EARLIER than usual on the morning of Thursday, the twenty-third of July, Mr. Clare appeared at the door of his cottage, and stepped out into the little strip of garden attached to his residence.
After he had taken a few turns backward and forward, alone, he was joined by a spare, quiet, gray-haired man, whose personal appearance was totally devoid of marked character of any kind; whose inexpressive face and conventionally-quiet manner presented nothing that attracted approval and nothing that inspired dislike. This was Mr. Pendril -- this was the man on whose lips hung the future of the orphans at Combe-Raven.
"The time is getting on," he said, looking toward the shrubbery, as he joined Mr. Clare.
"My appointment with Miss Garth is for eleven o'clock: it only wants ten minutes of the hour."
"Are you to see her alone?" asked Mr. Clare.
"I left Miss Garth to decide -- after warning her, first of all, that the circumstances I am compelled to disclose are of a very serious nature."
"And has she decided?"
"She writes me word that she mentioned my appointment, and repeated the warning I had given her to both the daughters. The elder of the two shrinks -- and who can wonder at it? -- from any discussion connected with the future which requires her presence so soon as the day after the funeral. The younger one appears to have expressed no opinion on the subject. As I understand it, she suffers herself to be passively guided by her sister's example. My interview, therefore, will take place with Miss Garth alone -- and it is a very great relief to me to know it."
He spoke the last words with more emphasis and energy than seemed habitual to him. Mr. Clare stopped, and looked at his guest attentively.
"You are almost as old as I am, sir," he said. "Has all your long experience as a lawyer not hardened you yet?"
"I never knew how little it had hardened me," replied Mr. Pendril, quietly, "until I returned from London yesterday to attend the funeral. I was not warned that the daughters had resolved on following their parents to the grave. I think their presence made the closing scene of this dreadful calamity doubly painful, and doubly touching. You saw how the great concourse of people were moved by it -- and they were in ignorance of the truth; they knew nothing of the cruel necessity which takes me to the house this morning. The sense of that necessity -- and the sight of those poor girls at the time when I felt my hard duty toward them most painfully -- shook me, as a man of my years and my way of life is not often shaken by any distress in the present or any suspense in the future. I have not recovered it this morning: I hardly feel sure of myself yet."
"A man's composure -- when he is a man like you -- comes with the necessity for it," said Mr. Clare. "You must have had duties to perform as trying in their way as the duty that lies before you this morning."
Mr. Pendril shook his head. "Many duties as serious; many stories more romantic. No duty so trying, no story so hopeless, as this."
With those words they parted. Mr. Pendril left the garden for the shrubbery path which led to Combe-Raven. Mr. Clare returned to the cottage.
On reaching the passage, he looked through the open door of his little parlor and saw Frank sitting there in idle wretchedness, with his head resting wearily on his hand.
"I have had an answer from your employers in London," said Mr. Clare. "In consideration of what has happened, they will allow the offer they made you to stand over for another month."
Frank changed color, and rose nervously from his chair.
"Are my prospects altered?" he asked. "Are Mr. Vanstone's plans for me not to be carried out? He told Magdalen his will had provided for her. She repeate d his words to me; she said I o ught to know all that his goodness and generosity had done for both of us. How can his death make a change? Has anything happened?"
"Wait till Mr. Pendril comes back from Combe-Raven," said his father. "Question him -- don't question me."
The ready tears rose in Frank's eyes.
"You won't be hard on me?" he pleaded, faintly. "You won't expect me to go back to London without seeing Magdalen first?"
Mr. Clare looked thoughtfully at his son, and considered a little before he replied.
"You may dry your eyes," he said. "You shall see Magdalen before you go back."
