“Oh!” cried Julie, as though she had been struck, and hid her eyes with her hand.
Slowly, laboriously, Lady Henry dragged herself from step to step. As she turned the corner of the staircase, and could therefore be no longer seen from below, some one softly opened the door of the dining-room and entered the hall.
Julie looked round her, startled. She saw Jacob Delafield, who put his finger to his lip.
Moved by a sudden impulse, she bowed her head on the banister of the stairs against which she was leaning and broke into stifled sobs.
Jacob Delafield came up to her and took her hand. She felt his own tremble, and yet its grasp was firm and supporting.
“Courage!” he said, bending over her. “Try not to give way. You will want all your fortitude.”
“Listen!” She gasped, trying vainly to control herself, and they both listened to the sounds above them in the dark house—the labored breath, the slow, painful step.
“Oh, she wouldn’t let me help her. She said she would rather die. Perhaps I have killed her. And I could—I could—yes, I could have loved her.”
She was in an anguish of feeling—of sharp and penetrating remorse.
Jacob Delafield held her hand close in his, and when at last the sounds had died in the distance he lifted it to his lips.
“You know that I am your friend and servant,” he said, in a queer, muffled voice. “You promised I should be.”
She tried to withdraw her hand, but only feebly. Neither physically nor mentally had she the strength to repulse him. If he had taken her in his arms, she could hardly have resisted. But he did not attempt to conquer more than her hand. He stood beside her, letting her feel the whole mute, impetuous offer of his manhood—thrown at her feet to do what she would with.
Presently, when once more she moved away, he said to her, in a whisper:
“Go to the Duchess to-morrow morning, as soon as you can get away. She told me to say that—Hutton gave me a little note from her. Your home must be with her till we can all settle what is best. You know very well you have devoted friends. But now good-night. Try to sleep. Evelyn and I will do all we can with Lady Henry.”
Julie drew herself out of his hold. “Tell Evelyn I will come to see her, at any rate, as soon as I can put my things together. Good-night.”
And she, too, dragged herself up-stairs sobbing, starting at every shadow. All her nerve and daring were gone. The thought that she must spend yet another night under the roof of this old woman who hated her filled her with terror. When she reached her room she locked her door and wept for hours in a forlorn and aching misery.