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L'Estrange nodded assent, and hurried away to the library.
“ The man of all others I wanted to see,” said Augustus, meeting him with an outstretched hand. “ What on earth has kept you away from us of late ?"
“I fancied you were all a little cold towards me," said the curate, blushing deeply as he spoke ; " but if I thought you wanted me, I'd not have suffered my suspicion to interfere. I'd have come up at once."
“You're a good fellow, and I believe you thoroughly. There has been no coldness; at least, I can swear, none on my part, nor any that I know of elsewhere. We are in great trouble. You've heard about my poor father's seizure-indeed you saw him when it was impending, and now here am I in a position of no common difficulty. The doctors have declared that they will not answer for his life, or, if he lives, for his reason, if he be disturbed or agitated by questions relating to business. They have, for greater impressiveness, given this opinion in writing, and signed it. I have telegraphed the decision to the Firm, and have received this reply, 'Open al} marked urgent, and answer.' Now, you don't know my father very long, or very intimately, but I think you know enough of him to be aware what a dangerous step is this they now press me to take. First of all, I know no more of his affairs than you do. It is not only that he never confided anything to me, but he made it a rule never to advert to a matter of business before any of us. And to such an extent did he carry his jealousy --if it was jealousy-in this respect, that he would immediately interpose if Underwood or the senior clerk said anything about money matters, and remark, · These young gentlemen take no interest in such subjects ; let us talk of something they can take their share in.' Nor was this abstention on his part without a touch of sarcasm, for he would occasionally talk & little to my sister Marion on bank matters, and constantly said, “Why weren't you a boy, Marion? You could have taken the helm when it was my watch below.' This showed what was the estimate he had formed of myself and my brothers. I mention all these things to you now, that
you may see the exact danger of the position I am forced to occupy. If I refuse to act, if I decline to open the letters on pressing topics, and by my refusal lead to all sorts of complication and difficulties, I shall but confirm him, whenever he recovers, in his depreciatory opinion of me; and if, on the other hand, I engage in the correspondence, who is to say that I may not be possessing myself of knowledge that he never intended I should acquire, and which might produce a fatal estrangement between us in future ? And this is the doubt and difficulty in which you now find me. Here I stand surrounded with these letters—look at that pile yonder-and I have not courage to decide what course to take."
“ And he is too ill to consult with ? "
“ The doctors have distinctly forbidden one syllable on any business matter."
“It's strange enongh that it was a question which bore upon all this brought me up here to-night. Your father had promised me a letter
to Lady Augusta at Rome, with reference to a chaplaincy I was looking for, and he told Belton to inform me that he had written the letter and sealed it, and left it on the table in the library. We found it there, as he said, only not sealed; and though that point was not important, it suggested a discussion between Julia and myself whether I had or had not the right to read it, being a letter of presentation, and regarding myself alone. We could not agree as to what ought to be done, and resolved at last to take the letter over to you, and say, If you feel at liberty to let me hear what is in this, read it for me ; if you have any scruples on the score of reading, seal it, and the matter is ended at once. This is the letter."
Augustus took it, and regarded it leisurely for a moment.
“ I think I need have no hesitation here,” said he. “I break no seal, at least."
He withdrew the letter carefully from the envelope, and opened it. “Dear Sedley,'” read he, and stopped. “Why, this is surely a mis
,. take; this was not intended for Lady Augusta ;” and he turned to the address, which ran, “ The Lady Augusta Bramleigh, Villa Altieri, Rome." " What can this mean?”
“ He has put it in a wrong envelope."
Exactly so, and probably sealed the other, which led to his remark to Belton. I suppose it may be read now. “Dear Sedley-Have no fears about the registry. First of all, I do not believe any exists of the date required; and secondly, there will be neither church, nor parson, nor register here in three months hence.'” Augustus stopped and looked at L'Estrange. Each face seemed the reflex of the other, and the look of puzzled horror was the same on both. “I must go on, I can't help it," muttered Augustus, and continued : “I have spoken to the dean, who agrees with me that Portshandon need not be retained as a parish. Something, of course, must be done for the curate here. You will probably be able to obtain one of the smaller livings for him in the Chancellor's patronage. So much for the registry difficulty, which indeed was never a difficulty at all till it occurred to your legal acuteness to make it such.'
