Chapter XII.

Father and Son.

On the day when Mr. Kraker made his minute examination at Ivy Cottage, and almost at the same hour, Viscount Morleigh got into his carriage for the purpose of meeting his father, whom he expected from Paris. The young man was paler than was his wont. His eyes looked heavy, his cheeks blanched, and he threw himself back in his seat with an air of extreme weariness. This was not his usual appearance; indeed, as a rule, he was active and full of high spirits, but for the last three days, as the servants had remarked, he had not been like his ordinary self. Irritability, loss of appetite, and long intervals of silence had taken the place of good humour, a healthy hunger, and talkativeness. His valet, who had been with him a number of years, was much concerned, and, thinking he was ill, tried to persuade him not to go out. But the Earl, who had an elastic conscience as far as any fashionable vices were concerned, and who would readily have pardoned any folly of extravagance, was punctilious to a fault in regard to the respect he considered was due to himself. As proud as Lucifer, he rarely overlooked any slight, even when unintentionally committed. He telegraphed to his son that he should be at London Bridge at a certain time, and no more doubted that his son would be there to meet him than he did that the train would convey him in safety. The Viscount knew this well, and accordingly was on the platform when the train arrived. The Earl got out of the carriage and greeted his son more politely than warmly. He was a tall, fine-looking man, with a military bearing, and an unmistakeably aristocratic air. Pride of birth was written in every line of his handsome though stern face, and though he had been clad in rags, he would yet have been called a gentleman.

“Are you quite well, sir?” asked the young man, with a certain constraint in his manner.

“Yes, pretty well, Frank, but confoundedly tired. A good dinner and a glass of the old Burgundy will soon pick me up. Eh! what the deuce have you been doing with yourself, man?” said he, suddenly noticing the Viscount’s altered looks.

“Nothing; caught cold I fancy.”

“Ah! must get rid of that.”

By this time they were in the carriage and rolling swiftly towards Chester Square. They did not converse very much, for the Earl, besides being tired, had not succeeded very well in his mission, which was of a diplomatic nature, and altogether he was in a bad temper. However, the sight of the dinner restored him, and, being somewhat of a gourmand, he gradually mellowed and recovered his wonted equanimity. When the desert was over, and they were discussing coffee and cigars, he was deep in politics, taking a strong Conservative view of everything, and denouncing the absurdity of the common people expecting to have a voice in the government of the country.

“Government can only come from one class, those with good blood in their veins. Depend upon it, no others can last.”

“But is intellect confined to the class you speak of?”

“No; but government does not require intellect.”

“I tell you I am right, and I have studied this question deeply.”

The Viscount was silent, knowing by experience that the best way was to let the Earl go on uncontradicted.

“Yes, I repeat that if the upper classes wish to retain their power, they must take as much pains to keep the breed pure as they do that of their horses. And that brings me to a subject upon which I have been going to speak to you for some time​—​your marriage, Frank.”

“I am much obliged, my lord, but I am in no very great hurry, and this event might very well stand over for a little time.”

“I don’t think so,” replied the Earl lightly. “Another cigar. You are now thirty, and I fancy you have sown your wild oats. You have not been more extravagant than most young men, though, perhaps, that is not saying very much, and it’s time you were settled. I’ve had some talk with the Duke or Harford on the subject.”

“Pardon me, my lord, but I really think this is a matter upon which I, at least, ought to know my own mind. I say it will all respect, but I cannot be a party to any arrangement as to my marriage which you may have made without speaking first to me.”

“Don’t be a fool, Morleigh,” broke out the Earl; “you know very well I always gave you to understand that your marriage with Lady Mary was the devout wish of my heart. The Annesley and Harford estates joined together would make a property unequalled in all England. Of course, I shouldn’t do anything in the matter without consulting you; but, on the other hand, knowing as you do my wishes, you will not thwart me.”

“Thwart is a disagreeable word, and one which you should not have used; but, with regard to Lady Mary, I may say at once that I cannot marry her.”

“The deuce you can’t? And why, pray?”

“Simply because I am engaged to some one else.”

The Earl threw himself back in his chair, and gazed at his son in utter astonishment.

“Engaged! And without telling me? Impossible! You must be joking,” he said at last. “If you mean that you have entangled yourself anywhere for the sake of a pretty face, why that can be easily got over, but engaged is too ridiculous.”

“Nevertheless, it is true.”

“Frank,” stormed the Earl, “if you marry beneath your rank I will never forgive you!”

“My rank is that which I make myself.”

“Oh, I see. And where, pray, have you picked up these fine sentiments? Really, I begin to think that you’re rather vulgar in your notions for the son of an earl.”

“And if I am, my lord, perhaps there are good reasons for my being so.”

