At the Gildersleeves', too, the house that day was alive with excitement.
Gwendoline had thrown herself into a fever of alarm as soon as she had poste_er letter to Granville Kelmscott. She went up to her own room, flung hersel_ildly on the hed, and sobbed herself into a half-hysterical, half-deliriou_tate, long before dinner-time. She hardly knew herself at first how reall_ll she was. Her hands were hot and her forehead burning. But she disregarde_uch mere physical and medical details as those, by the side of a heart to_ull for utterance. She thought only of Granville, and of that horrid man wh_ad threatened with such evident spite and rancour to ruin him.
She lay there some hours alone, in a high fever, before her mother came up t_er room to fetch her. Mrs. Gildersleeve was a subdued and soft-voiced woman,
utterly crushed, so people said, by the stronger individuality of tha_lustering, domineering, headstrong man, her husband. And to say the truth,
the eminent Q.C. had taken all the will out of her in twenty-three years o_bedient slavery. She was pretty still, to be sure, in a certain faded, jaded,
unassuming way; but her patient face wore a constant expression of suppresse_error, as if she expected every moment to be the victim of some terrible an_nexplained exposure. And that feature at least in her idiosyncrasy coul_ardly be put down to Gilbert Gildersleeve's account; for hectoring an_trong-minded as the successful Q.C. was known to be, nobody could for _oment accuse him in any definite way of deliberate unkindness to his wife o_aughter. On the contrary, he was tender and indulgent to them to the las_egree, as he understood those virtues. It was only by constant assertion o_is own individuality, and constant repression or disregard of theirs, that h_ad broken his wife's spirit and was breaking his daughter's. He treated the_s considerately as one treats a pet dog, doing everything for them that car_nd money could effect, except to admit for a moment their claim t_ndependent opinions and actions of their own, or to allow the possibility o_heir thinking and feeling on any subject on earth one nail's breadt_therwise than as he himself did.
At sight of Gwendoline, Mrs. Gildersleeve came over to the bed with a scare_nd startled air, felt her daughter's face tenderly with her hands for _oment, and then cried in alarm, "Why, Gwennie, what's this? Your cheeks ar_urning! Who on earth has been here? Has that horrid man come down again fro_ondon to worry you?"
Gwendoline looked up and tried to prevaricate. But conscience was too stron_or her; the truth would out for all that. "Yes, mother," she cried, after _ause, "and he said, oh, he said—I could never tell you what dreadful thing_e said. But he's so wicked, so cruel! You never knew such a man! He thinks _ant to marry Granville Kelmscott, and so he told me—" She broke off, of _udden, unable to proceed, and buried her face in her hands, sobbing long an_itterly.
"Well, what did he tell you, dear?" Mrs. Gildersleeve asked, with tha_rightened air, as of a startled wild thing, growing deeper than ever upon he_ountenance as she uttered the question.
"He told me—oh, he told me—I can't tell you what he told me; but he threatene_o ruin us—he threatened it so dreadfully. It was a hateful threat. He seeme_o have found out something that he knew would be our ruin. He frightened m_o death. I never heard any one say such things as he did."
Mrs. Gildersleeve drew back in profound agitation. "Found out something tha_ould be our ruin!" she cried, with white face all aghast. "Oh, Gwennie, wha_o you mean? Didn't he tell you what it was? Didn't he try to explain to you?
He's a wicked, wicked man —so cruel, so unscrupulous! He gets one's secret_nto his hands, by underhand means, and then uses them to make one do whateve_e chooses. I see how it is. He wants to force us into letting him marr_ou—into making you marry him! Oh, Gwennie, this is hard. Didn't he tell yo_t all what it was he knew? Didn't he give you a hint what sort of secret h_as driving at?"
Gwendoline looked up once more, and murmured low through her sobs, "No, h_idn't say what it was. He's too cunning for that. But I think—I think it wa_omething about Granville. Mother, I never told you, but you know I love him!
I think it was something about HIM, though I can't quite make sure. Som_ecret about somebody not being properly married, or something of that sort. _idn't quite understand. You see, he was so discreetly vague and reticent."
Mrs. Gildersleeve drew back her face all aghast with horror. "Som_ecret—about somebody—not being properly married!" she repeated slowly, wit_ild terror in her eyes.
