The Countess Lovel had prepared herself on that morning for the doing of a deed, but her heart had failed her. How she might have carried herself through it had not her daughter come down to them — how far she might have been able to persevere, cannot be said now. But it was certain that she had so far relented that even while the hated man was there in her presence, she determined that she would once again submit herself to make entreaties to her child, once again to speak of all that she had endured, and to pray at least for delay if nothing else could be accorded to her. If her girl would but promise to remain with her for six months, then they might go abroad — and the chances afforded them by time and distance would be before her. In that case she would lavish such love upon the girl, so many indulgences, such sweets of wealth and ease, such store of caresses and soft luxury, that surely the young heart might thus be turned to the things which were fit for rank, and high blood, and splendid possessions. It could not be but that her own child — the child who a few months since had been as gentle with her and as obedient as an infant — should give way to her as far as that. She tried it, and her daughter had referred her prayer — or had said that she would refer it — to the decision of her hated lover; and the mother had at once lost all command of her temper. She had become fierce — nay, ferocious; and had lacked the guile and the self-command necessary to carry out her purpose. Had she persevered, Lady Anna must have granted her the small boon that she then asked. But she had given way to her wrath, and had declared that her daughter was her bitterest enemy. As she seated herself at the old desk where Lady Anna left her, she swore within her own bosom that the deed must be done.
Even at the moment when she was resolving that she would kneel once more at her daughter’s knees, she prepared herself for the work that she must do, should the daughter still be as hard as stone to her. “Come again at one tomorrow,” she said to the tailor; and the tailor said that he would come.
When she was alone she seated herself on her accustomed chair and opened the old desk with a key that had now become familiar to her hand. It was a huge piece of furniture — such as is never made in these days, but is found among every congregation of old household goods — with numberless drawers clustering below, with a vast body, full of receptacles for bills, wills, deeds, and waste-paper, and a tower of shelves above, ascending almost to the ceiling. In the centre of the centre body was a square compartment, but this had been left unlocked, so that its contents might be ready to her hand. Now she opened it and took from it a pistol; and, looking warily over her shoulder to see that the door was closed, and cautiously up at the windows, lest some eye might be spying her action even through the thick blinds, she took the weapon in her hand and held it up so that she might feel, if possible, how it would be with her when she should attempt the deed. She looked very narrowly at the lock, of which the trigger was already back at its place, so that no exertion of arrangement might be necessary for her at the fatal moment. Never as yet had she fired a pistol — never before had she held such a weapon in her hand — but she thought that she could do it when her passion ran high.
Then for the twentieth time she asked herself whether it would not be easier to turn it against her own bosom — against her own brain; so that all might be over at once. Ah, yes — so much easier! But how then would it be with this man who had driven her, by his subtle courage and persistent audacity, to utter destruction? Could he and she be made to go down together in that boat which her fancy had built for them, then indeed it might be well that she should seek her own death. But were she now to destroy herself — herself and only herself — then would her enemy be left to enjoy his rich prize, a prize only the richer because she would have disappeared from the world! And of her, if such had been her last deed, men would only say that the mad Countess had gone on in her madness. With looks of sad solemnity, but heartfelt satisfaction, all the Lovels, and that wretched tailor, and her own daughter, would bestow some mock grief on her funeral, and there would be an end for ever of Josephine Countess Lovel — and no one would remember her, or her deeds, or her sufferings. When she wandered out from the house on that morning, after hearing that Daniel Thwaite would be there at one, and had walked nearly into the mid city so that she might not be watched, and had bought her pistol and powder and bullets, and had then with patience gone to work and taught herself how to prepare the weapon for use, she certainly had not intended simply to make the triumph of her enemy more easy.
And yet she knew well what was the penalty of murder, and she knew also that there could be no chance of escape. Very often had she turned it in her mind, whether she could not destroy the man so that the hand of the destroyer might be hidden. But it could not be so. She could not dog him in the streets. She could not get at him in his meals to poison him. She could not creep to his bedside and strangle him in the silent watches of the night. And this woman’s heart, even while from day to day she was meditating murder — while she was telling herself that it would be a worthy deed to cut off from life one whose life was a bar to her own success — even then revolted from the shrinking stealthy step, from the low cowardice of the hidden murderer. To look him in the face and then to slay him — when no escape for herself would be possible, that would have in it something that was almost noble; something at any rate bold — something that would not shame her. They would hang her for such a deed! Let them do so. It was not hanging that she feared, but the tongues of those who should speak of her when she was gone. They should not speak of her as one who had utterly failed. They should tell of a woman who, cruelly misused throughout her life, maligned, scorned, and tortured, robbed of her own, neglected by her kindred, deserted and damned by her husband, had still struggled through it all till she had proved herself to be that which it was her right to call herself — of a woman who, though thwarted in her ambition by her own child, and cheated of her triumph at the very moment of her success, had dared rather to face an ignominious death than see all her efforts frustrated by the maudlin fancy of a girl. Yes! She would face it all. Let them do what they would with her. She hardly knew what might be the mode of death adjudged to a Countess who had murdered. Let them kill her as they would, they would kill a Countess — and the whole world would know her story.
That day and night were very dreadful to her. She never asked a question about her daughter. They had brought her food to her in that lonely parlour, and she hardly heeded them as they laid the things before her, and then removed them. Again and again did she unlock the old desk, and see that the weapon was ready to her hand. Then she opened that letter to Sir William Patterson, and added a postscript to it. “What I have since done will explain everything.” That was all she added, and on the following morning, about noon, she put the letter on the mantelshelf. Late at night she took herself to bed, and was surprised to find that she slept. The key of the old desk was under her pillow, and she placed her hand on it the moment that she awoke. On leaving her own room she stood for a moment at her daughter’s door. It might be, if she killed the man, that she would never see her child again. At that moment she was tempted to rush into her daughter’s room, to throw herself upon her daughter’s bed, and once again to beg for mercy and grace. She listened, and she knew that her daughter slept. Then she went silently down to the dark room and the old desk. Of what use would it be to abase herself? Her daughter was the only thing that she could love; but her daughter’s heart was filled with the image of that low-born artisan.
