Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 8/Milly Leslie's secret
MILLY LESLIE’S SECRET.
The cathedral bells of Trowchester were ringing for evening prayer. A mellow light had fallen on the west front, while shadows were creeping over the cloisters and throwing the old buildings in their rear into obscurity. No zealous hands had striven to renovate Trowchester Cathedral. The north transept alone served for the purposes of public worship, and if any visitor of antiquarian tendencies attempted to stray towards the nave or aisles, he was followed by an anxious verger, who represented to him the danger of his wanderings, and pointed out the positive order of the Dean and Chapter that no one should penetrate beyond the given space. Ominous noises, heard in the quiet morning and evening, but perhaps more alarming in their reality when occurring at noonday, warned the inhabitants of the neighbourhood that Time had laid no gentle hand on the massive walls; yet externally there was no sign of ruin, and now, as they stood in the last glow of the wintry sunset, it was difficult to believe in their decay.
Hurrying past the cathedral and onwards towards the market-cross came Milly Leslie, the wife of a clergyman officiating at the only chapel of ease in Trowchester. She turned down one of the narrow streets that led to the suburbs, and knocked at the door of a small old-fashioned house with a projecting upper storey. An elderly woman who opened the door shook her head sadly as she looked at Milly and led the way up-stairs, where, on her bed, a woman still young, and with the remains of a delicate and refined beauty on her features, lay dying of a painful illness which had so far yielded in the mortal struggle that a short interval of comparative peace had been granted to her last hours. “Something,” said physicians, “had worn Mrs. Lane out.” That something was anxiety. It was expressed in her eager eyes, and in that restlessness of body which, in some degree, seems to us to lessen the sanctity of suffering.
“Dr. Burrows does not think I shall live till morning,” she said, as Milly sat down by the bed-side. “Months ago I entreated him to warn me when he saw my last hours of suffering approaching, in order that I might not put off till too late what I have to say to you. Send Martha to church and come back to me.”
The old servant went unwillingly, and Mrs. Lane waited for the closing of the house-door before she spoke again.
“You know I have nothing to leave you, Milly,” she said at last; “my annuity dies with me. I thank God that you are loved and cared for. Had it been otherwise, my last hours would have been sadder than they now are. Milly!” she asked suddenly, “do you remember your father?”
“Sometimes, mother, I think I do; but it is so long since he died. It must be more than fourteen years ago—before we came to Trowchester.”
“Milly, he is not dead.”
“Not dead! Oh, mother! where is he?”
“He has been in England for more than a year.”
“Why did he leave us? Mother, what mystery have you hid from me?”
“The wretched secret of my life. Your father’s name—it was not Lane—is even now a reproach in men’s mouths. By fraudulent means he obtained possession of property which he held in trust for others: whole families were rendered beggars by his crime—widows and children have starved from its consequences. I came here with you, Milly, fifteen years ago, resolved, if it were possible, to keep you from the knowledge of the evil he had wrought. Deceit grew upon me, I cannot tell how, unless it sprung from the love I bore my child. I called myself a widow. I made up some story of my former life that satisfied the people we have been thrown amongst, and I was thankful that its truth had never been called in question when Mr. Leslie asked you to be his wife. Think what the prejudices of his family would have been if the fact of your father being a convict had been known! Even if his attachment to you had induced him to hold to his engagement in defiance of the world’s opinion, the knowledge of the fact would have destroyed your future happiness. Once, indeed, I tried to tell him, but my heart failed me.”
“But, oh, mother! it is so unfair, so dishonest—forgive me, it is your affection for me, I know, that blinds you to the wrong-doing.”
“I have done it for the best. He could never have a better or truer wife than my Milly. Why should you suffer for your father’s sin? For the sake of my sleepless nights, for the long wearying days of anxiety and care, promise me, as you hope for mercy when you too lie down to die, that you will never tell Robert Leslie what I have kept back from him. I do not ask it on the strength of my own judgment alone. Your father wrote to me a fortnight before your marriage to tell me he had returned a homeless man. My first impulse was to share with him the little I had. Then I thought of the ruin of your prospects from the degradation of his relationship and the hard sentence of the world when it should be discovered. I looked around for a friend to whom I could confide my position. Of all I knew in this place I could only ask advice in this cruel strait of Mr. Wareham.”
