The parlour-maid took Mr. Wonham to the study. He had been in the drawing-room before, but had got bored, and so had strolled out into the garden. Now he was in better spirits, as a man ought to be who has knocked down a man. As he passed through the hall he sparred at the teak monkey, and hung his cap on the bust of Hermes. And he greeted Mrs. Elliot with a pleasant clap of laughter. "Oh, I've come with the most tremendous news!" he cried.
She bowed, but did not shake hands, which rather surprised him. But he never troubled over "details." He seldom watched people, and never thought that they were watching him. Nor could he guess how much it meant to her that he should enter her presence smok- ing. Had she not said once at Cadover, "Oh, please smoke; I love the smell of a pipe"?
"Would you sit down? Exactly there, please." She placed him at a large table, opposite an inkpot and a pad of blotting-paper.
"Will you tell your 'tremendous news' to me? My brother and my husband are giving the boys their dinner."
"Ah!" said Stephen, who had had neither time nor money for breakfast in London.
"I told them not to wait for me."
So he came to the point at once. He trusted this handsome woman. His strength and his youth called to hers, expecting no prudish response. "It's very odd. It is that I'm Rickie's brother. I've just found out. I've come to tell you all."
He felt in his pocket for the papers. "Half-brother I ought to have said."
"I'm illegitimate. Legally speaking, that is, I've been turned out of Cadover. I haven't a penny. I--"
"There is no occasion to inflict the details." Her face, which had been an even brown, began to flush slowly in the centre of the cheeks. The colour spread till all that he saw of her was suffused, and she turned away. He thought he had shocked her, and so did she. Neither knew that the body can be insincere and express not the emotions we feel but those that we should like to feel. In reality she was quite calm, and her dislike of him had nothing emotional in it as yet.
"You see--" he began. He was determined to tell the fidgety story, for the sooner it was over the sooner they would have something to eat. Delicacy he lacked, and his sympathies were limited. But such as they were, they rang true: he put no decorous phantom between him and his desires.
"I do see. I have seen for two years." She sat down at the head of the table, where there was another ink-pot. Into this she dipped a pen. "I have seen everything, Mr. Wonham--who you are, how you have behaved at Cadover, how you must have treated Mrs. Failing yesterday; and now"--her voice became very grave--"I see why you have come here, penniless. Before you speak, we know what you will say."
His mouth fell open, and he laughed so merrily that it might have given her a warning. But she was thinking how to follow up her first success. "And I thought I was bringing tremendous news!" he cried. "I only twisted it out of Mrs. Failing last night. And Rickie knows too?"
"We have known for two years."
"But come, by the bye,--if you've known for two years, how is it you didn't--" The laugh died out of his eyes. "You aren't ashamed?" he asked, half rising from his chair. "You aren't like the man towards Andover?"
"Please, please sit down," said Agnes, in the even tones she used when speaking to the servants; "let us not discuss side issues. I am a horribly direct person, Mr. Wonham. I go always straight to the point." She opened a chequebook. "I am afraid I shall shock you. For how much?"
He was not attending.
"There is the paper we suggest you shall sign." She pushed towards him a pseudo-legal document, just composed by Herbert.
"In consideration of the sum of..., I agree to perpetual silence- -to restrain from libellous...never to molest the said Frederick Elliot by intruding--'"
His brain was not quick. He read the document over twice, and he could still say, "But what's that cheque for?"
"It is my husband's. He signed for you as soon as we heard you were here. We guessed you had come to be silenced. Here is his signature. But he has left the filling in for me. For how much? I will cross it, shall I? You will just have started a banking account, if I understand Mrs. Failing rightly. It is not quite accurate to say you are penniless: I heard from her just before you returned from your cricket. She allows you two hundred a- year, I think. But this additional sum--shall I date the cheque Saturday or for tomorrow?"
At last he found words. Knocking his pipe out on the table, he said slowly, "Here's a very bad mistake."
"It is quite possible," retorted Agnes. She was glad she had taken the offensive, instead of waiting till he began his blackmailing, as had been the advice of Rickie. Aunt Emily had said that very spring, "One's only hope with Stephen is to start bullying first." Here he was, quite bewildered, smearing the pipe-ashes with his thumb. He asked to read the document again. "A stamp and all!" he remarked.
