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A Dark Night's Work by Elizabeth Gaskell

Part 2 out of 4

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girl could not bear the look of those open eyes, and softly,
tenderly, tried to close them, although unconscious that in so doing
she was rendering the pious offices of some beloved hand to a dead
man. She was sitting by the body on the floor when she heard steps
coming with rushing and yet cautious tread, through the shrubbery;
she had no fear, although it might be the tread of robbers and
murderers. The awfulness of the hour raised her above common fears;
though she did not go through the usual process of reasoning, and by
it feel assured that the feet which were coming so softly and swiftly
along were the same which she had heard leaving the room in like
manner only a quarter of an hour before.

Her father entered, and started back, almost upsetting some one
behind him by his recoil, on seeing his daughter in her motionless
attitude by the dead man.

"My God, Ellinor! what has brought you here?" he said, almost
fiercely.

But she answered as one stupefied, "I don't know. Is he dead?"

"Hush, hush, child; it cannot be helped."

She raised her eyes to the solemn, pitying, awe-stricken face behind
her father's--the countenance of Dixon.

"Is he dead?" she asked of him.

The man stepped forwards, respectfully pushing his master on one side
as he did so. He bent down over the corpse, and looked, and listened
and then reaching a candle off the table, he signed Mr. Wilkins to
close the door. And Mr. Wilkins obeyed, and looked with an intensity
of eagerness almost amounting to faintness on the experiment, and yet
he could not hope. The flame was steady--steady and pitilessly
unstirred, even when it was adjusted close to mouth and nostril; the
head was raised up by one of Dixon's stalwart arms, while he held the
candle in the other hand. Ellinor fancied that there was some
trembling on Dixon's part, and grasped his wrist tightly in order to
give it the requisite motionless firmness.

All in vain. The head was placed again on the cushions, the servant
rose and stood by his master, looked sadly on the dead man, whom,
living, none of them had liked or cared for, and Ellinor sat on,
quiet and tearless, as one in a trance.

"How was it, father?" at length she asked.

He would fain have had her ignorant of all, but so questioned by her
lips, so adjured by her eyes in the very presence of death, he could
not choose but speak the truth; he spoke it in convulsive gasps, each
sentence an effort:

"He taunted me--he was insolent, beyond my patience--I could not bear
it. I struck him--I can't tell how it was. He must have hit his
head in falling. Oh, my God! one little hour a go I was innocent of
this man's blood!" He covered his face with his hands.

Ellinor took the candle again; kneeling behind Mr. Dunster's head,
she tried the futile experiment once more.

"Could not a doctor do some good?" she asked of Dixon, in a hopeless
voice.

"No!" said he, shaking his head, and looking with a sidelong glance
at his master, who seemed to shrivel up and to shrink away at the
bare suggestion. "Doctors can do nought, I'm afeard. All that a
doctor could do, I take it, would be to open a vein, and that I could
do along with the best of them, if I had but my fleam here." He
fumbled in his pockets as he spoke, and, as chance would it, the
"fleam" (or cattle lancet) was somewhere about his dress. He drew it
out, smoothed and tried it on his finger. Ellinor tried to bare the
arm, but turned sick as she did so. Her father started eagerly
forwards, and did what was necessary with hurried trembling hands.
If they had cared less about the result, they might have been more
afraid of the consequences of the operation in the hands of one so
ignorant as Dixon. But, vein or artery, it signified little; no
living blood gushed out; only a little watery moisture followed the
cut of the fleam. They laid him back on his strange sad death-couch.
Dixon spoke next.

"Master Ned!" said he--for he had known Mr. Wilkins in his days of
bright careless boyhood, and almost was carried back to them by the
sense of charge and protection which the servant's presence of mind
and sharpened senses gave him over his master on this dreary night--
"Master Ned! we must do summut."

No one spoke. What was to be done?

"Did any folk see him come here?" Dixon asked, after a time. Ellinor
looked up to hear her father's answer, a wild hope coming into her
mind that all might be concealed somehow; she did not know how, nor
did she think of any consequences except saving her father from the
vague dread, trouble, and punishment that she was aware would await
him if all were known.

Mr. Wilkins did not seem to hear; in fact, he did not hear anything
but the unspoken echo of his own last words, that went booming
through his heart: "An hour ago I was innocent of this man's blood!
Only an hour ago!"

Dixon got up and poured out half a tumblerful of raw spirit from the
brandy-bottle that stood on the table.

"Drink this, Master Ned!" putting it to his master's lips. "Nay"--to
Ellinor--"it will do him no harm; only bring back his senses, which,
poor gentleman, are scared away. We shall need all our wits. Now,
sir, please answer my question. Did anyone see Measter Dunster come
here?"

"I don't know," said Mr. Wilkins, recovering his speech. "It all
seems in a mist. He offered to walk home with me; I did not want
him. I was almost rude to him to keep him off. I did not want to
talk of business; I had taken too much wine to be very clear and some
things at the office were not quite in order, and he had found it
out. If anyone heard our conversation, they must know I did not want
him to come with me. Oh! why would he come? He was as obstinate--he
would come--and here it has been his death!"

"Well, sir, what's done can't be undone, and I'm sure we'd any of us
bring him back to life if we could, even by cutting off our hands,
though he was a mighty plaguey chap while he'd breath in him. But
what I'm thinking is this: it'll maybe go awkward with you, sir, if
he's found here. One can't say. But don't you think, miss, as he's
neither kith nor kin to miss him, we might just bury him away before
morning, somewhere? There's better nor four hours of dark. I wish
we could put him i' the churchyard, but that can't be; but, to my
mind, the sooner we set about digging a place for him to lie in, poor
fellow, the better it'll be for us all in the end. I can pare a
piece of turf up where it'll never be missed, and if master'll take
one spade, and I another, why we'll lay him softly down, and cover
him up, and no one'll be the wiser."

There was no reply from either for a minute or so. Then Mr. Wilkins
said:

"If my father could have known of my living to this! Why, they will
try me as a criminal; and you, Ellinor? Dixon, you are right. We
must conceal it, or I must cut my throat, for I never could live
through it. One minute of passion, and my life blasted!"

"Come along, sir," said Dixon; "there's no time to lose." And they
went out in search of tools; Ellinor following them, shivering all
over, but begging that she might be with them, and not have to remain
in the study with -

She would not be bidden into her own room; she dreaded inaction and
solitude. She made herself busy with carrying heavy baskets of turf,
and straining her strength to the utmost; fetching all that was
wanted, with soft swift steps.

Once, as she passed near the open study door, she thought that she
heard a rustling, and a flash of hope came across her. Could he be
reviving? She entered, but a moment was enough to undeceive her; it
had only been a night rustle among the trees. Of hope, life, there
was none.

They dug the hole deep and well; working with fierce energy to quench
thought and remorse. Once or twice her father asked for brandy,
which Ellinor, reassured by the apparently good effect of the first
dose, brought to him without a word; and once at her father's
suggestion she brought food, such as she could find in the dining-
room without disturbing the household, for Dixon.

When all was ready for the reception of the body in its unblessed
grave, Mr. Wilkins bade Ellinor go up to her own room--she had done
all she could to help them; the rest must be done by them alone. She
felt that it must; and indeed both her nerves and her bodily strength
were giving way. She would have kissed her father, as he sat wearily
at the head of the grave--Dixon had gone in to make some arrangement
for carrying the corpse--but he pushed her away quietly, but
resolutely -

"No, Nelly, you must never kiss me again; I am a murderer."

"But I will, my own darling papa," said she, throwing her arms
passionately round his neck, and covering his face with kisses. "I
love you, and I don't care what you are, if you were twenty times a
murderer, which you are not; I am sure it was only an accident."

"Go in, my child, go in, and try to get some rest. But go in, for we
must finish as fast as we can. The moon is down; it will soon be
daylight. What a blessing there are no rooms on one side of the
house. Go, Nelly." And she went; straining herself up to move
noiselessly, with eyes averted, through the room which she shuddered
at as the place of hasty and unhallowed death.

Once in her own room she bolted the door on the inside, and then
stole to the window, as if some fascination impelled her to watch all
the proceedings to the end. But her aching eyes could hardly
penetrate through the thick darkness, which, at the time of the year
of which I am speaking, so closely precedes the dawn. She could
discern the tops of the trees against the sky, and could single out
the well-known one, at a little distance from the stem of which the
grave was made, in the very piece of turf over which so lately she
and Ralph had had their merry little tea-making; and where her
father, as she now remembered, had shuddered and shivered, as if the
ground on which his seat had then been placed was fateful and ominous
to him.

Those below moved softly and quietly in all they did; but every sound
had a significant and terrible interpretation to Ellinor's ears.
Before they had ended, the little birds had begun to pipe out their
gay reveillee to the dawn. Then doors closed, and all was profoundly
still.

Ellinor threw herself, in her clothes, on the bed; and was thankful
for the intense weary physical pain which took off something of the
anguish of thought--anguish that she fancied from time to time was
leading to insanity.

By-and-by the morning cold made her instinctively creep between the
blankets; and, once there, she fell into a dead heavy sleep.

CHAPTER VII.

Ellinor was awakened by a rapping at her door: it was her maid.

She was fully aroused in a moment, for she had fallen asleep with one
clearly defined plan in her mind, only one, for all thoughts and
cares having no relation to the terrible event were as though they
had never been. All her purpose was to shield her father from
suspicion. And to do this she must control herself--heart, mind, and
body must be ruled to this one end.

So she said to Mason:

"Let me lie half an hour longer; and beg Miss Monro not to wait
breakfast for me; but in half an hour bring me up a cup of strong
tea, for I have a bad headache."

Mason went away. Ellinor sprang up; rapidly undressed herself, and
got into bed again, so that when her maid returned with her
breakfast, there was no appearance of the night having been passed in
any unusual manner.

"How ill you do look, miss!" said Mason. "I am sure you had better
not get up yet."

Ellinor longed to ask if her father had yet shown himself; but this
question--so natural at any other time--seemed to her so suspicious
under the circumstances, that she could not bring her lips to frame
it. At any rate, she must get up and struggle to make the day like
all other days. So she rose, confessing that she did not feel very
well, but trying to make light of it, and when she could think of
anything but the one awe, to say a trivial sentence or two. But she
could not recollect how she behaved in general, for her life hitherto
had been simple, and led without any consciousness of effect.

Before she was dressed, a message came up to say that Mr. Livingstone
was in the drawing-room.

Mr. Livingstone! He belonged to the old life of yesterday! The
billows of the night had swept over his mark on the sands of her
memory; and it was only by a strong effort that she could remember
who he was--what he wanted. She sent Mason down to inquire from the
servant who admitted him whom it was that he had asked for.

"He asked for master first. But master has not rung for his water
yet, so James told him he was not up. Then he took thought for a
while, and asked could he speak to you, he would wait if you were not
at liberty but that he wished particular to see either master, or
you. So James asked him to sit down in the drawing-room, and he
would let you know."

