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“Mother, Gerald, how is that? Is she a relation ?" and Lady Wimborne lifted up her head, and looked into his eyes with an eager gaze.
“ She had one son ; we were at school together, and one day while bathing I saved him from drowning; he died afterwards, poor boy, but she never forgot me, and ever since has been to me as a mother; I reminded her of her dead child. You will like her, I am sure.”
Lady Wimborne shuddered. “Hardly, Gerald, even though she has been so good to you. I could never forget her sister. No one knows the life of misery, the blighted hopes, the shame, the aching heart, the bitterness, that woman's sin has caused. You saw my home after the blight had fallen. When every day we rose to do battle against the fear that hung over us, and every night we lay down dreading the morning's light. This it was that drove him to his death-that man saw him on the day of his death. You did not know that ?"
Gerald shook his head, he could not trust himself to speak just then.
Gray saw him the day of his death ; the bank-book gave me the date of the last cheque, and I knew then how my dear one had been murdered. I told Gray of it when he forced his way here. I told him how I had found his handkerchief in my husband's pocket, and he was frightened at me."
“Lady Wimborne, darling, for Heaven's sake do not talk thus-it must have been accidental-it was accidental !”
Gerald spoke like one reasoning with himself, his face had grown very pale, and the veins rose like whipchord across his temples-a sure sign of a Wimborne's excitement.
“ It cannot be,” he repeated, as he turned away, and leant against the open window, through which the air was stealing, laden with the last faint breath from a half dead mignonette bed, and heavy with the aromatic scent of decaying leaves; the night was darker now than when he had arrived, the thick clouds which had gathered over the sky, blotting out the moon and stars, hung loweringly over the woods; and up from the plain came a white dense mist. As he stood there, recalling with painful minuteness every circumstance connected with the fatal day, the chill seemed to enter into his blood.
What if Lady Wimborne were right, and murder had been done ? Who the murderer was, must be clear; but how, after all these months, could the proofs be brought home, and if so, even if the guilt could be fastened upon Gray, would not the revival of past troubles, the resuscitation of forgotten scandal, make the penalty a heavier curse upon the innocent than the guilty? So absorbed was he by such thoughts that he did not notice that Lady Wimborne had crossed the room, and was standing by his side, until she touched his arm, saying
“I dare not drag up all the old scandal ; it would kill me !" And her
; voice broke into a sob as she said this.
“I was just thinking so," answered Gerald, sadly; "you must be spared at all risks. Besides, we have no proofs—nothing to go upon but such suspicions as might--nay, would-be misinterpreted when the extent of the wrong this man has done you was known; it is hard to say so, I know; but when the world judges, it takes no count of any. thing so paltry as human hearts and their weaknesses.”
He spoke bitterly; and, half turning away, leant against the window. He heard Lady Wimborne's passionate sobs, for the long strain and control had suddenly given way; and, sinking into a low seat, she seemed to have forgotten even his presence in the utter abandonment of pent-up despair.
For a time, he kept his face turned away. Had he not suffered too? Was he not suffering then ? Were secret sobs and tears of blood not wringing his heart? Love and grief are strangely selfish. He laid his pain to the charge of the woman weeping there in her agony; and, though every sob went to his heart like a knife, he made no sign. He was telling himself that she had thrust his comfort aside—that she had elected to suffer alone.
At first he kept his face turned away, and, with clenched teeth, thought
“ This is only a small portion of the lot my madness has entailed
But this could not last; he could not stand there all night, listening thus. The silence outside, and in the dimly-lighted room, the heavy air, touching his flushed cheek like a visible presence, all acting strongly
a upon his excited brain, seemed to rise up, like a barrier, between him and the interests, the hopes, or the pleasures of life. The world, with all its lesser light, passed away. He stood, as it were, upon the threshold of another life-a life without joy, without companionship ; a life, in which and through which, divided as by a mighty river, he should see his lost happiness afar off ; and wander on year after year, enduring in forced silence the hell of despair and disappointment.
He had turned his face as these thoughts surged through his brain, and his eyes fell upon the black-draped figure, across whose bent head the thin hands were clasped in agony. He bent lower; she had ceased sobbing, but the long laboured breath was almost as terrible to listen to. Lower and lower he bent his head. He scarcely knew why; his heart was throbbing almost into choking. Lower still. Suddenly his lips touched her hair ; and, with a cry like some wild beast in its death pang, he fell upon his knees beside her, clasping her in his arms, and covering her face and neck with passionate kisses.
For a moment or two Lady Wimborne was overpowered and startled; VOL. VI.
she felt Gerald's lips upon her face, and heard his low broken accents pouring forth the love that had mastered all at last. Slowly, and with a frightened shiver, she put back his head.
There was something in the ghastly paleness of her face, that struck and restrained him more than any words or reproaches could have done. Almost as pale as herself, he sprang to his feet, crying
“I have sinned! Curse me-banish me! but, for God's sake, do not look as if I'd added to your pain!”
“ You did not mean it,” was all she said, as, with a weary motion, she rose.
Before she reached the door, she hesitated and looked back, but Gerald was gone; he had passed through the French window on to the terrace; and, with a sigh of relief, she turned again, and hurried upstairs.
And Gerald, striding along the damp grassy path, choking back the grief and despair that had unmanned him, little knew that he had so nearly won the desire of his soul. At that moment, as Lady Wimborne turned and looked back, the prize was, or had been his. Womanlike, even in the moment of victory she had given way, and there had flashed
upon her the contrast of life as it might be and life as it was. But the moment of grace was past, and Gerald never knew how nearly he had missed the joy that gives us on earth a foretaste of heaven.