He left the room, after making that reply, and withdrew to his study. The books lay ready to his hand as usual. He opened one of them and set himself to read in the customary manner. But his attention wandered; and his eyes strayed away, from time to time, to the empty chair opposite -- the chair in which his old friend and gossip had sat and wrangled with him good-humoredly for many and many a year past. After a struggle with himself he closed the book. "D -- n the chair!" he said: "it will talk of him; and I must listen." He reached down his pipe from the wall and mechanically filled it with tobacco. His hand shook, his eyes wandered back to the old place; and a heavy sigh came from him unwillingly. That empty chair was the only earthly argument for which he had no answer: his heart owned its defeat and moistened his eyes in spite of him. "He has got the better of me at last," said the rugged old man. "There is one weak place left in me still -- and he has found it."
Meanwhile, Mr. Pendril entered the shrubbery, and followed the path which led to the lonely garden and the desolate house. He was met at the door by the man-servant, who was apparently waiting in expectation of his arrival.
"I have an appointment with Miss Garth. Is she ready to see me?"
"Quite ready, sir."
"Is she alone?"
"In the room which was Mr. Vanstone's study?"
"In that room, sir."
The servant opened the door and Mr. Pendril went in.
The governess stood alone at the study window. The morning was oppressively hot, and she threw up the lower sash to admit more air into the room, as Mr. Pendril entered it.
They bowed to each other with a formal politeness, which betrayed on either side an uneasy sense of restraint. Mr. Pendril was one of the many men who appear superficially to the worst advantage, under the influence of strong mental agitation which it is necessary for them to control. Miss Garth, on her side, had not forgotten the ungraciously guarded terms in which the lawyer had replied to her letter; and the natural anxiety which she had felt on the subject of the interview was not relieved by any favorable opinion of the man who sought it. As they confronted each other in the silence of the summer's morning -- both dressed in black; Miss Garth's hard features, gaunt and haggard with grief; the lawyer's cold, colorless face, void of all marked expression, suggestive of a business embarrassment and of nothing more -- it would have been hard to find two persons less attractive externally to any ordinary sympathies than the two who had now met together, the one to tell, the other to hear, the secrets of the dead.
"I am sincerely sorry, Miss Garth, to intrude on you at such a time as this. But circumstances, as I have already explained, leave me no other choice."
"Will you take a seat, Mr. Pendril? You wished to see me in this room, I believe?"
"Only in this room, because Mr. Vanstone's papers are kept here, and I may find it necessary to refer to some of them."
After that formal interchange of question and answer, they sat down on either side of a table placed close under the window. One waited to speak, the other waited to bear. There was a momentary silence. Mr. Pendril broke it by referring to the young ladies, with the customary expressions of sympathy. Miss Garth answered him with the same ceremony, in the same conventional tone. There was a second pause of silence. The humming of flies among the evergreen shrubs under the window penetrated drowsily into the room; and the tramp of a heavy-footed cart-horse, plodding along the high-road beyond the garden, was as plainly audible in the stillness as if it had been night.
The lawyer roused his flagging resolution, and spoke to the purpose when he spoke next.
"You have some reason, Miss Garth," he began, "to feel not quite satisfied with my past conduct toward you, in one particular. During Mrs. Vanstone's fatal illness, you addressed a letter to me, making certain inquiries; which, while she lived, it was impossible for me to answer. Her deplorable death releases me from the restraint which I had imposed on myself, and permits -- or, more properly, obliges me to speak. You shall know what serious reasons I had for waiting day and night in the hope of obtaining that interview which unhappily never took place; and in justice to Mr. Vanstone's memory, your own eyes shall inform you that he made his will."
He rose; unlocked a little iron safe in the corner of the room; and returned to the table with some folded sheets of paper, which he spread open under Miss Garth's eyes. When she had read the first words, "In the name of God, Amen," he turned the sheet, and pointed to the end of the next page. She saw the well-known signature: "Andrew Vanstone." She saw the customary attestations of the two witnesses; and the date of the document, reverting to a period of more than five years since. Having thus convinced her of the formality of the will, the lawyer interposed before she could question him, and addressed her in these words:
"I must not deceive you," he said. "I have my own reasons for producing this document."
