THE BEARER OF THE TIDINGS.
It was very late the next morning when Lady Audley emerged from her dressing-room, exquisitely dressed in a morning costume of delicate muslin, delicate laces, and embroideries; but with a very pale face, and with half-circles of purple shadow under her eyes. She accounted for this pale face and these hollow eyes by declaring that she had sat up reading until a very late hour on the previous night.
Sir Michael and his young wife breakfasted in the library at a comfortable round table, wheeled close to the blazing fire; and Alicia was compelled to share this meal with her step-mother, however she might avoid that lady in the long interval between breakfast and dinner.
The March morning was bleak and dull, and a drizzling rain fell incessantly, obscuring the landscape and blotting out the distance. There were very few letters by the morning post; the daily newspapers did not arrive until noon; and such aids to conversation being missing, there was very little talk at the breakfast table.
Alicia looked out at the drizzling rain drifting against the broad window-panes.
"No riding to-day," she said; "and no chance of any callers to enliven us, unless that ridiculous Bob comes crawling through the wet from Mount Stanning."
Have you ever heard anybody, whom you knew to be dead, alluded to in a light, easy going manner by another person who did not know of his death--alluded to as doing that or this, as performing some trivial everyday operation--when _you_ know that he has vanished away from the face of this earth, and separated himself forever from all living creatures and their commonplace pursuits in the awful solemnity of death? Such a chance allusion, insignificant though it may be, is apt to send a strange thrill of pain through the mind. The ignorant remark jars discordantly upon the hyper-sensitive brain; the King of Terrors is desecrated by that unwitting disrespect. Heaven knows what hidden reason my lady may have had for experiencing some such revulsion of feeling on the sudden mention of Mr. Audley's name, but her pale face blanched to a sickly white as Alicia Audley spoke of her cousin.
"Yes, he will come down here in the wet, perhaps," the young lady continued, "with his hat sleek and shining as if it had been brushed with a pat of fresh butter, and with white vapors steaming out of his clothes, and making him look like an awkward genie just let out of his bottle. He will come down here and print impressions of his muddy boots all over the carpet, and he'll sit on your Gobelin tapestry, my lady, in his wet overcoat; and he'll abuse you if you remonstrate, and will ask why people have chairs that are not to be sat upon, and why you don't live in Figtree Court, and--"
Sir Michael Audley watched his daughter with a thoughtful countenance as she talked of her cousin. She very often talked of him, ridiculing him and inveighing against him in no very measured terms. But perhaps the baronet thought of a certain Signora Beatrice who very cruelly entreated a gentleman called Benedick, but who was, it may be, heartily in love with him at the same time.
"What do you think Major Melville told me when he called here yesterday, Alicia?" Sir Michael asked, presently.
"I haven't the remotest idea," replied Alicia, rather disdainfully. "Perhaps he told you that we should have another war before long, by Ged, sir; or perhaps he told you that we should have a new ministry, by Ged, sir, for that those fellows are getting themselves into a mess, sir; or that those other fellows were reforming this, and cutting down that, and altering the other in the army, until, by Ged, sir, we shall have no army at all, by-and-by--nothing but a pack of boys, sir, crammed up to the eyes with a lot of senseless schoolmasters' rubbish, and dressed in shell-jackets and calico helmets. Yes, sir, they're fighting in Oudh in calico helmets at this very day, sir."
"You're an impertinent minx, miss," answered the baronet. "Major Melville told me nothing of the kind; but he told me that a very devoted admirer of you, a certain Sir Harry Towers, has forsaken his place in Hertfordshire, and his hunting stable, and has gone on the continent for a twelvemonths' tour."
Miss Audley flushed up suddenly at the mention of her old adorer, but recovered herself very quickly.
"He has gone on the continent, has he?" she said indifferently. "He told me that he meant to do so--if--if he didn't have everything his own way. Poor fellow! he's a, dear, good-hearted, stupid creature, and twenty times better than that peripatetic, patent refrigerator, Mr. Robert Audley."
"I wish, Alicia, you were not so fond of ridiculing Bob," Sir Michael said, gravely. "Bob is a good fellow, and I'm as fond of him as if he'd been my own son; and--and--I've been very uncomfortable about him lately. He has changed very much within the last few days, and he has taken all sorts of absurd ideas into his head, and my lady has alarmed me about him. She thinks--"
Lady Audley interrupted her husband with a grave shake of her head.
"It is better not to say too much about it as yet awhile," she said; "Alicia knows what I think."
"Yes," replied Miss Audley, "my lady thinks that Bob is going mad, but I know better than that. He's not at all the sort of person to go mad. How should such a sluggish ditch-pond of an intellect as his ever work itself into a tempest? He may move about for the rest of his life, perhaps, in a tranquil state of semi-idiotcy, imperfectly comprehending who he is, and where he's going, and what he's doing--but he'll never go mad."
Sir Michael did not reply to this. He had been very much disturbed by his conversation with my lady on the previous evening, and had silently debated the painful question, in his mind ever since.
His wife--the woman he best loved and most believed in--had told him, with all appearance of regret and agitation, her conviction of his nephew's insanity. He tried in vain to arrive at the conclusion he wished most ardently to attain; he tried in vain to think that my lady was misled by her own fancies, and had no foundation for what she said. But then, again, it suddenly flashed upon him, that to think this was to arrive at a worse conclusion; it was to transfer the horrible suspicion from his nephew to his wife. She appeared to be possessed with an actual conviction of Robert's insanity. To imagine her wrong was to imagine some weakness in her own mind. The longer he thought of the subject the more it harassed and perplexed him. It was most certain that the young man had always been eccentric. He was sensible, he was tolerably clever, he was honorable and gentlemanlike in feeling, though perhaps a little careless in the performance of certain minor social duties; but there were some slight differences, not easily to be defined, that separated him from other men of his age and position. Then, again, it was equally true that he had very much changed within the period that had succeeded the disappearance of George Talboys. He had grown moody and thoughtful, melancholy and absent-minded. He had held himself aloof from society, had sat for hours without speaking; had talked at other points by fits and starts; and had excited himself unusually in the discussion of subjects which apparently lay far out of the region of his own life and interests. Then there was even another region which seemed to strengthen my lady's case against this unhappy young man. He had been brought up in the frequent society of his cousin, Alicia--his pretty, genial cousin--to whom interest, and one would have thought affection, naturally pointed as his most fitting bride. More than this, the girl had shown him, in the innocent guilelessness of a transparent nature, that on her side at least, affection was not wanting; and yet, in spite of all this, he had held himself aloof, and had allowed others to propose for her hand, and to be rejected by her, and had still made no sign.
