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But she could not sleep. She rose, went back to the room where the dead Moxy lay, and sent Sarah to get breakfast ready. Then came upon her an urgent desire to know the people who had come, like swallows, to tenant, without leave asked, the space overhead. She undid the screw, opened the door, and stole gently up the stair, steep, narrow and straight, which ran the height of the two rooms between two walls. A long way up she came to another door, and peeping through a chink in it, saw that it admitted to the small orchestra high in the end-wall of the great room. Probably then the stair and the room below had been an arrangement for the musicians.
Going higher yet, till she all but reached the roof, the stair brought her to a door. She knocked. No sound of approaching foot followed, but after some little delay it was opened by a young woman, with her finger on her lip, and something of a scared look in her eye. She had expected to see the doctor, and started and trembled at sight of Hester. There was little light where she stood, but Hester could not help feeling as if she had not merely seen her somewhere before. She came out on the landing and shut the door behind her.
"He is very ill," she said; "and he hears a strange voice even in his sleep. A strange voice is dreadful to him."
Her voice was not strange, and the moment she spoke it seemed to light up her face: Hester, with a pang she could scarcely have accounted for, recognized Amy Amber.
"Amy!" she said.
"Oh, Miss Raymount!" cried Amy joyfully, "is it indeed you? Are you come at last? I thought I was never to see you any more!"
"You bewilder me," said Hester. "How do you come to be here? I don't understand."
"He brought me here."
"Who brought you here?"
"Why, miss!" exclaimed Amy, as if hearing the most unexpected of questions, "who should it be?"
"I have not the slightest idea," returned Hester.
But the same instant a feeling strangely mingled of alarm, discomfort, indignation, and relief crossed her mind.
Through her whiteness Amy turned whiter still, and she turned a little away, like a person offended.
"There is but one, miss!" she said coldly. "Who should it be but him?"
"Speak his name," said Hester almost sternly. "This is no time for hide-and-seek. Tell me whom you mean."
"Are you angry with me?" faltered Amy. "Oh, Miss Raymount, I don't think I deserve it!"
"Speak out, child! Why should I be angry with you?"
"Do you know what it is?--Oh, I hardly know what I am saying! He is dying! he is dying!"
She sank on the floor, and covered her face with her hands. Hester stood a moment and looked at her weeping, her heart filled with sad dismay, mingled with a kind of wan hope. Then softly and quickly she opened the door of the room and went in.
Amy started to her feet, but too late to prevent her, and followed trembling, afraid to speak, but relieved to find that Hester moved so noiselessly.
It was a great room, but the roof came down to the floor nearly all round. It was lighted only with a skylight. In the farthest corner was a screen. Hester crept gently towards it, and Amy after her, not attempting to stop her. She came to the screen and peeped behind it. There lay a young man in a troubled sleep, his face swollen and red and blotched with the small-pox; but through the disfigurement she recognized her brother. Her eyes filled with tears; she turned away, and stole out again as softly as she came in. Amy had been looking up at her anxiously; when she saw the tenderness of her look, she gathered courage and followed her. Outside, Hester stopped, and Amy again closed the door.
"You will forgive him, won't you, miss?" she said pitifully,
"What do you want me to forgive him for, Amy?" asked Hester, suppressing her tears.
"I don't know, miss. You seemed angry with him. I don't know what to make of it. Sometimes I feel certain it must have been his illness coming on that made him weak in his head and talk foolishness; and sometimes I wonder whether he has really been doing anything wrong."
"He must have been doing something wrong, else how should you be here, Amy?" said Hester with hasty judgment.
"He never told me, miss: or of course I would have done what I could to prevent it," answered Amy, bewildered. "We were so happy, miss, till then! and we've never had a moment's peace since! That's why we came here--to be where nobody would find us. I wonder how he came to know the place!"
"Do you not know where you are then, Amy?"
"No, miss; not in the least. I only know where to buy the things we need. He has not been out once since we came."
"You are in our house, Amy. What will my father say!--How long have you--have you been--"
Something in her heart or her throat prevented Hester from finishing the sentence.
"How long have I been married to him, miss? You surely know that as well as I do, miss!"
"My poor Amy! Did he make you believe we knew about it?"
Amy gave a cry, but after her old way instantly crammed her handkerchief into her mouth, and uttered no further smallest sound.
"Alas!" said Hester, "I fear he has been more wicked than we know! But, Amy, he has done something besides very wrong."
Amy covered her face with her apron, through which Hester could see her soundless sobs.
"I have been doing what I could to find him," continued Hester, "and here he was close to me all the time! But it adds greatly to my misery to find you with him, Amy!"
"Indeed, miss, I may have been silly; but how was I to suspect he was not telling me the truth? I loved him too much for that! I told him I would not marry him without he had his father's leave. And he pretended he had got it, and read me such a beautiful letter from his mother! Oh, miss, it breaks my heart to think of it!"
