The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 3

The Story of the Past.

THE afternoon wore away and the evening came, and still there were no signs of Uncle Joseph’s return.

Toward seven o’clock, Rosamond was summoned by the nurse, who reported that the child was awake and fretful. After soothing and quieting him, she took him back with her to the sitting-room, having first, with her usual consideration for the comfort of any servant whom she employed, sent the nurse downstairs, with a leisure hour at her own disposal, after the duties of the day. “I don’t like to be away from you, Lenny, at this anxious time,” she said, when she rejoined her husband; “so I have brought the child in here. He is not likely to be troublesome again, and the having him to take care of is really a relief to me in our present state of suspense.”

The clock on the mantel-piece chimed the half-hour past seven. The carriages in the street were following one another more and more rapidly, filled with people in full dress, on their way to dinner, or on their way to the opera. The hawkers were shouting proclamations of news in the neighboring square, with the second editions of the evening papers under their arms. People who had been serving behind the counter all day were standing at the shop door to get a breath of fresh air. Working men were trooping homeward, now singly, now together, in weary, shambling gangs. Idlers, who had come out after dinner, were lighting cigars at corners of streets, and looking about them, uncertain which way they should turn their steps next. It was just that transitional period of the evening at which the street-life of the day is almost over, and the street-life of the night has not quite begun — just the time, also, at which Rosamond, after vainly trying to find relief from the weariness of waiting by looking out of window, was becoming more and more deeply absorbed in her own anxious thoughts — when her attention was abruptly recalled to events in the little world about her by the opening of the room door. She looked up immediately from the child lying asleep on her lap, and saw that Uncle Joseph had returned at last.

The old man came in silently, with the form of declaration which he had taken away with him, by Mr. Frankland’s desire, open in his hand. As he approached nearer to the window, Rosamond noticed that his face looked as if it had grown strangely older during the few hours of his absence. He came close up to her, and still not saying a word, laid his trembling forefinger low down on the open paper, and held it before her so that she could look at the place thus indicated without rising from her chair.

His silence and the change in his face struck her with a sudden dread which made her hesitate before she spoke to him. “Have you told her all?” she asked, after a moment’s delay, putting the question in low, whispering tones, and not heeding the paper.

“This answers that I have,” he said, still pointing to the declaration. “See! here is the name, signed in the place that was left for it — signed by her own hand.”

Rosamond glanced at the paper. There indeed was the signature, “S. Jazeph;” and underneath it were added, in traced lines of parenthesis, these explanatory words — “Formerly, Sarah Leeson.”

“Why don’t you speak?” exclaimed Rosamond, looking at him in growing alarm. “Why don’t you tell us how she bore it?”

“Ah! don’t ask me, don’t ask me!” he answered, shrinking back from her hand, as she tried in her eagerness to lay it on his arm. “I forgot nothing. I said the words as you taught me to say them — I went the roundabout way to the truth with my tongue; but my face took the short cut, and got to the end first. Pray, of your goodness to me, ask nothing about it! Be satisfied, if you please, with knowing that she is better and quieter and happier now. The bad is over and past, and the good is all to come. If I tell you how she looked, if I tell you what she said, if I tell you all that happened when first she knew the truth, the fright will catch me round the heart again, and all the sobbing and crying that I have swallowed down will rise once more and choke me. I must keep my head clear and my eyes dry — or how shall I say to you all the things that I have promised Sarah, as I love my own soul and hers, to tell, before I lay myself down to rest to-night?” He stopped, took out a coarse little cotton pocket-handkerchief, with a flaring white pattern on a dull blue ground, and dried a few tears that had risen in his eyes while he was speaking. “My life has had so much happiness in it,” he said, self-reproachfully, looking at Rosamond, “that my courage, when it is wanted for the time of trouble, is not easy to find. And yet, I am German! all my nation are philosophers! — why is it that I alone am as soft in my brains, and as weak in my heart, as the pretty little baby there, that is lying asleep in your lap?”

“Don’t speak again; don’t tell us anything till you feel more composed,” said Rosamond. “We are relieved from our worst suspense now that we know you have left her quieter and better. I will ask no more questions — at least,” she added, after a pause, “I will only ask one.” She stopped; and her eyes wandered inquiringly toward Leonard. He had hitherto been listening with silent interest to all that had passed; but he now interposed gently, and advised his wife to wait a little before she ventured on saying anything more.

