On Monday evening after dinner Mr. Everard and his son sat for a while in silence. They had not met since morning; and in the presence of the servants conversation had been scrupulously polite. Now, though they were both waiting to talk, neither liked to begin. The older man was outwardly placid, when Leonard, a little flushed and a little nervous of voice, began:
'Have you had any more bills?' He had expected none, and thus hoped to begin by scoring against his father. It was something of a set- down when the latter, taking some papers from his breast-pocket, handed them to him, saying:
'Only these!' Leonard took them in silence and looked at them. All were requests for payment of debts due by his son.
In each case the full bill was enclosed. He was silent a while; but his father spoke:
'It would almost seem as if all these people had made up their minds that you were of no further use to them.' Then without pausing he said, but in a sharper voice:
'Have you paid the jewellers? This is Monday!' Without speaking Leonard took leisurely from his pocket folded paper. This he opened, and, after deliberately smoothing out the folds, handed it to his father. Doubtless something in his manner had already convinced the latter that the debt was paid. He took the paper in as leisurely a way as it had been given, adjusted his spectacles, and read it. Seeing that his son had scored this time, he covered his chagrin with an appearance of paternal satisfaction.
'Good!' For many reasons he was glad the debt was paid He was himself too poor a man to allow the constant drain his son's debts, and too careful of his position to be willing have such exposure as would come with a County Court action against his son. All the same, his exasperation continued. Neither was his quiver yet empty. He shot his next arrow:
'I am glad you paid off those usurers!' Leonard did not like the definite way he spoke. Still in silence, he took from his pocket a second paper, which he handed over unfolded. Mr. Everard read it, and returned it politely, with again one word:
'Good!' For a few minutes there was silence. The father spoke again:
'Those other debts, have you paid them?' With a calm deliberation so full of tacit rudeness that it made his father flush Leonard answered:
'Not yet, sir! But I shall think of them presently. I don't care to be bustled by them; and I don't mean to!' It was apparent that though he spoke verbally of his creditors, his meaning was with regard to others also.
'When will they be paid?' As his son hesitated, he went on:
'I am alluding to those who have written to me. I take it that as my estate is not entailed, and as you have no income except from me, the credit which has been extended to you has been rather on my account than your own. Therefore, as the matter touches my own name, I am entitled to know something of what is going on.' His manner as well as his words was so threatening that Leonard was a little afraid. He might imperil his inheritance. He answered quickly:
'Of course, sir, you shall know everything. After all, you know, my affairs are your affairs!'
'I know nothing of the sort. I may of course be annoyed by your affairs, even dishonoured, in a way, by them. But I accept no responsibility whatever. As you have made your bed, so must you lie on it!'
'It's all right, sir, I assure you. All my debts, both those you know of and some you don't, I shall settle very shortly.'
'How soon?' The question was sternly put.
'In a few days. I dare say a week at furthest will see everything straightened out.'
The elder man stood, saying gravely as he went to the door:
'You will do well to tell me when the last of them is paid. There is something which I shall then want to tell you!' Without waiting for reply he went to his study.
Leonard went to his room and made a systematic, though unavailing, search for Stephen's letter; thinking that by some chance he might have recovered it from Harold and had overlooked it.
The next few days he passed in considerable suspense. He did not dare go near Normanstand until he was summoned, as he knew he would be when he was required.
When Miss Rowly returned from her visit to London she told Stephen that she had paid the bill at the jeweller's, and had taken the precaution of getting a receipt, together with a duplicate for Mr. Everard. The original was by her own request made out as received from Miss Laetitia Rowly in settlement of the account of Leonard Everard, Esq.; the duplicate merely was 'recd. in settlement of the account of--,' etc. Stephen's brows bent hit thought as she said:
'Why did you have it done that way, Auntie dear?' The other answered quietly:
'I had a reason, my dear; good reason! Perhaps I shall tell you all about it some day; in the meantime I want you not to ask me anything about it. I have a reason for that too. Stephen, won't you trust me in this, blindfold?' There was something so sweet and loving in the way she made the request that Stephen was filled with emotion. She put her arms round her aunt's neck and hugged her tight. Then laying her head on her bosom she said with a sigh:
'Oh, my dear, you can't know how I trust you; or how much your trust is to me. You never can know!'