They had anticipated that his claim would exceed two pounds.
"I see. All right. It takes a fool a minute. Never mind. I've made a bad mistake."
"You refuse?" she exclaimed, for he was standing at the door. "Then do your worst! We defy you!"
"That's all right, Mrs. Elliot," he said roughly. "I don't want a scene with you, nor yet with your husband. We'll say no more about it. It's all right. I mean no harm."
"But your signature then! You must sign--you--"
He pushed past her, and said as he reached for his cap, "There, that's all right. It's my mistake. I'm sorry." He spoke like a farmer who has failed to sell a sheep. His manner was utterly prosaic, and up to the last she thought he had not understood her. "But it's money we offer you," she informed him, and then darted back to the study, believing for one terrible moment that he had picked up the blank cheque. When she returned to the hall he had gone. He was walking down the road rather quickly. At the corner he cleared his throat, spat into the gutter, and disappeared.
"There's an odd finish," she thought. She was puzzled, and determined to recast the interview a little when she related it to Rickie. She had not succeeded, for the paper was still unsigned. But she had so cowed Stephen that he would probably rest content with his two hundred a-year, and never come troubling them again. Clever management, for one knew him to be rapacious: she had heard tales of him lending to the poor and exacting repayment to the uttermost farthing. He had also stolen at school. Moderately triumphant, she hurried into the side- garden: she had just remembered Ansell: she, not Rickie, had received his card.
"Oh, Mr. Ansell!" she exclaimed, awaking him from some day-dream. "Haven't either Rickie or Herbert been out to you? Now, do come into dinner, to show you aren't offended. You will find all of us assembled in the boys' dining-hall."
To her annoyance he accepted.
"That is, if the Jacksons are not expecting you."
The Jacksons did not matter. If he might brush his clothes and bathe his lip, he would like to come.
"Oh, what has happened to you? And oh, my pretty lobelias!"
He replied, "A momentary contact with reality," and she, who did not look for sense in his remarks, hurried away to the dining- hall to announce him.
The dining-hall was not unlike the preparation room. There was the same parquet floor, and dado of shiny pitchpine. On its walls also were imperial portraits, and over the harmonium to which they sang the evening hymns was spread the Union Jack. Sunday dinner, the most pompous meal of the week, was in progress. Her brother sat at the head of the high table, her husband at the head of the second. To each he gave a reassuring nod and went to her own seat, which was among the junior boys. The beef was being carried out; she stopped it. "Mr. Ansell is coming," she called. "Herbert there is more room by you; sit up straight, boys." The boys sat up straight, and a respectful hush spread over the room.
"Here he is!" called Rickie cheerfully, taking his cue from his wife. "Oh, this is splendid!" Ansell came in. "I'm so glad you managed this. I couldn't leave these wretches last night!" The boys tittered suitably. The atmosphere seemed normal. Even Herbert, though longing to hear what had happened to the blackmailer, gave adequate greeting to their guest: "Come in, Mr. Ansell; come here. Take us as you find us!"
"I understood," said Stewart, "that I should find you all. Mrs. Elliot told me I should. On that understanding I came."
It was at once evident that something had gone wrong.
Ansell looked round the room carefully. Then clearing his throat and ruffling his hair, he began-
"I cannot see the man with whom I have talked, intimately, for an hour, in your garden."
The worst of it was they were all so far from him and from each other, each at the end of a tableful of inquisitive boys. The two masters looked at Agnes for information, for her reassuring nod had not told them much. She looked hopelessly back.
"I cannot see this man," repeated Ansell, who remained by the harmonium in the midst of astonished waitresses. "Is he to be given no lunch?"
Herbert broke the silence by fresh greetings. Rickie knew that the contest was lost, and that his friend had sided with the enemy. It was the kind of thing he would do. One must face the catastrophe quietly and with dignity. Perhaps Ansell would have turned on his heel, and left behind him only vague suspicions, if Mrs. Elliot had not tried to talk him down. "Man," she cried-- "what man? Oh, I know--terrible bore! Did he get hold of you?"-- thus committing their first blunder, and causing Ansell to say to Rickie, "Have you seen your brother?"
