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[-51-]

CHAPTER XX.

THE VILLA.

AGAIN the scene changes. Our readers must accompany us once more to the villa in the neighourhood of Upper Clapton. 
    It was the evening of the day on which was perpetrated the dreadful deed related in the preceding chapter. The curtains were drawn over the dining-room windows; a cheerful fire burned in the grate; and a lamp, placed in the middle of the table, diffused a pleasant and mellowed light around. An [-52-] air of comfort, almost amounting to luxury, pervaded that apartment ; and its general temperature was the better appreciated, as the wind whistled without, and the rain pattered against the windows.
    At the table, on which stood a dessert of delicious fruits, conserves, cakes, and wines, sate Walter Sydney and George Montague.
    They had now been acquainted nearly three months; and during that period they had met often. Montague had, however, seldom called at the villa, save when expressly invited by his friend Stephens: still, upon those occasions, he and Walter were frequently alone for some time together. Thus, while Stephens was examining into the economy of the stables, or superintending improvements in the garden, Montague and that mysterious lady in man's attire, were thrown upon their own resources to entertain each other.
    The reader cannot be surprised if an attachment sprung up between them. So far as that lovely woman was concerned, we can vouch that her predilection towards George Montague was the sincere and pure sentiment of a generous and affectionate heart. How worthy of such a passion his own feelings on the subject might have been, must appear hereafter.
    The masculine attire and habits which the lady had assumed, had not destroyed the fine and endearing characteristics of her woman's heart. She was at first struck by Montague's handsome person ;- then his varied conversation delighted her ;-and, as he soon exerted all his powers to render himself agreeable to the heroine of the villa, it was not long before he completely won her heart.
    The peculiarity of her position had taught her - and necessarily so - to exercise an almost complete command over the expression of her feelings. Thus, though an explanation had taken place between her. self and Montague, and a mutual avowal of affection made, Stephens remained without a suspicion upon the subject.
    On the evening when we again introduce our readers to the villa, Montague was there by the express desire of Mr. Stephens; but this latter individual had been detained by particular business elsewhere. Walter - for so we must continue to call that mysterious being - and Montague had therefore dined tête-à-tête; and they were now enjoying together the two or three pleasant hours which succeed the most important meal of the day.
    The plans of the lovers will be comprehended by means of the ensuing conversation, better than if drily detailed in our own narrative style:-
     "Another fortnight - two short weeks only," said the lady "and "the end of this deception will have arrived."
    "Yes - another fortnight," echoed Montague; "and everything will then be favourable to our wishes. The 26th of November —"
    "My poor brother, were he alive, would be of age on the 25th," observed the lady, mournfully.
    "Of course - precisely!" ejaculated Montague. "On the 26th, as I was saying, Stephens's plans will be realized; and you will be worth ten thousand pounds."
    "Oh! it is not so much for the money that I shall welcome that day: but chiefly because it will be the last on which I shall be doomed to wear this detestable disguise."
    "And shall not I be supremely happy to leave this land with you - to call you my own dear beloved wife - and to bear you away to the sunny climes of the south of Europe, whore we may live in peace, happiness, and tranquillity to the end of our days?"
    "What a charming - what a delicious picture!" ejaculated the lady, her bosom heaving with pleasurable emotions beneath the tight frock which confined it. "But-oh! if the plans of Mr. Stephens should fail ;- and that they might fail, I am well assured, for he has often said to me, Pray be circumspect, Walter: you know not how much depends upon your discretion!"
    "Those plans will not - cannot fail!" cried Montague emphatically. "He has told me all - and everything is so well arranged, so admirably provided for!"
    "He has told you everything," said the lady, reproachfully; "and he has told me nothing."
    "And I dare not enlighten you."