The next day the two women held a long consultation over the schedule of Leonard's debts. Neither said a word of disfavour, or even commented on the magnitude. The only remark touching on the subject was made by Miss Rowly:
'We must ask for proper discounts. Oh, the villainy of those tradesmen! I do believe they charge double in the hope of getting half. As to jewellers . . . !' Then she announced her intention of going up to town again on Thursday, at which visit she would arrange for the payment of the various debts. Stephen tried to remonstrate, but she was obdurate. She held Stephen's hand in hers and stroked it lovingly as she kept on repeating:
'Leave it all to me, dear! Leave it all to me! Everything shall be paid as you wish; but leave it to me!'
Stephen acquiesced. This gentle yielding was new in her; it touched the elder lady to the quick, even whilst it pained her. Well she knew that some trouble must have gone to the smoothing of that imperious nature.
Stephen's inner life in these last few days was so bitterly sad that she kept it apart from all the routine of social existence. Into it never came now, except as the exciting cause of all the evil, a thought of Leonard. The saddening memory was of Harold. And of him the sadness was increased and multiplied by a haunting fear. Since he had walked out of the grove she had not seen him nor heard from him. This was in itself strange; for in all her life, when she was at home and he too, never a day passed without her seeing him. She had heard her aunt say that word had come of his having made a sudden journey to London, from which he had not yet returned. She was afraid to make inquiries. Partly lest she might hear bad news--this was her secret fear; partly lest she might bring some attention to herself in connection with his going. Of some things in connection with her conduct to him she was afraid to think at all. Thought, she felt, would come in time, and with it new pains and new shames, of which as yet she dared not think.
One morning came an envelope directed in Harold's hand. The sight made her almost faint. She rejoiced that she had been first down, and had opened the postbag with her own key. She took the letter to her room and shut herself in before opening it. Within were a few lines of writing and her own letter to Leonard in its envelope. Her head beat so hard that she could scarcely see; but gradually the writing seemed to grow out of the mist:
'The enclosed should be in your hands. It is possible that it may comfort you to know that it is safe. Whatever may come, God love and guard you.'
For a moment joy, hot and strong, blazed through her. The last words were ringing through her brain. Then came the cold shock, and the gloom of fear. Harold would never have written thus unless he was going away! It was a farewell!
For a long time she stood, motionless, holding the letter in her hand. Then she said, half aloud:
'Comfort! Comfort! There is no more comfort in the world for me! Never, never again! Oh, Harold! Harold!'
She sank on her knees beside her bed, and buried her face in her cold hands, sobbing in all that saddest and bitterest phase of sorrow which can be to a woman's heart: the sorrow that is dry-eyed and without hope.
Presently the habit of caution which had governed her last days woke her to action. She bathed her eyes, smoothed her hair, locked the letter and its enclosure in the little jewel-safe let into the wall, and came down to breakfast.
The sense of loss was so strong on her that she forgot herself. Habit carried her on without will or voluntary effort, and, so faithfully worked to her good that even the loving eyes of her aunt-- and the eyes of love are keen--had no suspicion that any new event had come into her life.
Not till she was alone in her room that night did Stephen dare to let her thoughts run freely. In the darkness her mind began to work truly, so truly that she began at the first step of logical process: to study facts. And to study them she must question till she found motive.
Why had Harold sent her the letter? His own words said that it should be in her hands. Then, again, he said it might comfort her to know the letter was safe. How could it comfort her? How did he get possession of the letter?
