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Church bells are always ringing in that city of many churches, and there were bells ringing solemnly and slowly as Isola walked feebly up the two flights of stairs that led to Colonel Disney's lodging. She walked even more slowly than usual, and her husband could hear her labouring breath as she went up, step by step, leaning on the banister rail. He had offered her his arm, but she had repulsed him, almost rudely, at the bottom of the stairs.

They went into the drawing-room, which was bright with flowers in a sunlit dusk, the sun streaming in through the narrow opening between the Venetian shutters, which had been drawn together, but not fastened. All was very still in the quiet house; so still that they could hear the splash of the fountain in the Piazza, and the faint rustling of the limes in the garden.

Husband and wife stood facing each other, he anxious and alarmed, she deadly pale, and with gleaming eyes.

"Well, she is gone—she is Mrs. Hulbert now, and she belongs to him and not to us any more," said Disney, talking at random, watching his wife's face in nervous apprehension of—he knew not what. "We shall miss her sadly. Aren't you sorry she is married, Isola, after all?"

"Sorry! No! I am glad—glad with all my heart. I have waited for that."

And then, before he was aware, she had flung herself at his feet, and was kneeling there, with her head hanging down, her hands clasped—a very Magdalen.

"I waited—till they were married—so that you should not refuse to let her marry—his brother—waited to tell you what I ought to have told you at once, when you came home from India. My only hope of pardon or of peace was to have told you then—to have left you for ever then—never[Pg 293] to have dared to clasp your hand—never to have dared to call myself your wife—never to have become the mother of your child. All my life since that day has been one long lie; and nothing that I have suffered—not all my agonies of remorse—can atone for that lie, unless God and you will accept my confession and my atonement to-day."

"Isola, for God's sake, stop!"

Again the racking cough seized her, and she sank speechless at his feet.

He lifted her in his arms and carried her to the sofa, and flung open the shutters and let the light and air stream in upon her, as she lay prostrate and exhausted, wiping her white lips with a blood-stained handkerchief. He looked at her in a kind of horrified compassion. He thought that she was raving, that the excitement of the morning had culminated in fever and delirium. He was going to ring for help, meaning to send instantly for her doctor, when she stopped him, laying her thin cold hand upon his arm, and holding him by her side.

"Sit down by me, Martin—don't stop me—I must tell you—all—the truth."

Her words came slowly, in gasps; then with a great effort she gathered up the poor remnant of her strength, and went on in a low, tremulous voice, yet with the tone of one whose resolve was strong as death itself.

"There was a time when I thought I could never tell you—that I must go down to my grave with my sin unrevealed, and that you would never know how worthless a woman you had loved and cherished. Then, on my knees before my God, I vowed that I would tell you all, at the last, when I was dying—and death is not far off now, Martin. I have delayed too long—too long! There is scarcely any atonement in my confession now. I have cheated you out of your love."

He looked at her horror-stricken, their two faces close to each other as he bent over her pillow.

No; this was no delirium—there was a terrible reality in her words. The eyes looking up at him were not bright with[Pg 294] fever, but with the steady resolute soul within—the soul panting for freedom from sin.

"You have cheated me out of my love," he repeated slowly. "Does that mean that you lied to me that night in London—that you perjured yourself, calling God to witness that you were pure and true?"

"I was true to you then, Martin. My sin had been repented of. I was your loving, loyal wife, without one thought but of you."

"Loving, loyal!" he cried, with passionate scorn. "You had deceived and dishonoured me—you had made your name a by-word—a jest for such a man as Vansittart Crowther—and for how many more? You had lied, and lied, and lied to me—by every look, by every word that made you seem a virtuous woman and a faithful wife. My God, what misery!"

"Martin, have pity!"

"Pity! Yes, I pity the women in the streets! Am I to pity you, as I pity them? You, whom I worshipped—whom I thought as pure as the angels—wearing nothing of earth but your frail loveliness, which to me always seemed more of spirit than of clay. And you were false all the time—false as hell—the toy of the first idle profligate whom chance flung into your path? It was Lostwithiel! That man was right. He would hardly have dared to talk to you as he did if he had not been certain of his facts. Lostwithiel was your lover."

"Martin, have pity!" she repeated, with her hands clasped before her face.

"Pity! Don't I tell you that I pity you—pity you whom I used to revere! Great God! can you guess what pain it is to change respect for the creature one loves into pity? I told you that I would never hurt you—that I would never bring shame upon you, Isola. You have no unkindness to fear from me. But you have broken my heart, you have slain my faith in man and woman. I could have staked my life on your purity—I could have killed the man who[Pg 295] slandered you—and you swore a false oath—you called upon Heaven to witness a lie!"

"I was a miserable creature, Martin. I could not bear to lose your love. If death had been my only penalty I could have borne it, but not the loss of your love."

"And your sister and her husband? They were as ready with their lies as you were," he exclaimed bitterly.

"Don't blame Gwendolen. I telegraphed to her, imploring her to stand by me—to say that I was in London with her."

"And you were not in London?"

