Illness and sorrow had done their work upon Randolph Grey. He was so altered, that his best friends would scarce have known him; for the mental was even greater than the physical change. The depression of his spirits was such, that it appeared as if nothing could rouse him.
Formerly cordial and warm-hearted, he now exhibited a morbid desire for solitude, and shunned all those who had been the companions of his happier days. This might be, in part, attributable to impaired health, but cause and effect were closely allied, and if bodily weakness tended to depress his spirits, their depression effectually impeded the recovery of his strength. His physician recommended change of air and scene, and adverted to the bracing effects of sea-breezes, and the patient acquiesced with more readiness than might have been expected from his now habitual apathy.
But Captain Grey himself had become weary of remaining in town; his spirit turned with loathing from the turmoil of the great city. He longed to escape, not only from every face he knew, but from the unknown myriads whose very existence in his vicinity seemed to him an oppression and a constraint.
His place of abode by the sea was not prescribed; he would seek it where ho might be most secure of the solitude for which he longed. He decided upon a small fishing village on the Cornish coast, not far from the Land’s End; nor could he have found a place that better answered his requirements. There was not even a gentleman’s house within a distance of several miles, and the village itself consisted merely of fishermen’s huts, diversified by one small general shop, which was also the post-office, to which letters came in small numbers and at rare intervals, the school, the church, the parsonage, and a farm-house in which Randolph Grey found board and lodging.
The scenery was bare, but bold and romantic; and there was a fine rocky beach, where he could wander or sit for hours when not disposed to breast the waves in one of the fishing-smacks. Such a residence would answer perfectly for the two or three weeks that he intended to devote to the dreary luxury of perfect solitude; for solitude peopled with sad thoughts is dreary indeed.
Four or five days passed, or were dreamed away by him, chiefly in sitting on the beach and gazing listlessly upon the rolling of the waves. He had loved them as a child, but their monotonous murmur failed to soothe him, for with it mingled the voices of those who had brightened existence to him in those early days, and from whom the separation, by death, absence, or estrangement, made it so gloomy now. As he gazed and listened, he grew more sad, more listless, more desponding. The loneliness he had sought oppressed him, yet he knew it not, and shrunk but the more morbidly even from the sight of the poor fishermen of the coast.
One evening he was sitting on the beach, beneath the shadow of a projecting rock, immersed as usual in his gloomy musings, when his attention was arrested by the unwelcome sound of an approaching footstep. He turned, and to his surprise, beheld a female figure advancing along the rocks which jutted out beyond the spot where he was seated into a kind of promontory, against the extreme point of which the advancing tide was beginning to ripple.
His first impulse was to retreat at once, but he was checked by the reflection that the rock beneath which he sat would doubtless conceal him, whereas if he rose he should be exposed to view; and, moreover, with his attention had been aroused some spark of latent curiosity, which induced him to stay and watch the movements of the stranger.
She was not one of the peasant women of the district; her dress, though simple, as befitted the crags and waves amidst which it was worn, was evidently that of a gentlewoman. He could only conclude her to be the wife of the clergyman. With a light, firm step she advanced along the jagged rocks till she had reached the end of the little promontory.
There she sat down. A slight, very slight, breeze came in from the sea, and she took off her bonnet and turned to meet it, as if to let it play the more freely around her brow. He could now see her face plainly. It gave him the impression of one recovering from recent illness; for though still young it was pale, and looked worn and almost haggard. She sate for some time with folded hands, gazing fixedly out to seaward; her countenance growing ever sadder as she gazed.
At length he heard a long deep drawn sigh, and, turning away from the sea, she leaned her head against the rock, and wept. The curiosity, not to say the interest, of Captain Grey was excited; there was a strange similarity between this woman’s situation and his own. Like him, she came with her load of sorrow to seek comfort from the lonely shore, the restless waves; like him, she failed to find it. Could she indeed be, as he had imagined, the clergyman’s wife? In a tranquil home, in the midst of duties, surrounded by ties, in a position that seemed to him so happy because it contrasted so forcibly with his own — what secret grief could be eating to her heart’s core?
