The Evil Genius : a domestic story, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter liii.

The Largest Nature, the Longest Love.

Mrs. Presty waited in the garden to be joined by her daughter and Captain Bennydeck, and waited in vain. It was past her grandchild’s bedtime; she decided on returning to the house.

“Suppose we look for them in the sitting-room?” Kitty proposed.

“Suppose we wait a moment, before we go in?” her wise grandmother advised. “If I hear them talking I shall take you upstairs to bed.”

“Why?”

Mrs. Presty favored Kitty with a hint relating to the management of inquisitive children which might prove useful to her in after-life. “When you grow up to be a woman, my dear, beware of making the mistake that I have just committed. Never be foolish enough to mention your reasons when a child asks, Why?”

“Was that how they treated you, grandmamma, when you were a child yourself?”

“Of course it was!”

“Why?”

They had reached the sitting-room door by this time. Kitty opened it without ceremony and looked in. The room was empty.

Having confided her granddaughter to the nursemaid’s care, Mrs. Presty knocked at Catherine’s bedroom door. “May I come in?”

“Come in directly! Where is Kitty?”

“Susan is putting her to bed.”

“Stop it! Kitty mustn’t go to bed. No questions. I’ll explain myself when you come back.” There was a wildness in her eyes, and a tone of stern command in her voice, which warned her mother to set dignity aside, and submit.

“I don’t ask what has happened,” Mrs. Presty resumed on her return. “That letter, that fatal letter to the Captain, has justified my worst fears. What in Heaven’s name are we to do now?”

“We are to leave this hotel,” was the instant reply.

“When?”

“To-night.”

“Catherine! do you know what time it is?”

“Time enough to catch the last train to London. Don’t raise objections! If I stay at this place, with associations in every part of it which remind me of that unhappy man, I shall go mad! The shock I have suffered, the misery, the humiliation — I tell you it’s more than I can bear. Stay here by yourself if you like; I mean to go.”

She paced with frantic rapidity up and down the room. Mrs. Presty took the only way by which it was possible to calm her. “Compose yourself, Catherine, and all that you wish shall be done. I’ll settle everything with the landlord, and give the maid her orders. Sit down by the open window; let the wind blow over you.”

The railway service from Sydenham to London is a late service. At a few minutes before midnight they were in time for the last train. When they left the station, Catherine was calm enough to communicate her plans for the future. The nearest hotel to the terminus would offer them accommodation for that night. On the next day they could find some quiet place in the country — no matter where, so long as they were not disturbed. “Give me rest and peace, and my mind will be easier,” Catherine said. “Let nobody know where to find me.”

These conditions were strictly observed — with an exception in favor of Mr. Sarrazin. While his client’s pecuniary affairs were still unsettled, the lawyer had his claim to be taken into her confidence.

The next morning found Captain Bennydeck still keeping his rooms at Sydenham. The state of his mind presented a complete contrast to the state of Catherine’s mind. So far from sharing her aversion to the personal associations which were connected with the hotel, he found his one consolation in visiting the scenes which reminded him of the beloved woman whom he had lost. The reason for this was not far to seek. His was the largest nature, and his had been the most devoted love.

As usual, his letters were forwarded to him from his place of residence in London. Those addressed in handwritings that he knew were the first that he read. The others he took out with him to that sequestered part of the garden in which he had passed the happiest hours of his life by Catherine’s side.

He had been thinking of her all the morning; he was thinking of her now.

His better judgment protested; his accusing conscience warned him that he was committing, not only an act of folly but (with his religious convictions) an act of sin — and still she held her place in his thoughts. The manager had told him of her sudden departure from the hotel, and had declared with perfect truth that the place of her destination had not been communicated to him. Asked if she had left no directions relating to her correspondence, he had replied that his instructions were to forward all letters to her lawyer. On the point of inquiring next for the name and address, Bennydeck’s sense of duty and sense of shame (roused at last) filled him with a timely contempt for himself. In feeling tempted to write to Catherine — in encouraging fond thoughts of her among scenes which kept her in his memory — he had been false to the very principles to which he had appealed at their farewell interview. She had set him the right example, the example which he was determined to follow, in leaving the place. Before he could falter in his resolution, he gave notice of his departure. The one hope for him now was to find a refuge from himself in acts of mercy. Consolation was perhaps waiting for him in his Home.

His unopened correspondence offered a harmless occupation to his thoughts, in the meanwhile. One after another he read the letters, with an attention constantly wandering and constantly recalled, until he opened the last of them that remained. In a moment more his interest was absorbed. The first sentences in the letter told him that the deserted creature whom he had met in the garden — the stranger to whom he had offered help and consolation in the present and in the future — was no other than the lost girl of whom he had been so long in search; the daughter of Roderick Westerfield, once his dearest and oldest friend.

In the pages that followed, the writer confided to him her sad story; leaving it to her father’s friend to decide whether she was worthy of the sympathy which he had offered to her, when he thought she was a stranger.

This part of her letter was necessarily a repetition of what Bennydeck had read, in the confession which Catherine had addressed to him. That generous woman had been guilty of one, and but one, concealment of the truth. In relating the circumstances under which the elopement from Mount Morven had taken place, she had abstained, in justice to the sincerity of Sydney’s repentance, from mentioning Sydney’s name. “Another instance,” the Captain thought bitterly, as he closed the letter, “of the virtues which might have made the happiness of my life!”

But he was bound to remember — and he did remember — that there was now a new interest, tenderly associating itself with his life to come. The one best way of telling Sydney how dear she was to him already, for her father’s sake, would be to answer her in person. He hurried away to London by the first train, and drove at once to Randal’s place of abode to ask for Sydney’s address.

Wondering what had become of the postscript to his letter, which had given Bennydeck the information of which he was now in search, Randal complied with his friend’s request, and then ventured to allude to the report of the Captain’s marriage engagement.

“Am I to congratulate you?” he asked.

“Congratulate me on having discovered Roderick Westerfield’s daughter.”

That reply, and the tone in which it was given, led Randal to ask if the engagement had been prematurely announced.

“There is no engagement at all,” Bennydeck answered, with a look which suggested that it might be wise not to dwell on the subject.

But the discovery was welcome to Randal, for his brother’s sake. He ran the risk of consequences, and inquired if Catherine was still to be found at the hotel.

The Captain answered by a sign in the negative.

Randal persisted. “Do you know where she has gone?”

“Nobody knows but her lawyer.”

“In that case,” Randal concluded, “I shall get the information that I want.” Noticing that Bennydeck looked surprised, he mentioned his motive. “Herbert is pining to see Kitty,” he continued; “and I mean to help him. He has done all that a man could do to atone for the past. As things are, I believe I shall not offend Catherine, if I arrange for a meeting between father and child. What do you say?”

Bennydeck answered, earnestly and eagerly: “Do it at once!”

They left the house together — one to go to Sydney’s lodgings, the other on his way to Mr. Sarrazin’s office.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30