Page images
PDF
EPUB

TEMPLE BAR.

APRIL 1873.

The Uew Magdalen.

BY WILKIE COLLINS.

CHAPTER XXII.

THE MAN IN THE DINING-ROOM.

IN
N the great emergencies of life we feel, or we act, as our disposi-

tions incline us. But we never think. Mercy's mind was a blank as she descended the stairs. On her way down, she was conscious of nothing but the one headlong impulse to get to the library in the shortest possible space of time. Arrived at the door, the impulse capriciously left her. She stopped on the mat, wondering why she had hurried herself, with time to spare. Her heart sank; the fever of her excitement changed suddenly to a chill, as she faced the closed door, and asked herself the question, Dare I go in?

Her own hand answered her. She lifted it to turn the handle of the lock. It dropped again helplessly at her side.

The sense of her own irresolution wrung from her a low exclamation of despair. Faint as it was, it had apparently not passed unheard. The door was opened from within-and Horace stood before her.

He drew aside to let her pass into the room. But he never followed her in. He stood in the doorway, and spoke to her, keeping the door open with his hand.

“ Do you mind waiting here for me?” he asked.

She looked at him, in vacant surprise, doubting whether she bad heard him aright.

“ It will not be for long," he went on. “ I am far too anxious to hear what you have to tell me to submit to any needless delays. The truth is, I have had a message from Lady Janet.”

(From Lady Janet! What could Lady Janet want with him, at a VOL. XXXVIII.

B

time when she was bent on composing herself in the retirement of her own room ?)

“ I ought to have said two messages," Horace proceeded. “The first was given to me on my way downstairs. Lady Janet wished to see me immediately. I sent an excuse. A second message followed. Lady Janet would accept no excuse. If I refused to go to her I should be merely obliging her to come to me. It is impossible to risk being interrupted in that way; my only alternative is to get the thing over as soon as possible. Do you mind waiting ?” “ Certainly not. Have you any idea

Have you any idea of what Lady Janet wants with you ?"

“ No. Whatever it is, she shall not keep me long away from you. You will be quite alone here ; I have warned the servants not to show any one in.” With those words, he left her.

Mercy's first sensation was å sensation of relief—soon lost in a feeling of shame at the weakness which could welcome any temporary relief in such a position as hers. The emotion thus roused, merged, in its turn, into a sense of impatient regret. “But for Lady Janet's message,” she thought to herself; “ I might have known my fate by this time!”

The slow minutes followed each other drearily. She paced to and fro in the library, faster and faster, under the intolerable irritation, the maddening uncertainty of her own suspense. Ere long, even the spacious room seemed to be too small for her. The sober monotony of the long book-lined shelves oppressed and offended her. She threw open the door which led into the dining-room, and dashed in, eager for a change of objects, athirst for more space and more air.

At the first step, she checked herself; rooted to the spot, under a sudden revulsion of feeling which quieted her in an instant.

The room was only illuminated by the waning firelight. A man was obscurely visible, seated on the sofa, with his elbows on his knees and his head resting on his hands. He looked up, as the open door let in the light from the library lamps. The mellow glow reached his face, and revealed Julian Gray.

Mercy was standing with her back to the light; her face being necessarily hidden in deep shadow. He recognised her by her figure, and by the attitude into which it unconsciously fell. That unsought grace, that lithe long beauty of line, belonged to but one woman in the house. He rose, and approached her.

“I have been wishing to see you,” he said, “and hoping that accident might bring about some such meeting as this.”

He offered her a chair. Mercy hesitated before she took her seat. This was their first meeting alone, since Lady Janet had interrupted her at the moment when she was about to confide to Julian the melancholy story of the past. Was he anxious to seize the opportunity of returning to her confession ? The terms in which he had addressed her seemed to imply it. She put the question to him in plain words.

“I feel the deepest interest in hearing all that you have still to confide to me,” he answered. “But anxious as I may be, I will not hurry you. I will wait, if you wish it.”

“ I am afraid I must own that I do wish it,” · Mercy rejoined. “ Not on my account,but because my time is at the disposal of Horace Holmcroft. I expect to see him in a few minutes.”

