A PROLOGUE TO NOTHING.
Sir Oliver wrote cheerfully. His lawsuit was prospering; his prompt invasion of the field had disconcerted Lady Caroline and her advisers. He had discovered fresh evidence of the late Sir Thomas’s insanity. His own lawyers were sanguine. They assured him that, at the worst, the Courts would set aside the ’46 will, and fall back for a compromise on that of ’44, which gave the woman a life-interest only in the Downton estates. But the case would not be taken this side of the Long Vacation. . . . (It was certain, then, that he could not return in time.)
He had visited Bath and spent some weeks with his mother. He devoted a page or two to criticism of that fashionable city. It was clear he had picked up many threads of his younger days; had renewed old acquaintances and made a hundred new ones. Play, he wrote, was a craze in England; the stakes frightened a home-comer from New England. For his part, he gamed but moderately.
“As for the women, you have spoilt me for them. I see none—not one, dearest—who can hold a taper to you. Their artifices disgust me; and I watch them, telling myself that my Ruth has only to enter their balls and assemblies to triumph—nay, to eclipse them totally. . . . And this reminds me to say that I have spoken with my mother. She had heard, of course, from more than one. Lady Caroline’s account had been merely coarse and spiteful; but by that lady’s later conduct she was already prepared to discount it. The pair encountered in London, at my Lady Newcastle’s; and my mother (who has spirit) refused her bow. Diana, to her credit, appears to have done you more justice; and Mrs. Harry writes reams in your praise. To be sure my mother, not knowing Mrs. Harry, distrusts her judgment for a Colonial’s; but I vow she is the soundest of women. . . . In short, dear Ruth, we have only to regularise things and we are forgiven. The good soul dotes on me, and imagines she has but a few years left to live. This softens her. . . .
“There is a rumour—credit it, if you can!—that my Aunt Caroline intends to espouse a Mr. Adam Rouffignac, a foreigner and a wine merchant; I suppose (since he is reputed rich) to arm herself with money to pay her lawyers. What his object can be, poor man, I am unable to conjecture. It is a strange world. While her ugly mother mates at the age of fifty, Diana—who started with all the advantages of looks—withers upon the maiden thorn. . . .”
His letters, every one, concluded with protests of affection. She rejoiced in them. But it was now certain that he could not return in time.
At length, as her day drew near, she wrote to him, conceiving this to be her duty. She knew that he would take a blow from what she had to tell, and covered it up cleverly, lightly covering all her own dread. She hoped the child would be a boy. ("But why do I hope it?” she asked herself as she penned the words, and thought of Dicky.)