Part 6 out of 7
"Then I will tell you. Lady Janet is a stanch friend of yours,
there is no denying that. She wished to inform me that she had
altered her mind about your promised explanation of your conduct.
She said, 'Reflection has convinced me that no explanation is
required; I have laid my positive commands on my adopted daughter
that no explanation shall take place.' Has she done that?"
"Now observe! I waited till she had finished, and then I said,
'What have I to do with this?' Lady Janet has one merit--she
speaks out. 'You are to do as I do,' she answered. 'You are to
consider that no explanation is required, and you are to consign
the whole matter to oblivion from this time forth.' 'Are you
serious?' I asked. 'Quite serious.' 'In that case I have to
inform your ladyship that you insist on more than you may
suppose: you insist on my breaking my engagement to Miss
Roseberry. Either I am to have the explanation that she has
promised me, or I refuse to marry her.' How do you think Lady
Janet took that? She shut up her lips, and she spread out her
hands, and she looked at me as much as to say, 'Just as you
please! Refuse if you like; it's nothing to me!'"
He paused for a moment. Mercy remained silent, on her side: she
foresaw what was coming. Mistaken in supposing that Horace had
left the house, Julian had, beyond all doubt, been equally in
error in concluding that he had been entrapped into breaking off
the engagement upstairs.
"Do you understand me so far?" Horace asked.
"I understand you perfectly."
"I will not trouble you much longer," he resumed. "I said to Lady
Janet, 'Be so good as to answer me in plain words. Do you still
insist on closing Miss Roseberry's lips?' 'I still insist,' she
answered. 'No explanation is required. If you are base enough to
suspect your betrothed wife, I am just enough to believe in my
adopted daughter.' I replied--and I beg you will give your best
attention to what I am now going to say--I replied to that, 'It
is not fair to charge me with suspecting her. I don't understand
her confidential relations with Julian Gray, and I don't
understand her language and conduct in the presence of the police
officer. I claim it as my right to be satisfied on both those
points--in the character of the man who is to marry her.' There
was my answer. I spare you all that followed. I only repeat what
I said to Lady Janet. She has commanded you to be silent. If you
obey her commands, I owe it to myself and I owe it to my family
to release you from your engagement. Choose between your duty to
Lady Janet and your duty to Me."
He had mastered his temper at last: he spoke with dignity, and he
spoke to the point. His position was unassailable; he claimed
nothing but his right.
"My choice was made," Mercy answered, "when I gave you my promise
She waited a little, struggling to control herself on the brink
of the terrible revelation that was coming. Her eyes dropped
before his; her heart beat faster and faster; but she struggled
bravely. With a desperate courage she faced the position. "If you
are ready to listen," she went on, "I am ready to tell you why I
insisted on having the police officer sent out of the house."
Horace held up his hand warningly.
"Stop!" he said; "that is not all."
His infatuated jealousy of Julian (fatally misinterpreting her
agitation) distrusted her at the very outset. She had limited
herself to clearing up the one question of her interference with
the officer of justice. The other question of her relations with
Julian she had deliberately passed over. Horace instantly drew
his own ungenerous conclusion.
"Let us not misunderstand one another," he said. "The explanation
of your conduct in the other room is only one of the explanations
which you owe me. You have something else to account for. Let us
begin with _that_, if you please."
She looked at him in unaffected surprise.
"What else have I to account for?" she asked.
He again repeated his reply to Lady Janet.
"I have told you already," he said. "I don't understand your
confidential relations with Julian Gray."
Mercy's color rose; Mercy's eyes began to brighten.
"Don't return to tha t!" she cried, with an irrepressible
outbreak of disgust. "Don't, for God's sake, make me despise you
at such a moment as this!"
His obstinacy only gathered fresh encouragement from that appeal
to his better sense.
"I insist on returning to it."
She had resolved to bear anything from him-- as her fit
punishment for the deception of which she had been guilty. But it
was not in womanhood (at the moment when the first words of her
confession were trembling on her lips) to endure Horace's
unworthy suspicion of her. She rose from her seat and met his eye
"I refuse to degrade myself, and to degrade Mr. Julian Gray, by
answering you," she said
Consider what you are doing," he rejoined. Change your mind,
before it is too late!"
"You have had my reply."
Those resolute words, that steady resistance, seemed to infuriate
him. He caught her roughly by the arm.
"You are as false as hell!" he cried. "It's all over between you
The loud threatening tone in which he had spoken penetrated
through the closed door of the dining-room. The door instantly
opened. Julian returned to the library.
He had just set foot in the room, when there was a knock at the
other door--the door that opened on the hall. One of the
men-servants appeared, with a telegraphic message in his hand.
Mercy was the first to see it. It was the Matron's answer to the
letter which she had sent to the Refuge.
"For Mr. Julian Gray?" she asked.
"Give it to me."
She signed to the man to withdraw, and herself gave the telegram
to Julian. "It is addressed to you, at my request," she said.
"You will recognize the name of the person who sends it, and you
will find a message in it for me."
Horace interfered before Julian could open the telegram.
"Another private understanding between you!" he said. "Give me
Julian looked at him with quiet contempt.
"It is directed to Me," he answered--and opened the envelope.
The message inside was expressed in these terms: "I am as deeply
interested in her as you are. Say that I have received her
letter, and that I welcome her back to the Refuge with all my
heart. I have business this evening in the neighborhood. I will
call for her myself at Mablethorpe House."
The message explained itself. Of her own free-will she had made
the expiation complete! Of her own free-will she was going back
to the martyrdom of her old life! Bound as he knew himself to be
to let no compromising word or action escape him in the presence
of Horace, the irrepressible expression of Julian's admiration
glowed in his eyes as they rested on Mercy. Horace detected the
look. He sprang forward and tried to snatch the telegram out of
"Give it to me!" he said. "I will have it!"
Julian silently put him back at arms-length.
Maddened with rage, he lifted his hand threateningly. "Give it to
me!" he repeated between his set teeth, "or it will be the worse
"Give it to _me!_" said Mercy, suddenly placing herself between
Julian gave it. She turned, and offered it to Horace, looking at
him with a steady eye, holding it out to him with a steady hand.
"Read it," she said.
Julian's generous nature pitied the man who had insulted him.
Julian's great heart only remembered the friend of former times.
"Spare him!" he said to Mercy. "Remember he is unprepared."
She neither answered nor moved. Nothing stirred the horrible
torpor of her resignation to her fate. She knew that the time had
Julian appealed to Horace.
"Don't read it!" he cried. "Hear what she has to say to you
Horace's hand answered him with a contemptuous gesture. Horace's
eyes devoured, word by word, the Matron's message.
He looked up when he had read it through. There was a ghastly
change in his face as he turned it on Mercy.
She stood between the two men like a statue. The life in her
seemed to have died out, except in her eyes. Her eyes rested on
Horace with a steady, glittering calmness.
The silence was only broken by the low murmuring of Julian's
voice. His face was hidden in his hands--he was praying for them.
Horace spoke, laying his finger on the telegram. His voice had
changed with the change in his face. The tone was low and
trembling: no one would have recognized it as the tone of
"What does this mean?" he said to Mercy. "It can't be for you?"
"It _is_ for me."
"What have You to do with a Refuge?"
Without a change in her face, without a movement in her limbs,
she spoke the fatal words:
"I have come from a Refuge, and I am going back to a Refuge. Mr.
Horace Holmcroft, I am Mercy Merrick."
GREAT HEART AND LITTLE HEART.
THERE was a pause.
The moments passed--and not one of the three moved. The moments
passed--and not one of the three spoke. Insensibly the words of
supplication died away on Julian's lips. Even his energy failed
to sustain him, tried as it now was by the crushing oppression of
suspense. The first trifling movement which suggested the idea of
change, and which so brought with it the first vague sense of
relief, came from Mercy. Incapable of sustaining the prolonged
effort of standing, she drew back a little and took a chair. No
outward manifestation of emotion escaped her. There she sat--with
the death-like torpor of resignation in her face--waiting her
sentence in silence from the man at whom she had hurled the whole
terrible confession of the truth in one sentence!
Julian lifted his head as she moved. He looked at Horace. and
advancing a few steps, looked again. There was fear in his face,
as he suddenly turned it toward Mercy.
"Speak to him!" he said, in a whisper. "Rouse him, before it's
She moved mechanically in her chair; she looked mechanically at
"What more have I to say to him?" she asked, in faint, weary
tones. "Did I not tell him everything when I told him my name?"
The natural sound of her voice might have failed to affect
Horace. The altered sound of it roused him. He approached Mercy's
chair, with a dull surprise in his face, and put his hand, in a
weak, wavering way, on her shoulder. In that position he stood
for a while, looking down at her in silence.
The one idea in him that found its way outward to expression was
the idea of Julian. Without moving his hand, without looking up
from Mercy, he spoke for the first time since the shock had
fallen on him.
"Where is Julian?" he asked, very quietly.
"I am here, Horace--close by you."
"Will you do me a service?"
"Certainly. How can I help you?"
He considered a little before he replied. His hand left Mercy's
shoulder, and went up to his head--then dropped at his side. His
next words were spoken in a sadly helpless, bewildered way.
