Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/The silver cord - Part 4

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With most of the facts mentioned in the preceding pages Mr. Berry was well acquainted, and at such of the minor details in the history of Archibald Vernon and his children as had never come formally before the solicitor, he could have made a shrewd guess. He could have added, had it been necessary for him to enter into matters on which Arthur Lygon was as well informed as himself, that Mr. Vernon’s period of residence at Lipthwaite had been about the most creditable portion of his life. Called upon for no active and regular exertion to maintain a household around him, but supplied, at dates which were never anticipated or over-passed, with the means of living respectably, and being, moreover, as he well knew, under the surveillance of more than one friend of the ladies of Clapham, Vernon gradually subsided into habits of order and exactness, and even found comfort to the indolence of his nature in departing as little as possible from the clockwork régime of life in a small country town. He still preserved his energetic delivery, which rather frightened some of his Lipthwaite acquaintances, and deluded others into the conviction—thoroughly shared by himself—that he was a great man, thrown away; but his only energy was in his speech, and he would postpone, for the most fragile reasons, the writing the commonest letter of business or courtesy. But he read a good deal, indited many yards of the severest poetical denunciations of society, and perhaps secretly cherished an idea that some day the desired convulsion of that society would take place, when, like Lamartine’s, his pen would be found sword and sceptre in the new era. His life was perfectly harmless, and its real poetry, although he knew not that it was so, lay in the admiring affection which he felt for his three pretty daughters, and in their earnest love for their fond and unhelpful father.

He was not living at Lipthwaite at the time at which our narrative begins. A cottage, on the Bolk’s Hill road, which had been taken for him by the Misses Judson, was within a short walk of the school at which the girls were placed, and during the time of their undergoing the educational process, as understood by Mrs. Spagley and her assistants, Hermit Hut, as he had been pleased to name it, answered the purpose for which it was designed, that of an unpretentious home for a family of very limited means. The poor girls had not, in their earlier life, been surrounded by the comforts which children accept without recognition; and which, supplied by those who love them, leave their young hearts at liberty to devise ornaments and amusements. For far too many a year it had been matter of thankfulness, or perhaps I had better write, of congratulation, if the day were got through without any particular annoyance, and the meals of the household were not palpably deficient in something usually esteemed a necessary. The ordinary combats with the tradesfolk, and the occasional campaign when millinery wants could be resisted no longer, and dress must be managed somehow, had left poor Beatrice and Bertha very regardless of flowers, birds, embroideries, and pictures, and the thousand and one dainty little signs that mark the habitation of happy girlhood. With Laura the case was somewhat different, as her removal from a scene of strife and penury to one of comparative comfort, had taken place at an earlier part of her life, and the child speedily acquired the tastes and sympathies of those of her own age. Beatrice and Bertha clung to their thumbed and sentimental novels, to their shifty ways and general untidiness, while Laura became rangée, thoughtful, orderly, and fond of adorning her home as if it were a place to live in, not one meant merely to get through life in. But this difference created no estrangement among the sisters, for whom their common troubles had created perhaps stronger ties than belong to sisterhood—that connection apparently so close, and yet so easily and completely sundered by changed circumstances—and a truer alliance could not have been discovered than existed between Beatrice, Bertha, and Laura Vernon. While they resided at Lipthwaite their intimacy was unbroken, and when both the elder girls married, which they easily did, to the surprise and indignation of many better-dowered maidens of Lipthwaite, neither husbands nor children, nor that more potent solvent of affection, rivalry in the world, produced alienation of feeling between them. When Laura, at nineteen, succeeded in appropriating to herself the heart and hand of the handsome Arthur Lygon, and was removed to her London home, the loneliness of Lipthwaite became insupportable by her father, and with the assent of the surviving Miss Judson—the elder had departed, bequeathing some kindly evidences that her heart had been less stern than her professions—Vernon again settled in the neighbourhood of London, but this time in a pleasant boarding-house, where he was much admired for his bright eyes and fluency of language, and where he had ample opportunity, at most comfortable dinners and over excellent wine, both costing him nothing, of proving to successions of amused guests that the world was thoroughly wicked, and that all its institutions were utterly detestable.

