Fenton's Quest, by Mary Elizabeth Braddon

Chapter 33

“What Must Be Shall Be.”

Ellen Carley waited in the little parlour, dimly lighted by one candle. The fire had very nearly gone out, and she had some difficulty in brightening it a little. She waited very patiently, wondering what her father could have to say to her, and not anticipating much pleasure from the interview. He was going to talk about Stephen Whitelaw and his hateful money perhaps. But let him say what he would, she was prepared to hold her own firmly, determined to provoke him by no open opposition, unless matters came to an extremity, and then to let him see at once and for ever that her resolution was fixed, and that it was useless to persecute her.

“If I have to go out of this house to-night, I will not flinch,” she said to herself.

She had some time to wait. It had been past midnight when they came home, and it was a quarter to one when William Carley came into the parlour. He was in a unusually communicative mood to-night, and had been superintending the grooming of his horse, and talking to the underling who had waited up to receive him.

He was a little unsteady in his gait as he came into the parlour, and Ellen knew that he had drunk a good deal at Wyncomb. It was no new thing for her to see him in this condition unhappily, and the shrinking shuddering sensation with which he inspired her to-night was painfully familiar.

“It’s very late, father,” she said gently, as the bailiff flung himself heavily into an arm-chair by the fire-place. “If you don’t want me for anything particular, I should be glad to go to bed.”

“Would you, my lass?” he asked grimly. “But, you see, I do want you for something particular, something uncommon particular; so there’s no call for you to be in a hurry. Sit down yonder,” he added, pointing to the chair opposite his own. “I’ve got something to say to you, something serious.”

“Father,” said the girl, looking him full in the face, pale to the lips, but very firm, “I don’t think you’re in a state to talk seriously of anything.”

“O, you don’t, don’t you, Miss Impudence? You think I’m drunk, perhaps. You’ll find that, drunk or sober, I’ve only one mind about you, and that I mean to be obeyed. Sit down, I tell you. I’m not in the humour to stand any nonsense to-night. Sit down.”

Ellen obeyed this mandate, uttered with a fierceness unusual even in Mr. Carley, who was never a soft-spoken man. She seated herself quietly on the opposite side of the hearth, while her father took down his pipe from the chimney-piece, and slowly filled it, with hands that trembled a little over the accustomed task.

When he had lighted the pipe, and smoked about half-a-dozen whiffs with a great assumption of coolness, he addressed himself to his daughter in an altered and conciliating tone.

“Well, Nelly,” he said, “you’ve had a rare day at Wyncomb, and a regular ramble over the old house with Steph’s cousin. What do you think of it?”

“I think it’s a queer gloomy old place enough, father. I wonder there’s any one can live in it. The dark bare-looking rooms gave me the horrors. I used to think this house was dull, and seemed as if it was haunted; but it’s lively and gay as can be, compared to Wyncomb.”

“Humph!” muttered the bailiff. “You’re a fanciful young lady, Miss Nell, and don’t know a fine substantial old house when you see one. Life’s come a little too easy to you, perhaps. It might have been better for you if you’d seen more of the rough side. Being your own missus too soon, and missus of such a place as this, has spoiled you a bit. I tell you, Nell, there ain’t a better house in Hampshire than Wyncomb, though it mayn’t suit your fanciful notions. Do you know the size of Stephen Whitelaw’s farm?”

“No, father; I’ve never thought about it.”

“What do you say to three hundred acres — over three hundred, nigher to four perhaps?”

“I suppose it’s a large farm, father. But I know nothing about such things.”

“You suppose it’s large, and you know nothing about such things!” cried the bailiff, with an air of supreme irritation. “I don’t believe any man was ever plagued with such an aggravating daughter as mine. What do you say to being mistress of such a place, girl? — mistress of close upon four hundred acres of land; not another man’s servant, bound to account for every blade of grass and every ear of corn, as I am, but free and independent mistress of the place, with the chance of being left a widow by and by, and having it all under your own thumb; what do you say to that?”

“Only the same that I have always said, father. Nothing would ever persuade me to marry Stephen Whitelaw. I’d rather starve.”