"I have an idea, Julian, that I have been somehow to blame. I
said some hard words to you. It was a little while since. I don't
clearly remember what it was all about. My temper has been a good
deal tried in this house; I have never been used to the sort of
thing that goes on here--secrets and mysteries, and hateful
low-lived quarrels. We have no secrets and mysteries at home. And
as for quarrels-- ridiculous! My mother and my sisters are highly
bred women (you know them); gentlewomen, in the best sense of the
word. When I am with _them_ I have no anxieties. I am not
harassed at home by doubts of who people are, and confusion about
names, and so on. I suspect the contrast weighs a little on my
mind and upsets it. They make me over-suspicious among them here,
and it ends in my feeling doubts and fears that I can't get over:
doubts about you and fears about myself. I have got a fear about
myself now. I want you to help me. Shall I make an apology
"Don't say a word. Tell me what I can do."
He turned his face toward Julian for the first time.
"Just look at me," he said. "Does it strike you that I am at all
wrong in my mind? Tell me the truth, old fellow."
"Your nerves are a little shaken, Horace. Nothing more."
He considered again after that reply, his eyes remaining
anxiously fixed on Julian's face.
"My nerves are a little shaken," he repeated. "That is true; I
feel they are shaken. I should like, if you don't mind, to make
sure that it's no worse. Will you help me to try if my memory is
"I will do anything you like."
"Ah! you are a good fellow, Julian--and a clear-headed fellow
too, which is very important just now. Look here! I say it's
about a week since the troubles began in this house. Do you say
"The troubles came in with the coming of a woman from Germany, a
stranger to us, who behaved very violently in the dining-room
there. Am I right, so far?"
"The woman carried matters with a high hand. She claimed Colonel
Roseberry--I wish to be strictly accurate--she claimed _the late_
Colonel Roseberry as her father. She told a tiresome story about
her having been robbed of her papers and her name by an impostor
who had personated her. She said the name of the impostor was
Mercy Merrick. And she afterward put the climax to it all: she
pointed to the lady who is engaged to be my wife, and declared
that _she_ was Mercy Merrick. Tell me again, is that right or
Julian answered him as before. He went on, speaking more
confidently and more excitedly than he had spoken yet.
"Now attend to this, Julian. I am going to pass from my memory of
what happened a week ago to my memory of what happened five
minutes since. You were present; I want to know if you heard it
too." He paused, and, without taking his eyes off Julian, pointed
backward to Mercy. "There is the lady who is engaged to marry
me," he resumed. "Did I, or did I not, hear her say that she had
come out of a Refuge, and that she was going back to a Refuge?
Did I, or did I not, hear her own to my face that her name was
Mercy Merrick? Answer me, Julian. My good friend, answer me, for
the sake of old times."
His voice faltered as he spoke those imploring words. Under the
dull blank of his face there appeared the first signs of emotion
slowly forcing its way outward. The stunned mind was reviving
faintly. Julian saw his opportunity of aiding the recovery, and
seized it. He took Horace gently by the arm, and pointed to
"There is your answer!" he said. "Look!-- and pity her."
She had not once interrupted them while they had been speaking:
she had changed her position again, and that was all. There was a
writing-table at the side of her chair; her outstretched arms
rested on it. Her head had dropped on her arms, and her face was
hidden. Julian's judgment had not misled him; the utter
self-abandonment of her attitude answered Horace as no human
language could have answered him. He looked at her. A quick spasm
of pain passed across his face. He turned once more to the
faithful friend who had forgiven him. His head fell on Julian's
shoulder, and he burst into tears.
Mercy started wildly to her feet, and looked at the two men.
"O God" she cried, "what have I done!"
Julian quieted her by a motion of his hand.
"You have helped me to save him,'' he said. "Let his tears have
their way. Wait."
He put one arm round Horace to support him. The manly tenderness
of the action, the complete and noble pardon of past injuries
which it implied, touched Mercy to the heart. She went back to
her chair. Again shame and sorrow overpowered her, and again she
hid her face from view.
Julian led Horace to a seat, and silently waited by him until he
had recovered his self-control. He gratefully took the kind hand
that had sustained him: he said, simply, almost boyishly, "Thank
you, Julian. I am better now."
"Are you composed enough to listen to what is said to you?"
"Yes. Do _you_ wish to speak to me?"
Julian left him without immediately replying, and returned to
"The time has come," he said. "Tell him all--truly, unreservedly,
as you would tell it to me."
She shuddered as he spoke. "Have I not told him enough?" she
asked. "Do you want me to break his heart? Look at him! Look what
I have done already!"
Horace shrank from the ordeal as Mercy shrank from it.
"No, no! I can't listen to it! I daren't listen to it!" he cried,
and rose to leave the room.
Julian had taken the good work in hand: he never faltered over it
for an instant. Horace had loved her--how dearly Julian now knew
for the first time. The bare possibility that she might earn her
pardon if she was allowed to plead her own cause was a
possibility still left. To let her win on Horace to forgive her,
was death to the love that still filled his heart in secret. But
he never hesitated. With a resolution which the weaker man was
powerless to resist, he took him by the arm and led him back to
"For her sake, and for your sake, you shall not condemn her
unheard," he said to Horace, firmly. "One temptation to deceive
you after another has tried her, and she has resisted them all.
With no discovery to fear, with a letter from the benefactress
who loves her commanding her to be silent, with everything that a
woman values in this world to lose, if she owns what she has
done--_this_ woman, for the truth's sake, has spoken the truth.
Does she deserve nothing at your hands in return for that?
Respect her, Horace--and hear her."
Horace yielded. Julian turned to Mercy.
"You have allowed me to guide you so far," he said. "Will you
allow me to guide you still?"
Her eyes sank before his; her bosom rose and fell rapidly. His
influence over her maintained its sway. She bowed her head in
"Tell him,'' Julian proceeded, in accents of entreaty, not of
command--"tell him what your life has been. Tell him how you were
tried and tempted, with no friend near to speak the words which
might have saved you. And then," he added, raising her from the
chair, "let him judge you--if he can!"
He attempted to lead her across the room to the place which
Horace occupied. But her submission had its limits. Half-way to
the place she stopped, and refused to go further. Julian offered
her a chair. She declined to take it. Standing with one hand on
the back of the chair, she waited for the word from Horace which
would permit her to speak. She was resigned to the ordeal. Her
face was calm; her mind was clear. The hardest of all
humiliations to endure--the humiliation of acknowledging her
name--she had passed through. Nothing remained but to show her
gratitude to Julian by acceding to his wishes, and to ask pardon
of Horace before they parted forever. In a little while the
Matron would arrive at the house-- and then it would be over.
Unwillingly Horace looked at her. Their eyes met. He broke out
suddenly with something of his former violence.
"I can't realize it even now!" he cried. "_Is_ it true that you
are not Grace Roseberry? Don't look at me! Say in one word--Yes
She answered him, humbly and sadly, "Yes."
"You have done what that woman accused you of doing? Am I to
"You are to believe it, sir."
All the weakness of Horace's character disclosed itself when she
made that reply.
"Infamous!" he exclaimed. "What excuse can you make for the cruel
deception you have practiced on me? Too bad! too bad! There can
be no excuse for you!"
She accepted his reproaches with unshaken resignation. "I have
deserved it!" was all she said to herself, "I have deserved it!"
Julian interposed once more in Mercy's defense.
"Wait till you are sure there is no excuse for her, Horace," he
said, quietly. "Grant her justice, if you can grant no more. I
leave you together."
He advanced toward the door of the dining-room. Horace's weakness
disclosed itself once more.
"Don't leave me alone with her!" he burst out. "The misery of it
is more than I can bear!"
Julian looked at Mercy. Her face brightened faintly. That
momentary expression of relief told him how truly he would be
befriending her if he consented to remain in the room. A position
of retirement was offered to him by a recess formed by the
central bay-window of the library. If he occupied this place,
they could see or not see that he was present, as their own
inclinations might decide them.
"I will stay with you, Horace, as long as you wish me to be
here." Having answered in those terms, he stopped as he passed
Mercy, on his way to the window. His quick and kindly insight
told him that he might still be of some service to her. A hint
from hi m might show her the shortest and the easiest way of
making her confession. Delicately and briefly he gave her the
hint. "The first time I met you," he said, "I saw that your life
had had its troubles. Let us hear how those troubles began."
He withdrew to his place in the recess. For the first time, since
the fatal evening when she and Grace Roseberry had met in the
French cottage, Mercy Merrick looked back into the purgatory on
earth of her past life, and told her sad story simply and truly
in these words.
"MR. JULIAN GRAY has asked me to tell him, and to tell you, Mr.
Holmcroft, how my troubles began. They began before my
recollection. They began with my birth.
"My mother (as I have heard her say) ruined her prospects, when
she was quite a young girl, by a marriage with one of her
father's servants--the groom who rode out with her. She suffered,
poor creature, the usual penalty of such conduct as hers. After a
short time she and her husband were separated--on the condition
of her sacrificing to the man whom she had married the whole of
the little fortune that she possessed in her right.
"Gaining her freedom, my mother had to gain her daily bread next.
Her family refused to take her back. She attached herself to a
company of strolling players.
"She was earning a bare living in this way, when my father
accidentally met with her. He was a man of high rank, proud of
his position, and well known in the society of that time for his
many accomplishments and his refined tastes. My mother's beauty
fascinated him. He took her from the strolling players, and
surrounded her with every luxury that a woman could desire in a
house of her own.
