‘I am trying to recollect,’ I said at last.
‘Do recollect,’ he replied imperiously.
There was a little interval of silence. I would have given the world to be, on any conditions, anywhere else in the world.
’Surely, Maud, you don’t wish to deceive your guardian? Come, the question is a plain one, and I know the truth already. I ask you again—have you ever heard me spoken ill of by Lady Knollys?’
‘Lady Knollys,’ I said, half articulately,’ speaks very freely, and often half in jest; but,’ I continued, observing something menacing in his face, ‘I have heard her express disapprobation of some things you have done.’
‘Come, Maud,’ he continued, in a stern, though still a low key, ’did she not insinuate that charge—then, I suppose, in a state of incubation, the other day presented here full-fledged, with beak and claws, by that scheming apothecary—the statement that I was defrauding you by cutting down timber upon the grounds?’
’She certainly did mention the circumstance; but she also argued that it might have been through ignorance of the extent of your rights.’
’Come, come, Maud, you must not prevaricate, girl. I will have it. Does she not habitually speak disparagingly of me, in your presence, and to you? Answer.’
I hung my head.
‘Yes or no?’
‘Well, perhaps so—yes,’ I faltered, and burst into tears.
’There, don’t cry; it may well shock you. Did she not, to your knowledge, say the same things in presence of my child Millicent? I know it, I repeat—there is no use in hesitating; and I command you to answer.’
Sobbing, I told the truth.
‘Now sit still, while I write my reply.’
He wrote, with the scowl and smile so painful to witness, as he looked down upon the paper, and then he placed the note before me—
‘Read that, my dear.’
’MY DEAR LADY KNOLLYS.—You have favoured me with a note, adding your request to that of Lord Ilbury, that I should permit my ward and my daughter to avail themselves of Lady Mary’s invitation. Being perfectly cognisant of the ill-feeling you have always and unaccountably cherished toward me, and also of the terms in which you have had the delicacy and the conscience to speak of me before and to my child and my ward, I can only express my amazement at the modesty of your request, while peremptorily refusing it. And I shall conscientiously adopt effectual measures to prevent your ever again having an opportunity of endeavouring to destroy my influence and authority over my ward and my child, by direct or insinuated slander.
’Your defamed and injured kinsman,
I was stunned; yet what could I plead against the blow that was to isolate me? I wept aloud, with my hands clasped, looking on the marble face of the old man.
Without seeming to hear, he folded and sealed his note, and then proceeded to answer Lord Ilbury.