Chapter XXVI. "Never Too Late to Mend."
 

Meanwhile, Peg was passing her time wearily enough in prison. It was certainly provoking to be deprived of her freedom just when she was likely to make it most profitable. After some reflection, she determined to send for Mrs. Clifton, and reveal to her all she knew, trusting to her generosity for a recompense.

To one of the officers of the prison she communicated the intelligence that she had an important revelation to make to Mrs. Clifton, and absolutely refused to make it unless the lady would visit her in prison.

Scarcely had Mrs. Clifton returned home, after recovering her child, than the bell rang, and a stranger was introduced.

"Is this Mrs. Clifton?" he inquired.

"It is."

"Then I have a message for you."

The lady inclined her head.

"You must know, madam, that I am one of the officers connected with the City Prison. A woman was placed in confinement this morning, who says she has a most important communication to make to you, but declines to make it except to you in person."

"Can you bring her here, sir?"

"That is impossible. We will give you every facility, however, for visiting her in prison."

"It must be Peg," whispered Ida; "the woman that carried me off."

Such a request Mrs. Clifton could not refuse. She at once made ready to accompany the officer. She resolved to carry Ida with her, fearful that, unless she kept her in her immediate presence, she might disappear again as before.

As Jack had not yet returned, a hack was summoned, and they proceeded at once to the prison. Ida shuddered as she passed beneath the gloomy portal which shut out hope and the world from so many.

"This way, madam!"

They followed the officer through a gloomy corridor, until they came to the cell in which Peg was confined.

The tenant of the cell looked surprised to find Mrs. Clifton accompanied by Ida.

"How do you do, Ida?" she said, smiling grimly; "you see I've moved. Just tell your mother she can sit down on the bed. I'm sorry I haven't any rocking-chair or sofa to offer you."

"O Peg," said Ida, her tender heart melted by the woman's misfortunes; "how sorry I am to find you here!"

"Are you sorry?" asked Peg, looking at her in surprise.

"You haven't much cause to be. I've been your worst enemy, or one of the worst."

"I can't help it," said the child, her face beaming with a divine compassion; "it must be so sad to be shut up here, and not be able to go out into the bright sunshine. I do pity you."

Peg's heart was not wholly hardened. Few are. But it was long since it had been touched as it was now by this great pity on the part of one she had injured.

"You're a good girl, Ida," she said; "and I'm sorry I've injured you. I didn't think I should ever ask forgiveness of anybody; but I do ask your forgiveness."

The child rose, and advancing towards Peg, took her large hand in (sic) her's and said, "I forgive you, Peg."

"From your heart?"

"With all my heart."

"Thank you, child. I feel better now. There have been times when I thought I should like to lead a better life."

"It is not too late now, Peg."

Peg shook her head.

"Who will trust me after I have come from here?"

"I will," said Mrs. Clifton, speaking for the first time.

"You will?"

"Yes."

"And yet you have much to forgive. But it was not my plan to steal your daughter from you. I was poor, and money tempted me."

"Who could have had an interest in doing me this cruel wrong?"

"One whom you know well,--Mr. John Somerville."

"Surely, you are wrong!" exclaimed Mrs. Clifton, in unbounded astonishment. "It cannot be. What object could he have had?"

"Can you think of none?" queried Peg, looking at her shrewdly.

Mrs. Clifton changed color. "Perhaps so," she said. "Go on."

Peg told the whole story, so circumstantially, that there was no room left for doubt.

"I did not believe him capable of such wickedness," she ejaculated. "It was a base, unmanly revenge. How could you lend yourself to it?"

"How could I?" repeated Peg. "Madam, you are rich. You have always had whatever wealth could procure. How can you understand the temptations of the poor? When want and hunger stare us in the face, we have not the strength to resist that you have in your luxurious homes."

"Pardon me," said Mrs. Clifton, touched by these words, half bitter, half pathetic; "let me, at any rate, thank you for the service you have done me now. When you are released from your confinement, come to me. If you wish to change your mode of life and live honestly henceforth, I will give you the chance."

"You will!" said Peg, eagerly.

"I will."

"After all the injury I have done you, you will trust me still?"

"Who am I that I should condemn you? Yes, I will trust you, and forgive you."

"I never expected to hear such words," said Peg, her heart softened, and her arid eyes moistened by unwonted emotion, "least of all from you. I should like to ask one thing."

"What is it?"

"Will you let her come and see me sometimes?" she pointed to Ida as she spoke; "it will remind me that this is not all a dream--these words which you have spoken."

"She shall come," said Mrs. Clifton, "and I will come too, sometimes."

"Thank you," said Peg.

They left the prison behind them, and returned home.

"Mr. Somerville is in the drawing-room," said the servant. "He wishes to see you."

Mrs. Clifton's face flushed.

"I will go down," she said. "Ida, you will remain here."

She descended to the drawing-room, and met the man who had injured her. He had come with the resolve to stake his all upon a single cast. His fortunes were desperate. Through the mother's love for the daughter whom she had mourned so long, whom, as he believed he had it in his power to restore to her, he hoped to obtain her consent to a marriage, which would retrieve his fortunes, and gratify his ambition.

Mrs. Clifton seated herself quietly. She did not, as usual, offer him her hand. Full of his own plans, he did not notice this omission.

"How long is it since Ida was lost?" inquired Somerville.

Mrs. Clifton started in some surprise. She had not expected him to introduce this subject.

"Eight years," she said.

"And you believe she yet lives?"

"Yes, I am certain of it."

John Somerville did not understand her aright. He felt only that a mother never gives up hope.

"Yet it is a long time," he said.

"It is--a long time to suffer," she said. "How could any one have the heart to work me this great injury? For eight years I have led a sad and solitary life,--years that might have been made glad by Ida's presence."

There was something in her tone which puzzled John Somerville, but he was far enough from suspecting the truth.

"Rose," he said, after a pause. "Do you love your child well enough to make a sacrifice for the sake of recovering her?"

"What sacrifice?" she asked, fixing her eyes upon him.

"A sacrifice of your feelings."

"Explain. You talk in enigmas."

"Listen, then. I, too, believe Ida to be living. Withdraw the opposition you have twice made to my suit, promise me that you will reward my affection by your land if I succeed, and I will devote myself to the search for Ida, resting day nor night till I am able to place her in your arms. Then, if I succeed, may I claim my reward?"

"What reason have you for thinking you should find her?" asked Mrs. Clifton, with the same inexplicable manner.

"I think I have got a clew."

"And are you not generous enough to exert yourself without demanding of me this sacrifice?"

"No, Rose," he said, "I am not unselfish enough."

"But, consider a moment. Will not even that be poor atonement enough for the wrong you have done me,"--she spoke rapidly now,--"for the grief and loneliness and sorrow which your wickedness and cruelty have wrought?"

"I do not understand you," he said, turning pale.

"It is enough to say that I have seen the woman who is now in prison,--your paid agent,--and that I need no assistance to recover Ida. She is in my house."

What more could be said?

John Somerville rose, and left the room. His grand scheme had failed.