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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 to-day, 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


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Online LibraryElizabeth Cleghorn GaskellA Dark Night's Work → online text (page 9 of 16)