Chapter XVII.

The Earl’s Decision.

The extraordinary events of the last few days completely demoralised the household of the Earl of Annesley. The fact that Viscount Morleigh had been arrested for murder could not be long concealed, and long before he had been brought up at the police court, and the news spread far and wide by the newspapers, it was known in almost every servants’ hall in Belgravia. As to the versions, more or less exaggerated, they were numberless, and several knowing individuals had already declared, with a solemn shake of the head, that they always expected something of the kind; that the Earl was a sad rake in his day, and his son took after him; and everybody was good until he was found out; and many more remarks of equal wisdom and profundity. At No. 19, Chester Square, the opinions were equally divided. The female portion of the domestics were, to a woman, in favour of the Viscount’s innocence, while the men, especially those who had been examined by the police​—​and, therefore, spoke with authority​—​were inclined to believe there was “something in it.”

“The old man, he don’t seem much put out, does he?” said the porter.

“Ah, the Annesleys were always a proud lot,” remarked the cook.

“Aye, but if the Earl don’t show it, I know as he thinks a good deal about his son. He didn’t say a word about that Julian soup as came up cold. A week ago he’d ha’ swore my ’ed off; and he ain’t touched a drop of Burgundy​—​the yellow seal, as he’s so fond of​—​since,” observed Mr. Barker, the butler, not without some emotion.

“It’s natural enough, Mr. Barker, as he should take on a bit,” said the housekeeper. “Although he’s a nobleman, he’s got his feelings the same as us, ain’t he?”

“Ah, but don’t you imagine as he goes about telling everyone, same as anybody else would. He nurses his troubles up; and them as does that they’re always the worstest.”

At that moment a violent ring of the Earl’s bell startled them all.

“That’s him all over,” said the footman; “he’s in a tantrum when he rings like that.” And, with a somewhat bad grace, the powdered flunkey went out of the kitchen, and ascended the broad staircase to the Earl’s apartment.

The proud nobleman was seated at his writing table, and scarcely looked up as the servant entered. He had addressed and sealed a letter, which he still held in his hand, as if revolving something in his mind. A movement from the servant broke his reverie.

“You rang for me, my lord?” said interrogatively the footman.

“Yes. Take this to Russell Square, and if the gentleman be at home wait for an answer.”

And tossing the letter across the table to the man the Earl then rose from his chair, and walked with his usual erect air to the fireplace.

The footman bowed, and left the room. Directly he got outside the door he looked at the address, which was as follows:​—​

“GERALD DELANNE, ESQ., 54, Russell Square.”

Meanwhile the Earl of Annesley remained standing on the hearthrug for fully five minutes without moving his position. His hand was placed within his vest; his eyes were bent on the floor; the lines in his face were harder and more tightly drawn than ever, and emphatically he looked like a man who would rather endure the agonies of the rack than give way an inch in anything he had set his mind upon. After his interview with Edward Preston he had shut himself in his room, and was denied to all visitors. In his way he loved his son, but the disgrace which had fallen upon the latter touched his pride far more than his love. His first burst of rage was terrible, but it had no witnesses, and when the paroxysm was over the same cool and haughty expression resumed its place on his countenance, and only a keen observer would have noticed anything unusual about him. With steady nerves he had sat down and written a letter to the Viscount, telling him that he could expect no assistance from him, and this done he set about revolving in his mind how to restore his tarnished honour.

It was a bitter draught to swallow, but, with his customary resolution, having decided upon a certain course, he never thought of swerving from it, and he resolved to brave the scandal and talk of society by acknowledging Gerald as his lawful son, and putting him in the Viscount’s position. He felt less compunction in doing this from the intention expressed by Viscount Morleigh to give way to his brother, and hence he wrote the letter which this morning he sent to Russell Square. It was a brief and perfectly formal epistle, to the effect that the Earl of Annesley had become acquainted with the discovery which Mr. Gerald Delanne had made of his relationship to himself, and of his right to the title of Viscount Morleigh, and that he wished to see him immediately on the subject. He waited impatiently for the return of the messenger, and after an interval of about an hour a gentle tap was heard at the door. A page entered bearing in his hand a salver, on which was a visiting card. The Earl took the card and read, mechanically, “Gerald Delanne.”

“So soon,” he muttered. “Tell Mr. Delanne I will see him.”

The page returned, and in a few minutes the door again opened, and Gerald entered the room. Such a meeting under such circumstances could not fail to be embarrassing to both men. Each, however, was accustomed to school his emotions, and whatever they may have felt inwardly, their outward behaviour was in no way remarkable. For a brief pause they stood face to face, buried apparently in their own reflections, in reality engaged in a mutual examination, each trying to gauge the thoughts of the other. And then the Earl suddenly extended his hand, the young man took it within his own, and without a word the introduction was complete.

“You have lost no time,” were the first words of the nobleman.

“I have always used myself to be punctual, my lord, and on such an errand as this I was not likely to delay.”

They both spoke with a certain constraint, Gerald meanwhile remaining standing.

“Why do you not sit down?” demanded the Earl, brusquely; “are you not my son?”

Gerald obeyed silently. He was perfectly self-possessed, and, though respectful in his manner, was by no means obsequious.

“Good!” muttered the nobleman. “He will not disgrace me. He is neither a fool nor a cad.”

Mr. Delanne”​—​he spoke with an effort, for the name conjured back a host of memories​—​“henceforth this house is your home. From this instant you are Viscount Morleigh, and I reinstate you in the possession of those rights which belong to you by birth. Stay​—​not a word, do not thank me. I want no thanks. I have restored to you what is your just due.”

