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    Chapter 8

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    Chapter 8
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    SUSPENSE

    All the next day, Jean was in a state of the most intense anxiety, as
    every hour brought the crisis nearer, and every hour might bring defeat,
    for the subtlest human skill is often thwarted by some unforeseen
    accident. She longed to assure herself that Sir John was gone, but no
    servants came or went that day, and she could devise no pretext for
    sending to glean intelligence. She dared not go herself, lest the
    unusual act should excite suspicion, for she never went till evening.
    Even had she determined to venture, there was no time, for Mrs. Coventry
    was in one of her nervous states, and no one but Miss Muir could amuse
    her; Lucia was ill, and Miss Muir must give orders; Bella had a studious
    fit, and Jean must help her. Coventry lingered about the house for
    several hours, but Jean dared not send him, lest some hint of the truth
    might reach him. He had ridden away to his new duties when Jean did not
    appear, and the day dragged on wearisomely. Night came at last, and as
    Jean dressed for the late dinner, she hardly knew herself when she stood
    before her mirror, excitement lent such color and brilliancy to her
    countenance. Remembering the wedding which was to take place that
    evening, she put on a simple white dress and added a cluster of white
    roses in bosom and hair. She often wore flowers, but in spite of her
    desire to look and seem as usual, Bella's first words as she entered the
    drawing room were "Why, Jean, how like a bride you look; a veil and
    gloves would make you quite complete!"

    "You forget one other trifle, Bell," said Gerald, with eyes that
    brightened as they rested on Miss Muir.

    "What is that?" asked his sister.

    "A bridegroom."

    Bella looked to see how Jean received this, but she seemed quite
    composed as she smiled one of her sudden smiles, and merely said, "That
    trifle will doubtless be found when the time comes. Is Miss Beaufort too
    ill for dinner?"

    "She begs to be excused, and said you would be willing to take her
    place, she thought."

    As innocent Bella delivered this message, Jean glanced at Coventry, who
    evaded her eye and looked ill at ease.

    A little remorse will do him good, and prepare him for repentance after
    the grand _coup_, she said to herself, and was particularly gay at
    dinnertime, though Coventry looked often at Lucia's empty seat, as if he
    missed her. As soon as they left the table, Miss Muir sent Bella to her
    mother; and, knowing that Coventry would not linger long at his wine,
    she hurried away to the Hall. A servant was lounging at the door, and of
    him she asked, in a tone which was eager in spite of all efforts to be
    calm, "Is Sir John at home?"

    "No, miss, he's just gone to town."

    "Just gone! When do you mean?" cried Jean, forgetting the relief she
    felt in hearing of his absence in surprise at his late departure.

    "He went half an hour ago, in the last train, miss."

    "I thought he was going early this morning; he told me he should be back
    this evening."

    "I believe he did mean to go, but was delayed by company. The steward
    came up on business, and a load of gentlemen called, so Sir John could
    not get off till night, when he wasn't fit to go, being worn out, and
    far from well."

    "Do you think he will be ill? Did he look so?" And as Jean spoke, a
    thrill of fear passed over her, lest death should rob her of her prize.

    "Well, you know, miss, hurry of any kind is bad for elderly gentlemen
    inclined to apoplexy. Sir John was in a worry all day, and not like
    himself. I wanted him to take his man, but he wouldn't; and drove off
    looking flushed and excited like. I'm anxious about him, for I know
    something is amiss to hurry him off in this way."

    "When will he be back, Ralph?"

    "Tomorrow noon, if possible; at night, certainly, he bid me tell anyone
    that called."

    "Did he leave no note or message for Miss Coventry, or someone of
    the family?"

    "No, miss, nothing."

    "Thank you." And Jean walked back to spend a restless night and rise to
    meet renewed suspense.

    The morning seemed endless, but noon came at last, and under the
    pretense of seeking coolness in the grotto, Jean stole away to a slope
    whence the gate to the Hall park was visible. For two long hours she
    watched, and no one came. She was just turning away when a horseman
    dashed through the gate and came galloping toward the Hall. Heedless of
    everything but the uncontrollable longing to gain some tidings, she ran
    to meet him, feeling assured that he brought ill news. It was a young
    man from the station, and as he caught sight of her, he drew bridle,
    looking agitated and undecided.

    "Has anything happened?" she cried breathlessly.

    "A dreadful accident on the railroad, just the other side of
    Croydon. News telegraphed half an hour ago," answered the man,
    wiping his hot face.

    "The noon train? Was Sir John in it? Quick, tell me all!"

    "It was that train, miss, but whether Sir John was in it or not, we
    don't know; for the guard is killed, and everything is in such confusion
    that nothing can be certain. They are at work getting out the dead and
    wounded. We heard that Sir John was expected, and I came up to tell Mr.
    Coventry, thinking he would wish to go down. A train leaves in fifteen
    minutes; where shall I find him? I was told he was at the Hall."