While he was thus pondering, the twilight was closing in, and silently the tide had risen around them. It was time to retreat. The stranger raised her head, and wiped away her tears; then rose, and after one more long gaze over the darkening sea, put on her bonnet, and retraced her steps over the rocks.
The waves had by this time flowed completely round their base, forming a channel between them and the beach, which, though by no means dangerous, might be difficult to cross. This Captain Grey observed; and, passing round the rock that she might not discover how near he had been to her, he approached from the opposite side, and bowing, offered his hand to help her. She seemed surprised, even startled; but she accepted his assistance, bowed her thanks in silence, and they passed on their several ways without having exchanged a word.
The next day the clergyman of the parish called upon Randolph Grey. Learning that a stranger had taken lodgings at the farm, he thought it right to ascertain whether he could be of any service to him. Captain Grey had no opportunity of avoiding this well-meant visit, as he would probably had desired for, as he chanced it to beat home, the landlady ushered Mr. Wood at once into the parlour.
Though his duties were confined to so remote a spot, and to a sphere so narrow, Mr. Wood was a man of education and ability; and it is possible that the solitude of the last few days had made the sound of a friendly voice less unwelcome to Randolph Grey than he would have admitted even to himself. Certain it is, that the clergyman’s conversation so far won upon him, that his heart was unlocked to give him some slight intimation of the reasons which had induced him to seek this secluded retreat, that the two gentlemen sate long in discourse together, and that before the visit ended, Captain Grey had accepted the pressing invitation of his new acquaintance to drink tea at the parsonage on the following evening, and when the time came, stimulated perhaps by curiosity to see the clergyman’s wife, he addressed himself to the fulfilment of his engagement with less reluctance than he would fain have persuaded himself that he felt.
When he was introduced to Mrs. Wood, however, he was well-nigh disappointed to find how well she answered to his pre-conceived idea of what she ought to be. She was some years younger than her husband, and appeared as active, brisk, and cheerful a little woman as one could wish to see — happy in her home, her husband, and her duties. His conjectures about the stranger were all at fault, and he was pondering how he could frame an inquiry concerning her without betraying the scene which he had witnessed, when he was spared the trouble by Mr. Wood, who, seeing tea was ready, inquired of his wife whether “Rachel” were not well that she had not yet made her appearance.
“She is coming down directly,” replied Mrs. Wood, “and I am glad of it. I think she has seemed more depressed than usual for the last few days, and a little society will perhaps do her good. She is a lady who is living with us,” added Mrs. Wood, in explanation to her guest.
At that moment the door opened, and “Rachel” entered. She was indeed the Lady of the Rocks; and as Mr. Wood introduced him to Miss Morland, Captain Grey perceived that she recognised him, though apparently with little interest, and no embarrassment. She thanked him courteously for the assistance he had rendered her, which led to an explanation of their meeting, and of their mutual surprise at seeing in so lonely a spot a stranger above the condition of a peasant.
After this Miss Morland lapsed into silence, leaving it to Mr. and Mrs. Wood to sustain the conversation with their guest; but his interest was excited, and he examined her closely. She might almost have been called handsome, or rather striking, for her beauty was less that of form or colouring than of expression, although now her countenance was melancholy almost to gloom.
He thought he perceived in her the same listless despondency of which he himself so well knew the bitterness; and his sympathy being thus excited, he exerted himself to relieve it by attracting her interest and attention. He could be very agreeable when he wished it; and now he succeeded perhaps all the better that his motive was a kind and unselfish one.
Mr. and Mrs. Wood were charmed with him, and even the melancholy Rachel at length looked up, and took her part in the conversation with some appearance of zest, and in doing so gave involuntary evidence of both a quick apprehension and a cultivated mind. As for Captain Grey, if he had helped to entertain others, he was himself rewarded, for he was astonished to find how quickly the time had slipped away; and still more so, to be forced to acknowledge to himself that he was by no means so oppressed and wearied by an evening passed in the society of his fellow-creatures as by an equal number of hours spent alone.