"I don't know how long they lived together. I only know that my
father, at the time of my first recollections, had abandoned her.
She had excited his suspicions of her fidelity--suspicions which
cruelly wronged her, as she declared to her dying day. I believed
her, because she was my mother. But I cannot expect others to do
as I did--I can only repeat what she said. My father left her
absolutely penniless. He never saw her again; and he refused to
go to her when she sent to him in her last moments on earth.
"She was back again among the strolling players when I first
remember her. It was not an unhappy time for me. I was the
favorite pet and plaything of the poor actors. They taught me to
sing and to dance at an age when other children are just
beginning to learn to read. At five years old I was in what is
called 'the profession,' and had made my poor little reputation
in booths at country fairs. As early as that, Mr. Holmcroft, I
had begun to live under an assumed name--the prettiest name they
could invent for me 'to look well in the bills.' It was sometimes
a hard struggle for us, in bad seasons, to keep body and soul
together. Learning to sing and dance in public often meant
learning to bear hunger and cold in private, when I was
apprenticed to the stage. And yet I have lived to look back on my
days with the strolling players as the happiest days of my life!
"I was ten years old when the first serious misfortune that I can
remember fell upon me. My mother died, worn out in the prime of
her life. And not long afterward the strolling company, brought
to the end of its resources by a succession of bad seasons, was
"I was left on the world, a nameless, penniless outcast, with one
fatal inheritance--God knows, I can speak of it without vanity,
after what I have gone through!--the inheritance of my mother's
"My only friends were the poor starved-out players. Two of them
(husband and wife) obtained engagements in another company, and I
was included in the bargain The new manager by whom I was
employed was a drunkard and a brute. One night I made a trifling
mistake in the course of the performances--and I was savagely
beaten for it. Perhaps I had inherited some of my father's
spirit--without, I hope, also inheriting my father's pitiless
nature. However that may be, I resolved (no matter what became of
me) never again to serve the man who had beaten me. I unlocked
the door of our miserable lodging at daybreak the next morning;
and, at ten years old, with my little bundle in my hand, I faced
the world alone.
"My mother had confided to me, in her last moments, my father's
name and the address of his house in London. 'He may feel some
compassion for you' (she said), 'though he feels none for me: try
him.' I had a few shillings, the last pitiful remains of my
wages, in my pocket; and I was not far from London. But I never
went near my father: child as I was, I would have starved and
died rather than go to him. I had loved my mother dearly; and I
hated the man who had turned his back on her when she lay on her
deathbed. It made no difference to Me that he happened to be my
"Does this confession revolt you? You look at me, Mr. Holmcroft,
as if it did.
"Think a little, sir. Does what I have just said condemn me as a
heartless creature, even in my earliest years? What is a father
to a child--when the child has never sat on his knee, and never
had a kiss or a present from him? If we had met in the street, we
should not have known each other. Perhaps in after-days, when I
was starving in London, I may have begged of my father without
knowing it; and he may have thrown his daughter a penny to get
rid of her, without knowing it either! What is there sacred in
the relations between father and child, when they are such
relations as these? Even the flowers of the field cannot grow
without light and air to help them! How is a child's love to
grow, with nothing to help it?
"My small savings would have been soon exhausted, even if I had
been old enough and strong enough to protect them myself. As
things were, my few shillings were taken from me by gypsies. I
had no reason to complain. They gave me food and the shelter of
their tents, and they made me of use to them in various ways.
After a while hard times came to the gypsies, as they had come to
the strolling players. Some of them were imprisoned; the rest
were dispersed. It was the season for hop-gathering at the time.
I got employment among the hop-pickers next; and that done, I
went to London with my new friends.
"I have no wish to weary and pain you by dwelling on this part of
my childhood in detail. It will be enough if I tell you that I
sank lower and lower until I ended in selling matches in the
street. My mother's legacy got me many a sixpence which my
matches would never have charmed out of the pockets of strangers
if I had been an ugly child. My face. which was destined to be my
greatest misfortune in after-years, was my best friend in those
"Is there anything, Mr. Holmcroft, in the life I am now trying to
describe which reminds you of a day when we were out walking
together not long since?
"I surprised and offended you, I remember; and it was not
possible for me to explain my conduct at the time. Do you
recollect the little wandering girl, with the miserable faded
nosegay in her hand, who ran after us, and begged for a
half-penny? I shocked you by bursting out crying when the child
asked us to buy her a bit of bread. Now you know why I was so
sorry for her. Now you know why I offended you the next day by
breaking an engagement with your mother and sisters, and going to
see that child in her wretched home. After what I have confessed,
you will admit that my poor little sister in adversity had the
first claim on me.
"Let me go on. I am sorry if I have distressed you. Let me go on.
"The forlorn wanderers of the streets have (as I found it) one
way always open to them of presenting their sufferings to the
notice of their rich and charitable fellow-creatures. They have
only to break the law--and they make a public appearance in a
court of justice. If the circumstances connected with their
offense are of an interesting kind, they gain a second advantage:
they are advertised all over England by a report in the
"Yes! even _I_ have my knowledge of the law. I know that it
completely overlooked me as long as I respected it. But on two
different occasions it became my best frie nd when I set it at
defiance! My first fortunate offense was committed when I was
just twelve years old.
"It was evening time. I was half dead with starvation; the rain
was falling; the night was coming on. I begged--openly, loudly,
as only a hungry child can beg. An old lady in a carriage at a
shop door complained of my importunity. The policeman did his
duty. The law gave me a supper and shelter at the station-house
that night. I appeared at the police court, and, questioned by
the magistrate, I told my story truly. It was the every-day story
of thousands of children like me; but it had one element of
interest in it. I confessed to having had a father (he was then
dead) who had been a man of rank; and I owned (just as openly as
I owned everything else) that I had never applied to him for
help, in resentment of his treatment of my mother. This incident
was new, I suppose; it led to the appearance of my 'case' in the
newspapers. The reporters further served my interests by
describing me as 'pretty and interesting.' Subscriptions were
sent to the court. A benevolent married couple, in a respectable
sphere of life, visited the workhouse to see me. I produced a
favorable impression on them--especially on the wife. I was
literally friendless; I had no unwelcome relatives to follow me
and claim me. The wife was childless; the husband was a
good-natured man. It ended in their taking me away with them to
try me in service.
"I have always felt the aspiration, no matter how low I may have
fallen, to struggle upward to a position above me; to rise, in
spite of fortune, superior to my lot in life. Perhaps some of my
father's pride may be at the root of this restless feeling in me.
It seems to be a part of my nature. It brought me into this
house--and it will go with me out of this house. Is it my curse
or my blessing? I am not able to decide.
"On the first night when I slept in my new home I said to myself,
'They have taken me to be their servant: I will be something more
than that--they shall end in taking me for their child.' Before I
had been a week in the house I was the wife's favorite companion
in the absence of her husband at his place of business. She was a
highly accomplished woman, greatly her husband's superior in
cultivation, and, unfortunately for herself, also his superior in
years. The love was all on her side. Excepting certain occasions
on which he roused her jealousy, they lived together on
sufficiently friendly terms. She was one of the many wives who
resign themselves to be disappointed in their husbands--and he
was one of the many husbands who never know what their wives
really think of them. Her one great happiness was in teaching me.
I was eager to learn; I made rapid progress. At my pliant age I
soon acquired the refinements of language and manner which
characterized my mistress. It is only the truth to say that the
cultivation which has made me capable of personating a lady was
"For three happy years I lived under that friendly roof. I was
between fifteen and sixteen years of age, when the fatal
inheritance from my mother cast its first shadow on my life. One
miserable day the wife's motherly love for me changed in an
instant to the jealous hatred that never forgives. Can you guess
the reason? The husband fell in love with me.
"I was innocent; I was blameless. He owned it himself to the
clergyman who was with him at his death. By that time years had
passed. It was too late to justify me.
"He was at an age (when I was under his care) when men are
usually supposed to regard women with tranquillity, if not with
indifference. It had been the habit of years with me to look on
him as my second father. In my innocent ignorance of the feeling
which really inspired him, I permitted him to indulge in little
paternal familiarities with me, which inflamed his guilty
passion. His wife discovered him--not I. No words can describe my
astonishment and my horror when the first outbreak of her
indignation forced on me the knowledge of the truth. On my knees
I declared myself guiltless. On my knees I implored her to do
justice to my purity and my youth. At other times the sweetest
and the most considerate of women, jealousy had now transformed
her to a perfect fury. She accused me of deliberately encouraging
him; she declared she would turn me out of the house with her own
hands. Like other easy-tempered men, her husband had reserves of
anger in him which it was dangerous to provoke. When his wife
lifted her hand against me, he lost all self-control, on his
side. He openly told her that life was worth nothing to him
without me. He openly avowed his resolution to go with me when I
left the house. The maddened woman seized him by the arm--I saw
that, and saw no more. I ran out into the street, panic-stricken.
A cab was passing. I got into it before he could open the house
door, and drove to the only place of refuge I could think of--a
small shop, kept by the widowed sister of one of our servants.
Here I obtained shelter for the night. The next day he discovered
me. He made his vile proposals; he offered me the whole of his
fortune; he declared his resolution, say what I might, to return
the next day. That night, by help of the good woman who had taken
care of me-- under cover of the darkness, as if _I_ had been to
blame!--I was secretly removed to the East End of London, and
placed under the charge of a trustworthy person who lived, in a
very humble way, by letting lodgings.
