The Dead Secret, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter 4

The Close of Day.

THE night, with its wakeful anxieties, wore away at last; and the morning light dawned hopefully, for it brought with it the promise of an end to Rosamond’s suspense.

The first event of the day was the arrival of Mr. Nixon, who had received a note on the previous evening, written by Leonard’s desire, to invite him to breakfast. Before the lawyer withdrew, he had settled with Mr. and Mrs. Frankland all the preliminary arrangements that were necessary to effect the restoration of the purchase-money of Porthgenna Tower, and had dispatched a messenger with a letter to Bayswater, announcing his intention of calling upon Andrew Treverton that afternoon, on private business of importance relating to the personal estate of his late brother.

Toward noon, Uncle Joseph arrived at the hotel to take Rosamond with him to the house where her mother lay ill.

He came in, talking, in the highest spirits, of the wonderful change for the better that had been wrought in his niece by the affectionate message which he had taken to her on the previous evening. He declared that it had made her look happier, stronger, younger, all in a moment; that it had given her the longest, quietest, sweetest night’s sleep she had enjoyed for years and years past; and, last, best triumph of all, that its good influence had been acknowledged, not an hour since, by the doctor himself.

Rosamond listened thankfully, but it was with a wandering attention, with a mind ill at ease. When she had taken leave of her husband, and when she and Uncle Joseph were out in the street together, there was something in the prospect of the approaching interview between her mother and herself which, in spite of her efforts to resist the sensation, almost daunted her. If they could have come together, and have recognized each other without time to think what should be first said or done on either side, the meeting would have been nothing more than the natural result of the discovery of the Secret. But, as it was, the waiting, the doubting, the mournful story of the past, which had filled up the emptiness of the last day of suspense, all had their depressing effect on Rosamond’s impulsive disposition. Without a thought in her heart which was not tender, compassionate, and true toward her mother, she now felt, nevertheless, a vague sense of embarrassment, which increased to positive uneasiness the nearer she and the old man drew to their short journey’s end. As they stopped at last at the house door, she was shocked to find herself thinking beforehand of what first words it would be best to say, of what first things it would be best to do, as if she had been about to visit a total stranger, whose favorable opinion she wished to secure, and whose readiness to receive her cordially was a matter of doubt.

The first person whom they saw after the door was opened was the doctor. He advanced toward them from a little empty room at the end of the hall, and asked permission to speak with Mrs. Frankland for a few minutes. Leaving Rosamond to her interview with the doctor, Uncle Joseph gayly ascended the stairs to tell his niece of her arrival, with an activity which might well have been envied by many a man of half his years.

“Is she worse? Is there any danger in my seeing her?” asked Rosamond, as the doctor led her into the empty room.

“Quite the contrary,” he replied. “She is much better this morning; and the improvement, I find, is mainly due to the composing and cheering influence on her mind of a message which she received from you last night. It is the discovery of this which makes me anxious to speak to you now on the subject of one particular symptom of her mental condition which surprised and alarmed me when I first discovered it, and which has perplexed me very much ever since. She is suffering — not to detain you, and to put the matter at once in the plainest terms — under a mental hallucination of a very extraordinary kind, which, so far as I have observed it, affects her, generally, toward the close of the day, when the light gets obscure. At such times, there is an expression in her eyes as if she fancied some person had walked suddenly into the room. She looks and talks at perfect vacancy, as you or I might look or talk at someone who was really standing and listening to us. The old man, her uncle, tells me that he first observed this when she came to see him (in Cornwall, I think he said) a short time since. She was speaking to him then on private affairs of her own, when she suddenly stopped, just as the evening was closing in, startled him by a question on the old superstitious subject of the re-appearance of the dead, and then, looking away at a shadowed corner of the room, began to talk at it — exactly as I have seen her look and heard her talk upstairs. Whether she fancies that she is pursued by an apparition, or whether she imagines that some living person enters her room at certain times, is more than I can say; and the old man gives me no help in guessing at the truth. Can you throw any light on the matter?”

