"You distinctly tell me that you never did—never could love me?"
"I love you as my cousin, Coralie—not in any other way."
"You would never, never, under any circumstances, make me your wife?"
"Why do you pain me so, Coralie?"
"I want a plain answer—you would never marry me? Say 'yes' or 'no.'"
"No—since you force me into ungracious speech."
"Thank you," she said, bitterly; "I am answered—there can be no mistake. Sir Edgar, you speak your mind with honorable frankness. I have given you every chance to correct yourself, should you be mistaken. I am, perhaps, more richly endowed than you think for. Would my dowry make any difference?"
"No," I replied, sternly; "and, Coralie, pray pardon me; it is high time that this should end."
"It shall end at once," she replied. "It is to be war between us, Sir Edgar—war to the knife!"
"There is no need for war," I said, wearily. "Let us forget all about it. There will be no need for you to do anything romantic, Coralie. Stay on at Crown Anstey, and make yourself happy with Clare."
"Yes," she replied, with that strange smile, "I shall remain at Crown Anstey—I have no thought of going away."
She turned as though she would quit the room. I went up to her.
"Good night, Coralie. Shake hands, and let us part friends."
"When I touch your hand again, Sir Edgar, it will be under very different circumstances. Good night."
She swept from the room with the dignity of an outraged queen, leaving me unhappy, bewildered and anxious.
I had the most chivalrous love and devotion for all womankind, and I must confess to feeling most dreadfully shocked. It seemed almost unheard of.
Then I tried to forget it—the passionate words, the pale, tearful beauty of that wonderful face. Strange that Clare's conviction should so soon be realized. What of that nervous conviction she had that evil would come of this fair woman's love? What if that were realized, too?
I sat late that night, dreaming not only of the pure, sweet girl I had won, but of the woman whose burning tears had fallen on my hands. What harm could she do if she tried? What did she mean by being richly dowered? Had she any fortune that I did not know of? Her words were mysterious. Strange to say, the same nervous forebodings that had seized Clare seized me.
Evil would come of it; how or why I could not imagine, but it would come. I felt it gathering round me; then I laughed at myself, at my own foolish fancy.
Yet the same fancy had shaken me so that when I went into Clare's room to say "Good night," she asked me if I were ill, and would not be satisfied until I laughingly told her my happiness had been too much for me.
I felt shy as a girl the next morning at the thought of coming downstairs to meet mademoiselle. Nor was I quite devoid of some little fear. Would she be sorrowful, resigned, pathetic, angry, or what? It was impossible to tell.
Imagine my surprise on opening the breakfast-room door to find her already at the table, looking blooming and beautiful as a June rose. She greeted me gayly, with bright smiles and bright words. I might have thought all the passion, the sorrow and despair of last night a dream.
Only too happy to imitate her, I began to talk of a score of indifferent matters. About everything she had some piquant, bright words to say. By the time breakfast was ended I had really begun to think I must have dreamed the most unpleasant scene.
Yet I thought to myself that I must be guarded. I must continue to be kind to her because she had no other friends, but all kindness shown to her must be of the true, cousinly type.
This morning, instead of lingering with her while she went through the conservatories, as had been my idle fashion, I went at once into Clare's room. Coralie noticed the change, for her face grew pale as I quitted the room.
Some weeks passed without anything happening. I went over to Harden Manor every day. The sun never set without my seeing Agatha, and every day I loved her more and more.
She was so simple, so tender, so true; now that she had promised to be my wife, there was no idle coquetry about her, no affection of shyness. She was simply perfect, and it seemed to me that by some wonderful miracle I had reached the golden land at last.
Then I began to agitate for an early marriage. Why wait? Lady Thesiger told me laughingly that there was much to do at Crown Anstey before I could take my wife home.
"Remember," she said, "that before your sister came there had been no ladies at the Hall for some years. The late Lady Trevelyan died sixteen years ago."
I saw that she had completely forgotten the existence of mademoiselle, and did not care to remind her of it.
"You will want to refurnish a suite of rooms for Agatha," she continued; "and there will really be so much to do that if we say Christmas for the wedding, that will be quite soon enough."
"It seems like an eternity!" I said, discontentedly.
"It is the most picturesque season of the year for a wedding," said Lady Thesiger, "I like the holly and evergreens even better than summer flowers."
So it was settled; Clare agreed with Lady Thesiger that Crown Anstey required preparation for a bride.
"Those reception rooms want refurnishing," said my sister. "Of course, after your marriage you will give parties and balls. You will have to show hospitality to all the county, Edgar."
Half to my consternation, she said this before Coralie. I looked at her hastily, wondering how she would take it. Her beautiful face was quite calm, and wore an expression of pleased interest.
"Do you agree with me, Coralie?" asked my unsuspecting sister.
"Certainly; there is no position in the county equal to that of Lady Trevelyan of Crown Anstey."
"How strange it is, Edgar, that you should be married, and your wife Lady Trevelyan! Sometimes it seems to me all a dream."
