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“That there's the 'ouse, Fred ; and I heerd the screech, I were in the servant's 'all.”
“Oh lor!” exclaimed the other, “ did she come flop down ?”
The first speaker shuddered, but boy-like detailed the scene, every minute particular grossly exaggerated and touched up, in true penny "gaff" style.
“Her young man were there,” said he ;“such a beautiful young fellow; and the females said as how he was going hout to shoot hisself immediate.”
“Poor young fellow," sympathised the second lad; "just what I'd be hup to, if Mariar was to go hoff with the horse guards, which she's hoffered more than onct.”
Mr. Grey heard all this, standing unnoticed by the speakers, and the effect of the information was apparently startling, for hastily crossing the street, he rang the bell of the marked house, and rang it, too, so violently, that the peal jarred through the silence.
“Is the lady of the house at home ?” he demanded, but the woman who opened the door, thinking she had a drunken man to deal with, quickly shut herself in again, saying something about calling the police.
Mr. Grey never supposed that he had been so mistaken, but he did think that Mrs. West was prepared for him, and had given orders accordingly, so that as he walked away he did not bestow a benediction upon that lady. On reaching the end of the street, he paused irresolutely, then turning hastily retraced his steps; this time he rang gently, and when the woman opened the door, put his shoulder against it, and coolly walked into the hall.
“Now, my good woman," he said, “I must see your mistress; it is no use denying herself, here I shall stand until she chooses to make herself visible. You can take my card to her.”
He put it into the woman's hand, upon whose face there flashed a light of recognition.
Presently, from the room into which she had gone, there came a lady —whom by instinct, rather than likeness, he recognised as the sister of his dead wife. A hot flush came upon her cheeks as they stood face to face, each calculating what they had to expect from the other. There was no mistaking the half-defiant, half-cowardly, and wholly insolent face of the man, even had the loud toned bullying voice not betrayed him ; Mrs. West knew at once what she had to deal with, and was ready accordingly.
On the other hand, Gray saw he had a collected determined opponent to meet; she was cool and he was agitated, so he felt at a disadvantage, and the consciousness of being so did not add to his equanimity; and when a man of such character feels that he has lost or
is losing ground he usually takes to bullying-especially if his adversary be one of the weaker sex.
“You wished to see me, sir,” said Mrs. West as they entered a sittingroom. “ The interview will be a painful one on both sides ; please make it as concise as possible.”
Grey flinched already, and it was with an unnecessarily loud voice he replied
“Madam, I certainly have asked for an interview, because I demand -yes, demand-a retraction of the most malicious lie promulgated by the morning papers of yesterday.”
“I do not understand you quite, but if you mean that I am to state that my sister was not your wife, I shall certainly do no such thing."
“Then, by G-, I'll denounce the whole plot."
“Pray do not try to frighten me by blustering ; I am too old a hand to care the least for such demonstrations. You know very well that the paragraph was simply true, and that you dare not bring yourself before the eyes of society by any attempt to gainsay it.”
“ I'll show you what daring means," he said, “I have the power in my own hands, and I'll use it without mercy.”
“You may please yourself in what course you follow," went on Mrs. West—“I warn you that we have evidence necessary to prove, if need be, the truth of what we asserted.”
“You have not-you cannot-no one would believe a word.”
“I have written proof. I have the certificate of the marriage; others besides myself heard my sister's story, and that, too, from her own lips.”
“ Yes," he sneered, “I heard that too, and that it was which partly brought me hear. Who was this modern Quixote, who took up my lady's cause ? The paragraph was his too, was it not ?”
“ Your insinuations are perfectly harmless. A very dear friend of mine, Captain Guest-or, as he may call himself, Wimborne-came by my request to her bedside, and by my request also brought his cousin Roger Wimborne.”
“Upon my word,” sneered Mr. Grey, “ you would appear to possess a talent for tableaux ! What a romantic and sensational death-bed; 'tis a pity I was not summoned also! You made a mistake, you see, in that; I can and I shall dispute the indentity of the body as well as the accuracy of the concluding sentence of that paragraph. I can see the body, I presume ?”
“ Yes, but," and Mrs. West hesitated and grew pale in spite of the strong effort she was making to keep calm. “You will find her greatly altered."
A satisfied and triumphant smile was on Mr. Grey's face, as he said
“I expected I should ; but, changed as she might have been, it is scarcely possible but that one bearing such a very close tie as a husband
could fail to identify the features, if nothing more.
I shall with your permission make the effort."
Mrs. West answered nothing ; she had not anticipated such a move as that now made, and was unhappily conscious that he had some ground to stand on, and that the matter of identity might indeed be difficult to establish ; the husband's evidence against the sister's was all that could be brought forward, and Mrs West saw how weak her hold was; and in leading this man into the death chamber she was actually supplying the very evidence he required to establish his threatened opposition. Standing on the threshold, with her hand upon the lock of the door, in the very desperation of her fears, she made one more effort.
"You shall recognise 'her, deny it to the world as you may. You shall show it to your God and to me.”
The room was almost dark, there being only light enough to show the outline of the coffin, with its heavy black hangings; walking over to the window Mrs. West drew aside the curtains, and a gleam of sunlight, stealing past the white blind, shot like a golden bar along the room crossing the head of the coffin, and causing the white shroud to gleam and sparkle like snow.