"I must go," thought Ellinor. "I will send him away directly; to
come, thinking of marriage to a house like this--to-day, too!"

And she went down hastily, and in a hard unsparing mood towards a
man, whose affection for her she thought was like a gourd, grown up
in a night, and of no account, but as a piece of foolish, boyish
excitement.

She never thought of her own appearance--she had dressed without
looking in the glass. Her only object was to dismiss her would-be
suitor as speedily as possible. All feelings of shyness,
awkwardness, or maiden modesty, were quenched and overcome. In she
went.

He was standing by the mantelpiece as she entered. He made a step or
two forward to meet her; and then stopped, petrified, as it were, at
the sight of her hard white face.

"Miss Wilkins, I am afraid you are ill! I have come too early. But
I have to leave Hamley in half an hour, and I thought--Oh, Miss
Wilkins! what have I done?"

For she sank into the chair nearest to her, as if overcome by his
words; but, indeed, it was by the oppression of her own thoughts:
she was hardly conscious of his presence.

He came a step or two nearer, as if he longed to take her in his arms
and comfort and shelter her; but she stiffened herself and arose, and
by an effort walked towards the fireplace, and there stood, as if
awaiting what he would say next. But he was overwhelmed by her
aspect of illness. He almost forgot his own wishes, his own suit, in
his desire to relieve her from the pain, physical as he believed it,
under which she was suffering. It was she who had to begin the
subject.

"I received your letter yesterday, Mr. Livingstone. I was anxious to
see you to-day, in order that I might prevent you from speaking to my
father. I do not say anything of the kind of affection you can feel
for me--me, whom you have only seen once. All I shall say is, that
the sooner we both forget what I must call folly, the better."

She took the airs of a woman considerably older and more experienced
than himself. He thought her haughty; she was only miserable.

"You are mistaken," said he, more quietly and with more dignity than
was likely from his previous conduct. "I will not allow you to
characterise as folly what might be presumptuous on my part--I had no
business to express myself so soon--but which in its foundation was
true and sincere. That I can answer for most solemnly. It is
possible, though it may not be a usual thing, for a man to feel so
strongly attracted by the charms and qualities of a woman, even at
first sight, as to feel sure that she, and she alone, can make his
happiness. My folly consisted--there you are right--in even dreaming
that you could return my feelings in the slightest degree, when you
had only seen me once: and I am most truly ashamed of myself. I
cannot tell you how sorry I am, when I see how you have compelled
yourself to come and speak to me when you are so ill."

She staggered into a chair, for with all her wish for his speedy
dismissal, she was obliged to be seated. His hand was upon the bell.

"No, don't!" she said. "Wait a minute."

His eyes, bent upon her with a look of deep anxiety, touched her at
that moment, and she was on the point of shedding tears; but she
checked herself, and rose again.

"I will go," said he. "It is the kindest thing I can do. Only, may
I write? May I venture to write and urge what I have to say more
coherently?"

"No!" said she. "Don't write. I have given you my answer. We are
nothing, and can be nothing to each other. I am engaged to be
married. I should not have told you if you had not been so kind.
Thank you. But go now."

The poor young man's face fell, and he became almost as white as she
was for the instant. After a moment's reflection, he took her hand
in his, and said:

"May God bless you, and him too, whoever he be! But if you want a
friend, I may be that friend, may I not? and try to prove that my
words of regard were true, in a better and higher sense than I used
them at first." And kissing her passive hand, he was gone and she
was left sitting alone.

But solitude was not what she could bear. She went quickly upstairs,
and took a strong dose of sal-volatile, even while she heard Miss
Monro calling to her.

"My dear, who was that gentleman that has been closeted with you in
the drawing-room all this time?"

And then, without listening to Ellinor's reply, she went on:

"Mrs. Jackson has been here" (it was at Mrs. Jackson's house that Mr.
Dunster lodged), "wanting to know if we could tell her where Mr.
Dunster was, for he never came home last night at all. And you were
in the drawing-room with--who did you say he was?--that Mr.
Livingstone, who might have come at a better time to bid good-bye;
and he had never dined here, had he? so I don't see any reason he had
to come calling, and P. P. C.-ing, and your papa NOT up. So I said
to Mrs. Jackson, 'I'll send and ask Mr. Wilkins, if you like, but I
don't see any use in it, for I can tell you just as well as anybody,
that Mr. Dunster is not in this house, wherever he may be.' Yet
nothing would satisfy her but that some one must go and waken up your
papa, and ask if he could tell where Mr. Dunster was."

"And did papa?" inquired Ellinor, her dry throat huskily forming the
inquiry that seemed to be expected from her.

"No! to be sure not. How should Mr. Wilkins know? As I said to Mrs.
Jackson, 'Mr. Wilkins is not likely to know where Mr. Dunster spends
his time when he is not in the office, for they do not move in the
same rank of life, my good woman; and Mrs. Jackson apologised, but
said that yesterday they had both been dining at Mr. Hodgson's
together, she believed; and somehow she had got it into her head that
Mr. Dunster might have missed his way in coming along Moor Lane, and
might have slipped into the canal; so she just thought she would step
up and ask Mr. Wilkins if they had left Mr. Hodgson's together, or if
your papa had driven home. I asked her why she had not told me all
these particulars before, for I could have asked your papa myself all
about when he last saw Mr. Dunster; and I went up to ask him a second
time, but he did not like it at all, for he was busy dressing, and I
had to shout my questions through the door, and he could not always
hear me at first."

"What did he say?"

"Oh! he had walked part of the way with Mr. Dunster, and then cut
across by the short path through the fields, as far as I could
understand him through the door. He seemed very much annoyed to hear
that Mr. Dunster had not been at home all night; but he said I was to
tell Mrs. Jackson that he would go to the office as soon as he had
had his breakfast, which he ordered to be sent up directly into his
own room, and he had no doubt it would all turn out right, but that
she had better go home at once. And, as I told her, she might find
Mr. Dunster there by the time she got there. There, there is your I
papa going out! He has not lost any time over his breakfast!"

Ellinor had taken up the Hamley Examiner, a daily paper, which lay on
the table, to hide her face in the first instance; but it served a
second purpose, as she glanced languidly over the columns of the
advertisements.

"Oh! here are Colonel Macdonald's orchideous plants to be sold. All
the stock of hothouse and stove plants at Hartwell Priory. I must
send James over to Hartwell to attend the sale. It is to last for
three days."

"But can he be spared for so long?"

"Oh, yes; he had better stay at the little inn there, to be on the
spot. Three days," and as she spoke, she ran out to the gardener,
who was sweeping up the newly-mown grass in the front of the house.
She gave him hasty and unlimited directions, only seeming intent--if
any one had been suspiciously watching her words and actions--to
hurry him off to the distant village, where the auction was to take
place.

When he was once gone she breathed more freely. Now, no one but the
three cognisant of the terrible reason of the disturbance of the turf
under the trees in a certain spot in the belt round the flower-
garden, would be likely to go into the place. Miss Monro might
wander round with a book in her hand; but she never noticed anything,
and was short-sighted into the bargain. Three days of this moist,
warm, growing weather, and the green grass would spring, just as if
life--was what it had been twenty-four hours before.

When all this was done and said, it seemed as if Ellinor's strength
and spirit sank down at once. Her voice became feeble, her aspect
wan; and although she told Miss Monro that nothing was the matter,
yet it was impossible for any one who loved her not to perceive that
she was far from well. The kind governess placed her pupil on the
sofa, covered her feet up warmly, darkened the room, and then stole
out on tiptoe, fancying that Ellinor would sleep. Her eyes were,
indeed, shut; but try as much as she would to be quiet, she was up in
less than five minutes after Miss Monro had left the room, and
walking up and down in all the restless agony of body that arises
from an overstrained mind. But soon Miss Monro reappeared, bringing
with her a dose of soothing medicine of her own concocting, for she
was great in domestic quackery. What the medicine was Ellinor did
not care to know; she drank it without any sign of her usual merry
resistance to physic of Miss Monro's ordering; and as the latter took
up a book, and showed a set purpose of remaining with her patient,
Ellinor was compelled to lie still, and presently fell asleep.

She awakened late in the afternoon with a start. Her father was
standing over her, listening to Miss Monro's account of her
indisposition. She only caught one glimpse of his strangely altered
countenance, and hid her head in the cushions--hid it from memory,
not from him. For in an instant she must have conjectured the
interpretation he was likely to put upon her shrinking action, and
she had turned towards him, and had thrown her arms round his neck,
and was kissing his cold, passive face. Then she fell back. But all
this time their sad eyes never met--they dreaded the look of
recollection that must be in each other's gaze.

"There, my dear!" said Miss Monro. "Now you must lie still till I
fetch you a little broth. You are better now, are not you?"

"You need not go for the broth, Miss Monro," said Mr. Wilkins,
ringing the bell. "Fletcher can surely bring it." He dreaded the
being left alone with his daughter--nor did she fear it less. She
heard the strange alteration in her father's voice, hard and hoarse,
as if it was an effort to speak. The physical signs of his suffering
cut her to the heart; and yet she wondered how it was that they could
both be alive, or, if alive, they were not rending their garments and
crying aloud. Mr. Wilkins seemed to have lost the power of careless
action and speech, it is true. He wished to leave the room now his
anxiety about his daughter was relieved, but hardly knew how to set
about it. He was obliged to think about the veriest trifle, in order
that by an effort of reason he might understand how he should have
spoken or acted if he had been free from blood-guiltiness. Ellinor
understood all by intuition. But henceforward the unspoken
comprehension of each other's hidden motions made their mutual
presence a burdensome anxiety to each. Miss Monro was a relief; they
were glad of her as a third person, unconscious of the secret which
constrained them. This afternoon her unconsciousness gave present
pain, although on after reflection each found in her speeches a cause
of rejoicing.

"And Mr. Dunster, Mr. Wilkins, has he come home yet?"

A moment's pause, in which Mr. Wilkins pumped the words out of his
husky throat:

"I have not heard. I have been riding. I went on business to Mr.
Estcourt's. Perhaps you will be so kind as to send and inquire at
Mrs. Jackson's."

Ellinor sickened at the words. She had been all her life a truthful
plain-spoken girl. She held herself high above deceit. Yet, here
came the necessity for deceit--a snare spread around her. She had
not revolted so much from the deed which brought unpremeditated
death, as she did from these words of her father's. The night
before, in her mad fever of affright, she had fancied that to conceal
the body was all that would be required; she had not looked forward
to the long, weary course of small lies, to be done and said,
involved in that one mistaken action. Yet, while her father's words
made her soul revolt, his appearance melted her heart, as she caught
it, half turned away from her, neither looking straight at Miss
Monro, nor at anything materially visible. His hollow sunken eye
seemed to Ellinor to have a vision of the dead man before it. His
cheek was livid and worn, and its healthy colouring gained by years
of hearty out-door exercise, was all gone into the wanness of age.
His hair, even to Ellinor, seemed greyer for the past night of
wretchedness. He stooped, and looked dreamily earthward, where
formerly he had stood erect. It needed all the pity called forth by
such observation to quench Ellinor's passionate contempt for the
course on which she and her father were embarked, when she heard him
repeat his words to the servant who came with her broth.