“As a lawyer and a friend he was qualified to aid me. I wrote to your father upon his suggestion, sending him what little money I could spare, and entreating him to remain in London till after your marriage.”
“And you have heard from him since, mother?”
“Never—never since. A second letter I sent to the address he gave me was returned from the post-office some time ago.”
“If Mr. Wareham should betray us!”
“Mr. Wareham promised me secresy by everything he held sacred, and I hope, I pray, that he may keep his word.”
Milly’s head was hid in her hands, but nothing shut out the ticking of the clock that seemed noting only her mother’s breathing.
“Promise me, my Milly!” said the faint voice more feebly.
And in the deepening gloom, with her mother’s head pillowed on her arm—hoping that sleep might come to the weary eyelids if she yielded—praying that she might be forgiven if in so doing she erred—Milly promised never to tell her husband her father’s history, never to say or do anything in reference to it which would alter her position as Mr. Leslie’s wife.
Evening prayers had been said and sung. The footsteps of the passers-by vibrated through the room. Martha had let herself in at the house-door, and Milly heard her striking a light in the room beneath. Softly she came up the creaking stairs and opened the door, shading the candle with her hand. Why heed where its rays fell? Mrs. Lane was dead.
The house in which the Leslies lived was in one of the principal streets of Trowchester; but it was ill-contrived, the ceilings were low, and the aspect uninviting. Dark moreen curtains hung at the parlour windows. The furniture was of mahogany, and the chairs were covered with horsehair. A large round table with a green cloth stood in the centre of the room; a few shelves filled with controversial books had been fixed against the walls, and three obelisks of grey marble decorated the mantel-piece. Milly’s housekeeping keys lay in a basket on the table: they were the sole symbols of feminine occupation visible. How was it possible for the room to look otherwise than hard and bare? It was here that Milly, pale and saddened, was receiving a visit from her mother-in-law. Mrs. Lane had been dead a fortnight, and Mrs. Leslie, who had never liked her, found it difficult to express sympathy with the daughter’s grief. Mrs. Lane, from the beginning of Robert Leslie’s acquaintance with Milly, had been obnoxious in her eyes. She was not a member of Mr. Leslie’s congregation. She was undeniably poor; and there was aggravation of injuries in the fact that there was nothing tangible in her manner, either to Mr. Leslie or the rest of the small Trowchester world, to which she could reasonably object. No one had accused her of match-making for her daughter, and yet half-a-dozen mothers hated her as if she had entrapped Mr. Leslie into the marriage. But all women judge each other harshly; and if the softest and gentlest amongst them cannot be exempted from the accusation, how much the more heavily must it fall upon the hard and exacting! Mrs. Leslie had had many struggles with adverse circumstances before she had seen her son safely placed in his present position. She was the widow of a dissenting preacher of some eminence in his day. He had died soon after the birth of her son, who was the youngest of her children. She had lost three others in their infancy, and the interest that each had individually inspired in her heart was now centred in him. By the most pinching economy in her own expenses his education had been carried on satisfactorily. Often, as she sat through the winter days in a dreary lodging, denying herself a fire, and making a cup of tea at least twice a week do duty for dinner, she would dream of a future when his talents should be matured, and he should enter the ministry as his father had done before him. And that future was realised, though not in the way she intended; for Robert Leslie entered the Established Church, and left behind him many prejudices which had clung to his parents. She had kept her son’s house for five years when his acquaintance began with Milly Lane. She did not oppose his wishes with regard to his marriage; that course she felt would have been a futile one; but she withdrew from his home when it was finally arranged, and settled herself down once more in solitude. Who could deny that Milly was pretty? She had large, soft brown eyes, a sweet smile, and a flitting blush that came and went on small provocations, making her face look brighter than it was in reality.
“And for this,” Mrs. Leslie thought, as she turned the matter over in her mind during many a long day and longer night, “my son has married her! She can’t take a class in the school: she would not know Obadiah from Hezekiah: she could not cut out a pinafore if she tried for hours: Robert might preach new-fangled doctrine for a month and she would never find it out. What could have induced him to fall in love with a woman whose character is so utterly dissimilar to his own?”