"I have not."
"Have you been told he was here?"
Rickie's answer was inaudible.
"Have you been told you have a brother?"
"Let us continue this conversation later."
"Continue it? My dear man, how can we until you know what I'm talking about? You must think me mad; but I tell you solemnly that you have a brother of whom you've never heard, and that he was in this house ten minutes ago." He paused impressively. "Your wife has happened to see him first. Being neither serious nor truthful, she is keeping you apart, telling him some lie and not telling you a word."
There was a murmur of alarm. One of the prefects rose, and Ansell set his back to the wall, quite ready for a battle. For two years he had waited for his opportunity. He would hit out at Mrs. Elliot like any ploughboy now that it had come. Rickie said: "There is a slight misunderstanding. I, like my wife, have known what there is to know for two years"--a dignified rebuff, but their second blunder.
"Exactly," said Agnes. "Now I think Mr. Ansell had better go."
"Go?" exploded Ansell. "I've everything to say yet. I beg your pardon, Mrs. Elliot, I am concerned with you no longer. This man"--he turned to the avenue of faces--"this man who teaches you has a brother. He has known of him two years and been ashamed. He has--oh--oh--how it fits together! Rickie, it's you, not Mrs. Silt, who must have sent tales of him to your aunt. It's you who've turned him out of Cadover. It's you who've ordered him to be ruined today.
Now Herbert arose. "Out of my sight, sir! But have it from me first that Rickie and his aunt have both behaved most generously. No, no, Agnes, I'll not be interrupted. Garbled versions must not get about. If the Wonham man is not satisfied now, he must be insatiable. He cannot levy blackmail on us for ever. Sir, I give you two minutes; then you will be expelled by force."
"Two minutes!" sang Ansell. "I can say a great deal in that." He put one foot on a chair and held his arms over the quivering room. He seemed transfigured into a Hebrew prophet passionate for satire and the truth. "Oh, keep quiet for two minutes," he cried, "and I'll tell you something you'll be glad to hear. You're a little afraid Stephen may come back. Don't be afraid. I bring good news. You'll never see him nor any one like him again. I must speak very plainly, for you are all three fools. I don't want you to say afterwards, 'Poor Mr. Ansell tried to be clever.' Generally I don't mind, but I should mind today. Please listen. Stephen is a bully; he drinks; he knocks one down; but he would sooner die than take money from people he did not love. Perhaps he will die, for he has nothing but a few pence that the poor gave him and some tobacco which, to my eternal glory, he accepted from me. Please listen again. Why did he come here? Because he thought you would love him, and was ready to love you. But I tell you, don't be afraid. He would sooner die now than say you were his brother. Please listen again--"
"Now, Stewart, don't go on like that," said Rickie bitterly. "It's easy enough to preach when you are an outsider. You would be more charitable if such a thing had happened to yourself. Easy enough to be unconventional when you haven't suffered and know nothing of the facts. You love anything out of the way, anything queer, that doesn't often happen, and so you get excited over this. It's useless, my dear man; you have hurt me, but you will never upset me. As soon as you stop this ridiculous scene we will finish our dinner. Spread this scandal; add to it. I'm too old to mind such nonsense. I cannot help my father's disgrace, on the one hand; nor, on the other, will I have anything to do with his blackguard of a son."
So the secret was given to the world. Agnes might colour at his speech; Herbert might calculate the effect of it on the entries for Dunwood House; but he cared for none of these things. Thank God! he was withered up at last.
"Please listen again," resumed Ansell. "Please correct two slight mistakes: firstly, Stephen is one of the greatest people I have ever met; secondly, he's not your father's son. He's the son of your mother."
It was Rickie, not Ansell, who was carried from the hall, and it was Herbert who pronounced the blessing--
A profound stillness succeeded the storm, and the boys, slipping away from their meal, told the news to the rest of the school, or put it in the letters they were writing home.
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