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- Nuttie's Father - 5/69 -


him. 'I heard the name of Egremont, and made out that it belonged to a very lady-like pretty-looking woman in gray and white; she seemed to be trying to check and tame a bright girl of eighteen or so, who was in a perfect state of rapture over the Vandykes. I managed to ask the clergyman who the lady was, and he told me she was a Mrs. Egremont, who lives with her aunt, a Miss Headworth, who boards girls for the High School; very worthy people, he added.'

'Headworth?'

'Yes.'

'But if it were, she would have known your name.'

'Hardly. The title had not come in those days; and if she heard of us at all it would be as Kerrs. I ventured further to put out a feeler by asking whether he knew what her husband had been, and he said he believed he had been lost at sea, but he, Mr. Spyers I mean, had only been at Micklethwayte three or four years, and had merely known her as a widow.'

'I suppose it is worth following up,' said Mark, rather reluctantly. 'I wish I had seen her. I think I should know Miss Headworth again, and she would hardly know me.'

'You see what comes of absconding.'

'After all, it was best,' said Mark. 'Supposing her to be the real woman, which I don't expect, it might have been awkward if she had heard my name! How can we ascertain the history of this person without committing ourselves?'

Lord Kirkaldy, an able man, who had been for many years a diplomatist, here joined the party, and the whole story was laid before him. He was new to Micklethwayte, having succeeded a somewhat distant kinsman, and did not know enough of the place to be able to fix on any one to whom to apply for information; but the result of the consultation was that Lady Kirkaldy should go alone to call on Miss Headworth, and explain that she was come to inquire about a young lady of the same name, who had once been governess to the children of her sister, Lady Adelaide Egremont. Mark was rather a study to his uncle and aunt all the evening. He was as upright and honourable as the day, and not only acted on high principle, but had a tender feeling to the beautiful playfellow governess, no doubt enhanced by painful experiences of successors chosen for their utter dissimilarity to her. Still it was evidently rather flat to find himself probably so near the tangible goal of his romantic search; and the existence of a first cousin had been startling to him, though his distaste was more to the taking her from second-rate folk in a country town than to the overthrow of his own heirship. At least so he manifestly and honestly believed, and knowing it to be one of those faiths that make themselves facts, the Kirkaldys did not disturb him in it, nor commiserate him for a loss which they thought the best thing possible for him.

Miss Headworth was accustomed to receive visitors anent boarders, so when Lady Kirkaldy's card was brought to her, the first impression was that some such arrangement was to be made. She was sitting in her pretty little drawing-room alone, for Nuttie and her mother had gone out for a walk with Miss Nugent.

The room, opening on the garden, and cool with blinds, had a certain homely grace about the faded furniture. The drawings on the walls were good, the work quaint and tasteful. There was a grand vase of foxgloves before the empty grate, and some Marshal Nial roses in a glass on the table. The old lady herself--with alert black eyes and a sweet expression--rose from her chair in the window to receive her guest.

Lady Kirkaldy felt reassured as to the refinement of the surroundings, and liked the gentle but self-possessed tones of the old lady. She noticed the foxgloves.

'Yes,' said Miss Headworth, 'they are the fruits of yesterday's expedition. My two children, as I call them, brought them home in triumph. I cannot tell you what pleasure Lord Kirkaldy's kindness gave them--and many more.'

'I am glad,' said the lady, while she said to herself, 'now for it,' and sat forward. 'It struck me,' she said, 'on hearing your name that you might be related to--to a young lady who lived a good while ago in the family of my sister, Lady Adelaide Egremont.'

A strange look came into Miss Headworth's eyes, her lips trembled, she clutched tightly the arm of her chair, but then cast a puzzled glance at her visitor.

'Perhaps if you heard of me then,' said the latter, 'it was as Lady Margaret Kerr.'

'Yes,' said Miss Headworth, then pausing, she collected herself and said in an anxious voice, 'Do I understand that your ladyship is come to inquire for my niece, being aware of the circumstances.'

'I only became aware of them yesterday,' said Lady Kirkaldy. 'I was in Turkey at the time, and no particulars were given to me; but my nephew, Mark Egremont, your niece's old pupil, came to consult us, having just discovered among his uncle's papers evidence of the marriage, of which of course he had been ignorant.'

