Mrs. Haworth made her way along the streets with weak and lagging steps. She had been a brisk walker in the days of her country life, and even now was fonder of going here and there on foot than of riding in state, as her son would have preferred. But now the way before her seemed long. She knew where she was going.
"There's one of 'em as knows an' will tell me," she said to herself. "She can't have no cruel feeling against him, bein' a lady, an' knowin' him so well. An' if it's true—not as I believe it, Jem, my dear, for I don't—she'll break it to me gentle."
"Not as I believe, Jem, my dear, for I don't," she said to herself again and again.
Her mind went back to the first hour of his life, when he lay, a strong-limbed child, on her weak arm, the one comfort given to her out of her wretched marriage. She thought of him again as a lad, growing and thriving in spite of hunger and cold, growing and thriving in spite of cruelty and wrong which broke her health and threw her helpless upon charity. He had been sharper and bolder than other boys, and always steadfast to his determination.
"He was always good to me," she said. "Child an' man he's never forgot me, or been unmindful. If there'd have been wrong in his life, who'd have been liker to see it than me?"
It was to Rachel Ffrench she was going, and when at last she reached the end of her journey, and was walking up the pathway to the house, Rachel Ffrench, who stood at the window, saw her, and was moved to wonder by her pallor and feebleness.
The spring sunshine was so bright outside that the room seemed quite dark when she came into it, and even after she had seated herself the only light in it seemed to emanate from the figure of Miss Ffrench herself, who stood opposite her in a dress of some thin white stuff and with strongly fragrant yellow hyacinths at her neck and in her hand.
"You are tired," she said. "You should not have walked."
The woman looked up at her timidly.
"It isn't that," she answered. "it's somethin' else."
She suddenly stretched forth her hands into the light.
"I've come here to hear about my boy," she said. "I want to hear from one as knows the truth, an'—will tell me."
Miss French was not of a sympathetic nature. Few young women possessed more nerve and self-poise at trying times, and she had not at any previous period been specially touched by Mrs. Haworth; but just now she was singularly distressed.
"What do you want to know," she asked, "that I can tell you?"
She was not prepared for what happened next, and lost a little placidity through it. The simple, loving creature fell at her feet and caught hold of her dress, sobbing.
"He's thirty-three years old," she cried, "an' I've never seen the day when he's give me a hurt. He's been the pride of my life an' the hope of it. I've looked up to him and prayed for him an' believed in him—an' they say he's black with shameful sin—an' I don't know him, nor never did, for he's deceived me from first to last."
The yellow hyacinths fell from Miss Ffrench's hand on the carpet, and she looked down at them instead of at the upturned face.
"Who said it?" she asked.
But she was not answered.
"If it's true—not that I believe it, for I don't—if it's true, what is there left for me, as loved and honored him—where's my son I thanked God for day an' night? Where's my boy as paid me for all I bore? He's never been—he's never been at all. I've never been his mother nor he's never been my son. If it's true—not as I believe it, for I don't—where is he?"
Miss Ffrench bent down and picked up her hyacinths. She wondered, as she bent down, what her reply would be.
"Will you believe me?" she asked, as she rose up again.
"Yes, ma'am," she was answered, "I know I may do it—thank God!"
"Yes, you may," said Miss Ffrench, without flinching in the least. "I can have no feeling for or against him. I can have no end to serve, one way or the other. It is not true. It is a lie. He is all you have believed."
She helped her to rise, and made her sit down again in an easy-chair, and then herself withdrew a little, and stood leaning against the window looking at her.
"He has done more good in Broxton than any other man who lives," she said. "He has made it what it is. The people who hate him and speak ill of him are those he has benefited most. It is the way of their class, I have heard before, and now I believe it to be true. They have said worse things of men who deserve them as little as he does. He has enemies whom he has conquered, and they will never forgive him."
She discovered a good many things to say, having once begun, and she actually found a kind of epicurean enjoyment in saying them in a manner the most telling. She always liked to do a thing very well.
But, notwithstanding this, the time seemed rather long before she was left alone to think the matter over.
Before she had said many words her visitor was another woman. Life's color came back to her, and she sat crying softly, tears of sheer joy and relief.
"I knowed it couldn't be true," she said. "I knowed it, an' oh! thank you, ma'am, with all a mother's heart!
"To think," she said, smiling and sobbing, "as I should have been so wicked as to let it weigh on me, when I knowed so well as it couldn't never be. I should be almost 'shamed to look him in the face if I didn't know how good he was, an' how ready he'd be to forgive me."
When at last she was gone, Miss Ffrench threw herself, into the chair she had left, rather languidly. She was positively tired.
As she did so she heard a sound. She rose hastily and turned toward the folding-doors leading into the adjoining room. They had been partially closed, and as she turned they were pushed aside and some one came through them.
It was Jem Haworth.
He was haggard and disheveled, and as he approached her he walked unsteadily.
"I was in there through it all," he said, "and I heard every word."
She was herself again, at once. She knew she had not been herself ten minutes before.
"Well," she said.
He came up and stood near her—and almost abject tremor upon him.
"Will you listen to what I have got to say?" he said.
She made a cold gesture of assent.
"If she'd gone to some and heard what they had to tell," he said, "it would have killed her. It's well she came here."
She saw the dark color rush to his face and knew what was coming.
"It's all true, by ——" he burst out, "every word of it!"
"When I was in there," he went on, with a gesture toward the other room, "I swore I'd tell you. Make the best and the worst of it. It's all true—that and more."
He sat down in a chair and rested his forehead on his hands.
"Things has begun to go agen me," he said. "They never did before. I've been used to tell myself there was a kind of luck in keeping it hid from her. Th' day it comes on her, full force, I'm done for. I said in there you should know, at least. It's all true."
"I knew it was true," remarked Miss Ffrench, "all the time."
"You knew!" he cried out. "You!"
"I have known it from the first," she answered. "Did you think it was a secret?"
He turned hot and cold as he looked at her.
"Then, by George, you'd a reason for saying what you did. What was it?"
She remained silent, looking out of the open window across the flower-bright garden. She watched a couple of yellow butterflies eddying above a purple hyacinth for several seconds before she spoke, and then did so slowly and absently.
"I don't know the reason," she said. "It was a strange thing for me to do."
"It wasn't to save me aught," he returned. "That's plain enough."
"No," she answered, "it was not to save you. I am not given to pitying people, but I think that for the time I wanted to save her. It was a strange thing," she said, softly, "for me to do."