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“ JENNIE,” said a low, weak voice, “are you still there?”
“Yes," replied Jennie Dunstable, “I am here, dear. But do not speak. You must not speak, dear."
“Oh, yes, I must,” replied Mary Atherton, slightly turning her head on the pillow, against which it was resting, and still speaking slowly in that same low, weak voice, so strangely unlike her own. “I know what they say. That any excitement is dangerous. So it is; but I am not excited now; and after all I don't mind. As well now as a few hours hence."
“Hush! Dear Mary, hush!” pleaded Jennie, kneeling down beside the bed, and taking one of Mary's hands gently in her own. “Perfect quiet. That is what they say. Your case is not hopeless. There is just
There is just a chance, if only you will keep quiet."
A faint smile flickered for a moment round Mrs. Atherton's mouth.
“If they say that they do not know," she replied quite quietly. “I know better than that, Jennie. I am dying. And when it comes to hours or minutes, I would just as soon it were minutes."
"Mary, dear, do not say that,” was the low, earnest reply. "I tell you you have a chance. For your husband's sake, if not for your own, do not throw it away."
Very slowly Mary Atherton moved her head. Had she been stronger that movement would have been a shake; as it was it merely seemed as if she were in pain, and Jennie looked anxiously at the face on the pillow so near her, tinted now with no brilliant crimson glow of health, but pale and white as it would soon be in death.
And as Jennie plainly saw, after that searching glance, Mary was not excited at all. She was perfectly calm, and for the first time since she had regained consciousness, apparently quite free from pain.
" It is best as it is," was the calmly given reply. “Both for
Tom's sake and my own. He seems upset about it now, and I believe he really is sorry ; but it is only because I am dying ; it would not last. Don't look so distressed, Jennie. I know what I am saying, and I do not mind. It was my own fault quite as much as his. Our marriage was a mistake, and this is the best ending it could have."
Here she paused for several seconds, and then continued, in a voice which seemingly gained strength as she went on :
“Things would have gone from bad to worse, and I am glad this has happened in time to stop that. I really am glad, Jennie, so do not shake your head, and there is no need for you to cry. I tell you I do not mind. I do not wish to live ; I have nothing to live for; and, strange as it may seem to you, I am not afraid to die."
Again Mary paused; this time for longer than before, and for some minutes the silence was unbroken, save for a low, suppressed sob, which, in spite of her endeavours to prevent it from doing so, escaped from Jennie's lips.
"I want you always to love your father very much, Jennie,” continued Mary, this time in a more agitated tone. “Do all you can to make him happy. He is a good man."
At this, Jennie, unwise as she knew it to be, allowed her tears to fall thick and fast upon the silken coverlet on Mary s bed.
“Dear, dear Mary," she replied brokenly. “I know it ; but he has been unkind and harsh to you. I have felt it much, and
. been oh, so sorry.”
“Indeed, but he has not !” was the quick reply. “You do not know, then? That that is so, proves more than anything how good he is. I knew that I was not his daughter many months before my marriage, Jennie ; and he knew that I knew. Now do you understand ? "
“ No,” said Jennie quietly. “I knew it too. And, like you, I judged that things were best as they were. We may both have been wrong, but we meant it for the best.”
Mary turned her dark eyes wonderingly on Jennie's face.
“ You knew ? ” she repeated slowly. “ You knew, and kept it to yourself ?"
“Yes," said Jennie simply. “I knew."
“You are a good woman, Jennie,” was the quietly-given reply. “ A better woman than I believed it possible for any woman to be. You did this for your father's sake and my sake, meaning it for the best, and putting yourself quite aside. Whereas, I - I did it because I could give nothing up. I never could give anything up, and to give up all was quite beyond me. I know now I was very wrong; I am sorry, very sorry, Jennie. But I am not going to be a hypocrite just because I am dying. I know that if I had not been found out I never should have told. I should have defrauded you of your rights without feeling many scruples about it. I was not a good woman like you ; my conscience, if I had one, would never have troubled me much, and I should have gone on to the end deceiving everyone and well satisfied with myself for being able to do it. “Dear Mary, please say no more.
You do not know what you are saying. You are magnifying things terribly, dear. Pray say no more," put in Jennie gently now, when Mary once again paused at last.
