathered around her.
    She had now reached the ruined remains of a gamekeeper's lodge which marked the boundary of the Ravensworth estate in that direction.
    Feeling a sudden sensation of weariness come over her, she seated herself on a bench which still existed near the dilapidated remnant of the cottage portico.
    Scarcely had she taken that place, when a voice from the other side of the ruined wall caused her to start with sudden affright: but the words that met her ears conquered this first feeling of alarm, and inspired one of curiosity.
    She accordingly lingered where she was; and as the darkness was every moment growing more intense, she knew there was but little danger of being perceived.
    "I tell you that I am a man capable of doing any thing for money," said the voice, in an impatient tone. "If you think there is any squeamishness about me, you are deucedly mistaken. What I have promised you, I will perform, when the time comes, and if there should be a necessity for such a step. I value a human life no more than I do that of a dog. If any one came to me and said, 'There is my enemy, and here is your prize  now go and kill him,' I should just count the money first to see that it was all right, and the remainder of the job would soon be done, I can assure you,"
    "Well  well, I believe you," said another voice, whose deep tones rolled solemnly upon the silence of the dark evening. "To all that you have proposed I must assent  I have gone too far to retreat, But we must now separate."
    "And when shall I see you again?" demanded the first speaker: "because now that you have made me acquainted with the whereabouts, I shall constantly be ascertaining how things go on, and I ought therefore to be able to communicate very often with you. That is  I ought to see you frequently; for I hate doing business by letter."
    "Can you not give me your own private address?' asked the individual with the deep-toned voice; "and then I might call upon you every other evening."
    "Well said," exclaimed the first speaker: then, after a pause, during which Adeline distinctly heard the rustling sound of paper, he said, "Have you got a pencil in your pocket? for I can feel to write a few words in the dark."
    "Yes  here is a pencil," returned the deep-toned voice.
    There was another short pause.
    "All right!" cried the first speaker, at length. "That bit of paper contains the name and address of the most daring fellow that London ever produced," he added with a low chuckle. "Talk of your bravos of Spain or Italy  why, they are nothing to me! And isn't it odd, too, that whenever a rich or great person wants any thing queer done for him, it is sure to be me that he gets hold of somehow or another!"
    "I have no doubt that you enjoy a most extensive patronage," said the deep-toned voice, rather impatiently  and even haughtily. "But we must now separate. The day after to-morrow  in the evening  I shall call upon you."
    "Good: I shall expect you," returned the other.
    The two individuals then separated  each taking a different way; but one came round the angle of the ruined wall, and passed so close to Adeline that she shrank back in a dreadful state of alarm lest her presence there should be discovered;  for, mysterious as was the conversation which she had just overheard, there was one fact which it too intelligibly revealed  and this was the desperate nature of those two men's characters.
    But the individual who passed so closely, did not observe her  for the evening was very dark, and she [-260-] moreover was sitting in the still deeper obscurity of the ruined portico.
    Neither was she enabled to obtain a glimpse of his countenance: the outline of a tall and somewhat stout figure, as he hurried by her, was the extent of the view which she caught of him.
    In a few moments all was again silent: the sounds of the retreating footsteps no longer met her ears.
    She did not immediately leave the ruins: she paused to reflect upon the strange conversation which she had overheard. But all its details were dark and mysterious  save that one man was a wretch who gloried in his readiness to perform any crime for a commensurate reward, and that the other was either his accomplice or his employer in some fearful plot that was in progress.
    There was one expression that had fallen from the lips of the former miscreant, and on which Lady Ravensworth principally dwelt:  "Now that you have made me acquainted with the whereabouts, I shall be constantly ascertaining how things go on."
    Could the whereabouts, or locality, alluded to, have any connexion with that neighbourhood? And, if so, did the observation refer to the Ravensworth estate? Or were the two men merely discussing, in those ruins, matters which regarded some other and totally distinct spot?
    "The latter supposition must be the right one," said Adeline to herself, after a long meditation upon the subject. "The only person in the world who could have any interest in learning 'how things were going on' in this neighbourhood, is Gilbert Vernon; and he is in Turkey. Moreover  even were he in England  he would have no need to spy about in the dark: he is on friendly terms with his brother, and might present himself boldly at the Hall."
    Thus reasoning against the vague and temporary fears which had arisen in her mind, Adeline rose from the bench and was about to retrace her steps homewards, when the moon suddenly appeared from behind a cloud, and its rays fell upon a small white object that lay at the lady's feet.
    She mechanically picked it up:  it was a piece of paper on which she could perceive, by the moonlight, that a few words were written; but she could not decypher them.
