Mrs. Vesey was the nearest to the door, and the first to shake hands with me.
"I shall not see you again, Mr. Hartright," said the old lady. "I am truly sorry you are going away. You have been very kind and attentive, and an old woman like me feels kindness and attention. I wish you happy, sir--I wish you a kind good-bye."
Mr. Gilmore came next.
"I hope we shall have a future opportunity of bettering our acquaintance, Mr. Hartright. You quite understand about that little matter of business being safe in my hands? Yes, yes, of course. Bless me, how cold it is! Don't let me keep you at the door. Bon voyage, my dear sir--bon voyage, as the French say."
Miss Halcombe followed.
Miss Fairlie came last. I could not trust myself to look at her when I took her hand, and when I thought of the next morning.
"My departure must be a very early one," I said. "I shall be gone, Miss Fairlie, before you----"
"No, no," she interposed hastily, "not before I am out of my room. I shall be down to breakfast with Marian. I am not so ungrateful, not so forgetful of the past three months----"
Her voice failed her, her hand closed gently round mine--then dropped it suddenly. Before I could say "Good-night" she was gone.
The end comes fast to meet me--comes inevitably, as the light of the last morning came at Limmeridge House.
It was barely half-past seven when I went downstairs, but I found them both at the breakfast-table waiting for me. In the chill air, in the dim light, in the gloomy morning silence of the house, we three sat down together, and tried to eat, tried to talk. The struggle to preserve appearances was hopeless and useless, and I rose to end it.
As I held out my hand, as Miss Halcombe, who was nearest to me, took it, Miss Fairlie turned away suddenly and hurried from the room.
"Better so," said Miss Halcombe, when the door had closed--"better so, for you and for her."
I waited a moment before I could speak--it was hard to lose her, without a parting word or a parting look. I controlled myself--I tried to take leave of Miss Halcombe in fitting terms; but all the farewell words I would fain have spoken dwindled to one sentence.
"Have I deserved that you should write to me?" was all I could say.
"You have nobly deserved everything that I can do for you, as long as we both live. Whatever the end is you shall know it."
"And if I can ever be of help again, at any future time, long after the memory of my presumption and my folly is forgotten . . ."
I could add no more. My voice faltered, my eyes moistened in spite of me.
She caught me by both hands--she pressed them with the strong, steady grasp of a man--her dark eyes glittered--her brown complexion flushed deep--the force and energy of her face glowed and grew beautiful with the pure inner light of her generosity and her pity.
"I will trust you--if ever the time comes I will trust you as my friend and HER friend, as my brother and HER brother." She stopped, drew me nearer to her--the fearless, noble creature-- touched my forehead, sister-like, with her lips, and called me by my Christian name. "God bless you, Walter!" she said. "Wait here alone and compose yourself--I had better not stay for both our sakes--I had better see you go from the balcony upstairs."
She left the room. I turned away towards the window, where nothing faced me but the lonely autumn landscape--I turned away to master myself, before I too left the room in my turn, and left it for ever.
A minute passed--it could hardly have been more--when I heard the door open again softly, and the rustling of a woman's dress on the carpet moved towards me. My heart beat violently as I turned round. Miss Fairlie was approaching me from the farther end of the room.
She stopped and hesitated when our eyes met, and when she saw that we were alone. Then, with that courage which women lose so often in the small emergency, and so seldom in the great, she came on nearer to me, strangely pale and strangely quiet, drawing one hand after her along the table by which she walked, and holding something at her side in the other, which was hidden by the folds of her dress.
"I only went into the drawing-room," she said, "to look for this. It may remind you of your visit here, and of the friends you leave behind you. You told me I had improved very much when I did it, and I thought you might like----"
She turned her head away, and offered me a little sketch, drawn throughout by her own pencil, of the summer-house in which we had first met. The paper trembled in her hand as she held it out to me--trembled in mine as I took it from her.
I was afraid to say what I felt--I only answered, "It shall never leave me--all my life long it shall be the treasure that I prize most. I am very grateful for it--very grateful to you, for not letting me go away without bidding you good-bye."
"Oh!" she said innocently, "how could I let you go, after we have passed so many happy days together!"
"Those days may never return, Miss Fairlie--my way of life and yours are very far apart. But if a time should come, when the devotion of my whole heart and soul and strength will give you a moment's happiness, or spare you a moment's sorrow, will you try to remember the poor drawing-master who has taught you? Miss Halcombe has promised to trust me--will you promise too?"
The farewell sadness in the kind blue eyes shone dimly through her gathering tears.
"I promise it," she said in broken tones. "Oh, don't look at me like that! I promise it with all my heart."
I ventured a little nearer to her, and held out my hand.
"You have many friends who love you, Miss Fairlie. Your happy future is the dear object of many hopes. May I say, at parting, that it is the dear object of MY hopes too?"
The tears flowed fast down her cheeks. She rested one trembling hand on the table to steady herself while she gave me the other. I took it in mine--I held it fast. My head drooped over it, my tears fell on it, my lips pressed it--not in love; oh, not in love, at that last moment, but in the agony and the self- abandonment of despair.
"For God's sake, leave me!" she said faintly.
The confession of her heart's secret burst from her in those pleading words. I had no right to hear them, no right to answer them--they were the words that banished me, in the name of her sacred weakness, from the room. It was all over. I dropped her hand, I said no more. The blinding tears shut her out from my eyes, and I dashed them away to look at her for the last time. One look as she sank into a chair, as her arms fell on the table, as her fair head dropped on them wearily. One farewell look, and the door had closed upon her--the great gulf of separation had opened between us--the image of Laura Fairlie was a memory of the past already.
The End of Hartright's Narrative.