"He believes with the rest of them?"
"Everybody believes alike. I never heard of one who thought that he did not do it."
"Yes, and that was, perhaps, for your sake," said Clara, affectionately.
"And I suppose that I believe in him for his own sake."
"That is natural; but will people think that it is logical?"
"No, they won't," said Lettice, "at all events, not at first. But, gradually perhaps, they will. I am perfectly convinced that Alan did not stab his wife—because I feel it with a force that amounts to conviction. You see, I know his character, his past history, the character and history of his wife, the circumstances in which they were placed at the time. I am sure he is innocent, and I am going to act up to it. Alan will live down this horrible accusation and punishment—he will not give way, but will keep his self-respect, and will do infinitely better work for all the torture he has gone through. And our hope must be this—that when the world sees him stronger than ever, stronger in every way, and doing stronger work in his vocation, it will come to believe in him, one by one, beginning with us, until his vindication is brought about, not by legal proof, which is impossible, but by the same feeling and conviction which to-day only draw two weak women to the side of an unhappy and discredited man."
"Are you calling yourself a weak woman? You have the strength of a martyr, and in days when they used to burn women you would have chosen to be a martyr."
"I am not so sure. It is one thing to do what one likes, but quite another thing to burn, which no one likes."
"Well, you are very brave, and you will succeed as you deserve. But not at first."
"No, not at first. The hardest task will be with Alan, who has been in despair all these months, and at death's door with fever. He will come out weak, helpless, hopeless; there will be constant danger of a relapse; and, even if he can be made to forget his despair, it will be very difficult to restore him to cheerfulness." Her eyes filled with pitying tears as she spoke.
"Only one thing can do that!" Clara stroked her friend's bright brown hair, and kissed her on the cheek. "With you for his doctor he will soon be well."
"Only two things can do it—a joy greater than his sorrow, and a self-respect greater than his self-abasement."
Lettice stood up; and the far reaching look that Clara knew so well came into the true and tender grey eyes, strong with all the rapt purpose of a devoted woman. Her resolutions were forming and strengthening as she went on. She had been guided by instinct and feeling, but they were guiding her aright.
There was one thing more in which Clara was a help to her. She took her to an old woman, the mother of her own parlor-maid, exceptionally clean and respectable, whom Lettice engaged to go at once to Bute Lodge, taking a younger daughter with her, and make everything ready for the morrow.
"I shall come and see you soon," said Clara, as they wished each other good-bye.
"Do! And if you can convert your husband——"
"If not, it will not be for want of trying."
It was evening before Lettice was at her lodging again. She had done all that she could think of—made every preparation and taken every precaution—and now there was nothing left but to wait until the appointed hour should strike, and Alan should be a free man again.
One concession she made to Mrs. Graham's sense of propriety. There was an old lady who had once been Clara's governess—a gentle, mild-tongued, unobservant person, who was greatly in want of a home. Mrs. Alison was easily induced to promise the support of her presence to Lettice during the days or weeks which Lettice hoped to spend at Bute Lodge. She was a woman of unimpeachable decorum and respectability, and her presence in the house would, in Clara's opinion, prove a bulwark against all dangers; but, although evil tongues might be silenced by the fact of her presence, the old lady was singularly useless in the capacity of chaperon. She was infirm, a little deaf, and very shy; but her presence in the house was supposed to be a sop to Cerberus, in the person of Mrs. Grundy, and Clara was less afraid for her friend than she had been before Mrs. Alison was installed at Bute Lodge.
FROM PRISON TO PARADISE.
Punctually at ten o'clock on the 29th of October a brougham drove up to the gates of the prison in which Alan Walcott had spent his six months of retreat from the world; and almost immediately Alan made his appearance, leaning on the arm of a warder.
Lettice hurried to meet him, displacing the warder with a few words of thanks, and repressing with an effort the painful throbbing of her heart and throat. The sight of his shrunken form and hollow eyes, as he looked at her with pathetic and childlike trust, for a moment took away all her strength; but when his hand was laid upon her arm, and she accommodated her steps to his slow and unsteady movements, he found in her no trace of the weakness she had overcome.
It was clear that he had not yet made a good recovery from his fever. Lettice's last little qualm of doubt as to the use or need for what she had done disappeared as she saw this wreck of the man whom she loved—whom she believed to be innocent of offense and persecuted by an evil fate. What might have become of him if he had been left to crawl out of his prison into the cold and censorious world, without a friend, a hope, or an interest in life? What lowest depth of despair might he not have touched if in such a plight as this he should be found and tortured anew by his old enemy, whose cruelty was evidently not assuaged by the sufferings she had heaped upon him? Who now would say that he had no need of succor, that her service was unasked, unwarranted, unwomanly, that the duty of a pure and delicate soul was to leave him either to his own wife or to the tender mercies of strangers?
The carriage was piled with cushions and shawls, the day was bright and warm, Lettice was full of light gossip and cheerfulness, and Alan had reason to think that he had never had a more delightful drive.
"Where are you taking me?" he said, with a smile of restful gratitude, which clearly implied, "I do not care where it is, so long as I am taken by you!"
"You are going to a convalescent home, where you will be the only patient. If you obey the rules, you may get well in a month, and the first rule is that you are not to ask questions, or to think about unpleasant things."
"Are you my nurse?"
"That is the first breach of rules! They are very strict at this home, I can tell you!"
She spoke in a playful mood, but it left him with the impression that he was really being taken to a "home" of some kind, where he was to be nursed until he was well. He had no objection to make. He would have gone anywhere with equal pleasure, if he could be sure that she would be there to look after him. His one thought in prison, when he lay in the grip of fever, was that he must surely die before his sentence had run out. That was his hope and belief from day to day; and only when he heard that Lettice had come and made inquiries about him, and promised to fetch him as soon as he was released, did any real desire for life return to him. Now, in her presence, he was so completely happy that he forgot all his former sufferings and despair.
Weak as he was, he would have found words to tell her of his gratitude—and of much more than gratitude; but this because of, not in spite of, weakness—if she had not carefully checked him whenever he tried to speak. Fortunately, it was not at all hard to check him. He was infirm in mind as in body. Apart from the illness, which sapped his energies and paralyzed his power of thought, he had never thrown off the cloud of callous and despairing indifference which fell upon him after the fatal scene in Surrey Street. Add to this that the surrender of his independence to Lettice was in itself a pleasure to him, and we need not wonder that her self-imposed task seemed to her fairly easy of accomplishment.
At Bute Lodge they found everything very nice and comfortable. Mrs. Jermy and Mrs. Beadon (as Milly was to be called), who had come earlier in the morning with a cabful of yesterday's purchases, had carried out Lettice's instructions to the letter. The best room in the house looked out upon a delightful garden landscape—two borders, backed by well-grown box and bay-trees, holly, Irish yews, and clambering roses, with a lessening crowd of herbaceous plants in front, dwindling down to an edge of brilliant annuals on either side; and between these a long and level lawn, broken near the house by a lofty deodara, and ending in a bowling-green, and a thickly-planted bank of laurels, beyond which lay a far-off vista of drooping fruit-trees. The garden was reached through a small conservatory built outside a French window at one end of the room, and a low verandah ran along the remainder of the garden front.
Inside, all was as Lettice had planned it. A square writing table in front of the window was covered with a dozen of the books which had made most noise during the past season, with the November magazines, and the weekly papers which Alan had been wont to read. Milly had cut them all over night, and here they lay, with an easy-chair beside them, ready to tempt the student when he felt inclined and able to read. That was not just yet; but Alan saw the pile, and darted at his guardian angel another look of gratitude from his lustrous, melancholy eyes.
"Why, here," he said, looking round the room and out upon the garden, "a man must get well only too soon! I shall steadily refuse to mend."
"You will not be able to help yourself," said Lettice. "Now you are going to be left alone——"
"For half an-hour at the very least. All this floor belongs to you, and you are to have nothing to do with stairs. When you want anything you are to ring this bell, and Milly, whom you saw when we came in, will attend on you. Here, on this sideboard, are wine, and biscuits, and jelly, and grapes. Sit down and let me give you a glass of wine. We will have some lunch at one, tea at four, and dinner at seven—but you are to be eating grapes and jelly in between. The doctor will come and see you every morning."
"Why, the doctor of the Establishment, to be sure!"
"Oh, this is an Establishment?"
"It is more rational in its plan than some I have heard of, since it takes in your nurse and your nurse's maid. Will this precious doctor dine with us?"
"This precious! You are to have great faith in your doctor; but I am sorry to say he will not be able to dine with us. He has other occupations, you see; and for company I am afraid you will have to be content with such as your nurse may be disposed to give you!"
Before he could say anything else, she had left the room.
He was alone—alone and happy.
Straight from prison to paradise. That was what the morning's work meant for him, and he could not think with dry eyes of the peri who had brought him there.
Oh, the bitterness of that dungeon torture, when his heart had been branded with shame and seared with humiliation; when he had sworn that life had no more hope or savor for him, and the coming out from his cell had seemed, by anticipation, worse than the going in!
