“Will you allow me to monopolise you for a few minutes?” he said. “I have a tale to tell in which you may feel interested.”
“About India?” she asked, as she rose. “I suppose you used to meet some of my old friends there?”
“Not about India,” he answered, leading her from the room. “India can wait. About some one nearer and dearer to us than any now in India. Lady Verner, when I asked you just now to permit me to fix upon your daughter as a partner, I could have added for life. Will you give me Decima?”
Had Sir Edmund Hautley asked for herself, Lady Verner could scarcely have been more astonished. He poured into her ear the explanation, the whole tale of their old love, the inveterate opposition to it of Sir Rufus—which had driven him abroad. It had never been made known to Lady Verner.
“It was that caused you to exile yourself!” she reiterated in her amazement.
“It was, Lady Verner. Marry in opposition to my father, I would not—and had I been willing to brave him, Decima never would. So I left my home; I left Decima my father perfectly understanding that our engagement existed still, that it only lay in abeyance until happier times. When he was dying, he repented of his harshness and recalled his interdict: by letter to me, personally to Decima. He died with a blessing for us both on his lips. Jan can tell you so.”
“What has Jan to do with it?” exclaimed Lady Verner.
“Sir Rufus made a confidant of Jan, and charged him with the message to me. It was Jan who inclosed to me the few words my father was able to trace.”
“I think Jan might have imparted the secret to me,” resentfully spoke Lady Verner. “It is just like ungrateful Jan.”
“Jan ungrateful?—never!” spoke Sir Edmund warmly. “There’s not a truer heart breathing than Jan’s. It was not his secret, and I expect he did not consider himself at liberty to tell even you. Decima would have imparted it to you years ago, when I went away, but for one thing.”
“What may that have been?” asked Lady Verner.
“Because we feared, she and I, that your pride would be so wounded, and not unjustly, at my father’s unreasonable opposition; that you might, in retaliation, forbid the alliance, then and always. You see I am candid, Lady Verner. I can afford to be so, can I not?”
“Decima ought to have told me,” was all the reply given by Lady Verner.
“And Decima would have told you, at all hazards, but for my urgent entreaties. The blame is wholly mine, Lady Verner. You must forgive me.”
“In what lay the objection of Sir Rufus?” she asked.
“I honestly believe that it arose entirely from that dogged self-will—may I be forgiven for speaking thus irreverently of my dead father!—which was his great characteristic through life. It was I who chose Decima, not he; and therefore my father opposed it. To Decima and to Decima’s family he could not have any possible objection—in fact, he had not. But he liked to oppose his will to mine. I—if I know anything of myself—am the very reverse of self-willed, and I had always yielded to him. No question, until this, had ever arisen that was of vital importance to my life and its happiness.”