Hugh thought afterwards that if her arms had not been round him, if he had been a little distance from her, he might have told her the truth. He owed it to her, this woman who was the very soul of truth. But if she had withdrawn from him, however gently, in the moment when her tenderness had, for the first time, vanquished her natural reserve, if she had taken herself away then, he could not have borne it. In deep repentance after Lord Newhaven’s death, he had vowed that from that day forward he would never deviate again from the path of truth and honor, however difficult it might prove. But this frightful moment had come upon him unawares. He drew back instinctively, giddy and unnerved, as from a chasm yawning suddenly among the flowers, one step in front of him. He was too stunned to think. When he rallied they were standing together on the hearth-rug, and she was saying—he did not know what she was saying, for he was repeating over and over again to himself, “The moment is past. The moment is past.”
At last her words conveyed some meaning to him.
“We will never speak of this again, my friend,” she said; “but now that no harm can be done by it, it seemed right to tell you I knew.”
“I ought never to have drawn,” said Hugh, hoarsely.
“No,” said Rachel. “He was in fault to demand such a thing. It was inhuman. But having once drawn he had to abide by it, as you would have done if you had drawn the short lighter.”
She was looking earnestly at him, as at one given back from the grave.
“Yes,” said Hugh, feeling she expected him to speak. “If I had drawn it I should have had to abide by it.”
“I thank God continually that you did not draw it. You made him the dreadful reparation he asked. If it recoiled upon himself you were not to blame. You have done wrong, and you have repented. You have suffered, Hugh. I know it by your face. And perhaps I have suffered too, but that is past. We will shut up the past, and think of the future. Promise me that you will never speak of this again.”
“I promise,” said Hugh, mechanically.
“The moment to speak is past,” he said to himself.
Had it ever been present?
Dieu n’oublie personne. Il visite tout le monde.—VINET.
Hugh did not sleep that night.
His escape had been too narrow. He shivered at the mere thought of it. It had never struck him as possible that Rachel and Lady Newhaven had known of the drawing of lots. Now that he found they knew, sundry small incidents, unnoticed at the time, came crowding back to his memory. That was why Lady Newhaven had written so continually those letters which he had burned unread. That was why she had made that desperate attempt to see him in the smoking-room at Wilderleigh after the boating accident. She wanted to know which had drawn the short lighter. That explained the mysterious tension which Hugh had noticed in Rachel during the last days in London before—before the time was up. He saw it all now. And, of course, they naturally supposed that Lord Newhaven had committed suicide. They could not think otherwise. They were waiting for one of the two men to do it.