After long debate and after much searching inquiry into his own motives he had determined to offer himself to Mrs. Goddard, and he had accordingly done so in his own straightforward manner. It had seemed a very important action in his life, a very solemn step, but he was not prepared for the acute sense of disappointment which he felt when Mrs. Goddard first said it was impossible for her to accept him, still less had he anticipated the extraordinary story which she had told him, in explanation of her refusal. His ideas were completely upset. That Mrs. Goddard was not a widow after all, was almost as astounding as that she should prove to be the wife of a felon. But Mr. Juxon was no less persuaded that she herself was a perfectly good and noble woman, than he had been before. He felt that he would like to cut the throat of the villain himself; but he resolved that he would more than ever try to be a good friend to Mrs. Goddard.
He walked slowly through the storm towards his house, his broad figure facing the wind and sleet with as much ease as a steamer forging against a head sea. He was perfectly indifferent to the weather; but Stamboul slunk along at his heels, shielding himself from the driving wet snow behind his master’s sturdy legs. The squire was very much disturbed. The sight of his own solemn butler affected him strangely. He stared about the library in a vacant way, as though he had never seen the place before. The realisation of his own calm and luxurious life seemed unnatural, and his thoughts went back to the poor weeping woman he had just left. She, too, had enjoyed all this, and more also. She had probably been richer than he. And now she was living on five hundred a year in one of his own cottages, hiding her shame in desolate Billingsfield, the shame of her husband, the forger.
It was such a hopeless position, the squire thought. No one could help her, no one could do anything for her. For many weeks, revolving the situation in his mind, he had amused himself by thinking how she would look when she should be mistress of the Hall, and wondering whether little Nellie would call him “father,” or merely “Mr. Juxon.” And now, she turned out to be the wife of a forger, sentenced to hard labour in a convict prison, for twelve years. For twelve years—nearly three must have elapsed already. In nine years more Goddard would be out again. Would he claim his wife? Of course—he would come back to her for support. And poor little Nellie thought he was dead! It would be a terrible day when she had to be told. If he only would die in prison!—but men sentenced to hard labour rarely die. They are well cared for. It is a healthy life. He would certainly live through it and come back to claim his wife. Poor Mrs. Goddard! her troubles were not ended yet, though the State had provided her with a respite of twelve years.
The squire sat long in his easy-chair in the great library, and forgot to dress for dinner—he always dressed, even though he was quite alone. But the solemn face of his butler betrayed neither emotion nor surprise when the master of the Hall walked into the dining-room in his knickerbockers.