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   Chapter 30 THE MASTER OF COLVILLE HALL

The Yellow House By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 19086

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


I believe that I took off my clothes and made some pretence of going to bed, but in my memory those long hours between the time when I left father in the study and the dawn seems like one interminable nightmare. Yet towards morning I must have slept, for my room was full of sunlight when a soft knocking at the door awakened me. Our trim little housemaid entered with a note; the address was in my father's handwriting. I sat up in bed and tore open the envelope eagerly. Something seemed to tell me even before I glanced at its contents that the thing I dreaded was coming to pass. This is what I read:

"Forgive me, child, if I have left you with only a written farewell. The little strength I have left I have need of, and I shrank from seeing you again lest the sorrow of it should sap my purpose; should make me weak when I need to be strong. The girl will tell her story, and at the best my career of usefulness here is over; so I leave Eastminster this morning forever. I have written to Alice and to the Bishop. To him I have sent a brief memoir of my life. I do not think that he will be a stern judge, especially as the culprit stands already with one foot in the grave.

"And now, child, I have a final confession to make to you. For many years there has been a side to my life of which you and Alice have been ignorant. Even now I am not going to tell you about it. The time is too short for me to enter thoroughly into my motives and into the gradual development of what was at first only a very small thing. But of this I am anxious to assure you, it is not a disgraceful side! It is not anything of which I am ashamed, although there have been potent reasons for keeping all record of it within my own breast. Had I known to what it was destined to grow I should have acted differently from the commencement, but of that it is purposeless now to speak. The little remnant of life which is still mine I have dedicated to it. Even if my career here were not so clearly over, my conscience tells me that I am doing right in abandoning it. It is possible that we may never meet again. Farewell! If what you hinted at last night comes really to pass it is good. Bruce Deville has been no friend of mine, but he is as worthy of you as any man could be. And above all, remember this, my fervent prayer: Forgive me the wrong which I have done you and the trouble which I have brought into your life. Think of me if you can only as your most affectionate father, Horace Ffolliot."

When I had finished my father's letter I dressed in haste. There was no doubt in my mind as to where he had gone. I would follow him at once. I would be by his side wherever he was and in whatever condition when the end came. I rang for a time-table and looked out the morning trains for London. Then Alice knocked at my door and came to me with white, scared face, and an open letter in her hand. She found me all ready to start.

"Do you understand it? What does it mean, Kate?" she asked, fearfully.

"I do not know," I answered. "He has gone to London, and he is not fit to leave his bed. I am going to follow him."

"But you do not know whereabouts to look. You will never find him."

"I must trust to fate," I answered, desperately. "Somehow or other I shall find him. Goodbye. I have only a few minutes to catch the train."

She came to the door with me.

"And you?" I asked, upon the step.

"I shall remain here," she answered, firmly. "I shall not leave until it is perfectly certain that this is not all some hideous mistake. I can't realize it, Kate."

"Yes," I cried, lingering impatiently upon the step.

"Do you think that he is mad?"

I shook my head. "I am certain that he is not," I answered. "I will write to you; perhaps to-night. I may have news."

I walked across the close, where as yet not a soul was stirring. The ground beneath my feet was hard with a white frost, and the air was keen and bright. The sunlight was flashing upon the cathedral windows, the hoar-covered ivy front of the deanery gleamed like silver, and a little group of tame pigeons lit at my feet and scarcely troubled to get out of the way of my hasty footsteps. A magnificent serenity reigned over the little place. It seemed as though the touch of tragedy could scarcely penetrate here. Yet as I turned into the main street of the still sleeping town my heart gave a great leap and then died away within me. A few yards ahead was the familiar fur-coated little figure, also wending her way towards the station.

She turned round at the ringing sound of my footsteps, and her lips parted in a dark, malicious smile. She waited for me, and then walked on by my side.

