Chapter XVI. The Inconstancy of Constance.
 

The two gentlemen who had gone to Darminster brought home tidings that the police who had been put on the track of Flinders had telegraphed that it was thought that a person answering to his description had embarked at Liverpool in an American-bound steamer.

This idea, though very uncertain, was a relief, at least to all except the boys, who thought it a great shame that such a rascal should escape, and wanted to know whether the Americans could not be made to give him up. They did not at all understand their elders being glad, for the sake of Maurice Mohun and his dead wife, that the man should not be publicly convicted, and above all that Dolores should not have to bear testimony against him in court, and describe her own very doubtful proceedings. Besides, there would have been other things to try him for, since he had cheated the publishing house which employed him of all he had been able to get into his hands. There was reason to believe that he had heavy debts, especially gambling ones, and that he had become desperate since he no longer had his step-sister to fall back upon.

Looking into his room, among other papers, a half-burnt manuscript was found upon his grate among some exhausted cinders, as if he had been trying to use the unfortunate 'Waif of the Moorland' to eke out his last fire. Moreover, the proprietor of the Politician told Colonel Mohun of having remonstrated with him on the exceeding weakness and poorness of the 'Constantia' poetry, 'which,' as that indignant personage added, 'was evidently done merely as a lure to the unfortunate young lady.'

The fifteen pounds had been accepted in an honourable and ladylike manner by the elder sister--but without any overpowering expression of gratitude. No doubt it was a bitter pill to her, forced down by necessity, and without guessing that it cost the donors anything.

Dolores's mind was set at rest as to Flinders's evasion before night, and on the Sunday morning even Nurse Halfpenny could find out nothing the matter with her, so that she was obliged to make her appearance as usual. Uncle Reginald did not kiss her, he only gave a cold nod, and said 'Good morning.' Otherwise all went on as usual, and it was pleasant to find that Fly was as entirely used as they were to learning Collect and hymn, and copying out texts illustrating Catechism, and that she was expected to have them ready to repeat them to her mother some time in the afternoon. There was something, too, that Mysie could not have described, but which she liked, in the manner in which, on this morning, Dolores accepted small acts of good nature, such as finding a book for her, getting a new pen and helping her to the whereabouts of a Scriptural reference. It seemed for the first time as if she liked to receive a kindness, and her 'thank you' really had a sound of thanks, instead of being much more like 'I wish you would not.' Mysie felt really encouraged to be kind, and when, on setting forth to church, everybody was crowding round trying to walk with Fly, and Dolores was going along lonely and deserted, Mysie resigned her chance of one side of the favourite Phyllis, and dropped back to give her company to the solitary one. To her surprise and gratification, Dolores took hold of her hand, and listened quite willingly to her chatter about the schemes for the fortnight that Fly was to be left with them. Presently Constance was seen going markedly by the other gate of the churchyard, quite out of her usual way, and not even looking towards them.

It was the last day of the old year, and, in the midst of the Christmas joy, there were allusions to it in the services and hymns. Something in the tune of 'Days and moments quickly flying,' touched some chord in Dolores's spirit, and set her off crying. She would have done anything to stop it, but there was no helping it, great round splashes came down, and the more she was afraid of being noticed, the worse the choking grew. At last, the very worst person--she thought--to take notice. Uncle Reginald, did so, and, under cover of a general rising, said sternly, 'Stop that, or go out.'

Stop that! Much did the colonel know about a girl's tears, or how she would have given anything to check them. But here was Aunt Lily edging down to her, taking her by the hand, leading her out, she did not know how, stopping all who would have come after them with help--then pausing a little in the open, frosty air.

'Oh, Aunt Lily! I am very sorry!'

'Never mind that, my dear. Do you feel poorly?'

'Oh no; I'm quite well--only--'

'Only overcome--I don't wonder--my dear--can you walk quietly home with me?'

'Yes, please.'

Nothing was said till they had passed the 'idle corner,' where men and half-grown lads smoked their pipes in anything but Sunday trim; and stared at the lady making her exit, till they were through the short street with shop windows closed, and a strong atmosphere of cooking, and had come into the quiet lane leading to the paddock. Then Lady Merrifield laid her hand on the girl's shoulder very gently, and said, 'It was too much for you, my dear, you are not quite strong yet.'

'Oh yes; I'm well. Only I am so very--very miserable,' and the gust of sobs and tears rushed on her again.

'Dear child, I should like to be able to help you!'

'You can't! I've done it! And--and they'll all be against me always-- Uncle Regie and all!'

