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Chapter 8 – Which?

Louisa May AlcottNov 04, 2016'Command+D' Bookmark this page

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"A Gentleman, my lady."

Taking a card from the silver salver on which the servant offered it,
Lady Trevlyn read, "Paul Talbot," and below the name these penciled
words, "I beseech you to see me." Lillian stood beside her and saw the
line. Their eyes met, and in the girl’s face was such a sudden glow of
hope, and love, and longing, that the mother could not doubt or
disappoint her wish.

"I will see him," she said.

"Oh, Mamma, how kind you are!" cried the girl with a passionate embrace,
adding breathlessly, "He did not ask for me. I cannot see him yet. I’ll
hide in the alcove, and can appear or run away as I like when we know
why he comes."

They were in the library, for, knowing Lillian’s fondness for the room
which held no dark memories for her, my lady conquered her dislike and
often sat there. As she spoke, the girl glided into the deep recess of a
bay window and drew the heavy curtains just as Paul’s step sounded at
the door.

Hiding her agitation with a woman’s skill, my lady rose with
outstretched hand to welcome him. He bowed but did not take the hand,
saying, in a voice of grave respect in which was audible an undertone of
strong emotion, "Pardon me, Lady Trevlyn. Hear what I have to say; and
then if you offer me your hand, I shall gratefully receive it."

She glanced at him, and saw that he was very pale, that his eye
glittered with suppressed excitement, and his whole manner was that of a
man who had nerved himself up to the performance of a difficult but
intensely interesting task. Fancying these signs of agitation only
natural in a young lover coming to woo, my lady smiled, reseated
herself, and calmly answered, "I will listen patiently. Speak freely,
Paul, and remember I am an old friend."

"I wish I could forget it. Then my task would be easier," he murmured in
a voice of mingled regret and resolution, as he leaned on a tall chair
opposite and wiped his damp forehead, with a look of such deep
compassion that her heart sank with a nameless fear.

"I must tell you a long story, and ask your forgiveness for the offenses
I committed against you when a boy. A mistaken sense of duty guided me,
and I obeyed it blindly. Now I see my error and regret it," he said
earnestly.

"Go on," replied my lady, while the vague dread grew stronger, and she
braced her nerves as for some approaching shock. She forgot Lillian,
forgot everything but the strange aspect of the man before her, and the
words to which she listened like a statue. Still standing pale and
steady, Paul spoke rapidly, while his eyes were full of mingled
sternness, pity, and remorse.

"Twenty years ago, an English gentleman met a friend in a little Italian
town, where he had married a beautiful wife. The wife had a sister as
lovely as herself, and the young man, during that brief stay, loved and
married her – in a very private manner, lest his father should disinherit
him. A few months passed, and the Englishman was called home to take
possession of his title and estates, the father being dead. He went
alone, promising to send for the wife when all was ready. He told no one
of his marriage, meaning to surprise his English friends by producing
the lovely woman unexpectedly. He had been in England but a short time
when he received a letter from the old priest of the Italian town,
saying the cholera had swept through it, carrying off half its
inhabitants, his wife and friend among others. This blow prostrated the
young man, and when he recovered he hid his grief, shut himself up in
his country house, and tried to forget. Accident threw in his way
another lovely woman, and he married again. Before the first year was
out, the friend whom he supposed was dead appeared, and told him that
his wife still lived, and had borne him a child. In the terror and
confusion of the plague, the priest had mistaken one sister for the
other, as the elder did die."

"Yes, yes, I know; go on!" gasped my lady, with white lips, and eyes
that never left the narrator’s face.

"This friend had met with misfortune after flying from the doomed
village with the surviving sister. They had waited long for letters, had
written, and, when no answer came, had been delayed by illness and
poverty from reaching England. At this time the child was born, and the
friend, urged by the wife and his own interest, came here, learned that
Sir Richard was married, and hurried to him in much distress. We can
imagine the grief and horror of the unhappy man. In that interview the
friend promised to leave all to Sir Richard, to preserve the secret till
some means of relief could be found; and with this promise he returned,
to guard and comfort the forsaken wife. Sir Richard wrote the truth to
Lady Trevlyn, meaning to kill himself, as the only way of escape from
the terrible situation between two women, both so beloved, both so
innocently wronged. The pistol lay ready, but death came without its
aid, and Sir Richard was spared the sin of suicide."

