Lady Knollys, I could plainly see, when we got into the brighter lights at the dinner table, was herself a good deal excited; she was relieved and glad, and was garrulous during our meal, and told me all her early recollections of dear papa. Most of them I had heard before; but they could not be told too often.
Notwithstanding my mind sometimes wandered, often indeed, to the conference so unexpected, so suddenly decisive, possibly so momentous; and with a dismayed uncertainly, the question—had I done right?—was always before me.
I dare say my cousin understood my character better, perhaps, after all my honest self-study, then I do even now. Irresolute, suddenly reversing my own decisions, impetuous in action as she knew me, she feared, I am sure, a revocation of my commission to Doctor Bryerly, and thought of the countermand I might send galloping after him.
So, kind creature, she laboured to occupy my thoughts, and when one theme was exhausted found another, and had always her parry prepared as often as I directed a reflection or an enquiry to the re-opening of the question which she had taken so much pains to close.
That night I was troubled. I was already upbraiding myself. I could not sleep, and at last sat up in bed, and cried. I lamented my weakness in having assented to Doctor Bryerly's and my cousin's advice. Was I not departing from my engagement to my dear papa? Was I not consenting that my Uncle Silas should be induced to second my breach of faith by a corresponding perfidy?
Lady Knollys had done wisely in despatching Doctor Bryerly so promptly; for, most assuredly, had he been at Knowl next morning when I came down I should have recalled my commission.
That day in the study I found four papers which increased my perturbation. They were in dear papa's handwriting, and had an indorsement in these words—'Copy of my letter addressed to ——, one of the trustees named in my will.' Here, then, were the contents of those four sealed letters which had excited mine and Lady Knollys' curiosity on the agitating day on which the will was read.
It contained these words:—
'I name my oppressed and unhappy brother, Silas Ruthyn, residing at my house of Bartram-Haugh, as guardian of the person of my beloved child, to convince the world if possible, and failing that, to satisfy at least all future generations of our family, that his brother, who knew him best, had implicit confidence in him, and that he deserved it. A cowardly and preposterous slander, originating in political malice, and which never have been whispered had he not been poor and imprudent, is best silenced by this ordeal of purification. All I possess goes to him if my child dies under age; and the custody of her person I commit meanwhile to him alone, knowing that she is as safe in his as she could have been under my own care. I rely upon your remembrance of our early friendship to make this known wherever an opportunity occurs, and also to say what your sense of justice may warrant.'
The other letters were in the same spirit. My heart sank like lead as I read them. I quaked with fear. What had I done? My father's wise and noble vindication of our dishonoured name I had presumed to frustrate. I had, like a coward, receded from my easy share in the task; and, merciful Heaven, I had broken my faith with the dead!
With these letters in my hand, white with fear, I flew like a shadow to the drawing-room where Cousin Monica was, and told her to read them. I saw by her countenance how much alarmed she was by my looks, but she said nothing, only read the letters hurriedly, and then exclaimed—
'Is this all, my dear child? I really fancied you had found a second will, and had lost everything. Why, my dearest Maud, we knew all this before. We quite understood poor dear Austin's motive. Why are you so easily disturbed?'
'Oh, Cousin Monica, I think he was right; it all seems quite reasonable now; and I—oh, what a crime!—it must be stopped.'
'My dear Maud, listen to reason. Doctor Bryerly has seen your uncle at Bartram at least two hours ago. You can't stop it, and why on earth should you if you could? Don't you think your uncle should be consulted?' said she.
'But he has decided. I have his letter speaking of it as settled; and Doctor Bryerly—oh, Cousin Monica, he's gone to tempt him.'
'Nonsense, girl! Doctor Bryerly is a good and just man, I do believe, and has, beside, no imaginable motive to pervert either his conscience or his judgment. He's not gone to tempt him—stuff!—but to unfold the facts and invite his consideration; and I say, considering how thoughtlessly such duties are often undertaken, and how long Silas has been living in lazy solitude, shut out from the world, and unused to discuss anything, I do think it only conscientious and honourable that he should have a fair and distinct view of the matter in all its bearings submitted to him before he indolently incurs what may prove the worst danger he was ever involved in.'
So Lady Knollys argued, with feminine energy, and I must confess, with a good deal of the repetition which I have sometimes observed in logicians of my own sex, and she puzzled without satisfying me.
'I don't know why I went to that room,' I said, quite frightened; 'or why I went to that press; how it happened that these papers, which we never saw there before, were the first things to strike my eye to-day.'
'What do you mean, dear?' said Lady Knollys.
'I mean this—I think I was brought there, and that there is poor papa's appeal to me, as plain as if his hand came and wrote it upon the wall.' I nearly screamed the conclusion of this wild confession.
