Erema, by R. D. Blackmore

Chapter XXVI

At the Bank

In telling that sad tale my faithful and soft-hearted nurse had often proved her own mistake in saying, as she did, that tears can ever be exhausted. And I, for my part, though I could scarcely cry for eager listening, was worse off perhaps than if I had wetted each sad fact as it went by. At any rate, be it this way or that, a heavy and sore heart was left me, too distracted for asking questions, and almost too depressed to grieve.

In the morning Mrs. Strouss was bustling here and there and every where, and to look at her nice Welsh cheeks and aprons, and to hear how she scolded the butcher’s boy, nobody would for a moment believe that her heart was deeper than her skin, as the saying of the west country is. Major Hockin had been to see me last night, for he never forgot a promise, and had left me in good hands, and now he came again in the morning. According to his usual way of taking up an opinion, he would not see how distracted I was, and full of what I had heard overnight, but insisted on dragging me off to the bank, that being in his opinion of more importance than old stories. I longed to ask Betsy some questions which had been crowding into my mind as she spoke, and while I lay awake at night; however, I was obliged to yield to the business of the morning, and the good Major’s zeal and keen knowledge of the world; and he really gave me no time to think.

“Yes, I understand all that as well as if I had heard every word of it,” he said, when he had led me helpless into the Hansom cab he came in, and had slammed down the flood-gates in front of us. “You must never think twice of what old women say” (Mrs. Strouss was some twenty years younger than himself); “they always go prating and finding mares’-nests, and then they always cry. Now did she cry, Erema?”

I would have given a hundred dollars to be able to say, “No, not one drop;” but the truth was against me, and I said, “How could she help it?”

“Exactly!” the Major exclaimed, so loudly that the cabman thought he was ordered to stop. “No, go on, cabby, if your horse can do it. My dear, I beg your pardon, but you are so very simple! You have not been among the eye-openers of the west. This comes of the obsolete Uncle Sam.”

“I would rather be simple than ‘cute!’” I replied; “and my own Uncle Sam will be never obsolete.”

Silly as I was, I could never speak of the true Uncle Sam in this far country without the bright shame of a glimmer in my eyes; and with this, which I cared not to hide, I took my companion’s hand and stood upon the footway of a narrow and crowded lane.

“Move on! move on!” cried a man with a high-crowned hat japanned at intervals, and, wondering at his rudeness to a lady, I looked at him. But he only said, “Now move on, will you?” without any wrath, and as if he were vexed at our littleness of mind in standing still. Nobody heeded him any more than if he had said, “I am starving,” but it seemed a rude thing among ladies. Before I had time to think more about this — for I always like to think of things — I was led through a pair of narrow swinging doors, and down a close alley between two counters full of people paying and receiving money. The Major, who always knew how to get on, found a white-haired gentleman in a very dingy corner, and whispered to him in a confidential way, though neither had ever seen the other before, and the white-haired gentleman gazed at me as sternly as if I were a bank-note for at least a thousand pounds; and then he said, “Step this way, young lady. Major Hockin, step this way, Sir.”

The young lady “stepped that way” in wonder as to what English English is, and then we were shown into a sacred little room, where the daylight had glass reflectors for it, if it ever came to use them. But as it cared very little to do this, from angular disabilities, three bright gas-lights were burning in soft covers, and fed the little room with a rich, sweet glow. And here shone one of the partners of the bank, a very pleasant-looking gentleman, and very nicely dressed.

“Major Hockin,” he said, after looking at the card, “will you kindly sit down, while I make one memorandum? I had the pleasure of knowing your uncle well — at least I believe that the late Sir Rufus was your uncle.”

“Not so,” replied the Major, well pleased, however. “I fear that I am too old to have had any uncle lately. Sir Rufus Hockin was my first cousin.”

“Oh, indeed! To be sure, I should have known it, but Sir Rufus being much your senior, the mistake was only natural. Now what can I do to serve you, or perhaps this young lady — Miss Hockin, I presume?”

“No,” said his visitor, “not Miss Hockin. I ought to have introduced her, but for having to make my own introduction. Mr. Shovelin, this lady is Miss Erema Castlewood, the only surviving child of the late Captain George Castlewood, properly speaking, Lord Castlewood.”