The look and accent with which the Viscount accompanied these words were so prominent and full of meaning that the Earl started. In a hesitating voice he asked, “What did you say?”

Directly Viscount Morleigh had let fall the words he regretted his hastiness. But he had gone too far to draw back.

“I have something very serious to tell you, sir,” he replied with a certain embarrassment. “Not only my honour but yours, and that of our name, is at stake. I had made up my mind to have an explanation with you, but I did not intend to trouble you with it on the evening of your return. However, there is no help for it.”

The Earl listened to his son’s words with an ill-concealed anxiety. One would almost have said that he divined what was coming.

“Of all men in the world,” resumed the Viscount, “I have the least right to reproach you: your liberality, your——”

“Enough,” broke in his father impatiently. “Say what you have to say at once.”

The young man bowed. Then, fixing his eyes on his father’s face, he said​—​

“In your absence I have seen all your correspondence with Louisa Delanne. All,” he added, significantly.

The Earl did not give his son time to finish. He started as if a serpent had stung him, and so violently that he pushed the chair on which he was sitting several inches from the table.

“Not a word,” he cried in a terrible voice. “Not one syllable, I forbid you.”

But the next moment he seemed ashamed of his vehemence, and, recovering his calmness by a violent effort, he poured out a glass of wine, and swallowed it at one gulp.

“I knew by your face, directly I saw you at the railway station, that something had happened.”

There was a long silence, each scarcely daring to reopen a conversation fraught with such terrible meaning to them both. With his head half averted, the Earl pondered over the revelation which had burst upon him like a thunderbolt. Perhaps, if the truth be told, it had more irritated than surprised him. He knew well enough that such a secret, however carefully guarded, was very likely sooner or later to be brought to light. Three persons had it in their keeping; besides which he had been imprudent enough to commit it to paper. He could scarcely believe, looking at the affair by the light of experience, and with the eyes of a diplomatist, how he could have been so foolish, and how, having once written that which would compromise him, he had not taken the precaution to destroy the evidence. But what man would ever think of taking precautions against the woman of whom he was enamoured? So much was he in love with Louisa Delanne, that he would never have dreamt of asking for his letters, though the time had come when he had quarrelled with her, and they had parted. And yet many a time during the twenty years he had not seen her he had again and again cursed the inexcusable folly of his passion. In his imagination the sword of Damocles was always suspended over his head, and to-day it had descended. These thoughts ran like wildfire through his brain, and agitated him beyond endurance. At last he said, without altering his attitude, and in a cold, hard voice​—​

“Viscount Morleigh, between us now there need be no reticence. What have you seen of these letters you speak of?”

During the silence the Viscount had had time to collect his thoughts, and prepare himself for the struggle which for four days he had awaited with so much patience. In a few words, and keeping strictly to the facts, he told his father of Gerald’s visit, and of the letters he had shown him.

“And you did not kick the fellow out?” inquired the Earl fiercely.

“That was my first impulse, I confess, but at the first glance I recognised your handwriting, and I took the letters and read them.”

“And then?” inquired the Earl with something like a sneer.

“And then I returned the packet, and told Mr. Delanne he should hear from me in a week’s time. I did this because I felt it necessary to consult you in the matter. Now, I must ask you one thing: Did this substitution really take place​—​that is to say, am I the nameless son of Mrs. Delanne and yourself?”

“Unhappily, yes,” returned the latter, in a low voice. “You have read these letters​—​what they contain is true.”

The Viscount heard the reply in silence, and then observed calmly​—​

“I at first thought it was probable, but on thinking over the matter I noticed one curious circumstance. All the letters I have seen speak only of your intention to effect the change. They give directions in minute detail, but there is not a word to prove that they were carried into effect.”

The Earl looked at his son in surprise. What he had written was still fresh in his memory, and he could well recall some expressions of satisfaction at the success of his plan, and thanking Louisa for having attended so well to his orders.

“You cannot have read the whole,” he murmured.

“You are mistaken, my lord,” returned the young man, steadily. “I read every one, and with an attention which I fancy you can well understand. I repeat that the last letter shown me was one in which Mrs. Delanne announces the arrival of Matilda Rennett, the nurse who had been entrusted with the changing of the children. I know nothing beyond that.”

A new light broke in upon the Earl. Was it not an everyday occurrence for a man to conceive a project, think it over a long time, hug it to his breast, and then at the last moment abandon it? He bit his lips with vexation to think how he had been so precipitate. The Viscount had commenced by having suspicions, and he had changed them into certainties by his awkwardness.

“I can see what has happened,” he thought. “Louisa has destroyed those letters which she thought were the most compromising. But why should she preserve the others? That is what puzzles me?”

He took a sudden resolution.