“I hear of it now for the first time,” answered Rosamond, looking at the doctor in amazement and alarm.

“Perhaps,” he rejoined, “she may be more communicative with you than she is with me. If you could manage to be by her bedside at dusk to-day or to-morrow, and if you think you are not likely to be frightened by it, I should very much wish you to see and hear her, when she is under the influence of her delusion. I have tried in vain to draw her attention away from it, at the time, or to get her to speak of it afterward. You have evidently considerable influence over her, and you might therefore succeed where I have failed. In her state of health, I attach great importance to clearing her mind of everything that clouds and oppresses it, and especially of such a serious hallucination as that which I have been describing. If you could succeed in combating it, you would be doing her the greatest service, and would be materially helping my efforts to improve her health. Do you mind trying the experiment?”

Rosamond promised to devote herself unreservedly to this service, or to any other which was for the patient’s good. The doctor thanked her, and led the way back into the hall again. Uncle Joseph was descending the stairs as they came out of the room. “She is ready and longing to see you,” he whispered in Rosamond’s ear.

“I am sure I need not impress on you again the very serious necessity of keeping her composed,” said the doctor, taking his leave. “It is, I assure you, no exaggeration to say that her life depends on it.”

Rosamond bowed to him in silence, and in silence followed the old man up the stairs.

At the door of a back room on the second floor Uncle Joseph stopped.

“She is there,” he whispered eagerly. “I leave you to go in by yourself, for it is best that you should be alone with her at first. I shall walk about the streets in the fine warm sunshine, and think of you both, and come back after a little. Go in; and the blessing and the mercy of God go with you!” He lifted her hand to his lips, and softly and quickly descended the stairs again. Rosamond stood alone before the door. A momentary tremor shook her from head to foot as she stretched out her hand to knock at it. The same sweet voice that she had last heard in her bedroom at West Winston answered her now. As its tones fell on her ear, a thought of her child stole quietly into her heart, and stilled its quick throbbing. She opened the door at once and went in.

Neither the look of the room inside, nor the view from the window; neither its characteristic ornaments, nor its prominent pieces of furniture; none of the objects in it or about it, which would have caught her quick observation at other times, struck it now. From the moment when she opened the door, she saw nothing but the pillows of the bed, the head resting on them, and the face turned toward hers. As she stepped across the threshold, that face changed; the eyelids drooped a little, and the pale cheeks were tinged suddenly with burning red.

Was her mother ashamed to look at her?

The bare doubt freed Rosamond in an instant from all the self-distrust, all the embarrassment, all the hesitation about choosing her words and directing her actions which had fettered her generous impulses up to this time. She ran to the bed, raised the worn, shrinking figure in her arms, and laid the poor weary head gently on her warm, young bosom. “I have come at last, mother, to take my turn at nursing you,” she said. Her heart swelled as those simple words came from it — her eyes overflowed — she could say no more.

“Don’t cry!” murmured the faint, sweet voice timidly. “I have no right to bring you here and make you sorry. Don’t, don’t cry!”

“Oh, hush! hush! I shall do nothing but cry if you talk to me like that!” said Rosamond. “Let us forget that we have ever been parted — call me by my name — speak to me as I shall speak to my own child, if God spares me to see him grow up. Say ‘Rosamond,’ and — oh, pray, pray — tell me to do something for you!” She tore asunder passionately the strings of her bonnet, and threw it from her on the nearest chair. “Look! here is your glass of lemonade on the table. Say ‘Rosamond, bring me my lemonade!’ say it familiarly, mother! say it as if you knew that I was bound to obey you!”

She repeated the words after her daughter, but still not in steady tones — repeated them with a sad, wondering smile, and with a lingering of the voice on the name of Rosamond, as if it was a luxury to her to utter it.

