Chapter XXI.
 

Next morning early, Dolly left Combe Neville on her way to London. When she reached the station, Walter was on the platform with a bunch of white roses. He handed them to her deferentially as she took her seat in the third-class carriage; and so sobered was Dolly by this great misfortune that she forgot even to feel a passing pang of shame that Walter should see her travel in that humble fashion. "Remember," he whispered in her ear, as the train steamed out, "we are still engaged; I hold you to your promise."

And Dolly, blushing maidenly shame and distress, shook her head decisively. "Not now," she answered. "I must wait till I know the truth. It has always been kept from me. And now I will know it."

She had not slept that night. All the way up to London, she kept turning her doubt over. The more she thought of it, the deeper it galled her. Her wrath waxed bitter against Herminia for this evil turn she had wrought. The smouldering anger of years blazed forth at last. Had she blighted her daughter's life, and spoiled so fair a future by obstinate adherence to those preposterous ideas of hers?

Never in her life had Dolly loved her mother. At best, she had felt towards her that contemptuous toleration which inferior minds often extend to higher ones. And now--why, she hated her.

In London, as it happened, that very morning, Herminia, walking across Regent's Park, had fallen in with Harvey Kynaston, and their talk had turned upon this self-same problem.

"What will you do when she asks you about it, as she must, sooner or later?" the man inquired.

And Herminia, smiling that serene sweet smile of hers, made answer at once without a second's hesitation, "I shall confess the whole truth to her."

"But it might be so bad for her," Harvey Kynaston went on. And then he proceeded to bring up in detail casuistic objections on the score of a young girl's modesty; all of which fell flat on Herminia's more honest and consistent temperament.

"I believe in the truth," she said simply; "and I'm never afraid of it. I don't think a lie, or even a suppression, can ever be good in the end for any one. The Truth shall make you Free. That one principle in life can guide one through everything."

In the evening, when Dolly came home, her mother ran out proudly and affectionately to kiss her. But Dolly drew back her face with a gesture of displeasure, nay, almost of shrinking. "Not now, mother!" she cried. "I have something to ask you about. Till I know the truth, I can never kiss you."

Herminia's face turned deadly white; she knew it had come at last. But still she never flinched. "You shall hear the truth from me, darling," she said, with a gentle touch. "You have always heard it."

They passed under the doorway and up the stairs in silence. As soon as they were in the sitting-room, Dolly fronted Herminia fiercely. "Mother," she cried, with the air of a wild creature at bay, "were you married to my father?"

Herminia's cheek blanched, and her pale lips quivered as she nerved herself to answer; but she answered bravely, "No, darling, I was not. It has always been contrary to my principles to marry."

"Your principles!" Dolores echoed in a tone of ineffable, scorn. "Your principles! Your principles! All my life has been sacrificed to you and your principles!" Then she turned on her madly once more. "And who was my father?" she burst out in her agony.

Herminia never paused. She must tell her the truth. "Your father's name was Alan Merrick," she answered, steadying herself with one hand on the table. "He died at Perugia before you were born there. He was a son of Sir Anthony Merrick, the great doctor in Harley Street."

The worst was out. Dolly stood still and gasped. Hot horror flooded her burning cheeks. Illegitimate! illegitimate! Dishonored from her birth! A mark for every cruel tongue to aim at! Born in shame and disgrace! And then, to think what she might have been, but for her mother's madness! The granddaughter of two such great men in their way as the Dean of Dunwich and Sir Anthony Merrick.

She drew back, all aghast. Shame and agony held her. Something of maiden modesty burned bright in her cheek and down her very neck. Red waves coursed through her. How on earth after this could she face Walter Brydges?

"Mother, mother!" she broke out, sobbing, after a moment's pause, "oh, what have you done? What have you done? A cruel, cruel mother you have been to me. How can I ever forgive you?"

Herminia gazed at her appalled. It was a natural tragedy. There was no way out of it. She couldn't help seizing the thing at once, in a lightning flash of sympathy, from Dolly's point of view, too. Quick womanly instinct made her heart bleed for her daughter's manifest shame and horror.

"Dolly, Dolly," the agonized mother cried, flinging herself upon her child's mercy, as it were; "Don't be hard on me; don't be hard on me! My darling, how could I ever guess you would look at it like this? How could I ever guess my daughter and his would see things for herself in so different a light from the light we saw them in?"

"You had no right to bring me into the world at all," Dolly cried, growing fiercer as her mother grew more unhappy. "If you did, you should have put me on an equality with other people."

"Dolly," Herminia moaned, wringing her hands in her despair, "my child, my darling, how I have loved you! how I have watched over you! Your life has been for years the one thing I had to live for. I dreamed you would be just such another one as myself. Equal with other people! Why, I thought I was giving you the noblest heritage living woman ever yet gave the child of her bosom. I thought you would be proud of it, as I myself would have been proud. I thought you would accept it as a glorious birthright, a supreme privilege. How could I foresee you would turn aside from your mother's creed? How could I anticipate you would be ashamed of being the first free-born woman ever begotten in England? 'Twas a blessing I meant to give you, and you have made a curse of it."

"You have made a curse of it!" Dolores answered, rising and glaring at her. "You have blighted my life for me. A good man and true was going to make me his wife. After this, how can I dare to palm myself off upon him?"

She swept from the room. Though broken with sorrow, her step was resolute. Herminia followed her to her bed-room. There Dolly sat long on the edge of the bed, crying silently, silently, and rocking herself up and down like one mad with agony. At last, in one fierce burst, she relieved her burdened soul by pouring out to her mother the whole tale of her meeting with Walter Brydges. Though she hated her, she must tell her. Herminia listened with deep shame. It brought the color back into her own pale cheek to think any man should deem he was performing an act of chivalrous self-devotion in marrying Herminia Barton's unlawful daughter. Alan Merrick's child! The child of so many hopes! The baby that was born to regenerate humanity!

At last, in a dogged way, Dolly rose once more. She put on her hat and jacket.

"Where are you going?" her mother asked, terrified.

"I am going out," Dolores answered, "to the post, to telegraph to him."

She worded her telegram briefly but proudly:

"My mother has told me all. I understand your feeling. Our arrangement is annulled. Good-by. You have been kind to me."

An hour or two later, a return telegram came:--

"Our engagement remains exactly as it was. Nothing is changed. I hold you to your promise. All tenderest messages. Letter follows."

That answer calmed Dolly's mind a little. She began to think after all,--if Walter still wanted her,--she loved him very much; she could hardly dismiss him.

When she rose to go to bed, Herminia, very wistful, held out her white face to be kissed as usual. She held it out tentatively. Worlds trembled in the balance; but Dolly drew herself back with a look of offended dignity. "Never!" she answered in a firm voice. "Never again while I live. You are not fit to receive a pure girl's kisses."

And two women lay awake all that ensuing night sobbing low on their pillows in the Marylebone lodging-house.