Charge a person with wrongdoing, and even though it be definitely proved that he is innocent, yet people only remember the charge, the connection of the man’s name with some infamy, and forget that he was as guiltless as they themselves.
Joan knew this. She dreaded it; she shuddered at the thought that a breath should sully her good name. She was someone now—a Meredyth—the Meredyth of Starden. Three thousand pounds! If she paid him for his silence—silence—of what, about what? Yet his lies might—She paced the room, her brain in a whirl. What could she do? Oh, that she had someone to turn to. She remembered the unanswered letter she had sent to Hugh Alston, and then her eyes flashed, and her breast heaved.
“I think,” she said, “I think of the two I despise him the more. I loathe and despise him the more!”
Joan and Constance Everard had taken a natural and instinctive liking for one another. But to-day it seemed to Connie that Joan was silent, less friendly, more thoughtful than usual. Her mind seemed to be wondering, wrestling perhaps with some problem, of which Constance knew nothing, and so it was.
“What shall I do? Shall I send this man the money he demands, or shall I refuse? And if I refuse, what then?”
She knew that mud sticks, and she dreaded it, feared it. A threat of bodily pain she could have borne with a smile of equanimity, but this was different. She was so sensitive, so fine, so delicate, that the thought of scandal, of lies that might besmirch her, filled her with fear and shame and dread. It was weak perhaps, it was perhaps not in accord with her high courage, and yet frankly she was afraid.
“I shall send the money.” She came to the decision suddenly. Connie was speaking to her, about her brother, Joan believed, yet was not certain. Her thoughts were far away with Slotman and his letter and his demand.
“I shall send the money.” And having made up her mind, she felt instant relief. Yes, cowardly it might be, yet would it not be wiser to silence the man, to pay him this money that she might have peace, that scandal and shame might not touch her?
“I wanted him to come with us this afternoon, but he could not. It is the hops!” Connie sighed. “You don’t know what a constant dread and worry hops can be, Joan. There is always the spraying. Johnny is spraying hard now. Of course we are not rich, and a really bad hop season is a serious thing.”
“Of course!” Joan said. Yes, she would send the money. She would send the man a cheque this very day, as soon as the visitors were gone.
“I think she is worried about something,” Connie thought. “It cannot be that she and Johnny have had a disagreement, yet for the last week he has been worried, different—so silent, so quiet, so unlike himself. I wonder—?”