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CHAPTER THE SEVENTH.
TEE HAN IS COMING.
'You look very pale this morning, my child.'
Mercy sighed wearily. 'I am not well,' she answered. 'The slightest noises startle me. I feel tired if I only walk across the room.'
Lady Janet patted her kindly on the shoulder. 'We must try what a change will do for you. Which shall it be? the Continent, or the sea-side?' 'Your ladyship is too kind to me.' 'It is impossible to be too kind to you.' Mercy started. The colour flowed charmingly over her pale face. 'Oh!' she exclaimed impulsively. 'Say that again I'
'Say it again?' repeated Lady Janet, with a look of surprise.
• Yes I Don't think me presuming; only think me vain. I can't hear you say too often that you have learnt to like me. Is it really a pleasure to you to have me in the house? Have I always behaved well since I have been with you?'
(The one excuse for the act of personation—if excuse there could be—lay in the affirmative answer to those questions. It would be something, surely, to say of the false Grace that the true Grace could not have been worthier of her welcome, if the true Grace had been received at Mablethorpe House!)
Lady Janet was partly touched, partly amused, by the extraordinary earnestness of the appeal that had been made to her.
'Have you behaved well ?" she repeated. 'My dear, you talk as if you were a child!' She laid her hand caressingly on Mercy's arm, and continued, in a graver tone: 'It is hardly too much to say, Grace, that I bless the day when you first came to me. I do believe I could be hardly fonder of you if you were my own daughter.'
Mercy suddenly turned her head aside, so as to hide her face. Lady Janet, still touching her arm, felt it tremble. 'What is the matter with you?' she asked, in her abrupt, downright manner.
'I am only very grateful to your ladyship—that is all.'
The words were spoken faintly in broken tones. The face was still averted from Lady Janet's view. 'What have I said to provoke this ?' wondered the old lady. 'Is she in the melting mood to-day? If she is, now is the time to say a word for Horace.' Keeping that excellent object in view, Lady Janet approached the delicate topic with all needful caution at starting.
'We have got on so well together,' she resumed, 'that it will not be easy for either of us to feel reconciled to a change in our lives. At my age it will fall hardest on me. What shall I do, Grace, when the day comes for parting with my adopted daughter?'
Mercy started, and showed her face again. The traces of tears were in her eyes. 'Why should I leave you?' she asked, in a tone of alarm.
'Surely you know!' exclaimed Lady Janet.
'Indeed I don't. Tell me why.'
'Ask Horace to tell you.'
The last allusion was too plain to be misunderstood. Mercy's head drooped. She began to tremble again. Lady Janet looked at her in blank amazement.
'Is there anything wrong between Horace and you?' she asked.
'You know your own heart, my dear child? You have surely not encouraged Horace without loving him?'
For the first time in their experience of each other, Mercy ventured to interrupt her benefactress. 'Dear Lady Janet,' she interposed, gently, 'I am in no hurry to be married. There will be plenty of time in the future to talk of that. You had something you wished to say to me. What is it?'
It was no easy matter to disconcert Lady Janet Roy. But that last question fairly reduced her to silence. After all that had passed, there sat her young companion, innocent of the faintest suspicion of the subject that was to be discussed between them!' What are the young women of the present time made of?' thought the old lady, utterly at a loss to know what to say next. Mercy waited, on her side, with an impenetrable patience which only aggravated the difficulties of the position. The silence was fast threatening to bring the interview to a sudden and untimely end—when the door from the library opened, and a man-servant, bearing a little silver salver, entered the room.
Lady Janet's rising sense of annoyance instantly seized on the servant as a victim. 'What do you want?' she asked sharply. 'I never rang for you.'
'A letter, my lady. The messenger waits for an answer.'
The man presented his salver, with the letter on it, and withdrew.
Lady Janet recognised the handwriting on the address with a look of surprise. 'Excuse me, my dear,' she said, pausing, with her old-fashioned courtesy, before she opened the envelope. Mercy made the necessary acknowledgment, and moved away to the other end of the room; little thinking that the arrival of the letter marked a crisis in her life. Lady Janet put on her spectacles. 'Odd, that he should have come back already!' she said to herself, as she threw the empty envelope on the table.
The letter contained these lines; the writer of them being no other than the man who had preached in the chapel of the Refuge:—
'I am back again in London, before my time. My friend the rector has shortened his holiday, and has resumed his duties in the country. I am afraid you will blame me when you hear of the reasons which have hastened his return. The sooner I make my confession, the easier I shall feel. Besides, I have a special object in wishing to see you as soon as possible. May I follow my letter to Mablethorpe House? And may I present a lady to you— a perfect stranger—in whom I am in terested? Pray say Yes, by the bearer, and oblige your affectionate nephew, 'Julian Gray.'
Lady Janet referred again suspiciously to the sentence in the letter which alluded to the 'lady.'
Julian Gray was her only surviving nephew, the son of a favourite sister whom she had lost. He would have held no very exalted position in the estimation of his aunt—who regarded his views in politics and religion with the strongest aversion—but for his marked resemblance to his mother. This pleaded for him with the old lady; aided, as it was, by the pride that she secretly felt in the early celebrity which the young clergyman had achieved as a writer and a preacher. Thanks to these mitigating circumstances, and to Julian's inexhaustible good humour, the aunt and the nephew generally met on friendly terms. Apart from what she called 'his detestable opinions,' Lady Janet was sufficiently interested in Julian to feel some curiosity about the mysterious 'lady' mentioned in the letter. Had he determined to settle in life? Was his choice already made? And if so, would it prove to be a choice acceptable to the family. Lady Janet's bright face showed signs of doubt as she asked herself that last question. Julian's liberal views were capable of leading him to dangerous extremes. His aunt shook her head ominously as she rose from the sofa, and advanced to the library door.
* Grace,' she said, pausing and turning round, * I