THE RECLUSE

“The third meeting will be fatal,” said Dan to himself as he climbed
the hill. “At the first I liked her beauty; now I am charmed with her
innocence and candour. When I meet her for the third time, it may be a
case of love.”

It was indeed astonishing how persistently the face and speech of Meg
haunted his mind. She was so unconscious of her own beauty, so free
from affectation, that he could not help admiring her simplicity of
character. He was not of a particularly inflammable nature, and
hitherto had shut his heart to the allurements of the other sex. The
ladies with whom he was acquainted, though refined in every sense of
the word, annoyed him by their persistent artificiality and their
insincerity. But this wild rose was free from such taints, and in her
conversation she displayed perfect candour. To Dan she was like the
inhabitant of another planet, and she had for him all the charm of
novelty. Without being a prophet, he could foresee that a few weeks in
her company would chain him for ever to her side. She was ignorant of
her power to do this, and in such unconsciousness lay a goodly portion
of her fascination. In sober earnest, the girl puzzled him. By her own
confession, she haunted the hills from morning till night, and by
rights should be an uncouth creature, a female barbarian. Yet her
accent and manners were both refined, and she had an evident
acquaintance with literature, though not of the newest. Dan supposed
that she owed such culture and polish as she possessed to Miss
Linisfarne; but if that lady took an interest in her, he could not
understand why she permitted the girl to roam the moors and woods at
will. It was certain that Meg was in no way conscious of her own
beauty, or she would have taken better care of her appearance, her
dress, and her complexion. She apparently cared nothing for these
things, and let the sun brown her face and the brambles scratch her
hands without giving the matter a thought. Such negligence was not
without its charm.

After that second meeting, Dan made up his mind to see her again; but
though he watched the whole of the next day, he caught not a glimpse
of his charmer. He had no excuse for calling on Dr. Merle, else he
might have taken advantage of it, and so passed at least a few minutes
by her side. It then struck him that Mother Jericho might know her
haunts, and he was on his way to the gipsy encampment for the purpose
of inquiry, when Fate provided him with an excuse for calling at the
doctor’s house. On the path through the pine wood he picked up a red
coral necklace which he had noticed her wearing. She had doubtless
lost it on one of her excursions.

“Good!” said Dan, slipping it into his pocket; “with this I can call
on Dr. Merle and find out more about the huntress. If I introduce
myself to the father, he may ask me to renew my visit, though I’m
afraid my position does not warrant such a hope. However, I’ll try; at
least, I shall see her again.”

Contrary to her promise, Meg had not been near the dell, so Dan
supposed that she had told her father of the invitation, and had been
forbidden to accept it. When he saw Dr. Merle, this idea was
dispelled. No one had less influence over his daughter than her
surviving parent. But Dan did not come to this conclusion for some
weeks.

The doctor’s house was built of grey stone, and placed as it was among
the sombre pines, looked singularly funereal. It was not even enclosed
by a fence, nor was there the slightest attempt at cultivating a
garden. There it stood, square and gloomy, as though dropped suddenly
into that savage solitude. It could be easily seen that the owner had
no care for his surroundings.

“If the father is so careless, I do not wonder that the daughter is
allowed to run wild,” murmured Dan, as he came in sight of this
mausoleum.

There was no bell, and though he knocked hard at the door, it was
quite five minutes before it opened. A bent old man, dressed in dingy
black, appeared, and, on being questioned, intimated in a surly voice
that Meg was at the Court.

“Is Dr. Merle in?”

“A’ be sleeping,” was the crabbed response.

“Then wake him and say that I wish to see him,” said Dan, enraged at
this uncivil reception. “Don’t close the door till you have delivered
my message.”

Somewhat startled by this determined bearing, so different to that of
the meek Farbis folk, the surly Cerberus shuffled away, and returned
in a few minutes with the information that the doctor would receive
him in his study. Dan followed his guide, who led him into a dark
apartment like a cell, and, pushing him in, the man shut the door as
though to prevent his escape.

“Well, what is it?” said a querulous voice at the other end of the
room. “Why do you come at this hour? Don’t you know it is my time for
sleeping?”

“Sleeping at three o’clock!” said Dan, with great astonishment.

There was a rustle in the darkness, and a little man came forward. He
did not recognize the voice, but guessing from its refinement that his
visitor was a gentleman, he pulled up the blind to see who had thus
roused him. A pale light filtered in through the dirty windowpanes,
and Dan saw before him a small and neatly made person clothed in a
ragged dressing-gown and carpet slippers. He was still handsome, and
not more than fifty years of age, but his waxen skin had an unhealthy
appearance, as though in want of fresh air and sunlight. His black
hair and beard, both streaked with grey, were dishevelled, and his
brown eyes had a vacant expression, as though his thoughts were far
away. Altogether he did not look the kind of man likely to cure a sick
person. Dan towered above him, and as he considered the little figure
and the darkened room, he was reminded of Stanley’s account of the
African pygmies in their sunless forest.

