Chapter 7 THE BOX WITH THE IRON CLAMPS -- Florence Marryat
MOLTON Chase is a charming, old-fashioned country house, which has been in th_ossession of the Clayton family for centuries past; and as Harry Clayton, it_resent owner, has plenty of money, and (having tasted the pleasures o_atrimony for only five years) has no knowledge (as yet) of the delights o_ollege and school bills coming in at Christmas-time, it is his will to fil_he Chase at that season with guests, to each of whom he extends a welcome, a_earty as it is sincere.
"Bella! are you not going to join the riding-party this afternoon?" he sai_cross the luncheon-table to his wife, one day in a December not long ago.
"Bella" was a dimpled little woman, whose artless expression of countenanc_ould well bear comparison with the honest, genial face opposite to her, an_ho replied at once—
"No! not this afternoon, Harry, dear. You know the Damers may come at any tim_etween this and seven o'clock, and I should not like to be out when the_rrive."
"And may I ask Mrs. Clayton who _are_ the Damers," inquired a friend of he_usband, who, on account of being handsome, considered himself licensed to b_ert—"that their advent should be the cause of our losing the pleasure of you_ompany this afternoon?"
But the last thing Bella Clayton ever did was to take offence.
"The Damers are my cousins, Captain Moss," she replied; "at least Blanch_amer is."
At this juncture a dark-eyed man who was sitting at the other end of the tabl_ropped the flirting converse he had been maintaining with a younger sister o_rs. Clayton's, and appeared to become interested in what his hostess wa_aying.
"Colonel Damer," he continued, "has been in India for the last twelve years, and only returned to England a month ago; therefore it would seem unkind o_he first visit he has paid to his relatives that there should be no one a_ome to welcome him."
"Has Mrs. Damer been abroad for as long a time?" resumed her questioner, _ision arising on his mental faculties of a lemon-coloured woman with shoe_own at heel.
"Oh dear no!" replied his hostess. "Blanche came to England about five year_go, but her health has been too delicate to rejoin her husband in Indi_ince. Have we all finished, Harry, dear?"—and in another minute the luncheon- table was cleared.
As Mrs. Clayton crossed the hall soon afterwards to visit her nursery, th_ame dark-eyed man who had regarded her fixedly when she mentioned the name o_lanche Damer followed and accosted her.
"Is it long since you have seen your cousin Mrs. Damer, Mrs. Clayton?"
"I saw her about three years ago, Mr. Laurence; but she had a severe illnes_oon after that, and has been living on the Continent ever since. Why do yo_sk?"
"For no especial reason," he answered smiling. "Perhaps I am a little jealou_est this new-comer to whose arrival you look forward with so much interes_hould usurp more of your time and attention than we less-favoured ones ca_pare."
He spoke with a degree of sarcasm, real or feigned, which Mrs. Clayto_mmediately resented.
"I am not aware that I have been in the habit of neglecting my guests, Mr.
Laurence," she replied; "but my cousin Blanche is more likely to remind me o_y duties than to tempt me to forget them."
"Forgive me," he said, earnestly. "You have mistaken my meaning altogether.
But are you very intimate with this lady?"
"Very much so," was the answer. "We were brought up together, and loved eac_ther as sisters until she married and went to India. For some years after he_eturn home our intercourse was renewed, and only broken, on the occasion o_er being ill and going abroad, as I have described to you. Her husband, _ave, of course, seen less of, but I like what I know of him, and am anxiou_o show them both all the hospitality in my power. She is a charming creature, and I am sure you will admire her."
"Doubtless I shall," he replied; "that is if she does not lay claim to al_rs. Clayton's interest in the affairs of Molton Chase."
"No fear of that," laughed the cheery little lady as she ascended the stairs, and left Mr. Laurence standing in the hall beneath.
"Clayton," observed that gentleman, as he re-entered the luncheon-room an_rew his host into the privacy of a bay-window, "I really am afraid I shal_ave to leave you this evening—if you won't think it rude of me to go s_uddenly."
"But _why_ , my dear fellow?" exclaimed Harry Clayton, as his blue eye_earched into the other's soul. "What earthly reason can you have for going, when your fixed plan was to stay with us over Christmas Day?"
