Lord Hartledon was liberal. He gave her a handsome sum for her journey, and a cheque besides; most devoutly praying that she might keep guard over Kirton for ever. He escorted her to the station himself in a closed carriage, an omnibus having gone before them with a mountain of boxes, at which all Calne came out to stare.
And the same week, confiding his children to the joint care of Mirrable and their nurse—an efficient, kind, and judicious woman—Lord Hartledon departed from home and England for a sojourn on the Continent, long or short, as inclination might lead him, feeling as a bird released from its cage.
Some eighteen months after the event recorded in the last chapter, a travelling carriage dashed up to a house in Park Lane one wet evening in spring. It contained Lord Hartledon and his second wife. They were expected, and the servants were assembled in the hall.
Lord Hartledon led her into their midst, proudly, affectionately; as he had never in his life led any other. Ah, you need not ask who she was; he had contrived to win her, to win over Dr. Ashton; and his heart had at length found rest. Her fair countenance, her thoughtful eyes and sweet smile were turned on the servants, thanking them for their greeting.
“All well, Hedges?” asked Lord Hartledon.
“Quite well, my lord. But we are not alone.”
“No!” said Val, stopping in his progress. “Who’s here?”
“The Countess-Dowager of Kirton, my lord,” replied Hedges, glancing at Lady Hartledon in momentary hesitation.
“Oh, indeed!” said Val, as if not enjoying the information. “Just see, Hedges, that the things inside the carriage are all taken out. Don’t come up, Mrs. Ball; I will take Lady Hartledon to her rooms.”
It was the light-hearted Val of the old, old days; his face free from care, his voice gay. He did not turn into any of the reception-rooms, but led his wife at once to her chamber. It was nearly dinner-time, and he knew she was tired.
“Welcome home, my darling!” he whispered tenderly ere releasing her. “A thousand welcomes to you, my dear, dear wife!”
Tears rose to his eyes with the fervour of the wish. Heaven alone knew what the past had been; the contrast between that time and this.
“I will dress at once, Percival,” she said, after a few moments’ pause. “I must see your children before dinner. Heaven helping me, I shall love them and always act by them as if they were my own.”
“I am so sorry she is here, Anne—that terrible old woman. You heard Hedges say Lady Kirton had arrived. Her visit is ill-timed.”
“I shall be glad to welcome her, Val.”
“It is more than I shall be,” replied Val, as his wife’s maid came into the room, and he quitted it. “I’ll bring the children to you, Anne.”