BELLA found her cousin sitting in an arm-chair, with the cloak still over her shoulders, and a face of ashy whiteness, the reaction of her excitement.
"My dear, how ill you look!" was her first exclamation. "Have you been out?"
"I went a little way into the shrubberies," said Mrs. Damer; "but the day turned so cold."
"Do you think so? We have all been saying what a genial afternoon it is: but it certainly does not seem to have agreed with you. Look at my boy: isn't he a fine fellow?—he has been out all day in the garden. I often wish you had a child, Blanchey."
"Do you, dear? it is more than I do."
"Ah, but you can't tell, till they are really yours, how much pleasure they give you; no one knows who has not been a mother."
"No; I suppose not."
Mrs. Damer shivered as she said the words, and looked into the baby's fat, unmeaning face with eyes of sad import. Mrs. Clayton thought she had wounded her cousin, and stooped to kiss the slight offence away; but she fancied that Blanche almost shrunk from her embrace.
"She must be really ill," thought the kindly little Bella, who had no notion of such a thing as heart-sickness for an apparently happy married woman. "She ought to see a doctor: I shall tell Colonel Damer so."
In another half-hour they were at her side together, urging her to take their advice.
"Now, my darling," said the Colonel, when Mrs. Damer faintly protested against being made a fuss about, "you must be good for my sake. You know how precious you are to me, and how it would grieve me to have you laid up; let me send for Dr. Barlow, as your cousin advises. You were very much overcome by the long journey here, and I am afraid the subsequent excitement of seeing your kind friends has been too much for you. You do not half know how dear you are to me, Blanche, or you would not refuse such a trifling request. Here have I been, for five years, dearest, only looking forward from day to day to meeting my dear loving little wife again; and then to have you so ill as this the first month of our reunion, is a great trial to me. Pray let me send for Dr.
But Mrs. Damer pleaded for delay. She had become chilled through being out in the shrubberies; she had not yet got over the fatigue of her journey; she had caught a cold whilst crossing from Havre to Folkestone: it was anything and everything but an illness which required medical attendance. If she were not better in the morning, she promised to make no opposition to their wishes.
So she forced herself to rise and dress for dinner. She appeared there calm and collected, and continued so throughout the evening, talking with Mr.
Laurence quite as much as with the rest of the company; and she went to bed at the same hour as the other guests of Molton Grange, receiving with her cousin's good-night, congratulations on the evident improvement of her health.
"I cannot quite make out what has come to that cousin of yours, Bella," said Harry Clayton to his wife, as they too retired for the night; "she doesn't appear half such a jolly woman as she used to be."
"She is certainly very much altered," was Mrs. Clayton's response; "but I think it must be chiefly owing to her health; a feeling of debility is so very depressing."
"I suppose it can't be anything on her mind, Bella?" suggested the husband, after a pause.
"On her _mind_ , Harry!" said Bella, sitting up in bed in her wonderment; "of course not; why, how could it be? She has everything she can wish for; and, I am sure, no woman could have a more devoted husband than Colonel Damer. He has been speaking a great deal about her to me to-day, and his anxiety is something enormous. On her _mind_!—what a funny idea, Harry; what could have put that in your head?"
"I am sure I don't know," was the husband's reply, rather ruefully given, as if conscious he had made a great mistake.
"You old _goose_ ," said his wife, with an emphatic kiss, as she composed herself to her innocent slumbers.
But before they were broken by nature, in the gray of the morning, Mrs.
Clayton was roused by a tapping at the bedroom door; a tapping to which all Mr. Clayton's shouts to "come in," only served as a renewal.
"Who can it be, Harry?—do get up and see," said Bella.
So Harry got up, like a dutiful husband, and opened the door, and the figure of Colonel Damer, robed in a dressing-gown, and looking very shadowy and unreal in the dawning, presented itself on the threshold.
"Is your wife here?" demanded the Colonel briefly.
