"Yes, but she told us of his haunts—haunts that he thought she did not know—a fancy shop, kept by a Mrs. Dench at Bristol, where it seems that he plays the philanthropical lecturer, and probably has been trying to secure a snug berth for himself unknown, as he thought, to Maria; but she pried into his letters, and kept a keen watch upon him. He was to be inquired for there by his Mauleverer name, and, I have little doubt, will be captured."
"He will be committed for trial at the sessions; and, in the meantime, I must see Beauchamp and Dr. Long, and arrange that he should be prosecuted for the forgery, even though he should slip through our fingers at the sessions."
"Oh, could that be?"
"This Clever Woman has managed matters so sweetly, that they might just as well try her as him for obtaining money on false pretences; and the man seems to have been wonderfully sharp in avoiding committing himself. Mrs. Curtis's man of business has been trying all day to get up the case, but he has made out nothing but a few more debts such as that which turned up yesterday; and it is very doubtful how far a case can be made out against him."
"And then we should lose him."
"That is exactly what I wish to avoid. I want to bring up my forces at once, and have him laid hold of at once for the forgery of those letters of Edward's. How long would it take to hear from Ekaterinburg? I suppose Edward could travel as fast as a letter."
Alison fairly sprang to her feet.
"O, Colin, Colin! you do not think that Edward would be here by the next sessions."
"He ought," said Colin. "I hope to induce Dr. Long and Harry to write him such letters as to bring him home at once."
Self-restrained Alison was fairly overcome. She stretched out both hands, pressed Colin's convulsively, then turned away her face, and, bursting into tears, ran out of the room.
"Poor dear Ailie," said Ermine; "she has suffered terribly. Her heart is full of Edward. Oh, I hope he will come."
"He must. He cannot be so senseless as to stay away."
"There is that unfortunate promise to his wife; and I fear that he is become so much estranged from English ways that he will hardly care to set himself straight here, after the pain that the universal suspicion gave him."
"He cannot but care. For the sake of all he must care," vehemently repeated Colin, with the punctilious honour of the nobly-born soldier. "For his child's sake, this would be enough to bring him from his grave. If he refused to return to the investigation, it would be almost enough to make me doubt him."
"I am glad you said almost," said Ermine, trying to smile; but he had absolutely brought tears into her eyes.
"Dear Ermine," he said, gently, "you need not fear my not trusting him to the utmost. I know that he has been too much crushed to revive easily, and that it may not be easy to make him appreciate our hopes from such a distance; but I think such a summons as this must bring him."
"I hope it will," said Ermine. "Otherwise we should not deserve that you should have any more to do with us."
"Ermine, Ermine, do you not know that nothing can make any difference between us?"
Ermine had collected herself while he spoke.
"I know," she said, "that all you are doing makes me thank and bless you—oh! more than I can speak."
He looked wistfully at her, but, tearful as were her eyes, there was a resolution, about her face that impressed upon him that she trusted to his promise of recurring no more within the year to the subject so near his heart; and he could say no more than, "You forgive me, Ermine, you know I trust him as you do."
"I look to your setting him above being only trusted," said Ermine, trying to smile. "Oh! if you knew what this ray of hope is in the dreary darkness that has lasted so long!"
Therewith he was obliged to leave her, and she only saw him for a few minutes in the morning, when he hurried in to take leave, since, if matters went right at the magistrates' bench, he intended to proceed at once to make such representations in person to Mr. Beauchamp and Dr. Long, as might induce them to send an urgent recall to Edward in time for the spring sessions, and for this no time must be lost. Ermine remained then alone with Rose, feeling the day strangely long and lonely, and that, perhaps, its flatness might be a preparation for the extinction of all the brightness that had of late come into her life. Colin had said he would trust as she did, but those words had made her aware that she must trust as he did. If he, with his clear sense and kindly insight into Edward's character, became convinced that his absence proceeded from anything worse than the mere fainthearted indifference that would not wipe off a blot, then Ermine felt that his judgment would carry her own along with it, and that she should lose her undoubting faith in her brother's perfect innocence, and in that case her mind was made up; Colin might say and do what he would, but she would never connect him through herself with deserved disgrace. The parting, after these months of intercourse and increased knowlege of one another, would be infinitely more wretched than the first; but, cost her what it would—her life perhaps—the break should be made rather than let his untainted name be linked with one where dishonour justly rested. But with her constant principle of abstinence from dwelling on contingencies, she strove to turn away her mind, and to exert herself; though this was no easy task, especially on so solitary a day as this, while Alison was in charge at Myrtlewood in Lady Temple's absence, and Rachel Curtis was reported far too ill to leave her room, so that Ermine saw no one all day except her constant little companion; nor was it till towards evening that Alison at length made her appearance, bringing a note which Colin had sent home by Lady Temple.
All had so far gone well. Maria Hatherton had been committed to take her trial at the quarter sessions for the assault upon the children; but, as her own little girl was still living, though in extreme danger, and the Sisters promised to take charge of both for the present, Colonel Keith had thought it only common humanity to offer bail, and this had been accepted. Later in the day Mauleverer himself had been brought down, having been taken up at a grand meeting of his Bristol friends, who had all rallied round him, expressing strong indignation at the accusation, and offering evidence as to character. He denied any knowledge of the name of Maddox, and declared that he was able to prove that his own account of himself as a popular, philanthropical lecturer was perfectly correct; and he professed to be much amazed at the charges brought against him, which could only have arisen from some sudden alarm in the young lady's mind, excited by her friends, whom he had always observed to be prejudiced against him. He appealed strongly against the hardship of being imprisoned on so slight a charge; but, as he could find no one to take his part, he reserved his defence for the quarter sessions, for which he was fully committed. Colin thought, however, that it was so doubtful whether the charges against him could be substantiated, that it was highly necessary to be fully prepared to press the former forgery against him, and had therefore decided upon sleeping at St. Norbert's and going on by an early train to obtain legal advice in London, and then to see Harry Beauchamp. Meantime, Ermine must write to her brother as urgently as possible, backing up Colin's own representations of the necessity of his return.
Ermine read eagerly, but Alison seemed hardly able to command her attention to listen, and scarcely waited for the end of the letter before her own disclosure was made. Francis was sickening with diphtheria; he had been left behind in the morning on account of some outbreak of peevishness, and Alison, soon becoming convinced that temper was not solely in fault, had kept him apart from his brothers, and at last had sent for the doctor, who had at once pronounced it to be the same deadly complaint which had already declared itself in Rachel Curtis. Alison had of course devoted herself to the little boy till his mother's return from St. Norbert's, when she had been obliged to give the first intimation of what the price of the loving little widow's exploit might be. "I don't think she realizes the extent of the illness," said Alison; "say what I would, she would keep on thanking me breathlessly, and only wanting to escape to him. I asked if we should send to let Colin know, and she answered in her dear, unselfish way, 'By no means, it would be safer for him to be out of the way,' and, besides, she knew how much depended on his going."
"She is right," said Ermine; "I am thankful that he is out of reach of trying to take a share in the nursing, it is bad enough to have one in the midst!"
"Yes," said Alison. "Lady Temple cannot be left to bear this grievous trouble alone, and when the Homestead cannot help her. Yet, Ermine, what can be done? Is it safe for you and Rose?"
"Certainly not safe that you should come backwards and forwards," said Ermine. "Rose must not be put in danger; so, dear, dear Ailie, you had better take your things up, and only look in on us now and then at the window."
Alison entirely broke down. "Oh, Ermine, Ermine, since you began to mend, not one night have we been apart!"
"Silly child," said Ermine, straining her quivering voice to be cheerful, "I am strong, and Rose is my best little handmaid."
"I know it is right," said Alison, "I could not keep from my boys, and, indeed, now Colin is gone, I do not think any one at Myrtlewood will have the heart to carry out the treatment. It will almost kill that dear young mother to see it. No, they cannot be left; but oh, Ermine, it is like choosing between you and them."
"Not at all, it is choosing between right and wrong."
"And Ermine, if—if I should be ill, you must not think of coming near me. Rose must not be left alone."
"There is no use in talking of such things," said Ermine, resolutely, "let us think of what must be thought of, not of what is in the only Wise Hands. What has been done about the other children?"
"I have kept them away from the first; I am afraid for none of them but Conrade."
"It would be the wisest way to send them, nurses and all, to Gowanbrae."
"Wise, but cool," said Alison.
"I will settle that," returned Ermine. "Tibbie shall come and invite them, and you must make Lady Temple consent."