“It is such an easy question to answer,” pleaded Rosamond. “I only wanted to hear whether she has got my message — whether she knows that I am waiting and longing to see her, if she will but let me come?”

“Yes, yes,” said the old man, nodding to Rosamond with an air of relief. “That question is easy; easier even than you think, for it brings me straight to the beginning of all that I have got to say.”

He had been hitherto walking restlessly about the room; sitting down one moment, and getting up the next, he now placed a chair for himself midway between Rosamond — who was sitting, with the child, near the window — and her husband, who occupied the sofa at the lower end of the room. In this position, which enabled him to address himself alternately to Mr. and Mrs. Frankland without difficulty, he soon recovered composure enough to open his heart unreservedly to the interest of his subject.

“When the worst was over and past,” he said, addressing Rosamond — “when she could listen and when I could speak, the first words of comfort that I said to her were the words of your message. Straight she looked at me, with doubting, fearing eyes. ‘Was her husband there to hear her?’ she says. ‘Did he look angry? did he look sorry? did he change ever so little, when you got that message from her?’ And I said, ‘No; no change, no anger, no sorrow — nothing like it.’ And she said again: ‘Has it made between them no misery? has it nothing wrenched away of all the love and all the happiness that binds them the one to the other?’ And once more I answer to that, ‘No! no misery, no wrench. See now! I shall go my ways at once to the good wife, and fetch her here to answer for the good husband with her own tongue. While I speak those words there flies out over all her face a look — no, not a look — a light, like a sun-flash. While I can count one, it lasts; before I can count two, it is gone; the face is all dark again; it is turned away from me on the pillow, and I see the hand that is outside the bed begin to crumple up the sheet. ‘I shall go my ways, then, and fetch the good wife,’ I say again. And she says, ‘No, not yet. I must not see her, I dare not see her till she knows — ’ and there she stops, and the hand crumples up the sheet again, and softly, softly, I say to her, ‘Knows what?’ and she answers me, ‘What I, her mother, cannot tell her to her face, for shame.’ And I say, ‘So, so, my child! tell it not, then — tell it not at all.’ She shakes her head at me, and wrings her two hands together, like this, on the bed-cover. ‘I must tell it,’ she says. ‘I must rid my heart of all that has been gnawing, gnawing, gnawing at it, or how shall I feel the blessing that the seeing her will bring to me, if my conscience is only clear?’ Then she stops a little, and lifts up her two hands, so, and cries out loud, ‘Oh, will God’s mercy show me no way of telling it that will spare me before my child!’ And I say, ‘Hush, then! there is a way. Tell it to Uncle Joseph, who is the same as a father to you! Tell it to Uncle Joseph, whose little son died in your arms; whose tears your hand wiped away, in the grief time long ago. Tell it, my child, to me; and I shall take the risk, and the shame (if there is shame), of telling it again. I, with nothing to speak for me but my white hair; I, with nothing to help me but my heart that means no harm — shall go to that good and true woman, with the burden of her mother’s grief to lay before her; and, in my soul of souls I believe it, she will not turn away!’”

He paused, and looked at Rosamond. Her head was bent down over her child; her tears were dropping slowly, one by one, on the bosom of his little white dress. Waiting a moment to collect herself before she spoke, she held out her hand to the old man, and firmly and gratefully met the look he fixed on her. “Oh, go on, go on!” she said. “Let me prove to you that your generous confidence in me is not misplaced.”

“I knew it was not, from the first, as surely as I know it now!” said Uncle Joseph. “And Sarah, when I had spoken to her, she knew it too. She was silent for a little; she cried for a little; she leaned over from the pillow and kissed me here, on my cheek, as I sat by the bedside; and then she looked back, back, back, in her mind, to the Long Ago, and very quietly, very slowly, with her eyes looking into my eyes, and her hand resting so in mine, she spoke the words to me that I must now speak again to you, who sit here to-day as her judge, before you go to her to-morrow as her child.”

“Not as her judge!” said Rosamond. “I cannot, I must not hear you say that.”

“I speak her words, not mine,” rejoined the old man, gravely. “Wait before you bid me change them for others — wait till you know the end.”

