The Malefactor

Book 2

E. Phillips Oppenheim

Chapter 4 - Guardian And Ward


"Up to the present, then," Wingrave remarked, "the child has no idea as to who has been responsible for the charge of her?"

"No idea at all, Sir Wingrave," the lawyer declared. "Your wishes have been strictly carried out, most strictly. She imagines that it is some unknown connection of her father. But, as I explained to you in my letter, she has recently exhibited a good deal of curiosity in the matter. She is--er--a young lady of considerable force of character for her years, and her present attitude--as I explained in my letter--is a trifle difficult."

Wingrave was sitting in the lawyer's own chair. Mr. Pengarth, who was a trifle nervous, preferred to stand.

"She shows, I think, a certain amount of ingratitude in forcing this journey and explanation upon me," Wingrave declared coldly. "It should have been sufficient for her that her benefactor preferred to remain anonymous."

"I regret, Sir Wingrave, that I must disagree with you," Mr. Pengarth answered boldly. "Miss Juliet, Miss Lundy I should say, is a young lady of character--and--er--some originality of disposition. She is a great favorite with everyone around here."

Wingrave remained silent. He had the air of one not troubling to reply to what he considered folly. Through the wide open window floated in the various sounds of the little country town, the rumbling of heavy carts passing along the cobbled streets, the shrill greetings of neighbors and acquaintances meeting upon the sidewalk. And then the tinkling bell of a rubber-tired cart pulling up outside, and a clear girlish voice speaking to some one of the passers-by.

Wingrave betrayed as much surprise as it was possible for him to show when at last she stood with outstretched hand before him. He had only an imperfect recollection of an ill-clad, untidy-looking child, with pale tear-stained cheeks, and dark unhappy eyes. The march of the years had been a thing whose effects he had altogether underestimated. The girl who stood now facing him was slight, and there was something of the child left in her bright eager face, but she carried herself with all the graceful assurance of an older woman. Her soft, dark eyes were lit with pleasure and excitement, her delicately traced eyebrows and delightful smile were somehow suggestive of her foreign descent. Her clothes were country-made, but perfect as regarded fit and trimness, her beflowered hat was worn with a touch of coquettish grace, a trifle un-English, but very delightful. She had not an atom of shyness or embarrassment. Only there was a great surprise in her face as she held out her hands to Wingrave.

"I know who you are," she exclaimed. "You are Sir Wingrave Seton. To think that I never guessed."

"You remember seeing me, then?" he remarked, and his tone sounded all the colder after the full richness of her young voice.

"I just remember it--only just," she answered. "You see you did not take much notice of me that time, did you? But I have lived amongst your ancestors too long to make any mistake. Why have you stayed away from Tredowen so long?"

"I have been abroad," Wingrave answered. "I am not fond of England."

"You had trouble here, I know," she said frankly. "But that is all past and over. I think that you must forget how beautiful your home is or you would never bear to live away from it. Now, please, may I ask you a question?"

"Any that you think necessary," Wingrave answered. "Spare me as much as possible; I am not fond of them."

"Shall I leave you two together for a little time?" Mr. Pengarth suggested, gathering up some papers.

"Certainly not," Wingrave said shortly. "There is not the slightest necessity for it."

Mr. Pengarth resumed his seat.

"Just as you please," he answered. "But you must sit down, Juliet. There, you shall have my clients' chair."

The girl accepted it with a little laugh. There was no shadow of embarrassment about her manner, notwithstanding the cold stiffness of Wingrave's deportment. He sat where the sunlight fell across his chair, and the lines in his pale face seemed deeper than usual, the grey hairs more plentiful, the weariness in his eyes more apparent. Yet she was not in the least afraid of him.

"First of all, then, Sir Wingrave, may I ask you why you have been so extraordinarily kind to me?"

"There is nothing extraordinary about it at all," he answered. "Your father died and left you friendless in a parish of which I am Lord of the Manor. He received a starvation pittance for his labors, which it was my duty to augment, a duty which, with many others, I neglected. I simply gave orders that you should be looked after."

She laughed softly.

"Looked after! Why, I have lived at Tredowen. I have had a governess, a pony to drive. Heaven knows how many luxuries!"

