The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 4

Mr. Munder on the Seat of Judgment.

THE murmuring voices and the hurrying footsteps came nearer and nearer, then stopped altogether. After an interval of silence, one voice called out loudly, “Sarah! Sarah! where are you?” and the next instant Uncle Joseph appeared alone in the doorway that led into the north hall, looking eagerly all round him.

At first the prostrate figure on the landing at the head of the stairs escaped his view. But the second time he looked in that direction the dark dress, and the arm that lay just over the edge of the top stair, caught his eye. With a loud cry of terror and recognition, he flew across the hall and ascended the stairs. Just as he was kneeling by Sarah’s side, and raising her head on his arm, the steward, the housekeeper, and the maid, all three crowded together after him into the doorway.

“Water!” shouted the old man, gesticulating at them wildly with his disengaged hand. “She is here — she has fallen down — she is in a faint! Water! water!”

Mr. Munder looked at Mrs. Pentreath, Mrs. Pentreath looked at Betsey, Betsey looked at the ground. All three stood stock-still; all three seemed equally incapable of walking across the hall. If the science of physiognomy be not an entire delusion, the cause of this amazing unanimity was legibly written in their faces; in other words, they all three looked equally afraid of the ghost.

“Water, I say! Water!” reiterated Uncle Joseph, shaking his fist at them. “She is in a faint! Are you three at the door there, and not one heart of mercy among you? Water! water! water! Must I scream myself into fits before I can make you hear?”

“I’ll get the water, ma’am,” said Betsey, “if you or Mr. Munder will please to take it from here to the top of the stairs.”

She ran to the kitchen, and came back with a glass of water, which she offered, with a respectful courtesy, first to the housekeeper, and then to the steward.

“How dare you ask us to carry things for you?” said Mrs. Pentreath, backing out of the doorway.

“Yes! how dare you ask us?” added Mr. Munder, backing after Mrs. Pentreath.

“Water!” shouted the old man for the third time. He drew his niece backward a little, so that she could be supported against the wall behind her. “Water! or I trample down this dungeon of a place about your ears!” he shouted, stamping with impatience and rage.

“If you please, Sir, are you sure it’s really the lady who is up there?” asked Betsey, advancing a few paces tremulously with the glass of water.

“Am I sure?” exclaimed Uncle Joseph, descending the stairs to meet her. “What fool’s question is this? Who should it be?”

“The ghost, Sir,” said Betsey, advancing more and more slowly. “The ghost of the north rooms.”

Uncle Joseph met her a few yards in advance of the foot of the stairs, took the glass of water from her with a gesture of contempt, and hastened back to his niece. As Betsey turned to effect her retreat, the bunch of keys lying on the pavement below the landing caught her eye. After a little hesitation she mustered courage enough to pick them up, and then ran with them out of the hall as fast as her feet could carry her.

Meanwhile Uncle Joseph was moistening his niece’s lips with the water, and sprinkling it over her forehead. After a while her breath began to come and go slowly, in faint sighs, the muscles of her face moved a little, and she feebly opened eyes. They fixed affrightedly on the old man, without any expression of recognition. He made her drink a little water, and spoke to her gently, and so brought her back at last to herself. Her first words were, “Don’t leave me.” Her first action, when she was able to move, was the action of crouching closer to him.

“No fear, my child,” he said, soothingly; “I will keep by you. Tell me, Sarah, what has made you faint? What has frightened you so?”

“Oh, don’t ask me! For God’s sake, don’t ask me!”

“There, there! I shall say nothing, then. Another mouthful of water? A little mouthful more?”

“Help me up, uncle; help me to try if I can stand.”

“Not yet — not quite yet; patience for a little longer.”

“Oh, help me! help me! I want to get away from the sight of those doors. If I can only go as far as the bottom of the stairs I shall be better.”

“So, so,” said Uncle Joseph, assisting her to rise. “Wait now, and feel your feet on the ground. Lean on me, lean hard, lean heavy. Though I am only a light and a little man, I am solid as a rock. Have you been into the room?” he added, in a whisper. “Have you got the letter?”

She sighed bitterly, and laid her head on his shoulder with a weary despair.

