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   Chapter 5 SUSPENSE.

Nuttie's Father By Charlotte M. Yonge Characters: 16089

Updated: 2017-11-29 00:04


'Where shall the traitor rest

He, the deceiver?'-SCOTT.

Poor Miss Headworth's peace of mind was utterly destroyed. That the niece whom she had nursed back to life and happiness, and brought to love her as a mother, should be at the mercy of a man whom she looked on as a heartless profligate, was dreadful to her beyond measure. And it involved Ursula's young life likewise? Could it be a duty, after these eighteen years, to return to him? What legal rights had he to enforce the resumption of the wife he had deserted. 'I will consult Mr. Dutton,' said the old lady to herself; 'Mr. Dutton is the only person who knows the particulars. He will give me the best advice.'

And while Miss Headworth, over her evening toilette, was coming to this resolution in one bedroom, Nuttie, in another, was standing aghast at her mother's agitation, and receiving a confession which filled her with astonishment.

'I can't think why that gentleman should go and be so affectionate all on a sudden, 'quoth Nuttie;' if he is my cousin, and so fond of you, why couldn't he have come to see us before?'

'Oh, Nuttie, dear, you don't understand why it is so good of him! My dear, now this has come, I must tell you-you must hear-the sad thing your mother did. Yes, my dear, I was their governess-and-and I did not-In short, my dear, I eloped.'

'You, mother! Oh what fun!' cried the girl in the utter extremity of wonder.

'Nuttie!' exclaimed Mrs. Egremont, in a tone of horror and indignation-nay, of apprehension.

'O mother-I didn't mean that! But I can't get to believe it. You, little mother mine, you that are so timid and bashful and quiet. That you-you should have done such a thing.'

'Nuttie, my dear, can't you understand that such a thing would make me quiet? I am always feeling when I see people, or they bring their daughters here. "If they only knew-"'

'No, no, no! They would still see you were the sweetest dear. But tell me all about it. How very much in love you must have been!' said Nuttie, a magnificent vision of a young sailor with curly hair and open throat rising before her.

'I think I was more frightened than in love,' faintly said Mrs. Egremont. 'At least I didn't know it was love, I thought he was only kind to me.'

'But you liked it?' said Ursula magisterially.

'I liked it, oh, I liked it! It gave me a feeling such as nothing else ever did, but I never thought of its being love, he was so much older.'

'Older!' exclaimed Nuttie, much taken aback. 'Oh! as old as Mr. Dutton?'

'Mr. Dutton is thirty-six, I think. Yes, he was older than that.'

'Mother, how could you?' For to be older than Mr. Dutton seemed to the youthful fancy to be near decrepitude; but she added, 'I suppose he was very noble, and had done great things.'

'He was the grandest gentleman I ever saw, and had such, a manner,' said the mother, passing over the latter suggestion. 'Anyway, I never thought what it all meant-all alone with the children as I was-till I found people looking at me, and laughing at me, and then I heard Lady de Lyonnais and Mr. Egremont were coming down, very angry, to send me away. I ought, I know it now, to have waited, for they would have written to my aunt. But I was horribly frightened, and I couldn't bear to think of never seeing him again, and he came and comforted me, and said he would take me to Mrs. Houghton, the kind lady who was staying in the Ninon, and they would make it all square for me-and then-oh! it was very sweet-but I never knew that we were sailing away to Jersey to be married! I knew it was very dreadful without any one's leave, but it was so noble of him to take the poor little governess and defend her, and it wasn't as if my mother had been alive. I didn't know Aunt Ursel then as I did afterwards. And Mrs. Houghton said there was nothing else to be done.'

'O don't leave off, mother. Do tell me. How long did you have him?'

'Six weeks then-and afterwards one fortnight at Dieppe. He was not free. He had an old uncle, General Egremont, who was sick and hot-tempered, and he was obliged to keep everything secret from him, and therefore from everybody else. And so I was to live at Dieppe, while he went out to take care of his uncle, and you know-you know-'

'Yes, I know, dear mother. But I am sure he was saving somebody else, and it was a noble death! And I know how Aunt Ursel came to Dieppe, and how I-your own little Frenchwoman-came to take care of you. And haven't we been jolly without any of these fine relations that never looked after you all this time? Besides, you know he is very likely to be on a lonely coral island, and will come home yet. I often think he is.'

'My dear child, I have been happier than I deserved,' said Alice Egremont, drying her eyes. 'But oh! Nuttie, I hope you will be a wiser woman than your mother.'

