The tailor's hand was on the lock of the door when he first saw the flash of the fire, and then felt that he was wounded. Though his back was turned to the woman he distinctly saw the flash, but he never could remember that he had heard the report. He knew nothing of the nature of the injury he had received, and was hardly aware of the place in which he had been struck, when he half closed the door behind him and then staggered against the opposite wall. For a moment he was sick, almost to fainting, but yet he did not believe that he had been grievously hurt. He was, however, disabled, weak, and almost incapable of any action. He seated himself on the lowest stair, and began to think. The woman had intended to murder him! She had lured him there with the premeditated intention of destroying him! And this was the mother of his bride--the woman whom he intended to call his mother-in-law! He was not dead, nor did he believe that he was like to die; but had she killed him--what must have been the fate of the murderess! As it was, would it not be necessary that she should be handed over to the law, and dealt with for the offence? He did not know that they might not even hang her for the attempt.
He said afterwards that he thought that he sat there for a quarter of an hour. Three minutes, however, had not passed before Mrs Richards, ascending from the kitchen, found him upon the stairs. "What is it, Mr Thwaite?" Said she.
"Is anything the matter?" he asked with a faint smile.
"The place is full of smoke," she said, "and there is a smell of gunpowder."
"There is no harm done at any rate," he answered.
"I thought I heard a something go off," said Sarah, who was behind Mrs Richards.
"Did you?" said he. "I heard nothing; but there certainly is a smoke," and he still smiled.
"What are you sitting there for, Mr Thwaite?" asked Mrs Richards.
"You ain't no business to sit there, Mr Thwaite," said Sarah.
"You've been and done something to the Countess," said Mrs Richards.
"The Countess is all right. I'm going upstairs to see Lady Anna--that's all. But I've hurt myself a little. I'm bad in my left shoulder, and I sat down just to get a rest." As he spoke he was still smiling.
Then the woman looked at him and saw that he was very pale. At that instant he was in great pain, though he felt that as the sense of intense sickness was leaving him he would be able to go upstairs and say a word or two to his sweetheart, should he find her. "You ain't just as you ought to be, Mr Thwaite," said Mrs Richards. He was very haggard, and perspiration was on his brow, and she thought that he had been drinking.
"I am well enough," said he rising--"only that I am much troubled by a hurt in my arm. At any rate I will go upstairs." Then he mounted slowly, leaving the two women standing in the passage.
Mrs Richards gently opened the parlour door, and entered the room, which was still reeking with smoke and the smell of the powder, and there she found the Countess seated at the old desk, but with her body and face turned round towards the door. "Is anything the matter, my lady?" asked the woman.
"Where has he gone?"
"Mr Thwaite has just stepped upstairs--this moment. He was very queer like, my
"Is he hurt?"
"We think he's been drinking, my lady," said Sarah.
"He says that his shoulder is ever so bad," said Mrs Richards.
Then for the first time it occurred to the Countess that perhaps the deed which she had done--the attempt in which she had failed--might never be known.
Instinctively she had hidden the pistol and had locked the little door, and concealed the key within her bosom as soon as she was alone. Then she thought that she would open the window; but she had been afraid to move, and she had sat there waiting while she heard the sound of voices in the passage. "Oh--his shoulder!" said she. "No--he has not been drinking. He never drinks. He has been very violent, but he never drinks. Well--why do you wait?"
"There is such a smell of something," said Mrs Richards.
"Yes--you had better open the windows. There was an accident. Thank you--that will do."
"And is he to be alone--with Lady Anna, upstairs?" asked the maid.
"He is to be alone with her. How can I help it? If she chooses to be a scullion she must follow her bent. I have done all I could. Why do you wait? I tell you that he is to be with her. Go away, and leave me." Then they went and left her, wondering much, but guessing nothing of the truth. She watched them till they had closed the door, and then instantly opened the other window wide. It was now May, but the weather was still cold. There had been rain the night before, and it had been showery all the morning. She had come in from her walk damp and chilled, and there was a fire in the grate. But she cared nothing for the weather. Looking round the room she saw a morsel of wadding near the floor, and she instantly burned it. She longed to look at the pistol, but she did not dare to take it from its hiding-place lest she should be discovered in the act. Every energy of her mind was now strained to the effort of avoiding detection. Should he choose to tell what had been done, then, indeed, all would be over. But had he not resolved to be silent he would hardly have borne the agony of the wound and gone upstairs without speaking of it. She almost forgot now the misery of the last year in the intensity of her desire to escape the disgrace of punishment. A sudden nervousness, a desire to do something by which she might help to preserve herself, seized upon her. But there was nothing which she could do. She could not follow him lest he should accuse her to her face. It would be vain for her to leave the house till he should have gone. Should she do so, she knew that she would not dare return to it. So she sat, thinking, dreaming, plotting, crushed by an agony of fear, looking anxiously at the door, listening for every footfall within the house; and she watched too for the well-known click of the area gate, dreading lest anyone should go out to seek the intervention of the constables.