"Fletcher! go to Mrs. Jackson's and inquire if Mr. Dunster is come
home yet. I want to speak to him."

"To him!" lying dead where he had been laid; killed by the man who
now asked for his presence. Ellinor shut her eyes, and lay back in
despair. She wished she might die, and be out of this horrible
tangle of events.

Two minutes after, she was conscious of her father and Miss Monro
stealing softly out of the room. They thought that she slept.

She sprang off the sofa and knelt down.

"Oh, God," she prayed, "Thou knowest! Help me! There is none other
help but Thee!"

I suppose she fainted. For, an hour or more afterwards Miss Monro,
coming in, found her lying insensible by the side of the sofa.

She was carried to bed. She was not delirious, she was only in a
stupor, which they feared might end in delirium. To obviate this,
her father sent far and wide for skilful physicians, who tended her,
almost at the rate of a guinea the minute.

People said how hard it was upon Mr. Wilkins, that scarcely had that
wretch Dunster gone off, with no one knows how much out of the trusts
of the firm, before his only child fell ill. And, to tell the truth,
he himself looked burnt and scared with affliction. He had a
startled look, they said, as if he never could tell, after such
experience, from which side the awful proofs of the uncertainty of
earth would appear, the terrible phantoms of unforeseen dread. Both
rich and poor, town and country, sympathised with him. The rich
cared not to press their claims, or their business, at such a time;
and only wondered, in their superficial talk after dinner, how such a
good fellow as Wilkins could ever have been deceived by a man like
Dunster. Even Sir Frank Holster and his lady forgot their old
quarrel, and came to inquire after Ellinor, and sent her hothouse
fruit by the bushel.

Mr. Corbet behaved as an anxious lover should do. He wrote daily to
Miss Monro to beg for the most minute bulletins; he procured
everything in town that any doctor even fancied might be of service,
he came down as soon as there was the slightest hint of permission
that Ellinor might see him. He overpowered her with tender words and
caresses, till at last she shrank away from them, as from something
too bewildering, and past all right comprehension.

But one night before this, when all windows and doors stood open to
admit the least breath that stirred the sultry July air, a servant on
velvet tiptoe had stolen up to Ellinor's open door, and had beckoned
out of the chamber of the sleeper the ever watchful nurse, Miss
Monro.

"A gentleman wants you," were all the words the housemaid dared to
say so close to the bedroom. And softly, softly Miss Monro stepped
down the stairs, into the drawing-room; and there she saw Mr.
Livingstone. But she did not know him; she had never seen him
before.

"I have travelled all day. I heard she was ill--was dying. May I
just have one more look at her? I will not speak; I will hardly
breathe. Only let me see her once again!"

"I beg your pardon, sir, but I don't know who you are; and if you
mean Miss Wilkins, by 'her,' she is very ill, but we hope not dying.
She was very ill, indeed, yesterday; very dangerously ill, I may say,
but she is having a good sleep, in consequence of a soporific
medicine, and we are really beginning to hope--"

But just here Miss Monro's hand was taken, and, to her infinite
surprise, was kissed before she could remember how improper such
behaviour was.

"God bless you, madam, for saying so. But if she sleeps, will you
let me see her? it can do no harm, for I will tread as if on egg
shells; and I have come so far--if I might just look on her sweet
face. Pray, madam, let me just have one sight of her. I will not
ask for more."

But he did ask for more after he had had his wish. He stole upstairs
after Miss Monro, who looked round reproachfully at him if even a
nightingale sang, or an owl hooted in the trees outside the open
windows, yet who paused to say herself, outside Mr. Wilkins's chamber
door,

"Her father's room; he has not been in bed for six nights, till to-
night; pray do not make a noise to waken him." And on into the deep
stillness of the hushed room, where one clear ray of hidden lamp-
light shot athwart the door, where a watcher, breathing softly, sat
beside the bed--where Ellinor's dark head lay motionless on the white
pillow, her face almost as white, her form almost as still. You
might have heard a pin fall. After a while he moved to withdraw.
Miss Monro, jealous of every sound, followed him, with steps all the
more heavy because they were taken with so much care, down the
stairs, back into the drawing-room. By the bed-candle flaring in the
draught, she saw that there was the glittering mark of wet tears on
his cheek; and she felt, as she said afterwards, "sorry for the young
man." And yet she urged him to go, for she knew that she might be
wanted upstairs. He took her hand, and wrung it hard.

"Thank you. She looked so changed--oh! she looked as though she were
dead. You will write--Herbert Livingstone, Langham Vicarage,
Yorkshire; you will promise me to write. If I could do anything for
her, but I can but pray. Oh, my darling; my darling! and I have no
right to be with her."

"Go away, there's a good young man," said Miss Monro, all the more
pressing to hurry him out by the front door, because she was afraid
of his emotion overmastering him, and making him noisy in his
demonstrations. "Yes, I will write; I will write, never fear!" and
she bolted the door behind him, and was thankful.

Two minutes afterwards there was a low tap; she undid the fastenings,
and there he stood, pale in the moonlight.

"Please don't tell her I came to ask about her; she might not like
it."

"No, no! not I! Poor creature, she's not likely to care to hear
anything this long while. She never roused at Mr. Corbet's name."

"Mr. Corbet's!" said Livingstone, below his breath, and he turned and
went away; this time for good.

But Ellinor recovered. She knew she was recovering, when day after
day she felt involuntary strength and appetite return. Her body
seemed stronger than her will; for that would have induced her to
creep into her grave, and shut her eyes for ever on this world, so
full of troubles.

She lay, for the most part, with her eyes closed, very still and
quiet; but she thought with the intensity of one who seeks for lost
peace, and cannot find it. She began to see that if in the mad
impulses of that mad nightmare of horror, they had all strengthened
each other, and dared to be frank and open, confessing a great fault,
a greater disaster, a greater woe--which in the first instance was
hardly a crime--their future course, though sad and sorrowful, would
have been a simple and straightforward one to tread. But it was not
for her to undo what was done, and to reveal the error and shame of a
father. Only she, turning anew to God, in the solemn and quiet
watches of the night, made a covenant, that in her conduct, her own
personal individual life, she would act loyally and truthfully. And
as for the future, and all the terrible chances involved in it, she
would leave it in His hands--if, indeed (and here came in the
Tempter), He would watch over one whose life hereafter must seem
based upon a lie. Her only plea, offered "standing afar off" was,
"The lie is said and done and over--it was not for my own sake. Can
filial piety be so overcome by the rights of justice and truth, as to
demand of me that I should reveal my father's guilt."

Her father's severe sharp punishment began. He knew why she
suffered, what made her young strength falter and tremble, what made
her life seem nigh about to be quenched in death. Yet he could not
take his sorrow and care in the natural manner. He was obliged to
think how every word and deed would be construed. He fancied that
people were watching him with suspicious eyes, when nothing was
further from their thoughts. For once let the "public" of any place
be possessed by an idea, it is more difficult to dislodge it than any
one imagines who has not tried. If Mr. Wilkins had gone into Hamley
market-place, and proclaimed himself guilty of the manslaughter of
Mr. Dunster--nay, if he had detailed all the circumstances--the
people would have exclaimed, "Poor man, he is crazed by this
discovery of the unworthiness of the man he trusted so; and no
wonder--it was such a thing to have done--to have defrauded his
partner to such an extent, and then have made off to America!"

For many small circumstances, which I do not stop to detail here,
went far to prove this, as we know, unfounded supposition; and Mr.
Wilkins, who was known, from his handsome boyhood, through his comely
manhood, up to the present time, by all the people in Hamley, was an
object of sympathy and respect to every one who saw him, as he passed
by, old, and lorn, and haggard before his time, all through the evil
conduct of one, London-bred, who was as a hard, unlovely stranger to
the popular mind of this little country town.

Mr. Wilkins's own servants liked him. The workings of his
temptations were such as they could understand. If he had been hot-
tempered he had also been generous, or I should rather say careless
and lavish with his money. And now that he was cheated and
impoverished by his partner's delinquency, they thought it no wonder
that he drank long and deep in the solitary evenings which he passed
at home. It was not that he was without invitations. Every one came
forward to testify their respect for him by asking him to their
houses. He had probably never been so universally popular since his
father's death. But, as he said, he did not care to go into society
while his daughter was so ill--he had no spirits for company.

But if any one had cared to observe his conduct at home, and to draw
conclusions from it, they could have noticed that, anxious as he was
about Ellinor, he rather avoided than sought her presence, now that
her consciousness and memory were restored. Nor did she ask for, or
wish for him. The presence of each was a burden to the other. Oh,
sad and woeful night of May--overshadowing the coming summer months
with gloom and bitter remorse!

CHAPTER VIII.

Still youth prevailed over all. Ellinor got well, as I have said,
even when she would fain have died. And the afternoon came when she
left her room. Miss Monro would gladly have made a festival of her
recovery, and have had her conveyed into the unused drawing-room.
But Ellinor begged that she might be taken into the library--into the
school-room--anywhere (thought she) not looking on the side of the
house on the flower-garden, which she had felt in all her illness as
a ghastly pressure lying within sight of those very windows, through
which the morning sun streamed right upon her bed--like the accusing
angel, bringing all hidden things to light.

And when Ellinor was better still, when the Bath-chair had been sent
up for her use, by some kindly old maid, out of Hamley, she still
petitioned that it might be kept on the lawn or town side of the
house, away from the flower-garden.

One day she almost screamed, when, as she was going to the front
door, she saw Dixon standing ready to draw her, instead of Fletcher
the servant who usually went. But she checked all demonstration of
feeling; although it was the first time she had seen him since he and
she and one more had worked their hearts out in hard bodily labour.

He looked so stern and ill! Cross, too, which she had never seen him
before.

As soon as they were out of immediate sight of the windows, she asked
him to stop, forcing herself to speak to him.

"Dixon, you look very poorly," she said, trembling as she spoke.

"Ay!" said he. "We didn't think much of it at the time, did we, Miss
Nelly? But it'll be the death on us, I'm thinking. It has aged me
above a bit. All my fifty years afore were but as a forenoon of
child's play to that night. Measter, too--I could a-bear a good
deal, but measter cuts through the stable-yard, and past me, wi'out a
word, as if I was poison, or a stinking foumart. It's that as is
worst, Miss Nelly, it is."

And the poor man brushed some tears from his eyes with the back of
his withered, furrowed hand. Ellinor caught the infection, and cried
outright, sobbed like a child, even while she held out her little
white thin hand to his grasp. For as soon as he saw her emotion, he
was penitent for what he had said.

"Don't now--don't," was all he could think of to say.

