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A Lady of Quality Frances Hodgson Burnett

Wherein a noble life comes to an end

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"Anne," she said, "I am going to rate my woman and turn her from my service. I shall not beat or swear at her as I was wont to do with my women in time past. You will be afraid, perhaps; but you must stay with me."

She was standing by the fire with the letter held almost at arm's length in her finger-tips, when the woman entered, who, seeing her face, turned pale, and casting her eyes upon the letter, paler still, and began to shake.

"You have attended mistresses of other ways than mine," her lady said in her slow, clear voice, which seemed to cut as knives do. "Some fool and madman has bribed you to serve him. You cannot serve me also. Come hither and put this in the fire. If 'twere to be done I would make you hold it in the live coals with your hand."

The woman came shuddering, looking as if she thought she might be struck dead. She took the letter and kneeled, ashen pale, to burn it. When 'twas done, her mistress pointed to the door.

"Go and gather your goods and chattels together, and leave within this hour," she said. "I will be my own tirewoman till I can find one who comes to me honest."

When she was gone, Anne sat gazing at the ashes on the hearth. She was pale also.

"Sister," she said, "do you--"

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"Yes," answered my lady. "'Tis a man who loved me, a cur and a knave. He thought for an hour he was cured of his passion. I could have told him 'twould spring up and burn more fierce than ever when he saw another man possess me. 'Tis so with knaves and curs; and 'tis so with him. He hath gone mad again."

"Ay, mad!" cried Anne--"mad, and base, and wicked!"

Clorinda gazed at the ashes, her lips curling.

"He was ever base," she said--"as he was at first, so he is now. 'Tis thy favourite, Anne," lightly, and she delicately spurned the blackened tinder with her foot--"thy favourite, John Oxon."

Mistress Anne crouched in her seat and hid her face in her thin hands.

"Oh, my lady!" she cried, not feeling that she could say "sister," "if he be base, and ever was so, pity him, pity him! The base need pity more than all."

For she had loved him madly, all unknowing her own passion, not presuming even to look up in his beautiful face, thinking of him only as the slave of her sister, and in dead secrecy knowing strange things--strange things! And when she had seen the letter she had known the handwriting, and the beating of her simple heart had well-nigh strangled her--for she had seen words writ by him before.

* * *

When Dunstanwolde and his lady went back to their house in town, Mistress Anne went with them. Clorinda willed that it should be so. She made her there as peaceful and retired a nest of her own as she had given to her at Dunstanwolde. By strange good fortune Barbara had been wedded to a plain gentleman, who, being a widower with children, needed a help-meet in his modest household, and through a distant relationship to Mistress Wimpole, encountered her charge, and saw in her meekness of spirit the thing which might fall into the supplying of his needs. A beauty or a fine lady would not have suited him; he wanted but a housewife and a mother for his orphaned children, and this, a young woman who had lived straitly, and been forced to many contrivances for mere decency of apparel and ordinary comfort, might be trained to become.

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A Lady of Quality
Frances Hodgson Burnett

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