In the meantime Daniel Thwaite had gone upstairs, and had knocked at the drawing-room door. It was instantly opened by Lady Anna herself. "I heard you come--what a time you have been here!--I thought that I should never see you." As she spoke she stood close to him that he might embrace her. But the pain of his wound affected his whole body, and he felt that he could hardly raise even his right arm. He was aware now that the bullet had entered his back, somewhere on his left shoulder. "Oh, Daniel--are you ill?" she said, looking at him.
"Yes, dear--I am ill--not very ill. Did you hear nothing?"
"Nor yet see anything?"
"I will tell you all another time--only do not ask me now." She had seated herself beside him and wound her arm round his back as though to support him. "You must not touch me, dearest."
"You have been hurt."
"Yes--I have been hurt. I am in pain, though I do not think that it signifies. I had better go to a surgeon, and then you shall hear from me."
"Tell me, Daniel--what is it, Daniel?"
"I will tell you--but not now. You shall know all, but I should do harm were I to say it now. Say not a word to anyone, sweetheart--unless your mother ask you."
"What shall I tell her?"
"That I am hurt--but not seriously hurt--and that the less said the sooner mended. Tell her also that I shall expect no further interruption to my letters when I write to you--or to my visits when I can come. God bless you, dearest--one kiss, and now I will go."
"You will send for me if you are ill, Daniel?"
"If I am really ill, I will send for you." So saying, he left her, went downstairs, with great difficulty opened for himself the front door, and departed.
Lady Anna, though she had been told nothing of what had happened, except that her lover was hurt, at once surmised something of what had been done. Daniel Thwaite had suffered some hurt from her mother's wrath. She sat for a while thinking what it might have been. She had seen no sign of blood. Could it be that her mother had struck him in her anger with some chance weapon that had come to hand? That there had been violence she was sure--and sure also that her mother had been in fault. When Daniel had been some few minutes gone she went down, that she might deliver his message. At the foot of the stairs, and near the door of the parlour, she met Mrs Richards. "I suppose the young man has gone, my lady?" asked the woman.
"Mr Thwaite has gone."
"And I make so bold, my lady, as to say that he ought not to come here. There has been a doing of some kind, but I don't know what. He says as how he's been hurt, and I'm sure I don't know how he should be hurt here--unless he brought it with him. I never had nothing of the kind here before, long as I've been here. Of course your title and that is all right, my lady; but the young man isn't fit--that's the truth of it. My belief is he'd been a drinking; and I won't have it in my house."
Lady Anna passed by her without a word and went into her mother's room. The Countess was still seated in her chair, and neither rose nor spoke when her daughter entered. "Mamma, Mr Thwaite is hurt."
"Well--what of it? Is it much that ails him?"
"He is in pain. What has been done, mama?" The Countess looked at her, striving to learn from the girl's face and manner what had been told and what concealed. "Did you--strike him?"
"Has he said that I struck him?"
"No, mamma--but something has been done that should not have been done. I know it. He has sent you a message, mamma."
"What was it?" asked the Countess, in a hoarse voice.
"That he was hurt, but not seriously."
"Oh--he said that."
"I fear he is hurt seriously."
"But he said that he was not?"
"Yes--and that the less said the sooner mended."
"Did he say that too?"
"That was his message."