“I understand you perfectly, my lord,” replied Gerald. “I do not know that I should ever have been led to commit an act such as that which has deprived me of my rights, but if I had, I declare to you that I should have acted exactly as you have done. Your name and position are too much under the public gaze to allow you to do as you like. Better a thousand times to commit an injustice than expose one’s self to vulgar comment.”

This reply surprised and pleased the Earl. It agreed precisely with his own views. But he betrayed no sign of satisfaction. In a cold tone, he answered​—​

“I have, Viscount Morleigh, no right to your affection. I do not pretend to have. All that I ask of you is that you should pay me that deference which is due to a father. Filial obedience has always been a tradition of our house, and it is partly owing to a breach of this duty by the miserable young man who has stained my honour that I have sent for you. You will have exactly the same allowance he had, the same horses, his rooms all yours. You will do exactly as you please save in the direction I have named; that is to say, my wishes must be yours also. Do you ride?”

“Yes, fairly well.”

“So much the better. You are no simpleton I can see, and what I desire is that you should at once assume your position, and take upon yourself your new duties as if you had been used to them all your life. This affair will be a nine days’ wonder, but people get used to everything in these times, and they will get used to this. It all depends on you.”

The young man listened to the Earl’s words in a dream. In imagination he already had Aladdin’s lamp in his hand. Whatever he wished for would appear at his bidding. Riches, pleasures of all kinds, were ready awaiting him. But outwardly he was unmoved. By long practice he had so tutored his face that it concealed all his emotions. Bowing with cold politeness, he said​—​

“Permit me to say, my lord, I am touched, more than I can well express, with your generosity. But will you allow me to suggest that in my new situation it will be necessary to proceed with caution. It is well to despise public opinion, but not wise to defy it. If I immediately install myself here, in your house, what will not be said? Does it not look like triumphing over a defeated enemy? I have seen my​—​my brother, and I can assure you that comparisons are sure to be instituted, and perhaps they will not always be in my favour.”

Gerald spoke this in a modest and deferential air, which was not at all displeasing to the nobleman. On his side the young man saw that the Earl was blinded by pride and vanity, and that rightly dealt with could easily be managed. He went on with a little more confidence​—​

“For these reasons I hope, my lord, that for a short time you will not insist upon my changing my manner of living. Would it not be better at first to familiarise people with the change? Already they have enough to gossip over. If I am not seen for a little time I shall have all the benefits of being talked about as the ‘unknown.’ Your friends will gradually come to look for me with some curiosity, and for myself, I shall be able to bear better this sudden change of fortune.”

The Earl thought for a moment.

“Perhaps,” said he, after a pause, “you are right, after all.”

He was quite oblivious of the fact that the very first words of Gerald were in opposition to his wishes, and those wishes he had so strongly insisted were to be implicitly obeyed. And, to say the truth, Gerald himself was infinitely astonished that the proud man so easily suffered himself to be persuaded.

“Yes,” resumed the nobleman, “it shall be as you suggest. But, at all events, there is nothing to prevent you living here and dining with me every day.”

Again Gerald had the hardihood to differ from him.

“My lord,” said he, “I owe you all obedience, I admit, but I cannot forget I have another duty. Mrs. Delanne is at the present moment in the agonies of death. Whatever may have been her faults, she, at least, has loved and tended me as a mother. Can I, ought I to leave her just now?”

The Earl rose from his seat, walked up and down the room, his hands clasped behind him. Who can tell what his thoughts were at that moment? How, probably, he went back in imagination some thirty years when, in the ardour and hot blood of early manhood, he loved Louisa Delanne, and would have made any sacrifice for her sake.

He stopped suddenly, and said​—​

“She is very ill, you say?”

“It is impossible for her to live many hours,” replied Gerald.

“You are right not to leave her at such a moment. I am almost inclined​—​yes, I should like to see her for a short time while she is yet alive.”

The young man did not take this proposition kindly, but he did not outwardly express any annoyance.

“My lord,” he observed quietly, “to see Mrs. Delanne would give you intense pain, and would, besides, be quite useless. She might, indeed, be alive, but her reason is gone. Her brain has received so violent a shock that it gave way beneath the strain.”

The Earl replied after a pause​—​

“Yes, it is better you should go alone. But you must dine with me to-day. I dine at seven sharp.”

And this was all that he thought of the woman who had sacrificed herself for him! He could not endure distressing sights, and the words of Gerald at once put to flight the feeling of tenderness which for a moment touched his heart.

The young man bowed assent, and divining that the interview was at an end, rose, and pressing the nobleman’s hand with an air of infinite respect, withdrew.

“And so,” muttered the Earl, when he was left alone, “that is my legitimate son. The likeness is very striking indeed,” and he glanced up at a portrait of himself at thirty years of age hanging on the wall. “Yes, there is not much doubt about his being my offspring. After all, blood will show itself. This young fellow will not disgrace me I can see very well. So much the better. I am sorry for that poor devil Frank. Not but what it was a bold stroke, but coarse, horribly coarse. He might have found some other way of silencing the woman. I always liked Frank, but his Radical notions​—​pah! I hope my legitimate son has not anything in common with him in that direction.” And the heartless old nobleman brushed a few grains of snuff from the frill of his shirt, and rang the bell for his horse with more life and energy than he had displayed for some days past.