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[-319-] 

CHAPTER CCXXXII. 

SCENES AT RAVENSWORTH HALL.

    IT was about five o'clock in the afternoon of the same day on which the interview between George Montague Greenwood and the Honourable Gilbert Vernon took place, that a post-chaise advanced rapidly through Ravensworth Park, towards the Hall.
    In a few minutes it stopped at the principal entrance of the mansion; and the Honourable Mr. Vernon alighted.
    Quentin, who received him, made some inquiry in a respectful tone concerning his baggage.
    "My valet will be here in the evening with my trunks," replied Vernon, abruptly.
    Thus, without committing himself by a positive assertion, he led Quentin and the other domestics who were present to infer that he had only just arrived in England, and had left his servant in London to clear his baggage at the Custom-House.
    Quentin bowed as he received that answer, and hastened to conduct Mr. Vernon to the drawing-room where Lady Ravensworth was seated.
    The widow and her brother-in-law now met for the first time.
    Vernon saw before him a young and beautiful woman, very pale, and with a countenance whose expression denoted much suffering  mental rather than physical. It was true that she had only lately become a mother,  that little more than a month had elapsed since she had given birth to an heir to the proud title and broad lands of Ravensworth;  and though the pallor of her face was the natural consequence of so recent an event, yet the physical languor which usually follows also, had given place to a nervousness of manner  a restlessness of body  a rapid wandering of the eyes  and an occasional firm compression of the lips, which indicated an uneasy mind.
    Alas! upon that woman's soul lay a crime heavy and oppressive as a weight of lead! The voice of the murdered Lydia was ever ringing in her ears;  the countenance of the murdered Lydia was ever staring her in the face  ghastly, distorted, and livid in appearance;  the form of the murdered Lydia was ever standing before her! At night the spectre placed itself between the opening of the curtains, and seemed more palpable  more horrible  more substantial in the hours of darkness.
    No wonder, then, that her mind was restless  that her manner was nervous  and that her looks were wandering and unsettled!
    But let us continue the thread of our narrative, taking it up at the moment when the Honourable Gilbert Vernon entered the apartment where Lady Ravensworth rose to receive him.
    Extending her hand towards him, she said, "Welcome to this mansion: it is kind of you to answer so speedily in person the letters which it was my painful duty to address to you at Beyrout."
    These words reassured Vernon on one important point: they proved that letters had been sent, conveying the intelligence of his brother's death.
    "Accept my gratitude for the cordiality with which you receive me, sister  for such you will permit me to call you," answered Vernon; "and believe me  . But, good God! what ails you? what is the matter, Lady Ravensworth? You are ill  you  "
    "That voice  that voice!" shrieked Adeline, staggering towards a chair, on which she sank helplessly. "Oh! Mr. Vernon  "
    Gilbert was astounded at the affrighted manner and strange ejaculations of his sister-in-law;  but, seeing that she was on the point of fainting, he snatched from the table a small bottle of powerful scent, and handed it to her.
    She inhaled the perfume, which acted as a slight restorative; but it was chiefly to the natural rigour of her mind, and to the imperious necessity in which dread circumstances had placed her of constantly maintaining as much command over herself as possible, that she was indebted for her almost immediate recovery from the state into which sudden surprise and profound alarm had thrown her.
    "Perhaps your ladyship is desirous that I should withdraw?" said Vernon. "There many be some-[-320-]thing in my countenance  my manner  or my voice that recalls to your mind painful reminiscences of my lately-departed brother:  it is natural that you should experience these feelings;  and I will leave you for the present."
    "No, Mr. Vernon  stay!" exclaimed Adeline, in a tone which denoted the most painful excitement and agitation.
    "Compose yourself, then: attempt not to pursue the conversation immediately," said Gilbert; "for as  with your permission  it is my intention to become your guest for a few weeks  "
    "My guest!" repeated Adeline, with a shudder.
    "Really, my dear sister," exclaimed Vernon, somewhat impatiently; "I am at a loss to understand the meaning of this excitement on your part. It is not caused by those reminiscences to which I ere now alluded: it begins to assume the aspect of aversion towards myself. Pardon me if I speak thus plainly; but if I be indeed hateful to you  if slanderous tongues have wronged me in your estimation  if even my own brother were cruel enough to malign me to his wife  "
    "Mr. Vernon," interrupted Adeline, with a kind of feverish haste, "your conjectures will never lead you to discover the true cause of that agitation which I could not conquer, and which has offended you. The moment you addressed me, I was seized with a strange surprise  a wild alarm; and those feelings still influence me to some extent,  for methinks that I have heard your voice before!"
