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   Chapter 32 A RECOVERY AND A FLIGHT

Armorel of Lyonesse By Walter Besant Characters: 18721

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:02


Amid all these excitements Armorel became aware that something-something of a painful and disagreeable character, was going on with her companion. They were at this time very little together. Mrs. Elstree took her breakfast in bed; at luncheon she was, just now, nearly always out; at dinner she sat silent, pale, and anxious; in the evening she lay back in her chair as if she was asleep. One night Armorel heard her weeping and sobbing in her room. She knocked at the door with intent to offer her help if she was ill. 'No, no,' cried Mrs. Elstree; 'you need not come in. I have nothing but a headache.'

This thing as well disquieted her. She remembered what Lady Frances had suggested-it is always the suggestion rather than the bare fact which sticks and pricks like a thorn, and will not come out or suffer itself to be removed. Armorel thought nothing of the allegation concerning the stage-why should not a girl go upon the stage if she wished? The suggestion which pricked was that Mrs. Elstree had been sent to her by the man whom she now knew to be fraudulent through and through, in order to carry out some underhand and secret design. There is nothing more horrid than the suspicion that the people about one are treacherous. It reduces one to the condition of primitive man, for whom every grassy glade concealed a snake and every bush a wild beast. She tried to shake off the suspicion, yet a hundred things confirmed it. Her constant praise of this child of genius, his persistence in meeting them wherever they went, the attempt to make her find money for his schemes. The girl, thus irritated, began to have uneasy dreams; she was as one caught in the meshes; she was lured into a garden whence there was no escape; she was hunted by a cunning and relentless creature; she was in a prison, and could not get out. Always in her dreams Zoe stood on one side of her, crying, 'Oh, the great and glorious creature!-oh, the cleverness of the man!-oh, the wonder and the marvel of him!' And on the other side stood Lady Frances, saying, 'Why don't you take him? He is a liar, it is true, but he is no worse than his neighbours-all men are liars! You can't get a man made on purpose for you. What is your business in life at all but to find a husband? Why are girls in Society at all except to catch husbands? And they are scarce, I assure you. Why don't you take the man? You will never again have such a chance-a rising man-a man who can make other people work for him-a clever man. Besides, you are as good as engaged to him: you have made people talk: you have been seen with him everywhere. If you are not engaged to him you ought to be.'

It was about a week after the reading of the play when this condition of suspicion and unquiet was brought to an end in a very unexpected manner.

Mr. Jagenal called at the rooms in the morning about ten o'clock. Mrs. Elstree was taking breakfast in bed, as usual. Armorel was alone, painting.

'My dear young lady,' said her kindly adviser, 'I would not have disturbed you at this early hour but for a very important matter. You are well and happy, I trust? No, you are not well and happy. You look pale.'

'I have been a little worried lately,' Armorel replied. 'But never mind now.'

'Are you quite alone here? Your companion, Mrs. Elstree?'

'She has not yet left her room. We are quite alone.'

'Very well, then.' The lawyer sat down and began nursing his right knee. 'Very well. You remember, I dare say, making a certain communication to me touching a collection of precious stones in your possession? You made that communication to me five years ago, when first you came from Scilly. You returned to it again when you arrived at your twenty-first birthday, and I handed over to your own keeping all your portable property.'

'Of course I remember perfectly well.'

'Then does your purpose still hold?'

'It is still, and always, my duty to hand over those rubies to their rightful owner-the heir of Robert Fletcher, as soon as he can be found.'

'It is also my duty to warn you again, as I have done already, that there is no reason at all why you should do so. You are the sole heiress of your great-great-grandmother's estate. She died worth a great sum of money in gold, besides treasures in plate, works of art, lace, and jewels cut and uncut. The rambling story of an aged woman cannot be received as evidence on the strength of which you should hand over valuable property to persons unknown, who do not even claim it, and know nothing about it.'

'I must hand over those rubies,' Armorel repeated, 'to the person to whom they belong.'

