And life a weary dream!

Oh, for the wings we used to wear,
When the heart was like a bird,
And floated through the summer air,
And painted all it looked on fair,
And sung to all it heard!
When fancy put the seal of truth
On all the promises of youth!
HERVEY.

To have introduced myself abruptly to Mr. De Warr Berkeley’s wedded
wife, if he had one, might be explained away satisfactorily enough; but
to present myself to Miss Auriol, related as she was to him, there could
be no palliation whatever, and in duelling days could have led to but
one result—the pistol!

Something of what passed in my mind, together with an air of
bewilderment, must have been apparent in my face, for the young lady,
after gazing at me earnestly, as if her clear and bright, but dark blue
eyes would read my very soul, looked suddenly down, and said, while her
colour came and went, and her bosom heaved painfully—

“I can perceive, Captain Norcliff, that my name explains much to you;
but not all—oh no! not all. There are secrets in my short but wretched
life that you can never learn—secrets known to God and to myself alone!”

“It really explains nothing to me, Miss Auriol,” I replied with a smile,
being willing to relieve her embarrassment, by affecting ignorance of
that which the whole mess knew—her ambiguous position; “for I am not
aware that—that we ever met before.”

“But you have heard, perhaps—you know Mr. Berkeley?”

“Of ours—yes; he was in Scotland with me a few weeks ago.”

“That I know too well for my own peace,” said the girl, coughing
spasmodically, and applying her handkerchief to her mouth.

“He is frequently in this quarter, is he not?”

“Yes.”

“At this pretty cottage, perhaps?”

“No, sir.”

“Where then—the Reculvers?”

“At Chillingham Park. Since he has begun to visit there he scarcely
ever comes here. Have you not heard—have you not heard,” she repeated,
making a fearful effort at articulation, “that he is to be married to
the only daughter and heiress of Lord Chillingham?”

I felt that I became nearly as pale as herself, while replying—

“I certainly have not heard of such an alliance; it is probably the
silly humour of a gossiping neighbourhood.”

She shook her head sadly, and seated herself with an air of lassitude.

“Are you sure that Mr. Berkeley was not here after I escorted you home
last night?”

“I am, unfortunately, but too sure. Why do you ask?” she inquired,
looking up, while her eyes dilated.

“Because I could have sworn that I passed him on horseback in the dusk.”

“Riding in this direction?”

“No, towards Canterbury.”

“Ah, towards Chillingham Park, no doubt—there shines his loadstar now!”

“And mine too,” thought I, bitterly.

This girl’s intelligence, whether false or true, crushed my heart more
than I can describe.

Aware, however, of the imperative necessity for retiring, I took up my
hat and bade her adieu; but for the purpose of learning more of
Berkeley’s movements, I promised, when riding that way, to call again,
and inquire for her health.

“The locket you have just restored was Mr. Berkeley’s gift to me upon a
fatal day,” said she; “and, believe me, sir, that—that, whatever you may
have heard of me, or whatever you may think, I have been ’more sinned
against that sinning.’”

In another minute I was in the saddle, and on my way back to Canterbury.

Though she did not know it, nor could she know it, this unfortunate girl
had been planting thorns in my breast. I could not believe in the
reality of such perfidy on the part of Louisa—of such facility on the
part of the haughty Countess, her mother—or of such rapid progress on
the part of Berkeley with all his wealth, the hard-won thousands of the
late departed brewer.

How I longed now for the arrival of Cora, who might solve or explain
away some of the doubts that surrounded me!

My heart swelled with rage; and yet I felt that I loved Louisa with a
passion that bade fair to turn my brain!

As Miss Auriol would be certain to know something of Berkeley’s
movements and as she and her faithful follower, old Mrs. Goldsworthy,
might prove invaluable in acquainting me with what passed at Chillingham
Park, for they had jealousy to spur on their espionage, I resolved to
visit once or twice again the cottage at the Reculvers, when I could do
so unseen. This I did, little knowing how greatly the poor girl would
interest me in her sad fate, and still less foreseeing that the course I
pursued was a perilous one. But the agony of my anxiety, the bitterness
of my suspicions, and my love for Louisa, overcame every scruple, and
blinded me to everything else.

She, on the other hand, was naturally anxious to learn the movements of
Berkeley, whom, notwithstanding his cold desertion, she loved blindly
and desperately. Thus we could be useful to each other.

My heart recoiled at times from such a mode of working; but I could have
no other recourse till my cousin Cora came.

As I rode up to the door of the hotel, my heart leaped on seeing Willie
Pitblado awaiting me there.

“A letter at last!” I exclaimed, as he came forward.