"He has a two hours' start," she said, "so far as you are concerned; that means that you will not find him. But with me it is different. I found out his flight in time to wire to London. At St. Pancras a detective will meet the train. He will be followed wherever he goes, and word will be sent to me. To-night he will be in prison. Canon Ffolliot, you know-your father-in prison! I wonder, will the wedding be postponed? Eh?"

She peered up into my face. I kept my eyes steadily fixed upon the end of the street where the station was, and ground my teeth together. The only notice I took of her was to increase my pace so that she could scarcely keep up with me. I could hear her breath coming sharply as she half walked, half ran along at my side. Then, at last, as we came in sight of the station, my heart gave a great leap, and a little exclamation of joy broke upon my lips. A man was standing under the portico with his face turned towards us. It was Bruce Deville.

She too gave vent to a little exclamation which sounded almost like a moan. For the first time I glanced into her face. Her lips were quivering, her dark eyes, suddenly dim, were soft with despair. She caught at my arm and commenced talking rapidly in spasmodic little gasps. Her tone was no longer threatening.

"There is a chance for you," she cried. "You can save your father. You could take him away-to Italy, to the south of France. He would recover. You would never have anything to fear from me again. I should be your friend."

I shook my head.

"It is too late," I said. "You had your chance. I did what you asked."

She shrank back as though I had stabbed her.

"It is not too late," she said, feverishly. "Make it the test of his love. It will not be forever. I am not strong. I may not live more than a year or two. Let me have him-for that time. It is to save your father. Pray to him. He will consent. He does not dislike me. But, mon Dieu! I will not live without him. Oh, if you knew what it was to love."

I shook my head sorrowfully. Was it unnatural that I should pity her, even though she was my father's persecutor? Before I could speak to her Bruce was by our side. He had come a few steps to meet us. He held my hands tightly.

"I felt sure that you would be coming by this train," he said. "I have the tickets."

"And you?" I asked.

"I am coming with you, of course," he answered, turning round and walking by my side.

Olive Berdenstein was watching him eagerly. He had not taken the slightest notice of her. A faint flush, which had stolen into her face, faded slowly away. She became deadly white; she moved apart and entered the booking office. As she stood taking her ticket I caught a backward glance from her dark eyes which made me shiver.

"Why don't you speak to her?" I whispered.

"Why should I?" he answered, coolly. "She is doing her utmost to bring ruin upon you. She is our enemy."

"Not yours."

"If yours, mine," he declared, smiling down upon me. "Isn't that so?"

"Even now she is willing to make terms," I said, slowly, with my eyes fixed upon the approaching train. "She is willing--"

"Well!"

"To spare us, if--"

"Well!"

"If you will give me up."

He laughed mockingly.

"I thought that was all over and done with," he protested. "No one but a couple of girls could have hatched such a plot. I presumed you were not going to make any further suggestions of the sort seriously?"

I have never been quite sure whether I had intended to or not. At any rate, his words and expression then convinced me of the utter hopelessness of such an attempt. The train drew up, and he placed me in an empty carriage. He spoke to the guard and then followed me in. The door was locked. Olive Berdenstein walked slowly by and looked into our compartment. I believe she had meant to travel to London with us, but if so her design was frustrated. For the present, at any rate, we were safe from her.

Upon our arrival we took a hansom and drove straight to Victoria Street. My mother was out. We waited impatiently for several hours. She did not return till dusk. Then I told her everything. As she listened to me her face grew white and anxious.

"You know him better than any one else in the world," I cried. "You alone can solve the mystery of his second life. In this letter he speaks of it. Whatever it may be, he has gone back to it now. I want to find him. I must find him. Can't you suggest something that may help me? If you were not in his whole confidence, at least you must have some idea about it."

She shook her head sadly and doubtfully.

"I only knew," she said, "that there was a second life. I knew that it was there, but I had no knowledge of it. If I could help you I would not hesitate for a single moment."