This was the coming out, and he was already radiant with happiness, oblivious of suffering, hopeful of the future. It was enough, he would not probe it, he would not peer into the dark corners of his prospect; he would simply realize that his soul had been lost, that it had been found by Lettice, and that it was hers by right of trover, as well as by absolute surrender.
The mid-day sun shone in at his window and tempted him to the verandah outside. Here he found one of those chairs, delightful to invalids and lazy men, which are constructed of a few crossed pieces of wood and a couple of yards of sacking, giving nearly all the luxury of a hammock without its disturbing element of insecurity. And by its side, wonderful, to relate, there was a box of cigarettes and some matches. Since they were there, he might as well smoke one. His last smoke was seven or eight months ago—quite long enough to give a special relish to this particular roll of Turkish tobacco.
As he lay back in his hammock chair, and sent one ring chasing another to the roof of the verandah, he heard a step on the gravel beneath him. Lettice, with a basket in one hand and a pair of scissors in the other, was collecting flowers and leaves for her vases. Unwilling to leave him too much alone, until she saw how he would bear his solitude, she had come out into the garden by a door at the other end of the house, and presently, seeing him in the verandah, approached with a smile.
"Do I look as if I were making myself at home?" he said.
"As soon as I began to smoke, all kinds of things came crowding into my mind."
"Not unpleasant things, I hope?" She said this quickly, being indeed most afraid lest he should be tempted to dwell on the disagreeable past.
"No, almost all pleasant. And there are things I want to say to you—that I must say to you, very soon. Do you think I can take for granted all you have done, and all you are doing for me? Let me come down and join you!"
"No!" she said, with a great deal of firmness in her gesture and tone. "You must not do anything of the kind until the doctor has seen you; and besides, we can speak very well here."
The verandah was only a few feet above the ground, so that Lettice's head was almost on a level with his own.
"There is no difficulty about speaking," she went on, "but I want you to let me have the first word, instead of the last. This is something I wanted to say to you, but I did not know how to manage it before. It is really very important that you should not fatigue or excite yourself by talking, and the doctor will tell you so when he comes. Now if you think that you have anything at all to thank me for, you will promise not to speak to me on any personal matters, not even your own intentions for the future, for one clear month from to-day! Don't say it is impossible, because, you see, it is as much as my place (as nurse) is worth to listen to you! If you will promise, I can stay; and if you will not promise, I must go away."
"That is very hard!"
"But it is very necessary. You promise?"
"Have I any choice? I promise."
"Thank you!" She said this very earnestly, and looked him in the eyes with a smile which was worth a faggot of promises.
"But you don't expect me to be deaf and dumb all the time?" said Alan.
"No, of course not! I have been told that you ought to be kept as cheerful as possible, and I mean to do what I can to make you so. Do you like to be read to!"
"Yes, very much."
"Then I will read to you as long as you please, and write your letters, and—if there were any game——"
"Ah, now, if by good luck you knew chess?"
"I do know chess. I played my father nearly every evening at Angleford."
"What a charming discovery! And that reminds me of something. Is there any reason why I should not write to Mr. Larmer? He has some belongings of mine, for one thing, which I should like him to send me, including a set of chess-men."
"No reason at all. But you ought not to write or talk of business, if you can help it, until you are quite strong."
"Well, then, I won't. I will ask him to send what I want in a cab; and then, when I am declared capable of managing my own affairs, I will go into town and see him. But the fact is, that I really feel as well as ever I did in my life!"
"You may feel it, but it is not the case."
And later in the day, Alan was obliged to confess that he had boasted too soon, for there was a slight return of fever, and the doctor whom Lettice had called in was more emphatic than she had been as to the necessity for complete rest of mind and body.
So for the next week he was treated quite as an invalid, to his great disgust. Then he fairly turned the corner, and things began to change for the better again. Lettice read to him, talked, played chess, found out his tastes in music and in art (tastes in some respects a little primitive, but singularly fine and true, in spite of their want of training), and played his favorite airs for him on the piano—some of Mendelssohn's plaintive Lieder, the quainter and statelier measures of Corelli and Scarlatti, snatches of Schumann and Grieg, and several older and simpler melodies, for most of which he had to ask by humming a few bars which had impressed themselves on his memory.
As the month wore itself out, the success of Lettice's experiment was in a fair way of being justified. She had charmed the evil spirit of despair from Alan's breast, and had won him back to manly resistance and courageous effort. With returning bodily strength came a greater robustness of mind, and a resolution—borrowed, perhaps, in the first instance, from his companion—to be stronger than his persecutors, and rise superior to his troubles.
In the conversations which grew out of their daily readings, Lettice was careful to draw him as much as possible into literary discussions and criticisms, and Alan found himself dwelling to an appreciative listener on certain of his own ideas on poetic and dramatic methods. There is but a step from methods to instances; and when Lettice came into his room one morning—she never showed herself before mid-day—she saw with delight on the paper before him an unmistakable stream of verses meandering down the middle of the sheet.
He had set to work! Then he was saved—saved from himself, and from the ghouls that harbor in a desolate and outraged mind.
If, beyond this, you ask me how she had gained her end, and done the good thing on which she had set her heart, I cannot tell you, any more than I could make plain the ways in which nature works to bring all her great and marvelous mysteries to pass. Lettice's achievement, like her resolution, argued both heart and intellect. Alan would not have yielded to anyone else, and he yielded to her because he loved her with the feelings and the understanding together. She had mastered his affections and his intelligence at the same time: she left him to hunger and thirst up to the moment of his abject abasement, and then she came unasked, unhoped, from her towering height to his lowest deep, and gave him—herself!
"Do you remember," he said to her once, when he had got her to talk of her successful story, "that bit of Browning which you quote near the end? Did you ever think that I could be infatuated enough to apply the words to myself, and take comfort from them in my trouble?"
She blushed and trembled as he looked at her for an answer.
"I meant you to do it!".
"And I knew you meant it!" he said, not without a dangerous touch of triumph in his voice. "If I were a little bolder than I am, I would carry you to another page of the poet whom we love, and ask if you ever remembered the words of Constance—words that you did not quote——"
Ten times more deeply she blushed at this, knowing almost by instinct the lines of which he thought. Had he not asked her to read "In a Balcony" to him the night before, and had she not found it impossible to keep her voice from trembling when she read Constance's passionate avowal of her love?
"I know the thriftier way Of giving—haply, 'tis the wiser way; Meaning to give a treasure, I might dole Coin after coin out (each, as that were all, With a new largess still at each despair), And force you keep in sight the deed, preserve Exhaustless till the end my part and yours, My giving and your taking; both our joys Dying together. Is it the wiser way? I choose the simpler; I give all at once. Know what you have to trust to trade upon! Use it, abuse it—anything, but think Hereafter, 'Had I known she loved me so, And what my means, I might have thriven with it.' This is your means. I give you all myself."
And in truth, that was the gift which Lettice offered to him—a gift of herself without stint or grudging, a gift complete, open-handed, to be measured by his acceptance, not limited by her reservation, Alan knew it; knew that absolute generosity was the essence of her gift, and that this woman, so far above him in courage, and self-command, and purity, scorned to close her fingers on a single coin of the wealth which she held out to him. And he, like Norbert, answered reverently: "I take you and thank God."
For just because he knew it, and was penetrated to the core by her munificence, he took the draught of love as from a sacred chalice, which a meaner nature would have grasped as a festal goblet. He might have grasped it thus, and the sacramental wine would have been a Circe's potion, and Lettice would have given her gift in vain. But nature does not so miscalculate her highest moods. "Spirits are not finely touched but to fine issues." Lettice's giving was an act of faith, and her faith was justified.
This was the true source of Alan's self-respect, and from self-respect there came a strength greater and more enduring than he had ever known before. Redeemed from the material baseness of his past when he changed the prison cell for Lettice's ennobling presence, he was now saved from the mental and moral feebleness to which he might have sunk by the ordeal through which his soul had passed.
Lettice felt that her work was accomplished, and she was supremely happy. When Clara Graham kept her promise, and came to see her friend—though she had not been able to bring her husband with her—she was struck by the blithe gaiety of Lettice's looks and words.
"There is no need to tell me that you are satisfied!" she said, kissing the tender cheeks, and gazing with wistful earnestness into the eyes that so frankly and bravely met her own.
"Satisfied?" Lettice answered, with something like a sigh. "I never dreamed that satisfaction could be so complete."
When Alan came in, and Clara, who had expected to see a face lined and marred with sorrow, found that he too had caught the radiance of unblemished happiness, she felt that Lettice had not spent her strength in vain. And she went home and renewed her efforts to make her husband see things as she saw them, and to give Alan Walcott his countenance in the literary world.
But that was a task of no slight difficulty. James Graham had always believed Walcott guilty of a barbarous attack on his wife; he thought that he had been lightly punished, and would not admit that he was to be received when he came out of prison as though he had never been sent there. When Clara told him of Lettice's audacity he was terribly shocked—as indeed were all who heard the story—and his resentment against Alan increased. The news that they were happy together did not produce the good effect upon his temper which Clara thought it might have done.