“Why, Sarah! Sarah!” he exclaimed. “Have you been all this time away, and not got into the room yet?”

She raised her head as suddenly as she had laid it down, shuddered, and tried feebly to draw him toward the stairs. “I shall never see the Myrtle Room again — never, never, never more!” she said. “Let us go; I can walk; I am strong now. Uncle Joseph, if you love me, take me away from this house; away anywhere, so long as we are in the free air and the daylight again; anywhere, so long as we are out of sight of Porthgenna Tower.”

Elevating his eyebrows in astonishment, but considerately refraining from asking any more questions, Uncle Joseph assisted his niece to descend the stairs. She was still so weak that she was obliged to pause on gaining the bottom of them to recover her strength. Seeing this, and feeling, as he led her afterward across the hall, that she leaned more and more heavily on his arm at every fresh step, the old man, on arriving within speaking distance of Mr. Munder and Mrs. Pentreath, asked the housekeeper if she possessed any restorative drops which she would allow him to administer to his niece.

Mrs. Pentreath’s reply in the affirmative, though not very graciously spoken, was accompanied by an alacrity of action which showed that she was heartily rejoiced to take the first fair excuse for returning to the inhabited quarter of the house. Muttering something about showing the way to the place where the medicine-chest was kept, she immediately retraced her steps along the passage to her own room; while Uncle Joseph, disregarding all Sarah’s whispered assurances that she was well enough to depart without another moment of delay, followed her silently, leading his niece.

Mr. Munder, shaking his head, and looking woefully disconcerted, waited behind to lock the door of communication. When he had done this, and had given the keys to Betsey to carry back to their appointed place, he, in his turn, retired from the scene at a pace indecorously approaching to something like a run. On getting well away from the north hall, however, he regained his self-possession wonderfully. He abruptly slackened his pace, collected his scattered wits, and reflected a little, apparently with perfect satisfaction to himself; for when he entered the housekeeper’s room he had quite recovered his usual complacent solemnity of look and manner. Like the vast majority of densely stupid men, he felt intense pleasure in hearing himself talk, and he now discerned such an opportunity of indulging in that luxury, after the events that had just happened in the house, as he seldom enjoyed. There is only one kind of speaker who is quite certain never to break down under any stress of circumstances — the man whose capability of talking does not include any dangerous underlying capacity for knowing what he means. Among this favored order of natural orators, Mr. Munder occupied a prominent rank — and he was now vindictively resolved to exercise his abilities on the two strangers, under pretense of asking for an explanation of their conduct, before he could suffer them to quit the house.

On entering the room, he found Uncle Joseph seated with his niece at the lower end of it, engaged in dropping some sal volatile into a glass of water. At the upper end stood the housekeeper with an open medicine-chest on the table before her. To this part of the room Mr. Munder slowly advanced, with a portentous countenance; drew an armchair up to the table; sat himself down in it, with extreme deliberation and care in the matter of settling his coat-tails; and immediately became, to all outward appearance, the model of a Lord Chief Justice in plain clothes.

Mrs. Pentreath, conscious from these preparations that something extraordinary was about to happen, seated herself a little behind the steward. Betsey restored the keys to their place on the nail in the wall, and was about to retire modestly to her proper kitchen sphere, when she was stopped by Mr. Munder.

“Wait, if you please,” said the steward; “I shall have occasion to call on you presently, young woman, to make a plain statement.”

Obedient Betsey waited near the door, terrified by the idea that she must have done something wrong, and that the steward was armed with inscrutable legal power to try, sentence, and punish her for the offense on the spot.

“Now, Sir,” said Mr. Munder, addressing Uncle Joseph as if he was the Speaker of the House of Commons, “if you have done with that sal volatile, and if the person by your side has sufficiently recovered her senses to listen, I should wish to say a word or two to both of you.”

At this exordium, Sarah tried affrightedly to rise from her chair; but her uncle caught her by the hand, and pressed her back in it.

“Wait and rest,” he whispered. “I shall take all the scolding on my own shoulder, and do all the talking with my own tongue. As soon as you are fit to walk again, I promise you this: whether the big man has said his word or two, or has not said it, we will quietly get up and go our ways out of the house.”

