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Chapter XIX: A Letter


On Monday evening after dinner Mr. Everard and his son sat for a
while in silence.  They had not met since morning; and in the
presence of the servants conversation had been scrupulously polite.
Now, though they were both waiting to talk, neither liked to begin.
The older man was outwardly placid, when Leonard, a little flushed
and a little nervous of voice, began:
'Have you had any more bills?'  He had expected none, and thus hoped
to begin by scoring against his father.  It was something of a set-
down when the latter, taking some papers from his breast-pocket,
handed them to him, saying:
'Only these!'  Leonard took them in silence and looked at them.  All
were requests for payment of debts due by his son.
In each case the full bill was enclosed.  He was silent a while; but
his father spoke:
'It would almost seem as if all these people had made up their minds
that you were of no further use to them.'  Then without pausing he
said, but in a sharper voice:
'Have you paid the jewellers?  This is Monday!'  Without speaking
Leonard took leisurely from his pocket folded paper.  This he opened,
and, after deliberately smoothing out the folds, handed it to his
father.  Doubtless something in his manner had already convinced the
latter that the debt was paid.  He took the paper in as leisurely a
way as it had been given, adjusted his spectacles, and read it.
Seeing that his son had scored this time, he covered his chagrin with
an appearance of paternal satisfaction.
'Good!'  For many reasons he was glad the debt was paid He was
himself too poor a man to allow the constant drain his son's debts,
and too careful of his position to be willing have such exposure as
would come with a County Court action against his son.  All the same,
his exasperation continued.  Neither was his quiver yet empty.  He
shot his next arrow:
'I am glad you paid off those usurers!'  Leonard did not like the
definite way he spoke.  Still in silence, he took from his pocket a
second paper, which he handed over unfolded.  Mr. Everard read it,
and returned it politely, with again one word:
'Good!'  For a few minutes there was silence.  The father spoke
'Those other debts, have you paid them?'  With a calm deliberation so
full of tacit rudeness that it made his father flush Leonard
'Not yet, sir!  But I shall think of them presently.  I don't care to
be bustled by them; and I don't mean to!'  It was apparent that
though he spoke verbally of his creditors, his meaning was with
regard to others also.
'When will they be paid?'  As his son hesitated, he went on:
'I am alluding to those who have written to me.  I take it that as my
estate is not entailed, and as you have no income except from me, the
credit which has been extended to you has been rather on my account
than your own.  Therefore, as the matter touches my own name, I am
entitled to know something of what is going on.'  His manner as well
as his words was so threatening that Leonard was a little afraid.  He
might imperil his inheritance.  He answered quickly:
'Of course, sir, you shall know everything.  After all, you know, my
affairs are your affairs!'
'I know nothing of the sort.  I may of course be annoyed by your
affairs, even dishonoured, in a way, by them.  But I accept no
responsibility whatever.  As you have made your bed, so must you lie
on it!'
'It's all right, sir, I assure you.  All my debts, both those you
know of and some you don't, I shall settle very shortly.'
'How soon?'  The question was sternly put.
'In a few days.  I dare say a week at furthest will see everything
straightened out.'
The elder man stood, saying gravely as he went to the door:
'You will do well to tell me when the last of them is paid.  There is
something which I shall then want to tell you!'  Without waiting for
reply he went to his study.
Leonard went to his room and made a systematic, though unavailing,
search for Stephen's letter; thinking that by some chance he might
have recovered it from Harold and had overlooked it.
The next few days he passed in considerable suspense.  He did not
dare go near Normanstand until he was summoned, as he knew he would
be when he was required.

When Miss Rowly returned from her visit to London she told Stephen
that she had paid the bill at the jeweller's, and had taken the
precaution of getting a receipt, together with a duplicate for Mr.
