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Chapter 14

Paula was in her boudoir, writing down some notes previous to
beginning her wedding toilet, which was designed to harmonize
with the simplicity that characterized the other arrangements.
She owned that it was depriving the neighbourhood of a pageant
which it had a right to expect of her; but the circumstance
was inexorable.

Mrs. Goodman entered Paula's room immediately behind
Charlotte. Perhaps the only difference between the Paula of
to-day and the Paula of last year was an accession of
thoughtfulness, natural to the circumstances in any case, and
more particularly when, as now, the bride's isolation made
self-dependence a necessity. She was sitting in a light
dressing-gown, and her face, which was rather pale, flushed at
the entrance of Charlotte and her aunt.

'I knew you were come,' she said, when Charlotte stooped and
kissed her. 'I heard you. I have done nothing this morning,
and feel dreadfully unsettled. Is all well?'

The question was put without thought, but its aptness seemed
almost to imply an intuitive knowledge of their previous
conversation. 'Yes,' said Charlotte tardily.

'Well, now, Clementine shall dress you, and I can do with
Milly,' continued Paula. 'Come along. Well, aunt--what's the
matter?--and you, Charlotte? You look harassed.'

'I have not slept well,' said Charlotte.

'And have not you slept well either, aunt? You said nothing
about it at breakfast.'

'O, it is nothing,' said Mrs. Goodman quickly. 'I have been
disturbed by learning of somebody's villainy. I am going to
tell you all some time to-day, but it is not important enough
to disturb you with now.'

'No mystery!' argued Paula. 'Come! it is not fair.'

'I don't think it is quite fair,' said Miss De Stancy, looking
from one to the other in some distress. 'Mrs. Goodman--I must
tell her! Paula, Mr. Som--'

'He's dead!' cried Paula, sinking into a chair and turning as
pale as marble. 'Is he dead?--tell me!' she whispered.

'No, no--he's not dead--he is very well, and gone to Normandy
for a holiday!'

'O--I am glad to hear it,' answered Paula, with a sudden cool
mannerliness.

'He has been misrepresented,' said Mrs. Goodman. 'That's
all.'

'Well?' said Paula, with her eyes bent on the floor.

'I have been feeling that I ought to tell you clearly, dear
Paula,' declared her friend. 'It is absolutely false about
his telegraphing to you for money--it is absolutely false that
his character is such as that dreadful picture represented it.
There--that's the substance of it, and I can tell you
particulars at any time.'

But Paula would not be told at any time. A dreadful sorrow
sat in her face; she insisted upon learning everything about
the matter there and then, and there was no withstanding her.

When it was all explained she said in a low tone: 'It is that
pernicious, evil man Dare--yet why is it he?--what can he have
meant by it! Justice before generosity, even on one's
wedding-day. Before I become any man's wife this morning I'll
see that wretch in jail! The affair must be sifted. . . . O,
it was a wicked thing to serve anybody so!--I'll send for
Cunningham Haze this moment--the culprit is even now on the
premises, I believe--acting as clerk of the works!' The
usually well-balanced Paula was excited, and scarcely knowing
what she did went to the bell-pull.

'Don't act hastily, Paula,' said her aunt. 'Had you not
better consult Sir William? He will act for you in this.'

'Yes--He is coming round in a few minutes,' said Charlotte,
jumping at this happy thought of Mrs. Goodman's. 'He's going
to run across to see how you are getting on. He will be here
by ten.'

'Yes--he promised last night.'

She had scarcely done speaking when the prancing of a horse
was heard in the ward below, and in a few minutes a servant
announced Sir William De Stancy.

De Stancy entered saying, 'I have ridden across for ten
minutes, as I said I would do, to know if everything is easy
and straightforward for you. There will be time enough for me
to get back and prepare if I start shortly. Well?'

'I am ruffled,' said Paula, allowing him to take her hand.

'What is it?' said her betrothed.

As Paula did not immediately answer Mrs. Goodman beckoned to
Charlotte, and they left the room together.

'A man has to be given in charge, or a boy, or a demon,' she
replied. 'I was going to do it, but you can do it better than
I. He will run away if we don't mind.'

'But, my dear Paula, who is it?--what has he done?'

'It is Dare--that young man you see out there against the
sky.' She looked from the window sideways towards the new
wing, on the roof of which Dare was walking prominently about,
after having assisted two of the workmen in putting a red
streamer on the tallest scaffold-pole. 'You must send
instantly for Mr. Cunningham Haze!'

'My dearest Paula,' repeated De Stancy faintly, his complexion
changing to that of a man who had died.