“You made me so happy with that message and with the kiss you sent me from your child,” she said, when Rosamond had given her the lemonade, and was seated quietly by the bedside again. “It was such a kind way of saying that you pardoned me! It gave me all the courage I wanted to speak to you as I am speaking now. Perhaps my illness has changed me — but I don’t feel frightened and strange with you, as I thought I should, at our first meeting after you knew the Secret. I think I shall soon get well enough to see your child. Is he like what you were at his age? If he is, he must be very, very — ” She stopped. “I may think of that,” she added, after waiting a little, “but I had better not talk of it, or I shall cry too; and I want to have done with sorrow now.”

While she spoke those words, while her eyes were fixed with wistful eagerness on her daughter’s face, the whole instinct of neatness was still mechanically at work in her weak, wasted fingers. Rosamond had tossed her gloves from her on the bed but the minute before; and already her mother had taken them up, and was smoothing them out carefully and folding them neatly together, all the while she spoke.

“Call me ‘mother’ again,” she said, as Rosamond took the gloves from her and thanked her with a kiss for folding them up. “I have never heard you call me ‘mother’ till now — never, never till now, from the day when you were born!”

Rosamond checked the tears that were rising in her eyes again, and repeated the word.

“It is all the happiness I want, to lie here and look at you, and hear you say that! Is there any other woman in the world, my love, who has a face so beautiful and so kind as yours?” She paused and smiled faintly. “I can’t look at those sweet rosy lips now,” she said, “without thinking how many kisses they owe me!”

“If you had only let me pay the debt before!” said Rosamond, taking her mothers hand, as she was accustomed to take her child’s, and placing it on her neck. “If you had only spoken the first time we met, when you came to nurse me! How sorrowfully I have thought of that since! Oh, mother, did I distress you much in my ignorance? Did it make you cry when you thought of me after that?”

“Distress me! All my distress, Rosamond, has been of my own making, not of yours. My kind, thoughtful love! you said, ‘Don’t be hard on her’ — do you remember? When I was being sent away, deservedly sent away, dear, for frightening you, you said to your husband, ‘Don’t be hard on her!’ Only five words — but, oh, what a comfort it was to me afterward to think that you had said them! I did want to kiss you so, Rosamond, when I was brushing your hair. I had such a hard fight of it to keep from crying out loud when I heard you, behind the bed-curtains, wishing your little child good-night. My heart was in my mouth, choking me all that time. I took your part afterward, when I went back to my mistress — I wouldn’t hear her say a harsh word of you. I could have looked a hundred mistresses in the face then, and contradicted them all. Oh, no, no, no! you never distressed me. My worst grief at going away was years and years before I came to nurse you at West Winston. It was when I left my place at Porthgenna when I stole into your nursery on that dreadful morning, and when I saw you with both your little arms round my master’s neck. The doll you had taken to bed with you was in one of your hands, and your head was resting on the Captain’s bosom, just as mine rests now — oh, so happily, Rosamond! — on yours. I heard the last words he was speaking to you — words you were too young to remember. ‘Hush! Rosie, dear,’ he said, ‘don’t cry any more for poor mama. Think of poor papa, and try to comfort him!’ There, my love — there was the bitterest distress and the hardest to bear! I, your own mother, standing like a spy, and hearing him say that to the child I dared not own! ‘Think of poor papa!’ My own Rosamond! you know, now, what father I thought of when he said those words! How could I tell him the Secret? how could I give him the letter, with his wife dead that morning — with nobody but you to comfort him — with the awful truth crushing down upon my heart, at every word he spoke, as heavily as ever the rock crushed down upon the father you never saw!”

“Don’t speak of it now!” said Rosamond. “Don’t let us refer again to the past: I know all I ought to know, all I wish to know of it. We will talk of the future, mother, and of happier times to come. Let me tell you about my husband. If any words can praise him as he ought to be praised, and thank him as he ought to be thanked, I am sure mine ought — I am sure yours will! Let me tell you what he said and what he did when I read to him the letter that I found in the Myrtle Room. Yes, yes, do let me!”

