THE NEW MAGDALEN
by Wilkie Collins
TO THE MEMORY OF CHARLES ALLSTON COLLINS. (9th April, 1873.)
FIRST SCENE.—The Cottage on the Frontier.
THE place is France.
The time is autumn, in the year eighteen hundred and seventy—the year of the war between France and Germany.
The persons are, Captain Arnault, of the French army; Surgeon Surville, of the French ambulance; Surgeon Wetzel, of the German army; Mercy Merrick, attached as nurse to the French ambulance; and Grace Roseberry, a traveling lady on her way to England.
CHAPTER I. THE TWO WOMEN.
IT was a dark night. The rain was pouring in torrents.
Late in the evening a skirmishing party of the French and a skirmishing party of the Germans had met, by accident, near the little village of Lagrange, close to the German frontier. In the struggle that followed, the French had (for once) got the better of the enemy. For the time, at least, a few hundreds out of the host of the invaders had been forced back over the frontier. It was a trifling affair, occurring not long after the great German victory of Weissenbourg, and the newspapers took little or no notice of it.
Captain Arnault, commanding on the French side, sat alone in one of the cottages of the village, inhabited by the miller of the district. The Captain was reading, by the light of a solitary tallow-candle, some intercepted dispatches taken from the Germans. He had suffered the wood fire, scattered over the large open grate, to burn low; the red embers only faintly illuminated a part of the room. On the floor behind him lay some of the miller's empty sacks. In a corner opposite to him was the miller's solid walnut-wood bed. On the walls all around him were the miller's colored prints, representing a happy mixture of devotional and domestic subjects. A door of communication leading into the kitchen of the cottage had been torn from its hinges, and used to carry the men wounded in the skirmish from the field. They were now comfortably laid at rest in the kitchen, under the care of the French surgeon and the English nurse attached to the ambulance. A piece of coarse canvas screened the opening between the two rooms in place of the door. A second door, leading from the bed-chamber into the yard, was locked; and the wooden shutter protecting the one window of the room was carefully barred. Sentinels, doubled in number, were placed at all the outposts. The French commander had neglected no precaution which could reasonably insure for himself and for his men a quiet and comfortable night.
Still absorbed in his perusal of the dispatches, and now and then making notes of what he read by the help of writing materials placed at his side, Captain Arnault was interrupted by the appearance of an intruder in the room. Surgeon Surville, entering from the kitchen, drew aside the canvas screen, and approached the little round table at which his superior officer was sitting.
"What is it?" said the captain, sharply.
"A question to ask," replied the surgeon. "Are we safe for the night?"
"Why do you want to know?" inquired the captain, suspiciously.
The surgeon pointed to the kitchen, now the hospital devoted to the wounded men.
"The poor fellows are anxious about the next few hours," he replied. "They dread a surprise, and they ask me if there is any reasonable hope of their having one night's rest. What do you think of the chances?"
The captain shrugged his shoulders. The surgeon persisted.
"Surely you ought to know?" he said.
"I know that we are in possession of the village for the present," retorted Captain Arnault, "and I know no more. Here are the papers of the enemy." He held them up and shook them impatiently as he spoke. "They give me no information that I can rely on. For all I can tell to the contrary, the main body of the Germans, outnumbering us ten to one, may be nearer this cottage than the main body of the French. Draw your own conclusions. I have nothing more to say."
Having answered in those discouraging terms, Captain Arnault got on his feet, drew the hood of his great-coat over his head, and lit a cigar at the candle.
"Where are you going?" asked the surgeon.
"To visit the outposts."
"Do you want this room for a little while?"
"Not for some hours to come. Are you thinking of moving any of your wounded men in here?"
"I was thinking of the English lady," answered the surgeon. "The kitchen is not quite the place for her. She would be more comfortable here; and the English nurse might keep her company."
Captain Arnault smiled, not very pleasantly. "They are two fine women," he said, "and Surgeon Surville is a ladies' man. Let them come in, if they are rash enough to trust themselves here with you." He checked himself on the point of going out, and looked back distrustfully at the lighted candle. "Caution the women," he said, "to limit the exercise of their curiosity to the inside of this room."
"What do you mean?"
The captain's forefinger pointed significantly to the closed window-shutter.
"Did you ever know a woman who could resist looking out of window?" he asked. "Dark as it is, sooner or later these ladies of yours will feel tempted to open that shutter. Tell them I don't want the light of the candle to betray my headquarters to the German scouts. How is the weather? Still raining?"
"So much the better. The Germans won't see us." With that consolatory remark he unlocked the door leading into the yard, and walked out.
The surgeon lifted the canvas screen and called into the kitchen:
"Miss Merrick, have you time to take a little rest?"
"Plenty of time," answered a soft voice with an underlying melancholy in it, plainly distinguishable though it had only spoken three words.
"Come in, then," continued the surgeon, "and bring the English lady with you. Here is a quiet room all to yourselves."
He held back the canvas, and the two women appeared.
The nurse led the way—tall, lithe, graceful—attired in her uniform dress of neat black stuff, with plain linen collar and cuffs, and with the scarlet cross of the Geneva Convention embroidered on her left shoulder. Pale and sad, her expression and manner both eloquently suggestive of suppressed suffering and sorrow, there was an innate nobility in the carriage of this woman's head, an innate grandeur in the gaze of her large gray eyes and in the lines of her finely proportioned face, which made her irresistibly striking and beautiful, seen under any circumstances and clad in any dress. Her companion, darker in complexion and smaller in stature, possessed attractions which were quite marked enough to account for the surgeon's polite anxiety to shelter her in the captain's room. The common consent of mankind would have declared her to be an unusually pretty woman. She wore the large gray cloak that covered her from head to foot with a grace that lent its own attractions to a plain and even a shabby article of dress. The languor in her movements, and the uncertainty of tone in her voice as she thanked the surgeon suggested that she was suffering from fatigue. Her dark eyes searched the dimly-lighted room timidly, and she held fast by the nurse's arm with the air of a woman whose nerves had been severely shaken by some recent alarm.
"You have one thing to remember, ladies," said the surgeon. "Beware of opening the shutter, for fear of the light being seen through the window. For the rest, we are free to make ourselves as comfortable here as we can. Compose yourself, dear madam, and rely on the protection of a Frenchman who is devoted to you!" He gallantly emphasized his last words by raising the hand of the English lady to his lips. At the moment when he kissed it the canvas screen was again drawn aside. A person in the service of the ambulance appeared, announcing that a bandage had slipped, and that one of the wounded men was to all appearance bleeding to death. The surgeon, submitting to destiny with the worst possible grace, dropped the charming Englishwoman's hand, and returned to his duties in the kitchen. The two ladies were left together in the room.
"Will you take a chair, madam?" asked the nurse.
"Don't call me 'madam,'" returned the young lady, cordially. "My name is Grace Roseberry. What is your name?"
The nurse hesitated. "Not a pretty name, like yours," she said, and hesitated again. "Call me 'Mercy Merrick,'" she added, after a moment's consideration.
Had she given an assumed name? Was there some unhappy celebrity attached to her own name? Miss Roseberry did not wait to ask herself these questions. "How can I thank you," she exclaimed, gratefully, "for your sisterly kindness to a stranger like me?"
"I have only done my duty," said Mercy Merrick, a little coldly. "Don't speak of it."
"I must speak of it. What a situation you found me in when the French soldiers had driven the Germans away! My traveling-carriage stopped; the horses seized; I myself in a strange country at nightfall, robbed of my money and my luggage, and drenched to the skin by the pouring rain! I am indebted to you for shelter in this place—I am wearing your clothes—I should have died of the fright and the exposure but for you. What return can I make for such services as these?"
Mercy placed a chair for her guest near the captain's table, and seated herself, at some little distance, on an old chest in a corner of the room. "May I ask you a question?" she said, abruptly.
"A hundred questions," cried Grace, "if you like." She looked at the expiring fire, and at the dimly visible figure of her companion seated in the obscurest corner of the room. "That wretched candle hardly gives any light," she said, impatiently. "It won't last much longer. Can't we make the place more cheerful? Come out of your corner. Call for more wood and more lights."
Mercy remained in her corner and shook her head. "Candles and wood are scarce things here," she answered. "We must be patient, even if we are left in the dark. Tell me," she went on, raising her quiet voice a little, "how came you to risk crossing the frontier in wartime?"
Grace's voice dropped when she answered the question. Grace's momentary gayety of manner suddenly left her.
"I had urgent reasons," she said, "for returning to England."
"Alone?" rejoined the other. "Without any one to protect you?"
Grace's head sank on her bosom. "I have left my only protector—my father—in the English burial-ground at Rome," she answered simply. "My mother died, years since, in Canada."
The shadowy figure of the nurse suddenly changed its position on the chest. She had started as the last word passed Miss Roseberry's lips.
"Do you know Canada?" asked Grace.
"Well," was the brief answer—reluctantly given, short as it was.
"Were you ever near Port Logan?"
"I once lived within a few miles of Port Logan."
"Some time since." With those words Mercy Merrick shrank back into her corner and changed the subject. "Your relatives in England must be very anxious about you," she said.
Grace sighed. "I have no relatives in England. You can hardly imagine a person more friendless than I am. We went away from Canada, when my father's health failed, to try the climate of Italy, by the doctor's advice. His death has left me not only friendless but poor." She paused, and took a leather letter-case from the pocket of the large gray cloak which the nurse had lent to her. "My prospects in life," she resumed, "are all contained in this little case. Here is the one treasure I contrived to conceal when I was robbed of my other things."