Now love is so very subtle an essence, such an indefinable metaphysical marvel, that its due force, though very cruelly felt by the sufferer himself, is never clearly understood by those who look on at its torments and wonder why he takes the common fever so badly. Sir Michael argued that because Alicia was a pretty girl and an amiable girl it was therefore extraordinary and unnatural in Robert Audley not to have duly fallen in love with her. This baronet, who close upon his sixtieth birthday, had for the first time encountered that one woman who out of all the women in the world had power to quicken the pulses of his heart, wondered why Robert failed to take the fever from the first breath of contagion that blew toward him. He forgot that there are men who go their ways unscathed amidst legions of lovely and generous women, to succumb at last before some harsh-featured virago, who knows the secret of that only philter which can intoxicate and bewitch him. He had forgot that there are certain Jacks who go through life without meeting the Jill appointed for them by Nemesis, and die old bachelors, perhaps, with poor Jill pining an old maid upon the other side of the party-wall. He forgot that love, which is a madness, and a scourge, and a fever, and a delusion, and a snare, is also a mystery, and very imperfectly understood by everyone except the individual sufferer who writhes under its tortures. Jones, who is wildly enamored of Miss Brown, and who lies awake at night until he loathes his comfortable pillow and tumbles his sheets into two twisted rags of linen in his agonies, as if he were a prisoner and wanted to wind them into impromptu ropes; this same Jones who thinks Russell Square a magic place because his divinity inhabits it, who thinks the trees in that inclosure and the sky above it greener and bluer than other trees or sky, and who feels a pang, yes, an actual pang, of mingled hope, and joy, and expectation, and terror, when he emerges from Guilford street, descending from the hights of Islington, into those sacred precincts; this very Jones is hard and callous toward the torments of Smith, who adores Miss Robinson, and cannot imagine what the infatuated fellow can see in the girl. So it was with Sir Michael Audley. He looked at his nephew as a sample of a very large class of young men, and his daughter as a sample of an equally extensive class of feminine goods, and could not see why the two samples should not make a very respectable match. He ignored all those infinitesimal differences in nature which make the wholesome food of one man the deadly poison of another. How difficult it is to believe sometimes that a man doesn't like such and such a favorite dish. If at a dinner-party, a meek looking guest refuses early salmon and cucumbers, or green peas in February, we set him down as a poor relation whose instincts warn him off those expensive plates. If an alderman were to declare that he didn't like green fat, he would be looked upon as a social martyr, a Marcus Curtius of the dinner-table, who immolated himself for the benefit of his kind. His fellow-aldermen would believe in anything rather than an heretical distaste for the city ambrosia of the soup tureen. But there are people who dislike salmon, and white-bait, and spring ducklings, and all manner of old-established delicacies, and there are other people who affect eccentric and despicable dishes, generally stigmatized as nasty.
Alas, my pretty Alicia, your cousin did not love you! He admired your rosy English face, and had a tender affection for you which might perhaps have expanded by-and-by into something warm enough for matrimony, that every-day jog-trot species of union which demands no very passionate devotion, but for a sudden check which it had received in Dorsetshire. Yes, Robert Audley's growing affection for his cousin, a plant of very slow growth, I am fain to confess, had been suddenly dwarfed and stunted upon that bitter February day on which he had stood beneath the pine-trees talking to Clara Talboys. Since that day the young man had experienced an unpleasant sensation in thinking of poor Alicia. He looked at her as being in some vague manner an incumbrance upon the freedom of his thoughts; he had a haunting fear that he was in some tacit way pledged to her; that she had a species of claim upon him, which forbade to him the right of thinking of another woman. I believe it was the image of Miss Audley presented to him in this light that goaded the young barrister into those outbursts of splenetic rage against the female sex which he was liable to at certain times. He was strictly honorable, so honorable that he would rather have immolated himself upon the altar of truth and Alicia than have done her the remotest wrong, though by so doing he might have secured his own comfort and happiness.
"If the poor little girl loves me," he thought, "and if she thinks that I love her, and has been led to think so by any word or act of mine, I'm in duty bound to let her think so to the end of time, and to fulfill any tacit promise which I may have unconsciously made. I thought once--I meant once to--to make her an offer by-and-by when this horrible mystery about George Talboys should have been cleared up and everything peacefully settled--but now--"
His thoughts would ordinarily wander away at this point of his reflections, carrying him where he never had intended to go; carrying him back under the pine-trees in Dorsetshire, and setting him once more face to face with the sister of his missing friend, and it was generally a very laborious journey by which he traveled back to the point from which he strayed. It was so difficult for him to tear himself away from the stunted turf and the pine-trees.
"Poor little girl!" he would think on coming back to Alicia. "How good it is of her to love me, and how grateful ought I to be for her tenderness. How many fellows would think such a generous, loving heart the highest boon that earth could give them. There's Sir Harry Towers stricken with despair at his rejection. He would give me half his estate, all his estate, twice his estate, if he had it, to be in the shoes which I am anxious to shake off my ungrateful feet. Why don't I love her? Why is it that although I know her to be pretty, and pure, and good, and truthful, I don't love her? Her image never haunts me, except reproachfully. I never see her in my dreams. I never wake up suddenly in the dead of the night with her eyes shining upon me and her warm breath upon my cheek, or with the fingers of her soft hand clinging to mine. No, I'm not in love with her, I can't fall in love with her."
He raged and rebelled against his ingratitude. He tried to argue himself into a passionate attachment for his cousin, but he failed ignominiously, and the more he tried to think of Alicia the more he thought of Clara Talboys. I am speaking now of his feelings in the period that elapsed between his return from Dorsetshire and his visit to Grange Heath.
Sir Michael sat by the library fire after breakfast upon this wretched rainy morning, writing letters and reading the newspapers. Alicia shut herself in her own apartment to read the third volume of a novel. Lady Audley locked the door of the octagon ante-chamber, and roamed up and down the suit of rooms from the bedroom to the boudoir all through that weary morning.
She had locked the door to guard against the chance of any one coming in suddenly and observing her before she was aware--before she had had sufficient warning to enable her to face their scrutiny. Her pale face seemed to grow paler as the morning advanced. A tiny medicine-chest was open upon the dressing-table, and little stoppered bottles of red lavender, sal-volatile, chloroform, chlorodyne, and ether were scattered about. Once my lady paused before this medicine-chest, and took out the remaining bottles, half-absently, perhaps, until she came to one which was filled with a thick, dark liquid, and labeled "opium--poison."
