Chapter XXIII.
 

As Edith glanced up, on arriving before their residence, she saw for a moment her mother's face at the window. It vanished like the face of a ghost, but not quick enough to prevent Edith from seeing that it was almost colorless and had a scared look. They did not find Mrs. Dinneford in the parlor when they came in, nor did she make her appearance until an hour afterward, when dinner was announced. Then it was plain to both her husband and daughter that something had occurred since morning to trouble her profoundly. The paleness noticed by Edith at the window and the scared look remained. Whenever she turned her eyes suddenly upon her mother, she found her looking at her with a strange, searching intentness. It was plain that Mrs. Dinneford saw in Edith's face as great a change and mystery as Edith saw in hers, and the riddle of her husband's countenance, so altered since morning, was harder even than Edith's to solve.

A drearier Christmas dinner, and one in which less food was taken by those who ate it, could hardly have been found in the city. The Briar-street feast was one of joy and gladness in comparison. The courses came and went with unwonted quickness, plates bearing off the almost untasted viands which they had received. Scarcely a word was spoken during the meal. Mrs. Dinneford asked no question about the dinner in Briar street, and no remark was made about it by either Edith or her father. In half the usual time this meal was ended. Mrs. Dinneford left the table first, and retired to her own room. As she did so, in taking her handkerchief from her pocket, she drew out a letter, which fell unnoticed by her upon the floor. Mr. Dinneford was about calling her attention to it when Edith, who saw his purpose and was near enough to touch his hand, gave a quick signal to forbear. The instant her mother was out of the room she sprang from her seat, and had just secured the letter when the dining-room door was pushed open, and Mrs. Dinneford came in, white and frightened. She saw the letter in Edith's hand, and with a cry like some animal in pain leaped upon her and tried to wrest it from her grasp. But Edith held it in her closed hand with a desperate grip, defying all her mother's efforts to get possession of it. In her wild fear and anger Mrs. Dinneford exclaimed,

"I'll kill you if you don't give me that letter!" and actually, in her blind rage, reached toward the table as if to get a knife. Mr. Dinneford, who had been for a moment stupefied, now started forward, and throwing his arms about his wife, held her tightly until Edith could escape with the letter, not releasing her until the sound of his daughter's retiring feet were no longer heard. By this time she had ceased to struggle; and when he released her, she stood still in a passive, dull sort of way, her arms falling heavily to her sides. He looked into her face, and saw that the eyes were staring wildly and the muscles in a convulsive quiver. Then starting and reaching out helplessly, she fell forward. Catching her in his arms, Mr. Dinneford drew her toward a sofa, but she was dead before he could raise her from the floor.

When Edith reached her room, she shut and locked the door. Then all her excitement died away. She sat down, and opening the letter with hands that gave no sign of inward agitation or suspense, read it through. It was dated at Havana, and was as follows:

"MRS. HELEN DINNEFORD: MADAM--My physician tells me that I cannot live a week--may die at any moment; and I am afraid to die with one unconfessed and unatoned sin upon my conscience--a sin into which I was led by you, the sharer of my guilt. I need not go into particulars. You know to what I refer--the ruin of an innocent, confiding young man, your daughter's husband. I do not wonder that he lost his reason! But I have information that his insanity has taken on the mildest form, and that his friends are only keeping him at the hospital until they can get a pardon from the governor. It is in your power and mine to establish his innocence at once. I leave you a single mouth in which to do this, and at the same time screen yourself, if that be possible. If, at the end of a month, it is not done, then a copy of this letter, with a circumstantial statement of the whole iniquitous affair, will be placed in the hands of your husband, and another in the hands of your daughter. I have so provided for this that no failure can take place. So be warned and make the innocence of George Granger as clear as noonday.

"LLOYD FREELING."

Twice Edith read this letter through before a sign of emotion was visible. She looked about the room, down at herself, and again at the letter.

"Am I really awake?" she said, beginning to tremble. Then the glad but terrible truth grappled with her convictions, and through the wild struggle and antagonism, of feeling that shook her soul there shone into her face a joy so great that the pale features grew almost radiant.

