I have already declared that Crosbie wrote and posted the fatal letter to Allington, and we must now follow it down to that place. On the morning following the squire’s return to his own house Mrs Crump, the post-mistress at Allington, received a parcel by post directed to herself. She opened it, and found an enclosure addressed to Mrs Dale, with a written request that she would herself deliver it into that lady’s own hand at once. This was Crosbie’s letter.
“It’s from Miss Lily’s gentleman,” said Mrs Crump, looking at the handwriting. “There’s ‘something up, or he wouldn’t be writing to her mamma in this way.” But Mrs Crump lost no time in putting on her bonnet, and trudging up with the letter to the Small House.
“I must see the missus herself,” said Mrs Crump. Whereupon Mrs Dale was called downstairs into the hail, and there received the packet. Lily was in the breakfast-parlour, and had seen the post-mistress arrive — had seen also that she carried a letter in her hand. For a moment she had thought that it was for her, and imagined that the old woman had brought it herself from simple good-nature. But Lily, when she heard her mother mentioned, instantly withdrew and shut the parlour door. Her heart misgave her that something was wrong, but she hardly tried to think what it might be. After all, the regular postman might bring the letter she herself expected. Bell was not yet downstairs, and she stood alone over the tea-cups on the breakfast-table, feeling that there was something for her to fear. Her mother did not come at once into the room, but, after a pause of a moment or two, went again upstairs. So she remained, either standing against the table, or at the window, or seated in one of the two arm-chairs, for a space of ten minutes, when Bell entered the room.
“Isn’t mamma down yet?” said Bell.
“Bell,” said Lily, “something has happened. Mamma has got a letter.”
“Happened! What has happened? Is anybody ill? Who is the letter from?” And Bell was going to return through the door in search of her mother.
“Stop, Bell,” said Lily. “Do not go to her yet. I think it’s from — Adolphus.”
“Oh, Lily, what do you mean?”
“I don’t know, dear. We’ll wait a little longer. Don’t look like that, Bell.” And Lily strove to appear calm, and strove almost successfully.
“You have frightened me so,” said Bell.
“I am frightened myself. He only sent me one line yesterday, and now he has sent nothing. If some misfortune should have happened to him! Mrs Crump brought down the letter herself to mamma, and that is so odd, you know.”
“Are you sure it was from him?”
“No; I have not spoken to her. I will go up to her now. Don’t you come, Bell. Oh! Bell, do not look so unhappy.” She then went over and kissed her sister, and after that, with very gentle steps, made her way up to her mother’s room.
“Mamma, may I come in?” she said.
“Oh! my child!”
“I know it is from him, mamma. Tell me all at once.”
Mrs Dale had read the letter. With quick, glancing eyes, she had made herself mistress of its whole contents, and was already aware of the nature and extent of the sorrow which had come upon them. It was a sorrow that admitted of no hope. The man who had written that letter could never return again; nor if he should return could he be welcomed back to them. The blow had fallen, and it was to be borne. Inside the letter to herself had been a very small note addressed to Lily.
“Give her the enclosed,” Crosbie had said in his letter, “if you do not now think it wrong to do so. I have left it open, that you may read it.” Mrs Dale, however, had not yet read it, and she now concealed it beneath her handkerchief.
I will not repeat at length Crosbie’s letter to Mrs Dale. It covered four sides of letter-paper, and was such a letter that any man who wrote it must have felt himself to be a rascal. We saw that he had difficulty in writing it, but the miracle was, that any man could have found it possible to write it.
“I know you will curse me,” said he; “and I deserve to be cursed. I know that I shall be punished for this, and I must bear my punishment. My worst punishment will be this — that I never more shall hold up my head again.” And then, again, he said —“My only excuse is my conviction that I should never make her happy. She has been brought up as an angel, with pure thoughts, with holy hopes, with a belief in all that is good, and high, and noble. I have been surrounded through my whole life by things low, and mean, and ignoble. How could I live with her, or she with me? I know now that this is so; but my fault has been that I did not know it when I was there with her. I choose to tell you all,” he continued, towards the end of the letter, “and therefore I let you know that I have engaged myself to marry another woman. Ah! I can foresee how bitter will be your feelings when you read this: but they will not be so bitter as mine while I write it. Yes; I am already engaged to one who will suit me, and whom I may suit. You will not expect me to speak ill of her who is to be near and dear to me. But she is one with whom I may mate myself without an inward conviction that I shall destroy all her happiness by doing so. Lilian,” he said, “shall always have my prayers; and I trust that she may soon forget, in the love of an honest man, that she ever knew one so dishonest as — Adolphus Crosbie.”
