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all other seasons Lady Moffat had hitherto spent out of town. Ever since her marriage her life had been a quiet one, as free from excitement as from pecuniary anxiety. In her wildest imaginings she had never deemed it possible for her to become a leader of fashion, a lady of great social importance, a woman about whom many people would talk, a person it would be considered an honour to know. Even when Sir John bought Holyrood House, her ambition had not soared above balls such as were given by other ladies of her acquaintance, or dull dinner-parties after a similar pattern to those her husband and herself occasionally partook of in company with a certain number of other guests, all drawn carefully from the same pecuniary grade as themselves.
Holyrood House, however, and Miss Banks had enlarged her horizon. With wonder and contempt she looked back at the humdrum existence she had led while she was, as she mentally put it, young enough to enjoy herself.'
The years passed in a monotonous respectability, in domestic decorum, in dull propriety, seemed as they recurred to memory as so much time wasted, time which in a woman's life could never be recalled. She might have been a reigning belle, her pictures might have hung in the Academy (no, on second thoughts that involved too much publicity), she might have been talked of as a beauty, she might have been presented at Court. O, had she but known Miss Banks or some one such as Miss Banks say fourteen years previously, what could she not have achieved! Social successthe sort of notoriety always so dear to the heart of such a woman -enjoyment, parties, admiration;
but yet it was not quite too late. She could not recall the time wasted; nevertheless there were still many hours before that period when she should be quite old.'
She was, if not young, a handsome woman; her glass, her maid, her milliner, Miss Banks, told her that. She had money, position, opportunity to produce a mark on society. The ball was at her feet- And then there came a curious mental pause, during which an awful terror shook her nerves-was it? At any hour, at any minute, might not the luck of the cards turn, and she, who had already scored so many tricks, find herself hustled from the social game a hopeless loser?
She did not often think of this; there had been a time when she scarcely thought of it at all; when she was able to forget all about the matter, as many people forget best part of their lives the certainty of death and eternity; but since Fortune had smiled upon and made her a greater lady than even her most fanciful dreams could have pictured, since she had acquired so much that the very thought of surrendering any portion made her tremble, the memory that she was not quite secure obtruded itself more frequently, and the very greatness of her position cast an awful shadow, at which with half-averted eyes she was forced occasionally to glance.
After Sir John was knighted, after the first blush of that glory had worn off, and she began to find the difference between a rank held merely for life and one which must be transmitted, she said one day in his presence to her eldest
'You have little to thank your father for. If he had been like anybody else, some day people would have called you "Sir" too.' There ensued an ominous silence.
The lad answered nothing; her husband read on as though he had not heard her words. Even she was daunted; for one brief second Sir John had lifted his eyes ere dropping them again on the page he failed to see. She felt she had gone too far, that something must follow her indiscretion, and something did.
'Mira,' began Sir John, when, his son leaving the room, they were alone. 'Stay a moment,' he went on, for she was going also; 'I want to speak to you.'
He rose and crossed to the door to see it was closely shut, and then came back to where she sat defiantly with hands folded one over the other.
Are you mad,' he asked, 'to go on in this way? Don't you know that were I a baronet tomorrow Gilbert never could succeed to the title?'
'I don't see why,' she retorted. 'I do not suppose you would tell, and I am sure I should not.'
He turned to a bookcase, and taking down a Peerage which happened to be on one of the shelves, turned over the leaves till he came to a paragraph suitable for his purpose.
'Here, you see,' and he held the volume before her, and with his fingers italicised as it were particular passages as he read "Blank, 9th Bart. creat. 1696. Sir Blank Blank, son of the 8th Baronet by the daughter of James Snowdon, Esq., of Ilfradale, Northumberland. Born in Piccadilly 1805; married 1839, eldest daughter of G. Harwood, Esq.
dences, Craig-a-lea, Lanarkshire; Largelands, Halliford, Middlesex. Heir, his son Ralph, born 1841." You hear?'
"Yes, I hear. Now read me about some knight; where are you?'
'Not in this book yet. I shall be next year.'
Surely,' she said, 'you might have filled in any dates.'
'I could not do that, Mira,' he answered.
'What,' she persisted jeeringly, 'would that have been more difficult than visiting a sick man and helping a sick man under an assumed name because he had a pretty wife?'