Then, like an inspiration, there flashed into my mind the thought

of that man's face whom I had met in the East End of this great city. They had persuaded me into a sort of half belief that I had been mistaken. They were wrong, and I had been right! I remembered his strange apparel and his stern avoidance of me. I had no more doubts. Somewhere in those regions lay that second life of his. I sprang to my feet.

"I know where he is," I cried. "Come!"

They both followed me from the house, and at my bidding Bruce called for a cab. On the way I told them what had become my conviction. When I had finished my mother looked up thoughtfully.

"I do not know," she said. "Of course, it may be no good, but let us try Colville Hall. It is quite close to the place where you say you saw him."

"Colville Hall?" I repeated. "What sort of place is that? The name sounds familiar."

"You will see for yourself," she answered. "It is close here. I will tell the man to stop."

We were in the thick of the East End, when the cab pulled up in front of a large square building, brilliantly illuminated. Great placards were posted upon the walls, and a constant stream of men and women were passing through the wide open doors. Bruce elbowed a way for us through the crowd, and we found ourselves at last wedged in amongst them, irresistibly carried along into the interior of the great hall. We passed the threshold in a minute or two. Then we paused to take breath. I looked around me with a throb of eager curiosity.

It was a wonderful sight. The room was packed with a huge audience, mostly of men and boys. Nearly all had pipes in their mouths, and the atmosphere of the place was blue with smoke. On a raised platform at the further end several men were sitting, also smoking, and then, with a sudden, swift shock of surprise, I realized that our search was indeed over. One of them was my father, coarsely and poorly dressed, and holding between his fingers a small briar pipe.

Notwithstanding the motley assemblage, the silence in the hall was intense. There were very few women there, and they, as well as the men, appeared to be of the lowest order. Their faces were all turned expectantly towards the platform. One or two of them were whispering amongst themselves, but my father's voice-he had risen to his feet now-sounded clear and distinct above the faint murmuring-we too, held our breath.

"My friends," he said quietly, "I am glad to see so many of you here to-night. I have come a long way to have my last talk with you. Partings are always sad things, and I shall feel very strange when I leave this hall to-night, to know that in all human probability I shall never set foot in it again. But our ways are made for us, and all that we can do is to accept them cheerfully. To-night, my friends, it is for us to say farewell."

Something of the sort seemed to have been expected, yet there were a good many concerned and startled faces; a little half-protesting, half-kindly murmur of negation.

"Gar on! You're not a-going to leave us, gov-nor!"

My father shook his head, smiling faintly. Notwithstanding his rough attire, the delicacy of his figure and the statuesque beauty of his calm, pale face were distinctly noticeable. With an irresistible effort of memory I seemed to see once more the great cathedral, with its dim, solemn hush, the shadows around the pillars, and the brilliantly lit chancel, a little oasis of light shining through the gloom. The perfume of the flowers, and the soft throbbing music of the great organ seemed to be floating about on the thick, noxious air. Then my father, his hand pressed to his side, and his face soft with a wonderful tenderness, commenced his farewell address to these strange looking people.

Very soon I had forgotten where I was. My eyes were wet with tears, and my heart was aching with a new pain. The gentle, kindly, eloquence, the wan face, with its irresistible sweet smile, so human, so marvellously sympathetic, was a revelation to me. It was a farewell to a people with whom he must have been brought into vivid and personal communion, a message of farewell, too, to others of them who were not there. It was a sermon-did they think of it as a sermon, I wonder?-to the like of which I had certainly never listened before, which seemed to tell between the lines as though with a definite purpose the story of his own sorrows and his own sins. In that great hall there was no sound, save those slow words vibrating with nervous force, which seemed each one of them to leave him palpably the weaker. Some let their pipes go out, others smoked stolidly on, with their faces steadfastly fixed upon that thin, swaying figure. The secret of his long struggle with them and his tardy victory seemed to become revealed to us in their attitude towards him and their reverent silence. One forgot all about their unwashed faces and miserable attire, the foul tobacco smoke, and the hard, unsexed-looking women who listened with bowed heads as though ashamed to display a very unusual emotion. One remembered only that the place was holy.

