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Chapter XX: Confidences


Miss Rowly had received a bulky letter by the morning's post.  She
had not opened it, but had allowed it to rest beside her plate all
breakfast-time.  Then she had taken it away with her to her own
sitting-room.  Stephen did not appear to take any notice of it.  She
knew quite well that it was from some one in London whom her aunt had
asked to pay Leonard's bills.  She also knew that the old lady had
some purpose in her reticence, so she waited.  She was learning to be
patient in these days.  Miss Rowly did say anything about it that
day, or the next, or the next.  The third-morning, she received
another letter which she had read in an enlightening manner.  She
began its perusal with set brow frowning, then she nodded her head
and smiled.  She put the letter back in its envelope and placed it in
the little bag always carried.  But she said nothing.  Stephen
wondered, but waited.
That night, when Stephen's maid had left her, there came a gentle tap
at her door, and an instant after the door opened.  The tap had been
a warning, not a request; it had in a measure prepared Stephen, who
was not surprised to see her Aunt in dressing-gown, though it was
many a long day since she had visited her niece's room at night.  She
closed the door behind her, saying:
'There is something I want to talk to you about, dearest, and I
thought it would be better to do so when there could not be any
possible interruption.  And besides,' here there was a little break
in her voice, 'I could hardly summon up my courage in the daylight.'
She stopped, and the stopping told its own story.  In an instant
Stephen's arm's were round her, all the protective instinct in her
awake, at the distress of the woman she loved.  The old lady took
comfort from the warmth of the embrace, and held her tight whilst she
went on:
'It is about these bills, my dear.  Come and sit down and put a
candle near me.  I want you to read something.'
'Go on, Auntie dear,' she said gravely.  The old lady, after a pause,
spoke with a certain timidity:
'They are all paid; at least all that can be.  Perhaps I had better
read you the letter I have had from my solicitors:
'"Dear Madam,--In accordance with your instructions we have paid all
the accounts mentioned in Schedule A (enclosed).  We have placed for
your convenience three columns:  (1) the original amount of each
account, (2) the amount of discount we were able to arrange, and (3)
the amount paid.  We regret that we have been unable to carry out
your wishes with regard to the items enumerated in Schedule B
(enclosed).  We have, we assure you, done all in our power to find
the gentlemen whose names and addresses are therein given.  These
were marked 'Debt of honour' in the list you handed to us.  Not
having been able to obtain any reply to our letters, we sent one of
our clerks first to the addresses in London, and afterwards to
Oxford.  That clerk, who is well used to such inquiries, could not
find trace of any of the gentlemen, or indeed of their existence.  We
have, therefore, come to the conclusion that, either there must be
some error with regard to (a) names, (b) addresses, or (c) both; or
that no such persons exist.  As it would be very unlikely that such
errors could occur in all the cases, we can only conclude that there
have not been any such persons.  If we may hazard an opinion:  it is
possible that, these debts being what young men call 'debts of
honour,' the debtor, or possibly the creditors, may not have wished
the names mentioned.  In such case fictitious names and addresses may
have been substituted for the real ones.  If you should like any
further inquiry instituted we would suggest that you ascertain the
exact names and addresses from the debtor.  Or should you prefer it
we would see the gentleman on your behalf, on learning from you his
name and address.  We can keep, in the person of either one of the
Firm or a Confidential Clerk as you might prefer, any appointment in
such behalf you may care to make.
'"We have already sent to you the receipted account from each of the
creditors as you directed, viz. 'Received from Miss Laetitia Rowly in
full settlement to date of the account due by Mr. Leonard Everard the
sum of,' etc. etc.  And also, as you further directed, a duplicate
receipt of the sum-total due in each case made out as 'Received in
full settlement to date of account due by,' etc. etc.  The duplicate
receipt was pinned at the back of each account so as to be easily
"With regard to finance we have carried out your orders, etc."'  She
hurried on the reading.  "These sums, together with the amounts of
nine hundred pounds sterling, and seven hundred pounds sterling
lodged to the account of Miss Stephen Norman in the Norcester branch
of the Bank as repayment of moneys advanced to you as by your written
instructions, have exhausted the sum, etc."'  She folded up the
letter with the schedules, laying the bundle of accounts on the
table.  Stephen paused; she felt it necessary to collect herself
before speaking.
