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   Chapter 20 I AM THE VICTIM

The Yellow House By E. Phillips Oppenheim Characters: 7636

Updated: 2017-12-06 00:03


I rose to my feet and stood apart from her. For a moment it was like the end of the world-like the end of all sensation. I was trembling in every limb. I believe that I gasped for breath. She sat and looked at me. When I spoke my voice seemed to come from a long distance. I did not recognize it. My sense of my own identity seemed confused.

"I am the victim, then-the unhappy victim of your miserable theories!" I cried.

"And you are-oh! my God!-you are the weak spot in a faith of which I was once an ardent disciple," she said, quietly. "You made all the difference. When you came I knew that I had sinned. All my arguments seemed suddenly weak and impotent when I strove to bring them to bear upon the face of your existence."

"You should have married him-at once," I cried.

"It was too late," she answered. "He had separated himself from me forever by entering a profession which I despised. He had entered the Church."

A horrible thought flashed into my mind.

"The other man," I whispered, with burning cheeks, for she was my mother.

She pointed out of the window-pointed along that narrow, hateful path which threaded the plantation.

"He is dead," she faltered. "He died-there!"

By this time my sense of horror was almost numbed. I could speak almost calmly. I felt as though I was standing on the world's edge. Nothing more mattered. The end had come.

"My father killed him," I said, almost calmly.

She looked away from me and fixed her eyes upon a particular spot in the carpet.

"Ask no questions, child," she said, sadly. "You know enough now. There were some things which it were wiser for you not to know."

"It is true," I cried, bitterly. "I have learned enough for one afternoon-I have learned enough to make me miserable forever."

The woman covered her face with her hands. It were as though a spasm of inward pain had distorted her features. She was suffering terribly. Yet at that time I had no thoughts of any pity. I was merciless.

"You have learned what has given you pain to hear, and what has given me much pain to confess," she said, slowly. "Confess," she repeated, slowly, and with unutterable bitterness. "That is a hateful word. I never foresaw the time when I should have to use it-to my own daughter! When one is young one is proud."

"You were short-sighted," I said, brutally.

Again she bowed her head and suffered. But what did I care? I was no heroine, and I never laid any claim to gentleness of disposition or great unselfishness. I was simply an ordinary human being, confronted with a great humiliation. My heart was closed to hers. The wrong to myself seemed to loom above everything else. The interruption that was at hand was perhaps merciful. I might have said things which afterwards I should have blushed to have remembered. But at that moment there came a sound of voices in the hall. Bruce Deville was there and Miss Berdenstein.

We both rose up. Her coming was a surprise to us. She entered by his side in some embarrassment. Mr. Deville proceeded to explain her presence.

"I met Miss Berdenstein here, and persuaded her to come in with me," he said, in a brusque, matter of fact tone. "I took the liberty of assuring her that you would be glad to see her."

"You did quite right," Adelaide Fortress said, calmly. "I am very glad to see her."

She greeted the girl kindly, but in a subdued manner. As for me, I shook hands with her coldly and under protest. I was very much surprised that she should have come here, even at the instigation of Bruce Deville.

"I hope we are not too late for tea," he remarked, glancing around the room.

Adelaide Fortress rang the bell. I smiled faintly at a certain irony in the thought called up by his question. I had shaken hands with the girl unwillingly. We were to be

enemies. I was sure of that, and I preferred open warfare.

Tea was brought in, and a little general conversation was started, in which I took no part. Presently he came over to my side. The other two were talking, the girl was relating some of her South American experiences to Adelaide Fortress, who was leaning back amongst the shadows.

"What made you bring her here," I asked, softly.

He shrugged his shoulders.

"Why not? It is better to be on friendly terms with her. We know then what she is going to do."

"So you appear to think," I remarked, with some emphasis. "You seem to be progressing wonderfully. I congratulate you."

He laughed in my face.

"Oh, she is not at all uninteresting," he declared. "If you had seen as much of her as I have the last few days you would find her enchanting."

I looked at her contemplatively. Her little person was almost lost in a huge sealskin coat, and her ungloved hands were blazing with diamonds. As she talked her white teeth (she had beautiful teeth) gleamed, and her black eyes flashed in their sallow setting. She was an odd-looking creature. Every now and then she darted swift, anxious glances towards us, once she paused and made a strenuous effort to overhear what we were saying. She need not have troubled herself. I barely heard what Bruce Deville was saying to me; my answers to him were purely mechanical. I was scarcely conscious whether it was indeed I who was sitting there within a few yards of that pale-faced, composed woman from whose lips only a few minutes ago I had heard that story which seemed to me yet like a dark, shadowy nightmare. The echoes of her passionate words seemed still lingering around the dimly lit room. Once or twice I raised my hand to my temples-my head was reeling. At last I could bear it no longer. The irony of small talk was too bitter. A sense of suffocation came over me. I rose to my feet and made my excuses.

Scarcely a word passed between the woman whom I had learned to know as Adelaide Fortress and myself. I touched her fingers, and they were as cold as ice. Then, with a single look at her dark eyes, I left the room.

Bruce Deville followed me out. The girl too had sprung up, and was making her hasty adieux. Before she could leave the room, however, Bruce Deville had reached my side.

"I am coming home with you, Miss Ffolliot," he said, in my ear.

I did not answer him. We were half-way down the path when Miss Berdenstein's shrill voice reached us.

"Mr. Deville!"

He paused. Involuntarily I stopped too.

"You will take me home, Mr. Deville, won't you?" she said. "I couldn't possibly find the way by myself; and, besides, I should be terrified to death. It is so dark. I should not have dreamed of staying so late if I had been alone."

He muttered something profane under his breath. I started to walk on.

"Won't you be here when I come back," he inquired, brusquely. "I was only going a few steps with Miss Ffolliot."

"I am quite ready to start now," she answered; "and I have said goodbye to Mrs. Fortress. I really don't see how I can stay any longer; and I dare not go a step alone. It is almost pitch dark. Shall I walk home with Miss Ffolliot and you first?"

I was almost out of hearing when she had finished, for at the commencement of her speech I had quickened my pace. When I clambered up the bank to reach the footpath I looked behind. They were walking along the road together-an oddly assorted couple. His shoulders were up-a bad sign-and he was taking long strides, to keep up with which she had almost to run, holding her skirts in both hands, and picking her way through the mud. Behind in the doorway of the Yellow House I saw a woman, pale and motionless, watching me with wistful, sorrowing eyes. But I turned my head and hurried away.

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