"No, except to pass through, when—when I had escaped from him, and was on my way home."

"Escaped! My God! What villainy must have been used against you—so young, so helpless! Tell me all—without reserve—as freely as you want to be forgiven."

"I was not utterly wicked, Martin. I did not sin deliberately—I did not know what I was doing when I wrecked my life and destroyed my peace of mind for ever. I never meant to forget you—or to be false to you—but I was so lonely—so lonely. The days were so dreary and so long—even the short autumn days seemed long—and the evenings were so melancholy without you. And he came into my life suddenly—like a prince in a fairy tale—and at first I thought very little about him. He was nothing more to me than any one else in Trelasco—and then somehow we were always meeting by accident—in the lanes—or by the sea—and he seemed to care for all the things I cared for. The books I loved were his favourites. For a long time we talked of nothing but his travels, and of my favourite books. There was not a word spoken between us that you or any one else could blame."

"A common opening," said Martin Disney, with scathing contempt. "One of the seducer's favourite leads."

"And then, one evening in the twilight, he told me that he loved me. I was very angry—and I let him see that I was angry, and I did all I could to avoid him after[Pg 296] that evening. I refused to go to the ball at Lostwithiel, knowing that I must meet him there. But they all persuaded me—Mrs. Crowther, Mrs. Baynham, Tabitha—they were all bent upon making me go—and I went. Oh, God, if I had but stood firm against their foolish persuasion, if I had but been true to myself! But my own heart fought against me. I wanted to see him again—if only for the last time. He had talked about starting for a long cruise to the Mediterranean. His yacht was ready to sail at an hours notice."

"You went, and you were lost."

"Yes, lost, irretrievably lost! It is all one long, wild dream when I look back upon it. He implored me to go away with him—but I told him no, no, no, not for worlds, nothing should ever make me false to my husband—nothing. I swore it—swore an oath which I had not the strength to keep. Oh, it was cruel, heartless, treacherous—the thing he did after that. When I was going away from the dance, he was there at my side—and he put me into the wrong carriage—his own carriage—and when I had been driven a little way from the hotel, the carriage stopped and he got in. I thought that he was driving me home. I asked him how he could be cruel as to be with me, in his own carriage, at the risk of my reputation—but he stopped me—shut my lips with his fatal kiss. Oh, Martin, how can I tell these things? The horse went almost at a gallop. I thought we should be killed. I was half fainting when the carriage stopped at last, after rattling up and down hill—and he lifted me out, and I felt the cold night-air on my face, the salt spray from the sea. I tried to ask him where I was,—whether this was home—but the words died on my lips—and I knew no more—knew no more till I woke from that dead, dull swoon in the cabin of the Vendetta, and heard the sailors calling out to each other, and saw Lostwithiel sitting by my side—and then—and then—it was all one long dream—a dream of days and nights, and rain, and tempest. I thought the boat was[Pg 297] going down in that dreadful night in the Bay of Biscay. Would to God that she had gone down, and hidden me and my sin for ever! But she lived through the storm, and in the morning she was anchored near Arcachon, and Lostwithiel went on shore, and sent a woman in a boat, to bring me clothes, and to attend upon me; and I contrived to go on shore with the woman when she went back in the boat that had brought her, and I borrowed some money on my ring at a jeweller's in Arcachon, and I left by the first train for Paris, and went on from Paris to London, and never stopped to rest anywhere till I got home."

"May God bring me face to face with that ruffian who imposed upon your helplessness!" cried Martin Disney.

"No, no, Martin; he was not a ruffian. He betrayed me—but I loved him. He knew that I loved him. I was a great a sinner as be. I was his before he stole me from my home—his in mind and in spirit. It was our unhappy fate to love each other. And I forgave him, Martin. I forgave him on that night of tempest, when I thought we were going to die together."

"You don't expect me to forgive him, do you? You don't expect me to forgive the seducer who has ruined your life and mine?"

"His brother is your sister's husband, Martin?"

"I am sorry for it."

"Oh, John Hulbert is good; he is frank and true. He is not like the other. But oh, Martin, pity Lostwithiel and his sin, as you pity me and my sin! It is past and done. I was mad when I cared for him—a creature under a spell. You won my heart back to you by your goodness—you made me more than ever your own. All that he had ever been to me—all that I had ever thought or felt about him—was blotted out as if I had never seen his face. Nothing remained but my love for you—and my guilty conscience, the aching misery of knowing that I was unworthy of you."

[Pg 298]

He took her hand and pressed it gently in silence. Then, after a long pause, when she had dried the tears from her streaming eyes, and was lying faint, and white, and still, caring very little what became of her poor remnant of life, he said softly—

"I forgive you, Isola, as I pray God to forgive you. I have spent some happy years with you—not knowing. If it was a delusion, it was very sweet—while it lasted."

"It was not a delusion," she cried, putting her arms round his neck, in a sudden rapture at being pardoned. "My love was real."

The door opened softly, and the kindly face of the Anglican priest looked in.

"I have seen the lovers on their way to Florence," he said, "and have come to ask how Mrs. Disney is after her fatiguing morning."

