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'Plucky,' thought Mr. Lassils, 'but foolish. I wonder what precise nature the domestic trouble assumed ?'
Her ladyship had been dead a month, and buried for three weeks. Already she was becoming a memory. The mourning worn for her had lost its first freshness, and even the servants, on the eve of departure from Holyrood House, were forgetting her ill-humours, and referred to her, not unkindly, as their poor mistress.
As for Sir John, he must, after long years of servitude, have felt like the traditional prisoner of the Bastille, unable to realise his freedom. In a second the awful fetters himself had forged were struck off by death, only, however, to impose a more terrible punish ment-the loss of Rachel !
For that trouble had now to be faced. It was impossible her father should longer defer his claim. Hitherto, out of pity for the man who had so wronged him, out of consideration for Miss Aggles, who implored delay, he forbore to insist that the daughter, who was a stranger to him, should at length be given into his care; but now he said he could wait no longer; that very night he would come to Holyrood House and take her to his own home.
'I do not want to be hard upon the man,' he said to Doctor Dilton; 'but she is my child, and it is not fit that she should remain under his roof.'
Sorrowfully Doctor Dilton agreed it was not fit; still he felt the terrible necessity of tearing the two apart. It was all part of the wrong, which could never be made right; never, while the sun shone by day and the moon gave her light by night.
Throughout Holyrood House there reigned a silence as profound as when Lady Moffat lay in her
coffin. Save in the basement, no sound of human speech broke the stillness, and even amongst the servants there was less talk than might have been expected.
At last they realised the fact that it was an exceptionally good place they were leaving; that they might never be so comfortable again; that let the mystery, which they comprehended had shaded the house, be what it would, it failed to touch them, nay, perhaps made matters better for dependents than might have been the case where no secret trouble wrung the hearts of those set in authority over them.
Sir John had returned from the City early in the afternoon, asked for a cup of tea, and partaken of that simple stimulant in the dining-room. Rachel was in her own apartment, putting up such of her simple possessions as had been left unpacked to the last, and wondering why it was no word had been spoken to her as to where they should next be opened.
It was the evening of a wild day in March. The wind swept across Kensington Gardens; masses of cloud kept hurrying across the sky; the sun was going down in a stormy, gray, and golden splendour.
'I shall always think of Kensington thus,' mused the girl, as she stood lonely beside the window, and she looked mournfully over the desolate landscape through a mist of unbidden tears. did not draw down the blinds as twilight came darkling down, but, sitting beside the fire, still continued to gaze into the sombre sadness of the gathering night.
As she mused-and Heaven knows her thoughts were mournful as the aspect of external Nature there sounded a light knock upon the panel of the door-light, yet decided.
'Come in,' said the girl, changing her attitude a little, but not turning her head.
Slowly the handle was turned, slowly the door opened. Never had Winter in her most desponding or sympathetic moments entered any apartment after such a fashion, and surprised, Rachel looked round and beheld, standing in the further gloom, Sir John.
Instantly she sprang to her feet and hurried to meet him. Papa' she exclaimed, with a little sob of delight and pain; and she would have thrown herself upon his breast but that he stretched out his hand to keep her back, while, advancing into the room with the set look upon his face of one who had come on some fixed errand, he said,
'I want to talk to you, Rachel. May I sit down?'
Wondering at his tone and. manner and expression, trembling with the terror of some unknown unimaginable danger strong upon her, she wheeled the easiest chair beside the hearth, and when he dropped into it stood, her hands clasped on the mantelpiece, waiting for what was to come next.
'You have bad news,' at last she said, finding he did not speak, and feeling the silence insupportable.
'For myself, yes,' he replied moodily; for you-God grant what I have to say may prove good hereafter !'
'Nothing which is bad for you can be good for me,' she answered; and she meant what she said fully, though, as she spoke, her heart gave one great throb, thinking that, perhaps-ah, well, let that pass; she could not herself have analysed what she felt at the moment.
'I want to tell you a story,
Rachel,' he went on, ignoring her remark. 'Sit down, dear; not beside me that will do.'
