Ralph Corbet found it a very difficult thing to keep down his curiosity during the next few days. It was a miserable thing to have Ellinor’s unspoken secret severing them like a phantom. But he had given her his word that he would make no further inquiries from her. Indeed, he thought he could well enough make out the outline of past events; still, there was too much left to conjecture for his mind not to be always busy on the subject. He felt inclined to probe Mr. Wilkins in their after-dinner conversation, in which his host was frank and lax enough on many subjects. But once touch on the name of Dunster and Mr. Wilkins sank into a kind of suspicious depression of spirits; talking little, and with evident caution; and from time to time shooting furtive glances at his interlocutor’s face. Ellinor was resolutely impervious to any attempts of his to bring his conversation with her back to the subject which more and more engrossed Ralph Corbet’s mind. She had done her duty, as she understood it; and had received assurances which she was only too glad to believe fondly with all the tender faith of her heart. Whatever came to pass, Ralph’s love would still be hers; nor was he unwarned of what might come to pass in some dread future day. So she shut her eyes to what might be in store for her (and, after all, the chances were immeasurably in her favour); and she bent herself with her whole strength into enjoying the present. Day by day Mr. Corbet’s spirits flagged. He was, however, so generally uniform in the tenor of his talk — never very merry, and always avoiding any subject that might call out deep feeling either on his own or any one else’s part, that few people were aware of his changes of mood. Ellinor felt them, though she would not acknowledge them: it was bringing her too much face to face with the great terror of her life.
One morning he announced the fact of his brother’s approaching marriage; the wedding was hastened on account of some impending event in the duke’s family; and the home letter he had received that day was to bid his presence at Stokely Castle, and also to desire him to be at home by a certain time not very distant, in order to look over the requisite legal papers, and to give his assent to some of them. He gave many reasons why this unlooked-for departure of his was absolutely necessary; but no one doubted it. He need not have alleged such reiterated excuses. The truth was, he was restrained and uncomfortable at Ford Bank ever since Ellinor’s confidence. He could not rightly calculate on the most desirable course for his own interests, while his love for her was constantly being renewed by her sweet presence. Away from her, he could judge more wisely. Nor did he allege any false reasons for his departure; but the sense of relief to himself was so great at his recall home, that he was afraid of having it perceived by others; and so took the very way which, if others had been as penetrating as himself, would have betrayed him.
Mr. Wilkins, too, had begun to feel the restraint of Ralph’s grave watchful presence. Ellinor was not strong enough to be married; nor was the promised money forthcoming if she had been. And to have a fellow dawdling about the house all day, sauntering into the flower-garden, peering about everywhere, and having a kind of right to put all manner of unexpected questions, was anything but agreeable. It was only Ellinor that clung to his presence — clung as though some shadow of what might happen before they met again had fallen on her spirit. As soon as he had left the house she flew up to a spare bedroom window, to watch for the last glimpse of the fly which was taking him into the town. And then she kissed the part of the pane on which his figure, waving an arm out of the carriage window, had last appeared; and went down slowly to gather together all the things he had last touched — the pen he had mended, the flower he had played with, and to lock them up in the little quaint cabinet that had held her treasures since she was a tiny child.
Miss Monro was, perhaps, very wise in proposing the translation of a difficult part of Dante for a distraction to Ellinor. The girl went meekly, if reluctantly, to the task set her by her good governess, and by-and-by her mind became braced by the exertion.
Ralph’s people were not very slow in discovering that something had not gone on quite smoothly with him at Ford Bank. They knew his ways and looks with family intuition, and could easily be certain thus far. But not even his mother’s skilfulest wiles, nor his favourite sister’s coaxing, could obtain a word or a hint; and when his father, the squire, who had heard the opinions of the female part of the family on this head, began, in his honest blustering way, in their tete-a-tetes after dinner, to hope that Ralph was thinking better than to run his head into that confounded Hamley attorney’s noose, Ralph gravely required Mr. Corbet to explain his meaning, which he professed not to understand so worded. And when the squire had, with much perplexity, put it into the plain terms of hoping that his son was thinking of breaking off his engagement to Miss Wilkins, Ralph coolly asked him if he was aware that, in that case, he should lose all title to being a man of honour, and might have an action brought against him for breach of promise?
Yet not the less for all this was the idea in his mind as a future possibility.