Of what like must have been his countenance as he sat writing such words of himself under the ghastly light of his own small, solitary lamp? Had he written his letter at his office, in the day-time, with men coming in and out of his room, he could hardly have written of himself so plainly. He would have bethought himself that the written words might remain, and be read hereafter by other eyes than those for which they were intended. But, as he sat alone, during the small hours of the night, almost repenting of his sin with true repentance, he declared to himself that he did not care who might read them. They should, at any rate, be true. Now they had been read by her to whom they had been addressed, and the daughter was standing before the mother to hear her doom.
“Tell me all at once,” Lily had said; but in what words was her mother to tell her?
“Lily,” she said, rising from her seat, and leaving the two letters on the couch; that addressed to the daughter was hidden beneath a handkerchief, but that which she had read she left open and in sight. She took both the girl’s hands in hers as she looked into her face, and spoke to her.
“Lily, my child!” Then she burst into sobs, and was unable to tell her tale.
“Is it from him, mamma? May I read it? He cannot be —”
“It is from Mr Crosbie.”
“Is he ill, mamma? Tell me at once. If he is ill I will go to him.”
“No, my darling, he is not ill. Not yet — do not read it yet. Oh, Lily! It brings bad news; very bad news.”
“Mamma, if he is not in danger, I can read it. Is it bad to him, or only bad to me?”
At this moment the servant knocked, and not waiting for an answer half opened the door.
“If you please, ma’am, Mr Bernard is below, and wants to speak to you.”
“Mr Bernard! ask Miss Bell to see him.”
“Miss Bell is with him, ma’am, but he says that he specially wants to speak to you.”
Mrs Dale felt that she could not leave Lily alone. She could not take the letter away, nor could she leave her child with the letter open.
“I cannot see him,” said Mrs Dale.
“Ask him what it is. Tell him I cannot come down just at present.” And then the servant went, and Bernard left his message with Bell.
“Bernard,” she had said, “do you know of anything? Is there anything wrong about Mr Crosbie?” Then, in a few words, he told her all, and understanding why his aunt had not come down to him, he went back to the Great House. Bell, almost stupefied by the tidings, seated herself at the table unconsciously, leaning upon her elbows.
“It will kill her,” she said to herself.
“My Lily, my darling Lily! It will surely kill her.”
But the mother was still with the daughter, and the story was still untold.
“Mamma,” said Lily, “whatever it is, I must, of course, be made to know it. I begin to guess the truth. It will pain you to say it. Shall I read the letter?”
Mrs Dale was astonished at her calmness. It could not be that she had guessed the truth, or she would not stand like that, with tearless eyes and unquelled courage before her.
“You shall read it, but I ought to tell you first. Oh, my child, my own one!” Lily was now leaning against the bed, and her mother was standing over her, caressing her.
“Then tell me,” said she.
“But I know what it is. He has thought it all over while away from me, and he finds that it must not be as we have supposed. Before he went I offered to release him, and now he knows that he had better accept my offer. Is it so, mamma?” In answer to this Mrs Dale did not speak, but Lily understood from her signs that it was so.
“He might have written it to me, myself,” said Lily very proudly. “Mamma, we will go down to breakfast. He has sent nothing to me, then?”
“There is a note. He bids me read it, but I have not opened it. It is here.”
“Give it me,” said Lily, almost sternly. “Let me have his last words to me” and she took the note from her mother’s hands.
“Lily,” said the note, “your mother will have told you all. Before you read these few words you will know that you have trusted one who was quite untrustworthy. I know that you will hate me. I cannot even ask you to forgive me. You will let me pray that you may yet be happy. — A.C.”