What was coming-what could be coming? Something keener than the cutting wind, darker than the gathering night, more mournful than the dreary landscape. Something which had destroyed the happiness of a man's life, eaten the corn out of the ear, nipped off the fruit ere it set upon the tree, cankered the roses of existence before they could blossom into beauty and frag
'It does not much signify how long ago,' he began, speaking to the leaping flame rather than to her, but before you were born, at any rate, a young man of good family married a girl beneath himself in rank, but beautiful exceedingly. The marriage cost him everything men, as a rule, deem best worth havingmoney, station, worldly consideration.'
'Yes, papa,' Rachel said, as he paused. She breathed again freely. Let the story be what it would, it did not seem one that concerned them so nearly as in some vague intangible sort of way she had feared it might do.
'From most men, however, he differed. He thought love of more value than lands or money, or the homage of his fellows, and though he knew he had acted in what the world considered a foolish manner, he felt content.'
'I am glad of that,' said the girl. 'Whoever he may have been he was right.'
looked inquiringly at the grave troubled face he turned towards her.
The newly-married couple had means of living,' proceeded Sir John; 'so the young husband brought his wife to London and procured a situation, in which, by working hard, he managed to earn the bare necessaries of life. They were very poor, but I think, I believe they might have been very happy.'
Rachel made no comment, but there was a love-light in her eyes which told she at least thought, under certain circumstances, narrow means might not be incompatible with happiness.
Even then, however,' pursued Sir John, 'in the early, early days of their wedded life, I fancy -I do not know for a certainty -but it seems to me probable the wife was discontented.'
Ah!' Involuntarily, with a little gasping cry, Rachel spoke the word, but she added none other to it.
'They had a poor little house in the east of London,' he hurriedly proceeded, which he tried to beautify with such flowers as a man in his position could cultivate. They lived there on the money he earned, if not in affluence, at least quite above poverty; and what the future of their lives might have proved no one can say had not the husband met with a dreadful accident. He was run over, crushed, fearfully injured, almost killed; but for the skill of a local doctor he must have died.'
For an instant Sir John paused. Out of the depths of memory that far-away time arose and stood beside him, touched his senses with the perfume and the glamour and the temptation of old. Again he inhaled the breath of that summer morning, looked at that
VOL. XXXVIII, NO. CCXXVIII.
shadowy figure seen dimly in the early twilight, the scent of the flowers floated around him, and then all faded away; and in their place naught remained save remorse and death and shame and
'It does not matter now to tell the when and the how,' he continued, but whilst the young husband lay ill, by the purest accident a total stranger became acquainted with their circumstances, and tried to aid them. It is the most terrible thing in all the world, Rachel, for an old man like myself to talk to a young girl like you about such things, but the story has to be told. The pity this stranger believed he felt for the husband, and that he did truly feel, proved to be but secondary to the love which had sprung up in his heart for the wife. Don't look at me so, child! O God, help me, how am I to go on to the end?'
'Do not try, papa,' she entreated. 'Only say if there is anything you want me to do because of these people. What were they to us? what were they to us?' and her question trailed off into a little moaning cry.
'You only make it harder for me, Rachel,' he said.
How bitterly cruelly hard it was he only fully realised when this innocent girl sat before him listening to words which seemed to blister his tongue as he uttered them. Love! Was a passion which could lead to such an end fit to be called by such a name?
'From the time he came to a knowledge of his own heart,' went on Sir John, he tried to escape, kept away from both
husband and wife; but circumstances threw him once again across their path. He was asked to use his influence to obtain an appointment abroad for the man
creeping back to health. There seemed to him safety in this direction; how was he to know the wife meant to remain behind?' Rachel held her breath. Some vague notion of what was to follow dawned upon her; but she did not speak; she only fastened her eyes upon the speaker as though she would have read his very heart.
She would not go; her husband went alone to make a home for her in a strange land. She returned to the relations she had lived with before her marriage. Her grandfather was a farmer in Hampshire. At his house her child was born, a child whose father had lost everything, relinquished everything, for love of a woman who had no love to give any one. It was some months after that ere she and the stranger met again, not quite accidentally,since, though no letters had been exchanged or appointment made, he knew she was in that part of the country, and went down on the chance of seeing her. He meant no wrong even then. His sin consisted in blinding himself to the rocks on which he was drift
ing. Beside the sea they encountered each other. She was walking up and down on the sands, while the waves came gently in on the shore. She was more beautiful than ever. Recognising him from afar, she ran to meet him with a cry of joy.'