Thus far went Mr. Berry’s information. How much farther may be seen hereafter, but men of his vocation seldom tell all that they know.

Had Mr. Berry ever heard of a scene like this?

It was night—but not far into the night of a cheerless day late in October—when a man, whose rapid movement betokened his youth, forced his way through the carelessly kept hedge at the end of a long garden, in the country, and, pausing for a moment to assure himself that he had caused no alarm to a powerful house-dog which he knew to be kenneled near the other extremity of the garden, made his way to an arbour, which, but that it was boarded and roofed with thatch, would have been bleak and bare enough that drear and all but wintry night. The feeble rays of a rising moon afforded him uncertain guidance, but he trod as one who well knew his way, for all his stealthy entrance; but he had either the art of a cat-like tread, or was very lightly shod, for his foot paces could scarcely have been heard by a listener.

Yet there was a certain recklessness in his next act—unless it arose from habitual inability to deny himself any enjoyment that occurred to him as desirable.

Feeling his way into the arbour, and taking his seat on a bench, he took out a match and struck it. It flashed and expired, and he muttered, but not angrily, a French oath, and struck a second match, with which he carefully lit a cigarette.

Having finished this, without moving, he looked impatiently towards the house, and in an under key rather chanted than sang a vaudeville couplet intimating that though

Woman keeps us waiting now,
She shall wait for us to-morrow.”

And after some further manifestations of impatience, the stranger drew from his pocket one of those convenient continental inventions in which candle and candlestick are made to shut up in the smallest compass, and he lit his taper, placed it before him on a little table, and, taking out a tiny volume, began to read.

A spectator, had there been one, would now have had a good opportunity of observing the person who conducted himself so coolly.

He was, as has been said, young, and well made, and but for the intense and settled paleness of his face, might have been called something more than handsome. There was intellect, of a keen order, though far from the highest, in the delicate features, the somewhat square and closely shaven face, and the lofty forehead, from which he had removed a kind of military cap, thus disclosing what remained to him of shortly cut black hair, smoothly laid, it might seem with a view of exhibiting that fine forehead to the best advantage. The lips were very red, and somewhat compressed, and on the upper one was a small black moustache, an addition to the effect of a face which, though an Englishman’s, was Parisian in its finesse. His dark, deeply set eyes glistened in the light of the taper, which also showed, resting on the table, a white small hand, with a glittering ring—the other hand was in a black glove. The stranger’s dress, too, was black, and his frock-coat was buttoned at his neck, soldier fashion. But, be it again said, for the pallor of the face, it was one upon which you would at first look with a pleasure, which might not be permanent.

The spectator would have needed to be rapid, however, in his observation, for in a few moments light and hurrying footsteps were heard, and a hand dashed out the light almost before one could have discerned that a woman’s form had passed into the arbour.

Then words were spoken, and the first were of reproach, in an under tone—

“Thoughtless, selfish.”

“What, for lighting my poor little candle?” said a calm, clear voice, exceedingly gentle, almost caressing, but for that undercurrent of banter so hateful to woman, whether she be pleased or angry. “And you have dashed to pieces my poor little candle! How cruel in you!”

“Suppose it had been seen,” returned the female voice, remonstratingly.

He would have thought it was the moon,
Rising to some sorcerer’s tune,
An hour too soon,”

recited the stranger, with very careful inflexion.

“I am here,” said his companion, in a cold voice. “Why are you here, and why have you asked me to come?”

“Pointedly put, but categorical answer is not always easy. However, I will do my best. When is this pleasant marriage?”

“That—that cannot concern you,” replied the other, in a troubled voice. “I do not know.”

“Your first statement is an error, my dear girl, and the second, pardon me, is a falsehood.”

“However much one is in your power, you might preserve the language of a gentleman,” replied the girl, with agitation.

