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A Rolling Stone Vol.III

Chapter IV

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Chapter IV.

‘I have a silent sorrow here
A grief I'll ne'er impart,
It breathes no sigh, it sheds no tear,
But it consumes my heart.’

Need we say that Mr. and Mrs. Palmer gave away their daughter in marriage ere long, but to another person than they had dreamed of in days gone by? Or need it be told how Mr. and Mrs. Holmsby made haste to escape from the colonial society so much in want of ‘tone;’ and how Mr. Holmsby unblushingly presented himself and his bride at the parental habitation? There were scenes between him and his father which had better be veiled. For the space of nine months the house of Holmsby was divided against itself. It is extremely difficult to say what would have become of Mr. Holmsby if his stepmother had not been on his side. Although she was a nice young lady about his own age, he had always disliked her, had behaved ill to her, and had been angry with his father for bringing her into the family. Now, when he was in disgrace, her conduct ought to have made him feel as if a fiery circlet of red-hot coals had been set upon his head. She and his page 59 youngest sister were for him; the other members of the family ranged themselves under the elder Mr. Holmsby's banner, and the tide of party warfare ran high—so high as to engulf Holmsby junior's allowance, and to compel him to work, for the first time in his life. But at length a flag of truce, in the person of the kind-hearted stepmother, visited the offending pair, and made overtures of reconciliation. Mr. Holmsby did inherit his maternal grandmother's property in course of time, though the ‘dear old lady’ lived to be ninety, and her grandson had learned the value of money long before hers came into his hand. And he and Violet finally succeeded in becoming lights of London society—whether lesser luminaries or stars of the first magnitude we have never been able to discover. It may be said, however, that they are well pleased with the social distinction they have obtained. Colonial days and things have grown faint in Violet's remembrance she only thinks of them with a pitying wonder at herself for having once found so much satisfaction in their insignificance. Mr. Holmsby always speaks of the ‘colonies’ (meaning by this the country which was so fortunate as to possess him for a year or two,) with lofty patronage. He has written a book on New Zealand.

Mrs. Palmer consoled herself by degrees for her daughter's disobedience—far more easily than her husband, who had been disappointed in his favourite child. But Mrs. Palmer's greater trouble pressed upon her so heavily that all others seemed trifling page 60 annoyances. Unaccustomed to serious thought; unable even before this time to conceal a matter that agitated or distressed her, she had brooded over this until it had become a torture. The dread of discovery would return to her with such force that at intervals she would renew her search amongst her husband's papers for the letter. It was only by stealth she could do this, and while so occupied her ears would be nervously sensitive to the slightest sound which might betoken an approaching footstep, and often she would turn with a start, fancying that some one was looking over her shoulder. And although she was perpetually thinking of new places in which it might lie concealed, or of different ways in which it might have escaped her notice, it was never to be found.

It was growing late one day, and Mr. Everard, for a wonder, was from home, and knowing this, Mrs. Palmer had once again gone into his room. Oh, how wearily she went through the same hopeless search! There were drawers of papers, boxes and shelves full of them. Poor Mr. Everard! he was always writing something; he had written enough to make many volumes of printed matter; only no one, least of all himself, had thought of printing it. It was only for his own delectation, all this immense quantity of manuscript, and most of it related to the studies he quietly pursued in his little room. Very likely most of it had been written before much better by some one else, or very likely there was no need page 61 that it should be written at all; but what matter?— it had been occupation and pleasure to a man not able to do much else, and with little enough besides from which pleasure could be extracted. Mrs. Palmer, for the first time, thought something of this. ‘I daresay he'd much rather write about these dry things than sit and talk with me,’ she said; ‘but of course I can't understand what he cares for.’

She started suddenly; there was a little bit of blue paper in the middle of one of the bundles of manuscript. A piece of blue paper was what she sought. But this was not it, though she drew her breath quickly as she untied the bundle. No; not yet. She was too intent on her business just then to look up, as she had often done within the last half-hour, with fear to meet another eye. There was one watching her at last.

Mr. Everard had returned from his long walk and had seen her through the window. He stood looking for a moment, wondering what his wife could be doing. Arranging his papers? No; they were always in order; when he had used one it was invariably put in its place, and no one but himself had need to touch them, or ever thought of doing so. She was not reading them—she rarely read anything, and he did not suspect her of taking any interest in that which he wrote. She was looking for something —yes, looking earnestly, as if it were no trifle that she wanted. Her face had a painfully anxious and careworn look, and there was a deep flush on her page 62 hollow cheek. She paused in her work, looked up without glancing towards him, and pressing her hand to her forehead, cried out so that he could hear, ‘Oh! what shall I do? I shall never find it again—never!’

Find what? he thought. He would have asked her that night; only somehow he felt as if he could not. He remembered that lately he had found his papers in places in which he had not left them, that things had been moved in his room, where usually they remained where he placed them, and that many signs of the visitation of another person had presented themselves to him at different times. He had fancied himself mistaken; he had thought he must have made these alterations himself, and out of absence of mind not known it, or have forgotten it immediately. Now he knew how it was; but something inexplicable prevented him from asking his wife what she had lost in his room.