Mrs. Leslie was sitting with her daughter-in-law: a little sterner and colder than usual, from being uncertain whether Milly was sufficiently mistress of herself to receive her observations with calmness. It had been a source of bitterness to Mrs. Leslie to find that “Milly” was not merely some pet diminutive, but a name that had been actually given in baptism; and at the commencement of their acquaintance she had suggested that she might address her daughter-in-law by a more conventional one. Somehow Mr. Leslie had fallen into the same habit, and Milly had become “Emilia” in her new home.
“Your constant attendance on your mother, Emilia—though I do not say you could have acted otherwise—has greatly interfered with your duties. You have scarcely ever been to evening chapel for the last three months; and on no less than four separate occasions I have observed that Robert’s tea has not been ready on his return from the Sunday school.”
All this was true, and Milly making no reply, Mrs. Leslie continued:
“You have neglected several people, too, who have every claim upon your attention. Mrs. Bowle’s Jemima has had measles: you have never once sent to inquire after her. Mrs. Crawley’s cook and housemaid left her without notice: you should have offered her the services of one of the upper girls in the school. These little civilities are expected from a person in your position. Mr. Wareham tells me he has called twice when he knew you were at home, but that he has not seen you. Why is this? He is by far the most important and the most liberal member of your husband’s congregation: he ought not to be slighted. He will most probably come in with your husband from the savings bank this morning, and I beg you will not go up to your own room when they are discussing business matters. For my own part, I always found it better to take an interest in them when I lived with my son.”
Well! sooner or later Milly knew she must meet Mr. Wareham again, and there might possibly be a sense of relief in the knowledge that their first interview would not be without witnesses. Not even her mother had ever known that before her engagement to Mr. Leslie was declared, Mr. Wareham had suddenly and passionately told her that he loved her—loved her in the face of all the coldness and reserve with which she treated him, and that, let her answer be what it might, he should love her so long as they both lived. She remembered that she had turned from him with something like disgust—that his eye had glared for a moment with fury, and that a vague dread of Mr. Wareham had taken possession of her mind from that period. To share her mother’s secret with him, of all persons in the world! She felt there was but one line of conduct to pursue. She must endeavour to keep him in ignorance of the fact that her mother had confided to her the whole wretched history. All this, and much more in detail,—not one amongst us can put on paper the thousand threads that form the woof of the human mind,—all this had occurred to Milly when her mother-in-law announced Mr. Wareham’s intended visit. He came in with Mr. Leslie a few minutes afterwards. Never, perhaps, was there a greater contrast than that which existed between the two men. Mr. Leslie was tall and spare, with strongly marked features, and a kindly expression in his eyes which was at variance with the reserve of his manner. Mr. Wareham represented the opposite type. He was stout and tall: his face fair and handsome: his manners almost affectedly frank and open-hearted.
Poor Milly! Her eyes met Mr. Wareham’s, and he knew in that one hurried glance that her mother had left the secret in her keeping. He thought he had never seen her look so pretty since she had been Mr. Leslie’s wife. Some strange sort of fascination drew her eyes to his, again and again, and he felt an intense degree of triumph in the idea that he might have it in his power to revenge himself for the genuine look of dislike which had seemed to sink into his very soul when he declared his love for her. A change was working in him which he made no effort to check. He had no longer to ask her for her love or her pity. It might be soon; it might be in the years to come: some day she should feel herself in his power.
If Milly’s greeting was more shy and nervous than usual, her mother-in-law atoned for it with a grim suavity which was not always the characteristic of her manner. Mrs. Leslie had one of those natures which never feel antipathies to those with whom they are brought in contact, and who are equally far from yielding to the attractions which are recognised by others. It might form a matter of speculation as to how far such people are independent of the troubles incident to a livelier sympathy, or how, in avoiding such chances, they debar themselves from some of the purest pleasures of humanity. They grow up around us, and we cease to look for signs of interest from them: like trees on which we never hope to find fruit.
Mr. Wareham had some peculiarities,—an occasional freedom of manner amongst them which passed unheeded by Mrs. Leslie. Not so with her son. It was often a subject of regret to him that his chief supporter was a man whom somehow he felt he could not respect, although he had no definite cause of complaint against him; but Mr. Leslie was of an unsuspicious nature in spite of his reserve, and Wareham was too much in earnest from this time forth to risk the betrayal of his purpose by carelessness in Leslie’s presence. And so the three sat and talked of the schools, and the charities, and the savings bank, and debated whether the chapel walls would require white-washing in the following half-year, and wondered if Mr. Larkins’s bequest would be free from legacy duty. And Milly sat and listened and felt as if a web were weaving round her, and that, struggle as she might, she would never be free again.
