"One of the errands, my dear, which brings me here is to bid you good-bye," I began. "I must get back to London to-day: and, before I leave, I want to have a word with you on the subject of your own affairs."
"I am very sorry you are going, Mr. Gilmore," she said, looking at me kindly. "It is like the happy old times to have you here.
"I hope I may be able to come back and recall those pleasant memories once more," I continued; "but as there is some uncertainty about the future, I must take my opportunity when I can get it, and speak to you now. I am your old lawyer and your old friend, and I may remind you, I am sure, without offence, of the possibility of your marrying Sir Percival Glyde."
She took her hand off the little album as suddenly as if it had turned hot and burnt her. Her fingers twined together nervously in her lap, her eyes looked down again at the floor, and an expression of constraint settled on her face which looked almost like an expression of pain.
"Is it absolutely necessary to speak of my marriage engagement?" she asked in low tones.
"It is necessary to refer to it," I answered, "but not to dwell on it. Let us merely say that you may marry, or that you may not marry. In the first case, I must be prepared, beforehand, to draw your settlement, and I ought not to do that without, as a matter of politeness, first consulting you. This may be my only chance of hearing what your wishes are. Let us, therefore, suppose the case of your marrying, and let me inform you, in as few words as possible, what your position is now, and what you may make it, if you please, in the future."
I explained to her the object of a marriage-settlement, and then told her exactly what her prospects were--in the first place, on her coming of age, and in the second place, on the decease of her uncle--marking the distinction between the property in which she had a life-interest only, and the property which was left at her own control. She listened attentively, with the constrained expression still on her face, and her hands still nervously clasped together in her lap.
"And now," I said in conclusion, "tell me if you can think of any condition which, in the case we have supposed, you would wish me to make for you--subject, of course, to your guardian's approval, as you are not yet of age."
She moved uneasily in her chair, then looked in my face on a sudden very earnestly.
"If it does happen," she began faintly, "if I am----"
"If you are married," I added, helping her out.
"Don't let him part me from Marian," she cried, with a sudden outbreak of energy. "Oh, Mr. Gilmore, pray make it law that Marian is to live with me!"
Under other circumstances I might, perhaps, have been amused at this essentially feminine interpretation of my question, and of the long explanation which had preceded it. But her looks and tones, when she spoke, were of a kind to make me more than serious--they distressed me. Her words, few as they were, betrayed a desperate clinging to the past which boded ill for the future.
"Your having Marian Halcombe to live with you can easily be settled by private arrangement," I said. "You hardly understood my question, I think. It referred to your own property--to the disposal of your money. Supposing you were to make a will when you come of age, who would you like the money to go to?"
"Marian has been mother and sister both to me," said the good, affectionate girl, her pretty blue eyes glistening while she spoke. "May I leave it to Marian, Mr. Gilmore?"
"Certainly, my love," I answered. "But remember what a large sum it is. Would you like it all to go to Miss Halcombe?"
She hesitated; her colour came and went, and her hand stole back again to the little album.
"Not all of it," she said. "There is some one else besides Marian----"
She stopped; her colour heightened, and the fingers of the hand that rested upon the album beat gently on the margin of the drawing, as if her memory had set them going mechanically with the remembrance of a favourite tune.
"You mean some other member of the family besides Miss Halcombe?" I suggested, seeing her at a loss to proceed.
The heightening colour spread to her forehead and her neck, and the nervous fingers suddenly clasped themselves fast round the edge of the book.
"There is some one else," she said, not noticing my last words, though she had evidently heard them; "there is some one else who might like a little keepsake if--if I might leave it. There would be no harm if I should die first----"
She paused again. The colour that had spread over her cheeks suddenly, as suddenly left them. The hand on the album resigned its hold, trembled a little, and moved the book away from her. She looked at me for an instant--then turned her head aside in the chair. Her handkerchief fell to the floor as she changed her position, and she hurriedly hid her face from me in her hands.
Sad! To remember her, as I did, the liveliest, happiest child that ever laughed the day through, and to see her now, in the flower of her age and her beauty, so broken and so brought down as this!
In the distress that she caused me I forgot the years that had passed, and the change they had made in our position towards one another. I moved my chair close to her, and picked up her handkerchief from the carpet, and drew her hands from her face gently. "Don't cry, my love," I said, and dried the tears that were gathering in her eyes with my own hand, as if she had been the little Laura Fairlie of ten long years ago.
It was the best way I could have taken to compose her. She laid her head on my shoulder, and smiled faintly through her tears.
"I am very sorry for forgetting myself," she said artlessly. "I have not been well--I have felt sadly weak and nervous lately, and I often cry without reason when I am alone. I am better now--I can answer you as I ought, Mr. Gilmore, I can indeed."
"No, no, my dear," I replied, "we will consider the subject as done with for the present. You have said enough to sanction my taking the best possible care of your interests, and we can settle details at another opportunity. Let us have done with business now, and talk of something else."
I led her at once into speaking on other topics. In ten minutes' time she was in better spirits, and I rose to take my leave.
"Come here again," she said earnestly. "I will try to be worthier of your kind feeling for me and for my interests if you will only come again."
Still clinging to the past--that past which I represented to her, in my way, as Miss Halcombe did in hers! It troubled me sorely to see her looking back, at the beginning of her career, just as I look back at the end of mine.
"If I do come again, I hope I shall find you better," I said; "better and happier. God bless you, my dear!"
She only answered by putting up her cheek to me to be kissed. Even lawyers have hearts, and mine ached a little as I took leave of her.
The whole interview between us had hardly lasted more than half an hour--she had not breathed a word, in my presence, to explain the mystery of her evident distress and dismay at the prospect of her marriage, and yet she had contrived to win me over to her side of the question, I neither knew how nor why. I had entered the room, feeling that Sir Percival Glyde had fair reason to complain of the manner in which she was treating him. I left it, secretly hoping that matters might end in her taking him at his word and claiming her release. A man of my age and experience ought to have known better than to vacillate in this unreasonable manner. I can make no excuse for myself; I can only tell the truth, and say--so it was.
The hour for my departure was now drawing near. I sent to Mr. Fairlie to say that I would wait on him to take leave if he liked, but that he must excuse my being rather in a hurry. He sent a message back, written in pencil on a slip of paper: "Kind love and best wishes, dear Gilmore. Hurry of any kind is inexpressibly injurious to me. Pray take care of yourself. Good-bye."
Just before I left I saw Miss Halcombe for a moment alone.
"Have you said all you wanted to Laura?" she asked.
"Yes," I replied. "She is very weak and nervous--I am glad she has you to take care of her."
Miss Halcombe's sharp eyes studied my face attentively.
"You are altering your opinion about Laura," she said. "You are readier to make allowances for her than you were yesterday."
No sensible man ever engages, unprepared, in a fencing match of words with a woman. I only answered--
"Let me know what happens. I will do nothing till I hear from you."
She still looked hard in my face. "I wish it was all over, and well over, Mr. Gilmore--and so do you." With those words she left me.
Sir Percival most politely insisted on seeing me to the carriage door.
"If you are ever in my neighbourhood," he said, "pray don't forget that I am sincerely anxious to improve our acquaintance. The tried and trusted old friend of this family will be always a welcome visitor in any house of mine."
A really irresistible man--courteous, considerate, delightfully free from pride--a gentleman, every inch of him. As I drove away to the station I felt as if I could cheerfully do anything to promote the interests of Sir Percival Glyde--anything in the world, except drawing the marriage settlement of his wife.