Warned by a remembrance of the doctors last injunctions; trembling in secret, as she felt under her hand the heavy, toilsome, irregular heaving of her mother’s heart, as she saw the rapid changes of color, from pale to red, and from red to pale again, that fluttered across her mother’s face, she resolved to let no more words pass between them which were of a nature to recall painfully the sorrows and the suffering of the years that were gone. After describing the interview between her husband and herself which ended in the disclosure of the Secret, she led her mother, with compassionate abruptness, to speak of the future, of the time when she would be able to travel again, of the happiness of returning together to Cornwall, of the little festival they might hold on arriving at Uncle Joseph’s house in Truro, and of the time after that, when they might go on still farther to Porthgenna, or perhaps to some other place where new scenes and new faces might help them to forget all sad associations which it was best to think of no more.

Rosamond was still speaking on these topics, her mother was still listening to her with growing interest in every word that she said, when Uncle Joseph returned. He brought in with him a basket of flowers and a basket of fruit, which he held up in triumph at the foot of his niece’s bed.

“I have been walking about, my child, in the fine bright sunshine,” he said, “and waiting to give your face plenty of time to look happy, so that I might see it again as I want to see it always, for the rest of my life. Aha, Sarah! it is I who have brought the right doctor to cure you!” he added gayly, looking at Rosamond. “She has made you better already. Wait but a little while longer, and she shall get you up from your bed again, with your two cheeks as red, and your heart as light, and your tongue as fast to chatter as mine. See the fine flowers and the fruit I have bought that is nice to your eyes, and nice to your nose, and nicest of all to put into your mouth! It is festival-time with us to-day, and we must make the room bright, bright, bright, all over. And then, there is your dinner to come soon; I have seen it on the dish — a cherub among chicken-fowls! And, after that, there is your fine sound sleep, with Mozart to sing the cradle song, and with me to sit for watch, and to go downstairs when you wake up again, and fetch your cup of tea. Ah, my child, my child, what a fine thing it is to have come at last to this festival-day!”

With a bright look at Rosamond, and with both his hands full of flowers, he turned away from his niece to begin decorating the room. Except when she thanked the old man for the presents he had brought, her attention had never wandered, all the while he had been speaking, from her daughters face; and her first words, when he was silent again, were addressed to Rosamond alone.

“While I am happy with my child,” she said, “I am keeping you from yours. I, of all persons, ought to be the last to part you from each other too long. Go back now, my love, to your husband and your child; and leave me to my grateful thoughts and my dreams of better times.”

“If you please, answer Yes to that, for your mother’s sake,” said Uncle Joseph, before Rosamond could reply. “The doctor says she must take her repose in the day as well as her repose in the night. And how shall I get her to close her eyes, so long as she has the temptation to keep them open upon you?”

Rosamond felt the truth of those last words, and consented to go back for a few hours to the hotel, on the understanding that she was to resume her place at the bedside in the evening. After making this arrangement, she waited long enough in the room to see the meal brought up which Uncle Joseph had announced, and to aid the old man in encouraging her mother to partake of it. When the tray had been removed, and when the pillows of the bed had been comfortably arranged by her own hands, she at last prevailed on herself to take leave.

Her mother’s arms lingered round her neck; her mothers cheek nestled fondly against hers. “Go, my dear, go now, or I shall get too selfish to part with you even for a few hours,” murmured the sweet voice, in the lowest, softest tones. “My own Rosamond! I have no words to bless you that are good enough; no words to thank you that will speak as gratefully for me as they ought! Happiness has been long in reaching me — but, oh, how mercifully it has come at last!”

