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首页 » 经典英文小说 » A Strange World » CHAPTER V ‘FOR THOU WERT STILL THE POOR MAN’S STAY.’
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CHAPTER V ‘FOR THOU WERT STILL THE POOR MAN’S STAY.’
Dinner at Penwyn Manor went off gaily enough. Lady Cheshunt, inspirited by various light wines, a good deal of Maraschino in the ice pudding, and a glass of Cura?ao as a corrective afterwards, was a host in herself, and talked loud enough, fast enough, recklessly enough, to keep the dullest dinner party going. Mr. Penwyn was always an excellent host, starting fresh subjects of conversation with such admirable tact that no one knew who changed the current of ideas when interest was just beginning to flag—never taking the lion’s share of the talk, or drifting into monologue—listening to every one—encouraging the timid—sustaining the weak—and proving himself a living encyclo?pdia whenever dates, names, or facts were wanted.

The gentlemen left the dining-room about ten minutes after the ladies had quitted it, to the delight of Sir Lewis Dallas, and the secret disgust of Mr. Tresillian, who liked to prose about stable and kennel for an hour or so over his claret.

The assembly being merely a household party, people scattered themselves in a free and easy manner through the rooms, the ivory balls clicking in hall and billiard room, as usual, a little group of ladies round the piano trying that sweet bit of Schumann’s, chiefly remarkable for syncopation, and little jerky chords meandering up and down the piano, and demanding no small skill in the executant.

Maurice found himself in the deep embrasure of one of the hall windows, talking literature with Miss Bellingham, who evidently preferred his society to that of the devoted Sir Lewis.

‘A good opportunity to find out a little more about George Penwyn,’ thought Maurice. ‘Miss Bellingham must be acquainted with all the traditions of the house. If I could but discover what manner of man this Captain Penwyn was, I should be better able to arrive at a just conclusion about his relations with Muriel Trevanard.’

A little later, when they were talking of libraries and book-collecting, Viola said, ‘There were hardly fifty books altogether at Penwyn, I think, when my brother-in-law came into the property. The library here is entirely Churchill’s collection. The old Squire and his predecessors must have been strangely deficient of literary taste. Even the few books there were had most of them belonged to Captain Penwyn, the poor young man who was killed in Canada.’

‘Ah, poor fellow! I heard of his sad fate from the housekeeper here when I came to see the Manor House last summer. A tragical end like that gives a melancholy interest to a man’s history, however commonplace it may be in other respects. I suppose you have heard a good deal of gossip about this George Penwyn?’

‘Yes, our old housekeeper is fond of talking about him. He seems to have been a favourite with people, especially with cottagers and small tenants on the estate. I have heard old people regret that he never came to his own, even in my presence, though the speech was hardly civil to my brother-in-law. I know that by some of the people we are looked upon as intruders, on Captain Penwyn’s account. He seems to have been constantly doing kindnesses.’

‘And you have never heard anything against his character—that he was dissipated—wild, as the world calls it?’

‘Never so much as a word. On the contrary, Mrs. Darvis has often told me that he was particularly steady—that he was never known to take too much wine, or anything of that kind. In fact, she talks as if he had been a paragon.’

‘Ah,’ thought Maurice, ‘these paragons are sometimes viler at bottom than your open profligate. Few men ever knew the human heart better than he who gave us Charles and Joseph Surface.’

‘I have an inward conviction that Captain Penwyn must have been nice,’ said Viola.

‘Indeed! On what is that conviction based?’

‘On various grounds. First, there are the praises of people who cannot flatter, since there is nothing to be gained by speaking well of the dead. Secondly, there is that shelf full of books with George Penwyn’s name in them, all nice books, the choice of a man of refinement and good feeling. Thirdly, there is his portrait, and I like his face. Are those reasons strong enough, do you think?’

‘Quite, for a woman! His portrait!—ah, by-the-bye, I should like to have another look at that.’

‘Come and see it at once, then,’ replied Viola, good-naturedly. ‘It is in the little study, yonder—the old Squire’s room. The books are there too.’

The study was a little room off the hall. Maurice remembered it well, though he had never entered it since Mrs. Darvis showed him George Penwyn’s portrait, on his first visit to the Manor House.

Viola took a candle from the mantelshelf and led the way to the study, a room which was still used for business interviews with stewards or tenants, a second door opening into a passage communicating with the offices, and obscure backways by which such inferior beings were admitted to the squire’s presence.

