Chapter XXII. Cross Purposes.
 

At the Gildersleeves', too, the house that day was alive with excitement.

Gwendoline had thrown herself into a fever of alarm as soon as she had posted her letter to Granville Kelmscott. She went up to her own room, flung herself wildly on the hed, and sobbed herself into a half-hysterical, half-delirious state, long before dinner-time. She hardly knew herself at first how really ill she was. Her hands were hot and her forehead burning. But she disregarded such mere physical and medical details as those, by the side of a heart too full for utterance. She thought only of Granville, and of that horrid man who had threatened with such evident spite and rancour to ruin him.

She lay there some hours alone, in a high fever, before her mother came up to her room to fetch her. Mrs. Gildersleeve was a subdued and soft-voiced woman, utterly crushed, so people said, by the stronger individuality of that blustering, domineering, headstrong man, her husband. And to say the truth, the eminent Q.C. had taken all the will out of her in twenty-three years of obedient slavery. She was pretty still, to be sure, in a certain faded, jaded, unassuming way; but her patient face wore a constant expression of suppressed terror, as if she expected every moment to be the victim of some terrible and unexplained exposure. And that feature at least in her idiosyncrasy could hardly be put down to Gilbert Gildersleeve's account; for hectoring and strong-minded as the successful Q.C. was known to be, nobody could for a moment accuse him in any definite way of deliberate unkindness to his wife or daughter. On the contrary, he was tender and indulgent to them to the last degree, as he understood those virtues. It was only by constant assertion of his own individuality, and constant repression or disregard of theirs, that he had broken his wife's spirit and was breaking his daughter's. He treated them as considerately as one treats a pet dog, doing everything for them that care and money could effect, except to admit for a moment their claim to independent opinions and actions of their own, or to allow the possibility of their thinking and feeling on any subject on earth one nail's breadth otherwise than as he himself did.

At sight of Gwendoline, Mrs. Gildersleeve came over to the bed with a scared and startled air, felt her daughter's face tenderly with her hands for a moment, and then cried in alarm, "Why, Gwennie, what's this? Your cheeks are burning! Who on earth has been here? Has that horrid man come down again from London to worry you?"

Gwendoline looked up and tried to prevaricate. But conscience was too strong for her; the truth would out for all that. "Yes, mother," she cried, after a pause, "and he said, oh, he said--I could never tell you what dreadful things he said. But he's so wicked, so cruel! You never knew such a man! He thinks I want to marry Granville Kelmscott, and so he told me--" She broke off, of a sudden, unable to proceed, and buried her face in her hands, sobbing long and bitterly.

"Well, what did he tell you, dear?" Mrs. Gildersleeve asked, with that frightened air, as of a startled wild thing, growing deeper than ever upon her countenance as she uttered the question.

"He told me--oh, he told me--I can't tell you what he told me; but he threatened to ruin us--he threatened it so dreadfully. It was a hateful threat. He seemed to have found out something that he knew would be our ruin. He frightened me to death. I never heard any one say such things as he did."

Mrs. Gildersleeve drew back in profound agitation. "Found out something that would be our ruin!" she cried, with white face all aghast. "Oh, Gwennie, what do you mean? Didn't he tell you what it was? Didn't he try to explain to you? He's a wicked, wicked man --so cruel, so unscrupulous! He gets one's secrets into his hands, by underhand means, and then uses them to make one do whatever he chooses. I see how it is. He wants to force us into letting him marry you--into making you marry him! Oh, Gwennie, this is hard. Didn't he tell you at all what it was he knew? Didn't he give you a hint what sort of secret he was driving at?"

Gwendoline looked up once more, and murmured low through her sobs, "No, he didn't say what it was. He's too cunning for that. But I think--I think it was something about Granville. Mother, I never told you, but you know I love him! I think it was something about him, though I can't quite make sure. Some secret about somebody not being properly married, or something of that sort. I didn't quite understand. You see, he was so discreetly vague and reticent."

Mrs. Gildersleeve drew back her face all aghast with horror. "Some secret--about somebody--not being properly married!" she repeated slowly, with wild terror in her eyes.