It was Lettice herself who tackled Mrs. Hartley. She wrote her a long and candid letter, very apologetic as regarded her conduct in Italy, but quite the opposite when she spoke of what she had done since she came back to London. The answer was short, but much to the point.
"I thought you would write to me," Mrs. Hartley said, in her note. "I should hardly have forgiven you if you had not. There is some of your letter which I cannot understand, and some which I do not quite agree with. But come and explain it to me. I am an old woman, and have no time to be angry with those I love. Come on Thursday afternoon—alone—and we will have a good talk."
So Lettice went, and made her peace with her old friend, and was admitted to her favor again. But Alan was on probation still. The last thing which he would have expected, or indeed desired, was that he should be received and treated by his former acquaintance as though nothing had happened since he was a welcome guest in their houses. Especially as he and Lettice had not yet settled the question which all their friends were asking: "How would it end?"
MISTRESS AND MAID.
Poor Milly Harrington had faithfully kept her promise of amendment. She was as loyal and serviceable to her mistress as any one could be, and evidently did her utmost to show her gratitude to Lettice, studying her tastes, and, as far possible, anticipating her wishes. But it was plain that she was not happy. When not making an effort to be cheerful as part of her daily duty, she would sit brooding over the past and trembling for the future; and, though she tried to conceal her hopeless moods, they had not altogether escaped notice.
Lettice was troubled by Milly's unhappiness. She had taken deep pity on the girl, and wanted, for more reasons than one, to save her from the worst consequences of her mistakes. To see her, in common parlance, "going to the bad"—ruined in body and in soul—would have been to Lettice, for Sydney's sake, a burden almost heavier than she could bear. For this reason had she brought the girl up to London and taken her into her own service again; and from day to day she watched her with kindly interest and concern.
Milly's good looks could scarcely be said to have come back to her, for she was still thin and haggard, with the weary look of one to whom life has brought crushing sorrow and sickness of heart. But her eyes were pretty, and her face, in spite of its worn expression, was interesting and attractive. Lettice was hardly surprised, although a little startled, to find her talking one day in a somewhat confidential manner to a man of highly respectable appearance who was walking across the Common by her side as she came home one day from a shopping expedition. It was, perhaps, natural that Milly should have acquaintances. But Lettice felt a sudden pang of anxiety on the girl's account. She did not know whether she had been seen, and whether it was her duty to speak to her maid about it; but her hesitation was ended by Milly herself, who came to her room that night, and asked to speak with her.
"I saw you to-day, Miss Lettice, when I was out," said Milly, coloring with the effort of speech.
"Did you? Yes? You were with a friend—I suppose?"
"I wanted to tell you about him," said Milly, nervously. "It's not a friend of mine, it was a messenger—a messenger from him."
Lettice sat speechless.
"He does not know what has become of me; and he set this man—his clerk—to find out. He wants to send me some money—not to see me again. He was afraid that I might be—in want."
"And what have you done, Milly?"
"I said I would not take a penny. And I asked the clerk—Mr. Johnson, they call him—not to say that he had seen me. I didn't tell him where I lived."
"Did he say that he would not tell his master?"
"Yes, he promised. I think he will keep his word. He seemed—kind—sorry for me, or something."
"You were quite right, Milly. And I would not speak to the man again if I were you. He may not be so kind and friendly as he seems. I am glad you have told me."
"I couldn't rest till I had spoken. I was afraid you might think harm of me," said the girl, flushing scarlet again, and twisting the corner of her apron.
"I will not think harm of you if you always tell me about your acquaintances as you have done to-day," said Lettice with a smile. "Don't be afraid, Milly. And—if you will trust to me—you need not be anxious about the future, or about the child. I would rather that you did not take money from anyone but myself for your needs and hers. I have plenty for you both."
Milly could not speak for tears. She went away sobbing, and Lettice was left to think over this new turn of affairs. Was Sydney's conscience troubling him, she wondered, after all?
This was early in November, soon after she came to Bute Lodge, and as the time went on, she could not but notice that the signs of trouble in Milly's face increased rather than diminished. Lettice had a suspicion also that she had not managed to get rid of the man with whom she had been walking on the Common. She was sure that she saw him in the neighborhood more than once, and although he never, to her knowledge, spoke to Milly or came to the house, she saw that Milly sometimes looked unusually agitated and distressed. It was gradually borne in upon Lettice's mind that she had better learn a little more of the girl's story, for her own sake; and coming upon her one day with the signs of trouble plainly written on her face, Lettice could not forbear to speak.
Milly was sitting in a little dressing-room, with some needlework in her hand. The baby was sleeping in a cradle at her side. She sprang up when Lettice entered; but Lettice made her sit down again, and then sat down as well.
"What is it, Milly? Is there anything wrong that I don't know of? Come, don't give way. I want to help you, but how can I do that unless you tell me everything?"
"There is nothing to tell except what you know," said Milly, making an effort to command herself. "But, sometimes, when I think of it all, I can't help giving way. I did not mean you to see it though, miss."
"I have never asked you any questions, Milly, about all that happened after you left me, and I do not want to know more than you wish to tell me. But don't you think I might do something to place matters on a better footing, if I knew your circumstances a little better?"
"Oh, I could never—never tell you all!" said Milly hiding her face.
"Don't tell me all then. You have called yourself Mrs. Beadon so far. You have heard nothing of Mr. Beadon lately except what you told me the other day?"
"Only what Mr. Johnson said." Milly averted her head and looked at her child. "The name," she went on in a low voice, "the name—is not—not Beadon."
"Never mind the name. Perhaps it is as well that you should not tell me. When did you see him last?"
"Never since May?"
"Not once." Milly hung her head and played with the ring on her finger. "He does not want to see me again!" she broke out almost bitterly.
"Perhaps it is better for you both that he should not. But I will not ask any more," said Lettice. "I can understand that it must be very painful, either to tell me your story or to conceal it."
"I hate to conceal it from you!" Milly said passionately. "Oh, I wish I had never seen him, and never listened to him! Yet it was my fault—I have nobody to blame but myself. I have never forgiven myself for deceiving you so!"
"Ah, if that were the worst, there would not be much to grieve about!"
"I almost think it is the worst. Miss Lettice, may I really tell you my story—all, at least, that it would be right for you to hear?"
"If you would like to tell me, do! Perhaps I can help you in some way when I know more."
"There are some things I should like you to understand," said Milly, hesitatingly, "though not because it will take away the blame from me—nothing can do that. When I first knew Mr. Beadon (I'll call him so, please), I was very giddy and foolish. I longed to see the world, and thought that all would go well with me then. I don't know where I picked up the idea, but I had read stories about beautiful women who had had wonderful good fortune, through nothing at all but their looks—and people had told me I was beautiful—and I was silly enough to think that I could do great things, as well as those I had read about. I suppose they must have been very clever and witty—or, perhaps, they had more luck. I wanted to be free and independent; and I am afraid I was ready to listen to any one who would flatter my vanity, as—as Mr. Beadon did."
"When did he first begin to say these things to you? Was it after you came to London?"
"Yes—not long after. He was above me in station, and very handsome, and proud; and when he began to speak to me, though I was all the time afraid of him, and uneasy when I spoke to him, my head was fairly turned. It shows I was not meant to shine in the world, or I should not have been so uneasy when I spoke to him. For some time he said nothing out of the way—only kind words and flattery; but when he found what I had set my heart on, he was always telling me that I was fit to be a great lady, and to make a noise in the world. That set me all on-fire, and I could not rest for thinking of what I might do if I could only find my way into society. It makes me mad to remember what a fool I was!
"But I was not quite bad, Miss Lettice. When he said that he would give me what I wanted—make me a lady, and all the rest of it—I shrank from doing what I knew to be wrong; or perhaps I was only afraid. At any rate, I would not listen to him. Then he declared that he loved me too well to let me go—and he asked me to be his wife."
"Oh!" said Lettice. It was an involuntary sound, and Milly scarcely heard it.
"If you knew," she said, "what a proud and dignified gentleman he was, you would laugh at me thinking that he really meant what he said, and believing that he would keep his word. But I did believe it, and I agreed at length to leave you and go away with him."
"Did you think that I should have anything to say against your marriage, Milly?" said Lettice, mournfully.
"I—I thought you might. And Mr. Beadon asked me not to mention it."
"Well!—and so you trusted him. And then, poor girl, your dream soon came to an end?"
"Not very soon. He kept his word——"
"He married me, on the day when I left you. Not in a church, but somewhere—in Fulham, I think. It looked like a private house, but he said it was a registrar's. Oh, Miss Campion, are you ill?"
Lettice was holding her side. She had turned white, and her heart was throbbing painfully; but she soon overcame the feeling or at least concealed it.
"No. Go on—go on! He married you!"