We can all remember some hours in our past life when the light has seemed brighter, the shadow darker, the joy fuller, and the pain sharper than at other periods. But we have probably passed from inexperience to maturity, and we have learnt to doubt whether any repetition of the circumstances would awaken the sensations which now stand out with such terrible distinctness. In after times, when little children were playing round Milly’s knees, and she thanked the Great Giver of Happiness for the full measure she enjoyed, she looked back to the months that succeeded her mother’s death with a kind of wonder. Milly, perhaps, had never heard it said that nothing is ever wholly forgotten: she only felt as if she should remember to her dying day all she went through at this time, to the exclusion of the rest of her life.
Wareham was more of a Sybarite than any other man in Trowchester. He lived at the back of his house in order to avoid the din of the market-place, and rose late in the day; so that Milly contrived, when necessity carried her into his nearer neighbourhood, it should be at an hour in the morning when his most important client would have failed to rouse him from his bed. But she could not avoid meeting him at her mother-in-law’s. Mrs. Leslie enjoyed nothing better in her cold deliberate way than entertaining her son and daughter, Mr. Wareham, and two or three of Mr. Leslie’s congregation in the evening.
It was not a sociable meeting. The visitors clung tenaciously to their tea-cups, as if they dreaded the interval that must elapse before politeness would permit them to go away; and Mrs. Leslie’s thoughts were perpetually wandering back to the early days of her marriage, when the social gatherings of her sect had been of the severest possible character, strangely contrasting with the lukewarm demonstrations of religious feeling amongst her son’s friends. Mr. Leslie invariably declined to avail himself of the opportunities his mother threw in his way on these occasions of expounding the particular views she loved to hear dwelt upon. In her heart she accused him of undue tolerance of other people’s tenets, and of some small amount of moral cowardice when he failed to express himself strongly in defence of the opinions of his childhood. It was on such evenings that all Milly’s care and watchfulness were required to keep Mr. Wareham from her side. Gossips had begun to say that young Mrs. Leslie had grown strangely talkative with slight acquaintances, and her husband often looked round in astonishment when she seemed to be asking questions at random. Once or twice, when he heard her laugh with half a dozen people around her, he found himself wishing he had seen tears running down her cheeks instead; something in her voice so smote upon his heart. But she was trying hard to be cheerful, to take an interest in the small affairs of their community, to be on good terms with her mother-in-law, and to hold herself aloof from Mr. Wareham, without giving him cause for offence. With such weak weapons as these was she fighting off the evil day.
It came at last. One Tuesday morning,—day, week, month, year, how they clung to Milly’s memory afterwards!—she was sitting at breakfast with Mr. Leslie, when, looking up, she met his eyes fixed on her with an earnest look she had never seen in them before. He had in his hand a letter which he had just read through, and which he folded up slowly and thoughtfully, and put in his pocket-book. Had she felt less shy she would have asked him if he had had bad news; but as it was, she sat glancing timidly at his face, and waiting for him to speak to her. He did so at last.
“I must go to London by the next train,” he said, “and I shall not be back till Thursday. I must ask Mr. Broughton to take the Wednesday evening service for me. Go and fetch your bonnet while I write to him, and walk down to the station with me.”
She ran upstairs in a moment. He so rarely asked her to go out, excepting on those occasions when their being separate would have excited remark, that her heart beat with pleasure at the prospect of a walk with him. His preparations were soon made. Again, as they stood in the doorway, she caught his eyes intently bent upon her, and tears rose to hers, she knew not why. He took her in his arms, and kissed her again and again. He had left home for a few days at least half a dozen times before, and yet he had never done so. Well! it was a day of wonders.
On her way home she met Mrs. Leslie coming towards the station, full of curiosity to ascertain what urgent business had called her son to London. Milly did not know: she had not asked him. How often is ignorance as irritating as superior knowledge!