"Here, in a little back garret at the top of the house, I was
thrown again on the world-- an age when it was doubly perilous
for me to be left to my own resources to earn the bread I ate and
the roof that covered me.
"I claim no credit to myself--young as I was, placed as I was
between the easy life of Vice and the hard life of Virtue--for
acting as I did. The man simply horrified me: my natural impulse
was to escape from him. But let it be remembered, before I
approach the saddest part of my sad story, that I was an innocent
girl, and that I was at least not to blame.
"Forgive me for dwelling as I have done on my early years. I
shrink from speaking of the events that are still to come.
"In losing the esteem of my first benefactress, I had, in my
friendless position, lost all hold on an honest life--except the
one frail hold of needle-work. The only reference of which I
could now dispose was the recommendation of me by my landlady to
a place of business which largely employed expert needle-women.
It is needless for me to tell you how miserably work of that sort
is remunerated: you have read about it in the newspapers. As long
as my health lasted I contrived to live and to keep out of debt.
Few girls could have resisted as long as I did the
slowly-poisoning influences of crowded work-room, insufficient
nourishment, and almost total privation of exercise. My life as a
child had been a life in the open air: it had helped to
strengthen a constitution naturally hardy, naturally free from
all taint of hereditary disease. But my time came at last. Under
the cruel stress laid on it my health gave way. I was struck down
by low fever, and sentence was pronounced on me by my
fellow-lodgers: 'Ah, poor thing, _her_ troubles will soon be at
"The prediction might have proved true--I might never have
committed the errors and endured the sufferings of after
years--if I had fallen ill in another house.
"But it was my good, or my evil, fortune--I dare not say
which--to have interested in myself and my sorrows an actress at
a suburban theatre, who occupied the room under mine. Except when
her stage duties took her away for two or three hours in the
evening, this noble creature never left my bedside. Ill as she
could afford it, her purse paid my inevitable expenses while I
lay helpless. The landlady, moved by her example, accepted half
the weekly rent of my room. The doctor, with the Christian
kindness of his profession, would take no fees. All that the
tenderest care could accomplish was lavished on me; my youth and
my constitution did the rest. I struggled back to life--and then
I took up my needle again.
"It may surprise you that I should have failed (having an actress
for my dearest friend) to use the means of introduction thus
offered to me to try the stage--especially as my childish
training had given me, in some small degree, a familiarity with
"I had only one motive for shrinking from an appearance at the
theatre--but it was strong enough to induce me to submit to any
alternative that remained, no matter how hopeless it might be. If
I showed myself on the public stage, my discovery by the man from
whom I had escaped would be only a question of time. I knew him
to be habitually a play-goer and a subscriber to a theatrical
newspaper. I had even heard him speak of the theatre to which my
friend was attached, and compare it advantageously with places of
amusement of far higher pretensions. Sooner or later, if I joined
the company he would be certain to go and see 'the new actress.'
The bare thought of it reconciled me to returning to my needle.
Before I was strong enough to endure the atmosphere of the
crowded workroom I obtained permission, as a favor, to resume my
occupation at home.
"Surely my choice was the choice of a virtuous girl? And yet the
day when I returned to my needle was the fatal day of my life.
"I had now not only to provide for the wants of the passing
hour--I had my debts to pay. It was only to be done by toiling
harder than ever, and by living more poorly than ever. I soon
paid the penalty, in my weakened state, of leading such a life as
this. One evening my head turned suddenly giddy; my heart
throbbed frightfully. I managed to open the window, and to let
the fresh air into the room, and I felt better. But I was not
sufficiently recovered to be able to thread my needle. I thought
to myself, 'If I go out for half an hour, a little exercise may
put me right again.' I had not, as I suppose, been out more than
ten minutes when the attack from which I had suffered in my room
was renewed. There was no shop near in which I could take refuge.
I tried to ring the bell of the nearest house door. Before I
could reach it I fainted in the street.
"How long hunger and weakness left me at the mercy of the first
stranger who might pass by, it is impossible for me to say.
"When I partially recovered my senses I was conscious of being
under shelter somewhere, and of having a wine-glass containing
some cordial drink held to my lips by a man. I managed to
swallow--I don't know how little, or how much. The stimulant had
a very strange effect on me. Reviving me at first, it ended in
stupefying me. I lost my senses once more.
"When I next recovered myself, the day was breaking. I was in a
bed in a strange room. A nameless terror seized me. I called out.
Three or four women came in, whose faces betrayed, even to my
inexperienced eyes, the shameless infamy of their lives. I
started up in the bed. I implored them to tell me where I was,
and what had happened--
"Spare me! I can say no more. Not long since you heard Miss
Roseberry call me an outcast from the streets. Now you know--as
God is my judge I am speaking the truth!--now you know what made
me an outcast, and in what measure I deserved my disgrace."
Her voice faltered, her resolution failed her, for the first
"Give me a few minutes," she said, in low, pleading tones. "If I
try to go on now, I am afraid I shall cry."
She took the chair which Julian had placed for her, turning her
face aside so that neither of the men could see it. One of her
hands was pressed over her bosom, the other hung listlessly at
Julian rose from the place that he had occupied. Horace neither
moved nor spoke. His head was on his breast: the traces of tears
on his cheeks owned mutely that she had touched his heart. Would
he forgive her? Julian passed on, and approached Mercy's chair.
In silence he took the hand which hung at her side. In silence he
lifted it to his lips and kissed it, as her brother might have
kissed it. She started, but she never looked up. Some strange
fear of discovery seemed to possess her. "Horace?" she whispered,
timidly. Julian made no reply. He went back to his place, and
allowed her to think it was Horace.
The sacrifice was immense enough--feeling toward her as he
felt--to be worthy of the man who made it.
A few minutes had been all she asked for. In a few minutes she
turned toward them again. Her sweet voice was steady once more;
her eyes rested softly on Horace as she went on.
"What was it possible for a friendless girl in my position to do,
when the full knowledge of the outrage had been revealed to me?
"If I had possessed near and dear relatives to protect and advise
me, the wretches into whose hands I had fallen might have felt
the penalty of the law. I knew no more of the formalities which
set the law in motion than a child. But I had another alternative
(you will say). Charitable societies would have received me and
helped me, if I had stated my case to them. I knew no more of the
charitable societies than I knew of the law. At least, then, I
might have gone back to the honest people among whom I had lived?
When I received my freedom, after the interval of some days, I
was ashamed to go back to the honest people. Helplessly and
hopelessly, without sin or choice of mine, I drifted, as
thousands of other women have drifted, into the life which set a
mark on me for the rest of my days.
"Are you surprised at the ignorance which this confession
"You, who have your solicitors to inform you of legal remedies
and your newspapers, circulars, and active friends to sound the
praises of charitable institutions continually in your ears--you,
who possess these advantages, have no idea of the outer world of
ignorance in which your lost fellow-creatures live. They know
nothing (unless they are rogues accustomed to prey on society) of
your benevolent schemes to help them. The purpose of public
charities, and the way to discover and apply to them, ought to be
posted at the corner of every street. What do we know of public
dinners and eloquent sermons and neatly printed circulars? Every
now and then the ease of some forlorn creature (generally of a
woman) who has committed suicide, within five minutes' walk,
perhaps, of an institution which would have opened its doors to
her, appears in the newspapers, shocks you dreadfully, and is
then forgotten again. Take as much pains to make charities and
asylums known among the people without money as are taken to make
a new play, a new journal, or a new medicine known among the
people with money and you will save many a lost creature who is
"You will forgive and understand me if I say no more of this
period of my life. Let me pass to the new incident in my career
which brought me for the second time before the public notice in
a court of law.
"Sad as my experience has been, it has not taught me to think ill
of human nature. I had found kind hearts to feel for me in my
former troubles; and I had friends--faithful, self-denying,
generous friends--among my sisters in adversity now. One of these
poor women (she has gone, I am glad to think, from the world that
used her so hardly) especially attracted my sympathies. She was
the gentlest, the most unselfish creature I have ever met with.
We lived together like sisters. More than once in the dark hours
when the thought of self-destruction comes to a desperate woman,
the image of my poor devoted friend, left to suffer alone, rose
in my mind and restrained me. You will hardly understand it, but
even we had our happy days. When she or I had a few shillings to
spare, we used to offer one another little presents, and enjoy
our simple pleasure in giving and receiving as keenly as if we
had been the most reputable women living.
"One day I took my friend into a shop to buy her a ribbon--only a
bow for her dress. She was to choose it, and I was to pay for it,
and it was to be the prettiest ribbon that money could buy.
"The shop was full; we had to wait a little before we could be
"Next to me, as I stood at the counter with my companion, was a
gaudily-dressed woman, looking at some handkerchiefs. The
handkerchiefs were finely embroidered, but the smart lady was
hard to please. She tumbled them up dis dainfully in a heap, and
asked for other specimens from the stock in the shop. The man, in
clearing the handkerchiefs out of the way, suddenly missed one.
He was quite sure of it, from a peculiarity in the embroidery
which made the handkerchief especially noticeable. I was poorly
dressed, and I was close to the handkerchiefs. After one look at
me he shouted to the superintendent: 'Shut the door! There is a
thief in the shop!'
