He walked onwards, like one in a fever dream, nodding mechanically in answer to salutations; answering he knew not what, if words were spoken to him. The vicarage joined the churchyard, and the vicar was standing in the latter as Lionel came up, watching two men who were digging a grave. He crossed over the mounds to shake hands with Lionel.
Lionel drew him into the vicarage garden, amidst the trees. It was shady there; the outer world shut out from eye and ear.
“I cannot beat about the bush; I cannot dissemble,” began Lionel, in deep agitation. “Tell me your true opinion of this business, for the love of Heaven! I have come down to ask it of you.”
The vicar paused. “My dear friend, I feel almost afraid to give it to you.”
“I have been speaking with Jan. He thinks it may be Frederick Massingbird—not dead, but alive.”
“I fear it is,” answered the clergyman. “Within the last half-hour I have fully believed that it is.”
Lionel leaned his back against a tree, his arms folded. Tolerably calm outwardly; but he could not get the healthy blood back to his face. “Why within the last half-hour more than before?” he asked. “Has anything fresh happened?”
“Yes,” said Mr. Bourne. “I went down to Hook’s; the girl’s not expected to live the day through—but that you may have heard from Jan. In coming away, your gamekeeper met me. He stopped, and began asking my advice in a mysterious manner—whether, if a secret affecting his master had come to his knowledge, he ought, or ought not, to impart it to his master. I felt sure what the man was driving at—that it could be no other thing than this ghost affair—and gave him a hint to speak out to me in confidence; which he did.”
“Well?” rejoined Lionel.
“He said,” continued Mr. Bourne, lowering his voice, “that he passed a man last night who, he was perfectly certain, was Frederick Massingbird. ‘Not Frederick Massingbird’s ghost, as foolish people were fancying,’ Broom added, ‘but Massingbird himself.’ He was in doubt whether or not it was his duty to acquaint Mr. Verner; and so he asked me. I bade him not acquaint you,” continued the vicar, “but to bury the suspicion within his own breast, breathing a word to none.”
Evidence upon evidence! Every moment brought less loop-hole of escape for Lionel. “How can it be?” he gasped. “If he is not dead, where can he have been all this while?”
“I conclude it will turn out to be one of those every-day occurrences that have little marvel at all in them. My thoughts were busy upon it, while standing over the grave yonder. I suppose he must have been to the diggings—possibly laid up there by illness; and letters may have miscarried.”
“You feel little doubt upon the fact itself—that it is Frederick Massingbird?”
“I feel none. It is certainly he. Won’t you come in and sit down?”
“No, no,” said Lionel; and, drawing his hand from the vicar’s, he went forth again, he, and his heavy weight. Frederick Massingbird alive!