"Dreams come and go so lightly," said Coralie, with that smile which always made me slightly afraid.
The remainder of that day we spent in making out a long list of all things needful. Coralie's taste was paramount. She decided upon little matters of elegance we never even thought of. It was she who strongly advised me to send to London for Mr. Dickson, the well-known decorator.
"He will arrange a suite of rooms so perfectly that you will hardly know them," she said.
So it was decided. Mr. Dickson came, and when he found there was to be no limit either to time, expense, money, or anything else, he promised me something that should make Crown Anstey famous. All things went on perfectly. The magnificent preparations making for my darling occupied my time most happily. It was now almost the end of November, and our marriage was to take place on the 26th of December. Mr. Dickson and his army of workmen had taken their departure, and the rooms prepared for my wife were beyond all praise.
The boudoir was hung in blue and silver; it was a perfect little fairyland; nothing was wanting to make it a nest of luxury. The boudoir opened into a pretty little library, where all the books that I thought would please Agatha were arranged. There was a dressing-room, a bath-room and a sleeping-room, all en suite. Mr. Dickson had improvised a pretty flight of stairs leading into a small conservatory, and that opened into the garden.
When the pictures, the flowers, the statues, the rich hangings and the graceful ornaments were all arranged, I was more pleased than I had been for some time. Lady Thesiger came over to look at them, but my darling was not to see them until they were her own.
There was an unpleasant duty to perform. What was to be done with Coralie? Knowing Lady Thesiger's opinion of her, I felt sure she would never allow her daughter to live in the same house. What was to be done with her? Where was she to go? I did not know in the least what to suggest. I was perfectly willing to offer her a very handsome allowance, knowing that, as Sir Barnard's charge, she had some claim on me.
I might have spared myself all the trouble of thinking and deciding. One morning Mrs. Newsham, a pretty young matron, very popular in our neighborhood, paid us a visit.
Coralie, as usual, received her, and did the honors of the house. A very beautiful fountain had just been placed in the lawn, and we went to look at it. I had left the two ladies looking over the basin of the fountain while I raised the branches of a rare and valuable plant.
Stooping down, I did not hear the commencement of the conversation. When my attention was attracted, Mrs. Newsham was concluding a sentence with these words: "If ever you leave Crown Anstey."
I saw Coralie d'Aubergne look up at her with a quiet smile.
"I shall never leave Crown Anstey," she said, "under any possible circumstances."
Mrs. Newsham laughed.
"You may be married, or Lady Trevelyan may not like the place and wish it closed—a thousand things may happen to prevent you remaining here always."
But I saw Coralie d'Aubergne shake her head, while she replied, calmly:
"No, Mrs. Newsham, I shall never leave Crown Anstey."
I cannot tell how the words impressed me. I found myself repeating them over and over again—"I shall never leave Crown Anstey."
Yet she must have known that when my young wife came home, Crown Anstey would be no place for her.
Was there any meaning in the words she repeated so often, or did she say them merely with an idea of comforting herself?
It was that very evening that I sat by myself in the library arranging some papers, and thinking at the same time what I must say to Coralie, and how I must say it, when the door suddenly opened and she entered.
I looked at her, surprised, for she did not often intrude when I was alone and occupied. She was very pale. With quiet determination on her beautiful face, she walked up to me and leaned her arm on the back of my chair.
"So, cousin," she said, "this marriage is going on?"
"Certainly, Coralie. I pray to God nothing may prevent it."
"You would lose your reason, I suppose, if you lost Agatha?"
"I cannot tell. I only know that, no matter how long I lived, life would have no further charm for me."
She bent her head caressingly over me; her perfumed hair touched my face.
"Edgar," she whispered, "once more I lose sight of my woman's pride; once more I come to you and ask you—ah! do not turn from me—I ask you to give up Agatha, and"—
She paused, for very shame, I hope.
"Give up Agatha and marry you, you would say, Coralie?"
"Ah, dear, I love you so! You would never repent it. I would make you happy as a crowned king."
I stopped her.
"Say no more, Coralie! I am grieved and shocked that you should renew the subject. I told you before I should never love any woman, save Agatha Thesiger, were I to live forever."
"Nothing will ever induce you to change your mind?" she asked, slowly.
"No, nothing in the wide world."
She paused for a few minutes, then she quietly lifted her arm from the chair.
"Has it ever struck you," she said, "it may be in my power to do you deadly mischief?"
"I never thought you capable of such a thing, nor do I believe that it is in your power."
"It is," she said; "you and your sister are both in my power. If you are a wise man, you will take my terms and save yourself while there is time. Of course, if I were Lady Trevelyan, my interests would be yours; then, if I knew anything against your welfare, I should keep the secret faithfully—ah! a thousand times more faithfully than if it concerned my own life."
She looked earnestly at me.
"You hold no secrets of mine, Coralie. I have no secrets. Thank God, my life is clear and open—a book any one may read. Supposing I had a secret, I should not purchase the keeping of it by any such compromise as you suggest. I detest all mysteries, Coralie—all underhand doings, all deceit. Speak out and tell me, Coralie, what you mean."