“And you shall starve, if you stick to that,” roared William Carley with a blasphemous oath. “But you won’t be such a fool, Nell. You’ll hear reason; you won’t stand out against your poor old father and against your own interests. The long and the short of it is, I’ve given Whitelaw my promise that you shall be his wife between this and Easter.”

“What!” exclaimed Ellen, with a faint cry of horror; “you don’t mean that you’ve promised that, father! You can’t mean it!”

“I can and do mean it, lass.”

“Then you’ve made a promise that will never be kept. You might have known as much when you made it. I’m sure I’ve been plain-spoken enough about Stephen Whitelaw.”

“That was a girl’s silly talk. I didn’t think to find you a fool when I came to the point. I let you have your say, and looked to time to bring you to reason. Come, Nell, you’re not going against your father, are you?”

“I must, father, in this. I’d rather die twenty deaths than marry that man. There’s nothing I wouldn’t rather do.”

“Isn’t there? You’d rather see your father in gaol, I suppose, if it came to that?”

“See you in gaol!” cried the girl aghast. “For heaven’s sake, what do you mean, father? What fear is there of your being sent to prison, because I won’t marry Stephen Whitelaw? I’m not a baby,” she added, with a hysterical laugh; “you can’t frighten me like that.”

“No; you’re a very wise young woman, I daresay; but you don’t know everything. You’ve seen me downhearted and out of sorts for this last half-year; but I don’t suppose you’ve troubled yourself much about it, except to worry me with silly questions sometimes, when I’ve not been in the humour to be talked to. Things have been going wrong with me ever since hay-harvest, and I haven’t sent Sir David sixpence yet for last year’s crops. I’ve put him off with one excuse after another from month to month. He’s a careless master enough at most times, and never over-sharp with my accounts. But the time has come when I can’t put him off any longer. He wants money badly, he says; and I’m afraid he begins to suspect something. Any way, he talks of coming here in a week or so to look into things for himself. If he does that, I’m ruined.”

“But the money, father — the money for the crops — how has it gone? You had it, haven’t you?”

“Yes,” the bailiff answered with a groan; “I’ve had it, worse luck.”

“And how has it gone?”

“What’s that to you? What’s the good of my muddling my brains with figures to-night? It’s gone, I tell you. You know I’m fond of seeing a race, and never miss anything in that way that comes-off within a day’s drive of this place. I used to be pretty lucky once upon a time, when I backed a horse or bet against one. But this year things have gone dead against me; and my bad luck made me savage somehow, so that I went deeper than I’ve been before, thinking to get back what I’d lost.”

“O, father, father! how could you, and with another man’s money?”

“Don’t give me any of your preaching,” the bailiff answered gloomily; “I can get enough of that at Malsham Chapel if I want it. It’s in your power to pull me through this business if you choose.”

“How can I do that, father?”

“A couple of hundred pounds will set me square. I don’t say there hasn’t been more taken, first and last; but that would do it. Stephen Whitelaw would lend me the money — give it me, indeed, for it comes to that — the day he gets your consent to be his wife.”

“And you’d sell me to him for two hundred pounds, father?” the girl asked bitterly.

“I don’t want to go to gaol.”

“And if you don’t get the money from Stephen, what will happen?”

“I can’t tell you that to a nicety. Penal servitude for life, most likely. They’d call mine a bad case, I daresay.”

“But Sir David might be merciful to you, father. You’ve served him for along time.”

“What would he care for that? I’ve had his money, and he’s not a man that can afford to lose much. No, Nell, I look for no mercy from Sir David; those careless easy-going men are generally the hardest in such a business as this. It’s a clear case of embezzlement, and nothing can save me unless I can raise money enough to satisfy him.”

“Couldn’t you borrow it of some one else besides Stephen Whitelaw?”

“Who else is there that would lend me two hundred pounds? Ask yourself that, girl. Why, I haven’t five pounds’ worth of security to offer.”

“And Mr. Whitelaw will only lend the money upon one condition?”

“No, curse him!” cried William Carley savagely. “I’ve been at him all this afternoon, when you and that woman were out of the room, trying to get it out of him as a loan, without waiting for your promise; but he’s too cautious for that. ‘The day Ellen gives her consent, you shall have the money,’ he told me; ‘I can’t say anything fairer than that or more liberal.’”