“ There is more here, but I am unwilling to read on,” said Augustus, whose face was now crimson, " and yet, L'Estrange," added he, “ it may be that I shall want your counsel in this very matter. I'll finish it." And he read, “ . The more I reflect on the plan of a compromise the less I like it, and I cannot for the life of me see how it secures finality. If this charge is to be revived in my son's time, it will certainly not be met with more vigour or more knowledge than I can myself contribute to it. Every impostor gains by the lapse of years—bear that in mind. The difficulties which environ explanations are invariably in favour of the rogue, just because fiction is more plausible often than truth. It is not pleasant to admit, but I am forced to own that there is not one amongst my sons who has either the stamina or the energy to confront such a peril ; so that, if the battle be really to be fought, let it come on while I am yet here, and in health and vigour to engage in it.
66. There are abundant reasons why I cannot confide the matter to any of my family—one will suffice: there is not one of them except my eldest daughter who would not be crushed by the tidings, and though she has head enough, she has not the temper for a very exciting and critical struggle.
666 What you tell me of Jack and his indiscretion will serve to show you how safe I should be in the hands of my sons, and he is possibly about as wise as his brothers, though less pretentious than the diplomatist; and as for Augustus, I have great misgivings. If the time should ever come when he should have convinced himself that this claim was good,—and sentimental reasons would always have more weight with him than either law or logic, -I say, if such a time should arrive, he's just the sort of nature that would prefer the martyrdom of utter beggary to the assertion of his right, and the vanity of being equal to the sacrifice would repay him for the ruin. There are fellows of this stamp, and I have terrible fears that I have one of them for a son.'”
Augustus laid down the letter and tried to smile, but his lip trembled hysterically, and his voice was broken and uncertain as he said : “ This is a hard sentence, George,- I wish I had never read it. What can it all mean ? " cried he, after a minute or more of what seemed cruel suffering. “ What is this claim? Who is this rogue ? and what is this charge that can be revived and pressed in another generation ? Have you ever heard of this before ? or can you make anything out of it now? Tell me, for mercy's sake, and do not keep me longer in this agony of doubt and uncertainty."
“I have not the faintest clue to the meaning of all this. It reads as if some one was about to prefer a claim to your father's estate, and that your lawyer had been advising a compromise with him.”
“But a compromise is a sort of admission that the claimant was not an impostor,--that he had his rights ?"
“ There are rights, and rights! There are demands, too, that it is often better to conciliate than to defy,—even though defiance would be successful."
“And how is it that I never heard of this before ? ” burst he out indignantly. “ Has a man the right to treat his son in this fashion ? to bring him up in the unbroken security of succeeding to an inheritance that the law may decide he has no title to?"
“I think that is natural enough. Your father evidently did not recognize this man's right, and felt there was no need to impart the matter to his family.”
" But why should my father be the judge in his own cause ? "
L'Estrange smiled faintly: the line in the Colonel's letter, in which he spoke of his son's sensitiveness, occurred to him at once.
"I see how you treat my question,” said Augustus. “It reminds you of the character my father gave me. What do you say then to that passage about the registry? Why, if we be clean-handed in this business, do we want to make short work of all records ? "
“I simply say I can make nothing of it.”
" It would account for much that has often puzzled me,” said Augustus, musing as he spoke. "A certain self-assertion that she has, and a habit, too, of separating her own interests from those of the rest of us, as though speculating on a time when she should walk alone. Have you remarked that?"
“I! I,” said L'Estrange, smiling, “ remark nothing ! there is not a less observant fellow breathing."
“ If it were not for those words about the parish registry, George,” said the other, in a grave tone, “ I'd carry a light heart about all this ; I'd take my father's version of this fellow, whoever he is, and believe him to be an impostor; but I don't like the notion of foul play, and it does mean foul play.”
