Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 5/The silver cord - Part 40

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THE SILVER CORD.

BY SHIRLEY BROOKS.


CHAPTER XCI.

The children?”

Those were the first words uttered by Mrs. Lygon when restored to consciousness.

“They are well, dearest,” answered Beatrice, “but they are not here. I was glad to give them and my own little ones a relief from the quietness of a sick house, and all are gone on a visit to Hampstead. But I will send for them.”

“Stay—no—it is better so,” said Laura. “They are well, and happy—you are keeping nothing from me? They are not sent there because they are ill, or have been ill, and I away?”

“Would I not tell you? It is a holiday for them, and most glad I was to give it them. But we can so easily fetch them.”

“No, dear. I have borne the separation so long that for a few hours more I will continue to bear it. There is much to do. Beatrice!” she exclaimed, the colour that had partially returned to her face again disappearing, as she held her sister tightly by the hand, “is it there?

“Is what there, dear?” said Beatrice, holding her hand affectionately.

“Did you not—did you see what was speaking to me?”

“My darling Laura, why do you shudder in that manner?”

“You must have seen it.”

“Tell me—what is it that is so agitating you?”

Laura threw her arms round her sister’s neck, and sobbed violently. It was not for some minutes that she ceased to tremble, and looked up piteously at Beatrice.

“You have had enough, Heaven knows, to make you wretched, my own darling,” said her sister, “but all is over now. Do not tremble so.”

“What did you see, Beatrice?” she whispered.

“My love, a most distressing sight, but nothing to cause this terror. There was a violent knock, and I flew to the door—a foreign gentleman said in French that you were fainting, and I caught you in my arms. I know no more.”

“You did see him, then, Beatrice?”

“Him—yes—hardly. I had no time to notice him, my dearest. If I thought at all, it was that he had seen you fainting, and had come to your assistance. I did not even thank him, I was too much taken up with you. Laura, what does your look mean?”

“Thank him! Did you not know him?”

“No. Laura, while you speak the truth flashes on me. It was that man. It was Adair! You have returned with him?”

“No, no, no!” cried Laura, clinging yet more closely to Beatrice. “You have not heard—they did not tell you?”

“I see—I see it all—I understand your terror—it is you whom they have not told. Charles’s letter said that, and it was all driven from my mind at seeing you. Laura, you do not suppose—you have no such foolish thoughts—no. That was Ernest Adair at the door?”

“Then you have not heard,” said Laura, in pitiable agitation.

“Yes, I have heard all. I was to have broken it to you gently, but in your state of mind—there, my dearest, do not look so ghastly—it is sad, but we must strengthen ourselves for all our strange fate. Laura, you have been told that Ernest Adair was dead.”

“What?—what?—Beatrice, for Heaven’s love speak very quickly!”

“He escaped—it is poor Robert Urquhart who died.”

With a wild cry—yet it was no cry of despair—Laura buried her face in the cushion of the couch, and wept aloud.

“That is best,” murmured Beatrice. “Anything but another minute of that terror.”

And she allowed Laura’s tears to flow. And then gradually and with all sedulous fondness, Beatrice addressed herself to soothe her, and after a time Laura recovered her self-possession, and laid her head on her sister’s bosom. They did not speak, but each knew the thoughts of the other.

Two hours later the sisters were on their way to Lipthwaite.

“You were right, dear,” said Mrs. Hawkesley, after they had travelled some miles, fortunately alone. “It was better not to see her. What could you have said to her?”

“Much, very much, Beatrice, but this is not the time to say it. And perhaps she could not have borne to hear it.”

“She bears bad news well,” said Beatrice, with some bitterness. “It is for your own sake, not hers, that I am glad we came away without your seeing her. When you come back, you will consult your own feelings.”

“Ah, I see that you have understood Bertha.”

“Yes, and as I never thought to do. I wish that she were well enough to leave us. But we will speak of that to-morrow.”

When they reached Lipthwaite, Mr. Berry was on the platform. He hastily scanned the faces that passed him, and instantly recognising Mrs. Hawkesley, was at the carriage door as it was opened. He raised his hat to the sisters, and merely said,

“The carriage is waiting.”

“The carriage!” repeated Mrs. Hawkesley.

“Certainly. I had your telegraph.”

“I sent none. Laura could have sent none.”

He sent it,” whispered Mrs. Lygon.

Mr. Berry looked at them in some surprise, but seemed to consider the matter not worth conversation, and led them to the carriage.

“She will see you,” he said to Mrs. Lygon.

