"Dear Mr. Ablewhite," I said, "one word!"
When I first attracted the attention of the company by rising, I could see that he was on the point of saying something rude to me. My sisterly form of address checked him. He stared at me in heathen astonishment.
"As an affectionate well-wisher and friend," I proceeded, "and as one long accustomed to arouse, convince, prepare, enlighten, and fortify others, permit me to take the most pardonable of all liberties - the liberty of composing your mind."
He began to recover himself; he was on the point of breaking out - he WOULD have broken out, with anybody else. But my voice (habitually gentle) possesses a high note or so, in emergencies. In this emergency, I felt imperatively called upon to have the highest voice of the two.
I held up my precious book before him; I rapped the open page impressively with my forefinger. "Not my words!" I exclaimed, in a burst of fervent interruption. "Oh, don't suppose that I claim attention for My humble words! Manna in the wilderness, Mr. Ablewhite! Dew on the parched earth! Words of comfort, words of wisdom, words of love - the blessed, blessed, blessed words of Miss Jane Ann Stamper!"
I was stopped there by a momentary impediment of the breath. Before I could recover myself, this monster in human form shouted out furiously,
"Miss Jane Ann Stamper be - - !"
It is impossible for me to write the awful word, which is here represented by a blank. I shrieked as it passed his lips; I flew to my little bag on the side table; I shook out all my tracts; I seized the one particular tract on profane swearing, entitled, "Hush, for Heaven's Sake!"; I handed it to him with an expression of agonised entreaty. He tore it in two, and threw it back at me across the table. The rest of them rose in alarm, not knowing what might happen next. I instantly sat down again in my corner. There had once been an occasion, under somewhat similar circumstances, when Miss Jane Ann Stamper had been taken by the two shoulders and turned out of a room. I waited, inspired by HER spirit, for a repetition of HER martyrdom.
But no - it was not to be. His wife was the next person whom he addressed. "Who - who - who," he said, stammering with rage, "who asked this impudent fanatic into the house? Did you?"
Before Aunt Ablewhite could say a word, Rachel answered for her.
"Miss Clack is here," she said, "as my guest."
Those words had a singular effect on Mr. Ablewhite. They suddenly changed him from a man in a state of red-hot anger to a man in a state of icy-cold contempt. It was plain to everybody that Rachel had said something - short and plain as her answer had been - which gave him the upper hand of her at last.
"Oh?" he said. "Miss Clack is here as YOUR guest - in MY house?"
It was Rachel's turn to lose her temper at that. Her colour rose, and her eyes brightened fiercely. She turned to the lawyer, and, pointing to Mr. Ablewhite, asked haughtily, "What does he mean?"
Mr. Bruff interfered for the third time.
"You appear to forget," he said, addressing Mr. Ablewhite, "that you took this house as Miss Verinder's guardian, for Miss Verinder's use."
"Not quite so fast," interposed Mr. Ablewhite. "I have a last word to say, which I should have said some time since, if this - - " He looked my way, pondering what abominable name he should call me - "if this Rampant Spinster had not interrupted us. I beg to inform you, sir, that, if my son is not good enough to be Miss Verinder's husband, I cannot presume to consider his father good enough to be Miss Verinder's guardian. Understand, if you please, that I refuse to accept the position which is offered to me by Lady Verinder's will. In your legal phrase, I decline to act. This house has necessarily been hired in my name. I take the entire responsibility of it on my shoulders. It is my house. I can keep it, or let it, just as I please. I have no wish to hurry Miss Verinder. On the contrary, I beg her to remove her guest and her luggage, at her own entire convenience." He made a low bow, and walked out of the room.
That was Mr. Ablewhite's revenge on Rachel, for refusing to marry his son!
The instant the door closed, Aunt Ablewhite exhibited a phenomenon which silenced us all. She became endowed with energy enough to cross the room!
"My dear," she said, taking Rachel by the hand, "I should be ashamed of my husband, if I didn't know that it is his temper which has spoken to you, and not himself. You," continued Aunt Ablewhite, turning on me in my corner with another endowment of energy, in her looks this time instead of her limbs - "you are the mischievous person who irritated him. I hope I shall never see you or your tracts again." She went back to Rachel and kissed her. "I beg your pardon, my dear," she said, "in my husband's name. What can I do for you?"
Consistently perverse in everything - capricious and unreasonable in all the actions of her life - Rachel melted into tears at those commonplace words, and returned her aunt's kiss in silence.
"If I may be permitted to answer for Miss Verinder," said Mr. Bruff, "might I ask you, Mrs. Ablewhite, to send Penelope down with her mistress's bonnet and shawl. Leave us ten minutes together," he added, in a lower tone, "and you may rely on my setting matters right, to your satisfaction as well as to Rachel's."
The trust of the family in this man was something wonderful to see. Without a word more, on her side, Aunt Ablewhite left the room.
"Ah!" said Mr. Bruff, looking after her. "The Herncastle blood has its drawbacks, I admit. But there IS something in good breeding after all!"
Having made that purely worldly remark, he looked hard at my corner, as if he expected me to go. My interest in Rachel - an infinitely higher interest than his - riveted me to my chair.
Mr. Bruff gave it up, exactly as he had given it up at Aunt Verinder's, in Montagu Square. He led Rachel to a chair by the window, and spoke to her there.