She trifled a long time with this last bottle; holding it up to the light, and even removing the stopper and smelling the sickly liquid. But she put it from her suddenly with a shudder. "If I could!" she muttered, "if I could only do it! And yet why should I _now_?"
She clinched her small hands as she uttered the last words, and walked to the window of the dressing-room, which looked straight toward that ivied archway under which any one must come who came from Mount Stanning to the Court.
There were smaller gates in the gardens which led into the meadows behind the Court, but there was no other way of coming from Mount Stanning or Brentwood than by the principal entrance.
The solitary hand of the clock over the archway was midway between one and two when my lady looked at it.
"How slow the time is," she said, wearily; "how slow, how slow! Shall I grow old like this, I wonder, with every minute of my life seeming like an hour?"
She stood for a few minutes watching the archway, but no one passed under it while she looked, and she turned impatiently away from the window to resume her weary wandering about the rooms.
Whatever fire that had been which had reflected itself vividly in the black sky, no tidings of it had as yet come to Audley Court. The day was miserably wet and windy, altogether the very last day upon which even the most confirmed idler and gossip would care to venture out. It was not a market-day, and there were therefore very few passengers upon the road between Brentwood and Chelmsford, so that as yet no news of the fire, which had occurred in the dead of the wintry night, had reached the village of Audley, or traveled from the village to the Court.
The girl with the rose-colored ribbons came to the door of the anteroom to summon her mistress to luncheon, but Lady Audley only opened the door a little way, and intimated her intention of taking no luncheon.
"My head aches terribly, Martin," she said; "I shall go and lie down till dinner-time. You may come at five to dress me."
Lady Audley said this with the predetermination of dressing at four, and thus dispensing with the services of her attendant. Among all privileged spies, a lady's-maid has the highest privileges; it is she who bathes Lady Theresa's eyes with eau-de-cologne after her ladyship's quarrel with the colonel; it is she who administers sal-volatile to Miss Fanny when Count Beaudesert, of the Blues, has jilted her. She has a hundred methods for the finding out of her mistress' secrets. She knows by the manner in which her victim jerks her head from under the hair-brush, or chafes at the gentlest administration of the comb, what hidden tortures are racking her breast--what secret perplexities are bewildering her brain. That well-bred attendant knows how to interpret the most obscure diagnosis of all mental diseases that can afflict her mistress; she knows when the ivory complexion is bought and paid for--when the pearly teeth are foreign substances fashioned by the dentist--when the glossy plaits are the relics of the dead, rather than the property of the living; and she knows other and more sacred secrets than these; she knows when the sweet smile is more false than Madame Levison's enamel, and far less enduring--when the words that issue from between gates of borrowed pearl are more disguised and painted than the lips which help to shape them--when the lovely fairy of the ball-room re-enters the dressing-room after the night's long revelry, and throws aside her voluminous burnous and her faded bouquet, and drops her mask, and like another Cinderella loses the glass-slipper, by whose glitter she has been distinguished, and falls back into her rags and dirt, the lady's maid is by to see the transformation. The valet who took wages from the prophet of Korazin must have seen his master sometimes unveiled, and must have laughed in his sleeve at the folly of the monster's worshipers.
Lady Audley had made no _confidante_ of her new maid, and on this day of all others she wished to be alone.
She did lie down; she cast herself wearily upon the luxurious sofa in the dressing-room, and buried her face in the down pillows and tried to sleep. Sleep!--she had almost forgotten what it was, that tender restorer of tired nature, it seemed so long now since she had slept. It was only about eight-and-forty hours perhaps, but it appeared an intolerable time. Her fatigue of the night before, and her unnatural excitement, had worn her out at last. She did fall asleep; she fell into a heavy slumber that was almost like stupor. She had taken a few drops out of the opium bottle in a glass of water before lying down.
The clock over the mantelpiece chimed the quarter before four as she woke suddenly and started up, with the cold perspiration breaking out in icy drops upon her forehead. She had dreamt that every member of the household was clamoring at the door, eager to tell her of a dreadful fire that had happened in the night.
There was no sound but the flapping of the ivy-leaves against the glass, the occasional falling of a cinder, and the steady ticking of the clock.
"Perhaps I shall be always dreaming these sort of dreams," my lady thought, "until the terror of them kills me!"
The rain had ceased, and the cold spring sunshine was glittering upon the windows. Lady Audley dressed herself rapidly but carefully. I do not say that even in her supremest hour of misery she still retained her pride in her beauty. It was not so; she looked upon that beauty as a weapon, and she felt that she had now double need to be well armed. She dressed herself in her most gorgeous silk, a voluminous robe of silvery, shimmering blue, that made her look as if she had been arrayed in moonbeams. She shook out her hair into feathery showers of glittering gold, and, with a cloak of white cashmere about her shoulders, went down-stairs into the vestibule.
She opened the door of the library and looked in. Sir Michael Audley was asleep in his easy-chair. As my lady softly closed this door Alicia descended the stairs from her own room. The turret door was open, and the sun was shining upon the wet grass-plat in the quadrangle. The firm gravel-walks were already very nearly dry, for the rain had ceased for upward of two hours.
"Will you take a walk with me in the quadrangle?" Lady Audley asked as her step-daughter approached. The armed neutrality between the two women admitted of any chance civility such as this.
"Yes, if you please, my lady," Alicia answered, rather listlessly. "I have been yawning over a stupid novel all the morning, and shall be very glad of a little fresh air."
Heaven help the novelist whose fiction Miss Audley had been perusing, if he had no better critics than that young lady. She had read page after page without knowing what she had been reading, and had flung aside the volume half a dozen times to go to the window and watch for that visitor whom she had so confidently expected.