"And we went on the Continent together. I was very happy for a time, so long as he seemed happy; but I could never shake off that uncomfortable fear in his presence. After a while we came back to London, and then I had to live alone, which of course I did not like. He had taken very nice rooms for me at Hampstead, where he used to come now and then; and he offered to bring some friends to visit me; but I did not want him to do that—I cared for nobody but him!"
"Poor Milly!" said Lettice, softly.
"I had been suspicious and uneasy for some time, especially when he told me I had better go to Birchmead and stay with my grandmother, as he was too busy to come and see me, and the rooms at Hampstead were expensive. So I went to Birchmead and told them that Mr. Beadon was abroad. He was not—he was in London—and I went up to see him every now and then; but I wanted to put the best face on everything. It would have been too hard to tell my grandmother that I did not think he cared for me."
She stopped and wiped the tears away from her eyes.
"There was worse than that," she said. "I began to believe that I was not his lawful wife, or he would not behave to me as he did. But I daren't ask, I was so afraid of him. And I felt as if I could not leave him, even if I was not his wife. That's where the badness of me came out, you see, Miss Lettice. I would have stayed with him to the end of my days, wife or no wife, if he had wanted me. But he tired of me very soon."
"Did he tell you so, Milly?"
"He wrote to me to go back to the Hampstead rooms, miss. And I thought that everything was going to be right between us. I had something to tell him which I thought would please him; and I hoped—I hoped—even if things had not been quite right about the marriage—that he would put them straight before my baby came. For the child's sake I thought maybe he wouldn't give me up. I had been dreadfully afraid; but when he sent for me to London again, I thought that he loved me still, and that we were going to have a happy time together.
"So I went to Hampstead; but he was not there. He sent his clerk instead—the man you saw me walking with the other day. And he told me that Mr.——Beadon did not wish to see me again, that I had been deceived by the mock marriage, and that he sent me twenty pounds, and I might have more by writing to his clerk. Not to him! I was never to see him or speak to him again."
"And what did you do then, Milly?"
"It was very hard for me. I fainted, and when I came to myself Mr. Johnson was gone, and the money was stuffed into my pocket. Perhaps it was mean of me to keep it, but I hadn't the heart or the spirit to send it back. I did not know what I should do without it, for I hadn't a penny of my own. I stayed for a little time at the Hampstead lodgings, but the landlady got an idea of the true state of things and abused me shamefully one day for having come into her house; so I was forced to go. I don't know what I should have done if I hadn't met Mr. Johnson in the street. He was really kind, though he doesn't look as if he would be. He told me of nice cheap lodgings, and of some one who would look after me; and he offered me money, but I wouldn't take it."
"How long did your money last?"
"It was all gone before baby came. I lived on the dresses and presents that Mr. Beadon had given me. I heard nothing from Birchmead—I did not know that my grandmother was dead, and I used to think sometimes that I would go to her; but I did not dare. I knew that it would break her heart to see me as I was."
"Poor girl!" said Lettice again, below her breath.
"You must despise me!" cried Milly, bursting into tears. "And you would despise me still more—if I told you—everything."
"No, Milly, it is not for me to despise you. I am very, very sorry for you. You have suffered a great deal, for what was not all your fault."
"Yes, I have suffered, Miss Lettice—more than I can tell you. I had a terrible time when my baby was born. I had a fever too, and lost my hair; and when I recovered I had nothing left. I did not know what to do. I thought of throwing myself into the river; and I think I should have done it when I came to Birchmead and found that grandmother was dead, if it had not been for you. You found me in the garden that night, just as I had made up my mind. There's a place across the meadows where one could easily get into a deep pool under the river-bank, and never come out again. That was where I meant to go."
"No wonder you have looked so ill and worn," said Lettice, compassionately. "What you must have endured before you brought yourself to that! Well, it is all over now, and you must live for the future. Put the past behind you; forget it—think of it only with sorrow for your mistakes, and a determination to use them so that your child shall be better guarded than you have been. You and your baby have your own lives to live—good and useful lives they may be yet. No one would blame you if they knew your story, and there is no reason why you should be afraid. I will always be your friend, Milly, if you will work and strive—it is the only way in which you can regain and keep your self-respect."
Milly bent her head and kissed Lettice's hand with another outburst of tears. But they were tears of gratitude, and Lettice did not try to check them now.
Whilst they were still sitting thus, side by side, the servant knocked at the door with a message for her mistress; and her voice broke strangely through the sympathetic silence that had been for some time maintained between mistress and maid.
"Mr. Campion wishes to see you, ma'am."
Lettice felt the face which still rested on her hand flush with sudden heat; but when Milly raised it it was as white as snow. The baby in its cradle stirred and began to wake.
"I will come at once, Mrs. Jermy," said Lettice.
"Milly, you had better finish your work here, and let me give baby to Mrs. Jermy for a few minutes. She will be quite good if I take her downstairs."
She did not look at Milly as she spoke; or, if she did, she paid no heed to the mute pain and deprecation in the mother's eyes. Folding the baby in the white shawl that had covered it, she took it in her arms, and with slow, almost reluctant steps, went down to meet her brother.
Sydney had come upon what he felt to be a painful errand.
Although the session had begun, and the House of Commons was already hard at work on a vain attempt to thresh out the question of Parliamentary Procedure, he was not yet able to devote himself to the urgent affairs of the nation, or to seek an opening for that eloquent and fiery speech which he had elaborated in the intervals of his autumn rest. Before he could set his mind to these things there was an equally urgent question of domestic procedure which it was necessary for him to arrange—a question for which he had been more or less prepared ever since he heard of the flight of Lettice from Florence, but which had assumed the gravest possible importance within the last few hours.
A terrible and incredible thing had come to the knowledge of Sydney Campion. That morning he had looked in at his chambers in the Temple, and he had found there, amongst other letters, one written about three weeks before by Cora Walcott, which had made his blood run cold.
"SIR,"—the letter ran—"you were just and bold on that day when you vindicated my character in the Criminal Court, and procured a well-deserved punishment for the husband who had outraged me. Therefore it is that I write to give you warning, and to tell you that the man Walcott, discharged from prison, has been secretly conveyed away by one whom you know, after I had been deceived in a most shameful manner with a story of his death in prison. I saw her on the day before his release—her and his child—waiting to appropriate him, and like an idiot I believed her lies. I know not where they hide together, but.... I seek until I find. If you know, take my advice, and separate them. I go prepared. You proved last time that my husband stabbed me. That was very clever on your part; but you will not be able to prove the like thing again, if I should meet my husband and your sister together.
This letter had exasperated Sydney beyond endurance. He did not know Lettice's address; but, thinking it possible that Mrs. Graham might have it, he went the same afternoon to Edwardes Square. Clara, being at home, was able, though in some trepidation, to tell him what he wanted; and thus it was that he found himself at Bute Lodge.
Lettice came into the room where he had been waiting, intrepid, and yet boding something which could not be entirely pleasant for him, and might be very much the reverse. She did not want to quarrel with Sydney—she had made many efforts in the past to please him, without much effect, and had been pained by the increasing interval which separated them from each other. But she believed that to earn his good word would imply the forsaking of nearly all that she valued, and the bowing down to images which she could not respect; and therefore she was content that his good word should be a thing beyond her reach.
She carried the baby on her left arm, and held out her right to Sydney. He barely touched her fingers.
"You are back again," she said. "I hope you had a pleasant time, and that your wife is well."
"She is pretty well, thank you. We should have gone on to Florence if you had remained there, as we expected. You have taken your fate in your hands, Lettice, and cut yourself adrift from those who care for you!"
"Not willingly, Sydney. You might believe that at every step I have done what seemed to be my duty."
"How can one believe that? I only wish I could. Read this letter!"
She looked at him first, and her eyes flashed at his expression of unbelief. She drew herself up as she took Cora's letter in her hands, and read it through with a curl of contempt upon her lips. Then she dropped the paper, and, clasping Milly's child to her breast, looked long and steadily at her brother.
"Why did you give me that to read?" she said quietly.
"There could be only one reason," he replied; "to ask you if it is true?"
"You ask me? You expect an answer?"
"I don't see why you should object to say 'yes' or 'no' to a charge which, if true, must destroy all brotherly and sisterly feeling between us."
"But you are my brother! Ask me your own questions, and I will answer. I will not answer that woman's!"
She stood in front of him, by far the more proud and dignified of the two, and waited for him to begin.
"Did you bring that man with you here from the prison?"
"I brought Mr. Walcott here."
"And is he here now?"
"What more is there to be said? Wretched woman, it is well for you that your parents are beyond the reach of this disgrace!"
Whether he meant it or not, he pointed, as he spoke, to the infant in her arms.
Lettice heard a step outside. She went to the door, and spoke in a low voice to Mrs. Jenny. Then she came back again, and said,
"What do you mean, Sydney, by 'this disgrace'?"
"Can you say one word to palliate what you have already admitted? Can you deny the facts which speak for themselves? Great Heaven! that such a shameful thing should fall upon us! The name of Campion has indeed been dragged through the mire of calumny, but never until now has so dark a stain been cast upon it!"