"Of course she is," said Mr. Clayton, wondering what the Colonel wanted with her.
"Will she come to Mrs. Damer? she is _very_ ill," was the next sentence, delivered tremblingly.
"Very ill!" exclaimed Bella, jumping out of bed and wrapping herself in a dressing-gown. "How do you mean, Colonel Damer?—when did it happen?"
"God knows!" he said, in an agitated voice; "but for some time after she fell asleep she was feverish and excited, and spoke much. I woke suddenly in the night and missed her, and going in search of her with a light, found her fallen on the landing."
"Fainted?" said Bella.
"I don't know now whether it was a faint or a fit," he replied, "but I incline to the latter belief. I carried her back to her bed, and gave her some restoratives, not liking to disturb you—"
"Oh! why didn't you, Colonel Damer?" interposed his hostess.
"—and thought she was better, till just now, when she had another attack of unconsciousness, and is so weak after it she cannot move. She has fever too, I am sure, from the rapidity of her pulse, and I don't think her head is quite clear."
"Harry, dear, send for Dr. Barlow at once," thrusting her naked feet into slippers, "and come back with me, Colonel Damer; she should not be left for a minute."
And she passed swiftly along the corridor to her cousin's room. As she neared that of Mr. Laurence, the door opened a little, and a voice asked huskily—
"Is anything the matter, Mrs. Clayton? I have been listening to noises in the house for the last hour."
"My cousin, Mrs. Damer, has been taken ill, Mr. Laurence, but we have sent for the doctor; I am going to her now."
And as the door closed again she fancied that she heard a sigh.
Blanche Damer was lying on her pillows very hot and flushed, with that anxious, perturbed look which the eyes assume when the brain is only half clouded, and can feel itself to be wandering.
"Blanche, dearest," cried Bella, as she caught sight of her face, "what is the matter? How did this happen?"
"I dreamt that he had taken it," said Mrs. Damer, slowly and sadly; "but it was a mistake: he must not have it yet—not yet! only a little while to wait now!—but he has the key."
"Her mind is wandering at present," said Colonel Damer, who had followed Mrs.
Clayton into the room.
"Oh, Colonel Damer," exclaimed Bella, tearfully, "how dreadful it is!—she frightens me! Could she have knocked her head in falling? Have you no idea why she got up and went into the passage?"
"Not the slightest," he returned. And now that she examined him under the morning light, which was by this time streaming through the open shutters, Bella Clayton saw how aged and haggard his night's anxiety had made him look.
"My wife has been very subject to both sleeping-talking and walking since my return, and I have several times missed her, as I did last night, and found her walking about the room in her sleep, but she has never been like this before. When I first found her in the passage, I asked her why she had gone there, or what she wanted, and she said, 'the key.' When I had relifted her into bed, I found her bunch of keys as usual, on the dressing-table, therefore I imagine she could not then have known what she was talking about. I trust Dr. Barlow will not be long in coming; I am deeply anxious."
And he looked the truth of what he uttered; whilst poor little Mrs. Clayton could only press his hand and entreat him to be hopeful; and his wife lay on her pillows, and silently stared into vacancy.
As soon as the doctor arrived he pronounced the patient to be suffering from an attack of pressure on the brain, and wished to know whether she had not been subjected to some great mental shock or strain.
Here Colonel Damer came forward and stoutly denied the possibility of such a thing. He had joined his wife from India a month ago, at which time she was, though in delicate, not in bad health, and he had never left her since. They had crossed from Havre to Folkestone three days before, and Mrs. Damer had not complained of any unusual sickness or fatigue. She was a person of a highly excitable and nervous temperament, and her appetite and spirit were variable; otherwise there had been nothing in her state of health to call for anxiety on the part of her friends.
Dr. Barlow listened to all these statements, and believed as much of them as he chose. However he waived the subject of the cause of the disaster; the fact that it had occurred was undeniable; and the remedies for such emergencies were immediately resorted to. But all proved alike ineffectual, for the simple reason that the irrevocable fiat had gone forth, and Blanche Damer was appointed to die.
