For the Term of His Natural Life/Book IV/Chapter XV
Chapter XV: The DiscoveryEdit
The house in Clarges Street was duly placed at the disposal of Mrs. Richard Devine, who was installed in it, to the profound astonishment and disgust of Mr. Smithers and his fellow-servants. It now only remained that the lady should be formally recognized by Lady Devine. The rest of the ingenious programme would follow as a matter of course. John Rex was well aware of the position which, in his assumed personality, he occupied in society. He knew that by the world of servants, of waiters, of those to whom servants and waiters could babble; of such turfites and men-about-town as had reason to inquire concerning Mr. Richard's domestic affairs—no opinion could be expressed, save that "Devine's married somebody, I hear," with variations to the same effect. He knew well that the really great world, the Society, whose scandal would have been socially injurious, had long ceased to trouble itself with Mr. Richard Devine's doings in any particular. If it had been reported that the Leviathan of the Turf had married his washerwoman, Society would only have intimated that "it was just what might have been expected of him". To say the truth, however, Mr. Richard had rather hoped that—disgusted at his brutality—Lady Devine would have nothing more to do with him, and that the ordeal of presenting his wife would not be necessary. Lady Devine, however, had resolved on a different line of conduct. The intelligence concerning Mr. Richard Devine's threatened proceedings seemed to nerve her to the confession of the dislike which had been long growing in her mind; seemed even to aid the formation of those doubts, the shadows of which had now and then cast themselves upon her belief in the identity of the man who called himself her son.
"His conduct is brutal," said she to her brother. "I cannot understand it."
"It is more than brutal; it is unnatural," returned Francis Wade, and stole a look at her. "Moreover, he is married."
"Married!" cried Lady Devine.
"So he says," continued the other, producing the letter sent to him by Rex at Sarah's dictation. "He writes to me stating that his wife, whom he married last year abroad, has come to England, and wishes us to receive her."
"I will not receive her!" cried Lady Devine, rising and pacing down the path.
"But that would be a declaration of war," said poor Francis, twisting an Italian onyx which adorned his irresolute hand. "I would not advise that."
Lady Devine stopped suddenly, with the gesture of one who has finally made a difficult and long-considered resolution. "Richard shall not sell this house," she said.
"But, my dear Ellinor," cried her brother, in some alarm at this unwonted decision, "I am afraid that you can't prevent him."
"If he is the man he says he is, I can," returned she, with effort.
Francis Wade gasped. "If he is the man! It is true—I have sometimes thought——Oh, Ellinor, can it be that we have been deceived?"
She came to him and leant upon him for support, as she had leant upon her son in the garden where they now stood, nineteen years ago. "I do not know, I am afraid to think. But between Richard and myself is a secret—a shameful secret, Frank, known to no other living person. If the man who threatens me does not know that secret, he is not my son. If he does know it——"
"Well, in Heaven's name, what then?"
"He knows that he has neither part nor lot in the fortune of the man who was my husband."
"Ellinor, you terrify me. What does this mean?"
"I will tell you if there be need to do so," said the unhappy lady. "But I cannot now. I never meant to speak of it again, even to him. Consider that it is hard to break a silence of nearly twenty years. Write to this man, and tell him that before I receive his wife, I wish to see him alone. No—do not let him come here until the truth be known. I will go to him."
It was with some trepidation that Mr. Richard, sitting with his wife on the afternoon of the 3rd May, 1846, awaited the arrival of his mother. He had been very nervous and unstrung for some days past, and the prospect of the coming interview was, for some reason he could not explain to himself, weighty with fears. "What does she want to come alone for? And what can she have to say?" he asked himself. "She cannot suspect anything after all these years, surely?" He endeavoured to reason with himself, but in vain; the knock at the door which announced the arrival of his pretended mother made his heart jump.
"I feel deuced shaky, Sarah," he said. "Let's have a nip of something."
"You've been nipping too much for the last five years, Dick." (She had quite schooled her tongue to the new name.) "Your 'shakiness' is the result of 'nipping', I'm afraid."
"Oh, don't preach; I am not in the humour for it."
"Help yourself, then. You are quite sure that you are ready with your story?"
The brandy revived him, and he rose with affected heartiness. "My dear mother, allow me to present to you——" He paused, for there was that in Lady Devine's face which confirmed his worst fears.
"I wish to speak to you alone," she said, ignoring with steady eyes the woman whom she had ostensibly come to see.
John Rex hesitated, but Sarah saw the danger, and hastened to confront it. "A wife should be a husband's best friend, madam. Your son married me of his own free will, and even his mother can have nothing to say to him which it is not my duty and privilege to hear. I am not a girl as you can see, and I can bear whatever news you bring."
