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CHAPTER XXII THE LAST OF THE WILDACRES
I wrote to Isabel that I had changed my mind, and that I consented to have Frank at Restham for his convalescence: but I asked her to make it quite clear to him that I felt it as impossible now as I did two years ago to forgive him for having come between my wife and myself. I did not want to have him at the Manor on false pretences that everything was going to be smoothed over and made easy for him, as it had been always before: for even if such condoning of his fault had been possible on my part (which it was not), I knew him well enough to realise that it would be extremely bad for him.

The fiat had gone forth from the altar of Restham Church on the occasion of my marriage with Fay: "Those whom God hath joined together let no man put asunder." Frank had done his best to put asunder two Divinely united persons, and had succeeded. Therefore I felt it was but meet that he should be punished as he deserved. To be allowed to sin with impunity is the most terrible curse that can fall on the head of any man: and I had no intention of becoming the instrument whereby this curse should be directed to the head of Frank Wildacre.

Isabel sent him down to Restham in her car, and it was on a gloomy autumn day that he arrived. I met him at the door, and at the first moment was struck afresh by his marvellous likeness to Fay: it seemed almost as if my dead darling had come back to me, and for a second I was well-nigh unmanned. But after Jeavons had helped him in and laid him down on the large Chesterfield by the hall fire, I saw that he was not as much like Fay as I had at first thought. Both the Wildacres had always been slight and slender, but it was the slightness and slenderness of perfect health: now Frank\'s thinness amounted to positive emaciation, and his face was pinched and peaked. Moreover, he had lost that appearance of essential and eternal youth which had been so marked a characteristic of him and of Fay, and without which he hardly seemed a Wildacre at all.

But in one thing he was unchanged, and that was in his perfect ease of manner and absolute unself-consciousness. Although I could see that it required all his self-control to enable him to respond naturally to my greeting, as indeed it required all my self-control to give it, nevertheless he succeeded: and I could not help admiring the pluck and courage of the boy when I remembered how much lay between his departure from the Manor and his return to it.

As I recalled what bright and beautiful beings Wildacre and his children had been at one time, and realised that this broken wreck of a boy was all that was left of the once brilliant trio, a wave of misery at the pity of it all swept over my soul. I thought of Wildacre as he used to be in the old boyish days, and then of Frank and Fay when they first came to the Rectory after their father\'s death: and I felt that I was face to face with the hopeless tragedy of what might have been but was not, because the folly and sin of man frustrated the Wisdom and Righteousness of God, as for some hidden reason it has been permitted to do ever since the forbidden tree was planted in the midst of the garden.

And that is how the last of the Wildacres came to Restham.

For some days I saw but little of Frank. Ponty took him into her tender keeping and set about nursing him back to health, only allowing him to come downstairs and lie on the Chesterfield couch by the hall fire for a few hours every day. It was astonishing to me to find Ponty so good to Frank. She had always resented his presence at Restham even before he had worked any mischief there: yet now she took him into her charge, and nursed him as devotedly as if she had been his mother.

I remarked upon this change of front one day. "I am surprised you are so kind to Mr. Wildacre, Ponty, considering how angry you were when first I asked him to come and live at the Manor. I was afraid you wouldn\'t like his coming back in this way."

"Well, you see, Master Reggie, when I was that set against his coming to the Manor, he was strong and well, and so could stand up to me, as you might say: but now he is too weak and ill to hurt a fly. There\'s lots of folks as you can\'t stand at any price when they are able to stick up for themselves: but when they are knocked down you\'d do anything you could to help them to get up again."

"Women are made like that—thank God!" I said.

"I remember there was a girl at Poppenhall who\'d had a fine upstanding young man after her for years and years, and she couldn\'t so much as look at him, though all the other girls envied her for having such a handsome beau: but he lost an arm and got his face scarred in an accident down a coal-pit, and then she married him at once, and spent the rest of her life in looking after him and trying to take the place of his lost arm."

"A woman all over!" I remarked.

"And all the same, Master Reggie, I\'m not such a woman as you seem to think—though I dare say I\'m as weak as most of them if I\'m taken the right way: but it was one thing to have Mr. Wildacre here when I felt it in my bones that he\'d come between you and her dear young ladyship, and quite another to have him here when there is nobody to come between. It wasn\'t that I objected to Mr. Wildacre himself—far from it—any more than I objected to Miss Annabel, whom I\'d had from a month old: but what I did say—and always shall say—is that it\'s best for married people to fight things out for themselves, without having any relations on either side to back them up. And I shall stick to this till my dying day, even if I was to hang for it!"

I had no intention of hanging my old nurse when she talked in this strain, but I had every objection to listening to her. So I closed the conversation by going out of the nursery.

Annabel came over to see Frank a few days after his arrival at Restham: but Ponty, who was paramount in the sick room, forbade her entrance. I had already perceived that my sister\'s despotic sway at the Manor was gradually being undermined, in secret and insidious ways, by the redoubtable Ponty, whenever a suitable opportunity presented itself.

"I\'m not going to let Miss Annabel see Mr. Wildacre till he is stronger," my old nurse said: "she\'s no good in a sick room isn\'t Miss Annabel, being far too managing and interfering for invalids. And after all that poor young gentleman has gone through, it would be heathen cruelty to upset him still worse. Miss Annabel on the top of the Germans would be too much for anybody!"