    Nevertheless, the mode in which the short lines were arranged struck her with the idea that this paper contained an address; and a natural association of facts immediately encouraged the belief that she held in her hand the one which the self-vaunted bravo had given ere now to his companion, and which the latter might probably have dropped by accident.
    Hastily concealing it in her bosom, Adeline retraced her steps to Ravensworth Hall.
    On her arrival she hurried to her boudoir, lighted the wax tapers, and examined the paper ere she even laid aside her bonnet and shawl.
    Yes  it contained an address; and the words were scrawled as they would be if written in the dark.
    There could, then, be no doubt that this was the address which one of the men had given to his companion in the ruins of the gamekeeper's lodge.
    "It is useful to know that such a villain as this can be hired for money!" muttered Adeline to herself, as she concealed the paper in one of her jewel caskets. "What did he say! That if any one went to him and whispered, 'There is my enemy, and here is your price  now go and kill him,' he would take the bribe and do the deed. And did he not boast that he was employed by the rich and the powerful? In what manner could such persons require his aid? Assuredly in no good cause! Ah! Lydia  Lydia," continued Adeline, her brows contracting and a dark cloud passing over her countenance as she spoke, "be not too confident! You are now in my power!"
    But scarcely was the fearful thought thus implied, when Adeline seemed to recoil from it with horror: for, covering her face with her hands, she almost shrieked out, "No  no! I could not do it!"
    "What can you not do, dearest!" said a low voice close by her ear; and almost at the same instant she was clasped in the arms of Colonel Cholmondeley.
    "Release me  release me!" exclaimed Adeline, struggling to free herself from his embrace.
    "Not till I have imprinted another kiss upon those sweet lips," returned the Colonel: "not till I have made my peace with you, dearest Adeline, in respect to the past:  else wherefore should I have come hither!"
    And as he uttered these words, he glued his lips to hers, although she still continued to resist his insolence to the utmost of her power.
    "Oh! my God!" she murmured in a faint tone "am I to submit to this new indignity!"
    Cholmondeley supported her to the sofa; then, throwing himself at her feet, he took her hands in his, and said in a fervent tone, "Adeline  dearest Adeline, wherefore do you receive me thus coldly? Is it possible that you can have altogether forgotten those feelings which animated our hearts with a reciprocal affection some years ago? But perhaps my conduct  my ungrateful, my ungenerous conduct  has completely effaced all those emotions and excited hatred and disgust instead? Oh! I admit  I acknowledge that my conduct was ungrateful  was ungenerous! I abandoned you at a moment when you most required my counsel  my assistance! But was my fault so grave that it is beyond the possibility of pardon? When I found myself this morning brought by an imperious necessity  or rather by a strange chance  to this mansion, I thought within my breast, "I shall now see Adeline once again: but we must be strangers unto each other. Cold ceremony must separate hearts that once beat in the reciprocities of love.'  And you know, Adeline, with what formal respect I sought to treat you. But when I beheld you so beautiful, and yet so unhappy,  when I saw that the lovely girl had grown into the charming woman,  oh! I was every moment about to dash aside that chilling ceremony and snatch you to my breast. And now, Adeline, will you forgive me?  will you say that you do not quite detest me  even if you cannot call me your lover  your friend!"
    With her head drooping upon her bosom,  with tears trembling upon her long dark lashes,  and with her hands still retained in those of Colonel Cholmondeley, did Adeline listen to this specious appeal.
    The words " your friend" touched a chord which vibrated to her heart's core.
    "Oh! yes  I do require a friend  a friend to advise and console me," she exclaimed; "for I am very  very miserable!"
    [-261-] Cholmondeley was man of the world enough to perceive that his appeal was successful  that his victory was complete; and, seating himself by Adeline's side, he drew her towards him, saying, "I will be your friend, dearest  I will advise you  I will console you. You shall pour forth all your sorrows to me, as if I were your brother: and I swear most solemnly, beloved Adeline, that if it be your wish, I will never seek henceforth to be more to you than a brother!"
    "Oh! if that were true  if I could rely upon your word!" cried Adeline, joyfully.
     "By every sacred obligation with which man can bind himself, do I vow the sincerity of that promise," returned Cholmondeley.
    Then withdrawing his arm from her waist, as a tacit proof of his honourable intentions, but still retaining one of her hands in his own, he looked anxiously in her countenance to read the impression which his words and manner had created.
    "Again I say that if I could believe you, I should think myself happy  nay, blest in your friendship," returned Adeline; "for I am so miserable  so very, very wretched  that I feel the burden of such an existence too heavy to bear. All that has passed between us constitutes a reason to induce me to accept you as my friend, rather than any other;  for I have lately seen so much of the fiend-like disposition of one woman, that I am inclined to abhor the whole sex  yes, even though it be my own! And to you, moreover, I can speak frankly of those causes which have rendered me so very wretched."
