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The Weird of the Wentworths, Vol. 1 By Johannes Scotus Characters: 17334

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03

"Alas! how light a cause may move

Dissension between hearts that love."-Moore.

"But when I older grew,

Joining a corsair's crew,

O'er the dark wave I flew

With the marauders;

Wild was the life we led,

Many the souls that sped,

Many the hearts that bled

By our stern orders."-Longfellow.

Captain L'Estrange had proceeded with his troop by slow stages to the Preston barracks, situated a short distance out of Brighton, on the Lewes road. His faith in Ellen was still secure, though it had been somewhat rudely shaken by her singular conduct since the arrival of Lord Wentworth. He could not but have noticed that a kind of gêne had sprung up between them; but he paid little attention to his mind's suggestions, and thought that in a short time all would run smooth again. With this idea, one of the first things he did after his arrival was to write a long and affectionate letter to his betrothed. It was long, very long ere he received an answer; and when at last it came it was calculated in no way to alleviate his apprehensions, but consisted chiefly of a very brilliant description of the election ball, Lord Wentworth's attentions, and also their day at the Towers. L'Estrange was deeply annoyed, and in the heat of his excitement wrote an ill-judged and hasty reply, blaming her for coldness, rallying her about setting her cap at the young peer, and concluding with a remonstrance, telling her that she was unjustified in allowing any one to share so much of her affections. Had his evil genius instigated him, he could hardly have been urged to a worse course. At once it touched Ellen's pride and honour, and stirred up all her slumbering dislike to L'Estrange into actual hatred; and flushed with rage she sat down and wrote an angry letter, in which she told him that she was not the girl to brook such conduct; that a passion, never very strong in her, had long been lessening; that his letter had smothered the last spark!-she now considered herself free as air, and he might do the same; if that was a prelude to their future married life, she thanked heaven it had not come too late: and in conclusion begged all communication might for ever cease between them. In an agony of rage and despair, L'Estrange threw the fatal epistle behind the fire: he saw he had gone too far, and resolved, if possible, to turn the tide. But it was to no purpose he now penned an apology; it was too late to urge his expiring suit-too late to beseech her to forgive and forget all; the bird was free! and rejoicing in her newly-acquired freedom, was in no hurry to become again a captive. He only received a cold and polite note, saying her refusal was final, and the more he burned the colder would her bosom grow.

It was not only L'Estrange's love, which was really great, but his pride that now suffered. He had boasted to his fellow-officers of his beautiful fiancée-he had even shown them her miniature; he had heard them praise it and call him a lucky fellow; he had pictured to himself the pride with which he would introduce his elegant partner; he had spoken of their union as a thing fixed and certain;-and now to be spurned, jilted by her thus, because a young lord was showing her attention!-the thought was maddening; and in his wrath he swore eternal hatred to the false fair one, and eternal, dreadful vengeance on him who had stolen her heart! He hoped that she might yet have mistaken her object-that the Earl's attentions were mere flirtations; but on making inquiry he daily learned that the worst results were to be feared, and he now began to devise means to frustrate them. His whole character seemed changed. Instead of the gay, lighthearted man he used to be, he became silent, morose, vindictive; and his fellow-officers, having learned the reason, looked forward in anticipation to some dreadful catastrophe.

Before proceeding further, however, as Edward L'Estrange is to play a most conspicuous part in this story, a few details of his early life may not be wholly uninteresting.

