Let Mercy once distrust a person in one particular, and she distrusted him in all. Let one act of his life be wrong, and she believed that his every act was wrong in motive, or in relation to others, however specious and fair it might be made to appear. All the old excuses and apologies she had been in the habit of making for Stephen’s insincerities to his mother and to the world seemed to her now less than nothing; and she wondered how she ever could have held them as sufficient. In vain her heart pleaded. In vain tender memories thrilled her, by their vivid recalling of hours, of moments, of looks and words. It was with a certain sense of remorse that she dwelt on them, of shame that she was conscious of clinging to them still. “I shall always love him, I am afraid,” she said to herself; “but I shall never trust him again,—never!”
And hour by hour Stephen was waiting and looking for his letter.
Stephen took Mercy’s letter from the post-office at night. It was one week past the time at which it would have reached him, if it had been written immediately on the receipt of his. Only too well he knew what the delay meant. He turned the letter over and over in his hand, and noted without surprise it was very light. The superscription was written with unusual care. Mercy’s handwriting was free and bold, but illegible, unless she made a special effort to write with care; and she never made that effort in writing to Stephen. How many times he had said to her: “Never mind how you write to me, dear. I read your sentences by another sense than the sense of sight.” This formally and neatly written, superscription smote him, as a formal bow and a chilling glance from Mercy would, if he had passed her on the street.
He carried the letter home unopened. All through the evening it lay like a leaden weight in his bosom, as he sat by his mother’s side. He dared not read it until he was sure of being able to be alone for hours. At last he was free. As he went upstairs to his room, he thought to himself, “This is the hour at which I used to fly to her, and find such welcome. A year ago to-night how happy we were!” With a strange disposition to put off the opening of the letter, he moved about his room, rearranged the books, lighted an extra lamp, and finally sat down in an arm-chair, and leaning both his arms on the table looked at the letter lying there so white, so still. He felt a preternatural consciousness of what was in it; and he shrank from looking at the words, as a condemned prisoner might shrink from reading his own death-warrant. The room was bitterly cold. Fires in bed-rooms were a luxury Stephen had never known. As he sat there, his body and heart seemed to be growing numb together. At last he said, “I may as well read it,” and took the letter up. As he opened it and read the first words, “My darling Stephen,” his heart gave a great bound. She loved him still.