The Evil Genius : a domestic story, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter liv.

Let Bygones Be Bygones.

When the servant at the lodgings announced a visitor, and mentioned his name, Sydney’s memory (instead of dwelling on the recollection of the Captain’s kindness) perversely recalled the letter that she had addressed to him, and reminded her that she stood in need of indulgence, which even so good a man might hesitate to grant. Bennydeck’s first words told the friendless girl that her fears had wronged him.

“My dear, how like your father you are! You have his eyes and his smile; I can’t tell you how pleasantly you remind me of my dear old friend.” He took her hand, and kissed her as he might have kissed a daughter of his own. “Do you remember me at home, Sydney, when you were a child? No: you must have been too young for that.”

She was deeply touched. In faint trembling tones she said; “I remember your name; my poor father often spoke of you.”

A man who feels true sympathy is never in danger of mistaking his way to a woman’s heart, when that woman has suffered. Bennydeck consoled, interested, charmed Sydney, by still speaking of the bygone days at home.

“I well remember how fond your father was of you, and what a bright little girl you were,” the Captain went on. “You have forgotten, I dare say, the old-fashioned sea-songs that he used to be so fond of teaching you. It was the strangest and prettiest contrast, to hear your small piping child’s voice singing of storms and shipwrecks, and thunder and lightning, and reefing sails in cold and darkness, without the least idea of what it all meant. Your mother was strict in those days; you never amused her as you used to amuse your father and me. When she caught you searching my pockets for sweetmeats, she accused me of destroying your digestion before you were five years old. I went on spoiling it, for all that. The last time I saw you, my child, your father was singing ‘The Mariners of England,’ and you were on his knee trying to sing with him. You must have often wondered why you never saw anything more of me. Did you think I had forgotten you?”

“I am quite sure I never thought that!”

“You see I was in the Navy at the time,” the Captain resumed; “and we were ordered away to a foreign station. When I got back to England, miserable news was waiting for me. I heard of your father’s death and of that shameful Trial. Poor fellow! He was as innocent, Sydney, as you are of the offense which he was accused of committing. The first thing I did was to set inquiries on foot after your mother and her children. It was some consolation to me to feel that I was rich enough to make your lives easy and agreeable to you. I thought money could do anything. A serious mistake, my dear — money couldn’t find the widow and her children. We supposed you were somewhere in London; and there, to my great grief, it ended. From time to time — long afterward, when we thought we had got the clew in our hands — I continued my inquiries, still without success. A poor woman and her little family are so easily engulfed in the big city! Years passed (more of them than I like to reckon up) before I heard of you at last by name. The person from whom I got my information told me how you were employed, and where.”

“Oh, Captain Bennydeck, who could the person have been?”

“A poor old broken-down actor, Sydney. You were his favorite pupil. Do you remember him?”

“I should be ungrateful indeed if I could forget him. He was the only person in the school who was kind to me. Is the good old man still living?”

“No; he rests at last. I am glad to say I was able to make his last days on earth the happiest days of his life.”

“I wonder,” Sydney confessed, “how you met with him.”

“There was nothing at all romantic in my first discovery of him. I was reading the police reports in a newspaper. The poor wretch was brought before a magistrate, charged with breaking a window. His one last chance of escaping starvation in the streets was to get sent to prison. The magistrate questioned him, and brought to light a really heart-breaking account of misfortune, imbittered by neglect on the part of people in authority who were bound to help him. He was remanded, so that inquiries might be made. I attended the court on the day when he appeared there again, and heard his statement confirmed. I paid his fine, and contrived to put him in a way of earning a little money. He was very grateful, and came now and then to thank me. In that way I heard how his troubles had begun. He had asked for a small advance on the wretched wages that he received. Can you guess how the schoolmistress answered him?”

“I know but too well how she answered him,” Sydney said; “I was turned out of the house, too.”

“And I heard of it,” the Captain replied, “from the woman herself. Everything that could distress me she was ready to mention. She told me of your mother’s second marriage, of her miserable death, of the poor boy, your brother, missing, and never heard of since. But when I asked where you had gone she had nothing more to say. She knew nothing, and cared nothing, about you. If I had not become acquainted with Mr. Randal Linley, I might never have heard of you again. We will say no more of that, and no more of anything that has happened in the past time. From to-day, my dear, we begin a new life, and (please God) a happier life. Have you any plans of your own for the future?”