A beginning having thus been made, few days elapsed in which he did not meet the inhabitants of the parsonage. He questioned Mr. Wood about Rachel, but learnt very little. About two years before, the patron of the living had written to inquire whether Mr. Wood woidd admit as a boarder a lady with whom he was not personally acquainted, but whom he knew to be desirous of finding a home in some retired village on the seacoast.
Understanding that her position was a very lonely one, and that it would be an act of kindness to do so, Mr. Wood agreed to receive her, and she had arrived two years before, dressed in the deepest mourning, and evidently in great affliction. She proved not only most amiable in disposition, but very valuable as an assistant in the parish, and her host and hostess had become sincerely attached to her.
But open and unreserved as she appeared in other respects, she had never communicated to them her previous history: all she had ever said about it, was to beg they would not question her, as it was too painful to dwell upon. She had, however, at different times, made mention of a father and mother, a sister, and a cousin whom she had lost, and of the latter with such evident emotion that they imagined he had perhaps been her lover or affianced husband.
She had now no relations living, or at least none with whom she kept up any intercourse. She was habitually calm and quiet, and now much more even in spirits than she had been at first, though still appearing at times greatly depressed; and even when Mr. and Mrs. Wood occasionally quitted their seclusion to visit some of their relations, Rachel, though pressed to accompany them, preferred remaining behind alone, to renewing, even slightly, her intercourse with the world.
To this scanty information Captain Grey listened with an interest which increased as he became more intimately acquainted with Miss Morland. His own morbid apathy had passed away. Every morning he arose, not as formerly, to a dreary blank, but to the interest of his new acquaintance, for he had now an object before him, that of winning her back at once from her sorrow and from her strict seclusion.
It did not seem that his efforts were fated to be unsuccessful: by degrees Rachel’s listless depression appeared to yield to them, and she awoke to the enjoyment both of the natural scenes around her and of the companionship and sympathy which brightened them; and when he saw the smile with which she greeted his approach, the evident pleasure which she took in his society, other feelings than those of disinterested kindness began, though at first unconsciously to himself, to dawn within him, and the day was a weary ono to him in which, either in a visit at the parsonage or a ramble over the rocks, he had not enjoyed the society of Rachel.
His evenings were always spent in her company, for it had become a settled thing that he should drink tea with the Woods, who, liking all they saw and all they heard of him, witnessed with pleasure his increasing intimacy with their friend.
The three weeks originally proposed as the term of his stay had long since elapsed, but he had found means to prolong it under different pretexts, until autumn was now far advanced. He felt that he could not linger on for ever without any settled aim or purpose, and it crossed his mind that in doing so he might not be acting honourably towards Miss Morland, should she indeed feel any greater pleasure in his company than in that of merely an agreeable acquaintance.
He rejected the unwelcome scruple as the offspring of vanity, but could not banish it from his mind, and at length reluctantly resolved to depart the following week. He went up to the parsonage, purposing to inform his friends of his intention, and was himself astonished at the pain this decision cost him, and to find that his step was once more as slow and weary as it had been when he first sought his present abode.
It was a relief to him to be informed that Mr. and Mrs. Wood were gone out for the day, and that Miss Morland was walking. He felt reprieved. Perhaps he had been over-hasty; there was no occasion for him to go quite so soon; at all events he should have time to think the matter over.
Mechanically he bent his steps towards the seashore: often and often he had wandered there with Rachel Morland; was he after a few brief days to do so no more? Whichever way he turned his eyes, her image seemed to flit before them: should he have courage to banish it from his memory, or would it haunt him thus in every place?
