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He was as pleasantly patient

There was nothing artificial in her tones or her looks; no acting could have imitated the sad sincerity with which she spoke. Touched by that change, Iris accompanied her as she ascended the stairs. After a little hesitation, Lord Harry followed them. Mrs. Vimpany turned on him when they reached the drawing-room landing. “Must I shut the door in your face?” she asked.

He was as pleasantly patient as ever:

“You needn’t take the trouble to do that, my dear; I’ll only ask your leave to sit down and wait on the stairs. When you have done with Miss Henley, just call me in. And, by the way, don’t be alarmed in case of a little noise — say a heavy man tumbling downstairs. If the blackguard it’s your misfortune to be married to happens to show himself, I shall be under the necessity of kicking him. That’s all.”

Mrs. Vimpany closed the door. She spoke to Iris respectfully, as she might have addressed a stranger occupying a higher rank in life than herself.

“There is an end, madam, to one short acquaintance; and, as we both know, an end to it for ever. When we first met — let me tell the truth at last!— I felt a malicious pleasure in deceiving you. After that time, I was surprised to find that you grew on my liking, Can you understand the wickedness that tried to resist you? It was useless; your good influence has been too strong for me. Strange, isn’t it? I have lived a life of deceit, among bad people. What could you expect of me, after that? I heaped lies on lies — I would have denied that the sun was in the heavens — rather than find myself degraded in your opinion. Well! that is all over — useless, quite useless now. Pray don’t mistake me. I am not attempting to excuse myself; a confession was due to you; the confession is made. It is too late to hope that you will forgive me. If you will permit it, I have only one favour to ask. Forget me.”

She turned away with a last hopeless look, who said as plainly as if in words: “I am not worth a reply.”

Generous Iris insisted on speaking to her.

“I believe you are truly sorry for what you have done,” she said; “I can never forget that — I can never forget You.” She held out her pitying hand. Mrs. Vimpany was too bitterly conscious of the past to touch it. Even a spy is not beneath the universal reach of the heartache. There were tears in the miserable woman’s eyes when she had looked her last at Iris Henley.

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The presence of a third

The presence of a third person seemed, in some degree, to relieve Lord Harry. He ran upstairs to salute Mrs. Vimpany, and was met again by a cold reception and a hostile look.

Strongly and strangely contrasted, the two confronted each other on the stairs. The faded woman, wan and ghastly under cruel stress of mental suffering, stood face to face with a fine, tall, lithe man, in the prime of his health and strength. Here were the bright blue eyes, the winning smile, and the natural grace of movement, which find their own way to favour in the estimation of the gentler sex. This irreclaimable wanderer among the perilous by-ways of the earth — christened “Irish blackguard,” among respectable members of society, when they spoke of him behind his back — attracted attention, even among the men. Looking at his daring, finely-formed face, they noticed (as an exception to a general rule, in these days) the total suppression, by the razor, of whiskers, moustache, and beard. Strangers wondered whether Lord Harry was an actor or a Roman Catholic priest. Among chance acquaintances, those few favourites of Nature who are possessed of active brains, guessed that his life of adventure might well have rendered disguise necessary to his safety, in more than one part of the world. Sometimes they boldly put the question to him. The hot temper of an Irishman, in moments of excitement, is not infrequently a sweet temper in moments of calm. What they called Lord Harry’s good-nature owned readily that he had been indebted, on certain occasions, to the protection of a false beard, And perhaps a colouring of his face and hair to match. The same easy disposition now asserted itself, under the merciless enmity of Mrs. Vimpany’s eyes. “If I have done anything to offend you,” he said, with an air of puzzled humility, “I’m sure I am sorry for it. Don’t be angry, Arabella, with an old friend. Why won’t you shake hands?”

“I have kept your secret, and done your dirty work,” Mrs. Vimpany replied. “And what is my reward? Miss Henley can tell you how your Irish blundering has ruined me in a lady’s estimation. Shake hands, indeed! You will never shake hands with Me again as long as you live!”

She said those words without looking at him; her eyes were resting on Iris now. From the moment when she had seen the two together, she knew that it was all over; further denial in the face of plain proofs would be useless indeed! Submission was the one alternative left.

“Miss Henley,” she said, “if you can feel pity for another woman’s sorrow and shame, let me have a last word with you — out of this man’s hearing.”

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Wilson with unwonted caresses

So passed away the first days of Alice’s widowhood. Bye-and-bye things subsided into their natural and tranquil course. But, as if this young creature was always to be in some heavy trouble, her ewe-lamb began to be ailing, pining and sickly. The child’s mysterious illness turned out to be some affection of the spine likely to affect health; but not to shorten life — at least so the doctors said. But the long dreary suffering of one whom a mother loves as Alice loved her only child, is hard to look forward to. Only Norah guessed what Alice suffered; no one but God knew.

And so it fell out, that when Mrs. Wilson, the elder, came to her one day in violent distress, occasioned by a very material diminution in the value the property that her husband had left her,— a diminution which made her income barely enough to support herself, much less Alice — the latter could hardly understand how anything which did not touch health or life could cause such grief; and she received the intelligence with irritating composure. But when, that afternoon, the little sick child was brought in, and the grandmother — who after all loved it well — began a fresh moan over her losses to its unconscious ears — saying how she had planned to consult this or that doctor, and to give it this or that comfort or luxury in after yearn but that now all chance of this had passed away — Alice’s heart was touched, and she drew near to Mrs. Wilson with unwonted caresses, and, in a spirit not unlike to that of, Ruth, entreated, that come what would, they might remain together. After much discussion in succeeding days, it was arranged that Mrs. Wilson should take a house in Manchester, furnishing it partly with what furniture she had, and providing the rest with Alice’s remaining two hundred pounds. Mrs. Wilson was herself a Manchester woman, and naturally longed to return to her native town. Some connections of her own at that time required lodgings, for which they were willing to pay pretty handsomely. Alice undertook the active superintendence and superior work of the household. Norah, willing faithful Norah, offered to cook, scour, do anything in short, so that, she might but remain with them.

The plan succeeded. For some years their first lodgers remained with them, and all went smoothly,— with the one sad exception of the little girl’s increasing deformity. How that mother loved that child, is not for words to tell!

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