The sisters durst not embrace, but gazed at one another, feeling that it might be their last look, their hearts swelling with unspoken prayer, but their features so restrained that neither might unnerve the other. Then it was that Alison, for the first time, felt absolute relief in the knowledge, once so bitter, that she had ceased to be the whole world to her sister. And Ermine, for one moment, felt as if it would be a way out of all troubles and perplexities if the two sisters could die together, and leave little Rose to be moulded by Colin to be all he wished; but she resolutely put aside the future, and roused herself to send a few words in pencil, requesting Tibbie to step in and speak to her.
That worthy personage had fully adopted her, and entering, tall and stately, in her evening black silk and white apron, began by professing her anxiety to be any assistance in her power, saying, "she'd be won'erfu' proud to serve Miss Williams, while her sister was sae thrang waitin' on her young scholar in his sair trouble."
Emmie thanked her, and rejoiced that the Colonel was out of harm's way.
"Deed, aye, ma'am, he's weel awa'. He has sic a wark wi' thae laddies an' their bit bairn o' a mither, I'll no say he'd been easy keepit out o' the thick o' the distress, an' it's may be no surprisin', after a' that's come and gane, that he seeks to take siccan a lift of the concern. I've mony a time heard tell that the auld General, Sir Stephen, was as good as a faither to him, when he was sick an' lonesome, puir lad, in yon far awa' land o' wild beasts an' savages."
"Would it not be what he might like, to take in the children out of the way of infection?"
"'Deed, Miss Ermine," with a significant curtsey, "I'm thinkin' ye ken my maister Colin amaist as weel as I do. He's the true son of his forbears, an' Gowanbrae used to be always open in the auld lord's time, that's his grandfather Foreby, that he owes so much kindness to the General."
Ermine further suggested that it was a pity to wait for a letter from the Colonel, and Tibbie quite agreed. She "liked the nurse as an extraordinar' douce woman, not like the fine English madams that Miss Isabel—that's Mrs. Comyn Menteith—put about her bairns; and as to room, the sergeant and the tailor bodie did not need much, and the masons were only busy in the front parlour."
"Masons?" asked Ermine.
"On, aye? didna ye ken it's for the new room, that is to be built out frae the further parlour, and what they ca' the bay to the drawin'-room, just to mak' the house more conformable like wi' his name and forbears. I never thocht but that ye'd surely seen the plans and a', Miss Ermine, an' if so be it was Maister Colin's pleasure the thing suld be private, I'm real vext to hae said a word; but ye'll may be no let on to him, ma'am, that ye ken onything about it."
"Those down-stairs rooms so silently begun," thought Ermine. "How fixed his intention must be? Oh, how will it end? What would be best for him? And how can I think of myseif, while all, even my Ailie, are in distress and danger?"
Ermine had, however, a good deal to think of, for not only had she Colin's daily letter to answer, but she had Conrade, Leoline, and Hubert with her for several hours every day, and could not help being amused by Rose's ways with them, little grown-up lady as she was compared to them. Luckily girls were such uncommon beings with them as to be rather courted than despised, and Rose, having nothing of the tom-boy, did not forfeit the privileges of her sex. She did not think they compensated for her Colonel's absence, and never durst introduce Violetta to them; but she enjoyed and profited by the contact with childhood, and was a very nice little comforter to Conrade when he was taken with a fit of anxiety for the brother whom he missed every moment.
Quarantine weighed, however, most heavily upon poor Grace Curtis. Rachel had from the first insisted that she should be kept out of her room; and the mother's piteous entreaty always implied that saddest argument, "Why should I be deprived of you both in one day?" So Grace found herself condemned to uselessness almost as complete as Ermine's. She could only answer notes, respond to inquiries, without even venturing far enough from the house to see Ermine, or take out the Temple children for a walk. For indeed, Rachel's state was extremely critical.
The feverish misery that succeeded Lovedy's death had been utterly crushing, the one load of self-accusation had prostrated her, but with a restlessness of agony, that kept her writhing as it were in her wretchedness; and then came the gradual increase of physical suffering, bearing in upon her that she had caught the fatal disorder. To her sense of justice, and her desire to wreak vengeance on herself, the notion might be grateful; but the instinct of self-preservation was far stronger. She could not die. The world here, the world to come, were all too dark, too confused, to enable her to bear such a doom. She saw her peril in her mother's face; in the reiterated visits of the medical man, whom she no longer spurned; in the calling in of the Avoncester physician; in the introduction of a professional nurse, and the strong and agonizing measures to which she had to submit, every time with the sensation that the suffering could not possibly be greater without exceeding the powers of endurance.
Then arose the thought that with weakness she should lose all chance of expressing a wish, and, obtaining pencil and paper, she began to write a charge to her mother and sister to provide for Mary Morris; but in the midst there came over her the remembrance of the papers that she had placed in Mauleverer's hands—the title-deeds of the Burnaby Bargain; an estate that perhaps ought to be bringing in as much as half the rental of the property. It must be made good to the poor. If the title-deeds had been sold to any one who could claim the property, what would be the consequence? She felt herself in a mist of ignorance and perplexity; dreading the consequences, yet feeling as if her own removal might leave her fortune free to make up for them. She tried to scrawl an explanation; but mind and fingers were alike unequal to the task, and she desisted just as fresh torture began at the doctor's hands—torture from which they sent her mother away, and that left her exhausted, and despairing of holding out through a repetition.
And then—and then! "Tell me of my Saviour," the dying child had said; and the drawn face had lightened at the words to which Rachel's oracles declared that people attached crude or arbitrary meanings; and now she hardly knew what they conveyed to her, and longed, as for something far away, for the reality of those simple teachings—once realities, now all by rote! Saved by faith! What was faith? Could all depend on a last sensation? And as to her life. Failure, failure through headstrong blindness and self-will, resulting in the agony of the innocent. Was this ground of hope? She tried to think of progress and purification beyond the grave; but this was the most speculative, insecure fabric of all. There was no habit of trust to it—no inward conviction, no outward testimony. And even when the extreme danger subsided, and Francis Temple was known to be better, Rachel found that her sorrow was not yet ended: for Conrade had been brought home with the symptoms of the complaint—Conrade, the most beloved and loving of Fanny's little ones, the only one who really remembered his father, was in exceeding, almost hopeless peril, watched day and night by his mother and Miss Williams.
The little Alice, Maria Hatherton's own child, had lingered and struggled long, but all the care and kindness of the good Sisters at St. Norbert's had been unavailing, she had sunk at last, and the mother remained in a dull, silent, tearless misery, quietly doing all that was required of her, but never speaking nor giving the ladies any opening to try to make an impression upon her.
Rachel gleaned more intelligence than her mother meant her to obtain, and brooded over it in her weakness and her silence.
Recovery is often more trying than illness, and Rachel suffered greatly. Indeed, she was not sure that she ought to have recovered at all, and perhaps the shock to her nerves and spirits was more serious than the effect of the sharp passing disorder, which had, however, so much weakened her that she succumbed entirely to the blow. "Accountable for all," the words still rang in her ears, and the all for which she was accountable continually magnified itself. She had tied a dreadful knot, which Fanny, meek contemned Fanny had cut, but at the cost of grievous suffering and danger to her boys, and too late to prevent that death which continually haunted Rachel; those looks of convulsive agony came before her in all her waking and sleeping intervals. Nothing put them aside, occupation in her weakness only bewildered and distracted her, and even though she was advancing daily towards convalescence, leaving her room, and being again restored to her sister, she still continued listless, dejected, cast down, and unable to turn her mind from this one dreary contemplation. Of Fanny and her sons it was hardly possible to think, and one of the strange perturbations of the mind in illness caused her to dwell far less on them than on the minor misery of the fate of the title-deeds of the Burnaby Bargain, which she had put into Mauleverer's hand. She fancied their falling into the hands of some speculator, who, if he did not break the mother's heart by putting up a gasometer, would certainly wring it by building hideous cottages, or desirable marine residences. The value would be enhanced so as to be equal to more than half that of the Homestead, the poor would have been cheated of it, and what compensation could be made? Give up all her own share? Nay, she had nothing absolutely her own while her mother lived, only L5,000 was settled on her if she married, and she tortured herself with devising plans that she knew to be impracticable, of stripping herself, and going forth to suffer the poverty she merited. Yes, but how would she have lived? Not like the Williamses! She had tried teaching like the one, and writing like the other, but had failed in both. The Clever Woman had no marketable or available talent. She knew very well that nothing would induce her mother and sister to let her despoil herself, but to have injured them would be even more intolerable; and more than all was the sickening uncertainty, whether any harm had been done, or what would be its extent.