'Then,' exclaimed Miss Headworth, holding her hands tightly clasped, 'Shall I really see justice done at last to my poor child?'

'It is young Mark's most earnest wish and his father--'Lady Kirkaldy hesitated for a word, and Miss Headworth put in:

'His father! Why would he never even acknowledge either Alice's letters or mine? We wrote several times both to him and Lady Adelaide, and never received any reply, except one short one, desiring he might not be troubled on such a subject. It was cruel! Alice said it was not in his writing. She had done very wrong, and the family might well be offended, but a poor child like her, just eighteen, might have been treated with some pity.'

'My sister was in declining health. He was very much engrossed. He left the matter to--to others,' said Lady Kirkaldy. 'He is very sorry now that he acquiesced in what was then thought right. He did not then know that there had been a marriage.'

'I should have thought in that case a clergyman would have been bound to show the more compassion.'

Lady Kirkaldy knew that the cruel silence had been chiefly the work of the stem Puritan pitilessness of her mother, so she passed this over, saying, 'We are all very anxious to atone, as far as possible, for what is past, but we know little or nothing, only what my nephew Mark has been able to gather.'

'Little Mark! Alice always talked of him with great affection. How pleased she will be to hear of his remembering her.'

'Would you object to telling me what you know of this history?' said Lady Kirkaldy. 'I am afraid it is very painful to you, but I think we should understand it clearly. Please speak to me as a friend, as woman to woman.'

'Your ladyship is very kind,' said the poor old lady. 'I have only mentioned the subject once since we came to settle here, seventeen years ago, but such things one cannot forget. If you will excuse me, I have some dates that will assist my accuracy.'

She hurried away, and came back in a few moments, having evidently dried some tears, perhaps of thankfulness, but she paused as if reluctant to begin.

'I think your niece had no nearer relation than yourself,' said Lady Kirkaldy, anxious to set her off and at ease.

'Oh no, or she never would have been so treated. She was an orphan. My poor brother was a curate. He married--as young men will--on insufficient means, his strength gave way, and he died of diphtheria when this poor child was only two years old. Indeed, two little ones died at the same time, and the mother married again and went to Shanghai. She did not long live there, poor thing, and little Alice was sent home to me. I thought I did my best for her by keeping her at a good school. I have often wished that I had given up my situation, and become an assistant there, so as to have her more under my own eyes; but I fancied it important to receive a salary out of which I could save. I am wearying your ladyship, but I can't but dwell on the excuses for my poor child.'

'Indeed I wish to hear all the details,' was the sincere and gentle answer.

'I had her with me generally in the holidays, and I confess I was absolutely alarmed to see how pretty the child was growing, knowing how great a disadvantage it often is. She was always a good girl, not naturally so studious as could be wished, but docile, merry, gentle, a favourite with every one, and peculiarly innocent and childish. I wished her to remain a few years longer as teacher, but it so happened that Lady Adelaide Egremont, coming to consult the head of the establishment about a nursery-governess, saw Alice, and was so much struck with her sweet face, which was all sunshine then, as to insist on engaging her.'

'Ah! my dear sister, I remember her enthusiastic letter about her pretty governess, and her boy's affection for her, an affection that has lasted--'

'It seemed so safe. A clergyman's family in the country, and so kind a lady at the head, that, though Alice had been educated for a superior governess, it appeared the best beginning she could have. And she was very happy, and met with great kindness. Only, unfortunately, Lady Adelaide was delicate, and for many weeks entirely confined to the sofa. Mr. Egremont's elder brother was much there. He seemed to my poor inexperienced child quite elderly, and his attentions like those of--of an old uncle--she told me afterwards--'

'He must really have been over forty--'

'No doubt my poor Alice was unguarded. We know what a merry, happy, childish girl may be, but I never heard that her conduct was even censured while she remained at Baxley, though I find that Captain Egremont used to join them in their walks, under pretext of playing with the children. Then she was sent to Freshwater with the two eldest children during Lady Adelaide's confinement, and there, most unjustifiably, Captain Egremont continually visited them from his yacht, and offered to take them out in it. Alice knew she ought not to go without a married lady on board, and he brought a Mr. and Mrs.


Nuttie's Father - 5/69

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