“Do you know that you nearly killed her?” he asked, his voice softening.
“I have known that it might be so. Had any atonement lain in my power; any means by which her grief might have been soothed; I would have gone to the ends of the earth to accomplish it. I would even have died if it could have done good. But, of all the world, I alone might attempt nothing. For myself I have spent the years in misery; not on that score,” he hastened to add in his truth, and a thought crossed Dr. Ashton that he must allude to unhappiness with his wife—“on another. If it will be any consolation to know it—if you might accept it as even the faintest shadow of atonement—I can truly say that few have gone through the care that I have, and lived. Anne has been amply avenged.”
The Rector laid his hand on the slender fingers, hot with fever, whiter than they ought to be, betraying life’s inward care. He forgave him from that moment; and forgiveness with Dr. Ashton meant the full meaning of the word.
“You were always your own enemy, Val.”
“Ay. Heaven alone knows the extent of my folly; and of my punishment.”
From that hour Lord Hartledon and the Rectory were not total strangers to each other. He called there once in a way, rarely seeing any one but the doctor; now and then Mrs. Ashton; by chance, Anne. Times and again was it on Val’s lips to confide to Dr. Ashton the nature of the sin upon his conscience; but his innate sensitiveness, the shame it would reflect upon him, stepped in and sealed the secret.
Meanwhile, perhaps he and his wife had never lived on terms of truer cordiality. There were no secrets between them: and let me tell you that is one of the keys to happiness in married life. Whatever the past had been, Lady Hartledon appeared to condone it; at least she no longer openly resented it to her husband. It is just possible that a shadow of the future, a prevision of the severing of the tie, very near now, might have been unconsciously upon her, guiding her spirit to meekness, if not yet quite to peace. Lord Hartledon thought she was growing strong; and, save that she would rather often go into a passion of hysterical tears as she clasped her children to her, particularly the boy, her days passed calmly enough. She indulged the children beyond all reason, and it was of no use for their father to interfere. Once when he stepped in to prevent it, she flew out almost like a tigress, asking what business it was of his, that he should dare to come between her and them. The lesson was an effectual one; and he never interfered again. But the indulgence was telling on the boy’s naturally haughty disposition; and not for good.
IN THE PARK.