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[-208-] 

CHAPTER CXCVIII.

A GLOOMY VISITOR.

    As soon as the two young ladies had reached the farm-house, Ellen addressed Katherine with alarming seriousness of manner.
    "My dear friend," she said, "some plot is in existence against your peace. That fearful-looking man and that horrible old woman are perfect fiends in mortal shape."
    "But what cause of enmity can they entertain against me?" asked Katherine, drawing her chair close to Ellen's seat with that sweet confidence which a younger sister would have been expected to show towards an elder one. "I never saw them before in my life, to my knowledge; and I certainly never can have injured them."
    "You are rich  and that is a sufficient motive to inspire the man with designs against you: you are pretty  and that is a sufficient reason for inducing the woman to spread her nets in your path. The man," continued Ellen, "has more than once attempted the life of our generous benefactor Richard; and that old hag, Katherine, is a wretch who lives upon the ruin of young females."
    At this moment Mrs. Bennet entered the room; and, observing the disturbed countenances of Ellen and Katherine, she felt alarmed.
    Ellen immediately communicated to her the particulars of the adventure just related, and concluded with these observations:  "The person of the man was previously unknown to me; but Mr. Markham had made me familiar with his name. Thus, when I heard that name breathed by his infamous companion, I recognised in him the monster of whose crimes my benefactor has related so dread a history. As for the woman," added Ellen, after a moment's hesitation, "she has been pointed out to me as one of those vile wretches who render cities and great towns dangerous to young females. Indeed, she once practised her arts upon me:  hence I am well aware of her true character."
    Mrs. Bennet was dreadfully frightened at the incident which had occurred; but, like Katherine, she was somewhat at a loss to conceive what possible object the two bad characters whom Ellen so bitterly denounced, could have in view with respect to her young charge.
    The trio were still conversing upon the mysterious occurrence, when Farmer Bennet entered the room.
    Of course the narrative had to be repeated to him; and he was much troubled by what he heard.
    The dinner was served up; but none of those who sate down to it ate with any appetite. A vague and uncertain consciousness of impending danger or of serious annoyance oppressed them all.
    The table was cleared; and Mrs. Bennet had just produced a bottle of excellent home-made wine, "to cheer their spirits," as she said, when the servant entered to announce that a person desired to speak to Mr. Bennet. The farmer ordered the individual in question to be admitted; and the servant, having disappeared for a few moments, returned, ushering in an elderly man dressed in shabby black, and wearing a dingy white cravat with very limp ends.
    "Your servant, ma'am  your most obedient, young ladies," said he: then, starting with well-affected surprise, he ejaculated, "Ah! if my eyes does n't deceive me in my old age, that's Miss Kate Wilmot, werily and truly!"
    "Mr. Banks!" said Katherine, in a tone expressive of both surprise and aversion; for she remembered that the undertaker used to call upon Smithers to purchase the rope by means of which criminals had been executed.
    "Yes, my dear  my name is, as you say, Banks  Edward Banks, of Globe Lane, London  Furnisher of Funerals on New and Economic Principles  Good Deal Coffin, Eight Shillings and Sixpence  Stout Oak, Thirty-five Shillings-Patent Funeral Carriage, One Pound Eleven  First Rate Carriage-Funeral, Mutes and Feathers, Four Pound Four  Catholic Fittings  "
    "Really, sir," exclaimed Mr. Bennet, impatiently, "this is not a very pleasant subject for conversation; and if you have come upon no other business than to recite your Prospectus  "
    "A thousand apologies, sir  a thousand apologies," interrupted Mr. Banks, calmly sinking into a seat. "But whenever I see a few or a many mortal wessels gathered together, I always think that the day must come when they'll be nothink more than blessed carkisses and then, Mr. Bennet," added the undertaker, shaking his head solemnly, and applying a dirty white handkerchief to his eyes, "how pleasant to the wirtuous feelings must it be to know where to get the funeral done on the newest and most economic principles."
    "Katherine, do you know this person?" inquired the farmer, irritated by the intruder's pertinacity in his gloomy topic.
    "I have seen him three or four times at Mr. Smithers' house in London," was the answer; "but Mr. Banks well knows that I never exchanged ten words with him in my life."
    "Then you do not come to see Miss Wilmot?" demanded Mr. Bennet, turning towards the undertaker.
    "No, sir  no," answered Banks, heaving a deep sigh. "Did you not perceive, sir, that I was quite took at a non-plush when I set my wenerable eyes on the blessed countenance of that charming gall But pardon me, sir-pardon me, if I am someot long in coming to the pint:  it is, however, my natur' to ramble when I reflects on the pomps and wanities of this wicked world; and natur' is natur,' sir, after all  is it not, ma'am?"
    Here he turned with a most dolorous expression of countenance towards Mrs. Bennet.
    "I really do not understand you, sir," was her [-209-]