'Come, don't go on in that way! Why, I've such advantages! I've Miss Mary, and Aunt Ursel, and Mr. Spyers, and Mr. Dutton, and you, you poor little thing, had nobody! One good thing is, we shall get the water-soldier. Mr. Dutton needn't come, for he's like a cat, and won't soil his boots, but Gerard is dying to get another look at the old ruin. He can't make up his mind about the cross on one of the stone-coffin lids, so he'll be delighted to come, and he'll get it out of the pond for us. I wonder when we can go. To-night is choir practice, and to-morrow is cutting-out day.'

Miss Headworth was not sorry that the small sociabilities of the friends did not leave her alone with her niece all that evening, or the next day, when there was a grand cutting-out for the working party,-an operation always performed in the holidays. Miss Headworth had of late years been excused from it, and it gave her the opportunity she wanted of a consultation with Mr. Dutton. He was her prime adviser in everything, from her investments (such as they were) to the eccentricities of her timepieces; and as the cuckoo-clock had that night cuckooed all the hours round in succession, no one thought it wonderful that she should send a twisted note entreating him to call as early as he could in the afternoon. Of course Nuttie's chatter had proclaimed the extraordinary visitors, and it needed not the old lady's dash under "on an anxious affair" to bring him to her little drawing-room as soon as he could quit his desk. Perhaps he hastened his work with a hope in his heart which he durst not express, but the agitation on the usually placid face forbade him to entertain it for an instant, and he only said, 'So our expedition has led to unforeseen consequences, Miss Headworth.' And then she answered under her breath, as if afraid of being overheard: 'Mr. Dutton, my poor child does not know it yet, but the man is alive!'

Mr. Dutton compressed his lips. It was the greater shock, for he had actually made inquiries at the Yacht Club, but the officials there either had not been made aware of the reappearance of the two Egremonts, or they did not think it worth while to look beyond the record which declared that all hands had perished, and the connection of the uncle and nephew with the Yacht Club had not been renewed. Presently he said, 'Then hers was a right instinct. There is reason to be thankful.'

Miss Headworth was too full of her own anxieties to heed his causes for thankfulness. She told what she had heard from Lady Kirkaldy and from Mark Egremont, and asked counsel whether it could be Alice's duty to return to the man who had deserted her, or even to accept anything from him. There was an impetuous and indignant spirit at the bottom of the old lady's heart, in spite of the subdued life she had led for so many years, and she hardly brooked the measured considerate manner in which her adviser declared that all depended on circumstances, and the manner in which Captain Egremont made the first move. At present no one was acting but young Mark, and, as Mr. Dutton observed, it was not a matter in which a man was very likely to submit to a nephew's dictation.

The

re was certainly no need for Mrs. Egremont to force her presence on him. But Mr. Dutton did think that for her own sake and her child's there ought to be full recognition of their rights, and that this should be proved by their maintenance.

'I imagine that Ursula may probably be a considerable heiress, and her lights must not be sacrificed.'

'Poor little girl! Will it be for her happiness? I doubt it greatly!'

'Of that I suppose we have no right to judge,' said Mr. Dutton, somewhat tremulously. 'Justice is what we have to look to, and to allow Nuttie to be passed over would be permitting a slur to be cast on her and her mother.'

'I see that,' said Miss Headworth, with an effort. 'I suppose I am after all a selfish, faithless old woman, and it is not in my hands after all. But I must prepare my poor Alice for what may be coming.'

'If any terms are offered to her, she had better put the matter into a lawyer's hands. Dobson would be a safe man to deal with.'

Miss Headworth was amazed that he-who had helped her in many a little question bordering on law-should not proffer his aid now in this greatest stress. He was a resolute, self-controlled man, and she never guessed at the feeling that made him judge himself to be no fitting champion for Alice Egremont against her husband. Ever since, ten years ago, he had learnt that his beautiful neighbour did not regard herself so certainly a widow as to venture to open her heart to any other love, he had lived patiently on, content to serve her as a trustworthy friend, and never betraying the secret hope so long cherished and now entirely crushed.

He was relieved to escape from the interview, and the poor old lady remained a little more certain as to her duty perhaps, but with a certainty that only made her more unhappy, and she was so restless and nervous that, in the middle of the evening's reading of Archbishop Trench's Lectures on History, Alice suddenly broke off in the very middle of a sentence and exclaimed, 'Aunt Ursel! you are keeping something from me.'

Miss Headworth made a faint attempt by saying something about presently, and glancing with her eyes to indicate that it was to be reserved till after Nuttie's bedtime, but the young lady comprehended the signs and exclaimed, 'Never mind me, Aunt Ursel,-I know all about mother; she told me last night.'

'It is!' broke in Mrs. Egremont, who had been watching her aunt's face. 'You have heard of him.'