Ignorant of such subjects at the best, her brain was devoid of force even to reason out her own conjectures, or to decide what must be impossible. She felt compelled to keep all to herself; to alarm her mother was out of the question, when Mrs. Curtis was distressed and shaken enough already, and to have told Grace would only have brought her soothing promises of sharing the burthen—exactly what she did not want—and would have led to the fact being known to the family man of business, Mr. Cox, the very last person to whom Rachel wished to confess the proceeding. It was not so much the humiliation of owning to him such a fatal act of piracy upon his province, as because she believed him to have been the cause that the poor had all this time been cheated of the full value of the estate. He had complacently consulted the welfare of the Curtis family, by charging them with the rent of the fields as ordinary grass land, and it had never dawned on him that it would be only just to increase the rent. Rachel had found him an antagonist to every scheme she had hatched, ever since she was fifteen years old, her mother obeyed him with implicit faith, and it was certain that if the question were once in his hands, he would regard it as his duty to save the Curtis funds, and let the charity sink or swim. And he was the only person out of the house whom Rachel had seen.
As soon as—or rather before—she could bear it, the first day that her presence was supposed not to be perilous to others, she was obliged to have an interview with him, to enable him to prepare the case for the quarter sessions. Nothing could be much worse for her nerves and spirits, but even the mother was absolutely convinced of the necessity, and Rachel was forced to tax her enfeebled powers to enable her to give accurate details of her relations with Mauleverer, and enable him to judge of the form of the indictment. Once or twice she almost sunk back from the exceeding distastefulness of the task, but she found herself urged on, and when she even asked what would happen if she were not well enough to appear, she was gravely told that she must be—it would be very serious if she did not make a great effort, and even her mother shook her head, looked unhappy, but confirmed the admonition. A little revenge or hatred would have been a great help to her, but she could not feel them as impulses. If it had been the woman, she could have gladly aided in visiting such cruelty upon her, but this had not been directly chargeable upon Mauleverer; and though Rachel felt acutely that he had bitterly abused her confidence, she drooped too much to feel the spirit of retort. The notion of being confronted with him before all the world at Avoncester, and being made to bring about his punishment, was simply dreadful to her, but when she murmured some word of this to her mother, Mrs. Curtis fairly started, and said quite fiercely, "My dear, don't let me hear you say any such thing. He is a very wicked man, and you ought to be glad to have him punished!"
She really spoke as if she had been rebuking some infringement of decorum, and Rachel was quite startled. She asked Grace why the mother was so bent on making her vindictive, but Grace only answered that every one must be very much shocked, and turned away the subject.
Prudent Grace! Her whole soul was in a tumult of wrath and shame at what she knew to be the county gossip, but she was aware that Rachel's total ignorance of it was the only chance of her so comporting herself in court as to silence the rumour, and she and her mother were resolutely discreet.
Mrs. Curtis, between nursing, anxiety, and worry, looked lamentably knocked up, and at last Grace and Rachel prevailed on her to take a drive, leaving Rachel on a sofa in her sitting-room, to what was no small luxury to her just at present—that of being miserable alone—without meeting any one's anxious eyes, or knowing that her listlessness was wounding the mother's heart. Yet the privilege only resulted in a fresh perturbation about the title-deeds, and longing to consult some one who could advise and sympathize. Ermine Williams would have understood and made her Colonel give help, but Ermine seemed as unattainable as Nova Zembla, and she only heard that the Colonel was absent. Her head as aching with the weary load of doubt, and she tried to cheat her woe by a restless movement to the windows. She saw Captain Keith riding to the door. It suddenly darted into her mind that here was one who could and would help her. He could see Mauleverer and ascertain what had become of the deeds; he could guess at the amount of danger! She could not forget his kindness on the night of Lovedy's illness, or the gentleness of his manner about the woodcuts, and with a sudden impulse she rang the bell and desired that Captain Keith might be shown in. She was still standing leaning on the table when he entered.
"This is very good in you," he said; "I met your mother and sister on my way up, and they asked me to leave word of Conrade being better, but they did not tell me I should see you."
"Conrade is better?" said Rachel, sitting down, unable to stand longer.
"Yes, his throat is better. Miss Williams's firmness saved him. They think him quite out of danger."
"Thank Heaven! Oh, I could never have seen his mother again! Oh, she has been the heroine!"
"In the truest sense of the word," he answered. And Rachel looked up with one moment's brightening at the old allusion, but her oppression was too great for cheerfulness, and she answered—
"Dear Fanny, yes, she will be a rebuke to me for ever! But," she added, before he had time to inquire for her health, "I wanted—I wanted to beg you to do me a service. You were so kind the other night."
His reply was to lean earnestly forward, awaiting her words, and she told him briefly of her grievous perplexity about the title-deeds.
"Then," he said, "you would wish for me to see the man and ascertain how he has disposed of them."
"I should be most grateful!"
"I will do my utmost. Perhaps I may not succeed immediately, as I believe visitors are not admitted every day, and he is said to be busy preparing his defence, but I will try, and let you know."
"Thanks, thanks! The doubt is terrible, for I know worry about it would distract my mother."
"I do not imagine," he said, "that much worse consequences than worry could ensue. But there are none more trying."
"Oh not none!"
"Do not let worry about this increase other ills," he said, kindly, "do not think about this again till you hear from me."
"Is that possible?"
"I should not have thought so, if I had not watched my uncle cast off troubles about his eye-sight and the keeping his living."
"Ah! but those were not of his own making."
"'There is a sparkle even in the darkest water.' That was a saying of his," said Alick, looking anxiously at her pale cheek and down-cast eye.
"Not when they are turbid."
"They will clear," he said, and smiled with a look of encouraging hope that again cheered her in spite of herself. "Meantime remember that in any way I can help you, it will be the greatest favour—" he checked himself as he observed the exceeding languor and lassitude apparent in her whole person, and only said, "My sister is too much at the bottom of it for me not to feel it the greatest kindness to me to let me try to be of the slightest use. I believe I had better go now," as he rose and looked at her wistfully; "you are too much tired to talk."
"I believe I am," she said, almost reluctantly, "but thank you, this has done me good."
"And you are really getting better?"
"Yes, I believe so. Perhaps I may feel it when this terrible day is over."
What a comfort it would be, she said to herself, when he was gone, if we had but a near relation like him, who would act for the mother, instead of our being delivered up, bound hand and foot, to Mr. Cox. It would have been refreshing to have kept him now, if I could have done it without talking; it really seemed to keep the horrible thoughts in abeyance, to hear that wonderfully gentle tone! And how kind and soft the look was! I do feel stronger for it! Will it really be better after next week? Alas! that will have undone nothing.
Yet even this perception of a possibility of hope that there would be relief after the ordeal, was new to Rachel; and it soon gave way to that trying feature of illness, the insurmountable dread of the mere physical fatigue. The Dean of Avoncester, a kind old friend of Mrs. Curtis, had insisted on the mother and daughters coming to sleep at the Deanery, on the Tuesday night, and remaining till the day after the trial; but Rachel's imagination was not even as yet equal to the endurance of the long drive, far less of the formality of a visit. Lady Temple was likewise asked to the Deanery, but Conrade was still too ill for her to think of leaving him for more than the few needful hours of the trial; nor had Alison been able to do more than pay an occasional visit at her sister's window to exchange reports, and so absorbed was she in her boys and their mother, that it was quite an effort of recollection to keep up to Ermine's accounts of Colonel Keith's doings.
It was on the Monday afternoon, the first time she had ventured into the room, taking advantage of Rose having condescended to go out with the Temple nursery establishment, when she found Ermine's transparent face all alive with expectation. "He may come any time now," she said; "his coming to-day or to-morrow was to depend on his getting his business done on Saturday or not."
And in a few minutes' time the well-known knock was heard, and Ermine, with a look half arch half gay, surprised her sister by rising with the aid of the arm of her chair, and adjusting a crutch that had been leaning against it.
"Why Ermine! you could not bear the jarring of that crutch—"
"Five or six years ago, Ailie, when I was a much poorer creature," then as the door opened, "I would make you a curtsey, Colonel Keith, but I am afraid I can't quite do that," though still she moved nearer to meet him, but perhaps there was a look of helplessness which made her exultation piteous, for he responded with an exclamation of alarm, put out his arm to support her, and did not relax a frown of anxiety till he had placed her safe in her chair again, while she laughed perhaps a little less freely, and said, "See what it is to have had to shift for oneself!"