It took Dr. Merle some time to grasp the fact that his visitor was a
stranger, and he peered curiously at him, with one little hand raking
his untidy beard. So long did he look without speaking, that Dan felt
rather embarrassed, and hardly knew how to begin a conversation. Merle
saved him the trouble by speaking first.

“Who are you?” he asked, still in the same querulous voice. “What do
you want here? Physic?”

“Never took a drop of physic in my life, sir,” answered Dan,
good-humouredly. “As to my name, it is Dan.”

“Dan what?”

“Dan nothing,” responded the other, with great coolness–“simply Dan.
I am camping in the pinewood dell up yonder, and there I picked up
this necklace. I think it belongs to your daughter.”

Dr. Merle took the corals and turned them over in a dazed fashion. He
seemed to be half asleep, and started peevishly when his visitor’s
hearty voice rang through the room. The man’s nervous system was out
of order.

“It is Miss Merle’s, is it not?”

“Yes, yes; thank you for bringing it back. I have no doubt she would
say the same herself, but that she is with Miss Linisfarne at Farbis
Court.”

“In that case I need not wait,” said Dan, turning his back.

The doctor stopped him before he could reach the door.

“Don’t go yet. I see so few people. I should like to have a talk with
you.”

Seeing a chance of gaining information about Meg, the young man,
nothing loth, sat down. His face was to the light, and Merle, who had
shrunk back into the shadow, eyed him curiously.

“You are not a common man,” he said nervously.

“That depends upon what you call common, sir. I certainly don’t swear
or get drunk, or wear my hat while in the house, or—-”

“Yes, yes! I understand all that. But you are travelling for
pleasure?”

“That’s so, sir.”

“An American?” asked the doctor, noting the last reply.

Dan laughed. “No,” he said; “but I have been in the States. No doubt I
have picked up a few flowers of American speech.”

“In short, you are a gentleman masquerading under the name of Dan?”

“I don’t think I am bound to answer that question,” replied the other,
with marked significance.

Merle apologized at once. “Forgive me for being so curious. I do not
seek to know your secret, but my daughter Margaret was talking about
you, and I wondered who you were.”

“I hope Miss Merle is well,” said Dan, evading a direct reply.

“She is never ill. Strong as a young colt. That comes of her open-air
life.”

“Do you think it is quite safe for her to wander on these moors
alone?”

“Of course I do! Every one knows her. I should be sorry for the man
who insulted Meg. She can hold her own. Why do you laugh?”

“It seems such a strange up-bringing for a young lady.”

“True, true!” muttered the little doctor, with a frown; “but what
can I do? I am very poor. I make barely enough to live. I can do
nothing–nothing.”

“But Miss Linisfarne might; she is a rich old maid with no relatives.”

“Miss Linisfarne!” said Merle, in tones of deep sorrow.

“Yes, she might adopt her.”

Dan said the words carelessly enough, and was quite unprepared for
their effect on his host. Merle sprang out of his seat. He had grown
deadly white, and he seized Dan’s arm with a shaking hand. He looked
like a man thoroughly terrified, and could hardly articulate a word.

“Did–did Tim the Tinker–say–say–anything?”

“What do you mean?” asked Dan, with surprise.

Merle looked at him steadily for a moment, and then turned away,
wiping his forehead with a hankerchief.

“It’s all right,” Dan overheard him mutter; “he knows
nothing–nothing.”

The visitor began to think his host mad or drunk, and arose smartly to
his feet for the second time. Again Merle stopped him.

“No, no! Don’t go yet. I am subject to these–these attacks.” Then,
with a sudden burst of hospitality, “Won’t you have a glass of wine?”

Dan’s eyes wandered towards the writing-table, on which stood a
decanter apparently containing wine.

“Not that–not that,” muttered Merle, hastily putting it in a
cupboard; “that is medicine for my attacks.”

He averted his face from Dan, but the young man had already guessed
his secret. Shaking hand, glazed eye, retiring manner,–the inference
to be drawn from these was only too plain. Dr. Merle was a
laudanum-drinker, and the decanter so hurriedly removed contained the
fatal drug.

“No, thank you, doctor; I will not take any wine,” he said, disgusted
with this discovery. “I must be off at once. Give my respects and the
necklace to Miss Merle.”

“You’ll come again?”

“Certainly, in a day or so. Goodbye for the present.”

With a sigh of relief, he found himself again in the open air, and
looked back at the dismal house with a shudder.

“Poor girl!” he sighed, thinking of Meg; “what can she do with a
father like that? A laudanum-drinker–a dreamer of dreams–a nervous
fool. How, in the name of Nature, did he ever come to have that
splendid creature as his child? I don’t wonder she wanders about the
hills. Anything would be better than that dark room and its
unwholesome occupant.”

When he returned to his camp and had despatched his midday meal, Dan
had a meditative smoke. There was no chance of his being interrupted,
as Tinker Tim had gone on business to a neighbouring hamlet, and
Mother Jericho was confined to her tent with rheumatism. It was just
as well that he was left to his own thoughts, as he wished to think
out the position in which he now found himself. Dan was a very
masterful and practical person, and when he came to the conclusion
that anything was wrong, always wished to remedy it at once. Not long
after he left Merle’s house, he decided that there was something very
wrong indeed in the parish of Farbis, and that the something was
connected with Meg.

