“You need never tell it; I shall not.”
He spoke quite quietly, quite patiently. Yet he well knew, and had well weighed, all he surrendered in that promise—the promise to condemn himself to a barren and hopeless fate forever.
“You will not?”
The question died almost inaudible on his dry, parched tongue. The one passion of fear upon him was for himself; even in that moment of supplication his disordered thoughts hovered wildly over the chances of whether, if his elder brother even now asserted his innocence and claimed his birthright, the world and its judges would ever believe him.
Cecil for a while again was silent, standing there by the newly made grave of the soldier who had been faithful as those of his own race and of his own Order never had been. His heart was full. The ingratitude and the self-absorption of this life for which his own had been destroyed smote him with a fearful suffering. And only a few hours before he had looked once more on the face of the beloved friend of his youth; a deadlier sacrifice than to lay down wealth, and name, and heritage, and the world’s love, was to live on, leaving that one comrade of his early days to believe him dead after a deed of shame.
His brother sank down on the mound of freshly flung earth, sinking his head upon his arms with a low moan. Time had not changed him greatly; it had merely made him more intensely desirous of the pleasures and the powers of life, more intensely abhorrent of pain, of censure, of the contempt of the world. As, to escape these in his boyhood, he had stooped to any degradation, so, to escape them in his manhood, he was capable of descending to any falsehood or any weakness. His was one of those natures which, having no love of evil for evil’s sake, still embrace any form of evil which may save them from the penalty of their own weakness. Now, thus meeting one who for twelve years he had believed must rise from the tomb itself to reproach or to accuse him, unstrung his every nerve, and left him with only one consciousness—the desire, at all costs, to be saved.
Cecil’s eyes rested on him with a strange, melancholy pity. He had loved his brother as a youth—loved him well enough to take and bear a heavy burden of disgrace in his stead. The old love was not dead; but stronger than itself was his hatred of the shame that had touched their race by the wretched crime that had driven him into exile, and his wondering scorn for the feeble and self-engrossed character that had lived contentedly under false colors, and with a hidden blot screened by a fictitious semblance of honor. He could not linger with him; he did not know how to support the intolerable pain that oppressed him in the presence of the only living creature of his race; he could not answer for himself what passionate and withering words might not escape him; every instant of their interview was a horrible temptation to him—the temptation to demand from this coward his own justification before the world—the temptation to seize out of those unworthy hands his birthright and his due.