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book which he had left for me the year before. As usual I had it in my pocket; I took it out and gave it to him without making any other answer. He opened it and turned the pages over as we walked along.
Now is the time come,' I said to myself; now !' and the blood forsook my heart, and my legs seemed to fail under me.
In a moment of morbid irritation I had written on the blank page of the book the words which had remained coupled in my mind with this gift of Edward's—'Beware; I know your secret !' and now they were before his eyes, and now he was reading them, and now the explanation was at hand, and all that I had suffered before was as nothing compared to what I had wilfully brought on myself.
He turned to me and said with a smile, “What do those mysterious words mean?'
I felt as if I was dreaming, but as if in my dream a mountain had been removed from my breast. I laughed hysterically and said they meant nothing. That was the first time I lied to Edward.
He said that I must have read the book attentively, for he saw that it was marked in different places; he had never marked a book in his life; it was a thing that never occurred to him to do. And then he gave it back to me; and it felt to me as if the air had grown lighter, and the sky bluer, and as if my feet sprang as by magic from the ground they
When that evening I was with Edward again, I looked up into his face and talked to him as I had not talked to him for nearly two years; I laughed gaily as in days of old ; I saw with exultation that he laughed too, and that he asked Mrs. Middleton to play at chess with my uncle instead of him, and that he did not leave my side till the last moment that I remained in the drawing-room; and I
was foolishly, wickedly happy, till I went up to my room and laid my head on my pillow; then came in all its bitterness the remembrance that, although he might not know my secret, another did ; that if indeed he loved me, as I now thought he did (for I remembered that letter to Henry, which I had so long misunderstood, and now recognised its true meaning), --if indeed he loved me, I must, I ought, to tell him the truth; and then he would despise me, he would hate me, not only for the deed itself, but for my long silence, for my cowardly concealment. No; I had suffered so dreadfully during those minutes when I had felt myself on the brink of unavoidable confession, that, happen what might, I would not-I could not-disclose to him the truth. But should I then marry him ? Should I inherit my uncle's fortune? Should I become one day the mistress of Elmsley? and from the midst of all that this world can give of joy, look, as Belshazzar looked on the handwriting on the wall, on the torrent where my own hand had hurled Mrs. Middleton's child, Edward's cousin; and one day, perhaps, be denounced, betrayed, exposed, by Henry Lovell, whose words began that night to be realised : With every throb of love for another there will be in your heart a pang of fear, a shudder of terror, a thought of me?'
Hour after hour I tossed about my bed, unable to close my eyes in sleep; at times, in spite of everything, feeling wildly happy; at others forming the most solemn resolutions that neither the weakness of my own heart nor the persecutions of others should induce me to think even of marrying Edward, and yet unable to conceal from myself that the next time I saw him, the next time my eyes met his, they would betray to him all that long-subdued and unconfessed love which had now grown into a passion astonishing to myself, and ruled my undisciplined mind beyond all power of restraint and control.
In the morning I fell into a short and uneasy slumber in which, twenty times over, I was confessing my history to Edward, or standing by him at the altar, or else being dragged from his side by Henry, or by my uncle. The visions of sleep and the thoughts of the night were strangely mixed up in my mind when I woke ; tired and jaded with all I had gone through, I went downstairs on the morning of the 28th of February, which was the eve of the day of our departure for London.
In the breakfast-room I found Edward, who asked me with some surprise, how I came to be so late, and if I did not mean to go to church ?
"To-day,—why to church to-day?' I inquired.
'It is Ash Wednesday,' he replied, “the most solemn fast-day in the year.'
‘Oh, in that case I will go at once and do without breakfast-no great self-denial, for I am not in the least hungry.' I put on my bonnet and shawl, and we set off on foot together, Mr. and Mrs. Middleton having previously gone on in the carriage. I was very feverish, and, from want of sleep and absence of food together, I felt in an unnaturally excited state. Whenever Edward spoke to me I gave a start, and when I spoke myself it was with a sort of nervous irritation which I could not command; at last he seemed displeased, and when he stood still to give me his hand in crossing the stile at the entrance of the churchyard, I saw in his face that stern expression which I had begun to know and to dread. We went into church; the service was already begun; it is, as it should be on such a day, a solemn and an awful service. The Epistle for the day, that mournful and merciful appeal to the conscience, the Penitential Psalms, which seem to embody the very cry of a bruised and overwhelmed heart,-- everything, -struck the same chord, spoke the same language; to my excited
imagination, every word that was uttered seemed as if it was addressed to me alone of all that assembled congregation. Every moment my head was getting more confused, and my soul grew
faint within me. And then, when I was not in the least expecting it,--for I had never before paid any attention to the service for Ash Wednesday,—all at once there rose a voice which said, in what sounded to my overwrought nerves an unnaturally loud tone:
'Brethren, in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the Day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.'
I believe that at that moment I fell on my knees, but nothing remains very distinctly in my recollection, except that soon the solemn curse of God was pronounced on unrepenting sinners, and as each awful denunciation was slowly uttered, there rose from the aisles, from the galleries, from each nook and each corner of the house of prayer, the loud cry of self-condemning acknowledgment.
Again, again, and again it sounded, and died away. Once more it rose and fell; and then the voice from the pulpit proclaimed, ‘Cursed is he that smiteth his neighbour secretly;' and that time I did not hear the voice of the multitude respond. I heard a low deep amen uttered at my side; and that amen was to me as a sentence of eternal condemnation. I fainted, and when I recovered my senses I was in the vestry with my aunt and the doctor of the village. Soon I was able to walk to the carriage, and to drive home with Mrs. Middleton.
When I saw Edward again his manner was gentle and affectionate ; and I was myself so wearied with emotion, so exhausted with hopes and fears, that I had grown calm from
mere fatigue. I was more determined than ever not to marry Edward, and this resolution gave me a kind of melancholy tranquillity, which allowed me to speak to him with more self-possession than before. I had also a vague idea that by making this one great sacrifice I should entitle myself to seek the consolations of religion, after which my soul yearned, especially since the terror which that day's service had struck into my heart; but still I shrunk from the one act which would have given me real peace; as I put into words the account I could give of Julia's death, I fancied I saw before me Edward's countenance, stern in condemnation; or overcoming with difficulty its expression of horror and dismay; or, worse still, incredulous perhaps, and unable to believe that where there was not crime there could have been such concealment; as I pictured to myself all this, and foresaw the nameless sufferings of such an hour, the cry of my soul still was, 'Never, never, will I marry him ! but never, also, will I own to him the secret which would make him turn from me with disgust and horror.'
We were to set out for London at an early hour the next morning, and before we parted for the night Edward followed me to the music-room, where I was putting by some books to take with us for the journey.
He stood by me in silence for some time, and then said, Ellen, it is better before we part, even for a short time, to understand each other. I have long been attached to you. I gave you up and went abroad when I thought you were in love with Henry. I tried in vain to forget you. Now, Ellen, is there hope for me? Will
you be to me what you alone can be—the blessing that I would prize beyond all earthly blessings—will you be my wife?'
I looked at him; he was pale and his eyes were full of tears. As mine were raised to his, I knew, I felt that they spoke such unutterable, such passionate love, that when,