"The door was closed; the lost handkerchief was vainly sought for
on the counter and on the floor. A robbery had been committed;
and I was accused of being the thief.
"I will say nothing of what I felt--I will only tell you what
"I was searched, and the handkerchief was discovered on me. The
woman who had stood next to me, on finding herself threatened
with discovery, had no doubt contrived to slip the stolen
handkerchief into my pocket. Only an accomplished thief could
have escaped detection in that way without my knowledge. It was
useless, in the face of the facts, to declare my innocence. I had
no character to appeal to. My friend tried to speak for me; but
what was she? Only a lost woman like myself. My landlady's
evidence in favor of my honesty produced no effect; it was
against her that she let lodgings to people in my position. I was
prosecuted, and found guilty. The tale of my disgrace is now
complete, Mr. Holmcroft. No matter whether I was innocent or not,
the shame of it remains--I have been imprisoned for theft.
"The matron of the prison was the next person who took an
interest in me. She reported favorably of my behavior to the
authorities and when I had served my time (as the phrase was
among us) she gave me a letter to the kind friend and guardian of
my later years--to the lady who is coming here to take me back
with her to the Refuge.
"From this time the story of my life is little more than the
story of a woman's vain efforts to recover her lost place in the
"The matron, on receiving me into the Refuge, frankly
acknowledged that there were terrible obstacles in my way. But
she saw that I was sincere, and she felt a good woman's sympathy
and compassion for me. On my side, I did not shrink from
beginning the slow and weary journey back again to a reputable
life from the humblest starting-point--from domestic service.
After first earning my new character in the Refuge, I obtained a
trial in a respectable house. I worked hard, and worked
uncomplainingly; but my mother's fatal legacy was against me from
the first. My personal appearance excited remark; my manners and
habits were not the manners and habits of the women among whom my
lot was cast. I tried one place after another--always with the
same results. Suspicion and jealousy I could endure; but I was
defenseless when curiosity assailed me in its turn. Sooner or
later inquiry led to discovery. Sometimes the servants threatened
to give warning in a body--and I was obliged to go. Sometimes,
where there was a young man in the family, scandal pointed at me
and at him--and again I was obliged to go. If you care to know
it, Miss Roseberry can tell you the story of those sad days. I
confided it to her on the memorable night when we met in the
French cottage; I have no heart repeat it now. After a while I
wearied of the hopeless struggle. Despair laid its hold on me--I
lost all hope in the mercy of God. More than once I walked to one
or other of the bridges, and looked over the parapet at the
river, and said to myself 'Other women have done it: why
"You saved me at that time, Mr. Gray--as you have saved me since.
I was one of your congregation when you preached in the chapel of
the Refuge You reconciled others besides me to our hard
pilgrimage. In their name and in mine, sir, I thank you.
"I forget how long it was after the bright day when you comforted
and sustained us that the war broke out between France and
Germany. But I can never forget the evening when the matron sent
for me into her own room and said, 'My dear, your life here is a
wasted life. If you have courage enough left to try it, I can
give you another chance.'
"I passed through a month of probation in a London hospital. A
week after that I wore the red cross of the Geneva Convention--I
was appointed nurse in a French ambulance. When you first saw me,
Mr. Holmcroft, I still had my nurse's dress on, hidden from you
and from everybody under a gray cloak.
"You know what the next event was; you know how I entered this
"I have not tried to make the worst of my trials and troubles in
telling you what my life has been. I have honestly described it
for what it was when I met with Miss Roseberry--a life without
hope. May you never know the temptation that tried me when the
shell struck its victim in the French cottage! There she
lay--dead! _Her_ name was untainted. _Her_ future promised me the
reward which had been denied to the honest efforts of a penitent
woman. My lost place in the world was offered back to me on the
one condition that I stooped to win it by a fraud. I had no
prospect to look forward to; I had no friend near to advise me
and to save me; the fairest years of my womanhood had been wasted
in the vain struggle to recover my good name. Such was my
position when the possibility of personating Miss Roseberry first
forced itself on my mind. Impulsively, recklessly-- wickedly, if
you like--I seized the opportunity, and let you pass me through
the German lines under Miss Roseberry's name. Arrived in England,
having had time to reflect, I made my first and last effort to
draw back before it was too late. I went to the Refuge, and
stopped on the opposite side of the street, looking at it. The
old hopeless life of irretrievable disgrace confronted me as I
fixed my eyes on the familiar door; the horror of returning to
that life was more than I could force myself to endure. An empty
cab passed me at the moment. The driver held up his hand. In
sheer despair I stopped him, and when he said 'Where to?' in
sheer despair again I answered, 'Mablethorpe House.'
"Of what I have suffered in secret since my own successful
deception established me under Lady Janet's care I shall say
nothing. Many things which must have surprised you in my conduct
are made plain to you by this time. You must have noticed long
since that I was not a happy woman. Now you know why.
"My confession is made; my conscience has spoken at last. You are
released from your promise to me--you are free. Thank Mr. Julian
Gray if I stand here self-accused of the offense, that I have
committed, before the man whom I have wronged."
SENTENCE IS PRONOUNCED ON HER.
IT was done. The last tones of her voice died away in silence.
Her eyes still rested on Horace. After hearing what he had heard
could he resist that gentle, pleading look? Would he forgive her?
A while since Julian had seen tears on his cheeks, and had
believed that he felt for her. Why was he now silent? Was it
possible that he only felt for himself?
For the last time--at the crisis of her life--Julian spoke for
her. He had never loved her as he loved her at that moment; it
tried even his generous nature to plead her cause with Horace
against himself. But he had promised her, without reserve, all
the help that her truest friend could offer. Faithfully and
manfully he redeemed his promise.
"Horace!" he said.
Horace slowly looked up. Julian rose and approached him.
"She has told you to thank _me_, if her conscience has spoken.
Thank the noble nature which answered when I called upon it! Own
the priceless value of a woman who can speak the truth. Her
heartfelt repentance is a joy in heaven. Shall it not plead for
her on earth? Honor her, if you are a Christian! Feel for her, if
you are a man!"
He waited. Horace never answered him.
Mercy's eyes turned tearfully on Julian. _His_ heart was the
heart that felt for her! _His_ words were the words which
comforted and pardoned her! When she looked back again at Horace,
it was with an effort. His last hold on her was lost. In her
inmost mind a thought rose unbidden--a thought which was not to
be repressed. "Can I ever have loved this man?"
She advanced a step toward him ; it was not possible, even yet,
to completely forgot the past. She held out her hand.
He rose on his side--without looking at her.
"Before we part forever," she said to him, "will you take my hand
as a token that you forgive me?"
He hesitated. He half lifted his hand. The next moment the
generous impulse died away in him. In its place came the mean
fear of what might happen if he trusted himself to the dangerous
fascination of her touch. His hand dropped again at his side; he
turned away quickly.
"I can't forgive her!" he said.
With that horrible confession--without even a last look at
her--he left the room.
At the moment when he opened the door Julian's contempt for him
burst its way through all restraints.
"Horace," he said, "I pity you!"
As the words escaped him he looked back at Mercy. She had turned
aside from both of them--she had retired to a distant part of the
library The first bitter foretaste of what was in store for her
when she faced the world again had come to her from Horace! The
energy which had sustained her thus far quailed before the
dreadful prospect--doubly dreadful to a woman--of obloquy and
contempt. She sank on her knees before a little couch in the
darkest corner of the room. "O Christ, have mercy on me!" That
was her prayer--no more.
Julian followed her. He waited a little. Then his kind hand
touched her; his friendly voice fell consolingly on her ear.
"Rise, poor wounded heart! Beautiful, purified soul, God's angels
rejoice over you! Take your place among the noblest of God's
He raised her as he spoke. All her heart went out to him. She
caught his hand--she pressed it to her bosom; she pressed it to
her lips-- then dropped it suddenly, and stood before him
trembling like a frightened child.
"Forgive me!" was all she could say. "I was so lost and
lonely--and you are so good to me!"
She tried to leave him. It was useless--her strength was gone;
she caught at the head of the couch to support herself. He looked
at her. The confession of his love was just rising to his
lips--he looked again, and checked it. No, not at that moment;
not when she was helpless and ashamed; not when her weakness
might make her yield, only to regret it at a later time. The
great heart which had spared her and felt for her from the first
spared her and felt for her now.
He, too, left her--but not without a word at parting.
"Don't think of your future life just yet," he said, gently. "I
have something to propose when rest and quiet have restored you."
He opened the nearest door--the door of the dining-room--and went
The servants engaged in completing the decoration of the
dinner-table noticed, when "Mr. Julian" entered the room, that
his eyes were "brighter than ever." He looked (they remarked)
like a man who "expected good news." They were inclined to
suspect--though he was certainly rather young for it--that her
ladyship's nephew was in a fair way of preferment in the Church.
Mercy seated herself on the couch.
There are limits, in the physical organization of man, to the
action of pain. When suffering has reached a given point of
intensity the nervous sensibility becomes incapable of feeling
more. The rule of Nature, in this respect, applies not only to
sufferers in the body, but to sufferers in the mind as well.
Grief, rage, terror, have also their appointed limits. The moral
sensibility, like the nervous sensibility, reaches its period of
absolute exhaustion, and feels no more.