 laconic reply:  nor more she did, good woman! for it was not even probable that Mr. Banks quite understood himself.
    "Now, sir, will you have the goodness to explain the nature of your business with me  since it is with me, no doubt, that you have business to transact!" said the farmer, in a tone which showed how disagreeable the undertaker's whining nonsense was to him.
    "Something tells me that this man's visit bears reference to our adventure of the morning," whispered Ellen to Katherine. "Do not offer to leave the room: let us hear all he has to say."
    Katherine replied by a meaning look, and then glanced with suspicious timidity towards Banks, who was again speaking.
    "My business isn't to be explained in a moment, sir," said the undertaker; "and I must beg your patience for a little while."
    "Go on," exclaimed the farmer, throwing himself back in his seat, and folding his arms with the desperate air of a man who knew that be could only get rid of a troublesome visitor by allowing him to tell his story in his own way.
    "You're in mourning, ma'am, I see," observed Mr. Banks, turning towards Mrs. Bennet. "Ah! I remember  that wexatious affair of the Rector of Saint David's. Pray, ma'am, who undertook the funeral of your blessed defunct sister?"
    "Sir!,' exclaimed Mrs. Bennet, tears starting into her eyes.
    "No offence, ma'am  no offence. Only I should like it to be known in these here parts that Edward Banks  of Globe Lane, London, undertakes on new and economic principles, and doesn't mind distances. S'pose, sir," continued this most disagreeable visitor, again addressing the farmer, "s'pose you come to me some fine morning and says, 'Banks,' says you, 'my dear wife has just become a blessed defunct-'"
    "This is too much!" ejaculated Mr. Bennet, starting from his seat. "Have you, or have you not, any business to engage my attention?"
    "I'm coming to the pint  I'm coming to the pint this moment," said Banks. "Pray sit down for a few minutes  I shan't ingross much more of your wallyable time; for time really is wallyable in this sublunary spear;"  and the undertaker shook [-210-] his head so mournfully that worthy Mrs. Bennet could not help thinking he was a very good and humane, though somewhat a prosy individual. "When we look around us, and behold how many benighted creature lives in total recklessness for the futur'  without putting by in an old stocking or any where else a single penny towards buying 'em a decent coffin  It's enough to make one's hair stand on end. But I see you are growing impatient, sir:  well  perhaps my feelings does carry me away. Still I don't mean no harm. Howsomever  business is business, as coffins is coffins, or carkisses is carkisses; and so here's to business in a jiffey."
    With these words Mr. Banks draw from his capacious coat-pocket a brown-paper parcel, about a foot long, three inches wide, and as many deep.
    Then he began, with most provoking deliberation of manner, to unroll the numerous folds of paper in which the precious object of so much care was wrapped; and, while he thus aroused the curiosity of his spectators to the utmost he continued talking in a more lachrymose style than ever.
    "There is dooties which we owe to heaven  and there is dooties which we owe to our fellow-creeturs. To heaven, ma'am, we owes a obligation of wirtue: to our fellow-creature we owes respect and decency when they're no more. Wirtues, ma'am, is like the white nails on a black-cloth covered coffin: the more there is of 'em, the stronger is the coffin, and the better it looks. Wices, ma'am, is like the knots in a common deal coffin: the more there is of 'em, the veaker is the coffin, and the wuss it looks. I'm now a-going to show you, ma'am  and you, too, sir  and you also, young ladies  a object of the deepest interest to us poor mortal wessels. I've wrapped it up in this wise, 'cause I've paytented it, and this is the only model I've got. When once it's generally known, the whole world will thank me for the invention; and posterity will remember with gratitude the name of 'Banks of Globe Lane  Furnisher of Funerals on New and Economic Principles.' You see, the parcel is gettin' smaller and smaller  cause the blessed object was as well wrapped up as a young babby. However  here's the last fold:-off with the paper  and there's the concentrating focus of all interest!"
    As Mr. Banks wound up with this beautiful peroration, he disengaged from the last fold of paper a miniature model of a coffin, about eight inches long, and wide and deep in proportion. It was covered with black silk, and was studded with innumerable white nails.
    But as he placed it, with a glance of almost paternal affection, upon the table, the farmer started up, exclaiming, "I have already put up with your insolence too long. What does this unwarrantable intrusion upon my privacy mean? Speak, sir: have you any thing to say to me?"
    "I am now coming to the pint at length," answered the undertaker, but little abashed by this rebuff. "In one word," he continued, producing a small memorandum-book and preparing to write with a pencil,  "in one word, I want you and your family to let me put down each of your names  "
    "For what?" demanded Bennet, impatiently.
    "Few a Paytent Silk-covered Silver-nailed Indestructible Wood-seasoned Coffin," was the calm reply. "It's warranted to keep as good as new till you want it."
    Mr. Bennet fell back into his seat, completely stupefied by this extraordinary announcement;  Mrs. Bennet cast horrified glances at the undertaker, as if she thought he was mad;  Ellen cast a look of deep indignation on the individual who had produced this excitement;-and Katherine started from her seat, exclaiming, "What have you done, Mr. Banks? Mrs. Bennet is fainting!"
    This was really the case  such an effect did the sudden display of the coffin and the cool demand of patronage made by the undertaker, produce upon one whose mind had not yet quite recovered from the severe shock occasioned by the murder of her sister.
    "Water, Katherine!  quick!" exclaimed the farmer, hastening towards his wife.
    Kate instantly hurried from the room to fetch water; while Ellen, on her part, proffered the necessary attentions to the fainting woman.
    Mr. Banks was thus for a moment forgotten; and this was exactly the condition of things that suited his purpose. Hastily thrusting the model coffin into his pocket, he seized his hat and hurried from the parlour, closing the door behind him.
    In the passage he met Kate, who was hastening back to the room, with a jug of water in her hand.
    "One moment  only one moment  as you value the memory of your deceased mother,"  whispered Banks, speaking more rapidly and with less whining affectation than he had done for many years. "Take this note-read it in private-its contents deeply concern you and your blessed defunct parent. If you breathe a word concerning it to a soul you will for ever lose the opportunity of knowing who was your father."
    Banks thrust a note into the girl's hand, and hastily left the house.
    The words which he had uttered, produced-as might naturally be supposed  so strange an effect upon Katherine,  that sudden allusion to her mother took her so much by surprise,  and then that mysterious mention of her father increased her bewilderment to such an extent, that she mechanically grasped the note with a mixture of awe and gratitude, and, prompted by the same impulses, thrust it into the bosom of her dress.
    All this was the work of scarcely a quarter of a minute; and the moment she had thus received and concealed the note, she re-entered the parlour, where the aid of the fresh water soon brought Mrs. Bennet to herself.
    "Where is that scoundrel?" cried the farmer, now finding leisure to think of the cause of his wife's sudden indisposition.
    "He is gone,' returned Katherine.
    Then, seating herself near the window, the young girl fell into a profound reverie.
    "Gone!" ejaculated Bennet. "But it is better that he should have gone  or I might be tempted to do him a mischief."
    "That man came hither with some sinister design," said Ellen. "From the first moment of his appearance, my suspicions associated his visit with the adventure of the morning."
    "But what object could he have!" cried the farmer. "He seemed only anxious to intrude himself as long as possible."
    "Perhaps he was waiting for an opportunity to speak to Katherine alone," observed Ellen. "He certainly appeared to be talking against time."
    "Yes, dear friends." exclaimed Katherine, rising [-211-] from her seat, and advancing towards those whom she thus addressed; "that man did desire to speak to me alone-and he succeeded in his object. Pardon me if for a few moments I hesitated whether to obey his solemn injunction of silence, or to communicate the incident to you who wish me well. But the words which he spoke, and the earnestness of manner, bewildered me. It however only required a short interval of sober reflection to teach me duty."
    Katherine then repeated the words that Banks had whispered in her ears, and produced the note which he had thrust into her hand.
    "You have acted prudently in revealing these particulars, dear Kate," said Ellen. "A man who is compelled to effect his purposes by such low devices as those employed by him who has just left us, cannot mean well."
    "Let us hear the contents of the letter," cried Farmer Bennet: "we may then, perhaps, see more clearly into the mystery."
    "Read it, Ellen,' said Kate. "I must confess to a profound curiosity to become acquainted with its contents."
    Ellen accordingly opened the note, and read as follows:  
    
