Page images
PDF
EPUB

along the oak floor, and shrouding the distant corners of the room. A small fire burned upon the hearth, giving light rather than warmth—at least, she was too far off to feel the heat. What a strange and solemn time it was ! Through the slow, grief-stained years of her later life, no moment had impressed her with such awe. That buoyant bravery of youth with which we breast the first waves of misfortune was gone.

There was no need to wonder how sorrow and solitude could be borne; experience had long since solved the problem. Her faith in Him who alone could help her wavered not for an instant, yet her heart felt oppressed with a burden inexpressibly heavy. He cannot survive more than two or three days !

They said it kindly, but they had not forgotten that she was not his daughter; indeed, secretly, they thought how great would be the relief to this admirable young woman, when she was freed from the duty which every one had long believed to be far beyond her strength. The intonation of their voices taught her something of their sentiments, and the pang was acute. Mr. Carisbroke had been the protector of her childhood; but oh! how doubly en

deared by all the cares which his helplessness had entailed upon her.

Moments there are in life when all the future seems to us a blank.

It is not even filled with phantoms of suffering more severe than we have ever known-there is nothing new to dread, nothing to be done. It is simply a blank, and the heart recoils from it with more undefined awe than if it held forth to us a hydra-headed image of horror. Jane had just reached such a point in her history, and what with physical fatigue and exhaustion, and mental distress, she could hardly bear up through it.

* Dear madam, I hoped you were asleep.' She shook her head, for indeed she fancied words would have choked her.

* There is a gentleman here-Mr. Daresford. I wanted him to go away, but though very grieved to disturb you, he said he most earnestly desired to see you.' Certainly.' The voice sounded hollow,

to Jane's own ear; yet Mordaunt's coming hardly struck her with surprise or pleasure—was more like an expected part of the ordeal through which she was passing. He was with her in a few seconds, full of sorrow

even

at the news which had greeted him, and concern for the signs of suffering in her worn face. Unusually pre-occupied, she asked no questions about him or his, but told him all about Mr. Carisbroke's increase of illness, and his present symptoms. She felt sure of a sympathy from him which no one else had given. It almost jarred upon her at last that he interrupted her.

"I have but a short time to stay, and may not see you again for a long-an indefinite period. I came to tell you about myself.'

She looked up, hearing a singular forced tone in his voice; but the twilight showed only the outlines of very pale features. All her pre-occupation was gone in an instant.

* Thank you,' she said, breathlessly ; 'it is always interesting to me.'

• This has been a very stormy period in our commercial world, and especially with the trade. I have always been particularly fond of and conversant with it, and now some one is wanted immediately on the spot. If others have more talent, no one at least can be so devoted to Sir Mark's interests, and I am to sail in three days.'

He said it out briefly, sternly, hardly; glad to get through the torture himself, and fancying, half thankfully, half bitterly, that she would hear it with a quiet, friendly concern, but none of the sensations chilling him to the heart.

She made no exclamation of any kind; but when, startled at her silence, he looked round, he saw that she was leaning back in her chair, with parted lips and eyes dilated.

'Miss Desborough !—Jane! he cried, in much alarm. She struggled to speak, but uttered only a low groan.

Too much shocked to reflect, he was about to call for help, when her cold hand was laid upon him.

. Unable to resist the gesture, Mordaunt stood anxiously waiting for further word or sign. She is physically weak," he thought; anything, everything but the one contingency, which he must thrust away from his mind for ever, and which yet came surging up and confronting him continually.

At last she said, 'It cannot be, Mordaunt. It cannot.

' It must,' he replied, hurriedly. 'I cannot enter into the particulars, but there is no alternative.'

Oh, Mordaunt, the voyage—the climateand you are no longer a boy.'

'I have counted the cost,' he replied, trying to smile—trying, in the growing dusk, to scan the face whose outline told of such bewildering emotion; he saw that each hand now clasped the arms of the chair, as if for support. She seemed to pause, scarcely able to think or speak coherently. Can I—may I ?' he heard her murmur involuntarily. And in the meantime the wildest, maddest fancies rose to his mind.

'It cannot be, Mordaunt. It need not be. It must not.' 'Why not?

Who is there to regret or miss me? Have I not lived on in hopes of proving my gratitude to Sir Mark ? Can I shrink from this service now?'

* Mordaunt,' she said, with a return of her old calm manner, 'this forces me to tell you all. Duty compels you to remain in England.

on the eve of being burdened with responsibilities which cannot be flung aside, even for the sake of others.'

• What do you mean ?'
She burst into tears.

'I told you of his precarious state, but did not feel justified in adding the truth. You are his successor, He has no heir, no rela

You are

« PreviousContinue »