"I shall speak out when the time comes. Once more, Cousin Edgar, be reasonable; save yourself—save me."
She withdrew some steps from me, and looked at me with her whole soul in her eyes.
"I will not hear another word, Coralie. I do not wish to offend you, or to speak harshly to you; but this I do say—if ever you mention this, to me, hateful subject, I will never voluntarily address you again—never while I live."
She made no answer. She turned, with a dignified gesture, and quitted the room.
I never gave one serious thought to her threats, looking upon them as the angry words of an angry woman. They did not even remain upon my mind or disturb my rest.
On the following day Lady Thesiger had arranged to come to Crown Anstey with Agatha, for the purpose of choosing from some very choice engravings that had been sent to me from London. I asked Sir John to accompany them and stay at lunch. It was always a red-letter day to me when my darling came to my house, and I remember this one—ah, me!—so well. It was fine, clear and frosty; the sky was blue; the sun shone with that clear gold gleam it has in winter; the hoar frost sparkled on the leafless trees and hedges; the ground was hard and seemed to ring beneath one's feet.
"A bright, clear day," said Coralie, as we sat at breakfast together.
"Yes," I replied. "Coralie, will you see that a good luncheon is served today? Sir John and Lady Thesiger are coming—Miss Thesiger, too—and they will remain for lunch."
Her face cleared and brightened.
"Coming today, are they? I am very glad."
I looked upon this as an amiable wish to atone for the unpleasantness of last night, and answered her in the same good spirit.
I am half ashamed to confess that when Agatha was coming I seldom did anything but stand, watch in hand, somewhere near the entrance gates. That I did today, and was soon rewarded by seeing the Harden carriage.
Ah, me! will the memory of that day ever die with me? My darling came and seemed to me more beautiful than ever. Her sweet, frank eyes looked into mine; her pure, beautiful face had a delicate flush of delight, and I—God help me!—forgot everything while by her side.
We were all in the library. How I thanked God afterward that Clare had not felt well enough to have the engravings sent to her room, as I proposed! We sat round the large center-table on which the folios lay open, Sir John, who took great delight in such things, explaining to Lady Thesiger. I was showing Agatha those I liked best, when quite unexpectedly, Coralie entered the room.
The moment I saw her face I knew that she meant mischief. Surely, woman's face never had so hard, so wicked a look before.
Sir John rose and bowed. Lady Thesiger looked, as she always did in the presence of mademoiselle, constrained and annoyed. Agatha's look was one of sheer surprise, for Coralie walked up to the table.
"Choosing engravings, Miss Thesiger?" she said, with an easy smile. "I must ask you to give me your attention for a short time. Perhaps you will not think the engravings of much importance after that."
She declined the chair Sir John placed for her with the hauteur of a grand duchess. As she stood there, calmly surveying us, she looked the most beautiful yet the most determined of women.
"May I ask," she said, "the exact date fixed for the marriage?"
Sir John answered her:
"The 26th of December, mademoiselle."
"May I ask," she said, "what Sir Edgar has thought of doing for me? Doubtless Lady Thesiger will have advised him. This has been my home for many years, and is my only home now. Has the question been considered? In the event of Sir Edgar bringing a young wife here, what is to become of me?"
There was a mocking smile on her beautiful face; her dark eyes flashed from one to the other of us; we felt uncomfortable. She had just hit upon the weak point that disturbed us all, the one cloud in a clear sky.
As no one else seemed inclined to speak, I answered:
"Everything will be done for your comfort, Coralie; you may be sure of that, for Sir Barnard's sake."
"And not for my own?" she said. "What is your idea of comfort, Sir Edgar? Do you propose offering me a little cottage and a few pounds per week? That would not content me."
She looked so imperial, so beautiful, that I wondered involuntarily what would content her, she who might have anything.
"Whatever you yourself think right, Coralie, you shall have."
I saw a strong disapproval in Lady Thesiger's face, and Coralie's quick eyes, following mine, read the same.
"Ah!" she said, hastily, "Lady Thesiger does not approve of carte blanche to ambitious cousins."
Lady Thesiger really restrained herself; she was tempted to speak—I saw that—but refrained.
"The best plan," said Sir John, calmly, "would be for Mademoiselle d'Aubergne to say what she herself wishes."
"I will tell you," she replied, "what I claim."
Then, as we looked up at her in wonder, she continued, with bland calmness:
"I claim as my own and right, on the part of my infant son, the whole of the estate and revenues of Crown Anstey. I claim, as widow of the late Miles Trevelyan, Esq., my share of all due to me at his death."
A thunder-bolt falling in our midst would not have alarmed us as those words did. Sir John looked sternly at her.
"In the name of heaven, what do you mean?"
"Just what I say, Sir John. I was the wife, and am now the widow, of the late Miles Trevelyan, Esq."
"But that is monstrous!" he cried. "Miles was never married."
"Miles was married to me, Sir John."
"But we must have proof; your word goes for nothing. There must be indisputable proof of such an assertion."
