Mr R- O- is sat in a chair beside the hearth, still and silent as a cat afore a mousehole. Timothy goes take down books and places 'em in crates.
I dip a deep curtesy and then tell Timothy he may leave off this task for the while, and request him go desire Euphemia to send up tea -
Or, says I turning to Mr R- O-, perchance you would prefer somewhat a little stronger?
He indicates that the matter is of entire indifference to him, so I reiterate, tea.
Timothy leaves but I daresay we must expect Celeste very shortly with the request’d tea, so I go sit vis-à-vis to Mr R- O- and say, sure 'tis very heavy weather in Town at present, one notices it coming from the country.
He agrees that 'tis exceeding pleasant to get out of Town at this season: somehow he contrives to imply that he has stay’d in Town despite the weather out of dutyfull concern for the nation, whilst I have been about enjoying myself in an entire whirl of frivolity.
In due course comes Euphemia herself with the tea, with such an expression that I doubt not she has been endeavouring prevail upon Hector to let her take the frying-pan to Mr R- O-.
She leaves us, not without a backward glance at me, and I go pour out tea. Mr R- O- holds up his hand to decline a cup – indeed, had I been able to think of some contrivance to poison him while 'scaping myself, should have done so without a qualm.
I take up my own cup and look at him over the brim with my most feather-witt’d expression, and blink several times. La, Mr O-, sure I am surpriz’d that you come call upon me again – O! I cry, might it be that you have news of Mr Y-? Sure I have been in some concern in the matter.
He looks at me, goes to the door to ensure that it is clos’d, returns to his seat and says, Lady B-, I should be greatly oblig’d if you would desist from this masquerade of idiocy.
I raise my eyebrows somewhat.
I daresay, he goes on, that there are those that may believe that, from your most exceeding humble origins, and ill-reput’d trade, you have risen to a position of considerable esteem in Society and acquir’d a deal of interest quite entirely thro’ a combination of very much admir’d looks and the excellent fortune to marry the already ailing Marquess of B- shortly before he expir’d, that convey’d you not merely the name of wife but aristocratick rank. Give me leave to admire the solider qualities that have brought you to such eminence and the patronage of most exceeding exacting individuals. 'Tis quite entirely to be applaud’d.
I flutter my eyelashes a little.
Furthermore, he continues, your abilities have been attest’d to by no less a one than Sir Vernon H- - sure one does not become as well-spoke of as he is in Diplomatick circles without a deal of judgement – that praises you in a manner that one cannot suppose is merely a question of favours happyly recall’d but concerns your great assistance in some matters of delicacy.
Alas, thinks I, dear Sir Vernon’s attempts at intervention for my benefit have had an entire contrary effect.
Be assur’d, Your Ladyship, that I have no doubts as to your capacities and the acuity of your intelligence, and 'twill not be at all usefull to endeavour to convince me otherwise.
La, says I, you quite find me out.
Indeed I do, says he. Sure was he a villain in one of my horrid tales at this point there would be a mirthless grin or perchance some manifestation of evil triumph, but his face remains unmov’d.
Some years ago, he commences, 'twas given out in your circles that Madame C- C- had depart’d very precipitate from these shores in order to go to Carlsbad, where her dear friend, that notorious gamester Miss G-, was said to be in difficulties. All quite entire believe this tale, and will even elaborate upon the fate of Miss G-.
Meanwhile, he goes on, a lady giving herself out to be the wife of a sea-captain bound on voyage to distant parts went reside at the Sussex property left you by General Y-. 'Twas soon afterwards not’d in the parish that she went with child. There was also comment upon her black servants, tho’ was not consider’d entire strange, for General Y- had also been not’d for his Hindoo attendants, and was given out her godfather.
La, says I, these country places, sure a stranger will provide gossip to feast upon for many years, 'tis not like Town when is a scandal a week old 'tis entire stale. But pray continue, Mr O-.
This was all, says Mr R- O-, just around the time when the Duke of M- was proving what an entire reform’d character he was by marrying an eligible and respectable young lady.