"Well! there is lots of work waiting for me to do, you know; and really th_ime slips away so, and time is money to a slave like myself—that—"
"Now, my dear Laurence," said Harry Clayton conclusively, "you know you ar_nly making excuses. All the work that was absolutely necessary for you to d_efore Christmas was finished before you came here, and you said you fel_ourself licensed to take a whole month's holiday. Now, was not that th_ase?"
Mr. Laurence could not deny the fact, and so he looked undecided, and wa_ilent.
"Don't let me hear any more about your going before Christmas Day," said hi_ost, "or I shall be offended, and so will Bella; to say nothing of Bella'_ister—eh, Laurence!"
Whereupon Mr. Laurence felt himself bound to remain; and saying in his ow_ind that fate was against him, dropped the subject of his departur_ltogether.
One hour later, the riding party being then some miles from Molton Chase, _ravelling carriage laden with trunks drove up to the house, and Mrs. Clayton, all blushes and smiles, stood on the hall-steps to welcome her expecte_uests.
Colonel Damer was the first to alight. He was a middle-aged man, but with _ine soldierly bearing, which took off from his years; and he was so eager t_ee to the safe exit of his wife from the carriage-door that he had not tim_o do more than take off his hat to blooming Bella on the steps.
"Now, my love," he exclaimed as the lady's form appeared, "pray take care; tw_teps: that's right—here you are, safe."
And then Mrs. Damer, being securely landed, was permitted to fly into th_ousinly arms which were opened to receive her.
"My dear Bella!"
"My dearest Blanche—I am so delighted to see you again. Why, you ar_ositively frozen! Pray come in at once to the fire. Colonel Damer, m_ervants will see to the luggage—do leave it to them, and come and war_ourselves."
A couple of men-servants now came forward and offered to see to the unloadin_f the carriage—but Mrs. Damer did not move.
"Will you not go in, my love, as your cousin proposes?" said her husband. "_an see to the boxes if you should wish me to do so."
"No, thank you," was the low reply; and there was such a ring of melancholy i_he voice of Mrs. Damer that a stranger would have been attracted by it. "_refer waiting until the carriage is unpacked."
"Never mind the luggage, Blanche," whispered Mrs. Clayton, in her coaxin_anner. "Come in to the fire, dear—I have so much to tell you."
"Wait a minute, Bella," said her cousin; and the entreaty was so firm that i_et with no further opposition.
"One—two—three—four," exclaimed Colonel Damer, as the boxes successively cam_o the ground. "I am afraid you will think we are going to take you by storm, Mrs. Clayton; but perhaps you know my wife's fancy for a large travellin_kit_ of old. Is that all, Blanche?"
"That is all—thank you," in the same low melancholy tones in which she ha_poken before. "Now, Bella, dear, which is to be my room?"
"You would rather go there first, Blanche?"
"Yes, please—I'm tired. Will you carry up that box for me?" she continued, pointing out one of the trunks to the servant.
"Directly, ma'am," he returned, as he was looking for change for a sovereig_herewith to accommodate Colonel Damer—but the lady lingered until he was a_eisure. Then he shouldered the box next to the one she had indicated, and sh_irected his attention to the fact, and made him change his burden.
"They'll all go up in time, ma'am," the man remarked; but Mrs. Damer, answering nothing, did not set her foot upon the stairs until he was halfwa_p them, with the trunk she had desired him to take first.
Then she leaned wearily upon Bella Clayton's arm, pressing it fondly to he_ide, and so the two went together to the bedroom which had been appointed fo_he reception of the new guests. It was a large and cosily-furnishe_partment, with a dressing-room opening from it. When the ladies arrived ther_hey found the servant awaiting them with the box in question.
"Where will you have it placed, ma'am?" he demanded of Mrs. Damer.
"Under the bed, please."
But the bedstead was a French one, and the mahogany sides were so deep tha_othing could get beneath them but dust; and the trunk, although small, wa_eavy and strong and clamped with iron, not at all the sort of trunk tha_ould go _anywhere_.
"Nothing will go under the bed, ma'am!" said the servant in reply.
Mrs. Damer slightly changed colour.
"Never mind then: leave it there. Oh! what a comfort a good fire is," sh_ontinued, turning to the hearth-rug, and throwing herself into an arm-chair.
"We have had such a cold drive from the station."
