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As We Forgive Them Part 27

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A broad-spoken waiting-maid opened the door and ushered me into a small, low, old-fashioned room, where I surprised my love crouched in a big armchair, reading.

"Why? Mr. Greenwood!" she gasped, springing to her feet, pale and breathless, "you!"

"Yes," I said, when the girl had closed the door and we were alone, "I have found you at last, Mabel--at last!" and, advancing, I took both her small hands tenderly in mine. Then, carried away by the ecstasy of the moment, I looked straight into her eyes, saying, "You have tried to escape me, but to-day I have found you again. I have come, Mabel, to confess openly to you, to tell you something--to tell you, dearest, that--well, that I love you!"

"Love me!" she cried, dismayed, starting back, and putting me from her with both her small, white hands. "No! no!" she wailed. "You must not--you cannot love me. It is impossible!"

"Why?" I demanded quickly. "I have loved you ever since that first night when we met. Surely you must long ago have detected the secret of my heart."

"Yes," she faltered, "I have. But alas! it is too late--too late!"

"Too late?" I exclaimed. "Why?"

She was silent. Her countenance had suddenly blanched to the lips, and I saw that she was trembling from head to foot.

I repeated my question seriously, my eyes fixed upon her.

"Because," she answered slowly at last in a tremulous voice so low that I could scarce distinguish the fatal words she uttered, "because I am already married!"

"Married!" I gasped, standing rigid. "And your husband! His name!"

"Cannot you guess?" she asked. "The man you have already seen--Herbert Hales." Her eyes were cast down from me as though in shame, while her pointed chin sank upon her panting breast.

CHAPTER TWENTY FIVE.

THE SACRED NAME.

What could I say? What would you have said?

I was silent. I knew not what words to utter. This scoundrelly young groom, the ne'er-do-well son of the respectable old seafarer who spent the evening of his days at the crossways, was actually the husband of the millionaire's daughter! It seemed utterly incredible, yet, on recollecting that midnight scene in Mayvill Park, I at once recognised how powerless she was in the hands of that low, arrogant cad, who, in a moment of mad frenzy, had made such a desperate attempt upon her.

I recognised, too, that the love between them, if any, had ever existed, had disappeared long ago, and that the man's sole idea was to profit by the fact of his union with her, and blackmail her just as so many wealthy and upright women are being blackmailed in England at this very moment. It flashed through my mind that the reason she did not follow and punish the fellow for that dastardly attempt on her life was now made plain.

She was his wife!

The very thought convulsed me with jealousy, regret and hatred, for I loved her with all the pa.s.sion, honest and true, of which a man is capable. Since Mrs. Percival had revealed to me the truth, I had lived only for her, to meet her again and openly declare my love.

"Is this the truth?" I asked her at last in a voice the hardness of which I could not control. I took her cold, inert hand in my own and glanced at her bowed head.

"Alas for me it is," was her faltering response. "He is my husband, therefore all love between us is debarred," she added. "You have always been my friend, Mr. Greenwood, but now that you have forced me to confess the truth our friendship is at an end."

"And your husband, is he here with you?"

"He has been here," was her answer, "but has gone."

"You left London in secret to join him, I suppose?" I remarked bitterly.

"At his demand. He wished to see me."

"And to obtain money from you by threats as he attempted on that night at Mayvill?"

The broken, white-faced girl nodded in the affirmative.

"I came to this place," she explained, "as a paying-guest. A girl I knew at school, Bessie Wood, lives here with her mother. They believe I made a runaway match, and have been extremely kind to me these last two years."

"Then you've been a wife for two whole years!" I exclaimed in blank surprise, utterly amazed at the manner in which I had been deceived.

"For nearly that time. We were married at Wymondham in Norfolk."

"Tell me the whole story, Mabel," I urged, after a long pause, endeavouring to preserve an outward calm, which certainly did not coincide with my innermost feelings.

Her breast heaved and fell beneath its lace and chiffons, her great wonderful eyes were filled with tears. For fully five minutes she was overcome by her emotion and quite unable to speak. At last, in a low, hoa.r.s.e voice, she said--

"I don't know what you must think of me, Mr. Greenwood. I'm ashamed of myself, and of the manner in which I've deceived you. My only excuse is that it was imperative. I married because I was forced to by a chain of circ.u.mstances, as you will realise when you know the truth." Then she was silent again.

"But you'll tell me the truth, won't you?" I urged. "I, as your best friend, as indeed the man who has loved you, have surely a right to know!"

She only shook her head in bitter sorrow, and looking at me through her tears, answered briefly--

"I have told you the truth. I am married. I can only ask your pardon for deceiving you and explain that I was compelled to do so."

"You mean that you were compelled to marry him? Compelled by whom?"

"By him," she faltered. "One morning two years ago I left London alone and met him at Wymondham, where I had previously been staying for a fortnight while my father was fishing. Herbert met me at the station, and we were married in secret, two men, picked at haphazard from the street, acting as witnesses. After the ceremony we parted. I took off my ring and returned home, no one being the wiser. We had a dinner-party that evening. Lord Newborough, Lady Rainham and yourself were there, and we went to the Haymarket afterwards. Don't you recollect it? As we sat in the box you asked me why I was so dull and thoughtful, and I pleaded a headache. Ah! if you had but known!"

"I recollect the night perfectly," I said, pitying her. "And it was your wedding evening? But how did he compel you to marry him? The motive is, of course, quite plain. He wished either to profit by the fact that you could not afford to allow the truth to be known that you were the wife of a groom, or else his intention was to gain possession of your money at your father's death. Yours is certainly not the first marriage of the sort that has been contracted," I added, with a feeling of blank dismay.

At the very moment when my hopes had been raised to their highest level by Mrs. Percival's statement the blow had fallen, and in an instant I saw that love was impossible. Mabel, the woman I loved so fondly and so well, was the wife of a loutish brute who was torturing her to madness by his threats, and would, as already had been proved, hesitate at nothing in order to gain his despicable ends.

My feelings were indescribable. No words of mine can give any adequate idea of how torn was my heart by conflicting emotions. Until that moment she had been beneath my protection, yet now that she was the wife of another I had no right to control her actions, no right to admire, no right to love.

Ah! if ever man felt crushed, despairing and hopeless, if ever man realised how aimless and empty his lonely life had been, I did at that moment.

I tried to induce her to tell me how the fellow had compelled her to marry him, but the words stuck in my throat and choked me. Tears must, I suppose, have stood in my eyes, for with a sudden sympathy, an outburst of that womanly feeling so strong within her, she placed her hand tenderly upon my shoulder and said in a low, calm voice--

"We cannot recall the past, therefore why reflect? Act as I asked you to act in my letter. Forgive me and forget. Leave me to my own sorrows. I know now that you have loved me, but it is--"

She could not finish the sentence, for she burst into tears.

"I know what you mean," I said blankly. "Too late--yes, too late. Both our lives have been wrecked by my own folly--because I hid from you what I as an honest man, should have told you long ago."

"No, no, Gilbert," she cried, calling me for the first time by my Christian name, "don't say that. The fault is not yours, but mine-- mine," and she covered her face with her hands and sobbed aloud.

"Where is this husband of yours--this man who tried to kill you?" I demanded fiercely a few moments later.

"Somewhere in the North, I think."

"He has been here. When?"

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As We Forgive Them Part 27 summary

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