Rodney Stone

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Lord avon

My uncle was an impassive man by nature and had become more so by the tradition of the society in which he lived.  He could have turned a card upon which his fortune depended without the twitch of a muscle, and I had seen him myself driving to imminent death on the Godstone Road with as calm a face as if he were out for his daily airing in the Mall.  But now the shock which had come upon him was so great that he could only stand with white cheeks and staring, incredulous eyes.  Twice I saw him open his lips, and twice he put his hand up to his throat, as though a barrier had risen betwixt himself and his utterance.  Finally, he took a sudden little run forward with both his hands thrown out in greeting. “Ned!” he cried. But the strange man who stood before him folded his arms over his breast. “No Charles,” said he. My uncle stopped and looked at him in amazement. “Surely, Ned, you have a greeting for me after all these years?” “You believed me to have done this deed, Charles.  I read it in your eyes and in your manner on that terrible morning.  You never asked me for an explanation.  You never considered how impossible such a crime must be for a man of my character.  At the first breath of suspicion you, my intimate friend, the man who knew me best, set me down as a thief and a murderer.” “No, no, Ned.” “You did, Charles; I read it in your eyes.  And so it was that when I wished to leave that which was most precious to me in safe hands I had to pass you over and to place him in the charge of the one man who from the first never doubted my innocence.  Better a thousand times that my son should be brought up in a humble station and in ignorance of his unfortunate father, than that he should learn to share the doubts and suspicions of his equals.” “Then he is really your son!” cried my uncle, staring at Jim in amazement. For answer the man stretched out his long withered arm, and placed a gaunt hand upon the shoulder of the actress, whilst she looked up at him with love in her eyes. “I married, Charles, and I kept it secret from my friends, for I had chosen my wife outside our own circles.  You know the foolish pride which has always been the strongest part of my nature.  I could not bear to avow that which I had done.  It was this neglect upon my part which led to an estrangement between us, and drove her into habits for which it is I who am to blame and not she.  Yet on account of these same habits I took the child from her and gave her an allowance on condition that she did not interfere with it.  I had feared that the boy might receive evil from her, and had never dreamed in my blindness that she might get good from him.  But I have learned in my miserable life, Charles, that there is a power which fashions things for us, though we may strive to thwart it, and that we are in truth driven by an unseen current towards a certain goal, however much we may deceive ourselves into thinking that it is our own sails and oars which are speeding us upon our way.” My eyes had been upon the face of my uncle as he listened, but now as I turned them from him they fell once more upon the thin, wolfish face of Sir Lothian Hume.  He stood near the window, his grey silhouette thrown up against the square of dusty glass; and I have never seen such a play of evil passions, of anger, of jealousy, of disappointed greed upon a human face before. “Am I to understand,” said he, in a loud, harsh voice, “that this young man claims to be the heir of the peerage of Avon?” “He is my lawful son.” “I knew you fairly well, sir, in our youth; but you will allow me to observe that neither I nor any friend of yours ever heard of a wife or a son.  I defy Sir Charles Tregellis to say that he ever dreamed that there was any heir except myself.” “I have already explained, Sir Lothian, why I kept my marriage secret.” “You have explained, sir; but it is for others in another place to say if that explanation is satisfactory.” Two blazing dark eyes flashed out of the pale haggard face with as strange and sudden an effect as if a stream of light were to beat through the windows of a shattered and ruined house. “You dare to doubt my word?” “I demand a proof.” “My word is proof to those who know me.” “Excuse me, Lord Avon; but I know you, and I see no reason why I should accept your statement.” It was a brutal speech, and brutally delivered.  Lord Avon staggered forward, and it was only his son on one aide and his wife on the other who kept his quivering hands from the throat of his insulter.  Sir Lothian recoiled from the pale fierce face with the black brows, but he still glared angrily about the room. “A very pretty conspiracy this,” he cried, “with a criminal, an actress, and a prize-fighter all playing their parts.  Sir Charles Tregellis, you shall hear from me again!  And you also, my lord!”  He turned upon his heel and strode from the room. “He has gone to denounce me,” said Lord Avon, a spasm of wounded pride distorting his features. “Shall I bring him back?” cried Boy Jim. “No, no, let him go.  It is as well, for I have already made up my mind that my duty to you, my son, outweighs that which I owe, and have at such bitter cost fulfilled, to my brother and my family.” “You did me an injustice, Ned,” said my uncle, “if you thought that I had forgotten you, or that I had judged you unkindly.  If ever I have thought that you had done this deed - and how could I doubt the evidence of my own eyes - I have always believed that it was at a time when your mind was unhinged, and when you knew no more of what you were about than the man who is walking in his sleep.” “What do you mean when you talk about the evidence of your own eyes?” asked Lord Avon, looking hard at my uncle. “I saw you, Ned, upon that accursed night.” “Saw me?  Where?” “In the passage.” “And doing what?” “You were coming from your brother’s room.  I had heard his voice raised in anger and pain only an instant before.  You carried in your hand a bag full of money, and your face betrayed the utmost agitation.  If you can but explain to me, Ned, how you came to be there, you will take from my heart a weight which has pressed upon it for all these years.” No one now would have recognized in my uncle the man who was the leader of all the fops of London.  