As he rounded a small headland, absorbed in these questionings, he almost started to see her in life and limb seated on the sands at a little distance from him. He thought how much she was altered since the first time he had seen her — then, as now, gazing forth over the boundless waters. The haggard paleness of her cheek had given place to a delicate but more life-like hue; and if her countenance still bore the impress of some past sorrow, the look of hopeless despondency was gone. Was this indeed his work? Would it be undone by his departure? And if so, could he, ought he, to tear himself away?
The sound of his footsteps was scarcely audible on the soft sand, and she did not perceive him till he stood beside her and addressed her. The sad serious look instantly vanished from her face, and it was with the bright smile to which he was now accustomed, that she turned to welcome him. But it met no answering smile, for, inexplicably to himself, that look of welcome strengthened him in his purpose.
“Is anything the matter, Captain Grey?” asked Rachel, alarmed at the grave melancholy gaze which met hers.
“I am thinking how soon the happy days of my stay here must end; for I return to town next week,” was Randolph’s reply.
The light faded from Rachel’s eyes, and her cheek grew suddenly pale.
“Going away so soon? Is it necessary?”
“Yes, I am afraid it is.”
She sighed and turned away her head.
“Will you really sometimes miss me, Miss Morland?”
“How could I do otherwise?” replied she, simply. “You have been very kind to me; and the loss of a friend is no trifle in so lonely a life as mine,” she added in a low tone, while the tears rose to her eyes.
This was too much for the faltering resolution of Randolph Grey. Obeying the impulse which urged him on, in an instant he was seated on the sand beside her, clasping her hands in his — pouring forth the confession of his love, and entreating her to say that they need never part; that neither her life nor his should henceforth be lonely. He spoke eagerly, for he was full of hope, but a chill passed over him as he gazed on the face of Rachel.
With cheeks as pale as marble, and eyes dilated as if they beheld some appalling vision, she listened to him motionless and unresisting. At length she strove to withdraw her hand, but he held it fast.
“Rachel! what is this? Surely my words cannot take you by surprise; you cannot have been unconscious of my affection! Speak to me — speak, I entreat you!”
“I will,” said Rachel, faintly. “I was blind, very blind; but I see it all now; I have sinned and must bear the penalty. You must leave me, Captain Grey. We must part, and for ever; — leave me, pray leave me.”
“I cannot leave you thus.”
He could not indeed, for she was almost fainting, and would have sunk down upon the sand, had he not thrown his arm round her to support her.
“Rachel,” he continued passionately, “Rachel, what does this mean? for verily I believe you love me, and why would you cast me from you?”
Rachel made no answer, for she could not; her head sank upon his shoulder, and she burst into a passion of tears. They seemed to relieve her, for in a few moments she grew calmer and gently disengaged herself from his hold.
“I cannot speak to you now,” she said softly, “but if you will meet me here tomorrow evening, about this time, all shall be explained. You will then see that insuperable obstacles interpose between us. Leave me for the present; we can meet as usual this evening at the parsonage, but leave me now I entreat you.”
She spoke earnestly, beseechingly: and without a word he obeyed; but when he had reached the furthest point whence he could see her, he turned to look — Rachel still sat where he had left her, motionless beside the foam.
They met in the evening, but Miss Morland was pale, depressed and preoccupied, and Randolph Grey, who watched her intently, could by no effort command his usual flow of conversation, and took his leave early. To him the intervening hours passed wearily and restlessly. He longed for the interview with Rachel which would end his suspense; yet he dreaded it, for might it not also extinguish his hopes? But even the longest day comes to a close, and the days were not of the longest now.
Before the appointed time Captain Grey was on the beach, wandering amongst the rocks, and advancing to the jutting point where he had first seen Rachel. The recollection of that hour came vividly across his mind as he seated himself on the rock where she had sate; he gazed out upon the heaving sea, which seemed to him as restless as his own unquiet heart.
Even as he was gazing he heard Rachel’s footstep upon the rocks. Silently he made way for her, and silently she seated herself beside him. For a moment he took her hand and looked into her face with a pang of self-reproach for the change he read there. She was paler, more haggard than he had ever seen her, even in the days of their earliest acquaintance, and her eyes heavy and dim with weeping; but she was quite calm now. For a few minutes they sate in silence, which was first broken by Randolph.