“Up to the present moment,” said Mr. Munder, “I have refrained from expressing an opinion. The time has now come when, holding a position of trust as I do in this establishment, and being accountable, and indeed responsible, as I am, for what takes place in it, and feeling, as I must, that things cannot be allowed or even permitted to rest as they are — it is my duty to say that I think your conduct is very extraordinary.” Directing this forcible conclusion to his sentence straight at Sarah, Mr. Munder leaned back in his chair, quite full of words, and quite empty of meaning, to collect himself comfortably for his next effort.

“My only desire,” he resumed, with a plaintive impartiality, “is to act fairly by all parties. I don’t wish to frighten anybody, or to startle anybody, or even to terrify anybody. I wish to unravel, or, if you please, to make out, what I may term, with perfect propriety — events. And when I have done that, I should wish to put it to you, ma’am, and to you, Sir, whether — I say, I should wish to put it to you both, calmly, and impartially, and politely, and plainly, and smoothly — and when I say smoothly, I mean quietly — whether you are not both of you bound to explain yourselves.”

Mr. Munder paused, to let that last irresistible appeal work its way to the consciences of the persons whom he addressed. The housekeeper took advantage of the silence to cough, as congregations cough just before the sermon, apparently on the principle of getting rid of bodily infirmities beforehand, in order to give the mind free play for undisturbed intellectual enjoyment. Betsey, following Mrs. Pentreath’s lead, indulged in a cough on her own account — of the faint, distrustful sort. Uncle Joseph sat perfectly easy and undismayed, still holding his niece’s hand in his, and giving it a little squeeze, from time to time, when the steward’s oratory became particularly involved and impressive. Sarah never moved, never looked up, never lost the expression of terrified restraint which had taken possession of her face from the first moment when she entered the housekeeper’s room.

“Now what are the facts, and circumstances, and events?” proceeded Mr. Munder, leaning back in his chair, in calm enjoyment of the sound of his own voice. “You, ma’am, and you, Sir, ring at the bell of the door of this Mansion” (here he looked hard at Uncle Joseph, as much as to say, “I don’t give up that point about the house being a Mansion, you see, even on the judgment-seat”) — “you are let in, or, rather, admitted. You, Sir, assert that you wish to inspect the Mansion (you say ‘see the house,’ but, being a foreigner, we are not surprised at your making a little mistake of that sort); you, ma’am, coincide, and even agree, in that request. What follows? You are shown over the Mansion. It is not usual to show strangers over it, but we happen to have certain reasons — ”

Sarah started. “What reasons?” she asked, looking up quickly.

Uncle Joseph felt her hand turn cold, and tremble in his. “Hush! hush!” he said, “leave the talking to me.”

At the same moment Mrs. Pentreath pulled Mr. Munder warily by the coat-tail, and whispered to him to be careful. “Mrs. Frankland’s letter,” she said in his ear, “tells us particularly not to let it be suspected that we are acting under orders.”

“Don’t you fancy, Mrs. Pentreath, that I forget what I ought to remember,” rejoined Mr. Munder — who had forgotten, nevertheless. “And don’t you imagine that I was going to commit myself” (the very thing which he had just been on the point of doing). “Leave this business in my hands, if you will be so good. — What reasons did you say, ma’am?” he added aloud, addressing himself to Sarah. “Never you mind about reasons; we have not got to do with them now; we have got to do with facts, and circumstances, and events. I was observing, or remarking, that you, Sir, and you, ma’am, were shown over this Mansion. You were conducted, and indeed led, up the west staircase — the spacious west staircase, Sir! You were shown with politeness and even with courtesy, through the breakfast-room, the library, and the drawing-room. In that drawing-room, you, Sir, indulge in outrageous, and, I will add, in violent language. In that drawing-room, you, ma’am, disappear, or, rather, go altogether out of sight. Such conduct as this, so highly unparalleled, so entirely unprecedented, and so very unusual, causes Mrs. Pentreath and myself to feel — ” Here Mr. Munder stopped, at a loss for a word for the first time.

“Astonished,” suggested Mrs. Pentreath after a long interval of silence.