Mercy could just see the letter-case as Grace held it up in the deepening obscurity of the room. "Have you got money in it?" she asked.
"No; only a few family papers, and a letter from my father, introducing me to an elderly lady in England—a connection of his by marriage, whom I have never seen. The lady has consented to receive me as her companion and reader. If I don't return to England soon, some other person may get the place."
"Have you no other resource?"
"None. My education has been neglected—we led a wild life in the far West. I am quite unfit to go out as a governess. I am absolutely dependent on this stranger, who receives me for my father's sake." She put the letter-case back in the pocket of her cloak, and ended her little narrative as unaffectedly as she had begun it. "Mine is a sad story, is it not?" she said.
The voice of the nurse answered her suddenly and bitterly in these strange words:
"There are sadder stories than yours. There are thousands of miserable women who would ask for no greater blessing than to change places with you."
Grace started. "What can there possibly be to envy in such a lot as mine?"
"Your unblemished character, and your prospect of being established honorably in a respectable house."
Grace turned in her chair, and looked wonderingly into the dim corner of the room.
"How strangely you say that!" she exclaimed. There was no answer; the shadowy figure on the chest never moved. Grace rose impulsively, and drawing her chair after her, approached the nurse. "Is there some romance in your life?" she asked. "Why have you sacrificed yourself to the terrible duties which I find you performing here? You interest me indescribably. Give me your hand."
Mercy shrank back, and refused the offered hand.
"Are we not friends?" Grace asked, in astonishment.
"We can never be friends."
The nurse was dumb. Grace called to mind the hesitation that she had shown when she had mentioned her name, and drew a new conclusion from it. "Should I be guessing right," she asked, eagerly, "if I guessed you to be some great lady in disguise?"
Mercy laughed to herself—low and bitterly. "I a great lady!" she said, contemptuously. "For Heaven's sake, let us talk of something else!"
Grace's curiosity was thoroughly roused. She persisted. "Once more," she whispered, persuasively, "let us be friends." She gently laid her hand as she spoke on Mercy's shoulder. Mercy roughly shook it off. There was a rudeness in the action which would have offended the most patient woman living. Grace drew back indignantly. "Ah!" she cried, "you are cruel."
"I am kind," answered the nurse, speaking more sternly than ever.
"Is it kind to keep me at a distance? I have told you my story."
The nurse's voice rose excitedly. "Don't tempt me to speak out," she said; "you will regret it."
Grace declined to accept the warning. "I have placed confidence in you," she went on. "It is ungenerous to lay me under an obligation, and then to shut me out of your confidence in return."
"You will have it?" said Mercy Merrick. "You shall have it! Sit down again." Grace's heart began to quicken its beat in expectation of the disclosure that was to come. She drew her chair closer to the chest on which the nurse was sitting. With a firm hand Mercy put the chair back to a distance from her. "Not so near me!" she said, harshly.
"Not so near," repeated the sternly resolute voice. "Wait till you have heard what I have to say."
Grace obeyed without a word more. There was a momentary silence. A faint flash of light leaped up from the expiring candle, and showed Mercy crouching on the chest, with her elbows on her knees, and her face hidden in her hands. The next instant the room was buried in obscurity. As the darkness fell on the two women the nurse spoke.
CHAPTER II. MAGDALEN—IN MODERN TIMES.
"WHEN your mother was alive were you ever out with her after nightfall in the streets of a great city?"
In those extraordinary terms Mercy Merrick opened the confidential interview which Grace Roseberry had forced on her. Grace answered, simply, "I don't understand you."
"I will put it in another way," said the nurse. Its unnatural hardness and sternness of tone passed away from her voice, and its native gentleness and sadness returned, as she made that reply. "You read the newspapers like the rest of the world," she went on; "have you ever read of your unhappy fellow-creatures (the starving outcasts of the population) whom Want has driven into Sin?"
Still wondering, Grace answered that she had read of such things often, in newspapers and in books.
"Have you heard—when those starving and sinning fellow-creatures happened to be women—of Refuges established to protect and reclaim them?"
The wonder in Grace's mind passed away, and a vague suspicion of something painful to come took its place. "These are extraordinary questions," she said, nervously. "What do you mean?"
"Answer me," the nurse insisted. "Have you heard of the Refuges? Have you heard of the Women?"
"Move your chair a little further away from me." She paused. Her voice, without losing its steadiness, fell to its lowest tones. "I was once of those women," she said, quietly.
Grace sprang to her feet with a faint cry. She stood petrified— incapable of uttering a word.
"I have been in a Refuge," pursued the sweet, sad voice of the other woman. "I have been in a Prison. Do you still wish to be my friend? Do you still insist on sitting close by me and taking my hand?" She waited for a reply, and no reply came. "You see you were wrong," she went on, gently, "when you called me cruel—and I was right when I told you I was kind."
At that appeal Grace composed herself, and spoke. "I don't wish to offend you—" she began, confusedly.
Mercy Merrick stopped her there.
"You don't offend me," she said, without the faintest note of displeasure in her tone. "I am accustomed to stand in the pillory of my own past life. I sometimes ask myself if it was all my fault. I sometimes wonder if Society had no duties toward me when I was a child selling matches in the street—when I was a hard-working girl fainting at my needle for want of food." Her voice faltered a little for the first time as it pronounced those words; she waited a moment, and recovered herself. "It's too late to dwell on these things now," she said, resignedly. "Society can subscribe to reclaim me; but Society can't take me back. You see me here in a place of trust—patiently, humbly, doing all the good I can. It doesn't matter! Here, or elsewhere, what I am can never alter what I was. For three years past all that a sincerely penitent woman can do I have done. It doesn't matter! Once let my past story be known, and the shadow of it covers me; the kindest people shrink."
She waited again. Would a word of sympathy come to comfort her from the other woman's lips? No! Miss Roseberry was shocked; Miss Roseberry was confused. "I am very sorry for you," was all that Miss Roseberry could say.
"Everybody is sorry for me," answered the nurse, as patiently as ever; "everybody is kind to me. But the lost place is not to be regained. I can't get back! I can't get back?" she cried, with a passionate outburst of despair—checked instantly the moment it had escaped her. "Shall I tell you what my experience has been?" she resumed. "Will you hear the story of Magdalen—in modern times?"
Grace drew back a step; Mercy instantly understood her.
"I am going to tell you nothing that you need shrink from hearing," she said. "A lady in your position would not understand the trials and the struggles that I have passed through. My story shall begin at the Refuge. The matron sent me out to service with the character that I had honestly earned—the character of a reclaimed woman. I justified the confidence placed in me; I was a faithful servant. One day my mistress sent for me—a kind mistress, if ever there was one yet. 'Mercy, I am sorry for you; it has come out that I took you from a Refuge; I shall lose every servant in the house; you must go.' I went back to the matron—another kind woman. She received me like a mother. 'We will try again, Mercy; don't be cast down.' I told you I had been in Canada?"
Grace began to feel interested in spite of herself. She answered with something like warmth in her tone. She returned to her chair—placed at its safe and significant distance from the chest.
The nurse went on:
"My next place was in Canada, with an officer's wife: gentlefolks who had emigrated. More kindness; and, this time, a pleasant, peaceful life for me. I said to myself, 'Is the lost place regained? Have I got back?' My mistress died. New people came into our neighborhood. There was a young lady among them—my master began to think of another wife. I have the misfortune (in my situation) to be what is called a handsome woman; I rouse the curiosity of strangers. The new people asked questions about me; my master's answers did not satisfy them. In a word, they found me out. The old story again! 'Mercy, I am very sorry; scandal is busy with you and with me; we are innocent, but there is no help for it—we must part.' I left the place; having gained one advantage during my stay in Canada, which I find of use to me here."
"What is it?"
"Our nearest neighbors were French-Canadians. I learned to speak the French language."
"Did you return to London?"
"Where else could I go, without a character?" said Mercy, sadly. "I went back again to the matron. Sickness had broken out in the Refuge; I made myself useful as a nurse. One of the doctors was struck with me—'fell in love' with me, as the phrase is. He would have married me. The nurse, as an honest woman, was bound to tell him the truth. He never appeared again. The old story! I began to be weary of saying to myself, 'I can't get back! I can't get back!' Despair got hold of me, the despair that hardens the heart. I might have committed suicide; I might even have drifted back into my old life—but for one man."
At those last words her voice—quiet and even through the earlier part of her sad story—began to falter once more. She stopped, following silently the memories and associations roused in her by what she had just said. Had she forgotten the presence of another person in the room? Grace's curiosity left Grace no resource but to say a word on her side.
"Who was the man?" she asked. "How did he befriend you?"
"Befriend me? He doesn't even know that such a person as I am is in existence."
That strange answer, naturally enough, only strengthened the anxiety of Grace to hear more. "You said just now—" she began.
"I said just now that he saved me. He did save me; you shall hear how. One Sunday our regular clergyman at the Refuge was not able to officiate. His place was taken by a stranger, quite a young man. The matron told us the stranger's name was Julian Gray. I sat in the back row of seats, under the shadow of the gallery, where I could see him without his seeing me. His text was from the words, 'Joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, more than over ninety and nine just persons, which need no repentance. 'What happier women might have thought of his sermon I cannot say; there was not a dry eye among us at the Refuge. As for me, he touched my heart as no man has touched it before or since. The hard despair melted in me at the sound of his voice; the weary round of my life showed its nobler side again while he spoke. From that time I have accepted my hard lot, I have been a patient woman. I might have been something more, I might have been a happy woman, if I could have prevailed on myself to speak to Julian Gray."
