On the next day Mrs. Goldstraw arrived, to enter on her domestic duties.
Having settled herself in her own room, without troubling the servants, and without wasting time, the new housekeeper announced herself as waiting to be favoured with any instructions which her master might wish to give her. The wine-merchant received Mrs. Goldstraw in the dining-room, in which he had seen her on the previous day; and, the usual preliminary civilities having passed on either side, the two sat down to take counsel together on the affairs of the house.
“About the meals, sir?” said Mrs. Goldstraw. “Have I a large, or a small, number to provide for?”
“If I can carry out a certain old-fashioned plan of mine,” replied Mr. Wilding, “you will have a large number to provide for. I am a lonely single man, Mrs. Goldstraw; and I hope to live with all the persons in my employment as if they were members of my family. Until that time comes, you will only have me, and the new partner whom I expect immediately, to provide for. What my partner’s habits may be, I cannot yet say. But I may describe myself as a man of regular hours, with an invariable appetite that you may depend upon to an ounce.”
“About breakfast, sir?” asked Mrs. Goldstraw. “Is there anything particular —?”
She hesitated, and left the sentence unfinished. Her eyes turned slowly away from her master, and looked towards the chimney-piece. If she had been a less excellent and experienced housekeeper, Mr. Wilding might have fancied that her attention was beginning to wander at the very outset of the interview.
“Eight o’clock is my breakfast-hour,” he resumed. “It is one of my virtues to be never tired of broiled bacon, and it is one of my vices to be habitually suspicious of the freshness of eggs.” Mrs. Goldstraw looked back at him, still a little divided between her master’s chimney-piece and her master. “I take tea,” Mr. Wilding went on; “and I am perhaps rather nervous and fidgety about drinking it, within a certain time after it is made. If my tea stands too long —”
He hesitated, on his side, and left the sentence unfinished. If he had not been engaged in discussing a subject of such paramount interest to himself as his breakfast, Mrs. Goldstraw might have fancied that his attention was beginning to wander at the very outset of the interview.
“If your tea stands too long, sir —?” said the housekeeper, politely taking up her master’s lost thread.
“If my tea stands too long,” repeated the wine-merchant mechanically, his mind getting farther and farther away from his breakfast, and his eyes fixing themselves more and more inquiringly on his housekeeper’s face. “If my tea — Dear, dear me, Mrs. Goldstraw! what IS the manner and tone of voice that you remind me of? It strikes me even more strongly to-day, than it did when I saw you yesterday. What can it be?”
“What can it be?” repeated Mrs. Goldstraw.
She said the words, evidently thinking while she spoke them of something else. The wine-merchant, still looking at her inquiringly, observed that her eyes wandered towards the chimney- piece once more. They fixed on the portrait of his mother, which hung there, and looked at it with that slight contraction of the brow which accompanies a scarcely conscious effort of memory. Mr. Wilding remarked.
“My late dear mother, when she was five-and-twenty.”
Mrs. Goldstraw thanked him with a movement of the head for being at the pains to explain the picture, and said, with a cleared brow, that it was the portrait of a very beautiful lady.
Mr. Wilding, falling back into his former perplexity, tried once more to recover that lost recollection, associated so closely, and yet so undiscoverably, with his new housekeeper’s voice and manner.
“Excuse my asking you a question which has nothing to do with me or my breakfast,” he said. “May I inquire if you have ever occupied any other situation than the situation of housekeeper?”
“O yes, sir. I began life as one of the nurses at the Foundling.”
“Why, that’s it!” cried the wine-merchant, pushing back his chair. “By heaven! Their manner is the manner you remind me of!”
In an astonished look at him, Mrs. Goldstraw changed colour, checked herself, turned her eyes upon the ground, and sat still and silent.
“What is the matter?” asked Mr. Wilding.
“Do I understand that you were in the Foundling, sir?”
“Certainly. I am not ashamed to own it.”
“Under the name you now bear?”
“Under the name of Walter Wilding.”
“And the lady —?” Mrs. Goldstraw stopped short with a look at the portrait which was now unmistakably a look of alarm.
“You mean my mother,” interrupted Mr. Wilding.
“Your — mother,” repeated the housekeeper, a little constrainedly, “removed you from the Foundling? At what age, sir?”
“At between eleven and twelve years old. It’s quite a romantic adventure, Mrs. Goldstraw.”
He told the story of the lady having spoken to him, while he sat at dinner with the other boys in the Foundling, and of all that had followed in his innocently communicative way. “My poor mother could never have discovered me,” he added, “if she had not met with one of the matrons who pitied her. The matron consented to touch the boy whose name was ‘Walter Wilding’ as she went round the dinner-tables — and so my mother discovered me again, after having parted from me as an infant at the Foundling doors.”
At those words Mrs. Goldstraw’s hand, resting on the table, dropped helplessly into her lap. She sat, looking at her new master, with a face that had turned deadly pale, and with eyes that expressed an unutterable dismay.
