For the right understanding of all that is to follow—strange as it may appear to the reader, we are only just at the beginning of the story—it may be necessary to go back to the house of Monsieur Plessis, and to trace the events of the past day, till we have brought them exactly down to that precise time Wilton was walking, as we have described, with a mist around him both moral and physical, upon the road between High Halstow and Cowley. We must even go beyond that, and introduce the reader into a lady’s bedchamber, on the morning of that day, as she was dressing herself after the night’s repose; though, indeed, repose it could scarcely be called, for those bright eyes had closed but for a short period during the darkness, and anxiety and grief had been the companions of her pillow. Yet it is not Lady Laura of whom we speak, but of that gentle-looking and beautiful lady whom we have described as sitting in the saloon of Plessis’s house, shortly before the conspirators assembled there.
Without any of the aids of dress or ornament, she was certainly a very beautiful being, and as, sitting before the glass, she drew out with her taper fingers the glossy curls of her rich dark hair, nothing could be more graceful than the attitudes into which the whole form was cast. Often as she did so, she would pause and meditate, leaning her head upon her hand for a moment or two. Sometimes she would raise her eyes imploringly towards Heaven, and once those eyes became full of tears. She wiped them away hastily, however, as if angry with herself for giving way, and then proceeded eagerly with the task of the toilet.
While she was thus engaged, some one knocked at the door, which she unlocked, and the next instant, another lady, to whom the reader has been already introduced, entered the chamber. It was the same person whom we have called the Lady Helen, in her interview with Wilton Brown; and there was still in the expression of her countenance that same look of tender melancholy which is generally left upon the face by long grief acting upon an amiable heart. It was, indeed, less the expression of a settled gloom on her own part, than of sympathy with the sorrows of others, rendered more active by sorrows endured herself. On the present occasion she had a note in her hand, which she held out towards the fair girl whom she had interrupted at her toilet, saying, with a faint smile, “There, Caroline—I hope it may bring you good news, dear girl.” The other took it eagerly, and broke the seal, with hands that trembled so much that they almost let the paper drop.
“Oh, Lady Helen,” cried the younger lady, while the colour came and went in her cheek, and her eyes sparkled, and then again nearly overflowed, “we must, indeed, we must stay over to-day. He says he will come down to see me this afternoon. Indeed we must stay; for it is my last chance, Helen dear, my last chance of happiness in life.”
“We will stay, of course, Caroline,” replied the other; “but I trust, my poor girl, that if you see him, you will act both wisely and firmly. Let him not move you to yield any farther than you have done; left him not move you, my sweet Caroline, to remain in a degrading and painful state of doubt. Act firmly, and as you proposed but yesterday, in order, at least, if you do no more, not to be, as it were, an accomplice in his ill-treatment of yourself.”