"What hindered you from speaking to him?"
"I was afraid."
"Afraid of what?"
"Afraid of making my hard life harder still."
A woman who could have sympathized with her would perhaps have guessed what those words meant. Grace was simply embarrassed by her; and Grace failed to guess.
"I don't understand you," she said.
There was no alternative for Mercy but to own the truth in plain words. She sighed, and said the words. "I was afraid I might interest him in my sorrows, and might set my heart on him in return." The utter absence of any fellow-feeling with her on Grace's side expressed itself unconsciously in the plainest terms.
"You!" she exclaimed, in a tone of blank astonishment.
The nurse rose slowly to her feet. Grace's expression of surprise told her plainly—almost brutally—that her confession had gone far enough.
"I astonish you?" she said. "Ah, my young lady, you don't know what rough usage a woman's heart can bear, and still beat truly! Before I saw Julian Gray I only knew men as objects of horror to me. Let us drop the subject. The preacher at the Refuge is nothing but a remembrance now—the one welcome remembrance of my life! I have nothing more to tell you. You insisted on hearing my story—you have heard it."
"I have not heard how you found employment here," said Grace, continuing the conversation with uneasy politeness, as she best might.
Mercy crossed the room, and slowly raked together the last living embers of the fire.
"The matron has friends in France," she answered, "who are connected with the military hospitals. It was not difficult to get me the place, under those circumstances. Society can find a use for me here. My hand is as light, my words of comfort are as welcome, among those suffering wretches" (she pointed to the room in which the wounded men were lying) "as if I was the most reputable woman breathing. And if a stray shot comes my way before the war is over—well! Society will be rid of me on easy terms."
She stood looking thoughtfully into the wreck of the fire—as if she saw in it the wreck of her own life. Common humanity made it an act of necessity to say something to her. Grace considered—advanced a step toward her—stopped—and took refuge in the most trivial of all the common phrases which one human being can address to another.
"If there is anything I can do for you—" she began. The sentence, halting there, was never finished. Miss Roseberry was just merciful enough toward the lost woman who had rescued and sheltered her to feel that it was needless to say more.
The nurse lifted her noble head and advanced slowly toward the canvas screen to return to her duties. "Miss Roseberry might have taken my hand!" she thought to herself, bitterly. No! Miss Roseberry stood there at a distance, at a loss what to say next. "What can you do for me?" Mercy asked, stung by the cold courtesy of her companion into a momentary outbreak of contempt. "Can you change my identity? Can you give me the name and the place of an innocent woman? If I only had your chance! If I only had your reputation and your prospects!" She laid one hand over her bosom, and controlled herself. "Stay here," she resumed, "while I go back to my work. I will see that your clothes are dried. You shall wear my clothes as short a time as possible."
With those melancholy words—touchingly, not bitterly spoken—she moved to pass into the kitchen, when she noticed that the pattering sound of the rain against the window was audible no more. Dropping the canvas for the moment, she retraced her steps, and, unfastening the wooden shutter, looked out.
The moon was rising dimly in the watery sky; the rain had ceased; the friendly darkness which had hidden the French position from the German scouts was lessening every moment. In a few hours more (if nothing happened) the English lady might resume her journey. In a few hours more the morning would dawn.
Mercy lifted her hand to close the shutter. Before she could fasten it the report of a rifle-shot reached the cottage from one of the distant posts. It was followed almost instantly by a second report, nearer and louder than the first. Mercy paused, with the shutter in her hand, and listened intently for the next sound.
CHAPTER III. THE GERMAN SHELL.
A THIRD rifle-shot rang through the night air, close to the cottage. Grace started and approached the window in alarm.
"What does that firing mean?" she asked.
"Signals from the outposts," the nurse quietly replied.
"Is there any danger? Have the Germans come back?"
Surgeon Surville answered the question. He lifted the canvas screen, and looked into the room as Miss Roseberry spoke.
"The Germans are advancing on us," he said. "Their vanguard is in sight."
Grace sank on the chair near her, trembling from head to foot. Mercy advanced to the surgeon, and put the decisive question to him.
"Do we defend the position?" she inquired.
Surgeon Surville ominously shook his head.
"Impossible! We are outnumbered as usual—ten to one."
The shrill roll of the French drums was heard outside.
"There is the retreat sounded!" said the surgeon. "The captain is not a man to think twice about what he does. We are left to take care of ourselves. In five minutes we must be out of this place."
A volley of rifle-shots rang out as he spoke. The German vanguard was attacking the French at the outposts. Grace caught the surgeon entreatingly by the arm. "Take me with you," she cried. "Oh, sir, I have suffered from the Germans already! Don't forsake me, if they come back!" The surgeon was equal to the occasion; he placed the hand of the pretty Englishwoman on his breast. "Fear nothing, madam," he said, looking as if he could have annihilated the whole German force with his own invincible arm. "A Frenchman's heart beats under your hand. A Frenchman's devotion protects you." Grace's head sank on his shoulder. Monsieur Surville felt that he had asserted himself; he looked round invitingly at Mercy. She, too, was an attractive woman. The Frenchman had another shoulder at her service. Unhappily the room was dark—the look was lost on Mercy. She was thinking of the helpless men in the inner chamber, and she quietly recalled the surgeon to a sense of his professional duties.
"What is to become of the sick and wounded?" she asked.
Monsieur Surville shrugged one shoulder—the shoulder that was free.
"The strongest among them we can take away with us," he said. "The others must be left here. Fear nothing for yourself, dear lady. There will be a place for you in the baggage-wagon."
"And for me, too?" Grace pleaded, eagerly.
The surgeon's invincible arm stole round the young lady's waist, and answered mutely with a squeeze.
"Take her with you," said Mercy. "My place is with the men whom you leave behind."
Grace listened in amazement. "Think what you risk," she said "if you stop here."
Mercy pointed to her left shoulder.
"Don't alarm yourself on my account," she answered; "the red cross will protect me."
Another roll of the drum warned the susceptible surgeon to take his place as director-general of the ambulance without any further delay. He conducted Grace to a chair, and placed both her hands on his heart this time, to reconcile her to the misfortune of his absence. "Wait here till I return for you," he whispered. "Fear nothing, my charming friend. Say to yourself, 'Surville is the soul of honor! Surville is devoted to me!'" He struck his breast; he again forgot the obscurity in the room, and cast one look of unutterable homage at his charming friend. "A bientot!" he cried, and kissed his hand and disappeared.
As the canvas screen fell over him the sharp report of the rifle-firing was suddenly and grandly dominated by the roar of cannon. The instant after a shell exploded in the garden outside, within a few yards of the window.
Grace sank on her knees with a shriek of terror. Mercy, without losing her self-possession, advanced to the window and looked out.
"The moon has risen," she said. "The Germans are shelling the village."
Grace rose, and ran to her for protection.
"Take me away!" she cried. "We shall be killed if we stay here." She stopped, looking in astonishment at the tall black figure of the nurse, standing immovably by the window. "Are you made of iron?" she exclaimed. "Will nothing frighten you?"
Mercy smiled sadly. "Why should I be afraid of losing my life?" she answered. "I have nothing worth living for!"
The roar of the cannon shook the cottage for the second time. A second shell exploded in the courtyard, on the opposite side of the building.
Bewildered by the noise, panic-stricken as the danger from the shells threatened the cottage more and more nearly, Grace threw her arms round the nurse, and clung, in the abject familiarity of terror, to the woman whose hand she had shrunk from touching not five minutes since. "Where is it safest?" she cried. "Where can I hide myself?"
"How can I tell where the next shell will fall?" Mercy answered, quietly.
The steady composure of the one woman seemed to madden the other. Releasing the nurse, Grace looked wildly round for a way of escape from the cottage. Making first for the kitchen, she was driven back by the clamor and confusion attending the removal of those among the wounded who were strong enough to be placed in the wagon. A second look round showed her the door leading into the yard. She rushed to it with a cry of relief. She had just laid her hand on the lock when the third report of cannon burst over the place.
Starting back a step, Grace lifted her hands mechanically to her ears. At the same moment the third shell burst through the roof of the cottage, and exploded in the room, just inside the door. Mercy sprang forward, unhurt, from her place at the window. The burning fragments of the shell were already firing the dry wooden floor, and in the midst of them, dimly seen through the smoke, lay the insensible body of her companion in the room. Even at that dreadful moment the nurse's presence of mind did not fail her. Hurrying back to the place that she had just left, near which she had already noticed the miller's empty sacks lying in a heap, she seized two of them, and, throwing them on the smoldering floor, trampled out the fire. That done, she knelt by the senseless woman, and lifted her head.
Was she wounded? or dead?
Mercy raised one helpless hand, and laid her fingers on the wrist. While she was still vainly trying to feel for the beating of the pulse, Surgeon Surville (alarmed for the ladies) hurried in to inquire if any harm had been done.
Mercy called to him to approach. "I am afraid the shell has struck her," she said, yielding her place to him. "See if she is badly hurt."