Before very long the Corbet family moved en masse to Stokely Castle for the wedding. Of course, Ralph associated on equal terms with the magnates of the county, who were the employers of Ellinor’s father, and spoke of him always as “Wilkins,” just as they spoke of the butler as “Simmons.” Here, too, among a class of men high above local gossip, and thus unaware of his engagement, he learnt the popular opinion respecting his future father-inlaw; an opinion not entirely respectful, though intermingled with a good deal of personal liking. “Poor Wilkins,” as they called him, “was sadly extravagant for a man in his position; had no right to spend money, and act as if he were a man of independent fortune.” His habits of life were criticised; and pity, not free from blame, was bestowed upon him for the losses he had sustained from his late clerk’s disappearance and defalcation. But what could be expected if a man did not choose to attend to his own business?
The wedding went by, as grand weddings do, without let or hindrance, according to the approved pattern. A Cabinet minister honoured it with his presence, and, being a distant relation of the Brabants, remained for a few days after the grand occasion. During this time he became rather intimate with Ralph Corbet; many of their tastes were in common. Ralph took a great interest in the manner of working out political questions; in the balance and state of parties; and had the right appreciation of the exact qualities on which the minister piqued himself. In return, the latter was always on the look-out for promising young men, who, either by their capability of speech-making or article-writing, might advance the views of his party. Recognising the powers he most valued in Ralph, he spared no pains to attach him to his own political set. When they separated, it was with the full understanding that they were to see a good deal of each other in London.
The holiday Ralph allowed himself was passing rapidly away; but, before he returned to his chambers and his hard work, he had promised to spend a few more days with Ellinor; and it suited him to go straight from the duke’s to Ford Bank. He left the castle soon after breakfast — the luxurious, elegant breakfast, served by domestics who performed their work with the accuracy and perfection of machines. He arrived at Ford Bank before the man-servant had quite finished the dirtier part of his morning’s work, and he came to the glass-door in his striped cotton jacket, a little soiled, and rolling up his working apron. Ellinor was not yet strong enough to get up and go out and gather flowers for the rooms, so those left from yesterday were rather faded; in short, the contrast from entire completeness and exquisite freshness of arrangement struck forcibly upon Ralph’s perceptions, which were critical rather than appreciative; and, as his affections were always subdued to his intellect, Ellinor’s lovely face and graceful figure flying to meet him did not gain his full approval, because her hair was dressed in an old-fashioned way, her waist was either too long or too short, her sleeves too full or too tight for the standard of fashion to which his eye had been accustomed while scanning the bridesmaids and various highborn ladies at Stokely Castle.
But, as he had always piqued himself upon being able to put on one side all superficial worldliness in his chase after power, it did not do for him to shrink from seeing and facing the incompleteness of moderate means. Only marriage upon moderate means was gradually becoming more distasteful to him.
Nor did his subsequent intercourse with Lord Bolton, the Cabinet minister before mentioned, tend to reconcile him to early matrimony. At Lord Bolton’s house he met polished and intellectual society, and all that smoothness in ministering to the lower wants in eating and drinking which seems to provide that the right thing shall always be at the right place at the right time, so that the want of it shall never impede for an instant the feast of wit or reason; while, if he went to the houses of his friends, men of the same college and standing as himself, who had been seduced into early marriages, he was uncomfortably aware of numerous inconsistencies and hitches in their menages. Besides, the idea of the possible disgrace that might befall the family with which he thought of allying himself haunted him with the tenacity and also with the exaggeration of a nightmare, whenever he had overworked himself in his search after available and profitable knowledge, or had a fit of indigestion after the exquisite dinners he was learning so well to appreciate.
Christmas was, of course, to be devoted to his own family; it was an unavoidable necessity, as he told Ellinor, while, in reality, he was beginning to find absence from his betrothed something of a relief. Yet the wranglings and folly of his home, even blessed by the presence of a Lady Maria, made him look forward to Easter at Ford Bank with something of the old pleasure.
Ellinor, with the fine tact which love gives, had discovered his annoyance at various little incongruities in the household at the time of his second visit in the previous autumn, and had laboured to make all as perfect as she could before his return. But she had much to struggle against. For the first time in her life there was a great want of ready money; she could scarcely obtain the servants’ wages; and the bill for the spring seeds was a heavy weight on her conscience. For Miss Monro’s methodical habits had taught her pupil great exactitude as to all money matters.
