“True! true! right! right!” said Arthur, while with secret terror he cried to himself: “This woman knows! She knows, she knows, and all this is make-believe, put on to gain time!”
But he saw no safer course than to help on the sham. “Right,” he said again; “only, mother, dear, how shall we hide her absence?”
“We needn’t hide it. You know she got another telegram last night, begging her to come at once to the wedding. We can say she went on this morning’s train, before day; it makes such good Southern connections. And now go! make your search with all your might! and after a while I’ll come over and pack a trunk full of her things, and express it South, just as if she were there, and had gone so hurriedly that—Don’t you see?”
Arthur said he saw it all, but he did not; he saw much that was not, and much that was he saw not. He did not see that the dust of the old street, and of the new town as well, was on Mrs. Morris’s shoes; and that Isabel, in a gown which she had left at the cottage when she went to be mistress of his home, was really on the train, bound South.
Dropping all pretence of having any search to make, he hurried back to his own room, and by and by told the pleasantly astonished Sarah and Giles the simple truth as Mrs. Morris had put it into his mouth, but told it in the firm belief that he was covering a hideous crime with an all but transparent lie.
After a false show of breakfasting he went into his study,—“to work on his sermon,” he said; but did nothing there but pace the floor, hold his head, and whisper, “It will not last an hour after he has heard it,” and, “O God, have mercy! Oh, my wife, my wife! Oh, my brain, my brain!”
A DOUBLE STILL HUNT
Mrs. Morris’s task was too large for her. She had always taken such care of her innocence that her cultivation of the virtues had been only incidental. Hence, morally, she had more fat than fibre; and hence again, though to her mind guilt was horrible, publicity was so much worse that her first and ruling impulse toward any evil doing not her own was to conceal it. That was her form of worldliness, the only fault she felt certain she was free from. And here she was, without a helping hand or a word of counsel, laboring to hide from the servants and from the dear Byingtons, from the church and from a scoffing world, the hideous fact that Isabel was a fugitive from the murderous wrath of a jealous husband, and that the rector of All Angels had crumbled into moral ruin.
“And oh,” she cried, “is it the worst of it, or is it the best of it, that in this awful extremity he keeps so sane, so marvellously sane?” She said this the oftener because every few hours some new sign to the contrary forced itself upon her notice. Oblivion was her cure-all.
For a while after his conference with Mrs. Morris Arthur made some feeble show—for her eye alone—of looking after clews, and then, as much to her joy as to her amazement, told her it was a part of his detective strategy to return into his study, and seemingly to his ordinary work, until time would allow certain unfoldings for which he looked with confidence.