The self-registering thermometer at the top of Mr. Ablewhite's bald head began to indicate a rise of temper. His face was more amiable than ever - but THERE was the pink at the top of his face, a shade deeper already!
"Come, come, my dear!" he said, in his most soothing manner, "now don't be angry, and don't be hard on poor Godfrey! He has evidently said some unfortunate thing. He was always clumsy from a child - but he means well, Rachel, he means well!"
"Mr. Ablewhite, I have either expressed myself very badly, or you are purposely mistaking me. Once for all, it is a settled thing between your son and myself that we remain, for the rest of our lives, cousins and nothing more. Is that plain enough?"
The tone in which she said those words made it impossible, even for old Mr. Ablewhite, to mistake her any longer. His thermometer went up another degree, and his voice when he next spoke, ceased to be the voice which is appropriate to a notoriously good-natured man.
"I am to understand, then," he said, "that your marriage engagement is broken off?"
"You are to understand that, Mr. Ablewhite, if you please."
"I am also to take it as a matter of fact that the proposal to withdraw from the engagement came, in the first instance, from YOU?"
"It came, in the first instance, from me. And it met, as I have told you, with your son's consent and approval."
The thermometer went up to the top of the register. I mean, the pink changed suddenly to scarlet.
"My son is a mean-spirited hound!" cried this furious old worldling. "In justice to myself as his father - not in justice to HIM - I beg to ask you, Miss Verinder, what complaint you have to make of Mr. Godfrey Ablewhite?"
Here Mr. Bruff interfered for the first time.
"You are not bound to answer that question," he said to Rachel.
Old Mr. Ablewhite fastened on him instantly.
"Don't forget, sir," he said, "that you are a self-invited guest here. Your interference would have come with a better grace if you had waited until it was asked for."
Mr. Bruff took no notice. The smooth varnish on HIS wicked old face never cracked. Rachel thanked him for the advice he had given to her, and then turned to old Mr. Ablewhite - preserving her composure in a manner which (having regard to her age and her sex) was simply awful to see.
"Your son put the same question to me which you have just asked," she said. "I had only one answer for him, and I have only one answer for you. I proposed that we should release each other, because reflection had convinced me that I should best consult his welfare and mine by retracting a rash promise, and leaving him free to make his choice elsewhere."
"What has my son done?" persisted Mr. Ablewhite. "I have a right to know that. What has my son done?"
She persisted just as obstinately on her side.
"You have had the only explanation which I think it necessary to give to you, or to him," she answered.
"In plain English, it's your sovereign will and pleasure, Miss Verinder, to jilt my son?"
Rachel was silent for a moment. Sitting close behind her, I heard her sigh. Mr. Bruff took her hand, and gave it a little squeeze. She recovered herself, and answered Mr. Ablewhite as boldly as ever.
"I have exposed myself to worse misconstruction than that," she said. "And I have borne it patiently. The time has gone by, when you could mortify me by calling me a jilt."
She spoke with a bitterness of tone which satisfied me that the scandal of the Moonstone had been in some way recalled to her mind. "I have no more to say," she added, wearily, not addressing the words to anyone in particular, and looking away from us all, out of the window that was nearest to her.
Mr. Ablewhite got upon his feet, and pushed away his chair so violently that it toppled over and fell on the floor.
"I have something more to say on my side," he announced, bringing down the flat of his hand on the table with a bang. "I have to say that if my son doesn't feel this insult, I do!"
Rachel started, and looked at him in sudden surprise.
"Insult?" she repeated. "What do you mean?"
"Insult!" reiterated Mr. Ablewhite. "I know your motive, Miss Verinder, for breaking your promise to my son! I know it as certainly as if you had confessed it in so many words. Your cursed family pride is insulting Godfrey, as it insulted ME when I married your aunt. Her family - her beggarly family - turned their backs on her for marrying an honest man, who had made his own place and won his own fortune. I had no ancestors. I wasn't descended from a set of cut-throat scoundrels who lived by robbery and murder. I couldn't point to the time when the Ablewhites hadn't a shirt to their backs, and couldn't sign their own names. Ha! ha! I wasn't good enough for the Herncastles, when I married. And now, it comes to the pinch, my son isn't good enough for YOU. I suspected it, all along. You have got the Herncastle blood in you, my young lady! I suspected it all along."
"A very unworthy suspicion," remarked Mr. Bruff. "I am astonished that you have the courage to acknowledge it."
Before Mr. Ablewhite could find words to answer in, Rachel spoke in a tone of the most exasperating contempt.
"Surely," she said to the lawyer, "this is beneath notice. If he can think in THAT way, let us leave him to think as he pleases."
From scarlet, Mr. Ablewhite was now becoming purple. He gasped for breath; he looked backwards and forwards from Rachel to Mr. Bruff in such a frenzy of rage with both of them that he didn't know which to attack first. His wife, who had sat impenetrably fanning herself up to this time, began to be alarmed, and attempted, quite uselessly, to quiet him. I had, throughout this distressing interview, felt more than one inward call to interfere with a few earnest words, and had controlled myself under a dread of the possible results, very unworthy of a Christian Englishwoman who looks, not to what is meanly prudent, but to what is morally right. At the point at which matters had now arrived, I rose superior to all considerations of mere expediency. If I had contemplated interposing any remonstrance of my own humble devising, I might possibly have still hesitated. But the distressing domestic emergency which now confronted me, was most marvellously and beautifully provided for in the Correspondence of Miss Jane Ann Stamper - Letter one thousand and one, on "Peace in Families." I rose in my modest corner, and I opened my precious book.