He stopped short. In what words could a story like this be told, so as to make the sin excusable, the might of the temptation intelligible? No, it could not be done when the speaker was a man and the hearer a girl. Better to hurry on without excuse or delay to the terrible afterwards which ensued.
'There is but one end that can ever come to dallying with evil,'
Sir John proceeded, after an instant's pause, and it came to them. Before six weeks had elapsed she had left her home, and he he had forgotten his honour, his religion, and tied a millstone round his neck for life.'
'Don't go on, papa, do not!' she entreated. Why should I know all this? Is there any reason you should tell me about such fearful trouble?'
'Yes,' he answered, 'a good reason. I have not much more to say. For years they lived thus in sin; but the woman's relations knew nothing of what had occurred. They believed she was earning her bread as a milliner's assistant in London. Her husband also was perfectly ignorant of what had occurred. At last tidings arrived that he was on his way home, and might be expected at any time.'
Did he come?' asked the girl. 'The vessel by which he returned went down, and he was reported amongst the lost. Long, long before that time, whatever of affection existed upon the part of the man I have spoken of had been crushed out; but, now the woman was free, he made the only reparation in his power-he married her. He took the dead husband's child and brought it up as his own. At first he meant to do this as a mere matter of duty, as a salve to his conscience, which never ceased pricking him; but by degrees the child grew into his very heart. The love the mother never gave was lavished upon him without stint by one who was only his daughter by adoption.'
'Papa!' she rose wildly and all in a tremor, would have come closer to him, but that he once again put out his hands to keep her at arm's length, 'do not talk any more in stories. Who was that child-that daughter?
His head drooped, his hands fell nerveless; but he did not
up to womanhood, I felt you would one day be loved and love; and when that day came I in
'Was it I O papa, papa, is tended, if the lover were worthy, it of me you were speaking?
He only replied by a gesture; he was passing through the supreme agony of his life.
'And she was the woman who could love no one my mother?'
Once again the mute sign of affirmative. Then, in an anguish of despair, she covered her young face with her hands, and sobbed out,
'And you-you! But tell me nothing more, if you would rather not.'
Her last words seemed to break a spell which had held him in silence.
'I am the man,' he answered, and though his voice was hoarse with emotion every syllable fell distinctly through the stillness of that quiet room. I was the false friend; it was I who led your mother astray from her allegiance; I who betrayed the truest noblest heart that ever beat in human bosom. I have no word to speak in excuse; my life, since I first saw her standing in the morning twilight, shadowed by foliage, surrounded by perfume, has been a long sin and a long sorrow. But sorrow is not expiation-remorse, however keen and true it may be, never sufficient punishment for such guilt and treachery as mine.'
She did not speak for a moment; then, with a pitiful cry, she cast herself on the ground before him, and said,
'But why have you told all this to me now? What was the need for me to know—ever—'
"There were times,' he replied, 'when I thought no one need ever know; till quite lately I hoped you, at least, might be kept in ignorance. As I saw you grow
to tell him the story, and bury the secret in your husband's breast. He came, Rachel, long ago. He showed me his heart, and he then refused to learn that which I wished to tell him. He came again, just lately, to say he should never now be rich or titled, because his cousin was going to be married: but that he had got a good living, and could maintain you in such simple affluence as he believed would suffice.' 'And then
Sir John had long before lifted her from the ground, and as she asked the question she stood, slight and fair and young, with the leaping firelight showing the trouble in her face, as she dropped the words out slowly, one by one.
'I told him this,' said Sir John firmly that you were not my daughter; that I had no right to dispose of your hand; that he must ask your own father to give you to him; and I added where that father was to be found.' 'What!'
She spoke but that single monosyllable, yet it reached the inmost recesses of Sir John's heart.
'Your father was not dead, though I believed him to be lying in the Atlantic Ocean; he is in England. Out of pity, he has hitherto had patience; but tonight the time he gave me to make this confession and to part with you expires. Even while I speak, Rachel, he is below, waiting to claim his child.'
'To claim me? do you mean me?' she asked.
'Yes, dear, you belong to him; I never ought to have had part or share in you. It has been hard