Recalling his conversations with Mother Jericho, Tinker Tim, and the
doctor, it seemed to him as though they all had more or less of an
understanding with one another. He was satisfied that the gipsies did
not know him, and yet it appeared strange that they should be so
friendly. Mother Jericho had prophesied that he should meet his fate
at the Gates of Dawn. The very next morning he met with Meg. After his
fight with Tim, that pugilist had remarked ambiguously, “None other
shall have her;” and reading this mystical utterance by the light of
recent events, Dan decided that it referred to Meg. Lastly, when he
suggested that Miss Linisfarne should adopt the girl, Merle had come
out with that curious remark anent Tinker Tim. Taking all these things
into consideration, Dan saw a connection between them which seemed to
hint at some mystery regarding Meg. This being the case, he also, from
the promptings of his heart and the utterances of the gipsies, was
implicated in some way unknown to himself.

“They can’t possibly know who I am,” he said, filling a fresh pipe;
“no one but Jack knew of my idea of the caravan. I don’t suppose those
carriage-builders would say a word. If, then, the old man and the
tinker only know me as ‘Dan,’ why are they always hinting and talking
about Meg? So far as I can see, they wish me to marry the girl, but
for what reason? Merle has an understanding with these vagrants, or he
would not have mentioned Tim. And why did he turn pale when I
suggested Miss Linisfarne as an adopted mother? There’s something
wrong here, I’m certain; but what it is I can’t make out.”

He eyed Peter in an absent manner, and Peter, meeting his eye, began
to slink off, thinking he had done something wrong. Dan raised himself
with a laugh at Peter’s fears, and called back the conscience-smitten
terrier.

“Come here, you fool dog,” he said, catching him by the scruff of the
neck; “I wish to talk to you. Sit up and cross your paws, sir.”

Peter, noting a twinkle in his master’s eyes, sat up laboriously and
stared meekly in front of him. Having thus procured a listener, Dan
addressed him, emphasizing his remarks with the stem of his pipe.

“Peter,” said he solemnly, “I am very much afraid that I take a
greater interest in Diana of Farbis than is advisable. I am not in
love with her, because a man of thirty is scarcely fool enough to fall
in love with a woman he has only seen twice. But I take an interest in
her, Peter, because I pity her wasted life. And if you think pity is
akin to love, Peter, you think wrongly. This is a matter of head and
heart. We had intended to go away to-morrow, Peter; but I have decided
to stay and find out what all this is about. I don’t like mysterious
gipsies hatching plots against me, and prophesying me into marriage.
You and I, Peter, will turn detectives, and ferret out the meaning of
these things. Therefore, Peter, as a first step we will go into the
village and listen to public opinion concerning Dr. Merle and his
daughter. The audience is at an end, you rascal, so sit down.”

Peter dropped like a shot and yawned. He did not understand a word of
this long speech. How could he? There was not a word about bones in it
from beginning to end. When Dan put on his cap and picked up his
stick, the actions were more intelligible to Peter than the previous
words, and he whirled frantically before Dan in token of his delight
at the prospect of a walk. Simon only tossed his head and looked. He
had been down to the seashore that morning, and took no interest in
anything save grass. Having thus ascertained the feelings of his
four-footed friends, Dan cast a farewell glance around to see that
everything was in good order, and strode off, followed by the barking
terrier.

All that afternoon Dan pottered about the village. He talked to stray
labourers of crops and weather, artfully leading the conversation
round to the gentry question; he gossiped with voluble women, on the
plea of seeking a laundress for his linen, and learned indirectly
their opinion of the doctor. It did not appear to be a very high one.

“Th’ ould doctor bean’t nowt but a sleepy-head,” they said
contemptuously. “‘A ain’t vit vur nowt. ‘A gits oop, ‘a lies down–aw
ain’t niver no good. That ‘a bean’t!”

From which speeches Dan gathered that Dr. Merle was not highly prized
as a physician in Farbis. He stayed in his dismal house and soddened
himself with laudanum. His patients resented the little interest he
took in them, and proclaimed their views boisterously in broad rural
dialect. It took all Dan’s time to fathom the meaning of some of their
words.

In process of time he drifted into the Red Deer, more to quench his
thirst than for any other reason, but found an unexpected mine of
information in the landlord. That worthy brought him a tankard of ale
with a jolly smile, and when Dan mentioned casually that he had been
to see the doctor, burst out with unlimited information.

“‘A has nowt, zur,” said the host; “‘a stuck-up un, ‘a be.”

“Is he a good doctor?”

“Aw yis! ‘A be mazing clivir, but thur bean’t no use fur un; folk
doan’t git ill here. Look at t’ doctor’s lass, measter. She be vine
an’ strong.”

“Yes; a splendid-looking girl! Is she not a great friend of Miss
Linisfarne?”