'Please send for Mr. Haze at once,' returned Paula, with
graceful firmness. 'I said I would be just to a wronged man
before I was generous to you--and I will. That lad Dare--to
take a practical view of it--has attempted to defraud me of
one hundred pounds sterling, and he shall suffer. I won't
tell you what he has done besides, for though it is worse, it
is less tangible. When he is handcuffed and sent off to jail
I'll proceed with my dressing. Will you ring the bell?'

'Had you not better consider?' began De Stancy.

'Consider!' said Paula, with indignation. 'I have considered.
Will you kindly ring, Sir William, and get Thomas to ride at
once to Mr. Haze? Or must I rise from this chair and do it
myself?'

'You are very hasty and abrupt this morning, I think,' he
faltered.

Paula rose determinedly from the chair. 'Since you won't do
it, I must,' she said.

'No, dearest!--Let me beg you not to!'

'Sir William De Stancy!'

She moved towards the bell-pull; but he stepped before and
intercepted her.

'You must not ring the bell for that purpose,' he said with
husky deliberateness, looking into the depths of her face.

'It wants two hours to the time when you might have a right to
express such a command as that,' she said haughtily.

'I certainly have not the honour to be your husband yet,' he
sadly replied, 'but surely you can listen? There exist
reasons against giving this boy in charge which I could easily
get you to admit by explanation; but I would rather, without
explanation, have you take my word, when I say that by doing
so you are striking a blow against both yourself and me.'

Paula, however, had rung the bell.

'You are jealous of somebody or something perhaps!' she said,
in tones which showed how fatally all this was telling against
the intention of that day. 'I will not be a party to
baseness, if it is to save all my fortune!'

The bell was answered quickly. But De Stancy, though plainly
in great misery, did not give up his point. Meeting the
servant at the door before he could enter the room he said.
'It is nothing; you can go again.'

Paula looked at the unhappy baronet in amazement; then turning
to the servant, who stood with the door in his hand, said,
'Tell Thomas to saddle the chestnut, and--'

'It's all a mistake,' insisted De Stancy. 'Leave the room,
James!'

James looked at his mistress.

'Yes, James, leave the room,' she calmly said, sitting down.
'Now what have you to say?' she asked, when they were again
alone. 'Why must I not issue orders in my own house? Who is
this young criminal, that you value his interests higher than
my honour? I have delayed for one moment sending my messenger
to the chief constable to hear your explanation--only for
that.'

'You will still persevere?'

'Certainly. Who is he?'

'Paula. . . he is my son.'

She remained still as death while one might count ten; then
turned her back upon him. 'I think you had better go away,'
she whispered. 'You need not come again.'

He did not move. 'Paula--do you indeed mean this?' he asked.

'I do.'

De Stancy walked a few paces, then said in a low voice: 'Miss
Power, I knew--I guessed just now, as soon as it began--that
we were going to split on this rock. Well--let it be--it
cannot be helped; destiny is supreme. The boy was to be my
ruin; he is my ruin, and rightly. But before I go grant me
one request. Do not prosecute him. Believe me, I will do
everything I can to get him out of your way. He shall annoy
you no more. . . . Do you promise?'

'I do,' she said. 'Now please leave me.'

'Once more--am I to understand that no marriage is to take
place to-day between you and me?'

'You are.'

Sir William De Stancy left the room. It was noticeable
throughout the interview that his manner had not been the
manner of a man altogether taken by surprise. During the few
preceding days his mood had been that of the gambler seasoned
in ill-luck, who adopts pessimist surmises as a safe
background to his most sanguine hopes.

She remained alone for some time. Then she rang, and
requested that Mr. Wardlaw, her father's solicitor and friend,
would come up to her. A messenger was despatched, not to Mr.
Cunningham Haze, but to the parson of the parish, who in his
turn sent to the clerk and clerk's wife, then busy in the
church. On receipt of the intelligence the two latter
functionaries proceeded to roll up the carpet which had been
laid from the door to the gate, put away the kneeling-
cushions, locked the doors, and went off to inquire the reason
of so strange a countermand. It was soon proclaimed in
Markton that the marriage had been postponed for a fortnight
in consequence of the bride's sudden indisposition: and less
public emotion was felt than the case might have drawn forth,
from the ignorance of the majority of the populace that a
wedding had been going to take place at all.

Meanwhile Miss De Stancy had been closeted with Paula for more
than an hour. It was a difficult meeting, and a severe test
to any friendship but that of the most sterling sort. In the
turmoil of her distraction Charlotte had the consolation of
knowing that if her act of justice to Somerset at such a
moment were the act of a simpleton, it was the only course
open to honesty. But Paula's cheerful serenity in some
measure laid her own troubles to rest, till they were
reawakened by a rumour--which got wind some weeks later, and
quite drowned all other surprises--of the true relation
between the vanished clerk of works, Mr. Dare, and the fallen
family of De Stancy.

Thomas Hardy