The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 6

The Telling of the Secret.

ON their way back to the inhabited side of the house, Rosamond made no further reference to the subject of the folded paper which she had placed in her husband’s hands.

All her attention, while they were returning to the west front, seemed to be absorbed in the one act of jealously watching every inch of ground that Leonard walked over, to make sure that it was safe and smooth before she suffered him to set his foot on it. Careful and considerate as she had always been, from the first day of their married life, whenever she led him from one place to another, she was now unduly, almost absurdly anxious to preserve him from the remotest possibility of an accident. Finding that he was the nearest to the outside of the open landing when they left the Myrtle Room, she insisted on changing places so that he might be nearest to the wall. While they were descending the stairs, she stopped him in the middle, to inquire if he felt any pain in the knee which he had struck against the chair. At the last step she brought him to a stand-still again, while she moved away the torn and tangled remains of an old mat, for fear one of his feet should catch in it. Walking across the north hall, she indicated that he would take her arm and lean heavily upon her, because she felt sure that his knee was not quite free from stiffness yet. Even at the short flight of stairs which connected the entrance to the hall with the passages leading to the west side of the house, she twice stopped him on the way down, to place his foot on the sound parts of the steps, which she represented as dangerously worn away in more places than one. He laughed good-humoredly at her excessive anxiety to save him from all danger of stumbling, and asked if there was any likelihood, with their numerous stoppages, of getting back to the west side of the house in time for lunch. She was not ready, as usual, with her retort; his laugh found no pleasant echo in hers; she only answered that it was impossible to be too anxious about him; and then went on in silence till they reached the door of the housekeeper’s room.

Leaving him for a moment outside, she went in to give the keys back again to Mrs. Pentreath.

“Dear me, ma’am!” exclaimed the housekeeper, “you look quite overcome by the heat of the day and the close air of those old rooms. Can I get you a glass of water, or may I give you my bottle of salts?”

Rosamond declined both offers.

“May I be allowed to ask, ma’am, if anything has been found this time in the north rooms?” inquired Mrs. Pentreath, hanging up the bunch of keys.

“Only some old papers,” replied Rosamond, turning away.

“I beg pardon again, ma’am,” presumed the housekeeper; “but, in case any of the gentry of the neighborhood should call to-day?”

“We are engaged. No matter who it may be, we are both engaged.” Answering briefly in these terms, Rosamond left Mrs. Pentreath, and rejoined her husband.

With the same excess of attention and care which she had shown on the way to the housekeeper’s room, she now led him up the west staircase. The library door happening to stand open, they passed through it on their way to the drawing-room, which was the larger and cooler apartment of the two. Having guided Leonard to a seat, Rosamond returned to the library, and took from the table a tray containing a bottle of water and a tumbler, which she had noticed when she passed through.

“I may feel faint as well as frightened,” she said quickly to herself, turning round with the tray in her hand to return to the drawing-room.

After she had put the water down on a table in a corner, she noiselessly locked the door leading into the library, then the door leading into the passage. Leonard, hearing her moving about, advised her to keep quiet on the sofa. She patted him gently on the cheek, and was about to make some suitable answer, when she accidentally beheld her face reflected in the looking-glass under which he was sitting. The sight of her own white cheeks and startled eyes suspended the words on her lips. She hastened away to the window, to catch any breath of air that might be wafted toward her from the sea.

The heat-mist still hid the horizon. Nearer, the oily, colorless surface of the water was just visible, heaving slowly, from time to time, in one vast monotonous wave that rolled itself out smoothly and endlessly till it was lost in the white obscurity of the mist. Close on the shore the noisy surf was hushed. No sound came from the beach except at long, wearily long intervals, when a quick thump, and a still splash, just audible and no more, announced the fall of one tiny, mimic wave upon the parching sand. On the terrace in front of the house, the changeless hum of summer insects was all that told of life and movement. Not a human figure was to be seen anywhere on the shore; no sign of a sail loomed shadowy through the heat at sea; no breath of air waved the light tendrils of the creepers that twined up the house-wall, or refreshed the drooping flowers ranged in the windows. Rosamond turned away from the outer prospect, after a moment’s weary contemplation of it. As she looked into the room again, her husband spoke to her.

“What precious thing lies hidden in this paper?” he asked, producing the letter, and smiling as he opened it. “Surely there must be something besides writing — some inestimable powder, or some bank-note of fabulous value — wrapped up in all these folds?”