    And she fixed her eyes in a penetrating manner upon his countenance.
    "It may be," answered Vernon, quailing not beneath that look  for he had so desperate a part to play at Ravensworth Hall, that he knew how much depended upon a self-command and a collectedness of ideas that might avert suspicion,  "it may be, sister, that some years ago  ere I left England  we met in those circles in which we both move by right of birth and social position; and, although I do not remember that I ever had the pleasure of seeing you until now, still such a meeting may have occurred, and your mind may have retained certain impressions  "
    "No, Mr. Vernon," again interrupted Adeline; "that surmise  even if correct  will not account for the cause of my agitation. To speak candidly, my impression was  and still is,  and yet," she added, suddenly recollecting herself, "if that impression should be indeed erroneous, I should insult you  insult you grossly by explaining it  "
    "Proceed, dear sister," said Vernon, gaining additional assurance, in proportion as Lady Ravensworth hesitated. "State to me candidly the impression which you received; and I will as candidly answer you."
    "Yes  I will tell you the reason of that excitement which nearly overcame me," cried Adeline, whose suspicions were robbed of much of their strength by the calm and apparently open manner of her brother-in-law.
    "And believe me when I declare that I shall readily pardon you, however injurious to myself may be the impression my voice has unfortunately made upon you. I can make ample allowances for one who has lately lost a beloved husband, and whose anxieties have been increased by the duties of maternity," added Gilbert.
    "In one word, then, Mr. Vernon," continued Adeline, "it struck me that on a certain evening  in the month of February  I heard your voice,  yes, your voice in conversation with another person, in a ruined cottage which stands on the verge of the Ravensworth estate."
    And, as she spoke, she again studied his countenance with the most earnest attention.
    Desperate was the effort which the guilty man exerted over the painful excitement of feeling which this declaration produced within him:  in a moment he recalled to mind all the particulars of his meeting with the Resurrection Man at the ruined lodge; and he also remembered that he had lost on the same occasion the scrap of paper on which was written the address of his terrible agent in crime. But he did succeed in maintaining a calm exterior:  steadily he met the searching glance fixed upon him;  and though his heart beat with fearful emotions, not a muscle of his countenance betrayed the agitation that raged within his breast.
    "My dear sister," said Vernon, in a cool and collected tone, "you are labouring under a most extraordinary delusion. Think you that there is not another voice in the world like mine? Believe me, had I been in this country at the time to which you allude, I should have only felt too much rejoiced to have paid my respects to you at an earlier period than the present."
    Adeline listened to the deep tones of that voice which now rolled upon her ear like a perpetuation of the echoes of the one which she had heard in the ruins;  and she was still staggered at the resemblance! She also remembered that, in spite of the darkness of the night, she had on that occasion caught a glimpse of the tall and somewhat stout form which had passed near her, and which she knew not to have been that of the Resurrection Man, whom she had since seen:  and she was bewildered more and more.
    But the calmness with which Vernon denied the circumstance of being in England at that time,  the steady, honest manner with which he declared that she was labouring under a delusion in identifying his voice with the one she had heard in the ruined lodge,  and the absence of any motive which she could conjecture for his maintaining his presence in this country (even were he really here at the period alluded to) so profoundly secret.  these arguments staggered her still more than even her contrary suspicions.
    On his side, Vernon was congratulating himself on the evident embarrassment of his sister-in-law; and he felt convinced that the sound of his voice alone  and nothing that had passed between him and Tidkins in the ruined cottage  had produced an impression upon her.
    "You will then forgive me for a momentary suspicion that was injurious to you!" said Adeline, after a short pause, and now adopting the only course open to her in the matter.
    "I have come to England to form your acquaintance  your friendship,  to see if I can be of service to you in the position in which my brother's death and the birth of a son have placed you,  to aid you in the settlement of any affairs which may require the interference of a relative," answered Vernon; "for these purposes have I come  and not to vex you by taking umbrage at impressions which, however painful to me, are pardonable on the side of one in your situation."
    [-321-] 

