I Say No, by Wilkie Collins

Chapter lxiii.

The Defense of Mirabel.

The discovery of the letter gave a new direction to Emily’s thoughts — and so, for the time at least, relieved her mind from the burden that weighed on it. To what question, on her father’s part, had “I say No” been Miss Jethro’s brief and stern reply? Neither letter nor envelope offered the slightest hint that might assist inquiry; even the postmark had been so carelessly impressed that it was illegible.

Emily was still pondering over the three mysterious words, when she was interrupted by Mrs. Ellmother’s voice at the door.

“I must ask you to let me come in, miss; though I know you wished to be left by yourself till to-morrow. Mrs. Delvin says she must positively see you to-night. It’s my belief that she will send for the servants, and have herself carried in here, if you refuse to do what she asks. You needn’t be afraid of seeing Mr. Mirabel.”

“Where is he?”

“His sister has given up her bedroom to him,” Mrs. Ellmother answered. “She thought of your feelings before she sent me here — and had the curtains closed between the sitting-room and the bedroom. I suspect my nasty temper misled me, when I took a dislike to Mrs. Delvin. She’s a good creature; I’m sorry you didn’t go to her as soon as we got back.”

“Did she seem to be angry, when she sent you here?”

“Angry! She was crying when I left her.”

Emily hesitated no longer.

She noticed a remarkable change in the invalid’s sitting-room — so brilliantly lighted on other occasions — the moment she entered it. The lamps were shaded, and the candles were all extinguished. “My eyes don’t bear the light so well as usual,” Mrs. Delvin said. “Come and sit near me, Emily; I hope to quiet your mind. I should be grieved if you left my house with a wrong impression of me.”

Knowing what she knew, suffering as she must have suffered, the quiet kindness of her tone implied an exercise of self-restraint which appealed irresistibly to Emily’s sympathies. “Forgive me,” she said, “for having done you an injustice. I am ashamed to think that I shrank from seeing you when I returned from Belford.”

“I will endeavor to be worthy of your better opinion of me,” Mrs. Delvin replied. “In one respect at least, I may claim to have had your best interests at heart — while we were still personally strangers. I tried to prevail on my poor brother to own the truth, when he discovered the terrible position in which he was placed toward you. He was too conscious of the absence of any proof which might induce you to believe him, if he attempted to defend himself — in one word, he was too timid — to take my advice. He has paid the penalty, and I have paid the penalty, of deceiving you.”

Emily started. “In what way have you deceived me?” she asked.

“In the way that was forced on us by our own conduct,” Mrs. Delvin said. “We have appeared to help you, without really doing so; we calculated on inducing you to marry my brother, and then (when he could speak with the authority of a husband) on prevailing on you to give up all further inquiries. When you insisted on seeing Mrs. Rook, Miles had the money in his hand to bribe her and her husband to leave England.”

“Oh, Mrs. Delvin!”

“I don’t attempt to excuse myself. I don’t expect you to consider how sorely I was tempted to secure the happiness of my brother’s life, by marriage with such a woman as yourself. I don’t remind you that I knew — when I put obstacles in your way — that you were blindly devoting yourself to the discovery of an innocent man.”

Emily heard her with angry surprise. “Innocent?” she repeated. “Mrs. Rook recognized his voice the instant she heard him speak.”

Impenetrable to interruption, Mrs. Delvin went on. “But what I do ask,” she persisted, “even after our short acquaintance, is this. Do you suspect me of deliberately scheming to make you the wife of a murderer?”

Emily had never viewed the serious question between them in this light. Warmly, generously, she answered the appeal that had been made to her. “Oh, don’t think that of me! I know I spoke thoughtlessly and cruelly to you, just now —”

“You spoke impulsively,” Mrs. Delvin interposed; “that was all. My one desire before we part — how can I expect you to remain here, after what has happened? — is to tell you the truth. I have no interested object in view; for all hope of your marriage with my brother is now at an end. May I ask if you have heard that he and your father were strangers, when they met at the inn?”

“Yes; I know that.”