Then her father’s temper had become very uncertain. He avoided being alone with her whenever he possibly could; and the consciousness of this, and of the terrible mutual secret which was the cause of this estrangement, were the reasons why Ellinor never recovered her pretty youthful bloom after her illness. Of course it was to this that the outside world attributed her changed appearance. They would shake their heads and say, “Ah, poor Miss Wilkins! What a lovely creature she was before that fever!”
But youth is youth, and will assert itself in a certain elasticity of body and spirits; and at times Ellinor forgot that fearful night for several hours together. Even when her father’s averted eye brought it all once more before her, she had learnt to form excuses and palliations, and to regard Mr. Dunster’s death as only the consequence of an unfortunate accident. But she tried to put the miserable remembrance entirely out of her mind; to go on from day to day thinking only of the day, and how to arrange it so as to cause the least irritation to her father. She would so gladly have spoken to him on the one subject which overshadowed all their intercourse; she fancied that by speaking she might have been able to banish the phantom, or reduce its terror to what she believed to be the due proportion. But her father was evidently determined to show that he was never more to be spoken to on that subject; and all she could do was to follow his lead on the rare occasions that they fell into something like the old confidential intercourse. As yet, to her, he had never given way to anger; but before her he had often spoken in a manner which both pained and terrified her. Sometimes his eye in the midst of his passion caught on her face of affright and dismay, and then he would stop, and make such an effort to control himself as sometimes ended in tears. Ellinor did not understand that both these phases were owing to his increasing habit of drinking more than he ought to have done. She set them down as the direct effects of a sorely burdened conscience; and strove more and more to plan for his daily life at home, how it should go on with oiled wheels, neither a jerk nor a jar. It was no wonder she looked wistful, and careworn, and old. Miss Monro was her great comfort; the total unconsciousness on that lady’s part of anything below the surface, and yet her full and delicate recognition of all the little daily cares and trials, made her sympathy most valuable to Ellinor, while there was no need to fear that it would ever give Miss Monro that power of seeing into the heart of things which it frequently confers upon imaginative people, who are deeply attached to some one in sorrow.
There was a strong bond between Ellinor and Dixon, although they scarcely ever exchanged a word save on the most common-place subjects; but their silence was based on different feelings from that which separated Ellinor from her father. Ellinor and Dixon could not speak freely, because their hearts were full of pity for the faulty man whom they both loved so well, and tried so hard to respect.
This was the state of the household to which Ralph Corbet came down at Easter. He might have been known in London as a brilliant diner-out by this time; but he could not afford to throw his life away in fireworks; he calculated his forces, and condensed their power as much as might be, only visiting where he was likely to meet men who could help in his future career. He had been invited to spend the Easter vacation at a certain country house which would be full of such human stepping-stones; and he declined in order to keep his word to Ellinor, and go to Ford Bank. But he could not help looking upon himself a little in the light of a martyr to duty; and perhaps this view of his own merits made him chafe under his future father-inlaw’s irritability of manner, which now showed itself even to him. He found himself distinctly regretting that he had suffered himself to be engaged so early in life; and having become conscious of the temptation and not having repelled it at once, of course it returned and returned, and gradually obtained the mastery over him. What was to be gained by keeping to his engagement with Ellinor? He should have a delicate wife to look after, and even more than the common additional expenses of married life. He should have a father-inlaw whose character at best had had only a local and provincial respectability, which it was now daily losing by habits which were both sensual and vulgarising; a man, too, who was strangely changing from joyous geniality into moody surliness. Besides, he doubted if, in the evident change in the prosperity of the family, the fortune to be paid down on the occasion of his marriage to Ellinor could be forthcoming. And above all, and around all, there hovered the shadow of some unrevealed disgrace, which might come to light at any time and involve him in it. He thought he had pretty well ascertained the nature of this possible shame, and had little doubt it would turn out to be that Dunster’s disappearance, to America or elsewhere, had been an arranged plan with Mr. Wilkins. Although Mr. Ralph Corbet was capable of suspecting him of this mean crime (so far removed from the impulsive commission of the past sin which was dragging him daily lower and lower down), it was of a kind that was peculiarly distasteful to the acute lawyer, who foresaw how such base conduct would taint all whose names were ever mentioned, even by chance, in connection with it. He used to lie miserably tossing on his sleepless bed, turning over these things in the night season. He was tormented by all these thoughts; he would bitterly regret the past events that connected him with Ellinor, from the day when he first came to read with Mr. Ness up to the present time. But when he came down in the morning, and saw the faded Ellinor flash into momentary beauty at his entrance into the dining-room, and when she blushingly drew near with the one single flower freshly gathered, which it had been her custom to place in his button-hole when he came down to breakfast, he felt as if his better self was stronger than temptation, and as if he must be an honest man and honourable lover, even against his wish.
