Having once taken a first step in the new direction, I soon followed it up, without hesitation, by taking many others. Whenever I wished to call oftener than once a-day at North Villa, I had but to tell Mr. Mannion, and the next morning I found the permission immediately accorded to me by the ruling power. The same secret machinery enabled me to regulate Mr. Sherwin’s incomings and outgoings, just as I chose, when Margaret and I were together in the evening. I could feel almost certain, now, of never having any one with us, but Mrs. Sherwin, unless I desired it—which, as may be easily imagined, was seldom enough.
My new ally’s ready interference for my advantage was exerted quietly, easily, and as a matter of course. I never knew how, or when, he influenced his employer, and Mr. Sherwin on his part, never breathed a word of that influence to me. He accorded any extra privilege I might demand, as if he acted entirely under his own will, little suspecting how well I knew what was the real motive power which directed him.
I was the more easily reconciled to employing the services of Mr. Mannion, by the great delicacy with which he performed them. He did not allow me to think—he did not appear to think himself—that he was obliging me in the smallest degree. He affected no sudden intimacy with me; his manners never altered; he still persisted in not joining us in the evening, but at my express invitation; and if I referred in any way to the advantages I derived from his devotion to my interests, he always replied in his brief undemonstrative way, that he considered himself the favoured person, in being permitted to make his services of some use to Margaret and me.
I had told Mr. Mannion, when I was leaving him on the night of the storm, that I would treat his offers as the offers of a friend; and I had now made good my words, much sooner and much more unreservedly than I had ever intended, when we parted at his own house-door.
The autumn was now over; the winter—a cold, gloomy winter—had fairly come. Five months had nearly elapsed since Clara and my father had departed for the country. What communication did I hold with them, during that interval?
No personal communication with either—written communication only with my sister. Clara’s letters to me were frequent. They studiously avoided anything like a reproach for my long absence; and were confined almost exclusively to such details of country life as the writer thought likely to interest me. Their tone was as affectionate—nay, more affectionate, if possible—than usual; but Clara’s gaiety and quiet humour, as a correspondent, were gone. My conscience taught me only too easily and too plainly how to account for this change—my conscience told me who had altered the tone of my sister’s letters, by altering all the favourite purposes and favourite pleasures of her country life.