    "Speak, dear Adeline  unburden your mind to me," said Cholmondeley, in a low, but tender tone. "I must, however, inform you that I am already acquainted with many of the incidents regarding the connection between Lydia Hutchinson and yourself, from the moment when Lord Dunstable and I so dishonourably wrote to you both to state that we were going abroad. Yes  Adeline, I have learnt how you were extricated from the embarrassments of that situation in which I shamefully left you,  how, in a word, the offspring of our love was born dead and disposed of, and how your reputation was saved through the means of Lydia."
    "You know all those fearful particulars!" exclaimed Lady Ravensworth, profoundly surprised at what she heard.
    "Yes, dearest: for Lydia, some time after she left the school, became the mistress of my friend Dunstable; and she told him all. He related those incidents to me: it was natural that he should do  seeing that we were mutually acquainted with each-other's loves. And, oh! my dearest Adeline," continued the Colonel, "I can well understand how completely that odious woman is enabled to tyrannise over you."
    "And you can also comprehend how much I stand in need of a friend?" said Lady Ravensworth; "for it is hard to be compelled to nurse one's griefs  to conceal one's sorrows  without being able to unburden to a single living soul a heart surcharged with woe."
    "I will be that friend, Adeline," replied Cholmondeley.
    "But, oh! what dangers do I incur by seeing you  by receiving you here!" exclaimed Adeline. "And this thought reminds me that I am even yet ignorant of the means by which you gained access to my chamber."
    "Nay, Adeline," said Cholmondeley, in a tender tone, "do not attempt to disavow the encouragement which you so kindly gave me  and to which you now force me to allude."
    "Encouragement!" repeated Lady Ravensworth, with a tone and manner expressive of unfeigned surprise.
    "Yes, dearest. That key which I found in the post-chaise  and the few words written upon the paper which enveloped it  "
    "My God! there is some fearful mistake in all this!" cried Adeline, seriously alarmed. "But explain yourself  quickly  I conjure you!"
    Cholmondeley was now astonished in his turn; and hastily taking a paper from his pocket he handed it to Lady Ravensworth, saying, "The key was enclosed in this."
    Adeline cast her eyes upon the paper, and read these words:  "The key contained herein belongs to a door on the southern side of Ravensworth Hall: and that door communicates with a private staircase leading to the passage from which my own apartments open. I wish to converse with you in secret  it only for a moment; and though I have taken this imprudent  this unpardonable step, you will surely spare my feelings, should you avail yourself of the possession of the key, by forbearing in my presence from any allusion to the means by which it fell into your hands."
    "Merciful heavens!" ejaculated Adeline, when she had hurriedly glanced over the paper: "I am ruined  I am undone! It must be that fiend Lydia, who has thus paved the way for my utter destruction!"
    There was the wildness of despair in the manner of Lady Ravensworth, as she uttered these words; and Cholmondeley could not for another moment imagine that her distress was feigned.
    "What do you mean, Adeline?" he said: "did you not send me the key?  did you not pen those lines! Surely  surely the handwriting is yours!"
    "As God is my judge, Cholmondeley," she answered, emphatically, "I never sent you the key  I never penned those lines! No  it is Lydia who has done it: she knows my writing well  she has imitated it but too faithfully! Go  fly  depart, Cholmondeley: ruin awaits me  perhaps both!"
    The Colonel dared not delay another moment: the almost desperate wildness of Adeline's manner convinced him that she spoke the truth  that she had not invited him thither.
    "At least let me hope to see you soon again  or to hear from you," he said, imprinting a hasty kiss  upon her forehead.
    "Yes  yes  any thing you will, so that you now leave me," she cried, in a tone of agonising alarm.
    Cholmondeley rushed to the door:  Adeline followed him into the passage, bearing a candle in her hand.
    The reader may conceive the relief which she experienced, when, upon casting a rapid glance up and down, she found that her torturess was not there either to expose her completely, or to triumph over her alarms.
    "Farewell," whispered Cholmondeley; and he disappeared down the staircase.  Adeline remained at the top, until she heard the private door at the bottom carefully open and as gently close.
    Then she breathed more freely, and re-entered her own chamber.
    [-262-] "What could Lydia mean by this perfidious plot?" she murmured to herself, as she sank upon the sofa, exhausted both mentally and bodily. "She was not there to enjoy my confusion; she did not come with the servants to behold what might have been considered the evidence of infidelity towards my husband:  what, then, could she mean?"
    Scarcely had these words passed Adeline's lips, when the door opened, and her torturess entered the room.    

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