“From the colonel, sir,” said he, touching his cockaded hat.

“The colonel?” I repeated in disappointment and surprise, as I tore open
the note, the contents of which ran briefly thus:—

“MY DEAR NORCLIFF,—As the barracks here are becoming uncomfortably
crowded, by the Indian depôts and so forth, your troop is detached to
Canterbury for a week or two, to share the quarters of the hussars. You
will remain there, probably, till the route comes. You need not return
to head-quarters, unless you choose; but may report yourself to the
lieutenant-colonel commanding the consolidated cavalry depôt at
Canterbury. This is a stranger-day at mess. We are to have an unusual
number of guests, and the band. Wish you were with us.

Believe me, &c., &c.,
LIONEL BEVERLEY, Lieut.-Col.

“P.S.—You will drill the troop once daily to the sword and lance
exercise on horseback.”

“How lucky!” thought I. “I shall have Canterbury for the basis of my
operations, and the Reculvers for an advanced post; quartered here, and
Chillingham close by!—When does the troop march in, Willie.”

“To-morrow forenoon, sir, under Mr. Jocelyn.”

“Good. You will take my card to the barrack-master, and my horses to
the stables, and receive over my quarters. I shall remain at the hotel
until the troop comes in.”

I did not ride to the Reculvers on that afternoon, though I scoured
every road in the vicinity of the city, by Sturry, Bramling, and Horton.

Next morning I went for a mile or two in the direction of Ospringe, and
soon saw the troop advancing leisurely, with their horses at a walk,
along the dusty Kentish highway, their keen lance-heads glittering with
all their bright appointments in the sunshine, their scarlet and white
banneroles, and the long plumes in the men’s square-topped caps dancing
in the wind, as I trotted up and joined them, though in mufti.

My lieutenant, Frank Jocelyn, and the cornet, Sir Harry Scarlett, were
both pleasant and gentlemanly young men, and would have been a most
welcome addition to my residence in Canterbury, but for the hopes, the
fears, and plans which occupied me. They asked me how I liked the
cathedral city, and there was a smile on their faces, which, when taken
in conjunction with my secret thoughts, galled and fretted me. Yet I
could not notice it.

Accompanied by a multitude of the great “unwashed,” we proceeded
straight to those spacious barracks which are erected for cavalry,
artillery, and infantry, on the road that leads to the Isle of Thanet,
and there the lancers were rapidly “told off” to their quarters, the
horses stabled, corned, and watered.

We dined that evening with a hussar corps, of whose mess we were made
honorary members while we remained in Canterbury, and from Jocelyn I
learned incidentally that for the last three days Berkeley had scarcely
been in barracks. The hope that I had harrassed myself in vain passed
away now, and fear alone remained.

While the first set of decanters were traversing the table, I slipped
away unnoticed, and without changing my uniform, took the road at a
rasping pace direct for the Reculvers. The moon was just rising from
the sea, and the last notes of the curfew were dying away, as I drew up
at the door of Miss Auriol’s cottage.

She was alone, and sitting at tea, to which she bade me welcome, in a
manner that showed she half doubted the honesty of my visit, and
betrayed such emotions of shame, confusion, and awkwardness, I felt
myself quite an intruder. But I simply asked if she had heard more of
Berkeley.

She admitted that she had, and stated mournfully that for the last three
days he had been constantly at the park, thus confirming what Frank
Jocelyn had told me.

In the course of another visit or two, I gradually learned piecemeal all
the poor girl’s unhappy history, and how she became the victim, first of
evil fortune, and afterwards of a cold-blooded man of the world like De
Warr Berkeley.

Where are the illusions bright and vain
That fancy boded forth?
Sunk to their silent caves again,
Auroræ of the north!

Oh! who would live those visions o’er,
All brilliant though they seem,
Since earth is but a desert shore,
And life a weary dream!
MOIR.

She was the orphan daughter of the poor curate of a secluded village on
the borders of Wales. Her mother, also the daughter of a curate, had
died when Agnes was very young. She was thus left to be the sole prop
and comfort of the old man’s declining years, and he loved her
dearly—all the more dearly that, with a little brother, a beautiful,
golden-haired boy (the same whose miniature I remarked), she alone
survived of all their children, ten in number.

The rest had perished early; for all possessed that terrible heritage,
the seeds of which Agnes was now maturing in her own bosom—consumption.

One by one the old clergyman had seen them borne forth from his little
thatched parsonage, under the ivy-clad lyke-gate of the village church,
and laid by their mother’s side, a row of little grassy graves, where
the purple and golden crocuses grew in spring, and the white-eyed
marguerites in summer, all as gaily as if the last hopes of a broken
heart were not buried beneath them.

