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"Now then," he said, gently, "I am in a position to put the matter to you finally, as--before G.o.d--it appears to me. Juliet Sparling--as I said to Oliver last night--was not a bad woman! She sinned deeply, but she was never false to her husband in thought or deed; none of her wrong-doing was deliberate; she was tortured by remorse; and her murderous act was the impulse of a moment, and partly in self-defence.
It was wholly unpremeditated; and it killed her no less than her victim.
When, next day, she was removed by the police, she was already a dying woman. I have in my possession a letter--written to me by her--after her release, in view of her impending death, by the order of the Home Office--a few days before she died. It is humble--it is heart-rending--it breathes the sincerity of one who had turned all her thoughts from earth; but it thanked me for having read her aright; and if ever I could have felt a doubt of my own interpretation of the case--but, thank G.o.d, I never did!--that letter would have shamed it out of me! Poor soul, poor soul! She sinned, and she suffered--agonies, beyond any penalty of man's inflicting. Will you prolong her punishment in her child?"
Lady Lucy had covered her face with her hand. He saw her breath flutter in her breast. And sitting down beside her, blanched by the effort he had made, and by the emotion he had at last permitted himself, yet fixing his eyes steadily on the woman before him, he waited for her reply.
Lady Lucy did not reply at once. She slowly drew forward the neglected tea-table, made tea, and offered it to Sir James. He took it impatiently, the Irish blood in him running hot and fast; and when she had finished her cup, and still the silence lasted, except for the trivial question-and-answer of the tea-making, he broke in upon it with a somewhat peremptory--
Lady Lucy clasped her hands on her lap. The hand which had been so far bare was now gloved like the other, and something in the spectacle of the long fingers, calmly interlocked and clad in spotless white kid, increased the secret exasperation in her companion.
"Believe me, dear Sir James," she said at last, lifting her clear brown eyes, "I am very grateful to you. It must have been a great effort for you to tell me this awful story, and I thank you for the confidence you have reposed in me."
Sir James pushed his chair back.
"I did it, of course, for a special reason," he said, sharply. "I hope I have given you cause to change your mind."
She shook her head slowly.
"What have you proved to me? That Mrs. Sparling's crime was not so hideous as some of us supposed?--that she did not fall to the lowest depths of all?--and that she endured great provocation? But could anything really be more vile than the history of those weeks of excitement and fraud?--of base yielding to temptation?--of cruelty to her husband and child?--even as you have told it? Her conduct led directly to adultery and violence. If, by G.o.d's mercy, she was saved from the worst crimes imputed to her, does it make much difference to the moral judgment we must form?"
He looked at her in amazement.
"No difference!--between murder and a kind of accident?--between adultery and fidelity?"
Lady Lucy hesitated--then resumed, with stubbornness: "You put it--like an advocate. But look at the indelible facts--look at the future. If my son married the daughter of such a woman and had children, what must happen? First of all, could he, could any one, be free from the dread of inherited lawlessness and pa.s.sion? A woman does not gamble, steal, and take life in a moment of violence without some exceptional flaw in temperament and will, and we see again and again how such flaws reappear in the descendants of weak and wicked people. Then again--Oliver must renounce and throw away all that is implied in family memories and traditions. His wife could never speak to her children and his of her own mother and bringing up. They would be kept in ignorance, as she herself was kept, till the time came that they must know. Say what you will, Juliet Sparling was condemned to death for murder in a notorious case--after a trial which also branded her as a thief. Think of a boy at Eton or Oxford--a girl in her first youth--hearing for the first time--perhaps in some casual way--the story of the woman whose blood ran in theirs!--What a cloud on a family!--what a danger and drawback for young lives!"
Her delicate features, under the crown of white hair, were once more flooded with color, and the pa.s.sion in her eyes held them steady under Sir James's penetrating look. Through his inner mind there ran the cry: "Pharisee!--Hypocrite!"
But he fought on.
"Lady Lucy!--your son loves this girl--remember that! And in herself you admit that she is blameless--all that you could desire for his wife--remember that also."
"I remember both. But I was brought up by people who never admitted that any feeling was beyond our control or ought to be indulged--against right and reason."
"Supposing Oliver entirely declines to take your view?--supposing he marries Miss Mallory?"
"He will not break my heart," she said, drawing a quicker breath. "He will get over it."
"But if he persists?"
