Next morning Viviette received a visit from Mr. Cecil himself. He
informed her that the box spoken of by the servant had arrived quite
unexpectedly just after the departure of his clerk on the previous
evening. There had not been sufficient time for him to thoroughly
examine it as yet, but he had seen enough to enable him to state
that it contained letters, dated memoranda in Sir Blount's
handwriting, notes referring to events which had happened later than
his supposed death, and other irrefragable proofs that the account
in the newspapers was correct as to the main fact--the comparatively
recent date of Sir Blount's decease.
She looked up, and spoke with the irresponsible helplessness of a
'On reviewing the circumstances, I cannot think how I could have
allowed myself to believe the first tidings!' she said.
'Everybody else believed them, and why should you not have done so?'
said the lawyer.
'How came the will to be permitted to be proved, as there could,
after all, have been no complete evidence?' she asked. 'If I had
been the executrix I would not have attempted it! As I was not, I
know very little about how the business was pushed through. In a
very unseemly way, I think.'
'Well, no,' said Mr. Cecil, feeling himself morally called upon to
defend legal procedure from such imputations. 'It was done in the
usual way in all cases where the proof of death is only presumptive.
The evidence, such as it was, was laid before the court by the
applicants, your husband's cousins; and the servants who had been
with him deposed to his death with a particularity that was deemed
sufficient. Their error was, not that somebody died--for somebody
did die at the time affirmed--but that they mistook one person for
another; the person who died being not Sir Blount Constantine. The
court was of opinion that the evidence led up to a reasonable
inference that the deceased was actually Sir Blount, and probate was
granted on the strength of it. As there was a doubt about the exact
day of the month, the applicants were allowed to swear that he died
on or after the date last given of his existence--which, in spite of
their error then, has really come true, now, of course.'
'They little think what they have done to me by being so ready to
swear!' she murmured.
Mr. Cecil, supposing her to allude only to the pecuniary straits in
which she had been prematurely placed by the will taking effect a
year before its due time, said, 'True. It has been to your
ladyship's loss, and to their gain. But they will make ample
restitution, no doubt: and all will be wound up satisfactorily.'
Lady Constantine was far from explaining that this was not her
meaning; and, after some further conversation of a purely technical
nature, Mr. Cecil left her presence.
When she was again unencumbered with the necessity of exhibiting a
proper bearing, the sense that she had greatly suffered in pocket by
the undue haste of the executors weighed upon her mind with a
pressure quite inappreciable beside the greater gravity of her
personal position. What was her position as legatee to her
situation as a woman? Her face crimsoned with a flush which she was
almost ashamed to show to the daylight, as she hastily penned the
following note to Swithin at Greenwich--certainly one of the most
informal documents she had ever written.
'O Swithin, my dear Swithin, what I have to tell you is so sad and
so humiliating that I can hardly write it--and yet I must. Though
we are dearer to each other than all the world besides, and as
firmly united as if we were one, I am not legally your wife! Sir
Blount did not die till some time after we in England supposed. The
service must be repeated instantly. I have not been able to sleep
all night. I feel so frightened and ashamed that I can scarcely
arrange my thoughts. The newspapers sent with this will explain, if
you have not seen particulars. Do come to me as soon as you can,
that we may consult on what to do. Burn this at once.
When the note was despatched she remembered that there was another
hardly less important question to be answered--the proposal of the
Bishop for her hand. His communication had sunk into nothingness
beside the momentous news that had so greatly distressed her. The
two replies lay before her--the one she had first written, simply
declining to become Dr. Helmsdale's wife, without giving reasons;
the second, which she had elaborated with so much care on the
previous day, relating in confidential detail the history of her
love for Swithin, their secret marriage, and their hopes for the
future; asking his advice on what their procedure should be to
escape the strictures of a censorious world. It was the letter she
had barely finished writing when Mr. Cecil's clerk announced news
tantamount to a declaration that she was no wife at all.