    "Ride on, ride on! And find him if he is there. I'll run home and look
    for him. Lose no time. Ride! Ride!" And turning, Jean sped back like a
    deer, while the man tore up the avenue to rouse the Hall.

    Coventry was there, and went off at once, leaving both Hall and house in
    dismay. Fearing to betray the horrible anxiety that possessed her, Jean
    shut herself up in her room and suffered untold agonies as the day wore
    on and no news came. At dark a sudden cry rang through the house, and
    Jean rushed down to learn the cause. Bella was standing in the hall,
    holding a letter, while a group of excited servants hovered near her.

    "What is it?" demanded Miss Muir, pale and steady, though her heart
    died within her as she recognized Gerald's handwriting. Bella gave
    her the note, and hushed her sobbing to hear again the heavy tidings
    that had come.

    _Dear Bella:

    Uncle is safe; he did not go in the noon train. But several persons
    are sure that Ned was there. No trace of him as yet, but many bodies
    are in the river, under the ruins of the bridge, and I am doing my
    best to find the poor lad, if he is there. I have sent to all his
    haunts in town, and as he has not been seen, I hope it is a false
    report and he is safe with his regiment. Keep this from my mother
    till we are sure. I write you, because Lucia is ill. Miss Muir will
    comfort and sustain you. Hope for the best, dear.

    Yours, G.C._

    Those who watched Miss Muir as she read these words wondered at the
    strange expressions which passed over her face, for the joy which
    appeared there as Sir John's safety was made known did not change to
    grief or horror at poor Edward's possible fate. The smile died on her
    lips, but her voice did not falter, and in her downcast eyes shone an
    inexplicable look of something like triumph. No wonder, for if this
    was true, the danger which menaced her was averted for a time, and the
    marriage might be consummated without such desperate haste. This sad
    and sudden event seemed to her the mysterious fulfilment of a secret
    wish; and though startled she was not daunted but inspirited, for fate
    seemed to favor her designs. She did comfort Bella, control the
    excited household, and keep the rumors from Mrs. Coventry all that
    dreadful night.

    At dawn Gerald came home exhausted, and bringing no tiding of the
    missing man. He had telegraphed to the headquarters of the regiment and
    received a reply, stating that Edward had left for London the previous
    day, meaning to go home before returning. The fact of his having been at
    the London station was also established, but whether he left by the
    train or not was still uncertain. The ruins were still being searched,
    and the body might yet appear.

    "Is Sir John coming at noon?" asked Jean, as the three sat together in
    the rosy hush of dawn, trying to hope against hope.

    "No, he had been ill, I learned from young Gower, who is just from town,
    and so had not completed his business. I sent him word to wait till
    night, for the bridge won't be passable till then. Now I must try and
    rest an hour; I've worked all night and have no strength left. Call me
    the instant any messenger arrives."

    With that Coventry went to his room, Bella followed to wait on him, and
    Jean roamed through house and grounds, unable to rest. The morning was
    far spent when the messenger arrived. Jean went to receive his tidings,
    with the wicked hope still lurking at her heart.

    "Is he found?" she asked calmly, as the man hesitated to speak.

    "Yes, ma'am."

    "You are sure?"

    "I am certain, ma'am, though some won't say till Mr. Coventry
    comes to look."

    "Is he alive?" And Jean's white lips trembled as she put the question.

    "Oh no, ma'am, that warn't possible, under all them stones and water.
    The poor young gentleman is so wet, and crushed, and torn, no one
    would know him, except for the uniform, and the white hand with the
    ring on it."

    Jean sat down, very pale, and the man described the finding of the poor
    shattered body. As he finished, Coventry appeared, and with one look of
    mingled remorse, shame, and sorrow, the elder brother went away, to find
    and bring the younger home. Jean crept into the garden like a guilty
    thing, trying to hide the satisfaction which struggled with a woman's
    natural pity, for so sad an end for this brave young life.

    "Why waste tears or feign sorrow when I must be glad?" she muttered, as
    she paced to and fro along the terrace. "The poor boy is out of pain,
    and I am out of danger."

    She got no further, for, turning as she spoke, she stood face to face
    with Edward! Bearing no mark of peril on dress or person, but stalwart
    and strong as ever, he stood there looking at her, with contempt and
    compassion struggling in his face. As if turned to stone, she remained
    motionless, with dilated eyes, arrested breath, and paling cheek. He did
    not speak but watched her silently till she put out a trembling hand, as
    if to assure herself by touch that it was really he. Then he drew back,
    and as if the act convinced as fully as words, she said slowly, "They
    told me you were dead."

    "And you were glad to believe it. No, it was my comrade, young Courtney,
    who unconsciously deceived you all, and lost his life, as I should have
    done, if I had not gone to Ascot after seeing him off yesterday."

    "To Ascot?" echoed Jean, shrinking back, for Edward's eye was on her,
    and his voice was stern and cold.

    "Yes; you know the place. I went there to make inquiries concerning you
    and was well satisfied. Why are you still here?"

    "The three days are not over yet. I hold you to your promise. Before
    night I shall be gone; till then you will be silent, if you have honor
    enough to keep your word."