“Perhaps, if I could find help,” Sydney said resignedly, “I might emigrate. Pride wouldn’t stand in my way; no honest employment would be beneath my notice. Besides, if I went to America, I might meet with my brother.”

“My dear child, after the time that has passed, there is no imaginable chance of your meeting with your brother — and you wouldn’t know each other again if you did meet. Give up that vain hope and stay here with me. Be useful and be happy in your own country.”

“Useful?” Sydney repeated sadly. “Your own kind heart, Captain Bennydeck, is deceiving you. To be useful means, I suppose, to help others. Who will accept help from me?”

“I will, for one,” the Captain answered.

“You!”

“Yes. You can be of the greatest use to me — you shall hear how.”

He told her of the founding of his Home and of the good it had done. “You are the very person,” he resumed, “to be the good sister-friend that I want for my poor girls: you can say for them what they cannot always say to me for themselves.”

The tears rose in Sydney’s eyes. “It is hard to see such a prospect as that,” she said, “and to give it up as soon as it is seen.”

“Why give it up?”

“Because I am not fit for it. You are as good as a father to those lost daughters of yours. If you give them a sister-friend she ought to have set them a good example. Have I done that? Will they listen to a girl who is no better than themselves?”

“Gladly! Your sympathy will find its way to their hearts, because it is animated by something that they can all feel in common — something nearer and dearer to them than a sense of duty. You won’t consent, Sydney, for their sakes? Will you do what I ask of you, for my sake?”

She looked at him, hardly able to understand — or, as it might have been, perhaps afraid to understand him. He spoke to her more plainly.

“I have kept it concealed from you,” he continued —“for why should I lay my load of suffering on a friend so young as you are, so cruelly tried already? Let me only say that I am in great distress. If you were with me, my child, I might be better able to bear it.”

He held out his hand. Even a happy woman could hardly have found it in her heart to resist him. In silent sympathy and respect, Sydney kissed the hand that he had offered to her. It was the one way in which she could trust herself to answer him.

Still encouraging her to see new hopes and new interests in the future, the good Captain spoke of the share which she might take in the management of the Home, if she would like to be his secretary. With this view he showed her some written reports, relating to the institution, which had been sent to him during the time of his residence at Sydenham. She read them with an interest and attention which amply justified his confidence in her capacity.

“These reports,” he explained to her, “are kept for reference; but as a means of saving time, the substance of them is entered in the daily journal of our proceedings. Come, Sydney! venture on a first experiment in your new character. I see pen, ink, and paper on the table; try if you can shorten one of the reports, without leaving out anything which it is important to know. For instance, the writer gives reasons for making his statement. Very well expressed, no doubt, but we don’t want reasons. Then, again, he offers his own opinion on the right course to take. Very creditable to him, but I don’t want his opinion — I want his facts. Take the pen, my secretary, and set down his facts. Never mind his reflections.”

Proud and pleased, Sydney obeyed him. She had made her little abstract, and was reading it to him at his request, while he compared it with the report, when they were interrupted by a visitor. Randal Linley came in, and noticed the papers on the table with surprise. “Is it possible that I am interrupting business?” he asked.

Bennydeck answered with the assumed air of importance which was in itself a compliment to Sydney: “You find me engaged on the business of the Home with my new secretary.”

Randal at once understood what had happened. He took his friend’s arm, and led him to the other end of the room.

“You good fellow!” he said. “Add to your kindness by excusing me if I ask for a word with you in private.”

Sydney rose to retire. After having encouraged her by a word of praise, the Captain proposed that she should get ready to go out, and should accompany him on a visit to the Home. He opened the door for her as respectfully as if the poor girl had been one of the highest ladies in the land.

“I have seen my friend Sarrazin,” Randal began, “and I have persuaded him to trust me with Catherine’s present address. I can send Herbert there immediately, if you will only help me.”

“How can I help you?”

“Will you allow me to tell my brother that your engagement is broken off?”

Bennydeck shrank from the painful allusion, and showed it.

Randal explained. “I am grieved,” he said, “to distress you by referring to this subject again. But if my brother is left under the false impression that your engagement will be followed by your marriage, he will refuse to intrude himself on the lady who was once his wife.”

The Captain understood. “Say what you please about me,” he replied. “Unite the father and child — and you may reconcile the husband and wife.”

“Have you forgotten,” Randal asked, “that the marriage has been dissolved?”

Bennydeck’s answer ignored the law. “I remember,” he said, “that the marriage has been profaned.”

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