Chapter XXII.
 

It was half-past nine o'clock next morning when the man-servant at Sir Anthony Merrick's in Harley Street brought up to his master's room a plain hand-written card on which he read the name, "Dolores Barton."

"Does the girl want to blackmail me?" Sir Anthony thought testily.

The great doctor's old age was a lonely and a sordid one. He was close on eighty now, but still to this day he received his patients from ten to one, and closed his shrivelled hand with a clutch on their guineas. For whom, nobody knew. Lady Merrick was long dead. His daughters were well married, and he had quarrelled with their husbands. Of his two younger sons, one had gone into the Fusiliers and been speared at Suakim; the other had broken his neck on a hunting-field in Warwickshire. The old man lived alone, and hugged his money-bags. They were the one thing left for which he seemed to retain any human affection.

So, when he read Dolly's card, being by nature suspicious, he felt sure the child had called to see what she could get out of him.

But when he descended to the consulting-room with stern set face, and saw a beautiful girl of seventeen awaiting him,--a tall sunny-haired girl, with Alan's own smile and Alan's own eyes,--he grew suddenly aware of an unexpected interest. The sun went back on the dial of his life for thirty years or thereabouts, and Alan himself seemed to stand before him. Alan, as he used to burst in for his holidays from Winchester! After all, this pink rosebud was his eldest son's only daughter.

Chestnut hair, pearly teeth, she was Alan all over.

Sir Anthony bowed his most respectful bow, with old-fashioned courtesy.

"And what can I do for you, young lady?" he asked in his best professional manner.

"Grandfather," the girl broke out, blushing red to the ears, but saying it out none the less; "Grandfather, I'm your granddaughter, Dolores Barton."

The old man bowed once more, a most deferential bow. Strange to say, when he saw her, this claim of blood pleased him.

"So I see, my child," he answered. "And what do you want with me?"

"I only knew it last night," Dolly went on, casting down those blue eyes in her shamefaced embarrassment. "And this morning . . . I've come to implore your protection."

"That's prompt," the old man replied, with a curious smile, half suspicious, half satisfied. "From whom, my little one?" And his hand caressed her shoulder.

"From my mother," Dolly answered, blushing still deeper crimson. "From the mother who put this injustice upon me. From the mother who, by her own confession, might have given me an honorable birthright, like any one else's, and who cruelly refused to."

The old man eyed her with a searching glance.

"Then she hasn't brought you up in her own wild ideas?" he said. "She hasn't dinged them into you!"

"She has tried to," Dolly answered. "But I will have nothing to do with them. I hate her ideas, and her friends, and her faction."

Sir Anthony drew her forward and gave her a sudden kiss. Her spirit pleased him.

"That's well, my child," he answered. "That's well--for a beginning."

Then Dolly, emboldened by his kindness,--for in a moment, somehow, she had taken her grandfather's heart by assault,--began to tell him how it had all come about; how she had received an offer from a most excellent young man at Combe Mary in Dorsetshire,--very well connected, the squire of his parish; how she had accepted him with joy; how she loved him dearly; how this shadow intervened; how thereupon, for the first time, she had asked for and learned the horrid truth about her parentage; how she was stunned and appalled by it; how she could never again live under one roof with such a woman; and how she came to him for advice, for encouragement, for assistance. She flung herself on his mercy. Every word she spoke impressed Sir Anthony. This was no mere acting; the girl really meant it. Brought up in those hateful surroundings, innate purity of mind had preserved her innocent heart from the contagion of example. She spoke like a sensible, modest, healthy English maiden. She was indeed a granddaughter any man might be proud of. 'Twas clear as the sun in the London sky to Sir Anthony that she recoiled with horror from her mother's position. He sympathized with her and pitied her. Dolores, all blushes, lifted her eyelids and looked at him. Her grandfather drew her towards him with a smile of real tenderness, and, unbending as none had seen him unbend before since Alan's death, told her all the sad history as he himself envisaged it. Dolores listened and shuddered. The old man was vanquished. He would have taken her once to himself, he said, if Herminia had permitted it; he would take her to himself now, if Dolores would come to him.

As for Dolly, she lay sobbing and crying in Sir Anthony's arms, as though she had always known him. After all, he was her grandfather. Nearer to her in heart and soul than her mother. And the butler could hardly conceal his surprise and amazement when three minutes later Sir Anthony rang the bell, and being discovered alone with a strange young lady in tears, made the unprecedented announcement that he would see no patients at all that morning, and was at home to nobody.

But before Dolly left her new-found relation's house, it was all arranged between them. She was to come there at once as his adopted daughter; was to take and use the name of Merrick; was to see nothing more of that wicked woman, her mother; and was to be married in due time from Sir Anthony's house, and under Sir Anthony's auspices, to Walter Brydges.

She wrote to Walter then and there, from her grandfather's consulting-room. Numb with shame as she was, she nerved her hand to write to him. In what most delicate language she could find, she let him plainly know who Sir Anthony was, and all else that had happened. But she added at the end one significant clause: "While my mother lives, dear Walter, I feel I can never marry you."