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Black Robe, The





CHAPTER V.

FATHER BENWELL'S CORRESPONDENCE.

To the Secretary, S. J., Rome.

In my last few hasty lines I was only able to inform you of the unexpected arrival of Mrs. Romayne while Winterfield was visiting her husband. If you remember, I warned you not to attach any undue importance to my absence on that occasion. My present report will satisfy my reverend brethren that the interests committed to me are as safe as ever in my hands.

I have paid three visits, at certain intervals. The first to Winterfield (briefly mentioned in my last letter); the second to Romayne; the third to the invalid lady, Mrs. Eyrecourt. In every case I have been rewarded by important results.

We will revert to Winterfield first. I found him at his hotel, enveloped in clouds of tobacco smoke. Having led him, with some difficulty, into talking of his visit to Ten Acres Lodge, I asked how he liked Romayne's pictures.

"I envy him his pictures." That was the only answer.

"And how do you like Mrs. Romayne?" I inquired next.

He laid down his pipe, and looked at me attentively. My face (I flatter myself) defied discovery. He inhaled another mouthful of tobacco, and began to play with his dog. "If I must answer your question," he burst out suddenly, "I didn't get a very gracious reception from Mrs. Romayne." There he abruptly stopped. He is a thoroughly transparent man; you see straight into his mind, through his eyes. I perceived that he was only telling me a part (perhaps a very small part) of the truth.

"Can you account for such a reception as you describe?" I asked. He answered shortly, "No."

"Perhaps I can account for it," I went on. "Did Mr. Romayne tell his wife that I was the means of introducing you to him?"

He fixed another searching look on me. "Mr. Romayne might have said so when he left me to receive his wife at the door."

"In that case, Mr. Winterfield, the explanation is as plain as the sun at noonday. Mrs. Romayne is a strong Protestant, and I am a Catholic priest."

He accepted this method of accounting for his reception with an alacrity that would not have imposed on a child. You see I had relieved him from all further necessity of accounting for the conduct of Mrs. Romayne!

"A lady's religious prejudices," I proceeded in the friendliest way, "are never taken seriously by a sensible man. You have placed Mr. Romayne under obligations to your kindness—he is eager to improve his acquaintance with you. You will go again to Ten Acres Lodge?"

He gave me another short answer. "I think not."

I said I was sorry to hear it. "However," I added, "you can always see him here, when you are in London." He puffed out a big volume of smoke, and made no remark. I declined to be put down by silence and smoke. "Or perhaps," I persisted, "you will honor me by meeting him at a simple little dinner at my lodgings?" Being a gentleman, he was of course obliged to answer this. He said, "You are very kind; I would rather not. Shall we talk of something else, Father Benwell?"

We talked of something else. He was just as amiable as ever—but he was not in good spirits. "I think I shall run over to Paris before the end of the month," he said. "To make a long stay?" I asked. "Oh, no! Call in a week or ten days—and you will find me here again."

When I got up to go, he returned of his own accord to the forbidden subject. He said, "I must beg you to do me two favors. The first is, not to let Mr. Romayne know that I am still in London. The second is, not to ask me for any explanations."

The result of our interview may be stated in very few words. It has advanced me one step nearer to discovery. Winterfield's voice, look, and manner satisfied me of this—the true motive for his sudden change of feeling toward Romayne is jealousy of the man who has married Miss Eyrecourt. Those compromising circumstances which baffled the inquiries of my agent are associated, in plain English, with a love affair. Remember all that I have told you of Romayne's peculiar disposition—and imagine, if you can, what the consequences of such a disclosure will be when we are in a position to enlighten the master of Vange Abbey!

As to the present relations between the husband and wife, I have only to tell you next what passed, when I visited Romayne a day or two later. I did well to keep Penrose at our disposal. We shall want him again.


On arriving at Ten Acres Lodge, I found Romayne in his study. His manuscript lay before him—but he was not at work. He looked worn and haggard. To this day I don't know from what precise nervous malady he suffers; I could only guess that it had been troubling him again since he and I last met.

My first conventional civilities were dedicated, of course, to his wife. She is still in attendance on her mother. Mrs. Eyrecourt is now considered to be out of danger. But the good lady (who is ready enough to recommend doctors to other people) persists in thinking that she is too robust a person to require medical help herself. The physician in attendance trusts entirely to her daughter to persuade her to persevere with the necessary course of medicine. Don't suppose that I trouble you by mentioning these trumpery circumstances without a reason. We shall have occasion to return to Mrs. Eyrecourt and her doctor.