“Yes I do, dear,” continued Mary quite calmly. “I know what I am saying very well. I am sorry, too, dear, really sorry. I know now it was very wrong. You ought to hate me, Jennie ; but I do not think you do. You are not one of those people who pretend to be good, you really are good, and I think you can forgive me now. Can you, Jennie ? I shall be happier if you can.”
“Dear, dear Mary,” was the low reassuring reply, as Jennie Dunstable leant forward and tenderly kissed her foster-sister's facc.
“Thank you, dear. Thank you too for bringing me here. That was your doing, and it was kind."
" It was so near, dear. So much nearer than Selwick, and Aunt Elizabeth and I both wished it and thought you would not mind.”
“ And—and your father?”
" It was his suggestion, dear. The first thing he said when -when he was told.”
"I am glad,” said Mary Atherton simply. “It was like him to do that?”
Then there was a longer pause than usual.
" It seems strange to be here. Strange that I should be brought here, into my own room. My little things have gone; I used to like some of them. But the room is the same, nothing is altered
very much," continued the dying woman presently in a lower, more dreamy tone. “I could almost fancy I was here again as I
I used to be, and that I had never been married at all. I hope that you will be happy when you marry, dear, you ought to be. Jack Bleak is a good fellow — better than most. When are you to be married, Jennie? Don't put it off too long. And and don't throw him over, Jennie! Not if he happens to annoy you, I mean. You must not do that-you—you will be sorry if
There was another pause, during which Jennie silently pressed Mary's hand in both her own. She saw that to attempt to interrupt her now, until she had said all she wished to say, would be useless, and possibly fatal. Besides, just then, had she wished to do so, she would have found it difficult to speak.
“When are you going to be married, Jennie?” continued Mary, with a persistence which Jennie could not understand. “I should like to know; and I hope it will be soon.” "Next month, dear," was the low reply. "If all is well."
༦ "All must be well, Jennie,” returned Mary earnestly. “Don't put it off. Not on my account, you know. I want you to be married soon.
You will be happy. I know you will be happy, dear.”
Then for a long time she became silent. Jennie almost thought she had fallen asleep again. She had slept a great deal since the previous day; since that terrible pain, which she had suffered for so many days and nights, had suddenly left her.
But Mary Atherton was not asleep. “Yes, you will be happy, dear, very happy,” she murmured by-and-by in a sleepy, far-away tone. “And I am glad. You deserve it, Jennie; it will compensate you for the past. As for me-as Tom said when he first knew all about it-our marriage has been a mistake all through. He called it a blank draw, Jennie. I thought it coarse and vulgar of him to say that to me; but it was true. Poor Tom, he was mad just then ; but he spoke the truth. The fault lay no more with him than it did with me. It was a blank draw for us both, Jennie, and-and-and I am glad that I am going to die."
Those were the last words Mary Atherton ever said. After saying them she fell asleep again. Tom Atherton stole in on tip-toe, looking subdued and awed, and silently took Jennie's
place at his wife's bed-side. By-and-by old Aunt Elizabeth, whose eyes were red with weeping, came in also, and sat down on the other side of the bed, opposite Tom. An hour or two later, in the silent hours of the night, when no one but the nurse was there, sitting by the bed! with ever-watchful eyes, the door opened quietly and Lord Leftbury entered the room.
He noiselessly crossed over to the bed, and stood silently for several minutes looking down at the still, calm, white face of the woman whom not so very long ago he had loved so much.
Just how he felt, only he knew; but the deep resentment which he had felt against her lately, died a sudden death as he stood there. With all her faults, and they had been many, he could feel no anger against the Mary who lay so quietly there. She was so changed, and the change had come so suddenly and the whole business seemed so terrible. He remembered her as she had been a few days ago, riding past the Grand Stand on the Muddleton race-course, with that self-confident air of hers, and that healthy glow of colour in her young, handsome face.
Yes. It had all been very sudden ; and to Lord Leftbury it all seemed very terrible. But things are not always as they seem, and perhaps the woman who passed quietly away in her sleep before the dawn of the following day knew best.
As she had said, her marriage had been a mistake; and a mistake of that kind is a very serious one in a woman's life. That had not been the only mistake in Mary's life either; and it was hardly her own fault that from the very first her life had been a mistake all through.
She was only nineteen ; she had only been married a few months; and the end had come thus very suddenly; but perhaps, for once, Mary was not far wrong when she said that it was “ best so.”