He drew his chair a little nearer to Rosamond, paused for a minute or two to arrange his recollections, and to separate them one from the other; then resumed.

“As Sarah began with me,” he said, “so I, for my part, must begin also — which means to say, that I go down now through the years that are past, to the time when my niece went out to her first service. You know that the sea-captain, the brave and good man Treverton, took for his wife an artist on the stage — what they call play-actress here? A grand, big woman, and a handsome; with a life and a spirit and a will in her that is not often seen; a woman of the sort who can say, We will do this thing, or that thing — and do it in the spite and face of all the scruples, all the obstacles, all the oppositions in the world. To this lady there comes for maid to wait upon her, Sarah, my niece — a young girl then, pretty and kind and gentle, and very, very shy. Out of many others who want the place, and who are bolder and bigger and quicker girls, Mistress Treverton, nevertheless, picks Sarah. This is strange, but it is stranger yet that Sarah, on her part, when she comes out of her first fears and doubts, and pains of shyness about herself, gets to be fond with all her heart of that grand and handsome mistress, who has a life and a spirit and a will of the sort that is not often seen. This is strange to say, but it is also, as I know from Sarah’s own lips, every word of it true.”

“True beyond a doubt,” said Leonard. “Most strong attachments are formed between people who are unlike each other.”

“So the life they led in that ancient house of Porthgenna began happily for them all,” continued the old man. “The love that the mistress had for her husband was so full in her heart that it overflowed in kindness to everybody who was about her, and to Sarah, her maid, before all the rest. She would have nobody but Sarah to read to her, to work for her, to dress her in the morning and the evening, and to undress her at night. She was as familiar as a sister might have been with Sarah, when they two were alone, in the long days of rain. It was the game of her idle time — the laugh that she liked most — to astonish the poor country maid, who had never so much as seen what a theatre’s inside was like, by dressing in fine clothes, and painting her face, and speaking and doing all that she had done on the theatre-scene in the days that were before her marriage. The more she puzzled Sarah with these jokes and pranks of masquerade, the better she was always pleased. For a year this easy, happy life went on in the ancient house — happy for all the servants — happier still for the master and mistress, but for the want of one thing to make the whole complete, one little blessing that was always hoped for, and that never came — the same, if you please, as the blessing in the long white frock, with the plump, delicate face and the tiny arms, that I see before me now.”

He paused, to point the allusion by nodding and smiling at the child in Rosamond’s lap; then resumed.

“As the new year gets on,” he said, “Sarah sees in the mistress a change. The good sea-captain is a man who loves children, and is fond of getting to the house all the little boys and girls of his friends round about. He plays with them, he kisses them, he makes them presents — he is the best friend the little boys and girls have ever had. The mistress, who should be their best friend too, looks on and says nothing — looks on, red sometimes, and sometimes pale; goes away into her room where Sarah is at work for her, and walks about and finds fault; and one day lets the evil temper fly out of her at her tongue, and says, ‘Why have I got no child for my husband to be fond of? Why must he kiss and play always with the children of other women? They take his love away for something that is not mine. I hate those children and their mothers too!’ It is her passion that speaks then, but it speaks what is near the truth for all that. She will not make friends with any of those mothers; the ladies she is familiar-fond with are the ladies who have no children, or the ladies whose families are all upgrown. You think that was wrong of the mistress?”

He put the question to Rosamond, who was toying thoughtfully with one of the baby’s hands which was resting in hers. “I think Mrs. Treverton was very much to be pitied,” she answered, gently lifting the child’s hand to her lips.