The capacity for suffering in Mercy had attained its term. Alone
in the library, she could feel the physical relief of repose; she
could vaguely recall Julian's parting words to her, and sadly
wonder what they meant--she could do no more.
An interval passed; a brief interval of perfect rest.
She recovered herself sufficiently to be able to look at her
watch and to estimate the lapse of time that might yet pass
before Julian returned to her as he had promised. While her mind
was still languidly following this train of thought she was
disturbed by the ringing of a bell in the hall, used to summon
the servant whose duties were connected with that part of the
house. In leaving the library, Horace had gone out by the door
which led into the hall, and had failed to close it. She plainly
heard the bell--and a moment later (more plainly still) she heard
Lady Janet's voice!
She started to her feet. Lady Janet's letter was still in the
pocket of her apron--the letter which imperatively commanded her
to abstain from making the very confession that had just passed
her lips! It was near the dinner hour, and the library was the
favorite place in which the mistress of the house and her guests
assembled at that time. It was no matter of doubt; it was an
absolute certainty that Lady Janet had only stopped in the hall
on her way into the room.
The alternative for Mercy lay between instantly leaving the
library by the dining-room door--or remaining where she was, at
the risk of being sooner or later compelled to own that she had
deliberately disobeyed her benefactress. Exhausted by what she
had already suffered, she stood trembling and irresolute,
incapable of deciding which alternative she should choose.
Lady Janet's voice, clear and resolute, penetrated into the room.
She was reprimanding the servant who had answered the bell.
"Is it your duty in my house to look after the lamps?"
"Yes, my lady."
"And is it my duty to pay you your wages?""
"If you please, my lady."
"Why do I find the light in the hall dim, and the wick of that
lamp smoking? I have not failed in my duty to You. Don't let me
find you failing again in your duty to Me."
(Never had Lady Janet's voice sounded so sternly in Mercy's ear
as it sounded now. If she spoke with that tone of severity to a
servant who had neglected a lamp, what had her adopted daughter
to expect when she discovered that her entreaties and her
commands had been alike set at defiance?)
Having administered her reprimand, Lady Janet had not done with
the servant yet. She had a question to put to him next.
"Where is Miss Roseberry?"
"In the library, my lady."
Mercy returned to the couch. She could stand no longer; she had
not even resolution enough left to lift her eyes to the door.
Lady Janet came in more rapidly than usual. She advanced to the
couch, and tapped Mercy playfully on the cheek with two of her
"You lazy child! Not dressed for dinner? Oh, fie, fie!"
Her tone was as playfully affectionate as the action which had
accompanied her words. In speechless astonishment Mercy looked up
Always remarkable for the taste and splendor of her dress, Lady
Janet had on this occasion surpassed herself. There she stood
revealed in her grandest velvet, her richest jewelry, her finest
lace--with no one to entertain at the dinner-table but the
ordinary members of the circle at Mablethorpe House. Noticing
this as strange to begin with, Mercy further observed, for the
first time in her experience, that Lady Janet's eyes avoided
meeting hers. The old lady took her place companionably on the
couch; she ridiculed her "lazy child's" plain dress, without an
ornament of any sort on it, with her best grace; she
affectionately put her arm round Mercy's waist, and rearranged
with her own hand the disordered locks of Mercy's hair--but the
instant Mercy herself looked at her, Lady Janet's eyes discovered
something supremely interesting in the familiar objects that
surrounded her on the library walls.
How were these changes to be interpreted? To what possible
conclusion did they point?
Julian's profounder knowledge of human nature, if Julian had been
present, might have found a clew to the mystery. _He_ might have
surmised (incredible as it was) that Mercy's timidity before Lady
Janet was fully reciprocated by Lady Janet's timidity before
Mercy. It was even so. The woman whose immovable composure had
conquered Grace Roseberry's utmost insolence in the hour of her
triumph--the woman who, without once flinching, had faced every
other consequence of her resolution to ignore Mercy's true
position in the house--quailed for the first time when she found
herself face to face with the very person for who m she had
suffered and sacrificed so much. She had shrunk from the meeting
with Mercy, as Mercy had shrunk from the meeting with _her_. The
splendor of her dress meant simply that, when other excuses for
delaying the meeting downstairs had all been exhausted, the
excuse of a long, and elaborate toilet had been tried next. Even
the moments occupied in reprimanding the servant had been moments
seized on as the pretext for another delay. The hasty entrance
into the room, the nervous assumption of playfulness in language
and manner, the evasive and wandering eyes, were all referable to
the same cause. In the presence of others, Lady Janet had
successfully silenced the protest of her own inbred delicacy and
inbred sense of honor. In the presence of Mercy, whom she loved
with a mother's love--in the presence of Mercy, for whom she had
stooped to deliberate concealment of the truth--all that was high
and noble in the woman's nature rose in her and rebuked her. What
will the daughter of my adoption, the child of my first and last
experience of maternal love, think of me, now that I have made
myself an accomplice in the fraud of which she is ashamed? How
can I look her in the face, when I have not hesitated, out of
selfish consideration for my own tranquillity, to forbid that
frank avowal of the truth which her finer sense of duty had
spontaneously bound her to make? Those were the torturing
questions in Lady Janet's mind, while her arm was wound
affectionately round Mercy's waist, while her fingers were
busying themselves familiarly with the arrangement of Mercy's
hair. Thence, and thence only, sprang the impulse which set her
talking, with an uneasy affectation of frivolity, of any topic
within the range of conversation, so long as it related to the
future, and completely ignored the present and the past.
"The winter here is unendurable," Lady Janet began. "I have been
thinking, Grace, about what we had better do next."
Mercy started. Lady Janet had called her "Grace." Lady Janet was
still deliberately assuming to be innocent of the faintest
suspicion of the truth.
" No," resumed her ladyship, affecting to misunderstand Mercy's
movement, "you are not to go up now and dress. There is no time,
and I am quite ready to excuse you. You are a foil to me, my
dear. You have reached the perfection of shabbiness. Ah! I
remember when I had my whims and fancies too, and when I looked
well in anything I wore, just as you do. No more of that. As I
was saying, I have been thinking and planning what we are to do.
We really can't stay here. Cold one day, and hot the next--what a
climate! As for society, what do we lose if we go away? There is
no such thing as society now. Assemblies of well-dressed mobs
meet at each other's houses, tear each other's clothes, tread on
each other's toes. If you are particularly lucky, you sit on the
staircase, you get a tepid ice, and you hear vapid talk in slang
phrases all round you. There is modern society. If we had a good
opera, it would be something to stay in London for. Look at the
programme for the season on that table--promising as much as
possible on paper, and performing as little as possible on the
stage. The same works, sung by the same singers year after year,
to the same stupid people--in short the dullest musical evenings
in Europe. No! the more I think of it, the more plainly I
perceive that there is but one sensible choice before us: we must
go abroad. Set that pretty head to work; choose north or south,
east or west; it's all the same to me. Where shall we go?"
Mercy looked at her quickly as she put the question.
Lady Janet, more quickly yet, looked away at the programme of the
opera-house. Still the same melancholy false pretenses! still the
same useless and cruel delay! Incapable of enduring the position
now forced upon her, Mercy put her hand into the pocket of her
apron, and drew from it Lady Janet's letter.
"Will your ladyship forgive me," she began, in faint, faltering
tones, "if I venture on a painful subject? I hardly dare
acknowledge--" In spite of her resolution to speak out plainly,
the memory of past love and past kindness prevailed with her; the
next words died away on her lips. She could only hold up the
Lady Janet declined to see the letter. Lady Janet suddenly became
absorbed in the arrangement of her bracelets.
"I know what you daren't acknowledge, you foolish child!" she
exclaimed. "You daren't acknowledge that you are tired of this
dull house. My dear! I am entirely of your opinion--I am weary of
my own magnificence; I long to be living in one snug little room,
with one servant to wait on me. I'll tell you what we will do. We
will go to Paris, in the first place. My excellent Migliore,
prince of couriers, shall be the only person in attendance. He
shall take a lodging for us in one of the unfashionable quarters
of Paris. We will rough it, Grace (to use the slang phrase),
merely for a change. We will lead what they call a 'Bohemian
life.' I know plenty of writers and painters and actors in
Paris--the liveliest society in the world, my dear, until one
gets tired of them. We will dine at the restaurant, and go to the
play, and drive about in shabby little hired carriages. And when
it begins to get monotonous (which it is only too sure to do!) we
will spread our wings and fly to Italy, and cheat the winter in
that way. There is a plan for you! Migliore is in town. I will
send to him this evening, and we will start to-morrow."
Mercy made another effort.
"I entreat your ladyship to pardon me," she resumed. "I have
something serious to say. I am afraid--"
"I understand. You are afraid of crossing the Channel, and you
don't like to acknowledge it. Pooh! The passage barely lasts two
hours; we will shut ourselves up in a private cabin. I will send
at once--the courier may be engaged. Ring the bell."
"Lady Janet, I must submit to my hard lot. I cannot hope to
associate myself again with any future plans of yours--"
"What! you are afraid of our 'Bohemian life' in Paris? Observe
this, Grace! If there is one thing I hate more than another, it
is 'an old head on young shoulders.' I say no more. Ring the
"This cannot go on, Lady Janet! No words can say how unworthy I
feel of your kindness, how ashamed I am--"
"Upon my honor, my dear, I agree with you. You _ought_ to be
ashamed, at your age, of making me get up to ring the bell."