As the day wore on, and the case assumed a darker aspect, and the doctor's prognostications became less hopeful, Colonel Damer worked himself into a perfect frenzy of fear.
"Save her, Dr. Barlow," he had said to that gentleman, in the insane manner in which people are used to address the Faculty, as if it was in their power to do more than help the efforts of nature. "Save her life, for God's sake! and there is nothing that I can do for you, of earthly good, that shall not be yours. Shall I call in other advice? Shall I telegraph to London? Is there anyone there who can save her? It is my life as well as hers that is trembling in the scale. For the love of heaven, do not stand on ceremony, but only tell me what is best to be done!"
Of course Dr. Barlow told him that if he was not perfectly satisfied, he should wish him to telegraph to town for further advice, and mentioned several names celebrated in such cases; at the same time he assured Colonel Damer that he did not believe any number of doctors could do more for the patient than he was doing, and that it was impossible to guess at the probable termination of the illness for some days to come.
Bella Clayton gave up the duty of amusing her guests, and stationed herself at the bedside of her cousin; and the unhappy husband wandered in and out of the room like a ghost; trying to think upon each fresh visit, that there was a slight improvement in the symptoms, and spending the intervening time in praying for the life which he fondly imagined had been devoted to himself.
Meanwhile, whenever Mrs. Damer opened her lips, it was to ramble on in this manner:
"Dying!" her hollow voice would exclaim; "crushed to death beneath the weight of a pyramid of blessings that lies like lead upon my chest and reaches to the ceiling. Kind words—fond care, and sweet attentions—they bow me down to the earth! I am stifling beneath the burden of their silent reproaches. Two and two are four; and four and four is eight; eight times locked should be secure—but there is a worm that dieth not, and a fire that is not quenched."
"Oh! don't come in here, Colonel Damer," poor Bella would exclaim, as the unhappy man would creep to the foot of the bed and stand listening, with blanched cheeks, to the delirious ravings of his wife. "She doesn't know what she is saying, remember; and she will be better to-morrow, doubtless. Don't distress yourself more, by listening to all this nonsense."
"I don't believe she will ever be better, Mrs. Clayton," he replied, on one of these occasions. This was on the third day.
"Dearest!" the sick woman resumed, in a plaintively soft voice, without being in the least disturbed by the conversation around her, "if you have ever loved me, you will believe in this hour that I love you in return. If you have given me your love, I have given you more than my life."
"Does she speak of me?" demanded Colonel Damer.
"I think so," said Bella Clayton, sadly.
"Take it off! take it off!" cried Mrs. Damer, starting with terror—"this box—this iron-clamped box which presses on my soul. What have I done? Where shall I go? How am I to meet him again?"
"What does she say?" asked the Colonel, trembling.
"Colonel Damer, I must beg you to quit the room," said Bella, weeping. "I cannot bear to stay here with both of you. Pray leave me alone with Blanche until she is quieter."
And so the husband left the chamber, with fellow tears in his eyes, and she set herself to the painful task of attempting to soothe the delirious woman.
"If he would only strike me," moaned Mrs. Damer, "or frown at me, or tell me that I lie, I could bear it better; but he is killing me with kindness. Where is the box?—open it—let him see all. I am ready to die. But I forgot—there is no key, and no one shall touch it: it is mine—mine. Hark! I hear it! I hear it! How could I put it there? Let me go—no one shall hold me! Let me go, I say—I _hear_ it; and—and—the world is nothing to me!"
At last, when they had almost despaired of ever seeing her sleep again, there came an uninterrupted hour of repose from sheer weariness; and then wide-open hollow eyes—a changed voice sounding with the question—"Bella! have I been ill?" and Mrs. Damer's delirium was over.
Over with her life. For on his next visit Dr. Barlow found her sensible but cold and pulseless, and broke to her friends the news that twelve hours more would end her existence.
