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"Married!" He leaned, sick as death, against the mantel-piece, and gasped so terribly that Jael's fort.i.tude gave way, and she began to cry.
After a long time he got a word or two out in a broken voice.
"The false--inconstant--wretch! Oh Heaven! what I have done and suffered for her--and now married!--married! And the earth doesn't swallow her, nor the thunder strike her! Curse her, curse her husband, curse her children! may her name be a by-word for shame and misery--"
"Hush! hush! or you will curse your own mad tongue. Hear all, before you judge her."
"I have heard all; she is a wife; she shall soon be a widow. Thought I was false! What business had she to think I was false? It is only false hearts that suspect true ones. She thought me dead? Why? Because I was out of sight. She heard there was a dead hand found in the river. Why didn't she go and see it? Could all creation pa.s.s another hand off on me for hers? No; for I loved her. She never loved me."
"She loved you, and loves you still. When that dead hand was found, she fell swooning, and lay at death's door for you, and now she has stained her hands with blood for you. She tried to kill her husband, the moment she found you were alive and true, and he had made a fool of her."
"TRIED to kill him! Why didn't she do it? I should not have failed at such work. I love her."
"Blame me for that; I stopped her arm, and I am stronger than she is. I say she is no more to blame than you. You have acted like a madman, and she suffers for it. Why did you slip away at night like that, and not tell me?"
"I left letters to you and her, and other people besides."
"Yes, left them, and hadn't the sense to post them. Why didn't you TELL me? Had ever any young man as faithful and true a friend in any young woman as you had in me? Many a man has saved a woman's life, but it isn't often that a woman fights for a man, and gets the upper hand: yet you gave me nothing in return; not even your confidence. Look the truth in the face, my lad; all your trouble, and all hers, comes of your sneaking out of Hillsborough in that daft way, without a word to me, the true friend, that was next door to you; which I nearly lost my life by your fault; for, if you had told me, I should have seen you off, and so escaped a month's hospital, and other troubles that almost drove me crazy. Don't you abuse that poor young lady before me, or I sha'n't spare you. She is more to be pitied than you are. Folk should look at home for the cause of their troubles; her misery, and yours, it is all owing to your own folly and ingrat.i.tude; ay, you may look; I mean what I say--ingrat.i.tude."
The attack was so sudden and powerful that Henry Little was staggered and silenced; but an unexpected defender appeared on the scene; one of the folding-doors was torn open, and Grace darted in.
"How dare you say it is his fault, poor ill-used angel! No, no, no, no, I am the only one to blame. I didn't love you as you deserved. I tried to die for you, and FAILED. I tried to kill that monster for you, and FAILED. I am too weak and silly; I shall only make you more unhapppy.
Give me one kiss, my own darling, and then kill me out of the way." With this she was over his knees and round his neck in a moment, weeping, and clutching him with a pa.s.sionate despair that melted all his anger away, and soon his own tears tell on her like rain.
"Ah, Grace! Grace!" he sobbed, "how could you? how could you?"
"Don't speak unkindly to her," cried Jael, "or she won't be alive a day.
She is worse off than you are; and so is he too."
"You mock me; he is her husband. He can make her live with him. He can--" Here he broke out cursing and blaspheming, and called Grace a viper, and half thrust her away from him with horror, and his face filled with jealous anguish: he looked like a man dying of poison.
Then he rose to his feet, and said, with a sort of deadly calm, "Where can I find the man?"
"Not in this house, you may be sure," said Jael; "nor in any house where she is."
Henry sank into his seat again, and looked amazed.
"Tell him all," said Grace. "Don't let him think I do not love him at all."
"I will," said Jael. "Well, the wedding was at eleven; your letter came at half-past twelve, and I took it her. Soon after that the villain came to her, and she stabbed him directly with this stiletto. Look at it; there's his blood up on it; I kept it to show you. I caught her arm, or she would have killed him, I believe. He lost so much blood, the doctor would not let him be moved. Then she thought of you still, and would not pa.s.s a night under the same roof with him; at two o'clock she was on the way to Raby; but Mr. Coventry was too much of a man to stay in the house and drive her out; so he went off next morning, and, as soon as she heard that, she came home. She is wife and no wife, as the saying is, and how it is all to end Heaven only knows."
"It will end the moment I meet the man; and that won't be long."
"There! there!" cried Grace, "that is what I feared. Ah, Jael! Jael! why did you hold my hand? They would not have hung ME. I told you so at the time: I knew what I was about."
"Jael," said the young man, "of all the kind things you have done for me, that was the kindest. You saved my poor girl from worse trouble than she is now in. No, Grace; you shall not dirty your hand with such sc.u.m as that: it is my business, and mine only."