The landlord nodded, and went into a long story about Miss
Linisfarne’s kindness to Meg. How Dr. Merle had neglected his daughter
to shut himself up in seclusion, and how the lady at the Court had
taken upon herself to look after the neglected girl. Mr. Jarner, the
parson, was also mentioned by the host as one who had interested
himself in the matter. He knew more about the gentry than any one
else, and had been rector of the place for over a quarter of a
century.

Dan cut short the landlord’s eloquence by asking where he could see
Mr. Jarner and have a chat with him. He was directed to the vicarage,
which was on the other side of the church, and, thinking that it would
be as well to have an intelligent person to talk with, went off to
seek the rustic divine.

Farbis Church and graveyard were much neglected. The long grass grew
nearly as high as the weather-stained tombs, and these in many cases
had fallen down. The tower was in a most dilapidated condition, and
though it had a clock and Chimes, the first had stopped and the second
were silent. An air of mournful decay pervaded the whole place, and it
could be easily seen that the present incumbent was not an energetic
man. Certainly the place itself was not conducive to work.

Not being pressed for time, Dan did not immediately repair to the
vicarage, but sauntered idly through the churchyard, reading the
quaint epitaphs, and watching the swallows wheeling round the hoary
tower. Judging from the grass-grown pathway from lych-gate to porch,
the Farbis folk did not come often to their devotions. The whole
village–its wretchedness, its somnolence, its isolation–was typified
by the shabby church. It was as though the place had gone to sleep in
the Middle Ages, and had not yet been wakened by the tumult of the
nineteenth century. Such infinite dreariness made Dan feel wretched.

Not being able to take Peter inside the church, he set him to guard
his cap in the porch by way of keeping him quiet. It may be here
stated that the front of this cap–which was not the one he usually
wore–was embroidered with the arms of Magdalen College, Oxford.
Considering his pretence of vagrancy, it was foolish for Dan to
decorate himself with so damning a piece of evidence regarding his
worldly position. Nevertheless, being busied with his new thoughts of
a possible conspiracy, he unthinkingly snatched up the cap before
leaving the dell, and thus set Peter to watch it at the church door.
Such negligence led to his undoing, and he recognized his carelessness
when it was too late.

Quite unaware of what awaited him, he examined the interior of the
church, and found it in a similar condition to the graveyard. There
were one or two painted windows and a finely carved reredos, but the
first were broken in several places, and the second was spoilt by the
damp. As usual, there was a collection of mouldy old tombs, which Dan,
for reasons of his own, examined with great interest. Among them he
found a crusading ancestor of Lord Ardleigh, carved in alabaster, with
crossed legs and a formidable sword. Beside him lay Joan, his wife,
with prayerful hands and monstrous head-dress. Faded scutcheons
bedecked the worn sides of the tomb, and a long Latin oration, which
nobody had the patience to decipher, set forth the many virtues of the
deceased pair. Poor dead folks, resting so quietly in that dreary
church, who thinks of you now?

Afterwards Dan explored the leper chapel near the high altar,
where those wretched pariahs heard the blessed mutter of the mass
through a chink in the wall. The lepers were gone now, as were
crusading lord and lady, and the high altar itself with its gold and
silver and tall candles. A plain deal table, covered with a red cloth,
whereon were set a cross and two bunches of flowers, did duty for the
communion-table. The Vicar of Farbis was evidently in sympathy with
Low Church doctrines, for there was no attempt at the sweeping or
cleansing or garnishing of the house of prayer.

From the contemplation of these melancholy things he was called to the
porch by the furious barking of dogs. He recognized Peter’s voice, and
knew that the terrier was in trouble. At the door he found a large
burly man thrashing two fox-terriers who had attacked Peter. It was a
task of some difficulty, for all three dogs were determined to enjoy
themselves. At length Dan picked up Peter by the scruff of the neck,
and, assisted by the burly man, kicked away the assailants. When quiet
was restored, the two had leisure to examine one another. At a glance
Dan recognized the parson, and saw with dismay that he was holding
that tell-tale cap with the Magdalen badge.

The Rev. Stephen Jarner was tall and ponderous, with a red face and
heavy jowl. To the waist he was a parson in orthodox collar, hat, and
coat, but his nether limbs, invested in breeches and high boots, had a
decidedly sporting appearance. He was a parson of the old school, fond
of a good glass of wine and a well-spread board, but still fonder of
dogs and horses. A hunting-crop was tucked under his arm, and the
fox-terriers, eyeing Peter in Dan’s embrace, sat at the feet of their
clerical master. Dan was much amused at the group.

“Here’s a character,” he thought. “A doctor addicted to opium, a pair
of gipsies, a recluse lady, a lovely huntress, and a sporting parson.
Decidedly I have got among queer folk!”

In his hand this remarkable-looking cleric still held Dan’s cap. He
looked at the badge and nodded his head towards the young man in a
friendly fashion.

