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|A Lady of Quality||Frances Hodgson Burnett|
The doves sate upon the window-ledge and lowly cooed and cooed
|Page 3 of 7||
"I lie upon the brink," she said--"upon the brink, sister, and methinks my soul is too near to God's pure justice to fear as human things fear, and judge as earth does. She said I did no wrong. Yes, I knew."
"And knowing," her sister cried, "you came to me THAT AFTERNOON!"
"To stand by that which lay hidden, that I might keep the rest away. Being a poor creature and timorous and weak--"
"Weak! weak!" the duchess cried, amid a greater flood of streaming tears--"ay, I have dared to call you so, who have the heart of a great lioness. Oh, sweet Anne--weak!"
"'Twas love," Anne whispered. "Your love was strong, and so was mine. That other love was not for me. I knew that my long woman's life would pass without it--for woman's life is long, alas! if love comes not. But you were love's self, and I worshipped you and it; and to myself I said--praying forgiveness on my knees--that one woman should know love if I did not. And being so poor and imperfect a thing, what mattered if I gave my soul for you--and love, which is so great, and rules the world. Look at the doves, sister, look at them, flying past the heavenly blueness--and she said I did no wrong."
Her hand was wet with tears fallen upon it, as her duchess sister knelt, and held and kissed it, sobbing.
"You knew, poor love, you knew!" she cried.
"Ay, all of it I knew," Anne said--"his torture of you and the madness of your horror. And when he forced himself within the Panelled Parlour that day of fate, I knew he came to strike some deadly blow; and in such anguish I waited in my chamber for the end, that when it came not, I crept down, praying that somehow I might come between--and I went in the room!"
"And there--what saw you?" quoth the duchess, shuddering. "Somewhat you must have seen, or you could not have known."
"Ay," said Anne, "and heard!" and her chest heaved.
"Heard!" cried Clorinda. "Great God of mercy!"
"The room was empty, and I stood alone. It was so still I was afraid; it seemed so like the silence of the grave; and then there came a sound--a long and shuddering breath--but one--and then--"
The memory brought itself too keenly back, and she fell a-shivering.
"I heard a slipping sound, and a dead hand fell on the floor-lying outstretched, its palm turned upwards, showing beneath the valance of the couch."
She threw her frail arms round her sister's neck, and as Clorinda clasped her own, breathing gaspingly, they swayed together.
"What did you then?" the duchess cried, in a wild whisper.
"I prayed God keep me sane--and knelt--and looked below. I thrust it back--the dead hand, saying aloud, 'Swoon you must not, swoon you must not, swoon you shall not--God help! God help!'--and I saw!-- the purple mark--his eyes upturned--his fair curls spread; and I lost strength and fell upon my side, and for a minute lay there-- knowing that shudder of breath had been the very last expelling of his being, and his hand had fallen by its own weight."
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|A Lady of Quality
Frances Hodgson Burnett
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