“Pray do not prolong this suspense; let me know what it is you have to tell me.”
“This!” replied she, extending to him her ungloved left hand. There was a wedding-ring upon the third finger.
A livid paleness passed over Randolph’s countenance, as he exclaimed:
“Is it possible — a wife? Rachel!”
“The wife of a dead husband; for I dare not say his widow.”
In explanation she proceeded to acquaint him briefly with the history of her life, of which the outline is as follows:
She was early left an orphan, and was brought up in the house of a relation. While both very young an attachment was formed between herself and a cousin, a young man of some property, but of indifferent character.
This attachment was vehemently opposed by the uncle and aunt with whom she lived; but as they, at the same time, betrayed some anxiety to secure her hand, and her small but independent fortune for their own son, she was little inclined to heed their by no means disinterested warnings, and clung to Herbert Maxwell the more tenaciously the more his character was impugned; for she believed him to be unjustly accused, and even in the contrary case, this, as it might estrange other friends, would but be a reason why she, who had loved him almost from childhood, should stand by him the more firmly; and thus no sooner was Rachel of age, than she was married to Herbert Maxwell, and cast off by her offended relations.
Their warnings, however, though not prompted by the best motives, were no calumnies, and Rachel’s married life proved most unhappy. Herbert was a gambler and a spendthrift, — reckless, dissipated, and unprincipled. Yet he had some attaching qualities, and Rachel loved him through all — the more so that, inconsistent as it might seem, his strongest feeling appeared to be love of his wife, which took the line of rendering him jealous of her to a degree often painful to herself, and equally unwarranted by her conduct and his own. Her life was one of ceaseless anxiety, like that of a person walking on the brink of a volcano, which may at any moment burst forth and overwhelm him.
As time wore on, Rachel observed that a change had come over her husband. She had been used to see him gay and thoughtless, but now he seemed restless and anxious — his gaiety forced and overstrained. Whatever might be the cause it was carefully concealed, and his wife’s inquiries were eluded by some jesting reply that failed to allay her anxiety. It grew with the deepening gloom she saw gathering over Herbert.
At length he could no longer jest with her, or, when he attempted it, his hollow laughter was more painful than sighs. Then even this ceased, and his very looks told a tale of despair. His wife plied him with direct questions, and he in return commanded silence, but she would not yield her point; she implored him to confide in her affection — to let her share his sorrow, be the cause of it what it might. He resisted still, but less sternly — finally he bade her follow him to his study, and locked the door.
Wild, haggard desperation was written on his countenance, as vehemently pacing the room he began to speak rapidly. He told her that he was a ruined and dishonoured man; no ordinary bankrupt, but one who dared not to look his fellowmen in the face; that his name was become a by-word and a reproach, and that this misery — with the addition of seeing his beautiful young wife involved in it — was more than he could bear.
She would have asked him what he had done; but he forbade all questioning: “he was not sunk so low that he could bear to be disgraced in the eyes of his own wife.” He added with increasing vehemence that if he were alone, he could soon end this suffering, and escape from the shame that weighed him to the earth.
This did not surprise Rachel, who having often already, and especially of late, heard him allude to the idea of emigration, now interpreted his words as referring to it.
“But,” continued he, “one fear withholds me. I cannot face the thought that were I no longer here, you, Rachel, might perhaps forget me.”
“Herbert! Surely, surely you would take me with you!”
He looked at her strangely, fixedly.
“No, that I could not do; and when I was gone my memory would fade from your mind, and you might learn to love some other man. — ”
“Oh! Herbert, how can you speak so cruelly?”
“Ah!” said he with almost a groan, “but for that fear I should soon cast this misery behind me.”