Theatrical in his words, Sydney was even more theatrical in his action. He stood on the hearth-rug, raised his hands in horror, and bowed his head in grief and self-pity.
"You pointed at the child just now," said Lettice, steadily; "what do you mean by that?"
"Do not ask me what I mean. Is not its very existence an indelible disgrace?"
"Perhaps it is," she said, kissing the little face which was blinking and smiling at her. "But to whom?"
"To whom!" Sydney cried, with more of real indignation and anger in his voice. "To its miserable mother—to its unscrupulous and villainous father!"
Lettice's keen ears caught the sound of light and hesitating footsteps in the passage outside. She opened the door quickly, and drew in the unfortunate Milly.
Sydney started back, and leaned for support upon the mantelpiece behind him. His face turned white to the very lips.
"Milly," said the remorseless Lettice, "tell Mr. Campion who is the father of this child!"
The poor mother who had been looking at her mistress in mute appeal, turned her timid eyes on Sydney's face, then sank upon the floor in an agony of unrestrained weeping.
Except for that sound of passionate weeping, there was complete silence in the room for two or three minutes, whilst Sydney's better and worse self strove together for the mastery.
"Milly!" he ejaculated at last, in a hoarse undertone, "I did not know! Good God, I did not know."
Then, to his sister—"Leave us alone."
So Lettice went out, but before she went she saw him stride across the floor to Milly and bend above her as if to raise and perhaps to comfort her. He did not ask to see his sister again. In a short ten minutes, she saw him walking hastily across the Common to the station, and she noticed that his head was bent, and that the spring, the confidence of his usual gait and manner had deserted him. Milly locked herself with her baby in her room, and sobbed until she was quieted by sheer exhaustion.
But there was on her face next day a look of peace and quietude which Lettice had never seen before. She said not a word about her interview, and Lettice never knew what had passed between her brother and the woman whom he had wronged. But she thought sometimes, in after years, that the extreme of self-abasement in man or woman may prove, to natures not radically bad or hopelessly weak, a turning-point from which to date their best and most persistent efforts.
The reawakening of Alan's mind to old tastes and old pursuits, though fitful in the first instance, soon developed into a steady appetite for work. Much of his former freshness and elasticity returned; ideas and forms of expression recurred to him without trouble. He had seized on a dramatic theme suggested in one of the books which Lettice had been reading, and a few days later admitted to her that he was at work on a poetic drama. She clapped her hands in almost childlike glee at the news, and Alan, without much need for pressing, read to her a whole scene which had passed from the phase of thought into written words.
Lettice had already occupied her mornings in writing the story which she had promised to Mr. MacAlpine. Fortunately for her, she now found little difficulty in taking up the threads of the romance which she had begun at Florence. The change of feeling and circumstance which had taken place in her own heart she transferred, with due reservation and appropriate coloring, to the characters in her story, which thus became as real to her in the London fog as it had been under the fleckless Tuscan sky.
So long as Alan was out of health and listless, it was not easy for her to apply herself to this regular morning work. But now that he was fast recovering his spirit and energy, and was busy with work of his own, she could settle down to her writing with a quiet mind.
Alan had not accepted the hospitality of Lettice without concern or protest, and, of course, he had no idea of letting her be at the expense of finding food and house-rent for him.
"Why do you not bring me the weekly bills?" he said, with masculine bluntness, after he had been at Chiswick for nearly three weeks.
She looked at him with a pained expression, and did not answer.
"You don't think that I can live on you in this cool way much longer? You are vexed with me! Do not be vexed—do not think that I value what you have done for me according to a wretched standard of money. If I pay everything, instead of you, I shall be far more grateful, and more truly in your debt."
"But think of my feelings, too!" she said. "I have had my own way so far, because you could not help it. If you are going to be unkind and tyrannical as soon as you get well, I shall find it in my heart to be almost sorry. Do not let money considerations come in! You promised that you would not say anything of the kind before the end of the month."
"I promised something; but I don't think I am breaking my promise in spirit. Look here; I have not been in retreat for six months without a certain benefit in the way of economy. Here's a cheque for a hundred pounds. I want you to get it cashed, and to use it."
"I have plenty of money," Lettice said, patting impatiently with her foot on the floor. "I cannot take this; and until the month is out I will not talk about any kind of business whatsoever. There, sir!"
Alan did not want to annoy her, and let the subject drop for the time.
"You shall have your way in all things, except that one," he said; "but I will not mention it again until you give me leave."
The truth is that Lettice did not know what was to happen at the end of the month, or whenever her tenancy of Bute Lodge might be concluded. How was she to leave Alan, or to turn him out of doors, when the object of her receiving him should have been accomplished? Was it already fully accomplished? He had been saved from despair, and from the danger of a physical relapse; was he now independent of anything she could do for him? It gave her a pang to think of that possibility, but she would have to think of it and to act upon it very soon. She could not put off the evil day much beyond the end of November; before Christmas they must come to an understanding—nay, she must come to an understanding with her own heart; for did not everything depend on her firmness and resolution?
Not everything! Though she did not know it, Alan was thinking for her just what she could not think for herself. He could not fail to see that Lettice had staked her reputation to do as she had done for him. As his perception grew more keen, he saw with increasing clearness. A man just recovering from serious illness will accept sacrifices from his friends with little or no demur, which in full health he would not willingly permit. Alan could not have saved Lettice from the consequences of her own act, even if he had realized its significance from the first—which he did not. But now he knew that she was giving more as a woman than he, as a man, had ever thought of taking from her; and he also, with a somewhat heavy heart, perceived that a change in their relations to one another was drawing near.
Lettice was sitting in her little study one morning, turning over in her mind the question which so deeply agitated her, and trying to think that she was prepared for the only solution which appeared to be possible or acceptable. Alan and she were to go their separate ways: that was, she told herself, the one thing fixed and unalterable. They might meet again as friends, and give each other help and sympathy; but it was their irrevocable doom that they should live apart and alone. That which her heart had sanctioned hitherto, it would sanction no longer; the cause and the justification were gone, and so were the courage and the confidence.
Lettice had appropriated to her own use as a study a little room on the ground floor, opening upon the garden. In warm weather it was a particularly charming place, for the long windows then always stood open, and pleasant scents and sounds from the flower-beds and leafy trees stole in to cheer her solitude. In winter, it was a little more difficult to keep the rooms warm and cosy; but Lettice was one of the women who have the knack of making any place where they abide look home-like and inviting, and in this case her skill had not been spent in vain, even upon a room for the furniture of which she was not altogether responsible. Heavy tapestry curtains excluded the draught; a soft rug lay before the old-fashioned high brass fender, and a bright fire burned in the grate. Lettice's writing-table and library chair half filled the room; but there was also a small table heaped high with books and papers, a large padded leather easy-chair, and a bookcase. The walls were distempered in a soft reddish hue, and such part of the floor as was not covered with a bordered tapestry carpet of divers tints had been stained dark brown. One of Lettice's favorite possessions, a large autotype of the Sistine Madonna, hung on the wall fronting her writing-table, so that she could see it in the pauses of her work.
It was at the door of this room that Alan knocked one stormy December day. The month which Lettice had fixed as the period of silence about business affairs had passed by; but Alan was so very far from strong when November ended that she had managed, by persuasion and insistence, to defer any new and definite arrangement for at least another fortnight. But he had gained much physical and mental strength during those two weeks, and he had felt more and more convinced from day to day that between himself and Lettice there must now be a complete understanding. He knew that she had taken the house until the end of December; after that date she would be homeless, like himself. What were they both to do? It was the question which he had come to put.
Lettice received him with a touch of surprise, almost of embarrassment in her manner. She had never made him free of her study, for she felt it better that each should have a separate domain for separate work and a separate life. She had no wish to break down more barriers than circumstances demanded; and the fact that she had utterly outraged the laws of conventionality in the eyes of the world did not absolve her from the delicate reticence which she had always maintained in her personal relations with Alan. He saw the doubt in her face, and hastened to apologize for his intrusion. "But I could not work this morning," he said, "and I wanted to speak to you. Milly told me you were here, and——"
"Oh, I am very glad to see you. Come and sit down."
"You are not too busy for a little talk?"
"Not at all."
She wheeled the leather-covered chair a little nearer to the fire, and made him sit down on it. He cast his eye round the cheery room, noting the books and papers that she was using, the evidences of steady work and thought. The firelight leaped and glanced on the ruddy walls, and the coals crackled in the grate; a dash of rain against the window, a blast of wind in the distance, emphasized the contrast between the warmth and light and restfulness within the house, the coldness and the storm without.
Alan held his hands to the blaze, and listened for a moment to the wind before he spoke.
"One does not feel inclined," he said, "to turn out on such a day as this."
"Happily, you have no need to turn out," Lettice answered, taking his words in their most literal sense.
"Not to day, perhaps; but very soon. Lettice, the time has come when we must decide on our next step. I cannot stay here any longer—on our present terms, at least. But I have not come to say good-bye. Is there any reason why I should say good-bye—save for a time?"