The surgeon's anxiety for his charming patient expressed itself briefly in an oath, with a prodigious emphasis laid on one of the letters in it—the letter R. "Take off her cloak," he cried, raising his hand to her neck. "Poor angel! She has turned in falling; the string is twisted round her throat."
Mercy removed the cloak. It dropped on the floor as the surgeon lifted Grace in his arms. "Get a candle," he said, impatiently; "they will give you one in the kitchen." He tried to feel the pulse: his hand trembled, the noise and confusion in the kitchen bewildered him. "Just Heaven!" he exclaimed. "My emotions overpower me!" Mercy approached him with the candle. The light disclosed the frightful injury which a fragment of the shell had inflicted on the Englishwoman's head. Surgeon Surville's manner altered on the instant. The expression of anxiety left his face; its professional composure covered it suddenly like a mask. What was the object of his admiration now? An inert burden in his arms—nothing more.
The change in his face was not lost on Mercy. Her large gray eyes watched him attentively. "Is the lady seriously wounded?" she asked.
"Don't trouble yourself to hold the light any longer," was the cool reply. "It's all over—I can do nothing for her."
Surgeon Surville nodded and shook his fist in the direction of the outposts. "Accursed Germans!" he cried, and looked down at the dead face on his arm, and shrugged his shoulders resignedly. "The fortune of war!" he said as he lifted the body and placed it on the bed in one corner of the room. "Next time, nurse, it may be you or me. Who knows? Bah! the problem of human destiny disgusts me." He turned from the bed, and illustrated his disgust by spitting on the fragments of the exploded shell. "We must leave her there," he resumed. "She was once a charming person—she is nothing now. Come away, Miss Mercy, before it is too late."
He offered his arm to the nurse; the creaking of the baggage-wagon, starting on its journey, was heard outside, and the shrill roll of the drums was renewed in the distance. The retreat had begun.
Mercy drew aside the canvas, and saw the badly wounded men, left helpless at the mercy of the enemy, on their straw beds. She refused the offer of Monsieur Surville's arm.
"I have already told you that I shall stay here," she answered.
Monsieur Surville lifted his hands in polite remonstrance. Mercy held back the curtain, and pointed to the cottage door.
"Go," she said. "My mind is made up."
Even at that final moment the Frenchman asserted himself. He made his exit with unimpaired grace and dignity. "Madam," he said, "you are sublime!" With that parting compliment the man of gallantry—true to the last to his admiration of the sex—bowed, with his hand on his heart, and left the cottage.
Mercy dropped the canvas over the doorway. She was alone with the dead woman.
The last tramp of footsteps, the last rumbling of the wagon wheels, died away in the distance. No renewal of firing from the position occupied by the enemy disturbed the silence that followed. The Germans knew that the French were in retreat. A few minutes more and they would take possession of the abandoned village: the tumult of their approach should become audible at the cottage. In the meantime the stillness was terrible. Even the wounded wretches who were left in the kitchen waited their fate in silence.
Alone in the room, Mercy's first look was directed to the bed.
The two women had met in the confusion of the first skirmish at the close of twilight. Separated, on their arrival at the cottage, by the duties required of the nurse, they had only met again in the captain's room. The acquaintance between them had been a short one; and it had given no promise of ripening into friendship. But the fatal accident had roused Mercy's interest in the stranger. She took the candle, and approached the corpse of the woman who had been literally killed at her side.
She stood by the bed, looking down in the silence of the night at the stillness of the dead face.
It was a striking face—once seen (in life or in death) not to be forgotten afterward. The forehead was unusually low and broad; the eyes unusually far apart; the mouth and chin remarkably small. With tender hands Mercy smoothed the disheveled hair and arranged the crumpled dress. "Not five minutes since," she thought to herself, "I was longing to change places with you!" She turned from the bed with a sigh. "I wish I could change places now!"
The silence began to oppress her. She walked slowly to the other end of the room.
The cloak on the floor—her own cloak, which she had lent to Miss Roseberry—attracted her attention as she passed it. She picked it up and brushed the dust from it, and laid it across a chair. This done, she put the light back on the table, and going to the window, listened for the first sounds of the German advance. The faint passage of the wind through some trees near at hand was the only sound that caught her ears. She turned from the window, and seated herself at the table, thinking. Was there any duty still left undone that Christian charity owed to the dead? Was there any further service that pressed for performance in the interval before the Germans appeared?
Mercy recalled the conversation that had passed between her ill-fated companion and herself. Miss Roseberry had spoken of her object in returning to England. She had mentioned a lady—a connection by marriage, to whom she was personally a stranger—who was waiting to receive her. Some one capable of stating how the poor creature had met with her death ought to write to her only friend. Who was to do it? There was nobody to do it but the one witness of the catastrophe now left in the cottage—Mercy herself.
She lifted the cloak from the chair on which she had placed it, and took from the pocket the leather letter-case which Grace had shown to her. The only way of discovering the address to write to in England was to open the case and examine the papers inside. Mercy opened the case—and stopped, feeling a strange reluctance to carry the investigation any farther.
A moment's consideration satisfied her that her scruples were misplaced. If she respected the case as inviolable, the Germans would certainly not hesitate to examine it, and the Germans would hardly trouble themselves to write to England. Which were the fittest eyes to inspect the papers of the deceased lady—the eyes of men and foreigners, or the eyes of her own countrywoman? Mercy's hesitation left her. She emptied the contents of the case on the table.
That trifling action decided the whole future course of her life.
CHAPTER IV. THE TEMPTATION.
Some letters, tied together with a ribbon, attracted Mercy's attention first. The ink in which the addresses were written had faded with age. The letters, directed alternately to Colonel Roseberry and to the Honorable Mrs. Roseberry, contained a correspondence between the husband and wife at a time when the Colonel's military duties had obliged him to be absent from home. Mercy tied the letters up again, and passed on to the papers that lay next in order under her hand.
These consisted of a few leaves pinned together, and headed (in a woman's handwriting) "My Journal at Rome." A brief examination showed that the journal had been written by Miss Roseberry, and that it was mainly devoted to a record of the last days of her father's life.
After replacing the journal and the correspondence in the case, the one paper left on the table was a letter. The envelope, which was unclosed, bore this address: "Lady Janet Roy, Mablethorpe House, Kensington, London." Mercy took the inclosure from the open envelope. The first lines she read informed her that she had found the Colonel's letter of introduction, presenting his daughter to her protectress on her arrival in England.
Mercy read the letter through. It was described by the writer as the last efforts of a dying man. Colonel Roseberry wrote affectionately of his daughter's merits, and regretfully of her neglected education—ascribing the latter to the pecuniary losses which had forced him to emigrate to Canada in the character of a poor man. Fervent expressions of gratitude followed, addressed to Lady Janet. "I owe it to you," the letter concluded, "that I am dying with my mind at ease about the future of my darling girl. To your generous protection I commit the one treasure I have left to me on earth. Through your long lifetime you have nobly used your high rank and your great fortune as a means of doing good. I believe it will not be counted among the least of your virtues hereafter that you comforted the last hours of an old soldier by opening your heart and your home to his friendless child."
So the letter ended. Mercy laid it down with a heavy heart. What a chance the poor girl had lost! A woman of rank and fortune waiting to receive her—a woman so merciful and so generous that the father's mind had been easy about the daughter on his deathbed—and there the daughter lay, beyond the reach of Lady Janet's kindness, beyond the need of Lady Janet's help!
The French captain's writing-materials were left on the table. Mercy turned the letter over so that she might write the news of Miss Roseberry's death on the blank page at the end. She was still considering what expressions she should use, when the sound of complaining voices from the next room caught her ear. The wounded men left behind were moaning for help—the deserted soldiers were losing their fortitude at last.
She entered the kitchen. A cry of delight welcomed her appearance—the mere sight of her composed the men. From one straw bed to another she passed with comforting words that gave them hope, with skilled and tender hands that soothed their pain. They kissed the hem of her black dress, they called her their guardian angel, as the beautiful creature moved among them, and bent over their hard pillows her gentle, compassionate face. "I will be with you when the Germans come," she said, as she left them to return to her unwritten letter. "Courage, my poor fellows! you are not deserted by your nurse."
"Courage, madam!" the men replied; "and God bless you!"
If the firing had been resumed at that moment—if a shell had struck her dead in the act of succoring the afflicted, what Christian judgment would have hesitated to declare that there was a place for this woman in heaven? But if the war ended and left her still living, where was the place for her on earth? Where were her prospects? Where was her home?
She returned to the letter. Instead, however, of seating herself to write, she stood by the table, absently looking down at the morsel of paper.
A strange fancy had sprung to life in her mind on re-entering the room; she herself smiled faintly at the extravagance of it. What if she were to ask Lady Janet Roy to let her supply Miss Roseberry's place? She had met with Miss Roseberry under critical circumstances, and she had done for her all that one woman could do to help another. There was in this circumstance some little claim to notice, perhaps, if Lady Janet had no other companion and reader in view. Suppose she ventured to plead her own cause—what would the noble and merciful lady do? She would write back, and say, "Send me references to your character, and I will see what can be done." Her character! Her references! Mercy laughed bitterly, and sat down to write in the fewest words all that was needed from her—a plain statement of the facts.
No! Not a line could she put on the paper. That fancy of hers was not to be dismissed at will. Her mind was perversely busy now with an imaginative picture of the beauty of Mablethorpe House and the comfort and elegance of the life that was led there. Once more she thought of the chance which Miss Roseberry had lost. Unhappy creature! what a home would have been open to her if the shell had only fallen on the side of the window, instead of on the side of the yard!