No other words passed until they reached Mr. Berry’s house, and the sisters found themselves in the room where Arthur Lygon had had those strange passages of war with her who now lay in the last chamber she was to enter alive.

“There is little time to waste,” said Mr. Berry. “I will let her know that you have arrived.”

But before he could leave the room, Hester entered with a message, desiring Mrs. Lygon to come up-stairs.

“Yes, yes, with me,” said Laura, hurriedly, almost imploringly, to her sister.

Mrs. Hawkesley rose to follow.

“It is not for me to interfere,” said Mr. Berry, “my part is done. But I do not think, Mrs. Hawkesley, that you will be permitted to remain in the room.”

“We will see,” replied Beatrice, quietly.

They were conducted to Mrs. Berry’s room. It was large and cheerful, and there was little to indicate the chamber of sickness. The curtains of the window were drawn back as far as possible, the blinds were raised, and the sashes thrown open, so as to afford the inmate the largest view of the beautiful hill scene before the house. Flowers were upon the tables, and the sunshine, streaming in, did much to banish the thoughts with which a stranger naturally crossed the threshold.

“Lay in that chamber,” has been written.

But it was not so when the sisters entered. Mrs. Berry, if she had been upon the bed, had quitted it, and, enveloped in wrappers, sat in an easy chair, but upright, and as one whose last thought would have been to seek sympathy, or to succumb to reproach. Her hard features had scarcely wasted with illness, and the cold eye, if not as keen as of old, was as unshrinking. Something of a mechanical smile came upon her thin lips as she watched the entrance of Laura and Beatrice, and a slight inclination of the head to the latter intimated that the dying woman was mindful of the proprieties of life, and of the courtesy due to a stranger. Of Laura she took no notice, except that Mrs. Berry pointed to a chair, an attention which she withheld from Beatrice.

“Mr. Berry is below, I believe?” she said, in a distinct voice.

“Yes,” replied Mrs. Hawkesley.

“Will you, madam, do me the favour to sit with him for a short time? We shall not detain you long.”

“My sister has been and is very ill,” said Beatrice, gently, “and she requires assistance.”

“I have been and am very ill,” returned Mrs. Berry, “and I require compliance. That is, if this visit is not one of mere attention to a sick woman. In that case I am obliged, and will detain neither.”

Her tone was one which conveyed an unmistakeable decision, and the sisters felt it.

“It must be as Mrs. Berry wishes, of course,” said Mrs. Hawkesley; “but you will ring for me, dear Laura, if you are in need of me.”

“I charge myself with the care of a lady who needs so much protection,” said Mrs. Berry, unpleasantly.

Mrs. Hawkesley withdrew.

“See that the door is closed, and put down the night-bolt,” said Mrs. Berry. “And do not look scared. The string is here, close to me, so that I can easily draw it, if your nerves should give way, and we should have to call in assistance. I thought that ladies who run over Europe alone were superior to that kind of weakness, and were only weak in their moral sense. Well, why are you here?” she asked, after Laura had complied with her directions.

“You know better than myself, Mrs. Berry.”

“It may be so. I will tell you, at all events, what it is that you think you have come to see and hear. You are prepared to hear a woman whose days or hours are supposed to be numbered, make what is called a death-bed atonement for certain wrongs which she has done, and supplicate forgiveness from a fellow-mortal, before she goes to the great account.”

“No such thought has brought me here. I know of no wrongs which you have done me, Mrs. Berry.”

“That sounds like truth, yet it must be false. Who sent you here?”

“I was advised to come by one who has wronged me wickedly.”

“You are speaking of Mr. Ernest Hardwick?”

The old name sounded so strangely to the ear of Mrs. Lygon that she hesitated one moment in reply.

“Mr. Adair, if you prefer the false name under which he has made himself so acceptable to married ladies.”

“It was his advice.”

“It was good advice, better than he has been in the habit of giving you and your family. What do you expect from following it?”

“I do not know.”

“Ah,” said Mrs. Berry, with a touch of the old venom. “I am right, then. You are to sit there, silent and dignified, to hear the old woman’s confessions, and then to forgive me or not, as your own judgment may dictate.”

“I repeat to you, Mrs. Berry, that I do not know that there is anything which I have to forgive you.”

“I think that you are speaking the truth, but sit there—no, there, more in the light. Yes, you are very obedient, in spite of that proud look. You show me that you expect much, or you would not put up with my speaking to you in this way.”

“If you knew what I have endured,” said Mrs. Lygon, quietly, “you would not be inclined to treat me unkindly.”