He did not answer her, he did not say a word-he knew out of that first weakness had grown all the other sin; but time had taught him it was not of the slightest avail appealing to the generous instincts of a woman who could not understand what the word generosity meant.
'Why don't you speak?' she asked, after an impatient pause. 'I suppose you are not going to tell me you mean to say nothing whatever?
That is precisely what I do intend, Mira,' he answered. 'You do not perhaps understand these things. I am beginning to have a glimmering of how they work. If I say nothing, they can guess nothing; but if I fill in the smallest particular, I give a handle they would not be slow to use. For instance, suppose I were to write, "Married widow of Thomas Palthorpe, Esq., 185-," some one would at once set to work and find out who Thomas Palthorpe was, and discover that in the year mentioned he was not dead, but in Australia. On the other hand, suppose I were to state, "Married 185-," any one looking at the
entry would know there was a mystery connected with the children. Are you ill, Mira? I would not have said even this much if you had not forced it from me.'
She waved him back; she sat down again in the chair from which she had partly risen, looking white as death, sick and wan and worn. She was beginning to understand-vaguely, it is true, but still, after a fashion-the thousand doors through which liscovery might come. Any hour, any minute, one might swing on its hinges, and a haunting terror, taking palpable shape, stalk across her life.
'I never meant to harass you with all the doubts that have tormented me,' continued her husband; but I want now to put the matter plainly before you, so that we need not again recur to it. I would not accept a baronetcy because of the consequences I knew it must involve. To please you, and also to rebut doubts which I knew were arising, I consented to be knighted, and have repented the concession every hour since that honour was put upon me. We were happier in obscurity, Mira, if you could only think it. For persons situated as we are, there is no safe path save through the valley.'
She did not answer; she heard, but she made no sign. She knew by experience on some points it was useless to argue with her husband, and that nothing she could say would induce him to do the thing she herself would have done without the smallest scruple-namely, fill in any name, any date, any falsehood, which might even temporarily serve her
He had now lived so many years with the weight of a disgraceful secret oppressing him, and the gnawing of a terrible
repentance eating into his very soul, that he could never, during the whole of their married experience, be said to have known the meaning of the word happiness; but he did not intend to try and find a way out of the maze of difficulties in which this sin had involved him by heaping up falsehoods, by weaving fresh entanglements that would enmesh those who came after him. on the contrary, would have told any number of untruths likely to suit her immediate purpose, and backed them up by more, if nocessary; for, though she had neither the temper nor the nature which lies glibly and tells falsehoods apparently for the mere pleasure of lying, she was troubled by no scruples of conscience, or any of those fears that deter wise people from entering upon a road of which it is impossible to see
Lady Moffat was not a clever or an educated woman. Time and association had taught her nothing save a few of the conventionalities of society. She had not hitherto been thrown amongst persons versed in the ways of the world. She had heard petty gossip, but not that deep, searching, probing gossip which certainly expands the minds, while it destroys the heart. The people amongst whom her way had hitherto lain were very quiet, very respectable, very circumscribed in their ideas, very narrow in their notions, not given to much talk concerning the many objectionable matters which are now so freely talked about in fashionable society, and possessing no knowledge whatever of the scheming and plotting and wickedness carried on in the great world into which they had never penetrated.
Miss Banks knew more of sin than all of them put together.
She had heard more scandalous stories, listened to more dread ful revelations, than those quiet ladies could have imagined being repeated to any decent woman. There was no topic upon which she discoursed in the abandon of friendly confidence that she left free from a track of slime. Terrible tales had she of the doings in apparently respectable families; horrible narratives, some of which had to be told almost in whispers-narratives one might well hope, for the credit of humanity, had not a syllable of truth about them-and yet still which were repeated so circumstantially and with such dramatic force of description and choice of words that they took possession of the imagination, and haunted the memory with frightful tenacity, when far better things were quite forgotten, and stories of good deeds and transcendent virtue had completely faded away from recollection.
Quite safely it may be averred there was not a scandal, true or false, connected with the Upper Ten, Miss Banks had not at her fingers' ends. As a dog digs up some unsavoury bone, so Miss Banks, if there were an unclean thing buried and put out of sight, disinterred it for the benefit of sympathetic acquaintances.
