'Do you think she is mad?' Agnes asked.
'I think she is simply wicked. False, superstitious, inveterately cruel-- but not mad. I believe her main motive in coming here was to enjoy the luxury of frightening you.'
'She has frightened me. I am ashamed to own it--but so it is.'
Henry looked at her, hesitated for a moment, and seated himself on the sofa by her side.
'I am very anxious about you, Agnes,' he said. 'But for the fortunate chance which led me to call here to-day--who knows what that vile woman might not have said or done, if she had found you alone? My dear, you are leading a sadly unprotected solitary life. I don't like to think of it; I want to see it changed--especially after what has happened to-day. No! no! it is useless to tell me that you have your old nurse. She is too old; she is not in your rank of life--there is no sufficient protection in the companionship of such a person for a lady in your position. Don't mistake me, Agnes! what I say, I say in the sincerity of my devotion to you.' He paused, and took her hand. She made a feeble effort to withdraw it-- and yielded. 'Will the day never come,' he pleaded, 'when the privilege of protecting you may be mine? when you will be the pride and joy of my life, as long as my life lasts?' He pressed her hand gently. She made no reply. The colour came and went on her face; her eyes were turned away from him. 'Have I been so unhappy as to offend you?' he asked.
She answered that--she said, almost in a whisper, 'No.'
'Have I distressed you?'
'You have made me think of the sad days that are gone.' She said no more; she only tried to withdraw her hand from his for the second time. He still held it; he lifted it to his lips.
'Can I never make you think of other days than those--of the happier days to come? Or, if you must think of the time that is passed, can you not look back to the time when I first loved you?'
She sighed as he put the question. 'Spare me Henry,' she answered sadly. 'Say no more!'
The colour again rose in her cheeks; her hand trembled in his. She looked lovely, with her eyes cast down and her bosom heaving gently. At that moment he would have given everything he had in the world to take her in his arms and kiss her. Some mysterious sympathy, passing from his hand to hers, seemed to tell her what was in his mind. She snatched her hand away, and suddenly looked up at him. The tears were in her eyes. She said nothing; she let her eyes speak for her. They warned him--without anger, without unkindness-- but still they warned him to press her no further that day.
'Only tell me that I am forgiven,' he said, as he rose from the sofa.
'Yes,' she answered quietly, 'you are forgiven.'
'I have not lowered myself in your estimation, Agnes?'
'Do you wish me to leave you?'
She rose, in her turn, from the sofa, and walked to her writing-table before she replied. The unfinished letter which she had been writing when Lady Montbarry interrupted her, lay open on the blotting-book. As she looked at the letter, and then looked at Henry, the smile that charmed everybody showed itself in her face.
'You must not go just yet,' she said: 'I have something to tell you. I hardly know how to express it. The shortest way perhaps will be to let you find it out for yourself. You have been speaking of my lonely unprotected life here. It is not a very happy life, Henry--I own that.' She paused, observing the growing anxiety of his expression as he looked at her, with a shy satisfaction that perplexed him. 'Do you know that I have anticipated your idea?' she went on. 'I am going to make a great change in my life--if your brother Stephen and his wife will only consent to it.' She opened the desk of the writing-table while she spoke, took a letter out, and handed it to Henry.
He received it from her mechanically. Vague doubts, which he hardly understood himself, kept him silent. It was impossible that the 'change in her life' of which she had spoken could mean that she was about to be married--and yet he was conscious of a perfectly unreasonable reluctance to open the letter. Their eyes met; she smiled again. 'Look at the address,' she said. 'You ought to know the handwriting-- but I dare say you don't.'
He looked at the address. It was in the large, irregular, uncertain writing of a child. He opened the letter instantly.
'Dear Aunt Agnes,--Our governess is going away. She has had money left to her, and a house of her own. We have had cake and wine to drink her health. You promised to be our governess if we wanted another. We want you. Mamma knows nothing about this. Please come before Mamma can get another governess. Your loving Lucy, who writes this. Clara and Blanche have tried to write too. But they are too young to do it. They blot the paper.'
'Your eldest niece,' Agnes explained, as Henry looked at her in amazement. 'The children used to call me aunt when I was staying with their mother in Ireland, in the autumn. The three girls were my inseparable companions--they are the most charming children I know. It is quite true that I offered to be their governess, if they ever wanted one, on the day when I left them to return to London. I was writing to propose it to their mother, just before you came.'
'Not seriously!' Henry exclaimed.