"Innocent! innocent!" fell from her lips, over which crept a smile of ineffable love. But it faded out quickly, and left in its place a shadow of ineffable pain.

"Innocent! innocent!" she repeated, now clasping her hands and lifting her eyes heavenward. "Dear Lord and Saviour! My heart is full of thankfulness! Innocent! Oh, let it be made as clear as noonday! And my baby, Lord--oh, my baby, my baby! Give him back to me!"

She fell forward upon her bed, kneeling, her face hidden among the pillows, trembling and sobbing.

"Edith! Edith!" came the agitated voice of her father from without. She rose quickly, and opening the door, saw his pale, convulsed countenance.

"Quick! quick! Your mother!" and Mr. Dinneford turned and ran down stairs, she following. On reaching the dining-room, Edith found her mother lying on a sofa, with the servants about her in great excitement. Better than any one did she comprehend what she saw.

"Dead," fell almost coldly from her lips.

"I have sent for Dr. Radcliffe. It may only be a fainting fit," answered Mr. Dinneford.

Edith stood a little way off from her mother, as if held from personal contact by an invisible barrier, and looked upon her ashen face without any sign of emotion.

"Dead, and better so," she said, in an undertone heard only by her father.

"My child! don't, don't!" exclaimed Mr. Dinneford in a deprecating whisper.

"Dead, and better so," she repeated, firmly.

While the servants chafed the hands and feet of Mrs. Dinneford, and did what they could in their confused way to bring her back to life, Edith stood a little way off, apparently undisturbed by what she saw, and not once touching her mother's body or offering a suggestion to the bewildered attendants.

When Dr. Radcliffe came and looked at Mrs. Dinneford, all saw by his countenance that he believed her dead. A careful examination proved the truth of his first impression. She was done with life in this world.

As to the cause of her death, the doctor, gathering what he could from her husband, pronounced it heart disease. The story told outside was this--so the doctor gave it, and so it was understood: Mrs. Dinneford was sitting at the table when her head was seen to sink forward, and before any one could get to her she was dead. It was not so stated to him by either Mr. Dinneford or Edith, but he was a prudent man, and careful of the good fame of his patients. Family affairs he held as sacred trusts. We'll he knew that there had been a tragedy in this home--a tragedy for which he was in part, he feared, responsible; and he did not care to look into it too closely. But of all that was involved in this tragedy he really knew little. Social gossip had its guesses at the truth, often not very remote, and he was familiar with these, believing little or much as it suited him.

It is not surprising that Edith's father, on seeing the letter of Lloyd Freeling, echoed his daughter's words, "Better so!"

Not a tear was shed on the grave of Mrs. Dinneford. Husband and daughter saw her body carried forth and buried out of sight with a feeling of rejection and a sense of relief. Death had no power to soften their hearts toward her. Charity had no mantle broad enough to cover her wickedness; filial love was dead, and the good heart of her husband turned away at remembrance with a shudder of horror.

Yes, it was "better so!" They had no grief, but thankfulness, that she was dead.

On the morning after the funeral there came a letter from Havana addressed to Mr. Dinneford. It was from the man Freeling. In it he related circumstantially all the reader knows about the conspiracy to destroy Granger. The letter enclosed an affidavit made by Freeling, and duly attested by the American consul, in which he stated explicitly that all the forgeries were made by himself, and that George Granger was entirely ignorant of the character of the paper he had endorsed with the name of the firm.

Since the revelation made to Edith by Freeling's letter to her mother, all the repressed love of years, never dead nor diminished, but only chained, held down, covered over, shook itself free from bonds and the wrecks and debris of crushed hopes. It filled her heart with an agony of fullness. Her first passionate impulse was to go to him and throw herself into his arms. But a chilling thought came with the impulse, and sent all the outgoing heart-beats back. She was no longer the wife of George Granger. In a weak hour she had yielded to the importunities of her father, and consented to an application for divorce. No, she was no longer the wife of George Granger. She had no right to go to him. If it were true that reason had been in part or wholly restored, would he not reject her with scorn? The very thought made her heart stand still. It would be more than she could bear.