Before she passed the door, Rosamond stopped and looked back into the room. The table, the mantel-piece, the little framed prints on the wall were bright with flowers; the musical box was just playing the first sweet notes of the air from Mozart; Uncle Joseph was seated already in his accustomed place by the bed, with the basket of fruit on his knees; the pale, worn face on the pillow was tenderly lighted up by a smile; peace and comfort and repose, all mingled together happily in the picture of the sick-room, all joined in leading Rosamond’s thoughts to dwell quietly on the hope of a happier time.

 

Three hours passed. The last glory of the sun was lighting the long summer day to its rest in the western heaven, when Rosamond returned to her mother’s bedside.

She entered the room softly. The one window in it looked toward the west, and on that side of the bed the chair was placed which Uncle Joseph had occupied when she left him, and in which she now found him still seated on her return. He raised his fingers to his lips, and looked toward the bed, as she opened the door. Her mother was asleep, with her hand resting in the hand of the old man.

As Rosamond noiselessly advanced, she saw that Uncle Joseph’s eyes looked dim and weary. The constraint of the position that he occupied, which made it impossible for him to move without the risk of awakening his niece, seemed to be beginning to fatigue him. Rosamond removed her bonnet and shawl, and made a sign to him to rise and let her take his place.

“Yes, yes!” she whispered, seeing him reply by a shake of the head. “Let me take my turn, while you go out a little and enjoy the cool evening air. There is no fear of waking her; her hand is not clasping yours, but only resting in it — let me steal mine into its place gently, and we shall not disturb her.”

She slipped her hand under her mother’s while she spoke. Uncle Joseph smiled as he rose from his chair, and resigned his place to her. “You will have your way,” he said; “you are too quick and sharp for an old man like me.”

“Has she been long asleep?” asked Rosamond.

“Nearly two hours,” answered Uncle Joseph. “But it has not been the good sleep I wanted for her — a dreaming, talking, restless sleep. It is only ten little minutes since she has been so quiet as you see her now.”

“Surely you let in too much light?” whispered Rosamond, looking round at the window, through which the glow of the evening sky poured warmly into the room.

“No, no!” he hastily rejoined. “Asleep or awake, she always wants the light. If I go away for a little while, as you tell me, and if it gets on to be dusk before I come back, light both those candles on the chimney-piece. I shall try to be here again before that; but if the time slips by too fast for me, and if it so happens that she wakes and talks strangely, and looks much away from you into that far corner of the room there, remember that the matches and the candles are together on the chimney-piece, and that the sooner you light them after the dim twilight-time, the better it will be.” With those words he stole on tiptoe to the door and went out.

His parting directions recalled Rosamond to a remembrance of what had passed between the doctor and herself that morning. She looked round again anxiously to the window.

The sun was just sinking beyond the distant house-tops; the close of day was not far off.

As she turned her head once more toward the bed, a momentary chill crept over her. She trembled a little, partly at the sensation itself, partly at the recollection it aroused of that other chill which had struck her in the solitude of the Myrtle Room.

Stirred by the mysterious sympathies of touch, her mother’s hand at the same instant moved in hers, and over the sad peacefulness of the weary face there fluttered a momentary trouble — the flying shadow of a dream. The pale, parted lips opened, closed, quivered, opened again; the toiling breath came and went quickly and more quickly; the head moved uneasily on the pillow; the eyelids half unclosed themselves; low, faint, moaning sounds poured rapidly from the lips — changed ere long to half-articulated sentences — then merged softly into intelligible speech, and uttered these words: “Swear that you will not destroy this paper! Swear that you will not take this paper away with you if you leave the house!”

The words that followed these were whispered so rapidly and so low that Rosamond’s ear failed to catch them. They were followed by a short silence. Then the dreaming voice spoke again suddenly, and spoke louder.

“Where? where? where?” it said. “In the book-case? In the table-drawer? — Stop! stop! In the picture of the ghost — ”

The last words struck cold on Rosamond’s heart. She drew back suddenly with a movement of alarm — checked herself the instant after, and bent down over the pillow again. But it was too late. Her hand had moved abruptly when she drew back, and her mother awoke with a start and a faint cry — with vacant, terror-stricken eyes, and with the perspiration standing thick on her forehead.