The Countess gave a long sigh, then sobbed, and at last broke out into hysterical tears. It was evident to her now that the man was sparing her--was endeavouring to spare her. He had told no one as yet. "The least said the soonest mended." Oh yes--if he would say never a word to anyone of what had occurred between them that day, that would be best for her. But how could he not tell? When some doctor should ask him how he had come by that wound, surely he would tell then! It could not be possible that such a deed should have been done there, in that little room, and that no one should know it! And why should he not tell--he who was her enemy? Had she caught him at advantage, would she not have smote him, hip and thigh? And then she reflected what it would be to owe perhaps her life to the mercy of Daniel Thwaite--to the mercy of her enemy, of him who knew--if no one else should know--that she had attempted to murder him. It would be better for her, should she be spared to do so, to go away to some distant land, where she might hide her head for ever.
"May I go to him, mamma, to see him?" Lady Anna asked. The Countess, full of her own thoughts, sat silent, answering not a word. "I know where he lives, mamma, and I fear that he is much hurt."
"He will not--die," muttered the Countess.
"God forbid that he should die--but I will go to him." Then she returned upstairs without a word of opposition from her mother, put on her bonnet, and sallied forth. No one stopped her or said a word to her now, and she seemed to herself to be as free as air. She walked up to the corner of Gower Street, and turned down into Bedford Square, passing the house of the Serjeant. Then she asked her way into Great Russell Street, which she found to be hardly more than a stone's throw from the Serjeant's door, and soon found the number at which her lover lived. No--Mr Thwaite was not at home. Yes--she might wait for him--but he had no room but his bedroom. Then she became very bold. "I am engaged to be his wife," she said. "Are you the Lady Anna?" asked the woman, who had heard the story. Then she was received with great distinction, and invited to sit down in a parlour on the ground floor. There she sat for three hours, motionless, alone--waiting--waiting--waiting. When it was quite dark, at about six o'clock, Daniel Thwaite entered the room with his left arm bound up. "My girl!" he said, with so much joy in his tone that she could not but rejoice to hear him. "So you have found me out, and have come to me!"
"Yes, I have come. Tell me what it is. I know that you are hurt."
"I have been hurt certainly. The doctor wanted me to go into a hospital, but I trust that I may escape that. But I must take care of myself. I had to come back here in a coach, because the man told me not to walk."
"How was it, Daniel? Oh, Daniel, you will tell me everything?"
Then she sat beside him as he lay upon the couch, and listened to him while he told her the whole story. He hid nothing from her, but as he went on he made her understand that it was his intention to conceal the whole deed, to say nothing of it, so that the perpetrator should escape punishment, if it might be possible. She listened in awestruck silence as she heard the tale of her mother's guilt. And he, with wonderful skill, with hearty love for the girl, and in true mercy to her feelings, palliated the crime of the would-be murderess. "She was beside herself with grief and emotion', he said, "and has hardly surprised me by what she has done. Had I thought of it, I should almost have expected it."
"She may do it again, Daniel."
"I think not. She will be cowed now, and quieter. She did not interfere when you told her that you were coming to me? It will be a lesson to her, and so it may be good for us." Then he bade her to tell her mother that he, as far as he was concerned, would hold his peace. If she would forget all past injuries, so would he. If she would hold out her hand to him, he would take it. If she could not bring herself to this--could not bring herself as yet--then let her go apart. No notice should be taken of what she had done. "But she must not again stand between us," he said.
"Nothing shall stand between us," said Lady Anna.
Then he told her, laughing as he did so, how hard it had been for him to keep the story of his wound secret from the doctor, who had already extracted the ball, and who was to visit him on the morrow. The practitioner to whom he had gone, knowing nothing of gunshot wounds, had taken him to a first-class surgeon, and the surgeon had of course asked as to the cause of the wound. Daniel had said that it was an accident as to which he could not explain the cause. "You mean you will not tell," said the surgeon. "Exactly so. I will not tell. It is my secret. That I did not do it myself you may judge from the spot in which I was shot." To this the surgeon assented; and, though he pressed the question, and said something as to the necessity for an investigation, he could get no satisfaction. However, he had learned Daniel's name and address. He was to call on the morrow, and would then perhaps succeed in learning something of the mystery. "In the mean time, my darling, I must go to bed, for it seems as though every bone in my body was sore. I have brought an old woman with me who is to look after me."
Then she left him, promising that she would come on the morrow and would nurse him. "Unless they lock me up, I will be here," she said. Daniel Thwaite thought that in the present circumstances no further attempt would be made to constrain her actions.