“Why, when deceit, which is unworthy of a lady, is sought to be practised upon me? Why am I to be deprived of the happiness of knowing when my friends are to be made happy?”

“Your friends!”

“Actually said with a shudder—or is it the cold?—the night is chilly, and—”

It may have been that he attempted to approach her, and that as if by instinct she eluded him. She stood at the entrance of the arbour, with her hand upon one of the rough posts.

If there had been such an interruption to their talk, he took no notice of it, but asked—“Is Mr. Vernon in bed?”

“You know that my father never goes to his room until eleven.”

“I fancied I had heard that hour from the old church—waiting for you must have made the time seem long.”

“Once more, what brings you here?”

“Once more, when is the wedding?”

“I don’t know,” repeated the girl.

“Strange, that you should not, and that I should!”

“Then why ask?”

“Petulance, my love, within limits, is the most charming privilege of women, but when carried too far, we call it impertinence.”

This was said in the most benign way, and it was singular that it should have produced a passionate reply.

“I did not mean to be impertinent—pray forgive me—but I am ill—and it is very cold—I have no shawl—do not be angry, Ernest.”

“I am never angry, and least of all with you. Nor will I detain you long.”

“Please speak, and say what you wish. I am in such terror—”

“You need not be. No one ever came to harm for my sake.”

“Oh, my God!” was the response, given, it might be, involuntarily.

“A form of dissent from my proposition, I take it,” he replied; and a listener, if there were one, might well wonder of what the heart was made that could respond, with a sneer, to a sob. “I am sorry that we differ, but we will not quarrel, I think.”

“No, no, indeed,” said the agitated girl.

“Then let us speak of business. The bridal day is fixed, as I tell you, though you will not tell me so. I cannot allow the joyful occasion to pass without my making some present to the happy pair, giving some sign that I sympathise in their transports.”

“For mercy’s sake, do not stand and inflict torture.”

“Not for the world. I hoped to give pleasure, by showing my entire forgiveness of anything that might have seemed to be to my injury.”

“To yours!” said the girl in a low voice.

“Why, yes. Without affecting any profundity of feeling, with which I fear I should not be credited, can a man calmly resign the love of a lovely being, whose attachment to himself”—

“At any risk, I leave you—God help me!—if you speak so.”

“Stand there!” said the stranger in a hasty tone of command. “So—a moment’s thought, and you are rational. I had merely to say that I desire to make the bridal present I speak of. But, as the pupils of Mrs. Spagley are likely to know, the honour of being the writing-master at her distinguished establishment is more remarkable than the amount of his salary. I am sure you understand me.”

“You want us to give you more money. O Ernest, how are we to get it?”

“I would not insult the intellect of the Misses Vernon by supposing that what they have done before they cannot do again.”

“We have really none, and papa has none—what can we do?”

“I thought, pardon me, that Mr. Vernon usually received certain moneys about the 24th. This is the 26th, a point on which I would not dwell, but that yesterday I perceived the postman came towards Bolk’s Hill with a registered letter.”

“But that is wanted for—for marriage arrangements,” said the poor girl. “I cannot talk to you on such things, and you ought not to make me—I mean that—”

“Never mind. I comprehend, and a bride would not willingly be thought a beggar.”

“Ernest!” sobbed the girl.

“But I might remind you that, on the eve of a marriage, hearts and purses are open, and a bride has such advantages when she asks a little assistance from friends.”

She was silent. Perhaps prostrated in presence of his cruelty and meanness.—Yet do not read a woman’s heart too fast, or you may read it very wrongly. He, at all events, did not choose so to interpret her.

“All will be arranged. I feel that it will, and that my bridal present will be worthy of the occasion. On the day after to-morrow my copy of Frankenstein will be returned to me, enriched with notes—the notes representing twenty pounds.”

“Twenty pounds, Ernest!”

“That will be the amount. You have already seen your amiable way to funds—the sum is a mere detail. I had nothing more to say that need detain you from your warm fire-side—unless, indeed—”

He, in wily fashion, dashed out in the middle of his speech, as if to clasp her—but she was gone.