Her obstinacy was immovable; she attempted to rise from the
couch. But one choice was left to Mercy. She anticipated Lady
Janet, and rang the bell.
The man-servant came in. He had his little letter-tray in his
hand, with a card on it, and a sheet of paper beside the card,
which looked like an open letter.
"You know where my courier lives when he is in London?' asked
"Yes, my lady."
"Send one of the grooms to him on horseback; I am in a hurry. The
courier is to come here without fail to-morrow morning--in time
for the tidal train to Paris. You understand?"
"Yes, my lady."
"What have you got there? Anything for me?"
"For Miss Roseberry, my lady."
As he answered, the man handed the card and the open letter to
"The lady is waiting in the morning-room, miss. She wished me to
say she has time to spare, and she will wait for you if you are
not ready yet."
Having delivered his message in those terms, he withdrew.
Mercy read the name on the card. The matron had arrived! She
looked at the letter next. It appeared to be a printed circular,
with some lines in pencil added on the empty page. Printed lines
and written lines swam before her eyes. She felt, rather than
saw, Lady Janet's attention steadily and suspiciously fixed on
her. With the matron's arrival the foredoomed end of the flimsy
false pretenses and the cruel delays had come.
"A friend of yours, my dear?"
"Yes, Lady Janet."
"Am I acquainted with her?"
"I think not, Lady Janet."
"You appear to be agitated. Does your visitor bring bad news? Is
there anything that I can do for you?"
"You can add--immeasurably add, madam-- to all your past
kindness, if you will only bear with me and forgive me."
"Bear with you and forgive you? I don't understand."
"I will try to explain . Whatever else you may think of me, Lady
Janet, for God's sake don't think me ungrateful!"
Lady Janet held up her hand for silence.
"I dislike explanations," she said, sharply. "Nobody ought to
know that better than you. Perhaps the lady's letter will explain
for you. Why have you not looked at it yet?"
"I am in great trouble, madam, as you noticed just now--"
"Have you any objection to my knowing who your visitor is?"
"No, Lady Janet."
"Let me look at her card, then."
Mercy gave the matron's card to Lady Janet, as she had given the
matron's telegram to Horace.
Lady Janet read the name on the card--considered--decided that it
was a name quite unknown to her--and looked next at the address:
"Western District Refuge, Milburn Road."
"A lady connected with a Refuge?" she said, speaking to herself;
"and calling here by appointment--if I remember the servant's
message? A strange time to choose, if she has come for a
She paused. Her brow contracted; her face hardened. A word from
her would now have brought the interview to its inevitable end,
and she refused to speak the word. To the last moment she
persisted in ignoring the truth! Placing the card on the couch at
her side, she pointed with her long yellow-white forefinger to
the printed letter lying side by side with her own letter on
"Do you mean to read it, or not?" she asked.
Mercy lifted her eyes, fast filling with tears, to Lady Janet's
"May I beg that your ladyship will read it for me?" she said--and
placed the matron's letter in Lady Janet's hand.
It was a printed circular announcing a new development in the
charitable work of the Refuge. Subscribers were informed that it
had been decided to extend the shelter and the training of the
institution (thus far devoted to fallen women alone) so as to
include destitute and helpless children found wandering in the
streets. The question of the number of children to be thus
rescued and protected was left dependent, as a matter of course,
on the bounty of the friends of the Refuge, the cost of the
maintenance of each child being stated at the lowest possible
rate. A list of influential persons who had increased their
subscriptions so as to cover the cost, and a brief statement of
the progress already made with the new work, completed the
appeal, and brought the circular to its end.
The lines traced in pencil (in the matron's handwriting) followed
on the blank page.
"Your letter tells me, my dear, that you would like--remembering
your own childhood--to be employed when you return among us in
saving other poor children left helpless on the world. Our
circular will inform you that I am able to meet your wishes. My
first errand this evening in your neighborhood was to take charge
of a poor child--a little girl--who stands sadly in need of our
care. I have ventured to bring her with me, thinking she might
help to reconcile you to the coming change in your life. You will
find us both waiting to go back with you to the old home. I write
this instead of saying it, hearing from the servant that you are
not alone, and being unwilling to intrude myself, as a stranger,
on the lady of the house."
Lady Janet read the penciled lines, as she had read the printed
sentences, aloud. Without a word of comment she laid the letter
where she had laid the card; and, rising from her seat, stood for
a moment in stern silence, looking at Mercy. The sudden change in
her which the letter had produced--quietly as it had taken
place--was terrible to see. On the frowning brow, in the flashing
eyes, on the hardened lips, outraged love and outraged pride
looked down on the lost woman, and said, as if in words, You have
roused us at last.
"If that letter means anything,'' she said, "it means you are
about to leave my house. There can be but one reason for your
taking such a step as that."
"It is the only atonement I can make, madam"
"I see another letter on your lap. Is it my letter?"
"Have you read it?"
"I have read it."
"Have you seen Horace Holmcroft?"
"Have you told Horace Holmcroft--"
"Oh, Lady Janet--"
"Don't interrupt me. Have you told Horace Holmcroft what my
letter positively forbade you to communicate, either to him or to
any living creature? I want no protestations and excuses. Answer
me instantly, and answer in one word--Yes, or No."
Not even that haughty language, not even those pitiless tones,
could extinguish in Mercy's heart the sacred memories of past
kindness and past love. She fell on her knees--her outstretched
hands touched Lady Janet's dress. Lady Janet sharply drew her
dress away, and sternly repeated her last words.
"Yes? or No?"
She had owned it at last! To this end Lady Janet had submitted to
Grace Roseberry; had offended Horace Holmcroft; had stooped, for
the first time in her life, to concealments and compromises that
degraded her. After all that she had sacrificed and suffered,
there Mercy knelt at her feet, self-convicted of violating her
commands, trampling on her feelings, deserting her house! And who
was the woman who had done this? The same woman who had
perpetrated the fraud, and who had persisted in the fraud until
her benefactress had descended to become her accomplice. Then,
and then only, she had suddenly discovered that it was her sacred
duty to tell the truth!
In proud silence the great lady met the blow that had fallen on
her. In proud silence she turned her back on her adopted daughter
and walked to the door.
Mercy made her last appeal to the kind friend whom she had
offended--to the second mother whom she had loved.
"Lady Janet! Lady Janet! Don't leave me without a word. Oh,
madam, try to feel for me a little! I am returning to a life of
humiliation--the shadow of my old disgrace is falling on me once
more. We shall never meet again. Even though I have not deserved
it, let my repentance plead with you! Say you forgive me!"
Lady Janet turned round on the threshold of the door.
"I never forgive ingratitude," she said. "Go back to the Refuge."
The door opened and closed on her. Mercy was alone again in the
Unforgiven by Horace, unforgiven by Lady Janet! She put her hands
to her burning head and tried to think. Oh, for the cool air of
the night! Oh, for the friendly shelter of the Refuge! She could
feel those sad longings in her: it was impossible to think.
She rang the bell--and shrank back the instant she had done it.
Had _she_ any right to take that liberty? She ought to have
thought of it before she rang. Habit--all habit. How many
hundreds of times she had rung the bell at Mablethorpe House!
The servant came in. She amazed the man-- she spoke to him so
timidly: she even apologized for troubling him!
"I am sorry to disturb you. Will you be so kind as to say to the
lady that I am ready for her?"
"Wait to give that message," said a voice behind them, "until you
hear the bell rung again."
Mercy looked round in amazement. Julian had returned to the
library by the dining-room door.
THE LAST TRIAL.
THE servant left them together. Mercy spoke first.
"Mr. Gray!" she exclaimed, "why have you delayed my message? If
you knew all, you would know that it is far from being a kindness
to me to keep me in this house."
He advanced closer to her--surprised by her words, alarmed by her
"Has any one been here in my absence?" he asked.
"Lady Janet has been here in your absence. I can't speak of
it--my heart feels crushed--I can bear no more. Let me go!"
Briefly as she had replied, she had said enough. Julian's
knowledge of Lady Janet's character told him what had happened.
His face showed plainly that he was disappointed as well as
"I had hoped to have been with you when you and my aunt met, and
to have prevented this," he said. "Believe me, she will atone for
all that she may have harshly and hastily done when she has had
time to think. Try not to regret it, if she has made your hard
sacrifice harder still. She has only raised you the higher--she
has additionally ennobled you and endeared you in my estimation.
Forgive me if I own this in plain words. I cannot control
myself--I feel too strongly."
At other times
Mercy might have heard the coming avowal in his tones, might
have discovered it in his eyes. As it was, her delicate insight
was dulled, her fine perception was blunted. She held out her
hand to him, feeling a vague conviction that he was kinder to her
than ever--and feeling no more.
"I must thank you for the last time," she said. "As long as life
is left, my gratitude will be a part of my life. Let me go. While
I can still control myself, let me go!"
She tried to leave him, and ring the bell. He held her hand
firmly, and drew her closer to him.
"To the Refuge?" he asked.
"Yes," she said. "Home again!"
"Don't say that!" he exclaimed. "I can't bear to hear it. Don't
call the Refuge your home!"
