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A Lady of Quality Frances Hodgson Burnett

The doves sate upon the window-ledge and lowly cooed and cooed

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"O God! O God! O God!" Clorinda cried, and over and over said the word, and over again.

"How was't--how was't?" Anne shuddered, clinging to her. "How was't 'twas done? I have so suffered, being weak--I have so prayed! God will have mercy--but it has done me to death, this knowledge, and before I die, I pray you tell me, that I may speak truly at God's throne."

"O God! O God! O God!" Clorinda groaned--"O God!" and having cried so, looking up, was blanched as a thing struck with death, her eyes like a great stag's that stands at bay.

"Stay, stay!" she cried, with a sudden shock of horror, for a new thought had come to her which, strangely, she had not had before. "You thought I MURDERED him?"

Convulsive sobs heaved Anne's poor chest, tears sweeping her hollow cheeks, her thin, soft hands clinging piteously to her sister's.

"Through all these years I have known nothing," she wept--"sister, I have known nothing but that I found him hidden there, a dead man, whom you so hated and so feared."

Her hands resting upon the bed's edge, Clorinda held her body upright, such passion of wonder, love, and pitying adoring awe in her large eyes as was a thing like to worship.

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"You thought I MURDERED him, and loved me still," she said. "You thought I murdered him, and still you shielded me, and gave me chance to live, and to repent, and know love's highest sweetness. You thought I murdered him, and yet your soul had mercy. Now do I believe in God, for only a God could make a heart so noble."

"And you--did not--" cried out Anne, and raised upon her elbow, her breast panting, but her eyes growing wide with light as from stars from heaven. "Oh, sister love--thanks be to Christ who died!"

The duchess rose, and stood up tall and great, her arms out-thrown.

"I think 'twas God Himself who did it," she said, "though 'twas I who struck the blow. He drove me mad and blind, he tortured me, and thrust to my heart's core. He taunted me with that vile thing Nature will not let women bear, and did it in my Gerald's name, calling on him. And then I struck with my whip, knowing nothing, not seeing, only striking, like a goaded dying thing. He fell--he fell and lay there--and all was done!"

"But not with murderous thought--only through frenzy and a cruel chance--a cruel, cruel chance. And of your own will blood is not upon your hand," Anne panted, and sank back upon her pillow.

"With deepest oaths I swear," Clorinda said, and she spoke through her clenched teeth, "if I had not loved, if Gerald had not been my soul's life and I his, I would have stood upright and laughed in his face at the devil's threats. Should I have feared? You know me. Was there a thing on earth or in heaven or hell I feared until love rent me. 'Twould but have fired my blood, and made me mad with fury that dares all. 'Spread it abroad!' I would have cried to him. 'Tell it to all the world, craven and outcast, whose vileness all men know, and see how I shall bear myself, and how I shall drive through the town with head erect. As I bore myself when I set the rose crown on my head, so shall I bear myself then. And you shall see what comes!' This would I have said, and held to it, and gloried. But I knew love, and there was an anguish that I could not endure--that my Gerald should look at me with changed eyes, feeling that somewhat of his rightful meed was gone. And I was all distraught and conquered. Of ending his base life I never thought, never at my wildest, though I had thought to end my own; but when Fate struck the blow for me, then I swore that carrion should not taint my whole life through. It should not--should not--for 'twas Fate's self had doomed me to my ruin. And there it lay until the night; for this I planned, that being of such great strength for a woman, I could bear his body in my arms to the farthest of that labyrinth of cellars I had commanded to be cut off from the rest and closed; and so I did when all were sleeping--but you, poor Anne--but you! And there I laid him, and there he lies to-day--an evil thing turned to a handful of dust."

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A Lady of Quality
Frances Hodgson Burnett

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