As the day wore on the temptation gathered strength. Mr. Wilkins came down, and while he was on the scene Ellinor seemed always engrossed by her father, who apparently cared little enough for all her attentions. Then there was a complaining of the food, which did not suit the sickly palate of a man who had drunk hard the night before; and possibly these complaints were extended to the servants, and their incompleteness or incapacity was thus brought prominently before the eyes of Ralph, who would have preferred to eat a dry crust in silence, or to have gone without breakfast altogether, if he could have had intellectual conversation of some high order, to having the greatest dainties with the knowledge of the care required in their preparation thus coarsely discussed before him. By the time such breakfasts were finished, Ellinor looked thirty, and her spirits were gone for the day. It had become difficult for Ralph to contract his mind to her small domestic interests, and she had little else to talk to him about, now that he responded but curtly to all her questions about himself, and was weary of professing a love which he was ceasing to feel, in all the passionate nothings which usually make up so much of lovers’ talk. The books she had been reading were old classics, whose place in literature no longer admitted of keen discussion; the poor whom she cared for were all very well in their way; and, if they could have been brought in to illustrate a theory, hearing about them might have been of some use; but, as it was, it was simply tiresome to hear day after day of Betty Palmer’s rheumatism and Mrs. Kay’s baby’s fits. There was no talking politics with her, because she was so ignorant that she always agreed with everything he said.
He even grew to find luncheon and Miss Monro not unpleasant varieties to his monotonous tete-a-tetes. Then came the walk, generally to the town to fetch Mr. Wilkins from his office; and once or twice it was pretty evident how he had been employing his hours. One day in particular his walk was so unsteady and his speech so thick, that Ralph could only wonder how it was that Ellinor did not perceive the cause; but she was too openly anxious about the headache of which her father complained to have been at all aware of the previous self-indulgence which must have brought it on. This very afternoon, as ill-luck would have it, the Duke of Hinton and a gentleman whom Ralph had met in town at Lord Bolton’s rode by, and recognised him; saw Ralph supporting a tipsy man with such quiet friendly interest as must show all passers-by that they were previous friends. Mr. Corbet chafed and fumed inwardly all the way home after this unfortunate occurrence; he was in a thoroughly evil temper before they reached Ford Bank, but he had too much self-command to let this be very apparent. He turned into the shrubbery paths, leaving Ellinor to take her father into the quietness of his own room, there to lie down and shake off his headache.
Ralph walked along, ruminating in gloomy mood as to what was to be done; how he could best extricate himself from the miserable relation in which he had placed himself by giving way to impulse. Almost before he was aware, a little hand stole within his folded arms, and Ellinor’s sweet sad eyes looked into his.
“I have put papa down for an hour’s rest before dinner,” said she. “His head seems to ache terribly.”
Ralph was silent and unsympathising, trying to nerve himself up to be disagreeable, but finding it difficult in the face of such sweet trust.
“Do you remember our conversation last autumn, Ellinor?” he began at length.
Her head sunk. They were near a garden-seat, and she quietly sat down, without speaking.
“About some disgrace which you then fancied hung over you?” No answer. “Does it still hang over you?”
“Yes!” she whispered, with a heavy sigh.
“And your father knows this, of course?”
“Yes!” again, in the same tone; and then silence.
“I think it is doing him harm,” at length Ralph went on, decidedly.
“I am afraid it is,” she said, in a low tone.
“I wish you would tell me what it is,” he said, a little impatiently. “I might be able to help you about it.”
“No! you could not,” replied Ellinor. “I was sorry to my very heart to tell you what I did; I did not want help; all that is past. But I wanted to know if you thought that a person situated as I was, was justified in marrying any one ignorant of what might happen, what I do hope and trust never will.”