'You are nervous, my darling; your bad nights have worn you out. Let us go out; the air will do you good; and I do assure you that you will very soon see that we are quite right, and rejoice conscientiously that you have acted as you did.'
But I was not to be satisfied, although my first vehemence was quieted. In my prayers that night my conscience upbraided me. When I lay down in bed my nervousness returned fourfold. Everybody at all nervously excitable has suffered some time or another by the appearance of ghastly features presenting themselves in every variety of contortion, one after another, the moment the eyes are closed. This night my dear father's face troubled me—sometimes white and sharp as ivory, sometimes strangely transparent like glass, sometimes all hanging in cadaverous folds, always with the same unnatural expression of diabolical fury.
From this dreadful vision I could only escape by sitting up and staring at the light. At length, worn out, I dropped asleep, and in a dream I distinctly heard papa's voice say sharply outside the bed-curtain:—'Maud, we shall be late at Bartram-Haugh.'
And I awoke in a horror, the wall, as it seemed, still ringing with the summons, and the speaker, I fancied, standing at the other side of the curtain.
A miserable night I passed. In the morning, looking myself like a ghost, I stood in my night-dress by Lady Knollys' bed.
'I have had my warning,' I said. 'Oh, Cousin Monica, papa has been with me, and ordered me to Bartram-Haugh; and go I will.'
She stared in my face uncomfortably, and then tried to laugh the matter off; but I know she was troubled at the strange state to which agitation and suspense had reduced me.
'You're taking too much for granted, Maud,' said she; 'Silas Ruthyn, most likely, will refuse his consent, and insist on your going to Bartram-Haugh.'
'Heaven grant!' I exclaimed; 'but if he doesn't, it is all the same to me, go I will. He may turn me out, but I'll go, and try to expiate the breach of faith that I fear is so horribly wicked.'
We had several hours still to wait for the arrival of the post. For both of us the delay was a suspense; for me an almost agonising one. At length, at an unlooked-for moment, Branston did enter the room with the post-bag. There was a large letter, with the Feltram post-mark, addressed to Lady Knollys—it was Doctor Bryerly's despatch; we read it together. It was dated on the day before, and its purport was thus:—
'RESPECTED MADAM,—I this day saw Mr. Silas Ruthyn at Bartram-Haugh, and he peremptorily refuses, on any terms, to vacate the guardianship, or to consent to Miss Ruthyn's residing anywhere but under his own immediate care. As he bases his refusal, first upon a conscientious difficulty, declaring that he has no right, through fear of personal contingencies, to abdicate an office imposed in so solemn a way, and so naturally devolving on him as only brother to the deceased; and secondly upon the effect such a withdrawal, at the instance of the acting trustee, would have upon his own character, amounting to a public self-condemnation; and as he refused to discuss these positions with me, I could make no way whatsoever with him. Finding, therefore, that his mind was quite made up, after a short time I took my leave. He mentioned that preparations for his niece's reception are being completed, and that he will send for her in a few days; so that I think it will be advisable that I should go down to Knowl, to assist Miss Ruthyn with any advice she may require before her departure, to discharge servants, get inventories made, and provide for the care of the place and grounds during her minority.
'I am, respected Madam, yours truly,
HANS E. BRYERLY.' I can't describe to you how chapfallen and angry my cousin looked. She sniffed once or twice, and then said, rather bitterly, in a subdued tone:— 'Well, now; I hope you are pleased?' 'No, no, no; you know I'm not—grieved to the heart, my only friend, my dear Cousin Monica; but my conscience is at rest; you don't know what a sacrifice it is; I am a most unhappy creature. I feel an indescribable foreboding. I am frightened; but you won't forsake me, Cousin Monica.' 'No, darling, never,' she said, sadly. 'And you'll come and see me, won't you, as often as you can?' 'Yes, dear; that is if Silas allows me; and I'm sure he will,' she added hastily, seeing, I suppose, my terror in my face. 'All I can do, you may be sure I will, and perhaps he will allow you to come to me, now and then, for a short visit. You know I am only six miles away—little more than half an hour's drive, and though I hate Bartram, and detest Silas—Yes, I detest Silas,' she repeated in reply to my surprised gaze—'I will call at Bartram—that is, I say, if he allows me; for, you know, I haven't been there for a quarter of a century; and though I never understood Silas, I fancy he forgives no sins, whether of omission or commission.' I wondered what old grudge could make my cousin judge Uncle Silas always so hardly—I could not suppose it was justice. I had seen my hero indeed lately so disrespectfully handled before my eyes, that he had, as idols will, lost something of his sacredness. But as an article of faith, I still cultivated my trust in his divinity, and dismissed every intruding doubt with an exorcism, as a suggestion of the evil one. But I wronged Lady Knollys in suspecting her of pique, or malice, or anything more than that tendency to take strong views which some persons attribute to my sex. So, then, the little project of Cousin Monica's guardianship, which, had it been poor papa's wish, would have made me so very happy, was quite knocked on the head, to revive no more. I comforted myself, however, with her promise to re-open communications with Bartram-Haugh, and we grew resigned. I remember, next morning, as we sat at a very late breakfast, Lady Knollys, reading a letter, suddenly made an exclamation and a little laugh, and read on with increased interest for a few minutes, and then, with another little laugh, she looked up, placing her hand, with the open letter in it, beside her tea-cup. 