"Dixon!" said she at length, "you must not mind it. You must try not
to mind it. I see he does not like to be reminded of that, even by
seeing me. He tries never to be alone with me. My poor old Dixon,
it has spoilt my life for me; for I don't think he loves me any
more."

She sobbed as if her heart would break; and now it was Dixon's turn
to be comforter.

"Ah, dear, my blessing, he loves you above everything. It's only he
can't a-bear the sight of us, as is but natural. And if he doesn't
fancy being alone with you, there's always one as does, and that's a
comfort at the worst of times. And don't ye fret about what I said a
minute ago. I were put out because measter all but pushed me out of
his way this morning, without never a word. But I were an old fool
for telling ye. And I've really forgotten why I told Fletcher I'd
drag ye a bit about to-day. Th' gardener is beginning for to wonder
as you don't want to see th' annuals and bedding-out things as you
were so particular about in May. And I thought I'd just have a word
wi' ye, and then if you'd let me, we'd go together just once round
the flower-garden, just to say you've been, you know, and to give
them chaps a bit of praise. You'll only have to look on the beds, my
pretty, and it must be done some time. So come along!"

He began to pull resolutely in the direction of the flower-garden.
Ellinor bit her lips to keep in the cry of repugnance that rose to
them. As Dixon stopped to unlock the door, he said:

"It's not hardness, nothing like it; I've waited till I heerd you
were better; but it's in for a penny in for a pound wi' us all; and
folk may talk; and bless your little brave heart, you'll stand a deal
for your father's sake, and so will I, though I do feel it above a
bit, when he puts out his hand as if to keep me off, and I only going
to speak to him about Clipper's knees; though I'll own I had wondered
many a day when I was to have the good-morrow master never missed
sin' he were a boy till--Well! and now you've seen the beds, and can
say they looked mighty pretty, and is done all as you wished; and
we're got out again, and breathing fresher air than yon sunbaked
hole, with its smelling flowers, not half so wholesome to snuff at as
good stable-dung."

So the good man chatted on; not without the purpose of giving Ellinor
time to recover herself; and partly also to drown his own cares,
which lay heavier on his heart than he could say. But he thought
himself rewarded by Ellinor's thanks, and warm pressure of his hard
hand as she got out at the front door, and bade him good-by.

The break to her days of weary monotony was the letters she
constantly received from Mr. Corbet. And yet here again lurked the
sting. He was all astonishment and indignation at Mr. Dunster's
disappearance, or rather flight, to America. And now that she was
growing stronger, he did not scruple to express curiosity respecting
the details, never doubting but that she was perfectly acquainted
with much that he wanted to know; although he had too much delicacy
to question her on the point which was most important of all in his
eyes, namely, how far it had affected Mr. Wilkins's worldly
prospects; for the report prevalent in Hamley had reached London,
that Mr. Dunster had made away with, or carried off, trust property
to a considerable extent, for all which Mr. Wilkins would of course
be liable.

It was hard work for Ralph Corbet to keep from seeking direct
information on this head from Mr. Ness, or, indeed, from Mr. Wilkins
himself. But he restrained himself, knowing that in August he should
be able to make all these inquiries personally. Before the end of
the long vacation he had hoped to marry Ellinor: that was the time
which had been planned by them when they had met in the early spring
before her illness and all this misfortune happened. But now, as he
wrote to his father, nothing could be definitely arranged until he
had paid his visit to Hamley, and seen the state of affairs.

Accordingly one Saturday in August, he came to Ford Bank, this time
as a visitor to Ellinor's home, instead of to his old quarters at Mr.
Ness's.

The house was still as if asleep in the full heat of the afternoon
sun, as Mr. Corbet drove up. The window-blinds were down; the front
door wide open, great stands of heliotrope and roses and geraniums
stood just within the shadow of the hall; but through all the silence
his approach seemed to excite no commotion. He thought it strange
that he had not been watched for, that Ellinor did not come running
out to meet him, that she allowed Fletcher to come and attend to his
luggage, and usher him into the library just like any common visitor,
any morning-caller. He stiffened himself up into a moment's
indignant coldness of manner. But it vanished in an instant when, on
the door being opened, he saw Ellinor standing holding by the table,
looking for his appearance with almost panting anxiety. He thought
of nothing then but her evident weakness, her changed looks, for
which no account of her illness had prepared him. For she was deadly
white, lips and all; and her dark eyes seemed unnaturally enlarged,
while the caves in which they were set were strangely deep and
hollow. Her hair, too, had been cut off pretty closely; she did not
usually wear a cap, but with some faint idea of making herself look
better in his eye, she had put on one this day, and the effect was
that she seemed to be forty years of age; but one instant after he
had come in, her pale face was flooded with crimson, and her eyes
were full of tears. She had hard work to keep herself from going
into hysterics, but she instinctively knew how much he would hate a
scene, and she checked herself in time

"Oh," she murmured, "I am so glad to see you; it is such a comfort,
such an infinite pleasure." And so she went on, cooing out words
over him, and stroking his hair with her thin fingers; while he
rather tried to avert his eyes, he was so much afraid of betraying
how much he thought her altered.

But when she came down, dressed for dinner, this sense of her change
was diminished to him. Her short brown hair had already a little
wave, and was ornamented by some black lace; she wore a large black
lace shawl--it had been her mother's of old--over some delicate-
coloured muslin dress; her face was slightly flushed, and had the
tints of a wild rose; her lips kept pale and trembling with
involuntary motion, it is true; and as the lovers stood together,
hand in hand, by the window, he was aware of a little convulsive
twitching at every noise, even while she seemed gazing in tranquil
pleasure on the long smooth slope of the newly-mown lawn, stretching
down to the little brook that prattled merrily over the stones on its
merry course to Hamley town.

He felt a stronger twitch than ever before; even while his ear, less
delicate than hers, could distinguish no peculiar sound. About two
minutes after Mr. Wilkins entered the room. He came up to Mr. Corbet
with a warm welcome: some of it real, some of it assumed. He talked
volubly to him, taking little or no notice of Ellinor, who dropped
into the background, and sat down on the sofa by Miss Monro; for on
this day they were all to dine together. Ralph Corbet thought that
Mr. Wilkins was aged; but no wonder, after all his anxiety of various
kinds: Mr. Dunster's flight and reported defalcations, Ellinor's
illness, of the seriousness of which her lover was now convinced by
her appearance.

He would fain have spoken more to her during the dinner that ensued,
but Mr. Wilkins absorbed all his attention, talking and questioning
on subjects that left the ladies out of the conversation almost
perpetually. Mr. Corbet recognised his host's fine tact, even while
his persistence in talking annoyed him. He was quite sure that Mr.
Wilkins was anxious to spare his daughter any exertion beyond that--
to which, indeed, she seemed scarely equal--of sitting at the head of
the table. And the more her father talked--so fine an observer was
Mr. Corbet--the more silent and depressed Ellinor appeared. But by-
and-by he accounted for this inverse ratio of gaiety, as he perceived
how quickly Mr. Wilkins had his glass replenished. And here, again,
Mr. Corbet drew his conclusions, from the silent way in which,
without a word or a sign from his master, Fletcher gave him more wine
continually--wine that was drained off at once.

"Six glasses of sherry before dessert," thought Mr. Corbet to
himself. "Bad habit--no wonder Ellinor looks grave." And when the
gentlemen were left alone, Mr. Wilkins helped himself even still more
freely; yet without the slightest effect on the clearness and
brilliancy of his conversation. He had always talked well and
racily, that Ralph knew, and in this power he now recognised a
temptation to which he feared that his future father-in-law had
succumbed. And yet, while he perceived that this gift led into
temptation, he coveted it for himself; for he was perfectly aware
that this fluency, this happy choice of epithets, was the one thing
he should fail in when he began to enter into the more active career
of his profession. But after some time spent in listening, and
admiring, with this little feeling of envy lurking in the background,
Mr. Corbet became aware of Mr. Wilkins's increasing confusion of
ideas, and rather unnatural merriment; and, with a sudden revulsion
from admiration to disgust, he rose up to go into the library, where
Ellinor and Miss Monro were sitting. Mr. Wilkins accompanied him,
laughing and talking somewhat loudly. Was Ellinor aware of her
father's state? Of that Mr. Corbet could not be sure. She looked up
with grave sad eyes as they came into the room, but with no apparent
sensation of surprise, annoyance, or shame. When her glance met her
father's, Mr. Corbet noticed that it seemed to sober the latter
immediately. He sat down near the open window, and did not speak,
but sighed heavily from time to time. Miss Monro took up a book, in
order to leave the young people to themselves; and after a little low
murmured conversation, Ellinor went upstairs to put on her things for
a stroll through the meadows by the river-side.

They were sometimes sauntering along in the lovely summer twilight,
now resting on some grassy hedge-row bank, or standing still, looking
at the great barges, with their crimson sails, lazily floating down
the river, making ripples on the glassy opal surface of the water.
They did not talk very much; Ellinor seemed disinclined for the
exertion; and her lover was thinking over Mr. Wilkins's behaviour,
with some surprise and distaste of the habit so evidently growing
upon him.

They came home, looking serious and tired: yet they could not
account for their fatigue by the length of their walk, and Miss
Monro, forgetting Autolycus's song, kept fidgeting about Ellinor, and
wondering how it was she looked so pale, if she had only been as far
as the Ash Meadow. To escape from this wonder, Ellinor went early to
bed. Mr. Wilkins was gone, no one knew where, and Ralph and Miss
Monro were left to a half-hour's tete-a-tete. He thought he could
easily account for Ellinor's languor, if, indeed, she had perceived
as much as he had done of her father's state, when they had come into
the library after dinner. But there were many details which he was
anxious to hear from a comparatively indifferent person, and as soon
as he could, he passed on from the conversation about Ellinor's
health, to inquiries as to the whole affair of Mr. Dunster's
disappearance.

Next to her anxiety about Ellinor, Miss Monro liked to dilate on the
mystery connected with Mr. Dunster's flight; for that was the word
she employed without hesitation, as she gave him the account of the
event universally received and believed in by the people of Hamley.
How Mr. Dunster had never been liked by any one; how everybody
remembered that he could never look them straight in the face; how he
always seemed to be hiding something that he did not want to have
known; how he had drawn a large sum (exact quantity unknown) out of
the county bank only the day before he left Hamley, doubtless in
preparation for his escape; how some one had told Mr. Wilkins he had
seen a man just like Dunster lurking about the docks at Liverpool,
about two days after he had left his lodgings, but that this some
one, being in a hurry, had not cared to stop and speak to the man;
how that the affairs in the office were discovered to be in such a
sad state that it was no wonder that Mr. Dunster had absconded--he
that had been so trusted by poor dear Mr. Wilkins. Money gone no one
knew how or where.

"But has he no friends who can explain his proceedings, and account
for the missing money, in some way?" asked Mr. Corbet.