In the fulness of time the shadow of death again fell on the old
parsonage, and the curate’s white hairs were laid in the dust, close by
the quiet little Saxon church in which he had ministered so long; and
now the ten graves of the once loving household lay side by side,
without a stone to mark them.

“In the days before this last calamity befel me, Captain Norcliff,” said
Miss Auriol, “when my poor father was wont to take my face caressingly
between his tremulous old hands, and kissing my forehead, and smoothing
my hair, would tell me that my name, Agnes, signified gentleness—a lamb,
in fact—that it came from the Latin word _Agnus_; and when he would
bless me with a heart as pure as ever offered up a prayer to God, how
little could I foresee the creature I was to become! Oh, my father—oh,
my mother! what a life mine has been; and after my father died, what a
youth!

“I have often thought of the words of Mademoiselle de Enclos, when, in
the flush of her beauty, she exclaimed to the Prince of Condé, ’Had any
one proposed such a life to me at one time, I should have died of grief
and fright!’

“So my father passed away; the new incumbent came to take our mansion,
with its humble furniture at a valuation. After paying a few debts, with
a small sum, I found myself with my little brother, who was sickly and
ailing, in London, seeking subsistence by exerting the talents I
possessed—music, chiefly, for I am pretty well accomplished as a
musician.”

She continued to tell me of all her heart-breaking struggles, her perils
and bitter mortifications, and of the acute sufferings of that little
fair-headed brother, on whom all her love and hope were centred; and
how, daily, in the fetid atmosphere of a humble lodging, far away from
the green fields, the bright sunshine and the rustling woods of that
dear old parsonage on the slope of the Denbigh hills, the poor child
grew worse and more feeble; and how her crushed heart was wrung as her
little store of money melted away like snow in spring; her few ornaments
went next, and no employment came.

How misery depressed, and horrible forebodings of the future haunted
her; how she remembered all the harrowing tales she had read—and such as
we may daily read—of the poor in London, and how they perish under the
feet of the vast multitude who rush onward in the race for existence, or
in the pursuit of pleasure; and how thoughts and doubts of God himself,
and of His mercy and justice, at times came over her, even as they came
at times now, when the man she loved and trusted most on earth had
deceived her.

Employed at last as a hired musician, she was out frequently to play the
piano at balls and evening parties, for half a guinea per night, in
London, and thus made a slender subsistence for the suffering child and
for herself.

After receiving her fee from the hand of some sleepy butler or
supercilious upper-servant, as she nightly wrapped her scanty cloak
about her, and, quitting the heated and crowded rooms, hurried through
the dark, wet, and snowy streets, to an almost squalid lodging, which
even her native neatness failed to brighten, and to the couch where the
poor, thin, wakeful boy, with his great, sad, earnest eyes, awaited her;
ere long she began to find a cold and cough settling upon her delicate
chest; and then the terror seized her that if she became seriously ill,
and failed to obey her patrons at the nearest music-shop, where would
the boy get food? And if she died—in a hospital, perhaps—what would be
his fate, his end, in other and less tender hands than hers?

Then, as she wept over him in the silence of the night, and remembered
the prayers her old father had taught her, she would strive to become
more composed, and to sleep like that child that lay hushed in her
bosom; but her dreams, if not full of terrors for the present, were ever
haunted by the sad memories of the past; for the kind faces and sweet
smiles of the dead came vividly before her, and the familiar sound of
their voices seemed to mingle in the drowsy hum of the London streets
without, or with the murmur of her native Dee, and the pleasant rustle
of the summer leaves in the woods of the old parsonage she would never
see again, or the green hills of Denbigh that overshadowed it.

Foreseeing and fearing that the child would be taken from her, she
assumed her pencil, in the use of which she was very skilful and
accomplished, and thus produced the likeness that hung in her little
parlour. In this labour of love I was struck by the close resemblance
it bore to herself.

On one occasion, at some West-end party, she remembered having seen me.
On beholding me in uniform now the recollection came fully upon her; and
it would seem that, on the night in question, when all else had
forgotten the pale and weary musician amid the crush and merriment of
the supper-room, I had sent her cake and wine, and the former she had
secretly pocketed for her little brother; but of this casual rencontre I
had no recollection whatever.

On another occasion, it happened that the neglected and lonely, but
useful “young person,” past whom youth, beauty, and merriment whirled in
white satin and diamonds, lace and flowers, attracted the attention of
Mr. De Warr Berkeley. Her soft and wistful glances at her former equals
caught his watchful eye; and the graceful politeness with which she
acceded to their contrary suggestions to play quicker or slower,
together with the great brilliance of her execution, were all remarked
by him.

