Chapter 16 - They Meet Again
ABSORBED in herself, Mercy failed to notice the opening door or to hear the murmur of voices in the conservatory.
The one terrible necessity which had been present to her mind at intervals for a week past was confronting her at that moment. She owed to Grace Roseberry the tardy justice of owning the truth. The longer her confession was delayed, the more cruelly she was injuring the woman whom she had robbed of her identity--the friendless woman who had neither witnesses nor papers to produce, who was powerless to right her own wrong. Keenly as she felt this, Mercy failed, nevertheless, to conquer the horror that shook her when she thought of the impending avowal. Day followed day, and still she shrank from the unendurable ordeal of confession--as she was shrinking from it now!
Was it fear for herself that closed her lips?
She trembled--as any human being in her place must have trembled--at the bare idea of finding herself thrown back again on the world, which had no place in it and no hope in it for _her_. But she could have overcome that terror--she could have resigned herself to that doom.
No! it was not the fear of the confession itself, or the fear of the consequences which must follow it, that still held her silent. The horror that daunted her was the horror of owning to Horace and to Lady Janet that she had cheated them out of their love.
Every day Lady Janet was kinder and kinder. Every day Horace was fonder and fonder of her. How could she confess to Lady Janet? how could she own to Horace that she had imposed upon him? "I can't do it. They are so good to me--I can't do it!" In that hopeless way it had ended during the seven days that had gone by. In that hopeless way it ended again now.
The murmur of the two voices at the further end of the conservatory ceased. The billiard-room door opened again slowly, by an inch at a time.
Mercy still kept her place, unconscious of the events that were passing round her. Sinking under the hard stress laid on it, her mind had drifted little by little into a new train of thought. For the first time she found the courage to question the future in a new way. Supposing her confession to have been made, or supposing the woman whom she had personated to have discovered the means of exposing the fraud, what advantage, she now asked herself, would Miss Roseberry derive from Mercy Merrick's disgrace?
Could Lady Janet transfer to the woman who was really her relative by marriage the affection which she had given to the woman who had pretended to be her relative? No! All the right in the world would not put the true Grace into the false Grace's vacant place. The qualities by which Mercy had won Lady Janet's love were the qualities which were Mercy's won. Lady Janet could do rigid justice--but hers was not the heart to give itself to a stranger (and to give itself unreservedly) a second time. Grace Roseberry would be formally acknowledged--and there it would end.
Was there hope in this new view?
Yes! There was the false hope of making the inevitable atonement by some other means than by the confession of the fraud.
What had Grace Roseberry actually lost by the wrong done to her? She had lost the salary of Lady Janet's "companion and reader." Say that she wanted money, Mercy had her savings from the generous allowance made to her by Lady Janet; Mercy could offer money. Or say that she wanted employment, Mercy's interest with Lady Janet could offer employment, could offer anything Grace might ask for, if she would only come to terms.
Invigorated by the new hope, Mercy rose excitedly, weary of inaction in the empty room. She, who but a few minutes since had shuddered at the thought of their meeting again, was now eager to devise a means of finding her way privately to an interview with Grace. It should be done without loss of time--on that very day, if possible; by the next day at latest. She looked round her mechanically, pondering how to reach the end in view. Her eyes rested by chance on the door of the billiard-room.
Was it fancy? or did she really see the door first open a little, then suddenly and softly close again?
Was it fancy? or did she really hear, at the same moment, a sound behind her as of persons speaking in the conservatory?
She paused; and, looking back in that direction, listened intently. The sound--if she had really heard it--was no longer audible. She advanced toward the billiard-room to set her first doubt at rest. She stretched out her hand to open the door, when the voices (recognizable now as the voices of two men) caught her ear once more.
This time she was able to distinguish the words that were spoken.
"Any further orders, sir?" inquired one of the men.
"Nothing more," replied the other.
Mercy started, and faintly flushed, as the second voice answered the first. She stood irresolute close to the billiard-room, hesitating what to do next.
After an interval the second voice made itself heard again, advancing nearer to the dining-room: "Are you there, aunt?" it asked cautiously. There was a moment's pause. Then the voice spoke for the third time, sounding louder and nearer. "Are you there?" it reiterated; "I have something to tell you." Mercy summoned her resolution and answered: "Lady Janet is not here." She turned as she spoke toward the conservatory door, and confronted on the threshold Julian Gray.
They looked at one another without exchanging a word on either side. The situation--for widely different reasons--was equally embarrassing to both of them.
There--as Julian saw _her_--was the woman forbidden to him, the woman whom he loved.
There--as Mercy saw _him_--was the man whom she dreaded, the man whose actions (as she interpreted them) proved that he suspected her.
On the surface of it, the incidents which had marked their first meeting were now exactly repeated, with the one difference that the impulse to withdraw this time appeared to be on the man's side and not on the woman's. It was Mercy who spoke first.
