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The Two Destinies, Page 2

Wilkie Collins

table, had unexpectedly come to light, and had at oneblow destroyed her position in the estimation of her husband's friends.In the face of the excuses in the drawing-room, in the face of the emptyplaces at the dinner-table, what could the friendliest guests do, toany good purpose, to help the husband and wife in their sore and suddenneed? They could say good-night at the earliest possible opportunity,and mercifully leave the married pair to themselves.

  Let it at least be recorded to the credit of the three gentlemen,designated in these pages as A, B, and C, that they were sufficientlyashamed of themselves and their wives to be the first members of thedinner party who left the house. In a few minutes more we rose to followtheir example. Mrs. Germaine earnestly requested that we would delay ourdeparture.

  "Wait a few minutes," she whispered, with a glance at her husband. "Ihave something to say to you before you go."

  She left us, and, taking Mr. Germaine by the arm, led him away to theopposite side of the room. The two held a little colloquy together inlow voices. The husband closed the consultation by lifting the wife'shand to his lips.

  "Do as you please, my love," he said to her. "I leave it entirely toyou."

  He sat down sorrowfully, lost in his thoughts. Mrs. Germaine unlockeda cabinet at the further end of the room, and returned to us, alone,carrying a small portfolio in her hand.

  "No words of mine can tell you how gratefully I feel your kindness,"she said, with perfect simplicity, and with perfect dignity at the sametime. "Under very trying circumstances, you have treated me with thetenderness and the sympathy which you might have shown to an old friend.The one return I can make for all that I owe to you is to admit you tomy fullest confidence, and to leave you to judge for yourselves whetherI deserve the treatment which I have received to-night."

  Her eyes filled with tears. She paused to control herself. We bothbegged her to say no more. Her husband, joining us, added his entreatiesto ours. She thanked us, but she persisted. Like most sensitivelyorganized persons, she could be resolute when she believed that theoccasion called for it.

  "I have a few words more to say," she resumed, addressing my wife. "Youare the only married woman who has come to our little dinner party. Themarked absence of the other wives explains itself. It is not for me tosay whether they are right or wrong in refusing to sit at our table.My dear husband--who knows my whole life as well as I know itmyself--expressed the wish that we should invite these ladies. Hewrongly supposed that _his_ estimate of me would be the estimateaccepted by his friends; and neither he nor I anticipated that themisfortunes of my past life would be revealed by some person acquaintedwith them, whose treachery we have yet to discover. The least I cando, by way of acknowledging your kindness, is to place you in the sameposition toward me which the other ladies now occupy. The circumstancesunder which I have become the wife of Mr. Germaine are, in somerespects, very remarkable. They are related, without suppression orreserve, in a little narrative which my husband wrote, at the time ofour marriage, for the satisfaction of one of his absent relatives, whosegood opinion he was unwilling to forfeit. The manuscript is in thisportfolio. After what has happened, I ask you both to read it, asa personal favor to me. It is for you to decide, when you know all,whether I am a fit person for an honest woman to associate with or not."

  She held out her hand, with a sweet, sad smile, and bid us good night.My wife, in her impulsive way, forgot the formalities proper to theoccasion, and kissed her at parting. At that one little act of sisterlysympathy, the fortitude which the poor creature had preserved allthrough the evening gave way in an instant. She burst into tears.

  I felt as fond of her and as sorry for her as my wife. But(unfortunately) I could not take my wife's privilege of kissing her. Onour way downstairs, I found the opportunity of saying a cheering word toher husband as he accompanied us to the door.

  "Before I open this," I remarked, pointing to the portfolio under myarm, "my mind is made up, sir, about one thing. If I wasn't marriedalready, I tell you this--I should envy you your wife."

  He pointed to the portfolio in his turn.

  "Read what I have written there," he said; "and you will understand whatthose false friends of mine have made me suffer to-night."

  The next morning my wife and I opened the portfolio, and read thestrange story of George Germaine's marriage.

  The Narrative.