It was on one of those nights, like some others, when old companions
passed her by in the waltz and galop, and former friends too, without a
smile or glance of recognition; yet, as she thought of the child at
home, with a crushed and swollen heart she played on and on
mechanically.

Some unusual slight had been put upon her, and while she played, in the
bitterness of her soul, her hot tears fell upon the keys of the piano.
At that moment for Berkeley to introduce himself was an easy matter. He
did it so quietly, so respectfully, that the poor girl felt soothed.
She never mistrusted him, and, as her evil fortune would have it, he met
her three nights, almost consecutively, at three different places. An
intimacy was thus established.

On the third, the rain was pouring through the desolate streets of a
suburban district in torrents. The soaked shrubbery and the railings of
the garden shone flickering through the lamp-light, and the dark clouds
swept past in gloomy masses overhead. It was a wild night, or morning
rather, and not even a policeman, in his oilskin cape, seemed to be
abroad.

Gathering her threadbare shawl tightly round her, Agnes, terrified and
bewildered, was setting forth afoot, timid and shivering, on her way
home, having some miles of London to traverse, when Berkeley, who had
artfully lingered to the last, respectfully offered her a seat in his
cabriolet, and by setting her down where she mentioned, discovered her
residence, and marked her for his prey.

Berkeley’s attentions filled the girl with gratitude instead of alarm,
and he soon inspired her with a passion for him. “The more a young girl
believes in purity,” says a writer, “the more readily she abandons
herself, if not to her lover, at least to her love; because, being
without distrust, she is without strength; and, to make himself beloved
by such a one, is a triumph which any man of five-and-twenty may secure
himself whenever he pleases. And this is true, though young girls are
surrounded by extreme vigilance and every possible rampart.”

To trace the gradual and downward course she trod, and how artfully
Berkeley gained an ascendancy over her by the interest he affected to
feel in her little ailing brother, and how lavishly he supplied the
means of such comforts as the poor child had never possessed even in his
father’s homely parsonage, can neither be for me to describe, nor my
reader to know.

Suffice that the gentle Agnes fell into the snare, as our common
ancestress did before, and became what I now found her to be.

* * * * *

From that hour she had never known real peace, and the memory of her
parents, blended with the agonies of remorse, haunted her day and night.
As a drowning wretch will cling to straws, so clung she to the desperate
hope that Berkeley would love her while life lasted, and that he would
redeem his promise by marrying her, for she loved him blindly and
devotedly, with all the strength of her young heart, and of a first and
only passion.

The change now, from work all day and music all night, with trudging to
and fro, through rain or sleet, was doubtless great; but the change
brought with it no joy, no peace of mind.

Had she a thousand caprices, in the first flush of her amour, her roué
lover would have gratified them all; but, luckily, her tastes were
simple, and she shrank from proffered boxes at the play or opera, from
rural parties, and everything that made her public.

But retribution was coming now; her tears and sorrow fretted him, and he
began to absent himself. The luxuries with which he surrounded her
brought to her no happiness, and to her little brother no health, for
the child died, passing peacefully away one night in his sleep, and was
buried—not in the pleasant green village burying-ground where his
kindred lay—but in a horrid fetid London churchyard, amid the human loam
of ages; and when the little silver-mounted coffin was carried away,
Agnes Auriol, as she cast a bouquet of lily-of-the-valley on it, felt
that now she had no real tie on earth, unless it was her lover, and from
him even she shrank at such a time as this.

She stood alone by the little grave, the only mourner there. She had
thought of asking Berkeley to accompany her; but, somehow, his presence
would seem a species of pollution by the grave of the pure and sinless
little boy, and the face of her father seemed ever before her.

Her unwelcome repentance fretted him, and without compunction he saw the
agony of her spirit, and how the lustre faded from her eye, and the
roses died in her cheek. Sedulously she endeavoured to conceal the
sorrow that embittered her existence, as she perceived that it only
served to disgust him. And as this sorrow grew, so did her strength
diminish, and the hectic flush of consumption and premature decline
spread over her delicate little face.

He was frequently absent from her now for weeks, and those periods
seemed insupportable, for the love of him had become a habit; and to
break that habit seemed as if it would snap the feeble tenure of her
life.

He ceased, too, to supply her with money. Her former musical
connections were completely broken. She was frequently without the
means of subsistence save by the sale of her ornaments; and at last she
had parted with all save her mother’s wedding ring, which she wished to
be buried with her.