"No, none. Mr. Wilkins has written everywhere, right and left, I
believe. I know he had a letter from Mr. Dunster's nearest relation-
-a tradesman in the City--a cousin, I think, and he could give no
information in any way. He knew that about ten years ago Mr. Dunster
had had a great fancy for going to America, and had read a great many
travels--all just what a man would do before going off to a country."

"Ten years is a long time beforehand," said Mr. Corbet, half smiling;
"shows malice prepense with a vengeance." But then, turning grave,
he said: "Did he leave Hamley in debt?"

"No; I never heard of that," said Miss Monro, rather unwillingly, for
she considered it as a piece of loyalty to the Wilkinses, whom Mr.
Dunster had injured (as she thought) to blacken his character as much
as was consistent with any degree of truth.

"It is a strange story," said Mr. Corbet, musing.

"Not at all," she replied, quickly; "I am sure, if you had seen the
man, with one or two side-locks of hair combed over his baldness, as
if he were ashamed of it, and his eyes that never looked at you, and
his way of eating with his knife when he thought he was not observed-
-oh, and numbers of things!--you would not think it strange."

Mr. Corbet smiled.

"I only meant that he seems to have had no extravagant or vicious
habits which would account for his embezzlement of the money that is
missing--but, to be sure, money in itself is a temptation--only he,
being a partner, was in a fair way of making it without risk to
himself. Has Mr. Wilkins taken any steps to have him arrested in
America? He might easily do that."

"Oh, my dear Mr. Ralph, you don't know our good Mr. Wilkins! He
would rather bear the loss, I am sure, and all this trouble and care
which it has brought upon him, than be revenged upon Mr. Dunster."

"Revenged! What nonsense! It is simple justice--justice to himself
and to others--to see that villainy is so sufficiently punished as to
deter others from entering upon such courses. But I have little
doubt Mr. Wilkins has taken the right steps; he is not the man to sit
down quietly under such a loss."

"No, indeed! he had him advertised in the Times and in the county
papers, and offered a reward of twenty pounds for information
concerning him."

"Twenty pounds was too little."

"So I said. I told Ellinor that I would give twenty pounds myself to
have him apprehended, and she, poor darling! fell a-trembling, and
said, 'I would give all I have--I would give my life.' And then she
was in such distress, and sobbed so, I promised her I would never
name it to her again."

"Poor child--poor child! she wants change of scene. Her nerves have
been sadly shaken by her illness."

The next day was Sunday; Ellinor was to go to church for the first
time since her illness. Her father had decided it for her, or else
she would fain have stayed away--she would hardly acknowledge why,
even to herself, but it seemed to her as if the very words and
presence of God must there search her and find her out.

She went early, leaning on the arm of her lover, and trying to forget
the past in the present. They walked slowly along between the rows
of waving golden corn ripe for the harvest. Mr. Corbet gathered blue
and scarlet flowers, and made up a little rustic nosegay for her.
She took and stuck it in her girdle, smiling faintly as she did so.

Hamley Church had, in former days, been collegiate, and was, in
consequence, much larger and grander than the majority of country-
town churches. The Ford Bank pew was a square one, downstairs; the
Ford Bank servants sat in a front pew in the gallery, right before
their master. Ellinor was "hardening her heart" not to listen, not
to hearken to what might disturb the wound which was just being
skinned over, when she caught Dixon's face up above. He looked worn,
sad, soured, and anxious to a miserable degree; but he was straining
eyes and ears, heart and soul, to hear the solemn words read from the
pulpit, as if in them alone he could find help in his strait.
Ellinor felt rebuked and humbled.

She was in a tumultuous state of mind when they left church; she
wished to do her duty, yet could not ascertain what it was. Who was
to help her with wisdom and advice? Assuredly he to whom her future
life was to be trusted. But the case must be stated in an impersonal
form. No one, not even her husband, must ever know anything against
her father from her. Ellinor was so artless herself, that she had
little idea how quickly and easily some people can penetrate motives,
and combine disjointed sentences. She began to speak to Ralph on
their slow, sauntering walk homewards through the quiet meadows:

"Suppose, Ralph, that a girl was engaged to be married--"

"I can very easily suppose that, with you by me," said he, filling up
her pause.

"Oh! but I don't mean myself at all," replied she, reddening. "I am
only thinking of what might happen; and suppose that this girl knew
of some one belonging to her--we will call it a brother--who had done
something wrong, that would bring disgrace upon the whole family if
it was known--though, indeed, it might not have been so very wrong as
it seemed, and as it would look to the world--ought she to break off
her engagement for fear of involving her lover in the disgrace?"

"Certainly not, without telling him her reason for doing so."

"Ah! but suppose she could not. She might not be at liberty to do
so."

"I can't answer supposititious cases. I must have the facts--if
facts there are--more plainly before me before I can give an opinion.
Who are you thinking of, Ellinor?" asked he, rather abruptly.

"Oh, of no one," she answered in affright. "Why should I be thinking
of any one? I often try to plan out what I should do, or what I
ought to do, if such and such a thing happened, just as you recollect
I used to wonder if I should have presence of mind in case of fire."

"Then, after all, you yourself are the girl who is engaged, and who
has the imaginary brother who gets into disgrace?"

"Yes, I suppose so," said she, a little annoyed at having betrayed
any personal interest in the affair.

He was silent, meditating.

"There is nothing wrong in it," said she, timidly, "is there?"

"I think you had better tell me fully out what is in your mind," he
replied, kindly. "Something has happened which has suggested these
questions. Are you putting yourself in the place of any one about
whom you have been hearing lately? I know you used to do so
formerly, when you were a little girl."

"No; it was a very foolish question of mine, and I ought not to have
said anything about it. See! here is Mr. Ness overtaking us."

The clergyman joined them on the broad walk that ran by the river-
side, and the talk became general. It was a relief to Ellinor, who
had not attained her end, but who had gone far towards betraying
something of her own individual interest in the question she had
asked. Ralph had been more struck even by her manner than her words.
He was sure that something lurked behind, and had an idea of his own
that it was connected with Dunster's disappearance. But he was glad
that Mr. Ness's joining them gave him leisure to consider a little.

The end of his reflections was, that the next day, Monday, he went
into the town, and artfully learnt all he could hear about Mr
Dunster's character and mode of going on; and with still more skill
he extracted the popular opinion as to the embarrassed nature of Mr.
Wilkins's affairs--embarrassment which was generally attributed to
Dunster's disappearance with a good large sum belonging to the firm
in his possession. But Mr. Corbet thought otherwise; he had
accustomed himself to seek out the baser motives for men's conduct,
and to call the result of these researches wisdom. He imagined that
Dunster had been well paid by Mr. Wilkins for his disappearance,
which was an easy way of accounting for the derangement of accounts
and loss of money that arose, in fact, from Mr. Wilkins's
extravagance of habits and growing intemperance.

On the Monday afternoon he said to Ellinor, "Mr. Ness interrupted us
yesterday in a very interesting conversation. Do you remember,
love?"

Ellinor reddened and kept her head still more intently bent over a
sketch she was making.

"Yes; I recollect."

"I have been thinking about it. I still think she ought to tell her
lover that such disgrace hung over him--I mean, over the family with
whom he was going to connect himself. Of course, the only effect
would be to make him stand by her still more for her frankness."

"Oh! but, Ralph, it might perhaps be something she ought not to tell,
whatever came of her silence."

"Of course there might be all sorts of cases. Unless I knew more I
could not pretend to judge."

This was said rather more coolly. It had the desired effect.
Ellinor laid down her brush, and covered her face with her hand.
After a pause, she turned towards him and said:

"I will tell you this; and more you must not ask me. I know you are
as safe as can be. I am the girl, you are the lover, and possible
shame hangs over my father, if something--oh, so dreadful" (here she
blanched), "but not so very much his fault, is ever found out."

Though this was nothing more than he expected, though Ralph thought
that he was aware what the dreadful something might be, yet, when it
was acknowledged in words, his heart contracted, and for a moment he
forgot the intent, wistful, beautiful face, creeping close to his to
read his expression aright. But after that his presence of mind came
in aid. He took her in his arms and kissed her; murmuring fond words
of sympathy, and promises of faith, nay, even of greater love than
before, since greater need she might have of that love. But somehow
he was glad when the dressing-bell rang, and in the solitude of his
own room he could reflect on what he had heard; for the intelligence
had been a great shock to him, although he had fancied that his
morning's inquiries had prepared him for it.

CHAPTER IX.

Ralph Corbet found it a very difficult thing to keep down his
curiosity during the next few days. It was a miserable thing to have
Ellinor's unspoken secret severing them like a phantom. But he had
given her his word that he would make no further inquiries from her.
Indeed, he thought he could well enough make out the outline of past
events; still, there was too much left to conjecture for his mind not
to be always busy on the subject. He felt inclined to probe Mr.
Wilkins in their after-dinner conversation, in which his host was
frank and lax enough on many subjects. But once touch on the name of
Dunster and Mr. Wilkins sank into a kind of suspicious depression of
spirits; talking little, and with evident caution; and from time to
time shooting furtive glances at his interlocutor's face. Ellinor
was resolutely impervious to any attempts of his to bring his
conversation with her back to the subject which more and more
engrossed Ralph Corbet's mind. She had done her duty, as she
understood it; and had received assurances which she was only too
glad to believe fondly with all the tender faith of her heart.
Whatever came to pass, Ralph's love would still be hers; nor was he
unwarned of what might come to pass in some dread future day. So she
shut her eyes to what might be in store for her (and, after all, the
chances were immeasurably in her favour); and she bent herself with
her whole strength into enjoying the present. Day by day Mr.
Corbet's spirits flagged. He was, however, so generally uniform in
the tenor of his talk--never very merry, and always avoiding any
subject that might call out deep feeling either on his own or any one
else's part, that few people were aware of his changes of mood.
Ellinor felt them, though she would not acknowledge them: it was
bringing her too much face to face with the great terror of her life.

One morning he announced the fact of his brother's approaching
marriage; the wedding was hastened on account of some impending event
in the duke's family; and the home letter he had received that day
was to bid his presence at Stokely Castle, and also to desire him to
be at home by a certain time not very distant, in order to look over
the requisite legal papers, and to give his assent to some of them.
He gave many reasons why this unlooked-for departure of his was
absolutely necessary; but no one doubted it. He need not have
alleged such reiterated excuses. The truth was, he was restrained
and uncomfortable at Ford Bank ever since Ellinor's confidence. He
could not rightly calculate on the most desirable course for his own
interests, while his love for her was constantly being renewed by her
sweet presence. Away from her, he could judge more wisely. Nor did
he allege any false reasons for his departure; but the sense of
relief to himself was so great at his recall home, that he was afraid
of having it perceived by others; and so took the very way which, if
others had been as penetrating as himself, would have betrayed him.