Maurice took the candle from Miss Bellingham’s hand and held it up before the picture over the mantelpiece. His grip tightened on the bronze candlestick, and his breath came stronger and quicker as he looked, but he said never a word.

That picture was to him stronger confirmation of his idea about Justina’s parentage than all the circumstantial evidence in the world. There, in those pictured lineaments he saw the very lines of Justina’s face—lines modified in her countenance, it is true, and softened to feminine beauty, but characteristics too striking to be mistaken even by a casual observer.

‘Strange that the likeness did not occur to me when I saw that picture first,’ he thought. ‘But at that time I had only looked at Justina with the eye of indifference. I did not know her face by heart as I do now. And I remember that even then the picture struck me as like some one I knew. Memory only failed to recall the individual.’

Those dark blue-grey eyes, with their somewhat melancholy expression, were so like the eyes he had seen looking at him mournfully only three weeks ago, when Justina bade him good-bye; the eyes which he faintly remembered looking up at him for the first time, in the buttercup meadow near Eborsham. He put down the candle without a word.

‘I hope you have stared long enough at that picture,’ said Viola, laughing. ‘You appear to find it remarkably interesting.’

‘It is a very interesting portrait—to me.’

‘Why to you, in particular?’

‘Because it resembles some one very dear to me.’

‘Oh, I understand,’ said Viola, gently. ‘Your poor friend, James Penwyn!’

Maurice did not attempt to set her right.

‘Now let us look at the books,’ he said, going to the secretaire, the upper shelves of which held about thirty volumes, all well bound. They were Valpy’s Shakespeare, Wordsworth, Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, Keats, Hood, and a few other volumes, chiefly Oxford classics, which Mr. Penwyn had brought from the University; not by any means the books of a man wanting in refinement or culture. That they had been well read was evident to Maurice, on looking into some of the volumes. Many a verse underlined in pencil marked the reader’s appreciation.

In a volume of Byron, containing ‘Manfred,’ and some of the minor poems, Maurice found a pencilled note here and there, in a woman’s hand, which he recognised as Muriel Trevanard’s; words of praise or of criticism, but in all cases denoting a cultivated mind and a sound judgment. A girl who could write thus was hardly likely to have been fooled by the first seducer who came across her path.

‘I wonder who wrote in that book?’ said Viola. ‘George Penwyn had no sister, and his mother died while he was very young. Perhaps those notes were written by Miss Morgrave, the young lady his father wanted him to marry.’

‘I should hardly have thought they were on intimate terms enough for that kind of thing.’

‘True. One must be very sure of a person’s friendship before one can venture to scribble one’s opinions in their books,’ returned Viola.

An hour later Maurice left the Manor House. He was glad to be alone, and free to think over the day’s work.

The idea which had hitherto seemed little better than a baseless fancy, the filmy weaving of his own romantic dreams, was now conviction. He held it as a certain fact that Justina was George Penwyn’s daughter, and that it must be his work to discover the missing link in Muriel Trevanard’s story, and the nature of that fatal union which had ended in shattered wits and a broken heart.

‘God grant that I may find evidence to confirm my own belief in the girl’s purity and the man’s honour,’ he said to himself, as he drove the dog-cart back to Borcel End. ‘If the popular idea of George Penwyn is correct, he must have been too good a man to play so base a part as that of betrayer; too kind to leave his victim to face the storm of parental wrath unprotected. But he was in his father’s power, and it is possible that he might have had recourse to a secret marriage rather than forfeit the old man’s favour and the Penwyn estate. Yet if this were the case, it is strange that he should have left England without endeavouring to secure his wife’s safety—that he should have made no provision for his child’s birth—an event the possibility of which he ought to have foreseen.’

This was a puzzling point. Indeed, the whole story was involved in mystery. Either George Penwyn must have deceived everybody who knew him as to his moral character; or he must have acted honestly towards Muriel.

‘There is only one person I can think of as likely to know the truth of the story,’ Maurice said to himself, ‘and that person is Miss Barlow, the schoolmistress at Seacomb. My first endeavour must be to find Miss Barlow, if she is still an inhabitant of this lower world.’

He had a good deal to do in Seacomb, yet was anxious, with a lover’s foolish yearning, to get back to London; so he got Martin to drive him over to the quiet old market town early next morning, and took care to put up at the oldest inn in the place—a rambling old house with a quadrangular yard—a relic of the good old coaching days.

‘There is no better place than an old inn in which to learn the traditions of a town,’ Maurice told himself. ‘I dare say I shall find some ancient waiter here who remembers everything that has happened at Seacomb for the last fifty years.’



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