'It is a very valuable property. If the estimate which was made for me was correct-I see no reason to doubt it-those jewels could be sold, separately, or in small parcels, for nearly thirty-five thousand pounds-a fortune larger than all the rest of your property put together-thirty-five thousand pounds!'

'That has nothing to do with the question, has it? I have got to restore those jewels, you see, to their rightful owner, as soon as he can be discovered.'

'Well-but-consider again. What have you got to go upon? The story about Robert Fletcher may or may not be true. No one can tell after this lapse of time. The things were found by you lying in the old sea-chest with other things-all your own. Who was this Robert Fletcher? Where are his heirs? If they claim the property, and can prove their claim, give it up at once. If not, keep your own. The jewels are undoubtedly your own as much as the lace and the silks and the silver cups, which were all, I take it, recovered from wrecks.'

'Do you disbelieve my great-great-grandmother's story, then?'

'I have neither to believe nor to disbelieve. I say it isn't evidence. Your report of what she said, being then in her dotage, amounts to just nothing, considered as evidence.'

'I am perfectly certain that the story is true. The leathern thong by which the case hung round the man's neck has been cut by a knife, just as granny described it in her story. And there is the writing in the case itself. Nothing will persuade me that the story is anything but true in every particular.'

'It may be true. I cannot say. At the same time, the property is your own, and you would be perfectly justified in keeping it.'

'Mr. Jagenal'-Armorel turned upon him sharply-'you have found out Robert Fletcher's heir! I am certain you have. That is the reason why you are here this morning.'

Mr. Jagenal laid upon the table a pocket-book full of papers.

'I will tell you what I have discovered. That is why I came here. There has been, unfortunately, a good deal of trouble in discovering this Robert Fletcher and in identifying one of the Robert Fletchers we did discover with your man. We discovered, in fact, ten Robert Fletchers before we came to the man who may reasonably be supposed-- But you shall see.'

He opened the pocket-book, and found a paper of memoranda from which he read his narrative:-

'There was one Robert Fletcher, the eleventh whom we unearthed. This man promised nothing at first. He became a broker in the City in the year 1810. In the same year he married a cousin, daughter of another broker, with whom he entered into partnership. He did so well that when he died, in the year 1846, then aged sixty-nine, his will was proved under 80,000l. He left three daughters, among whom the estate was divided, in equal shares. The eldest of the daughters, Eleanor, remained unmarried, and died two years ago, at the age of seventy-seven, leaving the whole of her fortune-greatly increased by accumulations-to hospitals and charities. I believe she was, in early life, alienated from her family, on account of some real or fancied slight. However, she died: and her papers came into the hands of my friends Denham, Mansfield, Westbury, and Co., of New Square, Lincoln's Inn, solicitors. Her second sister, Frances, born in the year 1813, married in 1834, had one son, Francis Alexander, who was born in 1835, and married in 1857. Both Frances and her son are now dead; but one son remained, Frederick Alexander, born in the year 1859. The third daughter, Catharine, born in the year 1815, married in 1835, and emigrated to Australia with her husband, a man named Temple. I have no knowledge of this branch of the family.'

'Then,' said Armorel, 'I suppose the eldest son or grandson of the second sister must have the rubies?'

'You are really in a mighty hurry to get rid of your property. The next question-it should have come earlier-is-How do I connect this Robert Fletcher with your Robert Fletcher? How do we know that Robert Fletcher the broker was Robert Fletcher the shipwrecked passenger? Well; Eleanor, the eldest, left a bundle of family papers and letters behind her. Among them is a packet endorsed "From my son Robert in India." Those letters, signed "Robert Fletcher," are partly dated from Burmah, whither the writer had gone on business. He gives his observations on the manners and customs of the country, then little known or visited. He says that he is doing very well, indeed: so well, he says presently, that, thanks to a gift made to him by the King, he is able to think about returning home with the means of staying at home and doing no more work for the end of his natural days.'

'Of course, he had thos

e jewels.'