“But if I don’t know what you are alluding to in this mysterious way, you must see — don’t you see, love? — I am in the position of the ignorant man whom I think you said you could not feel it right to marry. Why don’t you tell me straight out what it is?” He could not help his irritation betraying itself in his tones and manner of speaking. She bent a little forward, and looked full into his face, as though to pierce to the very heart’s truth of him. Then she said, as quietly as she had ever spoken in her life — “You wish to break off our engagement?”
He reddened and grew indignant in a moment. “What nonsense! Just because I ask a question and make a remark! I think your illness must have made you fanciful, Ellinor. Surely nothing I said deserves such an interpretation. On the contrary, have I not shown the sincerity and depth of my affection to you by clinging to you through — through everything?”
He was going to say “through the wearying opposition of my family,” but he stopped short, for he knew that the very fact of his mother’s opposition had only made him the more determined to have his own way in the first instance; and even now he did not intend to let out, what he had concealed up to this time, that his friends all regretted his imprudent engagement.
Ellinor sat silently gazing out upon the meadows, but seeing nothing. Then she put her hand into his. “I quite trust you, Ralph. I was wrong to doubt. I am afraid I have grown fanciful and silly.”
He was rather put to it for the right words, for she had precisely divined the dim thought that had overshadowed his mind when she had looked so intently at him. But he caressed her, and reassured her with fond words, as incoherent as lovers’ words generally are.
By-and-by they sauntered homewards. When they reached the house, Ellinor left him, and flew up to see how her father was. When Ralph went into his own room he was vexed with himself, both for what he had said and for what he had not said. His mental look-out was not satisfactory.
Neither he nor Mr. Wilkins was in good humour with the world in general at dinner-time, and it needs little in such cases to condense and turn the lowering tempers into one particular direction. As long as Ellinor and Miss Monro stayed in the dining-room, a sort of moody peace had been kept up, the ladies talking incessantly to each other about the trivial nothings of their daily life, with an instinctive consciousness that if they did not chatter on, something would be said by one of the gentlemen which would be distasteful to the other.
As soon as Ralph had shut the door behind them, Mr. Wilkins went to the sideboard, and took out a bottle which had not previously made its appearance.
“Have a little cognac?” he asked, with an assumption of carelessness, as he poured out a wine-glassful. “It’s a capital thing for the headache; and this nasty lowering weather has given me a racking headache all day.”
“I am sorry for it,” said Ralph, “for I wanted particularly to speak to you about business — about my marriage, in fact.”
“Well! speak away, I’m as clear-headed as any man, if that’s what you mean.”
Ralph bowed, a little contemptuously.
“What I wanted to say was, that I am anxious to have all things arranged for my marriage in August. Ellinor is so much better now; in fact, so strong, that I think we may reckon upon her standing the change to a London life pretty well.”
Mr. Wilkins stared at him rather blankly, but did not immediately speak.
“Of course I may have the deeds drawn up in which, as by previous arrangement, you advance a certain portion of Ellinor’s fortune for the purposes therein to be assigned; as we settled last year when I hoped to have been married in August?”
A thought flitted through Mr. Wilkins’s confused brain that he should find it impossible to produce the thousands required without having recourse to the money lenders, who were already making difficulties, and charging him usurious interest for the advances they had lately made; and he unwisely tried to obtain a diminution in the sum he had originally proposed to give Ellinor. “Unwisely,” because he might have read Ralph’s character better than to suppose he would easily consent to any diminution without good and sufficient reason being given; or without some promise of compensating advantages in the future for the present sacrifice asked from him. But perhaps Mr. Wilkins, dulled as he was by wine thought he could allege a good and sufficient reason, for he said:
“You must not be hard upon me, Ralph. That promise was made before — before I exactly knew the state of my affairs!”
“Before Dunster’s disappearance, in fact,” said Mr. Corbet, fixing his steady, penetrating eyes on Mr. Wilkins’s countenance.
“Yes — exactly — before Dunster’s —” mumbled out Mr. Wilkins, red and confused, and not finishing his sentence.