“So you are a Magdalen man, sir,” said he, in a full rich voice. “I
too am of that college. _Et ego in Arcadia fui_. ‘Addison’s Walk’ by
the Cher is dear to me.”

Dan took his cap with a smile. The badge had unmasked him as an
Oxonian, so that he could no longer pass himself off as cheap-jack of
the caravan.

“Yes, I belonged to Magdalen, sir,” he owned up, stepping out of the
porch and covering his head. “Had you not seen this, I would not tell
you so much. I am in a different walk of life at present, Mr. Jarner,
and my name is Dan.”

The clergyman looked at him with a slightly satirical expression on
his full lips, and nodded. He quite understood the significance of the
speech.

“Keep your secret, friend Dan. I too have heard the chimes at
midnight. You are at a frolicsome age, and why should not a man play
the fool when the blood sings in his veins? But within reason–within
reason.”

“Pagan sentiments, Mr. Jarner.”

“Pish, my dear sir! The sentiments of every healthy-minded man. So you
are Dan? I have heard of you and of your caravan in the dell. Come
across and crack a bottle with me.”

“What! port at four o’clock in the afternoon, and after the Red Deer
ale? Do you take me for a four-bottle man, sir?”

Jarner cracked his whip at the dogs, who all three set up a barking
chorus. Bent upon offering hospitality, he was not to be daunted by
the first refusal.

“Then I’ll give you good ale. That won’t hurt you. By St. Beorl who
built this church, I must have a chat with you. For thirty years I
have been buried here, and not once have I met with a student of my
old college. This day shall be marked with a white stone. That is
Horace, sir, but I won’t give you the Latin of it, as my classics,
like my manners, have become somewhat rusty.”

Considerably diverted by the speech of this hospitable divine, Dan
accepted the invitation, and they walked across to the vicarage.
The door was wide open, and, followed by the dogs (who evidently had
the right of entry), Jarner led his guest into a snug little room
filled with old-fashioned furniture. There was a wide casement, in
the depths of which was a parlour seat. The fireplace was large and
old-fashioned, the shelves round the walls were filled with books in a
more or less tattered condition, and there was a mahogany table ringed
over with the bottoms of tumblers. Evidently that table had seen some
hard drinking in the long winter nights. Over all there was a jovial
air of untidy hospitality. Even before he spoke, Dan guessed that his
new friend was unmarried. That parlour was eloquent of the absence of
the female element at the vicarage.

“Bachelor Hall, sir,” said the parson, casting hat and hunting-crop
into a corner. “Sit in that chair by the window. It is the most
comfortable, and is only permitted to be used by favoured guests.”

“And why am I thus favoured?” replied Dan, dropping into a chair.

“Because you are a nursling of Magdalen, sir,” thundered the divine,
with a laugh on his jolly red face. “There is Alma Mater herself over
the fireplace–the quadrangle, and the tower askew. Ah me!” continued
he, shaking his head pensively at the picture, “what days those were
thirty years ago! Where are all the good fellows with whom I consorted
in the time when Plancus was consul, and still—- But here comes the
ale, Dan! Let me froth you a tankard, and we’ll drink to the old
college, sir, and to our better acquaintance.”

Not feeling equal to the task of emptying the silver pot presented to
him, Dan bravely drank half, but Jarner did not set down his tankard
till it was empty. Then he sighed, thumped himself with vigour, and
nodded towards the mantelpiece.

“Try a churchwarden,” said he, persuasively.

“Thank you, sir, I’ll stick to my briar,” answered Dan; and each
having chosen his pipe, they smoked amicably together.

“Briars smoke sweet,” observed the former, using his little finger as
a stopper, “but to my mind they don’t come up to a churchwarden. I
always smoke churchwardens, for,” he added, with a twinkle in his
little eyes, “being a clergyman, it is but right that I should affect
a pipe with a clerical name.”

As in duty bound, Dan laughed at the old gentleman’s joke, and then
began to put cautious questions with a view to finding out all he
could about Meg and her father. Jarner was very communicative, and
replied frankly. The discovery that Dan was an Oxonian like himself
warmed his heart towards the young fellow, and he did not regard him
quite in the light of a stranger, though he knew nothing about him.
Dan might have been an unconscionable scamp, and Jarner would not have
seen through him. He was a simple, kindly old fellow, in spite of his
strong ale and terriers and bluster. See, then, what freemasonry there
is in Oxonianism. A coined word is necessary here, as no other can
adequately describe the parson’s attitude towards the tramp.

“You have lived here for thirty years, Mr. Jarner?”

“For thirty years, sir. I have charge of three parishes within a
radius of twenty miles, and ride over to preach in one of them every
second and third Sunday; the first I keep for Farbis.”

“How do the people live in this outlandish place?”

“By weaving. Have you not seen the looms at work in the cottages?”

“Well, yes; but I did not—-”

“See how inobservant is youth!” laughed Jarner, filling himself
another tankard. “Don’t be alarmed at my thirst, young man. I have
been in the saddle for five hours to-day, over the hills at Silkon,
where I met a friend of yours.”