"You met me with your eyes the first time, Ermine, and I never missed anything."
"Well, I think it is hard not to have been more congratulated on my great achievement! I thought I should have had at least as much credit as Widdrington, my favourite hero and model."
"When you have an arm to support you it may be all very well, and I shall never stand it without." Then, as Ermine subsided, unprepared with a reply, "Well, Ailie, how are your boys?"
"Both much better, Francis nearly well."
"You have had a terrible time! And their mother?"
"Dearer and sweeter than ever," said Alison, with her voice trembling; "no one who has not seen her now can guess half what she is!"
"I hope she has not missed me. If this matter had not been so pressing, I could not have stayed away."
"The one message she always gave me was, that you were not to think of coming home; and, indeed, those dear boys were so good, that we managed very well without you."
"Yes, I had faith in your discipline, and I think that matters are in train against Edward comes. Of course there is no letter, or you would have told me."
"He will be coming himself," said Ermine, resolved against again expressing a doubt; while Alison added that he hated letter-writing.
"Nothing could be more satisfactory than Beauchamp's letter," added Colin. "He was so thoroughly convinced, that he immediately began to believe that he had trusted Edward all along, and had only been overruled."
"I dare say," said Ermine, laughing; "I can quite fancy honest Harry completely persuaded that he was Edward's champion, while Maddox was turning him round his finger."
"And such is his good faith, that I hope he will make Edward believe the same! I told you of his sending his love to you, and of his hopes that you would some day come and see the old place. He made his wife quite cordial."
Alison did not feel herself obliged to accept the message, and Ermine could freely say, "Poor Harry! I should like to see him again! He would be exactly the same, I dare say. And how does the old place look?"
"Just what I do not want you to see. They have found out that the Rectory is unhealthy, and stuck up a new bald house on the top of the hill; and the Hall is new furnished in colours that set one's teeth on edge. Nothing is like itself but Harry, and he only when you get him off duty—without his wife! I was glad to get away to Belfast."
"And there, judging from Julia's letter, they must have nearly devoured you."
"They were very hospitable. Your sister is not so very unlike you, Ermine?"
"Oh, Colin!" exclaimed Alison, with an indignation of which she became ashamed, and added, by way of making it better, "Perhaps not so very."
"She was very gracious to me," said Colin, smiling, "and we had much pleasant talk of you."
"Yes," said Ermine, "it will be a great pleasure to poor Julia to be allowed to take us up again, and you thought the doctor sufficiently convinced."
"More satisfactorily so than Harry, for he reasoned out the matter, and seems to me to have gone more by his impression that a man could not be so imprudent as Edward in good faith than by Maddox's representation."
"That is true," said Alison, "he held out till Edward refused to come home, and then nothing would make him listen to a word on his behalf."
"And it will be so again," thought Ermine, with a throb at her heart. Then she asked, "Did you see whether there was a letter for you at home?"
"Yes, I looked in, and found only this, which I have only glanced at, from Bessie."
"Yes, they come home immediately after Easter. 'Your brother is resolved I should be presented, and submit to the whole season in style; after which he says I may judge for myself.' What people will do for pretty young wives! Poor Mary's most brilliant season was a winter at Edinburgh; and it must be his doing more than hers, for she goes on: 'Is it not very hard to be precluded all this time from playing the chieftainess in the halls of my forefathers? I shall have to run down to your Gowanbrae to refresh myself, and see what you are all about, for I cannot get the fragment of a letter from Alick; and I met an Avoncestrian the other day, who told me that the whole county was in a state of excitement about the F. U. etc.; that every one believed that the fascinating landscape-painter was on the high road to winning one of the joint-heiresses; but that Lady Temple—the most incredible part of the story—had blown up the whole affair, made her way into the penetralia of the asylum, and rescued two female 'prentices, so nearly whipped to death that it took an infinitesimal quantity of Rachel's homoeopathy to demolish one entirely, and that the virtuous public was highly indignant that there was no inquest nor trial for manslaughter; but that it was certain that Rachel had been extremely ill ever since. Poor Rachel, there must be some grain of truth in all this, but one would like to be able to contradict it. I wrote to ask Alick the rights of the story, but he has not vouchsafed me a line of reply; and I should take it as very kind in you to let me know whether he is in the land of the living or gone to Edinburgh—as I hear is to be the lot of the Highlanders—or pining for the uncroquetable lawn, to which I always told him he had an eye.'"
"She may think herself lucky he has not answered," said Ermine; "he has always been rather unreasonably angry with her for making the introduction."
"That is the reason he has not," added Alison, "for he is certainly not far off. He has been over almost every day to inquire, and played German tactics all Saturday afternoon with Francis to our great relief. But I have stayed away long enough."
"I will walk back with you, Ailie. I must see the good little heroine of the most incredible part of the story."
Lady Temple looked a good deal paler than when he had last seen her, and her eyelids still showed that they had long arrears of sleep to make up; but she came down with outstretched hands and a sunny smile. "They are so much better, and I am so glad you were not at home in the worst of it."
"And I am sorry to have deserted you."
"Oh, no, no, it was much better that you should be away. We should all have wanted you, and that would have been dangerous, and dear, dear Miss Williams did all that could be done. Do you know, it taught me that you were right when you told me I ought never to rest till the boys learnt to obey, for obedience' sake, at a word. It showed what a bad mother I am, for I am sure if dear Conrade had been like what he was last year, even she could not have saved him," said Fanny, her eyes full of tears.
Then came her details, to which he listened, as ever, like the brotherly friend he was, and there was a good deal said about restoring the little ones, who were still at Gowanbrae, to which he would by no means as yet consent, though Fanny owned herself to have time now to pine for her Stephana, and to "hear how dismal it is to have a silent nursery."
"Yes, it has been a fearful time. We little guessed how much risk you ran when you went to the rescue."
"Dear Con, when he thought—when we thought he could not get better, said I was not to mind that, and I don't," said Fanny. "I thought it was right, and though I did not know this would come of it, yet you see God has been very merciful, and brought both of my boys out of this dreadful illness, and I dare say it will do them good all their lives now it is over. I am sure it will to me, for I shall always be more thankful."
"Everything does you good," he said.
"And another thing," she added, eagerly, "it has made me know that dear Miss Williams so much better. She was so good, so wonderfully good, to come away from her sister to us. I thought she was quite gone the first day, and that I was alone with my poor Francie, and presently there she was by my side, giving me strength and hope by her very look. I want to have her for good, I want to make her my sister! She would teach the boys still, for nobody else could make them good, but if ever her sister could spare her, she must never go away again."
"You had better see what she says," replied the Colonel, with suppressed emotion.
That night, when Conrade and Francis were both fast asleep, their mother and their governess sat over the fire together, languid but happy, and told out their hearts to one another—told out more than Alison had ever put into words even to Ermine, for her heart was softer and more unreserved now than ever it had been since her sister's accident had crushed her youth. There was thenceforth a bond between her and Lady Temple that gave the young widow the strong-hearted, sympathizing, sisterly friend she had looked for in Rachel, and that filled up those yearnings of the affection that had at first made Alison feel that Colin's return made the world dreary to her. Her life had a purpose, though that purpose was not Ermine! But where were Edward and his letter?
CHAPTER XXI. THE QUARTER SESSIONS.
"Is it so nominated in the bond?"—Merchant of Venice.
Malgre her disinclination, Rachel had reached the point of recovery in which the fresh air and change of scene of the drive to Avoncester could not fail to act as restoratives, and the first evening with the Dean and his gentle old sister was refreshing and comfortable to her spirits.
It was in the afternoon of the ensuing day that Mr. Grey came to tell her that her presence would soon be required, and both her mother and sister drove to the court with her. Poor Mrs. Curtis, too anxious to go away, yet too nervous to go into court, chose, in spite of all Mr. Grey's advice, to remain in the carriage with the blinds closed, far too miserable for Grace to leave her.
Rachel, though very white, called up a heroic smile, and declared that she should get on very well. Her spirit had risen to the occasion, so as to brace her nerves to go becomingly through what was inevitable; and she replied with a ready "yes," to Mr. Grey's repetition of the advice for ever dinned into her ears, not to say a word more than needful, feeling indeed little disposed to utter anything that she could avoid.
