The year passed - and the end came. Not the end as you may have anticipated it, or as I might have foreboded it.
You remember the time when your letters from home informed you of the fatal termination of our mother's illness? It is the time of which I am now speaking. A few hours only before she breathed her last, she called me to her bedside, and desired that we might be left together alone. Reminding me that her death was near, she spoke of my prospects in life; she noticed my want of interest in the studies which were then supposed to be engaging my attention, and she ended by entreating me to reconsider my refusal to enter the Church.
'Your father's heart is set upon it,' she said. 'Do what I ask of you, my dear, and you will help to comfort him when I am gone.'
Her strength failed her: she could say no more. Could I refuse the last request she would ever make to me? I knelt at the bedside, and took her wasted hand in mine, and solemnly promised her the respect which a son owes to his mother's last wishes.
Having bound myself by this sacred engagement, I had no choice but to accept the sacrifice which it imperatively exacted from me. The time had come when I must tear myself free from all unworthy associations. No matter what the effort cost me, I must separate myself at once and forever from the unhappy woman who was not, who never could be, my wife.
At the close of a dull foggy day I set forth with a heavy heart to say the words which were to part us forever.
Her lodging was not far from the banks of the Thames. As I drew near the place the darkness was gathering, and the broad surface of the river was hidden from me in a chill white mist. I stood for a while, with my eyes fixed on the vaporous shroud that brooded over the flowing water - I stood and asked myself in despair the one dreary question: 'What am I to say to her?'
The mist chilled me to the bones. I turned from the river-bank, and made my way to her lodgings hard by. 'It must be done!' I said to myself, as I took out my key and opened the house door.
She was not at her work, as usual, when I entered her little sitting-room. She was standing by the fire, with her head down and with an open letter in her hand.
The instant she turned to meet me, I saw in her face that something was wrong. Her ordinary manner was the manner of an unusually placid and self-restrained person. Her temperament had little of the liveliness which we associate in England with the French nature. She was not ready with her laugh; and in all my previous experience, I had never yet known her to cry. Now, for the first time, I saw the quiet face disturbed; I saw tears in the pretty brown eyes. She ran to meet me, and laid her head on my breast, and burst into a passionate fit of weeping that shook her from head to foot.
Could she by any human possibility have heard of the coming change in my life? Was she aware, before I had opened my lips, of the hard necessity which had brought me to the house?
It was simply impossible; the thing could not be.
I waited until her first burst of emotion had worn itself out. Then I asked - with an uneasy conscience, with a sinking heart - what had happened to distress her.
She drew herself away from me, sighing heavily, and gave me the open letter which I had seen in her hand.
'Read that,' she said. 'And remember I told you what might happen when we first met.'
I read the letter.
It was signed in initials only; but the writer plainly revealed himself as the man who had deserted her. He had repented; he had returned to her. In proof of his penitence he was willing to do her the justice which he had hitherto refused - he was willing to marry her, on the condition that she would engage to keep the marriage a secret, so long as his parents lived. Submitting this proposal, he waited to know whether she would consent, on her side, to forgive and forget.
I gave her back the letter in silence. This unknown rival had done me the service of paving the way for our separation. In offering her the atonement of marriage, he had made it, on my part, a matter of duty to her, as well as to myself, to say the parting words. I felt this instantly. And yet, I hated him for helping me.
She took my hand, and led me to the sofa. We sat down, side by side. Her face was composed to a sad tranquillity. She was quiet; she was herself again.
'I have refused to see him, she said, 'until I had first spoken to you. You have read his letter. What do you say?'
I could make but one answer. It was my duty to tell her what my own position was in the plainest terms. I did my duty - leaving her free to decide on the future for herself. Those sad words said, it was useless to prolong the wretchedness of our separation. I rose, and took her hand for the last time.
I see her again now, at that final moment, as plainly as if it had happened yesterday. She had been suffering from an affection of the throat; and she had a white silk handkerchief tied loosely round her neck. She wore a simple dress of purple merino, with a black-silk apron over it. Her face was deadly pale; her fingers felt icily cold as they closed round my hand.
'Promise me one thing,' I said, 'before I go. While I live, I am your friend - if I am nothing more. If you are ever in trouble, promise that you will let me know it.'
She started, and drew back from me as if I had struck her with a sudden terror.
'Strange!' she said, speaking to herself. 'He feels as I feel. He is afraid of what may happen to me, in my life to come.'
I attempted to reassure her. I tried to tell her what was indeed the truth - that I had only been thinking of the ordinary chances and changes of life, when I spoke.
She paid no heed to me; she came back and put her hands on my shoulders and thoughtfully and sadly looked up in my face.
'My mind is not your mind in this matter,' she said. 'I once owned to you that I had my forebodings, when we first spoke of this man's return. I may tell you now, more than I told you then. I believe I shall die young, and die miserably. If I am right, have you interest enough still left in me to wish to hear of it?'
She paused, shuddering - and added these startling words:
'You shall hear of it.'
The tone of steady conviction in which she spoke alarmed and distressed me. My face showed her how deeply and how painfully I was affected.
'There, there!' she said, returning to her natural manner; 'don't take what I say too seriously. A poor girl who has led a lonely life like mine thinks strangely and talks strangely - sometimes. Yes; I give you my promise. If I am ever in trouble, I will let you know it. God bless you - you have been very kind to me - good-by!'
A tear dropped on my face as she kissed me. The door closed between us. The dark street received me.
It was raining heavily. I looked up at her window, through the drifting shower. The curtains were parted: she was standing in the gap, dimly lit by the lamp on the table behind her, waiting for our last look at each other. Slowly lifting her hand, she waved her farewell at the window, with the unsought native grace which had charmed me on the night when we first met. The curtain fell again - she disappeared - nothing was before me, nothing was round me, but the darkness and the night.