Ernest Hardwick had the money on the day he had appointed.

Did Mr. Berry know of this meeting, or the circumstances that made it what it was?


The excellent Mrs. Berry had firmly resolved that her husband and his friend should have no further confidential talk that night at least, and that whatever mischief might have been done by the shell which she had so deliberately pitched into the enemy’s fortress should not be repaired, until she had endeavoured to follow up the attack. We shall see what became of her resolution.

Clara was speedily directed to go to her room, with a solemn injunction not to forget her prayers, and to put out her candle before getting into bed. The first injunction made the child open her eyes, for it was very needless, but she looked wistfully at her father to obtain a revision of the second.

“Mamma takes her light away,” said Arthur.

“Then,” said Mrs. Berry, calmly, “there may be many reasons why she should learn to do without such assistance.”

“Nonsense,” said Mr. Berry, ringing the bell. “Tell Hester to fetch the candle.”

“Of course you will give your servants what directions you please, Mr. Berry,” said the lady, putting the thin lips together, and assuming her favourite attitude of a wronged wife.

“In my time,” said old Mrs. Empson, whom Mrs. Berry possibly desired to enlist for active service, “in my time gentlemen did not take upon themselves to meddle in such matters.”

“Ah,” replied Mr. Berry, who with all his forbearance had no idea of foreign troops being levied to fight against him, “but that was such a very long time ago, Aunt Empson, and we have improved the fashions. Or perhaps your memory don’t serve you as well as it did. I dare say, now, that poor Mr. Empson had his own way at home.”

“Poor Mr. Empson,” retorted the incensed old lady, “I don’t know what call you have to use such words, Mr. Berry. Mr. Empson may not have chose to squander the money that by rights should have been his wife’s in building gingerbread houses, and buying Brummagem buttons, but he was not so poor as all that comes to.”

“As all what comes to, my dear lady?” asked the provoking attorney.

“You needn’t talk to me,” replied Mrs. Empson, venomously.

“But I think that you were kind enough, Aunt Empson, to begin by talking to me, or rather at me, and my respect for you compels me to answer.”

“Mrs. Empson is my aunt, Mr. Berry,” said Mrs. Berry, in a toneless voice.

“You needn’t take my part, Marion,” said the ungrateful recruit. “It is not a bit of snip-snap impertinence, as I would whip that child for using to her betters, that will frighten me.”

“But Clara has not spoken,” said her father, angrily, and lighting a candle for the child, he conducted her from the room, with a kind hand upon her shoulder, and consigned her to Hester, who was coming to answer the bell. He then returned to his sofa, in a humour to speak his mind on small provocation, for he was savage that such an idea as that Clara could be beaten for anything should have been put into his child’s head.

“Children were not brought up in that way in my time,” said Mrs. Empson, with all the pertinacity of a disagreeable old woman.

“By Jove! I should think not,” was the instant reply of Mr. Lygon. “To judge by what one sees now, I should think not. As Mr. Berry very well remarks, we have improved the fashions.”

“Really,” said Mrs. Berry, with a laugh which the others were to accept as playful; “really. Mr. Lygon, absence from your wife does not seem to sweeten your temper. It is so creditable to you as a married man, that we cannot complain of it, and I must add a postscript to my letter, telling Laura how uncomfortable you are when she is away.”

“If the gentleman will let his friends know where to write to her,” added Aunt Empson.

Mrs. Berry opened a neat little book, but over it she keenly watched the effect of this impertinence. Arthur’s legal adviser, however, deemed it time to take up his client’s case.

“What, Aunt Empson, do you want to write to Mrs. Lygon? I am sure she will be delighted. Do you recollect what fun we had over one of your notes last year, and how we were obliged to send for Hester from the kitchen to come and read it, the spelling being more like hers than ours?”

Mrs. Empson’s head waggled laterally in token of her excessive anger, but did not supply her with words meet for the occasion. Mr. Berry pursued his revenge.

“What was that one word that beat us all—you remember it, Marion, your memory is so good for little things—something about heavenly wretches?”