"He must take the consequences. I cannot aid and abet him."
"And the girl herself? She has accepted him. She is young, innocent, full of tender and sensitive feeling. Is it possible that you should not weigh her claim against your fears and scruples?"
"I feel for her most sincerely."
Sir James suddenly threw out a restless foot, which caught Lady Lucy's fox terrier, who was snoozing under the tea-table. He hastily apologized, and the speaker resumed:
"But, in my opinion, she would do a far n.o.bler thing if she regarded herself as bound to some extent to bear her mother's burden--to pay her mother's debt to society. It may sound harsh--but is it? Is a dedicated life necessarily an unhappy life? Would not everybody respect and revere her? She would sacrifice herself, as the Sister of Mercy does, or the missionary, and she would find her reward. But to enter a family with an unstained record, bearing with her such a name and such a.s.sociations, would be, in my opinion, a wrong and selfish act!"
Lady Lucy drew herself to her full height. In the dusk of the declining afternoon the black satin and white ruffles of her dress, her white head in its lace cap, her thin neck and shoulders, her tall slenderness, and the rigidity of her att.i.tude, made a formidable study in personality.
Sir James's whole soul rose in one scornful and indignant protest. But he felt himself beaten. The only hope lay in Oliver himself.
He rose slowly from his chair.
"It is useless, I see, to try and argue the matter further. But I warn you: I do not believe that Oliver will obey you, and--forgive me Lady Lucy!--but--frankly--I hope he will not. Nor will he suffer too severely, even if you, his mother, desert him. Miss Mallory has some fortune--"
"Oliver will not live upon his wife!"
"He may accept her aid till he has found some way of earning money. What amazes me--if you will allow me the liberty of an old friend--is that you should think a woman justified in coercing a son of mature age in such a matter!"
His tone, his manner pierced Lady Lucy's pride. She threw back her head nervously, but her tone was calm:
"A woman to whom property has been intrusted must do her best to see that the will and desires of those who placed it in her hands are carried out!"
"Well, well!"--Sir James looked for his stick--"I am sorry for Oliver--but"--he straightened himself--"it will make a bigger man of him."
Lady Lucy made no reply, but her expression was eloquent of a patience which her old friend might abuse if he would.
"Does Ferrier know? Have you consulted him?" asked Sir James, turning abruptly.
"He will be here, I think, this afternoon--as usual," said Lady Lucy, evasively. "And, of course, he must know what concerns us so deeply."
As she spoke the hall-door bell was heard.
"That is probably he." She looked at her companion uncertainly. "Don't go, Sir James--unless you are really in a hurry."
The invitation was not urgent; but Sir James stayed, all the same.
Ferrier was a man so interesting to his friends that no judgment of his could be indifferent to them. Moreover, there was a certain angry curiosity as to how far Lady Lucy's influence would affect him. Chide took inward note of the fact that his speculation took this form, and not another. Oh! the hypocritical obstinacy of decent women!--the lack in them of heart, of generosity, of imagination!
The door opened, and Ferrier entered, with Marsham and the butler behind him. Mr. Ferrier, in his London frock-coat, appeared rounder and heavier than ever but for the contradictory vigor and lightness of his step, the shrewd cheerfulness of the eyes. It had been a hard week in Parliament, however, and his features and complexion showed signs of overwork and short sleep.
For a few minutes, while tea was renewed, and the curtains closed, he maintained a pleasant chat with Lady Lucy, while the other two looked at each other in silence.
But when the servant had gone, Ferrier put down his cup unfinished. "I am very sorry for you both," he said, gravely, looking from Lady Lucy to her son. "I need not say your letter this morning took me wholly by surprise. I have since been doing my best to think of a way out."
There was a short pause--broken by Marsham, who was sitting a little apart from the others, restlessly fingering a paper-knife.
"If you could persuade my mother to take a kind and reasonable view," he said, abruptly; "that is really the only way out."
Lady Lucy stiffened under the attack. Drawn on by Ferrier's interrogative glance, she quietly repeated, with more detail, and even greater austerity, the arguments and considerations she had made use of in her wrestle with Sir James. Chide clearly perceived that her opposition was hardening with every successive explanation of it. What had been at first, no doubt, an instinctive recoil was now being converted into a plausible and reasoned case, and the oftener she repeated it the stronger would she become on her own side and the more in love with her own contentions.