“What does this mean?” asked the wine-merchant. “Stop!” he cried. “Is there something else in the past time which I ought to associate with you? I remember my mother telling me of another person at the Foundling, to whose kindness she owed a debt of gratitude. When she first parted with me, as an infant, one of the nurses informed her of the name that had been given to me in the institution. You were that nurse?”
“God forgive me, sir — I was that nurse!”
“God forgive you?”
“We had better get back, sir (if I may make so bold as to say so), to my duties in the house,” said Mrs. Goldstraw. “Your breakfast- hour is eight. Do you lunch, or dine, in the middle of the day?”
The excessive pinkness which Mr. Bintrey had noticed in his client’s face began to appear there once more. Mr. Wilding put his hand to his head, and mastered some momentary confusion in that quarter, before he spoke again.
“Mrs. Goldstraw,” he said, “you are concealing something from me!”
The housekeeper obstinately repeated, “Please to favour me, sir, by saying whether you lunch, or dine, in the middle of the day?”
“I don’t know what I do in the middle of the day. I can’t enter into my household affairs, Mrs. Goldstraw, till I know why you regret an act of kindness to my mother, which she always spoke of gratefully to the end of her life. You are not doing me a service by your silence. You are agitating me, you are alarming me, you are bringing on the singing in my head.”
His hand went up to his head again, and the pink in his face deepened by a shade or two.
“It’s hard, sir, on just entering your service,” said the housekeeper, “to say what may cost me the loss of your good will. Please to remember, end how it may, that I only speak because you have insisted on my speaking, and because I see that I am alarming you by my silence. When I told the poor lady, whose portrait you have got there, the name by which her infant was christened in the Foundling, I allowed myself to forget my duty, and dreadful consequences, I am afraid, have followed from it. I’ll tell you the truth, as plainly as I can. A few months from the time when I had informed the lady of her baby’s name, there came to our institution in the country another lady (a stranger), whose object was to adopt one of our children. She brought the needful permission with her, and after looking at a great many of the children, without being able to make up her mind, she took a sudden fancy to one of the babies — a boy — under my care. Try, pray try, to compose yourself, sir! It’s no use disguising it any longer. The child the stranger took away was the child of that lady whose portrait hangs there!”
Mr. Wilding started to his feet. “Impossible!” he cried out, vehemently. “What are you talking about? What absurd story are you telling me now? There’s her portrait! Haven’t I told you so already? The portrait of my mother!”
“When that unhappy lady removed you from the Foundling, in after years,” said Mrs. Goldstraw, gently, “she was the victim, and you were the victim, sir, of a dreadful mistake.”
He dropped back into his chair. “The room goes round with me,” he said. “My head! my head!” The housekeeper rose in alarm, and opened the windows. Before she could get to the door to call for help, a sudden burst of tears relieved the oppression which had at first almost appeared to threaten his life. He signed entreatingly to Mrs. Goldstraw not to leave him. She waited until the paroxysm of weeping had worn itself out. He raised his head as he recovered himself, and looked at her with the angry unreasoning suspicion of a weak man.
“Mistake?” he said, wildly repeating her last word. “How do I know you are not mistaken yourself?”
“There is no hope that I am mistaken, sir. I will tell you why, when you are better fit to hear it.”
The tone in which he spoke warned Mrs. Goldstraw that it would be cruel kindness to let him comfort himself a moment longer with the vain hope that she might be wrong. A few words more would end it, and those few words she determined to speak.
“I have told you,” she said, “that the child of the lady whose portrait hangs there, was adopted in its infancy, and taken away by a stranger. I am as certain of what I say as that I am now sitting here, obliged to distress you, sir, sorely against my will. Please to carry your mind on, now, to about three months after that time. I was then at the Foundling, in London, waiting to take some children to our institution in the country. There was a question that day about naming an infant — a boy — who had just been received. We generally named them out of the Directory. On this occasion, one of the gentlemen who managed the Hospital happened to be looking over the Register. He noticed that the name of the baby who had been adopted (‘Walter Wilding’) was scratched out — for the reason, of course, that the child had been removed for good from our care. ‘Here’s a name to let,’ he said. ‘Give it to the new foundling who has been received to-day.’ The name was given, and the child was christened. You, sir, were that child.”
The wine-merchant’s head dropped on his breast. “I was that child!” he said to himself, trying helplessly to fix the idea in his mind. “I was that child!”
“Not very long after you had been received into the Institution, sir,” pursued Mrs. Goldstraw, “I left my situation there, to be married. If you will remember that, and if you can give your mind to it, you will see for yourself how the mistake happened. Between eleven and twelve years passed before the lady, whom you have believed to be your mother, returned to the Foundling, to find her son, and to remove him to her own home. The lady only knew that her infant had been called ‘Walter Wilding.’ The matron who took pity on her, could but point out the only ‘Walter Wilding’ known in the Institution. I, who might have set the matter right, was far away from the Foundling and all that belonged to it. There was nothing — there was really nothing that could prevent this terrible mistake from taking place. I feel for you — I do indeed, sir! You must think — and with reason — that it was in an evil hour that I came here (innocently enough, I’m sure), to apply for your housekeeper’s place. I feel as if I was to blame — I feel as if I ought to have had more self-command. If I had only been able to keep my face from showing you what that portrait and what your own words put into my mind, you need never, to your dying day, have known what you know now.”