“Indeed! I didn’t know I had friends here.”

“Pooh! What about Tinker Tim? He is a warm admirer of you, sir, and
thinks you a pretty light-weight fighter. Tim gave me a description of
your battle in the dell. It was glorious–glorious! I should like to
have been present.”

“Come to my camp, then, and I’ll put on the gloves with you.”

“Not me–not me!” said Parson Jarner, wagging his large head. “Too
old; and besides, I’m a vicar–must respect the cloth, young man!”

“Well, to continue about Farbis. How do they get their bales of cloth
away?”

“There’s a road over the hills by Farbis Court. The weavers here are a
poor lot, and an infernally irreligious set. God forgive me for
swearing!”

“They seem healthy enough.”

“Oh yes 1 The air is good. They don’t bother the doctor much.”

“Dr. Merle! I saw him the other day.”

Jarner faced round suddenly with a grave look on his face.

“What do you think of him?” he asked doubtfully.

“I think it is a pity he doesn’t take example by De Quincey, and put
away that decanter.”

“Oh, you saw that, did you? You have sharp eyes, young man. Yes, yes!
it’s a great pity. I’ve tried to break him off that laudanum-drinking,
but it’s no use; the man’s a slave to the vice. I’ve straightened him
out a dozen times, and he always doubles up again. Lord forbid that I
should speak ill of my fellow-creatures, but Richard Merle’s a poor
white mouse of a creature!”

“It is more than his daughter is.”

“Ta, ta! Hey! Have you met her?”

“Two or three days ago.”

“She is a fine girl, sir. As honest and simple as can be. I am a
hardened old bachelor, Dan, but my heart aches for the future of that
poor creature.”

“Her father—-”

“Pooh, pooh! Tush! Don’t talk to me, sir. He is worse than useless.
The girl would have been ruined body and soul had she trusted to his
fatherly care. I can say, without praising myself and Miss Linisfarne,
that we have done our best for her. She is a noble creature, sir,”
continued the parson, vehemently, “and should be the mother of brave
men and chaste women. But there, there! in this waste corner of the
earth who is there to mate with her?”

He sighed and finished his beer, then continued his speech after such
pause.

“I have often thought of asking Miss Linisfarne to take the lass to
London and aid her to—-”

“No, no!” interrupted Dan, smartly, “do not let her go to town. A
season would spoil her. It would destroy her charm of simplicity and
candour. Believe me, my dear Mr. Jarner, it is best to let this
woodland flower bloom here, and not to thrust it into the hothouse of
an artificial civilization.”

“You take a great interest in the young lady, sir,” said Jarner,
dryly.

“Do you think so, sir? It is pure philanthropy on my part, I assure
you.”

Jarner looked steadily at him, but Dan met his eyes with so frank a
face that he seemed satisfied of the young man’s intentions.
Nevertheless he tapped his breast meaningly.

“Don’t lose that, sir! Take care–take care!”

“If you mean my heart, Mr. Jarner, there is no danger of my being so
foolish. I can look after myself, and so can she. But to speak in a
more general way–do you know if Dr. Merle has any dealings with Tim
the Tinker?”

“No, I can’t say that I do. Why do you couple their names together,
young man?”

Dan meditated a few moments before replying. He was not prepared to
communicate his suspicions to Jarner until he knew more about him.
Unlike the confiding country divine, this haunter of cities was more
cautious in unfolding himself to a new acquaintance.

“I cannot answer your question at present, Mr. Jarner,” he said at
length, with some hesitancy; “but if you will do me the honour to
visit my camp, I will explain myself, and ask your opinion on a
certain matter.”

“Does it concern Meg?” asked Jarner, rendered serious by this speech.

“Yes; it concerns Meg and–myself. No! pray don’t ask me if I am in
love with her. To-morrow I will tell you all.”

“At what hour shall I come?”

“Say at noon. I am generally alone at that hour.”

Jarner accepted the invitation, and shook hands with his strange
guest. Politeness forbade him to ask questions, else he might have
done so. The whole tone of Dan’s conversation was so mysterious that
the simple gentleman was greatly puzzled and disturbed.

The house built on the side of the hill was a dreary-looking place,
standing in a park of no very great extent. Gloomy pine-woods rose
above it, and the grounds appertaining to the mansion stretched below
in a gentle slope towards the village. So sheltered was the park from
sea-winds by reason of the depression of the ground, that therein
flourished quite a forest in wild luxuriance. Oak, and sycamore, and
beech, and elm, all lifted their giant boughs in the genial
atmosphere, and formed a wood round the Court similar to that said to
have environed the palace of the Sleeping Beauty. It was almost as
impenetrable, and quite as wild in growth.