“No, ma’am!” retorted Mr. Munder. “Nothing of the sort. We were not at all astonished; we were — surprised. And what followed and succeeded that? What did you and I hear, Sir, on the first floor?” (looking sternly at Uncle Joseph). “And what did you hear, Mrs. Pentreath, while you were searching for the missing and absent party on the second floor? What?”

Thus personally appealed to, the housekeeper answered briefly — “A scream.”

“No! no! no!” said Mr. Munder, fretfully tapping his hand on the table. “A screech, Mrs. Pentreath — a screech. And what is the meaning, purport, and upshot of that screech? Young woman!” (here Mr. Munder turned suddenly on Betsey) “we have now traced these extraordinary facts and circumstances as far as you. Have the goodness to step forward, and tell us, in the presence of these two parties, how you came to utter, or give, what Mrs. Pentreath calls a scream, but what I call a screech. A plain statement will do, my good girl — quite a plain statement, if you please. And, young woman, one word more — speak up. You understand me? Speak up!”

Covered with confusion by the public and solemn nature of this appeal, Betsey, on starting with her statement, unconsciously followed the oratorical example of no less a person than Mr. Munder himself; that is to say, she spoke on the principle of drowning the smallest possible infusion of ideas in the largest possible dilution of words. Extricated from the mesh of verbal entanglement in which she contrived to involve it, her statement may be not unfairly represented as simply consisting of the following facts:

First, Betsey had to relate that she happened to be just taking the lid off a saucepan, on the kitchen fire, when she heard, in the neighborhood of the housekeeper’s room, a sound of hurried footsteps (vernacularly termed by the witness a “scurrying of somebody’s feet”). Secondly, Betsey, on leaving the kitchen to ascertain what the sound meant, heard the footsteps retreating rapidly along the passage which led to the north side of the house, and, stimulated by curiosity, followed the sound of them for a certain distance. Thirdly, at a sharp turn in the passage, Betsey stopped short, despairing of overtaking the person whose footsteps she heard, and feeling also a sense of dread (termed by the witness, “creeping of the flesh”) at the idea of venturing alone, even in broad daylight, into the ghostly quarter of the house. Fourthly, while still hesitating at the turn in the passage, Betsey heard “the lock of a door go,” and, stimulated afresh by curiosity, advanced a few steps farther — then stopped again, debating within herself the difficult and dreadful question, whether it is the usual custom of ghosts, when passing from one place to another, to unlock any closed door which may happen to be in their way, or to save trouble by simply passing through it. Fitfully, after long deliberation, and many false starts — forward toward the north hall and backward toward the kitchen — Betsey decided that it was the immemorial custom of all ghosts to pass through doors, and not unlock them. Sixthly, fortified by this conviction, Betsey went on boldly close to the door, when she suddenly heard a loud report, as of some heavy body falling (graphically termed by the witness a “banging scrash”). Seventhly, the noise frightened Betsey out of her wits, brought her heart up into her mouth, and took away her breath. Eighthly, and lastly, on recovering breath enough to scream (or screech), Betsey did, with might and main, scream (or screech), running back toward the kitchen as fast as her legs would carry her, with all her hair “standing up on end,” and all her flesh “in a crawl” from the crown of her head to the soles of her feet.

“Just so! just so!” said Mr. Munder, when the statement came to a close — as if the sight of a young woman with all her hair standing on end and all her flesh in a crawl were an ordinary result of his experience of female humanity — “Just so! You may stand back, my good girl — you may stand back — There is nothing to smile at, Sir,” he continued, sternly addressing Uncle Joseph, who had been excessively amused by Betsey’s manner of delivering her evidence. “You would be doing better to carry, or rather transport, your mind back to what followed and succeeded the young woman’s screech. What did we all do, Sir? We rushed to the spot, and we ran to the place. And what did we all see, Sir? — We saw you, ma’am, lying horizontally prostrate, on the top of the landing of the first of the flight of the north stairs; and we saw those keys, now hanging up yonder, abstracted and purloined, and, as it were, snatched from their place in this room, and lying horizontally prostrate likewise on the floor of the hall. — There are the facts, the circumstances, and the events, laid, or rather placed, before you. What have you got to say to them? I call upon you both solemnly, and, I will add, seriously! In my own name, in the name of Mrs. Pentreath, in the name of our employers, in the name of decency, in the name of wonder — what do you mean by it?”