Paul paused for breath, but Lady Trevlyn motioned him to go on, still
sitting rigid and white as the marble image near her.

"The friend only lived to reach home and tell the story. It killed the
wife, and she died, imploring the old priest to see her child righted
and its father’s name secured to it. He promised; but he was poor, the
child was a frail baby, and he waited. Years passed, and when the child
was old enough to ask for its parents and demand its due, the proofs of
the marriage were lost, and nothing remained but a ring, a bit of
writing, and the name. The priest was very old, had neither friends,
money, nor proofs to help him; but I was strong and hopeful, and though
a mere boy I resolved to do the work. I made my way to England, to
Trevlyn Hall, and by various stratagems (among which, I am ashamed to
say, were false keys and feigned sleepwalking) I collected many proofs,
but nothing which would satisfy a court, for no one but you knew where
Sir Richard’s confession was. I searched every nook and corner of the
Hall, but in vain, and began to despair, when news of the death of
Father Cosmo recalled me to Italy; for Helen was left to my care then.
The old man had faithfully recorded the facts and left witnesses to
prove the truth of his story; but for four years I never used it, never
made any effort to secure the title or estates."

"Why not?" breathed my lady in a faint whisper, as hope suddenly
revived.

"Because I was grateful," and for the first time Paul’s voice faltered.
"I was a stranger, and you took me in. I never could forget that, nor
tie many kindnesses bestowed upon the friendless boy. This afflicted me,
even while I was acting a false part, and when I was away my heart
failed me. But Helen gave me no peace; for my sake, she urged me to keep
the vow made to that poor mother, and threatened to tell the story
herself. Talbot’s benefaction left me no excuse for delaying longer, and
I came to finish the hardest task I can ever undertake. I feared that a
long dispute would follow any appeal to law, and meant to appeal first
to you, but fate befriended me, and the last proof was found."

"Found! Where?" cried Lady Trevlyn, springing up aghast.

"In Sir Richard’s coffin, where you hid it, not daring to destroy, yet
fearing to keep it."

"Who has betrayed me?" And her eye glanced wildly about the room, as if
she feared to see some spectral accuser.

"Your own lips, my lady. Last night I came to speak of this. You lay
asleep, and in some troubled dream spoke of the paper, safe in its
writer’s keeping, and your strange treasure here, the key of which you
guarded day and night. I divined the truth. Remembering Hester’s
stories, I took the key from your helpless hand, found the paper on Sir
Richard’s dead breast, and now demand that you confess your part in this
tragedy."

"I do, I do! I confess, I yield, I relinquish everything, and ask pity
only for my child."

Lady Trevlyn fell upon her knees before him, with a submissive gesture,
but imploring eyes, for, amid the wreck of womanly pride and worldly
fortune, the mother’s heart still clung to its idol.

"Who should pity her, if not I? God knows I would have spared her this
blow if I could; but Helen would not keep silent, and I was driven to
finish what I had begun. Tell Lillian this, and do not let her hate me."

As Paul spoke, tenderly, eagerly, the curtain parted, and Lillian
appeared, trembling with the excitement of that interview, but conscious
of only one emotion as she threw herself into his arms, crying in a tone
of passionate delight, "Brother! Brother! Now I may love you!"

Paul held her close, and for a moment forgot everything but the joy of
that moment. Lillian spoke first, looking up through tears of
tenderness, her little hand laid caressingly against his cheek, as she
whispered with sudden bloom in her own, "Now I know why I loved you so
well, and now I can see you marry Helen without breaking my heart. Oh,
Paul, you are still mine, and I care for nothing else."

"But, Lillian, I am not your brother."

"Then, in heaven’s name, who are you?" she cried, tearing herself from
his arms.

"Your lover, dear!"

"Who, then, is the heir?" demanded Lady Trevlyn, springing up, as
Lillian turned to seek shelter with her mother.

"I am."

Helen spoke, and Helen stood on the threshold of the door, with a hard,
haughty look upon her beautiful face.