She emerged from the dark passage into full view of faces which were far more familiar than she could have wished. She would have greatly preferred appearing before a judge, robed, wigged, and a stranger, to coming thus before a country gentleman, slightly known to herself, but an old friend of her father, and looking only like his ordinary self.
All the world indeed was curious to see the encounter between Rachel Curtis and her impostor, and every one who had contributed so much as a dozen stamps to the F. U. E. E. felt as if under a personal wrong and grievance, while many hoped to detect other elements of excitement, so that though all did not overtly stare at the witness, not even the most considerate could resist the impulse to glance at her reception of the bow with which he greeted her entrance.
She bent her head instinctively, but there was no change of colour on her cheek. Her faculties were concentrated, and her resolute will had closed all avenues to sensations that might impair her powers; she would not give way either to shame and remorse for herself, or to pity or indignation against the prisoner; she would attend only to the accuracy of the testimony that was required of her as an expiation of her credulous incaution; but such was the tension of her nerves, that, impassive as she looked, she heard every cough, every rustle of paper; each voice that addressed her seemed to cut her ears like a knife; and the chair that was given to her after the administration of the oath was indeed much needed.
She was examined upon her arrangement that the prisoner should provide for the asylum at St. Herbert's, and on her monthly payment to him of the sums entered in the account-book. In some cases she knew he had shown her the bills unreceipted; in others, he had simply made the charge in the book, and she had given to him the amount that he estimated as requisite for the materials for wood-engraving. So far she felt satisfied that she was making herself distinctly understood, but the prisoner, acting as his own counsel, now turned to her and asked the question she had expected and was prepared for, whether she could refer to any written agreement.
"No; it was a viva voce agreement."
Could she mention what passed at the time of making the arrangement that she had stated as existing between himself and her?
"I described my plans, and you consented."
An answer at which some of the audience could have smiled, so well did it accord with her habits. The prisoner again insisted on her defining the mode of his becoming bound to the agreement. Rachel took time for consideration, and Alison Williams, sitting between Lady Temple and Colonel Keith, felt dizzy with anxiety for the answer. It came at last.
"I do not remember the exact words; but you acquiesced in the appearance of your name as secretary and treasurer."
The prospectus was here brought forward, and Mauleverer asked her to define the duties he had been supposed to undertake in the character in which he had there figured. It of course came out that she had been her own treasurer, only entrusting the nominal one with the amount required for current expenses, and again, in reply to his deferential questions, she was obliged to acknowledge that he had never in so many words declared the sums entered in the book to have been actually paid, and not merely estimates for monthly expenditure to be paid to the tradesmen at the usual seasons.
"I understood that they were paid," said Rachel, with some resentment.
"Will you oblige me by mentioning on what that understanding was founded?" said the prisoner, blandly.
There was a pause. Rachel knew she must say something; but memory utterly failed to recall any definite assurance that these debts had been discharged. Time passed, all eyes were upon her, there was a dire necessity of reply, and though perfectly conscious of the weakness and folly of her utterance, she could only falter forth, "I thought so." The being the Clever Woman of the family, only rendered her the more sensible both of the utter futility of her answer, and of the effect it must be producing.
Alison hung her head, and frowned in absolute shame and despair, already perceiving how matters must go, and feeling as if the hope of her brother's vindication were slipping away—reft from her by Rachel's folly. Colin gave an indignant sigh, and whispering to her, "Come out when Lady Temple does, I will meet you," he made his way out of court.
There had been a moment's pause after Rachel's "I thought so," and then the chairman spoke to the counsel for the prosecution. "Mr. Murray, can you carry the case any further by other witnesses? At present I see no case to go to the jury. You will see that the witness not only does not set up any case of embezzlement, but rather loads to an inference in the contrary direction."
"No, sir," was the answer; "I am afraid that I can add nothing to the case already presented to you."
Upon this, the chairman said,
"Gentlemen of the Jury,—The case for the prosecution does not sustain the indictment or require me to call on the prisoner for his defence, and it is your duty to find him not guilty. You will observe that we are not trying a civil action, in respect of the large sum which he has received from the young lady, and for which he is still accountable to her; nor by acquitting him are you pronouncing that he has not shown himself a man of very questionable honesty, but only that the evidence will not bring him within the grasp of the criminal law, as guilty of embezzlement under the statute, and this because of the looseness of the arrange ments, that had been implied instead of expressed. It is exceedingly to be regretted that with the best intentions and kindest purposes, want of caution and experience on her part should have enabled the prisoner thus to secure himself from the possibility of a conviction; but there can be no doubt that the evidence before us is such as to leave no alternative but a verdict of not guilty."
The very tenderness and consideration of the grey-haired Sir Edward Morden's tone were more crushing to Rachel than severe animadversions on her folly would have been from a stranger. Here was she, the Clever Woman of the family, shown in open court to have been so egregious a dupe that the deceiver could not even be punished, but must go scot-free, leaving all her wrongs unredressed! To her excited, morbid apprehension, magnified by past self-sufficiency, it was as though all eyes were looking in triumph at that object of general scorn and aversion, a woman who had stepped out of her place. She turned with a longing to rush into darkness and retirement when she was called to return to her mother, and even had she still been present, little would she have recked that when the jury had, without many moments' delay, returned a verdict of "Not Guilty," the prisoner received a strong, stem reprimand from Sir Edward, to whom he replied with a bow that had in it more of triumph than of acceptance.
Burning tears of disappointment were upon Alison's cheek, the old hopeless blank was returning, and her brother might come back in vain, to find his enemy beyond his reach. Here was an end alike of his restoration and of Ermine's happiness!
"Oh!" whispered Lady Temple, "is it not horrid? Is nothing to be done to that dreadful man? I always thought people came here to do justice. I shall never like Sir Edward Morden again! But, oh! what can that be? Where is the Colonel?"
It was a loud, frightful roar and yell, a sound of concentrated fury that, once heard, could never be forgotten. It was from the crowd outside, many of them from Avonmouth, and all frantic with indignation at the cruelty that had been perpetrated upon the helpless children. Their groans and execrations were pursuing the prison van, from which Maria Hatherton was at that moment making her exit, and so fearful was the outcry that penetrated the court, that Fanny trembled with recollections of Indian horrors, looked wistfully for her protector the Colonel, and murmured fears that her aunt must have been very much terrified.
At that moment, however, a summons came for Lady Temple, as this was the case in which she was to bear witness. Alison followed, and was no sooner past the spectators, who gladly made way, than she found her arm drawn into Colonel Keith's. "Is he come?" she asked. "No," was rather signed than spoken. "Oh, Colin!" she sighed, but still there was no reply, only she was dragged on, downstairs and along dark passages, into a room furnished with a table, chairs, pens, ink, and paper, and lighted with gas, which revealed to her not only Mr. Grey, but one who, though eight years had made him stouter, redder, and rougher, had one of the moat familiar faces of her youthful days. Her senses almost reeled with her as he held out his hand, saying heartily, "Well, Ailie, how are you? and how is Ermine? Where can this brother of yours be?"
"Harry! Mr. Beauchamp! You here!" she exclaimed, in the extremity of amazement.
"Here is Colin seeming to think that something may be done towards nailing this scoundrel for the present, so I am come at his call. We shall have the fellow in a moment." And then, by way of getting rid of embarrassment, he began talking to Mr. Grey about the County Hall, and the room, which Mr. Grey explained to be that of the clerk of the peace, lent for this occasion while the usual justice room was occupied, Alison heard all as in a dream, and presently Mauleverer entered, as usual spruce, artist-like, and self-possessed, and was accosted by Harry Beauchamp, "Good evening, Mr. Maddox, I am sorry to trouble you."
"I hope there is no misunderstanding, sir," was the reply. "I have not the pleasure of knowing for whom you take me."
Without regarding this reply, however, Mr. Beauchamp requested Mr. Grey to take his deposition, stating his own belief in the identity of the person before him with Richard Maddox, whom he charged with having delivered to him a letter falsely purporting to come from Edward Williams, demanding three hundred pounds, which upon this he had delivered to the accused, to be forwarded to the said Mr. Williams.