“Is Lady Anna up?” she asked the maid about ten o’clock.
“Yes, my lady; she is breakfasting now.”
“Tell her that when — when Mr Thwaite comes, I will send for her as soon as I wish to see her.”
“I think Lady Anna understands that already, my lady.”
“Tell her what I say.”
“Yes, my lady. I will, my lady.” Then the Countess spoke no further word till, punctually at one o’clock, Daniel Thwaite was shown into the room.
“You keep your time, Mr Thwaite,” she said.
“Working men should always do that, Lady Lovel,” he replied, as though anxious to irritate her by reminding her how humble was the man who could aspire to be the son-in-law of a Countess.
“All men should do so, I presume. I also am punctual. Well, sir — have you anything else to say?”
“Much to say — to your daughter, Lady Lovel.”
“I do not know that you will ever see my daughter again.”
“Do you mean to say that she has been taken away from this?” The Countess was silent, but moved away from the spot on which she stood to receive him towards the old desk, which stood open — with the door of the centre space just ajar. “If it be so, you have deceived me most grossly, Lady Lovel. But it can avail you nothing, for I know that she will be true to me. Do you tell me that she has been removed?”
“I have told you no such thing.”
“Bid her come then — as you promised me.”
“I have a word to say to you first. What if she should refuse to come?”
“I do not believe that she will refuse. You yourself heard what she said yesterday. All earth and all heaven should not make me doubt her, and certainly not your word, Lady Lovel. You know how it is, and you know how it must be.”
“Yes — I do; I do; I do.” She was facing him with her back to the window, and she put forth her left hand upon the open desk, and thrust it forward as though to open the square door which stood ajar — but he did not notice her hand; he had his eye fixed upon her, and suspected only deceit — not violence. “Yes, I know how it must be,” she said, while her fingers approached nearer to the little door.
“Then let her come to me.”
“Will nothing turn you from it?”
“Nothing will turn me from it.”
Then suddenly she withdrew her hand and confronted him more closely. “Mine has been a hard life, Mr Thwaite — no life could have been harder. But I have always had something before me for which to long, and for which to hope — something which I might reach if justice should at length prevail.”
“You have got money and rank.”
“They are nothing — nothing. In all those many years, the thing that I have looked for has been the splendour and glory of another, and the satisfaction I might feel in having bestowed upon her all that she owned. Do you think that I will stand by, after such a struggle, and see you rob me of it all — you — you, who were one of the tools which came to my hand to work with? From what you know of me, do you think that my spirit could stoop so low? Answer me, if you have ever thought of that. Let the eagles alone, and do not force yourself into our nest. You will find, if you do, that you will be rent to pieces.”
“This is nothing, Lady Lovel. I came here — at your bidding, to see your daughter. Let me see her.”
“You will not go?”
“Certainly I will not go.”
She looked at him as she slowly receded to her former standing-ground, but he never for a moment suspected the nature of her purpose. He began to think that some actual insanity had befallen her, and was doubtful how he should act. But no fear of personal violence affected him. He was merely questioning with himself whether it would not be well for him to walk upstairs into the upper room, and seek Lady Anna there, as he stood watching the motion of her eyes.
“You had better go,” said she, as she again put her left hand on the flat board of the open desk.
“You trifle with me, Lady Lovel,” he answered. As you will not allow Lady Anna to come to me here, I will go to her elsewhere. I do not doubt but that I shall find her in the house.” Then he turned to the door, intending to leave the room. He had been very near to her while they were talking, so that he had some paces to traverse before he could put his hand upon the lock — but in doing so his back was turned on her. In one respect it was better for her purpose that it should be so. She could open the door of the compartment and put her hand upon the pistol without having his eye upon her. But, as it seemed to her at the moment, the chance of bringing her purpose to its intended conclusion was less than it would have been had she been able to fire at his face. She had let the moment go by — the first moment — when he was close to her, and now there would be half the room between them. But she was very quick. She seized the pistol, and, transferring it to her right hand, she rushed after him, and when the door was already half open she pulled the trigger. In the agony of that moment she heard no sound, though she saw the flash. She saw him shrink and pass the door, which he left unclosed, and then she heard a scuffle in the passage, as though he had fallen against the wall. She had provided herself especially with a second barrel — but that was now absolutely useless to her. There was no power left to her wherewith to follow him and complete the work which she had begun. She did not think that she had killed him, though she was sure that he was struck. She did not believe that she had accomplished anything of her wishes — but had she held in her hand a six-barrelled revolver, as of the present day, she could have done no more with it. She was overwhelmed with so great a tremor at her own violence that she was almost incapable of moving. She stood glaring at the door, listening for what should come, and the moments seemed to be hours. But she heard no sound whatever. A minute passed away perhaps, and the man did not move. She looked around as if seeking some way of escape — as though, were it possible, she would get to the street through the window. There was no mode of escape, unless she would pass out through the door to the man who, as she knew, must still be there. Then she heard him move. She heard him rise — from what posture she knew not, and step towards the stairs. She was still standing with the pistol in her hand, but was almost unconscious that she held it. At last her eye glanced upon it, and she was aware that she was still armed. Should she rush after him, and try what she could do with that other bullet? The thought crossed her mind, but she knew that she could do nothing. Had all the Lovels depended upon it, she could not have drawn that other trigger. She took the pistol, put it back into its former hiding-place, mechanically locked the little door, and then seated herself in her chair.
Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:01