Rosamond’s heart sank within her as he opened the letter and passed his finger over the writing inside, with a mock expression of anxiety, and a light jest about sharing all treasures discovered at Porthgenna with his wife.

“I will read it to you directly, Lenny,” she said, dropping into the nearest seat, and languidly pushing her hair back from her temples. “But put it away for a few minutes now, and let us talk of anything else you like that does not remind us of the Myrtle Room. I am very capricious, am I not, to be so suddenly weary of the very subject that I have been fondest of talking about for so many weeks past? Tell me, love,” she added, rising abruptly and going to the back of his chair; “do I get worse with my whims and fancies and faults? — or am I improved, since the time when we were first married?”

He tossed the letter aside carelessly on a table which was always placed by the arm of his chair, and shook his forefinger at her with a frown of comic reproof. “Oh, fie, Rosamond! are you trying to entrap me into paying you compliments?”

The light tone that he persisted in adopting seemed absolutely to terrify her. She shrank away from his chair, and sat down again at a little distance from him.

“I remember I used to offend you,” she continued, quickly and confusedly. “No, no, not to offend — only to vex you a little — by talking too familiarly to the servants. You might almost have fancied, at first, if you had not known me so well, that it was a habit with me because I had once been a servant myself. Suppose I had been a servant — the servant who had helped to nurse you in your illnesses, the servant who led you about in your blindness more carefully than anyone else — would you have thought much, then, of the difference between us? would you — ”

She stopped. The smile had vanished from Leonard’s face, and he had turned a little away from her. “What is the use, Rosamond, of supposing events that never could have happened?” he asked rather impatiently.

She went to the side-table, poured out some of the water she had brought from the library, and drank it eagerly; then walked to the window and plucked a few of the flowers that were placed there. She threw some of them away again the next moment; but kept the rest in her hand, thoughtfully arranging them so as to contrast their colors with the best effect. When this was done, she put them into her bosom, looked down absently at them, took them out again, and, returning to her husband, placed the little nosegay in the button-hole of his coat.

“Something to make you look gay and bright, love — as I always wish to see you,” she said, seating herself in her favorite attitude at his feet, and looking up at him sadly, with her arms resting on his knees.

“What are you thinking about, Rosamond?” he asked, after an interval of silence.

“I was wondering, Lenny, whether any woman in the world could be as fond of you as I am. I feel almost afraid that there are others who would ask nothing better than to live and die for you, as well as me. There is something in your face, in your voice, in all your ways — something besides the interest of your sad, sad affliction — that would draw any woman’s heart to you, I think. If I were to die — ”

“If you were to die!” He started as he repeated the words after her, and, leaning forward, anxiously laid his hand upon her forehead. “You are thinking and talking very strangely this morning, Rosamond! Are you not well?”

She rose on her knees and looked closer at him, her face brightening a little, and a faint smile just playing around her lips. “I wonder if you will always be as anxious about me, and as fond of me, as you are now?” she whispered, kissing his hand as she removed it from her forehead. He leaned back again in the chair, and told her jestingly not to look too far into the future. The words, lightly as they were spoken, struck deep into her heart. “There are times, Lenny,” she said, “when all one’s happiness in the present depends upon one’s certainty of the future.” She looked at the letter, which her husband had left open on a table near him, as she spoke; and, after a momentary struggle with herself, took it in her hand to read it. At the first word her voice failed her; the deadly paleness overspread her face again; she threw the letter back on the table, and walked away to the other end of the room.

“The future?” asked Leonard. “What future, Rosamond, can you possibly mean?”

“Suppose I meant our future at Porthgenna?” she said, moistening her dry lips with a few drops of water. “Shall we stay here as long as we thought we should, and be as happy as we have been everywhere else? You told me on the journey that I should find it dull, and that I should be driven to try all sorts of extraordinary occupations to amuse myself. You said you expected that I should begin with gardening and end by writing a novel. A novel!” She approached her husband again, and watched his face eagerly while she went on. “Why not? More women write novels now than men. What is to prevent me from trying? The first great requisite, I suppose, is to have an idea of a story; and that I have got.” She advanced a few steps farther, reached the table on which the letter lay, and placed her hand on it, keeping her eyes still fixed intently on Leonard’s face.

“And what is your idea, Rosamond?” he asked.

