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words written on each. One ran thus:
'SIR,—As a woman who was once blest with a dear son of her own, I implore you to accept a warning——'
'SIR,—If you will deign to receive warning from a stranger before it is too late to alter your course, listen to——'
'SIR,—With this letter I enclose to you another which, unaided by any explanation from me, tells a startling tale. I wish, however, to add a few words to make your delusion yet more clear to you——' It was plain that, after these renounced beginnings, a fourth letter had been written and despatched, which had been deemed a proper one. Upon the table were two drops of sealing-wax, the stick from which they were taken having been laid down overhanging the edge of the table; the end of it drooped, showing that the wax was placed there whilst warm. There was the chair in which the writer had sat, the impression of the letter's address upon the blotting-paper, and the poor widow who had caused these results lying dead hard by. Knight had seen enough to lead him to the conclusion that Mrs. Jethway, having matter of great importance to communicate to some friend or acquaintance, had written him a very careful letter, and gone herself to post it; that she had not returned to the house from that time of leaving it till Lord Luxellian and himself had brought her back dead.
The unutterable melancholy of the whole scene, as he waited on, silent and alone, did not altogether clash with the mood of Knight, even though he was the affianced of a fair and winning girl, and though so lately he had been in her company. Whilst sitting on the remains of the demolished tower he had defined a new sensation; that the lengthened course of inaction he had lately been indulging in on Elfride's account might probably not be good for him as a man who had work to do. It could quickly be put an end to by hastening on his marriage with her.
Knight, in his own opinion, was one who had missed his mark by excessive aiming. Having now, to a great extent, given up ideal ambitions, he wished earnestly to direct his powers into a more practical channel, and thus correct the introspective tendencies which had never brought himself much happiness, or done his fellow-creatures any great good. To make a start in this new direction by marriage, which, since knowing Elfride, had been so entrancing an idea, was less exquisite to-night. That the curtailment of his illusion regarding her had something to do with the reaction, and with the return of his old sentiments on wasting time, is more than probable. Though Knight's heart had so greatly mastered him, the mastery was not so complete as to be easily maintained in the face of a moderate intellectual revival.
His reverie was broken by the sound of wheels, and a horse's tramp. The door opened to admit the surgeon, Lord Luxellian, and a Mr. Coole, coroner for the division (who had been attending at Castle Boterel that very day, and was having an after-dinner chat with the doctor when Lord Luxellian arrived); next came two female nurses and some idlers.
Mr. Granson, after a cursory examination, pronounced the woman dead from suffocation, induced by intense pressure on the respiratory organs; and arrangements were made that the inquiry should take place on the following morning, before the return of the coroner to St. Launce's.
Shortly afterwards the house of the widow was deserted by all its living occupants, and she abode in death, as she had in her life during the past two years, entirely alone.
CHAPTER 34 'Yea, happy shall he be that rewardeth thee as thou hast served us.' Sixteen hours had passed. Knight was entering the ladies' boudoir at The Crags, upon his return from attending the inquest touching the death of Mrs. Jethway. Elfride was not in the apartment.
Mrs. Swancourt made a few inquiries concerning the verdict and collateral circumstances.
Then she said— 'The postman came this morning the minute after you left the house. There was only one letter for you, and I have it here.' She took a letter from the lid of her workbox, and handed it to him. Knight took the missive abstractedly, but struck by its appearance murmured a few words and left the room.
The letter was fastened with a black seal, and the handwriting in which it was addressed had lain under his eyes, long and prominently, only the evening before.
Knight was greatly agitated, and looked about for a spot where he might be secure from interruption. It was the season of heavy dews, which lay on the herbage in shady places all the day long; nevertheless, he entered a small patch of neglected grass-plat enclosed by the shrubbery, and there perused the letter, which he had opened on his way thither.