Lady Audley led the way through the low doorway and on to the smooth gravel drive, by which carriages approached the house. She was still very pale, but the brightness of her dress and of her feathery golden ringlets, distracted an observer's eyes from her pallid face. All mental distress is, with some show of reason, associated in our minds with loose, disordered garments and dishabilled hair, and an appearance in every way the reverse of my lady's. Why had she come out into the chill sunshine of that March afternoon to wander up and down that monotonous pathway with the step-daughter she hated? She came because she was under the dominion of a horrible restlessness, which, would not suffer her to remain within the house waiting for certain tidings which she knew must too surely come. At first she had wished to ward them off--at first she had wished that strange convulsions of nature might arise to hinder their coming--that abnormal winter lightnings might wither and destroy the messenger who carried them--that the ground might tremble and yawn beneath his hastening feet, and that impassable gulfs might separate the spot from which the tidings were to come and the place to which they were to be carried. She wished that the earth might stand still, and the paralyzed elements cease from their natural functions, that the progress of time might stop, that the Day of Judgment might come, and that she might thus be brought before an unearthly tribunal, and so escape the intervening shame and misery of any earthly judgment. In the wild chaos of her brain, every one of these thoughts had held its place, and in her short slumber on the sofa in her dressing-room she had dreamed all these things and a hundred other things, all bearing upon the same subject. She had dreamed that a brook, a tiny streamlet when she first saw it, flowed across the road between Mount Stanning and Audley, and gradually swelled into a river, and from a river became an ocean, till the village on the hill receded far away out of sight and only a great waste of waters rolled where it once had been. She dreamt that she saw the messenger, now one person, now another, but never any probable person, hindered by a hundred hinderances, now startling and terrible, now ridiculous and trivial, but never either natural or probable; and going down into the quiet house with the memory of these dreams strong upon her, she had been bewildered by the stillness which had betokened that the tidings had not yet come.
And now her mind underwent a complete change. She no longer wished to delay the dreaded intelligence. She wished the agony, whatever it was to be, over and done with, the pain suffered, and the release attained. It seemed to her as if the intolerable day would never come to an end, as if her mad wishes had been granted, and the progress of time had actually stopped.
"What a long day it has been!" exclaimed Alicia, as if taking up the burden of my lady's thoughts; "nothing but drizzle and mist and wind! And now that it's too late for anybody to go out, it must needs be fine," the young lady added, with an evident sense of injury.
Lady Audley did not answer. She was looking at the stupid one-handed clock, and waiting for the news which must come sooner or later, which could not surely fail to come very speedily.
"They have been afraid to come and tell him," she thought; "they have been afraid to break the news to Sir Michael. Who will come to tell it, at last, I wonder? The rector of Mount Stanning, perhaps, or the doctor; some important person at least."
If she could have gone out into the leafless avenues, or onto the high road beyond them; if she could have gone so far as that hill upon which she had so lately parted with Phoebe, she would have gladly done so. She would rather have suffered anything than that slow suspense, that corroding anxiety, that metaphysical dryrot in which heart and mind seemed to decay under an insufferable torture. She tried to talk, and by a painful effort contrived now and then to utter some commonplace remark. Under any ordinary circumstances her companion would have noticed her embarrassment, but Miss Audley, happening to be very much absorbed by her own vexations, was quite as well inclined to be silent as my lady herself. The monotonous walk up and down the graveled pathway suited Alicia's humor. I think that she even took a malicious pleasure in the idea that she was very likely catching cold, and that her Cousin Robert was answerable for her danger. If she could have brought upon herself inflammation of the lungs, or ruptured blood-vessels, by that exposure to the chill March atmosphere, I think she would have felt a gloomy satisfaction in her sufferings.
"Perhaps Robert might care for me, if I had inflammation of the lungs," she thought. "He couldn't insult me by calling me a bouncer then. Bouncers don't have inflammation of the lungs."
I believe she drew a picture of herself in the last stage of consumption, propped up by pillows in a great easy-chair, looking out of a window in the afternoon sunshine, with medicine bottles, a bunch of grapes and a Bible upon a table by her side, and with Robert, all contrition and tenderness, summoned to receive her farewell blessing. She preached a whole chapter to him in that parting benediction, talking a great deal longer than was in keeping with her prostrate state, and very much enjoying her dismal castle in the air. Employed in this sentimental manner, Miss Audley took very little notice of her step-mother, and the one hand of the blundering clock had slipped to six by the time Robert had been blessed and dismissed.
"Good gracious me!" she cried, suddenly--"six o'clock, and I'm not dressed."
The half-hour bell rung in a cupola upon the roof while Alicia was speaking.
"I must go in, my lady," she said. "Won't you come?"
"Presently," answered Lady Audley. "I'm dressed, you see."
Alicia ran off, but Sir Michael's wife still lingered in the quadrangle, still waited for those tidings which were so long coming.
It was nearly dark. The blue mists of evening had slowly risen from the ground. The flat meadows were filled with a gray vapor, and a stranger might have fancied Audley Court a castle on the margin of a sea. Under the archway the shadows of fastcoming night lurked darkly, like traitors waiting for an opportunity to glide stealthily into the quadrangle. Through the archway a patch of cold blue sky glimmered faintly, streaked by one line of lurid crimson, and lighted by the dim glitter of one wintry-looking star. Not a creature was stirring in the quadrangle but the restless woman who paced up and down the straight pathways, listening for a footstep whose coming was to strike terror to her soul. She heard it at last!--a footstep in the avenue upon the other side of the archway. But was it the footstep? Her sense of hearing, made unnaturally acute by excitement, told her that it was a man's footstep--told even more, that it was the tread of a gentleman, no slouching, lumbering pedestrian in hobnailed boots, but a gentleman who walked firmly and well.
Every sound fell like a lump of ice upon my lady's heart. She could not wait, she could not contain herself, she lost all self-control, all power of endurance, all capability of self-restraint, and she rushed toward the archway.
She paused beneath its shadow, for the stranger was close upon her. She saw him, oh, God! she saw him in that dim evening light. Her brain reeled, her heart stopped beating. She uttered no cry of surprise, no exclamation of terror, but staggered backward and clung for support to the ivied buttress of the archway. With her slender figure crouched into the angle formed by the buttress and the wall which it supported, she stood staring at the new-comer.
As he approached her more closely her knees sunk under her, and she dropped to the ground, not fainting, or in any manner unconscious, but sinking into a crouching attitude, and still crushed into the angle of the wall, as if she would have made a tomb for herself in the shadow of that sheltering brickwork.
The speaker was Robert Audley. He whose bedroom door she had double-locked seventeen hours before at the Castle Inn.
"What is the matter with you?" he said, in a strange, constrained manner. "Get up, and let me take you indoors."
He assisted her to rise, and she obeyed him very submissively. He took her arm in his strong hand and led her across the quadrangle and into the lamp-lit hall. She shivered more violently than he had ever seen any woman shiver before, but she made no attempt at resistance to his will.
MY LADY TELLS THE TRUTH.