In January last she discovered that Berkeley was at Calderwood Glen in
Scotland. She wrote to him a most piteous letter, to which, however, he
accorded no reply; and at that time she must have died, had her nurse,
Goldsworthy—an old and faithful servant of her father’s, not discovered
and brought her to this cottage near the Reculvers.

When the lancers were at Maidstone, Berkeley had visited her from time
to time, and pretended still his old views of marriage to amuse her, but
trammelled with secrecy; and latterly he had derided her letters
entirely. Moreover, she had come to the bitter and stinging conclusion
that he hated her, as she possessed letters of his which legally
compromised him.

He who does another person an injury never forgives him for what he has
endured. He alike hates and fears him; and in this spirit did Berkeley
fear and hate the poor girl whom he had wronged.

Such was the plain, unvarnished story of Agnes Auriol, which she related
in the intervals that were unbroken by a hard, consumptive, and
undoubtedly, “churchyard cough.”

“I have but one wish now,” she added, as she lay back exhausted; “and
that I cannot gratify.”

“Is it so difficult to achieve?” I asked, in a low voice.

“There are insuperable difficulties.”

“And this desire?”

“Is to leave this place for ever,” she said, almost in a whisper, while
the hot tears ran unheeded down her pale cheeks; “and—and——”

“Go where?”

“To look on poor papa’s grave, and on dear mamma’s, and then die.”

“No, no, do not speak in this hopeless manner,” I urged, feeling that I,
a young officer of cavalry, was a very unfitting comforter or adviser at
such a time; and I rose to retire, for the evening was now far advanced.

“This craving is so strong in the poor lamb’s heart, sir, that she will
be a dyin’ as sure as we look on her, unless it be gratified, and athout
a angel comes from heaven; I don’t know how it is to be done,” said Mrs.
Goldsworthy, weeping noisily, like all people of her class, as she
ushered me to the door, and to my horse, which was pawing the ground
impatiently, with the dew on his coat and saddle.

“Take her there without loss of time, my good friend,” said I.

“She divided her last crown with a poor fisherman yesterday, to get some
comforts for his sick wife.”

“Good heavens! Is she then without means?”

“Quite, sir; and if Mr. Berkeley——”

I struck my spurred heels into the gravel at the sound of his name, and
exclaimed——

“Poor girl, I shall give her the means.”

“You, sir?”

“Yes.”

“Oh, sir—sir—but she’ll never take it from you,” said Mrs. Goldsworthy,
sobbing into her apron with great vociferation.

“She must; and let her remember me in her prayers when I am far away.
At eight to-morrow evening I shall be here again for the last time, my
worthy friend, and will supply her with what she requires.”

Before the nurse could reply I was in my saddle, and had closed the iron
gate; but just as I rode off, I nearly trod down a man who was muffled
in a poncho cloak, and who leant against the gate pillar—whether
listening or asleep, I knew not; yet, had I looked more closely, I might
have detected the moustached face of my quondam friend, Mr. De Warr
Berkeley. For this loiterer, or eavesdropper, proved in the sequel to
be no other than he.

To outflank me, and to place himself, his fortune (and his debts), at
the complete disposal of Lady Louisa Loftus, was now the plan—the
game—of my friendly brother officer; and with what success we shall see
ere long.

I was full of thought while riding slowly home to the barracks on the
Thanet Road; I longed for Cora’s coming to unravel the mystery of
Louisa’s conduct, and yet dreaded to face my cousin or broach the matter
to her. I was inspired with sympathy for the poor lost creature I had
just quitted, and full of indulgence for her mode of life, and excuses
for her fate and fall. Her singular beauty greatly aided emotions such
as these, for the morbid state of her health lent a wondrous lustre to
her dark blue eyes, and marvellous transparency to her lovely
complexion; and I felt extreme satisfaction that it was in my power to
gratify a wish that was, perhaps, her last one—to pay a pilgrimage to
the resting-place of her parents.

The sweet verse of honest Goldsmith occurred to me—

The only art her guilt to cover,
To hide her shame from every eye,
To give repentance to her lover,
And wring his bosom is—to die!

At the same time I thought it very doubtful whether any such catastrophe
would wring the padded bosom of Berkeley.

Had Agnes Auriol been a wrinkled crone, it may be a matter for
consideration whether I—a young officer of lancers—would have been so
exceedingly philanthropic in her cause. I hope I should.

On arriving at the barracks, my first task was to despatch Pitblado by
the night train to head-quarters, with a note to M’Goldrick, the
paymaster, for at least fifty pounds, saying I wanted the money, and
must have it by noon to-morrow.