Lionel paused. Was it possible that he—Captain Cannonby—was in ignorance? “Tell me one thing,” he said. “Your brother mentioned that you had heard, as he believed, some news connected with me and—and my wife, in Paris, which had caused you to hurry home, and come down to Verner’s Pride. What was that news?”
“The news I heard was, that Mrs. Massingbird had become Mrs. Verner. I had intended to find her out when I got to Europe, if only to apologise for my negligence in not giving her news of John Massingbird or his property—which news I could never gather for myself—but I did not know precisely where she might be. I heard in Paris that she had married you, and was living at Verner’s Pride.”
Lionel drew a long breath. “And that was all?”
“That was all.”
Then he was in ignorance of it! But, to keep him in ignorance was impossible. Lionel must ask confirmation or non-confirmation of the death. With low voice and rapid speech he mentioned the fears and the facts. Captain Cannonby gathered them in, withdrew his arm from Lionel’s, and stood staring at him.
“Fred Massingbird alive, and come back to England!” he uttered, in bewildered wonder.
“We cannot think otherwise,” replied Lionel.
“Then, Mr. Verner, I tell you that it cannot be. It cannot be, you understand. I saw him die. I saw him laid in the grave.”
They had not walked on. They stood there, looking at each other, absorbed in themselves, oblivious to the attention that might be fixed on them from any stray passers-by. At that moment there were no passers-by to fix it; the bustle of Deerham only began with the houses, and those they had not yet reached.
“I would give all my future life to believe you,” earnestly spoke Lionel; “to believe that there can be no mistake—for my wife’s sake.”
“There is no mistake,” reiterated Captain Cannonby. “I saw him dead; I saw him buried. A parson, in the company halting there, read the burial service over him.”
“You may have buried him, fancying he was dead,” suggested Lionel, giving utterance to some of the wild thoughts of his imaginings. “And—forgive me for bringing forward such pictures—the mistake may have been discovered in time—and—”
“It could not be,” interrupted Captain Cannonby. “I am quite certain he was dead. Let us allow, if you will, for argument’s sake, that he was not dead when he was put into the ground. Five minutes’ lying there, with the weight of earth upon him, would have effectually destroyed life; had any been left in him to destroy. There was no coffin, you must remember.”
“Parties to the gold-fields don’t carry a supply of coffins with them. If death occurs en route, it has to be provided for in the simplest and most practical form. At least, I can answer that such was the case with regard to Fred Massingbird. He was buried in the clothes he wore when he died.”