Everard.  The original was by her own request made out as received
from Miss Laetitia Rowly in settlement of the account of Leonard
Everard, Esq.; the duplicate merely was 'recd. in settlement of the
account of--,' etc.  Stephen's brows bent hit thought as she said:
'Why did you have it done that way, Auntie dear?'  The other answered
'I had a reason, my dear; good reason!  Perhaps I shall tell you all
about it some day; in the meantime I want you not to ask me anything
about it.  I have a reason for that too.  Stephen, won't you trust me
in this, blindfold?'  There was something so sweet and loving in the
way she made the request that Stephen was filled with emotion.  She
put her arms round her aunt's neck and hugged her tight.  Then laying
her head on her bosom she said with a sigh:
'Oh, my dear, you can't know how I trust you; or how much your trust
is to me.  You never can know!'
The next day the two women held a long consultation over the schedule
of Leonard's debts.  Neither said a word of disfavour, or even
commented on the magnitude.  The only remark touching on the subject
was made by Miss Rowly:
'We must ask for proper discounts.  Oh, the villainy of those
tradesmen!  I do believe they charge double in the hope of getting
half.  As to jewellers ... !'  Then she announced her intention of
going up to town again on Thursday, at which visit she would arrange
for the payment of the various debts.  Stephen tried to remonstrate,
but she was obdurate.  She held Stephen's hand in hers and stroked it
lovingly as she kept on repeating:
'Leave it all to me, dear!  Leave it all to me!  Everything shall be
paid as you wish; but leave it to me!'
Stephen acquiesced.  This gentle yielding was new in her; it touched
the elder lady to the quick, even whilst it pained her.  Well she
knew that some trouble must have gone to the smoothing of that
imperious nature.
Stephen's inner life in these last few days was so bitterly sad that
she kept it apart from all the routine of social existence.  Into it
never came now, except as the exciting cause of all the evil, a
thought of Leonard.  The saddening memory was of Harold.  And of him
the sadness was increased and multiplied by a haunting fear.  Since
he had walked out of the grove she had not seen him nor heard from
him.  This was in itself strange; for in all her life, when she was
at home and he too, never a day passed without her seeing him.  She
had heard her aunt say that word had come of his having made a sudden
journey to London, from which he had not yet returned.  She was
afraid to make inquiries.  Partly lest she might hear bad news--this
was her secret fear; partly lest she might bring some attention to
herself in connection with his going.  Of some things in connection
with her conduct to him she was afraid to think at all.  Thought, she
felt, would come in time, and with it new pains and new shames, of
which as yet she dared not think.
One morning came an envelope directed in Harold's hand.  The sight
made her almost faint.  She rejoiced that she had been first down,
and had opened the postbag with her own key.  She took the letter to
her room and shut herself in before opening it.  Within were a few
lines of writing and her own letter to Leonard in its envelope.  Her
head beat so hard that she could scarcely see; but gradually the
writing seemed to grow out of the mist:
'The enclosed should be in your hands.  It is possible that it may
comfort you to know that it is safe.  Whatever may come, God love and
guard you.'
For a moment joy, hot and strong, blazed through her.  The last words
were ringing through her brain.  Then came the cold shock, and the
gloom of fear.  Harold would never have written thus unless he was
going away!  It was a farewell!
For a long time she stood, motionless, holding the letter in her
hand.  Then she said, half aloud:
'Comfort!  Comfort!  There is no more comfort in the world for me!
Never, never again!  Oh, Harold!  Harold!'
She sank on her knees beside her bed, and buried her face in her cold
hands, sobbing in all that saddest and bitterest phase of sorrow
which can be to a woman's heart:  the sorrow that is dry-eyed and
without hope.
Presently the habit of caution which had governed her last days woke
her to action.  She bathed her eyes, smoothed her hair, locked the
letter and its enclosure in the little jewel-safe let into the wall,
and came down to breakfast.
The sense of loss was so strong on her that she forgot herself.
Habit carried her on without will or voluntary effort, and, so
faithfully worked to her good that even the loving eyes of her aunt--
and the eyes of love are keen--had no suspicion that any new event
had come into her life.
Not till she was alone in her room that night did Stephen dare to let
her thoughts run freely.  In the darkness her mind began to work
truly, so truly that she began at the first step of logical process:
to study facts.  And to study them she must question till she found
Why had Harold sent her the letter?  His own words said that it
should be in her hands.  Then, again, he said it might comfort her to
know the letter was safe.  How could it comfort her?  How did he get
possession of the letter?