She smiled with quiet superiority.
"Knowing with whom I have to contend, it is not probable that I should assert anything false. I am prepared to prove everything I say."
My darling's face grew white as death. I was bewildered. If this were true—oh, my God! if it were true—fortune, love and everything else were lost.
"Where were you married?" asked Sir John.
"At Edgerton—St. Helen's, Edgerton. The Rev. Henry Morton married us, and the two witnesses were Sarah Smith, who was my maid, and Arthur Ireton, who was head game-keeper here at Crown Anstey."
It was so quickly told and so seemingly correct, we looked at each other in amaze.
"We must examine into it," said Sir John, "before going any further."
"That will be best," she replied, composedly. "I had better explain that Miles, poor fellow, fell in love with me the first time he saw me. Sir Barnard would not hear of such a thing. He told Miles that if he persisted in marrying me he would curse him. Perhaps he had his own reasons for not liking me. His son tried to obey him, but I am proud to say that the love Miles had for me was far stronger than fear of his father. Still, for pecuniary reasons he did not care to offend him, so we were married privately the second year of my stay at Crown Anstey."
She turned to Lady Thesiger with a mocking smile.
"I know perfectly well," she said, "why your ladyship has never liked me. You met me walking one evening with Miles Trevelyan in the Anstey woods; you saw him kiss me. You know, now, that he was my husband and had a right to kiss me if he chose."
Lady Thesiger bowed very stiffly.
"Two years after our marriage," Coralie continued, "my little son, called Rupert, after the Crusader Trevelyan, was born. Under the pretense of visiting some of my relations, I went to Lincoln. In the registry of the church of St. Morton Friars you will find the proper attestation of my son's birth."
"Where is that son?" asked Sir John, incredulously.
"At Lincoln. I can send for him. You can go there and see him; he is under the care of Sarah Smith, my nurse. He is living and well, and he, not Mr. Edgar, is the heir of Crown Anstey."
"But why," asked Sir John, incredulously, "why have you never told this story before? It seems incredible that you should have waited until now."
"I have my own reasons," she replied. "I waited first to see what Sir Edgar would be like; then, when I saw him—I—I need not be ashamed to own it, even before Miss Thesiger—I liked him, and if he had been reasonable I should never have told my story at all."
"That is," said Sir John, with supreme disgust, "if Edgar had been duped by you and had married you, you would have defrauded your son of his rights?"
"Yes," she replied, with a smile; "it is Crown Anstey I love, and I would rather be the wife than the mother of the master of Crown Anstey."
"You are a wicked woman," he said, sternly.
"I am a successful one," she retorted. "Pray, Sir John, examine all these proofs at your earliest convenience; I am anxious to take my place as mistress of my own house; I am anxious to have my child here in his own home."
We all rose; no words can express my emotions. It was not the fortune, God knows—not the fortune; but I knew when I lost that I lost Agatha.
I felt my face growing white as death itself and my hands trembled.
"One moment," I said. "A year ago the doctor told me if my sister kept up her strength, and had nothing to make her either anxious nor unhappy, she would in all probability recover. Now, whether this story be true or false, I pray you all, for God's sake, keep it from her!"
"I shall not mention it," said Coralie.
"Do not despair, Edgar," said Sir John. "I do not believe—I never shall!"
"I wrote to London last night," continued Coralie, "for Mr. Dempster, who was Sir Barnard's lawyer on one or two occasions. You, of course, Mr. Edgar Trevelyan, will retain the services of the family solicitors."
"I shall need no solicitors if your story be true. I shall not seek to defraud Miles' son of his birthright; I shall yield it to him."
"You will find it true in every particular," she said; "and remember always that it is your own fault I have told it."
With that parting shot she quitted the room.
"My poor boy," said Sir John, "this is a terrible blow to you."
"I am afraid," said Lady Thesiger, "that this abominable woman has spoken the truth. I always thought poor Miles had something on his mind—some secret. I told him so one day, and he did not deny it."
My darling came up to me with her sweet, pale face and outstretched hands.
"Never mind, Edgar," she said. "If you lose Crown Anstey I will try to love you all the more to make up for it."
What could I do but bless her and thank her? Yet I knew—God help me, I knew in losing my fortune I lost her!
The little party that had so gayly assembled in the old library broke up in the deepest gloom. Sir John was the only one who seemed at all incredulous.
"Rely upon it," he said, "that, after all, it is some trick of the French woman."
But Lady Thesiger had no such hope.
"I felt sure there was something wrong with Miles," she said. "He was not happy. He had married in haste and repented at leisure."
For my own part, I had no hope. Remembering the subtle, seductive beauty of the woman, I could well imagine Miles being led, even against himself, into a marriage or anything else.
When they were gone I went back to the library. I wanted to face this terrible blow alone, to realize the possibility that instead of being Sir Edgar Trevelyan, of Crown Anstey, wealthy, honored and powerful, I was Edgar Trevelyan, poor, homeless and penniless.