“Mother!” cried Rosamond, raising her on the pillow. “I have come back. Don’t you know me?”

“Mother?” she repeated, in mournful, questioning tones — “Mother?” At the second repetition of the word a bright flush of delight and surprise broke out on her face, and she clasped both arms suddenly round her daughter’s neck. “Oh, my own Rosamond!” she said. “If I had ever been used to waking up and seeing your dear face look at me, I should have known you sooner, in spite of my dream! Did you wake me, my love? or did I wake myself?”

“I am afraid I awoke you, mother.”

“Don’t say ‘afraid.’ I would wake from the sweetest sleep that ever woman had to see your face and to hear you say ‘mother’ to me. You have delivered me, my love, from the terror of one of my dreadful dreams. Oh, Rosamond! I think I should live to be happy in your love, if I could only get Porthgenna Tower out of my mind — if I could only never remember again the bed-chamber where my mistress died, and the room where I hid the letter — ”

“We will try and forget Porthgenna Tower now,” said Rosamond. “Shall we talk about other places where I have lived, which you have never seen? Or shall I read to you, mother? Have you got any book here that you are fond of?”

She looked across the bed at the table on the other side. There was nothing on it but some bottles of medicine, a few of Uncle Joseph’s flowers in a glass of water, and a little oblong work-box. She looked round at the chest of drawers behind her — there were no books placed on the top of it. Before she turned toward the bed again, her eyes wandered aside to the window. The sun was lost beyond the distant house-tops; the close of day was near at hand.

“If I could forget! Oh, me, if I could only forget!” said her mother, sighing wearily, and beating her hand on the coverlid of the bed.

“Are you well enough, dear, to amuse yourself with work?” asked Rosamond, pointing to the little oblong box on the table, and trying to lead the conversation to a harmless, every-day topic, by asking questions about it. “What work do you do? May I look at it?”

Her face lost its weary, suffering look, and brightened once more into a smile. “There is no work there,” she said. “All the treasures I had in the world, till you came to see me, are shut up in that one little box. Open it, my love, and look inside.”

Rosamond obeyed, placing the box on the bed where her mother could see it easily. The first object that she discovered inside was a little book, in dark, worn binding. It was an old copy of Wesley’s Hymns. Some withered blades of grass lay between its pages; and on one of its blank leaves was this inscription — “Sarah Leeson, her book. The gift of Hugh Polwheal.”

“Look at it, my dear,” said her mother. “I want you to know it again. When my time comes to leave you, Rosamond, lay it on my bosom with your own dear hands, and put a little morsel of your hair with it, and bury me in the grave in Porthgenna churchyard, where he has been waiting for me to come to him so many weary years. The other things in the box, Rosamond, belong to you; they are little stolen keepsakes that used to remind me of my child, when I was alone in the world. Perhaps, years and years hence, when your brown hair begins to grow gray like mine, you may like to show these poor trifles to your children when you talk about me. Don’t mind telling them, Rosamond, how your mother sinned and how she suffered — you can always let these little trifles speak for her at the end. The least of them will show that she always loved you.”

She took out of the box a morsel of neatly folded white paper, which had been placed under the book of Wesley’s Hymns, opened it, and showed her daughter a few faded laburnum leaves that lay inside. “I took these from your bed, Rosamond, when I came, as a stranger, to nurse you at West Winston. I tried to take a ribbon out of your trunk, love, after I had taken the flowers — a ribbon that I knew had been round your neck. But the doctor came near at the time, and frightened me.”

She folded the paper up again, laid it aside on the table, and drew from the box next a small print which had been taken from the illustrations to a pocket-book. It represented a little girl, in gypsy-hat, sitting by the water-side, and weaving a daisy chain. As a design, it was worthless; as a print, it had not even the mechanical merit of being a good impression. Underneath it a line was written in faintly penciled letters — “Rosamond when I last saw her.”

