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“Captain Annesley,” she said, in a clear and even voice, “I once did you a great injustice, an injustice I can never repair. It was not wholly my fault. I was — misled.”
Her voice changed and deepened with this last word. Edward turned, and saw her face clearly illumined by the taper burning before her, and the trouble in it divided his heart like a sharp sword. But there was more than trouble in her face, there was something he had never pictured upon those gentle features, a mingling of horror and indignation.
“Oh, Alice !” he cried advancing toward her, “ Alice!”
“Hush !” she replied, waving him back. “Do you know what this means ? He was to have been my husband in a few days. He was my dearest friend.”
He stopped, thunder-struck, not immediately perceiving that she was speaking of Gervase; but smitten through with the keen anguish in her voice.
“ What have I done?” he asked. “Oh, Alice! you did not love him,” he added, thinking that his coming had only plunged her into deeper, perhaps irreparable sorrow.
“ You should have spoken that day in the garden," she continued, in a low, half-suppressed tone; " I had a right to know then. You should have spoken.”
“How could I speak ?” he returned in surprise. dead. What passed was our secret. Paul has spoken now
he stopped, he could not say that he had come that night only to save her from the misery of marrying a man so false as Gervase Rickman.
Alice had risen in her trouble and stood in the full blaze of the firelight. “This is the only home I have ever known!” she said, looking round the familiar room, and wringing her hands together in her desperate pain. “And though I did not love him, I trusted him. Oh! how I trusted that false man,” she added.
She had not heard the door-bell ring, swift steps passing through the hall and up the echoing stair, and now as she faced the door, she was startled to see it open and disclose the smiling and confident face of Gervase Rickman.
6. He was
FACE TO FACE. BRIGHT visions passed before Gervase Rickman's mental gaze as he drove from the station in the chilly dusk, dreams in which love played a great part, but ambition a greater.
In winning Alice he had won the desire of his heart, a desire that would never have grown to such mighty proportions but for the difficulties which hedged it round. The wedding-day was so near now, that something of the coolness of certainty pervaded his thoughts of it; he had even got so far as to pity himself with a pity tinctured by self-commendation for the sacrifices his approaching marriage involved. He knew that he ought to look higher than Alice Lingard now; personally she was all that even his wife should be, but, although ber family was superior to his, she brought him no aristocratic connections, such as he needed. The marriage might even hinder him from strengthening such connections as he had already formed, while, as for her little fortune, which had once been so desirable an object to him, it would scarcely make any difference to a man whose successful financial operations were daily assuming grander, though more perilous proportions. His marriage was indeed a most virtuous act. Alice was not so young as she had been ; life had taken the freshness from her beauty, such as it was, and stamped her features with an indelible record. Yet he well knew that beauty had never been her greatest charm, but rather an inward something, which, when it touched men's hearts, bound them to her with irresistible force; a certain air about her, a way of moving, smiling, speaking, or being silent, which filled the surrounding atmosphere with grace, and forged adamantine chains about the souls of her lovers. Virtue, in Rickman's case as in others, would bring its own reward. For a deep, seldom-heard whisper from the very depths of his heart told him that, while he clave to Alice, he had not quite done with his better nature; if he let her go, he would part with the last restraints of conscience, a thing, it must be confessed, which is a terrible inconvenience in a career of political ambition.
That ambition, insatiable as it was, nevertheless, was in a fair way of being gratified. Scarcely a year had passed since he was returned from Medington, yet he had effected much, especially during the recent battle over the Conservative Reform Bill. In and out of the House he had done yeoman's service, recognized as such by the leaders of the Opposition. He had been ubiquitous; attending and speaking at meetings here and meetings there, adding fuel to the fire of political agitation, which at that time blazed fiercely enough, and he had been particularly useful at a by-election in which his party won a seat. Mrs. Walter Annesley had renewed many of her former aristocratic acquaintances in late years, and had given him excellent introductions, of which he had made the best use. He was well adapted for climbing the social ladder; he had good manners, tact and observation, fluent speech and ready wit, and was absolutely impervious to the impertinence of social superiors, when it suited his purpose, otherwise a person whom it was on the whole wise to respect. He was a brilliant speaker, his voice daily improved, and no amount of labor exhausted him.
Thus, with a long vista of political success opening brightly before him, and the prospect of domestic happiness filling the near distance, Gervase drove up to the door of his father's house that autumn evening, and, knowing the family habits by heart, went lightly up the stairs to the drawing-room, where he thought to find Alice alone.