“Not asked him!” said Mrs. Leslie, indignantly. “You would let him preach in a surplice without inquiring whether he had taken leave of his senses. When my son lived with me, he never went anywhere without my cognizance. I really wonder at the indifference with which you see him go about his ordinary avocations without attempting to interfere; but to let him leave Trowchester, and not to know what his address is in London: to suffer him to absent himself on a Wednesday evening, too, without remonstrating with him; it is incredible!”
Milly walked on silently. She had been sunning herself in her husband’s kindness, and it was like waking out of a soft, warm sleep to the reality of a winter morning to listen to Mrs. Leslie’s reproaches. She did not content herself with her present grievance alone. It seemed as if her son’s unaccountable absence had aroused a latent ire which she determined to expend upon his wife.
“Then, again, what is the use of a cushion in the pulpit? Robert has never touched it for the last three months. I watch him closely. The last time he struck it with any energy was on the 15th of February. He is losing all his fervour and emphasis. I certainly blame you for not constantly reminding him, as I used to do formerly, that energetic action ought always to accompany a pulpit discourse.”
Milly returned to her own home, but Mrs. Leslie bent her steps to Mr. Wareham’s, in search of information. She found that Mr. Wareham was unaware of any cause for her son’s absence; but he was greatly abstracted and preoccupied when he learnt her tidings, and so evidently anxious that her visit should be a short one, that she was obliged to take her departure without obtaining any clue to what she considered a mystery.
Later in the day, Mr. Wareham presented himself at Mr. Leslie’s house. He saw that Milly had turned deadly pale at his entrance, and he noticed that when she rose from her seat she steadied herself by leaning on the table near her. He, too, was pale. He had caught sight of his face in a looking-glass as he was leaving his own sitting-room, and he knew that it wore an expression which was not its ordinary one. As he sat down opposite to her, he thought, as he had done many times before, if she had been in his home, what a different place that home would have been! Even now, it was not beyond the verge of possibility. Was it likely she cared so very much for Robert Leslie? Would he not shut himself up in his coldness and reserve, if he imagined there was the slightest wavering in her duty? Wareham knew that he was morbidly sensitive on many points, and had seen him quail before a gossiping tongue. He had a plan, and if that plan succeeded, Trowchester would no longer hold him. No matter. There was his brother’s home in Sydney, where he would be welcome: there was a London practice which he could have at little or no sacrifice. His one object attained, the world was all before him to begin again.
“I have ventured to come, Mrs. Leslie,” he said, speaking slowly, “for the purpose of discussing some private business with you. I do not know whether you are aware that shortly before your marriage your mother confided to me a very important circumstance, which she wished to remain unknown to Mr. Leslie.”
Milly assented by gesture; words she could not find.
“Of course, the confidence reposed in me by Mrs. Lane—or rather Mrs. Vining, for such you are perhaps aware was her real name—has been held sacred, and I should not now put myself into communication with her daughter upon the subject, did I not think it my duty to lay before you certain facts connected with the case.”
He paused, in order that his listener might speak: he was sure he heard her heart beating: an old story about a rattlesnake and a bird came into his head as he saw her sitting breathlessly waiting for what was to come.
“Shortly after, Mrs. Vining, acting upon my advice, had written to her husband; he applied to me under circumstances of great distress. He had been seized with illness: he knew his wife’s inability to aid him at the time, and he felt sincere regret for the evil he had already brought upon his family. I was glad, for your mother’s sake, to be able to help him in his trouble, and I have since provided him with the means of support. I did not inform your mother of Mr. Vining’s application to me, because I knew, in the position in which she had placed herself with regard to Mr. Leslie, it was impossible for her to act openly in the matter, and her health was then fast failing her.”
“Oh, thank you! thank you! Mr. Wareham,” cried Milly, tears falling from her eyes unheeded. “You spared her much anxiety at the last.”
“The reason of my addressing myself to you now is this,” resumed Mr. Wareham: “Mr. Vining’s days are numbered. He is living at Brentnor” (this was the name of a little watering-place about seven miles from Trowchester), “and I see him whenever I can find time to drive over. He has asked me to assure you of his deep repentance of his fault, and to beg your forgiveness for the past.”
“Oh, my poor father!” sobbed Milly. “Forgive him! Tell him, Mr. Wareham, that I love him dearly, and if I could only see him—”
“That I had thought of,” said Mr. Wareham, “and it is possible an interview might be arranged. He wishes to hear from your own lips that you do not hate him as the cause of your mother’s sufferings. Of course this could only be in Mr. Leslie’s absence.”
