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CHAPTER XVIII. GOOD OUT OF EVIL.

That journey back to town was one of the most terrible things Maud had ever yet known in her poor little life. Dick leaned back disconsolate in one corner of the carriage, and she in the opposite one. Neither spoke a single word; neither needed to speak, for each knew without speech what the other was thinking of. Every now and again Dick would catch some fresh shade of expression coursing like a wave over Maud's unhappy face, and recognise in it the very idea that a moment before had been passing through his own troubled mind. It was pitiable to see them. Their whole scheme of life had suddenly and utterly broken down before them; their sense of self-respect was deeply wounded—nay, even their bare identity was all but gone, for the belief that they were in very truth descendants of the royal Plantagenets had become as it were an integral part of their personality, and woven itself intimately into all their life and thought and practice. They ceased to be themselves in ceasing to be potential princes and princesses.

For the Great Plantagenet Delusion which Edmund Plantagenet had started, and only half or a quarter believed in himself, became to his children from youth upward, and especially to Maud and Dick, a sort of family religion. It was a theory on which they based almost everything that was best and truest within them; a moral power for good, urging them always on to do credit to the great House from which they firmly and unquestioningly believed themselves to be sprung. Probably the moral impulse was there first by nature; probably, too, they inherited it, not from poor, drunken, do-nothing Edmund Plantagenet himself, through whom ostensibly they should have derived their Plantagenet character, but from that good and patient nobody, their hard-working mother. But none of these things ever occurred at all to Maud or Dick; to them it had always been a prime article of faith that noblesse oblige, and that their lives must be noble in order to come up to a preconceived Plantagenet standard of action. So the blow was a crushing one. It was as though all the ground of their being had been cut away from beneath their feet. They had fancied themselves so long the children of kings, with a moral obligation upon them to behave—well, as the children of kings are little given to behaving; and they had found out now they were mere ordinary mortals, with only the same inherent and universal reasons for right and high action as the common herd of us. It was a sad comedown—for a royal Plantagenet.

The revulsion was terrible. And Maud, who was in some ways the prouder of the two, and to whom, as to most of her sex, the extrinsic reason for holding up her head in the midst of poverty and disgrace had ever been stronger and more cogent than the intrinsic one, felt it much the more keenly. To women, the social side of things is always uppermost. They journeyed home in a constant turmoil of unrelieved wretchedness; they were not, they had never been, royal Plantagenots. Just like all the rest of the world—mere ordinary people! And they who had been sustained, under privations and shame, by the reflection that, if every man had his right, Dick would have been sitting that day on the divided throne of half these islands! Descendants, after all, of a cobbler and a dancing-master! No Black Prince at all in their lineage—no Henry, no Edward, no Richard, no Lionel! Cour-de-Lion a pale shade—Lackland himself taken away from them! And how everybody would laugh when they came to know the truth! Though that was a small matter. It was no minor thing like this, but the downfall of a faith, the ruin, of a principle, the break-up of a rule in life, that really counted!

There you have the Nemesis of every false idea, every unreal belief: when once it finally collapses, as collapse it needs must before the searching light of truth, it leaves us for awhile feeble, uncertain, rudderless. So Dick felt that afternoon; so he felt for many a weary week of reconstruction afterwards.

At last they reached home.'Twas a terrible home-coming. As they crept up the steps, poor dispossessed souls, they heard voices within—Mrs. Plantagenet's, and Gillespie's, and the children's, and Mary Tudor's.

Dick opened the door in dead silence and entered. He was pale as a ghost. Maud walked statelily behind him, scarcely able to raise her eyes to Archie Gillespie's face, but still proud at heart as ever. Dick sank down into a chair, the very picture of misery. Maud dropped into another without doing more than just stretch out one cold hand to Archie. Mrs. Plantagenet surveyed them both with a motherly glance.

'Why, Dick,' she cried, rushing up to him, 'what's the matter? Has there been a railway accident?'

Dick glanced back at her with affection half masked by dismay.

'A railway accident!' he exclaimed, with a groan. 'Oh, mother dear, I wish it had only been a railway accident! It was more like an earthquake. It's shaken Maud and me to the very foundations of our nature!' Then he looked up at her half pityingly. She wasn't a Plantagenet except by marriage; she never could quite feel as they did the sanct—— And then he broke off suddenly, for he remembered with a rush that horrid, horrid truth. He blurted it out all at once: 'We are not—we never were, real royal Plantagenets!'

'I was afraid of that,' Mary Tudor said simply. 'That was just why I was so anxious dear Maud should go with you.'