'Uncle Regie was very much hurt, but I'm sure he will forgive you when he sees how sorry you are. You know we all hope this is going to be a fresh start. I am sure you were deceived.'

'Yes,' said Dolores. 'I never could have thought he--Uncle Alfred--was such a dreadful man'

'I expect that since he lost your mother's influence and help he may have sunk lower than when you had seen him before. Did your father give you any directions about him?'

'No. Father hated to hear of him' and never spoke about him if he could help it; and we thought it was all Mohun high notions because he wasn't quite a gentleman.'

'I see. Indeed, my dear, though you have done very wrong, I have already felt that there was great excuse for you in trying to keep up intercourse with a person who belonged to your mother. I wish you had told me, but I suppose you were afraid.'

'Yes' said Dolores. 'And I thought you were sure to be cross and harsh,' she muttered. And then suddenly looking up, 'Oh, Aunt Lily! everybody is angry but you--you and Mysie! Please go on being kind! I believe you've been good to me always.'

'My dear, I've tried,' said Lady Merrifield, with fears in her brown eyes and a choke in her voice caressing the hand that had been put into hers. 'I have wished very much to make you happy with us; but the ways of a large family must be a trial to a new-comer.'

Dolores raised her face for a kiss, and said, 'I see it now. But I did not like everything always, and I thought aunts were sure to be unkind.'

'That was very hard. And why?'

She was heard to mutter something about aunts in books always being cross.

'Ah! my dear! I suppose there are some unkind aunts, but I am sure there are a great many more who wish with all their hearts to make happy homes for their nieces. I hope now we may do so. I have more hope than ever I had, and so I shall write to your father.'

'And please--please,' cried Dolores, 'don't let Uncle Regie write him a very dreadful letter! I know he will.'

'I think you can prevent that best yourself, by telling Uncle Regie how sorry you are. He was specially grieved because he thinks you told him two direct falsehoods.'

'Oh! I didn't think they were that,' said Dolores, 'for it was true that father did not leave anything with me for Uncle Alfred. And I did not know whether it was me whom he saw at Darminster. I did tell you one once, Aunt Lily, when you asked if I gave Constance a note. At least, she gave it to me, and not I to her. Indeed, I don't tell falsehoods, Aunt Lily--I mean I never did at home, but Constance said everybody said those sort of things at school, and that one was driven to it when one was---'

'Was what, my dear?'

'Tyrannized over,' Dolores got out.

'Ah! Dolly, I am afraid Constance was no real friend. It was a great mistake to think her like Miss Hacket.'

'And now she has sent back all my notes, and won't look at me or speak to me,' and Dolores's tears began afresh.

'It is very ungenerous of her, but very likely she will be very sorry to have done so when her first anger is over, and she understands that you were quite as much deceived as she was.'

'But I shall never care for her again. It is not like Mysie, who never stopped being kind all the time--nor Gillian either. I shall cut her next time!'

'You should remember that she has something to forgive. I don't want you to be intimate with her but I think it would be better if, instead of quarrelling openly, you wrote a note to say that you were deceived and that you are very sorry for what you brought on her.'

'I should not have gone on with it but for her and Her stupid poems!'

'Can you bear to tell me how it all was, my dear? I do not half understand it.'

And on the way home, and in Lady Merrifield's own room Dolores found it a relief to pour forth an explanation of the whole affair, beginning with that meeting with Mr. Flinders at Exeter, of which no one had heard, and going on to her indignation at the inspection of her letters; and how Constance had undertaken to conduct her correspondence, 'and that made it seem as if she must write to some one,'--so she wrote to Uncle Alfred. And then Constance, becoming excited at the prospect of a literary connection, all the rest followed. It was a great relief to have told it all, and Lady Merrifield was glad to see that the sense of deceit was what weighed most heavily upon her niece, and seemed to have depressed her all along. Indeed, the aunt came to the conclusion that though Dolores alone might still have been sullen, morose and disagreeable, perhaps very reserved, she never would have kept up the systematic deceit but for Constance. The errors, regarded as sin, weighed on Lady Merrifield's mind, but she judged it wiser not to press that thought on an unprepared spirit, trusting that just as Dolores had wakened to the sense of the human love that surrounded her, hitherto disbelieved and disregarded, so she might yet awake to the feeling of the Divine love and her offence against it.