"Yes, mother," Gwendoline gasped out, with an effort once more. "It was about somebody not being really the proper heir; he made me promise I wouldn't tell; but I don't know how to keep it. He was immensely full of it; it was an awful secret; and he said he would ruin us--ruin us ruthlessly. He said we were in his power, and he'd crush us under his heel. And, oh, when he said it, you should have seen his face. It was horrible, horrible. I've seen nothing else since. It dogs me--it haunts me."

Mrs. Gildersleeve sat down by the bedside wringing her hands in silence. "It's too late to-night," she said at last, after a long deep pause, and in a voice like a woman condemned to death, "too late to do anything; but to-morrow your father must go up to town and try to see him. At all costs we must buy him off. He knows everything--that's clear. He'll ruin us. He'll ruin us!"

"It's no use papa going up to town, though," Gwendoline answered half dreamily. "That dreadful man said he was going away for his holiday to the country at once. He'll be gone to-morrow."

"Gone? Gone where?" Mrs. Gildersleeve cried, in the same awestruck voice.

"To Devonshire," Gwendoline replied, shutting her eyes hard and still seeing him.

Mrs. Gildersleeve echoed the phrase in a startled cry. "To Devonshire, Gwendoline! To Devonshire! Did he say to Devonshire?"

"Yes," Gwendoline went on slowly, trying to recall his very words. "To the skirts of Dartmoor, I think he said; to a place in the wilds by the name of Mambury."

"Mambury!"

The terror and horror that frail and faded woman threw into the one word fairly startled Gwendoline. She opened her eyes and stared aghast at her mother. And well she might, for the effect was electrical. Mrs. Gildersleeve was sitting there, transfixed with awe and some unspeakable alarm; her figure was rigid; her face was dead white; her mouth was drawn down with a convulsive twitch; she clasped her bloodless hands on her knees in mute agony. For a moment she sat there like a statue of flesh. Then, as sense and feeling came back to her by slow degrees, she could but rock her body up and down in her chair with a short swaying motion, and mutter over and over again to herself in that same appalled and terrified voice, "Mambury--Mambury--Mambury--Mambury."

"That was the name, I'm sure," Gwendoline went on, almost equally alarmed. "On a hunt after records, he said; on a hunt after records. Whatever it was he wanted to prove, I suppose he knew that was the place to prove it."

Mrs. Gildersleeve rose, or to speak with more truth, staggered slowly to her feet, and, steadying herself with an effort, made blindly for the door, groping her way as she went, like some faint and wounded creature. She said not a word to Gwendoline. She had no tongue left for speech or comment. She merely stepped on, pale and white, pale and white, like one who walks in her sleep, and clutched the door-handle hard to keep her from falling. Gwendoline, now thoroughly alarmed, followed her close on her way to the top of the stairs. There Mrs. Gildersleeve paused, turned round to her daughter with a mute look of anguish and held up one hand, palm outward, appealingly, as if on purpose to forbid her from following farther. At the gesture, Gwendoline fell back, and looked after her mother with straining eyes. Mrs. Gildersleeve staggered on, erect, yet to all appearance almost incapable of motion, and stumbled down the stairs, and across the hall, and into the drawing-room opposite. The rest Gwendoline neither saw, nor heard, nor guessed at. She crept back into her own room, and, flinging herself on her bed alone as she stood, cried still more piteously and miserably than ever.

Down in the drawing-room, however, Mrs. Gildersleeve found the famous Q.C. absorbed in the perusal of that day's paper. She came across towards him, pale as a ghost, and with ashen lips. "Gilbert," she said slowly, blurting it all out in her horror, without one word of warning, "that dreadful man Nevitt has seen Gwennie again, and he's told her he knows all, and he means to ruin us, and he's heard of the marriage, and he's gone down to Mambury to hunt up the records!"

The eminent Q.C. let the paper drop from his huge red hands in the intensity of his surprise, while his jaw fell in unison at so startling and almost incredible a piece of intelligence. "Nevitt knows all!" he exclaimed, half incredulous. "He means to ruin us! And he told this to Gwendoline! Gone down to Mambury! Oh no, Minnie, impossible! You must have made some mistake. What did she say exactly? Did she mention Mambury?"