“Then, Herbert,” she replied; “go where you will, so you be but happy. Do not let me be the obstacle in your way. Surely you know — you feel, that, absent or present, I can love none but you. Surely you can trust me to keep you alone, unrivalled, in my heart until we meet again.”
“Oh! that I could believe you! For I could not rest, even in the grave, if I thought that you could bestow that which once was mine upon another. Will you dare to give me your promise, Rachel?”
“Assuredly I will.”
“But first consider,” he resumed more eagerly. “You must hide yourself from the world, renounce my name, efface every trace of your ill-fated, disgraceful marriage. Can you do this, and never inquire the cause?”
“I can — I will.”
“Then promise me.”
He stood before her and took both her hands, while she said.
“I give you my solemn promise that none other shall occupy your place in my heart until we meet again.”
“And mark,” cried he, almost fiercely griping her hands between his own; “mark, that from the very ends of the universe I should come back to you to enforce that promise, were you ever tempted to break it.”
“I never can be.”
“Then you have set me free.”
He loosed her hands, and before she had time to comprehend his purpose, he had caught up a pistol from the table, and pointed it at his own forehead. There was a sharp report and he fell at her feet, the blood spirting up upon her clothes, and even to her hands and face. With a piercing shriek she rushed to the door, which she struggled wildly to open, but in vain. She had but one desperate thought, the impossibility of obtaining help, and then she remembered nothing more.
Her cry had been heard, and assistance came, but too late for Herbert; his suicidal weapon had done its work. For two days Rachel lay in a species of death-trance, from which she awoke to rave in the delirium of brain fever. She was nursed through it by her servants. With her relations all intercourse had so completely ceased that they knew not whom to send for, and the newspaper intelligence of the sad event did not induce them to come forward.
At length Rachel’s naturally strong constitution gained the upper hand, and she recovered her reason; and, by very slow degrees, her strength. The clergyman of her parish having learnt the sad particulars of the case, had obtained access to her in virtue of his profession, but she positively refused to see any one except himself.
She seemed absolutely prostrated both in mind and body, and for some time appeared incapable of the slightest exertion. When at length her powers were in some degree restored, her first wish was to obey the injunctions of her husband, which accorded well with her own feelings, and to seek concealment and entire seclusion. With equally implicit obedience to his commands, she made no inquiries concerning the past.
Her own small fortune had been settled upon herself at her marriage, and all else was abandoned to her husband’s creditors. She resumed her maiden name of Morland, wore her wedding ring fastened to a chain round her neck; and having, thanks to the inquiries of the clergyman, obtained the promise of a kindly shelter in the quiet parsonage of Mr. Wood, she retired thither with but one wish, that of dragging out the remainder of her desolate life in seclusion, and in such peace as it might afford her.
She thus withdrew from all intercourse with the outer world, grew attached to the Woods, in whom she found kind and faithful friends, and shared their labours for the good of those committed to their care; yet life appeared to her a sad and weary load, and her only solace was in the murmur of the waves, for to them alone could she reveal the secret of her grief, which, as though it were a trust from her departed husband, she kept locked from every human eye in the depths of her heart.
Yet this afforded her but meagre consolation. The day on which Randolph Grey had first beheld her, being the anniversary of her husband’s death, she had felt more than usually depressed and miserable. Not only the sorrows of the past, but the hopeless dreariness of the future weighed heavily on her spirit.
The latter had been partly, at least, dispelled by the growing interest for Captain Grey, which, unknown to herself, had ripened into a strong feeling of attachment, and it was only the avowal of his love which woke her to the painful consciousness, at once of the strength of his influence over her, and of her involuntary infidelity to the promise plighted to her husband. But no sooner was she conscious of the offence than she determined on the expiation — separation, immediate and eternal, from him whose attractions had caused this dereliction, for so she considered it, from her duty. Such an expiation was bitter indeed!
This fact, which though not admitted in direct terms, was but too evidently betrayed both by Rachel’s words and manner, caused Randolph Grey to listen to her narrative, with painful emotion indeed, but without despair.