“By the way,” said Ralph (for with careful carelessness of manner he thought he could extract something of the real nature of the impending disgrace from his companion, in the state in which he then was; and if he only knew more about this danger he could guard against it; guard others; perhaps himself)—“By the way, have you ever heard anything of Dunster since he went off to — America, isn’t it thought?”
He was startled beyond his power of self-control by the instantaneous change in Mr. Wilkins which his question produced. Both started up; Mr. Wilkins white, shaking, and trying to say something, but unable to form a sensible sentence.
“Good God! sir, what is the matter?” said Ralph, alarmed at these signs of physical suffering.
Mr. Wilkins sat down, and repelled his nearer approach without speaking.
“It is nothing, only this headache which shoots through me at times. Don’t look at me, sir, in that way. It is very unpleasant to find another man’s eyes perpetually fixed upon you.”
“I beg your pardon,” said Ralph, coldly; his short-lived sympathy, thus repulsed, giving way to his curiosity. But he waited for a minute or two without daring to renew the conversation at the point where they had stopped: whether interrupted by bodily or mental discomfort on the part of his companion he was not quite sure. While he hesitated how to begin again on the subject, Mr. Wilkins pulled the bottle of brandy to himself and filled his glass again, tossing off the spirit as if it had been water. Then he tried to look Mr. Corbet full in the face, with a stare as pertinacious as he could make it, but very different from the keen observant gaze which was trying to read him through.
“What were we talking about?” said Ralph, at length, with the most natural air in the world, just as if he had really been forgetful of some half-discussed subject of interest.
“Of what you’d a d —— d deal better hold your tongue about,” growled out Mr. Wilkins, in a surly thick voice.
“Sir!” said Ralph, starting to his feet with real passion at being so addressed by “Wilkins the attorney.”
“Yes,” continued the latter, “I’ll manage my own affairs, and allow of no meddling and no questioning. I said so once before, and I was not minded and bad came of it; and now I say it again. And if you’re to come here and put impertinent questions, and stare at me as you’ve been doing this half-hour past, why, the sooner you leave this house the better!”
Ralph half turned to take him at his word, and go at once; but then he “gave Ellinor another chance,” as he worded it in his thoughts; but it was in no spirit of conciliation that he said:
“You’ve taken too much of that stuff, sir. You don’t know what you’re saying. If you did, I should leave your house at once, never to return.”
“You think so, do you?” said Mr. Wilkins, trying to stand up, and look dignified and sober. “I say, sir, that if you ever venture again to talk and look as you have done to-night, why, sir, I will ring the bell and have you shown the door by my servants. So now you’re warned, my fine fellow!” He sat down, laughing a foolish tipsy laugh of triumph. In another minute his arm was held firmly but gently by Ralph.
“Listen, Mr. Wilkins,” he said, in a low hoarse voice. “You shall never have to say to me twice what you have said to-night. Henceforward we are as strangers to each other. As to Ellinor”— his tones softened a little, and he sighed in spite of himself —“I do not think we should have been happy. I believe our engagement was formed when we were too young to know our own minds, but I would have done my duty and kept to my word; but you, sir, have yourself severed the connection between us by your insolence to-night. I, to be turned out of your house by your servants! — I, a Corbet of Westley, who would not submit to such threats from a peer of the realm, let him be ever so drunk!” He was out of the room, almost out of the house, before he had spoken the last words.
Mr. Wilkins sat still, first fiercely angry, then astonished, and lastly dismayed into sobriety. “Corbet, Corbet! Ralph!” he called in vain; then he got up and went to the door, opened it, looked into the fully-lighted hall; all was so quiet there that he could hear the quiet voices of the women in the drawing-room talking together. He thought for a moment, went to the hat-stand, and missed Ralph’s low-crowned straw hat.
Then he sat down once more in the dining-room, and endeavoured to make out exactly what had passed; but he could not believe that Mr. Corbet had come to any enduring or final resolution to break off his engagement, and he had almost reasoned himself back into his former state of indignation at impertinence and injury, when Ellinor came in, pale, hurried, and anxious.