L'Estrange was silent, and for some minutes neither spoke.
“When my father," said Augustus—and there was a tone of bitterness now in his voice—“When my father drew that comparison between himself and his sons, he may have been flattering his superior intellect at the expense of some other quality.”
Another and a longer pause succeeded.
“I have been running over in my head all that could bear upon this matter, and now I remember a couple of weeks ago that Longworth, who came with a French friend of his to pass an evening at the cottage, led me to talk of the parish church and its history: he asked me if it had not been burnt by the rebels in '98, and seemed surprised when I said it was only the vestry-room and the books that had been destroyed. * Was not that strange ?' asked he; did the insurgents usually interest themselves about parochial records ? ' I felt a something like a sneer in the question, and made him no reply."
" And who was the Frenchman ?"
way, he was the man Jack led over the high bank, where the poor fellow's leg was broken.”
“I remember; he of course has no part in the story we are now discussing. Longworth may possibly know something. Are you intimate
. with him?"
“ No, we are barely acquainted. I believe he was rather flattered by the very slight attention we showed himself and his friend; but his manner was shy, and he is a diffident, bashful sort of mar, not understand.”
"Look here, L'Estrange," said Augustus, laying his hand on the other's shoulder. “All that has passed between us here to-night is strictly confidential, to be divulged to no one, not even your sister. As for this letter, I'll forward it to Sedley, for whom it was intended. I'll tell him
how it chanced that I read it; and then—and then—the rest will take its own course."
“ I wonder if Julia intends to come back with me?” said L'Estrange after a pause.
“ No. Nelly bas persuaded her to stay here, and I think there is no reason why you should not also.”
“No. I'm always uncomfortable away from my own den; but I'll le with you early to-morrow; good-night.”
Nelly and Julia did not go to bed till day-break. They passed the night writing a long letter to Jack-the greater part being dictated by Julia while Nelly wrote. It was an urgent entreaty to him to yield to the advice of his brother officers, and withdraw the offensive words he had used to the Admiral. It was not alone his station, his character, and his future in life were pressed into the service, but the happiness of all who loved him and wished him well, with a touching allusion to his poor father's condition, and the impossibility of asking any aid or counsel from him. Nelly went on—"Remember, dear Jack, how friendless and deserted I shall be if I lose you; and it would be next to losing you to know you had quitted the service, and gone heaven knows where, to do heaven knows what.” She then adverted to home, and said, “You know how happy and united we were all here, once on a time. This has all gone : Marion and Temple hold themselves quite apart, and Augustus, evidently endeavouring to be neutral, is isolated. I only say this to show you how, more than ever, I need your friendship and affection ; nor is it the least sad of all my tidings, the L'Estranges are going to leave this. There is to be some new arrangement by which Portshandon is to be united to Lisconnor, and one church to serve for the two parishes. George and Julia think of going to Italy. I can scarcely tell you how I feel this desertion of me now, dearest Jack. I'd bear up against all these and worse—if worse there be—were I only to feel that you were following out your road to station and success, and that the day was coming when I should be as proud as I am fond of you. You hate writing, I know, but you will, I'm sure, not fail to send me half-a-dozen lines to say that I have not pleaded in vain. I fear I shall not soon be able to send you pleasant news from this, the gloom thickens every day around us, but you shall hear constantly." The letter ended with a renewed entreaty to him to place himself in the hands and under the guidance of such of his brother officers as he could rely on for sound judgment and moderation. “Remember, Jack, I ask you to do nothing that shall peril honour; but also nothing in anger, nothing out of wounded self-love."
“ Add one line, only one, Julia," said she, handing the pen to her and pushing the letter before her; and without a word Julia wrote :-"A certain coquette of your acquaintance--heartless of course as all her tribe—is very sorry for your trouble, and would do all in her power to lessen it. To this end she begs you to listen patiently to the counsels of the present letter, every line of which she has read, and to believe that in yielding something