Mercy pushed the letter away from her, and walked impatiently to and fro in the room.
The perversity in her thoughts was not to be mastered in that way. Her mind only abandoned one useless train of reflection to occupy itself with another. She was now looking by anticipation at her own future. What were her prospects (if she lived through it) when the war was over? The experience of the past delineated with pitiless fidelity the dreary scene. Go where she might, do what she might, it would always end in the same way. Curiosity and admiration excited by her beauty; inquiries made about her; the story of the past discovered; Society charitably sorry for her; Society generously subscribing for her; and still, through all the years of her life, the same result in the end—the shadow of the old disgrace surrounding her as with a pestilence, isolating her among other women, branding her, even when she had earned her pardon in the sight of God, with the mark of an indelible disgrace in the sight of man: there was the prospect! And she was only five-and-twenty last birthday; she was in the prime of her health and her strength; she might live, in the course of nature, fifty years more!
She stopped again at the bedside; she looked again at the face of the corpse.
To what end had the shell struck the woman who had some hope in her life, and spared the woman who had none? The words she had herself spoken to Grace Roseberry came back to her as she thought of it. "If I only had your chance! If I only had your reputation and your prospects!" And there was the chance wasted! there were the enviable prospects thrown away! It was almost maddening to contemplate that result, feeling her own position as she felt it. In the bitter mockery of despair she bent over the lifeless figure, and spoke to it as if it had ears to hear her. "Oh!" she said, longingly, "if you could be Mercy Merrick, and if I could be Grace Roseberry, now!"
The instant the words passed her lips she started into an erect position. She stood by the bed with her eyes staring wildly into empty space; with her brain in a flame; with her heart beating as if it would stifle her. "If you could be Mercy Merrick, and if I could be Grace Roseberry, now!" In one breathless moment the thought assumed a new development in her mind. In one breathless moment the conviction struck her like an electric shock. She might be Grace Roseberry if she dared! There was absolutely nothing to stop her from presenting herself to Lady Janet Roy under Grace's name and in Grace's place!
What were the risks? Where was the weak point in the scheme?
Grace had said it herself in so many words—she and Lady Janet had never seen each other. Her friends were in Canada; her relations in England were dead. Mercy knew the place in which she had lived—the place called Port Logan—as well as she had known it herself. Mercy had only to read the manuscript journal to be able to answer any questions relating to the visit to Rome and to Colonel Roseberry's death. She had no accomplished lady to personate: Grace had spoken herself—her father's letter spoke also in the plainest terms—of her neglected education. Everything, literally everything, was in the lost woman's favor. The people with whom she had been connected in the ambulance had gone, to return no more. Her own clothes were on Miss Roseberry at that moment—marked with her own name. Miss Roseberry's clothes, marked with her name, were drying, at Mercy's disposal, in the next room. The way of escape from the unendurable humiliation of her present life lay open before her at last. What a prospect it was! A new identity, which she might own anywhere! a new name, which was beyond reproach! a new past life, into which all the world might search, and be welcome! Her color rose, her eyes sparkled; she had never been so irresistibly beautiful as she looked at the moment when the new future disclosed itself, radiant with new hope.
She waited a minute, until she could look at her own daring project from another point of view. Where was the harm of it? what did her conscience say?
As to Grace, in the first place. What injury was she doing to a woman who was dead? The question answered itself. No injury to the woman. No injury to her relations. Her relations were dead also.
As to Lady Janet, in the second place. If she served her new mistress faithfully, if she filled her new sphere honorably, if she was diligent under instruction and grateful for kindness—if, in one word, she was all that she might be and would be in the heavenly peace and security of that new life—what injury was she doing to Lady Janet? Once more the question answered itself. She might, and would, give Lady Janet cause to bless the day when she first entered the house.
She snatched up Colonel Roseberry's letter, and put it into the case with the other papers. The opportunity was before her; the chances were all in her favor; her conscience said nothing against trying the daring scheme. She decided then and there—"I'll do it!"
Something jarred on her finer sense, something offended her better nature, as she put the case into the pocket of her dress. She had decided, and yet she was not at ease; she was not quite sure of having fairly questioned her conscience yet. What if she laid the letter-case on the table again, and waited until her excitement had all cooled down, and then put the contemplated project soberly on its trial before her own sense of right and wrong?
She thought once—and hesitated. Before she could think twice, the distant tramp of marching footsteps and the distant clatter of horses' hoofs were wafted to her on the night air. The Germans were entering the village! In a few minutes more they would appear in the cottage; they would summon her to give an account of herself. There was no time for waiting until she was composed again. Which should it be—the new life, as Grace Roseberry? or the old life, as Mercy Merrick?
She looked for the last time at the bed. Grace's course was run; Grace's future was at her disposal. Her resolute nature, forced to a choice on the instant, held by the daring alternative. She persisted in the determination to take Grace's place.
The tramping footsteps of the Germans came nearer and nearer. The voices of the officers were audible, giving the words of command.
She seated herself at the table, waiting steadily for what was to come.
The ineradicable instinct of the sex directed her eyes to her dress, before the Germans appeared. Looking it over to see that it was in perfect order, her eyes fell upon the red cross on her left shoulder. In a moment it struck her that her nurse's costume might involve her in a needless risk. It associated her with a public position; it might lead to inquiries at a later time, and those inquiries might betray her.
She looked round. The gray cloak which she had lent to Grace attracted her attention. She took it up, and covered herself with it from head to foot.
The cloak was just arranged round her when she heard the outer door thrust open, and voices speaking in a strange tongue, and arms grounded in the room behind her. Should she wait to be discovered? or should she show herself of her own accord? It was less trying to such a nature as hers to show herself than to wait. She advanced to enter the kitchen. The canvas curtain, as she stretched out her hand to it, was suddenly drawn back from the other side, and three men confronted her in the open doorway.
CHAPTER V. THE GERMAN SURGEON.
THE youngest of the three strangers—judging by features, complexion, and manner—was apparently an Englishman. He wore a military cap and military boots, but was otherwise dressed as a civilian. Next to him stood an officer in Prussian uniform, and next to the officer was the third and the oldest of the party. He also was dressed in uniform, but his appearance was far from being suggestive of the appearance of a military man. He halted on one foot, he stooped at the shoulders, and instead of a sword at his side he carried a stick in his hand. After looking sharply through a large pair of tortoise-shell spectacles, first at Mercy, then at the bed, then all round the room, he turned with a cynical composure of manner to the Prussian officer, and broke the silence in these words:
"A woman ill on the bed; another woman in attendance on her, and no one else in the room. Any necessity, major, for setting a guard here?"
"No necessity," answered the major. He wheeled round on his heel and returned to the kitchen. The German surgeon advanced a little, led by his professional instinct, in the direction of the bedside. The young Englishman, whose eyes had remained riveted in admiration on Mercy, drew the canvas screen over the doorway and respectfully addressed her in the French language.
"May I ask if I am speaking to a French lady?" he said.
"I am an Englishwoman," Mercy replied.
The surgeon heard the answer. Stopping short on his way to the bed, he pointed to the recumbent figure on it, and said to Mercy, in good English, spoken with a strong German accent.
"Can I be of any use there?"
His manner was ironically courteous, his harsh voice was pitched in one sardonic monotony of tone. Mercy took an instantaneous dislike to this hobbling, ugly old man, staring at her rudely through his great tortoiseshell spectacles.
"You can be of no use, sir," she said, shortly. "The lady was killed when your troops shelled this cottage."
The Englishman started, and looked compassionately toward the bed. The German refreshed himself with a pinch of snuff, and put another question.
"Has the body been examined by a medical man?" he asked.
Mercy ungraciously limited her reply to the one necessary word "Yes."
The present surgeon was not a man to be daunted by a lady's disapproval of him. He went on with his questions.
"Who has examined the body?" he inquired next.
Mercy answered, "The doctor attached to the French ambulance."
The German grunted in contemptuous disapproval of all Frenchmen, and all French institutions. The Englishman seized his first opportunity of addressing himself to Mercy once more.
"Is the lady a countrywoman of ours?" he asked, gently.
Mercy considered before she answered him. With the object she had in view, there might be serious reasons for speaking with extreme caution when she spoke of Grace.
"I believe so," she said. "We met here by accident. I know nothing of her."
"Not even her name?" inquired the German surgeon.
Mercy's resolution was hardly equal yet to giving her own name openly as the name of Grace. She took refuge in flat denial.
"Not even her name," she repeated obstinately.
The old man stared at her more rudely than ever, considered with himself, and took the candle from the table. He hobbled back to the bed and examined the figure laid on it in silence. The Englishman continued the conversation, no longer concealing the interest that he felt in the beautiful woman who stood before him.
"Pardon me," he said, "you are very young to be alone in war-time in such a place as this."
The sudden outbreak of a disturbance in the kitchen relieved Mercy from any immediate necessity for answering him. She heard the voices of the wounded men raised in feeble remonstrance, and the harsh command of the foreign officers bidding them be silent. The generous instincts of the woman instantly prevailed over every personal consideration imposed on her by the position which she had assumed. Reckless whether she betrayed herself or not as nurse in the French ambulance, she instantly drew aside the canvas to enter the kitchen. A German sentinel barred the way to her, and announced, in his own language, that no strangers were admitted. The Englishman politely interposing, asked if she had any special object in wishing to enter the room.
