Read CHAPTER XXI of The Quality of Mercy , free online book, by William Dean Howells, on ReadCentral.com.

Hilary could not help himself, though when he took the legal steps he was obliged to, it seemed to him that he was wilfully urging on the persecution of that poor young girl and that poor old maid.  It was really ghastly to go through the form of indicting a man who, so far as any one could prove to the contrary, had passed with his sins before the tribunal that searches hearts and judges motives rather than acts.  But still the processes had to go on, and Hilary had to prompt them.  It was all talked over in Hilary’s family, where he was pitied and forgiven in that affection which keeps us simple and sincere in spite of the masks we wear to the world.  His wife and his children knew how kind he was, and how much he suffered in this business which, from the first, he had tried to be so lenient in.  When he wished to talk of it, they all agreed that Matt must not vex him with his theories and his opinions; and when he did not talk of it, no one must mention it.

Hilary felt the peculiar hardships of his position, all the more keenly because he had a conscience that would not permit him to shirk his duty.  He had used his influence, the weight of his character and business repute, to control the action of the Board towards Northwick, when the defalcation became known, and now he was doubly bound to respond to the wishes of the directors in proceeding against him.  Most of them believed that Northwick was still alive; those who were not sure regarded it as a public duty to have him indicted at any rate, and they all voted that Hilary should make the necessary complaint.  Then Hilary had no choice but to obey.  Another man in his place might have resigned, but he could not, for he knew that he was finally responsible for Northwick’s escape.

He made it no less his duty to find out just how much hardship it would work Northwick’s daughters, and he tried to lend them money.  But Suzette answered for both that her father had left them some money when he went away; and Hilary could only send Louise to explain how he must formally appear in the legal proceedings; he allowed Louise to put whatever warmth of color she wished into his regrets and into his advice that they should consult a lawyer.  It was not business-like; if it were generally known it might be criticised; but in the last resort, with a thing like that, Hilary felt that he could always tell his critics to go to the deuce, and fall back upon a good conscience.

It seemed to Louise, at first, that Suzette was unwilling to separate her father from his office, or fully to appreciate his forbearance.  She treated her own father’s course as something above suspicion, as something which he was driven to by enemies, whom he would soon have returned to put to confusion, if he had lived.  It made no difference to her and Adeline what was done; their father was safe, now, and some day his name would be cleared.  Adeline added that they were in the home where he had left them; it was their house, and no one could take it from them.

Louise compassionately assented to everything.  She thought Suzette might have been a little more cordial in the way she received her father’s regrets.  But she remembered that Suzette was always undemonstrative, and she did not blame her, after her first disappointment.  She could see the sort of neglect that was already falling upon the house, the expression in housekeeping terms of the despair that was in their minds.  The sisters did not cry, but Louise cried a good deal in pity for their forlornness, and at last her tears softened them into something like compassion for themselves.  They had her stay to lunch rather against her will, but she thought she had better stay.  The lunch was so badly cooked and so meagre that Louise fancied they were beginning to starve themselves, and wanted to cry into her tea-cup.  The woman who waited wore such dismal black, and went about with her eyes staring and her mouth tightly pursed, and smelt faintly of horses.  It was Mrs. Newton; she had let Louise in when she came, and she was the only servant whom the girl saw.

Suzette said nothing about their plans for the future, and Louise did not like to ask her.  She felt as if she was received under a flag of truce, and that there could be no confidence between them.  Both of the sisters seemed to stand on the defensive with her; but when she started to come away, Suzette put on her hat and jacket, and said she would go to the avenue gate with her, and meet Simpson, who was coming to take Louise back to the station.

It was a clear day of middle March; the sun rode high in a blue sky, and some jays bragged and jeered in the spruces.  The frost was not yet out of the ground, but the shaded road was dry underfoot.

They talked at arm’s length of the weather; and then Suzette said abruptly, “Of course, Louise, your father will have to do what they want him to, against — papa.  I understand that.”

“Oh, Sue — ”

“Don’t!  I should wish him to know that I wasn’t stupid about it.”

“I’m sure,” Louise adventured, “he would do anything to help you!”

Suzette put by the feeble expression of mere good feeling.  “We don’t believe papa has done anything wrong, or anything he wouldn’t have made right if he had lived.  We shall not let them take his property from us if we can help it.”