When he opened the door and saw her standing with that strange look and despairing gesture in the mingled lights of the fire and the solitary taper, though something in her aspect gave him a shock, he supposed her to be alone ; it was only when she spoke that he made out the dark figure of Edward Annesley confronting her in the dimmer light of the further part of the
“Gervase,” Alice said, gazing full upon him without any salutation or preliminary whatever, “when I told you on the down that day that I had refused Edward Annesley solely because of what you witnessed on the banks of the Doubs six years ago, why did you tell me that I was quite right ? ”
These two syllables, which had so often echoed painfully through his conscience, were uttered with so keen an incisiveness that they cut into him like knives. Even his ready resource and iron nerve failed him for the moment, and he stood speechless, looking involuntarily from her to Annesley, as if for a solution of the enigma.
The latter returned his gaze with a stern, unbending contempt that failed to sting him in the anæsthesia which paradoxically results from such excessive pain as Alice's look gave him.
“ Why,” continued Alice, with a passionate scorn which told all the more from its contrast with her usual demeanor, “ did you tell me that afternoon on the scene of Paul's death, that it would be to Edward Annesley's discredit to reveal what actually occurred ?”
“ Discredit,” he returned, recovering his self-command, and taking refuge in a quibble, was not the word, if I remember rightly. We are not alone, my dear Alice; you seem to be a little upset.”
She looked at him with increasing contempt. " Why," she continued, "did you assure me that Edward Annesley loved your sister and had never more than a passing fancy for me?”
“My dear child, do consider times and places a little. If I told you that, it was doubtless because I believed it. I was not alone in taking that view of the situation.”
* Why,” she went on, “ did you persuade Edward Annesley that I loved his cousin ?”
“I was not alone in that opinion, either,” he replied with a forced smile. “Captain Annesley,” he added, “perhaps you will do me the favor of going into another room. Miss Lingard, as you perceive, is not in a condition to receive visitors."
“Quite so," Edward replied, taking his hat, “I will choose another time to finish my interview with Miss Lingard. My presence,” he added, with unwonted sarcasm, “ must be excessively embarrassing."
“No, Captain Annesley,” said Alice, in the same incisive tones, “you will not leave this room. While you are here that man, false as he is, dares not deny the truth of what I say."
Gervase turned very pale, and all the sweetness seemed to vanish out of his life forever. It was difficult to vanquish this resolute spirit, but he had the gift of knowing when he was beaten. He recognized the hard fact that nothing, not even his strong, imperious will, could now win Alice back. He heard the knell of all his better aspirations in her words.
Stay, Captain Annesley,” he said quietly, “ since Miss Lin. gard wishes it; though lovers' quarrels are not usually conducted in public. Perhaps, Alice, I may be permitted to ask why these reproaches are suddenly hurled at me in the presence of a third person?”
“Because that person has suffered the most from the web of falsehood and intrigue you have been weaving all these years,” she replied.
“ And he has come to complain to you,” returned Gervase. “ Don't you think, Annesley, it would have been more manly, to say the least of it, to tax me openly with whatever you have against me?”
“ I have taxed you with nothing," he replied. “I came here with the intention of replying to a question Miss Lingard asked me some years ago, but have not found it necessary to do
SO. I have simply handed her a letter which explained all she wished to know."
“You were in the confidence of both cousins," continued Alice, “and you abused the confidence of both. You were in my confidence, and you abused that.”
“ By loving you and purposing to make you my wife.”
“ Which you will never do,” she replied, drawing a ring from her finger and giving it to him.
Edward, who, since Gervase's request to him to leave the room, had been divided between the feeling that the request was reasonable and a desire to protect Alice, whose wish that he should stay showed a certain fear of being alone with a man so treacherous, now decided that the only becoming course for him was to go. He had already reached the door, when Sibyl, who had just been informed of her brother's arrival, opened it and came in.
“Captain Annesley!" she exclaimed, expecting to see Gervase only. “Oh! Gervase — Why, what is the matter, Alice ?” she added.
“Dear Sibyl!” replied Alice, suddenly calming to more than her wonted gentleness, “we have just had a severe shock. Paul Annesley is not dead."
“Not dead !” replied Gervase. “Why, I saw him die. Alice, you do not know what you are saying."
" It is quite true," added Edward ; "he was swept out of sight and washed ashore alive. I have seen him. He will probably be in England before long. He has become a Roman Catholic, and entered a religious order, and a great deal has to be done before he can obtain permission to visit his mother, as he wishes to do."
Sibyl listened with eager interest, as if her life depended on Edward's words, and then on a sudden she burst into tears. “Oh! Edward,” she sobbed, “ the truth must come out now, and your name will be cleared forever. I always knew that this hour would come."
“ You always believed in me, Sibyl,” Edward replied with a slight quiver in his voice, while taking the hand she frankly offered; “I think I never had a truer friend. I only care really for what my friends think of me."
Sibyl only smiled her gentle smile in reply, though she did not quickly recover her calm, and Alice looked at them with a strange expression not devoid of reproach.