"The poor Frenchmen!" she said, earnestly, her heart upbraiding her for having forgotten them. "The poor wounded Frenchmen!"
The German surgeon advanced from the bedside, and took the matter up before the Englishman could say a word more.
"You have nothing to do with the wounded Frenchmen," he croaked, in the harshest notes of his voice. "The wounded Frenchmen are my business, and not yours. They are our prisoners, and they are being moved to our ambulance. I am Ingatius Wetzel, chief of the medical staff—and I tell you this. Hold your tongue." He turned to the sentinel and added in German, "Draw the curtain again; and if the woman persists, put her back into this room with your own hand."
Mercy attempted to remonstrate. The Englishman respectfully took her arm, and drew her out of the sentinel's reach.
"It is useless to resist," he said. "The German discipline never gives way. There is not the least need to be uneasy about the Frenchmen. The ambulance under Surgeon Wetzel is admirably administered. I answer for it, the men will be well treated." He saw the tears in her eyes as he spoke; his admiration for her rose higher and higher. "Kind as well as beautiful," he thought. "What a charming creature!"
"Well!" said Ignatius Wetzel, eying Mercy sternly through his spectacles. "Are you satisfied? And will you hold your tongue?"
She yielded: it was plainly useless to resist. But for the surgeon's resistance, her devotion to the wounded men might have stopped her on the downward way that she was going. If she could only have been absorbed again, mind and body, in her good work as a nurse, the temptation might even yet have found her strong enough to resist it. The fatal severity of the German discipline had snapped asunder the last tie that bound her to her better self. Her face hardened as she walked away proudly from Surgeon Wetzel, and took a chair.
The Englishman followed her, and reverted to the question of her present situation in the cottage.
"Don't suppose that I want to alarm you," he said. "There is, I repeat, no need to be anxious about the Frenchmen, but there is serious reason for anxiety on your own account. The action will be renewed round this village by daylight; you ought really to be in a place of safety. I am an officer in the English army—my name is Horace Holmcroft. I shall be delighted to be of use to you, and I can be of use, if you will let me. May I ask if you are traveling?"
Mercy gathered the cloak which concealed her nurse's dress more closely round her, and committed herself silently to her first overt act of deception. She bowed her head in the affirmative.
"Are you on your way to England?"
"In that case I can pass you through the German lines, and forward you at once on your journey."
Mercy looked at him in unconcealed surprise. His strongly-felt interest in her was restrained within the strictest limits of good-breeding: he was unmistakably a gentleman. Did he really mean what he had just said?
"You can pass me through the German lines?" she repeated. "You must possess extraordinary influence, sir, to be able to do that."
Mr. Horace Holmcroft smiled.
"I possess the influence that no one can resist," he answered—"the influence of the Press. I am serving here as war correspondent of one of our great English newspapers. If I ask him, the commanding officer will grant you a pass. He is close to this cottage. What do you say?"
She summoned her resolution—not without difficulty, even now—and took him at his word.
"I gratefully accept your offer, sir."
He advanced a step toward the kitchen, and stopped.
"It may be well to make the application as privately as possible," he said. "I shall be questioned if I pass through that room. Is there no other way out of the cottage?"
Mercy showed him the door leading into the yard. He bowed—and left her.
She looked furtively toward the German surgeon. Ignatius Wetzel was still at the bed, bending over the body, and apparently absorbed in examining the wound which had been inflicted by the shell. Mercy's instinctive aversion to the old man increased tenfold, now that she was left alone with him. She withdrew uneasily to the window, and looked out at the moonlight.
Had she committed herself to the fraud? Hardly, yet. She had committed herself to returning to England—nothing more. There was no necessity, thus far, which forced her to present herself at Mablethorpe House, in Grace's place. There was still time to reconsider her resolution—still time to write the account of the accident, as she had proposed, and to send it with the letter-case to Lady Janet Roy. Suppose she finally decided on taking this course, what was to become of her when she found herself in England again? There was no alternative open but to apply once more to her friend the matron. There was nothing for her to do but to return to the Refuge!
The Refuge! The matron! What past association with these two was now presenting itself uninvited, and taking the foremost place in her mind? Of whom was she now thinking, in that strange place, and at that crisis in her life? Of the man whose words had found their way to her heart, whose influence had strengthened and comforted her, in the chapel of the Refuge. One of the finest passages in his sermon had been especially devoted by Julian Gray to warning the congregation whom he addressed against the degrading influences of falsehood and deceit. The terms in which he had appealed to the miserable women round him—terms of sympathy and encouragement never addressed to them before—came back to Mercy Merrick as if she had heard them an hour since. She turned deadly pale as they now pleaded with her once more. "Oh!" she whispered to herself, as she thought of what she had proposed and planned, "what have I done? what have I done?"
She turned from the window with some vague idea in her mind of following Mr. Holmcroft and calling him back. As she faced the bed again she also confronted Ignatius Wetzel. He was just stepping forward to speak to her, with a white handkerchief—the handkerchief which she had lent to Grace—held up in his hand.
"I have found this in her pocket," he said. "Here is her name written on it. She must be a countrywoman of yours." He read the letters marked on the handkerchief with some difficulty. "Her name is—Mercy Merrick."
His lips had said it—not hers! He had given her the name.
"'Mercy Merrick' is an English name?" pursued Ignatius Wetzel, with his eyes steadily fixed on her. "Is it not so?"
The hold on her mind of the past association with Julian Gray began to relax. One present and pressing question now possessed itself of the foremost place in her thoughts. Should she correct the error into which the German had fallen? The time had come—to speak, and assert her own identity; or to be silent, and commit herself to the fraud.
Horace Holmcroft entered the room again at the moment when Surgeon Wetzel's staring eyes were still fastened on her, waiting for her reply.
"I have not overrated my interest," he said, pointing to a little slip of paper in his hand. "Here is the pass. Have you got pen and ink? I must fill up the form."
Mercy pointed to the writing materials on the table. Horace seated himself, and dipped the pen in the ink.
"Pray don't think that I wish to intrude myself into your affairs," he said. "I am obliged to ask you one or two plain questions. What is your name?"
A sudden trembling seized her. She supported herself against the foot of the bed. Her whole future existence depended on her answer. She was incapable of uttering a word.
Ignatius Wetzel stood her friend for once. His croaking voice filled the empty gap of silence exactly at the right time. He doggedly held the handkerchief under her eyes. He obstinately repeated: "Mercy Merrick is an English name. Is it not so?"
Horace Holmcroft looked up from the table. "Mercy Merrick?" he said. "Who is Mercy Merrick?"
Surgeon Wetzel pointed to the corpse on the bed.
"I have found the name on the handkerchief," he said. "This lady, it seems, had not curiosity enough to look for the name of her own countrywoman." He made that mocking allusion to Mercy with a tone which was almost a tone of suspicion, and a look which was almost a look of contempt. Her quick temper instantly resented the discourtesy of which she had been made the object. The irritation of the moment—so often do the most trifling motives determine the most serious human actions—decided her on the course that she should pursue. She turned her back scornfully on the rude old man, and left him in the delusion that he had discovered the dead woman's name.
Horace returned to the business of filling up the form. "Pardon me for pressing the question," he said. "You know what German discipline is by this time. What is your name?"
She answered him recklessly, defiantly, without fairly realizing what she was doing until it was done.
"Grace Roseberry," she said.
The words were hardly out of her mouth before she would have given everything she possessed in the world to recall them.
"Miss?" asked Horace, smiling.
She could only answer him by bowing her head.
He wrote: "Miss Grace Roseberry"—reflected for a moment—and then added, interrogatively, "Returning to her friends in England?" Her friends in England? Mercy's heart swelled: she silently replied by another sign. He wrote the words after the name, and shook the sandbox over the wet ink. "That will be enough," he said, rising and presenting the pass to Mercy; "I will see you through the lines myself, and arrange for your being sent on by the railway. Where is your luggage?"
Mercy pointed toward the front door of the building. "In a shed outside the cottage," she answered. "It is not much; I can do everything for myself if the sentinel will let me pass through the kitchen."
Horace pointed to the paper in her hand. "You can go where you like now," he said. "Shall I wait for you here or outside?"
Mercy glanced distrustfully at Ignatius Wetzel. He was again absorbed in his endless examination of the body on the bed. If she left him alone with Mr. Holmcroft, there was no knowing what the hateful old man might not say of her. She answered:
"Wait for me outside, if you please."
The sentinel drew back with a military salute at the sight of the pass. All the French prisoners had been removed; there were not more than half-a-dozen Germans in the kitchen, and the greater part of them were asleep. Mercy took Grace Roseberry's clothes from the corner in which they had been left to dry, and made for the shed—a rough structure of wood, built out from the cottage wall. At the front door she encountered a second sentinel, and showed her pass for the second time. She spoke to this man, asking him if he understood French. He answered that he understood a little. Mercy gave him a piece of money, and said: "I am going to pack up my luggage in the shed. Be kind enough to see that nobody disturbs me." The sentinel saluted, in token that he understood. Mercy disappeared in the dark interior of the shed.
Left alone with Surgeon Wetzel, Horace noticed the strange old man still bending intently over the English lady who had been killed by the shell.
"Anything remarkable," he asked, "in the manner of that poor creature's death?"
