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- The Long Vacation - 30/58 -

and gentle with the little Miranda, but the manner had not struck Lance as lover-like.

There was a gasp again—-

"That person, that woman at the gate, do you remember?"

Therewith a flash came over Lance.

"My poor boy! You don't mean to say--"

Neither could bring himself to say the word so sacred to Lancelot, and which might have been so sacred to his nephew.

"How did you guess?" said Gerald, lifting up the face that he had hidden on the table.

"I saw the likeness between you and the girl. She reminded me of some one I had once seen."

"Had you seen her?"

"Once, at a concert, twenty odd years ago. Your aunt, too, was strangely carried back to that scene, by the girl's voice, I suppose."

"Poor child!" said Gerald, still laying down his head and seeming terribly oppressed, as Lance felt he well might be.

"It is a sad business for you," said the uncle, with a kind hand on his shoulder. "How was it she did not claim you before?-—not that she has any real claim."

"She did not know my real name. My father called himself Wood. I never knew the rest of it till after I came home. That fellow bribed the gardener, got in over the wall, or somehow, and when she saw you, and heard you and me and all three of us, it gave her the clue."

"Well, Gerald, I do not think she can dare to--"

"Oh!" interrupted Gerald, "there's worse to come."

"What?" said Lance, aghast.

"She says," and a sort of dry sob cut him short, "she says she had a husband when she married my father," and down went his head again.

"Impossible," was Lance's first cry; "your father's first care was to tell Travis all was right with you. Travis has the certificates."

"Oh yes, it was no fault of my father-—my father, my dear father-—no, but she deceived him, and I am an impostor-—nobody."

"Gently, gently, Gerald. We have no certainty that this is true. Your father had known her for years. Tell me, how did it come out—- what evidence did she adduce?"

Gerald nerved himself to sit up and speak collectedly.

"I believe it is half that circus fellow's doing. I think she is going to marry him, if she hasn't already. She followed me, and just at the turn down this road, as I was bidding the Mona girl goodnight, she came up with me, and said I little thought that the child was my sister, and how delightful it was to see us acting together. Well then, I can't say but a horror came over me. I couldn't for the life of me do anything but draw back, there was something so intolerable in the look of her eyes, and her caressing manner," and he shuddered, glad of his uncle's kind hand on his shoulder. "Somehow, I let her get me out upon the high ground, and there she said, 'So you are too great a swell to have word or look for your mother. No wonder, you always were un vilain petit miserable; but I won't trouble you-—I wouldn't be bound to live your dull ennuyant ladies' life for millions. I'll bargain to keep out of your way; but O'Leary and I want a couple of hundred pounds, and you'll not grudge it to us.' I had no notion of being blackmailed, besides I haven't got it, and I told her she might know that I am not of age, and had no such sum ready to hand. She was urgent, and I began to think whether I could do anything to save that poor little sister, when she evidently got some fresh impulse from the man, and began to ask me how I should like to have it all disclosed to my nobs of friends. Well, I wasn't going to be bullied, and I answered that my friends knew already, and she might do her worst. 'Oh, may I?' she said; 'you wouldn't like, my fine young squire, to have it come out that I never was your father's wife at all, and that you are no more than that gutter- child.' I could not understand her at first, and said I would not be threatened, but that made her worse, and that rascal O'Leary came to her help. They raised their demands somehow to five hundred, and declared if they had not it paid down, they should tell the whole story and turn me out. Of course I said they were welcome. Either I am my father's lawful son, or I am not, and if not, the sooner it is all up with me the better, for whatever I am, I am no thief and robber. So I set off and came down the hill; but the brute kept pace with me to this very door, trying to wheedle me, I believe. And now what's to be done? I would go off at once, and let Uncle Clem come into his rights, only I don't want to be the death of him and Cherie."

"No," said Lance, "my dear fellow! You have stood it wisely and bravely so far, go on to do so. I don't feel the least certain that this is not mere bullying. She did not tell you any particulars?"