Here the fecundation of Nature went on incessantly, unrestrained by
the hand of man. Nothing was kept within bounds; so, untended and
untouched, the forest–for, though of limited extent, it could be
called by no other name–relapsed into its wild state. The trees
crowded so thickly together that they almost excluded the sunlight.
Parasites grew unchecked round the aged boles; wan grasses, uncoloured
by the sun, sprang high and thick; while groves of saplings made the
wood well-nigh impassable. Wild creatures dwelt in the undergrowth,
undisturbed by sportsman or poacher, and overhead flocks of birds made
the forest musical from sunrise to sunset. Here and there spread
stagnant pools of water, choked with weeds, and almost hidden by
broad-leaved lilies. And there were winding paths, overgrown with moss
and grass, blocked by fallen tree-trunks, and barred to the most
resolute pioneer by brushwood and tangled briars. Desolation ruled
supreme throughout the deserted domain.

From the rusty iron gates at the termination of the avenue up to the
house itself stretched this jungle, and egress could only be obtained
by means of the carriage-drive, which was in fairly good repair.
Woods, and lawns, and flowerbeds, and paths were allowed to go to rack
and ruin. For half a century Nature had done as she liked, with the
result that Farbis Park became a wilderness. Only in tropical Africa
could such savagery be paralleled.

Nor was the house much better as regards care. Its long façade of red
brick was reared on a substructure of terraces, whence wide flights of
steps led downward to neglected lawn and gloomy forest. The trees had
almost pushed their way to the balustrade of the terrace, and looked
as though anxious to stifle the mansion in their close embrace. There
were ranges of staring windows, turrets and gables and towers, sloping
roofs and twisted chimney-stacks. Moss grew in the chinks of the
bricks, many of the windows were broken, and here and there a crazy
shutter swung noisily by one hinge. The coat of arms over the porch
was mouldering and defaced; the steps leading to the iron-bound door
were broken and timeworn. But that smoke issued from the chimneys in
the daytime, and that lights gleamed from the windows by night, one
would have deemed the great mansion uninhabited. Yet Miss Linisfarne
dwelt therein. But her existence was one of more than conventual
seclusion, and she herself decayed with the decaying woods and house.

Long since had the Farbis folk ceased to wonder who she was, and why
she had buried herself in so lonely a dwelling. Many of the villagers
remembered that stormy December day, more than twenty years ago, when
a travelling carriage crossed the moors, and brought a handsome young
woman to that ill-omened house. From the time she arrived at Farbis,
Miss Linisfarne had never left it again, but dwelt at the Court in
solitary state, unfriended, almost unvisited. Parson Jarner and Meg
were alone permitted to cross her threshold. No villager was invited
to the kitchen of Farbis Court, nor did the servants mix with those
who dwelt without the gates. It was surmised that there was some
mystery connected with the persistent seclusion of Miss Linisfarne,
but no one was clever enough to guess what the mystery might be. The
general opinion was that the tenant of the Court had committed a
crime, and had of her own free will condemned herself to a solitary
life in expiation thereof. But this was a mere rumour, and unsupported
by facts.

If, as it was hinted, Parson Jarner knew the reason for this
penitential life, never by word, or deed, or look did he reveal such
unholy knowledge. No Sphinx could be more secretive than this simple
divine when it so pleased him, therefore the villagers had little
chance of having their curiosity gratified in that direction. The
vicar paid frequent visits to the recluse, and always returned
therefrom with a meditative air and frowning brow. His flock wondered
at this, wondered at Miss Linisfarne’s seclusion, wondered at
everything connected with the Court, till after the lapse of a decade
the novelty of the thing wore itself out, and they ceased wondering
altogether. Yet they were constantly on the watch for the happening of
some untoward event, and hoped, not without reason, to some day know
the truth.

Miss Linisfarne, being an invalid, was usually confined to one
apartment–a great drawing-room which overlooked the terrace. During
the early years of her exile–for so she termed it–she had enjoyed
perfect health, and then drove frequently through the village on her
way up the winding road to the moors. She had even strolled about the
park, in those places where the savage wildness of the place permitted
her to walk with comparative ease. Now all was changed. She never went
beyond the gates, nor did she walk in the grounds, but when not lying
on her couch, paced languidly up and down the terrace, or, if the
weather was bad, exercised her feeble limbs in the picture-gallery.
Can you conceive a more pitiful picture than that of this lonely
figure wandering through the corridors, and galleries, and vast rooms
of this desolate house?

With such a tenant dwelling amid such surroundings, it was little to
be wondered at that the Court gained the reputation of being haunted.
Miss Linisfarne was reported to be wealthy, but not all the treasures
of Solomon would have tempted a Farbis man to penetrate the mansion
after dark. And this same superstition preserved the Court from the
intrusion of the villagers either as visitors, beggars, or burglars.
They dreaded even to pass the gates after dusk, and with fertile
imagination began to weave strange stories of the lonely lady in the
lonely house. Parson Jarner discouraged these tales, and reproved the
tellers, but notwithstanding his prohibition, Farbis folk still held
to their opinions. They declared that the Court was haunted, that Miss
Linisfarne was a witch, that orgies were held in the empty rooms at
midnight, and that cries of tortured women and of dying men could be
heard at night. With such fancies did the villagers beguile the winter
evenings over their fires. Superstition was strangely ingrained in the
nature of the Farbis folk, and all Parson Jarner’s arguments failed to
eradicate their deeply rooted beliefs.

