"Dammy, indeed," said Mr. Wenham with the most agreeable smile; "still, look at the matter as a man of the world — as an honest man — and see if you have not been in the wrong. You come home from a journey, and find — what? — my Lord Steyne supping at your house in Curzon Street with Mrs. Crawley. Is the circumstance strange or novel? Has he not been a hundred times before in the same position? Upon my honour and word as a gentleman" — Mr. Wenham here put his hand on his waistcoat with a parliamentary air — "I declare I think that your suspicions are monstrous and utterly unfounded, and that they injure an honourable gentleman who has proved his good-will towards you by a thousand benefactions — and a most spotless and innocent lady."
"You don't mean to say that — that Crawley's mistaken?" said Mr. Macmurdo.
"I believe that Mrs. Crawley is as innocent as my wife, Mrs. Wenham," Mr. Wenham said with great energy. "I believe that, misled by an infernal jealousy, my friend here strikes a blow against not only an infirm and old man of high station, his constant friend and benefactor, but against his wife, his own dearest honour, his son's future reputation, and his own prospects in life."
"I will tell you what happened," Mr. Wenham continued with great solemnity; "I was sent for this morning by my Lord Steyne, and found him in a pitiable state, as, I need hardly inform Colonel Crawley, any man of age and infirmity would be after a personal conflict with a man of your strength. I say to your face; it was a cruel advantage you took of that strength, Colonel Crawley. It was not only the body of my noble and excellent friend which was wounded — his heart, sir, was bleeding. A man whom he had loaded with benefits and regarded with affection had subjected him to the foulest indignity. What was this very appointment, which appears in the journals of to-day, but a proof of his kindness to you? When I saw his Lordship this morning I found him in a state pitiable indeed to see, and as anxious as you are to revenge the outrage committed upon him, by blood. You know he has given his proofs, I presume, Colonel Crawley?"
"He has plenty of pluck," said the Colonel. "Nobody ever said he hadn't."
"His first order to me was to write a letter of challenge, and to carry it to Colonel Crawley. One or other of us," he said, "must not survive the outrage of last night."
Crawley nodded. "You're coming to the point, Wenham," he said.
"I tried my utmost to calm Lord Steyne. Good God! sir," I said, "how I regret that Mrs. Wenham and myself had not accepted Mrs. Crawley's invitation to sup with her!"
"She asked you to sup with her?" Captain Macmurdo said.
"After the opera. Here's the note of invitation — stop — no, this is another paper — I thought I had h, but it's of no consequence, and I pledge you my word to the fact. If we had come — and it was only one of Mrs. Wenham's headaches which prevented us — she suffers under them a good deal, especially in the spring — if we had come, and you had returned home, there would have been no quarrel, no insult, no suspicion — and so it is positively because my poor wife has a headache that you are to bring death down upon two men of honour and plunge two of the most excellent and ancient families in the kingdom into disgrace and sorrow."
Mr. Macmurdo looked at his principal with the air of a man profoundly puzzled, and Rawdon felt with a kind of rage that his prey was escaping him. He did not believe a word of the story, and yet, how discredit or disprove it?
Mr. Wenham continued with the same fluent oratory, which in his place in Parliament he had so often practised — "I sat for an hour or more by Lord Steyne's bedside, beseeching, imploring Lord Steyne to forego his intention of demanding a meeting. I pointed out to him that the circumstances were after all suspicious — they were suspicious. I acknowledge it — any man in your position might have been taken in — I said that a man furious with jealousy is to all intents and purposes a madman, and should be as such regarded — that a duel between you must lead to the disgrace of all parties concerned — that a man of his Lordship's exalted station had no right in these days, when the most atrocious revolutionary principles, and the most dangerous levelling doctrines are preached among the vulgar, to create a public scandal; and that, however innocent, the common people would insist that he was guilty. In fine, I implored him not to send the challenge."
"I don't believe one word of the whole story," said Rawdon, grinding his teeth. "I believe it a d — — - lie, and that you're in it, Mr. Wenham. If the challenge don't come from him, by Jove it shall come from me."
Mr. Wenham turned deadly pale at this savage interruption of the Colonel and looked towards the door.
But he found a champion in Captain Macmurdo. That gentleman rose up with an oath and rebuked Rawdon for his language. "You put the affair into my hands, and you shall act as I think fit, by Jove, and not as you do. You have no right to insult Mr. Wenham with this sort of language; and dammy, Mr. Wenham, you deserve an apology. And as for a challenge to Lord Steyne, you may get somebody else to carry it, I won't. If my lord, after being thrashed, chooses to sit still, dammy let him. And as for the affair with — with Mrs. Crawley, my belief is, there's nothing proved at all: that your wife's innocent, as innocent as Mr. Wenham says she is; and at any rate that you would be a d — fool not to take the place and hold your tongue."
"Captain Macmurdo, you speak like a man of sense," Mr. Wenham cried out, immensely relieved — "I forget any words that Colonel Crawley has used in the irritation of the moment."
"I thought you would," Rawdon said with a sneer.
"Shut your mouth, you old stoopid," the Captain said good-naturedly. "Mr. Wenham ain't a fighting man; and quite right, too."
"This matter, in my belief," the Steyne emissary cried, "ought to be buried in the most profound oblivion. A word concerning it should never pass these doors. I speak in the interest of my friend, as well as of Colonel Crawley, who persists in considering me his enemy."
"I suppose Lord Steyne won't talk about it very much," said Captain Macmurdo; "and I don't see why our side should. The affair ain't a very pretty one, any way you take it, and the less said about it the better. It's you are thrashed, and not us; and if you are satisfied, why, I think, we should be."
Mr. Wenham took his hat, upon this, and Captain Macmurdo following him to the door, shut it upon himself and Lord Steyne's agent, leaving Rawdon chafing within. When the two were on the other side, Macmurdo looked hard at the other ambassador and with an expression of anything but respect on his round jolly face.
"You don't stick at a trifle, Mr. Wenham," he said.
"You flatter me, Captain Macmurdo," answered the other with a smile. "Upon my honour and conscience now, Mrs. Crawley did ask us to sup after the opera."
"Of course; and Mrs. Wenham had one of her head-aches. I say, I've got a thousand-pound note here, which I will give you if you will give me a receipt, please; and I will put the note up in an envelope for Lord Steyne. My man shan't fight him. But we had rather not take his money."
"It was all a mistake — all a mistake, my dear sir," the other said with the utmost innocence of manner; and was bowed down the Club steps by Captain Macmurdo, just as Sir Pitt Crawley ascended them. There was a slight acquaintance between these two gentlemen, and the Captain, going back with the Baronet to the room where the latter's brother was, told Sir Pitt, in confidence, that he had made the affair all right between Lord Steyne and the Colonel.
Sir Pitt was well pleased, of course, at this intelligence, and congratulated his brother warmly upon the peaceful issue of the affair, making appropriate moral remarks upon the evils of duelling and the unsatisfactory nature of that sort of settlement of disputes.
And after this preface, he tried with all his eloquence to effect a reconciliation between Rawdon and his wife. He recapitulated the statements which Becky had made, pointed out the probabilities of their truth, and asserted his own firm belief in her innocence.