There she began to understand; her quick intuition and her old knowledge of Harold's character and her new knowledge of Leonard's, helped her to reconstruct causes. In his interview with her he had admitted that Leonard had told him much, all. He would no doubt have refused to believe him, and Leonard would have shown him, as proof, her letter asking him to meet her. He would have seen then, as she did now, how much the possession of that letter might mean to any one.
Good God! to 'any one.' Could it have been so to Harold himself . . . that he thought to use it as an engine, to force her to meet his wishes--as Leonard had already tried to do! The mistrust, founded on her fear, was not dead yet . . . No! no! no! Her whole being resented such a monstrous proposition! Besides, there was proof. Thank God! there was proof. A blackmailer would have stayed close to her, and would have kept the letter; Harold did neither. Her recognition of the truth was shown in her act, when, stretching out her arms in the darkness, she whispered pleadingly:
'Forgive me, Harold!'
And Harold, far away where the setting sun was lying red on the rim of the western sea, could not hear her. But perhaps God did.
As, then, Harold's motive was not of the basest, it must have been of the noblest. What would be a man's noblest motive under such circumstances? Surely self-sacrifice!
And yet there could be no doubt as to Harold's earnestness when he had told her that he loved her . . .
Here Stephen covered her face in one moment of rapture. But the gloom that followed was darker than the night. She did not pursue the thought. That would come later when she should understand.
And yet, so little do we poor mortals know the verities of things, so blind are we to things thrust before our eyes, that she understood more in that moment of ecstasy than in all the reasoning that preceded and followed it. But the reasoning went on:
If he really loved, and told her so, wherein was the self-sacrifice? She had reproached him with coming to her with his suit hotfoot upon his knowledge of her shameful proffer of herself to another man; of her refusal by him. Could he have been so blind as not to have seen, as she did, the shameful aspect of his impulsive act? Surely, if he had thought, he must have seen! . . . And he must have thought; there had been time for it. It was at dinner that he had seen Leonard; it was after breakfast when he had seen her . . . And if he had seen then . . .
In an instant it all burst upon her; the whole splendid truth. He had held back the expression of his long love for her, waiting for the time when her maturity might enable her to understand truly and judge wisely; waiting till her grief for the loss of her father had become a story of the past; waiting for God knows what a man's mind sees of obstacles when he loves. But he had spoken it out when it was to her benefit. What, then, had been his idea of her benefit? Was it that he wished to meet the desire that she had manifested to have some man to--to love? . . . The way she covered her face with her hands whilst she groaned aloud made her answer to her own query a perfect negative.
Was it, then, to save her from the evil of marrying Leonard in case he should repent of his harshness, and later on yield himself to her wooing? The fierce movement of her whole body, which almost threw the clothes from her bed, as the shameful recollection rolled over her, marked the measure of her self-disdain.
One other alternative there was; but it seemed so remote, so far- fetched, so noble, so unlike what a woman would do, that she could only regard it in a shamefaced way. She put the matter to herself questioningly, and with a meekness which had its roots deeper than she knew. And here out of the depths of her humility came a noble thought. A noble thought, which was a noble truth. Through the darkness of the night, through the inky gloom of her own soul came with that thought a ray of truth which, whilst it showed her her own shrivelled unworthiness, made the man whom she had dishonoured with insults worse than death stand out in noble relief. In that instant she guessed at, and realised, Harold's unselfish nobility of purpose, the supreme effort of his constant love. Knowing the humiliation she must have suffered at Leonard's hands, he had so placed himself that even her rejection of him might be some solace to her wounded spirit, her pride.
Here at last was truth! She knew it in the very marrow of her bones.
This time she did not move. She thought and thought of that noble gentleman who had used for her sake even that pent-up passion which, for her sake also, he had suppressed so long.
In that light, which restored in her eyes and justified so fully the man whom she had always trusted, her own shame and wrongdoing, and the perils which surrounded her, were for the time forgotten.
And its glory seemed to rest upon her whilst she slept.