She read these few words, still leaning against the bed. Then she got up, and walking to a chair, seated herself with her back to her mother. Mrs Dale moving silently after her stood over the back of the chair, not daring to speak to her. So she sat for some five minutes, with her eyes fixed upon the open window, and with Crosbie’s note in her hand.
“I will not hate him, and I do forgive him,” she said at last, struggling to command her voice, and hardly showing that she could not altogether succeed in her attempt. “I may not write to him again, but you shall write and tell him so. Now we will go down to breakfast.” And so saying, she got up from her chair.
Mrs Dale almost feared to speak to her, her composure was so complete, and her manner so stern and fixed. She hardly knew how to offer pity and sympathy, seeing that pity seemed to be so little necessary, and that even sympathy was not demanded. And she could not understand all that Lily had said. What had she meant by the offer to release him? Had there, then, been some quarrel between them before he went? Crosbie had made no such allusion in his letter. But Mrs Dale did not dare to ask any questions.
“You frighten me, Lily,” she said. “Your very calmness frightens me.”
“Dear mamma!” and the poor girl absolutely smiled a she embraced her mother.
“You need not be frightened by my calmness. I know the truth well. I have been very unfortunate — very. The brightest hopes of my life are all gone — and I shall never again see him whom I love beyond all the world!” Then at last she broke down, and wept in her mother’s arms.
There was not a word of anger spoken then against him who had done all this. Mrs Dale felt that she did not dare to speak in anger against him, and words of anger were not likely to come from poor Lily. She, indeed, hitherto did not know the whole of his offence, for she had not read his letter.
“Give it me, mamma,” she said at last. “It has to be done sooner or later.”
“Not now, Lily. I have told you all — all that you need know at present.”
“Yes; now, mamma,” and again that sweet silvery voice became stern. “I will read it now, and there shall be an end.” Whereupon Mrs Dale gave her the letter and she read it in silence. Her mother, though standing somewhat behind her, watched her narrowly as she did so. She was now lying over upon the bed, and the letter was on the pillow, as she propped herself upon her arm. Her tears were running, and ever and again she would stop to dry her eyes. Her sobs too were very audible, but she went on steadily with her reading till she came to the line on which Crosbie told that he had already engaged himself to another woman. Then her mother could see that she paused suddenly, and that a shudder slightly convulsed all her limbs.
“He has been very quick,” she said, almost in a whisper; and then she finished the letter. “Tell him, mamma,” she said, “that I do forgive him, and I will not hate him. You will tell him that — from me; will you not?” And then she raised herself from the bed.
Mrs Dale would give her no such assurance. In her present mood her feelings against Crosbie were of a nature which she herself hardly could understand or analyse. She felt that if he were present she could almost fly at him as would a tigress. She had never hated before as she now hated this man. He was to her a murderer, and worse than a murderer. He had made his way like a wolf into her little fold, and torn her ewe-lamb and left her maimed and mutilated for life. How could a mother forgive such an offence as that, or consent to be the medium through which forgiveness should be expressed?
“You must, mamma; or, if you do not, I shall do so. Remember that I love him. You know what it is to have loved one single man. He has made me very unhappy; I hardly know yet how unhappy. But I have loved him, and do love him. I believe, in my heart, that he still loves me. Where this has been there must not be hatred and unforgiveness.”
“I will pray that I may become able to forgive him,” said Mrs Dale.
“But you must write to him those words. Indeed you must, mamma! ‘She bids me tell you that she has forgiven you, and will not hate you.’ Promise me that!”
“I can make no promise now, Lily. I will think about it, and endeavour to do my duty.”
Lily was now seated, and was holding the skirt of her mother’s dress.
“Mamma,” she said, looking up into her mother’s face, “you must be very good to me now; and I must be very good to you. We shall be always together now. I must be your friend and counsellor; and be everything to you, more than ever. I must fall in love with you now;” and she smiled again, and the tears were almost dry upon her checks.