“Of course not!  I’m sure papa wouldn’t wish you to.”

“It would be confessing that they were right, and we will never do that.  But I don’t blame your father, and I want him to know it.”

Louise stopped short and kissed Suzette.  In her affectionate optimism it seemed to her for the moment that all the trouble was over now.  She had never realized anything hopelessly wrong in the affair; it was like a misunderstanding that could be explained away, if the different people would listen to reason.

Sue released herself, and said, looking away from her friend:  “It has been hard.  He is dead; but we haven’t even been allowed to see him laid in the grave.”

“Oh, perhaps,” Louise sobbed out, “he isn’t dead!  So many people think he isn’t — ”

Suzette drew away from her in stern offence.  “Do you think that if he were alive he would leave us without a word — a sign?”

“No, no!  He couldn’t be so cruel!  I didn’t mean that!  He is dead, and I shall always say it.”

They walked on without speaking, but at the gate Suzette offered to return Louise’s embrace.  The tears stood in her eyes, as she said, “I would like to send my love to your mother — if she would care for it.”

“Care for it!”

“And tell your brother I can never forget what he did for us.”

“He can never forget that you let him do it,” said Louise, with eager gratitude.  “He would have liked to come with me, if he hadn’t thought it might seem intrusive.”

Intrusive! Your brother!” Sue spoke the words as if Matt were of some superior order of beings.

The intensity of feeling she put into her voice brought another gush of tears into Louise’s eyes.  “Matt is good.  And I will tell him what you say.  He will like to hear it.”  They looked down the road, but they could not see Simpson coming yet.  “Don’t wait, Sue,” she pleaded.  “Do go back!  You will be all worn out.”

“No, I will stay till your carriage comes,” said Suzette; and they remained a moment silent together.

Then Louise said, “Matt has got a new fad:  a young man that writes on the newspapers — ”

“The newspapers!” Suzette repeated with an intimation of abhorrence.

“Oh, but he isn’t like the others,” Louise hastened to explain.  “Very handsome, and interesting, and pale, and sick.  He is going to be a poet, but he’s had to be a reporter.  He’s awfully clever; but Matt says he’s awfully poor, and he has had such a hard time.  Now they think he won’t have to interview people any more — he came to interview papa, the first time; and poor papa was very blunt with him; and then so sorry.  He’s got some other kind of newspaper place; I don’t know what.  Matt liked what he wrote about — about, your — troubles, Sue.”

“Where was it?” asked Sue.  “They were all wickedly false and cruel.”

“His wasn’t cruel.  It was in the Abstract.”

“Yes, I remember.  But he said papa had taken the money,” Sue answered unrelentingly.

“Did he?  I thought he only said if he did.  I don’t believe he said more.  Matt wouldn’t have liked it so much if he had.  He’s in such bad health.  But he’s awfully clever.”

The hack came in sight over the rise of ground, with Simpson driving furiously, as he always did when he saw people.  Louise threw her arms round her friend again.  “Let me go back and stay with you, Sue!  Or, come home with me, you and Miss Northwick.  We shall all be so glad to have you, and I hate so to leave you here alone.  It seems so dreadful!”

“Yes.  But it’s easier to bear it here than anywhere else.  Some day all the falsehood will be cleared up, and then we shall be glad that we bore it where he left us.  We have decided what we shall do, Adeline and I. We shall try to let the house furnished for the summer, and live in the lodge here.”

Louise looked round at the cottage by the avenue gate, and said it would be beautiful.

“We’ve never used it for any one, yet,” Suzette continued, “and we can move back into the house in the winter.”

This again seemed to Louise an admirable notion, and she parted from her friend in more comfort than she could have imagined when they met.  She carried her feeling of elation home with her, and was able to report Sue in a state of almost smiling prosperity, and of perfect resignation, if not acquiescence, in whatever the company should make Hilary do.  She figured her father, in his reluctance, as a sort of ally of the Northwicks, and she was disappointed that he seemed to derive so little pleasure from Sue’s approval.  But he generally approved of all that she could remember to have said for him to the Northwicks, though he did not show himself so appreciative of the situation as Matt.  She told her brother what Sue had said when she heard of his unwillingness to intrude upon her, and she added that now he must certainly go to see her.