I took up my hat. In mercy to HER - yes! I can honestly say it - in mercy to HER, I turned away without a word, and opened the door by which I had entered the room.
She followed, and snatched the door out of my hand; she closed it, and pointed back to the place that I had left.
"No!" she said. "Not yet! It seems that I owe a justification of my conduct to you. You shall stay and hear it. Or you shall stoop to the lowest infamy of all, and force your way out."
It wrung my heart to see her; it wrung my heart to hear her. I answered by a sign - it was all I could do - that I submitted myself to her will.
The crimson flush of anger began to fade out of her face, as I went back, and took my chair in silence. She waited a little, and steadied herself. When she went on, but one sign of feeling was discernible in her. She spoke without looking at me. Her hands were fast clasped in her lap, and her eyes were fixed on the ground.
"I ought to have done you the common justice to explain myself," she said, repeating my own words. "You shall see whether I did try to do you justice, or not. I told you just now that I never slept, and never returned to my bed, after you had left my sitting-room. It's useless to trouble you by dwelling on what I thought - you would not understand my thoughts - I will only tell you what I did, when time enough had passed to help me to recover myself. I refrained from alarming the house, and telling everybody what had happened - as I ought to have done. In spite of what I had seen, I was fond enough of you to believe - no matter what! - any impossibility, rather than admit it to my own mind that you were deliberately a thief. I thought and thought - and I ended in writing to you."
"I never received the letter."
"I know you never received it. Wait a little, and you shall hear why. My letter would have told you nothing openly. It would not have ruined you for life, if it had fallen into some other person's hands. It would only have said - in a manner which you yourself could not possibly have mistaken - that I had reason to know you were in debt, and that it was in my experience and in my mother's experience of you, that you were not very discreet, or very scrupulous about how you got money when you wanted it. You would have remembered the visit of the French lawyer, and you would have known what I referred to. If you had read on with some interest after that, you would have come to an offer I had to make to you - the offer, privately (not a word, mind, to be said openly about it between us!), of the loan of as large a sum of money as I could get. - And I would have got it!" she exclaimed, her colour beginning to rise again, and her eyes looking up at me once more. "I would have pledged the Diamond myself, if I could have got the money in no other way! In those words I wrote to you. Wait! I did more than that. I arranged with Penelope to give you the letter when nobody was near. I planned to shut myself into my bedroom, and to have the sitting-room left open and empty all the morning. And I hoped - with all my heart and soul I hoped! - that you would take the opportunity, and put the Diamond back secretly in the drawer."
I attempted to speak. She lifted her hand impatiently, and stopped me. In the rapid alternations of her temper, her anger was beginning to rise again. She got up from her chair, and approached me.
"I know what you are going to say," she went on. "You are going to remind me again that you never received my letter. I can tell you why. I tore it up.
"For what reason?" I asked.
"For the best of reasons. I preferred tearing it up to throwing it away upon such a man as you! What was the first news that reached me in the morning? Just as my little plan was complete, what did I hear? I heard that you - you!!! - were the foremost person in the house in fetching the police. You were the active man; you were the leader; you were working harder than any of them to recover the jewel! You even carried your audacity far enough to ask to speak to ME about the loss of the Diamond - the Diamond which you yourself had stolen; the Diamond which was all the time in your own hands! After that proof of your horrible falseness and cunning, I tore up my letter. But even then - even when I was maddened by the searching and questioning of the policeman, whom you had sent in - even then, there was some infatuation in my mind which wouldn't let me give you up. I said to myself, 'He has played his vile farce before everybody else in the house. Let me try if he can play it before me.' Somebody told me you were on the terrace. I went down to the terrace. I forced myself to look at you; I forced myself to speak to you. Have you forgotten what I said?"
I might have answered that I remembered every word of it. But what purpose, at that moment, would the answer have served?