At last they went down to the breakfast-room, from which Bell had not moved. Mrs Dale entered the room first, and Lily followed, hiding herself for a moment behind her mother. Then she came forward boldly, and taking Bell in her arms, clasped her close to her bosom.
“Bell,” she said, “he has gone.”
“Lily! Lily! Lily!” said Bell, weeping.
“He has gone! We shall talk it over in a few days, and shall know how to do so without losing ourselves in misery. Today we will say no more about it. I am so thirsty, Bell; do give me my tea” and she sat herself down at the breakfast-table.
Lily’s tea was given to her, and she drank it. Beyond that I cannot say that any of them partook with much heartiness of the meal. They sat there, as they would have sat if no terrible thunderbolt had fallen among them, and no word further was spoken about Crosbie and his conduct. Immediately after breakfast they went into the other room, and Lily, as was her wont, sat herself immediately down to her drawing. Her mother looked at her with wistful eyes, longing to bid her spare herself, but she shrank from interfering with her. For a quarter of an hour Lily sat over her board, with her brush or pencil in her hand, and then she rose up and put it away.
“It is no good pretending,” she said. “I am only spoiling the things; but I will be better tomorrow. I’ll go away and lie down by myself, mamma.” And so she went.
Soon after this Mrs Dale took her bonnet and went up to the Great House, having received her brother-in-law’s message from Bell.
“I know what he has to tell me,” she said; “but I might as well go. It will be necessary that we should speak to each other about it.” So she walked across the lawn, and up into the hail of the Great House.
“Is my brother in the book-room?”, she said to one of the maids; and then knocking at the door, went in unannounced.
The squire rose from his arm-chair, and came forward to meet her.
“Mary,” he said, “I believe you know it all.”
“Yes,” she said.
“You can read that,” and she handed him Crosbie’s letter.
“How was one to know that any man could be so wicked as that?”
“And she has heard it?” asked the squire.
“Is she able to bear it?” “Wonderfully! She has amazed me by her strength. It frightens me; for I know that a relapse must come. She has never sunk for a moment beneath it. For myself, I feel as though it were her strength that enables me to bear my share of it.” And then she described to the squire all that had taken place that morning.
“Poor child!” said the squire.
“Poor child! What can we do for her? Would it be good for her to go away for a time? She is a sweet, good, lovely girl, and has deserved better than that. Sorrow and disappointment come to us all; but they are doubly heavy when they come so early.”
Mrs Dale was almost surprised at the amount of sympathy which he showed.
“And what is to be his punishment?” she asked.
“The scorn which men and women will feel for him; those, at least, whose esteem or scorn are matters of concern to any one. I know no other punishment. You would not have Lily’s name brought before a tribunal of law?”
“Certainly not that.”
“And I will not have Bernard calling him out. Indeed, it would be for nothing; for in these days a man is not expected to fight duels.”
“You cannot think that I would wish that.”
“What punishment is there, then? I know of none. There are evils which a man may do, and no one can punish him. I know of nothing. I went up to London after him, but he continued to crawl out of my way. What can you do to a rat but keep clear of him?”
Mrs Dale had felt in her heart that it would be well if Crosbie could be beaten till all his bones were sore. I hardly know whether such should have been a woman’s thought, but it was hers. She had no wish that he should be made to fight a duel. In that there would have been much that was wicked, and in her estimation nothing that was just. But she felt that if Bernard would thrash the coward for his cowardice she would love her nephew better than ever she had loved him. Bernard also had considered it probable that he might be expected to horsewhip the man who had jilted his cousin, and, as regarded the absolute bodily risk, he would not have felt any insuperable objection to undertake the task. But such a piece of work was disagreeable to him in many ways. He hated the idea of a row at his club. He was most desirous that his cousin’s name should not be made public. He wished to avoid anything that might be impolitic. A wicked thing had been done, and he was quite ready to hate Crosbie as Crosbie ought to be hated; but as regarded himself, it made him unhappy to think that the world might probably expect him to punish the man who had so lately been his friend. And then he did not know where to catch him, or how to thrash him when caught. He was very sorry for his cousin, and felt strongly that Crosbie should not be allowed to escape. But what was he to do?