The handwriting, the seal, the paper, the introductory words, all had told on the instant that the letter had come to him from the hands of the widow Jethway, now dead and cold. He had instantly understood that the unfinished notes which caught his eye yesternight were intended for nobody but himself. He had remembered some of the words of Elfride in her sleep on the steamer, that somebody was not to tell him of something, or it would be her ruin—a circumstance hitherto deemed so trivial and meaningless that he had well-nigh forgotten it. All these things infused into him an emotion intense in power and supremely
distressing in quality. The paper in his hand quivered as he read:
'THE VALLEY, ENDELSTOW.
'SIR,—A woman who has not much in the world to lose by any censure this act may bring upon her, wishes to give you some hints concerning a lady you love. If you will deign to accept a warning before it is too late, you will notice what your correspondent has to say.
'You are deceived. Can such a woman as this be worthy?
'One who encouraged an honest youth to love her, then slighted him, so that he died.
'One who next took a man of no birth as a lover, who was forbidden the house by her father.
'One who secretly left her home to be married to that man, met him, and went with him to London.
'One who, for some reason or other, returned again unmarried.
'One who, in her after-correspondence with him, went so far as to address him as her husband.
'One who wrote the enclosed letter to ask me, who better than anybody else knows the story, to keep the scandal a secret.
'I hope soon to be beyond the reach of either blame or praise. But before removing me God has put it in my power to avenge the death of my son.
The letter enclosed was the note in pencil that Elfride had written in Mrs. Jethway's cottage:
'DEAR MRS. JETHWAY,—I have been to visit you. I wanted much to see you, but I cannot wait any longer. I came to beg you not to execute the threats you have repeated to me. Do not, I beseech you, Mrs. Jethway, let any one know I ran away from home! It would ruin me with him, and break my heart. I will do anything for you, if you will be kind to me. In the name of our common womanhood, do not, I implore you, make a scandal of me.—Yours, 'E. SWANCOURT.
Knight turned his head wearily towards the house. The ground rose rapidly on nearing the shrubbery in which he stood, raising it almost to a level with the first floor of The Crags.
Elfride's dressing-room lay in the salient angle in this direction, and it was lighted by two windows in such a position that, from Knight's standing-place, his sight passed through both windows, and raked the room. Elfride was there; she was pausing between the two windows, looking at her figure in the cheval-glass. She regarded herself long and attentively in front; turned, flung back her head, and observed the reflection over her shoulder.
Nobody can predicate as to her object or fancy; she may have done the deed in the very abstraction of deep sadness. She may have been moaning from the bottom of her heart, 'How unhappy am I!' But the impression produced on Knight was not a good one. He dropped his eyes moodily. The dead woman's letter had a virtue in the accident of its juncture far beyond any it intrinsically exhibited. Circumstance lent to evil words a ring of pitiless justice echoing from the grave. Knight could not endure their possession. He tore the letter into fragments.
He heard a brushing among the bushes behind, and turning his head he saw Elfride following him. The fair girl looked in his face with a wistful smile of hope, too forcedly hopeful to displace the firmly established dread beneath it. His severe words of the previous night still sat heavy upon her.
'I saw you from my window, Harry,' she said timidly.
'The dew will make your feet wet,' he observed, as one deaf.
'I don't mind it.' 'There is danger in getting wet feet.' 'Yes...Harry, what is the matter?' 'Oh, nothing. Shall I resume the serious conversation I had with you last night? No, perhaps not; perhaps I had better not.' 'Oh, I cannot tell! How wretched it all is! Ah, I wish you were your own dear self again, and had kissed me when I came up! Why didn't you ask me for one? why don't you now?' 'Too free in manner by half,' he heard murmur the voice within him.
'It was that hateful conversation last night,' she went on. 'Oh, those words! Last night was a black night for me.' 'Kiss!—I hate that word! Don't talk of kissing, for God's sake! I should think you might with advantage have shown tact enough to keep back that word "kiss," considering those you have accepted.' She became very pale, and a rigid and desolate charactery took possession of her face. That face was so delicate and tender in appearance now, that one could fancy the pressure of a finger upon it would cause a livid spot.
Knight walked on, and Elfride with him, silent and unopposing. He opened a gate, and they entered a path across a stubble-field.
