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Rickworth Priory, a visit which she was the more desirous of making, as Emma's correspondence, after languishing for awhile, had ceased, excepting that she sent a fresh allegory of Miss Marstone's to Johnnie on each birthday; and the Brandons having given up coming to London for the season, she scarcely knew anything about them, excepting through Theodora, who reported that they retired more and more from society, and that Miss Marstone was much with them.
Theodora would have accompanied Violet, but she was sure that her absence would be a boon to Emma, whom she had of late tried in vain to draw out; and, besides, one of the housemaids was ill, and Theodora, whom her Cousin Hugh called the mother of the maids, wished not to be away at the doctor's visit. So little Johnnie was his mother's only companion; but she was disappointed in her hopes of introducing him to his godmother. To her surprise Lady Elizabeth was alone, Emma was at Gothlands with her friend Miss Marstone.
'They were very kind in asking me,' said Lady Elizabeth, 'and so was Emma about leaving me; but I do not wish to be a drag upon her.'
'Oh! how can you say so?' exclaimed Violet.
'It did not suit,' said Lady Elizabeth. 'The uncle, old Mr. Randal, is an old-fashioned, sporting squire, and the other Miss Marstones are gay ladies. I felt myself out of my element when I was there before; but now I almost wish I was with her.'
'You must miss her very much, indeed.'
'It is what we must all come to, my dear,' said Lady Elizabeth, looking at the young mother, with her boy leaning against her knee, deep in a book of illustrations. 'You have a good many years to look forward to with your little flock; but, one way or other, they will go forth from us.'
Lady Elizabeth thought Johnnie too much absorbed to hear; but Violet found his hand lightly squeezing hers.
'I thought you at least had kept your daughter,' she said.
'Emma will be five-and-twenty in the autumn.'
'But, oh! Lady Elizabeth, I thought--'
'I cannot tell, my dear. I hope Emma's arrangements may be such that we may go on together as before.'
'How do you mean?' exclaimed Violet, confounded.
'Her judgment is sound,' continued Lady Elizabeth, 'if she will only use it; and when it comes to the point, Miss Marstone's may be the same.'
'Is she gone to Gothlands to settle her plans?'
'Yes; I could not well have gone with her, for we have four little orphan girls in the house, whom I could not well leave to the servants. That is quite as I wish, if the rest could be added without Theresa Marstone making this her home, and introducing all the plans they talk of.'
'She could not introduce anything to make you uncomfortable!'
'It is not so much comfort that I mean, my dear. I do not think that I should object to giving up some of the servants, though in my time it was thought right to keep up an establishment. Perhaps a family of women are not called upon to do things in the same style, and there is no doubt that our means may be better employed. We have too many luxuries, and I would not wish to keep them. No, if it was entirely Emma's doing. I should be satisfied; but there is more influence from Miss Marstone than I quite like. I cannot fully rely on her judgment, and I think she likes to manage.'
'She could never presume to manage in your house!'
'Emma's house, my dear.'
'But that is the same.'
Lady Elizabeth sighed, and made a movement with her head, then said, 'All that they think right and conscientious they will do, I am sure, but the worst of it is that Theresa has friends who are not of our Communion, and she does speak strongly of things that do not accord with her notions. I cannot go along with her, and I must confess she sometimes alarms me.
'And does Emma think with her entirely?'
'I fear--I mean I think she does; and, by the bye, my dear, do you know anything of a Mr. Gardner?'
'I do know a Mr. Mark Gardner.'
'That is his name. He is staying in the neighbourhood of Gothlands, and seems very deep in their counsels. I am afraid he is leading them farther than Theresa Marstone herself would have gone.'
'Oh, then, he cannot be the same person. I meant a very different style of man, a cousin to those Miss Gardners who used to be friends of Theodora.'
'Ah! I meant to ask you about Miss Gardner and Percival Fotheringham. What! you have not heard?'
'No, nothing. What do you mean?'
'Married! No, never!'
'I thought you would have known, all about it, and I was anxious to hear what kind of connection it was for Percival.'
'Do tell me, how did you hear of it? When was it?'
'Not long ago, in Italy. I heard of it the other day from my nephew, Edward Howard, who is just returned, and he told me that Mrs. Finch was leading a dashing life at Florence, and that her sister had just married Mr. Fotheringham, "the author."'
'O, I do not know how to think it possible! Yet it is such an uncommon name.'
'Do you know whether his name is Antony?'
'Yes, it is his first name. I remember Arthur's laughing at him for being ashamed of it, as he said.'
'That confirms it. I asked Edward if the Christian name was Percival, and he said it was Antony, and some such name, but he could not be sure.'
'Ah! there would be a confusion owing to his being always called Percy.'
'He said, too, that it was a good match for Miss Gardner, as he was heir to an estate in Yorkshire.'
'Worthbourne! Then I am afraid it must be too true. The author, too!'
'So Edward was told.'
'I must write and ask John Martindale. He will be sure to know the whole history.'
The rest of the visit and the homeward drive were like a dream. Violet was lost in amazement, compassion, and disappointment, and in the debate how Theodora should be informed. Should she wait till there were further particulars to confirm it! But when she thought it over, there seemed no more wanting. She knew that Percy had been thinking of visiting Italy a year ago, and the name, the authorship, and connection with Worthbourne swept away all doubt. As to making inquiries, she did not know Arthur's present address; and even if she had had it, she would have shrunk from saying anything that should lead to one additional conversation with Mark Gardner; besides which, Arthur had a fashion of never answering any question asked by letter.
Nor could Violet venture to delay. It was better that such tidings should come from sympathizing lips than through the gossip of the neighbourhood; and Theodora ought to be aware of them as soon as possible, that she might no longer cherish the shade of her affection. Alas! that he should have done this at the very moment when she had truly become worthy of him, or, at least, of what he had once been!
At night, when Theodora came to linger over her fire, the intelligence was reluctantly and hesitatingly spoken; Violet's eyes were bent down, for she knew how little that spirit could brook that its suffering should be marked.
Theodora stood up before her, at her full height, with flashing eye and indignant voice: 'Do you think I believe it? No, indeed! I may have lost him for ever, but he would never lose himself. I scorn this as I did Jane Gardner's own story that you were going to marry him to your sister. I knew you both too well.'
Violet put her arm round Theodora. 'Dearest, I am the more afraid that we must believe this, because he was not always constant. He did think of Annette.'
'Think of her! What do you mean! Did he make her an offer!'
'Yes. I would never have told you if I did not think it might help you in this.'
'I don't want help,' said Theodora, raising her head and turning from Violet. 'Let him do as he likes.'
But, ere she had made two steps towards the door, her breast heaved with a convulsive sob. She threw herself on the ground, and rested her face on Violet's lap. The sobs came at long intervals, with a tight, oppressed sound. Much alarmed, Violet caressed her, and tried to soothe her with gentle words, and at last they unlocked her lips.
'It is not myself! Oh, no! I knew I had forfeited him long ago. I had proved myself unworthy. I had no right to hope. But that he should have changed--let his clear sense be blinded by her art! He, to whom I could have looked up all my life!-- who was so noble in rejecting me!'
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