“If there had been any conversation between them, when they retired to rest, they might have mentioned their names. But your father was preoccupied; and my brother, after a long day’s walk, was so tired that he fell asleep as soon as his head was on the pillow. He only woke when the morning dawned. What he saw when he looked toward the opposite bed might have struck with terror the boldest man that ever lived. His first impulse was naturally to alarm the house. When he got on his feet, he saw his own razor — a blood-stained razor on the bed by the side of the corpse. At that discovery, he lost all control over himself. In a panic of terror, he snatched up his knapsack, unfastened the yard door, and fled from the house. Knowing him, as you and I know him, can we wonder at it? Many a man has been hanged for murder, on circumstantial evidence less direct than the evidence against poor Miles. His horror of his own recollections was so overpowering that he forbade me even to mention the inn at Zeeland in my letters, while he was abroad. ‘Never tell me (he wrote) who that wretched murdered stranger was, if I only heard of his name, I believe it would haunt me to my dying day. I ought not to trouble you with these details — and yet, I am surely not without excuse. In the absence of any proof, I cannot expect you to believe as I do in my brother’s innocence. But I may at least hope to show you that there is some reason for doubt. Will you give him the benefit of that doubt?”

“Willingly!” Emily replied. “Am I right in supposing that you don’t despair of proving his innocence, even yet’?”

“I don’t quite despair. But my hopes have grown fainter and fainter, as the years have gone on. There is a person associated with his escape from Zeeland; a person named Jethro —”

“You mean Miss Jethro!”

“Yes. Do you know her?”

“I know her — and my father knew her. I have found a letter, addressed to him, which I have no doubt was written by Miss Jethro. It is barely possible that you may understand what it means. Pray look at it.”

“I am quite unable to help you,” Mrs. Delvin answered, after reading the letter. “All I know of Miss Jethro is that, but for her interposition, my brother might have fallen into the hands of the police. She saved him.”

“Knowing him, of course?”

“That is the remarkable part of it: they were perfect strangers to each other.”

“But she must have had some motive.”

There is the foundation of my hope for Miles. Miss Jethro declared, when I wrote and put the question to her, that the one motive by which she was actuated was the motive of mercy. I don’t believe her. To my mind, it is in the last degree improbable that she would consent to protect a stranger from discovery, who owned to her (as my brother did) that he was a fugitive suspected of murder. She knows something, I am firmly convinced, of that dreadful event at Zeeland — and she has some reason for keeping it secret. Have you any influence over her?”

“Tell me where I can find her.”

“I can’t tell you. She has removed from the address at which my brother saw her last. He has made every possible inquiry — without result.”

As she replied in those discouraging terms, the curtains which divided Mrs. Delvin’s bedroom from her sitting-room were drawn aside. An elderly woman-servant approached her mistress’s couch.

“Mr. Mirabel is awake, ma’am. He is very low; I can hardly feel his pulse. Shall I give him some more brandy?”

Mrs. Delvin held out her hand to Emily. “Come to me to-morrow morning,” she said — and signed to the servant to wheel her couch into the next room. As the curtain closed over them, Emily heard Mirabel’s voice. “Where am I?” he said faintly. “Is it all a dream?”

The prospect of his recovery the next morning was gloomy indeed. He had sunk into a state of deplorable weakness, in mind as well as in body. The little memory of events that he still preserved was regarded by him as the memory of a dream. He alluded to Emily, and to his meeting with her unexpectedly. But from that point his recollection failed him. They had talked of something interesting, he said — but he was unable to remember what it was. And they had waited together at a railway station — but for what purpose he could not tell. He sighed and wondered when Emily would marry him — and so fell asleep again, weaker than ever.

Not having any confidence in the doctor at Belford, Mrs. Delvin had sent an urgent message to a physician at Edinburgh, famous for his skill in treating diseases of the nervous system. “I cannot expect him to reach this remote place, without some delay,” she said; “I must bear my suspense as well as I can.”

“You shall not bear it alone,” Emily answered. “I will wait with you till the doctor comes.”

Mrs. Delvin lifted her frail wasted hands to Emily’s face, drew it a little nearer — and kissed her.

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Last updated Thursday, March 13, 2014 at 21:30