There she began to understand; her quick intuition and her old
knowledge of Harold's character and her new knowledge of Leonard's,
helped her to reconstruct causes.  In his interview with her he had
admitted that Leonard had told him much, all.  He would no doubt have
refused to believe him, and Leonard would have shown him, as proof,
her letter asking him to meet her.  He would have seen then, as she
did now, how much the possession of that letter might mean to any
Good God! to 'any one.'  Could it have been so to Harold himself ... that he thought to use it as an engine, to force her to meet his
wishes--as Leonard had already tried to do!  The mistrust, founded on
her fear, was not dead yet ... No! no! no!  Her whole being
resented such a monstrous proposition!  Besides, there was proof.
Thank God! there was proof.  A blackmailer would have stayed close to
her, and would have kept the letter; Harold did neither.  Her
recognition of the truth was shown in her act, when, stretching out
her arms in the darkness, she whispered pleadingly:
'Forgive me, Harold!'
And Harold, far away where the setting sun was lying red on the rim
of the western sea, could not hear her.  But perhaps God did.
As, then, Harold's motive was not of the basest, it must have been of
the noblest.  What would be a man's noblest motive under such
circumstances?  Surely self-sacrifice!
And yet there could be no doubt as to Harold's earnestness when he
had told her that he loved her ...
Here Stephen covered her face in one moment of rapture.  But the
gloom that followed was darker than the night.  She did not pursue
the thought.  That would come later when she should understand.
And yet, so little do we poor mortals know the verities of things, so
blind are we to things thrust before our eyes, that she understood
more in that moment of ecstasy than in all the reasoning that
preceded and followed it.  But the reasoning went on:
If he really loved, and told her so, wherein was the self-sacrifice?
She had reproached him with coming to her with his suit hotfoot upon
his knowledge of her shameful proffer of herself to another man; of
her refusal by him.  Could he have been so blind as not to have seen,
as she did, the shameful aspect of his impulsive act?  Surely, if he
had thought, he must have seen! ... And he must have thought; there
had been time for it.  It was at dinner that he had seen Leonard; it
was after breakfast when he had seen her ... And if he had seen
then ...
In an instant it all burst upon her; the whole splendid truth.  He
had held back the expression of his long love for her, waiting for
the time when her maturity might enable her to understand truly and
judge wisely; waiting till her grief for the loss of her father had
become a story of the past; waiting for God knows what a man's mind
sees of obstacles when he loves.  But he had spoken it out when it
was to her benefit.  What, then, had been his idea of her benefit?
Was it that he wished to meet the desire that she had manifested to
have some man to--to love? ... The way she covered her face with
her hands whilst she groaned aloud made her answer to her own query a
perfect negative.
Was it, then, to save her from the evil of marrying Leonard in case
he should repent of his harshness, and later on yield himself to her
wooing?  The fierce movement of her whole body, which almost threw
the clothes from her bed, as the shameful recollection rolled over
her, marked the measure of her self-disdain.
One other alternative there was; but it seemed so remote, so far-
fetched, so noble, so unlike what a woman would do, that she could
only regard it in a shamefaced way.  She put the matter to herself
questioningly, and with a meekness which had its roots deeper than
she knew.  And here out of the depths of her humility came a noble
thought.  A noble thought, which was a noble truth.  Through the
darkness of the night, through the inky gloom of her own soul came
with that thought a ray of truth which, whilst it showed her her own
shrivelled unworthiness, made the man whom she had dishonoured with
insults worse than death stand out in noble relief.  In that instant
she guessed at, and realised, Harold's unselfish nobility of purpose,
the supreme effort of his constant love.  Knowing the humiliation she
must have suffered at Leonard's hands, he had so placed himself that
even her rejection of him might be some solace to her wounded spirit,
her pride.
Here at last was truth!  She knew it in the very marrow of her bones.
This time she did not move.  She thought and thought of that noble
gentleman who had used for her sake even that pent-up passion which,
for her sake also, he had suppressed so long.
In that light, which restored in her eyes and justified so fully the
man whom she had always trusted, her own shame and wrongdoing, and
the perils which surrounded her, were for the time forgotten.
And its glory seemed to rest upon her whilst she slept.