“It was never pretty enough for you,” she said. “But still there was something in it that helped me to remember what my own love was like when she was a little girl.”

She put the engraving aside with the laburnum leaves, and took from the box a leaf of a copy-book, folded in two, out of which there dropped a tiny strip of paper, covered with small printed letters. She looked at the strip of paper first. “The advertisement of your marriage, Rosamond,” she said. “I used to be fond of reading it over and over again to myself when I was alone, and trying to fancy how you looked and what dress you wore. If I had only known when you were going to be married, I would have ventured into the church, my love, to look at you and at your husband. But that was not to be — and perhaps it was best so, for the seeing you in that stolen way might only have made my trials harder to bear afterward. I have had no other keepsake to remind me of you, Rosamond, except this leaf out of your first copy-book. The nurse-maid at Porthgenna tore up the rest one day to light the fire, and I took this leaf when she was not looking. See! you had not got as far as words then — you could only do up-strokes and down-strokes. Oh me! how many times I have sat looking at this one leaf of paper, and trying to fancy that I saw your small child’s hand traveling over it, with the pen held tight in the rosy little fingers. I think I have cried oftener, my darling, over that first copy of yours than over all my other keepsakes put together.”

Rosamond turned aside her face toward the window to hide the tears which she could restrain no longer.

As she wiped them away, the first sight of the darkening sky warned her that the twilight dimness was coming soon. How dull and faint the glow in the west looked now! how near it was to the close of day!

When she turned toward the bed again, her mother was still looking at the leaf of the copy-book.

“That nursemaid who tore up all the rest of it to light the fire,” she said, “was a kind friend to me in those early days at Porthgenna. She used sometimes to let me put you to bed, Rosamond; and never asked questions, or teased me, as the rest of them did. She risked the loss of her place by being so good to me. My mistress was afraid of my betraying myself and betraying her if I was much in the nursery, and she gave orders that I was not to go there, because it was not my place. None of the other women-servants were so often stopped from playing with you and kissing you, Rosamond, as I was. But the nurse-maid — God bless and prosper her for it! — stood my friend. I often lifted you into your little cot, my love, and wished you good-night, when my mistress thought I was at work in her room. You used to say you liked your nurse better than you liked me, but you never told me so fretfully; and you always put your laughing lips up to mine whenever I asked you for a kiss!”

Rosamond laid her head gently on the pillow by the side of her mother’s . “Try to think less of the past, dear, and more of the future,” she whispered pleadingly; “try to think of the time when my child will help you to recall those old days without their sorrow — the time when you will teach him to put his lips up to yours, as I used to put mine.”

“I will try, Rosamond — but my only thoughts of the future, for years and years past, have been thoughts of meeting you in heaven. If my sins are forgiven, how shall we meet there? Shall you be like my little child to me — the child I never saw again after she was five years old? I wonder if the mercy of God will recompense me for our long separation on earth? I wonder if you will first appear to me in the happy world with your child’s face, and be what you should have been to me on earth, my little angel that I can carry in my arms? If we pray in heaven, shall I teach you your prayers there, as some comfort to me for never having taught them to you here?”

She paused, smiled sadly, and, closing her eyes, gave herself in silence to the dream-thoughts that were still floating in her mind. Thinking that she might sink to rest again if she was left undisturbed, Rosamond neither moved nor spoke. After watching the peaceful face for some time, she became conscious that the light was fading on it slowly. As that conviction impressed itself on her, she looked round at the window once more.

The western clouds wore their quiet twilight colors already: the close of day had come.

The moment she moved the chair, she felt her mother’s hand on her shoulder. When she turned again toward the bed, she saw her mother’s eyes open and looking at her — looking at her, as she thought, with a change in their expression, a change to vacancy.