    "Oh! I would not hear the secret from your lips. I have a confidence the most blind - the most devoted in Mr. Stephens; and I feel convinced that he must have sound reasons for keeping me thus in the dark with reference to the principal motives of the deception which I am sustaining. I know, moreover - at least, he has declared most solemnly to me, and I believe his word - that no portion of his plan militates against honour and integrity. He is compelled to meet intrigue with intrigue; but all his proceedings are justifiable. There can be no loss of character - no danger from the laws of the country. In all this I am satisfied - because a man who has dons so much for me and my poor deceased mother, would not lead me astray, nor involve me either in disgrace or peril."
    "You are right," said Montague. "Stephens is incapable of deceiving you."
    "And more than all that I have just said," continued Walter, "I am aware that there is an immense fortune at stake; and that should the plans of Mr. Stephens fully succeed, I shall receive ten thousand pounds as a means of comfortable subsistence for the remainder of my life."
    "And that sum, joined to what I possess, and to what I shall have," added Montague, "will enable us to live in luxury in a foreign land. Oh! how happy shall I be when the time arrives for me to clasp you in my arms - to behold you attired in the garb which suits your sex, and in which I never yet have seen you dressed  - and to call you by the sacred and endearing name of WIFE! How beautiful must you appear in those garments which -"
    "Hush, George - no compliments!" cried the lady, with a smile and a blush. "Wait until you see me dressed as you desire; and, perhaps, then - then, you may whisper to me the soft and delicious language of love."
    The time-piece upon the mantel struck eleven: and Montague rose to depart.
    It was an awful night. The violence of the wind had increased during the last hour; and the rain poured in torrents against the windows.
    "George, it is impossible that you can venture out in such weather as this," said the lady, in a frank and ingenuous manner: "one would not allow a dog to pass the door on such a night. Fortunately there is a spare room in my humble abode; and that chamber is at your service."
    Walter rang the bell, and gave Louisa the necessary instructions.
    In another half-hour Montague was conducted to the apartment provided for him, and Walter retired [-53-] to the luxurious and elegant boudoir which we have before described.
    The satin curtains were drawn over the casement against which the rain beat with increasing fury: a cheerful fire actually roared in the grate; and the thick carpet upon the floor, the inviting lounging-chair close by the hearth, and the downy couch with its snow-white sheets and warm clothing, completed the air of comfort which prevailed in that delicious retreat. The vases of sweet flowers were no longer there, it was true; but a fragrant odour of bergamot and lavender filled the boudoir. Nothing could be more charming than this warm, perfumed, and voluptuous chamber - worthy of the lovely and mysterious being who seemed the presiding divinity of that elysian bower.
    Walter threw herself into the easy-chair, and dismissed her attendant, saying, "You may retire, Louisa,- I will undress myself without your aid to-night; for as yet I do not feel inclined to sleep. I shall sit here, before this cheerful fire, and indulge in the luxury of hopes and future prospects, ere I retire to rest."
    Louisa withdrew, and Walter then plunged into a delicious reverie. The approaching emancipation from the thraldom of an assumed sex - her affection for George Montague - and the anticipated possession of an ample fortune to guard against the future, were golden visions not the less dazzling for being waking ones.
    Half an hour had passed away in this manner, when a strange noise startled Walter in the midst of her meditations. She thought that she heard a shutter close violently and a pane of glass smash to pieces almost at the same moment. Alarm was for an instant depicted upon her countenance: she then smiled, and, ashamed of the evanescent fear to which she had yielded, said to herself, "It must be one of the shutters of the dining-room or parlour down stairs, that has blown open."
    Taking, the lamp in her hand she issued from the boudoir, and hastily descended the stairs leading to the ground floor. In her way thither she could hear, even amidst the howling of the wind, the loud barking of the dogs in the rear of the villa.
    The hall, as she crossed it, struck piercing cold, after the genial warmth of the boudoir which she had just left. She cautiously entered the parlour on the left hand of the front door: all was safe. Having satisfied herself that the shutters in that apartment were securely closed and fastened, she proceeded to the dining-room.