“But if I could tell him, Mr. Wareham,” said Milly, “if I could only tell him! He would forgive the deception, and provide for my poor father’s support, if I might only kneel down at his feet and tell him what I have suffered.”
“It is not to be thought of for one moment,” said Mr. Wareham. “I know his character thoroughly, and do not doubt his kindness; but I say again, it must not be. What I have done, I have done, and there is, I fear, but little more to do.” He rose to go. “I shall be in Brentnor to-morrow, and I will let you know, on my return, in what state I have found Mr. Vining.”
Once more alone, Milly reproached herself for her ingratitude to Mr. Wareham. All the while she had been distrusting him he had been doing, without a word of thanks, what she would have given everything she possessed not to have left undone. To picture to herself her poor broken-down father, longing for a few words of kindness from her lips: to reproach herself for not having endeavoured to seek him out after her mother’s death: at one moment, to long to break her promise, and tell her husband the miserable story; at the next, to try how she could hide it from him more completely:—such was the current of Milly’s thoughts, and bitter and wretched and self-humiliating they were.
The night dragged slowly on, and she rose on the following day in a fever of excitement. She watched and waited, starting at the sound of every footstep, till five o’clock in the afternoon, when Mr. Wareham came in hurriedly. He said he had just returned from Brentnor: he had been there all night: Mr. Vining was evidently sinking, and he feared, unless she saw him within a few hours, in this world they could not meet at all.
“Let me go to him, Mr. Wareham!” she implored. “Let me go to him!”
“If there were a railroad to Brentnor, there would be no difficulty,” he replied; “but the drive there and back will occupy at least three hours, and your mother-in-law would doubtless hear of your absence. Could you not excuse yourself from attending service at the chapel with her this evening, and, as soon as she has gone, take a fly to Brentnor?”
“Oh, yes, yes,” said Milly, who had seen all the difficulty of freeing herself from Mrs. Leslie’s companionship, and was thankful for the suggestion; “but it will be dark; if I do not find a fly—”
“I will take care that one is waiting for you at the market-cross, at a quarter to seven,” said Mr. Wareham, “and I will give instructions to the driver. The people of the house in which your father lives are prepared for your coming.”
Milly acquiesced in the arrangement.
He calculated, he said, that it would be quite possible for her to get back to Trowchester before half-past nine, the time when Mr. Broughton’s hearers would most likely be at liberty to return to their homes, and when her own coming in would probably pass unnoticed.
She tried to thank him, but her words were lost in her tears. How should she look her husband in the face when he returned? How should she ever wipe out the debt of gratitude she owed Mr. Wareham?
Ding, dong, ding. Ding, dong, ding. The cathedral bells again.
She had listened to them as evening after evening sped by in hope, in doubt, in misery. They were associated in her memory with the few eventful hours of her life. Now they rung warnings, reproaches, revilings into her ears. Whichever way she turned, there was treachery, either to her mother’s memory or her husband’s love.
Mrs. Leslie, calling according to her custom, saw that her daughter-in-law looked fevered and ill, and not ungraciously accepted her excuses. The door had no sooner closed upon her, than Milly ran breathlessly to her room, dressed herself in haste, and took her way to the market-cross, just as the twilight was deepening into shadow. A fly was drawn up in front of the old stone pile. Milly hesitated a moment, as the driver approached her.
“For Brentnor?” he said. “Mr. Wareham has given me my orders.”
She got in. She noticed that a man hastily jumped upon the box beside the driver. She was in a state of feverish excitement, by which every nerve was sharpened. Her throat was parched: she could hardly draw her breath, and, with her face turned towards the open window to catch the cool air, she saw she was leaving the town of Trowchester behind her, and speeding out towards the open country.