    "I have." Edward took out his watch and, as he put it back, said with
    cool precision, "It is now two, the train leaves for London at half-past
    six; a carriage will wait for you at the side door. Allow me to advise
    you to go then, for the instant dinner is over I shall speak." And with
    a bow he went into the house, leaving Jean nearly suffocated with a
    throng of contending emotions.

    For a few minutes she seemed paralyzed; but the native energy of the
    woman forbade utter despair, till the last hope was gone. Frail as that
    now was, she still clung to it tenaciously, resolving to win the game in
    defiance of everything. Springing up, she went to her room, packed her
    few valuables, dressed herself with care, and then sat down to wait. She
    heard a joyful stir below, saw Coventry come hurrying back, and from a
    garrulous maid learned that the body was that of young Courtney. The
    uniform being the same as Edward's and the ring, a gift from him, had
    caused the men to believe the disfigured corpse to be that of the
    younger Coventry. No one but the maid came near her; once Bella's voice
    called her, but some one checked the girl, and the call was not
    repeated. At five an envelope was brought her, directed in Edward's
    hand, and containing a check which more than paid a year's salary. No
    word accompanied the gift, yet the generosity of it touched her, for
    Jean Muir had the relics of a once honest nature, and despite her
    falsehood could still admire nobleness and respect virtue. A tear of
    genuine shame dropped on the paper, and real gratitude filled her heart,
    as she thought that even if all else failed, she was not thrust out
    penniless into the world, which had no pity for poverty.

    As the clock struck six, she heard a carriage drive around and went down
    to meet it. A servant put on her trunk, gave the order, "To the station,
    James," and she drove away without meeting anyone, speaking to anyone,
    or apparently being seen by anyone. A sense of utter weariness came over
    her, and she longed to lie down and forget. But the last chance still
    remained, and till that failed, she would not give up. Dismissing the
    carriage, she seated herself to watch for the quarter-past-six train
    from London, for in that Sir John would come if he came at all that
    night. She was haunted by the fear that Edward had met and told him. The
    first glimpse of Sir John's frank face would betray the truth. If he
    knew all, there was no hope, and she would go her way alone. If he knew
    nothing, there was yet time for the marriage; and once his wife, she
    knew she was safe, because for the honor of his name he would screen and
    protect her.

    Up rushed the train, out stepped Sir John, and Jean's heart died within
    her. Grave, and pale, and worn he looked, and leaned heavily on the arm
    of a portly gentleman in black. The Reverend Mr. Fairfax, why has he
    come, if the secret is out? thought Jean, slowly advancing to meet them
    and fearing to read her fate in Sir John's face. He saw her, dropped his
    friend's arm, and hurried forward with the ardor of a young man,
    exclaiming, as he seized her hand with a beaming face, a glad voice, "My
    little girl! Did you think I would never come?"

    She could not answer, the reaction was too strong, but she clung to him,
    regardless of time or place, and felt that her last hope had not failed.
    Mr. Fairfax proved himself equal to the occasion. Asking no questions,
    he hurried Sir John and Jean into a carriage and stepped in after them
    with a bland apology. Jean was soon herself again, and, having told her
    fears at his delay, listened eagerly while he related the various
    mishaps which had detained him.

    "Have you seen Edward?" was her first question.

    "Not yet, but I know he has come, and have heard of his narrow escape. I
    should have been in that train, if I had not been delayed by the
    indisposition which I then cursed, but now bless. Are you ready, Jean?
    Do you repent your choice, my child?"

    "No, no! I am ready, I am only too happy to become your wife, dear,
    generous Sir John," cried Jean, with a glad alacrity, which touched the
    old man to the heart, and charmed the Reverend Mr. Fairfax, who
    concealed the romance of a boy under his clerical suit.

    They reached the Hall. Sir John gave orders to admit no one and after a
    hasty dinner sent for his old housekeeper and his steward, told them of
    his purpose, and desired them to witness his marriage. Obedience had
    been the law of their lives, and Master could do nothing wrong in their
    eyes, so they played their parts willingly, for Jean was a favorite at
    the Hall. Pale as her gown, but calm and steady, she stood beside Sir
    John, uttering her vows in a clear tone and taking upon herself the vows
    of a wife with more than a bride's usual docility. When the ring was
    fairly on, a smile broke over her face. When Sir John kissed and called
    her his "little wife," she shed a tear or two of sincere happiness; and
    when Mr. Fairfax addressed her as "my lady," she laughed her musical
    laugh, and glanced up at a picture of Gerald with eyes full of
    exultation. As the servants left the room, a message was brought from
    Mrs. Coventry, begging Sir John to come to her at once.

    "You will not go and leave me so soon?" pleaded Jean, well knowing why
    he was sent for.

    "My darling, I must." And in spite of its tenderness, Sir John's manner
    was too decided to be withstood.

    "Then I shall go with you," cried Jean, resolving that no earthly power
    should part them.
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    Chapter 8
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