"But Miss Annabel, as you call her, used to be so fond of Mr. Wildacre," I pleaded.

"Not after he crossed her will and ran off with her ladyship. You could put on the top of a threepenny-bit all Miss Annabel\'s love for them as don\'t do exactly as she tells them, and have room to spare. If she is as fond of Mr. Wildacre as she used to be, she can go on with it as soon as he is strong again, and able to stand her domineering ways; though there won\'t be much fondness to go on with, if I know Miss Annabel. But as long as he\'s ill, and in my charge, I can\'t have him bothered with nobody—not even with Deans and Chapters and all other dignities of the Church, including Miss Annabel. And so I tell you straight, Master Reggie."

And Ponty had her way, having found a secret supporter in my humble self.

As Frank under Ponty\'s care grew stronger, I saw more of him, and we gradually got into the way of talking naturally about my lost darling. He could not bear even yet to say much about his awful experiences during that terrible time at Louvain; but he repeated the story of how Fay had given her life to save another\'s after risking it for some time in order to tend the sick and wounded. And that made me love her all the more dearly, and mourn her all the more deeply.

"I don\'t want to bother you, Reggie," he said one day, when relations had grown less strained between us; "but I just want you to know how dreadfully sorry I am that I behaved as I did. Lady Chayford told me that you couldn\'t forgive me, and I feel I haven\'t the right to ask you to forgive me. But I just want to tell you that I am sorry, and that I would give my life to undo what I did."

He was lying in his usual place on the couch, and I was sitting in an easy-chair on the other side of the great fire-place. For a few seconds I smoked in silence: then I said: "I hope you understand it isn\'t that I won\'t forgive you, Frank, but that I can\'t. I\'ve tried, and I find it impossible."

Frank nodded his head in the way that reminded me so keenly of Fay. "I know: Lady Chayford told me. And she also told me how not forgiving me had made you lose your wonderful gift of healing. It is dreadful to think that I had power to spoil your life as much as that!"

I smiled sadly at the childishness which made the loss of my healing powers seem greater than the loss of Fay. And then my smile faded as I realised that it is only when we speak as little children that we speak truth; for the loss of my healing powers stood sacramentally for more than even the loss of my wife. It was the outward and visible sign of my separation from God.

"I know it\'s no good saying I\'m sorry now, but I must say it," Frank continued; "and I shall go on feeling it as long as I live. I don\'t really see how you could forgive me: I know I couldn\'t if I were in your place. In fact, I shouldn\'t even want to."

"I do want to," I said slowly; "but I can\'t."

"But although I own I did my best towards the end to induce Fay to come away with me," continued Frank, in that throaty and rather husky voice which was so like Fay\'s that sometimes it thrilled my heart-strings to breaking-point, "I can\'t help saying that she oughtn\'t to have listened to me. After all, she was bound to you by vows, and I wasn\'t."

I lifted up my hand in protest. "Hush, hush!" I said sternly: "I cannot allow you or anybody else to dare to say a word against my wife."

"You are very loyal to her," he replied, after a short pause, in which I did him the justice to believe that he felt ashamed of himself.

"I loved her," I said. Then I corrected myself: "I mean I love her."

But it was not easy to suppress a Wildacre even when he did feel ashamed of himself. "Then you have forgiven her," said Frank: "Lady Chayford told me you hadn\'t."

There was a few minutes\' silence whilst I tried to be honest with Frank and with myself. Then I said slowly: "I don\'t believe I really did forgive her altogether till I heard of her death, though I loved her all the time more than I loved life itself. But after she died I gradually realised that there was nothing to forgive. I had been weighed in her balance, and had been found wanting, and she had no further use for me: therefore she threw me on one side as worthless. I was hers to do what she liked with, and she had a perfect right to retain or to reject me as she thought fit. But, mind you, I didn\'t see this at first. I am no better than my neighbours, and for a long time I was as harsh and bitter and vindictive as any poor beggar of the so-called \'criminal classes\' could have been in the circumstances. It is only since Fay\'s death that I have realised that she was justified in the course she took."

"But she wasn\'t——" Frank began; but I stopped him.

"No, no! Say what you like about yourself, my boy, but not a word against Fay. And don\'t think that because I completely exonerate her I also exonerate you. For I don\'t. Whatever lay between her and me, was sacred to her and me, and no one had any right to intermeddle in it. Neither had you nor anybody else a right to try to put asunder those whom God had joined together: and that—unless I do you a grave injustice—is what you did."

Frank pondered on my words for a short time and then he said: "To a certain extent, perhaps, I did come between you and Fay, and, as I have told you, I repent of what I did in dust and ashes. But I never meant to come between you. On that score my conscience is clear. What I did do was to persuade her to come away with me: but I never did that until something or somebody had already come between you and her, and I saw she was fretting her life out because of it."

I was startled. "Something had already come between us! What in Heaven\'s name do you mean?"

"It is rather difficult to explain, Reggie," replied Frank, carefully weighing his words in his endeavour to be lucid: "yet I think I must try to do so even if I make a hash of it, because at present you are absolutely in the dark about the whole affair. As far as I can make out, you think that Fay went away because she didn\'t love you enough."

"That certainly was my impression," I said, trying in vain to keep the pain out of my voice.

"Well, then, you are off on a wrong scent altogether. Fay we............
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