He had risen from his chair as he spoke, and was standing before her. Lettice shaded her eyes with her hands. Ah, if she could only give way to the temptation which she felt vaguely aware that he was going to raise! If she could only be weak in spite of her resolution to be strong, if she could only take to herself at once the one consolation and partnership which would satisfy her soul, how instantly would her depression pass away! How easily with one word could she change the whole current and complexion of life for the man who was bending over her! He was still only half-redeemed from ruin; he might fall a prey to despair again, if she shrank in the supreme moment from the sacrifice demanded of her.
Alan did not know how her heart was pleading for him. Something, indeed, he divined, as he saw her trembling and shaken by the strife within. His heart bounded with sudden impulse from every quickened vein, and his lips drew closer to her hidden face.
There was infinite force and tenderness in the whispered word, and it pierced her to the quick. She dropped her hands, and looked up.
But one responsive word or glance, and he would have taken her in his arms. He understood her face, her eyes, too well to do it. She gave him no consent; if he kissed her, if he pressed her to his breast, he felt that he should dominate her body only, not her soul. And he was not of that coarse fibre which could be satisfied so. If Lettice did not give herself to him willingly, she must not give herself at all.
"Lettice!" he said again, and there was less passion but more entreaty in his tone than before he met that warning glance, "will you not let me speak?"
"Is there anything for us to say," she asked, very gently, "except good-bye?"
"Would you turn me away into the cold from the warmth and brightness of your home, Lettice? Don't be angry with me for saying so. I have had very little joy or comfort in my life of late, and it is to you that I owe all that I know of consolation. You have rescued me from a very hell of despair and darkness, and brought me into paradise. Now do you bid me go? Lettice, it would be cruel. Tell me to stay with you ... and to the last hour of my life I will stay."
He was standing beside her, with one hand on the wooden arm of her circular chair. She put her hand over his fingers almost caressingly, and looked up at him again, with tears in her sweet eyes.
"Have I not done what I wanted to do?" she said. "I found you weak, friendless, ill; you have got back your strength, and you know that you have at least one friend who will be faithful to you. My task is done; you must go away now and fight the world—for my sake."
"For your sake? You care what I do, then: Lettice, you care for me? Tell me that you love me—tell me, at last!"
She was silent for a moment, and he felt that the hand which rested on his own fluttered as if it would take itself away. Was she offended? Would she withdraw the mute caress of that soft pressure? Breathlessly he waited. If she took her hand away, he thought that he should almost cease to hope.
But the hand settled once more into its place. It even tightened its pressure upon his fingers as she replied—
"I love you with all my heart," she said; "and it is just because I love you that I want you to go away."
With a quick turn of his wrist he seized the hand that had hitherto lain on his, and carried it to his lips. They looked into each other's eyes with the long silent look which is more expressive even than a kiss. Soul draws very near to soul when the eyes of man and woman meet as theirs met then. The lips did not meet, but Alan's face was very close to hers. When the pause had lasted so long that Lettice's eyelids drooped, and the spell of the look was broken, he spoke again.
"Why should I go away? Why should the phantom of a dead past divide us? We belong to one another, you and I. Think of what life might mean to us, side by side, hand in hand, working, striving together, you the stronger, giving me some of your strength, I ready to give you the love you need—the love you have craved for—the love that you have won! Lettice, Lettice, neither God nor man can divide us now!"
"Hush! you are talking wildly," she answered, in a very gentle tone. "Listen to me, Alan. There is one point in which you are wrong. You speak of a dead past. But the past is not dead, it lives for you still in the person of—your wife."
"And you think that she should stand in our way? After all that she has done? Can any law, human or divine, bind me to her now? Surely her own acts have set me free. Lettice, my darling, do not be blinded by conventional views of right and wrong. I know that if we had loved each other and she had been a woman of blameless life, I should not be justified in asking you to sacrifice for me all that the world holds dear; but think of the life she has led—the shame she has brought upon me and upon herself. Good God! is anyone in the world narrow-minded enough and base enough to think that I can still be bound to her?"
"No, Alan; but your course is clear. You must set yourself free."
"Seek my remedy in the courts? Have all the miserable story bandied about from lip to lip, be branded as a wretched dupe of a wicked woman on whom he had already tried to revenge himself? That is what the world would say. And your name would be brought forward, my dearest; it would be hopeless to keep it in the background now. Your very goodness and sweetness would be made the basis of an accusation.... I could not bear it, I could not see you pilloried, even if I could bear the shame of it myself."
He sank on his knees beside her, and let his head sink almost to her shoulder. She felt that he trembled, she saw that his lips were pale, and that the dew stood on his forehead. His physical strength had not yet returned in full measure, and the contest with Lettice was trying it to the utmost.
Lettice had turned pale too, but she spoke even more firmly than before.
"Alan," she said, "is this brave?"
"Brave? no!" he answered her. "I might be brave for myself, but how can I be brave for you? You will suffer more than you have any conception of, when you are held up to the scorn—the loathing—of the world. For you know she will not keep to the truth—she will spit her venom upon you—she will blacken your character in ways that you do not dream——"
"I think I have fathomed the depths," said Lettice, with a faint, wan smile. "I saw her myself when you were in prison, and she has written to my brother Sydney. Oh, yes," as he lifted his face and looked at her, "she stormed, she threatened, she has accused ... what does it matter to me what she says, or what the world says, either? Alan, it is too late to care so much for name and fame. I crossed the line which marks the boundary between convention and true liberty many weeks ago. The best thing for me now, as well as for you, is to face our accusers gallantly, and have the matter exposed to the light of day."
"I have brought this upon you!" he groaned.
"No, I have brought it on myself. Dear Alan, it is the hardest thing in the world to be brave for those we love—we are much too apt to fear danger or pain for them. Just because it is so hard, I ask you to do this thing. Give me courage—don't sap my confidence with doubts and fears. Let us be brave together, and for one another, and then we shall win the battle and be at peace."
"It will be so hard for you."
"Not harder than it has been for you these many years. My poor dear my heart has bled so many times to think how you have suffered! I am proud to have a share in your suffering now. I am not ashamed to tell you that I love you, for it is my love that is to make you strong and brave, so that we may conquer the world together, despise its scorn, and meet its sneers with smiles! We will not run away from it, like cowards! I come of a fighting race on my mother's side, the very suggestion of flight makes my blood boil, Alan! No, we will die fighting, if need be, but we will not run away."
"Yes, yes, my brave darling, you are right. We will stand or fall together. It was not for myself that I hesitated."
"I know—I know. So you see, dear, that we must part."
"For a time only."
"You will see Mr. Larmer to-morrow?"
They were silent for a while. Her arm was round his neck, and his head was resting against her wearily. It was Lettice who first roused herself.
"This must not be," she said, drawing back her arm.
"Alan, let us be friends still—and nothing else. Let us have nothing to reproach ourselves with by and by."
He sighed as he lifted his head from its resting place.
"I will go to Larmer to-day," he said. "There is nothing to be gained by waiting. But—have you thought of all that that woman may do to us? Lettice, I tremble almost for your life."
"I do not think she would attempt that."
"She threatened you?"
"With vitriol. She said that she would blind me so that I could not see you—scar me so that you would not care to look upon my face. Ought I to have told you? Alan, do not look so pale! It was a mere foolish threat."
"I am not so sure of that. She is capable of it—or of any other fiendish act. If she injured you, Lettice——"
"Don't think of that. You say you will go to Mr. Larmer this afternoon."
"Yes. And then I will look out for lodgings. And you—what will you do? Stay here?"
She shook her head. "I shall go into lodgings too. I have plenty of work, and you—you will come to see me sometimes."
"As often as you will let me. Oh, Lettice, it is a hard piece of work that you have given me to do!"
She took his hand in hers and pressed it softly. "I shall be grateful to you for doing it," she said. There was a long silence. Alan stood by the fire-place, his head resting upon his hand. Finally he spoke in a low uncertain tone—
"There is one point I must mention. I think there may be a difficulty in getting the divorce. I believe she claims that I condoned her—her faults. I may find insuperable obstacles in my way."
Lettice drew a quick breath, and rose suddenly to her feet.
"We have nothing to do with that just now, Alan. You must try."
And then they said no more.
But when the afternoon came and Alan was ready to depart—for when once he had made up his mind that he must go, he thought it better not to linger—he drew Lettice inside her little study again, and looked her full in the face.
"Lettice, before I go, will you kiss me once?"
She did not hesitate. She lifted her face, calmly and seriously, and kissed him on the mouth.
But she was not prepared for the grip in which he seized her, and the passionate pressure of her lips which he returned. "Lettice, my dearest, my own love," he said, holding her close to him as he spoke, "suppose I fail! If the law will not set me free, what will you do?"
She was silent for a minute or two, and he saw that her face grew pale.
"Oh," she said at last, in a sighing voice, broken at last by a despairing sob, "if man's law is so hard, Alan, surely then we may trust ourselves to God's!"
