I lifted my head and listened to the storm, dying away in the distance sometimes—sometimes swelling and pealing around and above us—and through the dark and solitude my thoughts sped away to Bartram-Haugh and Uncle Silas.
‘This letter,’ I said at last, ’makes me feel differently. I think he is a stern old man—is he?’
‘It is twenty years, now, since I saw him,’ answered Lady Knollys. ’I did not choose to visit at his house.’
‘Was that before the dreadful occurrence at Bartram-Haugh?’
’Yes—before, dear. He was not a reformed rake, but only a ruined one then. Austin was very good to him. Mr. Danvers says it is quite unaccountable how Silas can have made away with the immense sums he got from his brother from time to time without benefiting himself in the least. But, my dear, he played; and trying to help a man who plays, and is unlucky—and some men are, I believe, habitually unlucky—is like trying to fill a vessel that has no bottom. I think, by-the-by, my hopeful nephew, Charles Oakley, plays. Then Silas went most unjustifiably into all manner of speculations, and your poor father had to pay everything. He lost something quite astounding in that bank that ruined so many country gentlemen—poor Sir Harry Shackleton, in Yorkshire, had to sell half his estate. But your kind father went on helping him, up to his marriage—I mean in that extravagant way which was really totally useless.’
‘Has my aunt been long dead?’
’Twelve or fifteen years—more, indeed—she died before your poor mamma. She was very unhappy, and I am sure would have given her right hand she had never married Silas.’
‘Did you like her?’
‘No, dear; she was a coarse, vulgar woman.’
‘Coarse and vulgar, and Uncle Silas’s wife!’ I echoed in extreme surprise, for Uncle Silas was a man of fashion—a beau in his day—and might have married women of good birth and fortune, I had no doubt, and so I expressed myself. ’Yes, dear; so he might, and poor dear Austin was very anxious he should, and would have helped him with a handsome settlement, I dare say, but he chose to marry the daughter of a Denbigh innkeeper.’
‘How utterly incredible!’ I exclaimed.
’Not the least incredible, dear—a kind of thing not at all so uncommon as you fancy.’
‘What!—a gentleman of fashion and refinement marry a person—’
‘A barmaid!—just so,’ said Lady Knollys. ’I think I could count half a dozen men of fashion who, to my knowledge, have ruined themselves just in a similar way.’
’Well, at all events, it must be allowed that in this he proved himself altogether unworldly.’
‘Not a bit unworldly, but very vicious,’ replied Cousin Monica, with a careless little laugh. ’She was very beautiful, curiously beautiful, for a person in her station. She was very like that Lady Hamilton who was Nelson’s sorceress—elegantly beautiful, but perfectly low and stupid. I believe, to do him justice, he only intended to ruin her; but she was cunning enough to insist upon marriage. Men who have never in all their lives denied themselves the indulgence of a single fancy, cost what it may, will not be baulked even by that condition if the penchant be only violent enough.’