Shrouded in the deepest mystery was Edward L'Estrange's infancy. His first recollections were of a dark and romantic kind, and went to a time when, with a young man of fiendish character, he sailed the Spanish main in a fast schooner with raking masts, and terribly black teeth! The captain of this ship-the young man we have already alluded to-was half a pirate, half a smuggler, and one of the fiercest and most sanguinary monsters that ever disgraced the annals of the sea. In this life of wildness and iniquity the first eight years of L'Estrange's life passed away. Brought up from infancy to be acquainted with revolting scenes of murder and debauchery, and taught to lisp oaths ere he could speak plainly, he was however snatched from an existence of crime before his heart was utterly hardened. One evening-or rather late in the afternoon-as the Black Mail was running under a press of canvas for the island of Cuba a British frigate hove in sight which, as soon as she ascertained the character of the schooner, immediately gave chase. A brisk wind swelled out the sails of both ships, and they seemed rather to fly than sail over the waves. In an hour it became however manifestly evident that the man-of-war was slowly but surely bearing down on her foe, and had already shortened the distance between them from five miles to barely three. The pirate crowded on all sail, hoping, if she could prolong the chase till darkness came, she might yet give her pursuer a wide berth. With anxious face did her skipper watch the globe of light sinking gradually into the ocean's embrace, and with loud oaths anathematized the faithless wind lessening every minute; and what was more provoking was the fact that the frigate from her superior height of masts caught the expiring breeze long after he lost it, and he had the mortification of seeing his enemy keep on till within a quarter of a mile of him, whilst his ship "lay idle as a painted ship upon a painted ocean." Still an hour of light remained. He now ordered his hands to arm, and prepare to die like men, neither giving nor taking quarter. Up ran the black flag, and simultaneously each vessel poured a broadside of grape upon her antagonist. For half an hour the deadly shower was hailed "fast and well" until the schooner had lost both masts, and was gradually settling down in the deep. The English man-of-war then sent out three boats to board the pirate, which they succeeded in doing, despite the deadly resistance of the desperadoes, who, knowing that no quarter would be given, were determined to sell their lives dearly. Hand to hand was the combat continued with cutlasses till the whole of the pirates were either killed or overpowered. At that moment the schooner began to sink into the waters, bow foremost, scarcely giving the victors time to regain their boats with one prisoner, a boy of nine, who had fought like a born fiend, and so ferocious was his resistance that even after he had been made captive, they had to put him in irons. In time, however, kindness overcame ferocity, and the young pirate grew the pet of the whole crew of the Arethusa, especially the captain's, who adopted him for his own son, and gave him the name we now know him by-Edward L'Estrange-his own name. After cruising for some time he was brought home to England, where his guardian gave him a liberal education, and when he died,-which was not before he had seen the foundling an officer in the king's army,-he left all the property to which he had succeeded entirely to Edward L'Estrange. The young savage changed to the dauntless soldier, though we are not prepared to say how much his evil bringing up influenced his future career, but will leave the reader to judge for himself.

Young L'Estrange, whilst serving with his regiment in America, became intimate with an officer quartered in the same garrison, named George Ravensworth; intimacy strengthened into the closest friendship, and the two young men were like brothers till death severed the bond, and L'Estrange had the grief of attending the deathbed of his friend, following his cold remains to the grave, and hearing the volley fired over his tomb! A few sad relics-the young soldier's sword, his watch, and his Bible-were entrusted to him by his friend to carry home to his bereaved family.

An early opportunity of doing this was offered to L'Estrange by his exchange into a regiment ordered home, and he hastened to Edinburgh to fulfil his errand. When he presented himself at Seaview only Ellen Ravensworth was at home, and to her the young officer confided the sad relics of her brother, a

nd his dear and lamented friend. It was the most natural thing in the world that L'Estrange's affections should be transferred to the sister of one so dear. She was young and attractive, and long after his first interview did the vision of the fair girl in the garb of woe which so well becomes that style of beauty, cling to his memory. An acquaintance so romantically begun soon ripened into affection, and deep love not only to Ellen, but the whole family. They were all much interested in his strange early history, and as it suited Ellen's turn of mind she allowed her lover to engross her affections. Edward L'Estrange was possessed of an ample fortune, and Mr. Ravensworth saw nothing to hinder their union when Ellen was a year or two older, and time had robbed their grief at George's death of its first poignancy.

During the next year or more from the circumstance of his regiment being quartered at Piershill he had full opportunity of seeing his sweetheart, in fact had grown like one of the family; and strange to say was regarded rather in this light by Ellen than as a lover-for to do the girl justice she loved him really as a brother only. Being considerably older than Ellen she looked up to him rather than mingled her mind with his; there was something too about him which, while it forced admiration, ay, and even love, repelled it too. That love was mingled with fear, with restraint, and became a duty rather than a pleasure, and while she told him with her lips she loved, her heart within denied it. Long engagements are known to be the worst things in the world,-hope deferred sickens the heart, the flame of love burns lower and lower, and then let some rival appear, and the last spark is extinguished! It would be vain, and useless as vain, to strive to trace back to its source the first declination-the earliest seeds of that fatal upas tree which strengthened and grew, till its baneful shadow destroyed the very vitality of love! "A word unkind or wrongly taken" the poet has averred to be often the first symptom of decline, and he then adds-

"Ruder words will yet rush in

To spread the breach that words begin!"

Perhaps such were the germs of the hatred-shall we say the word, but it is true?-that had now sprung up between the lovers. L'Estrange swore eternal hatred to whom? Ellen! He swore vengeance on whom? Lord Wentworth!

His first thought was to proceed at once to the Towers and challenge Lord Wentworth to mortal combat. His second to strive and prevent their union by subtle and well-laid schemes. Second thoughts are best. If he fought the Earl, one of them would certainly fall. Supposing he did! His life was now hateful. He did not care-it might be relief! But then that would not prevent Ellen's being united to his foe. She would forget him-be happy-be loved-be rich-the thought was hell!