"You told your story badly, Paul," she said, in a bitter tone. "You
forgot me, forgot my affliction, my loneliness, my wrongs, and the
natural desire of a child to clear her mother’s honor and claim her
father’s name. I am Sir Richard’s eldest daughter. I can prove my birth,
and I demand my right with his own words to sustain me."

She paused, but no one spoke; and with a slight tremor in her proud
voice, she added, "Paul has done the work; he shall have the reward. I
only want my father’s name. Title and fortune are nothing to one like
me. I coveted and claimed them that I might give them to you, Paul, my
one friend, always, so tender and so true."

"I’ll have none of it," he answered, almost fiercely. "I have kept my
promise, and am free. You chose to claim your own, although I offered
all I had to buy your silence. It is yours by right – take it, and enjoy
it if you can. I’ll have no reward for work like this."

He turned from her with a look that would have stricken her to the heart
could she have seen it. She felt it, and it seemed to augment some
secret anguish, for she pressed her hands against her bosom with an
expression of deep suffering, exclaiming passionately, "Yes, I will
keep it, since I am to lose all else. I am tired of pity. Power is
sweet, and I will use it. Go, Paul, and be happy if you can, with a
nameless wife, and the world’s compassion or contempt to sting your
pride."

"Oh, Lillian, where shall we go? This is no longer our home, but who
will receive us now?" cried Lady Trevlyn, in a tone of despair, for her
spirit was utterly broken by the thought of the shame and sorrow in
store for this beloved and innocent child.

"I will." And Paul’s face shone with a love and loyalty they could not
doubt. "My lady, you gave me a home when I was homeless; now let me pay
my debt. Lillian, I have loved you from the time when, a romantic boy, I
wore your little picture in my breast, and vowed to win you if I lived.
I dared not speak before, but now, when other hearts may be shut against
you, mine stands wide open to welcome you. Come, both. Let me protect
and cherish you, and so atone for the sorrow I have brought you."

It was impossible to resist the sincere urgency of his voice, the tender
reverence of his manner, as he took the two forlorn yet innocent
creatures into the shelter of his strength and love. They clung to him
instinctively, feeling that there still remained to them one staunch
friend whom adversity could not estrange.

An eloquent silence fell upon the room, broken only by sobs, grateful
whispers, and the voiceless vows that lovers plight with eyes, and
hands, and tender lips. Helen was forgotten, till Lillian, whose elastic
spirit threw off sorrow as a flower sheds the rain, looked up to thank
Paul, with smiles as well as tears, and saw the lonely figure in the
shadow. Her attitude was full of pathetic significance; she still stood
on the threshold, for no one had welcomed her, and in the strange room
she knew not where to go; her hands were clasped before her face, as if
those sightless eyes had seen the joy she could not share, and at her
feet lay the time-stained paper that gave her a barren title, but no
love. Had Lillian known how sharp a conflict between passion and pride,
jealousy and generosity, was going on in that young heart, she could not
have spoken in a tone of truer pity or sincerer goodwill than that in
which she softly said, "Poor girl! We must not forget her, for, with all
her wealth, she is poor compared to us. We both had one father, and
should love each other in spite of this misfortune. Helen, may I call
you sister?"

"Not yet. Wait till I deserve it."

As if that sweet voice had kindled an answering spark of nobleness in
her own heart, Helen’s face changed beautifully, as she tore the paper
to shreds, saying in a glad, impetuous tone, while the white flakes
fluttered from her hands, "I, too, can be generous. I, too, can forgive.
I bury the sad past. See! I yield my claim, I destroy my proofs, I
promise eternal silence, and keep ‘Paul’s cousin’ for my only title.
Yes, you are happy, for you love one another!" she cried, with a sudden
passion of tears. "Oh, forgive me, pity me, and take me in, for I am all
alone and in the dark!"

There could be but one reply to an appeal like that, and they gave it,
as they welcomed her with words that sealed a household league of mutual
secrecy and sacrifice.

They were happy, for the world never knew the hidden tie that bound
them so faithfully together, never learned how well the old prophecy had
been fulfilled, or guessed what a tragedy of life and death the silver
key unlocked.

 

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