The words of farewell were spoken at last. He did not openly speak of death, yet I doubt whether there was one of them who did not divine it. He stood upon the little platform holding out his hands towards them, and they left their places in orderly fashion, yet jealously eager to be amongst the first to clasp them, and somehow we three felt that it was no place for us, and we made our way out again on to the pavement. My mother and I looked at one another with wet eyes.

"At last, then," I murmured, "we know his secret. Would to God that we had known before."

"It is wonderful," my mother answered, "that he has escaped recognition. There has been so much written about this place lately. Only last week I was asked to come here. Every one has been talking about the marvellous influence he has gained over these people."

We waited there for him. In little groups the congregation came slowly out and dispersed. The lights in the main body of the building were extinguished. Still he did not come. We were on the point of seeking for a side entrance when a man came hurriedly out of the darkened building and commenced running up the street. Something seemed to tell me the truth.

"That man has gone for a doctor," I cried. "See, he has stopped at the house with the red lamp. He is ill! I am going inside."

I tried the door. It opened at my touch and we groped our way across the unlit room, bare and desolate enough now with its rows of empty and disarranged chairs, and with little clouds of dense tobacco smoke still hanging about. In a little recess behind the platform we found my father. One man-a cabman he seemed to be-was holding his hand, another was supporting his head. When he saw us he smiled faintly.

"God is very good," he murmured. "There was nothing I wished for but to see you once more."

I dropped on my knees by his side. There was a mist before my eyes and a great lump in my throat.

"You are worse," I cried. "Have they sent for a doctor?"

"It is the end," he said, softly. "It will all be over very soon now. I am ready. My work here was commenced. It is not granted to any one to do more than to make commencements. Give-give-ah!"

The flutter of a gown close at hand disturbed me. I followed my father's eyes. Olive Berdenstein had glided from a dark corner underneath one of the galleries, and was coming like a wraith towards us. I half rose to my feet in a fit of passionate anger. Bruce, too, had taken a hasty step towards her.

"Can't you see you are too late?" he whispered to her hoarsely. "Go away from here. It is no place for you."

"Too late," she murmured, softly, and then the sound of heavy footsteps coming up the hall made us all look round and my heart died away within me. Two men in plain clothes were within a few yards of us; a policeman followed close behind. My father closed his eyes, and from the look of horror in his face I knew how he had dreaded this thing. One of the men advanced to Olive Berdenstein, and touched his hat. I can hear her voice now.

"I am sorry, Mr. Smith," she said, "I have made a mistake. This is not the man."

There was a dead silence for a minute or two, and then a little murmur of voices which reached me as though from a great distance. I heard the sound of their retreating footsteps. I caught a glimpse of Olive Berdenstein's tear-stained face as she bent for a moment over my father's prostrate figure.

"I forgive," she whispered. "Farewell."

Then she followed them out of the hall, and we none of us saw her any more. But there was a light in my father's face like the light which is kindled by a great joy. One hand I kept, the other my mother clasped. He looked up at us and smiled.

"This," he said, "is happiness."

? ? ?

Transcriber's Note

The following corrections have been made to the printed original:

Page 5, "her" corrected to "hear" (surprised to hear you).

Page 10, "pefect" corrected to "perfect" (most perfect prototype).

Page 26, "Ig" corrected to "If" (If you do you will suffer).

Page 45, "I" corrected to "It" (It was too funny.)

Page 74, "haid" corrected to "said" ("My dear girl," she said).

Page 84, "Berdentein" corrected to "Berdenstein" (this man, this Berdenstein).

Page 157, "enchanged" corrected to "exchanged" (exchanged swift glances).

Page 217, "nonense" corrected to "nonsense" ("What nonsense!" he declared.)

Page 291, "whereever" corrected to "wherever" (wherever he was).

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