"But about your box, Blanche?" said Mrs. Clayton, who had no idea of he_riends being put to any inconvenience. "It can't stand there; you'll unpac_t, won't you? or shall I have it moved into the passage?"
"Oh, no, thank you, Bella—please let it stand where it is: it will do ver_ell indeed."
"What will do very well?" exclaimed Colonel Damer, who now entered th_edroom, followed by a servant with another trunk.
"Only Blanche's box, Colonel Damer," said Bella Clayton. "She doesn't wish t_npack it, and it will be in her way here, I'm afraid. It _might_ stand i_our dressing-room."—This she said as a "feeler," knowing that some gentleme_o not like to be inconvenienced, even in their dressing-rooms.
But Colonel Damer was as unselfish as it was possible for an old Indian to be.
"Of course it can," he replied. "Here (to the servant), just shoulder tha_ox, will you, and move it into the next room."
The man took up the article in question rather carelessly, and nearly let i_all again. Mrs. Damer darted forward as if to save it.
"Pray put it down," she said, nervously. "I have no wish to have it moved—_hall require it by-and-by; it will be no inconvenience—"
"Just as you like, dear," said Mrs. Clayton, who was becoming rather tired o_he little discussion. "And now take off your things, dear Blanche, and let m_ing for some tea."
Colonel Damer walked into his dressing-room and left the two ladies alone. Th_emainder of the luggage was brought upstairs; the tea was ordered and served, and whilst Mrs. Clayton busied herself in pouring it out, Mrs. Damer sank bac_pon a sofa which stood by the fire, and conversed with her cousin.
She had been beautiful, this woman, in her earlier youth, though no one woul_ave thought it to see her now. As Bella handed her the tea she glance_owards the thin hand stretched out to receive it, and from thence to the wor_ace and hollow eyes, and could scarcely believe she saw the same person sh_ad parted from three years before.
But she had not been so intimate with her of late, and she was almost afrai_f commenting upon her cousin's altered appearance, for fear it might woun_er; all she said was:
"You look very delicate still, dear Blanche; I was in hopes the change to th_ontinent would have set you up and made you stronger than you were when yo_eft England."
"Oh, no; I never shall be well again," was Mrs. Damer's careless reply: "it'_n old story now, Bella, and it's no use talking about it. Whom have yo_taying in the house at present, dear?"
"Well, we are nearly full," rejoined Mrs. Clayton. "There is my old godfather, General Knox—you remember him, I know—and his son and daughter; and th_insleys and their family; ditto, the Bayleys and the Armstrongs, and then, for single men, we have young Brooke, and Harry's old friend, Charley Moss, and Herbert Laurence, and—are you ill, Blanchey?"
An exclamation had burst from Mrs. Damer—hardly an exclamation, so much as _alf-smothered cry—but whether of pain or fear, it was hard to determine.
"Are you ill?" reiterated Mrs. Clayton, full of anxiety for her fragile- looking cousin.
"No," replied Blanche Damer, pressing her hand to her side, but still deadl_ale from the effect of whatever emotion she had gone through; "it is nothing; I feel faint after our long journey."
Colonel Damer had also heard the sound, and now appeared upon the threshold o_is dressing-room. He was one of those well-meaning, but fussy men, who ca_ever have two women alone for a quarter of an hour without intruding on thei_rivacy.
"Did you call, my dearest?" he asked of his wife. "Do you want anything?"
"Nothing, thank you," replied Bella for her cousin; "Blanche is only a littl_ired and overcome by her travelling."
"I think, after all, that I will move that trunk away for you into my room,"
he said, advancing towards the box which had already been the subject o_iscussion. Mrs. Damer started from the sofa with a face of crimson.
"I _beg_ you will leave my boxes alone," she said, with an imploring tone i_er voice which was quite unfitted to the occasion. "I have not brought on_ore than I need, and I wish them to remain under my own eye."
"There must be something very valuable in that receptacle," said Colone_amer, facetiously, as he beat a retreat to his own quarters.
"Is it your linen box?" demanded Mrs. Clayton of her cousin.
"Yes," in a hesitating manner; "that is, it contains several things that _ave in daily use; but go on about your visitors, Bella: are there any more?"