"Is there any room in which I can talk to you alone?" Robert Audley asked, as he looked dubiously round the hall.
My lady only bowed her head in answer. She pushed open the door of the library, which had been left ajar. Sir Michael had gone to his dressing-room to prepare for dinner after a day of lazy enjoyment, perfectly legitimate for an invalid. The apartment was quite empty, only lighted by the blaze of the fire, as it had been upon the previous evening.
Lady Audley entered the room, followed by Robert, who closed the door behind him. The wretched, shivering woman went to the fireplace and knelt down before the blaze, as if any natural warmth, could have power to check that unnatural chill. The young man followed her, and stood beside her upon the hearth, with his arm resting upon the chimney-piece.
"Lady Audley," he said, in a voice whose icy sternness held out no hope of any tenderness or compassion, "I spoke to you last-night very plainly, but you refused to listen to me. To-night I must speak to you still more plainly, and you must no longer refuse to listen to me."
My lady, crouching before the fire with her face hidden in her hands, uttered a low, sobbing sound which was almost a moan, but made no other answer.
"There was a fire last night at Mount Stanning, Lady Audley," the pitiless voice proceeded; "the Castle Inn, the house in which I slept, was burned to the ground. Do you know how I escaped perishing in that destruction?"
"I escaped by a most providential circumstance which seems a very simple one. I did not sleep in the room which had been prepared for me. The place seemed wretchedly damp and chilly, the chimney smoked abominably when an attempt was made at lighting a fire, and I persuaded the servant to make me up a bed on the sofa in the small ground-floor sitting-room which I had occupied during the evening."
He paused for a moment, watching the crouching figure. The only change in my lady's attitude was that her head had fallen a little lower.
"Shall I tell you by whose agency the destruction of the Castle Inn was brought about, my lady?"
There was no answer.
"Shall I tell you?"
Still the same obstinate silence.
"My Lady Audley," cried Robert, suddenly, "_you_ are the incendiary. It was you whose murderous hand kindled those flames. It was you who thought by that thrice-horrible deed to rid yourself of me, your enemy and denouncer. What was it to you that other lives might be sacrificed? If by a second massacre of Saint Bartholomew you could have ridded yourself of _me_ you would have sacrificed an army of victims. The day is past for tenderness and mercy. For you I can no longer know pity or compunction. So far as by sparing your shame I can spare others who must suffer by your shame, I will be merciful, but no further. If there were any secret tribunal before which you might be made to answer for your crimes, I would have little scruple in being your accuser, but I would spare that generous and high-born gentleman upon whose noble name your infamy would be reflected."
His voice softened as he made this allusion, and for a moment he broke down, but he recovered himself by an effort and continued:
"No life was lost in the fire of last night. I slept lightly, my lady, for my mind was troubled, as it has been for a long time, by the misery which I knew was lowering upon this house. It was I who discovered the breaking out of the fire in time to give the alarm and to save the servant girl and the poor drunken wretch, who was very much burnt in spite of efforts, and who now lies in a precarious state at his mother's cottage. It was from him and from his wife that I learned who had visited the Castle Inn in the dead of the night. The woman was almost distracted when she saw me, and from her I discovered the particulars of last night. Heaven knows what other secrets of yours she may hold, my lady, or how easily they might be extorted from her if I wanted her aid, which I do not. My path lies very straight before me. I have sworn to bring the murderer of George Talboys to justice, and I will keep my oath. I say that it was by your agency my friend met with his death. If I have wondered sometimes, as it was only natural I should, whether I was not the victim of some horrible hallucination, whether such an alternative was not more probable than that a young and lovely woman should be capable of so foul and treacherous a murder, all wonder is past. After last night's deed of horror, there is no crime you could commit, however vast and unnatural, which could make me wonder. Henceforth you must seem to me no longer a woman, a guilty woman with a heart which in its worst wickedness has yet some latent power to suffer and feel; I look upon you henceforth as the demoniac incarnation of some evil principle. But you shall no longer pollute this place by your presence. Unless you will confess what you are and who you are in the presence of the man you have deceived so long, and accept from him and from me such mercy as we may be inclined to extend to you, I will gather together the witnesses who shall swear to your identity, and at peril of any shame to myself and those I love, I will bring upon you the just and awful punishment of your crime."
The woman rose suddenly and stood before him erect and resolute, with her hair dashed away from her face and her eyes glittering.
"Bring Sir Michael!" she cried; "bring him here, and I will confess anything--everything. What do I care? God knows I have struggled hard enough against you, and fought the battle patiently enough; but you have conquered, Mr. Robert Audley. It is a great triumph, is it not--a wonderful victory? You have used your cool, calculating, frigid, luminous intellect to a noble purpose. You have conquered--a MAD WOMAN!"
"A mad woman!" cried Mr. Audley.
"Yes, a mad woman. When you say that I killed George Talboys, you say the truth. When you say that I murdered him treacherously and foully, you lie. I killed him because I AM MAD! because my intellect is a little way upon the wrong side of that narrow boundary-line between sanity and insanity; because, when George Talboys goaded me, as you have goaded me, and reproached me, and threatened me, my mind, never properly balanced, utterly lost its balance, and _I was mad_! Bring Sir Michael; and bring him quickly. If he is to be told one thing let him be told everything; let him hear the secret of my life!"
Robert Audley left the room to look for his uncle. He went in search of that honored kinsman with God knows how heavy a weight of anguish at his heart, for he knew he was about to shatter the day-dream of his uncle's life; and he knew that our dreams are none the less terrible to lose, because they have never been the realities for which we have mistaken them. But even in the midst of his sorrow for Sir Michael, he could not help wondering at my lady's last words--"the secret of my life." He remembered those lines in the letter written by Helen Talboys upon the eve of her flight from Wildernsea, which had so puzzled him. He remembered those appealing sentences--"You should forgive me, for you know _why_ I have been so. You know the _secret_ of my life."
He met Sir Michael in the hall. He made no attempt to prepare the way for the terrible revelation which the baronet was to hear. He only drew him into the fire-lit library, and there for the first time addressed him quietly thus: "Lady Audley has a confession to make to you, sir--a confession which I know will be a most cruel surprise, a most bitter grief. But it is necessary for your present honor, and for your future peace, that you should hear it. She has deceived you, I regret to say, most basely; but it is only right that you should hear from her own lips any excuses which she may have to offer for her wickedness. May God soften this blow for you!" sobbed the young man, suddenly breaking down; "I cannot!"