“What she has endured!” repeated the older woman. “True, we must spare her feelings—no one but herself has ever had to endure. Well, we must make it as easy for you as we can, Mrs. Lygon, but as you are playing a deep game, you must not be nice. You ran away from your husband, I am told, and now you want him to take you back again. Ah, you don’t even rise indignantly at such words—you are in earnest indeed, and I need not have cautioned you.”

“I am in earnest,” said Laura, calmly.

“And you can afford to despise another woman’s hard words, if you gain your point?”

“Can you, and will you aid me in my object, Mrs. Berry?” replied Laura, still calmly.

“We shall see,” said Mrs. Berry, her cold blue eye resting unpityingly on the speaker. “Is that the volume of your love-letters?”

Laura crimsoned with indignation, and answered,

“This is the collection of infamous writing which the man you have named dared to lay before my brother and sister as mine.”

“Be pleased to lay it before me. Nay, do not be afraid for it. If we had wished to destroy it, are you fool enough to imagine that you could have saved it for a day. Place it there, near me.”

Mrs. Berry reached out her thin arm, bared by the movement, and clutched at the book, looking Laura hard in the face as she did so. Then she began to turn slowly over the leaves, here and there pausing to read a passage, and then passing on, with a strange smile. She seemed purposely to protract this examination, and when she had reached the end, she turned back, and read anew from several pages. At last she said,

“We were very much in earnest, young lady, when we wrote these letters.”

Laura’s look of anger was her only reply.

“But the warmth and ardour of a first love, and the want of knowledge how much we increase our power by disguising our sentiments, are plausible excuses for young persons, even when they do forget themselves, and write down things which they ought not even to think. We must make all allowance.”

The studied malice of the speech defeated itself, and Laura remained in contemptuous silence.

“Penitence in our heart, if not on our lips,” said Mrs. Berry, after waiting some moments to see whether she had exasperated Laura enough for a reply. “And that is the true penitence, my love. Only as you come to claim a confession from me, I think you must not be so very obstinate. Well, are you very sorry for having written these letters?”

“How dare you, as you say on your death-bed, how dare you speak such words to me?” said Laura, trembling with anger.

“That, my love,” said Mrs. Berry, who seemed exulting at the agitation she had caused, “that is a question for myself. You must show a more fitting frame of mind, or I shall not be able to convince myself that you are the kind of person whom I ought to assist. Come, stoop the proud heart, and say that you are very sorry you were ever led into such evil ways, and that you are heartily ashamed of the sins of youth.”

“I am justly punished—”

“Yes, love, that is a very good beginning. You are justly punished—”

“Let me speak, Mrs. Berry. Punished, by this cruel insolence, for having listened to the advice of a villain. I ought not to have come here.”

“Why do you apply that name to my husband? He has always behaved well to your family, and has not deserved such language.”

“You know well that I did not allude to him.”

“But I know well that it is his counsel, and not that of the unfortunate gentleman we have mentioned, that brought you here. I know that Mr. Berry went to London, and saw your sister, that lady whom I have just turned out of my room, and I have some guess at what he said to that lady, which makes it strange that she should have thought of honouring me with a visit. Mr. Berry has a remarkable attachment for your husband, Mrs. Lygon, and will not shrink at any sacrifice to show it. He has not even hesitated to bring strangers into his wife’s room, on the most agitating business, when he has been made aware that her life may be an affair of hours. He is a truly kind friend, Mrs. Lygon, and one who deserves all gratitude from those he serves.”

“I understand but half of what you say.”

“Dare you deny that Mr. Berry has visited your sister, for the purpose of helping you to deceive your husband?”

Laura’s eye fell on the book, and in that look Mrs. Berry, watchful, read an instinct to secure it and depart. The old woman laid firm clutch upon the volume.

“The book is mine, until I choose to part with it, Mrs. Lygon,” she said, in an under voice of taunt. “I am ill, certainly, but I do not think that you can take it from me.”

“What is the object of your insults, Mrs. Berry? I have never done you harm.”

“Have you not?” replied Mrs. Berry, slowly. “Ah! but you shall never have the triumph of knowing how you have injured me, or of thinking that after all a bitter account has been but balanced.”

She looked very evilly at Laura, and kept her clutch upon the book.

“I am as ignorant of having injured you, as I was that you have injured me,” said Mrs. Lygon.

“You would leave me now,” said Mrs. Berry, “only I have this hostage for your remaining. Well, perhaps I may pay you for your patience, but I will do it in my own way. You will not say that you are sorry for having written these sad letters—they are clever, too, in their way, but sad when we think of them as from the pen of an unmarried lady.”