"I don't think so: where had I got to?—oh! to the bachelors: well, there ar_r. Brooke and Captain Moss, and Mr. Laurence (the poet, you know; Harry wa_ntroduced to him last season by Captain Moss), and my brother Alfred; an_hat's all."
"A very respectable list," said Mrs. Damer, languidly. "What kind of a man i_he—the poet you spoke of?"
"Laurence?—oh, he seems a very pleasant man; but he is very silent an_bstracted, as I suppose a poet should be. My sister Carrie is here, and the_ave quite got up a flirtation together; however, I don't suppose it will com_o anything."
"And your nursery department?"
"Thriving, thank you; I think you _will_ be astonished to see my boy. Ol_rs. Clayton says he is twice the size that Harry was at that age; and th_ittle girls can run about and talk almost as well as I can. But I must no_xpect you, Blanche, to take the same interest in babies that I do."
This she added, remembering that the woman before her was childless. Mrs.
Damer moved uneasily on her couch, but she said nothing; and soon after th_ound of a gong reverberating through the hall warned Mrs. Clayton that th_inner was not far off and the riding-party must have returned; so, leavin_er friend to her toilet, she took her departure.
As she left the room, Mrs. Damer was alone. She had no maid of her own, an_he had refused the offices of Mrs. Clayton, assuring her that she was used t_ress herself; but she made little progress in that department, as she lay o_he couch in the firelight, with her face buried in her hands, and thought_oursing through her mind of which heaven alone knew the tendency.
"Come, my darling," said the kind, coaxing voice of her husband, as, afte_nocking more than once without receiving any answer, he entered her room, fully dressed, and found her still arrayed in her travelling things, and non_f her boxes unpacked. "You will never be ready for dinner at this rate. Shal_ make an excuse for your not appearing at table this evening? I am sure Mrs.
Clayton would wish you to keep your room if you are too tired to dress."
"I am not too tired, Harry," said Mrs. Damer, rising from the couch, "and _hall be ready in ten minutes," unlocking and turning over the contents of _ox as she spoke.
"Better not, perhaps, my love," interposed the colonel, in mild expostulation;
"you will be better in bed, and can see your kind friends to-morrow morning."
"I am going down to dinner to-night," she answered, gently, but decisively.
She was a graceful woman now she stood on her feet, and threw off the heav_raps in which she had travelled, with a slight, willowy figure, and _omplexion which was almost transparent in its delicacy; but her face was ver_hin, and her large blue eyes had a scared and haggard look in them, which wa_carcely less painful to witness than the appearance of anxiety which wa_xpressed by the knitted brows by which they were surmounted. As she no_aised her fair attenuated hands to rearrange her hair, which had once bee_bundant and glossy, her husband could not avoid remarking upon the chang_hich had passed over it.
"I had no idea you had lost your hair so much, darling," he said; "I have no_een it down before to-night. Why, where is it all gone to?" he continued, a_e lifted the light mass in his hands, and remembered of what a length an_eight it used to be, when he last parted from her.
"Oh, I don't know," she rejoined, sadly; "gone, with my youth, I suppose, Henry."
"My poor girl!" he said, gently, "you have suffered very much in thi_eparation. I had no right to leave you alone for so many years. But it is al_ver now, dearest, and I will take such good care of you that you will b_bliged to get well and strong again."
She turned round suddenly from the glass, and pressed her lips upon the han_hich held her hair.
"Don't," she murmured; "pray don't speak to me so, Henry! I can't bear it; _an't indeed!"
He thought it was from excess of feeling that she spoke; and so it was, thoug_ot as he imagined. So he changed the subject lightly, and bade her be lazy n_onger, but put on her dress, if she was really determined to make one of th_arty at dinner that evening.
In another minute, Mrs. Damer had brushed her diminished hair into the fashio_n which she ordinarily wore it; thrown on an evening-robe of black, which, while it contrasted well with her fairness, showed the falling away of he_igure in a painful degree; and was ready to accompany her husband downstairs.
They were met at the door of the drawing-room by their host, who was eager t_how cordiality towards guests of whom his wife thought so much, and havin_lso been acquainted himself with Mrs. Damer since her return to England. H_ed her up to the sofa whereon Bella sat; and, dinner being almost immediatel_nnounced, the little hostess was busy pairing off her couples.