Agnes placed her unfinished letter in his hand. Enough of it had been written to show that she did seriously propose to enter the household of Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Westwick as governess to their children! Henry's bewilderment was not to be expressed in words.
'They won't believe you are in earnest,' he said.
'Why not?' Agnes asked quietly.
'You are my brother Stephen's cousin; you are his wife's old friend.'
'All the more reason, Henry, for trusting me with the charge of their children.'
'But you are their equal; you are not obliged to get your living by teaching. There is something absurd in your entering their service as a governess!'
'What is there absurd in it? The children love me; the mother loves me; the father has shown me innumerable instances of his true friendship and regard. I am the very woman for the place--and, as to my education, I must have completely forgotten it indeed, if I am not fit to teach three children the eldest of whom is only eleven years old. You say I am their equal. Are there no other women who serve as governesses, and who are the equals of the persons whom they serve? Besides, I don't know that I am their equal. Have I not heard that your brother Stephen was the next heir to the title? Will he not be the new lord? Never mind answering me! We won't dispute whether I mn right or wrong in turning governess-- we will wait the event. I am weary of my lonely useless existence here, and eager to make my life more happy and more useful, in the household of all others in which I should like most to have a place. If you will look again, you will see that I have these personal considerations still to urge before I finish my letter. You don't know your brother and his wife as well as I do, if you doubt their answer. I believe they have courage enough and heart enough to say Yes.'
Henry submitted without being convinced.
He was a man who disliked all eccentric departures from custom and routine; and he felt especially suspicious of the change proposed in the life of Agnes. With new interests to occupy her mind, she might be less favourably disposed to listen to him, on the next occasion when he urged his suit. The influence of the 'lonely useless existence' of which she complained, was distinctly an influence in his favour. While her heart was empty, her heart was accessible. But with his nieces in full possession of it, the clouds of doubt overshadowed his prospects. He knew the sex well enough to keep these purely selfish perplexities to himself. The waiting policy was especially the policy to pursue with a woman as sensitive as Agnes. If he once offended her delicacy he was lost. For the moment he wisely controlled himself and changed the subject.
'My little niece's letter has had an effect,' he said, 'which the child never contemplated in writing it. She has just reminded me of one of the objects that I had in calling on you to-day.'
Agnes looked at the child's letter. 'How does Lucy do that?' she asked.
'Lucy's governess is not the only lucky person who has had money left her,' Henry answered. 'Is your old nurse in the house?'
'You don't mean to say that nurse has got a legacy?'
'She has got a hundred pounds. Send for her, Agnes, while I show you the letter.'
He took a handful of letters from his pocket, and looked through them, while Agnes rang the bell. Returning to him, she noticed a printed letter among the rest, which lay open on the table. It was a 'prospectus,' and the title of it was 'Palace Hotel Company of Venice (Limited).' The two words, 'Palace' and 'Venice,' instantly recalled her mind to the unwelcome visit of Lady Montbarry. 'What is that?' she asked, pointing to the title.
Henry suspended his search, and glanced at the prospectus. 'A really promising speculation,' he said. 'Large hotels always pay well, if they are well managed. I know the man who is appointed to be manager of this hotel when it is opened to the public; and I have such entire confidence in him that I have become one of the shareholders of the Company.'
The reply did not appear to satisfy Agnes. 'Why is the hotel called the "Palace Hotel"?' she inquired.
Henry looked at her, and at once penetrated her motive for asking the question. 'Yes,' he said, 'it is the palace that Montbarry hired at Venice; and it has been purchased by the Company to be changed into an hotel.'
Agnes turned away in silence, and took a chair at the farther end of the room. Henry had disappointed her. His income as a younger son stood in need, as she well knew, of all the additions that he could make to it by successful speculation. But she was unreasonable enough, nevertheless, to disapprove of his attempting to make money already out of the house in which his brother had died. Incapable of understanding this purely sentimental view of a plain matter of business, Henry returned to his papers, in some perplexity at the sudden change in the manner of Agnes towards him. Just as he found the letter of which he was in search, the nurse made her appearance. He glanced at Agnes, expecting that she would speak first. She never even looked up when the nurse came in. It was left to Henry to tell the old woman why the bell had summoned her to the drawing-room.
'Well, nurse,' he said, 'you have had a windfall of luck. You have had a legacy left you of a hundred pounds.'
The nurse showed no outward signs of exultation. She waited a little to get the announcement of the legacy well settled in her mind-- and then she said quietly, 'Master Henry, who gives me that money, if you please?'
