IT was a thunderbolt. Alfred hung his head, and said humbly, "I did but go upstairs for one moment to wash my hands for dinner; and he was gone."
Mrs. Dodd went on in her low stern voice, almost as if he had not answered her at all: "By what right did you assume the charge of him? Did I authorise you to take him from the place where he was safe, and under my eye?"
Alfred replied sullenly: "He was not very safe, for he was almost burnt to death. The fire liberated him, not I. After the fire I ran away from him: he followed me; and then what could I do? I made the best of it; and gave up my own desires to try and cure him. He longed for the sea: I tried to indulge him: I hoped to bring him back to you sane: but fate was against me. I am the most unfortunate of men."
"Mr. Hardie," said Mrs. Dodd, "what you have done was the act of a madman; and, if I believed you to be anything but a madman, the sight of you would be intolerable to me; for you have made me a widow, and my children orphans."
With this she gave a great shudder, and retired in tears.
Alfred rose, pale and defiant. "That is her notion of justice," said he bitterly; "pray is it yours, you two?"
"Well, since you ask my opinion," said Edward, "I think it was rather presumptuous of you to undertake the care of my father: and, having undertaken it, you ought not to have left him a moment out of your sight."
"Oh, that is your opinion, is it? And you, dear Julia?"
Julia made no reply, but hid her face in her hands and sighed deeply.
"I see," said Alfred sorrowfully. "Even you are against me at heart. You judge by the event, not the motive. There is no justice in this world for me. I'm sick of life. I have no right to keep the mistress of the house out of her own room: there, I'll go, my heart is broken. No, it is not, and never shall be, by anything that breathes. Thank Heaven, I have got one friend left in this bitter world: and I'll make her the judge whether I have deserved this last injustice. I'll go to my sister."
He jumped up and hobbled slowly across the room, while Julia and Edward sat chilled to the bone by those five little words, so simple, so natural, yet so incredible, and to the hearers so awful. They started, they shuddered, they sat petrified, staring at him, while he hobbled across the room to go to his sister.
As he opened the door to go out he heard stout Edward groan and Julia utter a low wail. He stood confounded a moment. Then he hobbled down a stair or two. But, ere he had gone far, there was a hasty whispering in the drawing-room, and Edward came after him in great agitation, and begged him to return; Julia must speak with him. He turned, and his face brightened. Edward saw that, and turned his own face away and stammered out, "Forget what I said to you. I am your friend, and always must be for her sake. No, no, I cannot go into that room with you; I'll go and comfort mamma. Hardie, old fellow, we are very unhappy, all of us. We are too unhappy to quarrel."
These kind words soothed Alfred's sore heart. He brightened up and entered the drawing-room. He found Julia standing in the middle of it, the colour of ashes. Alfred was alarmed. "You are unwell, dearest," he cried; "you will faint. What have I done with my ungoverned temper?" He moved towards her with a face full of concern.
"No, Alfred," said she solemnly, "I am not the least ill. It is sorrow, deep sorrow for one I love better than all the world. Sit down beside me, my poor Alfred; and — God help me to speak to him!"
Alfred began to feel dire misgivings.
"Yes," said she, "I love you too well to let any hand but mine wound you." And here she took his sinewy hand with her soft palm. "I want to soften it in the telling: and ah, how can I? Oh, why can I not throw myself body and soul between you and all trouble, all sorrow?"
"My Julia," said Alfred gravely, "something has happened to Jane."
"Yes, Alfred. She met with a terrible accident."
"She was struck by an unfortunate man; he was not in his right mind."
"Struck? My sister struck. What, was there no man by?"
"No. Edward nearly killed him afterwards."
"God bless him."
"Alfred, be patient. It was too late."
"What, is she hurt seriously? Is she disfigured?"
"No, Alfred," said Julia solemnly; "she is not disfigured; oh far from that."
"Julia, you alarm me. This comes of shutting her brother up. May Heaven's eternal curse light on those who did it. My poor little sister! How you weep, Julia. My heart is lead."
"I weep for you, darling, not for her."
"Ah, that is how they talk when those we love are — — One word! I shall never see my poor little Jenny again; shall I?"
"Yes, Alfred; if you will but follow her steps and believe in Him, who soothed her last hour, and made her face shine with joy like an angel's while we all wept around. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear, he said he had but one true friend in the world. Alas it is so; you have but me now, who pity you and love you more than heart can utter; my own, my beloved, my bereaved."
What could soften such a shock as this? It fell, and his anguish was frightful, all the more so that he ascribed the calamity to his imprisonment, and mingled curses and threats of vengeance with his bursts of grief. He spurned the consolations of religion: he said heaven was as unjust as earth, as cruel as hell.
She cried out and stopped his mouth with her hand; she almost forced him to kneel beside her, and prayed aloud for him: and when at last his agony found vent in tears, she put her innocent arms round his neck and wept with him.
Every now and then the poor fellow would almost shriek with remorse. "Oh, if I had only been kinder to her! if I had but been kinder to her!"
"You were kind to her," said Julia softly, but firmly. "Oh, no; I was always sneering at her. And why? I knew her religion was sincere: but my little mind fixed on a few phrases she had picked up from others, and I — — " He could say no more, but groaned with anguish. And let his remorse be a caution to us all. Bereaved we all must be, who live on and on: but this, bereavement's bitterest drop, we may avoid.
"Alfred," said Julia, "do not torment yourself. We girls care little about a few sarcasms; it is the cold heart that wounds us. You loved Jane, and she knew it well, and joyed in it. You were kinder to her than you think, and so her dying thoughts were for you. It was for you she asked, and made your father send for you, and poor I hoped you would come. And, dearest, her last act was to write a few words to you, and trust them to her who she knew loved you better than heart can utter. Since it was her wish, let us try and read them together, the last words of a saint (I have never seen them), and, if they do not prove words of love, then I will let you think you were not a good brother to her you and I, and poor, poor Edward, have lost."
He made a sad sign of assent; and Julia rose and got the enclosure. But, as Jane's last written words reappeared on the scene in a somewhat remarkable way, I will only say here, that both these poor young things tried in vain to read them, and both in turn burst out sobbing, so that they could not: so they held the paper and tried to see the words out of their streaming eyes. And these two mourners had the room to themselves till midnight; for even Mrs. Dodd's hostility respected Alfred then; and as for Julia, she was one of those who rise with the occasion: she was half wife, half angel from Heaven to her bereaved lover through all those bitter hours.