“He doesn’t suspect why you want it, does he, father?” Ellen asked with a painful sense of shame.

“Who can tell what he may suspect? He’s as deep as Satan,” said the bailiff, with a temporary forgetfulness of his desire to exhibit this intended son-in-law of his in a favourable light. “He knows that I want the money very badly; I couldn’t help his knowing that; and he must think it’s something out of the common that makes me want two hundred pounds.”

“I daresay he guesses the truth,” Ellen said, with a profound sigh.

It seemed to her the bitterest trial of all, that her father’s wrong-doing should be known to Stephen Whitelaw. That hideous prospect of the dock and the gaol was far off as yet; she had not even begun to realise it; but she did fully realise the fact of her father’s shame, and the blow seemed to her a heavy one, heavier than she could bear.

For some minutes there was silence between father and daughter. The girl sat with her face hidden in her hands; the bailiff smoked his pipe in sullen meditation.

“Is there no other way?” Ellen asked at last, in a plaintive despairing tone; “no other way, father?”

“None,” growled William Carley. “You needn’t ask me that question again; there is no other way; you can get me out of my difficulties if you choose. I should never have been so venturesome as I was, if I hadn’t made sure my daughter would soon be a rich woman. You can save me if you like, or you can hold-off and let me go to prison. There’s no good preaching about it or arguing about it; you’ve got the choice and you must make it. Most young women in your place would think themselves uncommon lucky to have such a chance as you’ve got, instead of making a trouble about it, let alone being able to get their father out of a scrape. But you’re your own mistress, and you must do as you please.”

“Let me have time to think,” the girl pleaded piteously; “let me have only a little time to think, father. And you do believe that I’m sorry for you, don’t you?” she asked, kneeling beside him and clasping his unwilling hand. “O father, I hope you believe that!”

“I shall know what to believe when I know what you’re going to do,” the bailiff answered moodily; and his daughter knew him too well to hope for any more gracious speech than this.

She bade him good-night, and went slowly up to her own room to spend the weary wakeful hours in a bitter struggle, praying that she might be enlightened as to what she ought to do; praying that she might die rather than become the wife of Stephen Whitelaw.

When she and her father met at breakfast in the dull gray January morning, his aspect was even darker than it had been on the previous night; but he did not ask her if she had arrived at any conclusion. He took his meal in sullen silence, and left her without a word.

They met again a little before noon, at which hour it was Mr. Carley’s habit to consume a solid luncheon. He took his seat in the same gloomy silence that he had preserved at breakfast-time, but flung an open letter across the table towards his daughter.

“Am I to read this?” she asked gently.

“Yes, read it, and see what I’ve got to look to.”

The letter was from Sir David Forster; an angry one, revealing strong suspicions of his agent’s dishonesty, and announcing that he should be at the Grange on the fifth of the month, to make a close investigation of all matters connected with the bailiff’s administration. It was a letter that gave little hope of mercy, and Ellen Carley felt that it was so. She saw that there were no two sides to the question: she must save her father by the utter sacrifice of her own feelings, or suffer him to perish.

She sat for some minutes in silence, with Sir David’s letter in her hand, staring blankly at the lines in a kind of stupor; while her father ate cold roast-beef and pickled-cabbage — she wondered how he could eat at such a time — looking up at her furtively every now and then.

At last she laid down the letter, and lifted her eyes to his face. A deadly whiteness and despair had come over the bright soubrette beauty, and even William Carley’s hard nature was moved a little by the altered expression of his daughter’s countenance.

“It must be as you wish, father,” she said slowly; “there is no help for it; I cannot see you brought to disgrace. Stephen Whitelaw must have the price he asks for his money.”

“That’s a good lass,” cried the bailiff, springing up and clasping his daughter in his arms, a most unusual display of affection on his part; “that’s bravely spoken, Nell, and you never need repent the choice that’ll make you mistress of Wyncomb Farm, with a good home to give your father in his old age.”

The girl drew herself hastily from his embrace, and turned away from him with a shudder. He was her father, and there was something horrible in the idea of his disgrace; but there was very little affection for him in her mind. He was willing to sell her into bondage in order to save himself. It was in this light she regarded the transaction with Stephen Whitelaw.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31