O! I cry, and proceed to dab at my eyes with a handkerchief. (For, thinks I, here we discover that Mr R- O- is not quite entire so well-inform’d as he supposes himself. Sure I am still in peril, but I am no longer in terror that he is all-seeing, does he go suppose 'twas Biffle’s child I bore.)
So, he goes on, from local gossip I hear you were visit’d by various members of your and the Duke’s set, and in due course, a daughter was born, and baptiz’d in the parish church, the F-s standing as godparents.
And shortly afterwards, the intelligence went around that Mrs F- had but lately and somewhat unexpect’d borne a daughter. One imagines that this kind act of concealing an inconvenient bastard birth has been well reward’d in matters of interest and preference for the F-s, such as a parliamentary seat for a borough in which the Duke has interest, &C.
(I am coming to a realization that Mr R- O- cannot suppose that there may be matters of liking and friendship, and that indeed Biffle has shown a deal of favour to the F-s because he finds them agreeable, as well as there being matters of mutual interest concerning ironworks and improvements and politicks. No, must all be matters to him of connivance and seeking advantage.)
I weep quite unfeign’d, for I remain in considerable fear for my darling Flora, tho’ I am in the supposition that Mr R- O- thinks that 'tis Biffle’s reputation and my own that he threatens thro’ exposure.
Sure, he says, 'tis a business you would not want bruit’d about. In particular are you such a great favourite with the present Duchess of M-.
I sob some more and say, indeed 'tis a matter I had suppos’d bury’d beyond discovery.
Why, says he, with, at last, a truly horrid smile, 'tis worse than the dreadfull crocodile’s, I might be mov’d to keep your secret, would you be obliging to me.
La, says I, blowing my nose, this is the strangest way to advancing a suit I ever saw.
Did I not say you need not act the innocent, Lady B-? I confide you have some apprehension of my desires and I assure you my intentions are by no means carnal.
(Sure I have been in some concern that he also had hopes to enjoy my favours as part of the bargain, a thought that is like to slugs creeping upon my skin.)
No, he continues, what I desire of you is the intelligence I am sure you have concerning the members of your set, the views they may express are they not in publick, the secrets they have that they would not desire known, their connexions that they would rather not have reveal’d. That I am sure you are privy to.
Mayhap 'tis so, says I, snuffling somewhat in a pathetick manner, may indeed be so. But I should require some time to think the matter over and consider and recollect –
Indeed, says he, that is a reasonable thing and indeed I should be a little concern’d did you quite immediate go spill out some tale, for I daresay would be incomplete without you took thought over it, was there even truth in’t.
I am going into the country, says I, to recruit a little, and 'twould look very particular did I not go now I have give it out that I shall, but I might take that opportunity to collect my thoughts; and mayhap I might write 'em down?
He nods and says, 'tis a good thought. (For I daresay he would like writing of mine to hold over me.)
He says that he will come visit upon my return, and by my leave, he will go now.
I ring for Hector to show him to the door, and when he comes back say, brandy, Hector, 'tis well beyond tea.
And, altho’ I feel somewhat sick, I desire him to ask Euphemia to prepare me some light supper: for I shall not think any the better for going hungry, and the sickness is of the spirit rather than the stomach.
I take a sip of brandy, and go consider over what I may do.
I do not think that 'twill at all answer for me to make up some tale that would lead him entire astray. For even if did not become seen at once for what it was, and did I send him chasing after some will o’the wisp, have I not seen the dangers that may come of making up some tale, that may come about to harm one or another that is entire innocent.
No, I do not think that 'tis the occasion for the skills of a Gothick novelist.
I am in no disposition to give up my friends’ secrets, for apart from what is ow’d to friendship and affection, I doubt not that 'twould not be the end of his demands, and I would not have sav’d myself by betraying 'em.
I go to my desk. I open the secret drawer with the miniatures of my darling, and kiss them very hearty and very tearfull.
I then open the other secret drawer and take out the little pistol. I hold it in my hand and look at it, and think, could I do this? Is there no other escape?