"Mr. Laurence!" she exclaimed; and then looking around the room, "where _is_r. Laurence?" So that that gentleman was forced to leave the window-curtains, behind which he had ensconced himself, and advance into the centre of th_oom. "Oh, here you are at last; will you take Mrs. Damer down to dinner?" an_roceeding immediately with the usual form of introduction—"Mr. Laurence—Mrs.
They bowed to each other; but over the lady's face, as she went through he_hare of the introduction, there passed so indescribable, and yet s_nmistakable a change, that Mrs. Clayton, although not very quick, could no_elp observing it, and she said, involuntarily—
"Have you met Mr. Laurence before, Blanche?"
"I believe I have had that pleasure—in London—many years ago."
The last words came out so faintly that they were almost undistinguishable.
"Why didn't you tell me so?" said Bella Clayton, reproachfully, to Mr.
He was beginning to stammer out some excuse about its having been so long ago, when Mrs. Damer came to his aid, in her clear, cold voice—
"It _was_ very long ago: we must both be forgiven for having forgotten th_ircumstance."
"Well, you must renew your acquaintanceship at dinner," said Mrs. Clayton, blithely, as she trotted off to make matters pleasant between the rest of he_isitors. As she did so, Mr. Laurence remained standing by the sofa, but h_id not attempt to address Mrs. Damer. Only, when the room was nearly cleared, he held out his arm to her, and she rose to accept it. But the next minute sh_ad sunk back again upon the sofa, and Mrs. Clayton was at her cousin's side.
Mrs. Damer had fainted.
"Poor darling!" exclaimed Colonel Damer, as he pressed forward to the side o_is wife. "I was afraid coming down to-night would be too much for her, bu_he would make the attempt; she has so much spirit. Pray don't delay th_inner, Mrs. Clayton; I will stay by her, if you will excuse the apparen_udeness, until she is sufficiently recovered to go to bed."
But even as he spoke his wife raised herself from the many arms whic_upported her, and essayed to gain her feet.
"Bella, dear! I am all right again. Pray, if you love me, don't make a scen_bout a little fatigue. I often faint now: let me go up to my bedroom and li_own, as I ought to have done at first, and I shall be quite well to-morro_orning."
She would accept no one's help—not even her husband's, though it distresse_im greatly that she refused it—but walked out of the room of her own accord, and toiled wearily up the staircase which led her to the higher stories; whilst more than one pair of eyes watched her ascent, and more than on_ppetite was spoilt for the coming meal.
"Don't you think that Blanche is looking very ill?" demanded Bella Clayton o_olonel Damer, at the dinner-table. She had been much struck herself with th_reat alteration in her cousin's looks, and fancied that her husband was no_o alarmed about it as he ought to be.
"I do, indeed," he replied; "but it is the last thing she will acknowledg_erself. She has very bad spirits and appetite; appears always in a low fever, and is so nervous that the least thing will frighten her. That, to me, is th_orst and most surprising change of all: such a high-couraged creature as sh_sed to be."
"Yes, indeed," replied Mrs. Clayton; "I can hardly imagine Blanche bein_ervous at anything. It must have come on since her visit to the Continent, for she was not so when she stayed here last."
"When was that?" demanded the Colonel, anxiously.
"Just three years ago this Christmas," was the answer. "I don't think I eve_aw her look better than she did then, and she was the life of the house. Bu_oon afterwards she went to Paris, and then we heard of her illness, and thi_s my first meeting with her since that time. I was very much shocked when sh_ot out of the carriage: I should scarcely have known her again." Here Mrs.
Clayton stopped, seeing that the attention of Mr. Laurence, who sat opposit_o her, appeared to be riveted on her words, and Colonel Damer relapsed int_hought and spoke no more.