"I am happier than I have been for a long time," answered Isola, holding out her hand to him. "I am prepared for the end, let it come when it may."

He knew what she meant, and that the sinner had confessed her sin.

"Come out for a stroll with me, Disney," he said, "and leave your wife to rest for a little while. I'm afraid she'll miss her kind nurse."

Disney started up confusedly, like a sleeper awakened, and looked at his watch.

"I believe I have a substitute ready to replace Allegra by this time," he said, ringing the bell.

"Has the person from England arrived?" he asked the servant.

"Yes, sir. She came a quarter of an hour ago."

"Ask her to come here at once."

"Oh, Martin, you have not sent for a hospital nurse, I hope," cried Isola, excitedly. "Indeed I am not so bad as that. I want very little help. I could not bear to have a stranger about me."

"This is not a stranger, Isola."

[Pg 299]

There came a modest knock at the door as he spoke.

"Come in," he said; and a familiar figure in a grey merino gown and smart white cap with pink ribbons entered quietly and came to the sofa where Isola was lying.

"Tabitha!" she cried.

"Don't say you're sorry to see an old face again, Mrs. Disney. I told Mr. Martin that if you should ever be ill and want nursing I'd come to nurse you—if you were at the other end of the world—and Mr. Martin wrote and told me you wanted an old servant's care and experience to get you over your illness—and here I am. I've come every inch of the way without stopping, except at the buffets, and all I can say is Rome is a long way from everywhere, and the country I've come through isn't to be compared with Cornwall."

She ran on breathlessly as she seated herself by that reclining figure with the waxen face. It may be that she talked to hide the shock she had experienced on seeing the altered looks of the young mistress whose roof she had left in the hour of shame. She had left her, refusing to hold commune with one who had sinned so deeply. The faithful servant had taken leave of her mistress in words that had eaten into Isola's heart, as if they had been written there with a corrosive acid.

"I am very sorry for you, Mrs. Disney," she said. "You are young and pretty, and you are very much to be pitied—and God knows I have loved you as if you were my own flesh and blood. But I won't stay under the roof of a wife who has brought shame upon herself and has dishonoured the best of husbands."

Isola had denied nothing, had acknowledged nothing, and had let Tabitha go. And now they met again for the first time after that miserable parting, and the servant's eyes were full of pitying tears, and the servant's lips spoke only gentlest words. What a virtue there must be in death, when so much is forgiven to the dying!

[Pg 300]

Martin Disney went out with the priest, but at the corner of the Piazza he stopped abruptly.

"Isola's coughing fit has upset me more than it has her," he said; "I'm not fit company for any one, so I think I'll go for a tramp somewhere, and meet you later at dinner, when I've recovered my spirits a little."

"A riverderci," said the priest, grasping his hand. "I felicitate you upon this day's union; a happy one, or I am no judge of men and women."

"I don't know," Disney answered gloomily. "The woman is true as steel—the man comes of a bad stock. You know what the Scripture says about the tree and the fruit."

"There never was a race yet that was altogether bad," said the priest. "Virtues may descend from remote ancestors as well as vices,—I think you told me moreover that Captain Hulbert's mother was a good woman."

"She was. She was one of my mother's earliest and dearest friends."

"Then you should have a better opinion of her son. If ever I met a thoroughly good fellow in my life, I believe I met one the day I made Captain Hulbert's acquaintance."

"Pray God you may be right," said Disney, with a sigh. "I am no judge of character."

He turned abruptly, and skirted the hill on his way to the gardens of the Villa Borghese, where he found shade and seclusion in the early afternoon. The carriages of fashionable Rome had not yet begun to drive in at the gate. The cypress avenues, the groves of immemorial ilex, the verdant lawns where the fountains leapt sunward, were peopled only by creatures of fable, fixed in marble, faun and dryad, hero and god. Martin Disney plunged into the shadow of one of those funereal avenues, and—while the sun blazed in almost tropical splendour upon the open lawn in the far distance—he walked as it were in the deep of night, a night whose gloom harmonized with that darker night in his despairing heart.
Great God, how he had loved her! How he had looked up to her, revering even her weakness as the expression of a childlike purity. And while he had been praying for her, and dreaming of her, and longing for her, and thinking of her as the very type of womanly chastity, unapproachable by temptation, unassailable, secure in her innocence and simplicity as Athene or Artemis with all their armour of defence; while he had so loved and trusted her, she had flung herself into the arms of a profligate—as easily won as the lightest wanton. She had done this thing, and then she had welcomed him, with wan, sweet smiles, to his dishonoured home. She had made him drink the cup of shame—a by-word it might be for the whole parish, as well as for that one man who had dared to hint at evil. And yet he had forgiven her—forgiven one to whom pardon meant only a peaceful ending; forgiven as a man holds himself forgiven by an all-merciful God, as he hears words of pity and promise murmured into his ear by the priest upon the scaffold, when the rope is round his neck and the drop is ready to fall. How could he withhold such pardon when he had been taught that God forgives the repentant murderer?


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