“Then I, for my part, think so too,” said Uncle Joseph. “To be pitied? — yes! To be more pitied some months after, when there is still no child and no hope of a child, and the good sea-captain says, one day, ‘I rust here, I get old with much idleness; I want to be on the sea again. I shall ask for a ship.’ And he asks for a ship, and they give it him; and he goes away on his cruises — with much kissing and fondness at parting from his wife — but still he goes away. And when he is gone, the mistress comes in again where Sarah is at work for her on a fine new gown, and snatches it away, and casts it down on the floor, and throws after it all the fine jewels she has got on her table, and stamps and cries with the misery and the passion that is in her. ‘I would give all those fine things, and go in rags for the rest of my life, to have a child!’ she says. ‘I am losing my husband’s love: he would never have gone away from me if I had brought him a child!’ Then she looks in the glass, and says between her teeth, ‘Yes! yes! I am a fine woman, with a fine figure, and I would change places with the ugliest, crookedest wretch in all creation, if I could only have a child!’ And then she tells Sarah that the Captain’s brother spoke the vilest of all vile words of her, when she was married, because she was an artist on the stage; and she says, ‘If I have no child, who but he — the rascal-monster that I wish I could kill! — who but he will come to possess all that the Captain has got?’ And then she cries again, and says, ‘I am losing his love — ah, I know it, I know it! — I am losing his love!’ Nothing that Sarah can say will alter her thoughts about that. And the months go on, and the sea-captain comes back, and still there is always the same secret grief growing and growing in the mistress’s heart — growing and growing till it is now the third year since the marriage, and there is no hope yet of a child; and once more the sea-captain gets tired on the land, and goes off again for his cruises — long cruises, this time; away, away, away, at the other end of the world.”

Here Uncle Joseph paused once more, apparently hesitating a little about how he should go on with the narrative. His mind seemed to be soon relieved of its doubts, but his face saddened, and his tones sank lower, when he addressed Rosamond again.

“I must, if you please, go away from the mistress now,” he said, “and get back to Sarah, my niece, and say one word also of a mining man, with the Cornish name of Polwheal. This was a young man that worked well and got good wage, and kept a good character. He lived with his mother in the little village that is near the ancient house; and, seeing Sarah from time to time, took much fancy to her, and she to him. So the end came that the marriage-promise was between them given and taken; as it happened, about the time when the sea-captain was back after his first cruises, and just when he was thinking of going away in a ship again. Against the marriage-promise nor he nor the lady his wife had a word to object, for the miner, Polwheal, had good wage and kept a good character. Only the mistress said that the loss of Sarah would be sad to her — very sad; and Sarah answered that there was yet no hurry to part. So the weeks go on, and the sea-captain sails away again for his long cruises; and about the same time also the mistress finds out that Sarah frets, and looks not like herself, and that the miner, Polwheal, he lurks here and lurks there, round about the house; and she says to herself, ‘So! so! Am I standing too much in the way of this marriage? For Sarah’s sake, that shall not be!’ And she calls for them both one evening, and talks to them kindly, and sends away to put up the banns next morning the young man Polwheal. That night, it is his turn to go down into the Porthgenna mine, and work after the hours of the day. With his heart all light, down into that dark he goes. When he rises to the world again, it is the dead body of him that is drawn up — the dead body, with all the young life, by the fall of a rock, crushed out in a moment. The news flies here; the news flies there. With no break, with no warning, with no comfort near, it comes on a sudden to Sarah, my niece. When to her sweet-heart that evening she had said good-by, she was a young, pretty girl; when, six little weeks after, she, from the sick-bed where the shock threw her, got up, all her youth was gone, all her hair was gray, and in her eyes the fright-look was fixed that has never left them since.”

The simple words drew the picture of the miners death and of all that followed it, with a startling distinctness — with a fearful reality. Rosamond shuddered, and looked at her husband. “Oh, Lenny!” she murmured, “the first news of your blindness was a sore trial to me — but what was it to this!”

“Pity her!” said the old man. “Pity her for what she suffered then! Pity her for what came after, that was worse! Yet five, six, seven weeks pass, after the death of the mining man, and Sarah in the body suffers less, but in the mind suffers more. The mistress, who is kind and good to her as any sister could be, finds out, little by little, something in her face which is not the pain-look, nor the fright-look, nor the grief-look; something which the eyes can see, but which the tongue cannot put into words. She looks and thinks, looks and thinks, till there steals into her mind a doubt which makes her tremble at herself, which drives her straight forward into Sarah’s room, which sets her eyes searching through and through Sarah to her inmost heart. ‘There is something on your mind besides your grief for the dead and gone,’ she says, and catches Sarah by both the arms before she can turn way, and looks her in the face, front to front, with curious eyes that search and suspect steadily. ‘This miner man, Polwheal,’ she says; ‘my mind misgives me about the miner man, Polwheal. Sarah! I have been more friend to you than mistress. As your friend I ask you now — tell me all the truth?’ The question waits; but no word of answer! only Sarah struggles to get away, and the mistress holds her tighter yet, and goes on and says, ‘I know that the marriage-promise passed between you and miner Polwheal; I know that if ever there was truth in man, there was truth in him; I know that he went out from this place to put the banns up, for you and for him, in the church. Have secrets from all the world besides, Sarah, but have none from me. Tell me, this minute — tell me the truth! Of all the lost creatures in this big, wide world, are you —?’ Before she can say the words that are next to come, Sarah falls on her knees, and cries out suddenly to be let go away to hide and die, and be heard of no more. That was all the answer she gave. It was enough for the truth then; it is enough for the truth now.”

