Chapter XXIX. The Last Trial.
THE servant left them together. Mercy spoke first.
"Mr. Gray!" she exclaimed, "why have you delayed my message? If you knew all, you would know that it is far from being a kindness to me to keep me in this house."
He advanced closer to her--surprised by her words, alarmed by her looks.
"Has any one been here in my absence?" he asked.
"Lady Janet has been here in your absence. I can't speak of it--my heart feels crushed--I can bear no more. Let me go!"
Briefly as she had replied, she had said enough. Julian's knowledge of Lady Janet's character told him what had happened. His face showed plainly that he was disappointed as well as distressed.
"I had hoped to have been with you when you and my aunt met, and to have prevented this," he said. "Believe me, she will atone for all that she may have harshly and hastily done when she has had time to think. Try not to regret it, if she has made your hard sacrifice harder still. She has only raised you the higher--she has additionally ennobled you and endeared you in my estimation. Forgive me if I own this in plain words. I cannot control myself--I feel too strongly."
At other times
Mercy might have heard the coming avowal in his tones, might have discovered it in his eyes. As it was, her delicate insight was dulled, her fine perception was blunted. She held out her hand to him, feeling a vague conviction that he was kinder to her than ever--and feeling no more.
"I must thank you for the last time," she said. "As long as life is left, my gratitude will be a part of my life. Let me go. While I can still control myself, let me go!"
She tried to leave him, and ring the bell. He held her hand firmly, and drew her closer to him.
"To the Refuge?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "Home again!"
"Don't say that!" he exclaimed. "I can't bear to hear it. Don't call the Refuge your home!"
"What else is it? Where else can I go?"
"I have come here to tell you. I said, if you remember, I had something to propose."
She felt the fervent pressure of his hand; she saw the mounting enthusiasm flashing in his eyes. Her weary mind roused itself a little. She began to tremble under the electric influence of his touch.
"Something to propose?" she repeated, "What is there to propose?"
"Let me ask you a question on my side. What have you done to-day?"
"You know what I have done: it is your work," she answered, humbly. "Why return to it now?"
"I return to it for the last time; I return to it with a purpose which you will soon understand. You have abandoned your marriage engagement; you have forfeited Lady Janet's love; you have ruined all your worldly prospects; you are now returning, self-devoted, to a life which you have yourself described as a life without hope. And all this you have done of your own free-will--at a time when you are absolutely secure of your position in the house--for the sake of speaking the truth. Now tell me, is a woman who can make that sacrifice a woman who will prove unworthy of the trust if a man places in her keeping his honor and his name?"
She understood him at last. She broke away from him with a cry. She stood with her hands clasped, trembling and looking at him.
He gave her no time to think. The words poured from his lips without conscious will or conscious effort of his own.
"Mercy, from the first moment when I saw you I loved you! You are free; I may own it; I may ask you to be my wife!"
She drew back from him further and further, with a wild imploring gesture of her hand.
"No! no!" she cried. "Think of what you are saying! think of what you would sacrifice! It cannot, must not be."
His face darkened with a sudden dread. His head fell on his breast. His voice sank so low that she could barely hear it.
"I had forgotten something," he said. "You've reminded me of it."
She ventured back a little nearer to him. "Have I offended you?"
He smiled sadly. "You have enlightened me. I had forgotten that it doesn't follow, because I love you, that you should love me in return. Say that it is so, Mercy, and I leave you."
A faint tinge of color rose on her face--then left it again paler than ever. Her eyes looked downward timidly under the eager gaze that he fastened on her.
"How can I say so?" she answered, simply. Where is the woman in my place whose heart could resist you?"
He eagerly advanced; he held out his arms to her in breathless, speechless joy. She drew back from him once more with a look that horrified him--a look of blank despair.
"Am I fit to be your wife?" she asked. ''Must I remind you of what you owe to your high position, your spotless integrity, your famous name? Think of all that you have done for me, and then think of the black ingratitude of it if I ruin you for life by consenting to our marriage--if I selfishly, cruelly, wickedly, drag you down to the level of a woman like me!"
"I raise you to my level when I make you my wife," he answered. "For Heaven's sake do me justice! Don't refer me to the world and its opinions. It rests with you, and you alone, to make the misery or the happiness of my life. The world! Good God! what can the world give me in exchange for You?'
She clasped her hands imploringly; the tears flowed fast over her cheeks.
"Oh, have pity on my weakness!" she cried. "Kindest, best of men, help me to do my hard duty toward you! It is so hard, after all that I have suffered--when my heart is yearning for peace and happiness and love!" She checked herself, shuddering at the words that had escaped her. "Remember how Mr. Holmcroft has used me! Remember how Lady Janet has left me! Remember what I have told you of my life! The scorn of every creature you know would strike at you through me. No! no! no! Not a word more. Spare me! pity me! leave me!"