"Promise me," he said, "that you will never give me up—that, whatever happens, you will one day be mine!"
"Whatever happens," she answered, "I am yours, Alan, in life or death—in time and for eternity."
And with this assurance he was fain to be content.
SYDNEY PAYS HIS DEBTS.
The fight which Sydney Campion had had to wage with his creditors was bitter enough up to the time of his marriage. Then there had been a lull for a few months, during which it was confidently said and believed that he was about to touch a large sum of money, and that all who had put their trust in him would be rewarded.
Month after month went by, and there was no realization of the prospect. Sydney touched no money but what he earned. He might, no doubt, have touched some of his wife's money, even for the payment of his old debts, if he had told her the distress that he was in. But it had never occurred to him to be thus sincere with Nan. He had thought to figure before her as one who was not dependent on her fortune, who could very comfortably play with his hundreds, though not able, like herself, to be generous with thousands. He would, in fact, have been ashamed to own his rotten financial condition, either to Nan or to any of his social or political friends; and he fancied that he was concealing this condition in a very ingenious manner when he made a liberal outlay in connection with their quiet marriage, the honeymoon abroad, and the subsequent arrangements of their household in London.
This was all the more unfortunate because Nan, just of age, with her fortune in her own hands, would have given him anything without demur or question, if she had for a moment suspected that he needed it. His concealment was so effectual that it never entered her unsophisticated mind that this barrister in good practice, this rising politician, who seemed to have his feet on the ladder of success, could be crushed and burdened with debt. Sydney, however, was by no means blind. He knew well enough that he could have had the few thousands necessary to clear him if he had asked his wife for a cheque; but he did not trust her love sufficiently to believe that she would think as well of him from that day forward as she had done before, and he was not large-minded enough to conceive himself as ever shaking off the sense of obligation which her gift in such a form would impose upon him.
He had therefore drifted, in the matter of his debts, from expedient to expedient, in the hope that by good fortune and good management he might avoid the rocks that beset his course, and reach smooth water by his own exertion. But, as ill luck would have it, he had given a bill for six hundred pounds, due on the 23rd of November, to a certain Mr. Copley, a man who had been especially disgusted by Sydney's failure to obtain ready money at the time of his marriage, and who for this and other reasons had worked himself up into a malicious frame of mind. But on the 23rd of November, Sydney and his wife had run over to Paris for a few days with Sir John and Lady Pynsent, and then Nan had been so seriously indisposed that Sydney could not leave her without seeming unkindness; so that they did not reach London again until the 26th. This delay opened a chapter of incidents which ended as Sydney had not foreseen.
He had not forgotten the date of the bill, and knew that it was important to provide for it; but he did not anticipate that the last day of grace would have expired before he could communicate with the man who held his signature.
Early on the morning of the 27th, he set out for Mr. Copley's office; and it so happened that at the same moment Mr. Copley set out also for Sydney's private house.
"Master in?" said Mr. Copley, who was a man of few words.
"My mistress does not receive any one so early."
"Take that up—answer important—bearer waiting."
The footman condescended so far as this, and gave Mr. Copley's letter into the charge of Mrs. Campion's maid.
In less than ten minutes Nan sent for the unwelcome visitor. She was very pale when she received him, and she looked so young and fair that Mr. Copley was a little taken aback. He knew that Sydney had married an heiress, and it was from her, therefore, that he had determined, if possible, to get the money; but he half repented his resolve when he saw Mrs. Campion's face. "Too young to know anything about business," he said to himself.
But Nan was more business-like than he expected. She had for some time insisted on knowing a good deal about her own money matters, and she was well aware of her powers.
"Where is this paper—this acceptance you mention in your letter?" she began.
Mr. Copley silently took it from his notebook, and laid it on the table.
"Why did you bring this here? or, rather, why did you send it in to me? Mr. Campion is not difficult to find when he is wanted. This is, of course, his business." There was a little indignation in her tone.
"Beg your pardon, madam. You will observe the date of the acceptance. I presented it yesterday."
"At the bank?"
Nan bit her lip. She knew what this signified, and she would have given a thousand pounds to undo what had happened.
She went to a drawer in her writing-table and quietly took out a cheque-book. "We were delayed in returning to England by my illness," she said, as indifferently as she could. "Mr. Campion has gone out for the purpose of seeing to this." Her heart smote her for making a statement which she could not vouch for, but as Mr. Copley only bowed and looked uninterested, she went on rapidly, "As you have the paper with you it will save time—it will be satisfactory, I suppose—if I give you a cheque for it?"
She sat down before the table and took the pen in her hand, hesitating a moment as to whether she ought to ask for further details. Her tears and her curiosity were alike aroused, and Mr. Copley divined the question, which she hardly knew how to put into words. He produced a sheet of notepaper, containing a few memoranda, and passed it across the table.
"That was to refresh my memory if necessary; but happily it isn't. Mr. Campion may like to see it however. He will find it is all correct. I knew I was right in asking to see you, ma'am."
Nan did not look at the memoranda. She was satisfied that she had the details before her for her own or Sydney's consideration if necessary. She signed her cheque and took possession of the dishonored bill; and then Mr. Copley departed.
When he was gone, she caught up the sheet of paper and hastily glanced at it.
"1880—studs, pin, money advanced L50. 1881—ring, money advanced L100; bracelet, necklace, pendant, money advanced L150——" and so on. Further down the page, Nan's eye was caught by the words: "Diamond and sapphire ring."
"Ah!" she said, catching her breath as if she were in pain, and laying the paper down on the table, "that was mine!"
The ring was on her finger as she spoke. It had been her engagement ring. She looked at it for a minute or two, then slowly, took it off and put it into the drawer.
Next, with an absent look upon her face, she took up a small taper, and lighted it; and, holding Mr. Copley's paper by one corner, she raised it to the flame and converted it into ashes. One line escaped. A fragment of the paper was scorched but not consumed, and as she took it up to make her work more thorough, the words and a date caught her attention once again.
"Bracelet, necklace, pendant, bought after we knew each other," she murmured with a curious smile. "Those were not for me. I wonder——"
But she did not go on. It was the first time that a shadow from Sydney's past had crossed her life; and she dared not investigate it too closely. She put the bill and her cheque-book out of sight, and sat down to think over the present position of affairs.
Sydney came home just before lunch-time, and, hearing that she was in her own little sitting-room (she would not have it called a boudoir), went up to her. He looked vexed and anxious, as Nan was quick to notice, but he came up to her side and kissed her affectionately.
"Better, Nan?" She had not been very well when he left her: indeed, the delicacy of her health had lately been more marked, and had several times given him cause for uneasiness.
"Yes, thank you. But you don't look well, Sydney."
She hoped that he would tell her what was wrong. To her disappointment, he smiled, and answered lightly.
"I'm all right, Nan. I have a good deal to do just now, and am rather tired—that is all."
"Tired—and anxious?" she said, looking at him with more keenness than he had thought her soft eyes capable of expressing.
"Anxious! no, I have not much to be anxious about, have I?"
He spoke with a laugh; but, to her fancy, there was something half-alarmed and half-defiant in the pose of his lifted head, the glance of his handsome bright eyes. Her heart sank a little: it seemed to her that it would have been nobler in her husband to tell her the whole truth, and it had never occurred to her before to think of him as ignoble in any way.
"I suppose you do not want to tell me for fear of troubling me," she said, with a tremor in her voice; "but I think I know what you are anxious about, Sydney."
He gave a little start as he turned towards her.
"Some man has been here whilst you were out, and he sent up this letter with a request that it should be opened. Look!" she said, giving him the bill, "you can tear it up now. I was sure you had gone out to see about it, but I thought it better that I should settle it at once. I hope"—with a little girlish nervousness—"you don't mind?"
He had sat down on a chair when she showed him Mr. Copley's letter, with the look of a man determined to bear a blow, but he sprang up again at the sight of his dishonored acceptance.
"And you have paid it, Nan?" he cried.
"Yes, I paid it. Oh, Sydney, it was a little thing to do! If only you had told me months ago!"
Her eyes brimmed over with tears at last. She had been smarting under a sense of terrible humiliation ever since Mr. Copley's visit, but hitherto she had not wept. Now, when her husband took her in his arms and looked into her eyes, the pain at her heart was somewhat assuaged, although the tears fell swiftly down her pale cheeks.
"Nan, I never dreamed that I should find your kindness so bitter to me," Sydney said.
He was profoundly moved by her gentleness and by her generosity alike. But inasmuch as it requires more generosity of nature to accept a gift nobly than to make it, he felt himself shamed in her eyes, and his wife was in her turn pained by the consciousness of his shame.
"Why should you be afraid to trust me?" she said. "All that concerns you concerns me as well; and I am only setting myself free from trouble and anxiety if I do anything for you. Don't you understand? And as far as my money is concerned, you know very well that if it had not been for John and those tiresome lawyers, you should have had it all and spent it, if you chose, without the slightest reference to me. What grieves me, dearest, is that you should have been suffering without taking me into your confidence."
