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- Agatha Webb - 50/53 -


at the time what she had done, but now she remembered that the fatal cup was just like the other and that the two stood very near together. Oh, her innocent child, and oh, her husband!

It seemed as if the latter thought would drive her wild. "He has so wished for a child," she moaned. "We have been married ten years and this baby seemed to have been sent from heaven. He will curse me, he will hate me, he will never be able after this to bear me in his sight." This was not true of Mr. Sutherland, but it was useless to argue with her. Instead of attempting it, I took another way to stop her ravings. Lifting the child out of her hands, I first listened at its heart, and then, finding it was really dead,--Philemon, I have seen too many lifeless children not to know,--I began slowly to undress it. "What are you doing?" she cried. "Mrs. Webb, Mrs. Webb, what are you doing?" For reply I pointed to the bed, where two little arms could be seen feebly fluttering. "You shall have my child," I whispered. "I have carried too many babies to the tomb to dare risk bringing up another." And catching her poor wandering spirit with my eye, I held her while I told her my story.

Philemon, I saved that woman. Before I had finished speaking I saw the reason return to her eye and the dawning of a pitiful hope in her passion-drawn face. She looked at the child in my arms and then she looked at the one in the bed, and the long-drawn sigh with which she finally bent down and wept over our darling told me that my cause was won. The rest was easy. When the clothes of the two children had been exchanged, she took our baby in her arms and prepared to leave. Then I stopped her. "Swear," I cried, holding her by the arm and lifting my other hand to heaven, "swear you will be a mother to this child! Swear you will love it as your own and rear it in the paths of truth and righteousness!" The convulsive clasp with which she drew the baby to her breast assured me more than her shuddering "I swear!" that her heart had already opened to it. I dropped her arm and covered my face with my hands. I could not see my darling go; it was worse than death for the moment it was worse than death. "O God, save him!" I groaned. "God, make him an honour--" But here she caught me by the arm. Her clutch was frenzied, her teeth were chattering. "Swear in your turn!" she gasped. "Swear that if I do a mother's duty by this boy, you will keep my secret and never, never reveal to my husband, to the boy, or to the world that you have any claims upon him!" It was like tearing the heart from my breast with my own hand, but I swore, Philemon, and she in her turn drew back. But suddenly she faced me again, terror and doubt in all her looks. "Your husband!" she whispered. "Can you keep such a secret from him? You will breathe it in your dreams." "I shall tell him," I answered. "Tell him!" The hair seemed to rise on her forehead and she shook so that I feared she would drop the babe. "Be careful!" I cried. "See! you frighten the babe. My husband has but one heart with me. What I do he will subscribe to. Do not fear Philemon." So I promised in your name. Gradually she grew calmer. When I saw she was steady again, I motioned her to go. Even my more than mortal strength was failing, and the baby--Philemon, I had never kissed it and I did not kiss it then. I heard her feet draw slowly towards the door, I heard her hand fall on the knob, heard it turn, uttered one cry, and then---

They found me an hour after, lying along the floor, clasping the dead infant in my arms. I was in a swoon, and they all think I fell with the child, as perhaps I did, and that its little life went out during my insensibility. Of its features, like and yet unlike our boy's, no one seems to take heed. The nurse who cared for it is gone, and who else would know that little face but me? They are very good to me, and are full of self-reproaches for leaving me so long in my part of the building alone. But though they watch me now, I have contrived to write this letter, which you will get with the one telling of the baby's death and my own dangerous condition. Destroy it, Philemon, and then COME. Nothing in all the world will give me comfort but your hand laid under my head and your true eyes looking into mine. Ah, we must love each other now, and live humbly! All our woe has come from my early girlish delight in gay and elegant things. From this day on I eschew all vanities and find in your affection alone the solace which Heaven will not deny to our bewildered hearts. Perhaps in this way the blessing that has been denied us will be visited on our child, who will live. I am now sure, to be the delight of our hearts and the pride of our eyes, even though we are denied the bliss of his presence and affection.

Mrs. Sutherland was not seen to enter or go out of my rooms. Being on her way to the depot, she kept on her way, and must be now in her own home. Her secret is safe, but ours--oh, you will help me to preserve it! Help me not to betray--tell them I have lost five babies before this one--delirious--there may be an inquest--she must not be mentioned--let all the blame fall on me if there is blame--I fell--there is a bruise on the baby's forehead--and--and- -I am growing incoherent--I will try and direct this and then love--love--O God!

[A scrawl for the name.]

Under it these words:

Though bidden to destroy this, I have never dared to do so. Some day it may be of inestimable value to us or our boy. PHILEMON WEBB.