"That," he interrupted hastily, "is nothing. The house is better occupied. What I have done for you is less in proportion than the sixpence you may sometimes have given to a beggar for I am a rich, a ridiculously rich man, with no possible chance of spending one-quarter of my income. You had a distinct and obvious claim upon me, and, at no cost or inconvenience to myself, I have endeavored, through others, to recognize it."

"I will accept your view of the situation," the girl said, still smiling, but with a faint note of disappointment in her tone. "I do not wish to force upon you expressions of gratitude which you would only find wearisome. But I must thank you! It is in my heart, and I must speak of it. There, it is over, you see! I shall say no more."

"You are a sensible young lady," Wingrave said, making a motion as though to rise. "I have only one request to make to you, and that is that you keep to yourself the knowledge which Mr. Pengarth informs me that you insisted upon acquiring. You are nearly enough of age now, and I will make you your own mistress. That is all, I think."

The smile died away from her lips. Her tone became very earnest.

"Sir Wingrave," she said, "for all that you have done for me, I am, as you know grateful. I would try to tell you how grateful, only I know that it would weary you. So we will speak only of the future. I cannot continue to accept--even such magnificent alms as yours."

"What do you mean, child?" he asked, frowning across at her.

"I mean," she said, "that now I am old enough to work, I cannot accept everything from one upon whom I have no claim. If you will help me a little still, I shall be more than grateful. But it must be in my own way."

"You talk about work," he said. "What can you do?"

"I can paint," she answered, "fairly well. I should like to go to London and have a few lessons. If I cannot make a living at that, I shall try something else."

"You disappoint me," Wingrave said. "There is no place for you in London. There are thousands starving there already because they can paint a little, or sing a little, or fancy they can. Do you find it dull down here?"

"Dull!" she exclaimed wonderingly. "I think that there can be no place on earth so beautiful as Tredowen."

"You are happy here?"

"Perfectly!"

"Then, for heaven's sake, forget all this folly," Wingrave said hardly. "London is no place for children. Miss Harrison can take you up for a month when you choose. You can go abroad if you want to. But for the rest--"

She rose suddenly, and sweeping across the office with one graceful movement, she leaned over Wingrave's chair. Her hands rested upon his shoulders, her eyes, soft with gathering tears, pleaded with his. Wingrave sat with all the outward immobility of a Sphinx.

"Dear Sir Wingrave," she said, "you have been so generous, so kind, and I may not even speak of my gratitude. Don't please think me unreasonable or ungracious. I can't tell you how I feel, but I must, I must, I must go away. I could not live here any longer now that I know. Fancy for a moment that I am your sister, or your daughter! Don't you believe, really, that she would feel the same? And I think you would wish her to. Don't be angry with me, please."

Wingrave's face never changed; but his fingers gripped the arms of his chair so that a signet ring he wore cut deep into his flesh. When he spoke, his tone sounded almost harsh. The girl turned away to dash the tears from her eyes.

"What do you think of this--folly, Pengarth?"

The lawyer looked his best client squarely in the face. "I do not call it folly, Sir Wingrave. I think that Miss Lundy is right."

There was a pause. Her eyes were still pleading with him.

"Against the two of you," Wingrave remarked, "I am, of course, powerless. After all, it is no concern of mine. I shall leave you, Pengarth, to make such arrangements as Miss Lundy desires!"

He rose to his feet. Juliet now was pale. She dashed the tears from her eyes and looked at him in amazement mingled with something which was almost like despair.

"You don't mean," she exclaimed, "you are going away without coming to Tredowen?"

"Why not?" he asked. "I never had any intention of going there!"

"You are very angry with me," she cried in despair. "I--I--"

Her lip quivered. Wingrave interposed.

"I shall be happy to go and have a look at the place," he said carelessly, "if you will drive me back. I fancy I have almost forgotten what it is like."

She looked at him as at one who had spoken irreverently. Her eyes were full of wonder.

"I think that you must have indeed forgotten," she said, "how very beautiful it is. It is your home too! There is no one else," she added softly, "who can live there, amongst all those wonderful things, and call it really--home!"

"I am afraid," he said, "you will find that I have outlived all sentiment; but I will certainly come to Tredowen with you!"