“I beg that no such reference may be made to me,” said Mrs. Berry, in some little discomposure, for she knew the temper of her relative, and by no means desired to be thought she had amused herself at Mrs. Empson’s expense. “I can always read any note my aunt is kind enough to send me, and that you know perfectly well, Mr. Berry.”

“No, no,” said her husband, pleased at having effected a diversion, “you gave it up, and it was only Hester, at last, that found out that aunt was recommending us to lay up heavenly riches; she was thinking of a text, you know, Arthur, but we elderly people sometimes use wrong words.”

“Some elderly people do, certainly,” said Mr. Arthur Lygon.

It was a free and gentle passage of arms, but though victory was not decided, it did not seem to rest with the challengers, and therefore their leader deemed it fit to charge in person. She was making up the thin lips for a pleasant speech, when her exasperated recruit broke in, her voice shaky with anger.

“You may be glad enough to take the advice as I sent you, one of these days, Mr. and Mrs. Berry,” she said.

“My dear aunt,” said Mrs. Berry, now really alarmed (for who knows what confidences women have between one another, and who does not know that, by feminine ethics, a quarrel legally dissolves all obligations to keep old faith), “I must insist that you do not for a moment——

“I have not come to my years,” said Mrs. Empson, “to have the word insist used to me, and most of all by my own niece, whom I have knowd from a child.”

“Aunt,” entreated Mrs. Berry, more earnestly than it might have been supposed she could speak, “please don’t misunderstand me.”

“I am a stupid old woman, no doubt,” persisted Mrs. Empson, “and if I had not knowd it of myself, I should have been made aware of it to-night by these gentlemen, who have both been good enough to set their wits against a woman as is old enough to be the mother of one of them——

“And the grandmother of another, and that is me, eh, aunt?” said Mr. Berry, laughing. “Come, I am sure you are much too good-hearted a person to take anything seriously that was not meant so. Why, Marion, here, who loves you better than she loves anybody, was as much amused at your funny spelling as the rest of us, and you know that it is impossible for her to feel anything towards you but respect. Don’t get angry, but let us all have a glass of something comfortable together.”

This last straw broke the old camel’s back. The idea of being treated by her nephew-in-law like one of those old nurses, or common sort of people, who are to be blowd up all through the evening, and then smoothed down with a glass of spirits. Such was the way Mrs. Empson would have put it, if she had still possessed any power of setting forth her wrongs before proceeding to avenge them.

“Person, Mr. Berry—I am a person, I am well aware of that, and the next time this person troubles you with her handwriting or her presence, let me know of it, that is all.” And she made, all things considered, rather a vigorous clutch at a black bonnet in a chair near her. At which bonnet—one touch of millinery makes the whole female world kin—Mrs. Berry also darted, and began smoothing the ribbons, and pushing out the curtain with a tender elaboration that was artistically designed to go straight to the heart of her aunt, as were the niece’s touch upon the arm of her relative, and soothing words.

“Dearest aunt, if there is one thing in the world to which I may appeal with confidence, it is your feeling as a Christian.”

Other persons, who to be sure would know less of Mrs. Empson, might have thought that such an appeal was the one thing in the world that might be lodged with small advantage. But Mrs. Berry knew something of her aunt and something of human nature.

“I honestly hope, Marion, that I may presume to call myself a Christian, if”—she added with a furious look at the men—“these gentlemen will not think it is taking too great a liberty.”

Arthur’s handsome face looked as if he did think the liberty in question was being taken, but Mr. Berry only smiled good-naturedly, and once more rang the bell.

“Don’t ring the bell for me,” exclaimed the old lady, in renewed wrath, at the idea that the solvents were going to be asked for in order to pacify her.

“On the contrary, I am going to ring for Hester,” said Mr. Berry.

“Edward,” said Mrs. Berry, who was always very much in earnest indeed when she called her husband by his baptismal name, “I beg that you will prevent a menial from entering this room until my aunt has been perfectly convinced that your ill-placed raillery was only foolish, and not intended disrespectfully.”