“If you couple that wickedness with my name again, I will ring for my sister and Mr. Berry—”

“Tear the book from the dying woman’s hands, and leave the house in an access of virtuous indignation! Do. But what will you gain by that—how much nearer will you draw to the heart of Arthur Lygon? Do not be a fool, child. I hold your destiny in my hands. So, you repudiate these letters?”

“Dare you ask me?”

“Indeed I dare, with my hands upon your own writing. Is it not so, Mrs. Arthur Lygon?” said Mrs. Berry, plunging her hands into separate parts of the volume.

“You are aware of the wicked fraud. You know—you know, and you dare not deny that it is so—that you have there six letters, written in all innocence by a young girl, and containing nothing—folly, perhaps, but no wrong—that these letters have been bound up with twenty others, so shameful that no woman’s hand could ever have been in them.”

“Indeed?” said Mrs. Berry, with a smile.

“You know this.”

“You are strangely positive. But you may be speaking the truth. Still, if you are, there are at least six letters here which speak of love.”

“Yes, it is true, a girl’s first love, when she hardly knows the meaning of the word, and when she writes from her fancy, and not her heart—there are those letters.”

“And they are yours?”

“They are mine.”

“So, we come to something like confession at last. I do not think that these admitted letters are addressed to Mr. Arthur Lygon—that is not the name with which so many endearing epithets are coupled.”

“You know to whom they were written, and that he has long been dead.”

“And our heart sleeps in his tomb?”

“The girl’s fancy had been forgotten, almost the whole childlike folly, long before he died, years before I met my husband.”

“So completely forgotten, that the frank and open-hearted Laura never told her husband that he was not so fortunate as to be the first possessor of her heart. Do I not know your history well?”

“You have the truth, I know not how you learned it.”

“Why was this confidence withheld from Arthur Lygon? Had it been given, these letters could never have been an engine for separating you, and his generous nature would have appreciated your frankness.”

“It was not given, unhappily,” said Mrs. Lygon, “and it is useless to dwell upon that error.”

“Why was it not given, I ask again?”

“And I cannot answer.”

“Then I will answer for you. It was because the pure and candid Laura Vernon had in the meantime, and after her first love had died out, found consolation in a second.”

“What?”

“In a second love, which might have been more prosperous, only its object had been already appropriated. Laura Vernon’s next passion was for the lover of her sister Bertha.”

“It is false!” said Mrs. Lygon.

“It must be true,” said Mrs. Berry, calmly. “And her influence over him was very great—I will not say how great. Indeed, it was hard for some people to decide whether it was Laura or Bertha who had the firmest hold upon Mr. Hardwick’s heart.”

Laura sprang up as if she had been assailed by some venomous animal.

“A wicked, a cruel slander. And it could have come but from one person; there cannot be two persons living who are base enough to have forged such a lie. It comes from him whom I have hated from the first hour that we met, whom I have never ceased to hate, and who has haunted my life like a fiend. I thought that vengeance had come upon him at last, but he has escaped it, and again I am met by his villany, even down here, in the very chamber—”

“Do not hesitate. I am not afraid of the word—in the very chamber of death.”

“When is my punishment to end?” exclaimed Laura.

“You have always hated Ernest Hardwick,” said Mrs. Berry, in a quiet voice. “It is an easy thing to say—now. But he was not a man to hate.”

Laura’s look was more eloquent than any spoken reply.

“He was a man to loathe and despise,” she said. “A sordid wretch who would wring money from the terrors of two poor girls, who feared that his dangerous malice would ruin them with society, and who deprived themselves almost of necessaries to scrape together what he demanded—you are right, that is not a man to hate.”

A curious look, not of dissatisfaction, came over Mrs. Berry’s face while Laura spoke her indignant words. But she answered:

“Those two girls must have been in his power, or where was the force of his threats?”

One was—and the second was her sister, and loved her, Mrs. Berry.”

“And it is the second who is talking to me?”

And the angry crimson, again spreading over Laura’s brow, was the answer to the doubt.

“Ah! we all have much to learn. I have learned something, and I must not die in debt.”

She turned over and over some of the leaves of the letters, but rather listlessly, as if her thoughts were not upon the lines she seemed to be reading. At last she turned suddenly to Laura.

“Answer me a question.”

“Yes.”

“We are two women—alone—and whatever your answer may be, I give you the word of one who is dying that it shall never be known beyond this room, but answer me truthfully.”