"What else is it? Where else can I go?"
"I have come here to tell you. I said, if you remember, I had
something to propose."
She felt the fervent pressure of his hand; she saw the mounting
enthusiasm flashing in his eyes. Her weary mind roused itself a
little. She began to tremble under the electric influence of his
"Something to propose?" she repeated, "What is there to propose?"
"Let me ask you a question on my side. What have you done
"You know what I have done: it is your work," she answered,
humbly. "Why return to it now?"
"I return to it for the last time; I return to it with a purpose
which you will soon understand. You have abandoned your marriage
engagement; you have forfeited Lady Janet's love; you have ruined
all your worldly prospects; you are now returning, self-devoted,
to a life which you have yourself described as a life without
hope. And all this you have done of your own free-will--at a time
when you are absolutely secure of your position in the house--for
the sake of speaking the truth. Now tell me, is a woman who can
make that sacrifice a woman who will prove unworthy of the trust
if a man places in her keeping his honor and his name?"
She understood him at last. She broke away from him with a cry.
She stood with her hands clasped, trembling and looking at him.
He gave her no time to think. The words poured from his lips
without conscious will or conscious effort of his own.
"Mercy, from the first moment when I saw you I loved you! You are
free; I may own it; I may ask you to be my wife!"
She drew back from him further and further, with a wild imploring
gesture of her hand.
"No! no!" she cried. "Think of what you are saying! think of what
you would sacrifice! It cannot, must not be."
His face darkened with a sudden dread. His head fell on his
breast. His voice sank so low that she could barely hear it.
"I had forgotten something," he said. "You've reminded me of it."
She ventured back a little nearer to him. "Have I offended you?"
He smiled sadly. "You have enlightened me. I had forgotten that
it doesn't follow, because I love you, that you should love me in
return. Say that it is so, Mercy, and I leave you."
A faint tinge of color rose on her face--then left it again paler
than ever. Her eyes looked downward timidly under the eager gaze
that he fastened on her.
"How _can_ I say so?" she answered, simply. Where is the woman in
my place whose heart could resist you?"
He eagerly advanced; he held out his arms to her in breathless,
speechless joy. She drew back from him once more with a look that
horrified him--a look of blank despair.
"Am I fit to be your wife?" she asked. ''Must I remind you of
what you owe to your high position, your spotless integrity, your
famous name? Think of all that you have done for me, and then
think of the black ingratitude of it if I ruin you for life by
consenting to our marriage--if I selfishly, cruelly, wickedly,
drag you down to the level of a woman like me!"
"I raise you to _my_ level when I make you my wife," he answered.
"For Heaven's sake do me justice! Don't refer me to the world and
its opinions. It rests with you, and you alone, to make the
misery or the happiness of my life. The world! Good God! what can
the world give me in exchange for You?'
She clasped her hands imploringly; the tears flowed fast over her
"Oh, have pity on my weakness!" she cried. "Kindest, best of men,
help me to do my hard duty toward you! It is so hard, after all
that I have suffered--when my heart is yearning for peace and
happiness and love!" She checked herself, shuddering at the words
that had escaped her. "Remember how Mr. Holmcroft has used me!
Remember how Lady Janet has left me! Remember what I have told
you of my life! The scorn of every creature you know would strike
at you through me. No! no! no! Not a word more. Spare me! pity
me! leave me!"
Her voice failed her; sobs choked her utterance. He sprang to her
and took her in his arms. She was incapable of resisting him; but
there was no yielding in her. Her head lay on his bosom,
passive--horribly passive, like the head of a corpse.
"Mercy! My darling! We will go away--we will leave England--we
will take refuge among new people in a new world--I will change
my name--I will break with relatives, friends, everybody.
Anything, anything, rather than lose you!"
She lifted her head slowly and looked at him.
He suddenly released her; he reeled back like a man staggered by
a blow, and dropped into a chair. Before she had uttered a word
he saw the terrible resolution in her face--Death, rather than
yield to her own weakness and disgrace him.
She stood with her hands lightly clasped in front of her. Her
grand head was raised; her soft gray eyes shone again undimmed by
tears. The storm of emotion had swept over her and had passed
away A sad tranquillity was in her face; a gentle resignation was
in her voice. The calm of a martyr was the calm that confronted
him as she spoke her last words.
"A woman who has lived my life, a woman who has suffered what I
have suffered, may love you--as _I_ love you--but she must not be
your wife. _That_ place is too high above her. Any other place is
too far below her and below you." She paused, and advancing to
the bell, gave the signal for her departure. That done, she
slowly retraced her steps until she stood at Julian's side.
Tenderly she lifted his head and laid it for a moment on her
bosom. Silently she stooped and touched his forehead with her
lips. All the gratitude that filled her heart and all the
sacrifice that rent it were in those two actions--so modestly, so
tenderly performed! As the last lingering pressure of her fingers
left him, Julian burst into tears.
The servant answered the bell. At the moment he opened the door a
woman's voice was audible in the hall speaking to him.
"Let the child go in," the voice said. "I will wait here."
The child appeared--the same forlorn little creature who had
reminded Mercy of her own early years on the day when she and
Horace Holmcroft had been out for their walk.
There was no beauty in this child; no halo of romance brightened
the commonplace horror of her story. She came cringing into the
room, staring stupidly at the magnificence all round her--the
daughter of the London streets! the pet creation of the laws of
political economy! the savage and terrible product of a worn-out
system of government and of a civilization rotten to its core!
Cleaned for the first time in her life, fed sufficiently for the
first time in her life, dressed in clothes instead of rags for
the first time in her life, Mercy's sister in adversity crept
fearfully over the beautiful carpet, and stopped wonder-struck
before the marbles of an inlaid table--a blot of mud on the
splendor of the room.
Mercy turned from Julian to meet the child. The woman's heart,
hungering in its horrible isolation for something that it might
harmlessly love, welcomed the rescued waif of the streets as a
consolation sent from God. She caught the stupefied little
creature up in her arms. "Kiss me!" she whispered, in the
reckless agony of the moment. "Call me sister!" The child stared,
vacantly. Sister meant nothing to her mind but an older girl who
was strong enough to beat her.
She put the child down again, and turned for a last look at the
man whose happiness she had wrecked-- in pity to _him_.
He had never moved. His head was down; his face was hidden. She
went back to hi m a few steps.
"The others have gone from me without one kind word. Can _you_
He held out his hand to her without looking up. Sorely as she had
wounded him, his generous nature understood her. True to her from
the first, _he_ was true to her still.
"God bless and comfort you," he said, in broken tones. "The earth
holds no nobler woman than you."
She knelt and kissed the kind hand that pressed hers for the last
time. "It doesn't end with this world," she whispered: "there is
a better world to come!" Then she rose, and went back to the
child. Hand in hand the two citizens of the Government of
God--outcasts of the government of Man--passed slowly down the
length of the room. Then out into the hall. Then out into the
night. The heavy clang of the closing door tolled the knell of
their departure. They were gone.
But the orderly routine of the house--inexorable as
death--pursued its appointed course. As the clock struck the hour
the dinner-bell rang. An interval of a minute passed, and marked
the limit of delay. The butler appeared at the dining-room door.
"Dinner is served, sir."
Julian looked up. The empty room met his eyes. Something white
lay on the carpet close by him. It was her handkerchief--wet with
her tears. He took it up and pressed it to his lips. Was that to
be the last of her? Had she left him forever?
The native energy of the man, arming itself with all the might of
his love, kindled in him again. No! While life was in him, while
time was before him, there was the hope of winning her yet!
He turned to the servant, reckless of what his face might betray.
"Where is Lady Janet?"
"In the dining-room, sir."
He reflected for a moment. His own influence had failed. Through
what other influence could he now hope to reach her? As the
question crossed his mind the light broke on him. He saw the way
back to her--through the influence of Lady Janet.
"Her ladyship is waiting, sir."
Julian entered the dining-room.
CONTAINING SELECTIONS FROM THE CORRESPONDENCE OF MISS GRACE
ROSEBERRY AND MR. HORACE HOLMCROFT; TO WHICH ARE ADDED EXTRACTS
FROM THE DIARY OF THE REVEREND JULIAN GRAY.
From MR. HORACE HOLMCROFT to MISS GRACE ROSEBERRY.
"I HASTEN to thank you, dear Miss Roseberry, for your last kind
letter, received by yesterday's mail from Canada. Believe me, I
appreciate your generous readiness to pardon and forget what I so
rudely said to you at a time when the arts of an adventuress had
blinded me to the truth. In the grace which has forgiven me I
recognize the inbred sense of justice of a true lady. Birth and
breeding can never fail to assert themselves: I believe in them,
thank God, more firmly than ever.
"You ask me to keep you informed of the progress of Julian Gray's
infatuation, and of the course of conduct pursued toward him by
"If you had not favored me by explaining your object, I might
have felt some surprise at receiving from a lady in your position
such a request as this. But the motives by which you describe
yourself as being actuated are beyond dispute. The existence of
Society, as you truly say, is threatened by the present
lamentable prevalence of Liberal ideas throughout the length and
breadth of the land. We can only hope to protect ourselves
against impostors interested in gaining a position among persons
of our rank by becoming in some sort (unpleasant as it may be)
familiar with the arts by which imposture too frequently
succeeds. If we wish to know to what daring lengths cunning can