The sound of this outbreak roused the eldest Miss Arkell with a start. “That last paragraph was very striking, but a little obscure,” she murmured; and seeing her sister’s eyes fixed on her, she added guiltily: “At least it appeared so to me.”
Miss Candace pushed aside the book with impatience. “It wasn’t only to you, my poor Joanna. We might as well all have been asleep, for all the good it has done us!”
And Lucy, with her indefatigable patience, suggested: “Suppose we go back to Epictetus?”
After their disastrous encounter with German metaphysics, it became more and more evident to the poor ladies that there was an intellectual void in Professor Merrick’s life which it could never be their privilege to fill.
“If only the little boy had lived when your darling mother died!” Miss Candace sighed in confidence to Lucy; and Lucy, weeping, returned: “He would have been fourteen this January.”
“And he might have been a genius—who knows?”
“At least he might have been more like dear Papa.”
“It seems to me so cruel, Lucy, that with your father’s marvellous gifts for educating the young—his extraordinarily formative influence on his students—he should have failed so completely with his sons.”
“Oh, don’t be too hard on the poor boys, Aunt Candace!”
“I don’t mean to be, dear; but it makes me feel—I can’t exactly explain why—that the poor baby who died was intended to make it up to him.”
She was startled by the entrance of the Professor, a spare stooping man with carefully brushed grey hair and thin fastidious lips which could break into the most exquisite of smiles.
“My dear Candace—my dear Lucy—” he began, and sat down abruptly, with a gasp of distress.
The two women were upon him in an instant, hovering over him with little sounds of concern.
“Dear Papa”—“My dear Augustus, do speak—do relieve us!”
He held out a black-edged letter, tapping on it with an agitated hand.
“The most distressing news—the most unforeseen and painful—”
“Lucy, dear, open the window to give your father a little air; and run my dear, for the sherry—you’ll find the keys in your Aunt Joanna’s pocket.”
The Professor raised a protesting hand. “Nonsense, Candace: I do not require any artificial stimulant. Compose yourselves, and I will explain what has happened.”
The ladies obediently resumed their seats, and he adjusted a pair of gold-rimmed glasses to his high-bridged nose.
“I have just heard that my friend—my poor friend George Alsopp—has died very suddenly—”
Lucy sat silent, as though more surprised than distressed by this announcement, but Miss Candace broke in with a wail of sympathy. The Professor, however, raised his head and continued drily: “This fact is not, in itself, the immediate cause of my distress.”
“Oh—” murmured Miss Candace, blushing at her own precipitation.
“George Alsopp and I,” the Professor continued, “were college friends, as you know, and our friendship was maintained during his subsequent residence at Hillbridge; but when he was called to New York, to become a partner in his father’s banking-house, I realized that our interests had already diverged, and that only propinquity had served to hold us together. For poor George had already allowed himself to be mastered by a fatal vice—the passion for money-making—”