“This,” she replied. “I mean to make the main interest of the story centre on two young married people. They shall be very fond of each other — as fond as we are, Lenny — and they shall be in our rank of life. After they have been happily married some time, and when they have got one child to make them love each other more dearly than ever, a terrible discovery shall fall upon them like a thunderbolt. The husband shall have chosen for his wife a young lady bearing as ancient a family name as — ”

“As your name?” suggested Leonard.

“As the name of the Treverton family,” she continued, after a pause, during which her hand had been restlessly moving the letter to and fro on the table. “The husband shall be well-born — as well-born as you, Lenny — and the terrible discovery shall be, that his wife has no right to the ancient name that she bore when he married her.”

“I can’t say, my love, that I approve of your idea. Your story will decoy the reader into feeling an interest in a woman who turns out to be an impostor.”

“No!” cried Rosamond, warmly. “A true woman — a woman who never stooped to a deception — a woman full of faults and failings, but a teller of the truth at all hazards and sacrifices. Hear me out, Lenny, before you judge.” Hot tears rushed into her eyes; but she dashed them away passionately, and went on. “The wife shall grow up to womanhood, and shall marry, in total ignorance — mind that! — in total ignorance of her real history. The sudden disclosure of the truth shall overwhelm her — she shall find herself struck by a calamity which she had no hand in bringing about. She shall be staggered in her very reason by the discovery; it shall burst upon her when she has no one but herself to depend on; she shall have the power of keeping it a secret from her husband with perfect impunity; she shall be tried, she shall be shaken in her mortal frailness, by one moment of fearful temptation; she shall conquer it, and, of her own free will, she shall tell her husband all that she knows herself. Now, Lenny, what do you call that woman? an impostor?”

“No: a victim.”

“Who goes of her own accord to the sacrifice? and who is to be sacrificed?”

“I never said that.”

“What would you do with her, Lenny, if you were writing the story? I mean, how would you make her husband behave to her? It is a question in which a man’s nature is concerned, and a woman is not competent to decide it. I am perplexed about how to end the story. How would you end it, love?” As she ceased, her voice sank sadly to its gentlest pleading tones. She came close to him, and twined her fingers in his hair fondly. “How would you end it, love?” she repeated, stooping down till her trembling lips just touched his forehead.

He moved uneasily in his chair, and replied — “I am not a writer of novels, Rosamond.”

“But how would you act, Lenny, if you were that husband?”

“It is hard for me to say,” he answered. “I have not your vivid imagination, my dear. I have no power of putting myself, at a moment’s notice, into a position that is not my own, and of knowing how I should act in it.”

“But suppose your wife was close to you — as close as I am now? Suppose she had just told you the dreadful secret, and was standing before you — as I am standing now — with the happiness of her whole life to come depending on one kind word from your lips? Oh, Lenny, you would not let her drop broken-hearted at your feet? You would know, let her birth be what it might, that she was still the same faithful creature who had cherished and served and trusted and worshipped you since her marriage-day, and who asked nothing in return but to lay her head on your bosom, and to hear you say that you loved her? You would know that she had nerved herself to tell the fatal secret, because, in her loyalty and love to her husband, she would rather die forsaken and despised, than live, deceiving him? You would know all this, and you would open your arms to the mother of your child, to the wife of your first love, though she was the lowliest of all lowly born women in the estimation of the world? Oh, you would, Lenny, I know you would!”

“Rosamond! how your hands tremble; how your voice alters! You are agitating yourself about this supposed story of yours, as if you were talking of real events.”

“You would take her to your heart, Lenny? You would open your arms to her without an instant of unworthy doubt?”

“Hush! hush! I hope I should.”

“Hope? only hope? Oh, think again, love, think again; and say you know you should!”

“Must I, Rosamond? Then I do say it.” She drew back as the words passed his lips, and took the letter from the table.

“You have not yet asked me, Lenny, to read the letter that I found in the Myrtle Room. I offer to read it now of my own accord.”

She trembled a little as she spoke those few decisive words, but her utterance of them was clear and steady, as if her consciousness of being now irrevocably pledged to make the disclosure had strengthened her at last to dare all hazards and end all suspense.

Her husband turned toward the place from which the sound of her voice had reached him, with a mixed expression of perplexity and surprise in his face. “You pass so suddenly from one subject to another,” he said, “that I hardly know how to follow you. What in the world, Rosamond, takes you, at one jump, from a romantic argument about a situation in a novel, to the plain, practical business of reading an old letter?”