Could it be possible that after this life of ease, luxury and happiness, I was to fall back into the old position—hard, monotonous labor, with eighty pounds per annum?
It seemed too hard. Do not think any the worse of me, reader, if I own that the tears came into my eyes. It was bitterly hard.
Without warning Coralie entered the room. It must have been a triumph to her to see the tears in my eyes. She stood at some little distance from me.
"Edgar," she asked, "do you hate me?"
"No! I am too just to hate you for claiming what is your own. You ought to have told me before, Coralie. It has been most cruel to let me live in this delusive dream. If you had told me that night when I came here first, it would have been a momentary disappointment, but I should have gone back to my work none the worse for it."
"I might have done it, but I saw in this, my secret power, the means of winning you. Edgar, it is not too late even now. Make me mistress of Crown Anstey, and I will find the means of restoring your lost position to you."
I turned from her in unutterable loathing. She was so lost to all womanly honor and delicacy, my whole soul revolted against her.
"Not another word, Coralie. I would not take Crown Anstey from you if the alternative were death!"
"That is very decisive," she replied, with the mocking smile I dreaded. "We shall see."
"You will keep your word to me?" I cried, hastily. "You will say nothing to Clare? She will soon be well. I could not bear to have any obstacles thrown in the way of her recovery. When I leave her, my friends will make some arrangements to spare her the shock of knowing why—at least, for a time."
"I shall respect your wishes, Edgar. I have no desire to hurt your sister. She is quite safe, so far as I am concerned."
It may be imagined that I did not sleep very well that night. Early on the following morning Sir John rode over.
"The sooner we look into this affair the better," he said. "We will ride over to Edgerton today and examine the church register."
We did so. Alas! there was no mistake; the marriage had been celebrated on the 14th of June. The two witnesses, as she said, were Sarah Smith and Arthur Ireton. The marriage service had been performed by the Reverend Henry Morton.
The entry was perfectly regular, no flaw in it. Sir John's face fell as he read it.
"Now," he said, "the marriage laws in England are very strict; there is no evading them. If this marriage is perfectly legal we shall find an entry of it in the registrar's books. We must pay for a copy of the certificate."
We went to the registrar's office. There, sure enough, was the entry, all perfectly legal and straightforward.
"Now," said Sir John, "before we rest let us find out the Reverend Henry Morton, and see what he knows about it."
That involved a journey to Leamington, where he was then residing. We found him without difficulty. He remembered the marriage, and had no hesitation in answering any questions about it. He knew Miles Trevelyan, and had remonstrated with him over the marriage. But what could he do? Miles was of full age, and told him frankly that if he refused to marry him someone else would.
"I have been ill and occupied," he said, "and have heard nothing of the Trevelyans since I left Edgerton. However, if my evidence and solemn assurance are of any service, you have them. They were properly and legally married; nothing in the world can upset that fact."
"So it seems," said Sir John, with a deep sigh, "Edgar, you have lost Crown Anstey."
The next day I wrote to Moreland & Paine, asking one or both to come over at once. Mr. Paine arrived the same evening, and looked very grave when he was in full possession of the case. He had a long interview with Mrs. Trevelyan, as we called her now; also with her solicitor, Mr. Dempster. Then he sought me.
"This is a bad business, Mr. Trevelyan," he said; and by his ceasing to use the title, I knew he had given up all hope of my cause. "Of course," he continued, "you can go to law if you like, but I tell you quite honestly you have no chance. The evidence is clear and without a flaw; nothing can shake it. If you have a lawsuit you will lose it, and probably have to pay all costs."
I told him that I had no such intention; that if the estate were not legally mine, I had no wish to claim it.
"It was a very sad thing for you, Mr. Trevelyan. I am heartily grieved for you."
"I must bear it like a man. I am not the first who has lost a fortune."
But Sir John would not hear of my final arrangements until we had been to Lincoln and had seen the child.
"No one knows the depth of those French women," he said. "It is possible there may be no child. Let us take her by surprise this very day, and ask her to accompany us to the house where the nurse lives."
Both lawyers applauded the idea.
"If there be any imposture we are sure to find it out," they said.
Without a minute's loss of time, Mrs. Trevelyan was asked to join us in the library. She complied at once.
"We want you to go with us to Lincoln to show us the child," said Sir John, abruptly.
She consented at once so readily that I felt certain that our quest was useless. We started in an hour's time, my poor Clare being led to believe that we had gone to Harden on a visit.
We reached Lincoln about six o'clock at night. While we stood in the station waiting for a cab Mr. Paine turned suddenly to Coralie.
"What is the address?" he asked.
Again there was not a moment's hesitation.
"No. 6 Lime Cottages, Berkdale Road," she replied; and fast as a somewhat tired horse could take us we went there.
We reached the place at last; a row of pretty cottages that in summer must have been sheltered by the lime trees, and the door of No. 6 was quickly opened to us—opened by a woman with a pleasant face, who looked exceedingly astonished at seeing us. Coralie came forward.