"Nothing to put in a newspaper," retorted the cynic, pursuing his investigations as attentively as ever.
"Interesting to a doctor—eh?" said Horace.
"Yes. Interesting to a doctor," was the gruff reply.
Horace good-humoredly accepted the hint implied in those words. He quitted the room by the door leading into the yard, and waited for the charming Englishwoman, as he had been instructed, outside the cottage.
Left by himself, Ignatius Wetzel, after a first cautious look all round him, opened the upper part of Grace's dress, and laid his left hand on her heart. Taking a little steel instrument from his waistcoat pocket with the other hand, he applied it carefully to the wound, raised a morsel of the broken and depressed bone of the skull, and waited for the result. "Aha!" he cried, addressing with a terrible gayety the senseless creature under his hands. "The Frenchman says you are dead, my dear—does he? The Frenchman is a Quack! The Frenchman is an Ass!" He lifted his head, and called into the kitchen. "Max!" A sleepy young German, covered with a dresser's apron from his chin to his feet, drew the curtain, and waited for his instructions. "Bring me my black bag," said Ignatius Wetzel. Having given that order, he rubbed his hands cheerfully, and shook himself like a dog. "Now I am quite happy," croaked the terrible old man, with his fierce eyes leering sidelong at the bed. "My dear, dead Englishwoman, I would not have missed this meeting with you for all the money I have in the world. Ha! you infernal French Quack, you call it death, do you? I call it suspended animation from pressure on the brain!"
Max appeared with the black bag.
Ignatius Wetzel selected two fearful instruments, bright and new, and hugged them to his bosom. "My little boys," he said, tenderly, as if they were his children; "my blessed little boys, come to work!" He turned to the assistant. "Do you remember the battle of Solferino, Max—and the Austrian soldier I operated on for a wound on the head?"
The assistant's sleepy eyes opened wide; he was evidently interested. "I remember," he said. "I held the candle."
The master led the way to the bed.
"I am not satisfied with the result of that operation at Solferino," he said; "I have wanted to try again ever since. It's true that I saved the man's life, but I failed to give him back his reason along with it. It might have been something wrong in the operation, or it might have been something wrong in the man. Whichever it was, he will live and die mad. Now look here, my little Max, at this dear young lady on the bed. She gives me just what I wanted; here is the case at Solferino once more. You shall hold the candle again, my good boy; stand there, and look with all your eyes. I am going to try if I can save the life and the reason too this time."
He tucked up the cuffs of his coat and began the operation. As his fearful instruments touched Grace's head, the voice of the sentinel at the nearest outpost was heard, giving the word in German which permitted Mercy to take the first step on her journey to England:
"Pass the English lady!"
The operation proceeded. The voice of the sentinel at the next post was heard more faintly, in its turn: "Pass the English lady!"
The operation ended. Ignatius Wetzel held up his hand for silence and put his ear close to the patient's mouth.
The first trembling breath of returning life fluttered over Grace Roseberry's lips and touched the old man's wrinkled cheek. "Aha!" he cried. "Good girl! you breathe—you live!" As he spoke, the voice of the sentinel at the final limit of the German lines (barely audible in the distance) gave the word for the last time:
"Pass the English lady!"
SECOND SCENE.—Mablethorpe House.
THE place is England.
The time is winter, in the year eighteen hundred and seventy.
The persons are, Julian Gray, Horace Holmcroft, Lady Janet Roy, Grace Roseberry, and Mercy Merrick.
CHAPTER VI. LADY JANET'S COMPANION.
IT is a glorious winter's day. The sky is clear, the frost is hard, the ice bears for skating.
The dining-room of the ancient mansion called Mablethorpe House, situated in the London suburb of Kensington, is famous among artists and other persons of taste for the carved wood-work, of Italian origin, which covers the walls on three sides. On the fourth side the march of modern improvement has broken in, and has va ried and brightened the scene by means of a conservatory, forming an entrance to the room through a winter-garden of rare plants and flowers. On your right hand, as you stand fronting the conservatory, the monotony of the paneled wall is relieved by a quaintly patterned door of old inlaid wood, leading into the library, and thence, across the great hall, to the other reception-rooms of the house. A corresponding door on the left hand gives access to the billiard-room, to the smoking-room next to it, and to a smaller hall commanding one of the secondary entrances to the building. On the left side also is the ample fireplace, surmounted by its marble mantelpiece, carved in the profusely and confusedly ornate style of eighty years since. To the educated eye the dining-room, with its modern furniture and conservatory, its ancient walls and doors, and its lofty mantelpiece (neither very old nor very new), presents a startling, almost a revolutionary, mixture of the decorative workmanship of widely differing schools. To the ignorant eye the one result produced is an impression of perfect luxury and comfort, united in the friendliest combination, and developed on the largest scale.
The clock has just struck two. The table is spread for luncheon.
The persons seated at the table are three in number. First, Lady Janet Roy. Second, a young lady who is her reader and companion. Third, a guest staying in the house, who has already appeared in these pages under the name of Horace Holmcroft—attached to the German army as war correspondent of an English newspaper.
Lady Janet Roy needs but little introduction. Everybody with the slightest pretension to experience in London society knows Lady Janet Roy.
Who has not heard of her old lace and her priceless rubies? Who has not admired her commanding figure, her beautifully dressed white hair, her wonderful black eyes, which still preserve their youthful brightness, after first opening on the world seventy years since? Who has not felt the charm of her frank, easily flowing talk, her inexhaustible spirits, her good-humored, gracious sociability of manner? Where is the modern hermit who is not familiarly acquainted, by hearsay at least, with the fantastic novelty and humor of her opinions; with her generous encouragement of rising merit of any sort, in all ranks, high or low; with her charities, which know no distinction between abroad and at home; with her large indulgence, which no ingratitude can discourage, and no servility pervert? Everybody has heard of the popular old lady—the childless widow of a long-forgotten lord. Everybody knows Lady Janet Roy.
But who knows the handsome young woman sitting on her right hand, playing with her luncheon instead of eating it? Nobody really knows her.
She is prettily dressed in gray poplin, trimmed with gray velvet, and set off by a ribbon of deep red tied in a bow at the throat. She is nearly as tall as Lady Janet herself, and possesses a grace and beauty of figure not always seen in women who rise above the medium height. Judging by a certain innate grandeur in the carriage of her head and in the expression of her large melancholy gray eyes, believers in blood and breeding will be apt to guess that this is another noble lady. Alas! she is nothing but Lady Janet's companion and reader. Her head, crowned with its lovely light brown hair, bends with a gentle respect when Lady Janet speaks. Her fine firm hand is easily and incessantly watchful to supply Lady Janet's slightest wants. The old lady—affectionately familiar with her—speaks to her as she might speak to an adopted child. But the gratitude of the beautiful companion has always the same restraint in its acknowledgment of kindness; the smile of the beautiful companion has always the same underlying sadness when it responds to Lady Janet's hearty laugh. Is there something wrong here, under the surface? Is she suffering in mind, or suffering in body? What is the matter with her?
The matter with her is secret remorse. This delicate and beautiful creature pines under the slow torment of constant self-reproach.
To the mistress of the house, and to all who inhabit it or enter it, she is known as Grace Roseberry, the orphan relative by marriage of Lady Janet Roy. To herself alone she is known as the outcast of the London streets; the inmate of the London Refuge; the lost woman who has stolen her way back—after vainly trying to fight her way back—to Home and Name. There she sits in the grim shadow of her own terrible secret, disguised in another person's identity, and established in another person's place. Mercy Merrick had only to dare, and to become Grace Roseberry if she pleased. She has dared, and she has been Grace Roseberry for nearly four months past.
At this moment, while Lady Janet is talking to Horace Holmcroft, something that has passed between them has set her thinking of the day when she took the first fatal step which committed her to the fraud.
How marvelously easy of accomplishment the act of personation had been! At first sight Lady Janet had yielded to the fascination of the noble and interesting face. No need to present the stolen letter; no need to repeat the ready-made story. The old lady had put the letter aside unopened, and had stopped the story at the first words. "Your face is your introduction, my dear; your father can say nothing for you which you have not already said for yourself." There was the welcome which established her firmly in her false identity at the outset. Thanks to her own experience, and thanks to the "Journal" of events at Rome, questions about her life in Canada and questions about Colonel Roseberry's illness found her ready with answers which (even if suspicion had existed) would have disarmed suspicion on the spot. While the true Grace was slowly and painfully winning her way back to life on her bed in a German hospital, the false Grace was presented to Lady Janet's friends as the relative by marriage of the Mistress of Mablethorpe House. From that time forward nothing had happened to rouse in her the faintest suspicion that Grace Roseberry was other than a dead-and-buried woman. So far as she now knew—so far as any one now knew—she might live out her life in perfect security (if her conscience would let her), respected, distinguished, and beloved, in the position which she had usurped.
She rose abruptly from the table. The effort of her life was to shake herself free of the remembrances which haunted her perpetually as they were haunting her now. Her memory was her worst enemy; her one refuge from it was in change of occupation and change of scene.
"May I go into the conservatory, Lady Janet?" she asked.
"Certainly, my dear."
She bent her head to her protectress, looked for a moment with a steady, compassionate attention at Horace Holmcroft, and, slowly crossing the room, entered the winter-garden. The eyes of Horace followed her, as long as she was in view, with a curious contradictory expression of admiration and disapproval. When she had passed out of sight the admiration vanished, but the disapproval remained. The face of the young man contracted into a frown: he sat silent, with his fork in his hand, playing absently with the fragments on his plate.