This was the last letter found in the first packet. As it was laid down, sobs were heard all over the room, and Frederick, who for some time now had been sitting with his head in his hands, ventured to look up and say: "Do you wonder that I endeavoured to keep this secret, bought at such a price and sealed by the death of her I thought my mother and of her who really was? Gentlemen, Mr. Sutherland loved his wife and honoured her memory. To tell him, as I shall have to within the hour, that the child she placed in his arms twenty-five years ago was an alien, and that all his love, his care, his disappointment, and his sufferings had been lavished on the son of a neighbour, required greater courage than to face doubt on the faces of my fellow-townsmen, or anything, in short, but absolute arraignment on the charge of murder. Hence my silence, hence my indecision, till this woman"--here he pointed a scornful finger at Amabel, now shrinking in her chair--"drove me to it by secretly threatening me with a testimony which would have made me the murderer of my mother and the lasting disgrace of a good man who alone has been without blame from the beginning to the end of this desperate affair. She was about to speak when I forestalled her. My punishment, if I deserve such, will be to sit and hear in your presence the reading of the letters still remaining in the coroner's hands."

These letters were certain ones written by Agatha to her unacknowledged son. They had never been sent. The first one dated from his earliest infancy, and its simple and touching hopefulness sent a thrill through every heart. It read as follows:

Three years old, my darling! and the health flush has not faded from your cheek nor the bright gold from your hair.

Oh, how I bless Mrs. Sutherland that she did not rebuke me when your father and I came to Sutherlandtown and set up our home where I could at least see your merry form toddling through the streets, holding on to the hand of her who now claims your love. My darling, my pride, my angel, so near and yet so far removed, will you ever know, even in the heaven to which we all look for joy after our weary pilgrimage is over, how often in this troublous world, and in these days of your early infancy, I have crept out of my warm bed, dressed myself, and, without a word to your father, whose heart it would break, gone out and climbed the steep hillside just to look at the window of your room to see if it were light or dark and you awake or sleeping? To breathe the scent of the eglantine which climbs up to your nursery window, I have braved the night-damps and the watching eyes of Heaven; but you have a child's blissful ignorance of all this; you only grow and grow and live, my darling, LIVE!--which is the only boon I crave, the only recompense I ask.

Have I but added another sin to my account and brought a worse vengeance on myself than that of seeing you die in your early infancy? Frederick, my son, my son, I heard you swear to-day! Not lightly, thoughtlessly, as boys sometimes will in imitation of their elders, but bitterly, revengefully, as if the seeds of evil passions were already pushing to life in the boyish breast I thought so innocent. Did you wonder at the strange woman who stopped you? Did you realise the awful woe from which my commonplace words sprang? No, no, what grown mind could take that in, least of all a child's? To have forsworn the bliss of motherhood and entered upon a life of deception for THIS! Truly Heaven is implacable and my last sin is to be punished more inexorably than my first.

There are worse evils than death. This I have always heard, but now I know it. God was merciful when He slew my babes, and I, presumptous in my rebellion, and the efforts with which I tried to prevent His work. Frederick, you are weak, dissipated, and without conscience. The darling babe, the beautiful child, has grown into a reckless youth whose impulses Mr. Sutherland will find it hard to restrain, and over whom his mother--do _I_ call her your mother?--has little influence, though she tries hard to do a mother's part and save herself and myself from boundless regret. My boy, my boy, do you feel the lack of your own mother's vigour? Might you have lived under my care and owned a better restraint and learned to work and live a respectable life in circumstances less provocative of self-indulgence? Such questions, when they rise, are maddening. When I see them form themselves in Philemon's eyes I drive them out with all the force of my influence, which is still strong over him. But when they make way in my own breast, I can find no relief, not even in prayer. Frederick, were I to tell you the truth about your parentage, would the shock of such an unexpected revelation make a man of you? I have been tempted to make the trial, at times. Deep down in my heart I have thought that perhaps I should best serve the good man who is growing grey under your waywardness, by opening up before you the past and present agonies of which you are the unconscious centre. But I cannot do this while SHE lives. The look she gave me one day when I approached you a step too near at the church door, proves that it would be the killing of her to reveal her long-preserved secret now. I must wait her death, which seems near, and then--

No, I cannot do it. Mr. Sutherland has but one staff to lean on, and that is you. It may be a poor one, a breaking one, but it is still a staff. I dare not take it away--I dare not. Ah, if Philemon was the man he was once, he might counsel me, but he is only a child now; just as if God had heard my cry for children and had given me--HIM.

More money, and still more money! and I hate it except for what it will do for the poor and incapable about me. How strange are the ways of Providence! To us who have no need of aught beyond a competence, money pours in almost against our will, while to those


Agatha Webb - 50/53

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