Mr. Wilkins, too, had begun to feel the restraint of Ralph's grave
watchful presence. Ellinor was not strong enough to be married; nor
was the promised money forthcoming if she had been. And to have a
fellow dawdling about the house all day, sauntering into the flower-
garden, peering about everywhere, and having a kind of right to put
all manner of unexpected questions, was anything but agreeable. It
was only Ellinor that clung to his presence--clung as though some
shadow of what might happen before they met again had fallen on her
spirit. As soon as he had left the house she flew up to a spare
bedroom window, to watch for the last glimpse of the fly which was
taking him into the town. And then she kissed the part of the pane
on which his figure, waving an arm out of the carriage window, had
last appeared; and went down slowly to gather together all the things
he had last touched--the pen he had mended, the flower he had played
with, and to lock them up in the little quaint cabinet that had held
her treasures since she was a tiny child.

Miss Monro was, perhaps, very wise in proposing the translation of a
difficult part of Dante for a distraction to Ellinor. The girl went
meekly, if reluctantly, to the task set her by her good governess,
and by-and-by her mind became braced by the exertion.

Ralph's people were not very slow in discovering that something had
not gone on quite smoothly with him at Ford Bank. They knew his ways
and looks with family intuition, and could easily be certain thus
far. But not even his mother's skilfulest wiles, nor his favourite
sister's coaxing, could obtain a word or a hint; and when his father,
the squire, who had heard the opinions of the female part of the
family on this head, began, in his honest blustering way, in their
tete-a-tetes after dinner, to hope that Ralph was thinking better
than to run his head into that confounded Hamley attorney's noose,
Ralph gravely required Mr. Corbet to explain his meaning, which he
professed not to understand so worded. And when the squire had, with
much perplexity, put it into the plain terms of hoping that his son
was thinking of breaking off his engagement to Miss Wilkins, Ralph
coolly asked him if he was aware that, in that case, he should lose
all title to being a man of honour, and might have an action brought
against him for breach of promise?

Yet not the less for all this was the idea in his mind as a future
possibility.

Before very long the Corbet family moved en masse to Stokely Castle
for the wedding. Of course, Ralph associated on equal terms with the
magnates of the county, who were the employers of Ellinor's father,
and spoke of him always as "Wilkins," just as they spoke of the
butler as "Simmons." Here, too, among a class of men high above
local gossip, and thus unaware of his engagement, he learnt the
popular opinion respecting his future father-in-law; an opinion not
entirely respectful, though intermingled with a good deal of personal
liking. "Poor Wilkins," as they called him, "was sadly extravagant
for a man in his position; had no right to spend money, and act as if
he were a man of independent fortune." His habits of life were
criticised; and pity, not free from blame, was bestowed upon him for
the losses he had sustained from his late clerk's disappearance and
defalcation. But what could be expected if a man did not choose to
attend to his own business?

The wedding went by, as grand weddings do, without let or hindrance,
according to the approved pattern. A Cabinet minister honoured it
with his presence, and, being a distant relation of the Brabants,
remained for a few days after the grand occasion. During this time
he became rather intimate with Ralph Corbet; many of their tastes
were in common. Ralph took a great interest in the manner of working
out political questions; in the balance and state of parties; and had
the right appreciation of the exact qualities on which the minister
piqued himself. In return, the latter was always on the look-out for
promising young men, who, either by their capability of speech-making
or article-writing, might advance the views of his party.
Recognising the powers he most valued in Ralph, he spared no pains to
attach him to his own political set. When they separated, it was
with the full understanding that they were to see a good deal of each
other in London.

The holiday Ralph allowed himself was passing rapidly away; but,
before he returned to his chambers and his hard work, he had promised
to spend a few more days with Ellinor; and it suited him to go
straight from the duke's to Ford Bank. He left the castle soon after
breakfast--the luxurious, elegant breakfast, served by domestics who
performed their work with the accuracy and perfection of machines.
He arrived at Ford Bank before the man-servant had quite finished the
dirtier part of his morning's work, and he came to the glass-door in
his striped cotton jacket, a little soiled, and rolling up his
working apron. Ellinor was not yet strong enough to get up and go
out and gather flowers for the rooms, so those left from yesterday
were rather faded; in short, the contrast from entire completeness
and exquisite freshness of arrangement struck forcibly upon Ralph's
perceptions, which were critical rather than appreciative; and, as
his affections were always subdued to his intellect, Ellinor's lovely
face and graceful figure flying to meet him did not gain his full
approval, because her hair was dressed in an old-fashioned way, her
waist was either too long or too short, her sleeves too full or too
tight for the standard of fashion to which his eye had been
accustomed while scanning the bridesmaids and various highborn ladies
at Stokely Castle.

But, as he had always piqued himself upon being able to put on one
side all superficial worldliness in his chase after power, it did not
do for him to shrink from seeing and facing the incompleteness of
moderate means. Only marriage upon moderate means was gradually
becoming more distasteful to him.

Nor did his subsequent intercourse with Lord Bolton, the Cabinet
minister before mentioned, tend to reconcile him to early matrimony.
At Lord Bolton's house he met polished and intellectual society, and
all that smoothness in ministering to the lower wants in eating and
drinking which seems to provide that the right thing shall always be
at the right place at the right time, so that the want of it shall
never impede for an instant the feast of wit or reason; while, if he
went to the houses of his friends, men of the same college and
standing as himself, who had been seduced into early marriages, he
was uncomfortably aware of numerous inconsistencies and hitches in
their menages. Besides, the idea of the possible disgrace that might
befall the family with which he thought of allying himself haunted
him with the tenacity and also with the exaggeration of a nightmare,
whenever he had overworked himself in his search after available and
profitable knowledge, or had a fit of indigestion after the exquisite
dinners he was learning so well to appreciate.

Christmas was, of course, to be devoted to his own family; it was an
unavoidable necessity, as he told Ellinor, while, in reality, he was
beginning to find absence from his betrothed something of a relief.
Yet the wranglings and folly of his home, even blessed by the
presence of a Lady Maria, made him look forward to Easter at Ford
Bank with something of the old pleasure.

Ellinor, with the fine tact which love gives, had discovered his
annoyance at various little incongruities in the household at the
time of his second visit in the previous autumn, and had laboured to
make all as perfect as she could before his return. But she had much
to struggle against. For the first time in her life there was a
great want of ready money; she could scarcely obtain the servants'
wages; and the bill for the spring seeds was a heavy weight on her
conscience. For Miss Monro's methodical habits had taught her pupil
great exactitude as to all money matters.

Then her father's temper had become very uncertain. He avoided being
alone with her whenever he possibly could; and the consciousness of
this, and of the terrible mutual secret which was the cause of this
estrangement, were the reasons why Ellinor never recovered her pretty
youthful bloom after her illness. Of course it was to this that the
outside world attributed her changed appearance. They would shake
their heads and say, "Ah, poor Miss Wilkins! What a lovely creature
she was before that fever!"

But youth is youth, and will assert itself in a certain elasticity of
body and spirits; and at times Ellinor forgot that fearful night for
several hours together. Even when her father's averted eye brought
it all once more before her, she had learnt to form excuses and
palliations, and to regard Mr. Dunster's death as only the
consequence of an unfortunate accident. But she tried to put the
miserable remembrance entirely out of her mind; to go on from day to
day thinking only of the day, and how to arrange it so as to cause
the least irritation to her father. She would so gladly have spoken
to him on the one subject which overshadowed all their intercourse;
she fancied that by speaking she might have been able to banish the
phantom, or reduce its terror to what she believed to be the due
proportion. But her father was evidently determined to show that he
was never more to be spoken to on that subject; and all she could do
was to follow his lead on the rare occasions that they fell into
something like the old confidential intercourse. As yet, to her, he
had never given way to anger; but before her he had often spoken in a
manner which both pained and terrified her. Sometimes his eye in the
midst of his passion caught on her face of affright and dismay, and
then he would stop, and make such an effort to control himself as
sometimes ended in tears. Ellinor did not understand that both these
phases were owing to his increasing habit of drinking more than he
ought to have done. She set them down as the direct effects of a
sorely burdened conscience; and strove more and more to plan for his
daily life at home, how it should go on with oiled wheels, neither a
jerk nor a jar. It was no wonder she looked wistful, and careworn,
and old. Miss Monro was her great comfort; the total unconsciousness
on that lady's part of anything below the surface, and yet her full
and delicate recognition of all the little daily cares and trials,
made her sympathy most valuable to Ellinor, while there was no need
to fear that it would ever give Miss Monro that power of seeing into
the heart of things which it frequently confers upon imaginative
people, who are deeply attached to some one in sorrow.

There was a strong bond between Ellinor and Dixon, although they
scarcely ever exchanged a word save on the most common-place
subjects; but their silence was based on different feelings from that
which separated Ellinor from her father. Ellinor and Dixon could not
speak freely, because their hearts were full of pity for the faulty
man whom they both loved so well, and tried so hard to respect.

This was the state of the household to which Ralph Corbet came down
at Easter. He might have been known in London as a brilliant diner-
out by this time; but he could not afford to throw his life away in
fireworks; he calculated his forces, and condensed their power as
much as might be, only visiting where he was likely to meet men who
could help in his future career. He had been invited to spend the
Easter vacation at a certain country house which would be full of
such human stepping-stones; and he declined in order to keep his word
to Ellinor, and go to Ford Bank. But he could not help looking upon
himself a little in the light of a martyr to duty; and perhaps this
view of his own merits made him chafe under his future father-in-
law's irritability of manner, which now showed itself even to him.
He found himself distinctly regretting that he had suffered himself
to be engaged so early in life; and having become conscious of the
temptation and not having repelled it at once, of course it returned
and returned, and gradually obtained the mastery over him. What was
to be gained by keeping to his engagement with Ellinor? He should
have a delicate wife to look after, and even more than the common
additional expenses of married life. He should have a father-in-law
whose character at best had had only a local and provincial
respectability, which it was now daily losing by habits which were
both sensual and vulgarising; a man, too, who was strangely changing
from joyous geniality into moody surliness. Besides, he doubted if,
in the evident change in the prosperity of the family, the fortune to
be paid down on the occasion of his marriage to Ellinor could be
forthcoming. And above all, and around all, there hovered the shadow
of some unrevealed disgrace, which might come to light at any time
and involve him in it. He thought he had pretty well ascertained the
nature of this possible shame, and had little doubt it would turn out
to be that Dunster's disappearance, to America or elsewhere, had been
an arranged plan with Mr. Wilkins. Although Mr. Ralph Corbet was
capable of suspecting him of this mean crime (so far removed from the
impulsive commission of the past sin which was dragging him daily
lower and lower down), it was of a kind that was peculiarly
distasteful to the acute lawyer, who foresaw how such base conduct
would taint all whose names were ever mentioned, even by chance, in
connection with it. He used to lie miserably tossing on his
sleepless bed, turning over these things in the night season. He was
tormented by all these thoughts; he would bitterly regret the past
events that connected him with Ellinor, from the day when he first
came to read with Mr. Ness up to the present time. But when he came
down in the morning, and saw the faded Ellinor flash into momentary
beauty at his entrance into the dining-room, and when she blushingly
drew near with the one single flower freshly gathered, which it had
been her custom to place in his button-hole when he came down to
breakfast, he felt as if his better self was stronger than
temptation, and as if he must be an honest man and honourable lover,
even against his wish.

