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Before my return to England, I found that familiarity with the sights and sounds of a more magnificent nature had removed my past life to a great distance. What had interested my childhood had strangely dwindled, yet gathered a new interest from its far-off and forsaken look. So much did my past wear to me now the look of something read in a story, that I am haunted with a doubt whether I may not have communicated too much of this appearance to my description of it, although I have kept as true as my recollections would enable me. The outlines must be correct: if the colouring be unreal, it is because of the haze which hangs about the memories of the time.
The revisiting of old scenes is like walking into a mausoleum. Everything is a monument of something dead and gone. For we die daily. Happy those who daily come to life as well!
I returned with a clear conscience, for not only had I as yet escaped corruption, but for the greater part of the time at least I had worked well. If Mr Forest's letter which I carried to my uncle contained any hint intended to my disadvantage, it certainly fell dead on his mind; for he treated me with a consideration and respect which at once charmed and humbled me.
One day as we were walking together over the fields, I told him the whole story of the loss of the weapon at Moldwarp Hall. Up to the time of my leaving for Switzerland I had shrunk from any reference to the subject, so painful was it to me, and so convinced was I that his sympathy would be confined to a compassionate smile and a few words of condolence.
But glancing at his face now and then as I told the tale, I discovered more of interest in the play of his features than. I had expected; and when he learned that it was absolutely gone from me, his face flushed with what seemed anger. For some moments after I had finished he was silent. At length he said,
'It is a strange story, Wilfrid, my boy. There must be some explanation of it, however.'
He then questioned me about Mr Close, for suspicion pointed in his direction. I was in great hopes he would follow my narrative with what he knew of the sword, but he was still silent, and I could not question him, for I had long suspected that its history had to do with the secret which he wanted me to keep from myself.
The very day of my arrival I went up to my grandmother's room, which I found just as she had left it. There stood her easy-chair, there her bed, there the old bureau. The room looked far less mysterious now that she was not there; but it looked painfully deserted. One thing alone was still as it were enveloped in its ancient atmosphere--the bureau. I tried to open it--with some trembling, I confess; but only the drawers below were unlocked, and in them I found nothing but garments of old-fashioned stuffs, which I dared not touch.
But the day of childish romance was over, and life itself was too strong and fresh to allow me to brood on the past for more than an occasional half-hour. My thoughts were full of Oxford, whither my uncle had resolved I should go; and I worked hard in preparation.
'I have not much money to spare, my boy,' he said; 'but I have insured my life for a sum sufficient to provide for your aunt, if she should survive me; and after her death it will come to you. Of course the old house and the park, which have been in the family for more years than I can tell, will be yours at my death. A good part of the farm was once ours too, but not for these many years. I could not recommend you to keep on the farm; but I confess I should be sorry if you were to part with our own little place, although I do not doubt you might get a good sum for it from Sir Giles, to whose park it would be a desirable addition. I believe at one time, the refusal to part with our poor little vineyard of Naboth was cause of great offence, even of open feud between the great family at the Hall and the yeomen who were your ancestors; but poor men may be as unwilling as rich to break one strand of the cord that binds them to the past. But of course when you come into the property, you will do as you see fit with your own.'
'You don't think, uncle, I would sell this house, or the field it stands in, for all the Moldwarp estate? I too have my share of pride in the family, although as yet I know nothing of its history.'
'Surely, Wilfrid, the feeling for one's own people who have gone before is not necessarily pride!'
'It doesn't much matter what you call it, uncle.'
'Yes, it does, my boy. Either you call it by the right name or by the wrong name. If your feeling is pride, then I am not objecting to the name, but the thing. If your feeling is not pride, why call a good thing by a bad name? But to return to our subject: my hope is that, if I give you a good education, you will make your own way. You might, you know, let the park, as we call it, for a term of years.'
'I shouldn't mind letting the park,' I answered, 'for a little while; but nothing should ever make me let the dear old house. What should I do if I wanted it to die in?'
The old man smiled, evidently not ill-pleased.
'What do you say to the bar?' he asked.
'I would rather not,' I answered.
'Would you prefer the Church?' he asked, eyeing me a little doubtfully.
'No, certainly, uncle,' I answered. 'I should want to be surer of a good many things before I dared teach them to other people.'
'I am glad of that, my boy. The fear did cross my mind for a moment that you might be inclined to take to the Church as a profession, which seems to me the worst kind of infidelity. A thousand times rather would I have you doubtful about what is to me the highest truth, than regarding it with the indifference of those who see in it only the prospect of a social position and livelihood. Have you any plan of your own?'
'I have heard,' I answered, circuitously, 'that many barristers have to support themselves by literary work, for years before their own profession begin to show them favour. I should prefer going in for the writing at once.'
'It must be a hard struggle either way,' he replied; 'but I should not leave you without something to fall back upon. Tell me what makes you think you could be an author?'
'I am afraid it is presumptuous,' I answered, 'but as often as I think of what I am to do, that is the first thing that occurs to me. I suppose,' I added, laughing, 'that the favour with which my school-fellows at Mr Elder's used to receive my stories is to blame for it. I used to tell them by the hour together.'
'Well,' said my uncle, 'that proves, at least, that, if you had anything to say, you might be able to say it; but I am afraid it proves nothing more.'
'Nothing more, I admit. I only mentioned it to account for the notion.'
'I quite understand you, my boy. Meantime, the best thing in any case will be Oxford. I will do what I can to make it an easier life for you than I found it.'
Having heard nothing of Charley Osborne since he left Mr Forest's, I went one day, very soon after my return, to call on Mr Elder, partly in the hope of learning something about him. I found Mrs Elder unchanged, but could not help fancying a difference in Mr Elder's behaviour, which, after finding I could draw nothing from him concerning Charley, I attributed to Mr Osborne's evil report, and returned foiled and vexed. I told my uncle, with some circumstance, the whole story: explaining how, although unable to combat the doubts which occasioned Charley's unhappiness, I had yet always hung to the side of believing.
'You did right to do no more, my boy,' said my uncle; 'and it is clear you have been misunderstood--and ill-used besides. But every wrong will be set right some day.'
My aunt showed me now far more consideration--I do not say--than she had felt before. A curious kind of respect mingled with her kindness, which seemed a slighter form of the observance with which she constantly regarded my uncle.
My study was pretty hard and continuous. I had no tutor to direct me or take any of the responsibility off me.
I walked to the Hall one morning to see Mrs Wilson. She was kind, but more stiff even than before. From her I learned two things of interest. The first, which beyond measure delighted me, was, that Charley was at Oxford--had been there for a year. The second was that Clara was at school in London. Mrs Wilson shut her mouth very primly after answering my question concerning her; and I went no further in that direction. I took no trouble to ask her concerning the relationship of which Mr Coningham had spoken. I knew already from my uncle that it was a fact, but Mrs Wilson did not behave in such a manner as to render me inclined to broach the subject. If she wished it to remain a secret from me, she should be allowed to imagine it such.
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