Robert Leslie had concluded the business which called him to London sooner than he expected, and, unwilling to be absent from his home an hour longer than was necessary, he had put himself into a train which was due at Trowchester at seven o’clock, and was thinking over the surprise it would be to his wife to see him back again a day earlier than she expected. The railroad passed under the road which led to Brentnor, close by the station, which was nearly a mile from the market-place of Trowchester, and this distance he resolved upon walking, leaving his bag to be sent up to the town. We all know how likely we are to fall into reverie when we are not in the least hurried; when we have for the moment no dominant feeling; when we are walking—as Robert Leslie was—in a quiet, country road, the twilight almost gone, the stars flashing out at wide intervals, and shadows, deep and soft, settling on the surrounding landscape. But Mr. Leslie had been communing with himself for many a long hour. He had been married for nearly two years, and, somehow, during this time his ideal happiness had slipped farther and farther away from his grasp, and a negative kind of content occupied its place. Was Milly happy? He was afraid not. How seldom her eye grew lighter, or her cheek brighter, when he came! And yet it had been what people call a love-match. Do we not see our own faults? There are moments of self-examination when their presence and identity are no less clearly recognised than our features are in the looking-glass before us; and Mr. Leslie felt that his extreme reserve—the result, perhaps, only of his early training—had chilled the heart of his wife, as distinctly as if some far-seeing friend had laid his finger on the fault and pointed it out to him. There have been some few fortunate people in the world, who have been able to gather up the tangled skeins of the destinies they marred, and have woven them afresh. Mr. Leslie was doing this; thinking how Milly’s should be made a brighter life; thinking, that gratefully as he had always acknowledged his mother’s sacrifices in his youth, they formed no claim for a certain degree of tyranny which she had since exercised in his household; thinking how much happier Milly would be away from the dull house in Trowchester; thinking joyfully, hopefully, as he felt he had reason to do of the future: when, having reached the road that led to Brentnor, he stood for a moment, waiting for a fly, which was coming up at full speed, to pass him. Was he dreaming? Had he thought of her till his mind was leaving him? A wild cry struck his ears. “Robert! Robert!” A wild cry, as if from a voice that had no power to shriek. If indeed he were sane, it must have come from the carriage that passed him. It was almost out of sight. Utterly bewildered, he was unaware of the approach of a person on horseback from the direction of the town, a middle-aged farmer on a large-limbed grey mare, which had carried him at a lazy pace for the last ten years. He recognised Mr. Leslie, and wished him good evening.
“Did a carriage pass you just now?” asked Mr. Leslie, hastily, without attending to his greeting.
“Surely,” was the reply.
“With a woman in it?”
“Mr. Lindsay,—you will think it an odd request,—will you lend me your mare for half an hour? I’ll bring her back to you safe.”
“No fear of that, Mr. Leslie,” replied the farmer, good-naturedly, getting off as quickly as habitual slowness would permit him. “I’ll just walk down to the station, and be here by the time you are back.”
Mr. Leslie’s weight was about two-thirds less than his friend’s, and the mare, urged by voice and touch, started at a tolerable pace. In two or three minutes the fly was again in sight: he could see that the man seated on the box looked back several times, and the rate at which the vehicle was moving was almost doubled. On went the mare, gathering strength and spirit from her unwonted exertions: the space between the pursuer and the pursued lessening at every step; the way becoming more and more obscure.
How often in moments of strong excitement it has seemed as if dumb animals, our dogs or our horses, have sympathised more kindly with us than our fellow creatures! Leslie was breathless with eagerness as he came within hail of the fly, and the mare could with difficulty be held in. He shouted to the driver to stop, but his voice was disregarded, and in another moment he was abreast of the vehicle. He had endeavoured to overtake it, because he was persuaded he had heard his wife’s voice as it passed him; but yet he was almost stupified with astonishment when her pale face met his. To seize the driver’s arm, and possess himself of the reins, in spite of his resistance, was the work of a moment, when a heavy blow with the butt-end of a whip, aimed at his head, but falling on his shoulder, caused him to look for his assailant. It was with extreme surprise that he recognised Wareham.
They were at this juncture opposite one of the little roughly-built houses faced with round stones stuck in the clay, which are everywhere to be seen on the south coast. Here was to be sold “Beer to be drunk on the premises;” and two or three persons, who seemed by their bewilderment by no means to have disregarded the injunction, ran out to see what had happened. Mr. Leslie sprang off the mare, and having thrown the bridle to the first comer, forced the terrified driver to dismount. Wareham, too, had got down, perhaps still hoping that the horse might be urged on, if he could possess himself of the reins.
“Take care, Robert Leslie,” he said, as they met face to face; “you had better let me pass. This evening’s work will be the worst in your life, if you persist in stopping my way.”