Mr. Shovelin had been looking at me with as much curiosity as good manners and his own particular courtesy allowed. And I fancied that he felt that I could not be a Hockin.

“Oh, dear, dear me!” was all he said, though he wanted to say, “God bless me!” or something more sudden and stronger. “Lord Castlewood’s daughter — poor George Castlewood! My dear young lady, is it possible?”

“Yes, I am my father’s child,” I said; “and I am proud to hear that I am like him.”

“That you well may be,” he answered, putting on his spectacles. “You are astonished at my freedom, perhaps; you will allow for it, or at least, you will not be angry with me, when you know that your father was my dearest friend at Harrow; and that when his great trouble fell upon him —”

Here Mr. Shovelin stopped, as behooves a man who begins to outrun himself. He could not tell me that it was himself who had found all the money for my father’s escape, which cost much cash as well as much good feeling. Neither did I, at the time, suspect it, being all in the dark upon such points. Not knowing what to say, I looked from the banker to the Major, and back again.

“Can you tell me the exact time?” the latter asked. “I am due in the Temple at 12.30, and I never am a minute late, whatever happens.”

“You will want a swift horse,” Mr. Shovelin answered, “or else this will be an exception to your rule. It is twenty-one minutes past twelve now.”

“May I leave my charge to you, then, for a while? She will be very quiet; she is always so. Erema, will you wait for me?”

I was not quick enough then to see that this was arranged between them. Major Hockin perceived that Mr. Shovelin wished to have a talk with me about dearer matters than money, having children of his own, and being (as his eyes and forehead showed) a man of peculiar views, perhaps, but clearly of general good-will.

“In an hour, in an hour, in less than an hour”— the Major intensified his intentions always —“in three-quarters of an hour I shall be back. Meanwhile, my dear, you will sit upon a stool, and not say a word, nor make any attempt to do any thing every body is not used to.”

This vexed me, as if I were a savage here; and I only replied with a very gentle bow, being glad to see his departure; for Major Hockin was one of those people, so often to be met with, whom any one likes or dislikes according to the changes of their behavior. But Mr. Shovelin was different from that.

“Miss Castlewood, take this chair,” he said; “a hard one, but better than a stool, perhaps. Now how am I to talk to you — as an inquirer upon business matters, or as the daughter of my old friend? Your smile is enough. Well, and you must talk to me in the same unreasonable manner. That being clearly established between us, let us proceed to the next point. Your father, my old friend, wandered from the track, and unfortunately lost his life in a desolate part of America.”

“No; oh no. It was nothing like that. He might have been alive, and here at this moment, if I had not drunk and eaten every bit and drop of his.”

“Now don’t, my dear child, don’t be so romantic — I mean, look at things more soberly. You did as you were ordered, I have no doubt; George Castlewood always would have that. He was a most commanding man. You do not quite resemble him in that respect, I think.”

“Oh, but did he do it, did he do it?” I cried out. “You were at school with him, and knew his nature. Was it possible for him to do it, Sir?”

“As possible as it is for me to go down to Sevenoaks and shoot my dear old father, who is spending a green and agreeable old age there. Not that your grandfather, if I may say it without causing pain to you, was either green or agreeable. He was an uncommonly sharp old man; I might even say a hard one. As you never saw him, you will not think me rude in saying that much. Your love, of course, is for your father; and if your father had had a father of larger spirit about money, he might have been talking to me pleasantly now, instead of — instead of all these sad things.”

“Please not to slip away from me,” I said, bluntly, having so often met with that. “You believe, as every good person does, that my father was wholly innocent. But do tell me who could have done it instead. Somebody must have done it; that seems clear.”

“Yes,” replied Mr. Shovelin, with a look of calm consideration; “somebody did it, undoubtedly; and that makes the difficulty of the whole affair. ‘Cui bono,’ as the lawyers say. Two persons only could have had any motive, so far as wealth and fortune go. The first and most prominent, your father, who, of course, would come into every thing (which made the suspicion so hot and strong); and the other, a very nice gentleman, whom it is wholly impossible to suspect.”