'Auntie dear, will you let me see that letter?  Oh, my dear, dear
Auntie, don't think I mistrust you that I ask it.  I do because I
love you, and because I want to love you more if it is possible to do
so.'  Miss Rowly handed her the letter.  She rose from the arm of the
chair and stood beside the table as though to get better light from
the candle than she could get from where she had sat.
She read slowly and carefully to the end; then folded up the letter
and handed it to her aunt.  She came back to her seat on the edge of
the chair, and putting her arms round her companion's neck looked her
straight in the eyes.  The elder woman grew embarrassed under the
scrutiny; she coloured up and smiled in a deprecatory way as she
'Don't look at me like that, darling; and don't shake your head so.
It is all right!  I told you I had my reasons, and you said you would
trust me.  I have only done what I thought best!'
'But, Auntie, you have paid away more than half your little fortune.
I know all the figures.  Father and uncle told me everything.  Why
did you do it?  Why did you do it?'  The old woman held out her arms
as she said:
'Come here, dear one, and sit on my knee as you used to when you were
a child, and I will whisper you.'  Stephen sprang from her seat and
almost threw herself into the loving arms.  For a few seconds the
two, clasped tight to each other's heart, rocked gently to and fro.
The elder kissed the younger and was kissed impulsively in return.
Then she stroked the beautiful bright hair with her wrinkled hand,
and said admiringly:
'What lovely hair you have, my dear one!'  Stephen held her closer
and waited.
'Well, my dear, I did it because I love you!'
'I know that, Auntie; you have never done anything else my life!'
'That is true, dear one.  But it is right that I should do this.  Now
you must listen to me, and not speak till I have done.  Keep your
thoughts on my words, so that you may follow my thoughts.  You can do
your own thinking about them afterwards.  And your own talking too; I
shall listen as long as you like!'
'Go on, I'll be good!'
'My dear, it is not right that you should appear to have paid the
debts of a young man who is no relation to you and who will, I know
well, never be any closer to you than he is now.'  She hurried on, as
though fearing an interruption, but Stephen felt that her clasp
tightened.  'We never can tell what will happen as life goes on.
And, as the world is full of scandal, one cannot be too careful not
to give the scandalmongers anything to exercise their wicked spite
upon.  I don't trust that young man! he is a bad one all round, or I
am very much mistaken.  And, my dear, come close to me!  I cannot but
see that you and he have some secret which he is using to distress
you!'  She paused, and her clasp grew closer still as Stephen's head
sank on her breast.  'I know you have done something or said
something foolish of which he has a knowledge.  And I know my dear
one, that whatever it was, and no matter how foolish it may have
been, it was not a wrong thing.  God knows, we are all apt to do
wrong things as well as foolish ones; the best of us.  But such is
not for you!  Your race, your father and mother, your upbringing,
yourself and the truth and purity which are yours would save you from
anything which was in itself wrong.  That I know, my dear, as well as
I know myself!  Ah! better, far better! for the gods did not think it
well to dower me as they have dowered you.  The God of all the gods
has given you the ten talents to guard; and He knows, as I do, that
you will be faithful to your trust.'
There was a solemn ring in her voce as the words were spoken which
went through the young girl's heart.  Love and confidence demanded in
return that she should have at least the relief of certain
acquiescence; there is a possible note of pain in the tensity of
every string!  Stephen lifted her head proudly and honestly, though
her cheeks were scarlet, saying with a consciousness of integrity
which spoke directly soul to soul:
'You are right, dear!  I have done something very foolish; very, very
foolish!  But it was nothing which any one could call wrong.  Do not
ask me what it was.  I need only tell you this:  that it was an
outrage on convention.  It was so foolish, and based on such foolish
misconception; it sprang from such over-weening, arrogant self-
opinion that it deserves the bitter punishment which will come; which
is coming; which is with me now!  It was the cause of something whose
blackness I can't yet realise; but of which I will tell you when I
can speak of it.  But it was not wrong in itself, or in the eyes of
God or man!'  The old woman said not a word.  No word was needed, for
had she not already expressed her belief?  But Stephen felt her
relief in the glad pressure of her finger-tips.  In a voice less
strained and tense Miss Rowly went on:
'What need have I for money, dear?  Here I have all that any woman,
especially at my age, can need.  There is no room even for charity;
you are so good to all your people that my help is hardly required.
