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Horace shrank from the ordeal as Mercy shrank from it.
'No I no! I can't listen to it! I daren't listen to it!' he cried, and rose to leave the room.
Julian had taken the good work in hand: he never faltered over it for an instant. Horace had loved her— how dearly, Julian now knew for the first time. The bare possibility that she might earn her pardon if she was allowed to plead her own cause, was a possibility still left. To let her win on Horace to forgive her, was death to the love that still filled his heart in secret. But he never hesitated. With a resolution which the weaker man was powerless to resist, he took him by the arm and led him back to his place.
'For her sake, and for your sake, you shall not condemn her unheard,' he said to Horace firmly. 'One temptation to deceive you after another has tried her, and she has resisted them all. With no discovery to fear; with a letter from the benefactress who loves her, commanding her to be silent; with everything that a woman values in this world to lose, if she owns what she has done—this woman, for the truth's sake, has spoken the truth. Does she deserve nothing at your hands in return for that? Respect her, Horace, and hear her.'
Horace yielded. Julian turned to Mercy.
'You have allowed me to guide you so far,' he said. 'Will you allow me to guide you still?'
Her eyes sank before his; her bosom rose and fell rapidly. His influence over her maintained its sway. She bowed her head in speechless submission.
'Tell him,' Julian proceeded, in accents of entreaty, not of command, 'tell him what your life has been. Tell him how you were tried and tempted, with no friend near to speak the words which might have saved you. And then,' he added, raising her from the chair, 'let him judge you—if he can!'
He attempted to lead her across the room to the place which Horace occupied. But her submission had its limits. Half way to the place she stopped, and refused to go further. Julian offered her a chair. She declined to take it. Standing, with one hand on the hack of the chair, she waited for the word from Horace which would permit her to speak. She was resigned to the ordeal. Her face was calm; her mind was clear. The hardest of all humiliations to endure—the humiliation of acknowledging her name—she had passed through. Nothing remained but to show her gratitude to Julian by acceding to his wishes, and to ask pardon of Horace before they parted for ever. In a little while the Matron would arrive at the house—and then it would be over.
Unwillingly Horace looked at her. Their eyes met. He broke out suddenly with something of his former violence.
'I can't realise it, even now !' he cried. 'Is it true that you are not Grace Roseberry? Don't look at me! Say in one word —Yes or No.'
She answered him humbly and sadly, ' Yes.'
'You have done what that woman accused you of doing? Am I to believe that?'
'You are to believe it, sir.'
All the weakness of Horace's character disclosed itself when she made her reply.
'Infamous!' he exclaimed. 'What excuse can you make for the cruel deception you have practised on me? Too bad! too bad! There can be no excuse for you!'
She accepted his reproaches with unshaken resignation. 'I have deserved it!' was all she said to herself, 'I have deserved it!'
Julian interposed once more in Mercy's defence.
'Wait till you are sure there is no excuse for her, Horace,' he said quietly. 'Grant her. justice, if you can grant no more. I leave you together.'
He advanced towards the door of the dining-room. Horace's weakness disclosed itself once more.
'Don't leave me alone with her!' he burst out. 'The misery of it is more than I can bear!'
Julian looked at Mercy. Her face brightened faintly. That momentary expression of relief told him how truly he would be befriending her if he consented to remain in the room. A position of retirement was offered to him by a recess formed by the central bay window of the library. If he occupied this place they could see or not see that he was present, as their own inclinations might decide them.
'I will stay with you, Horace, as long as you wish me to be here.' Having answered in those terms, he stopped as he passed Mercy on his way to the window. His quick and kindly insight told him that he might still be of some service to her. A hint from him might show her the shortest and the easiest way of making her confession. Delicately and briefly he gave her the hint. 'The first time I met you,' he said, • I saw that your life had had its troubles. Let us hear how those troubles began.
He withdrew to his place in the recess. For the first time since the fatal evening when she and Grace Roseberry had met in the French cottage, Mercy Merrick looked back into the purgatory on earth of her past life, and told her sad story simply and truly in these words.
CHAPTER THE TWENTY-SEVENTH.
'Mb. Julian Gray has asked me to tell him, and to tell you, Mr. Holmcroft, how my troubles began. They began before my recollection. They began with my birth.
'My mother (as I have heard her say) ruined her prospects, when she was quite a young girl, by a marriage with one of her father's servants — the groom who rode out with her. She suffered the usual penalty of such conduct as hers. After a short time she and her husband were separated—on the condition of her sacrificing to the man whom she had married the whole of the little fortune that she possessed in her own right.
'Gaining her freedom, my mother had to gain her daily bread next. Her family refused to take her back. She attached herself to a company of strolling players.
'She was earning a bare living in this way, when my father accidentally met with her. He was a man of high rank; proud of his position, and well known in the society of that time for his many accomplishments and his refined tastes. My mother's beauty fascinated him. He took her from the strolling players, and surrounded her with every luxury that a woman could desire in a house of her own.
'I don't know how long they lived together. I only know that my father, at the time of my first recollections, had abandoned her. She had excited his suspicions of her fidelity—suspicions which cruelly wronged her, as she declared to her dying day. I believed her, because she was my mother. But I cannot expect others to do as I did—I can only repeat what she said. My father left ber absolutely penniless. He never saw her again; and he refused to go to her, when she sent to him in her last moments on earth.
'She was back again among the strolling players when I first remember her. It was not an unhappy time for me. I was the favourite pet and plaything of the poor actors. They taught me to sing and to dance, at an age when other children are just beginning to learn to read. At five years old I was in what is called "the profession," and had made my poor little reputation in booths at country fairs. As early as that, Mr. Holmcroft, I had begun to live under an assumed name —the prettiest name they could invent for me, " to look well in the bills." It was sometimes a hard struggle for us, in bad seasons, to keep body and soul together. Learning to sing and dance in public often meant learning to bear hunger and cold in private, when I was apprenticed to the stage--and yet I have