“Would she like to go anywhere?” said the squire again, anxious, if he could, to afford solace by some act of generosity. At this moment he would have settled a hundred a year for life upon his niece if by so doing he could have done her any good.
“She will be better at home,” said Mrs Dale.
“Poor thing. For a while she will wish to avoid going out.”
“I suppose so;” and then there was a pause.
“I’ll tell you what, Mary; I don’t understand it. On my honour I don’t understand it. It is to me as wonderful as though I had caught the man picking my pence out of my pocket. I don’t think any man in the position of a gentleman would have done such a thing when I was young. I don’t think any man would have dared to do it. But now it seems that a man may act in that way and no harm come to him. He had a friend in London who came to me and talked about it as though it were some ordinary, everyday transaction of life. Yes; you may come in, Bernard. The poor child knows it all now.”
Bernard offered to his aunt what of solace and sympathy he had to offer, and made some sort of half-expressed apology for having introduced this wolf into their flock.
“We always thought very much of him at his club,” said Bernard.
“I don’t know much about your London clubs nowadays,” said his uncle, “nor do I wish to do so if the society of that man can be endured after what he has now done.”
“I don’t suppose half-a-dozen men will ever know anything about it,” said Bernard.
“Umph!” ejaculated the squire. He could not say that he wished Crosbie’s villany to be widely discussed, seeing that Lily’s name was so closely connected with it. But yet he could not support the idea that Crosbie should not be punished by the frown of the world at large. It seemed to him that from this time forward any man speaking to Crosbie should be held to have disgraced himself by so doing.
“Give her my best love,” he said, as Mrs Dale got up to take her leave; “my very best love. If her old uncle can do anything for her she has only to let me know. She met the man in my house, and I feel that I owe her much. Bid her come and see me. It will be better for her than moping at home. And Mary”— this he said to her, whispering into her ear —“think of what I said to you about Bell.”
Mrs Dale, as she walked back to her own house, acknowledged to herself that her brother-in-law’s manner was different to her from anything that she had hitherto known of him.
During the whole of that day Crosbie’s name was not mentioned at the Small House. Neither of the girls stirred out, and Bell spent the greater part of the afternoon sitting, with her arm round her sister’s waist, upon the sofa. Each of them had a book; but though there was little spoken, there was as little read. Who can describe the thoughts that were passing through Lily’s mind as she remembered the hours which she had passed with Crosbie, of his warm assurances of love, of his accepted caresses, of her uncontrolled and acknowledged joy in his affection? It had all been holy to her then; and now those things which were then sacred had been made almost disgraceful by his fault. And yet as she thought of this she declared to herself over and over again that she would forgive him — nay, that she had forgiven him.
“And he shall know it, too,” she said, speaking almost out loud. “Lily, dear Lily,” said Bell, “turn your thoughts away from it for a while, if you can.”
“They won’t go away,” said Lily. And that was all that was said between them on the subject.
Everybody would know it! I doubt whether that must not be one of the bitterest drops in the cup which a girl in such circumstances is made to drain. Lily perceived early in the day that the parlour-maid well knew that she had been jilted. The girl’s manner was intended to convey sympathy; but it did convey pity; and Lily for a moment felt angry. But she remembered that it must be so, and smiled upon the girl, and spoke kindly to her. What mattered it? All the world would know it in a day or two.
On the following day she went up, by her mother’s advice, to see her uncle.
“My child,” said he, “I am sorry for you. My heart bleeds for you.”
“Uncle,” she said, “do not mind it. Only do this for me — do not talk about it — I mean to me.”
“No, no; I will not. That there should ever have been in my house so great a rascal —”
“Uncle! uncle! I will not have that! I will not listen to a word against him from any human being — not a word! Remember that!” And her eyes flashed as she spoke.
He did not answer her, but took her hand and pressed it, and then she left him.
“The Dales were ever constant!” he said to himself, as he walked up and down the terrace before his house. “Ever constant!”
Last updated Monday, December 22, 2014 at 10:55