Lady Devine bit her pale lips. She saw at once that the woman before her was not gently-born, but she felt also that she was a woman of higher mental calibre than herself. Prepared as she was for the worst, this sudden and open declaration of hostilities frightened her, as Sarah had calculated. She began to realize that if she was to prove equal to the task she had set herself, she must not waste her strength in skirmishing. Steadily refusing to look at Richard's wife, she addressed herself to Richard. "My brother will be here in half an hour," she said, as though the mention of his name would better her position in some way. "But I begged him to allow me to come first in order that I might speak to you privately."
"Well," said John Rex, "we are in private. What have you to say?"
"I want to tell you that I forbid you to carry out the plan you have for breaking up Sir Richard's property."
"Forbid me!" cried Rex, much relieved. "Why, I only want to do what my father's will enables me to do."
"Your father's will enables you to do nothing of the sort, and you know it." She spoke as though rehearsing a series of set-speeches, and Sarah watched her with growing alarm.
"Oh, nonsense!" cries John Rex, in sheer amazement. "I have a lawyer's opinion on it."
"Do you remember what took place at Hampstead this day nineteen years ago?"
"At Hampstead!" said Rex, grown suddenly pale. "This day nineteen years ago. No! What do you mean?"
"Do you not remember?" she continued, leaning forward eagerly, and speaking almost fiercely. "Do you not remember the reason why you left the house where you were born, and which you now wish to sell to strangers?"
John Rex stood dumbfounded, the blood suffusing his temples. He knew that among the secrets of the man whose inheritance he had stolen was one which he had never gained—the secret of that sacrifice to which Lady Devine had once referred—and he felt that this secret was to be revealed to crush him now.
Sarah, trembling also, but more with rage than terror, swept towards Lady Devine. "Speak out!" she said, "if you have anything to say! Of what do you accuse my husband?"
"Of imposture!" cried Lady Devine, all her outraged maternity nerving her to abash her enemy. "This man may be your husband, but he is not my son!"
Now that the worst was out, John Rex, choking with passion, felt all the devil within him rebelling against defeat. "You are mad," he said. "You have recognized me for three years, and now, because I want to claim that which is my own, you invent this lie. Take care how you provoke me. If I am not your son—you have recognized me as such. I stand upon the law and upon my rights."
Lady Devine turned swiftly, and with both hands to her bosom, confronted him.
"You shall have your rights! You shall have what the law allows you! Oh, how blind I have been all these years. Persist in your infamous imposture. Call yourself Richard Devine still, and I will tell the world the shameful secret which my son died to hide. Be Richard Devine! Richard Devine was a bastard, and the law allows him—nothing!"
There was no doubting the truth of her words. It was impossible that even a woman whose home had been desecrated, as hers had been, would invent a lie so self-condemning. Yet John Rex forced himself to appear to doubt, and his dry lips asked, "If then your husband was not the father of your son, who was?"
"My cousin, Armigell Esmè Wade, Lord Bellasis," answered Lady Devine.
John Rex gasped for breath. His hand, tugging at his neck-cloth, rent away the linen that covered his choking throat. The whole horizon of his past was lit up by a lightning flash which stunned him. His brain, already enfeebled by excess, was unable to withstand this last shock. He staggered, and but for the cabinet against which he leant, would have fallen. The secret thoughts of his heart rose to his lips, and were uttered unconsciously. "Lord Bellasis! He was my father also, and—I killed him!"
A dreadful silence fell, and then Lady Devine, stretching out her hands towards the self-confessed murderer, with a sort of frightful respect, said in a whisper, in which horror and supplication were strangely mingled, "What did you do with my son? Did you kill him also?"
But John Rex, wagging his head from side to side, like a beast in the shambles that has received a mortal stroke, made no reply. Sarah Purfoy, awed as she was by the dramatic force of the situation, nevertheless remembered that Francis Wade might arrive at any moment, and saw her last opportunity for safety. She advanced and touched the mother on the shoulder.
"Your son is alive!"
"Will you promise not to hinder us leaving this house if I tell you?"
"Will you promise to keep the confession which you have heard secret, until we have left England?"
"I promise anything. In God's name, woman, if you have a woman's heart, speak! Where is my son?"
Sarah Purfoy rose over the enemy who had defeated her, and said in level, deliberate accents, "They call him Rufus Dawes. He is a convict at Norfolk Island, transported for life for the murder which you have heard my husband confess to having committed——Ah!——"
Lady Devine had fainted.