"I had no time to write and warn you of this visit, Mrs. Smith. Be kind enough to answer any questions these gentlemen may wish to ask you."
We all made way for Mr. Paine. I shall never forget the group, the anxiety and suspense on each face.
"Have you a child here in your charge?" asked the lawyer.
But she looked at Coralie.
"Am I to answer, madam?"
"You are to answer any questions put to you; my story is known."
"Have you a child here in your charge?" he repeated.
"I have," she repeated.
"Who is it? Tell us in your own words, if you please."
"He is the son of the late Mr. Miles Trevelyan and his wife, who was Mademoiselle d'Aubergne."
"Where were they married?" he asked.
"They were married at the Church of St. Helen's, Edgerton. I was one witness; the other was Arthur Ireton, the head game-keeper."
"Where was this child born?" he asked again.
"Here, sir, at this house. Mrs. Trevelyan left home, it was believed, to visit some friends. She came here and took this house. I remained with her, and have had charge of little Master Rupert ever since."
He asked fifty other questions; they were answered with equal clearness and precision.
"Let us see the child," said Sir John, impatiently.
She went into the next room and brought out a lovely little boy. He was asleep, but at the sound of strange voices opened his eyes.
"Mamma!" he cried when he saw Coralie, and she took him in her arms.
Sir John looked earnestly at him.
"There is no mistake," he said; "we want no further evidence. I can tell by his face this is poor Miles' son."
He was a lovely, bright-eyed boy; he had Coralie's golden-brown hair, which fell in thick ringlets down his pretty neck.
"But it is Miles' face," Sir John repeated, and we did not doubt him. "There remains but one thing more to make the whole evidence complete. We must see the registration of the birth of the child, and it would be better to see the doctor who attended you, madam."
We did both on the following day. The registration of the child's birth was right, perfect and without a flaw.
The doctor, a highly respectable medical practitioner, offered us his evidence on oath.
There was nothing left, then, but to return to Crown Anstey and give up possession.
I loved the little boy. It was too absurd to feel any enmity against him. He was so bright and clever; it would have been unmanly not to have loved dead Miles' son.
Of Coralie Trevelyan I asked but one favor; that she would allow me one week in which to make some arrangement for Clare before she brought the young heir home. She cheerfully agreed to this.
"You bear your reverses very bravely," she said.
"Better than I bore prosperity," I replied, and that, God knows, was true.
This new trial had braced my nerves and made me stronger than I had ever been in my whole life before.
The arrangement made for my sister was one I knew not how to be grateful enough for. Lady Thesiger insisted that she should go to Harden and remain there until she was well.
"She need know nothing of your misfortune yet. We have but to say that she must be kept quiet and admit no visitors except such as we can trust to say nothing to her. Agatha and myself will take the greatest care of her, and when she has recovered we will break the news to her."
I was deeply grateful. It was all arranged without exciting my sister's suspicions. She told her that for many reasons it had been considered better to put off the marriage for some time; that I was going abroad for a year, and that she was to spend the year with Lady Thesiger.
She looked wistfully at me.
"It's all very sudden, Edgar. Are you sure it is for the best?"
I steadied my voice and told her laughingly it was all for the best.
She asked where Coralie would be, and I told her that when she returned from the visit she was paying she would remain at Crown Anstey.
There was not a dry eye among the servants when my sister was carried from the home where she had been so happy. Of course, they all knew the story—it had spread like wild fire all over the neighborhood—yet every one understood how vitally important it was that it should be kept from her.
Can I ever tell in words how kindly Lady Thesiger received her? True friends, they took no note of altered fortunes. My sister was comfortably installed in the charming rooms they had prepared for her. Her favorite maid was to stay with her.
Then came the agony I had long known must come. I must give up Agatha. How could I, who had not one shilling in my pocket, marry the daughter of Sir John Thesiger, a girl, delicate and refined, who had been brought up in all imaginable luxury? Let me work hard as I might, I could hardly hope to make two hundred a year. In all honor and in all conscience I was bound to give her up.
I had no prospect before me save that of returning to my former position as clerk. Agatha Thesiger must never be a clerk's wife, she who could marry any peer in the land!
Talk of waiting and hoping! I had nothing to hope for. The savings of my whole life would not keep her, as she had been kept, for even one year.
I must give her up. Ah, my God! It was hard—so bitterly hard! I told Sir John, and he looked wretched as myself.
"I see, I see. It is the only thing to be done. If I could give her a fortune you should not lose her; but I cannot, and she must not come to poverty."
Lady Thesiger wept bitterly over me.
"I foresaw it from the first," she said. "I knew it was not the loss of Crown Anstey, but the loss of Agatha, that would be your sorest trial."
Then I said "good-by" to her whom I had hoped so soon to call my wife. I kissed her white face and trembling hands for the last time.
But the dear soul clung to me, weeping.
"You may say you must leave me a thousand times, Edgar, but I shall never be left. I shall wait for you; and if it be never in your power to claim me, I shall marry no other man. I will be yours in death as in life."
