“Impertinence will not make things any easier for you, Mrs. Banks,” Frank interpolated.
“Impertinence? From me to you?” the little woman replied magnificently. “Be quiet, boy, you do not know what you are saying. My husband and I have saved your poor little family from disgrace for twenty years, and I would say nothing now, if it were not that you have compelled me.”
She threw one glance of contempt at old Jervaise, who was leaning forward with his hand over his mouth, as if he were in pain, and then continued,—
“But it is as well that you should know the truth, and after all, the secret remains in good keeping. And you understand that it is apropos to that case you are threatening. It might be as well for you to know before you bring that case against us.”
“Well,” urged Frank sardonically. He was, I think, the one person in the room who was not tense with expectation. Nothing but physical fear could penetrate that hide of his.
“Well, Mr. Frank,” she did not deign to imitate him, but she took up his word as if it were a challenge. “Well, it is as well for you to know that Brenda is not your mother’s daughter.” She turned as she spoke to Brenda herself, with a protective gesture of her little hand. “I know it will not grieve you, dear, to hear that,” she continued. “It is not as if you were so attached to them all at the Hall...”
“But who, then...?” Brenda began, evidently too startled by this astonishing news to realise its true significance.
“She was my step-sister, Claire Severac, dear,” Mrs. Banks explained. “She was Olive’s governess. Oh! poor Claire, how she suffered! It was, perhaps, a good thing after all that she died so soon after you were born. Her heart was broken. She was so innocent; she could not realise that she was no more than a casual mistress for your father. And then Mrs. Jervaise, whom you have believed to be your mother, was very unkind to my poor Claire. Yet it seemed best just then, in her trouble, that she should go away to Italy, and that it should be pretended that you were Mrs. Jervaise’s true daughter. I arranged that. I have blamed myself since, but I did not understand at the time that Mrs. Jervaise consented solely that she might keep you in sight of your father as a reminder of his sin. She was spiteful, and at that time she had the influence. She threatened a separation if she was not allowed to have her own way. So! the secret was kept and there were so few who remember my poor Claire that it is only Alfred and I who know how like her you are, my dear. She had not, it is true, your beautiful fair hair that is so striking with your dark eyes. But your temperament, yes. She, too, was full of spirit, vivacious, gay—until afterwards.”
She paused with a deep sigh, and I think we all sighed with her in concert. She had held us with her narrative. She had, as a matter of fact, told us little enough and that rather allusively, but I felt that I knew the whole history of the unhappy Claire Severac. Anne had not overrated her mother’s powers in this direction. And my sigh had in it an element of relief. Some strain had been mercifully relaxed.