He sighed bitterly, and ceased speaking for a little while. No voice broke the reverent silence that followed his last words. The one living sound that stirred in the stillness of the room was the light breathing of the child as he lay asleep in his mothers arms.

“That was all the answer,” repeated the old man, “and the mistress who heard it says nothing for some time after, but still looks straight forward into Sarah’s face, and grows paler and paler the longer she looks — paler and paler, till on a sudden she starts, and at one flash the red flies back into her face. ‘No,’ she says, whispering and looking at the door, ‘once your friend, Sarah, always your friend. Stay in this house, keep your own counsel, do as I bid you, and leave the rest to me.’ And with that she turns round quick on her heel, and falls to walking up and down the room faster, faster, faster, till she is out of breath. Then she pulls the bell with an angry jerk, and calls out loud at the door. ‘The horses! I want to ride;’ then turns upon Sarah — ‘My gown for riding in! Pluck up your heart, poor creature! On my life and honor, I will save you. My gown, my gown, then; I am mad for a gallop in the open air!” And she goes out, in a fever of the blood, and gallops, gallops, till the horse reeks again, and the groom-man who rides after her wonders if she is mad. When she comes back, for all that ride in the air, she is not tired. The whole evening after, she is now walking about the room, and now striking loud tunes all mixed up together on the piano. At the bed-time, she cannot rest. Twice, three times in the night she frightens Sarah by coming in to see how she does, and by saying always those same words over again: ‘Keep your own counsel, do as I bid you, and leave the rest to me.’ In the morning she lies late, sleeps, gets up very pale and quiet, and says to Sarah, ‘No word more between us two of what happened yesterday — no word till the time comes when you fear the eyes of every stranger who looks at you. Then I shall speak again. Till that time let us be as we were before I put the question yesterday, and before you told the truth!’ ”

At this point he broke the thread of the narrative again, explaining as he did so that his memory was growing confused about a question of time, which he wished to state correctly in introducing the series of events that were next to be described.

“Ah, well! well!” he said, shaking his head, after vainly endeavoring to pursue the lost recollection. “For once, I must acknowledge that I forget. Whether it was two months, or whether it was three, after the mistress said those last words to Sarah, I know not — but at the end of the one time or of the other she one morning orders her carriage and goes away alone to Truro. In the evening she comes back with two large flat baskets. On the cover of the one there is a card, and written on it are the letters ‘S. L.’ On the cover of the other there is a card, and written on it are the letters ‘R. T.’ The baskets are taken into the mistress’s room, and Sarah is called, and the mistress says to her, ‘Open the basket with S. L. on it; for those are the letters of your name, and the things in it are yours.’ Inside there is first a box, which holds a grand bonnet of black lace; then a fine dark shawl; then black silk of the best kind, enough to make a gown; then linen and stuff for the under garments, all of the finest sort. ‘Make up those things to fit yourself,’ says the mistress. ‘You are so much littler than I, that to make the things up new is less trouble than, from my fit to yours, to alter old gowns.’ Sarah, to all this, says in astonishment, ‘Why?’ And the mistress answers, ‘I will have no questions. Remember what I said — keep your own counsel, and leave the rest to me!’ So she goes out; and the next thing she does is to send for the doctor to see her. He asks what is the matter; gets for answer that Mistress Treverton feels strangely, and not like herself; also that she thinks the soft air of Cornwall makes her weak. The days pass, and the doctor comes and goes, and, say what he may, those two answers are always the only two that he can get. All this time Sarah is at work; and when she has done, the mistress says, ‘Now for the other basket, with R. T. on it; for those are the letters of my name, and the things in it are mine.’ Inside this, there is first a box which holds a common bonnet of black straw; then a coarse dark shawl; then a gown of good common black stuff; then linen, and other things for the under garments, that are only of the sort called second best. ‘Make up all that rubbish,’ says the mistress, ‘to fit me. No questions! You have always done as I told you; do as I tell you now, or you are a lost woman.’ When the rubbish is made up, she tries it on, and looks in the glass, and laughs in a way that is wild and desperate to hear. ‘Do I make a fine, buxom, comely servant-woman?’ she says. ‘Ha! but I have acted that part times enough in my past days on the theatre-scene.’ And then she takes off the clothes again, and bids Sarah pack them up at once in one trunk, and pack the things she has made for herself in another. ‘The doctor orders me to go away out of this damp, soft Cornwall climate, to where the air is fresh and dry and cheerful-keen,’ she says, and laughs again, till the room rings with it. At the same time Sarah begins to pack, and takes some knick-knack things off the table, and among them a brooch which has on it a likeness of the sea-captain’s face. The mistress sees her, turns white in the cheeks, trembles all over, snatches the brooch away, and locks it up in the cabinet in a great hurry, as if the look of it frightened her. ‘I shall leave that behind me,’ she says, and turns round on her heel, and goes quickly out of the room. You guess now what the thing was that Mistress Treverton had it in her mind to do?”

