My cousin Monica looked down upon these papers with a strange smile; was it satire—was it that indescribable smile with which a mystery which covers a long reach of years is sometimes approached?
These were odd letters. If here and there occurred passages that were querulous and even abject, there were also long passages of manly and altogether noble sentiment, and the strangest rodomontade and maunderings about religion. Here and there a letter would gradually transform itself into a prayer, and end with a doxology and no signature; and some of them expressed such wild and disordered views respecting religion, as I imagine he can never have disclosed to good Mr. Fairfield, and which approached more nearly to the Swedenborg visions than to anything in the Church of England.
I read these with a solemn interest, but my cousin Monica was not similarly moved. She read them with the same smile—faint, serenely contemptuous, I thought—with which she had first looked down upon them. It was the countenance of a person who amusedly traces the working of a character that is well understood.
‘Uncle Silas is very religious?’ I said, not quite liking Lady Knollys’ looks.
‘Very,’ she said, without raising her eyes or abating her old bitter smile, as she glanced over a passage in one of his letters.
‘You don’t think he is, Cousin Monica?’ said I. She raised her head and looked straight at me.
‘Why do you say that, Maud?’
‘Because you smile incredulously, I think, over his letters.’
‘Do I?’ said she; ’I was not thinking—it was quite an accident. The fact is, Maud, your poor papa quite mistook me. I had no prejudice respecting him—no theory. I never knew what to think about him. I do not think Silas a product of nature, but a child of the Sphinx, and I never could understand him—that’s all.’
’I always felt so too; but that was because I was left to speculation, and to glean conjectures as I might from his portrait, or anywhere. Except what you told me, I never heard more than a few sentences; poor papa did not like me to ask questions about him, and I think he ordered the servants to be silent.’
’And much the same injunction this little note lays upon me—not quite, but something like it; and I don’t know the meaning of it.’
And she looked enquiringly at me.
’You are not to be alarmed about your uncle Silas, because your being afraid would unfit you for an important service which you have undertaken for your family, the nature of which I shall soon understand, and which, although it is quite passive, would be made very sad if illusory fears were allowed to steal into your mind.’
She was looking into the letter in poor papa’s handwriting, which she had found addressed to her in his desk, and emphasised the words, I suppose, which she quoted from it.