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[-382-] 

CHAPTER CCXLVII.

THE STRANGER WHO DISCOVERED THE CORPSE.

    PERHAPS there is no other cry in the world, save that of "fire!" more calculated to spread terror and dismay, when falling suddenly and unexpectedly upon the ears of a party of revellers, than that of "A corpse! a corpse!"
    Before a single question can be put, or a word of explanation be given, each one who hears that ominous announcement revolves a thousand dread conjectures in his mind: for although that cry might in reality herald nothing more appalling than a case of sudden death from natural causes, yet the imagination instinctively associates it with the foulest deed of treachery and murder.
    Such was the case in the present instance.
    The entire party started from their seats; and the smiles that were a moment before upon their countenances gave place to looks of profound horror and intense curiosity.
    The feelings thus denoted did not experience any mitigation from the inquiring glances that were cast towards the gardener; for the entire appearance of the old man was far more calculated to augment than diminish the alarm which his strange cry had originated. His eyes rolled wildly in their sockets  his quivering lips were livid  his frame seemed to be influenced by one continuous shudder, and his breath came with difficulty.
    In fact, the mysterious sounds of footsteps in the passage had worked up his feelings, already greatly moved by the discovery and exhumation of the rotting carcass of a female, to a degree of excitement doubly painful to behold in one so bowed with the weight of years as he; and he sank into a seat, as we have before said, in a state of almost complete exhaustion.
    The wine that Egerton compelled him to swallow partially restored him; and in the course of a few minutes he was enabled to relate the particulars which we have succinctly placed before the reader.
    The ladies were cruelly shocked by the narrative that thus met their eyes; and they one and all declared that nothing should ever again induce them to visit a place into possession of which their relative seemed to have entered under the most inauspicious circumstances. They also requested to be taken back to London with the least possible delay; and Sir Rupert Harborough, with his friend Chichester, hastened to give the servants orders to get the vehicles ready.
    Mrs. Bustard and her daughters retired into an ante-room to put on their bonnets and shawls: Egerton, Dunstable, Cholmondeley, and Tedworth Jones remained standing round the chair on which the old gardener was still seated.
    "This is a most extraordinary thing,' said Dunstable, after a pause, during which he had reflected profoundly: then, addressing himself to his friend the Colonel, he asked in a serious tone, "Does not the strange discovery just made remind you of something that I mentioned to you nearly two years ago?"
    I recollect!" cried the Colonel: "you allude to the mysterious disappearance of Lydia Hutchinson.
    "I do," answered the nobleman. "That event occurred while I was lying wounded in this house."
    "Ah! I heerd of it, to be sure!" said the gardener. "But I was down in the country when all them things took place  I was there for some months. Do you think  "
    "No  it could not be!" interrupted Dunstable. "for it was well known at the time that Lydia decamped with Lady Ravensworth's jewel-box."
    Colonel Cholmondeley turned away, and said nothing: he remembered the evidences of desperate enmity between Adeline and Lydia, which had come within his own cognisance; and a vague  a very vague, distant, and undefined suspicion that the corpse just discovered might indeed be that of Lydia Hutchinson, entered his mind. But he speedily banished it: for the idea that Lady Ravensworth could have had any thing to do with the murder of Lydia did not seem tenable for a moment.
    "As your lordship says," observed the old gardener, after a long pause, and now addressing himself to Dunstable, "it can't have any thing to do with that young o'oman [-sic-] who was here a few weeks as my lady's maid  'cos it's well knowed that she bolted off with the jewel-casket, as your lordship says."
    Here Cholmondeley advanced towards Dunstable, took him by the arm, and, leading him aside, Said in a hasty whisper, "Let us leave this matter where it is. Should the body just discovered be really that of Lydia Hutchinson, who disappeared so strangely, it would be very annoying for us to have to explain to a Coroner's jury all we know about her and Lady Ravensworth."
    "Truly so," answered Dunstable. "And, after all, it is no affair of ours."
    This understanding being arrived at, the nobleman and his friend returned to the table, where they helped themselves to some champagne to allay, as they said, the disagreeable sensations produced by the sudden interruption which their mirth had experienced.