He addressed the question to Rosamond first, and then repeated it to Leonard. They both answered in the affirmative, and entreated him to go on.

“You guess?” he said. “It is more than Sarah, at that time, could do. What with the misery in her own mind, and the strange ways and strange words of her mistress, the wits that were in her were all confused. Nevertheless, what her mistress has said to her, that she has always done; and together alone those two from the house of Porthgenna drive away. Not a word says the mistress till they have got to the journey’s end for the first day, and are stopping at their inn among strangers for the night. Then at last she speaks out. ‘Put you on, Sarah, the good linen and the good gown to-morrow,’ she says, ‘but keep the common bonnet and the common shawl till we get into the carriage again. I shall put on the coarse linen and the coarse gown, and keep the good bonnet and shawl. We shall pass so the people at the inn, on our way to the carriage, without very much risk of surprising them by our change of gowns. When we are out on the road again, we can change bonnets and shawls in the carriage — and then, it is all done. You are the married lady, Mrs. Treverton, and I am your maid who waits on you, Sarah Leeson.’ At that, the glimmering on Sarah’s mind breaks in at last: she shakes with the fright it gives her, and all she can say is, ‘Oh, mistress! for the love of Heaven, what is it you mean to do?’ ‘I mean,’ the mistress answers, ‘to save you, my faithful servant, from disgrace and ruin; to prevent every penny that the captain has got from going to that rascal-monster, his brother, who slandered me; and, last and most, I mean to keep my husband from going away to sea again, by making him love me as he has never loved me yet. Must I say more, you poor, afflicted, frightened creature — Or is it enough so?’ And all that Sarah can answer, is to cry bitter tears, and to say faintly, ‘No.’ ‘Do you doubt,’ says the mistress, and grips her by the arm, and looks her close in the face with fierce eyes — ‘Do you doubt which is best, to cast yourself into the world forsaken and disgraced and ruined, or to save yourself from shame, and make a friend of me for the rest of your life? You weak, wavering, baby-woman, if you cannot decide for yourself, I shall for you. As I will, so it shall be! To-morrow, and the day after that, we go on and on, up to the north, where my good fool of a doctor says the air is cheerful-keen — up to the north, where nobody knows me or has heard my name. I, the maid, shall spread the report that you, the lady, are weak in your health. No strangers shall you see, but the doctor and the nurse, when the time to call them comes. Who they may be, I know not; but this I do know, that the one and the other will serve our purpose without the least suspicion of what it is; and that when we get back to Cornwall again, the secret between us two will to no third person have been trusted, and will remain a Dead Secret to the end of the world!’ With all the strength of the strong will that is in her, at the hush of night and in a house of strangers, she speaks those words to the woman of all women the most frightened, the most afflicted, the most helpless, the most ashamed. What need to say the end? On that night Sarah first stooped her shoulders to the burden that has weighed heavier and heavier on them with every year, for all her after-life.”