Leslie, not heeding him, had opened the carriage door. Milly got out, with trembling steps.
“Why are you here?” he asked, impetuously.
“Mrs. Leslie is with me with her own full consent,” said Wareham. “I appeal to her to say whether this is not the truth.”
There was no reply. Leslie half-carried, half-dragged her into the house, and pushing open the first door, which was that of a little sanded parlour, looked in her face by the light of the solitary tallow candle which was burning there.
“I ask you,” said Leslie, steadying his voice, “why you are here?”
“Robert, forgive me; don’t think ill of me,” she said. “I have been tied by a sacred promise to keep a secret—”
“A secret with which he is acquainted?” said Leslie, indignantly pointing to Wareham, who had followed them into the room. “Till this night,” he said, turning to him, “I have looked upon you and treated you as a friend. In some underhand manner you have abused this trust.”
“I have abused no trust,” replied Mr. Wareham, with emphasis.
“You are mistaken,” interrupted Mr. Leslie, contemptuously, “if you think I believe my wife to be anything but the victim of some wilful misrepresentation on your part. Your malice is harmless there."
“Possibly,” replied Mr. Wareham, who felt that he had but his last card to play. “Hark you, Robert Leslie. You think I owe you an explanation of this night’s proceedings. Mrs. Leslie is with me voluntarily; but ostensibly, I may say, on affairs relating to certain family antecedents with which it is not desirable that you should become acquainted.”
“You may speak freely,” said Mr. Leslie, looking at him coldly.
“I intend to do so—in Trowchester,” replied Mr. Wareham, his face growing white. “You have won from me the only woman I ever loved. Guard yourself from the tongues of the fools who have hitherto looked up to you. Hide yourself from scoffing eyes, from your mother’s reproaches, from your friends’ sneers. It may be a poor revenge, and it has been long in coming, but it will be some satisfaction to me to see your position, when it is known in your small world that your wife is the daughter of a returned convict.”
And with that last shaft, flung with the bitterest look of hatred, Mr. Wareham turned and left the room. Mr. Leslie closed the door, and stood thoughtfully before his wife.
“It is true, Robert,” she said, the tears raining from her eyes, “but I did not know it when I married you. I did not know how much I had injured you till my mother’s death. My poor father wished to see me before he died, and Mr. Wareham was taking me to him.”
“My poor girl! My poor Milly!” he said, taking her in his arms. “He is dead. I stood beside his grave this morning. It was to see him carried to it that I went to London. Some day we will go and look at it together. Milly, you remember the night before our marriage? I left your mother’s house later than usual. I found a wretched-looking man watching by the door. He evidently knew who and what I was. At first I could hardly believe his statements; but when I recalled many circumstances connected with your mother, I began to think that what he said might be true. It was a sad, sad story; and he was both ill and desperate. In the morning the whole affair would be known in Trowchester. I had but a few minutes to choose between giving you up, or purchasing his silence. I took him to an out-of-the-way inn, where he could rest and refresh himself, till a train started for London, and I did not lose sight of him till he was safely in it. I then wrote to an old friend in London, in whom I knew I could place confidence, directing him to provide your father with necessaries, and to procure him medical advice. From time to time I have learnt that all efforts to restore his health have been unavailing, and on Tuesday morning you saw me open the letter which announced his death. How Mr. Wareham got possession of the secret, and how far he intended to abuse his knowledge of it, I shall never seek to know. I only have been to blame, for I have acted like a coward from first to last. Forgive me, Milly!”
What more he said, and in what words she replied, is it not written in the memories of both?
“Although the day be ever so long,
At last it will ring for evening song.”
Robert Leslie and his wife left Trowchester a few weeks afterwards. He had been offered a better and wider field for his ministry in London, whither his mother did not care to follow him; his successor giving her far greater satisfaction, in a doctrinal point of view, than he had ever done.
Mr. Wareham went out to Australia, having married the daughter of a farmer a few days before his departure,—a kind-hearted, cherry-cheeked girl, who had long hopelessly admired him in secret, and who accepted gratefully the small amount of affection he proffered. And if the Trowchester people repeated every story but the right one concerning them all, what did it signify? We are mistaken, if we think a wonder ever lasts out the nine days which the old saying allots to it.