    The day seemed to be marked out by destiny as one on which various adventures were to occur in respect to the excursion party to Ravensworth Hall.
    It will be remembered that Sir Rupert Harborough and Chichester had left the drawing-room for the purpose of seeing the vehicles got ready with the least possible delay.
    The two friends  whom the associated roguery of many years had rendered as intimate as even brothers could be  proceeded down stairs, and, after some little trouble, found their way to the servants' offices. Guided by a sound of voices, they threaded a passage, and at length found themselves on the threshold of the room where the gardener's wife, the stranger who had first discovered the body, the seedy coachman, the lacquey, and the groom, were still discussing the incident that had so recently occurred.
    But the moment that thus two gentlemen appeared [-383-] at the door, the stranger started from his seat, exclaiming in a loud tone, "Well met, I declare! You're the very identical men I've long been wanting to see!"
    And, putting his arms akimbo, he advanced towards them in a manner which appeared extremely free and independent in the eyes of the lacqueys.
    "Ah! my good friend Talbot!" cried the baronet, for a moment thrown off his guard, but speedily recovering himself: "upon my honour I am delighted to see you!"
    "So am I  quite charmed to find you looking so well!" exclaimed Chichester.
    "No thanks to either of you, howsomever," said the individual thus addressed, and without appearing to notice the hands that were extended to him.  "But you know as well as I do that my name isn't Talbot at all; it's Bill Pocock  and, I may add, too, without telling a lie, that it's now honest Bill Pocock."
    "Well, my dear Pocock," exclaimed Chichester, with a glance that implored his forbearance, "I am really quite happy to see you. But we will step out into the garden, and just talk over a few little matters  "
    "Oh! gentlemen," said the gardener's wife, coming forward, "you're quite welcome to step into our little parlour t'other side of the passage  if so be you have any thing private to talk about."
    "Thank you  that will exactly suit us," returned Chichester, hastily: and, taking Pocock's arm, he drew him into the room thus offered for their privacy.
    The baronet remained behind for a few moments, to give the necessary instructions to the servants relative to preparing the vehicle; and, this being done, he rejoined Chichester and Pocock.
    When the trio were thus assembled in the gardener's little parlour, Pocock said, "So I find you two chaps still pursuing the old game. Got in with a young cit named Egerton  and all his relations  eh? Pretty goings on, I've no doubt."
    "Only just in a friendly way, my dear fellow," exclaimed Chichester. "But you stated that you had been looking for me and Harborough for a long time?"
    "Yes  I was anxious enough to see you both," returned Pocock: "and I'll tell you the reason why. You remember that night  some few years ago-when you two got such a precious wolloping at the Dark House in Brick Lane, Spitalfields?"
    "Well  well," said the baronet: "go on."
    "Oh! I see you haven't forgot it! You also know that on that same night the very young man whom we all ruined, was present  I mean Richard Markham."
    "Yes  to be sure. But what of that?" demanded Chichester.
    "Why  I gave him a paper, drawed up and signed by myself  plain William Pocock, and none of your aristocratic Talbots."
    "And that paper?" said the baronet, anxiously.
    "Contained a complete confession of the whole business that brought him into trouble," continued Pocock. "But he pledged himself not to use it to my prejudice; and that's the reason why you never heard of it in a legal way. On that same occasion he put a fifty-pound note into my hand, saying, 'Accept this as a token of my gratitude and a proof of my forgiveness; and endeavour to enter an honest path. Should you ever require a friend, do not hesitate to apply to me.  Those was his words; and they made a deep impression on me. Yes  gentlemen, and I did enter an honest path," continued Pocock, proudly: "and that money prospered me. I returned to my old business as an engraver  I left off going to public-houses  I worked hard, and redeemed my character with my old employers. Since that night at the Dark House all has gone well with me. I have never applied to my benefactor  because I have never required a friend, But I have prayed for him morning and evening  yes, gentlemen, prayed! I know that this may sound strange in your ears: it is nevertheless true  and I am not ashamed to own it And while that faultless young man was pursuing his glorious career in a foreign land, there was an obscure but grateful individual in London who wept over his first reverses, but who laughed, and sang, and danced for joy when the newspapers brought the tidings of his great battles. And that individual was myself: for he was my saviour  my guardian angel  my benefactor! Instead of heaping curses upon me, he had spoken kind words of forgiveness and encouragement: instead of spurning me from his presence, he had given me money, and told me to look upon him as my friend! My God! such a man as that can save more souls and redeem more sinners than all the Bishops that ever wore lawn sleeves! I adore his very name  I worship him  I am as proud of his greatness as if he was my own son; and all Prince though he now is, did it depend upon me, he should wear a crown."