And now, for the first time, he noticed that she was a changed woman. She had no longer spirit even to be fretful—a dull langour or indifference to whatever happened almost always possessed her. Only one thing seemed of importance to her—she was nervously anxious to please him. She was timid of her own opinions, which formerly she would have upheld to the extreme; she was ready to yield to him in everything. It was to please him that habits and ways which had vexed him for years, and which he had well-nigh become reconciled to as incurable, were suddenly renounced. He saw with surprise page 63 that she had acquired a new power of controlling herself, of leaving that unsaid which can do no good, and of working with method rather than with intermitting and spasmodic exertions. A great quietness fell on the house. Things were done regularly and in a careful manner. But she went about unsmiling a haggard-faced silent woman, busying herself always with work of some kind, because it was in any case better than sitting still to think.

But now, if she could only have known it, part of her secret was already shared with another. It was not long before Mr. Everard knew that his wife prosecuted her search in his room whenever he was out of the way. He began himself to search. He would look for what she wanted, without having any idea of what it was, but expecting that he should know it if he found it. He searched day by day when she thought he was studying in his room. She stole in there when she had made certain he had gone out, and pursued the same wearying work. He looked through everything systematically, beginning at the packet marked A and ending at D3, which was as far as his system of alphabetical arrangement extended. He took the books from the shelves; he examined every receptacle, corner, or cranny of the room. Nothing came to light that was in any way likely to be an object much desired by his wife, or that she could ever, have lost.

She came to his room one evening in the twilight. He had observed that she had been restless all day, page 64 and that she had watched him. She was waiting for him to go out. He went into the dining-room and read there. Then he heard her footstep, so light his ear hardly caught the sound, and so hurried that it seemed something which must be done quickly had come into her mind. He knew by the sound where she was going; he knew by it when she had opened the door of his room, and crossed the uncarpeted floor to his table. And by a sudden impulse, which he never thought of resisting, he followed her.

She had left the door open. There was a strange smile on her face; was it found? She had an old writing-case of his in her hand. He only used it as a receptacle for odds, and ends; papers that could not be brought under his system of classification. It was full of such, and she had often looked amongst them, as he knew well. But she had never done this before. With a penknife she ripped off the lining of the case, torn and worn into holes for a long time, and several scraps of paper and letters which had slipped inside fell out. There was a folded sheet of blue letter paper among them. With some kind of inarticulate cry she almost fell in her haste to clutch it as it fluttered to the floor, ‘Oh, I am safe, I am safe; he will never know she kept repeating, crushing the paper in her hand, till she turned and saw her husband.

She stood as if changed to stone, and her stiffened fingers refused to hold the paper which fell again to the floor. Mr. Everard stooped and picked it up. Then words came to her with a rush, as of frenzy.

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‘Don't read it!’ she cried, throwing herself before him. ‘It is nothing, nothing; but you must not read it. I have been punished enough already. Oh, Everard, if you know what it is, you will despise me. Oh, for mercy's sake, say you will not read it! Promise, promise!’

‘Is it this you have been looking for so long?’ he said, still holding the paper. ‘Is it this which has broken your health, and made you miserable—just this little piece of paper? What have you to fear from it?’

‘Everything! I know what you would say—no, it is not that; it is what you would think that I cannot bear.’

‘Alice,’ said her husband, ‘if I promise not to read it will you tell me what you are afraid of?’

‘I cannot!’ cried the wretched woman. ‘Oh! if I could have told you, do you think I would have suffered it to tear at my heart all this while? Yes; I know you would say you forgave me: it is easy to say that; but you would never respect me again. I should be a low deceitful woman in your sight and that would kill me! I cannot tell you.’

In that moment a wave of inexpressible sympathy and of the deepest pity passed over his mind. What it was that she had done he could not guess. It might be something very heinous; but probably it was only a small offence which her distempered imagination had magnified into a crime. What right had he to judge her? He would never know; he page 66 would never seek to know. He looked her in the face; she uttered no word, only fixed her supplicating eyes on his, and clung to his arm. Without opening the letter, without even looking at it, he dropped it on the smouldering fire on the hearth. There was a light blue flame for a second, and it was gone.

‘Remember,’ he said, ‘I will never ask you, so long as I live, what that paper contained. Perhaps some day you will be able to tell me; but if not, it is buried for ever and done with.’

‘Oh, this is noble of you!’ she managed to say. ‘Yes, yes, I will tell you; but—not now!’

He took her hand and led her from the room. He kept his promise; he never again spoke of the letter. And is it to be wondered at that she, poor woman, weak, timid, and anxious to cling to the last shred of covering for her fault, should never make her confession, though she had proved his generosity? So the secret was buried, but it was written too deeply on her heart ever to be forgotten.