Sir Michael lifted his hand as if he would command his nephew to be silent, but that imperious hand dropped feeble and impotent at his side. He stood in the center of the fire-lit room rigid and immovable.
"Lucy!" he cried, in a voice whose anguish struck like a blow upon the jarred nerves of those who heard it, as the cry of a wounded animal pains the listener--"Lucy, tell me that this man is a madman! tell me so, my love, or I shall kill him!"
There was a sudden fury in his voice as he turned upon Robert, as if he could indeed have felled his wife's accuser to the earth with the strength of his uplifted arm.
But my lady fell upon her knees at his feet, interposing herself between the baronet and his nephew, who stood leaning on the back of an easy-chair, with his face hidden by his hand.
"He has told you the truth," said my lady, "and he is not mad! I have sent him for you that I may confess everything to you. I should be sorry for you if I could, for you have been very, very good to me, much better to me than I ever deserved; but I can't, I can't--I can feel nothing but my own misery. I told you long ago that I was selfish; I am selfish still--more selfish than ever in my misery. Happy, prosperous people may feel for others. I laugh at other people's sufferings; they seem so small compared to my own."
When first my lady had fallen on her knees, Sir Michael had attempted to raise her, and had remonstrated with her; but as she spoke he dropped into a chair close to the spot upon which she knelt, and with his hands clasped together, and with his head bent to catch every syllable of those horrible words, he listened as if his whole being had been resolved into that one sense of hearing.
"I must tell you the story of my life, in order to tell you why I have become the miserable wretch who has no better hope than to be allowed to run away and hide in some desolate corner of the earth. I must tell you the story of my life," repeated my lady, "but you need not fear that I shall dwell long upon it. It has not been so pleasant to me that I should wish to remember it. When I was a very little child I remember asking a question which it was natural enough that I should ask, God help me! I asked where my mother was. I had a faint remembrance of a face, like what my own is now, looking at me when I was very little better than a baby; but I had missed the face suddenly, and had never seen it since. They told me that mother was away. I was not happy, for the woman who had charge of me was a disagreeable woman and the place in which we lived was a lonely place, a village upon the Hampshire coast, about seven miles from Portsmouth. My father, who was in the navy, only came now and then to see me; and I was left almost entirely to the charge of this woman, who was irregularly paid, and who vented her rage upon me when my father was behindhand in remitting her money. So you see that at a very early age I found out what it was to be poor.
"Perhaps it was more from being discontented with my dreary life than from any wonderful impulse of affection, that I asked very often the same question about my mother. I always received the same answer--she was away. When I asked where, I was told that that was a secret. When I grew old enough to understand the meaning of the word death, I asked if my mother was dead, and I was told--'No, she was not dead; she was ill, and she was away.' I asked how long she had been ill, and I was told that she had been so some years, ever since I was a baby.
"At last the secret came out. I worried my foster-mother with the old question one day when the remittances had fallen very much in arrear, and her temper had been unusually tried. She flew into a passion, and told me that my mother was a mad woman, and that she was in a madhouse forty miles away. She had scarcely said this when she repented, and told me that it was not the truth, and that I was not to believe it, or to say that she had told me such a thing. I discovered afterward that my father had made her promise most solemnly never to tell me the secret of my mother's fate.
"I brooded horribly upon the thought of my mother's madness. It haunted me by day and night. I was always picturing to myself this mad woman pacing up and down some prison cell, in a hideous garment that bound her tortured limbs. I had exaggerated ideas of the horror of her situation. I had no knowledge of the different degrees of madness, and the image that haunted me was that of a distraught and violent creature, who would fall upon me and kill me if I came within her reach. This idea grew upon me until I used to awake in the dead of night, screaming aloud in an agony of terror, from a dream in which I had felt my mother's icy grasp upon my throat, and heard her ravings in my ear.
"When I was ten years old my father came to pay up the arrears due to my protectress, and to take me to school. He had left me in Hampshire longer than he had intended, from his inability to pay this money; so there again I felt the bitterness of poverty, and ran the risk of growing up an ignorant creature among coarse rustic children, because my father was poor."
My lady paused for a moment, but only to take breath, for she had spoken rapidly, as if eager to tell this hated story, and to have done with it. She was still on her knees, but Sir Michael made no effort to raise her.
He sat silent and immovable. What was this story that he was listening to? Whose was it, and to what was it to lead? It could not be his wife's; he had heard her simple account of her youth, and had believed it as he had believed in the Gospel. She had told him a very brief story of an early orphanage, and a long, quiet, colorless youth spent in the conventional seclusion of an English boarding-school.
"My father came at last, and I told him what I had discovered. He was very much affected when I spoke of my mother. He was not what the world generally calls a good man, but I learned afterward that he had loved his wife very dearly, and that he would have willingly sacrificed his life to her, and constituted himself her guardian, had he not been compelled to earn the daily bread of the mad woman and her child by the exercise of his profession. So here again I beheld what a bitter thing it is to be poor. My mother, who might have been tended by a devoted husband, was given over to the care of hired nurses.
"Before my father sent me to school at Torquay, he took me to see my mother. This visit served at least to dispel the idea which had so often terrified me. I saw no raving, straight-waist-coated maniac, guarded by zealous jailers, but a golden-haired, blue-eyed, girlish creature, who seemed as frivolous as a butterfly, and who skipped toward us with her yellow curls decorated with natural flowers, and saluted us with radiant smiles, and gay, ceaseless chatter.
"But she didn't know us. She would have spoken in the same manner to any stranger who had entered the gates of the garden about her prison-house. Her madness was an hereditary disease transmitted to her from her mother, who had died mad. She, my mother, had been, or had appeared sane up to the hour of my birth, but from that hour her intellect had decayed, and she had become what I saw her.
"I went away with the knowledge of this, and with the knowledge that the only inheritance I had to expect from my mother was--insanity!
"I went away with this knowledge in my mind, and with something more--a secret to keep. I was a child of ten years only, but I felt all the weight of that burden. I was to keep the secret of my mother's madness; for it was a secret that might affect me injuriously in after-life. I was to remember this.
"I did remember this; and it was, perhaps, this that made me selfish and heartless, for I suppose I am heartless. As I grew older I was told that I was pretty--beautiful--lovely--bewitching. I heard all these things at first indifferently, but by-and-by I listened to them greedily, and began to think that in spite of the secret of my life I might be more successful in the world's great lottery than my companions. I had learnt that which in some indefinite manner or other every school-girl learns sooner or later--I learned that my ultimate fate in life depended upon my marriage, and I concluded that if I was indeed prettier than my schoolfellows, I ought to marry better than any one of them.