    "Silence and secrecy.  if you respect the memory of your deceased mother! Be not deluded by the advice of Miss Monroe. who has her own reasons for prejudicing you against me. I am well acquainted with all the particulars of your birth,  I can impart facts that it behoves you to learn. You will bitterly repent any distrust in this matter. Have you no inclination to hear more concerning your mother's history than you can possibly now know! would you not go far, and sacrifice much, to glean something with regard to your father? This evening  at seven precisely  I shall be at the foot of the hill where I met you just now. If you come alone, you will learn much that nearly and deeply concerns you: it you appear accompanied by a soul, my lips will remain sealed.
    
    "THE FEMALE YOU SAW JUST NOW."
    
    "I have so far my own reasons for counselling you against that wicked woman," said Ellen, indignantly, "inasmuch as I would save you from danger. But if you really believe that there can be any thing serious in this promise of important communications, I should advise you to meet that female  for precautions can be adopted to protect you from a distance."
    Katherine glanced inquiringly towards the farmer.
    "I see that you are anxious to meet this woman, Kate," said be, after a pause; "and it is natural. She promises communications on subjects that cannot be otherwise than dear to you. Miss Monroe and I can keep watch at a distance; and on the slightest elevation of voice on your part, we will hasten to your assistance."
    This project was approved of even by the timid Mrs. Bennet; and Katherine Wilmot anxiously awaited the coming of the appointed hour.   

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