With that conclusion, Mr. Munder struck his fist on the table, and waited, with a glare of merciless expectation, for anything in the shape of an answer, an explanation, or a defense which the culprits at the bottom of the room might be disposed to offer.

“Tell him anything,” whispered Sarah to the old man. “Anything to keep him quiet; anything to make him let us go! After what I have suffered, these people will drive me mad!”

Never very quick at inventing an excuse, and perfectly ignorant besides of what had really happened to his niece while she was alone in the north hall, Uncle Joseph, with the best will in the world to prove himself equal to the emergency, felt considerable difficulty in deciding what he should say or do. Determined, however, at all hazards, to spare Sarah any useless suffering, and to remove her from the house as speedily as possible, he rose to take the responsibility of speaking on himself, looking hard, before he opened his lips, at Mr. Munder, who immediately leaned forward on the table with his hand to his ear. Uncle Joseph acknowledged this polite act of attention with one of his fantastic bows; and then replied to the whole of the steward’s long harangue in these six unanswerable words:

“I wish you good-day, Sir!”

“How dare you wish me anything of the sort!” cried Mr. Munder, jumping out of his chair in violent indignation. “How dare you trifle with a serious subject and a serious question in that way? Wish me good-day, indeed! Do you suppose I am going to let you out of this house without hearing some explanation of the abstracting and purloining and snatching of the keys of the north rooms?”

“Ah! it is that you want to know?” said Uncle Joseph, stimulated to plunge headlong into an excuse by the increasing agitation and terror of his niece. “See, now! I shall explain. What was it, dear and good Sir, that we said when we were first let in? This — ‘We have come to see the house.’ Now there is a north side to the house, and a west side to the house. Good! That is two sides; and I and my niece are two people; and we divide ourselves in two, to see the two sides. I am the half that goes west, with you and the dear and good lady behind there. My niece here is the other half that goes north, all by herself, and drops the keys, and falls into a faint, because in that old part of the house it is what you call musty-fusty, and there is smells of tombs and spiders, and that is all the explanation, and quite enough, too. I wish you good-day, Sir.”

“Damme! if ever I met with the like of you before!” roared Mr. Munder, entirely forgetting his dignity, his respectability, and his long words in the exasperation of the moment. “You are going to have it all your own way, are you, Mr. Foreigner? You will walk out of this place when you please, will you, Mr. Foreigner? We will see what the justice of the peace for this district has to say to that,” cried Mr. Munder, recovering his solemn manner and his lofty phraseology. “Property in this house is confided to my care; and unless I hear some satisfactory explanation of the purloining of those keys hanging up there, Sir, on that wall, Sir, before your eyes, Sir — I shall consider it my duty to detain you, and the person with you, until I can get legal advice, and lawful advice, and magisterial advice. Do you hear that, Sir?”

Uncle Joseph’s ruddy cheeks suddenly deepened in color, and his face assumed an expression which made the housekeeper rather uneasy, and which had an irresistibly cooling effect on the heat of Mr. Munder’s anger.

“You will keep us here? You?” said the old man, speaking very quietly, and looking very steadily at the steward. “Now, see. I take this lady (courage, my child, courage! there is nothing to tremble for) — I take this lady with me; I throw that door open, so! I stand and wait before it; and I say to you, ‘Shut that door against us, if you dare.’”

At this defiance, Mr. Munder advanced a few steps, and then stopped. If Uncle Joseph’s steady look at him had wavered for an instant, he would have closed the door.

“I say again,” repeated the old man, “shut it against me, if you dare. The laws and customs of your country, Sir, have made me an Englishman. If you can talk into one ear of a magistrate, I can talk into the other. If he must listen to you, a citizen of this country, he must listen to me, a citizen of this country also. Say the word, if you please. Do you accuse? or do you threaten? or do you shut the door?”

Before Mr. Munder could reply to any one of these three direct questions, the housekeeper begged him to return to his chair and to speak to her. As he resumed his place, she whispered to him, in warning tones, “Remember Mrs. Frankland’s letter!”