'Oh, my father! You really have!' cried Nuttie. 'Then he really was on the desert island all this time; I was quite sure of it. How delightful!' She jumped up and looked at the door, as if she expected to see him appear that instant, clad in skins like Robinson Crusoe, but her aunt's nervous agitation found vent in a sharp reproof: 'Nuttie, hold your tongue, and don't be such a foolish child, or I shall send you out of the room this instant!'

'But aunt?' gasped Alice, unable to bear the suspense.

'Yes, my poor dear child. Captain Egremont with the General got off with some of the crew in a boat when the Ninon was burnt. He spent a good many years abroad with the old man, but he has now inherited the family place, and is living there.' Miss Headworth felt as if she had fired a cannon and looked to see the effect.

'Ah, if we could have stayed at Dieppe!' said Mrs. Egremont. 'But we did write back to say where we could be heard of.'

'That was of no use. Mark found no traces of us when he went thither.'

'Did he send Mark?'

'No. My dear Alice, I must not conceal from you that this is all Mr. Mark Egremont's doing. He seems to have been helping his uncle with his papers when he came on the evidence of your marriage, and, remembering you as he does, he forced the confession of it from the captain, and of his own accord set forth to discover what had become of you and to see justice done to you.'

'Dear little Mark!' said she; 'he always was such an affectionate little boy.'

'And now, my dear, you must consider how you will receive any advances on his part.'

'Oh, Aunt Ursel, don't! I can't talk now. Please let me go to bed. Nuttie, dear, you need not come yet.'

The desire for solitude, in which to realise what she had heard, was overpowering, and she fled away in the summer twilight, leaving Nuttie with wide open eyes, looking after her vanished hero and desert island.

'My poor Alice!' sighed the old lady.

'Aunt Ursel!' exclaimed Nuttie, 'was-I mean-is my father a good or a bad man?'

'My dear, should a daughter ask such a question?'

'Aunt Ursel, I can't help it. I think I ought to know all about it,' said Nuttie gravely, putting away her childishness and sitting down by her aunt. 'I did not think so much of it when mother told me they eloped, because, though I know it was very wrong, people do do odd things sometimes when they are very much in love (she said it in a superior patronising tone that would have amused Miss Headworth very much at any other time); and it has not spoilt mother for being the dearest, sweetest, best thing in the world, and, besides, they had neither of them any fathers or mothers to disobey. But, then, when I found he was so old, and that he kept it a secret, and must have told stories only for the sake of money (uttered with extreme contempt), I didn't like it. And if he left her as Theseus left Ariadne, or Sir Lancelot left Elaine, I-I don't think it is nice. Do you think he only pretended to be lost in the Ninon to get rid of her, or that he could not find her?'

'The Ninon was really reported lost with all on board,' said Miss Headworth. 'That was ascertained. He was saved by a Chilian ship, and seems to have been a good while making his way back to Europe. I had taken care that our address should be known at Dieppe, but it is quite possible that he may not have applied to the right people, or that they may not have preserved my letter, so that we cannot feel sore that he was to blame.'

'If he had been worth anything at all, he would have moved heaven and earth to find her!' cried Nuttie; 'and you said yourself it was all that Mark's doing!'

'He seems to be a very upright and generous young man, that Mr. Mark Egremont,' said Miss Headworth, a whole romance as to Nuttie's future destiny sweeping across her mind in an instant, with a mental dispensation to first cousins in such a case. 'I think you will find him a staunch champion even against his own interests.'

Perceptions came across Nuttie. 'Oh, then I am a sort of lost heiress, like people in a story! I see! But, Aunt Ursel, what do you think will happen?'

'My dear child, I cannot guess in the least. Perhaps the Egremont property will not concern you, and only go to male heirs. That would be the best thing, since in any case you must be sufficiently provided for. Your father must do that.'

'But about mother?'

'A proper provision must be insisted on for her,' said Miss Headworth. 'It is no use, however, to speculate on the future. We cannot guess how Mr. Mark Egremont's communication will be received, or whether any wish will be expressed for your mother's rejoining your father. In such a case the terms must be distinctly understood, and I have full trust both in Mr. Mark and in Lady Kirkaldy as her champions to see that justice is done to you both.'

'I'm sure he doesn't deserve that mother should go to him.'

'Nor do I expect that he will wish it, or that it would be proper; but he is bound to give her a handsome maintenance, and I think most probably you will be asked to stay with your uncle and cousins,' said Miss Headworth, figuring to herself a kind of Newstead Abbey or some such scene of constant orgies at Bridgefield Egremont.

'I shall accept nothing from the family that does not include mother,' said Nuttie.

'Dear child, I foresee many trials, but you must be her protector.'

'That I will,' said Nuttie; and in the gallant purpose she went to bed, to find her mother either asleep or feigning slumber with tears on her cheek.

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