    And as he spoke, the grateful man's voice became tremulous with emotions; and the big tears rolled down his cheeks.
    There was at that moment something so commanding  something so superior about even this vulgar individual, that Chichester and Harborough found themselves unable to reply to him i that strain of levity with which they would have gladly sought to sneer away his eulogies of one whom they hated and feared.
    "Yes," continued Pocock: "all I possess i the world I owe to the Prince of Montoni. I am now at my ease- live i my own house, bought with my own hard-earned money-I can even afford to take a little pleasure, or an occasional ramble, as I was doing just now when accident brought me here. And, what is more, I always have a five-pound note to assist a friend. You cannot wonder, then, if I worship the very name of that man who from a comparatively humble rank has raised himself to such a proud height by his valour and his virtues."
    "But what has all this to do with your anxiety to see the baronet and me?" inquired Chichester, in a tone displaying little of its wonted assurance.
    "A great deal," answered Pocock. "I only want an opportunity to show the Prince how grateful I am to him; and for that reason have I looked out for you. Great, powerful, and rich as he now is, the memory of the past cannot oppress him; but still it would be satisfactory to his noble mind to receive from both of you the same confession of his innocence that he has had from me."
    "What?" cried the baronet and Chichester together, as they exchanged troubled glances.
    "Yes-you know what I mean," said Pocock; "and you dare not refuse me. Although it is my duty, perhaps, to step up stairs and quietly explain [-382-] to the people there what kind of acquaintances they have got in you, yet the honour of the Prince is uppermost with me; and I will not expose you if you at once write out and sign a paper saying that he was innocent and you was the guilty cause of his misfortunes."
    "Impossible!" cried Harborough.
    "He would transport us!" ejaculated Chichester, turning deadly pale.
    "And no great harm if he did," said the engraver, drily. "But consideration for me will prevent his punishing you. So if you value the friendship of your chums up stairs  "
    "It would never do to be shown up before them/" whispered the baronet with desperate emphasis to Chichester, whom he drew partially aside for a moment.
    "You will pledge yourself not to show to any one, save the Prince, the paper you require of us?" asked Chichester of the engraver.
    "When once you've given me that paper, I want to know nothing more of you or your pursuits," replied Pocock.
    The two gentlemen exchanged a few hurried whispers, and then signified their assent to the arrangement proposed; for they found Egerton's purse too useful a means to have recourse to at pleasure, to allow them to risk the loss of their influence over him.
    There were writing-materials in the room where the above conversation took place; and the document was speedily drawn up. Chichester wrote it under the supervision of Pocock, who would not allow him to abate one single tittle of all the infamy which characterised the proceedings that had engendered the misfortunes of Richard Markham.
    The paper was then duly signed, and delivered into the hands of the engraver.
    "Now that this little business is settled," said he, "perhaps you two gentlemen will just allow me to observe that I have found an honest way of life much happier than a dishonest one, and quite as easy to pursue, if you only have the will; but whether you'll profit by this advice or not, is more than I can say  and certainly much more than I should like to answer for."
    With these words Pocock took his departure, the dog following close at his heels.
    Chichester and Harborough exchanged looks expressive of mingled vexation and contempt, and then returned to the drawing-room.
    The vehicles were almost immediately afterwards driven round to the principal entrance; and the company were on the point of leaving the apartment where the festivities had been so unpleasantly interrupted, when an ejaculation which escaped the lips of Colonel Cholmondeley, who was gazing from the window, caused them all to hasten to the casements.
    A travelling barouche was rapidly approaching the mansion!

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