Colonel Damer went wild, and telegraphed at once to London for men who arrived when his wife was ready to be coffined. Bella heard the decree and wept silently; and a great gloom fell upon the guests of Molton Chase, who had been left altogether on poor Harry's hands since Mrs. Damer's illness.
The dying woman lay very silent and exhausted for some time after she had waked from that brief, memory-restoring sleep. When she next spoke, she said, observing her cousin's swollen eyes—
"Am I dying, Bella?"
Poor little Mrs. Clayton did not at all know what answer to make to such a direct question, but she managed to stammer out something which, whatever it was meant for, was taken as affirmative by the one it most concerned.
"I thought so. Shall I never be able to get out of bed again?"
"I am afraid not, darling—you are so weak!"
"Yes, I am—I can hardly raise my hand. And yet I must rise if I can. I have something so particular to do."
"Cannot I do it for you, Blanche?"
" _Will_ you do it, Bella?"
"Anything—everything, love! How can you ask me?"
"And you will promise secrecy? Let me look in your face. Yes, it is a true face, as it has ever been, and I can trust you. Have the black box moved out of my room before I die, Bella—mind, _before_ I die, and placed in your own dressing-room."
"What, dear, your linen box?"
"Yes, my linen box, or whatever you choose to call it. Take it away _at once_ , Bella. Tell no one; and when I am dead, have it buried in my grave. Surely you could manage so much for me!"
"And Colonel Damer?"
"If you speak to him about it, Bella, or to your husband, or to any one, I'll never forgive you, and I'm dying!" cried Mrs. Damer, almost rising in her excitement. "Oh! why have I delayed it so long, why did I not see to this before? I cannot even die in peace."
"Yes, yes, dearest Blanche, I will do it, indeed I will," said Mrs. Clayton, alarmed at her emotion; "and no one shall know of it but myself. Shall I send it to my room at once? You may trust entirely to my discretion. Pray, have no fear!"
"Yes! at once—directly; it cannot be too soon!" said Mrs. Damer, falling back exhausted on her pillow. So a servant was called, and the iron-clamped box was carried away from the sick-room and secreted in Mrs. Clayton's private apartment. Mrs. Damer seemed so weak, that her cousin suggested summoning her husband to her side, but she appeared to shrink from an interview with him.
"I have nothing to say but what will make him sad to think of afterwards," she murmured. "Let me die with you alone, dear Bella. It is better so."
So Colonel Damer, although he went backwards and forwards all the night, was not called at any particular moment to see the last of his wife, and Blanche had her wish. She died alone with her faithful little cousin before the morning broke. As she was just going, she said, in a vague sort of manner—
"Tell him, Bella, that I forgive him as I hope to be forgiven. And that I have seen Heaven open to-night, and a child spirit pleading with the Woman-born for us; and that the burden is lifted off my soul at last." And then she added solemnly—"I will arise and go to my Father—," and went before she could finish the sentence.
Innocent Bella repeated her last message in perfect faith to Colonel Damer.
"She told me to tell you, that she felt herself forgiven, and that she had seen Heaven opened for her, and the weight of her sins was lifted off her soul. Oh! Colonel Damer, pray think of that, and take comfort. She is happier than you could make her."
But the poor faithful husband was, for the present, beyond all reach of comfort.
The London doctors arrived with the daylight, and had to be solemnly entertained at breakfast, and warmed and comforted before they were despatched home again. The Christmas guests were all packing up their boxes, preparatory to taking their leave of Molton Chase, for it was impossible to think of festivities with such a bereavement in the house. And Harry Clayton told his wife that he was very thankful that they thought of doing so.
"It has been a most unfortunate business altogether, Bella, and of course they all felt it, poor things; and the more so because they could take no active part in it. The house has had a pall over it the last week; and it would have been still worse if they had remained. As for Laurence, I never saw a man so cut up. He has eaten nothing since your poor cousin was taken ill. One would think she had been his sister, or his dearest friend."