In vain did Jael expostulate, and Grace implore. In vain did Jael a.s.sure him that Coventry was in a worse position than himself, and try to make him see that any rash act of his would make Grace even more miserable than she was at present. He replied that he had no intention of running his neck into a halter; he should act warily, like the Hillsborough Trades, and strike his blow so cunningly that the criminal should never know whence it came. "I've been in a good school for homicide," said he; "and I am an inventor. No man has ever played the executioner so ingeniously as I will play it. Think of all this scoundrel has done to me: he owes me a dozen lives, and I'll take one. Man shall never detect me: G.o.d knows all, and will forgive me, I hope. If He doesn't, I can't help it."
He kissed Grace again and again, and comforted her; said she was not to blame; honest people were no match for villains: if she had been twice as simple, he would have forgiven her at sight of the stiletto; that cleared her, in his mind, better than words.
He was now soft and gentle as a lamb. He begged Jael's pardon humbly for leaving Hillsborough without telling her. He said he had gone up to her room; but all was still; and he was a working man, and the sleep of a working-woman was sacred to him--(he would have awakened a fine lady without ceremony). Be a.s.sured her he had left a note for her in his box, thanking and blessing her for all her goodness. He said that he hoped he might yet live to prove by acts, and not by idle words, how deeply he felt all she had done and suffered for him.
Jael received these excuses in hard silence. "That is enough about me," said she, coldly. "If you are grateful to me, show it by taking my advice. Leave vengeance to Him who has said that vengeance is His."
The man's whole manner changed directly, and he said doggedly:
"Well, I will be His instrument."
"He will choose His own."
"I'll lend my humble co-operation."
"Oh, do not argue with him," said Grace, piteously. "When did a man ever yield to our arguments? Dearest, I can't argue: but I am full of misery, and full of fears. You see my love; you forgive my folly. Have pity on me; think of my condition: do not doom me to live in terror by night and day: have I not enough to endure, my own darling? There, promise me you will do nothing rash to-night, and that you will come to me the first thing to-morrow. Why, you have not seen your mother yet; she is at Raby Hall."
"My dear mother!" said he: "it would be a poor return for all your love if I couldn't put off looking for that sc.u.m till I have taken you in my arms."
And so Grace got a reprieve.
They parted in deep sorrow, but almost as lovingly as ever, and Little went at once to Raby Hall, and Grace, exhausted by so many emotions, lay helpless on a couch in her own room all the rest of the day.
For some time she lay in utter prostration, and only the tears that trickled at intervals down her pale cheeks showed that she was conscious of her miserable situation.
Jael begged and coaxed her to take some nourishment: but she shook her head with disgust at the very idea.
For all that at nine o'clock, her faithful friend almost forced a few spoonfuls of tea down her throat, feeding her like a child: and, when she had taken it, she tried to thank her, but choked in the middle, and, flinging her arm round Jael's neck, burst into a pa.s.sion of weeping, and incoherent cries of love, and pity, and despair. "Oh, my darling! so great! so n.o.ble! so brave! so gentle! And I have destroyed us both! he forgave me as soon as he SAW me! So terrible, so gentle! What will be the next calamity? Ah, Jael! save him from that rash act, and I shall never complain; for he was dead, and is alive again."
"We will find some way to do that between us--you, and I, and his mother."
"Ah, yes: she will be on my side in that. But she will be hard upon me.
She will point out all my faults, my execrable folly. Ah, if I could but live my time over again, I'd pray night and day for selfishness. They teach us girls to pray for this and that virtue, which we have too much of already; and what we ought to pray for is selfishness. But no! I must think of my father, and think of that hypocrite: but the one person whose feelings I was too mean, and base, and silly to consult, was myself. I always abhorred this marriage. I feared it, and loathed it; yet I yielded step by step, for want of a little selfishness; we are slaves without it--mean, pitiful, contemptible slaves. O G.o.d, in mercy give me selfishness! Ah me, it is too late now. I am a lost creature; nothing is left me but to die."
Jael got her to bed, and sleep came at last to her exhausted body; but, even when her eyes were closed, tears found their way through the lids, and wetted her pillow.
So can great hearts and loving natures suffer.
Can they enjoy in proportion?
Let us hope so. But I have my doubts.
Henry Little kept his word, and came early next morning. He looked hopeful and excited: he said he had thought the matter over, and was quite content to let that scoundrel live, and even to dismiss all thought of him, if Grace really loved him.
"If I love you!" said Grace. "Oh, Henry, why did I ask you to do nothing rash, but that I love you? Why did I attempt his life myself? because you said in your letter--It was not to revenge myself, but to save you from more calamity. Cruel, cruel! Do I love him?"
"I know you love me, Grace: but do you love me enough? Will you give up the world for me, and let us be happy together, the only way we can? My darling Grace, I have made our fortune; all the world lies before us; I left England alone, for you; now leave it with me, and let us roam the world together."