Before I had been five minutes in his company, Romayne asked me if I had seen Winterfield since his visit to Ten Acres Lodge.

I said I had seen him, and waited, anticipating the next question. Romayne fulfilled my expectations. He inquired if Winterfield had left London.

There are certain cases (as I am told by medical authorities) in which the dangerous system of bleeding a patient still has its advantages. There are other cases in which the dangerous system of telling the truth becomes equally judicious. I said to Romayne, "If I answer you honestly, will you consider it as strictly confidential? Mr. Winterfield, I regret to say, has no intention of improving his acquaintance with you. He asked me to conceal from you that he is still in London."

Romayne's face plainly betrayed that he was annoyed and irritated. "Nothing that you say to me, Father Benwell, shall pass the walls of this room," he replied. "Did Winterfield give any reason for not continuing his acquaintance with me?"

I told the truth once more, with courteous expressions of regret. "Mr. Winterfield spoke of an ungracious reception on the part of Mrs. Romayne."

He started to his feet, and walked irritably up and down the room. "It is beyond endurance!" he said to himself.

The truth had served its purpose by this time. I affected not to have heard him. "Did you speak to me?" I asked.

He used a milder form of expression. "It is most unfortunate," he said. "I must immediately send back the valuable book which Mr. Winterfield has lent to me. And that is not the worst of it. There are other volumes in his library which I have the greatest interest in consulting—and it is impossible for me to borrow them now. At this time, too, when I have lost Penrose, I had hoped to find in Winterfield another friend who sympathized with my pursuits. There is something so cheering and attractive in his manner—and he has just the boldness and novelty of view in his opinions that appeal to a man like me. It was a pleasant future to look forward to; and it must be sacrificed—and to what? To a woman's caprice."

From our point of view this was a frame of mind to be encouraged. I tried the experiment of modestly taking the blame on myself. I suggested that I might be (quite innocently) answerable for Romayne's disappointment.

He looked at me thoroughly puzzled. I repeated what I had said to Winterfield. "Did you mention to Mrs. Romayne that I was the means of introducing you—?"

He was too impatient to let me finish the sentence. "I did mention it to Mrs. Romayne," he said. "And what of it?"

"Pardon me for reminding you that Mrs. Romayne has Protestant prejudices," I rejoined. "Mr. Winterfield would, I fear, not be very welcome to her as the friend of a Catholic priest."

He was almost angry with me for suggesting the very explanation which had proved so acceptable to Winterfield.

"Nonsense!" he cried. "My wife is far too well-bred a woman to let her prejudices express themselves in that way. Winterfield's personal appearance must have inspired her with some unreasonable antipathy, or—"

He stopped, and turned away thoughtfully to the window. Some vague suspicion had probably entered his mind, which he had only become aware of at that moment, and which he was not quite able to realize as yet. I did my best to encourage the new train of thought.

"What other reason can there be?" I asked.

He turned on me sharply. "I don't know. Do you?"

I ventured on a courteous remonstrance. "My dear sir! if you can't find another reason, how can I? It must have been a sudden antipathy, as you say. Such things do happen between strangers. I suppose I am right in assuming that Mrs. Romayne and Mr. Winterfield are strangers?"

His eyes flashed with a sudden sinister brightness—the new idea had caught light in his mind. "They met as strangers," he said.

There he stopped again, and returned to the window. I felt that I might lose the place I had gained in his confidence if I pressed the subject any further. Besides, I had my reasons for saying a word about Penrose next. As it happened, I had received a letter from him, relating to his present employment, and sending kindest regards to his dear friend and master in the postscript.

I gave the message. Romayne looked round, with an instant change in his face. The mere sound of Penrose's name seemed to act as a relief to the gloom and suspicion that had oppressed him the moment before. "You don't know how I miss the dear gentle little fellow," he said, sadly.

"Why not write to him?" I suggested. "He would be so glad to hear from you again."

"I don't know where to write."

"Did I not send you his address when I forwarded your letter to him?"

"No."

"Then let me atone for my forgetfulness at once."

I wrote down the address, and took my leave.

As I approached the door I noticed on a side table the Catholic volumes which Penrose left with Romayne. One of them was open, with a pencil lying beside it. I thought that a good sign—but I said nothing.