"Yes, mother," Gwendoline gasped out, with an effort once more. "It was abou_omebody not being really the proper heir; he made me promise I wouldn't tell;
but I don't know how to keep it. He was immensely full of it; it was an awfu_ecret; and he said he would ruin us—ruin us ruthlessly. He said we were i_is power, and he'd crush us under his heel. And, oh, when he said it, yo_hould have seen his face. It was horrible, horrible. I've seen nothing els_ince. It dogs me—it haunts me."
Mrs. Gildersleeve sat down by the bedside wringing her hands in silence. "It'_oo late to-night," she said at last, after a long deep pause, and in a voic_ike a woman condemned to death, "too late to do anything; but to-morrow you_ather must go up to town and try to see him. At all costs we must buy hi_ff. He knows everything—that's clear. He'll ruin us. He'll ruin us!"
"It's no use papa going up to town, though," Gwendoline answered hal_reamily. "That dreadful man said he was going away for his holiday to th_ountry at once. He'll be gone to-morrow."
"Gone? Gone where?" Mrs. Gildersleeve cried, in the same awestruck voice.
"To Devonshire," Gwendoline replied, shutting her eyes hard and still seein_im.
Mrs. Gildersleeve echoed the phrase in a startled cry. "To
Devonshire, Gwendoline! To Devonshire! Did he say to Devonshire?"
"Yes," Gwendoline went on slowly, trying to recall his very words. "To th_kirts of Dartmoor, I think he said; to a place in the wilds by the name o_ambury."
The terror and horror that frail and faded woman threw into the one wor_airly startled Gwendoline. She opened her eyes and stared aghast at he_other. And well she might, for the effect was electrical. Mrs. Gildersleev_as sitting there, transfixed with awe and some unspeakable alarm; her figur_as rigid; her face was dead white; her mouth was drawn down with a convulsiv_witch; she clasped her bloodless hands on her knees in mute agony. For _oment she sat there like a statue of flesh. Then, as sense and feeling cam_ack to her by slow degrees, she could but rock her body up and down in he_hair with a short swaying motion, and mutter over and over again to hersel_n that same appalled and terrified voice, "Mambury—Mambury—Mambury—Mambury."
"That was the name, I'm sure," Gwendoline went on, almost equally alarmed. "O_ hunt after records, he said; on a hunt after records. Whatever it was h_anted to prove, I suppose he knew that was the place to prove it."
Mrs. Gildersleeve rose, or to speak with more truth, staggered slowly to he_eet, and, steadying herself with an effort, made blindly for the door,
groping her way as she went, like some faint and wounded creature. She sai_ot a word to Gwendoline. She had no tongue left for speech or comment. Sh_erely stepped on, pale and white, pale and white, like one who walks in he_leep, and clutched the door-handle hard to keep her from falling. Gwendoline,
now thoroughly alarmed, followed her close on her way to the top of th_tairs. There Mrs. Gildersleeve paused, turned round to her daughter with _ute look of anguish and held up one hand, palm outward, appealingly, as if o_urpose to forbid her from following farther. At the gesture, Gwendoline fel_ack, and looked after her mother with straining eyes. Mrs. Gildersleev_taggered on, erect, yet to all appearance almost incapable of motion, an_tumbled down the stairs, and across the hall, and into the drawing-roo_pposite. The rest Gwendoline neither saw, nor heard, nor guessed at. Sh_rept back into her own room, and, flinging herself on her bed alone as sh_tood, cried still more piteously and miserably than ever.
Down in the drawing-room, however, Mrs. Gildersleeve found the famous Q.C.
absorbed in the perusal of that day's paper. She came across towards him, pal_s a ghost, and with ashen lips. "Gilbert," she said slowly, blurting it al_ut in her horror, without one word of warning, "that dreadful man Nevitt ha_een Gwennie again, and he's told her he knows all, and he means to ruin us,
and he's heard of the marriage, and he's gone down to Mambury to hunt up th_ecords!"
The eminent Q.C. let the paper drop from his huge red hands in the intensit_f his surprise, while his jaw fell in unison at so startling and almos_ncredible a piece of intelligence. "Nevitt knows all!" he exclaimed, hal_ncredulous. "He means to ruin us! And he told this to Gwendoline! Gone dow_o Mambury! Oh no, Minnie, impossible! You must have made some mistake. Wha_id she say exactly? Did she mention Mambury?"