The drawing-room, wherein Miss Linisfarne was generally to be found,
was a vast apartment in the right-hand corner of the house. Eight
French windows opened on to the front terrace, and five oriels at the
side overlooked a sea of green, for here the forest rolled its leafy
waves up to the very walls of the mansion. This apartment possessed a
polished floor, which was strewn with bright-hued mats from the looms
of Ispahan. Scattered sparsely through the room were chairs with
cushions of faded satin, oval tables of rosewood and walnut, laden
with books long since out of print; also with strange carvings in
ivory by Chinese artificers, pots of dried rose-leaves, and
glass-shaded wax flowers. Sofas of classical shape, designed during
the first Empire of France, were stiffly set against the walls.
Overhead the oval roof was frescoed with paintings of mythological
subjects, and on the walls hung dark oil pictures and gilt-framed
mirrors. Faded curtains draped the windows, and so excluded the light
that the vast room was constantly filled with shadows. Over all lay
the grey dust undisturbed for years. It was an eerie-looking place,
and there was something terrifying about the large hollow empty space.
Ghosts only could fitly inhabit its gloom and desolation.

Near one of the oriel windows Miss Linisfarne lay on her couch. Here
there was an attempt at comfort. A square of carpet faced the sofa,
and was met at its outer borders by a gaudy Japanese screen, which
converted the spot into a tiny room. A work-table stood close at hand,
and near it an armchair was placed, while a revolving bookcase gave a
touch of modernity to the nook. Here, in this oasis of comfort, Miss
Linisfarne worked, and read, and fretted, and thought. It was at once
her home and her prison.

At times her hands would fall idly on her lap, and her eyes would
wander from book or work to gaze out of the oriel at the green ocean
of trees which isolated her dwelling. God alone knows what were her
thoughts during those melancholy musings. Of nothing bright, you may
be sure, for Mariana in her Moated Grange was less solitary than this
woman with the sad eyes. A cloud of mystery, of dread, of horror, hung
over the house and its occupant. No wonder the superstitious villagers
avoided the unholy spot. House and women were accursed.

Look at her as she lies there, with the light of the afternoon on her
countenance. Can you not see how she has suffered–how mental torture
has worn her face thin; how it has imprinted lines upon her brow,
and laced her golden hair with threads of grey? She can count but
forty-seven years, and yet she is an aged woman; for grief is even more
powerful to destroy than time. The light has long since left those
mournful eyes, the roses have long since faded from those worn cheeks,
and the mouth is now set in fretful lines which were not there in
early days. The features alone retain their beauty. Her straight nose,
curved lips, firmly moulded chin, and high forehead are as if carved
in ivory, for long seclusion from fresh air and tinting sunlight has
imparted a yellowish hue to the skin. And the countless wrinkles round
the mouth, under the eyes, and across the forehead, tell their own
tale of mental agonies, of tearful hours, of sleepless nights. Sorrow
had set her unmistakable seal on the face, and had rendered it haggard
before its time. Wan countenance, inert figure, listless hands, and
hopeless looks–a mournful spectacle this of sadness and despair.

Yet she was still careful of her dress. No fault could be found with
the grey silk tea-gown, adorned with lace at wrists and throat, or
with the dainty slipper on the slender foot. Grey as was her hair, yet
the undying coquetry of the feminine nature impelled her to coil it
smoothly, and scatter it in crisp curls. When her hands moved, diamond
rings glittered on the fingers, and her lean wrists were encircled
with costly bracelets. She was aged before her time, she was lonely,
she was filled with despair; but the woman in her still bade her tire
her head, deck herself with gems, clothe herself in rich garments, and
make the most of what was left to her.

Meg sat in the armchair close to the couch. A greater contrast than
the exuberant vitality of this girl, beside the etiolated looks of the
elder woman, can scarcely be imagined. Bright eyes, rosy cheeks,
restless hands–there was life in every movement; while Miss
Linisfarne, listless and weary, looked as though the blood were
stagnant in her veins. The girl still wore her rough serge dress, and
her heavily shod feet looked clumsy beside the dainty slimness of Miss
Linisfarne’s slippers. Her hair was roughened by the wind, her hands
were brown and scarred, and she spoke in a clear hearty voice, which
contrasted strongly with the faint tones of her hostess. She brought
into the room a breath of the woodlands, an odour of earth, of pine,
of salt wave, and breezy down. Her very presence seemed to invigorate
the pale invalid, who looked at her so kindly. As Antæus drew vigour
from his parent earth, so did Miss Linisfarne draw fresh vitality from
the animal healthfulness of her visitor.

They were talking together on an interesting subject, and as the
conversation went on, a flush crept into the cheeks of the elder
woman, her eyes grew brighter, and her lips parted in a faint smile.
The vitality diffused by Meg stirred the blood in her veins, and
quickened the wan life to a semblance of health. So might Eurydice
have regained health and life and sprightliness with every step she
took from the kingdom of the dead.