'Then he writes from Calcutta. He has returned in safety from Burmah and the King, whose capricious temper had made him tremble for his life. He is putting his affairs in order: he has brought his property from Burmah in a portable form which he can best realise in London: lastly, he is going to sail in a few weeks. This is in the year 1808. According to your story it was somewhere about that date that the wreck took place on the Scilly Isles, and he was washed ashore, saved--'

'And robbed,' said Armorel.

'As we have no evidence of the fact,' answered the man of law, 'I prefer to say that the real story ends with the last of the letters. It remained, however, to compare the handwriting of the letters with that of the fragment of writing in your leather case. I took the liberty to have a photograph made of that fragment while it was in my possession, and I now ask you to compare the handwriting.' He drew out of his pocket-book a letter-one of the good old kind, on large paper, brown with age, and unprovided with any envelope-and the photograph of which he was speaking. 'There,' he said, 'judge for yourself.'

'Why!' cried Armorel. 'The writing corresponds exactly!'

'It certainly does, letter for letter. Well; the conclusion of the whole matter is that I believe the story of the old lady to be correct in the main. On the other hand, there is nothing in the papers to show the existence in the family of any recollection of so great a loss. One would imagine that a man who had dropped-or thought he had dropped-a bag, full of rubies, worth thirty-five thousand pounds, into the sea would have told his children about it, and bemoaned the loss all his life. Perhaps, however, he was so philosophic as to grieve no more after what was hopelessly gone. He was still in the years of hope when the misfortune befell him. Possibly his children knew in general terms that the shipwreck had caused a destruction of property. Again, a man of the City, with the instincts of the City, would not like it to be known that he had returned to his native country a pauper, while it would help him in his business to be considered somewhat of a Nabob. Of this I cannot speak from any knowledge I have, or from any discovery that I have made.'

'Oh!' cried Armorel, 'I cannot tell you what a weight has been lifted from me. I have never ceased to long for the restoration of those jewels ever since I found them in the sea-chest.'

'There is-as I said-only one descendant of the second sister-a man-a man still young. You will give me your instructions in writing. I am to hand over to this young man-this fortunate young man-already trebly fortunate in another sense-this precious packet of jewels. It is still, I suppose, in the bank?'

'It is where you placed it for me when I came of age.'

'Very well. I have brought you an order for its delivery to me. Will you sign it?'

Armorel heaved a great sigh. 'With what relief!' she said. 'Have you got it here?'

Mr. Jagenal gave her the order on the bank for the delivery of sealed packet, numbered III., to himself. She signed it.

'To think,' she said, 'that by a simple stroke of the pen I can remove the curse of those ill-gotten rubies! It is like getting rid of all your sins at once. It is like Christian dropping his bundle.'

'I hope the rubies will not carry on this supposed curse of yours.'

'Oh!' cried Armorel, with a profound sigh, 'I feel as if the poor old lady was present listening. Since I could understand anything, I have understood that the possession of those rubies brought disaster upon my people. From generation to generation they have been drowned one after the other-my father-my grandfather-my great-grandfather-my mother-my brothers-all-all drowned. Can you wonder if I rejoice that the things will threaten me no longer?'

'This is sheer superstition.'

'Oh! yes: I know, and yet I cannot choose but to believe it, I have heard the story so often, and always with the same ending. Now, they are gone.'

'Not quite gone. Nearly. As good as gone, however. Dismiss this superstitious dread from your mind, my dear young lady.'

'The rubies are gone. There will be no more of us swallowed up in the cruel sea.'

'No more of you,' repeated Mr. Jagenal, with the incredulous smile of one who has never had in his family a ghost, or a legend, or a curse, or a doom, or a banshee, or anything at all distinguished. 'And now you will be happy. You don't ask me the name of the fortunate young man.'

'No; I do not want to know anything more about the horrid things.'

'What am I to say to him?'

'Tell him the truth.'