'You'll not guess whom I've been reading about,' said she, with her head the least thing on one side, and an arch smile. I felt myself blushing—cheeks, forehead, even down to the tips of my fingers. I anticipated the name I was to hear. She looked very much amused. Was it possible that Captain Oakley was married? 'I really have not the least idea,' I replied, with that kind of overdone carelessness which betrays us. 'No, I see quite plainly you have not; but you can't think how prettily you blush,' answered she, very much diverted. 'I really don't care,' I replied, with some little dignity, and blushing deeper and deeper. 'Will you make a guess?' she asked. 'I can't guess.' 'Well, shall I tell you?' 'Just as you please.' 'Well, I will—that is, I'll read a page of my letter, which tells it all. Do you know Georgina Fanshawe?' she asked. 'Lady Georgina? No.' 'Well, no matter; she's in Paris now, and this letter is from her, and she says—let me see the place—"Yesterday, what do you think?—quite an apparition!—you shall hear. My brother Craven yesterday insisted on my accompanying him to Le Bas' shop in that odd little antique street near the Grève; it is a wonderful old curiosity shop. I forget what they call them here. When we went into this place it was very nearly deserted, and there were so many curious things to look at all about, that for a minute or two I did not observe a tall woman, in a grey silk and a black velvet mantle, and quite a nice new Parisian bonnet. You will be charmed, by-the-by, with the new shape—it is only out three weeks, and is quite indescribably elegant, I think, at least. They have them, I am sure, by this time at Molnitz's, so I need say no more. And now that I am on this subject of dress, I have got your lace; and I think you will be very ungrateful if you are not charmed with it." Well, I need not read all that—here is the rest;' and she read— '"But you'll ask about my mysterious dame in the new bonnet and velvet mantle; she was sitting on a stool at the counter, not buying, but evidently selling a quantity of stones and trinkets which she had in a card-box, and the man was picking them up one by one, and, I suppose, valuing them. I was near enough to see such a darling little pearl cross, with at least half a dozen really good pearls in it, and had begun to covet them for my set, when the lady glanced over my shoulder, and she knew me—in fact, we knew one another—and who do you think she was? Well—you'll not guess in a week, and I can't wait so long; so I may as well tell you at once—she was that horrid old Mademoiselle Blassemare whom you pointed out to me at Elverston; and I never forgot her face since—nor she, it seems, mine, for she turned away very quickly, and when I next saw her, her veil was down."' 'Did not you tell me, Maud, that you had lost your pearl cross while that dreadful Madame de la Rougierre was here?' 'Yes; but—' 'I know; but what has she to do with Mademoiselle de Blassemare, you were going to say—they are one and the same person.' 'Oh, I perceive,' answered I, with that dim sense of danger and dismay with which one hears suddenly of an enemy of whom one has lost sight for a time. 'I'll write and tell Georgie to buy that cross. I wager my life it is yours,' said Lady Knollys, firmly. The servants, indeed, made no secret of their opinion of Madame de la Rougierre, and frankly charged her with a long list of larcenies. Even Anne Wixted, who had enjoyed her barren favour while the gouvernante was here, hinted privately that she had bartered a missing piece of lace belonging to me with a gipsy pedlar, for French gloves and an Irish poplin. 'And so surely as I find it is yours, I'll set the police in pursuit.' 'But you must not bring me into court,' said I, half amused and half alarmed. 'No occasion, my dear; Mary Quince and Mrs. Rusk can prove it perfectly.' 'And why do you dislike her so very much?' I asked. Cousin Monica leaned back in her chair, and searched the cornice from corner to corner with upturned eyes for the reason, and at last laughed a little, amused at herself. 'Well, really, it is not easy to define, and, perhaps, it is not quite charitable; but I know I hate her, and I know, you little hypocrite, you hate her as much as I;' and we both laughed a little. 'But you must tell me all you know of her history.' 'Her history?' echoed she. 'I really know next to nothing about it; only that I used to see her sometimes about the place that Georgina mentions, and there were some unpleasant things said about her; but you know they may be all lies. The worst I know of her is her treatment of you, and her robbing the desk'—(Cousin Monica always called it her robbery)—'and I think that's enough to hang her. Suppose we go out for a walk?' So together we went, and I resumed about Madame; but no more could I extract—perhaps there was not much more to hear.