"Then let us banish from our conversation the disagreeable topic which has hitherto engrossed it," exclaimed Adeline. "It is my duty to give you some information in respect to certain matters; and the family solicitor will, when you may choose to call upon him, enter into more elaborate details. You are aware that your poor brother died ere his child was born. But so far back as last November his lordship made a will the provisions of which were so prudentially arranged as to apply to the welfare of either male or female progeny, whichever might be accorded by Providence. Two distinguished noblemen are now my son's guardians, under that will, and consequently the trustees of the entailed estate."
    Vernon bit his lip with vexation.
    "In reference to his personal property," continued Adeline, "my lamented husband has left me sole executrix."
    A dark cloud passed over the countenance of the brother-in-law.
    "But, by a special clause in his will," added Lady Ravensworth, who did not observe those manifestations of feeling on the part of Gilbert Vernon, "your deceased brother has ensured in your behalf double the amount of that pension which has hitherto been paid to you."
    "Thus my brother deemed me unworthy to be the guardian of his child;  he also considered it prudent to exclude me from any share in the duty of carrying his wishes into effect;  and he has provided me with a pittance of one thousand pounds a-year."
    In spite of the necessity of maintaining the most complete self-command over himself, in order to carry out his plans successfully, Gilbert Vernon could not avoid those bitter observations whisk showed how deeply he was galled at the total want of confidence displayed in respect to him by his deceased brother.
    Adeline felt that the point was a delicate one, and made no reply.
    Fortunately for them both, each being much embarrassed by the present topic of discourse, a servant now entered to announce that dinner was served up.
    Gilbert Vernon and Lady Ravensworth accordingly repaired to the dining-room.
    [-322-] We may here observe that Lord Dunstable and Mr. Graham had left the mansion some weeks previously, the young nobleman having recovered from the wound which he had received in the duel.
    When dinner was over, Vernon and his sister-in-law returned to the drawing-room, where coffee was served up. Adeline directed that the infant heir  then scarcely more than a month old  should be brought in, Gilbert having hypocritically expressed a desire to see his newly-born nephew. The request was granted:  the nurse made her appearance with the babe; and Vernon passed upon it the usual flattering encomiums which are so welcome to a mother's ears.
    But there was no falsehood in those praises,  however insincere might be the manner in which they were uttered  for the infant was a remarkably fine one, and appeared sweetly interesting as it slept in the nurse's arms.
    Vernon flattered the mother's vanity so adroitly, by distant but by no means unintelligible allusions to her own good looks, as he spoke of the child, that she began to consider him a far more agreeable man than she had at first supposed he could possibly prove to be.
    Shortly after the nurse had retired with the child Quentin entered the drawing-room, and, addressing himself to Vernon, said, "Your valet has just arrived, sir, with your baggage."
    "If her ladyship will permit me," returned Gilbert, "I will withdraw for a few moments to give my servant some instructions."
    "I am about to retire to my own chamber, Mr. Vernon," observed Adeline, "and shall leave you in undisturbed possession of this apartment. Your valet can therefore wait upon you here."
    Quentin withdrew for the purpose of sending Mr. Vernon's domestic to the drawing-room; and Lady Ravensworth, having remained for a few moments to finish her coffee, also retired.
    On the landing she heard hasty steps approaching, and almost immediately afterwards Quentin appeared, followed by the Honourable Gilbert Vernon's valet.
    They passed Lady Ravensworth as she was about to ascend the stairs leading from the brilliantly lighted landing to the floor above.
    But  O horror!  was it possible?  did her eyes deceive her?  was she the sport of a terrible illusion?
    No  a second glance at the countenance of the false valet was sufficient to confirm the appalling suspicion which the first look in that direction had suddenly excited within her.
    For his was a countenance which, once seen  if only for a moment  could never be forgotten;  and, in Spite of the new suit of complete black which he wore,  in spite of the care that had been bestowed upon his person,  in spite of the pains which a Globe Town barber had devoted to his usually matted hair,  it was impossible not to recognise in this individual so disguised, the instrument of Adeline's own crime  the terrible Resurrection Man!

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