As the day wore on the temptation gathered strength. Mr. Wilkins
came down, and while he was on the scene Ellinor seemed always
engrossed by her father, who apparently cared little enough for all
her attentions. Then there was a complaining of the food, which did
not suit the sickly palate of a man who had drunk hard the night
before; and possibly these complaints were extended to the servants,
and their incompleteness or incapacity was thus brought prominently
before the eyes of Ralph, who would have preferred to eat a dry crust
in silence, or to have gone without breakfast altogether, if he could
have had intellectual conversation of some high order, to having the
greatest dainties with the knowledge of the care required in their
preparation thus coarsely discussed before him. By the time such
breakfasts were finished, Ellinor looked thirty, and her spirits were
gone for the day. It had become difficult for Ralph to contract his
mind to her small domestic interests, and she had little else to talk
to him about, now that he responded but curtly to all her questions
about himself, and was weary of professing a love which he was
ceasing to feel, in all the passionate nothings which usually make up
so much of lovers' talk. The books she had been reading were old
classics, whose place in literature no longer admitted of keen
discussion; the poor whom she cared for were all very well in their
way; and, if they could have been brought in to illustrate a theory,
hearing about them might have been of some use; but, as it was, it
was simply tiresome to hear day after day of Betty Palmer's
rheumatism and Mrs. Kay's baby's fits. There was no talking politics
with her, because she was so ignorant that she always agreed with
everything he said.

He even grew to find luncheon and Miss Monro not unpleasant varieties
to his monotonous tete-a-tetes. Then came the walk, generally to the
town to fetch Mr. Wilkins from his office; and once or twice it was
pretty evident how he had been employing his hours. One day in
particular his walk was so unsteady and his speech so thick, that
Ralph could only wonder how it was that Ellinor did not perceive the
cause; but she was too openly anxious about the headache of which her
father complained to have been at all aware of the previous self-
indulgence which must have brought it on. This very afternoon, as
ill-luck would have it, the Duke of Hinton and a gentleman whom Ralph
had met in town at Lord Bolton's rode by, and recognised him; saw
Ralph supporting a tipsy man with such quiet friendly interest as
must show all passers-by that they were previous friends. Mr. Corbet
chafed and fumed inwardly all the way home after this unfortunate
occurrence; he was in a thoroughly evil temper before they reached
Ford Bank, but he had too much self-command to let this be very
apparent. He turned into the shrubbery paths, leaving Ellinor to
take her father into the quietness of his own room, there to lie down
and shake off his headache.

Ralph walked along, ruminating in gloomy mood as to what was to be
done; how he could best extricate himself from the miserable relation
in which he had placed himself by giving way to impulse. Almost
before he was aware, a little hand stole within his folded arms, and
Ellinor's sweet sad eyes looked into his.

"I have put papa down for an hour's rest before dinner," said she.
"His head seems to ache terribly."

Ralph was silent and unsympathising, trying to nerve himself up to be
disagreeable, but finding it difficult in the face of such sweet
trust.

"Do you remember our conversation last autumn, Ellinor?" he began at
length.

Her head sunk. They were near a garden-seat, and she quietly sat
down, without speaking.

"About some disgrace which you then fancied hung over you?" No
answer. "Does it still hang over you?"

"Yes!" she whispered, with a heavy sigh.

"And your father knows this, of course?"

"Yes!" again, in the same tone; and then silence.

"I think it is doing him harm," at length Ralph went on, decidedly.

"I am afraid it is," she said, in a low tone.

"I wish you would tell me what it is," he said, a little impatiently.
"I might be able to help you about it."

"No! you could not," replied Ellinor. "I was sorry to my very heart
to tell you what I did; I did not want help; all that is past. But I
wanted to know if you thought that a person situated as I was, was
justified in marrying any one ignorant of what might happen, what I
do hope and trust never will."

"But if I don't know what you are alluding to in this mysterious way,
you must see--don't you see, love?--I am in the position of the
ignorant man whom I think you said you could not feel it right to
marry. Why don't you tell me straight out what it is?" He could not
help his irritation betraying itself in his tones and manner of
speaking. She bent a little forward, and looked full into his face,
as though to pierce to the very heart's truth of him. Then she said,
as quietly as she had ever spoken in her life,--"You wish to break
off our engagement?"

He reddened and grew indignant in a moment. "What nonsense! Just
because I ask a question and make a remark! I think your illness
must have made you fanciful, Ellinor. Surely nothing I said deserves
such an interpretation. On the contrary, have I not shown the
sincerity and depth of my affection to you by clinging to you
through--through everything?"

He was going to say "through the wearying opposition of my family,"
but he stopped short, for he knew that the very fact of his mother's
opposition had only made him the more determined to have his own way
in the first instance; and even now he did not intend to let out,
what he had concealed up to this time, that his friends all regretted
his imprudent engagement.

Ellinor sat silently gazing out upon the meadows, but seeing nothing.
Then she put her hand into his. "I quite trust you, Ralph. I was
wrong to doubt. I am afraid I have grown fanciful and silly."

He was rather put to it for the right words, for she had precisely
divined the dim thought that had overshadowed his mind when she had
looked so intently at him. But he caressed her, and reassured her
with fond words, as incoherent as lovers' words generally are.

By-and-by they sauntered homewards. When they reached the house,
Ellinor left him, and flew up to see how her father was. When Ralph
went into his own room he was vexed with himself, both for what he
had said and for what he had not said. His mental look-out was not
satisfactory.

Neither he nor Mr. Wilkins was in good humour with the world in
general at dinner-time, and it needs little in such cases to condense
and turn the lowering tempers into one particular direction. As long
as Ellinor and Miss Monro stayed in the dining-room, a sort of moody
peace had been kept up, the ladies talking incessantly to each other
about the trivial nothings of their daily life, with an instinctive
consciousness that if they did not chatter on, something would be
said by one of the gentlemen which would be distasteful to the other.

As soon as Ralph had shut the door behind them, Mr. Wilkins went to
the sideboard, and took out a bottle which had not previously made
its appearance.

"Have a little cognac?" he asked, with an assumption of carelessness,
as he poured out a wine-glassful. "It's a capital thing for the
headache; and this nasty lowering weather has given me a racking
headache all day."

"I am sorry for it," said Ralph, "for I wanted particularly to speak
to you about business--about my marriage, in fact."

"Well! speak away, I'm as clear-headed as any man, if that's what you
mean."

Ralph bowed, a little contemptuously.

"What I wanted to say was, that I am anxious to have all things
arranged for my marriage in August. Ellinor is so much better now;
in fact, so strong, that I think we may reckon upon her standing the
change to a London life pretty well."

Mr. Wilkins stared at him rather blankly, but did not immediately
speak.

"Of course I may have the deeds drawn up in which, as by previous
arrangement, you advance a certain portion of Ellinor's fortune for
the purposes therein to be assigned; as we settled last year when I
hoped to have been married in August?"

A thought flitted through Mr. Wilkins's confused brain that he should
find it impossible to produce the thousands required without having
recourse to the money lenders, who were already making difficulties,
and charging him usurious interest for the advances they had lately
made; and he unwisely tried to obtain a diminution in the sum he had
originally proposed to give Ellinor. "Unwisely," because he might
have read Ralph's character better than to suppose he would easily
consent to any diminution without good and sufficient reason being
given; or without some promise of compensating advantages in the
future for the present sacrifice asked from him. But perhaps Mr.
Wilkins, dulled as he was by wine thought he could allege a good and
sufficient reason, for he said:

"You must not be hard upon me, Ralph. That promise was made before--
before I exactly knew the state of my affairs!"

"Before Dunster's disappearance, in fact," said Mr. Corbet, fixing
his steady, penetrating eyes on Mr. Wilkins's countenance.

"Yes--exactly--before Dunster's--" mumbled out Mr. Wilkins, red and
confused, and not finishing his sentence.

"By the way," said Ralph (for with careful carelessness of manner he
thought he could extract something of the real nature of the
impending disgrace from his companion, in the state in which he then
was; and if he only knew more about this danger he could guard
against it; guard others; perhaps himself)--"By the way, have you
ever heard anything of Dunster since he went off to--America, isn't
it thought?"

He was startled beyond his power of self-control by the instantaneous
change in Mr. Wilkins which his question produced. Both started up;
Mr. Wilkins white, shaking, and trying to say something, but unable
to form a sensible sentence.

"Good God! sir, what is the matter?" said Ralph, alarmed at these
signs of physical suffering.

Mr. Wilkins sat down, and repelled his nearer approach without
speaking.

"It is nothing, only this headache which shoots through me at times.
Don't look at me, sir, in that way. It is very unpleasant to find
another man's eyes perpetually fixed upon you."

"I beg your pardon," said Ralph, coldly; his short-lived sympathy,
thus repulsed, giving way to his curiosity. But he waited for a
minute or two without daring to renew the conversation at the point
where they had stopped: whether interrupted by bodily or mental
discomfort on the part of his companion he was not quite sure. While
he hesitated how to begin again on the subject, Mr. Wilkins pulled
the bottle of brandy to himself and filled his glass again, tossing
off the spirit as if it had been water. Then he tried to look Mr.
Corbet full in the face, with a stare as pertinacious as he could
make it, but very different from the keen observant gaze which was
trying to read him through.

"What were we talking about?" said Ralph, at length, with the most
natural air in the world, just as if he had really been forgetful of
some half-discussed subject of interest.

"Of what you'd a d--d deal better hold your tongue about," growled
out Mr. Wilkins, in a surly thick voice.

"Sir!" said Ralph, starting to his feet with real passion at being so
addressed by "Wilkins the attorney."

"Yes," continued the latter, "I'll manage my own affairs, and allow
of no meddling and no questioning. I said so once before, and I was
not minded and bad came of it; and now I say it again. And if you're
to come here and put impertinent questions, and stare at me as you've
been doing this half-hour past, why, the sooner you leave this house
the better!"

Ralph half turned to take him at his word, and go at once; but then
he "gave Ellinor another chance," as he worded it in his thoughts;
but it was in no spirit of conciliation that he said:

"You've taken too much of that stuff, sir. You don't know what
you're saying. If you did, I should leave your house at once, never
to return."

"You think so, do you?" said Mr. Wilkins, trying to stand up, and
look dignified and sober. "I say, sir, that if you ever venture
again to talk and look as you have done to-night, why, sir, I will
ring the bell and have you shown the door by my servants. So now
you're warned, my fine fellow!" He sat down, laughing a foolish
tipsy laugh of triumph. In another minute his arm was held firmly
but gently by Ralph.