"Is he going with the rest, Harry?"
"No; he will stay till after the funeral; then he is going abroad. He feels deeply with you, Bella, and desired me to tell you so."
"He is very good—thank him in my name."
But released from the care of thinking for her guests, and sitting crying alone in her dressing-room, poor Mrs. Clayton could not imagine what to do with the iron-clamped black box. She had promised Blanche not to confide in her husband, or Colonel Damer. The latter, having no family vault, wished to lay the remains of his wife amongst those of the Claytons in the country churchyard of Molton; but how to get the black box conveyed to the grave without the knowledge of the chief mourners was a mystery beyond the fathoming of Bella's open heart. But in the midst of her perplexity, Fate sent her aid.
On the second day of her cousin's death, a gentle tap sounded at her chamber door, and on her invitation to enter being answered, she was surprised to see Mr. Laurence on the threshold—come, as she imagined, to offer his sympathy in person.
"This is very kind of you, Mr. Laurence," she said.
"I can scarcely claim your gratitude, Mrs. Clayton. I have sought you to speak on a very important but painful subject. May I ask your attention for a few moments?"
"Of course you may!" And she motioned him to a seat.
"It concerns her whom we have lost. Mrs. Clayton, tell me truly—did you love your cousin?"
"Dearly—very dearly, Mr. Laurence. We were brought up together."
"Then I may depend on your discretion; and if you wish to save her memory you must exercise it in her behalf. There is a small iron-clamped black trunk amongst her boxes, which must not fall into Colonel Damer's hands. Will you have that box conveyed from her chamber to your own, and (if you will so far trust my honour) make it over to me?"
"To you, Mr. Laurence—the iron-bound box? What possible knowledge can you have of my cousin's secret?"
"Yes—she confided that box to my care the night she died. She made me promise to do (without question) what you have just asked me to perform, and I did it.
The trunk is already here."
And throwing open a cupboard at the side of the room, she showed him the chest which he had mentioned.
"I see that it is," he answered. "How do you design disposing of it?"
"She wished it to be buried in her grave."
"That is impossible in its present state. The contents must be removed."
"But how?" Mrs. Clayton demanded, in surprise. "It is locked and double locked, and there is no key."
" _I_ have the key," he answered, gravely.
"Oh! Mr. Laurence," exclaimed his hostess, trembling, "there is some dreadful mystery here. For heaven's sake tell me what it is! What connection can you possibly have with this box of my poor cousin's, if you have only met her once in your life?"
"Did she say so?" he asked.
"No; but I fancied so. Have you known her? When? where? and why did you not tell us so before?"
"How can I tell you now?" he said, gazing into the pure womanly face upraised to his own, bearing an expression which was half-surprise and half-fear but which seemed as though it could never dream of anything like shame.
"You are too good and too happy, Mrs. Clayton, to know of, or be able to sympathize with, the troubles and temptations which preceded our fatal friendship and her fall."
"Blanche's _fall_!" ejaculated Bella Clayton, in a voice of horror.
"Don't interrupt me, please, Mrs. Clayton," he said, hurriedly, covering his face with his hands, "or I shall never be able to tell you the wretched story.
I knew your cousin years ago. Had you any suspicion that she was unhappy in her marriage?"
"No! none!" replied Bella, with looks of surprise.
"She _was_ then, thoroughly unhappy, as scores of women are, simply because the hearts of the men they are bound to are opposed to theirs in every taste and feeling. I met her when she first returned to England, and—it is the old story, Mrs. Clayton—I loved her, and was mad enough to tell her so. When a selfish man and an unselfish woman have mutually confessed their preference for each other, the result is easily anticipated. I ruined her—forgive my plain speaking—and she still loved on, and forgave me."
"Oh, Blanche!" exclaimed Bella Clayton, hiding her hot face in her hands.