In the meanwhile Mrs. Damer had gained her bedroom. Women had come to atten_pon her, sent by their mistress, and laden with offers of refreshment an_elp of every kind, but she had dismissed them and chosen to be alone. Sh_elt too weak to be very restless, but she had sat by the fire and cried, until she was so exhausted that her bed suggested itself to her, as the bes_lace in which she could be; but rising to undress, preparatory to seeking it, she had nearly fallen, and catching feebly at the bedpost had missed it, an_unk down by the side of the solid black box, which was clamped with iron an_astened with a padlock, and respecting which she had been so particular a fe_ours before. She felt as if she was dying, and as if this were the fittes_lace for her to die on. "There is nothing in my possession," she cried, "tha_eally belongs to me but _this_ —this which I loathe and abhor, and love an_eep over at one and the same moment." And, strange to relate, Mrs. Dame_urned on her side and kneeling by the iron-clamped chest pressed her lip_pon its hard, unyielding surface, as if it had life wherewith to answer he_mbrace. And then the wearied creature dragged herself up again into a_nsteady position, and managed to sustain it until she was ready to lie dow_pon her bed.
The next morning she was much better. Colonel Damer and Bella Clayton lai_heir heads together and decided that she was to remain in bed until afte_reakfast, therefore she was spared meeting with the assembled strangers unti_he dinner-hour again, for luncheon was a desultory meal at Molton Chase, an_carcely any of the gentlemen were present at it that day. After luncheon Mrs.
Clayton proposed driving Mrs. Damer out in her pony-chaise.
"I don't think you will find it cold, dear, and we can come home by the lowe_hrubberies and meet the gentlemen as they return from shooting," Colone_amer being one of the shooting party. But Mrs. Damer had declined the drive, and made her cousin understand so plainly that she preferred being left alone, that Mrs. Clayton felt no compunction in acceding to her wishes, and layin_erself out to please the other ladies staying in the house.
And Mrs. Damer did wish to be alone. She wanted to think over the incidents o_he night before, and devise some plan by which she could persuade her husban_o leave the Grange as soon as possible without provoking questions which sh_ight find it difficult to answer. When the sound of the wheels of he_ousin's pony-chaise had died away, and the great stillness pervading Molto_range proclaimed that she was the sole inmate left behind, she dresse_erself in a warm cloak, and drawing the hood over her head prepared for _troll about the grounds. A little walk she thought would do her good, an_ith this intention she left the house. The Grange gardens were extensive an_uriously laid out, and there were many winding shrubbery paths about them, which strangers were apt to find easier to enter than to find their way out o_gain. Into one of these Mrs. Damer now turned her steps for the sake o_rivacy and shelter; but she had not gone far before, on turning an abrup_orner, she came suddenly upon the figure of the gentleman she had bee_ntroduced to the night before, Mr. Laurence, who she had imagined to be wit_he shooting party. He was half lying, half sitting across a rustic seat whic_ncircled the huge trunk of an old tree, with his eyes bent upon the groun_nd a cigar between his lips. He was more an intellectual and fine-lookin_han a handsome man, but he possessed two gifts which are much more winnin_han beauty, a mind of great power, and the art of fascination. As Mrs. Dame_ame full in view of him, too suddenly to stop herself or to retreat, he ros_uickly from the attitude he had assumed when he thought himself secure fro_nterruption and stood in her pathway. She attempted to pass him with a_nclination of the head, but he put out his hand and stopped her.
"Blanche! you must speak to me; you shall not pass like this; I insist upo_t!" and she tried in vain to disengage her arm from his detaining clasp.
"Mr. Laurence, what right have you to hold me thus?"
"What right, Blanche? The right of every man over the woman who loves him!"
"That is your right over me no longer. I have tried to avoid you. You hav_oth seen and known it! No _gentleman_ would force himself upon my notice i_his manner."
"Your taunt fails to have any effect upon me. I have sought an explanation o_our extraordinary conduct from you in vain. My letters have been unanswered, my entreaties for a last interview disregarded; and now that chance ha_rought us together again, I must have what I have a right to ask from you_wn lips. I did not devise this meeting; I did not even know you had returne_o England till yesterday, and then I sought to avoid you; but it was fate_hat we should meet, and it is fated that you satisfy my curiosity."
"What do you want to know?" she asked, in a low voice.
"First, have you ceased to love me?"
The angry light which had flashed across her face when he used force to detai_er died away; the pallid lips commenced to tremble, and in the sunken eye_arge tear-drops rose and hung quivering upon the long eyelashes.
"Enough, Blanche," Mr. Laurence continued, in a softer voice. "Nature answer_e. I will not give you the needless pain of speaking. Then, why did yo_orsake me? Why did you leave England without one line of farewell, and wh_ave you refused to hold any communication with me since that time?"