'I shall tell him that you discovered the rubies in an old sea-chest with other property accumulated during a great many years: that a scrap of paper with writing on it gave a clue to the owner: and that, by means of other investigation, he has been discovered: that it was next to impossible for your great-grandfather, Captain Rosevean, to have purchased these jewels: and that the presumption is that he recovered them from the wreck, and laid them in the chest, saying nothing, and that the chest was never opened until your succession to the property. That, my dear young lady, is all the story that I have to tell. And now I will go away, with congratulations to Donna Quixote in getting rid of thirty-five thousand pounds.'

An hour or two afterwards, Mrs. Elstree appeared. She glided into the room and threw herself into her chair, as if she desired to sleep again. She looked harassed and anxious.

'Zoe,' cried Armorel, 'you are surely ill. What is it? Can I do nothing for you?'

'Nothing. I only wish it was all over, or that I could go to sleep for fifty years, and wake up an old woman-in an almshouse or somewhere-all the troubles over. What a beautiful thing it must be to be old and past work, with fifteen shillings a week, say, and nothing to think about all day except to try and forget the black box! If it wasn't for the black box-I know I should see them always coming along the road with it-it must be the loveliest time.'

'Well-but-what makes you look so ill?'

'Nothing. I am not ill. I am never ill. I would rather be ill than-what I am. A tearing, rending neuralgia would be a welcome change. Don't ask me any more questions, Armorel. You look radiant, for your part. Has anything happened to you?-anything good? You are one of those happy girls to whom only good things come.'

'Do you remember the story I told you-about the rubies?'

'Yes.' She turned her face to the fire. 'I remember very well.'

'I have at last-congratulate me, Zoe-I have got rid of them.'

'You have got rid of them?' Mrs. Elstree started up. 'Where are they, then?'

'Mr. Jagenal has been here. He has found a great-grandson of Robert Fletcher, who is entitled to have them. I have never been so relieved! The dreadful things are out of my hands now, and in Mr. Jagenal's. He will give them to this grandson. Zoe, what is the matter?'

Mrs. Elstree rose to her feet, and stood facing Armorel, with eyes in which wild terror was the only passion visible, and white cheeks. And, as Armorel was still speaking, she staggered, reeled, and fell forwards in a faint. Armorel caught her, and bore her to the sofa, when she presently came to herself again. But the fainting fit was followed by hysterical weeping and laughing. She knew not what she said. She raved about somebody who had bought something. Armorel paid no heed to what she said. She lamented the hour of her birth: she had been pursued by evil all her life: she lamented the hour when she met a certain man, unnamed, who had dragged her down to his own level: and so on.

When she had calmed a little, Armorel persuaded her to lie down. It is a woman's chief medicine. It is better than all the drugs in the museum of the College of Physicians. Mrs. Elstree, pale and trembling, tearful and agitated, lay down. Armorel covered her with a warm wrapper, and left her.

A little while afterwards she looked in. The patient was quite calm now, apparently asleep, and breathing gently. Armorel, satisfied with the result of her medicine, left her in charge of her maid, and went out for an hour. She went out, in fact, to tell Effie Wilmot the joyful news concerning those abominable rubies. When she came back, in time for luncheon, she was met by her maid, who gave her a letter, and told her a strange thing. Mrs. Elstree had gone away! The sick woman, who had been raving in hysterics, hardly able to support herself to her bed, had got up the moment after Armorel left the house, packed all her boxes hurriedly, sent her for a cab, and had driven away. But she had left this note for Armorel. It was brief.

'I am obliged to go away unexpectedly. In order to avoid explanations and questions and farewells, I have thought it best to go away quietly. I could not choose but go. For certain reasons I must leave you. For the same reasons I hope that we may never meet again. I ought never to have come here. Forgive me and forget me. I will write to Mr. Jagenal to-day.

'Zoe.'

There was no reason given. She had gone. Nor, if one may anticipate, has Armorel yet discovered the reasons for this sudden flight. Nor, as you will presently discover, will Armorel ever be able to discover those reasons.

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