Gillespie said nothing, but for the first time in public he tried to take Maud's hand for a moment in his. Maud drew it away quickly.

'No, Archie,' she said, with a sigh, making no attempt at concealment; 'I can never, never give it to you now again, for to-day I know we've always been nobodies.'

'You're what you always were to me,' Gillespie answered, in a low voice. 'It was you yourself I loved, Maud, not the imaginary honours of the Plantagenet family.'

'But I don't want to be loved so,' Maud cried, with all the bitterness of a wounded spirit. 'I don't want to be loved for myself. I don't want anyone to love me—except as a Plantagenet.'

Dick was ready, in the depth of his despair and the blackness of his revulsion, to tell out the whole truth, and spare them, as he thought, no circumstance of their degradation.

'Yes, we went to Framlingham princes and princesses—and more than that,' he said, almost proud to think whence and how far they had fallen'; 'we return from it beggars. I looked up the whole matter thoroughly, and there's no room for hope left, no possibility of error. The father of Giles Plantagenet, from whom we're all descended, most fatally descended, was one Richard—called Plantagenet, but really Muggins, a cobbler at Framlingham; the same man, you know, Mary, that I told you about the other day. In short, we're just cousins of the other Plantagenets—the false Plantagenets—the Sheffield Plantagenets—the people who left the money.'

He fired it off at them with explosive energy. Mary gave a little start.

'But surely in that case, Dick,' she cried, 'you must be entitled to their fortune! You told me one day it was left by will to the descendants and heirs-male of Richard Muggins, alias Plantagenet, whose second son George was the ancestor and founder of the Sheffield family.'

'So he was,' Dick answered dolefully, without a light in his eye. 'But, you see, I didn't then know, or suspect, or even think possible—what I now find to be the truth—the horrid, hateful truth—that our ancestor, Giles Plantagenet, whom I took to be the son of Geoffrey, the descendant of Lionel, Duke of Clarence, was in reality nothing more than the eldest son of this wretched man Richard Muggins; and the elder brother of George Muggins, alias Plantagenet, who was ancestor of the Sheffield people who left the money.'

'But if so,' Gillespie put in, 'then you must be the heirs of the Plantagenets who left the money, and must be entitled, as I understand, to something like a hundred and fifty or a hundred and sixty thousand pounds sterling!'

'Undoubtedly,' Dick answered in a tone of settled melancholy. .

Gillespie positively laughed, in spite of himself, though Maud looked up at him through her tears, and murmured:

'Oh, Archie, how can you?

'Why, my dear follow,' he said, taking Dick's arm, 'are you really quite sure it's so? Are you perfectly certain you've good legal proof of the identity of this man Giles with your own earliest ancestor, and of the descent of your family from the forefather of the Sheffield people?'

'I'm sorry to say,' Dick answered with profound dejection, 'there can't be a doubt left of it. It's too horribly certain. Hunting up these things is my trade, and I ought to know. I've made every link in the chain as certain as certainty. I have a positive entry for every step in the pedigree—not doubtful entries, unfortunately, but such conclusive entries as leave the personality of each person beyond the reach of suspicion. Oh, it's a very bad business, a terrible business!' And he flung his arms on the table, and leaned over it himself, the very picture of mute misery.

'Then you believe the money's yours?' Gillespie persisted, half incredulous.

'Believe it!' Dick answered. 'I don't believe it; I know it is—the wretched stuff! There's no dodging plain facts. I can't get out of it, anyhow.'

'Did you realize that this money would be yours when you saw the entries at Framlingham?' Gillespie inquired, hardly certain how to treat such incredible behaviour.

'I didn't think of it just at once,' Dick answered with profound despair in his voice; 'but it occurred to me in the train, and I thought how terrible it would be to confess it before the whole world by claiming the wretched money. Though it might perhaps be some consolation, after all, to poor mother.'

'And you, Maud?' Gillespie inquired, turning round to his sweetheart, and with difficulty repressing a smile. 'Did you think at all of it?'

'Well, I knew if we were really only false Plantagenets, like the Sheffield people,' Maud answered bravely through the tears that struggled hard to fall, 'we should probably in the end come into their money. But oh, Archie, it isn't the money Dick and I would care for. Let them take back their wealth—let them take it—if they will! But give us once more our own Plantagenet ancestry!'

Gillespie drew Mary aside for a moment.