    She opened the door, and was about to cross the threshold, when - at that moment - the lamp was dashed from her hand by some one inside the room; and the herself was instantly seized by two powerful arms, and dragged into the apartment.
    A piercing cry issued from her lips; and then a coarse and hard hand was pressed violently on her mouth. Further utterance was thus stopped.
    "Here - Bill  -Dick," said a gruff voice; " give me a knife - I must settle this feller's hash - or I'm blessed if he won't alarm the house."
    "No more blood - no more blood!" returned another voice, hastily, and with an accent of horror. "I had enough of that this mornin'. Gag him, and tie him up in a heap."
    "D—n him, do for him!" cried a third voice. "Don't be such a cursed coward, Bill."
    "Hold your jaw, will ye - and give me a knife, Dick," said the first speaker who was no other than Tom the Cracksman. " The fellow struggles furious - but I've got hold on him by the throat."
    Scarcely had these words issued from the lips of the burglar, when the door was thrown open, and  Montague entered the room.
    He held a lamp in one hand, and a pistol in the other; and it was easy to perceive that he had been alarmed in the midst of his repose, for he had nothing on save his trousers and his shirt.
    On the sudden appearance of an individual thus armed, Tom the Cracksman exclaimed, "At him -  down with him! We must make a fight of it."
    The light of the lamp, which Montague held in his hand, streamed full upon the countenance and person of Walter Sydney, who was struggling violently in the suffocating grasp of the Cracksman.
    "Hell and furies!" ejaculated Dick Flairer, dropping his dark lantern and a bunch of skeleton keys upon the floor, while his face was suddenly distorted with an expression of indescribable horror, then, in obedience to the natural impulse of his alarm, he rushed towards the window, the shutters and casement of which had been forced open, leapt through it, and disappeared amidst the darkness of the night.
    Astonished by this strange event, Bill Bolter instantly turned his eyes from Montague, whom he was at that moment about to attack, towards the Cracksman and Walter Sydney.
    The colour fled from the murderer's cheeks, as if a sudden spell had fallen upon him: his teeth chattered - his knees trembled - and he leant against the table for support.
    There was the identical being whom four years and five mouths before, they had hurled down the trap-door of the old house in Chick Lane:- and who, that had ever met that fate as yet, had survived to tell the tale?
    For an instant the entire frame of the murderer was convulsed with alarm: the apparition before him - the vision of his assassinated wife - and the reminiscences of other deeds of the darkest dye, came upon him with the force of. a whirlwind. For an instant, we say, was he convulsed with alarm ;- in another moment he yielded to his fears, and, profiting by his companion's example, disappeared like an arrow through the window.
    Amongst persons engaged in criminal pursuits, a panic-terror is very catching. The Cracksman - formidable and daring as he was - suddenly experienced an unknown and vague fear, when he perceived the horror and unassumed alarm which had taken possession of his comrades. He loosened his grasp upon his intended victim: Walter made a last desperate effort, and released himself from the burglar's power.
    "Approach me, and I will blow your brains out," cried Montague, pointing his pistol at the Cracksman.
    Scarcely were these words uttered, when the burglar darted forward, dashed the lamp from the hands of Montague, and effected his escape by the window.
    Montague rushed to the casement, and snapped the pistol after him: the weapon only flashed in the pan.
    Montague closed the window and fastened the shutters. He then called Walter by name ; and, receiving no answer, groped his way in the dark towards the door.
    His feet encountered an obstacle upon the carpet; he stooped down and felt with his hands :- Walter Sydney had faintted.
    [-54-] Scarcely two minutes had elapsed since Montague had entered the room; for the confusion and flight of the burglars had not occupied near so much time to enact as to describe. The entire scene had moreover passed without any noise calculated to disturb the household.
    There were consequently no servants at hand to afford Walter the succour which he required.
    For a moment Montague hesitated what course to pursue; but, after one instant's reflection, he took her in his arms, and carried her up into her own enchanting and delicious boudoir.

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