Alison's heart beat violently at the ordeal before her of speaking to the genuineness of the letter. She had seen and suspected that to her brother-in-law, but she could not guess whether the flaws in that to Mr. Beauchamp would be equally palpable, and doubt and anxiety made her scarcely able to look at it steadily. To her great relief, however, she was able to detect sufficient variations to justify her assertion that it was not authentic, and she was able to confirm her statement by comparison of the writing with that of a short, indignant denial of all knowledge of the transaction, which Harry Beauchamp had happily preserved, though little regarding it at the time. She also showed the wrong direction, with the name of the place misspelt, according to her own copy of her sister-in-law's address, at the request of Maddox himself, and pointed out that a letter to Ermine from her brother bore the right form. The seal upon that to Mr. Beauchamp she likewise asserted to be the impression of one which her brother had lost more than a year before the date of the letter.
"Indeed, sir," said the accused, fuming to Mr. Grey, "this is an exceedingly hard case. Here am I, newly acquitted, after nearly six weeks' imprisonment, on so frivolous a charge that it has been dismissed without my even having occasion to defend myself, or to call my own most respectable witnesses as to character, when another charge is brought forward against me in a name that there has been an unaccountable desire to impose on me. Even if I were the person that this gentleman supposes, there is nothing proved. He may very possibly have received a forged letter, but I perceive nothing to fix the charge upon the party he calls Maddox. Let me call in my own witnesses, who had volunteered to come down from Bristol, and you will be convinced how completely mistaken the gentleman is."
To this Mr. Grey replied that the case against him was not yet closed, and cautioning him to keep his own witnesses back; but he was urgent to be allowed to call them at once, as it was already late, and they were to go by the six o'clock train. Mr. Grey consented, and a messenger was sent in search of them. Mr. Beauchamp looked disturbed. "What say you to this, Colin?" he asked, uneasily. "That man's audacity is enough to stagger one, and I only saw him three times at the utmost."
"Never fear," said Colin, "delay is all in our favour." At the same time Colin left them, and with him went some hope and confidence, leaving all to feel awkward and distressed during the delay that ensued, the accused expatiating all the time on the unreasonableness of bringing up an offence committed so many years ago, in the absence of the only witness who could prove the whole story, insisting, moreover, on his entire ignorance of the names of either Maddox or Williams.
The sight of his witnesses was almost welcome. They were a dissenting minister, and a neat, portly, respectable widow, the owner of a fancy shop, and both knew Mr. Mauleverer as a popular lecturer upon philanthropical subjects, who came periodically to Bristol, and made himself very acceptable. Their faith in him was genuine, and he had even interested them in the F. U. E. E. and the ladies that patronized it. The widow was tearfully indignant about the persecution that had been got up against him, and evidently intended to return with him in triumph, and endow him with the fancy shop if he would condescend so far. The minister too, spoke highly of his gifts and graces, but neither of them could carry back their testimony to his character for more than three years.
Mr. Grey looked at his watch, Harry Beauchamp was restless, and Alison felt almost faint with suspense; but at last the tramp of feet was heard in the passage. Colonel Keith came first, and leaning over Alison's chair, said, "Lady Temple will wait for me at the inn. It will soon be all right."
At that moment a tall figure in mourning entered, attended by a policeman. For the first time, Mauleverer's coolness gave way, though not his readiness, and, turning to Mr. Grey, he exclaimed, "Sir, you do not intend to be misled by the malignity of a person of this description."
"Worse than a murderess!" gasped the scandalized widow Dench. "Well, I never!"
Mr. Grey was obliged to be peremptory, in order to obtain silence, and enforce that, let the new witness be what she might, her evidence must be heard.
She had come in with the habitual village curtsey to Mr. Beauchamp, and putting back her veil, disclosed to Alison the piteous sight of the well-remembered features, once so bright with intelligence and innocence, and now sunk and haggard with the worst sorrows of womanhood. Her large glittering eyes did not seem to recognise Alison, but they glared upon Mauleverer with a strange terrible fixedness, as if unable to see any one else. To Alison the sight was inexpressibly painful, and she shrank back, as it were, in dread of meeting the eyes once so responsive to her own.
Mr. Grey asked the woman the name of the person before her, and looking at him with the same fearful steadiness, she pronounced it to be Richard Maddox, though he had of late called himself Mauleverer.
The man quailed for a moment, then collecting himself, said, "I now understand the incredible ingratitude and malignity that have pointed out against me these hitherto unaccountable slanders. It is a punishment for insufficient inquiry into character. But you, sir, in common justice, will protect me from the aspersions of one who wishes to drag me down in her justly merited fall."
"Sentenced for three years! To take her examination!" muttered Mrs. Dench, and with some difficulty these exclamations were silenced, and Maria Hatherton called on for her evidence.
Concise, but terrible in its clear brevity, was the story of the agent tampering with her, the nursemaid, until she had given him access to the private rooms, where he had turned over the papers. On the following day, Mr. Williams had been inquiring for his seal-ring, but she herself had not seen it again till some months after, when she had left her place, and was living in lodgings provided for her by Maddox, when she had found the ring in the drawer of his desk; her suspicion had then been first excited by his displeasure at her proposing to him to return it, thinking it merely there by accident, and she had afterwards observed him endeavouring to copy fragments of Mr. Williams's writing. These he had crushed up and thrown aside, but she had preserved them, owning that she did not know what might come of them, and the family had been very kind to her.
The seal and the scraps of paper were here produced by the policeman who had them in charge. The seal perfectly coincided with that which had closed the letter to Harry Beauchamp, and was, moreover, identified by both Alison and Colonel Keith. It was noticeable, too, that one of these fragments was the beginning of a note to Mr. Beauchamp, as "Dear H." and this, though not Edward's most usual style of addressing his friend, was repeated in the demand for the L300.
"Sir," said the accused, "of course I have no intention of intimating that a gentleman like the Honourable Colonel Keith has been in any collusion with this unhappy woman, but it must be obvious to you that his wish to exonerate his friend has induced him to give too easy credence to this person's malignant attempts to fasten upon one whom she might have had reason to regard as a benefactor the odium of the transactions that she acknowledges to have taken place between herself and this Maddox, thereto incited, no doubt, by some resemblance which must be strong, since it has likewise deceived Mr. Beauchamp."
Mr. Grey looked perplexed and vexed, and asked Mr. Beauchamp if he could suggest any other person able to identify Maddox. He frowned, said there must have been workmen at the factory, but knew not where they were, looked at Colin Keith, asked Alison if she or her sister had ever seen Maddox, then declared he could lay his hands on no one but Dr. Long at Belfast.
Mauleverer vehemently exclaimed against the injustice of detaining him till a witness could be summoned from that distance. Mr. Grey evidently had his doubts, and began to think of calling in some fresh opinion whether he had sufficient grounds for committal, and Alison's hopes were only unstained by Colin's undaunted looks, when there came a knock at the door, and, as much to the surprise of Alison as of every one else, there entered an elderly maid-servant, leading a little girl by the hand, and Colonel Keith going to meet the latter, said, "Do not be frightened, my dear, you have only to answer a few questions as plainly and clearly as you can."
Awed, silent, and dazzled by the sudden gas-light, she clung to his hand, but evidently distinguished no one else; and he placed her close to the magistrate saying, "This is Mr. Grey, Rose, tell him your name."
And Mr. Grey taking her hand and repeating the question, the clear little silvery voice answered,
"I am Rose Ermine Williams."
"And how old are you, my dear?"
"I was eight on the last of June."
"She knows the nature of an oath?" asked Mr. Grey of the Colonel.
"Certainly, you can soon satisfy yourself of that."
"My dear," then said Mr. Grey, taking her by the hand again, and looking into the brown intelligent eyes, "I am sure you have been well taught. Can you tell me what is meant by taking an oath before a magistrate?"
"Yes," said Rose, colour flushing into her face, "it is calling upon Almighty God to hear one speak the truth." She spoke so low that she could hardly be heard, and she looked full of startled fear and distress, turning her face up to Colonel Keith with a terrified exclamation,
"Oh please, why am I here, what am I to say?"
He was sorry for her; but her manifest want of preparation was all in favour of the cause, and he soothed her by saying, "Only answer just what you are asked as clearly as you can, and Mr. Grey will soon let you go. He knows you would try any way to speak the truth, but as he is going to examine you as a magistrate, he must ask you to take the oath first."
Rose repeated the oath in her innocent tones, and perhaps their solemnity or the fatherly gentleness of Mr. Grey reassured her, for her voice trembled much less when she answered his next inquiry, who her parents were.
"My mother is dead," she said; "my father is Mr Williams, he is away at Ekaterinburg."
"Do you remember any time before he was at Ekaterinburg?"
"Oh yes; when we lived at Kensington, and he had the patent glass works."
"Now, turn round and say if there is any one here whom you know?"