How could I tell her that what she had said had astonished me, had distressed me, had suggested to me that she was in a state of dangerous nervous excitement, had even roused a moment's doubt in my mind whether the loss of the jewel was as much a mystery to her as to the rest of us - but had never once given me so much as a glimpse at the truth? Without the shadow of a proof to produce in vindication of my innocence, how could I persuade her that I knew no more than the veriest stranger could have known of what was really in her thoughts when she spoke to me on the terrace?
"It may suit your convenience to forget; it suits my convenience to remember," she went on. "I know what I said - for I considered it with myself, before I said it. I gave you one opportunity after another of owning the truth. I left nothing unsaid that I COULD say - short of actually telling you that I knew you had committed the theft. And all the return you made, was to look at me with your vile pretence of astonishment, and your false face of innocence - just as you have looked at me to-day; just as you are looking at me now! I left you, that morning, knowing you at last for what you were - for what you are - as base a wretch as ever walked the earth!"
"If you had spoken out at the time, you might have left me, Rachel, knowing that you had cruelly wronged an innocent man."
"If I had spoken out before other people," she retorted, with another burst of indignation, "you would have been disgraced for life! If I had spoken out to no ears but yours, you would have denied it, as you are denying it now! Do you think I should have believed you? Would a man hesitate at a lie, who had done what I saw YOU do - who had behaved about it afterwards, as I saw YOU behave? I tell you again, I shrank from the horror of hearing you lie, after the horror of seeing you thieve. You talk as if this was a misunderstanding which a few words might have set right! Well! the misunderstanding is at an end. Is the thing set right? No! the thing is just where it was. I don't believe you NOW! I don't believe you found the nightgown, I don't believe in Rosanna Spearman's letter, I don't believe a word you have said. You stole it - I saw you! You affected to help the police - I saw you! You pledged the Diamond to the money-lender in London - I am sure of it! You cast the suspicion of your disgrace (thanks to my base silence!) on an innocent man! You fled to the Continent with your plunder the next morning! After all that vileness, there was but one thing more you COULD do. You could come here with a last falsehood on your lips - you could come here, and tell me that I have wronged you!"
If I had stayed a moment more, I know not what words might have escaped me which I should have remembered with vain repentance and regret. I passed by her, and opened the door for the second time. For the second time - with the frantic perversity of a roused woman - she caught me by the arm, and barred my way out.
"Let me go, Rachel" I said. "It will be better for both of us. Let me go."
The hysterical passion swelled in her bosom - her quickened convulsive breathing almost beat on my face, as she held me back at the door.
"Why did you come here?" she persisted, desperately. "I ask you again - why did you come here? Are you afraid I shall expose you? Now you are a rich man, now you have got a place in the world, now you may marry the best lady in the land - are you afraid I shall say the words which I have never said yet to anybody but you? I can't say the words! I can't expose you! I am worse, if worse can be, than you are yourself." Sobs and tears burst from her. She struggled with them fiercely; she held me more and more firmly. "I can't tear you out of my heart," she said, "even now! You may trust in the shameful, shameful weakness which can only struggle against you in this way!" She suddenly let go of me - she threw up her hands, and wrung them frantically in the air. "Any other woman living would shrink from the disgrace of touching him!" she exclaimed. "Oh, God! I despise myself even more heartily than I despise HIM!"
The tears were forcing their way into my eyes in spite of me - the horror of it was to be endured no longer.
"You shall know that you have wronged me, yet," I said. "Or you shall never see me again!"
With those words, I left her. She started up from the chair on which she had dropped the moment before: she started up - the noble creature! - and followed me across the outer room, with a last merciful word at parting.
"Franklin!" she said, "I forgive you! Oh, Franklin, Franklin! we shall never meet again. Say you forgive ME!"
I turned, so as to let my face show her that I was past speaking - I turned, and waved my hand, and saw her dimly, as in a vision, through the tears that had conquered me at last.
The next moment, the worst bitterness of it was over. I was out in the garden again. I saw her, and heard her, no more.