"She said it exactly as I've said it now to you," Mrs. Gildersleeve persisted with a stony stare. "He's gone down to Devonshire, she said; to the borders of Dartmoor, on a hunt after the records; to a place in the wilds by the name of Mambury. Those were her very words. I could stake my life on each syllable. I give them to you precisely as she gave them to me."

Mr. Gildersleeve gazed across at her with the countenance which had made so many a nervous witness quake at the Old Bailey. "Are you quite sure of that, Minnie?" he asked, in his best cross-examining tone. "Quite sure she said Mambury, all of her own accord? Quite sure you didn't suggest it to her, or supply the name, or give her a hint of its whereabouts, or put her a leading question?"

"Is it likely I'd suggest it to her?" the meekest of women answered, aroused to retort for once, and with her face like a sheet. "Is it likely I'd tell her? Is it likely I'd give my own girl the clue? She said it all of herself, I tell you, without one word of prompting. She said it just as I repeated it--to a place in the wilds by the name of Mambury."

Gilbert Gildersleeve whistled inaudibly to himself. 'Twas his way when he felt himself utterly nonplussed. This was very strange news. He didn't really understand it. But he rose and confronted his wife anxiously. That overbearing big man was evidently stirred by this untoward event to the very depths of his nature.

"Then Gwennie knows all!" he cried, the blood rushing purple into his ruddy flushed cheeks. "The wretch! The brute! He must have told her everything!"

"Oh, Gilbert," his wife answered, sinking into a chair in her horror, "even he couldn't do that--not to my own very daughter! And he didn't do it, I'm sure. He didn't dare--coward as he is, he couldn't be quite so cowardly. She doesn't guess what it means. She thinks it's something, I believe, about Granville Kelmscott. She's in love with young Kelmscott, as I told you long ago, and everything to her mind takes some colour from that fancy. I don't think it ever occurred to her, from what she says, this has anything at all to do with you or me, Gilbert."

The Q.C. reflected. He saw at once he was in a tight corner. That boisterous man, with the burly big hands, looked quite subdued and crestfallen now. He could hardly have snubbed the most unassuming junior. This was a terrible thing, indeed, for a man so unscrupulous and clever as Montague Nevitt to have wormed out of the registers. How he could ever have wormed it out Gilbert Gildersleeve hadn't the faintest idea, Why, who on earth could have shown him the entry of that fatal marriage--Minnie's first marriage--the marriage with that wretch who died in Portland prison--the marriage that was celebrated at St. Mary's, at Mambury? He couldn't for a moment conceive, for nobody but themselves, he fondly imagined, had ever identified Mrs. Gilbert Gildersleeve, the wife of the eminent Q.C., with that unhappy Mrs. Read, the convict's widow. The convict's widow. Ah, there was the rub. For she was really a widow in name alone when Gilbert Gildersleeve married her.

And Montague Nevitt, that human ferret, with his keen sharp eyes, and his sleek polite ways, had found it all out in spite of them--had hunted up the date of Read's death and their marriage, and had bragged how he was going down to Mambury to prove it!

All the Warings and Reads always got married at Widdicombe or Mambury. There were lots of them on the books there, that was one comfort, anyhow. He'd have a good search to find his needle in such a pottle of hay. But to think the fellow should have, had the double-dyed cruelty to break the shameful secret first of all to Gwendoline! That was his vile way of trying to force a poor girl into an unwilling consent. Gilbert Gildersleeve lifted his burly big hands in front of his capacious waistcoat, and pressed them together angrily. If only he had that rascal's throat well between them at that moment! He'd crush the fellow's windpipe till he choked him on the spot, though he answered for it before the judges of assize to-morrow!

"There's only one thing possible for it, Minnie," he said at last, drawing a long deep breath. "I must go down to Mambury to-morrow to be beforehand with him. And I must either buy him off; or else, if that won't do--"

"Or else what, Gilbert?"

She trembled like an aspen leaf.

"Or else get at the books in the vestry myself," the Q.C. muttered low between his clenched teeth, "before the fellow has time to see them and prove it."