Her voice failed her; sobs choked her utterance. He sprang to her and took her in his arms. She was incapable of resisting him; but there was no yielding in her. Her head lay on his bosom, passive--horribly passive, like the head of a corpse.
"Mercy! My darling! We will go away--we will leave England--we will take refuge among new people in a new world--I will change my name--I will break with relatives, friends, everybody. Anything, anything, rather than lose you!"
She lifted her head slowly and looked at him.
He suddenly released her; he reeled back like a man staggered by a blow, and dropped into a chair. Before she had uttered a word he saw the terrible resolution in her face--Death, rather than yield to her own weakness and disgrace him.
She stood with her hands lightly clasped in front of her. Her grand head was raised; her soft gray eyes shone again undimmed by tears. The storm of emotion had swept over her and had passed away A sad tranquillity was in her face; a gentle resignation was in her voice. The calm of a martyr was the calm that confronted him as she spoke her last words.
"A woman who has lived my life, a woman who has suffered what I have suffered, may love you--as I love you--but she must not be your wife. That place is too high above her. Any other place is too far below her and below you." She paused, and advancing to the bell, gave the signal for her departure. That done, she slowly retraced her steps until she stood at Julian's side.
Tenderly she lifted his head and laid it for a moment on her bosom. Silently she stooped and touched his forehead with her lips. All the gratitude that filled her heart and all the sacrifice that rent it were in those two actions--so modestly, so tenderly performed! As the last lingering pressure of her fingers left him, Julian burst into tears.
The servant answered the bell. At the moment he opened the door a woman's voice was audible in the hall speaking to him.
"Let the child go in," the voice said. "I will wait here."
The child appeared--the same forlorn little creature who had reminded Mercy of her own early years on the day when she and Horace Holmcroft had been out for their walk.
There was no beauty in this child; no halo of romance brightened the commonplace horror of her story. She came cringing into the room, staring stupidly at the magnificence all round her--the daughter of the London streets! the pet creation of the laws of political economy! the savage and terrible product of a worn-out system of government and of a civilization rotten to its core! Cleaned for the first time in her life, fed sufficiently for the first time in her life, dressed in clothes instead of rags for the first time in her life, Mercy's sister in adversity crept fearfully over the beautiful carpet, and stopped wonder-struck before the marbles of an inlaid table--a blot of mud on the splendor of the room.
Mercy turned from Julian to meet the child. The woman's heart, hungering in its horrible isolation for something that it might harmlessly love, welcomed the rescued waif of the streets as a consolation sent from God. She caught the stupefied little creature up in her arms. "Kiss me!" she whispered, in the reckless agony of the moment. "Call me sister!" The child stared, vacantly. Sister meant nothing to her mind but an older girl who was strong enough to beat her.
She put the child down again, and turned for a last look at the man whose happiness she had wrecked-- in pity to him.
He had never moved. His head was down; his face was hidden. She went back to hi m a few steps.
"The others have gone from me without one kind word. Can you forgive me?"
He held out his hand to her without looking up. Sorely as she had wounded him, his generous nature understood her. True to her from the first, he was true to her still.
"God bless and comfort you," he said, in broken tones. "The earth holds no nobler woman than you."
She knelt and kissed the kind hand that pressed hers for the last time. "It doesn't end with this world," she whispered: "there is a better world to come!" Then she rose, and went back to the child. Hand in hand the two citizens of the Government of God--outcasts of the government of Man--passed slowly down the length of the room. Then out into the hall. Then out into the night. The heavy clang of the closing door tolled the knell of their departure. They were gone.
But the orderly routine of the house--inexorable as death--pursued its appointed course. As the clock struck the hour the dinner-bell rang. An interval of a minute passed, and marked the limit of delay. The butler appeared at the dining-room door.
"Dinner is served, sir."
Julian looked up. The empty room met his eyes. Something white lay on the carpet close by him. It was her handkerchief--wet with her tears. He took it up and pressed it to his lips. Was that to be the last of her? Had she left him forever?
The native energy of the man, arming itself with all the might of his love, kindled in him again. No! While life was in him, while time was before him, there was the hope of winning her yet!
He turned to the servant, reckless of what his face might betray.
"Where is Lady Janet?"
"In the dining-room, sir."
He reflected for a moment. His own influence had failed. Through what other influence could he now hope to reach her? As the question crossed his mind the light broke on him. He saw the way back to her--through the influence of Lady Janet.
"Her ladyship is waiting, sir."
Julian entered the dining-room.Next