In the presence of this old friend and of the tragedy which girt him round, the veil of triviality and affectation had been rent, and I felt all my gratitude towards him deepening for the first time into affection whilst I watched his pale, anxious face, and the eager hops which shone in his eyes as he awaited his friend’s explanation.  Lord Avon sank his face in his hands, and for a few moments there was silence in the dim grey room. “I do not wonder now that you were shaken,” said he at last.  “My God, what a net was cast round me!  Had this vile charge been brought against me, you, my dearest friend, would have been compelled to tear away the last doubt as to my guilt.  And yet, in spite of what you have seen, Charles, I am as innocent in the matter as you are.” “I thank God that I hear you say so.” “But you are not satisfied, Charles.  I can read it on your face.  You wish to know why an innocent man should conceal himself for all these years.” “Your word is enough for me, Ned; but the world will wish this other question answered also.” “It was to save the family honour, Charles.  You know how dear it was to me.  I could not clear myself without proving my brother to have been guilty of the foulest crime which a gentleman could commit.  For eighteen years I have screened him at the expense of everything which a man could sacrifice.  I have lived a living death which has left me an old and shattered man when I am but in my fortieth year.  But now when I am faced with the alternative of telling the facts about my brother, or of wronging my son, I can only act in one fashion, and the more so since I have reason to hope that a way may be found by which what I am now about to disclose to you need never come to the public ear.” He rose from his chair, and leaning heavily upon his two supporters, he tottered across the room to the dust-covered sideboard.  There, in the centre of it, was lying that ill-boding pile of time-stained, mildewed cards, just as Boy Jim and I had seen them years before.  Lord Avon turned them over with trembling fingers, and then picking up half a dozen, he brought them to my uncle. “Place your finger and thumb upon the left-hand bottom corner of this card, Charles,” said he.  “Pass them lightly backwards and forwards, and tell me what you feel.” “It has been pricked with a pin.” “Precisely.  What is the card?” My uncle turned it over. “It is the king of clubs.” “Try the bottom corner of this one.” “It is quite smooth.” “And the card is?” “The three of spades.” “And this one?” “It has been pricked.  It is the ace of hearts.”  Lord Avon hurled them down upon the floor. “There you have the whole accursed story!” he cried.  “Need I go further where every word is an agony?” “I see something, but not all.  You must continue, Ned.” The frail figure stiffened itself, as though he were visibly bracing himself for an effort. “I will tell it you, then, once and for ever.  Never again, I trust, will it be necessary for me to open my lips about the miserable business.  You remember our game.  You remember how we lost.  You remember how you all retired, and left me sitting in this very room, and at that very table.  Far from being tired, I was exceedingly wakeful, and I remained here for an hour or more thinking over the incidents of the game and the changes which it promised to bring about in my fortunes.  I had, as you will recollect, lost heavily, and my only consolation was that my own brother had won.  I knew that, owing to his reckless mode of life, he was firmly in the clutches of the Jews, and I hoped that that which had shaken my position might have the effect of restoring his.  As I sat there, fingering the cards in an abstracted way, some chance led me to observe the small needle-pricks which you have just felt.  I went over the packs, and found, to my unspeakable horror, that any one who was in the secret could hold them in dealing in such a way as to be able to count the exact number of high cards which fell to each of his opponents.  And then, with such a flush of shame and disgust as I had never known, I remembered how my attention had been drawn to my brother’s mode of dealing, its slowness, and the way in which he held each card by the lower corner. “I did not condemn him precipitately.  I sat for a long time calling to mind every incident which could tell one way or the other.  Alas! it all went to confirm me in my first horrible suspicion, and to turn it into a certainty.  My brother had ordered the packs from Ledbury’s, in Bond Street.  They had been for some hours in his chambers.  He had played throughout with a decision which had surprised us at the time.  Above all, I could not conceal from myself that his past life was not such as to make even so abominable a crime as this impossible to him.  Tingling with anger and shame, I went straight up that stair, the cards in my hand, and I taxed him with this lowest and meanest of all the crimes to which a villain could descend. “He had not retired to rest, and his ill-gotten gains were spread out upon the dressing-table.  I hardly know what I said to him, but the facts were so deadly that he did not attempt to deny his guilt.  You will remember, as the only mitigation of his crime, that he was not yet one and twenty years of age.  My words overwhelmed him.  He went on his knees to me, imploring me to spare him.  I told him that out of consideration for our family I should make no public exposure of him, but that he must never again in his life lay his hand upon a card, and that the money which he had won must be returned next morning with an explanation.  It would be social ruin, he protested.  I answered that he must take the consequence of his own deed.  Then and there I burned the papers which he had won from me, and I replaced in a canvas bag which lay upon the table all the gold pieces.  I would have left the room without another word, but he clung to me, and tore the ruffle from my wrist in his attempt to hold me back, and to prevail upon me to promise to say nothing to you or Sir Lothian Hume.  