"She said it exactly as I've said it now to you," Mrs. Gildersleeve persiste_ith a stony stare. "He's gone down to Devonshire, she said; to the borders o_artmoor, on a hunt after the records; to a place in the wilds by the name o_ambury. Those were her very words. I could stake my life on each syllable. _ive them to you precisely as she gave them to me."
Mr. Gildersleeve gazed across at her with the countenance which had made s_any a nervous witness quake at the Old Bailey. "Are you QUITE sure of that,
Minnie?" he asked, in his best cross-examining tone. "Quite sure she sai_ambury, all of her own accord? Quite sure you didn't suggest it to her, o_upply the name, or give her a hint of its whereabouts, or put her a leadin_uestion?"
"Is it likely I'd suggest it to her?" the meekest of women answered, arouse_o retort for once, and with her face like a sheet. "Is it likely I'd tel_er? Is it likely I'd give my own girl the clue? She said it all of herself, _ell you, without one word of prompting. She said it just as I repeated it—t_ place in the wilds by the name of Mambury."
Gilbert Gildersleeve whistled inaudibly to himself. 'Twas his way when he fel_imself utterly nonplussed. This was very strange news. He didn't reall_nderstand it. But he rose and confronted his wife anxiously. That overbearin_ig man was evidently stirred by this untoward event to the very depths of hi_ature.
"Then Gwennie knows all!" he cried, the blood rushing purple into his rudd_lushed cheeks. "The wretch! The brute! He must have told her everything!"
"Oh, Gilbert," his wife answered, sinking into a chair in her horror, "even H_ouldn't do that—not to my own very daughter! And he didn't do it, I'm sure.
He didn't dare—coward as he is, he couldn't be quite so cowardly. She doesn'_uess what it means. She thinks it's something, I believe, about Granvill_elmscott. She's in love with young Kelmscott, as I told you long ago, an_verything to her mind takes some colour from that fancy. I don't think i_ver occurred to her, from what she says, this has anything at all to do wit_ou or me, Gilbert."
The Q.C. reflected. He saw at once he was in a tight corner. That boisterou_an, with the burly big hands, looked quite subdued and crestfallen now. H_ould hardly have snubbed the most unassuming junior. This was a terribl_hing, indeed, for a man so unscrupulous and clever as Montague Nevitt to hav_ormed out of the registers. How he could ever have wormed it out Gilber_ildersleeve hadn't the faintest idea, Why, who on earth could have shown hi_he entry of that fatal marriage—Minnie's first marriage—the marriage wit_hat wretch who died in Portland prison—the marriage that was celebrated a_t. Mary's, at Mambury? He couldn't for a moment conceive, for nobody bu_hemselves, he fondly imagined, had ever identified Mrs. Gilbert Gildersleeve,
the wife of the eminent Q.C., with that unhappy Mrs. Read, the convict'_idow. The convict's widow. Ah, there was the rub. For she was really a wido_n name alone when Gilbert Gildersleeve married her.
And Montague Nevitt, that human ferret, with his keen sharp eyes, and hi_leek polite ways, had found it all out in spite of them—had hunted up th_ate of Read's death and their marriage, and had bragged how he was going dow_o Mambury to prove it!
All the Warings and Reads always got married at Widdicombe or Mambury. Ther_ere lots of them on the books there, that was one comfort, anyhow. He'd hav_ good search to find his needle in such a pottle of hay. But to think th_ellow should have, had the double-dyed cruelty to break the shameful secre_irst of all to Gwendoline! That was his vile way of trying to force a poo_irl into an unwilling consent. Gilbert Gildersleeve lifted his burly bi_ands in front of his capacious waistcoat, and pressed them together angrily.
If only he had that rascal's throat well between them at that moment! He'_rush the fellow's windpipe till he choked him on the spot, though he answere_or it before the judges of assize to-morrow!
"There's only one thing possible for it, Minnie," he said at last, drawing _ong deep breath. "I must go down to Mambury to-morrow to be beforehand wit_im. And I must either buy him off; or else, if that won't do—"
"Or else what, Gilbert?"
She trembled like an aspen leaf.
"Or else get at the books in the vestry myself," the Q.C. muttered low betwee_is clenched teeth, "before the fellow has time to see them and prove it."