And though I tried to shake her resolution, I knew that it would be so. I knew that no other man would ever call her wife.
The day before I left, Mrs. Trevelyan, with her little Sir Rupert, took possession of the Hall. She must have found many thorns in her path, for, although she had attained her heart's desire, and was now mistress of Crown Anstey, she was shunned and disliked by all the neighborhood.
"An adventuress," they called her, and as such refused to receive her into their society. Perhaps she had foreseen this when she wished to marry me.
By Sir John's influence, the post of secretary was found for me with an English nobleman residing in Paris. I was to live in the house; my duties were sufficiently onerous, and I was to receive a salary of one hundred and fifty pounds per annum; so that, after all, I was better off than I had once expected to be.
I bade farewell to Agatha, to Clare, to my kind friends Sir John and Lady Thesiger. God knew the grief that filled my heart; I cannot describe it.
On my road to the station I met the Crown Anstey carriage. Mrs Trevelyan bowed to me from it. She was taking a drive with the little Sir Rupert.
"God bless the child!" I said, as his little face smiled from the carriage window. "God bless him and send him a happy life!"
It took me some little time to settle down to my new life. My employer, Lord Winter, lived in the Champs Elysees. He preferred Paris to England, because it was brighter and gayer. I often wondered how that mattered to him, for he lived only in his books.
I was required to assist him in making extracts, answering letters, searching for all kinds of odd information, and I do believe I learned more in that time than I should have done in a lifetime differently spent.
I became reconciled to it after a hard struggle. From Harden Manor I constantly received the kindest letters. Agatha wrote to me, and although the word "love" seldom occurred in her letters, I knew her heart was, and always would be mine. She would never forget me, nor would that crown of all sorrows be mine—I should never have to give her up to a wealthier rival. Although she said nothing of the kind in her letters, I felt that it was true.
A year passed, and at last came good tidings of my sister; she was able to sit up, even to walk across the room, and the doctor said that in another month she would in all probability be able to take her place in the world again.
How that gladdened my heart! Lady Thesiger said she had not the least idea yet of the change in my fortunes, although she wondered incessantly why I was absent.
"Have no fear for your sister's future," wrote kind Lady Thesiger. "While Agatha lives at home she is a most charming companion for her. Should she ever leave home, she would be the same to me. We shall only be too happy if she will spend the rest of her life at Harden Manor."
I was grateful for that. Now, then, fate seemed kinder. I could fight through for myself, providing that my fragile, delicate Clare was safely taken care of.
Another six months passed. Clare knew all then and was resigned. God had been very good to her. She could walk; distance did not fatigue her, and the doctors thought it was very unlikely that the same disease would attack her again.
She wrote and told me about it.
"I was out yesterday," she said, "with Agatha, and we met the Crown Anstey carriage. Coralie was most gracious—overwhelmed me with congratulations, invited me to the Hall. And I saw little Sir Rupert. He is so bright and beautiful—the most princely boy I ever beheld. 'I am going to have a white pony,' he said to me, and I kissed him, Edgar, with all my heart. Coralie inquired very minutely after you, and asked me if I owed her any ill-will for what she had done. I said no, not in the least, and that I hoped little Sir Rupert would live to make her very happy. I am not quite sure, but I think there were tears glistening in her eyes when she drove away."
Some weeks afterward I received the following letter from Mrs. Trevelyan:
"My Dear Edgar—Once again, I address you—once again, setting pride and all things aside, I offer you Crown Anstey. You have been away some time now, and know how different is your present hard life from the happy, luxurious one you led here. Your engagement with Miss Thesiger is, of course, broken off. I hear she has a wealthy suitor—Lord Abberley. It will be a good match for her. Edgar, you will find no one in the world so true to you as myself. See, I forgot all the past. Once more I offer you my love, my hand, and with it, until my son is of age, Crown Anstey. I never intended you to give it up as you have done. I always wished to offer yourself and your sister an income sufficient for your maintenance. I have not done so before because I hoped that poverty would seem so hateful to you you would gradually come to think better of my offer. Is it so, Edgar? Will you recognize my love, my fidelity, my devotion at last? One word and all your troubles cease, you are back again in the beautiful old home, and I am happy. Only one word. From your ever loving, devoted
I need not repeat my answer. It was, No! I was no more free, no more inclined to return to Crown Anstey than I had been to remain there.
After that there was a long silence. Agatha told me herself all about Lord Abberley; that he had been very kind to her, was very fond of her, but she had told him our story, and he had most generously forborne to press his suit.
Time was doing much for me; every hour was golden in its acquisition of blanks in my life were filled by books. God sent every one the same comfort I had.
[Transcriber's note: One or more lines appear to be missing from the previous paragraph.]
It was just three years since I had left Crown Anstey. Lord Winter told me I should have some weeks to myself, but he was so incessantly occupied I never liked to ask for them.
I had never seen or heard anything of Crown Anstey since I left it. At Harden Manor all was the same, unchanged and unaltered.