“How long will the operation take, my dear, as both Arthur and myself would like a tumbler of whiskey toddy?”

“O! aunt, aunt!” cried Mrs. Berry, inspired, and kneeling on a footstool that she might the more compendiously embrace her rather surprised relation, who subsided into the arm-chair under the vigorous assault. “O, aunty, I always said that you were the dearest and kindest being in the world, and you do indeed show it to forgive such conduct. O, you do indeed!”

Mrs. Empson might, under other circumstances, have explained that she had done nothing at all in the way of forgiveness, but her niece pressed her down into the chair, and sobbed—at all events, sobbed with her shoulders—and youth will be served, as the proverb says. The aged Christian was in no position to explain her feelings.

“Aunt, dear,” continued Marion Victrix, pursuing her advantage, and putting the thin lips to the reluctant cheek—never was there such a double mockery of a kiss—” God bless you, and make me only half as good and as kind and as generous as you are.”

“It does not seem much to ask,” thought Mr. Arthur Lygon, who was regarding the scene with considerable disfavour, though he was not in a mood to care very much what went on in his presence.

“Begone, Hester,” cried Mrs. Berry, impetuously waving away that faithful domestic, the instant she entered.

“Eh!” said Hester, advancing as calmly as if she had received no instructions in an opposite sense. “Is the poor old soul ill? Dear me! Let me fetch her a drop of hot brandy-and-water, m’m.”

“Do, Hester,” said the implacable Mr. Berry, “and, while you are about it, fetch the spirit decanters, and bring hot and cold water, Hester, tumblers, spoons, and two wine-glasses.”

Aunt Empson’s struggles to arise were considerable, but her niece’s resolute repression of them was really a touch of muscular Christianity.

“One true thing has been said to you, dear aunt, one thing that you must and shall believe, and that is that I respect and esteem you more than anybody in the world. Believe that, dearest aunt. And so does Mr. Berry,” she continued, skilfully, “only he has been a little upset to-night by I don’t know what bad news, and he has taken rather more wine than is quite good for him, and I am sure you will overlook that.”

Now the charge of having taken too much wine is, I need hardly remind my male friends, one of those allegations which place the accused person at the mercy of his lady prosecutor—if mercy were a thing to come into the game at all. The words really have the power of those of Circe, when she ordered her victims to become brutes. More,—for her slaves had deserved their fate by actual drinking, whereas the accusation in question, from the mouth of Lovely Woman in our time, tells better against a sober than an intoxicate being. From the moment of the fatal utterance, words, looks, deeds, all take a new colouring, are bathed in the purple tide. Speak slowly, and, evil man, be told that you cannot get ideas to come or words to flow, and fit them. Speak fast, and the demon of drink is riding brain and tongue. Do not speak at all, and you are stupid with the wine you have taken. Argue, and you are fractious and feverish. Assent, and you are silly, and do not fully comprehend the meaning of the words addressed to you. Move about the room, and you are restless with the wine, which does not agree with you, and you had better sit down before you break any of the statuettes. Remain tranquilly on the couch, and of course you are crushing and rending the anti-macassar, but you are not in a state to know what you are about. Propose to go to bed, and no doubt it is the best place for you, but if you were in a condition to care for the opinions of others, you might think what the servants would say at your going off to bed at eleven o’clock. Intimate a notion of remaining, and it is only a man who has been rendered reckless by wine that would think of keeping up those poor servants after half-past ten. Smile, and it is a foolish smile, and you had really better take a book. Frown, and perhaps you had better look in the glass, if you can see straight, and then you will know what ridiculous grimaces you are making. Take up a book, and at once be called upon to answer whether people come home to read at that time of night, and also whether you can see the lines distinctly. Lay the book down, and be commended for doing well in not running the risk of soiling and spoiling what can be of no use to you in your present state. Be cool and undemonstrative as usual, and prepare to state what wine men take that makes them savage and sulky. Press the loved one’s hand, or lightly touch her silken tress, and meet the pitying, pitiless wonder how many glasses are wanted to make a person so mightily affectionate. Therefore thou art inconsiderate, O man, if ever thou exposest thyself to that charge from thy virtuous and domestic Circe. Some married men have recommended that the first time it is brought (save in extraordinary lovingness and playfulness), answer be instantly made with the Bright Poker. Of this counsel I presume to judge not. It might be gentler to bribe the enemy, by never going anywhere without her. For she is not altogether adamant, whatever may have been said for the defendant.