"What reasons, sir?"
"You shall hear them. When you are in possession of the truth, these pages may help to preserve your respect for Mr. Vanstone's memory -- "
Miss Garth started back in her chair.
"What do you mean?" she asked, with a stern straightforwardness.
He took no heed of the question; he went on as if she had not interrupted him.
"I have a second reason," he continued, "for showing you the will. If I can prevail on you to read certain clauses in it, under my superintendence, you will make your own discovery of the circumstances which I am here to disclose -circumstances so painful that I hardly know how to communicate them to you with my own lips."
Miss Garth looked him steadfastly in the face.
"Circumstances, sir, which affect the dead parents, or the living children?"
"Which affect the dead and the living both," answered the lawyer. "Circumstances, I grieve to say, which involve the future of Mr. Vanstone's unhappy daughters."
"Wait," said Miss Garth, "wait a little." She pushed her gray hair back from her temples, and struggled with the sickness of heart, the dreadful faintness of terror, which would have overpowered a younger or a less resolute woman. Her eyes, dim with watching, weary with grief, searched the lawyer's unfathomable face. "His unhappy daughters?" she repeated to herself, vacantly. "He talks as if there was some worse calamity than the calamity which has made them orphans." She paused once more; and rallied her sinking courage. "I will not make your hard duty, sir, more painful to you than I can help," she resumed. "Show me the place in the will. Let me read it, and know the worst."
Mr. Pendril turned back to the first page, and pointed to a certain place in the cramped lines of writing. "Begin here," he said.
She tried to begin; she tried to follow his finger, as she had followed it already to the signatures and the dates. But her senses seemed to share the confusion of her mind -- the words mingled together, and the lines swam before her eyes.
"I can't follow you," she said. "You must tell it, or read it to me." She pushed her chair back from the table, and tried to collect herself. "Stop!" she exclaimed, as the lawyer, with visible hesitation and reluctance, took the papers in his own hand. "One question, first. Does his will provide for his children?"
"His will provided for them, when he made it."
"When he made it!" (Something of her natura l bluntness broke out in her man ner as she repeated the answer.) "Does it provide for them now?"
"It does not."
She snatched the will from his hand, and threw it into a corner of the room. "You mean well," she said; "you wish to spare me -- but you are wasting your time, and my strength. If the will is useless, there let it lie. Tell me the truth, Mr. Pendril -- tell it plainly, tell it instantly, in your own words!"
He felt that it would be useless cruelty to resist that appeal. There was no merciful alternative but to answer it on the spot.
"I must refer you to the spring of the present year, Miss Garth. Do you remember the fourth of March?"
Her attention wandered again; a thought seemed to have struck her at the moment when he spoke. Instead of answering his inquiry, she put a question of her own.
"Let me break the news to myself," she said -- "let me anticipate you, if I can. His useless will, the terms in which you speak of his daughters, the doubt you seem to feel of my continued respect for his memory, have opened a new view to me. Mr. Vanstone has died a ruined man -- is that what you had to tell me?"
"Far from it. Mr. Vanstone has died, leaving a fortune of more than eighty thousand pounds -- a fortune invested in excellent securities. He lived up to his income, but never beyond it; and all his debts added together would not reach two hundred pounds. If he had died a ruined man, I should have felt deeply for his children: but I should not have hesitated to tell you the truth, as I am hesitating now. Let me repeat a question which escaped you, I think, when I first put it. Carry your mind back to the spring of this year. Do you remember the fourth of March?"
Miss Garth shook her head. "My memory for dates is bad at the best of times," she said. "I am too confused to exert it at a moment's notice. Can you put your question in no other form?"
He put it in this form:
"Do you remember any domestic event in the spring of the present year which appeared to affect Mr. Vanstone more seriously than usual?"
