"You are the very person I wanted to see," said the old gentleman. "I had two words to say to you, my dear sir; and If you have no objection I will avail myself of the present opportunity. To put it plainly, Miss Halcombe and I have been talking over family affairs--affairs which are the cause of my being here--and in the course of our conversation she was naturally led to tell me of this unpleasant matter connected with the anonymous letter, and of the share which you have most creditably and properly taken in the proceedings so far. That share, I quite understand, gives you an interest which you might not otherwise have felt, in knowing that the future management of the investigation which you have begun will be placed in safe hands. My dear sir, make yourself quite easy on that point--it will be placed in MY hands."
"You are, in every way, Mr. Gilmore, much fitter to advise and to act in the matter than I am. Is it an indiscretion on my part to ask if you have decided yet on a course of proceeding?"
"So far as it is possible to decide, Mr. Hartright, I have decided. I mean to send a copy of the letter, accompanied by a statement of the circumstances, to Sir Percival Glyde's solicitor in London, with whom I have some acquaintance. The letter itself I shall keep here to show to Sir Percival as soon as he arrives. The tracing of the two women I have already provided for, by sending one of Mr. Fairlie's servants--a confidential person--to the station to make inquiries. The man has his money and his directions, and he will follow the women in the event of his finding any clue. This is all that can be done until Sir Percival comes on Monday. I have no doubt myself that every explanation which can be expected from a gentleman and a man of honour, he will readily give. Sir Percival stands very high, sir--an eminent position, a reputation above suspicion--I feel quite easy about results--quite easy, I am rejoiced to assure you. Things of this sort happen constantly in my experience. Anonymous letters-- unfortunate woman--sad state of society. I don't deny that there are peculiar complications in this case; but the case itself is, most unhappily, common--common."
"I am afraid, Mr. Gilmore, I have the misfortune to differ from you in the view I take of the case."
"Just so, my dear sir--just so. I am an old man, and I take the practical view. You are a young man, and you take the romantic view. Let us not dispute about our views. I live professionally in an atmosphere of disputation, Mr. Hartright, and I am only too glad to escape from it, as I am escaping here. We will wait for events--yes, yes, yes--we will wait for events. Charming place this. Good shooting? Probably not, none of Mr. Fairlie's land is preserved, I think. Charming place, though, and delightful people. You draw and paint, I hear, Mr. Hartright? Enviable accomplishment. What style?"
We dropped into general conversation, or rather, Mr. Gilmore talked and I listened. My attention was far from him, and from the topics on which he discoursed so fluently. The solitary walk of the last two hours had wrought its effect on me--it had set the idea in my mind of hastening my departure from Limmeridge House. Why should I prolong the hard trial of saying farewell by one unnecessary minute? What further service was required of me by any one? There was no useful purpose to be served by my stay in Cumberland--there was no restriction of time in the permission to leave which my employer had granted to me. Why not end it there and then?
I determined to end it. There were some hours of daylight still left--there was no reason why my journey back to London should not begin on that afternoon. I made the first civil excuse that occurred to me for leaving Mr. Gilmore, and returned at once to the house.
On my way up to my own room I met Miss Halcombe on the stairs. She saw, by the hurry of my movements and the change in my manner, that I had some new purpose in view, and asked what had happened.
I told her the reasons which induced me to think of hastening my departure, exactly as I have told them here.
"No, no," she said, earnestly and kindly, "leave us like a friend-- break bread with us once more. Stay here and dine, stay here and help us to spend our last evening with you as happily, as like our first evenings, as we can. It is my invitation--Mrs. Vesey's invitation----" she hesitated a little, and then added, "Laura's invitation as well."
I promised to remain. God knows I had no wish to leave even the shadow of a sorrowful impression with any one of them.
My own room was the best place for me till the dinner bell rang. I waited there till it was time to go downstairs.
I had not spoken to Miss Fairlie--I had not even seen her--all that day. The first meeting with her, when I entered the drawing- room, was a hard trial to her self-control and to mine. She, too, had done her best to make our last evening renew the golden bygone time--the time that could never come again. She had put on the dress which I used to admire more than any other that she possessed--a dark blue silk, trimmed quaintly and prettily with old-fashioned lace; she came forward to meet me with her former readiness--she gave me her hand with the frank, innocent good-will of happier days. The cold fingers that trembled round mine--the pale cheeks with a bright red spot burning in the midst of them-- the faint smile that struggled to live on her lips and died away from them while I looked at it, told me at what sacrifice of herself her outward composure was maintained. My heart could take her no closer to me, or I should have loved her then as I had never loved her yet.
Mr. Gilmore was a great assistance to us. He was in high good- humour, and he led the conversation with unflagging spirit. Miss Halcombe seconded him resolutely, and I did all I could to follow her example. The kind blue eyes, whose slightest changes of expression I had learnt to interpret so well, looked at me appealingly when we first sat down to table. Help my sister--the sweet anxious face seemed to say--help my sister, and you will help me.