By what inscrutable fatality do some men find their way into spheres that are unworthy of them? Oh, Penrose, if the priests of your Order were all like you, how easily I should be converted! These were Romayne's thoughts, in the stillness of the first hours of the morning. The books of which his lost friend had spoken were close by him on the table. He opened one of them, and turned to a page marked by pencil lines. His sensitive nature was troubled to its inmost depths. The confession of that Faith which had upheld Penrose was before him in words. The impulse was strong in him to read those words, and think over them again.
He trimmed his lamp, and bent his mind on his book. While he was still reading, the ball at Lord Loring's house came to its end. Stella and Lady Loring were alone together, talking of him, before they retired to their rooms.
"Forgive me for owning it plainly," said Lady Loring--"I think you and your mother are a little too ready to suspect Father Benwell without any discoverable cause. Thousands of people go to Clovelly, and Beaupark House is one of the show-places in the neighborhood. Is there a little Protestant prejudice in this new idea of yours?"
Stella made no reply; she seemed to be lost in her own thoughts.
Lady Loring went on.
"I am open to conviction, my dear. If you will only tell me what interest Father Benwell can have in knowing about you and Winterfield--"
Stella suddenly looked up. "Let us speak of another person," she said; "I own I don't like Father Benwell. As you know, Romayne has concealed nothing from me. Ought I to have any concealments from him? Ought I not to tell him about Winterfield?"
Lady Loring started. "You astonish me," she said. "What right has Romayne to know it?"
"What right have I to keep it a secret from him?"
"My dear Stella! if you had been in any way to blame in that miserable matter, I should be the last person in the world to advise you to keep it a secret. But you are innocent of all blame. No man--not even the man who is soon to be your husband--has a right to know what you have so unjustly suffered. Think of the humiliation of even speaking of it to Romayne!"
"I daren't think of it," cried Stella passionately. "But if it is my duty--"
"It is your duty to consider the consequences," Lady Loring interposed. "You don't know how such things sometimes rankle in a man's mind. He may be perfectly willing to do you justice--and yet, there may be moments when he would doubt if you had told him the whole truth. I speak with the experience of a married woman. Don't place yourself in that position toward your husband, if you wish for a happy married life."
Stella was not quite convinced yet. "Suppose Romayne finds it out?" she said.
"He can't possibly find it out. I detest Winterfield, but let us do him justice. He is no fool. He has his position in the world to keep up--and that is enough of itself to close his lips. And as for others, there are only three people now in England who could betray you. I suppose you can trust your mother, and Lord Loring, and me?"
It was needless to answer such a question as that. Before Stella could speak again, Lord Loring's voice was audible outside the door. "What! talking still," he exclaimed. "Not in bed yet?"
"Come in!" cried his wife. "Let us hear what my husband thinks," she said to Stella.
Lord Loring listened with the closest attention while the subject under discussion was communicated to him. When the time came to give his opinion, he sided unhesitatingly with his wife.
"If the fault was yours, even in the slightest degree," he said to Stella, "Romayne would have a right to be taken into your confidence. But, my dear child, we, who know the truth, know you to be a pure and innocent woman. You go to Romayne in every way worthy of him, and you know that he loves you. If you did tell him that miserable story, he could only pity you. Do you want to be pitied?"
Those last unanswerable words brought the debate to an end. From that moment the subject was dropped.
There was still one other person among the guests at the ball who was waking in the small hours of the morning. Father Benwell, wrapped comfortably in his dressing gown, was too hard at work on his correspondence to think of his bed. With one exception, all the letters that he had written thus far were closed, directed and stamped for the post. The letter that he kept open he was now engaged in reconsidering and correcting. It was addressed as usual to the Secretary of the Order at Rome; and, when it had undergone the final revision, it contained these lines:
My last letter informed you of Romayne's return to London and to Miss Eyrecourt. Let me entreat our reverend brethren to preserve perfect tranquillity of mind, in spite of this circumstance. The owner of Vange Abbey is not married yet. If patience and perseverance on my part win their fair reward, Miss Eyrecourt shall never be his wife.
But let me not conceal the truth. In the uncertain future that lies before us, I have no one to depend on but myself. Penrose is no longer to be trusted; and the exertions of the agent to whom I committed my inquiries are exertions that have failed.
I will dispose of the case of Penrose first.
The zeal with which this young man has undertaken the work of conversion intrusted to him has, I regret to say, not been fired by devotion to the interests of the Church, but by a dog-like affection for Romayne. Without waiting for my permission, Penrose has revealed himself in his true character as a priest. And, more than this, he has not only refused to observe the proceedings of Romayne and Miss Eyrecourt--he has deliberately closed his ears to the confidence which Romayne wished to repose in him, on the ground that I might have ordered him to repeat that confidence to me.
To what use can we put this poor fellow's ungovernable sense of honor and gratitude? Under present circumstances, he is clearly of little use to us. I have therefore given him time to think. That is to say, I have not opposed his leaving London, to assist in the spiritual care of a country district. It will be a question for the future, whether we may not turn his enthusiasm to good account in a foreign mission. However, as it is always possible that his influence may still be of use to us, I venture to suggest keeping him within our reach until Romayne's conversion has actually taken place. Don't suppose that the present separation between them is final; I will answer for their meeting again.
I may now proceed to the failure of my agent, and to the course of action that I have adopted in consequence.
The investigations appear to have definitely broken down at the seaside village of Clovelly, in the neighborhood of Mr. Winterfield's country seat. Knowing that I could depend upon the information which associated this gentleman with Miss Eyrecourt, under compromising circumstances of some sort, I decided on seeing Mr. Winterfield, and judging for myself.
The agent's report informed me that the person who had finally baffled his inquiries was an aged Catholic priest, long resident at Clovelly.