But for this kind of attack to be very successful it is necessary that the combatants should be alone, as a witness on the male side is very much in the way. Upon the present occasion Mr. Berry, who had his weaknesses, one of which was anger when unjustly accused, actually coloured up at this sacrifice of manly dignity at the altar of feminine affection, and was going to say something which might not have acted as oil on the waters. But his witness came suddenly out, and emphatically.

“Quite a mistake, Mrs. Berry, I beg to assure you. Your husband has taken next to nothing, less in fact than I myself have done, and I am anxious to vindicate myself from the charge of having caused any irregularity in a friend’s family. Mr. Berry, I am happy to inform you, has not taken more wine than is good for him.”

We do not believe in evil eyes in England, and therefore, though there are plenty of them about, they do us no harm. Else, the glance which the kneeling Marion bestowed upon the interposing Lygon might have been more than was good for him.

The old lady in the chair made one more effort to rise, but was again put down by a hasty and fervent embrace, and Mrs. Berry arose for battle.

“Mr. Lygon,” she said with a spiteful deliberation, “whatever unhappiness there may be in your own family, I will thank you not to bring any into mine.”

“My dear Mrs. Berry,” said Arthur, whose nature it was to become composed and wary in the presence of manifest hostility, “how happy I should be to deserve your thanks for anything.”

“When a wife,” continued the lady, “is endeavouring to find the best excuse she can for a husband’s conduct, it does not become a stranger to interfere, and endeavour to keep up irritation.”

“Christians are never irritated, Mrs. Berry,” said Arthur, calmly.

“There,” cried the high voice, varied with croak, of the old lady in the chair. “You see he calls me a wretched heathen to my very face.”

“Aunt,” said Mrs. Berry, with dignity,” what either of the so-called gentlemen in this room may say at this time must be a matter for pity, not for answer. You, I am sure, will so regard it,”

“What, have I had too much wine, also?” asked Lygon, with a short laugh. “I did not know it. But if so, is it not a little inhospitable in you, my dear Mrs. Berry, to tell your guest so?”

“It is the right thing to tell the truth,” said Mrs. Berry, as if announcing a newly recognised dogma.

“And not right to do the reverse,” said Mr. Berry, roused into real wrath, and manifesting it by bringing his hand down, by no means gently, on the table. “I will have no untruths spoken in my house, about me or about any guests.”

“Oh!” said, or rather emitted, Mrs. Berry. Two letters are nothing, but there may be from Alpha to Omega in two letters, and I think the noise made by the lady ran nearly that length in implied taunt and defiance.

“No untruths, to please anybody,” returned her husband.

“Perhaps it might have been well, not that I presume to dictate,” said Mrs. Berry, slowly, “if that notice had been given a little earlier.”

“You hear what I say,” replied Mr. Berry, understanding her meaning, but not choosing to do so. “Mrs. Empson knows perfectly well that intentional disrespect to her is out of the question, but I am sorry that she has lived all these years without learning how to take a friendly joke. When she can do so, I shall be as happy as I always am to see her here. You can explain that to her, Marion, without any unworthy subterfuges. Lygon, we will take our tumbler in the library.”

He led the younger man from the room. Arthur expected, at each instant, to receive a parting shot, but whether the sudden and very unusual manifestation of her husband’s anger had awed Mrs. Berry, or whether she preferred to defer operations until a more convenient season, the solicitor and his client were allowed to pass without further speech. Then the women made up their differences in a minute, and Hester entering, not empty-handed, they also made something else, after the manner of such ladies.