“Papa! what does this mean?” said she, putting an open note into his hand. He took up his glasses, but his hand shook so that he could hardly read. The note was from the Parsonage, to Ellinor; only three lines sent by Mr. Ness’s servant, who had come to fetch Mr. Corbet’s things. He had written three lines with some consideration for Ellinor, even when he was in his first flush of anger against her father, and it must be confessed of relief at his own freedom, thus brought about by the act of another, and not of his own working out, which partly saved his conscience. The note ran thus:
“DEAR ELLINOR — Words have passed between your father and me which have obliged me to leave his house, I fear, never to return to it. I will write more fully tomorrow. But do not grieve too much, for I am not, and never have been, good enough for you. God bless you, my dearest Nelly, though I call you so for the last time. — R. C.”
“Papa, what is it?” Ellinor cried, clasping her hands together, as her father sat silent, vacantly gazing into the fire, after finishing the note.
“I don’t know!” said he, looking up at her piteously; “it’s the world, I think. Everything goes wrong with me and mine: it went wrong before THAT night — so it can’t be that, can it, Ellinor?”
“Oh, papa!” said she, kneeling down by him, her face hidden on his breast.
He put one arm languidly round her. “I used to read of Orestes and the Furies at Eton when I was a boy, and I thought it was all a heathen fiction. Poor little motherless girl!” said he, laying his other hand on her head, with the caressing gesture he had been accustomed to use when she had been a little child. “Did you love him so very dearly, Nelly?” he whispered, his cheek against her: “for somehow of late he has not seemed to me good enough for thee. He has got an inkling that something has gone wrong, and he was very inquisitive — I may say he questioned me in a relentless kind of way.”
“Oh, papa, it was my doing, I’m afraid. I said something long ago about possible disgrace.”
He pushed her away; he stood up, and looked at her with the eyes dilated, half in fear, half in fierceness, of an animal at bay; he did not heed that his abrupt movement had almost thrown her prostrate on the ground.
“You, Ellinor! You — you —”
“Oh, darling father, listen!” said she, creeping to his knees, and clasping them with her hands. “I said it, as if it were a possible case, of some one else — last August — but he immediately applied it, and asked me if it was over me the disgrace, or shame — I forget the words we used — hung; and what could I say?”
“Anything — anything to put him off the scent. God help me, I am a lost man, betrayed by my child!”
Ellinor let go his knees, and covered her face. Every one stabbed at that poor heart. In a minute or so her father spoke again.
“I don’t mean what I say. I often don’t mean it now. Ellinor, you must forgive me, my child!” He stooped, and lifted her up, and sat down, taking her on his knee, and smoothing her hair off her hot forehead. “Remember, child, how very miserable I am, and have forgiveness for me. He had none, and yet he must have seen I had been drinking.”
“Drinking, papa!” said Ellinor, raising her head, and looking at him with sorrowful surprise.
“Yes. I drink now to try and forget,” said he, blushing and confused.
“Oh, how miserable we are!” cried Ellinor, bursting into tears —“how very miserable! It seems almost as if God had forgotten to comfort us!”
“Hush! hush!” said he. “Your mother said once she did so pray that you might grow up religious; you must be religious, child, because she prayed for it so often. Poor Lettice, how glad I am that you are dead!” Here he began to cry like a child. Ellinor comforted him with kisses rather than words. He pushed her away, after a while, and said, sharply: “How much does he know? I must make sure of that. How much did you tell him, Ellinor?”
“Nothing — nothing, indeed, papa, but what I told you just now!”
“Tell it me again — the exact words!”
“I will, as well as I can; but it was last August. I only said, ‘Was it right for a woman to marry, knowing that disgrace hung over her, and keeping her lover in ignorance of it?’”
“That was all, you are sure?”
“Yes. He immediately applied the case to me — to ourselves.”
“And he never wanted to know what was the nature of the threatened disgrace?”
“Yes, he did.”
“And you told him?”
“No, not a word more. He referred to the subject again today, in the shrubbery; but I told him nothing more. You quite believe me, don’t you, papa?”
He pressed her to him, but did not speak. Then he took the note up again, and read it with as much care and attention as he could collect in his agitated state of mind.
“Nelly,” said he, at length, “he says true; he is not good enough for thee. He shrinks from the thought of the disgrace. Thou must stand alone, and bear the sins of thy father.”
He shook so much as he said this, that Ellinor had to put any suffering of her own on one side, and try to confine her thoughts to the necessity of getting her father immediately up to bed. She sat by him till he went to sleep, and she could leave him, and go to her own room, to forgetfulness and rest, if she could find those priceless blessings.
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:51