'Say nothing to them about it for the present,' he whispered in her ear. 'Let the first keen agony of their regret pass over. I can understand their feeling. This myth had worn itself into the very warp and woof of their natures. It was their one great inheritance. The awakening is a terrible shock to them. All they thought themselves once, all they practically were for so many years together, they have suddenly ceased to be. This grief and despair must wear itself out. For the present we mustn't even inquire of them about the money.'

And indeed it was a week or two before Dick could muster up heart to go with Archie Gillespie to a lawyer about the matter. When he did, however, he had all the details of the genealogy, all the proofs of that crushing identification he had longed to avoid, so fully at his finger-ends, that the solicitor whom he consulted, and to whom he showed copies of the various documents in the case, hadn't a moment's doubt as to the result of his application. 'I suppose this will be a long job, though,' Gillespie suggested, 'and may want a lot of money, to prosecute it to its end?

It'll have to be taken for an indefinite time into Chancery, won't it?'

'Not at all,' the solicitor answered. 'It's very plain sailing. We can get it through at once. There's no hitch in the evidence. You see, it isn't as if there were any opposition to the claim, any other descendants. There are none, and by the very nature of the case there can't be any. Mr. Plantagenet has anticipated and accounted for every possible objection. The thing is as clear as mud. His official experience has enabled him to avoid all the manifold pitfalls of amateur genealogists. I never saw an inheritance that went so far back made more absolutely certain.'

Poor Dick's heart sank within him. He knew it himself already; but still, he had cherished throughout some vague shadow of a hope that the lawyer might discover some faint flaw in the evidence which, as he considered, had disinherited him. There was nothing for it now but to pocket at once the Plantagenet pride and the Plantagenet thousands—to descend from his lofty pedestal and be even as the rest of us are—except for the fortune. He turned to Gillespie with a sigh.

'I was afraid of this,' he said. 'I expected that answer. Well, well, it'll make my dear mother happy; and it'll at least enable me to go back again to Oxford.'

That last consideration was indeed in Maud's eyes the one saving grace of an otherwise hopeless and intolerable situation. Gradually, bit by bit, though it was a very hard struggle, they reconciled themselves to their altered position. The case was prepared, and, as their lawyer had anticipated, went straight through the courts with little or no difficulty, thanks to Dick's admirable working up of all the details of the pedigree. By the time eight months were out, Dick had come into the inheritance of 'the Plantagenets who left the money,' and was even beginning to feel more reconciled in his heart to the course of events which had robbed him so ruthlessly of his fancied dignity, but considerably added to his solid comfort.

Before Dick returned to Oxford, however, to finish his sadly interrupted University career, he had arranged with Mary that as soon as he took his degree they two should marry. As for poor Maud, woman that she was, the loss of that royal ancestry that had never been hers seemed to weigh upon her even more than it weighed upon her brother. The one point that consoled her under this crushing blow was the fact that Archie, for whose sake she had minded it most at first, appeared to care very little indeed whether the earliest traceable ancestor of the girl he loved had been a royal Plantagenet or a shoemaking Muggins. It was herself he wanted, he said with provoking persistence, not her great-great-great grandfathers. Maud could hardly understand such a feeling herself; for when Archie first took a fancy to her, she was sure it must have been her name and her distinguished pedigree that led an Oxford man and a gentleman, with means and position, to see her real good points through the poor dress and pale face of the country dancing-master's daughter.

Still, if Archie thought otherwise—— Well, as things had turned out, she was really glad; though, to be sure, she always felt in her heart he didn't attach quite enough importance to the pure Plantagenet pedigree that never was theirs, but that somehow ought to have been. However, with her share of that hateful Sheffield money she was now a lady, she said—Archie strenuously denied she could ever have been anything else, though Maud shook her head sadly—and when Archie one day showed her the photograph of a very pretty place among the Campsie Fells which his father had just bought for him, 'in case of contingencies,' and asked her whether she fancied she could ever be happy there, Maud rose with tears in her eyes and laid her hand in his, and answered earnestly:

'With you, dearest Archie, I'm sure I could be happy, my life long, anywhere.'

And from that day forth she never spoke to him again of the vanished glories of the Plantagenet pedigree.

Perhaps it was as well they had believed in it once. That strange myth had kept them safe from sinking in the quicksands when the danger was greatest. It had enabled them to endure, and outlive with honour, much painful humiliation. It had been an influence for good in moulding their characters. But its work was done now, and 'twas best it should go.

Slowly Dick and Maud began to realize that themselves. And the traces it left upon them, after the first poignant sense of loss and shame had worn off, were all for the bettering of their moral natures.

THE END.


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