Lady Conway rejoiced in being spared the fabrication by which she had intended to dismiss her paragon without hurting his feelings, thanked Fitzjocelyn more than ever, and was sure that dear Walter would do very well.
But no sooner had Delaford departed than a series of discoveries began to be made. Lady Conway’s bills reached back to dates far beyond those of the cheques which she had put into Delaford’s hands to pay them, and a tissue of peculation began to reveal itself, so alarming and bewildering to her, that she implored her nephew to investigate it for her.
Louis, rather against the will of his father, who was jealous of any additional tasks thrown on him, entered into the matter with the head of an accountant, and the zeal of a pursuer of justice; and stirred up a frightful mass of petty and unblushing fraud, long practised as a mere matter of course upon the mistress, who had set the example of easy-going, insincere self-seeking. It involved the whole household so completely, that there was no alternative but a clearance of every servant, whether innocent or guilty, and a fresh beginning. Indeed, so great had been the debts which had accumulated, that there was no doubt that the treacherous butler must have been gambling to a great extent with his mistress’s money; and the loss was so heavy that Lady Conway found she should be obliged to retrench, ’just when she should have been so glad to have helped poor dear Isabel!’ She must even give up a season in London, but dear Virginia was far too good and sensible to repine.
Lord Ormersfield, who had become much interested in the investigation, and assisted much by his advice, wanted her to go to Thornton Conway; and Louis urged the step warmly as the best hope for Walter. But she could not live there, she said, without far too heavy an expenditure; and she would make visits for the present, and find some cheap place abroad, where the girls could have masters.
And so her establishment was broken up, and Louis wrote warm congratulations to James that poor little Charlotte had not been tempted into the robber’s den. Isabel could not help reading the whole history to Charlotte, who turned white at the notion of such wickedness, and could hardly utter a word; though afterwards, as she sat rocking little Mercy to sleep, she bestowed a great deal of good advice on her, ’never to mind what nobody said to her, above all, when they talked like a book, for there were a great many snakes and vipers in the grass, and ’twas best to know good friends when one had them.’ And coupled with her moralizing, there was no small degree of humble thankfulness for the impulse that had directed her away from the evil. How could she ever have met Tom again if she had shared in the stigma on the dishonest household? Simple-hearted loyalty had been a guard against more perils than she had even imagined!