'My late brother, Lord Montbarry, gives it to you.' (Agnes instantly looked up, interested in the matter for the first time. Henry went on.) 'His will leaves legacies to the surviving old servants of the family. There is a letter from his lawyers, authorising you to apply to them for the money.'
In every class of society, gratitude is the rarest of all human virtues. In the nurse's class it is extremely rare. Her opinion of the man who had deceived and deserted her mistress remained the same opinion still, perfectly undisturbed by the passing circumstance of the legacy.
'I wonder who reminded my lord of the old servants?' she said. 'He would never have heart enough to remember them himself!'
Agnes suddenly interposed. Nature, always abhorring monotony, institutes reserves of temper as elements in the composition of the gentlest women living. Even Agnes could, on rare occasions, be angry. The nurse's view of Montbarry's character seemed to have provoked her beyond endurance.
'If you have any sense of shame in you,' she broke out, 'you ought to be ashamed of what you have just said! Your ingratitude disgusts me. I leave you to speak with her, Henry--you won't mind it!' With this significant intimation that he too had dropped out of his customary place in her good opinion, she left the room.
The nurse received the smart reproof administered to her with every appearance of feeling rather amused by it than not. When the door had closed, this female philosopher winked at Henry.
'There's a power of obstinacy in young women,' she remarked. 'Miss Agnes wouldn't give my lord up as a bad one, even when he jilted her. And now she's sweet on him after he's dead. Say a word against him, and she fires up as you see. All obstinacy! It will wear out with time. Stick to her, Master Henry-- stick to her!'
'She doesn't seem to have offended you,' said Henry.
'She?' the nurse repeated in amazement--'she offend me? I like her in her tantrums; it reminds me of her when she was a baby. Lord bless you! when I go to bid her good-night, she'll give me a big kiss, poor dear--and say, Nurse, I didn't mean it! About this money, Master Henry? If I was younger I should spend it in dress and jewellery. But I'm too old for that. What shall I do with my legacy when I have got it?'
'Put it out at interest,' Henry suggested. 'Get so much a year for it, you know.' 'How much shall I get?' the nurse asked.
'If you put your hundred pounds into the Funds, you will get between three and four pounds a year.'
The nurse shook her head. 'Three or four pounds a year? That won't do! I want more than that. Look here, Master Henry. I don't care about this bit of money--I never did like the man who has left it to me, though he was your brother. If I lost it all to-morrow, I shouldn't break my heart; I'm well enough off, as it is, for the rest of my days. They say you're a speculator. Put me in for a good thing, there's a dear! Neck-or-nothing--and that for the Funds!' She snapped her fingers to express her contempt for security of investment at three per cent.
Henry produced the prospectus of the Venetian Hotel Company. 'You're a funny old woman,' he said. 'There, you dashing speculator-- there is neck-or-nothing for you! You must keep it a secret from Miss Agnes, mind. I'm not at all sure that she would approve of my helping you to this investment.'
The nurse took out her spectacles. 'Six per cent. guaranteed,' she read; 'and the Directors have every reason to believe that ten per cent., or more, will be ultimately realised to the shareholders by the hotel.' 'Put me into that, Master Henry! And, wherever you go, for Heaven's sake recommend the hotel to your friends!'
So the nurse, following Henry's mercenary example, had her pecuniary interest, too, in the house in which Lord Montbarry had died.
Three days passed before Henry was able to visit Agnes again. In that time, the little cloud between them had entirely passed away. Agnes received him with even more than her customary kindness. She was in better spirits than usual. Her letter to Mrs. Stephen Westwick had been answered by return of post; and her proposal had been joyfully accepted, with one modification. She was to visit the Westwicks for a month--and, if she really liked teaching the children, she was then to be governess, aunt, and cousin, all in one-- and was only to go away in an event which her friends in Ireland persisted in contemplating, the event of her marriage.
'You see I was right,' she said to Henry.
He was still incredulous. 'Are you really going?' he asked.
'I am going next week.'
'When shall I see you again?'
'You know you are always welcome at your brother's house. You can see me when you like.' She held out her hand. 'Pardon me for leaving you--I am beginning to pack up already.'
Henry tried to kiss her at parting. She drew back directly.
'Why not? I am your cousin,' he said.
'I don't like it,' she answered.
Henry looked at her, and submitted. Her refusal to grant him his privilege as a cousin was a good sign--it was indirectly an act of encouragement to him in the character of her lover.
On the first day in the new week, Agnes left London on her way to Ireland. As the event proved, this was not destined to be the end of her journey. The way to Ireland was only the first stage on a roundabout road-- the road that led to the palace at Venice.