“Are you sure of that? People have more than suspected — they have condemned — my father. After that, I can suspect any body. Who is it? Please to tell me.”

“It is the present Lord Castlewood, as he is beginning to be called. He would not claim the title, or even put forward his right in any way, until he had proof of your dear father’s death; and even then he behaved so well —”

“He did it! he did it!” I cried, in hot triumph. “My father’s name shall be clear of it. Can there be any doubt that he did it? How very simple the whole of it becomes! Nothing astonishes me, except the stupidity of people. He had every thing to gain, and nothing to lose — a bad man, no doubt — though I never heard of him. And putting it all on my father, of course, to come in himself, and abide his time, till the misery killed my father. How simple, how horribly simple, it becomes!”

“You are much too quick, too hot, too sudden. Excuse me a minute”— as a silver bell struck —“I am wanted in the next room. But before I go, let me give you a glass of cold water, and beg you to dismiss that new idea from your mind.”

I could see, as I took with a trembling hand the water he poured out for me, that Mr. Shovelin was displeased. His kind and handsome face grew hard. He had taken me for a nice young lady, never much above the freezing-point, and he had found me boil over in a moment. I was sorry to have grieved him; but if he had heard Betsy Bowen’s story, and seen her tell it, perhaps he would have allowed for me. I sat down again, having risen in my warmth, and tried to quiet and command myself by thinking of the sad points only. Of these there were plenty to make pictures of, the like of which had kept me awake all night; and I knew by this time, from finding so much more of pity than real sympathy, that men think a woman may well be all tears, but has no right to even the shadow of a frown. That is their own prerogative.

And so, when Mr. Shovelin returned, with a bundle of papers which had also vexed him — to judge by the way in which he threw them down — I spoke very mildly, and said that I was very sorry for my display of violence, but that if he knew all, he would pardon me; and he pardoned me in a moment.

“I was going to tell you, my dear Miss Castlewood,” he continued, gently, “that your sudden idea must be dismissed, for reasons which I think will content you. In the first place, the present Lord Castlewood is, and always has been, an exemplary man, of great piety and true gentleness; in the next place, he is an invalid, who can not walk a mile with a crutch to help him, and so he has been for a great many years; and lastly, if you have no faith in the rest, he was in Italy at the time, and remained there for some years afterward. There he received and sheltered your poor father after his sad calamity, and was better than a brother to him, as your father, in a letter to me, declared. So you see that you must acquit him.”

“That is not enough. I would beg his pardon on my knees, since he helped my father, for he must have thought him innocent. Now, Mr. Shovelin, you were my father’s friend, and you are such a clever man —”

“How do you know that, young lady? What a hurry you are always in!”

“Oh, there can be no doubt about it. But you must not ask reasons, if I am so quick. Now please to tell me what your own conclusion is. I can talk of it calmly now; yes, quite calmly, because I never think of any thing else. Only tell me what you really believe, and I will keep it most strictly to myself.”

“I am sure you will do that,” he answered, smiling, “not only from the power of your will, my dear, but also because I have nothing to say. At first I was strongly inclined to believe (knowing, from my certainty of your father, that the universal opinion must be wrong) that the old lord had done it himself; for he always had been of a headstrong and violent nature, which I am sure will never re-appear in you. But the whole of the evidence went against this, and little as I think of evidence, especially at an inquest, your father’s behavior confirmed what was sworn to. Your father knew that his father had not made away with himself in a moment of passion, otherwise he was not the man to break prison and fly trial. He would have said, boldly, ‘I am guiltless; there are many things that I can not explain; I can not help that; I will face it out. Condemn me, if you like, and I will suffer.’ From your own remembrance of your father’s nature, is not that certainly the course he would have taken?”

“I have not an atom of doubt about it. His flight and persistent dread of trial puzzle me beyond imagination. Of his life he was perfectly reckless, except, at least, for my sake.”

“I know that he was,” Mr. Shovelin replied; “as a boy he was wonderfully fearless. As a man, with a sweet wife and a lot of children, he might have begun to be otherwise. But when all those were gone, and only a poor little baby left —”

“Yes, I suppose I was all that.”