This epistle she now destroyed--and with the less reluctance in
knowing that Swithin had been somewhat averse to the confession as
soon as he found that Bishop Helmsdale was also a victim to tender
sentiment concerning her. The first, in which, at the time of
writing, the suppressio veri was too strong for her conscience, had
now become an honest letter, and sadly folding it she sent the
missive on its way.
The sense of her undefinable position kept her from much repose on
the second night also; but the following morning brought an
unexpected letter from Swithin, written about the same hour as hers
to him, and it comforted her much.
He had seen the account in the papers almost as soon as it had come
to her knowledge, and sent this line to reassure her in the
perturbation she must naturally feel. She was not to be alarmed at
all. They two were husband and wife in moral intent and antecedent
belief, and the legal flaw which accident had so curiously uncovered
could be mended in half-an-hour. He would return on Saturday night
at latest, but as the hour would probably be far advanced, he would
ask her to meet him by slipping out of the house to the tower any
time during service on Sunday morning, when there would be few
persons about likely to observe them. Meanwhile he might
provisionally state that their best course in the emergency would
be, instead of confessing to anybody that there had already been a
solemnization of marriage between them, to arrange their re-marriage
in as open a manner as possible--as if it were the just-reached
climax of a sudden affection, instead of a harking back to an old
departure--prefacing it by a public announcement in the usual way.
This plan of approaching their second union with all the show and
circumstance of a new thing, recommended itself to her strongly, but
for one objection--that by such a course the wedding could not,
without appearing like an act of unseemly haste, take place so
quickly as she desired for her own moral satisfaction. It might
take place somewhat early, say in the course of a month or two,
without bringing down upon her the charge of levity; for Sir Blount,
a notoriously unkind husband, had been out of her sight four years,
and in his grave nearly one. But what she naturally desired was
that there should be no more delay than was positively necessary for
obtaining a new license--two or three days at longest; and in view
of this celerity it was next to impossible to make due preparation
for a wedding of ordinary publicity, performed in her own church,
from her own house, with a feast and amusements for the villagers, a
tea for the school children, a bonfire, and other of those
proclamatory accessories which, by meeting wonder half-way, deprive
it of much of its intensity. It must be admitted, too, that she
even now shrank from the shock of surprise that would inevitably be
caused by her openly taking for husband such a mere youth of no
position as Swithin still appeared, notwithstanding that in years he
was by this time within a trifle of one-and-twenty.
The straightforward course had, nevertheless, so much to recommend
it, so well avoided the disadvantage of future revelation which a
private repetition of the ceremony would entail, that assuming she
could depend upon Swithin, as she knew she could do, good sense
counselled its serious consideration.
She became more composed at her queer situation: hour after hour
passed, and the first spasmodic impulse of womanly decorum--not to
let the sun go down upon her present improper state--was quite
controllable. She could regard the strange contingency that had
arisen with something like philosophy. The day slipped by: she
thought of the awkwardness of the accident rather than of its
humiliation; and, loving Swithin now in a far calmer spirit than at
that past date when they had rushed into each other's arms and vowed
to be one for the first time, she ever and anon caught herself
reflecting, 'Were it not that for my honour's sake I must re-marry
him, I should perhaps be a nobler woman in not allowing him to
encumber his bright future by a union with me at all.'
This thought, at first artificially raised, as little more than a
mental exercise, became by stages a genuine conviction; and while
her heart enforced, her reason regretted the necessity of abstaining
from self-sacrifice--the being obliged, despite his curious escape
from the first attempt, to lime Swithin's young wings again solely
for her credit's sake.
However, the deed had to be done; Swithin was to be made legally
hers. Selfishness in a conjuncture of this sort was excusable, and
even obligatory. Taking brighter views, she hoped that upon the
whole this yoking of the young fellow with her, a portionless woman
and his senior, would not greatly endanger his career. In such a
mood night overtook her, and she went to bed conjecturing that
Swithin had by this time arrived in the parish, was perhaps even at
that moment passing homeward beneath her walls, and that in less
than twelve hours she would have met him, have ventilated the secret
which oppressed her, and have satisfactorily arranged with him the
details of their reunion.