'Perhaps I intrude upon you?' she said as he closed the gate. 'Shall I go away?' 'No. Listen to me, Elfride.' Knight's voice was low and unequal. 'I have been honest with you:
will you be so with me? If any—strange—connection has existed between yourself and a predecessor of mine, tell it now. It is better that I know it now, even though the knowledge should part us, than that I should discover it in time to come. And suspicions have been awakened in me. I think I will not say how, because I despise the means. A discovery of any mystery of your past would embitter our lives.' Knight waited with a slow manner of calmness. His eyes were sad and imperative. They went farther along the path.
'Will you forgive me if I tell you all?' she exclaimed entreatingly.
'I can't promise; so much depends upon what you have to tell.' Elfride could not endure the silence which followed.
'Are you not going to love me?' she burst out. 'Harry, Harry, love me, and speak as usual!
Do; I beseech you, Harry!' 'Are you going to act fairly by me?' said Knight, with rising anger; 'or are you not? What have I done to you that I should be put off like this? Be caught like a bird in a springe; everything intended to be hidden from me! Why is it, Elfride? That's what I ask you.' In their agitation they had left the path, and were wandering among the wet and obstructive stubble, without knowing or heeding it.
'What have I done?' she faltered.
'What? How can you ask what, when you know so well? You KNOW that I have designedly been kept in ignorance of something attaching to you, which, had I known of it, might have altered all my conduct; and yet you say, what?' She drooped visibly, and made no answer.
'Not that I believe in malicious letter-writers and whisperers; not I. I don't know whether I do or don't: upon my soul, I can't tell. I know this: a religion was building itself upon you in my heart. I looked into your eyes, and thought I saw there truth and innocence as pure and perfect as ever embodied by God in the flesh of woman. Perfect truth is too much to expect, but ordinary truth I WILL HAVE or nothing at all. Just say, then; is the matter you keep back of the gravest importance, or is it not?' 'I don't understand all your meaning. If I have hidden anything from you, it has been because I loved you so, and I feared—feared—to lose you.' 'Since you are not given to confidence, I want to ask you some plain questions. Have I your permission?' 'Yes,' she said, and there came over her face a weary resignation. 'Say the harshest words you can; I will bear them!' 'There is a scandal in the air concerning you, Elfride; and I cannot even combat it without knowing definitely what it is. It may not refer to you entirely, or even at all.' Knight trifled in the very bitterness of his feeling. 'In the time of the French Revolution, Pariseau, a balletmaster, was beheaded by mistake for Parisot, a captain of the King's Guard. I wish there was another "E. Swancourt" in the neighbourhood. Look at this.' He handed her the letter she had written and left on the table at Mrs. Jethway's. She looked over it vacantly.
'It is not so much as it seems!' she pleaded. 'It seems wickedly deceptive to look at now, but it had a much more natural origin than you think. My sole wish was not to endanger our love. O Harry! that was all my idea. It was not much harm.' 'Yes, yes; but independently of the poor miserable creature's remarks, it seems to imply— something wrong.' 'What remarks?' 'Those she wrote me—now torn to pieces. Elfride, DID you run away with a man you loved?—that was the damnable statement. Has such an accusation life in it—really, truly, Elfride?' 'Yes,' she whispered.
Knight's countenance sank. 'To be married to him?' came huskily from his lips.
'Yes. Oh, forgive me! I had never seen you, Harry.' 'To London?' 'Yes; but I——' 'Answer my questions; say nothing else, Elfride Did you ever deliberately try to marry him in secret?' 'No; not deliberately.' 'But did you do it?' A feeble red passed over her face.
'Yes,' she said.
'And after that—did you—write to him as your husband; and did he address you as his wife?' 'Listen, listen! It was——' 'Do answer me; only answer me!' 'Then, yes, we did.' Her lips shook; but it was with some little dignity that she continued: 'I would gladly have told you; for I knew and know I had done wrong. But I dared not; I loved you too well. Oh, so well! You have been everything in the world to me—and you are now.