“Forgive me. I am looking back at you. Who could dream that you would ever even live, without kith or kin to care for you? Your life was saved by some good woman who took you away to Wales. But when you were such a poor little relic, and your father could scarcely have seen you, to have such a mite left must have been almost a mockery of happiness. That motive could not have been strong enough to prevent a man of proud honor from doing what honor at once demanded. Your father would have returned and surrendered as soon as he heard of his dear wife’s death, if in the balance there had been only you.”

“Yes, Mr. Shovelin, perhaps he would. I was never very much as a counter-balance. Yet my father loved me.” I could have told him of the pledge exchanged —“For my sake,” and, “Yes, for your sake,” with love and wedded honor set to fight cold desolate repute — but I did not say a word about it.

“He loved you afterward, of course. But a man who has had seven children is not enthusiastic about a baby. There must have been a larger motive.”

“But when I was the only one left alive. Surely I became valuable then. I can not have been such a cipher.”

“Yes, for a long time you would have been,” replied the Saturnian banker. “I do not wish to disparage your attractions when you were a fortnight old. They may have begun already to be irresistible. Excuse me; you have led me into the light vein, when speaking of a most sad matter. You must blame your self-assertion for it. All I wish to convey to you is my belief that something wholly unknown to us, some dark mystery of which we have no inkling, lies at the bottom of this terrible affair. Some strange motive there must have been, strong enough even to overcome all ordinary sense of honor, and an Englishman’s pride in submitting to the law, whatever may be the consequence. Consider that his ‘flight from justice,’ as it was called, of course, by every one, condemned his case and ruined his repute. Even for that he would not have cared so much as for his own sense of right. And though he was a very lively fellow, as I first remember him, full of tricks and jokes, and so on, which in this busy age are out of date, I am certain that he always had a stern sense of right. One never knows how love affairs and weakness about children may alter almost any man; but my firm conviction is that my dear old school-fellow, George Castlewood, even with a wife and lovely children hanging altogether upon his life, not only would not have broken jail, but would calmly have given up his body to be hanged — pardon me, my dear, for putting it so coarsely — if there had not been something paramount to override even apparent honor. What it can have been I have no idea, and I presume you have none.”

“None whatever,” I said at once, in answer to his inquiring gaze. “I am quite taken by surprise; I never even thought of such a thing. It has always seemed to me so natural that my dear father, being shamefully condemned, because appearances were against him, and nobody could enter into him, should, for the sake of his wife and children, or even of one child like me, depart or banish himself, or emigrate, or, as they might call it, run away. Knowing that he never could have a fair trial, it was the only straightforward and good and affectionate thing for him to do.”

“You can not see things as men see them. We must not expect it of you,” Mr. Shovelin answered, with a kind but rather too superior smile, which reminded me a little of dear Uncle Sam when he listened to what, in his opinion, was only female reason; “but, dear me, here is Major Hockin come! Punctuality is the soul of business.”

“So I always declare,” cried the Major, who was more than three-quarters of an hour late, for which in my heart I thanked him. “My watch keeps time to a minute, Sir, and its master to a second. Well, I hope you have settled all questions of finance, and endowed my young maid with a fortune.”

“So far from that,” Mr. Shovelin replied, in a tone very different from that he used to me, “we have not even said one word of business; all that has been left for your return. Am I to understand that you are by appointment or relationship the guardian of this young lady?”

“God forbid!” cried Major Hockin, shortly. I thought it very rude of him, yet I could not help smiling to see how he threw his glasses up and lifted his wiry crest of hair. “Not that she is bad, I mean, but good, very good; indeed, I may say the very best girl ever known outside of my own family. My cousin, Colonel Gundry, who owns an immense estate in the most auriferous district of all California, but will not spoil his splendid property by mining, he will — he will tell you the very same thing, Sir.”

“I am very glad to hear it,” said the banker, smiling at me, while I wondered what it was, but hoped that it meant my praises. “Now I really fear that I must be very brief, though the daughter of my oldest friend may well be preferred to business. But now we will turn at once to business, if you please.”

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 11:50