One morning, when I went into the library, a letter lay waiting for me. I saw that it was Coralie's handwriting, and my first impulse was to burn it unread. Why should she write to me again? Her letters only pained me. I threw it aside and began to work—in the busy occupation of the morning I forgot all about it.
I did not open it until evening. It was from Coralie, but it only held these few words:
"Edgar—My boy—my beautiful boy—is dying. Come to me; for if I lose him I shall die, too. In my distress I would rather have you near me than any one else.
Was it true, or was it an invention? Poor little Rupert dying! Why, no one had even told me he was ill. Perhaps I had better go. No mother could be so cold and so wicked as to feign death for her only child.
Lord Winter raised no objections.
"It was not very convenient," he said, but of course he "must bow to necessity."
I was in time to catch the mail train. Eight o'clock found me the next morning in London, and, without waiting for rest or refreshment, I started at once for Crown Anstey.
It was only too true. I found my old home full of the wildest confusion; women were weeping and wringing their hands—the whole place was in disorder.
I was shown into the library, and in a few minutes Coralie came to me. I hardly recognized her; her face was white, her eyes were dim with long watching and bitter tears.
"I knew you would come," she said. "He is dying, Edgar; nothing in the world can save him. Come with me."
I followed her to the pretty chamber where little Sir Rupert lay. Yes, he was dying, poor child! He lay on the pretty, white bed; a grave-faced doctor was near; the nurse, Sarah Smith, sat by his side.
His mother went up to him.
"No better! No change!" she cried, wringing her hands. "Oh, my God! must I lose him? Must he die?"
He was my unconscious rival; his little life stood between me and all I valued most, yet I knelt and prayed God, as I had never prayed before, that He would spare him. I would have given Crown Anstey twice over for that life; but it was not to be.
"Do not disturb him with cries," said the doctor to his mother; "he has not long to live."
She knelt by his side in silence, her face colorless as that of a marble statue, the very picture of desolation, the very image of woe.
So for some minutes we sat; the little breath grew fainter and more feeble, the gray shadow deepened on the lovely face.
"Mamma!" he cried. "I see! I see!"
She bent over him, and at that moment he died.
I can never forget it—the wild, bitter anguish of that unhappy woman, how she wept, how she tore her hair, how she called her child back by every tender name a mother's love could invent.
It was better, the doctor said, that the first paroxysm of grief should have full vent. All attempts at comfort and consolation were unavailing. I raised her from the ground, and when she saw my face she cried:
"Oh, Edgar! Edgar! it is my just punishment!"
I did my best to console her. I told her that her little child would be better off in heaven than were he master of fifty Crown Ansteys. But I soon found that my words fell on deaf ears; she was unconscious.
"I do not like the look of Mrs. Trevelyan," said the doctor. "I should not be surprised to find that she has caught the fever herself. If so, in her present state of agitation, it will go hard with her."
He was right; before sunset Coralie lay in the fierce clutches of the fever, insensible to everything.
I do not like dwelling on this part of the story; it is so long, long since it all happened, but the memory of it stings like a sharp pain.
Clare came to nurse her, and everything that human science and skill could suggest was done to save her. It was all in vain.
We buried the little child on the Tuesday morning, when the sun was shining and the birds were singing in the trees, and on the Saturday they told us his mother could not live.
It was early on the dawn of the Sunday morning when they sent for me. She was dying, and wished to speak to me.
I went into her room. Clare knelt by her side. She turned her white face to me with a smile.
"Edgar," she said, "I am glad you have come. I want to—to die in your arms. Bend down to me," she whispered. "I want to speak to you. Will you forgive me? I can see now how wrong I was, how wicked to love you so much, and how wicked to tell you so. Will you forgive me, and now that I am dying say one kind word to me, and tell me you can respect me in death?"
I pillowed that dying head on my arm, and told her I should only remember of her what had been kind and good.
"You will only remember that I loved you, Edgar, not that I was unwomanly and wicked?"
"I will forget everything, except that you were my dear cousin and dear friend."
"You will marry Agatha," she said, faintly, "and bring her home here. I hope you will be happy; but, oh! Edgar—Edgar—when she is your wife, and you are so happy together, you will not forget me; you will stroll out sometimes when the dew is falling to look at my grave and say, 'Poor Coralie! how well she loved me—so well—so dearly!' You will do that, Edgar?"
My tears were falling warm and fast on her face.
"Are these your tears? Then you care a little for me. Ah, then, I am willing to die!"
And so, with her head pillowed on my arm, and a smile on her lips, she died.
We buried her by the side of Miles Trevelyan. After life's fitful fever she sleeps well.
From the first hour of her illness the doctor had no hope for her. I learned afterward that for some time before the child took the fever she had been ailing and ill.
It was such a strange life. Thinking over it afterward, it seemed to me more like romance than reality.
A year passed before the dream of my life was fulfilled and Agatha came to Crown Anstey. I need not to say how happy we were.
Lady Trevelyan is the most beloved and popular lady in the county; our children are growing up good and happy; we have not a care or trouble in the world, and the sharpest pain I have is the memory of Coralie.