“Frank,” said he, in an affectionate tone, “sit down here near me, and let us talk over this matter. We must not deceive each other, but rather unite to prevent a great, a terrible misfortune. The name of our house is yet untarnished. Let me not, through you, be the first to bring dishonour upon it. Speak to me in all confidence, as a son should to his father. Have you fixed upon any plan? Have you come to any determination?”

The Earl spoke in a tone of almost piteous entreaty, and without a word the Viscount obeyed him. After a pause, the young man said quietly​—​

“It seems to me, my lord, that there is but one course possible.”

“And what is that?”

“Before your legitimate son I must yield. If both you and he are agreed I can say nothing​—​do nothing.”

The Earl could scarcely restrain himself at this reply. Striking the table furiously, he exclaimed​—​

“Are you mad? Who has said we are agreed? I have never seen this man, and I have not the least desire to do so. I disown him. I have made you Viscount Morleigh and my heir, and, by heaven, sir! you shall be​—​at least until my death.”


“Silence! What has it to do with you if I declare it is my will that you should succeed me? It’s all very well to be chivalrous, self-denying, and the rest of it in books, but, sir, it won’t do in real life. Just think of the shame, the exposure! By heaven! I should never get over it.”

And the Earl wiped his damp brow and continued​—​

“If we were Smiths or Browns such a thing wouldn’t matter a rap; but, in our station, it is a far different matter. God bless me, Frank, you must know that.”

“I have thought of all this,” said he; “but I say again that conscience——”

“Conscience​—​fiddlestick! Conscience is a thing which always intrudes when it is not wanted. Who has committed the fault? Not you. I alone have a right to speak of conscience, and I accept the responsibility.”

“This Delanne will assert his rights, if I am not mistaken.”

“What of that? He has no proof.”

“Your own letters.”

“They are not decisive. Have you not said so yourself?”

“Yes, but they convinced me in spite of that, and, as I am the person most interested, my opinion is worth something. Besides, will he not find witnesses?”

“Whom can he find?”

“Yourself. I do not see how you can get out of it unless you commit perjury.”

At this very natural conclusion the face of the Earl became almost livid, and he gasped for breath.

“Whatever comes, I’ll not let the name of Annesley be sullied.”

“Then there is Mrs. Delanne,” went on the Viscount, not a muscle of his face moving.

“Oh, I can answer for her. Her interest is ours. Can you not see that? Would a mother give up her son for another? It is not in nature.”

“Ah!” replied the young man, drily. “And Matilda Rennett? Will she also hold her tongue?”

“If she is sufficiently paid​—​yes.”

“True; but there are awkward points that, if a certain sum will close her mouth, a large one might possibly open it.”

“I know how to quiet her,” muttered the Earl between his teeth.

“By the way,” said the Viscount, musing, “she was the nurse of Delanne. I wonder if it is she who has put him on the track of this correspondence? He spoke of her as if he were certain of her testimony.”

“I only wish she were dead instead of old Taplow. He, at all events, could be relied upon,” returned the Earl, in a tone of suppressed anger.

“You see that Matilda Rennett, if she chooses, can at once upset all your plans,” remarked the young man, significantly.

His father was silent. He saw the full force of the remark, and for the moment it paralysed his energies. He could say nothing, and silence reigned in the room.

The Viscount was the first to break it.

“Returning to the subject which inadvertently led to our present conversation, I think we broke off just at the point when I declared I could not accept the hand of Lady Mary Harford.”

“What is that to me just now? Let us see a way out of our present difficulty first.”

“Oh, as to that, I have, as I have told you, made up my mind on the point. I am convinced that the proper thing to do is to give up my position, which is an utterly false one, to Delanne.”

“Dolt and idiot!” hissed the Earl.

“That I have resolved upon doing unless——”

“Unless what?” demanded his father quickly.

“Unless you consent to my marriage with Florence.”

“What! would you wed the daughter of the woman who deceived your father?”

“Surely she is not to blame for that, father.” Curiously enough, it was the only time the young man addressed the Earl by his name during the interview. “I love Florence, and she, I believe, loves me. Her mother is as averse to the union as you can possibly be, but for all that we have resolved to be married. You see, I have been perfectly frank with you, and I again say that I consent to keep your fault from the world on the sole condition that you do not oppose my marriage.”

The Earl’s countenance became almost distorted as the varying emotions of rage and disappointment passed over it. He rose from his chair, and paced up and down the room, and the heaving of his chest showed how intense was the struggle going on within. At last he came up to where the young man, calm as a statue, sat awaiting his answer, and put his hand on his son’s shoulder.

“Viscount Morleigh,” said he, in a strangely altered voice, “you have taken a cruel advantage of your father, sir. You have conquered. I consent.”

A smile of triumph passed over the young man’s face. Rising, he bade his father good night in his wonted respectful manner, and left the room.