Romayne pressed my hand at parting. "You have been very kind and friendly, Father Benwell," he said. "I shall be glad to see you again."

Don't mention it in quarters where it might do me harm. Do you know, I really pitied him. He has sacrificed everything to his marriage—and his marriage has disappointed him. He was even reduced to be friendly with Me.

Of course when the right time comes I shall give Penrose leave of absence. Do you foresee, as I do, the speedy return of "the dear gentle little fellow" to his old employment; the resumed work of conversion advancing more rapidly than ever; and the jealousy of the Protestant wife aggravating the false position in which she is already placed by her equivocal reception of Winterfield? You may answer this by reminding me of the darker side of the prospect. An heir may be born; and the heir's mother, backed by general opinion, may insist—if there is any hesitation in the matter—on asserting the boy's natural right to succeed his father.

Patience, my reverend colleague! There is no threatening of any such calamity yet. And, even if it happens, don't forget that Romayne has inherited a second fortune. The Vange estate has an estimated value. If the act of restitution represented that value in ready money, do you think the Church would discourage a good convert by refusing his check? You know better than that—and so do I.


The next day I called to inquire how Mrs. Eyrecourt was getting on. The report was favorable. Three days later I called again. The report was still more encouraging. I was also informed that Mrs. Romayne had returned to Ten Acres Lodge.

Much of my success in life has been achieved by never being in a hurry. I was not in a hurry now. Time sometimes brings opportunities—and opportunities are worth waiting for.

Let me make this clear by an example.

A man of headlong disposition, in my place, would have probably spoken of Miss Eyrecourt's marriage to Romayne at his first meeting with Winterfield, and would have excited their distrust, and put them respectively on their guard, without obtaining any useful result. I can, at any time, make the disclosure to Romayne which informs him that his wife had been Winterfield's guest in Devonshire, when she affected to meet her former host on the footing of a stranger. In the meanwhile, I give Penrose ample opportunity for innocently widening the breach between husband and wife.

You see, I hope, that if I maintain a passive position, it is not from indolence or discouragement. Now we may get on.

After an interval of a few days more I decided on making further inquiries at Mrs. Eyrecourt's house. This time, when I left my card, I sent a message, asking if the lady could receive me. Shall I own my weakness? She possesses all the information that I want, and she has twice baffled my inquiries. Under these humiliating circumstances, it is part of the priestly pugnacity of my disposition to inquire again.

I was invited to go upstairs.

The front and back drawing-rooms of the house were thrown into one. Mrs. Eyrecourt was being gently moved backward and forward in a chair on wheels, propelled by her maid; two gentlemen being present, visitors like myself. In spite of rouge and loosely folded lace and flowing draperies, she presented a deplorable spectacle. The bodily part of her looked like a dead woman, painted and revived—while the moral part, in the strongest contrast, was just as lively as ever.

"So glad to see you again, Father Benwell, and so much obliged by your kind inquiries. I am quite well, though the doctor won't admit it. Isn't it funny to see me being wheeled about, like a child in a perambulator? Returning to first principles, I call it. You see it's a law of my nature that I must go about. The doctor won't let me go about outside the house, so I go about inside the house. Matilda is the nurse, and I am the baby who will learn to walk some of these days. Are you tired, Matilda? No? Then give me another turn, there's a good creature. Movement, perpetual movement, is a law of Nature. Oh, dear no, doctor; I didn't make that discovery for myself. Some eminent scientific person mentioned it in a lecture. The ugliest man I ever saw. Now back again, Matilda. Let me introduce you to my friends, Father Benwell. Introducing is out of fashion, I know. But I am one of the few women who can resist the tyranny of fashion. I like introducing people. Sir John Drone—Father Benwell. Father Benwell—Doctor Wybrow. Ah, yes, you know the doctor by reputation? Shall I give you his character? Personally charming; professionally detestable. Pardon my impudence, doctor, it is one of the consequences of the overflowing state of my health. Another turn, Matilda—and a little faster this time. Oh, how I wish I was traveling by railway!"

There, her breath failed her. She reclined in her chair, and fanned herself silently—for a while.

I was now able to turn my attention to the two visitors. Sir John Drone, it was easy to see, would be no obstacle to confidential conversation with Mrs. Eyrecourt. An excellent country gentleman, with the bald head, the ruddy complexion, and the inexhaustible capacity for silence, so familiar to us in English society—there you have the true description of Sir John. But the famous physician was quite another sort of man. I had only to look at him, and to feel myself condemned to small talk while he was in the room.