"I _could_ not," she murmured. "You do not know; you cannot feel; you coul_ever understand my feelings on that occasion."
"That is no answer to my question, Blanche," he said firmly, "and an answer _ill have. What was the immediate cause of your breaking faith with me? _oved you, you know how well. What drove you from me? Was it fear, o_ndifference, or a sudden remorse?"
"It was," she commenced slowly, and then as if gathering up a grea_esolution, she suddenly exclaimed, "Do you _really_ wish to know wha_arted us?"
"I really intend to know," he replied, and the old power which he had hel_ver her recommenced its sway. "Whatever it was it has not tended to you_appiness," he continued, "if I may judge from your looks. You are terribl_hanged, Blanche! I think even I could have made you happier than you appea_o have been."
"I have had enough to change me," she replied. "If you will know then, com_ith me, and I will show you."
"At once; to-morrow may be too late." She began to walk towards the house a_he spoke, rapidly and irregularly, her heart beating fast, but no trace o_eakness in her limbs; and Herbert Laurence followed her, he scarcely kne_hy, expecting that she had desired it.
Into Molton Grange she went, up the broad staircase and to her chamber doo_efore she paused to see if he was following. When she did so she found tha_e stood just behind her on the wide landing.
"You can enter," she said, throwing open the door of her bedroom, "don't b_fraid; there is nothing here except the cause for which I parted with you."
In her agitation and excitement, scarcely pausing to fasten the door behin_er, Mrs. Damer fell down on her knees before the little black box with it_ron clamps and ponderous padlock; and drawing a key from her bosom, applie_t to the lock, and in another minute had thrown back the heavy lid. Havin_isplaced some linen which lay at the top, she carefully removed some lighte_aterials, and then calling to the man behind her, bid him look in and b_atisfied. Mr. Laurence advanced to the box, quite ignorant as to the reaso_f her demand; but as his eye fell upon its contents, he started backwards an_overed his face with his hands. As he drew them slowly away again he met th_ad, earnest look with which the kneeling woman greeted him, and for a fe_oments they gazed at one another in complete silence. Then Mrs. Dame_ithdrew her eyes from his and rearranged the contents of the black box; th_eavy lid shut with a clang, the padlock was fast again, the key in her bosom, and she rose to her feet and prepared to leave the room in the same unbroke_ilence. But he again detained her, and this time his voice was hoarse an_hanged.
"Blanche! tell me, is this the truth?"
"As I believe in heaven," she answered.
"And this was the reason that we parted—this the sole cause of ou_strangement?"
"Was it not enough?" she said. "I erred, but it was as one in a dream. When _woke I could no longer err and be at peace. At peace did I say? I have know_o peace since I knew you; but I should have died and waked up in hell, if _ad not parted with you. This is all the truth, believe it or not as you will; but there may, there can be nothing in future between you and me. Pray let m_ass you."
"But that—that—box, Blanche!" exclaimed Herbert Laurence, with drops of sweat, notwithstanding the temperature of the day, upon his forehead. "It was a_ccident, a misfortune; _you_ did not do it?"
She turned upon him eyes which were full of mingled horror and scorn.
"I _do_ it!" she said; "what are you dreaming of? I was mad; but not so ma_s that! How could you think it?" and the tears rose in her eyes more at th_upposition which his question had raised than at the idea that he could s_isjudge her.
"But why do you keep this? why do you carry it about with you, Blanche? It i_ure insanity on your part. How long is it since you have travelled in compan_ith that dreadful box?"
"More than two years," she said in a fearful whisper. "I have tried to get ri_f it, but to no purpose; there was always some one in the way. I hav_easoned with myself, and prayed to be delivered from it, but I have neve_ound an opportunity. And now, what does it matter? The burden and heat of th_ay are past."
"Let me do it for you," said Mr. Laurence. "Whatever our future relation t_ne another, I cannot consent that you should run so terrible a risk throug_ault of mine. The strain upon your mind has been too great already. Would t_eaven I could have borne it for you! but you forbid me even the privilege o_nowing that you suffered. Now that I have ascertained it, it must be my car_hat the cause of our separation shall at least live in your memory only." An_s he finished speaking he attempted to lift the box; but Mrs. Damer spran_orward and prevented him.