Rose, who had hitherto stood facing Mr. Grey, with her back to the rest of the room, obeyed, and at once exclaimed, "Aunt Alison," then suddenly recoiled, and grasped at the Colonel.
"What is it, my dear?"
"It is—it is Mr. Maddox," and with another gasp of fright, "and Maria! Oh, let me go."
But Mr. Grey put his arm round her, and assured her that no one could harm her, Colonel Keith let his fingers be very hard pinched, and her aunt came nearer, all telling her that she had only to make her answers distinctly; and though still shrinking, she could reply to Mr. Grey's question whom she meant by Mr. Maddox.
"The agent for the glass—my father's agent."
"And who is Maria?"
"She was my nurse."
"When did you last see the person you call Mr. Maddox?"
"Last time, I was sure of it, was when I was walking on the esplanade at Avoncester with Colonel Keith," said Rose, very anxious to turn aside and render her words inaudible.
"I suppose you can hardly tell when that was?"
"Yes, it was the day before you went away to Lord Keith's wedding," said Rose, looking to the Colonel.
"Had you seen him before?"
"Twice when I was out by myself, but it frightened me so that I never looked again."
"Can you give me any guide to the time?"
She was clear that it had been after Colonel Keith's first stay at Avonmouth, but that was all, and being asked if she had ever mentioned these meetings, "Only when Colonel Keith saw how frightened I was, and asked me."
"Why were you frightened?" asked Mr. Grey, on a hint from the Colonel.
"Because I could not quite leave off believing the dreadful things Mr. Maddox and Maria said they would do to me if I told."
"About Mr. Maddox coming and walking with Maria when she was out with me," gasped Rose, trying to avert her head, and not comforted by hearing Mr. Grey repeat her words to those tormentors of her infancy.
A little encouragement, however, brought out the story of the phosphoric letters, the lions, and the vision of Maddox growling in the dressing-room. The date of the apparition could hardly be hoped for, but fortunately Rose remembered that it was two days before her mamma's birthday, because she had felt it so bard to be eaten up before the fete, and this date tallied with that given by Maria of her admitting her treacherous admirer into the private rooms.
"The young lady may be precocious, no doubt, sir," here said the accused, "but I hardly see why she has been brought here. You can attach no weight to the confused recollections of so young a child, of matters that took place so long ago."
"The question will be what weight the jury will attach to them at the assizes," said Mr. Grey.
"You will permit me to make one inquiry of the young lady, sir. Who told her whom she might expect to see here?"
Mr. Grey repeated the query, and Rose answered, "Nobody; I knew my aunt and the Colonel and Lady Temple were gone in to Avoncester, and Aunt Ermine got a note from the Colonel to say that I was to come in to him with Tibbie in a fly."
"Did you know what you were wanted for?"
"No, I could not think. I only knew they came to get the woman punished for being so cruel to the poor little girls."
"Do you know who that person was?"
"Mrs. Rawlins," was the ready answer.
"I think," said Mr. Grey to the accused, "that you must perceive that, with such coincidence of testimony as I have here, I have no alternative but to commit you for the summer assizes."
Mauleverer murmured something about an action for false imprisonment, but he did not make it clear, and he was evidently greatly crestfallen. He had no doubt hoped to brazen out his assumed character sufficiently to disconcert Mr. Beauchamp's faith in his own memory, and though he had carried on the same game after being confronted with Maria, it was already becoming desperate. He had not reckoned upon her deserting his cause even for her own sake, and the last chance of employing her antecedents to discredit her testimony, had been overthrown by Rose's innocent witness to their mutual relations, a remembrance which had been burnt in on her childish memory by the very means taken to secure her silence. When the depositions were read over, their remarkable and independent accordance was most striking; Mrs. Dench had already been led away by the minister, in time to catch her train, just when her sobs of indignation at the deception were growing too demonstrative, and the policeman resumed the charge of Maria Hatherton.
Little Rose looked up to her, saying, "Please, Aunt Ailie, may I speak to her?"
Alison had been sitting restless and perplexed between impulses of pity and repulsion, and doubts about the etiquette of the justice room; but her heart yearned over the girl she had cherished, and she signed permission to Rose, whose timidity had given way amid excitement and encouragement.
"Please, Maria," she said, "don't be angry with me for telling; I never did till Colonel Keith asked me, and I could not help it. Will you kiss me and forgive me as you used?"
The hard fierce eyes, that had not wept over the child's coffin, filled with tears.
"Oh, Miss Rose, Miss Rose, do not come near me. Oh, if I had minded you—and your aunts—" And the pent-up misery of the life that had fallen lower and lower since the first step in evil, found its course in a convulsive sob and shriek, so grievous that Alison was thankful for Colin's promptitude in laying hold of Rose, and leading her out of the room before him. Alison felt obliged to follow, yet could not bear to leave Maria to policemen and prison warders.
"Maria, poor Maria, I am so sorry for you, I will try to come and see you—"
But her hand was seized with an imperative, "Ailie, you must come, they are all waiting for you."
How little had she thought her arm would ever be drawn into that arm, so unheeded by both.
"So that is Edward's little girl! Why, she is the sweetest little clear-headed thing I have seen a long time. She was the saving of us."
"It was well thought of by Colin."
"Colin is a lawyer spoilt—that's a fact. A first-rate get-up of a case!"
"And you think it safe now?"
"Nothing safer, so Edward turns up. How he can keep away from such a child as that, I can't imagine. Where is she? Oh, here—" as they came into the porch in fuller light, where the Colonel and Rose waited for them. "Ha, my little Ailie, I must make better friends with you."
"My name is Rose, not Ailie," replied the little girl.
"Oh, aye! Well, it ought to have been, what d'ye call her—that was a Daniel come to judgment?"
"Portia," returned Rose; "but I don't think that is pretty at all."
"And where is Lady Temple?" anxiously asked Alison. "She must be grieved to be detained so long."
"Oh! Lady Temple is well provided for," said the Colonel, "all the magistrates and half the bar are at her feet. They say the grace and simplicity of her manner of giving her evidence were the greatest contrast to poor Rachel's."
"But where is she?" still persisted Alison.
"At the hotel; Maria's was the last case of the day, and she went away directly after it, with such a choice of escorts that I only just spoke to her."
And at the hotel they found the waggonette at the gateway, and Lady Temple in the parlour with Sir Edward Morden, who, late as it was, would not leave her till he had seen her with the rest of the party. She sprang up to meet them, and was much relieved to hear that Mauleverer was again secured. "Otherwise," she said, "it would have been all my fault for having acted without asking advice. I hope I shall never do so again."
She insisted that all should go home together in the waggonette, and Rose found herself upon Mr. Beauchamp's knee, serving as usual as a safety valve for the feelings of her aunt's admirers. There was no inconstancy on her part, she would much have preferred falling to the lot of her own Colonel, but the open carriage drive was rather a risk for him in the night air, and though he had undertaken it in the excitement, he soon found it requisite to muffle himself up, and speak as little as possible. Harry Beauchamp talked enough for both. He was in high spirits, partly, as Colin suspected, with the escape from a dull formal home, and partly with the undoing of a wrong that had rankled in his conscience more than he had allowed to himself. Lady Temple, her heart light at the convalescence of her sons, was pleased with everything, liked him extremely, and answered gaily; and Alison enjoyed the resumption of pleasant habits of days gone by. Yet, delightful as it all was, there was a sense of disenchantment: she was marvelling all the time how she could have suffered so much on Harry Beauchamp's account. The rejection of him had weighed like a stone upon her heart, but now it seemed like freedom to have escaped his companionship for a lifetime.
Presently a horse's feet were heard on the road before them; there was a meeting and a halt, and Alick Keith's voice called out—"How has it gone?"
"Why, were you not in court?"
"What! I go to hear my friends baited!"
"Where were you then?"
"Oh, then you have seen the boys," cried Lady Temple. "How is Conrade?"
"Quite himself. Up to a prodigious amount of indoor croquet. But how has it gone?"
"Such a shame!" returned Lady Temple. "They acquitted the dreadful man, and the poor woman, whom he drove to it, has a year's imprisonment and hard labour!"
"Acquitted! What, is he off?"
"Oh, no, no! he is safe, and waiting for the Assizes, all owing to the Colonel and little Rose."
"He is committed for the former offence," said Colonel Keith; "the important one."
"That's right! Good night! And how," he added, reining back his horse, "did your cousin get through it?"