Earnest and eloquent were his pleadings with her to induce her to alter her view of her own case — to reconsider her determination. The argument on his side was by no means untenable, for a promise given under a false impression, and that false impression to all appearance designedly conveyed, would hardly have been considered binding if plighted to a living man — and upon what principle was Maxwell’s death to make it so?
Should it not rather have set her free? Such were Randolph’s reasonings, and Rachel’s own heart was his most powerful auxiliary, though she earnestly strove to resist him, and to cling to that which she conceived to be her duty at once to the dead and to herself. Will it be thought wonderful that after long persuasion he induced her to submit the case to Mr. and Mrs. Wood, whose opinion, especially that of the former, as a clergyman, could not but have great weight with her.
Randolph Grey did not much fear their decision; and he was right, for they espoused his cause, Mrs. Wood at once, her husband after due deliberation. He did not think it right that Rachel’s whole life should be sacrificed to a delusion, and he believed that her union with Captain Grey would secure her happiness.
Their arguments were therefore added to his persuasions; and, after much hesitation, Rachel yielded. Yet it seemed as if her decision, though in accordance with her own inclinations, was powerless to make her happy, so strong were still her scruples, so constantly recurring her doubts whether she were not doing wrong. In Randolph’s presence all was well, but in solitude they would return upon her mind with double force; and it required all his eloquence to restore to her her peace of mind, and reconcile her conscience to the step she had taken.
A fortnight thus passed away, and it became necessary that Captain Grey should go to London to make the arrangements indispensable for his marriage, which in accordance with Rachel’s wish, was to be celebrated in her present abode, with the utmost privacy. He was very unwilling to leave his pale and mournful bride, especially in so uneasy and excited a frame of mind; but there was no help for it, and all he could do was to hurry the proceedings as much as possible.
He was absent only a week, but on his return he was inexpressibly shocked to perceive the change, which even in so short a time had taken place in Rachel. She was worn to a shadow, and her eyes had acquired an anxious, terrified expression, very painful to behold. At her first meeting with him, she appeared greatly agitated, and even after it, he could not conceal from himself that she shunned his society.
When he perceived that in the lapse of a few days this had not worn off, and that her nervous depression of spirits perceptibly increased, while Mr. and Mrs. Wood were totally unable to account for the change, he resolved to question her, and one day having succeeded in finding her alone, he inquired of her the cause of the alteration he perceived.
Her agitation was so excessive that it was some time before she could speak, but at length she informed him, with many tears, that they must no longer look forward to any happiness together, for that their marriage could never take place. It was vain to struggle, or to hope — it was impossible, and she must submit to her fate.
The reason was a fearful one, and she shuddered, and her very lips grew white, as, in answer to Grey’s inquiries, she told him that if she had failed to keep her promise, her dead husband had kept his, and was come back, as he had threatened, even from the ends of the universe, to reproach her with her broken vow.
She had not seen him, she had not heard his voice; but whenever she was alone, by night or day, she was conscious of an invisible presence near her. She had striven to believe it a delusion — but in vain — she could not be deceived. Towards night she was most miserable when alone, for in the dark the sense of this unearthly companionship became almost unendurable; and yet she feared to have a light, for turn which way she would, she saw an undefined shadow cast upon the wall, which was even more terrible than the viewless presence that haunted her in the darkness. She felt that such torment if prolonged must drive her mad, and that she had no alternative, but to renounce all hope of earthly happiness by parting from Randolph Grey.
He, on his side, believed her to be the victim of some delusion, caused by distress of mind and weakness of nerve, and strove to reason her out of her belief. He determined that she should be alone as little as possible, and even persuaded her to let Mrs. Wood’s maid sleep in her room at night.
For the present he contented himself with entreating her to suspend her decision, for he trusted to his influence over her, and being persuaded that, whatever her nerves might be, her mind was not affected, he had little doubt that he should succeed in bringing her to consent to his wishes. But he found the task more difficult than he had anticipated.