It was his despairing cry, when he found that I was proof against all his entreaties, which reached your ears, Charles, and caused you to open your chamber door and to see me as I returned to my room.” My uncle drew a long sigh of relief. “Nothing could be clearer!” he murmured. “In the morning I came, as you remember, to your room, and I returned your money.  I did the same to Sir Lothian Hume.  I said nothing of my reasons for doing so, for I found that I could not bring myself to confess our disgrace to you.  Then came the horrible discovery which has darkened my life, and which was as great a mystery to me as it has been to you.  I saw that I was suspected, and I saw, also, that even if I were to clear myself, it could only be done by a public confession of the infamy of my brother.  I shrank from it, Charles.  Any personal suffering seemed to me to be better than to bring public shame upon a family which has held an untarnished record through so many centuries.  I fled from my trial, therefore, and disappeared from the world. “But, first of all, it was necessary that I should make arrangements for the wife and the son, of whose existence you and my other friends were ignorant.  It is with shame, Mary, that I confess it, and I acknowledge to you that the blame of all the consequences rests with me rather than with you.  At the time there were reasons, now happily long gone past, which made me determine that the son was better apart from the mother, whose absence at that age he would not miss.  I would have taken you into my confidence, Charles, had it not been that your suspicions had wounded me deeply - for I did not at that time understand how strong the reasons were which had prejudiced you against me. “On the evening after the tragedy I fled to London, and arranged that my wife should have a fitting allowance on condition that she did not interfere with the child.  I had, as you remember, had much to do with Harrison, the prize-fighter, and I had often had occasion to admire his simple and honest nature.  I took my boy to him now, and I found him, as I expected, incredulous as to my guilt, and ready to assist me in any way.  At his wife’s entreaty he had just retired from the ring, and was uncertain how he should employ himself.  I was able to fit him up as a smith, on condition that he should ply his trade at the village of Friar’s Oak.  My agreement was that James was to be brought up as their nephew, and that he should know nothing of his unhappy parents. “You will ask me why I selected Friar’s Oak.  It was because I had already chosen my place of concealment; and if I could not see my boy, it was, at least, some consolation to know that he was near me.  You are aware that this mansion is one of the oldest in England; but you are not aware that it has been built with a very special eye to concealment, that there are no less than two habitable secret chambers, and that the outer or thicker walls are tunnelled into passages.  The existence of these rooms has always been a family secret, though it was one which I valued so little that it was only the chance of my seldom using the house which had prevented me from pointing them out to some friend.  Now I found that a secure retreat was provided for me in my extremity.  I stole down to my own mansion, entered it at night, and, leaving all that was dear to me behind, I crept like a rat behind the wainscot, to live out the remainder of my weary life in solitude and misery.  In this worn face, Charles, and in this grizzled hair, you may read the diary of my most miserable existence. “Once a week Harrison used to bring me up provisions, passing them through the pantry window, which I left open for the purpose.  Sometimes I would steal out at night and walk under the stars once more, with the cool breeze upon my forehead; but this I had at last to stop, for I was seen by the rustics, and rumours of a spirit at Cliffe Royal began to get about.  One night two ghost-hunters - ” “It was I, father,” cried Boy Jim; “I and my friend, Rodney Stone.” “I know it was.  Harrison told me so the same night.  I was proud, James, to see that you had the spirit of the Barringtons, and that I had an heir whose gallantry might redeem the family blot which I have striven so hard to cover over.  Then came the day when your mother’s kindness - her mistaken kindness - gave you the means of escaping to London.” “Ah, Edward,” cried his wife, “if you had seen our boy, like a caged eagle, beating against the bars, you would have helped to give him even so short a flight as this.” “I do not blame you, Mary.  It is possible that I should have done so.  He went to London, and he tried to open a career for himself by his own strength and courage.  How many of our ancestors have done the same, save only that a sword-hilt lay in their closed hands; but of them all I do not know that any have carried themselves more gallantly!” “That I dare swear,” said my uncle, heartily. “And then, when Harrison at last returned, I learned that my son was actually matched to fight in a public prize-battle.  That would not do, Charles!  It was one thing to fight as you and I have fought in our youth, and it was another to compete for a purse of gold.” “My dear friend, I would not for the world - ” “Of course you would not, Charles.  You chose the best man, and how could you do otherwise?  But it would not do!  I determined that the time had come when I should reveal myself to my son, the more so as there were many signs that my most unnatural existence had seriously weakened my health.  Chance, or shall I not rather say Providence, had at last made clear all that had been dark, and given me the means of establishing my innocence.  My wife went yesterday to bring my boy at last to the side of his unfortunate father.” There was silence for some time, and then it was my uncle’s voice which broke it. “You’ve been the most ill-used man in the world, Ned,” said he.  “Please God we shall have many years yet in which to make up to you for it.  But, after all, it seems to me that we are as far as ever from learning how your unfortunate brother met his death.” “For eighteen years it was as much a mystery to me as to you, Charles.  But now at last the guilt is manifest.  Stand forward, Ambrose, and tell your story as frankly and as fully as you have told it to me.”

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