At the same moment Uncle Joseph, considering that he had waited long enough, took a step forward to the door. He was prevented from advancing any farther by his niece, who caught him suddenly by the arm, and said in his ear, “Look! they are whispering about us again!”

“Well!” said Mr. Munder, replying to the housekeeper. “I do remember Mrs. Frankland’s letter, ma’am; and what then?”

“Hush! not so loud,” whispered Mrs. Pentreath. “I don’t presume, Mr. Munder, to differ in opinion with you; but I want to ask one or two questions. Do you think we have any charge that a magistrate would listen to, to bring against these people?”

Mr. Munder looked puzzled, and seemed, for once in a way, to be at a loss for an answer.

“Does what you remember of Mrs. Frankland’s letter,” pursued the housekeeper, “incline you to think that she would be pleased at a public exposure of what has happened in the house? She tells us to take private notice of that woman’s conduct, and to follow her unperceived when she goes away. I don’t venture on the liberty of advising you, Mr. Munder, but, as far as regards myself, I wash my hands of all responsibility, if we do anything but follow Mrs. Frankland’s instructions (as she herself tells us) to the letter.”

Mr. Munder hesitated. Uncle Joseph, who had paused for a minute when Sarah directed his attention to the whispering at the upper end of the room, now drew her on slowly with him to the door. “Betzee, my dear,” he said, addressing the maid, with perfect coolness and composure, “we are strangers here; will you be so kind to us as to show the way out?”

Betsey looked at the housekeeper, who motioned to her to appeal for orders to the steward. Mr. Munder was sorely tempted, for the sake of his own importance, to insist on instantly carrying out the violent measures to which he had threatened to have recourse; but Mrs. Pentreath’s objections made him pause in spite of himself.

“Betzee, my dear,” repeated Uncle Joseph, “has all this talking been too much for your ears? has it made you deaf?”

“Wait!” cried Mr. Munder, impatiently. “I insist on your waiting, Sir!”

“You insist? Well, well, because you are an uncivil man is no reason why I should be an uncivil man too. We will wait a little, Sir, if you have anything more to say” Making that concession to the claims of politeness, Uncle Joseph walked gently backward and forward with his niece in the passage outside the door. “Sarah, my child, I have frightened the man of the big words,” he whispered. “Try not to tremble so much; we shall soon be out in the fresh air again.”

In the mean time, Mr. Munder continued his whispered conversation with the housekeeper, making a desperate effort, in the midst of his perplexities, to maintain his customary air of patronage and his customary assumption of superiority. “There is a great deal of truth, ma’am,” he softly began — “a great deal of truth, certainly, in what you say. But you are talking of the woman, while I am talking of the man. Do you mean to tell me that I am to let him go, after what has happened, without at least insisting on his giving me his name and address?”

“Do you put trust enough in the foreigner to believe that he would give you his right name and address if you asked him?” inquired Mrs. Pentreath. “With submission to your better judgment, I must confess that I don’t. But supposing you were to detain him and charge him before the magistrate — and how you are to do that, the magistrate’s house being, I suppose, about a couple of hours’ walk from here, is more than I can tell — you must surely risk offending Mrs. Frankland by detaining the woman and charging the woman as well; for after all, Mr. Munder, though I believe the foreigner to be capable of anything, it was the woman that took the keys, was it not?”

“Quite so! quite so!” said Mr. Munder, whose sleepy eyes were now opened to this plain and straightforward view of the case for the first time. “I was, oddly enough, putting that point to myself, Mrs. Pentreath, just before you happened to speak of it. Just so! just so!”

“I can’t help thinking,” continued the housekeeper, in a mysterious whisper, “that the best plan, and the plan most in accordance with our instructions, is to let them both go, as if we did not care to demean ourselves by any more quarreling or arguing with them, and to have them followed to the next place they stop at. The gardener’s boy, Jacob, is weeding the broad walk in the west garden this afternoon. These people have not seen him about the premises, and need not see him, if they are let out again by the south door. Jacob is a sharp lad, as you know; and, if he was properly instructed, I really don’t see — ”

“It is a most singular circumstance, Mrs. Pentreath,” interposed Mr. Munder, with the gravity of consummate assurance; “but when I first sat down to this table, that idea about Jacob occurred to me. What with the effort of speaking, and the heat of argument, I got led away from it in the most unaccountable manner — ”

Here Uncle Joseph, whose stock of patience and politeness was getting exhausted, put his head into the room again.