At first, indeed, Rachel appeared more cheerful, and suffered herself to be persuaded not actually to break off their engagement; but her resolution varied with her spirits, and if ever she were left alone, the same conviction of a companionship, the more awful because not cognizable by her senses, resumed possession of her mind.
The suspense at length became almost intolerable, even to Grey himself, whose love for Rachel grew but the stronger in proportion to the uncertainty of his hopes, and the compassion he felt for the sufferings which told painfully upon her bodily health. He therefore resolved to put an end to it, bringing the affair, as he trusted, to a favourable conclusion; and the same evening he walked up to the parsonage, and having asked to see Miss Morland, was admitted to the small sitting room reserved for her use.
She was seated alone, beside the embers of the dying fire, and there was no light in the room. She started at his entrance, and as she rose on recognising him, he could distinguish by the faint glow of fire-light the traces of tears upon her cheeks. He took her hand in both his own, murmuring “dearest Rachel!”
“Hush, hush!” she exclaimed, hurriedly, striving to withdraw her hand — then in a lower and trembling voice — “hush! we are not alone!”
Involuntarily Randolph started and looked round. The dim light sufficed to show him that no one else was present. It was only Rachel’s delusion.
“This is but a fancy, Rachel,” said he. “Do not indulge it. Let me light the lamp, and you will be able to satisfy yourself that there is no one with Us.”
“Do as you please,” she replied, with a deep, quivering sigh.
It is strange how contagious are nervous feelings! Randolph Grey smiled at his own weakness, for he could almost have fancied he heard it faintly echoed near him.
He lighted a candle lamp, and placed it on the table. Truly there was nothing visible even to the anxious eyes of Rachel as they wandered round the room. As soon as he saw her more tranquil, Captain Grey approached the subject which he had at heart. He began cautiously, for his object was no other than to win her consent to their immediate union. Every necessary step had been taken; nothing but her indecision yet delayed it.
At first she started, and shrank almost with terror from the thought; but this he had foreseen, and once more he brought forward every argument he could devise to combat her scruples; and, as he perceived that he gained some ground, he urged upon her that the suffering she now endured was only the result of nervous agitation caused by her indecision, and that when once the final step was taken, when there was no further room for hesitation, no possibility of drawing back, she would find peace, and, he ventured to trust, eventual happiness.
She made no answer. Silence, he hoped, gave consent.
“Then, Rachel,” pleaded he, “why should we delay longer; why not end this suspense so painfully prolonged? Say that you will at length be mine.”
“Be it as you will,” replied she, faintly. “I feel that I am doing wrong; but I have no strength longer to resist you.”
“You consent? Oh, Rachel! God bless you for your words. It shall be the study of my life to guard you from ever repenting them. You will then suffer our marriage to take place immediately — to-morrow?”
She covered her face with her hands and groaned; but when she again raised her head her only reply was, “Yes — if you desire it.”
“Rachel, now, indeed, I may look upon you as my affianced wife. Now, indeed, I may call you mine. You will not refuse to set a seal upon your words? — to grant me one kiss before we part tonight?”
“I have said,” and her voice trembled so as to be scarcely audible: “I have said that I can refuse you nothing ;” and she rose from her seat.
He drew near, and extended his arms to clasp her to his bosom. As he did so she slightly turned her head, and at the same moment uttered a piercing shriek. Randolph’s eyes followed the direction of hers. There was but one light in the room, for the fire had burnt ont, and the shadows of the two figures were traced sharply and distinctly upon the opposite wall — but — no, it was no delusion of Rachel’s brain — there was a third, vague and undefined, which interposing between them, and waving aloft its misty arms, seemed forcibly to thrust them asunder.
At the sight Randolph involuntarily started back, and Rachel fell heavily to the ground. Forgetful of all but her, he sprang to her side, and raised her in his arms. A wild cry for help brought Mr. and Mrs. Wood to the spot; but assistance came too late. The spirit of Rachel Maxwell had passed away.