"I left school before I was seventeen years of age, with this thought in my mind, and I went to live at the other extremity of England with my father, who had retired upon his half-pay, and had established himself at Wildernsea, with the idea that the place was cheap and select.
"The place was indeed select. I had not been there a month before I discovered that even the prettiest girl might wait a long time for a rich husband. I wish to hurry over this part of my life. I dare say I was very despicable. You and your nephew, Sir Michael, have been rich all your lives, and can very well afford to despise me; but I knew how far poverty can affect a life, and I looked forward with a sickening dread to a life so affected. At last the rich suitor, the wandering prince came."
She paused for a moment, and shuddered convulsively. It was impossible to see any of the changes in her countenance, for her face was obstinately bent toward the floor. Throughout her long confession she never lifted it; throughout her long confession her voice was never broken by a tear. What she had to tell she told in a cold, hard tone, very much the tone in which some criminal, dogged and sullen to the last, might have confessed to a jail chaplain.
"The wandering prince came," she repeated; "he was called George Talboys."
For the first time since his wife's confession had begun, Sir Michael Audley started. He began to understand it all now. A crowd of unheeded words and forgotten circumstances that had seemed too insignificant for remark or recollection, flashed back upon him as vividly as if they had been the leading incidents of his past life.
"Mr. George Talboys was a cornet in a dragoon regiment. He was the only son of a rich country gentleman. He fell in love with me, and married me three months after my seventeenth birthday. I think I loved him as much as it was in my power to love anybody; not more than I have loved you, Sir Michael--not so much, for when you married me you elevated me to a position that he could never have given me."
The dream was broken. Sir Michael Audley remembered that summer's evening, nearly two years ago, when he had first declared his love for Mr. Dawson's governess; he remembered the sick, half-shuddering sensation of regret and disappointment that had come over him then, and he felt as if it had in some manner dimly foreshadowed the agony of to-night.
But I do not believe that even in his misery he felt that entire and unmitigated surprise, that utter revulsion of feeling that is felt when a good woman wanders away from herself and becomes the lost creature whom her husband is bound in honor to abjure. I do not believe that Sir Michael Audley had ever _really_ believed in his wife. He had loved her and admired her; he had been bewitched by her beauty and bewildered by her charms; but that sense of something wanting, that vague feeling of loss and disappointment which had come upon him on the summer's night of his betrothal had been with him more or less distinctly ever since. I cannot believe that an honest man, however pure and single may be his mind, however simply trustful his nature, is ever really deceived by falsehood. There is beneath the voluntary confidence an involuntary distrust, not to be conquered by any effort of the will.
"We were married," my lady continued, "and I loved him very well, quite well enough to be happy with him as long as his money lasted, and while we were on the Continent, traveling in the best style and always staying at the best hotels. But when we came back to Wildernsea and lived with papa, and all the money was gone, and George grew gloomy and wretched, and was always thinking of his troubles, and appeared to neglect me, I was very unhappy, and it seemed as if this fine marriage had only given me a twelvemonth's gayety and extravagance after all. I begged George to appeal to his father, but he refused. I persuaded him to try and get employment, and he failed. My baby was born, and the crisis which had been fatal to my mother arose for me. I escaped, but I was more irritable perhaps after my recovery, less inclined to fight the hard battle of the world, more disposed to complain of poverty and neglect. I did complain one day, loudly and bitterly; I upbraided George Talboys for his cruelty in having allied a helpless girl to poverty and misery, and he flew into a passion with me and ran out of the house. When I awoke the next morning, I found a letter lying on the table by my bed, telling me that he was going to the antipodes to seek his fortune, and that he would never see me again until he was a rich man.
"I looked upon this as a desertion, and I resented it bitterly--resented it by hating the man who had left me with no protector but a weak, tipsy father, and with a child to support. I had to work hard for my living, and in every hour of labor--and what labor is more wearisome than the dull slavery of a governess?--I recognized a separate wrong done me by George Talboys. His father was rich, his sister was living in luxury and respectability, and I, his wife, and the mother of his son, was a slave allied to beggary and obscurity. People pitied me, and I hated them for their pity. I did not love the child, for he had been left a burden upon my hands. The hereditary taint that was in my blood had never until this time showed itself by any one sign or token; but at this time I became subject to fits of violence and despair. At this time I think my mind first lost its balance, and for the first time I crossed that invisible line which separates reason from madness. I have seen my father's eyes fixed upon me in horror and alarm. I have known him soothe me as only mad people and children are soothed, and I have chafed against his petty devices, I have resented even his indulgence.
"At last these fits of desperation resolved themselves into a desperate purpose. I determined to run away from this wretched home which my slavery supported. I determined to desert this father who had more fear of me than love for me. I determined to go to London and lose myself in that great chaos of humanity.
"I had seen an advertisement in the _Times_ while I was at Wildernsea, and I presented myself to Mrs. Vincent, the advertiser, under a feigned name. She accepted me, waiving all questions as to my antecedents. You know the rest. I came here, and you made me an offer, the acceptance of which would lift me at once into the sphere to which my ambition had pointed ever since I was a school-girl, and heard for the first time that I was pretty.
"Three years had passed, and I had received no token of my husband's existence; for, I argued, that if he had returned to England, he would have succeeded in finding me under any name and in any place. I knew the energy of his character well enough to know this.
"I said 'I have a right to think that he is dead, or that he wishes me to believe him dead, and his shadow shall not stand between me and prosperity.' I said this, and I became your wife, Sir Michael, with every resolution to be as good a wife as it was in my nature to be. The common temptations that assail and shipwreck some women had no terror for me. I would have been your true and pure wife to the end of time, though I had been surrounded by a legion of tempters. The mad folly that the world calls love had never had any part in my madness, and here at least extremes met, and the vice of heartlessness became the virtue of constancy.
"I was very happy in the first triumph and grandeur of my new position, very grateful to the hand that had lifted me to it. In the sunshine of my own happiness I felt, for the first time in my life, for the miseries of others. I had been poor myself, and I was now rich, and could afford to pity and relieve the poverty of my neighbors. I took pleasure in acts of kindness and benevolence. I found out my father's address and sent him large sums of money, anonymously, for I did not wish him to discover what had become of me. I availed myself to the full of the privilege your generosity afforded me. I dispensed happiness on every side. I saw myself loved as well as admired, and I think I might have been a good woman for the rest of my life, if fate would have allowed me to be so.