The afternoon was tolerably free, for the gentlemen, including the elder boys, walked to evensong at a neighbouring church noted for its musical services, and Lady Merrifield, as she said, 'lashed herself up' to go with Gillian, carry back the remnant of the unhappy 'Waif,' and 'have it out' with Constance, who would, she feared, never otherwise understand the measure of her own delinquency, and from whom, perhaps, evidence might be extracted which would palliate the poor child's offence in the eyes of Colonel Mohun. Both the Hacket sisters looked terribly frightened when she appeared, and the elder one made an excuse for getting her outside the door to beseech her to be careful, dear Constance was so nervous and so dreadfully upset by all she had undergone. Lady Merrifield was not the least nervous of the two, and she felt additionally displeased with Constance for not having said one word of commiseration when her sister had inquired for Dolores. On returning to the drawing-room, Lady Merrifield found the young lady standing by the window, playing with the blind, and looking as if she wanted to make her escape.

'I do not know whether you will be sorry or glad to see this,' said Lady Merrifield, producing a half-burnt roll of paper. 'It was found in Mr. Flinders's grate, and my brother thought you would be glad that it should not get into strange hands.'

'Oh, it was cruel! it was base! What a wicked man he is!' cried Constance, with hot tears, as she beheld the mutilated condition of her poor 'Waif.'

'Yes, it was a most unfortunate thing that you. should have run into intercourse with such an utterly untrustworthy person.'

'I was grossly deceived, Lady Merrifield!' said Constance, clasping her hands somewhat theatrically.

'I shall never believe in any one again!'

'Not without better grounds, I hope,' was the answer. 'Your poor little friend is terribly broken down by all this.'

'Don't call her my friend. Lady Merrifield. She has used me shamefully! What business had she to tell me he was her uncle when he was no such thing?'

'She had been always used to call him so.'

'Don't tell me, Lady Merrifield,' said Constance, who, after her first fright, was working herself into a passion. 'You don't know what a little viper you have been warming, nor what things she has been continually saying of you. She told me--'

Lady Merrifield held up her hand with authority.

'Stay, Constance. Do you think it is generous in you to tell me this?'

'I am sure you ought to know.'

'Then why did you encourage her?'

'I pitied her--I believed her--I never thought she would have led me into this!'

'How did she lead you?'

'Always talking about her precious, persecuted uncle. I believe she was in league with him all the time!'

'That is nonsense,' said Lady Merrifield, 'as you must see if you reflect a little. Dolores was too young to have been told this man's real character; she only knew that her mother, who had spent her childhood with him, treated him as a brother, and did all she could for him. Dolores did very wrongly and foolishly in keeping up a connection with him unknown to me; but I cannot help feeling there was great excuse for her, and she was quite as much deceived as you were.'

'Oh, of course, you stand by your own niece, Lady Merrifield. If you knew what horrid things she said about your pride and unkindness, as she called it, you would not think she deserved it.'

'Nay, that is exactly what does most excuse her in my eyes. Her fancying such things of me was what did prevent her from confiding in me.'

Constance had believed herself romantic, but the Christian chivalry of Lady Merrifield's nature was something quite beyond her. She muttered something about Dolores not deserving, which made her visitor really angry, and say, 'We had better not talk of deserts. Dolores is a mere child--a mother-less child, who had been a good deal left to herself for many months. I let her come to you because she seemed shy and unhappy with us, and I did not like to deny her the one pleasure she seemed to care for. I knew what an excellent person and thorough lady your sister is, and I thought I could perfectly trust her with you. I little thought you would have encouraged her in concealment, and--I must say--deceit, and thus made me fail in the trust her father reposed in me.'

'I would never have done it,' Constance sobbed, 'but for what she said about you. Lady Merrifield!'

'Well, and even if I am such a hard, severe person, does that make it honourable or right to help the child I trusted to you to carry on this underhand correspondence?'

Constance hung her head. Her sister had said the same to her, but she still felt herself the most injured party, and thought it very hard that she should be so severely blamed for what the girls at her school treated so lightly. She said, 'I am very sorry. Lady Merrifield,' but it was not exactly the tone of repentance, and it ended with: 'If it had not been for her, I should never have done it.'

'I suppose not, for there would have been no temptation. I was in hopes that you would have shown some kindlier and more generous feeling towards the younger girl, who could not have gone so far wrong without your assistance, and who feels your treatment of her very bitterly. But to find you incapable of understanding what you have done, makes me all the more glad that the friendship--if friendship it can be called-- is broken off between you. Good-bye. I think when you are older and wiser, you will be very sorry to recollect the doings of the last few months.'

Lady Merrifield walked away, and found on her return that Dolores had succeeded in writing to her father, and was so utterly tired out by the feelings it had cost her that she was only fit to lie on the sofa and sleep.

Gillian was, of course, not seen till she came home from evening service.