“Perhaps there is a closer connection between the two than you suspect,” she answered.

“A closer connection? What connection? I don’t understand.”

“The letter will explain.”

“Why the letter? Why should you not explain?”

She stole one anxious look at his face, and saw that a sense of something serious to come was now overshadowing his mind for the first time.

“Rosamond!” he exclaimed, “there is some mystery — ”

“There are no mysteries between us two,” she interposed quickly. “There never have been any, love; there never shall be.” She moved a little nearer to him to take her old favorite place on his knee, then checked herself, and drew back again to the table. Warning tears in her eyes bade her distrust her own firmness, and read the letter where she could not feel the beating of his heart.

“Did I tell you,” she resumed, after waiting an instant to compose herself,” where I found the folded piece of paper which I put into your hand in the Myrtle Room?”

“No,” he replied, “I think not.”

“I found it at the back of the frame of that picture — the picture of the ghostly woman with the wicked face. I opened it immediately, and saw that it was a letter. The address inside, the first line under it, and one of the two signatures which it contained, were in a handwriting that I knew.”

“Whose!”

“The handwriting of the late Mrs. Treverton.”

“Of your mother?”

“Of the late Mrs. Treverton.”

“Gracious God, Rosamond! why do you speak of her in that way?”

“Let me read, and you will know. You have seen, with my eyes, what the Myrtle Room is like; you have seen, with my eyes, every object which the search through it brought to light; you must now see, with my eyes, what this letter contains. It is the Secret of the Myrtle Room.”

She bent close over the faint, faded writing, and read these words:

 

“To my Husband —

“We have parted, Arthur, forever, and I have not had the courage to embitter our farewell by confessing that I have deceived you — cruelly and basely deceived you. But a few minutes since, you were weeping by my bedside and speaking of our child. My wronged, my beloved husband, the little daughter of your heart is not yours, is not mine. She is a love-child, whom I have imposed on you for mine. Her father was a miner at Porthgenna; her mother is my maid, Sarah Leeson.”

 

Rosamond paused, but never raised her head from the letter. She heard her husband lay his hand suddenly on the table; she heard him start to his feet; she heard him draw his breath heavily in one quick gasp; she heard him whisper to himself the instant after — “A love-child!” With a fearful, painful distinctness she heard those three words. The tone in which he whispered them turned her cold. But she never moved, for there was more to read; and while more remained, if her life had depended on it, she could not have looked up.

In a moment more she went on, and read these lines next:

 

“I have many heavy sins to answer for, but this one sin you must pardon, Arthur, for I committed it through fondness for you. That fondness told me a secret which you sought to hide from me. That fondness told me that your barren wife would never make your heart all her own until she had borne you a child; and your lips proved it true. Your first words, when you came back from sea, and when the infant was placed in your arms, were — ‘I have never loved you, Rosamond, as I love you now.’ If you had not said that, I should never have kept my guilty secret.

“I can add no more, for death is very near me. How the fraud was committed, and what my other motives were, I must leave you to discover from the mother of the child, who writes this under my dictation, and who is charged to give it to you when I am no more. You will be merciful to the poor little creature who bears my name. Be merciful also to her unhappy parent: she is only guilty of too blindly obeying me. If there is anything that mitigates the bitterness of my remorse, it is the remembrance that my act of deceit saved the most faithful and the most affectionate of women from shame that she had not deserved. Remember me forgivingly, Arthur — words may tell how I have sinned against you; no words can tell how I have loved you!”

 

She had struggled on thus far, and had reached the last line on the second page of the letter, when she paused again, and then tried to read the first of the two signatures — “Rosamond Treverton.” She faintly repeated two syllables of that familiar Christian name — the name that was on her husband’s lips every hour of the day! — and strove to articulate the third, but her voice failed her. All the sacred household memories which that ruthless letter had profaned forever seemed to tear themselves away from her heart at the same moment. With a low, moaning cry she dropped her arms on the table, and laid her head down on them, and hid her face.

She heard nothing, she was conscious of nothing, until she felt a touch on her shoulder — a light touch from a hand that trembled. Every pulse in her body bounded in answer to it, and she looked up.

Her husband had guided himself near to her by the table. The tears were glistening in his dim, sightless eyes. As she rose and touched him, his arms opened, and closed fast around her.

“My own Rosamond!” he said, “come to me and be comforted!”

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:29