With her, youth was not innocent or age secure. She had heard some terrible thing about this girl-wife or that elderly father of a family. Those set in authority were not safe from her tongue; and those who of preference sought obscurity were dragged from their retreat, that the scars of old sorrows, the tears of bitter suffering, might be brought to light.
Amongst other matters of which, from time to time, she discoursed at length to Lady Moffat was the case of a certain lady, who had
not been, as the discreet spinster phrased it, 'married at the proper time.' She and her husband were at the precise period so poor and so obscure that the world never troubled its head about them, and when they emerged from penury they were received 'like anybody else, and matters taken for granted.' Eventually the whirligig of time brought this event about. Her husband succeeded to a title, a great title, explained Miss Banks with emphasis, and she found herself all at once a very grand lady.
Then,' proceeded the old gossip, 'came a bitter trouble. Some horrid person discovered that only a few weeks elapsed between the marriage and the birth of the eldest son. They were in despair. How to keep the secret intact they could not devise. They bribed one editor, they brought influence to bear upon another, they got the boy of a third into the Blue Coat School; but there was a fourth man who scoffed at all their offers. He, it appears, had some old grudge against the husband, and declared he would. never forget or forgive it. The lady went to this creature to see what her entreaties would do. I heard she knelt to him all in vain. However, at last he said, "You have a daughter; let her marry me, and then the matter can remain in the family."' 'Good gracious exclaimed Lady Moffat.
And she did marry him,' proceeded Miss Banks, and they are the most miserable pair I suppose you ever heard of. Live like cat and dog. However, anything was better, I suppose they all thought, than such a scandal; so you see even the very highest in the land have their troubles.'
'But I can't imagine what good the marriage effected,' said the
auditor, if every one knew about the matter.'
'But every one did not know,'
corrected Miss Banks.
'You know ;' and the remark cut so cleverly two ways, that Miss Banks looked keenly at Lady Moffat if she meant it in any double sense.
'I O yes, of course,' she answered after that momentary scrutiny. I am acquainted with some of their nearest relations; but the world has not an idea of the fact the son himself has not, poor fellow!'
'It would not signify much, I should think, if he had,' returned Lady Moffat. His position is secure enough, I suppose?'
Miss Banks gave a little scream, and threw up her hands in despair.
'My dear soul,' she cried, 'you must not say such things. I know you are delightfully radical in all your views, but the world is not yet ripe for the reception of such opinions. Of course it does not matter how frankly you speak to me; but do not, for goodness' sake, talk in that way to other people. They would not understand it in the least.'
This pleasing anecdote, in which, it may be remarked, there was not a single word of truth, though to Miss Banks no credit could be ascribed for that, as she merely repeated what she had heard from a very spiteful member of the great person's family, made a deep impression upon Lady Moffat.
She reflected about it very earnestly; she unconsciously worked out a rule-of-three sum in this wise given that the world would have thought so much evil of the grand lady's sin, what would it think of hers? Where would it place a woman who, her husband being still alive, had lived with another for years,
No; she would not pursue that inquiry any further. Perhaps, after all, Sir John had been right not to accept a higher title; the world, the great world, seemed full of people given to prying and poking into affairs which were no concern of theirs.
Lady Moffat might not be clever,
indeed, in many things she was most intensely dull; but she had wit enough to comprehend the creed held by Miss Banks and others of the same genus, viz. that the only unpardonable crime is to be found out.
If Mr. Seaton could have gone on cheating and swindling and extracting money from the pockets of credulous clergymen and foolish governesses and silly widows, not a tongue would have wagged against him. If a man chose to break every commandment so long as he could escape the law, people were willing to welcome him. Vice was not vice in some persons; dishonesty lolling back in its carriage was quite a distinct thing from dishonesty creeping on foot and breaking into dwelling-houses, and picking pockets in a povertystricken sort of fashion. All she had to do was to keep her own counsel, and she might go on to the end successful and prosperous, unless, indeed, anything most unforeseen occurred. But nothing would occur; she told herself that often. She felt quite satisfied she was safe, though one night she found herself sitting up in bed panting with the horror of an awful dream oppressing her; and on another occasion, when she was seated quite alone on a bench in Kensington Gardens, she could have declared she heard the name 'Palthorpe' uttered, though there was not a creature near she had seen before in all her life.
'I am not well,' she decided; and this was true.