A new fear came upon Hester: had he deceived the poor girl with a pretended marriage? Was he bad through and through? What her father would say to a marriage, was hard to think; what he would say to a deception, she knew! That he would like such a marriage, she could ill imagine; but might not the sense of escape from an alternative reconcile him to it?
Such thoughts passed swiftly through her mind as she stood half turned from Amy, looking down the deep stair that sank like a precipice before her. She heard nothing, but Amy started and turned to the door. She was following her, when Amy said, in a voice almost of terror,
"Please, miss, do not let him see you till I have told him you are here."
"Certainly not," answered Hester, and drew back,--"if you think the sight of me would hurt him!"
"Thank you, miss; I am sure it would," whispered Amy. "He is frightened of you."
"Frightened of me!" said Hester to herself, repeating Amy's phrase, when she had gone in, leaving her at the head of the stair. "I should have thought he only disliked me! I wonder if he would have loved me a little, if he had not been afraid of me! Perhaps I could have made him if I had tried. It is easier then to wake fear than love!"
It may be very well for a nature like Corney's to fear a father: fear does come in for some good where love is wanting: but I doubt if fear of a sister can be of any good.
"If he couldn't love me," thought Hester, "it would have been better he hadn't been afraid of me. Now comes the time when it renders me unable to help him!"
When first it began to dawn upon Hester that there was in her a certain hardness of character distinct in its nature from that unbending devotion to the right which is imperative--belonging in truth to the region of her weakness--that self which fears for itself, and is of death, not of life. But she was one of those who, when they discover a thing in them that is wrong, take refuge in the immediate endeavour to set it right--with the conviction that God is on their side to help them: for wherein, if not therein, is he God our Saviour?
She went down to the house, to get everything she could think of to make the place more comfortable: it would be long before the patient could be moved. In particular she sought out a warm fur cloak for Amy. Poor Amy! she was but the shadow of her former self, but a shadow very pretty and pleasant to look on. Hester's heart was sore to think of such a bright, good honest creature married to a man like her brother. But she was sure however credulous she might have been, she had done nothing to be ashamed of. Where there was blame it must all be Corney's!
It was with feelings still strangely mingled of hope and dismay, that, having carried everything she could at the time up the stair, she gave herself to the comfort of her other guests.
Left alone in London, Corney had gone idly ranging about the house when another man would have been reading, or doing something with his hands. Curious in correspondent proportion to his secrecy, for the qualities go together, the moment he happened to cast his eyes on the door in the wainscot of the low room, no one being in the house to interfere with him, he proceeded to open it. He little thought then what his discovery would be to him, for at that time he had done nothing to make him fear his fellow-men. But he kept the secret after his kind.
Contriving often to meet Amy, he had grown rapidly more and more fond of her--became indeed as much in love with her as was possible to him; and though the love of such a man can never be of a lofty kind, it may yet be the best thing in him, and the most redemptive power upon him. Without a notion of denying himself anything he desired and could possibly have, he determined she should be his, but from fear as well as tortuosity, avoided the direct way of gaining her: the straight line would not, he judged, be the shortest: his father would never, or only after unendurable delay, consent to his marriage with a girl like Amy! How things might have gone had he not found her even unable to receive a thought that would have been dishonorable to him, and had he not come to pride himself on her simplicity and purity, I cannot say; but he contrived to persuade her to a private marriage--contrived also to prevent her from communicating with her sister.
His desire to please her, his passion for showing off, and the preparations his design seemed to render necessary, soon brought him into straits for money. He could not ask his father, who would have insisted on knowing how it was that he found his salary insufficient, seeing he was at no expense for maintenance, having only to buy his clothes. He went on and on, hiding his eyes from the approach of the "armed man," till he was in his grasp, and positively in want of a shilling. Then he borrowed, and went on borrowing small sums from those about him, till he was ashamed to borrow more. The next thing was to borrow a trifle of what was passing through his hands. He was merely borrowing, and of his own uncle! It was a shame his uncle should have so much and leave him in such straits!--be rolling in wealth and pay him such a contemptible salary! It was the height of injustice! Of course he would replace it long before any one knew! Thus by degrees the poor weak creature, deluding himself with excuses, slipped into the consciousness of being a rogue. There are some, I suspect, who fall into vice from being so satisfied with themselves that they scorn to think it possible they should ever do wrong.
He went on taking and taking until at last he was obliged to confess to himself that there was no possibility of making restoration before the time when his borrowing must be embezzlement. Then in a kind of cold despair he laid hold upon a large sum and left the bank an unconvicted felon. What story he told Amy, to whom he was by this time married, I do not know; but once convinced of the necessity for concealment, she was as careful as himself. He brought her to their refuge by the back way. She went and came only through the cellar, and knew no other entrance. When they found that, through Amy's leaving the door unfastened when she went to buy, there being no way of securing it from the outside, others had taken refuge in the cellar, they dared not, for fear of attracting attention to themselves, warn them off the premises.
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