‘I am coming to it.’
‘I foresee,’ she returned, fixing her eyes upon him, ‘what it is. But the Lord forbid that I should repine under any visitation. In my sinfulness I merit bitter disappointment, and I accept it.’
‘Mother, I grieve to hear you speak like this, though I have had my apprehensions that you would–’
‘You knew I would. You knew _me_,’ she interrupted.
Her son paused for a moment. He had struck fire out of her, and was surprised. ‘Well!’ she said, relapsing into stone. ‘Go on. Let me hear.’
‘You have anticipated, mother, that I decide for my part, to abandon the business. I have done with it. I will not take upon myself to advise you; you will continue it, I see. If I had any influence with you, I would simply use it to soften your judgment of me in causing you this disappointment: to represent to you that I have lived the half of a long term of life, and have never before set my own will against yours. I cannot say that I have been able to conform myself, in heart and spirit, to your rules; I cannot say that I believe my forty years have been profitable or pleasant to myself, or any one; but I have habitually submitted, and I only ask you to remember it.’
Woe to the suppliant, if such a one there were or ever had been, who had any concession to look for in the inexorable face at the cabinet. Woe to the defaulter whose appeal lay to the tribunal where those severe eyes presided. Great need had the rigid woman of her mystical religion, veiled in gloom and darkness, with lightnings of cursing, vengeance, and destruction, flashing through the sable clouds. Forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors, was a prayer too poor in spirit for her. Smite Thou my debtors, Lord, wither them, crush them; do Thou as I would do, and Thou shalt have my worship: this was the impious tower of stone she built up to scale Heaven.
‘Have you finished, Arthur, or have you anything more to say to me? I think there can be nothing else. You have been short, but full of matter!’
‘Mother, I have yet something more to say. It has been upon my mind, night and day, this long time. It is far more difficult to say than what I have said. That concerned myself; this concerns us all.’
‘Us all! Who are us all?’
‘Yourself, myself, my dead father.’
She took her hands from the desk; folded them in her lap; and sat looking towards the fire, with the impenetrability of an old Egyptian sculpture.
‘You knew my father infinitely better than I ever knew him; and his reserve with me yielded to you. You were much the stronger, mother, and directed him. As a child, I knew it as well as I know it now. I knew that your ascendancy over him was the cause of his going to China to take care of the business there, while you took care of it here (though I do not even now know whether these were really terms of separation that you agreed upon); and that it was your will that I should remain with you until I was twenty, and then go to him as I did. You will not be offended by my recalling this, after twenty years?’
‘I am waiting to hear why you recall it.’
He lowered his voice, and said, with manifest reluctance, and against his will:
‘I want to ask you, mother, whether it ever occurred to you to suspect–’
At the word Suspect, she turned her eyes momentarily upon her son, with a dark frown. She then suffered them to seek the fire, as before; but with the frown fixed above them, as if the sculptor of old Egypt had indented it in the hard granite face, to frown for ages.
‘–that he had any secret remembrance which caused him trouble of mind–remorse? Whether you ever observed anything in his conduct suggesting that; or ever spoke to him upon it, or ever heard him hint at such a thing?’
‘I do not understand what kind of secret remembrance you mean to infer that your father was a prey to,’ she returned, after a silence. ‘You speak so mysteriously.’
‘Is it possible, mother,’ her son leaned forward to be the nearer to her while he whispered it, and laid his hand nervously upon her desk, ‘is it possible, mother, that he had unhappily wronged any one, and made no reparation?’
Looking at him wrathfully, she bent herself back in her chair to keep him further off, but gave him no reply.
‘I am deeply sensible, mother, that if this thought has never at any time flashed upon you, it must seem cruel and unnatural in me, even in this confidence, to breathe it. But I cannot shake it off. Time and change (I have tried both before breaking silence) do nothing to wear it out. Remember, I was with my father. Remember, I saw his face when he gave the watch into my keeping, and struggled to express that he sent it as a token you would understand, to you. Remember, I saw him at the last with the pencil in his failing hand, trying to write some word for you to read, but to which he could give no shape. The more remote and cruel this vague suspicion that I have, the stronger the circumstances that could give it any semblance of probability to me. For Heaven’s sake, let us examine sacredly whether there is any wrong entrusted to us to set right. No one can help towards it, mother, but you.’
Still so recoiling in her chair that her overpoised weight moved it, from time to time, a little on its wheels, and gave her the appearance of a phantom of fierce aspect gliding away from him, she interposed her left arm, bent at the elbow with the back of her hand towards her face, between herself and him, and looked at him in a fixed silence.
‘In grasping at money and in driving hard bargains–I have begun, and I must speak of such things now, mother–some one may have been grievously deceived, injured, ruined. You were the moving power of all this machinery before my birth; your stronger spirit has been infused into all my father’s dealings for more than two score years. You can set these doubts at rest, I think, if you will really help me to discover the truth. Will you, mother?’
He stopped in the hope that she would speak. But her grey hair was not more immovable in its two folds, than were her firm lips.
‘If reparation can be made to any one, if restitution can be made to any one, let us know it and make it. Nay, mother, if within my means, let _me_ make it. I have seen so little happiness come of money; it has brought within my knowledge so little peace to this house, or to any one belonging to it, that it is worth less to me than to another. It can buy me nothing that will not be a reproach and misery to me, if I am haunted by a suspicion that it darkened my father’s last hours with remorse, and that it is not honestly and justly mine.’
There was a bell-rope hanging on the panelled wall, some two or three yards from the cabinet. By a swift and sudden action of her foot, she drove her wheeled chair rapidly back to it and pulled it violently–still holding her arm up in its shield-like posture, as if he were striking at her, and she warding off the blow.
A girl came hurrying in, frightened.
‘Send Flintwinch here!’
In a moment the girl had withdrawn, and the old man stood within the door. ‘What! You’re hammer and tongs, already, you two?’ he said, coolly stroking his face. ‘I thought you would be. I was pretty sure of it.’