Miss Garth leaned forward in her chair, and looked eagerly at Mr. Pendril across the table. "The journey to London!" she exclaimed. "I distrusted the journey to London from the first! Yes! I remember Mr. Vanstone receiving a letter -- I remember his reading it, and looking so altered from himself that he startled us all."
"Did you notice any apparent understanding between Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone on the subject of that letter?"
"Yes: I did. One of the girls -- it was Magdalen -- mentioned the post-mark; some place in America. It all comes back to me, Mr. Pendril. Mrs. Vanstone looked excited and anxious, the moment she heard the place named. They went to London together the next day; they explained nothing to their daughters, nothing to me. Mrs. Vanstone said the journey was for family affairs. I suspected something wrong; I couldn't tell what. Mrs. Vanstone wrote to me from London, saying that her object was to consult a physician on the state of her health, and not to alarm her daughters by telling them. Something in the letter rather hurt me at the time. I thought there might be some other motive that she was keeping from me. Did I do her wrong?"
"You did her no wrong. There was a motive which she was keeping from you. In revealing that motive, I reveal the painful secret which brings me to this house. All that I could do to prepare you, I have done. Let me now tell the truth in the plainest and fewest words. When Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone left Combe-Raven, in the March of the present year -- "
Before he could complete the sentence, a sudden movement of Miss Garth's interrupted him. She started violently, and looked round toward the window. "Only the wind among the leaves," she said, faintly. "My nerves are so shaken, the least thing startles me. Speak out, for God's sake! When Mr. and Mrs. Vanstone left this house, tell me in plain words, why did they go to London?"
In plain words, Mr. Pendril told her:
"They went to London to be married."
With that answer he placed a slip of paper on the table. It was the marriage certificate of the dead parents, and the date it bore was March the twentieth, eighteen hundred and forty-six.
Miss Garth neither moved nor spoke. The certificate lay beneath her unnoticed. She sat with her eyes rooted on the lawyer's face; her mind stunned, her senses helpless. He saw that all his efforts to break the shock of the discovery had been efforts made in vain; he felt the vital importance of rousing her, and firmly and distinctly repeated the fatal words.
"They went to London to be married," he said. "Try to rouse yourself: try to realize the plain fact first: the explanation shall come afterward. Miss Garth, I speak the miserable truth! In the spring of this year they left home; they lived in London for a fortnight, in the strictest retirement; they were married by license at the end of that time. There is a copy of the certificate, which I myself obtained on Monday last. Read the date of the marriage for yourself. It is Friday, the twentieth of March -- the March of this present year."
As he pointed to the certificate, that faint breath of air among the shrubs beneath the window, which had startled Miss Garth, stirred the leaves once more. He heard it himself this time, and turned his face, so as to let the breeze play upon it. No breeze came; no breath of air that was strong enough for him to feel, floated into the room.
Miss Garth roused herself mechanically, and read the certificate. It seemed to produce no distinct impression on her: she laid it on one side in a lost, bewildered manner. "Twelve years," she said, in low, hopeless tones -- "twelve quiet, happy years I lived with this family. Mrs. Vanstone was my friend; my dear, valued friend -- my sister, I might almost say. I can't believe it. Bear with me a little, sir, I can't believe it yet."
"I shall help you to believe it when I tell you more," said Mr. Pendril -- "you will understand me better when I take you back to the time of Mr. Vanstone's early life. I won't ask for your attention just yet. Let us wait a little, until you recover yourself."
They waited a few minutes. The lawyer took some letters from his pocket, referred to them attentively, and put them back again. "Can you listen to me, now?" he asked, kindly. She bowed her head in answer. Mr. Pendril considered with himself for a moment, "I must caution you on one point," he said. "If the aspect of Mr. Vanstone's character which I am now about to present to you seems in some respects at variance with your later experience, bear in mind that, when you first knew him twelve years since, he was a man of forty; and that, when I first knew him, he was a lad of nineteen."
His next words raised the veil, and showed the irrevocable Past.Next