Above the coffin, and leaning forward from the darkly papered wall, was a large white crucifix surmounted by a beautifully sculptured crown of thorns; and in a glass case below lay a host of broken toys, a boy's cricket-bat, and a pile of torn school books. Along the sunbeam the mother's eye travelled to these treasured relics ;she saw the same golden gleam upon the cross, the toys and the coffin, where resting, at last, lay the poor wilful sister, the weary, broken-hearted, and repentant sinner, whose tardy atonement threatened after all their care to have come too late.
Although Mr. Grey had approached the coffin, he was not looking at it; his face had grown ghastly, and the muscles of his mouth were quivering ; it was evident that a fierce struggle was going on beneath the forced surface calm, and that, physically strong as the man was, there was a stronger power at work within.
As Mrs. West reverently lifted aside the shroud from the pale cold face, a spasm passed over Gray's face, and a long deep breath came hissing through his teeth. He had, as Mrs. West warned him, antici
, pated a great, if not complete, change ; but now, in the settled sleep of death, the lines of age, care, disease, and suffering had faded out, and the face that lay smooth and transparent as marble, illuminated by the sunbeam, was strangely and awfully beautiful ; there was no question of identity, no one who had seen her in her pride of young beauty could ever forget that face.
Hardened by sin—scathed and torn by bitter wars waged against all that was honest or of good report in the world - the man's heart was
but human after all ; and, carried back by the sight of the dead face to purer and better times, a tide of bitter agonising regret set in upon the conscience stricken man.
Mrs. West was almost as much startled by the change that had taken place in her sister's face ; but she had seen much of death, and knew that this often happened, and that the scars left by sin were often even here wiped out by the pitying angels. She saw the struggle that was going on between conscience and present interest, and, wisely thinking the fight would be best fought alone, left the room.
Minute after minute passed by, and no movement or sound came from the silent chamber, until at last, when more than an hour had passed, she rapped at the door.
Gray was kneeling beside the coffin, his face resting on the pall, and there were stains of many tears on the fair white covering.
He started up and turned to her.
“You have conquered,” he said, hoarsely, coming away from the coffin. “I have owned it to my God, and to you. He may pardon me; you I do not ask to do so. You are human, and only like myself. You need fear me no more ; I will disturb neither your triumph or the Wimborne reunion. I suppose you know the lost son is in England ? And tell Lady Wimborne that she wronged me once, at least, bad as I am. I'd no hand in her husband's death.”
So saying, he took his way down stairs ; and Mrs. West heard him pacing up and down in the hall for nearly half an hour, waiting until he had become composed enough to face the world again.
TWILIGHT IN A COUNTRY LANE.
It is by no means pleasant to find yourself missing the easiest shots in the world, or to listen passively to the suppressed groans of the loader by your side, who, looking reproachfully, remarks, with a cough, warded off by his hand
* The birds is uncommon hard to hit, sir."
Roger endured all this as long as he could, then, handing the gun to the keeper, he avowed his intention of going back to the hall; but, at the same time, turned down a walk leading in a totally different direction. Along this he sauntered, taking no heed of the way, until, coming upon a rustic bridle gate, he discovered that he had reached the verge of the wood, and hit upon a deserted country lane.
To turn was impossible ; the paths cut through the brush-wood crossed and re-crossed each other, forming a regular labyrinth. It was growing dusk, too; the sun had dipped down behind the Hampshire hills, leaving night nigh at hand, and following fast on the glowing steps of the departed day.
One thing was clearly evident, he had lost his way; and which hand to turn, he had not the most remote idea. At last, taking it at a risk, he walked down the lane, which was a very pretty one, embowered by creepers-now, however, leafless-and hedged in by fern-covered high banks; under these the lane itself lay green and uncut by wheels-a fact which, however agreeable to the sense of beauty, was not by any means conducive to Roger's comfort, giving, as it did, no promise of being near some human dwelling, from whence he could obtain a clue to enable him to reach Wellingford before the dinner hour, and put in force his intention of driving home ; a proposal Charley Elmes had instituted, and which Roger, in the bitterness of his last night's troublesome thoughts, had at once acquiesced in.
The grass in the lane was, as I have said, green, and in consequence supplied a noiselessly soft carpet, whereon Roger's footsteps fell inaudibly, so striding rapidly along, out of temper with his bad luck, and the consequent change of plans it would cause, he came to a sharp turn in the lane, and there stopped abruptly, for directly before him, in strong relief against the red glow of the evening sky, framed in by the fern banks and bowering hedges, stood two figures, lovers too, if any faith might be put in the fact that the gentleman held both the lady's hands in his, and was bending down as if speaking, and certainly in very close and happy proximity to the earnest loving face, turned trustfully to his; a face, too, which, with the light behind it, as it had, and thrown into shadow by the black hat and scarlet feathers, was plain enough to Roger's eyes; even though the whole dress, hat, jacket, and petticoat, had not spoken for themselves ; for whoever wore such hats, or sported such marvellous combinations of colours, and such miraculous fits, as Lilly Babbington ?
Yes, it was Lilly, he knew her at once ; but the man had his back turned towards him, and although he faced round for an instant as Lilly uttered Roger's name, the light was too dim to see more than that he was not one of the men staying in the house. Whispering something to Lilly, he walked quickly down the lane, and Roger's eyes, following him, grew more and more earnest in their gaze; surely he had seen this man before-the very movement and set of the figure were familiar, and woke that strange feeling of recognition which so often startles one.
Lilly waited until a dip of the road hid her friend from sight; she had grown very pale as she stood there, but the blood rushed up in a hot painful blush, as she came towards Roger.
Now Roger had long ago, even in the days of his boyhood, a great liking for Lilly, and had, of late, allowed himself to think that if he