"No, certainly not."

"Not the name of this supposed predecessor of Edgar's? Where she may have been married, or how? How she parted from him, or how she knows he was alive? It sounds to me a bogus notion, got up to put the screw on you, by surprise. I'll tell you what I'll do. I'll go down to the shop tomorrow morning, see the woman, and extract the truth if possible, and I fully expect that the story will shrink up to nothing."

"'Tis not the estate I care for," said Gerald, looking somewhat cheered. "It is my father's honour and name. If that can be cleared—-"

"Do not I care?" said Lance. "My dear brother Edgar, my model of all that was noble and brilliant-—whom Felix loved above all! Nay, and you, Gerald, our hope! I would give anything and everything to free you from this stain, though I trust it will prove only mud that will not stick. Anyway you have shown your true, faithful Underwood blood. Now go to bed and sleep if you can. Don't say a word, nor look more like a ghost than you can help—-or we shall have to rouge ourselves for our parts. My boy, my boy! You are Edgar's boy, anyway."

And Lancelot kissed the young pale cheek as he had done when the little wounded orphan clung to him fourteen years ago, or as he kissed his own Felix.

Whatever the night was to Gerald, long was the night, and long the light hours of the morning to the ever sleepless Lance before he could rise and make his way to the shop with any hope of gaining admission, and many were the sighs and prayers that this tale might be confuted, and that the matter might be to the blessing of the youth to whom he felt more warmly now than since those winning baby days had given place to more ordinary boyhood. He had a long time to pace up and down watching the sparkling water, and feeling the fresh wind on the brow, which was as capable as ever of aching over trouble and perplexity, and dreading above all the effect on the sister, whose consolation and darling Gerald had always been. How little he had thought, when he had stood staunch against his brother Edgar's persuasions, that Zoraya was to be the bane of that life which had begun so gaily!

When at last the door was unfastened, and, as before, by Ludmilla, he greeted her kindly, and as she evidently expected some fresh idea about the masque, he gave her his card, and asked her to beg her mother to come and speak to him. She started at the name and said—-

"Oh, sir, you will do nothing to hurt him-—Mr. Underwood?"

"It is the last thing I wish," he said earnestly, and Ludmilla showed him into a little parlour, full of the fumes of tobacco, and sped away, but he had a long time to wait, for probably Mother Butterfly's entire toilette had to be taken in hand.

Before she appeared Lancelot heard a man's voice, somewhere in the entry, saying—-

"Oh! the young ass has been fool enough to let it out, has he? I suppose this is the chap that will profit? You'll have your wits about you."

Lance was still his old self enough to receive the lady with—-

"I beg to observe that I am not the 'chap who will profit' if this miserable allegation holds water. I am come to understand the truth."

The woman looked frightened, and the man came to her rescue, having evidently heard, and this Lance preferred, for he always liked to deal with mankind rather than womankind. Having gone so far there was not room for reticence, and the man took up the word.

"Madame cannot be expected to disclose anything to the prejudice of her son and herself, unless it was made worth her while."

"Perhaps not," said Lance, as he looked her over in irony, and drew the conclusion that the marriage was a fact accomplished; "but she has demanded two hundred pounds from her son, on peril of exposure, and if the facts are not substantiated, there is such a thing as an action for conspiracy, and obtaining money on false pretences."

"Nothing has been obtained!" said the woman, beginning to cry. "He was very hard on his poor mother."

"Who forsook him as an infant, cast off his father, and only claims him in order to keep a disgraceful, ruinous secret hanging over his life for ever, in order to extort money."

"Come now, this is tall talk, sir," said O'Leary; "the long and short of it is, what will the cove, yourself, or whoever it is that you speak for, come down for one way or another?"

"Nothing," responded Lance.

Neither of the estimable couple spoke or moved under an announcement so incredible to them, and he went on—-

"Gerald Underwood would rather lose everything than give hush-money

The Long Vacation - 30/58

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