“Why do I talk of heaven?” she said, turning her face suddenly toward the darkening sky, and speaking in low, muttering tones. “How do I know I am fit to go there? And yet, Rosamond, I am not guilty of breaking my oath to my mistress. You can say for me that I never destroyed the letter, and that I never took it away with me when I left the house. I tried to get it out of the Myrtle Room; but I only wanted to hide it somewhere else. I never thought to take it away from the house: I never meant to break my oath.”

“It will be dark soon, mother. Let me get up for one moment to light the candles.”

Her hand crept softly upward, and clung fast round Rosamond’s neck.

“I never swore to give him the letter,” she said. “There was no crime in the hiding of it. You found it in a picture, Rosamond? They used to call it a picture of the Porthgenna ghost. Nobody knew how old it was, or when it came into the house. My mistress hated it, because the painted face had a strange likeness to hers. She told me, when first I lived at Porthgenna, to take it down from the wall and destroy it. I was afraid to do that; so I hid it away, before ever you were born, in the Myrtle Room. You found the letter at the back of the picture, Rosamond? And yet that was a likely place to hide it in. Nobody had ever found the picture. Why should anybody find the letter that was hid in it?”

“Let me get a light, mother! I am sure you would like to have a light!”

“No! no light now. Give the darkness time to gather down there in the corner of the room. Lift me up close to you, and let me whisper.”

The clinging arm tightened its grasp as Rosamond raised her in the bed. The fading light from the window fell full on her face, and was reflected dimly in her vacant eyes.

“I am waiting for something that comes at dusk, before the candles are lit,” she whispered in low, breathless tones. “My mistress! — down there!” And she pointed away to the farthest corner of the room near the door.

“Mother! for God’s sake, what is it! what has changed you so?”

“That’s right! say ‘mother.’ If she does come, she can’t stop when she hears you call me ‘mother,’ when she sees us together at last, loving and knowing each other in spite of her. Oh, my kind, tender, pitying child! if you can only deliver me from her, how long may I live yet! — how happy we may both be!”

“Don’t talk so! don’t look so! Tell me quietly — dear, dear mother, tell me quietly — ”

“Hush! hush! I am going to tell you. She threatened me on her death-bed, if I thwarted her — she said she would come to me from the other world. Rosamond! I have thwarted her and she has kept her promise — all my life since, she has kept her promise! Look! Down there!”

Her left arm was still clasped round Rosamond’s neck. She stretched her right arm out toward the far corner of the room, and shook her hand slowly at the empty air.

“Look!” she said. “There she is as she always comes to me at the close of day — with the coarse, black dress on, that my guilty hands made for her — with the smile that there was on her face when she asked me if she looked like a servant. Mistress! mistress! Oh, rest at last! the Secret is ours no longer! Rest at last! my child is my own again! Rest, at last; and come between us no more!”

She ceased, panting for breath; and laid her hot, throbbing cheek against the cheek of her daughter. “Call me ‘mother’ again!” she whispered. “Say it loud; and send her away from me forever!”

Rosamond mastered the terror that shook her in every limb, and pronounced the word.

Her mother leaned forward a little, still gasping heavily for breath, and looked with straining eyes into the quiet twilight dimness at the lower end of the room.

“Gone!!!” she cried suddenly, with a scream of exultation. “Oh, merciful, merciful God! gone at last!”

The next instant she sprang up on her knees in the bed. For one awful moment her eyes shone in the gray twilight with a radiant, unearthly beauty, as they fastened their last look of fondness on her daughter’s face. “Oh, my love! my angel!” she murmured, “how happy we shall be together now!” As she said the words, she twined her arms round Rosamond’s neck, and pressed her lips rapturously on the lips of her child.

The kiss lingered till her head sank forward gently on Rosamond’s bosom, lingered, till the time of God’s mercy came, and the weary heart rested at last.

http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/c/collins/wilkie/dead_secret/book6.4.html

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