Alas! if all hearts were laid bare, how many might say the same !
Roger WIMBORNE's journey to Paris was marked by as little interest as such journeys generally are—the steamer was behind time, the train was hours late, and the rain was coming down in torrents when he looked out of the carriage, just as they steamed, whistled, and puffed into the dimly lighted station. A fat old man, with a couple of daughters, who talked incessantly of “officers" and seemed to know all the
'captains” in the service, had been his companions from Dieppe. Had they been pretty, Roger might have profited by their military ardour and claimed sufferance in virtue of his commission ; but unfortunately neither had any beauty, and so, after resisting several hints about windows, light, distance, etc., keeping up a stoical silence, and further relapsing into a pretended sleep, for which piece of rudeness he heard himself designated as “some railway clerk or reporter, who had got a pass,” he succeeded in tiring out even the young ladies' tongues, and won a couple of hours' sleep, at the expense of his character, pro tempo; though, as they all got out of the carriage, he had the somewhat malicious satisfaction of seeing his fair companions read, with no small chagrin, the address upon his portmanteau, and catching the whispered exclamation
“Oh my goodness, Bertie, he was an officer after all !”
And then calling a cab, Roger was rattled away to his hotel, from which, in about three hours, he emerged refreshed, re-dressed, and ready for his day's work.
He had the address of the banker to whom the draft was to be made payable all ready in his pocket-book. The bank was not difficult to find, but the manager was not there, and the clerk requested Monsieur to wait his arrival; this Roger did, and read the leading articles of the Times as the tardy moments passed by ; read them, however, without much benefit, or any definite idea of anything beyond the monotonous scratching of the clerkly pen, and the rumbling of the cabs outside in the street.
At last there was a quicker step in the hall, and the swing door opening to its fullest extent, gave entrance to a dapper little man, with a keen, clean-shaven face, hair parted in the middle and well frizzed out on either side of prominent temples.
Roger rose and returned the low bow with which the banker greeted him.
“I have come," began Mr. Wimborne, plunging at once into the business, “ I have come to beg you will assist me in a very important and painful matter."
The banker's rosy cheeks grew pallid, he glanced in a deprecatory way at the clerk, cleared his throat, and begged Roger to "permit him five minutes' conversation in his private room."
Once here, he threw off the restraint he had been using, and turning abruptly upon his visitor, begged him " for the love of Heaven to tell him the worst !”
"My dear sir," began Roger, seeing that he had given needless alarm, “I have nothing to say that can affect you ; the pain is my own, the business solely a family affair."
" Thank God!" ejaculated the banker. “I ask a hundred thousand pardons; what a relief, not banking business, not those dd failures in England. What a Providence! I was alarmed, but let it pass, Monsieur will pardon me?"
And then when the old man ceased, breathless, Roger struck in and told his story, explaining what he had come in search of, and in return heard he was too late ; Harry had withdrawn all accounts the day after the advices had arrived from London. The banker was overwhelmed with sympathy, he knew only the name of Monsieur Fielding's hotel, perhaps the poor young man might have left some trace; he had been ill, so the banker thought, and seemed very unhappy.
Roger went to his hotel, and after questioning every available person, from the boots upwards, and arriving at no more satisfactory result than the departure of his brother viâ Calais, he again found himself in the street, this time utterly faint-hearted and baulked, racking his brain as to what his next move ought to be, and wishing the few hours that lay between him and Gerald Guest's advice were bridged over.
Presently the crowd thickened ; the Empress was coming, and enthusiastic France stood still, crushing, elbowing, hustling, and swearing at each other, to wave their homage to her Majesty. Roger, though not in the temper for sight-seeing, was caught in the press; and carried away by the excitement round, he strained forward and uncovered before the lovely queen ; he heard a voice utter his name aloud, and in a tone of incredulity, as if doubting the evidence of her own eyes; he turned and looked round, but the carriage was past, the crowd was flowing on incessantly, jostling, pushing, chattering, and apologising, and above all roared and brayed a regimental brass band; he saw no familiar face near, and yet the voice was as familiar as his own. Commonsense told him he had been mistaken, but then there are times when commonsense seems to give way, and so it was in the present. Why did the speaker recognise him, and not address him? Or was it only some stranger who knew him by sight? This, however feasible, received no credence ; Roger was sure he knew the voice, although he could not identify it with any special memory.
There was nothing very strange after all in being recognised. As Roger took his ticket for Calais, he saw a closely-veiled figure standing near, and suddenly remembered that this, or one exactly similar, had been close beside him in the crowd. There was not much in that, sisters of mercy are plentiful enough in Paris, but somehow the voice and figure became connected in his mind.
As he put his ticket in his pocket-book, he turned for an instant; when he looked back the woman was gone, and a feeling of disappointment fell upon him.
But there was no time to make any search, the bell was ringing, and Roger was pushed into a half-filled carriage by a ferociously be-whiskered guard, who rolled out a muttered curse against "the English.” An irate Scotchman opposite told him “one Englishman was worth a dozen frog-eaters ;” and while Roger was laughing at the old gentleman's excitement, the train started, and at the same instant a hand was thrust into the window, and a twisted paper dropped on his knees; catching hold of it, he sprang up and looked out of the window; the veiled woman was there, she did not turn away or move during the short space that elapsed before the train whirled him out of sight, and once he fancied she lifted her hand as if to bid him farewell.
“When ye’er quite finished staring at that good-for-nothing huzzy,