You have always heard of it in my correspondence, whenever I have been in the wrong. I was in the wrong again now—I had forgotten the law of chances. Capricious Fortune, after a long interval, was about to declare herself again in my favor, by means of the very woman who had twice already got the better of me. What a recompense for my kind inquiries after Mrs. Eyrecourt! She recovered breath enough to begin talking again.

"Dear me, how dull you are!" she said to us. "Why don't you amuse a poor prisoner confined to the house? Rest a little, Matilda, or you will be falling ill next. Doctor! is this your last professional visit?"

"Promise to take care of yourself, Mrs. Eyrecourt, and I will confess that the professional visits are over. I come here to-day only as a friend."

"You best of men! Do me another favor. Enliven our dullness. Tell us some interesting story about a patient. These great doctors, Sir John, pass their lives in a perfect atmosphere of romance. Dr. Wybrow's consulting-room is like your confessional, Father Benwell. The most fascinating sins and sorrows are poured into his ears. What is the last romance in real life, doctor, that has asked you to treat it medically? We don't want names and places—we are good children; we only want a story."

Dr. Wybrow looked at me with a smile.

"It is impossible to persuade ladies," he said, "that we, too, are father-confessors in our way. The first duty of a doctor, Mrs. Eyrecourt—"

"Is to cure people, of course," she interposed in her smartest manner.

The doctor answered seriously. "No, indeed. That is only the second duty. Our first duty is invariably to respect the confidence of our patients. However," he resumed in his easier tone, "I happen to have seen a patient to-day, under circumstances which the rules of professional honor do not forbid me to mention. I don't know, Mrs. Eyrecourt, whether you will quite like to be introduced to the scene of the story. The scene is in a madhouse."

Mrs. Eyrecourt burst out with a coquettish little scream, and shook her fan at the doctor. "No horrors!" she cried. "The bare idea of a madhouse distracts me with terror. Oh, fie, fie! I won't listen to you—I won't look at you—I positively refuse to be frightened out of my wits. Matilda! wheel me away to the furthest end of the room. My vivid imagination, Father Benwell, is my rock ahead in life. I declare I can smell the odious madhouse. Go straight to the window, Matilda; I want to bury my nose among the flowers."

Sir John, upon this, spoke for the first time. His language consisted entirely of beginnings of sentences, mutely completed by a smile. "Upon my word, you know. Eh, Doctor Wybrow? A man of your experience. Horrors in madhouses. A lady in delicate health. No, really. Upon my honor, now, I cannot. Something funny, oh yes. But such a subject, oh no."

He rose to leave us. Dr. Wybrow gently stopped him. "I had a motive, Sir John," he said, "but I won't trouble you with needless explanations. There is a person, unknown to me, whom I want to discover. You are a great deal in society when you are in London. May I ask if you have ever met with a gentleman named Winterfield?"

I have always considered the power of self-control as one of the strongest points in my character. For the future I shall be more humble. When I heard that name, my surprise so completely mastered me that I sat self-betrayed to Dr. Wybrow as the man who could answer his question.

In the meanwhile, Sir John took his time to consider, and discovered that he had never heard of a person named Winterfield. Having acknowledged his ignorance, in his own eloquent language, he drifted away to the window-box in the next room, and gravely contemplated Mrs. Eyrecourt, with her nose buried in flowers.

The doctor turned to me. "Am I wrong, Father Benwell, in supposing that I had better have addressed myself to you?"

I admitted that I knew a gentleman named Winterfield.

Dr. Wybrow got up directly. "Have you a few minutes to spare?" he asked. It is needless to say that I was at the doctor's disposal. "My house is close by, and my carriage is at the door," he resumed. "When you feel inclined to say good-by to our friend Mrs. Eyrecourt, I have something to say to you which I think you ought to know."

We took our departure at once. Mrs. Eyrecourt (leaving some of the color of her nose among the flowers) patted me encouragingly with her fan, and told the doctor that he was forgiven, on the understanding that he would "never do it again." In five minutes more we were in Dr. Wybrow's study.

My watch tells me that I cannot hope to finish this letter by post time. Accept what I have written thus far—and be assured that the conclusion of my report shall follow a day later.

II.


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