"Oh, they were so hard on her!" cried Lady Temple. "I could hardly bring myself to speak to Sir Edward after it! It was as if he thought it all her fault!"
"Her evidence broke down completely," said Colonel Keith. "Sir Edward spared her as much as he could; but the absurdity of her whole conduct was palpable. I hope she has had a lesson."
Alick's impatient horse flew on with him, and Colin muttered to Alison under his mufflers,—"I never could make out whether that is the coolest or the most sensitive fellow living!"
CHAPTER XXII. THE AFTER CLAP
"I have read in the marvellous heart of man, That strange and mystic scroll, That an army of phantoms vast and wan Beleaguer the human soul.
"Encamped beside life's rushing stream, In Fancy's misty light, Gigantic shapes and shadows gleam Portentous through the night." The Beleaguered City, LONGFELLOW.
A dinner party at the Deanery in the sessions week was an institution, but Rachel, lying on the sofa in a cool room, had thought herself exempt from it, and was conscious for the time of but one wish, namely, to be let alone, and to be able to shut her eyes, without finding the lids, as it were, lined with tiers of gazing faces, and curious looks turned on her, and her ears from the echo of the roar of fury that had dreadfully terrified both her and her mother, and she felt herself to have merited! The crush of public censure was not at the moment so overwhelming as the strange morbid effect of having been the focus of those many, many glances, and if she reflected at all, it was with a weary speculating wonder whether one pair of dark grey eyes had been among those levelled at her. She thought that if they had, she could not have missed either their ironical sting, or perchance some kindly gleam of sympathy, such as had sometimes surprised her from under the flaxen lashes.
There she had lain, unmolested and conscious of a certain relief in the exceeding calm; the grey pinnacle of the cathedral, and a few branches of an elm-tree alone meeting her eye through the open window, and the sole sound the cawing of the rooks, whose sailing flight amused and attracted her glance from time to time with dreamy interest. Grace had gone into court to hear Maria Hatherton's trial, and all was still.
The first break was when her mother and Miss Wellwood came in, after having wandered gently together round the warm, walled Deanery garden, comparing notes about their myrtles and geraniums. Then it was that amid all their tender inquiries after her headache, and their administration of afternoon tea, it first broke upon Rachel that they expected her to go down to dinner.
"Pray excuse me," she said imploringly, looking at her mother for support, "indeed, I don't know that I could sit out a dinner! A number of people together make me so dizzy and confused."
"Poor child!" said Miss Wellwood, kindly, but looking to Mrs. Curtis in her turn. "Perhaps, as she has been so ill, the evening might be enough."
"Oh," exclaimed Rachel, "I hope to be in bed before you have finished dinner. Indeed I am not good company for any one."
"Don't say that, my dear," and Miss Wellwood looked puzzled.
"Indeed, my dear," said Mrs. Curtis, evidently distressed, "I think the exertion would be good for you, if you could only think so."
"Yes, indeed," said Miss Wellwood, catching at the notion; "it is your mind that needs the distraction, my dear."
"I am distracted enough already," poor Rachel said, putting her hand up. "Indeed, I do not want to be disobliging," she said, interpreting her mother's anxious gestures to mean that she was wanting in civility; "it is very kind in you, Miss Wellwood, but this has been a very trying day, and I am sure I can give no pleasure to anybody, so if I might only be let off."
"It is not so much—" began Miss Wellwood, getting into a puzzle, and starting afresh. "Indeed, my dear, my brother and I could not bear that you should do anything you did not like, only you see it would never do for you to seem to want to shut yourself up."
"I should think all the world must feel as if I ought to be shut up for life," said Rachel, dejectedly.
"Ah! but that is the very thing. If you do not show yourself it will make such a talk."
Rachel had nearly said, "Let them talk;" but though she felt tormented to death, habitual respect to these two gentle, nervous, elderly women made her try to be courteous, and she said, "Indeed, I cannot much care, provided I don't hear them."
"Ah! but you don't know, my dear," said Mrs. Curtis, seeing her friend looked dismayed at this indifference. "Indeed, dear Miss Wellwood, she does not know; we thought it would be so awkward for her in court."
"Know what?" exclaimed Rachel, sitting upright, and putting down her feet. "What have you been keeping from me?"
"Only—only, my dear, people will say such things, and nobody could think it that knew you."
"What?" demanded Rachel.
"Yes," said Mrs. Curtis, perhaps, since her daughter was to have the shock, rather glad to have a witness to the surprise it caused her: "you know people will gossip, and some one has put it about that—that this horrid man was—"
Mrs. Curtis paused, Miss Wellwood was as pink as her cap strings. Rachel grasped the meaning at last. "Oh!" she said, with less reticence than her elders, "there must needs be a spice of flirtation to give piquancy to the mess of gossip! I don't wonder, there are plenty of people who judge others by themselves, and think that motive must underlie everything! I wonder who imagines that I am fallen so low?"
"There, I knew she would take it in that way," said Mrs. Curtis. "And so you understand us, my dear, we could not bear to ask you to do anything so distressing except for your own sake."
"I am far past caring for my own sake," said Rachel, "but for yours and Grace's, mother, I will give as much ocular demonstration as I can, that I am not pining for this hero with a Norman name. I own I should have thought none of the Dean's friends would have needed to be convinced."
"Oh, no! no! but—" Miss Wellwood made a great confusion of noes, buts, and my dears, and Mrs. Curtis came to the rescue. "After all, my love, one can't so much wonder! You have always been very peculiar, you know, and so clever, and you took up this so eagerly. And then the Greys saw you so unwilling to prosecute. And—and I have always allowed you too much liberty—ever since your poor dear papa was taken—and now it has come upon you, my poor child! Oh, I hope dear Fanny will take warning by me," and off went poor Mrs. Curtis into a fit of sobs.
"Mother—mother! this is worse than anything," exclaimed Rachel in an agony, springing to her feet, and flying after sal volatile, but feeling frightfully helpless without Grace, the manager of all Mrs. Curtis's ailments and troubles. Grace would have let her quietly cry it out. Rachel's remedies and incoherent protestations of all being her own fault only made things worse, and perhaps those ten minutes were the most overwhelming of all the griefs that Rachel had brought on herself. However, what with Miss Wellwood's soothing, and her own sense of the becoming, Mrs. Curtis struggled herself into composure again by the time the maid came to dress them for dinner; Rachel all the while longing for Grace's return, not so much for the sake of hearing the verdict, as of knowing whether the mother ought to be allowed to go down to dinner, so shaken did she look; for indeed, besides her distress for her daughter, no small ingredient in her agitation was this recurrence to a stated custom of her husband's magisterial days.
Persuasion was unavailing. At any cost the Curtis family must present an unassailable front to the public eye, and if Mrs. Curtis had forced forward her much tried and suffering daughter, far more would she persist in devoting herself to gaiety and indifference, but her nervousness was exceeding, and betrayed itself in a continual wearying for Grace, without whom neither her own dress nor Rachel's could be arranged to her satisfaction, and she was absolutely incapable of not worrying Rachel about every fold, every plait, every bow, in a manner that from any one else would have been unbearable; but those tears had frightened Rachel into a penitent submission that endured with an absolute semblance of cheerfulness each of these torments. The languor and exhaustion had been driven away, and feverish excitement had set in, not so much from the spirit of defiance that the two elder ladies had expected to excite, as from the having been goaded into a reckless determination to sustain her part. No matter for the rest.
It often happened in these parties that the ladies would come in from the country in reasonable time, while their lords would be detained much later in court, so when the cathedral clock had given notice of the half-hour, Mrs. Curtis began to pick up fan and handkerchief, and prepare to descend. Rachel suggested there would be no occasion so to do till Grace's return, since it was plain that no one could yet be released.
"Yes, my dear, but perhaps—don't you think it might be remarked as if you chose to keep out of sight?"
"Oh, very well."
Rachel followed her mother down, sustained by one hope, that Captain Keith would be there. No; the Deanery did not greatly patronize the barracks; there was not much chance of any gentleman under forty, except, perhaps, in the evening. And at present the dean himself and one canon were the entire gentleman element among some dozen ladies. Everybody knew that the cause of delay was the trial of the cruel matron, and added to the account of Rachel's iniquities their famished and weary state of expectation, the good Dean gyrating among the groups, trying to make conversation, which every one felt too fretful and too hungry to sustain with spirit. Rachel sat it out, trying to talk whenever she saw her mother's anxious eyes upon her, but failing in finding anything to say, and much doubting whether her neighbours liked talking to her.