“How many days did they travel toward the north?” asked Rosamond, eagerly. “Where did the journey end? In England or in Scotland?”

“In England,” answered Uncle Joseph. “But the name of the place escapes my foreign tongue. It was a little town by the side of the sea — the great sea that washes between my country and yours. There they stopped, and there they waited till the time came to send for the doctor and the nurse. And as Mistress Treverton had said it should be, so, from the first to the last, it was. The doctor and the nurse, and the people of the house were all strangers; and to this day, if they still live, they believe that Sarah was the sea-captain’s wife, and that Mistress Treverton was the maid who waited on her. Not till they were far back on their way home with the child did the two change gowns again, and return each to her proper place. The first friend at Porthgenna that the mistress sends for to show the child to, when she gets back, is the doctor who lives there. ‘Did you think what was the matter with me, when you sent me away to change the air?’ she says, and laughs. And the doctor, he laughs too, and says, ‘Yes, surely! but I was too cunning to say what I thought in those early days, because, at such times, there is always fear of a mistake. And you found the fine dry air so good for you that you stopped?’ he says. ‘Well, that was right! right for yourself and right also for the child.’ And the doctor laughs again and the mistress with him, and Sarah, who stands by and hears them, feels as if her heart would burst within her, with the horror, and the misery, and the shame of that deceit. When the doctor’s back is turned, she goes down on her knees, and begs and prays with all her soul that the mistress will repent, and send her away with her child, to be heard of at Porthgenna no more. The mistress, with that tyrant-will of hers, has but four words of answer to give — ‘It is too late!’ Five weeks after, the sea-captain comes back, and the ‘Too late’ is a truth that no repentance can ever alter more. The mistress’s cunning hand that has guided the deceit from the first, guides it always to the last — guides it so that the captain, for the love of her and of the child, goes back to the sea no more — guides it till the time when she lays her down on the bed to die, and leaves all the burden of the secret, and all the guilt of the confession, to Sarah — to Sarah, who, under the tyranny of that tyrant-will, has lived in the house, for five long years, a stranger to her own child!”

“Five years!” murmured Rosamond, raising the baby gently in her arms, till his face touched hers. “Oh me! five long years a stranger to the blood of her blood, to the heart of her heart!”

“And all the years after!” said the old man. “The lonesome years and years among strangers, with no sight of the child that was growing up, with no heart to pour the story of her sorrow into the ear of any living creature, not even into mine! ‘Better,’ I said to her, when she could speak to me no more, and when her face was turned away again on the pillow — ‘a thousand times better, my child, if you had told the Secret!’ ‘Could I tell it,’ she said, ‘to the master who trusted me? Could I tell it afterward to the child, whose birth was a reproach to me? Could she listen to the story of her mother’s shame, told by her mother’s lips? How will she listen to it now, Uncle Joseph, when she hears it from you? Remember the life she has led, and the high place she has held in the world. How can she forgive me? How can she ever look at me in kindness again?’”

“You never left her,” cried Rosamond, interposing before he could say more — “surely, surely, you never left her with that thought in her heart!”

Uncle Joseph’s head drooped on his breast. “What words of mine could change it?” he asked, sadly.

“Oh, Lenny, do you hear that? I must leave you, and leave the baby. I must go to her, or those last words about me will break my heart.” The passionate tears burst from her eyes as she spoke; and she rose hastily from her seat, with the child in her arms.

“Not to-night,” said Uncle Joseph. “She said to me at parting, ‘I can bear no more to-night; give me till the morning to get as strong as I can.’”

“Oh, go back, then, yourself!” cried Rosamond. “Go, for God’s sake, without wasting another moment, and make her think of me as she ought! Tell her how I listened to you, with my own child sleeping on my bosom all the time — tell her — oh, no, no! words are too cold for it! — Come here, come close, Uncle Joseph (I shall always call you so now); come close to me and kiss my child — her grandchild! — Kiss him on this cheek, because it has lain nearest to my heart. And now, go back, kind and dear old man — go back to her bedside, and say nothing but that I sent that kiss to her!”

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/dead_secret/book6.3.html

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