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Headworth was so childish and simple that she might easily have been taken in by a sham ceremony. He said that he now saw he had done very wrong in letting his mother-in-law take all the letters about "that unhappy business" off his hands without looking at them, but he was much engrossed by my mother's illness, and, as he said, it never occurred to him as a duty to trace out what became of the poor thing, and see that she was provided for safely. You know Mrs. Egremont says laissez faire is our family failing, and that our first thought is how _not_ to do it.'
'Yes, utter repudiation of such cases was the line taken by the last generation; and I am afraid my mother would be very severe.'
'Another thing that actuated my father was the fear of getting his brother into trouble with General Egremont, as he himself would have been the one to profit by it. So I do not wonder so much at his letting the whole drop without inquiry, and never even looking at the letters, which there certainly were. I could not get him to begin upon it with my uncle, but Mrs. Egremont was strongly on my side in thinking that such a thing ought to be looked into, and as I had found the paper it would be best that I should speak. Besides that there was no enduring that Gregorio should be pretending to hold us in terror by such hints.'
'Well, and has there been a wife and family in a cottage all this time?'
'Aunt Margaret, he has never seen or heard of her since he left her at Dieppe! Would you believe it, he thinks himself a victim? He never meant more than to amuse himself with the pretty little governess; and he took on board a Mr. and Mrs. Houghton to do propriety, shady sort of people I imagine, but that she did not know.'
'I have heard of them,' said Lady Kirkaldy, significantly.
'She must have been a kind friend to the poor girl,' said Mark. 'On some report that Lady de Lyonnais was coming down on her, wrathful and terrible, the poor foolish girl let herself be persuaded to be carried off in the yacht, but there Mrs. Houghton watched over her like a dragon. She made them put in at some little place in Jersey, put in the banns, all unknown to my uncle, and got them married. Each was trying to outwit the other, while Miss Headworth herself was quite innocent and unconscious, and, I don't know whether to call it an excuse for Uncle Alwyn or not, but to this hour he is not sure whether it was a legal marriage, and my father believes it was not, looking on it as a youthful indiscretion. He put her in lodgings at Dieppe, under Mrs. Houghton's protection, while he returned home on a peremptory summons from the General. He found the old man in such a state of body and mind as he tries to persuade me was an excuse for denying the whole thing, and from that time he represents himself as bound hand and foot by the General's tyranny. He meant to have kept the secret, given her an allowance, and run over from time to time to see her, but he only could get there once before the voyage to the West Indies. The whole affair was, as he said, complicated by his debts, those debts that the estate has never paid off. The General probably distrusted him, for he curtailed his allowance, and scarcely let him out of sight; and he--he submitted for the sake of his prospects, and thinking the old man much nearer his end than he proved to be. I declare as I listened, it came near to hearing him say he had sold his soul to Satan! From the day he sailed in the Ninon he has never written, never attempted any communication with the woman whose life he had wrecked, except one inquiry at Dieppe, and that was through Gregorio.'
'What! the valet?'
Yes. I believe I seemed surprised at such a medium being employed, for Uncle Alwyn explained that the man had got hold of the secret somehow--servants always know everything--and being a foreigner he was likely to be able to trace her out.
'I daresay he profited by the knowledge to keep Alwyn in bondage during the old man's lifetime.'
'I have no doubt of it, and he expected to play the same game with me. The fellow reminds me, whenever I look at him, of a sort of incarnate familiar demon. When I asked my uncle whether he could guess what had become of her, he held up his hands with a hideous French grimace. I could have taken him by the throat.'
'Nay, one must pity him. The morals of George IV.'s set had been handed on to him by the General,' said Lady Kirkaldy, rejoicing in the genuine indignation of the young face, free from all taint of vice, if somewhat rigid. 'And what now?'
'He assured me that he could make all secure to my father and me, as if that were the important point; but finally he perceived that we had no right to stand still without endeavouring to discover whether there be a nearer heir, and my father made him consent to my making the search, grinning at its Quixotism all the time.'
'Have you done anything?'
'Yes. I have been to Jersey, seen the register--July 20, 1859--and an old French-speaking clerk, who perfectly recollected the party coming from the yacht, and spoke of her as tres belle. I have also ascertained that there is no doubt of the validity of the marriage. Then, deeply mistrusting Master Gregorio, I went on to Dieppe, where I entirely failed to find any one who knew or remembered anything about them--there is such a shifting population of English visitors and residents, and it was so long ago. I elicited from my uncle that she had an aunt, he thought, of the same name as herself; but my father cannot remember who recommended her, or anything that can be a clue. Has any one looked over my grandmother's letters?'
'I think not. My brother spoke of keeping them till I came to London. That might give a chance, or the Houghtons might know about her. I think my husband could get them hunted up. They are sure to be at some continental resort.'
'What's that?' as a sound of singing was heard.
'"Auld Langsyne." The natives are picnicking in the ravine below there. They used to be rigidly excluded, but we can't stand that; and this is the first experiment of admitting them on condition that they don't make themselves obnoxious.'
'Which they can't help.'
'We have yet to see if this is worse than an Austrian or Italian festival. See, we can look down from behind this yew tree. It really is a pretty sight from this distance.'
'There's the cleric heading his little boys and their cricket, and there are the tuneful party in the fern on the opposite side. They have rather good voices, unless they gain by distance.'
'And there's a girl botanising by the river.'
'Sentimentalising over forget-me-nots, more likely.'
'My dear Mark, for a specimen of young England, you are greatly behindhand in perception of progress!'
'Ah! you are used to foreigners, Aunt Margaret. You have never fathomed English vulgarity.'
'It would serve you right to send you to carry the invitation to go round the gardens and houses.'
'Do you mean it, aunt?'
'Mean it? Don't you see your uncle advancing down the road--there-- accosting the clergyman--what's his name--either Towers or Spires-- something ecclesiastical I know. We only waited to reconnoitre and see whether the numbers were unmanageable.'
'And yet he does not want to sit for Micklethwayte?'
'So you think no one can be neighbourly except for electioneering! O Mark, I must take you in hand.'
'Meantime the host is collecting. I abscond. Which is the least showy part of the establishment?'
'I recommend the coal cellar--'and, as he went off--'poor boy, he is a dear good fellow, but how little he knows how to be laughed at!'
CHAPTER IV. A NAME.
'Sigh no more lady, lady sigh no more, Men were deceivers ever, One foot on sea and one on land-- To one thing constant never.'--Old Ballad.
'So you have ventured out again,' said Lady Kirkaldy, as her nephew strolled up to her afternoon tea-table under a great cedar tree:
'The coast being clear, and only distant shouts being heard in the ravine--
'" Like an army defeated The choir retreated; And now doth fare well In the valley's soft swell,"'
said the aunt.
'At least you have survived; or is this the reaction,' said the nephew, putting on a languid air.
'There were some very nice people among them, on whom the pictures were by no means thrown away. What would you say, Mark, if I told you that I strongly suspect that I have seen your lost aunt?'
'Nonsense!' cried Mark, as emphatically as disrespectfully.
'I am not joking in the least,' said Lady Kirkaldy, looking up at
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