Again, supposing he killed his antagonist-she would perhaps die of grief-die cursing him! that would be sweet revenge, but she would not be his any the more; he loved her still, despite his vow: he must possess her, or die! For his second thoughts, if he could prevent their union,-if he could so manage that the Earl married another,-if he could get Ellen to forget, to cease to admire him,-the vanishing spark of love might yet be fanned bright and glowing as it was of yore; she might yet love him again,-she might yet be his bride-his own, his beautiful Ellen! Yes, this was his plan, and she was once more beloved-his vow of endless hatred forgotten! But how was he to effect his purpose? His plot was good, how was it to be carried out? He knew the noble family, but could not presume on his acquaintance. He was a friend of the Captain's, and a bright thought struck him. He would enlist the Captain on his side! He knew him to be a bad man-a deist, or the next thing to it-a hard drinker-a bold blasphemer-'game,' as he said, for anything, however wild.

The last thing in the world the Captain would like was his brother's marriage, as he had contracted vast debts on the presumption of his succeeding to the coronet; but the difficulty was how he could make the plot palatable to this bad man, for unless he was to benefit he knew very well the Captain would first "see him and his plans at the devil!" And one like this, where neither woman nor gold fell to his share, he would never enter into. Could he get some hold over the Captain-something that compromised his liberty, or life-he might have a chance, was his next thought. He knew there was many a crime that could be laid at his door, but woe to the rash fool who dared to do so. There was not such a duellist in the kingdom, and the Captain would call his accuser out and kill him. No, this would never do, and L'Estrange determined to seek sager advice than his own; he therefore resolved to go at once to a strange character who lived near Brighton, William Stacy, or as he was more commonly known-"Dare Devil Bill."

Bill Stacy lived in a lonely house situated between Brighton and Shoreham, and there practised all sorts of illicit trades. Rumour reported Bill to have been a pirate in his younger days, but if any one wished his legacy of six feet of earth, he had only to inquire from Bill the antecedents of his mysterious life. Old Stacy had a reputed daughter named Antonia, quite a belle in the Spanish way. She had an arch, gipsy look in her large black eye; and her jetty hair, white teeth, and the damask colour which tinged her olive cheek made her quite irresistible. Many an eye had paid the homage of speechless admiration to the dark-eyed beauty, many a heartache had she caused to the dashing young officers of the 7th, but few had the hardiness to do more than glance at her face for fear of her father, the old dragon who guarded her bower, and since the day Bill had nigh murdered a young Viscount who had dared kiss her hand, her admirers stood afar off, nor tempted another volley of his ire.

Perhaps my readers may wonder how L'Estrange had become acquainted with such a wild, bad character as Bill. It is enough to say for the present that he had become acquainted, and that a peculiar tie seemed to exist between them. In fact, old Stacy had told L'Estrange as much as to lead him to suppose he, and he only, could unravel some of the mystery that clung to his early life. But he knew Bill's desperate character too well to pry into any of his secrets, and, since he had been threatened with strangulation for once trying to sift matters, thought it best to allow the old sinner to take his own time. Stacy supplied him, in common with others, with tobacco and spirits never christened in a custom-house, duty-free,-indeed he made no secret of his trade, and it was thought the excise officers winked at these illegal practices, and the old man made it worth their while to hold their information secret. Late as it was-now past midnight-L'Estrange prepared to look up this villain, generally easiest found at his own hour of darkness. He therefore ordered his servant to saddle a horse, and accompany him to within a short distance of the smuggler's nest. Pat Malony, his orderly, proceeded to do so, wondering what his master was up to at such a late hour. In those days the discipline of the cavalry was less rigorous than now, and L'Estrange passed unchallenged through the gates, and proceeded at a slow trot along the frozen road westward towards Hove, which he passed, and then quickened his pace till he came within a mile of the Nest, as Stacy's house was called. Here he dismounted, ordered Pat to take care of his horse, and wait till he came back again. Pat lit his pipe, inwardly cursing the freak that left him a sentinel on such a night, and wondering "what the divil dacent folk wanted at this hour of night in a place, if report said true, anything but honest!" Meanwhile L'Estrange ran downwards to the shore over a wild bleak common, till he came to a low-roofed, evil-looking house. A light burning in one window showed the inmates were awake, and with a full heart he approached the lonely dwelling. As he neared the door, he thought he heard laughter and loud talking once or twice; however, undeterred by this not unusual noise, he stood in another moment before the door, and with his riding whip's handle made three or four masonic taps. A loud, hoarse oath was the answer, and he heard footsteps approaching the door from the inside. While he is waiting for admission, we must again take the licence all novel writers are allowed, and shift the scene once more to the Towers. The reason for this interruption will, we hope, be sufficiently explained by the next chapter.

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