"Did you expect to find Lady Janet here?" she asked, constrainedly. He answered, on his part, more constrainedly still.
"It doesn't matter," he said. "Another time will do."
He drew back as he made the reply. She advanced desperately, with the deliberate intention of detaining him by speaking again.
The attempt which he had made to withdraw, the constraint in his manner when he had answered, had instantly confirmed her in the false conviction that he, and he alone, had guessed the truth! If she was right--if he had secretly made discoveries abroad which placed her entirely at his mercy--the attempt to induce Grace to consent to a compromise with her would be manifestly useless. Her first and foremost interest now was to find out how she really stood in the estimation of Julian Gray. In a terror of suspense, that turned her cold from head to foot, she stopped him on his way out, and spoke to him with the piteous counterfeit of a smile.
"Lady Janet is receiving some visitors," she said. "If you will wait here, she will be back directly."
The effort of hiding her agitation from him had brought a passing color into her cheeks. Worn and wasted as she was, the spell of her beauty was strong enough to hold him against his own will. All he had to tell Lady Janet was that he had met one of the gardeners in the conservatory, and had cautioned him as well as the lodge-keeper. It would have been easy to write this, and to send the note to his aunt on quitting the house. For the sake of his own peace of mind, for the sake of his duty to Horace, he was doubly bound to make the first polite excuse that occurred to him, and to leave her as he had found her, alone in the room. He made the attempt, and hesitated. Despising himself for doing it, he allowed himself to look at her. Their eyes met. Julian stepped into the dining-room.
"If I am not in the way," he said, confusedly, "I will wait, as you kindly propose."
She noticed his embarrassment; she saw that he was strongly restraining himself from looking at her again. Her own eyes dropped to the ground as she made the discovery. Her speech failed her; her heart throbbed faster and faster.
"If I look at him again" (was the thought in _her_ mind) "I shall fall at his feet and tell him all that I have done!"
"If I look at her again" (was the thought in _his_ mind) "I shall fall at her feet and own that I am in love with her!"
With downcast eyes he placed a chair for her. With downcast eyes she bowed to him and took it. A dead silence followed. Never was any human misunderstanding more intricately complete than the misunderstanding which had now established itself between those two.
Mercy's work-basket was near her. She took it, and gained time for composing herself by pretending to arrange the colored wools. He stood behind her chair, looking at the graceful turn of her head, looking at the rich masses of her hair. He reviled himself as the weakest of men, as the falsest of friends, for still remaining near her--and yet he remained.
The silence continued. The billiard-room door opened again noiselessly. The face of the listening woman appeared stealthily behind it.
At the same moment Mercy roused herself and spoke: "Won't you sit down?" she said, softly, still not looking round at him, still busy with her basket of wools.
He turned to get a chair--turned so quickly that he saw the billiard-room door move, as Grace Roseberry closed it again.
"Is there any one in that room?" he asked, addressing Mercy.
"I don't know," she answered. "I thought I saw the door open and shut again a little while ago."
He advanced at once to look into the room. As he did so Mercy dropped one of her balls of wool. He stopped to pick it up for her--then threw open the door and looked into the billiard-room. It was empty.
Had some person been listening, and had that person retreated in time to escape discovery? The open door of the smoking-room showed that room also to be empty. A third door was open--the door of the side hall, leading into the grounds. Julian closed and locked it, and returned to the dining-room.
"I can only suppose," he said to Mercy, "that the billiard-room door was not properly shut, and that the draught of air from the hall must have moved it."
She accepted the explanation in silence. He was, to all appearance, not quite satisfied with it himself. For a moment or two he looked about him uneasily. Then the old fascination fastened its hold on him again. Once more he looked at the graceful turn of her head, at the rich masses of her hair. The courage to put the critical question to him, now that she had lured him into remaining in the room, was still a courage that failed her. She remained as busy as ever with her work--too busy to look at him; too busy to speak to him. The silence became unendurable. He broke it by making a commonplace inquiry after her health. "I am well enough to be ashamed of the anxiety I have caused and the trouble I have given," she answered. "To-day I have got downstairs for the first time. I am trying to do a little work." She looked into the basket. The various specimens of wool in it were partly in balls and partly in loose skeins. The skeins were mixed and tangled. "Here is sad confusion!" she exclaimed, timidly, with a faint smile. "How am I to set it right again?"
"Let me help you," said Julian.
"Why not?" he asked, with a momentary return of the quaint humor which she remembered so well. "You forget that I am a curate. Curates are privileged to make themselves useful to young ladies. Let me try."
He took a stool at her feet, and set himself to unravel one of the tangled skeins. In a minute the wool was stretched on his hands, and the loose end was ready for Mercy to wind. There was something in the trivial action, and in the homely attention that it implied, which in some degree quieted her fear of him. She began to roll the wool off his hands into a ball. Thus occupied, she said the daring words which were to lead him little by little into betraying his suspicions, if he did indeed suspect the truth.