She must have said something."
"Only one thing, sir, that I can remember. It was a miserably bad season, that year; and many of the children were suffering from it. When she took the baby away, the lady said to me, laughing, "Don't be alarmed about his health. He will be brought up in a better climate than this--I am going to take him to Switzerland."
"To Switzerland? What part of Switzerland?"
"She didn't say, sir."
"Only that faint clue!" said Mr. Wilding. "And a quarter of a century has passed since the child was taken away! What am I to do?"
"I hope you won't take offence at my freedom, sir," said Mrs. Goldstraw; "but why should you distress yourself about what is to be done? He may not be alive now, for anything you know. And, if he is alive, it's not likely he can be in any distress. The, lady who adopted him was a bred and born lady--it was easy to see that. And she must have satisfied them at the Foundling that she could provide for the child, or they would never have let her take him away. If I was in your place, sir--please to excuse my saying so--I should comfort myself with remembering that I had loved that poor lady whose portrait you have got there--truly loved her as my mother, and that she had truly loved me as her son. All she gave to you, she gave for the sake of that love. It never altered while she lived; and it won't alter, I'm sure, as long as YOU live. How can you have a better right, sir, to keep what you have got than that?"
Mr. Wilding's immovable honesty saw the fallacy in his house- keeper's point of view at a glance.
"You don't understand me," he said. "It's BECAUSE I loved her that I feel it a duty--a sacred duty--to do justice to her son. If he is a living man, I must find him: for my own sake, as well as for his. I shall break down under this dreadful trial, unless I employ myself--actively, instantly employ myself--in doing what my conscience tells me ought to be done. I must speak to my lawyer; I must set my lawyer at work before I sleep to-night." He approached a tube in the wall of the room, and called down through it to the office below. "Leave me for a little, Mrs. Goldstraw," he resumed; "I shall be more composed, I shall be better able to speak to you later in the day. We shall get on well--I hope we shall get on well together--in spite of what has happened. It isn't your fault; I know it isn't your fault. There! there! shake hands; and--and do the best you can in the house--I can't talk about it now."
The door opened as Mrs. Goldstraw advanced towards it; and Mr. Jarvis appeared.
"Send for Mr. Bintrey," said the wine-merchant. "Say I want to see him directly."
The clerk unconsciously suspended the execution of the order, by announcing "Mr. Vendale," and showing in the new partner in the firm of Wilding and Co.
"Pray excuse me for one moment, George Vendale," said Wilding. "I have a word to say to Jarvis. Send for Mr. Bintrey," he repeated-- "send at once."
Mr. Jarvis laid a letter on the table before he left the room.
"From our correspondents at Neuchatel, I think, sir. The letter has got the Swiss postmark."
NEW CHARACTERS ON THE SCENE
The words, "The Swiss Postmark," following so soon upon the housekeeper's reference to Switzerland, wrought Mr. Wilding's agitation to such a remarkable height, that his new partner could not decently make a pretence of letting it pass unnoticed.
"Wilding," he asked hurriedly, and yet stopping short and glancing around as if for some visible cause of his state of mind: "what is the matter?"
"My good George Vendale," returned the wine-merchant, giving his hand with an appealing look, rather as if he wanted help to get over some obstacle, than as if he gave it in welcome or salutation: "my good George Vendale, so much is the matter, that I shall never be myself again. It is impossible that I can ever be myself again. For, in fact, I am not myself."
The new partner, a brown-cheeked handsome fellow, of about his own age, with a quick determined eye and an impulsive manner, retorted with natural astonishment: "Not yourself?"
"Not what I supposed myself to be," said Wilding.
"What, in the name of wonder, DID you suppose yourself to be that you are not?" was the rejoinder, delivered with a cheerful frankness, inviting confidence from a more reticent man. "I may ask without impertinence, now that we are partners."
"There again!" cried Wilding, leaning back in his chair, with a lost look at the other. "Partners! I had no right to come into this business. It was never meant for me. My mother never meant it should be mine. I mean, his mother meant it should be his--if I mean anything--or if I am anybody."
"Come, come," urged his partner, after a moment's pause, and taking possession of him with that calm confidence which inspires a strong nature when it honestly desires to aid a weak one. "Whatever has gone wrong, has gone wrong through no fault of yours, I am very sure. I was not in this counting-house with you, under the old regime, for three years, to doubt you, Wilding. We were not younger men than we are, together, for that. Let me begin our partnership by being a serviceable partner, and setting right whatever is wrong. Has that letter anything to do with it?"
"Hah!" said Wilding, with his hand to his temple. "There again! My head! I was forgetting the coincidence. The Swiss postmark."
"At a second glance I see that the letter is unopened, so it is not very likely to have much to do with the matter," said Vendale, with comforting composure. "Is it for you, or for us?"
"For us," said Wilding.
"Suppose I open it and read it aloud, to get it out of our way?"
"Thank you, thank you."
"The letter is only from our champagne-making friends, the house at Neuchatel. 'Dear Sir. We are in receipt of yours of the 28th ult., informing us that you have taken your Mr. Vendale into partnership, whereon we beg you to receive the assurance of our felicitations. Permit us to embrace the occasion of specially commanding to you M. Jules Obenreizer.' Impossible!"
Wilding looked up in quick apprehension, and cried, "Eh?"
"Impossible sort of name," returned his partner, slightly-- "Obenreizer. '--Of specially commanding to you M. Jules Obenreizer, of Soho Square, London (north side), henceforth fully accredited as our agent, and who has already had the honour of making the acquaintance of your Mr. Vendale, in his (said M. Obenreizer's) native country, Switzerland.' To be sure! pooh pooh, what have I been thinking of! I remember now; 'when travelling with his niece.'"
"With his--?" Vendale had so slurred the last word, that Wilding had not heard it.
"When travelling with his Niece. Obenreizer's Niece," said Vendale, in a somewhat superfluously lucid manner. "Niece of Obenreizer. (I met them in my first Swiss tour, travelled a little with them, and lost them for two years; met them again, my Swiss tour before last, and have lost them ever since.) Obenreizer.