'Oh, mamma,' she said, 'what did you do to Constance?'

'Why?'

'Well, I heard you shut the front door. And presently after there came such a noise through the wall that all the girls pricked up their ears, and Miss Hacket jumped up in a fright. If it had been Val, one would have called it a naughty child roaring.'

'What! did I send her into hysterics?'

'I suppose, as she is grown up, it must have the fine name, but it wasn't a bit like poor Dolly's choking. I am sure she did it to make her sister come! Well, of course, Miss Hacket went away, and I did the best I could, but what could one do with all these screeches and bellowings breaking out?'

'For shame. Gill!'

'I can't help it, mamma. If you had only seen their faces when the uproar came in a fresh gust! How they whispered, and some looked awe- struck. I thought I had better get rid of them, and come home myself; but Miss Hacket met me, and implored me to stay, and I was weak-minded enough to do so. I wish I hadn't, for it was only to be provoked past bearing. That horrid girl has poisoned even Miss Hacket's mind, and she thinks you have been hard on her darling. You did not know how nervous and timid dear Connie is!'

'Well, Gill, I confess she made me very angry, and I told her what I thought of her.'

'And that she didn't choose to hear!'

'Did you see her again?'

'No, I am thankful to say, I did not. But Miss Hacket would go on all tea-time, explaining and explaining for me to tell you how dear Connie is so affectionate and so easily led, and how Dolores came over her with persuasions, and deceived her. I declare I never liked Dolly so well before. At any rate, she doesn't make professions, and not a bit more fuss than she can help. And there was Miss Hacket getting brandy cherries and strong coffee, and I don't know what all, because dear Connie was so overcome, and dear Lady Merrifield was quite under a mistake, and so deceived by Dolores. I told Miss Hacket you were never under a mistake nor deceived.'

'You didn't, Gillian!'

'Yes, I did, and the stupid woman only wanted to kiss me (but I wouldn't let her) and said I was very right to stand up for my dear mamma. As if that had anything to do with it! What are you laughing at, mamma? Why, Uncle Regie is laughing, and Cousin Rotherwood! What is it?'

'At the two partisans who never stand up for their own families,' said Uncle Regie.

'But it's true!' cried Gillian.

'What! that I am never mistaken nor deceived?' said Lady Merrifield.

'Except when you took Miss Constance for a sensible woman, eh?' said her brother.

'That I never did! But I did take her for a moderately honourable one.'

'Well, that was a mistake,' owned Gillian. 'And Miss Hacket is as bad! There's no gratitude---'

'Hush!' broke in her mother; and Gillian stopped abashed, while Lady Merrifield continued, 'I won't have Miss Hacket abused. She is only blinded by sisterly affection.'

'I don't think I can go there again,' said Gillian, 'after what she said about you.'

'Nonsense!' said her mother. 'Don't be as bad as Constance in trying to make me angry by telling me all poor Dolly's grumblings.'

'Follow your mother's example, Gillian,' said Lord Rotherwood, 'and, if possible, never hear, certainly never attend to, what any one says of you behind your back.'

'Is said to have said of you, you should add, Rotherwood,' put in the colonel. 'It is a decree worse than eavesdropping.'

'Oh, Regie!' exclaimed his sister.

'Well, not perhaps for your own honour and conscience, but the keyhole is a more trustworthy medium than the reporter.'

'That's a strong way of stating it, but, at any rate, the keyhole has no temper nor imagination, or prejudice of its own,' said Lady Merrifield.

'No, and as far as it goes, it enables you to judge of the frame in which the words, even if correctly reported, were spoken,' added Colonel Mohun.

'The moral of which is,' said Lord Rotherwood, drolly, 'that Gillian is not to take notice of anyone's observations upon her unless she has heard them through the keyhole.'

'And so one would never hear them at all.'

'Q. E. D.,' said Lord Rotherwood. 'And now, Lily, do you. ever sing the two evening-hymns. Ken and Keble, now, as the family used to do on Sundays at the Old Court, long ere the days of 'Hymns Ancient and Modern'?

'Don't we?' said Lady Merrifield. 'Only all our best voices will be singing it at Rawul Pindee!'

And, as she struck a note on the piano, all the younger people still up, Mysie, Phyllis, Wilfred and Valetta, gathered round from the outer room to join in their evening Sunday delight. Fly put her hand into her father's and whispered, 'You told me about it, daddy.' He began to sing, but his voice thickened as he missed the tones once associated with it. And Lady Merrifield, too, nearly broke down as with all her heart she sang, hopefully,

                   'Now Lord, the gracious work begin.'