"I believe that at this time my mind regained its just balance. I had watched myself very closely since leaving Wildernsea; I had held a check upon myself. I had often wondered while sitting in the surgeon's quiet family circle whether any suspicion of that invisible, hereditary taint had ever occurred to Mr. Dawson.
"Fate would not suffer me to be good. My destiny compelled me to be a wretch. Within a month of my marriage, I read in one of the Essex papers of the return of a certain Mr. Talboys, a fortunate gold-seeker, from Australia. The ship had sailed at the time I read the paragraph. What was to be done?
"I said just now that I knew the energy of George's character. I knew that the man who had gone to the antipodes and won a fortune for his wife would leave no stone unturned in his efforts to find her. It was hopeless to think of hiding myself from him.
"Unless he could be induced to believe that I was dead, he would never cease in his search for me.
"My brain was dazed as I thought of my peril. Again the balance trembled, again the invisible boundary was passed, again I was mad.
"I went down to Southampton and found my father, who was living there with my child. You remember how Mrs. Vincent's name was used as an excuse for this hurried journey, and how it was contrived I should go with no other escort than Phoebe Marks, whom I left at the hotel while I went to my father's house.
"I confided to my father the whole secret of my peril. He was not very much shocked at what I had done, for poverty had perhaps blunted his sense of honor and principle. He was not very much shocked, but he was frightened, and he promised to do all in his power to assist me in my horrible emergency.
"He had received a letter addressed to me at Wildernsea, by George, and forwarded from there to my father. This letter had been written within a few days of the sailing of the _Argus_, and it announced the probable date of the ship's arrival at Liverpool. This letter gave us, therefore, data upon which to act.
"We decided at once upon the first step. This was that on the date of the probable arrival of the _Argus_, or a few days later, an advertisement of my death should be inserted in the _Times_.
"But almost immediately after deciding upon this, we saw that there were fearful difficulties in the carrying out of such a simple plan. The date of the death, and the place in which I died, must be announced, as well as the death itself. George would immediately hurry to that place, however distant it might be, however comparatively inaccessible, and the shallow falsehood would be discovered.
"I knew enough of his sanguine temperament, his courage and determination, his readiness to hope against hope, to know that unless he saw the grave in which I was buried, and the register of my death, he would never believe that I was lost to him.
"My father was utterly dumfounded and helpless. He could only shed childish tears of despair and terror. He was of no use to me in this crisis.
"I was hopeless of any issue out of my difficulties. I began to think that I must trust to the chapter of accidents, and hope that among other obscure corners of the earth, Audley Court might be undreamt of by my husband.
"I sat with my father, drinking tea with him in his miserable hovel, and playing with the child, who was pleased with my dress and jewels, but quite unconscious that I was anything but a stranger to him. I had the boy in my arms, when a woman who attended him came to fetch him that she might make him more fit to be seen by the lady, as she said.
"I was anxious to know how the boy was treated, and I detained this woman in conversation with me while my father dozed over the tea-table.
"She was a pale-faced, sandy-haired woman of about five-and-forty and she seemed very glad to get the chance of talking to me as long as I pleased to allow her. She soon left off talking of the boy, however, to tell me of her own troubles. She was in very great trouble, she told me. Her eldest daughter had been obliged to leave her situation from ill-health; in fact, the doctor said the girl was in a decline; and it was a hard thing for a poor widow who had seen better days to have a sick daughter to support, as well as a family of young children.
"I let the woman run on for a long time in this manner, telling me the girl's ailments, and the girl's age, and the girl's doctor's stuff, and piety, and sufferings, and a great deal more. But I neither listened to her nor heeded her. I heard her, but only in a far-away manner, as I heard the traffic in the street, or the ripple of the stream at the bottom of it. What were this woman's troubles to me? I had miseries of my own, and worse miseries than her coarse nature could ever have to endure. These sort of people always had sick husbands or sick children, and expected to be helped in their illness by the rich. It was nothing out of the common. I was thinking this, and I was just going to dismiss the woman with a sovereign for her sick daughter, when an idea flashed upon me with such painful suddenness that it sent the blood surging up to my brain, and set my heart beating, as it only beats when I am mad.
"I asked the woman her name. She was a Mrs. Plowson, and she kept a small general shop, she said, and only ran in now and then to look after Georgey, and to see that the little maid-of-all-work took care of him. Her daughter's name was Matilda. I asked her several questions about this girl Matilda, and I ascertained that she was four-and-twenty, that she had always been consumptive, and that she was now, as the doctor said, going off in a rapid decline. He had declared that she could not last much more than a fortnight.
"It was in three weeks that the ship that carried George Talboys was expected to anchor in the Mersey.
"I need not dwell upon this business. I visited the sick girl. She was fair and slender. Her description, carelessly given, might tally nearly enough with my own, though she bore no shadow of resemblance to me, except in these two particulars. I was received by the girl as a rich lady who wished to do her a service. I bought the mother, who was poor and greedy, and who for a gift of money, more money than she had ever before received, consented to submit to anything I wished. Upon the second day after my introduction to this Mrs. Plowson, my father went over to Ventnor, and hired lodgings for his invalid daughter and her little boy. Early the next morning he carried over the dying girl and Georgey, who had been bribed to call her 'mamma.' She entered the house as Mrs. Talboys; she was attended by a Ventnor medical man as Mrs. Talboys; she died, and her death and burial were registered in that name.
"The advertisement was inserted in the _Times_, and upon the second day after its insertion George Talboys visited Ventnor, and ordered the tombstone which at this hour records the death of his wife, Helen Talboys."
Sir Michael Audley rose slowly, and with a stiff, constrained action, as if every physical sense had been benumbed by that one sense of misery.
"I cannot hear any more," he said, in a hoarse whisper; "if there is anything more to be told I cannot hear it. Robert, it is you who have brought about this discovery, as I understand. I want to know nothing more. Will you take upon yourself the duty of providing for the safety and comfort of this lady whom I have thought my wife? I need not ask you to remember in all you do, that I have loved her very dearly and truly. I cannot say farewell to her. I will not say it until I can think of her without bitterness--until I can pity her, as I now pray that God may pity her this night."
Sir Michael walked slowly from the room. He did not trust himself to look at that crouching figure. He did not wish to see the creature whom he had cherished. He went straight to his dressing-room, rung for his valet, and ordered him to pack a portmanteau, and make all necessary arrangements for accompanying his master by the last up-train.