"We lived in a fool's paradise for some months, and then one day she left her house and went to the Continent, without giving me any warning of her intention. I was thunderstruck when I heard it, and deeply hurt, and as soon as I had traced her to Paris, I followed and demanded an explanation of her conduct. But she refused to see me, and when she found me pertinacious, left the city as suddenly as she had done that of London. Since which time she has answered no letters of mine, nor did we ever meet until, most unexpectedly, I met her in your house. My pride, after her first refusals to see me, was too great to permit me to renew my entreaties, and so I called her a flirt, and inconstant. I tried to banish her remembrance from my heart—and I thought I had succeeded."
"Oh, my poor darling!" exclaimed Mrs. Clayton. "This accounts then for her holding aloof from all her relations for so long a time, by which means she estranged herself from many of them. She was working out her penitence and deep remorse in solitary misery; and she would not even let me share her confidence. But about the box, Mr. Laurence; what has all this to do with the black box?"
"When I met her in your shrubbery the other day, and reproached her for her desertion of me, insisting upon her giving me the reason of her change of mind, she bade me follow her to her own apartment. There, unlocking the box before you, she showed me its contents."
"And they are—?" inquired Mrs. Clayton, breathlessly.
"Would you like to see them?" he demanded, taking a key from his pocket. "I have as much right to show them you as she would have had. But is your love for her dead memory and reputation strong enough to insure your eternal secrecy on the subject?"
"It is," said Bella Clayton, decidedly.
"This box," continued Mr. Laurence, applying the key he held to the lock of the iron-clamped black trunk, "has accompanied my poor girl on all her travels for the last two years. The dreadful secret of its contents which she bore in silent, solitary misery all that time has been, I believe, the ultimate cause of her death, by proving too heavy a burden for the sensitive and proud spirit which was forced to endure the knowledge of its shame. She was killed by her remorse. If you have courage, Mrs. Clayton, for the sight, look at _this_ —and pity the feelings I must endure as I kneel here and look at it with you."
He threw back the lid and the topmost linen as he spoke, and Bella Clayton pressed eagerly forward to see, carefully laid amidst withered flowers and folds of cambric, the tiny skeleton of a new-born creature whose angel was even then beholding the face of his Father in Heaven.
She covered her eyes with her clasped hands, no less to shut out the sight than to catch the womanly tears which poured forth at it, and then she cried between her sobs—
"Oh! my poor, poor Blanche, what must she not have suffered! God have mercy on her soul!"
"Amen!" said Herbert Laurence.
"You will let me take the box away with me, Mrs. Clayton?" he asked, gently.
She looked up as he spoke, and the tears were standing in his eyes.
"Yes—yes," she said; "take it away; do what you will with it, only never speak of it to me again."
He never did but once, and that was but an allusion. On the evening of the day on which they committed the remains of Blanche Damer to the dust, he lay in wait for Mrs. Clayton on the landing.
"All has been done as she desired," he whispered; and Mrs. Clayton asked for no further explanation. The secret of which she had been made an unwilling recipient pressed so heavily on her conscience, that she was thankful when he left Molton Grange and went abroad, as he had expressed his intention of doing.
Since which time she has never seen Herbert Laurence again; and Colonel Damer, whose grief at the funeral and for some time after was nearly frenzied, having—like most men who mourn much outwardly—found a source of consolation in the shape of another wife, the story of Blanche Damer's life and death is remembered, for aught her cousin knows to the contrary, by none but herself.
I feel that an objection will be raised to this episode by some people on the score of its being _unnatural_ ; to whom all I can say in answer is, that the principal incident on which the interest of it turns—that of the unhappy Mrs.
Damer having been made so great a coward by conscience that she carried the proof of her frailty about with her for years, too fearful of discovery to permit it to leave her sight—is _a fact_.
To vary the circumstances under which the discovery of the contents of the black box was finally made, and to alter the names of places and people so as to avoid general recognition, I have made my province: to relate the story itself, since, in the form I now present it to my readers, it can give pain to no one, I consider my privilege.