And, my dear one, I know--I know,' she emphasised the word as she
stroked the beautiful hair, 'that when I am gone my own poor, the few
that I have looked after all my life, will, not suffer when my
darling thinks of me!'  Stephen fairly climbed upon her as she said,
looking in the brave old eyes:
'So help me God, my darling, they shall never want!'
Silence for a time; and then Miss Rowly's voice again:
'Though it would not do for the world to know that a young maiden
lady had paid the debts of a vicious young man, it makes no matter if
they be paid by an old woman, be the same maid, wife, or widow!  And
really, my dear, I do not see how any money I might have could be
better spent than in keeping harm away from you.'
'There need not be any harm at all, Auntie.'
'Perhaps not, dear!  I hope not with all my heart.  But I fear that
young man.  Just fancy him threatening you, and in your own house; in
my very presence!  Oh! yes, my dear.  He meant to threaten, anyhow!
Though I could not exactly understand what he was driving at, I could
see that he was driving at something.  And after all that you were
doing for him, and had done for him!  I mean, of course, after all
that I had done for him, and was doing for him.  It is mean enough,
surely, for a man to beg, and from a woman; but to threaten
afterwards.  Ach!  But I think, my dear, it is checkmate to him this
time.  All along the line the only proof that is of there being any
friendliness towards him from this house points to me.  And moreover,
my dear, I have a little plan in my head that will tend to show him
up even better, in case he may ever try to annoy us.  Look at me when
next he is here.  I mean to do a little play-acting which will
astonish him, I can tell you, if it doesn't frighten him out of the
house altogether.  But we won't talk of that yet.  You will
understand when you see it!'  Her eyes twinkled and her mouth shut
with a loud snap as she spoke.
After a few minutes of repose, which was like a glimpse of heaven to
Stephen's aching heart, she spoke again:
'There was something else that troubled you more than even this.  You
said you would tell me when you were able to speak of it ... Why
not speak now?  Oh! my dear, our hearts are close together to-night;
and in all your life, you will never have any one who will listen
with greater sympathy than I will, or deal more tenderly with your
fault, whatever it may have been.  Tell me, dear!  Dear!' she
whispered after a pause, during which she realised the depth of the
girl's emotion by her convulsive struggling to keep herself in check.
All at once the tortured girl seemed to yield herself, and slipped
inertly from her grasp till kneeling down she laid her head in the
motherly lap and sobbed.  Miss Rowly kept stroking her hair in
silence.  Presently the girl looked up, and with a pang the aunt saw
that her eyes were dry.  In her pain she said:
'You sob like that, my child, and yet you are not crying; what is it,
oh! my dear one?  What is it that hurts you so that you cannot cry?'
And then the bitter sobbing broke out again, but still alas! without
tears.  Crouching low, and still enclosing her aunt's waist with her
outstretched arms and hiding her head in her breast; she said:
'Oh! Auntie, I have sent Harold away!'
'What, my dear?  What?' said the old lady astonished.  'Why, I
thought there was no one in the world that you trusted so much as
'It is true.  There was--there is no one except you whom I trust so
much.  But I mistook something he said.  I was in a blind fury at the
time, and I said things that I thought my father's daughter never
could have said.  And she never thought them, even then!  Oh, Auntie,
I drove him away with all the horrible things I could say that would
wound him.  And all because he acted in a way that I see now was the
most noble and knightly in which any man could act.  He that my dear
father had loved, and honoured, and trusted as another son.  He that
was a real son to him, and not a mock sop like me.  I sent him away
with such fierce and bitter pain that his poor face was ashen grey,
and there was woe in his eyes that shall make woe in mine whenever I
shall see them in my mind, waking or sleeping.  He, the truest friend
... the most faithful, the most tender, the most strong, the most
unselfish!  Oh! Auntie, Auntie, he just turned and bowed and went
away.  And he couldn't do anything else with the way I spoke to him;
and now I shall never see him again!'
The young girl's eyes ware still dry, but the old woman's were wet.
For a few minutes she kept softly stroking the bowed heat till the
sobbing grew less and less, and then died away; and the girl lay
still, collapsed in the abandonment of dry-eyed grief.
Then she rose, and taking off her dressing-gown, said tenderly:
'Let me stay with you to-night, dear one?  Go to sleep in my arms, as
you did long ago when there was any grief that you could not bear.'
So Stephen lay in those loving arms till her own young breast ceased
heaving, and she breathed softly.  Till dawn she slept on the bosom
of her who loved her so well.