"Take some French pie, Horace," said Lady Janet.
"No, thank you."
"Some more chicken, then?"
"No more chicken."
"Will nothing tempt you?"
"I will take some more wine, if you will allow me."
He filled his glass (for the fifth or sixth time) with claret, and emptied it sullenly at a draught. Lady Janet's bright eyes watched him with sardonic attention; Lady Janet's ready tongue spoke out as freely as usual what was passing in her mind at the time.
"The air of Kensington doesn't seem to suit you, my young friend," she said. "The longer you have been my guest, the oftener you fill your glass and empty your cigar-case. Those are bad signs in a young man. When you first came here you arrived invalided by a wound. In your place, I should not have exposed myself to be shot, with no other object in view than describing a battle in a newspaper. I suppose tastes differ. Are you ill? Does your wound still plague you?"
"Not in the least."
"Are you out of spirits?"
Horace Holmcroft dropped his fork, rested his elbows on the table, and answered:
Even Lady Janet's large toleration had its limits. It embraced every human offense except a breach of good manners. She snatched up the nearest weapon of correction at hand—a tablespoon—and rapped her young friend smartly with it on the arm that was nearest to her.
"My table is not the club table," said the old lady. "Hold up your head. Don't look at your fork—look at me. I allow nobody to be out of spirits in My house. I consider it to be a reflection on Me. If our quiet life here doesn't suit you, say so plainly, and find something else to do. There is employment to be had, I suppose—if you choose to apply for it? You needn't smile. I don't want to see your teeth—I want an answer."
Horace admitted, with all needful gravity, that there was employment to be had. The war between France and Germany, he remarked, was still going on: the newspaper had offered to employ him again in the capacity of correspondent.
"Don't speak of the newspapers and the war!" cried Lady Janet, with a sudden explosion of anger, which was genuine anger this time. "I detest the newspapers! I won't allow the newspapers to enter this house. I lay the whole blame of the blood shed between France and Germany at their door."
Horace's eyes opened wide in amazement. The old lady was evidently in earnest. "What can you possibly mean?" he asked. "Are the newspapers responsible for the war?"
"Entirely responsible," answered Lady Janet. "Why, you don't understand the age you live in! Does anybody do anything nowadays (fighting included) without wishing to see it in the newspapers? I subscribe to a charity; thou art presented with a testimonial; he preaches a sermon; we suffer a grievance; you make a discovery; they go to church and get married. And I, thou, he; we, you, they, all want one and the same thing—we want to see it in the papers. Are kings, soldiers, and diplomatists exceptions to the general rule of humanity? Not they! I tell you seriously, if the newspapers of Europe had one and all decided not to take the smallest notice in print of the war between France and Germany, it is my firm conviction the war would have come to an end for want of encouragement long since. Let the pen cease to advertise the sword, and I, for one, can see the result. No report—no fighting."
"Your views have the merit of perfect novelty, ma'am," said Horace. "Would you object to see them in the newspapers?"
Lady Janet worsted her young friend with his own weapons.
"Don't I live in the latter part of the nineteenth century?" she asked. "In the newspapers, did you say? In large type, Horace, if you love me!"
Horace changed the subject.
"You blame me for being out of spirits," he said; "and you seem to think it is because I am tired of my pleasant life at Mablethorpe House. I am not in the least tired, Lady Janet." He looked toward the conservatory: the frown showed itself on his face once more. "The truth is," he resumed, "I am not satisfied with Grace Roseberry."
"What has Grace done?"
"She persists in prolonging our engagement. Nothing will persuade her to fix the day for our marriage."
It was true! Mercy had been mad enough to listen to him, and to love him. But Mercy was not vile enough to marry him under her false character, and in her false name. Between three and four months had elapsed since Horace had been sent home from the war, wounded, and had found the beautiful Englishwoman whom he had befriended in France established at Mablethorpe House. Invited to become Lady Janet's guest (he had passed his holidays as a school-boy under Lady Janet's roof)—free to spend the idle time of his convalescence from morning to night in Mercy's society—the impression originally produced on him in a French cottage soon strengthened into love. Before the month was out Horace had declared himself, and had discovered that he spoke to willing ears. From that moment it was only a question of persisting long enough in the resolution to gain his point. The marriage engagement was ratified—most reluctantly on the lady's side—and there the further progress of Horace Holmcroft's suit came to an end. Try as he might, he failed to persuade his betrothed wife to fix the day for the marriage. There were no obstacles in her way. She had no near relations of her own to consult. As a connection of Lady Janet's by marriage, Horace's mother and sisters were ready to receive her with all the honors due to a new member of the family. No pecuniary considerations made it necessary, in this case, to wait for a favorable time. Horace was an only son; and he had succeeded to his father's estate with an ample income to support it. On both sides alike there was absolutely nothing to prevent the two young people from being married as soon as the settlements could be drawn. And yet, to all appearance, here was a long engagement in prospect, with no better reason than the lady's incomprehensible perversity to explain the delay. "Can you account for Grace's conduct?" asked Lady Janet. Her manner changed as she put the question. She looked and spoke like a person who was perplexed and annoyed.
"I hardly like to own it," Horace answered, "but I am afraid she has some motive for deferring our marriage which she cannot confide either to you or to me."
Lady Janet started.
"What makes you think that?" she asked.
"I have once or twice caught her in tears. Every now and then—sometimes when she is talking quite gayly—she suddenly changes color and becomes silent and depressed. Just now, when she left the table (didn't you notice it?), she looked at me in the strangest way—almost as if she was sorry for me. What do these things mean?"
Horace's reply, instead of increasing Lady Janet's anxiety, seemed to relieve it. He had observed nothing which she had not noticed herself. "You foolish boy!" she said, "the meaning is plain enough. Grace has been out of health for some time past. The doctor recommends change of air. I shall take her away with me."
"It would be more to the purpose," Horace rejoined, "if I took her away with me. She might consent, if you would only use your influence. Is it asking too much to ask you to persuade her? My mother and my sisters have written to her, and have produced no effect. Do me the greatest of all kindnesses—speak to her to-day!" He paused, and possessing himself of Lady Janet's hand, pressed it entreatingly. "You have always been so good to me," he said, softly, and pressed it again.
The old lady looked at him. It was impossible to dispute that there were attractions in Horace Holmcroft's face which made it well worth looking at. Many a woman might have envied him his clear complexion, his bright blue eyes, and the warm amber tint in his light Saxon hair. Men—especially men skilled in observing physiognomy—might have noticed in the shape of his forehead and in the line of his upper lip the signs indicative of a moral nature deficient in largeness and breadth—of a mind easily accessible to strong prejudices, and obstinate in maintaining those prejudices in the face of conviction itself.
To the observation of women these remote defects were too far below the surface to be visible. He charmed the sex in general by his rare personal advantages, and by the graceful deference of his manner. To Lady Janet he was endeared, not by his own merits only, but by old associations that were connected with him. His father had been one of her many admirers in her young days. Circumstances had parted them. Her marriage to another man had been a childless marriage. In past times, when the boy Horace had come to her from school, she had cherished a secret fancy (too absurd to be communicated to any living creature) that he ought to have been her son, and might have been her son, if she had married his father! She smiled charmingly, old as she was—she yielded as his mother might have yielded—when the young man took her hand and entreated her to interest herself in his marriage. "Must I really speak to Grace?" she asked, with a gentleness of tone and manner far from characteristic, on ordinary occasions, of the lady of Mablethorpe House. Horace saw that he had gained his point. He sprang to his feet; his eyes turned eagerly in the direction of the conservatory; his handsome face was radiant with hope. Lady Janet (with her mind full of his father) stole a last look at him, sighed as she thought of the vanished days, and recovered herself.
"Go to the smoking-room," she said, giving him a push toward the door. "Away with you, and cultivate the favorite vice of the nineteenth century." Horace attempted to express his gratitude. "Go and smoke!" was all she said, pushing him out. "Go and smoke!"
Left by herself, Lady Janet took a turn in the room, and considered a little.
Horace's discontent was not unreasonable. There was really no excuse for the delay of which he complained. Whether the young lady had a special motive for hanging back, or whether she was merely fretting because she did not know her own mind, it was, in either case, necessary to come to a distinct understanding, sooner or later, on the serious question of the marriage. The difficulty was, how to approach the subject without giving offense. "I don't understand the young women of the present generation," thought Lady Janet. "In my time, when we were fond of a man, we were ready to marry him at a moment's notice. And this is an age of progress! They ought to be readier still."
Arriving, by her own process of induction, at this inevitable conclusion, she decided to try what her influence could accomplish, and to trust to the inspiration of the moment for exerting it in the right way. "Grace!" she called out, approaching the conservatory door. The tall, lithe figure in its gray dress glided into view, and stood relieved against the green background of the winter-garden.
"Did your ladyship call me?"
"Yes; I want to speak to you. Come and sit down by me."
With those words Lady Janet led the way to a sofa, and placed her companion by her side.
CHAPTER VII. THE MAN IS COMING.
"You look very pale this morning, my child."
Mercy sighed wearily. "I am not well," she answered. "The slightest noises startle me. I feel tired if I only walk across the room."
Lady Janet patted her kindly on the shoulder. "We must try what a change will do for you. Which shall it be? the Continent or the sea-side?"