"Listen, Mr. Wilkins," he said, in a low hoarse voice. "You shall
never have to say to me twice what you have said to-night.
Henceforward we are as strangers to each other. As to Ellinor"--his
tones softened a little, and he sighed in spite of himself--"I do not
think we should have been happy. I believe our engagement was formed
when we were too young to know our own minds, but I would have done
my duty and kept to my word; but you, sir, have yourself severed the
connection between us by your insolence to-night. I, to be turned
out of your house by your servants!--I, a Corbet of Westley, who
would not submit to such threats from a peer of the realm, let him be
ever so drunk!" He was out of the room, almost out of the house,
before he had spoken the last words.

Mr. Wilkins sat still, first fiercely angry, then astonished, and
lastly dismayed into sobriety. "Corbet, Corbet! Ralph!" he called
in vain; then he got up and went to the door, opened it, looked into
the fully-lighted hall; all was so quiet there that he could hear the
quiet voices of the women in the drawing-room talking together. He
thought for a moment, went to the hat-stand, and missed Ralph's low-
crowned straw hat.

Then he sat down once more in the dining-room, and endeavoured to
make out exactly what had passed; but he could not believe that Mr.
Corbet had come to any enduring or final resolution to break off his
engagement, and he had almost reasoned himself back into his former
state of indignation at impertinence and injury, when Ellinor came
in, pale, hurried, and anxious.

"Papa! what does this mean?" said she, putting an open note into his
hand. He took up his glasses, but his hand shook so that he could
hardly read. The note was from the Parsonage, to Ellinor; only three
lines sent by Mr. Ness's servant, who had come to fetch Mr. Corbet's
things. He had written three lines with some consideration for
Ellinor, even when he was in his first flush of anger against her
father, and it must be confessed of relief at his own freedom, thus
brought about by the act of another, and not of his own working out,
which partly saved his conscience. The note ran thus:

"DEAR ELLINOR,--Words have passed between your father and me which
have obliged me to leave his house, I fear, never to return to it. I
will write more fully to-morrow. But do not grieve too much, for I
am not, and never have been, good enough for you. God bless you, my
dearest Nelly, though I call you so for the last time.--R. C."

"Papa, what is it?" Ellinor cried, clasping her hands together, as
her father sat silent, vacantly gazing into the fire, after finishing
the note.

"I don't know!" said he, looking up at her piteously; "it's the
world, I think. Everything goes wrong with me and mine: it went
wrong before THAT night--so it can't be that, can it, Ellinor?"

"Oh, papa!" said she, kneeling down by him, her face hidden on his
breast.

He put one arm languidly round her. "I used to read of Orestes and
the Furies at Eton when I was a boy, and I thought it was all a
heathen fiction. Poor little motherless girl!" said he, laying his
other hand on her head, with the caressing gesture he had been
accustomed to use when she had been a little child. "Did you love
him so very dearly, Nelly?" he whispered, his cheek against her:
"for somehow of late he has not seemed to me good enough for thee.
He has got an inkling that something has gone wrong, and he was very
inquisitive--I may say he questioned me in a relentless kind of way."

"Oh, papa, it was my doing, I'm afraid. I said something long ago
about possible disgrace."

He pushed her away; he stood up, and looked at her with the eyes
dilated, half in fear, half in fierceness, of an animal at bay; he
did not heed that his abrupt movement had almost thrown her prostrate
on the ground.

"You, Ellinor! You--you--"

"Oh, darling father, listen!" said she, creeping to his knees, and
clasping them with her hands. "I said it, as if it were a possible
case, of some one else--last August--but he immediately applied it,
and asked me if it was over me the disgrace, or shame--I forget the
words we used--hung; and what could I say?"

"Anything--anything to put him off the scent. God help me, I am a
lost man, betrayed by my child!"

Ellinor let go his knees, and covered her face. Every one stabbed at
that poor heart. In a minute or so her father spoke again.

"I don't mean what I say. I often don't mean it now. Ellinor, you
must forgive me, my child!" He stooped, and lifted her up, and sat
down, taking her on his knee, and smoothing her hair off her hot
forehead. "Remember, child, how very miserable I am, and have
forgiveness for me. He had none, and yet he must have seen I had
been drinking."

"Drinking, papa!" said Ellinor, raising her head, and looking at him
with sorrowful surprise.

"Yes. I drink now to try and forget," said he, blushing and
confused.

"Oh, how miserable we are!" cried Ellinor, bursting into tears--"how
very miserable! It seems almost as if God had forgotten to comfort
us!"

"Hush! hush!" said he. "Your mother said once she did so pray that
you might grow up religious; you must be religious, child, because
she prayed for it so often. Poor Lettice, how glad I am that you are
dead!" Here he began to cry like a child. Ellinor comforted him
with kisses rather than words. He pushed her away, after a while,
and said, sharply: "How much does he know? I must make sure of
that. How much did you tell him, Ellinor?"

"Nothing--nothing, indeed, papa, but what I told you just now!"

"Tell it me again--the exact words!"

"I will, as well as I can; but it was last August. I only said, 'Was
it right for a woman to marry, knowing that disgrace hung over her,
and keeping her lover in ignorance of it?'"

"That was all, you are sure?"

"Yes. He immediately applied the case to me--to ourselves."

"And he never wanted to know what was the nature of the threatened
disgrace?"

"Yes, he did."

"And you told him?"

"No, not a word more. He referred to the subject again today, in the
shrubbery; but I told him nothing more. You quite believe me, don't
you, papa?"

He pressed her to him, but did not speak. Then he took the note up
again, and read it with as much care and attention as he could
collect in his agitated state of mind.

"Nelly," said he, at length, "he says true; he is not good enough for
thee. He shrinks from the thought of the disgrace. Thou must stand
alone, and bear the sins of thy father."

He shook so much as he said this, that Ellinor had to put any
suffering of her own on one side, and try to confine her thoughts to
the necessity of getting her father immediately up to bed. She sat
by him till he went to sleep, and she could leave him, and go to her
own room, to forgetfulness and rest, if she could find those
priceless blessings.

CHAPTER X.

Mr. Corbet was so well known at the Parsonage by the two old
servants, that he had no difficulty, on reaching it, after his
departure from Ford Bank, in having the spare bed-chamber made ready
for him, late as it was, and in the absence of the master, who had
taken a little holiday, now that Lent and Easter were over, for the
purpose of fishing. While his room was getting ready, Ralph sent for
his clothes, and by the same messenger he despatched the little note
to Ellinor. But there was the letter he had promised her in it still
to be written; and it was almost his night's employment to say
enough, yet not too much; for, as he expressed it to himself, he was
half way over the stream, and it would be folly to turn back, for he
had given nearly as much pain both to himself and Ellinor by this
time as he should do by making the separation final. Besides, after
Mr. Wilkins's speeches that evening--but he was candid enough to
acknowledge that, bad and offensive as they had been, if they had
stood alone they might have been condoned.

His letter ran as follows:

"DEAREST ELLINOR, for dearest you are, and I think will ever be, my
judgment has consented to a step which is giving me great pain,
greater than you will readily believe. I am convinced that it is
better that we should part; for circumstances have occurred since we
formed our engagement which, although I am unaware of their exact
nature, I can see weigh heavily upon you, and have materially
affected your father's behaviour. Nay, I think, after to-night, I
may almost say have entirely altered his feelings towards me. What
these circumstances are I am ignorant, any further than that I know
from your own admission, that they may lead to some future disgrace.
Now, it may be my fault, it may be in my temperament, to be anxious,
above all things earthly, to obtain and possess a high reputation. I
can only say that it is so, and leave you to blame me for my weakness
as much as you like. But anything that might come in between me and
this object would, I own, be ill tolerated by me; the very dread of
such an obstacle intervening would paralyse me. I should become
irritable, and, deep as my affection is, and always must be, towards
you, I could not promise you a happy, peaceful life. I should be
perpetually haunted by the idea of what might happen in the way of
discovery and shame. I am the more convinced of this from my
observation of your father's altered character--an alteration which I
trace back to the time when I conjecture that the secret affairs took
place to which you have alluded. In short, it is for your sake, my
dear Ellinor, even more than for my own, that I feel compelled to
affix a final meaning to the words which your father addressed to me
last night, when he desired me to leave his house for ever. God
bless you, my Ellinor, for the last time my Ellinor. Try to forget
as soon as you can the unfortunate tie which has bound you for a time
to one so unsuitable--I believe I ought to say so unworthy of you--
as--RALPH CORBET."

Ellinor was making breakfast when this letter was given her.
According to the wont of the servants of the respective households of
the Parsonage and Ford Bank, the man asked if there was any answer.
It was only custom; for he had not been desired to do so. Ellinor
went to the window to read her letter; the man waiting all the time
respectfully for her reply. She went to the writing-table, and
wrote:

"It is all right--quite right. I ought to have thought of it all
last August. I do not think you will forget me easily, but I entreat
you never at any future time to blame yourself. I hope you will be
happy and successful. I suppose I must never write to you again:
but I shall always pray for you. Papa was very sorry last night for
having spoken angrily to you. You must forgive him--there is great
need for forgiveness in this world.--ELLINOR."

She kept putting down thought after thought, just to prolong the last
pleasure of writing to him. She sealed the note, and gave it to the
man. Then she sat down and waited for Miss Monro, who had gone to
bed on the previous night without awaiting Ellinor's return from the
dining-room.

"I am late, my dear," said Miss Monro, on coming down, "but I have a
bad headache, and I knew you had a pleasant companion." Then,
looking round, she perceived Ralph's absence.

"Mr. Corbet not down yet!" she exclaimed. And then Ellinor had to
tell her the outline of the facts so soon likely to be made public;
that Mr. Corbet and she had determined to break off their engagement;
and that Mr. Corbet had accordingly betaken himself to the Parsonage;
and that she did not expect him to return to Ford Bank. Miss Monro's
astonishment was unbounded. She kept going over and over all the
little circumstances she had noticed during the last visit, only on
yesterday, in fact, which she could not reconcile with the notion
that the two, apparently so much attached to each other but a few
hours before, were now to be for ever separated and estranged.
Ellinor sickened under the torture; which yet seemed like torture in
a dream, from which there must come an awakening and a relief. She
felt as if she could not hear any more; yet there was more to hear.
Her father, as it turned out, was very ill, and had been so all night
long; he had evidently had some kind of attack on the brain, whether
apoplectic or paralytic it was for the doctors to decide. In the
hurry and anxiety of this day of misery succeeding to misery, she
almost forgot to wonder whether Ralph were still at the Parsonage--
still in Hamley; it was not till the evening visit of the physician
that she learnt that he had been seen by Dr. Moore as he was taking
his place in the morning mail to London. Dr. Moore alluded to his
name as to a thought that would cheer and comfort the fragile girl
during her night-watch by her father's bedside. But Miss Monro stole
out after the doctor to warn him off the subject for the future,
crying bitterly over the forlorn position of her darling as she
spoke--crying as Ellinor had never yet been able to cry: though all
the time, in the pride of her sex, she was as endeavouring to

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