Mr. Wilding looked up suddenly. The inbred honesty of the man rose in protest against the housekeeper’s last words. His mind seemed to steady itself, for the moment, under the shock that had fallen on it.
“Do you mean to say that you would have concealed this from me if you could?” he exclaimed.
“I hope I should always tell the truth, sir, if I was asked,” said Mrs. Goldstraw. “And I know it is better for ME that I should not have a secret of this sort weighing on my mind. But is it better for YOU? What use can it serve now —?”
“What use? Why, good Lord! if your story is true —”
“Should I have told it, sir, as I am now situated, if it had not been true?”
“I beg your pardon,” said the wine-merchant. “You must make allowance for me. This dreadful discovery is something I can’t realise even yet. We loved each other so dearly — I felt so fondly that I was her son. She died, Mrs. Goldstraw, in my arms — she died blessing me as only a mother COULD have blessed me. And now, after all these years, to be told she was NOT my mother! O me, O me! I don’t know what I am saying!” he cried, as the impulse of self- control under which he had spoken a moment since, flickered, and died out. “It was not this dreadful grief — it was something else that I had it in my mind to speak of. Yes, yes. You surprised me — you wounded me just now. You talked as if you would have hidden this from me, if you could. Don’t talk in that way again. It would have been a crime to have hidden it. You mean well, I know. I don’t want to distress you — you are a kind-hearted woman. But you don’t remember what my position is. She left me all that I possess, in the firm persuasion that I was her son. I am not her son. I have taken the place, I have innocently got the inheritance of another man. He must be found! How do I know he is not at this moment in misery, without bread to eat? He must be found! My only hope of bearing up against the shock that has fallen on me, is the hope of doing something which SHE would have approved. You must know more, Mrs. Goldstraw, than you have told me yet. Who was the stranger who adopted the child? You must have heard the lady’s name?”
“I never heard it, sir. I have never seen her, or heard of her, since.”
“Did she say nothing when she took the child away? Search your memory. She must have said something.”
“Only one thing, sir, that I can remember. It was a miserably bad season, that year; and many of the children were suffering from it. When she took the baby away, the lady said to me, laughing, “Don’t be alarmed about his health. He will be brought up in a better climate than this — I am going to take him to Switzerland.”
“To Switzerland? What part of Switzerland?”
“She didn’t say, sir.”
“Only that faint clue!” said Mr. Wilding. “And a quarter of a century has passed since the child was taken away! What am I to do?”
“I hope you won’t take offence at my freedom, sir,” said Mrs. Goldstraw; “but why should you distress yourself about what is to be done? He may not be alive now, for anything you know. And, if he is alive, it’s not likely he can be in any distress. The, lady who adopted him was a bred and born lady — it was easy to see that. And she must have satisfied them at the Foundling that she could provide for the child, or they would never have let her take him away. If I was in your place, sir — please to excuse my saying so — I should comfort myself with remembering that I had loved that poor lady whose portrait you have got there — truly loved her as my mother, and that she had truly loved me as her son. All she gave to you, she gave for the sake of that love. It never altered while she lived; and it won’t alter, I’m sure, as long as YOU live. How can you have a better right, sir, to keep what you have got than that?”
Mr. Wilding’s immovable honesty saw the fallacy in his house- keeper’s point of view at a glance.
“You don’t understand me,” he said. “It’s BECAUSE I loved her that I feel it a duty — a sacred duty — to do justice to her son. If he is a living man, I must find him: for my own sake, as well as for his. I shall break down under this dreadful trial, unless I employ myself — actively, instantly employ myself — in doing what my conscience tells me ought to be done. I must speak to my lawyer; I must set my lawyer at work before I sleep to-night.” He approached a tube in the wall of the room, and called down through it to the office below. “Leave me for a little, Mrs. Goldstraw,” he resumed; “I shall be more composed, I shall be better able to speak to you later in the day. We shall get on well — I hope we shall get on well together — in spite of what has happened. It isn’t your fault; I know it isn’t your fault. There! there! shake hands; and — and do the best you can in the house — I can’t talk about it now.”
The door opened as Mrs. Goldstraw advanced towards it; and Mr. Jarvis appeared.
“Send for Mr. Bintrey,” said the wine-merchant. “Say I want to see him directly.”
The clerk unconsciously suspended the execution of the order, by announcing “Mr. Vendale,” and showing in the new partner in the firm of Wilding and Co.
“Pray excuse me for one moment, George Vendale,” said Wilding. “I have a word to say to Jarvis. Send for Mr. Bintrey,” he repeated —“send at once.”
Mr. Jarvis laid a letter on the table before he left the room.
“From our correspondents at Neuchatel, I think, sir. The letter has got the Swiss postmark.”
Last updated Tuesday, August 25, 2015 at 14:07