"I ought to have done so," said Sydney, rather reluctantly, "but I felt as if I could not tell you all these paltry, sordid details. You might have thought——"
Then he paused, and the color rose darkly in his face.
"I should have thought nothing but what was honorable to you," said Nan, throwing back her graceful head with a gesture of natural pride and indignation.
"And now you think the worse of me?"
"No, no!" she cried, stealing one arm round his neck, "I think nothing bad of you—nothing! Only you will trust me, now, Sydney? You will not hide things from me again?"
"No, my darling, nothing that you ought to know," he said. There was a touch of new but restrained emotion in his voice. It struck him for almost the first time how much of his life he had hidden from her frank and innocent eyes.
Presently, when he had kissed her tears away, she begged him to tell her what he still actually owed, and, after some little demur, he consented. The amount of the debt, which lay heavily on his conscience, was comparatively a trivial thing to her. But when he had told her all, she looked at him with eyes which, although very loving, were full of wonder and dismay.
"Poor Sydney!" she said caressingly. "My poor boy! As if you could give your mind properly to anything with this heavy burden on it! To-morrow we can get the money, and pay off all these people. Then you will be able to work without any disturbance."
"Thanks to you, Nan," said her husband, with bowed head. She could not understand why he did not look more relieved. She never suspected that his mind was burdened with another debt, that money could not pay.
She had not asked him for any explanation of the items in the paper that she had read. The momentary wonder that had flitted across her mind passed as quickly as it came. The gifts that were not for her had been intended perhaps for his sister Lettice, perhaps for the wedding present of a friend. She did not like to ask. But a slightly uncomfortable sensation remained in her mind, and she never again wore the ring for which, as it now turned out, she herself had had to pay.
Sydney's position was certainly a painful one just then. But he was at any rate relieved of the burden of his debts, and he hoped, with some compunction of heart, that no other secret of his life would ever come to his wife's ears. It was about this time that he received the letter from Cora Walcott and had the interview with Lettice, of which mention has been made; and Nan fancied that it was anxiety about his sister that caused him to show signs of moodiness and depression. He had told her nothing more of Lettice's doings than he was obliged to tell, but other friends were not so reticent, and Lady Pynsent had enlightened Nan's mind very speedily with respect to the upshot of "the Walcott affair." Nan made some reference to it shortly afterwards in conversation with her husband, and was struck by the look of pain which crossed his face as he replied,
"Don't talk about it, Nan, my dear."
"He must be much fonder of his sister than I thought," Nan said to herself. She made one more effort to speak.
"Could I do nothing, Sydney? Suppose I went to her, and told her how grieved you were——"
"You, Nan! For heaven's sake, don't let me hear of your crossing the threshold of that house!" cried Sydney, with vehemence, which Nan very naturally misunderstood.
It was, on the whole, a relief to her to find that he did not want her to take any active steps in any direction. She was not very strong, and was glad to be left a good deal at peace. Sydney was out for a great part of the day, and Nan took life easily. Lady Pynsent came to sit with her sometimes, or drove in the Park with her, and other friends sought her out: she had tender hopes for the future which filled her mind with sweet content, and she would have been happy but for that slight jar between Sydney and herself. That consciousness of a want of trust which never ceased to give her pain. Sydney himself was the most attentive of husbands when he was at home: he brought her flowers and fruit, he read aloud to her, he hung over her as she lay on the sofa, and surrounded her with a hundred little marks of his affection—such as she would have thought delicious while her confidence in him was still unshaken. She still found pleasure in them; but her eyes were keener than they had been, and she knew that beneath all the manifestations of his real and strong attachment to her there ran a vein of apology and misgiving—a state of things inexpressibly unsatisfactory to a woman who knows how to love and how to trust.
Sydney, only half-conscious that something was wrong, had no idea how to mend matters, and was, therefore, in a fair way to make them worse. Frankness would have appeared brutal to him, and he did not see how subtly poisonous was the effect of his habits of concealment upon his wife's mind. Gifted with the instinct of discernment, which in sensitive women is almost like a sort of second-sight, she knew, without knowing how she knew, that he had trouble which he did not confide to her, secrets which his tongue would never tell. He could deceive her as to their existence so long as the period of illusion lasted; but as soon as her eyes were opened her sight became very keen indeed. And he, believing himself always successful in throwing dust in her eyes, fancied that her wistful look, her occasional unresponsiveness to his caresses, proceeded from physical causes only, and would with them also pass away.
Thus December left them, and the dark foggy days of January flew apace. It was close upon February before Nan recovered from a severe cold which had assailed her about Christmas time, and left her very weak. For a week or two she was confined entirely to her room, and when she came downstairs she was forced for a time to keep to the warm atmosphere of one sitting-room. But one day, when February was close at hand, and the fogs had begun to clear away, she felt so much stronger that she resolved to make a new departure and show Sydney that she was really better. Instead of going into the drawing-room, therefore, she came down another flight of stairs, and resolved to establish herself in Sydney's study, ready to greet him on his return.
But Sydney was late, and she was rather weaker than she knew. She had her tea, and ordered lights to be brought in, and the curtains drawn, but still he did not come. Then she found that the lights hurt her eyes, and she had them extinguished—all but one small silver lamp which stood on a centre-table, and gave a very subdued light. Her maid came and put a soft fur rug over her, and at her orders moved a screen of carved woodwork, brought from an Arab building in Algeria, between her and the fire before she left the room. Thus comfortably installed, the warmth and the dimness of the light speedily made Nan sleepy. She forgot to listen for the sound of her husband's latchkey; she fell fast asleep, and must have remained so for the greater part of an hour.
The fire went down, and its flickering flame no longer illuminated the room. The soft light of the lamp did not extend very far, and the screen, which was tall and dark, threw the sofa on which Nan lay into deep shadow. The rug completely covered the lower part of her dress, and as the sofa stood between the wall and the fire-place on that side of the room furthest removed from the door, any one entering might easily believe that the room was empty. Indeed, unless Nan stirred in her sleep, there was nothing at all to show that she was lying on the couch.
Thus, when Sydney entered his study about a quarter to seven, with a companion whom he had found waiting for him on the door-step, it would have been impossible for him to conjecture the presence of his wife. He did not light another lamp. The first words of his visitor had startled him into forgetting that the room was dark—perhaps, as the interview went on, he was glad of the obscurity into which his face was thrown. And the sounds of the low-toned conversation did not startle Nan from her slumber all at once. She had heard several sentences before she realized where she was and what she was listening to, and then very natural feelings kept her silent and motionless.
"No, I've not come for money," were the first words she heard. "Quite a different errand, Mr. Campion. It is some weeks since I left you now, and I left you because I had a competency bequeathed to me by an uncle."
"Pleased to hear it, I am sure, Johnson," was Sydney's response. "As you mentioned the name of another person, I thought that you had perhaps had a letter from her——"
"I have seen her, certainly, several times of late. And I am the bearer of a message from her. She has always regretted that she took a certain sum of money from you when she first found out how you had deceived her; and she wishes you to understand that she wants nothing more from you. The fact is, sir, I have long been very sorry for her misfortunes, and now that I am independent, I have asked her to marry me and go with me to America."
There was a little silence. "I am quite willing to provide for the child," said Sydney, "and——"
"No," said the man, almost sternly; "hear me out first, Mr. Campion. She owes her misery to you, and, no doubt, you have always thought that money could make atonement. But that's not my view, nor hers. We would rather not give you the satisfaction of making what you call restitution. Milly's child—your child, too—will be mine now; I shall adopt it for my own when I marry her. You will have nothing to do with either of them. And I have brought you back the twenty pounds which you gave her when you cruelly deserted her because you wanted to marry a rich woman. In that parcel you will find a locket and one or two other things that you gave her. I have told her, and Miss Campion, who has been the best of friends to us both, has told her that she must henceforth put the memory of you behind her, and live for those whom she loves best."
"Certainly; it is better that she should," said Sydney.
"That is all I have to say," Johnson remarked, "except that I shall do my best to help her to forget the past. But if ever you can forget your own cruelty and black treachery and villainy towards her——"
"That will do. I will not listen to insult from you or any man."
"You should rather be grateful to me for not exposing you to the world," said Johnson, drily, as he moved towards the door. "If it knew all that I know, what would your career be worth, Mr. Campion? As it is, no one knows the truth but ourselves and your sister, and all I want to remind you of is, that if we forget it, and if you forget it, I believe there is a God somewhere or other who never forgets."
"I am much obliged to you for the reminder," said Sydney, scornfully. But he could not get back the usual clearness of his voice.
Johnson went out without another word, and a minute later the front door was heard to close after him. Sydney stood perfectly still until that sound was heard. Then he moved slowly towards the table, where an envelope and a sealed packet were lying side by side. He looked at them for a minute or two, and flung himself into an arm-chair beside the table with an involuntary groan of pain. He was drawing the packet towards him, when a movement behind the screen caused him to spring desperately to his feet.