“ Could you give me those few minutes ?” Julian asked. « I have something, on my side, to say to you, which I think you ought to know, before you see any one-Horace himself included."

He spoke with a certain depression of tone which was not associated with her previous experience of him. His face looked prematurely old and care-worn, in the red light of the fire. Something had plainly happened to sadden and to disappoint bim, since they had last met

“I willingly offer you all the time that I have at my own command.” Mercy replied. “Does what you have to tell me relate to Lady Janet ?"

He gave her no direct reply. “What I have to tell you of Lady Janet,” he said gravely, “ is soon told. So far as she is concerned, you have nothing more to dread. Lady Janet knows all.”

Even the heavy weight of oppression caused by the impending interview with Horace failed to hold its place in Mercy's mind, when Julian answered her in those words.

“ Come into the lighted room,” she said faintly. “ It is too terrible to hear you say that in the dark.”

Julian followed her into the library. Her limbs trembled under her. She dropped into a chair, and shrank under his great bright eyes, as he stood by her side, looking sadly down on her.

“Lady Janet knows all !” she repeated, with her head on her breast, and the tears falling slowly over her cheeks. Have you told her ?”

“I have said nothing to Lady Janet or to any one. Your confidence is a sacred confidence to me, until you have spoken first.”

“Has Lady Janet said anything to you ?"

“Not a word. She has looked at you with the vigilant eyes of love; she has listened to you with the quick hearing of love and she has found her own way to the truth. She will not speak of it to me -she will not speak of it to any living creature. I only know now how dearly she loved you. In spite of herself she clings to you still. Her life, poor soul, has been a barren one; unworthy, miserably unworthy, of such a nature as hers. Her marriage was loveless and childless. She has had admirers, but never, in the higher sense of the word, a friend. All the best years of her life have been wasted in the unsatisfied longing for something to love. At the end of her life You have filled the void. Her heart has found its youth again, through

You. At her age—at any age—is such a tie as this to be rudely broken at the mere bidding of circumstances ? No! She will suffer anything, risk anything, forgive anything, rather than own, even to herself, that she has been deceived in you. There is more than her happiness at stake; there is pride, a noble pride, in such love as hers, which will ignore the plainest discovery and deny the most unanswerable truth. I am firmly convinced-from my own knowledge of her character, and from what I have observed in her to-day—that she will find some excuse for refusing to hear your confession. And more than that, I believe (if the exertion of her influence can do it), that she will leave no means untried of preventing you from acknowledging your true position here to any living creature. I take a serious responsibility on myself in telling you this—and I don't shrink from it. You ought to know, and you shall know, what trials and what temptations may yet lie before you."

He paused—leaving Mercy time to compose herself, if she wished to speak to him.

She felt that there was a necessity for her speaking to him. He was plainly not aware that Lady Janet had already written to her to defer her promised explanation. This circumstance was in itself a confirmation of the opinion which he had expressed. She ought to mention it to him; she tried to mention it to him. But she was not equal to the effort. The few simple words in which he had touched on the tie that bound Lady Janet to her, had wrung her heart. Her tears choked her. She could only sign to him to go on.

“ You may wonder at my speaking so positively,” he continued, s with nothing better than my own conviction to justify me. I can only say that I have watched Lady Janet too closely to feel any doubt. I saw the moment in which the truth flashed on her, as plainly as I now see you. It did not disclose itself gradually—it burst on her, as it burst on me. She suspected nothing-she was frankly indignant at your sudden interference and your strange language-until the time came in which you pledged yourself to produce Mercy Merrick. Then (and then only) the truth broke on her mind, trebly revealed to her in your words, your voice, and your look. Then (and then only) I saw a marked change come over her, and remain in her while she remained in the room. I dread to think of what she may do in the first reckless despair of the discovery that she has made. I distrust — though God knows I am not naturally a suspicious man—the most apparently trifling events that are now taking place about us. You have held nobly to your resolution to own the truth. Prepare yourself, before the evening is over, to be tried and tempted again.”

Mercy lifted her head. Fear took the place of grief in her eyes, as they rested in startled inquiry on Julian's face.

How is it possible that temptation can come to me now?" she asked.

« PreviousContinue »