"Leave it!" she cried; "do not dare to touch it; it is _mine_! It has gon_herever I have gone for years. Do you think, for the little space that i_eft me, that I would part with the only link left between me and my drea_ast?" and saying this she threw herself upon the black trunk and burst int_ears.
"Blanche! you love me as you ever did," exclaimed Herbert Laurence. "Thes_ears confess it. Let me make amends to you for this; let me try to make th_appiness of your future life!"
But before his sentence was concluded Mrs. Damer had risen from her droopin_ttitude and stood before him.
"Make amends!" she echoed scornfully. "How can you 'make amends'? Nothing ca_ipe out the memory of the shame and misery that I have passed through, nothing restore the quiet conscience I have lost. I do not know if I love yo_till or not. When I think of it, my head swims, and I only feel confused an_nxious. But I am sure of one thing, that the horror of my remorse for eve_aving listened to you has power to overwhelm any regret that may be lingerin_n my unworthy breast, and that the mere fact of your bodily presence is agon_o me. When I met you to-day I was battling with my invention to devise som_eans of leaving the place where you are without exciting suspicion. If yo_ver loved, have pity on me now; take the initiative, and rid me of yourself."
"Is this your final decision, Blanche?" he asked, slowly. "Will you not regre_t when too late, and you are left alone with only _that_?"
She shuddered, and he caught at the fact as a sign of relenting.
"Dearest, loveliest," he commenced.—This woman had been the loveliest to hi_n days gone past, and though she was so terribly changed in eyes tha_egarded her less, Herbert Laurence, her once lover, could still trace abov_he languor and debility and distress of her present appearance, the fresh, sparkling woman who had sacrificed herself for his sake; and although hi_tyle of address signified more than he really thought for her, the knowledg_f how much she had undergone since their separation had the power to make hi_magine that this partial reanimation of an old flame was a proof that th_ire which kindled it had never perished. Therefore it did not appear absur_n his mental eyes to preface his appeal to Mrs. Damer thus: "Dearest, loveliest—" but she turned upon him as though he had insulted her.
"Mr. Laurence!" she exclaimed, "I have told you that the past is past; be goo_nough to take me at my word. Do you think that I have lived over two years o_olitary shame and grief, to break the heart that trusts in me _now_? If _ad any wish, or any thought to the contrary, it would be impossible. I a_nveloped by kind words and acts, by care and attention, which chain me a_losely to my home as if I were kept a prisoner between four walls. I coul_ot free myself if I would," she continued, throwing back her arms, as thoug_he tried to break an invisible thrall. "I must die first; the cords o_ratitude are bound about me so closely. It is killing me, as nothing els_ould kill," she added, in a lower voice. "I lived under your loss, and th_nowledge of my own disgrace; but I cannot live under his perpetual kindnes_nd perfect trust. It cannot last much longer: for mercy's sake, leave me i_eace until the end comes!"
"And the box?" he demanded.
"I will provide for the box before that time," she answered, sadly; "but i_ou have any fear, keep the key yourself: the lock is not one that can b_orced."
She took the key from her bosom, where it hung on a broad black ribbon, as sh_poke, and handed it to him. He accepted it without demur.
"You are so rash," he said; "it will be safer with me: let me take the bo_lso?"
"No, no!" said Mrs. Damer, hurriedly; "you shall not; and it would be no use.
If it were out of my sight, I should dream that it was found, and talk of i_n my sleep. I often rise in the night now to see if it is safe. Nothing coul_o away with it. If you buried it, some one would dig it up; if you threw i_n the water, it would float. It would lie still nowhere but on my heart, where it ought to be!—it ought to be!"
Her eyes had reassumed the wild, restless expression which they took whils_peaking of the past, and her voice had sunk to a low, fearful whisper.
"This is madness," muttered Herbert Laurence; and he was right. On the subjec_f the black box Mrs. Damer's brain was turned.
He was just about to speak to her again, and try to reason her out of he_olly, when voices were heard merrily talking together in the hall, and he_ace worked with the dread of discovery.
"Go!" she said; "pray, go at once. I have told you everything." And in anothe_oment Herbert Laurence had dashed through the passage to the privacy of hi_wn room; and Mrs. Clayton, glowing from her drive, and with a fine rosy bab_n her arms, had entered the apartment of her cousin.