“I shall have one last word to address to you, Sir, in a moment,” said Mr. Munder, before the old man could speak. “Don’t you suppose that your blustering and your bullying has had any effect on me. It may do with foreigners, Sir; but it won’t do with Englishmen, I can tell you.”

Uncle Joseph shrugged his shoulders, smiled, and rejoined his niece in the passage outside. While the housekeeper and the steward had been conferring together, Sarah had been trying hard to persuade her uncle to profit by her knowledge of the passages that led to the south door, and to slip away unperceived. But the old man steadily refused to be guided by her advice. “I will not go out of a place guiltily,” he said, “when I have done no harm. Nothing shall persuade me to put myself, or to put you, in the wrong. I am not a man of much wits; but let my conscience guide me, and so long I shall go right. They let us in here, Sarah, of their own accord; and they shall let us out of their own accord also.”

“Mr. Munder! Mr. Munder!” whispered the housekeeper, to stop a fresh explosion of the steward’s indignation, which threatened to break out at the contempt implied by the shrugging of Uncle Joseph’s shoulders, “while you are speaking to that audacious man, shall I slip into the garden and give Jacob his instructions?”

Mr. Munder paused before answering — tried hard to see a more dignified way out of the dilemma in which he had placed himself than the way suggested by the housekeeper — failed entirely to discern anything of the sort — swallowed his indignation at one heroic gulp — and replied emphatically in two words: “Go, ma’am.”

“What does that mean? what has she gone that way for?” said Sarah to her uncle, in a quick, suspicious whisper, as the housekeeper brushed hastily by them on her way to the west garden.

Before there was time to answer the question, it was followed by another, put by Mr. Munder.

“Now, Sit!” said the steward, standing in the doorway, with his hands under his coat-tails and his head very high in the air. “Now, Sir, and now, ma’am, for my last words. Am I to have a proper explanation of the abstracting and purloining of those keys, or am I not?”

“Certainly, Sir, you are to have the explanation,” replied Uncle Joseph “It is, if you please, the same explanation that I had the honor of giving to you a little while ago. Do you wish to hear it again? It is all the explanation we have got about us.”

“Oh! it is, is it?” said Mr. Munder “Then all I have to say to both of you is — leave the house directly! Directly!” he added, in his most coarsely offensive tones, taking refuge in the insolence of authority, from the dim consciousness of the absurdity of his own position, which would force itself on him even while he spoke. “Yes, Sir!” he continued, growing more and more angry at the composure with which Uncle Joseph listened to him — “Yes, Sir! you may bow and scrape, and jabber your broken English somewhere else. I won’t put up with you here. I have reflected with myself, and reasoned with myself, and asked myself calmly — as Englishmen always do — if it is any use making you of importance, and I have come to a conclusion, and that conclusion is — no, it isn’t! Don’t you go away with a notion that your blusterings and bullyings have had any effect on me. (Show them out, Betsey!) I consider you beneath — aye, and below! — my notice. Language fails, Sir, to express my contempt. Leave the house!”

“And I, Sir,” returned the object of all this withering derision, with the most exasperating politeness, “I shall say, for having your contempt, what I could by no means have said for having your respect, which is, briefly — thank you. I, the small foreigner, take the contempt of you, the big Englishman, as the greatest compliment that can be paid from a man of your composition to a man of mine.” With that, Uncle Joseph made a last fantastic bow, took his niece’s arm, and followed Betsey along the passages that led to the south door, leaving Mr. Munder to compose a fit retort at his leisure.

Ten minutes later the housekeeper returned breathless to her room, and found the steward walking backward and forward in a high state of irritation.

“Pray make your mind easy, Mr. Munder,” she said. “They are both clear of the house at last, and Jacob has got them well in view on the path over the moor.”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29