“If I answer at all, I will.”

“Ernest Hardwick, was he ever your lover?”

“Never!” replied Laura, with indignant emphasis.

“But he sought to be?”

“He once dared to say words which he never dared to repeat.”

“If he said that you gave him midnight meetings?”

“He spoke falsely.”

“I think I know truth when I hear it, and I believe that I hear it now.”

“You do indeed, Mrs. Berry.”

“I believe it, I tell you. And, as I said, I will not die in debt. I told you that you would not hear confession and penitence from me until you had led the way. But it appears to me that you have nothing to confess and repent. I have been mistaken in you. I am not half so much interested in you, Mrs. Lygon, as I was yesterday. You seem to me to be a good sort of woman, whose kind nature made you a victim when you were a girl, and has done it again now that you are wife and mother; and as for the courage for which I was told you were celebrated, it seems to be sheer cowardice, that drives you to do things which a really brave person would avoid. Well, you cannot help your nature, but I wish I had known something more about you a few weeks ago. Will you please to go downstairs?”

“But you—”

“Please to go down-stairs, and request Mr. Berry to come up. There, do not fear for your book. I have far more interest in it than you have. Had I been in your place, I would never have moved from my husband’s home. I would have torn out the letters which I owned as mine, and thrown them at my husband’s feet, and defied the devil and all his works. Why did you not?”

Laura did not speak.

“No answer. Well, fetch Mr. Berry. Yes, and request your sister to come up also. I think that both of them may like to hear, in company, something which I shall tell them. Go.”

Laura obeyed the imperative word and gesture, and went down. She found Mrs. Hawkesley alone, but in answer to Laura’s inquiring look Beatrice pointed to the garden, where its owner was pacing moodily among his trees.

“He only mentioned that we had nothing to say to one another, and left me. What has his wife said?”

“Nothing. But she seems to intend to make some revelation, and desires that you will both be present. A strange, poisonous woman, Beatrice,” said Laura, in an emphatic whisper.

“A bad woman,” replied Beatrice, “and it is frightful to think that she is so near her end. But we had better go up.”

Mr. Berry was summoned, and the message delivered.

“If it is your wish, Mrs. Lygon, I will be present. You have a right to decide what witnesses shall be there. I tell you at once that they may hear strange things.”

“And who but my husband’s oldest friend should hear what is said to me?”

“That is enough.”

A bell had been heard to ring, and while they spoke Hester entered again, took from one of the tables a large Bible, and went out hastily. Mr. Berry observed her, and a dark look, almost a scowl, came upon his kindly face.

“Take chairs,” said Mrs. Berry, when they came into the room.

Mr. Berry noticed that the Bible was placed on the ground, close to the chair of his wife. Laura’s glance was at her own volume, which still lay at the hand of Mrs. Berry.

“Dear Edward,” said Mrs. Berry, in a gentle voice, “it is well that these ladies have arrived before my rapidly sinking strength leaves me, and while I am in possession of such mental faculties as it has pleased God to give me. You will be able to testify hereafter, if need, that I am perfectly competent to the transaction of business, and that I am not the victim of any of the hallucinations which are said to cloud the brain of those who are departing.”

The speech was in Mrs. Berry’s favourite style, and was delivered with as much precision as if it had been studied.

“You do not answer, dear Edward. It will be satisfactory to these ladies that you should do so.”

“Your mind is as clear as ever, Marion,” replied her husband, shortly.

“You will be ready to certify, hereafter, that such was the case,” said Mrs. Berry.

“Yes.”

“Then, Mrs. Arthur Lygon, and you, Mrs. Hawkesley, have the goodness to listen to me. In a few days, and perhaps in a few hours, I shall be past knowing or caring what is said or thought of Marion Berry. My own hopes for the future are based upon too secure a rock to leave me in the weak belief that any act of mine will conduce to my eternal welfare. I have made up that account, and the world has nothing to do with it. What I may choose to do now is done of my own free will, and you must not couple it with the thought that I am making an atonement for aught that I may have been led to do in other days. Of my own will and choice I tell you, I am about to make a statement which you will all remember to the day when you, like me, shall be waiting to die.”

She spoke in a low distinct voice, every syllable audible to them all. Mr. Berry’s thoughts were his own—Laura’s were selfish—but Beatrice somewhat less painfully interested, felt, if only for a moment, a sympathy with the hard and guilty woman, who in nature’s last hours was thus wilfully isolating herself, and who sat there almost defiant of those who surrounded her.

“I hold under my hand,” she said, “a book containing letters, the character of which you all know. I call upon Mrs. Arthur Lygon to point out which of those letters she admits to have written. Come here, Laura Lygon, and say which are Laura Vernon’s letters.”

Mrs. Lygon approached the table, and as Mrs. Berry turned the leaves, Laura placed her finger on a note. It was a little note, written in a beautiful and small hand, crossed and crossed.

“That is the first,” said Mrs. Berry. “Edward, take this pen, and mark the letter with your name, that you may hereafter identify it without hesitation.”

Mr. Berry obeyed in silence.

She continued to turn the leaves, and the same process was observed until six letters had been marked. Then Laura, without a word, resumed her seat.

“Nothing more in this volume was written by you?”

“Nothing.”

“Edward, place this Bible on the table.”

She beckoned to Laura, seized her reluctant hand, and held it on the book.

“As God shall judge you, in your dying hour, you have spoken the truth about these letters?”

“I have.”

“Then comes my turn,” said Mrs. Berry, laying her hand upon the Bible. “I call Him to witness the solemn declaration of a dying woman, that the remainder of these letters, twenty in number, were composed by myself, Marion Berry, and by Ernest Hardwick, or Adair, together, and were written, as they appear here, by him only. Take note of this declaration, and to you, Edward Berry, I deliver the volume for safe keeping.”

Mrs. Lygon listened with speechless astonishment to this statement. For a moment she glanced round at the faces of her companions, as if to be assured that they too had heard it. Upon the countenance of Mr. Berry there was nothing but stern composure, and he seemed as one whom no revelation could surprise or grieve. On the face of Mrs. Hawkesley had come the natural look of repugnance.

Mrs. Berry also surveyed the faces of her companions—and a defying smile rose upon the thin lips.

She seemed about to speak, when Mr. Berry said, rising,

“You have no more to say?”

“Nothing to you. Nothing to that lady, who is looking so kindly upon a dying woman.”

“God forgive you—I cannot trust my tongue,” said Beatrice, leaving the room hastily.

“It is well to be prayed for,” said Mrs. Berry, darting an angry glance after her. “Edward, you are the master of the house, attend to your guest. Mrs. Lygon, I have another word or two for you.”

Mr. Berry departed, preserving the silence he had sought to maintain throughout the interview.

“Now, you have something to ask me, or you are less than woman,” said Mrs. Berry, abandoning the cold, malicious tone which she had used, and speaking almost as one who is ready to exchange a confidence for a pleasant question.

“What can I ask you,” said Laura, “wicked, cruel woman. What had a helpless girl done to you that you should do her this wrong?”

“Nothing, it seems. But I believed that she had robbed me of the affections of the only man I ever loved in this world.”

“I?”

“You. I believed that you were the mistress of Ernest Hardwick.”

“You believed that?”

“Yes, I tell you. And he led me to believe it. But as I was more useful to him, from my possession of property, than you, a beggar, could be, he was willing to resign you for me, and I punished what I believed to be his perfidy to me by making him write these letters. Oh, he was well paid for every one. I always paid my debts. Each of those letters cost me gold.”

And she lay back and closed her eyes, exhausted with the last effort, and Laura gazed upon her—gazed as one spell-bound.

Mrs. Berry made no sign for some time, and her stillness might have induced the idea that she had fainted. But when Laura, now eager to escape from her presence, moved towards the door, the dying woman opened her eyes, and said,

“Stay.”

“Why should I stay?”

“Have you no thanks to me for a disclosure which has saved your reputation, by the sacrifice of my own?”

“Do you look for thanks, after the confession of a wrong so wicked that I can hardly bring myself to believe that one woman would inflict it on another. Make your peace with Heaven, Mrs. Berry, for indeed you have need of pardon.”

“You do not offer me your pardon, then?”

“It would be a grievous hypocrisy.”

“Yes, it would. Under the same circumstances, I would never have forgiven you. I would have revenged myself.”

“I do not think of revenge. Let me leave you.”

“Yes, go and take counsel with your sister. Has she given you her confidence?”

“I do not understand,” said Laura. “I do not wish to understand.”

“That is untrue. I have told you that it has pleased my husband, in his singular zeal for yours, to let Mrs. Hawkesley know that which Mr. Berry, had he the feelings of ordinary men, would have died rather than have told. I doubted whether he had gone so far until your sister entered this room, but I have read her face and I doubt no longer. What has she told you of me?”

“Nothing, but that—”

“Do not hesitate. I can bear it.”