Read CHAPTER XI. of An Unknown Lover , free online book, by Mrs. George de Horne Vaizey, on ReadCentral.com.

Lady Griselda Dundas lay a-dying on her great oak bed.  For two long weeks after Grizel’s summons home she had lingered on, until now her aquiline features were attenuated to a knife-like sharpness, and every particle of flesh seemed to have departed from the skeleton form, but the eyes were alive, conscious, yet with a puzzled wistfulness in their glance.  Her brain had cleared, as often happens immediately before the great change; the present was clear, but over the past the cloud still hung.

“I-can’t remember!” she reiterated feebly.  “It’s all blank.  What have I been doing these last weeks, Grizel?  Where have I been?”

Grizel knelt by the bedside, her warm hands clasped over the icy fingers.  She wore a soft white dressing-gown, and her hair hung in a long plait down her back.  She had been sleeping on a sofa at the end of the room, but now it was two o’clock, and there was a look in the old woman’s face which made her determine to keep close at hand.  Nevertheless there was no sorrow in her face; the smile with which she spoke was as usual, sweet and unperturbed.

“You have been here, Buddy; in this house; in these rooms, and I’ve been with you, except for a few days.  Everything has gone on just the same...”

“Ha!” exclaimed Lady Griselda loudly.  Her eyes flashed with a flicker of the old fire.  “And a fine old fool I’ve been making of myself, no doubt!  Senile decay!  I hoped at least I should be spared that.  I can’t remember.-It is like a mist.  Have I been ill?”

“Weak, darling, and tired.  You’ve been up most days.  A month ago you had a drive.  Only two days ago you were taken worse.”

“And now,” said the old woman calmly, “I’m dying.  Pretty soon too, I should say, for there’s not much feeling left.  Don’t let them poke me about, Grizel.  Keep them away!  It’s a poor thing if one can’t die in peace.”  She was silent, munching her sunken jaws.  Then the keen glance wandered to the girl’s face, and softened.

“Have I been rough with you, child?  Bullied you?  More than usual, I mean.  If I have, I didn’t know it...  Has it been a hard time?”

Grizel smiled again.

“You varied, dear.  Rather fierce at times, and again quite meek, and sometimes, terribly funny!  You’d laugh, Buddy, if you could hear some of the things you said!”

“Ha!” A wraith of a smile passed over the grey face.  “Glad to hear it.  I’d be interested, but there’s not time...  Where’s that fool of a nurse?  Keep her away; I want no one but you.  Well, child, shall you grieve for me when I’m gone?”

“No, Buddy, dear.  I’ll grieve for myself, but for you, I shall be glad it’s over,-the pain, and the crippledom, and the dulness, and the waiting.  I love you too much to want that to go on.  It will be better...”

“Well!  Well!” Lady Griselda sighed.  “We’ll see!  Better than I deserve-I’m sure of that.  I can’t even say I’ve done my best.  I haven’t but God knows, at the bottom of my heart I wanted to!  I was born sour, just as you, child, were born sweet.  Seems unfair.  I don’t understand...  Lots of things we don’t understand...  That will be interesting-to find out!”

She munched in silence for several minutes, her gaze lingering wistfully on Grizel’s face, upturned in the dim light.

“Good child,” she said distinctly.  “Good child!  Kind.  Loving.  True.  You’ve been a comfort to me.”

“Ah, Buddy, dear!” The deep, soft tone of Grizel’s voice was more eloquent than a caress.  “It’s been so easy!  We’ve loved each other...  If it’s possible where you are going, look after me still!  I want to feel you are near.  I’ll remember you always, and your dear kindness.”

Lady Griselda frowned.  A look of distress wrinkled her face.

“Kind!” she repeated.  “I meant to be!  I wanted you to be happy-I schemed for that-but it may be, I was wrong.  I don’t know, I can’t think.  It’s too late now, but I meant well, child, remember that!  I thought only of you.”

“Buddy,” said Grizel clearly.  “All the money in the world is not worth troubling about in these few last hours.  Leave it alone!  I shall be happy, dear; God made me happy.  Rest your old head, and don’t trouble.  It’s all quite, quite right.”

Lady Griselda closed her eyes.  The sands were running very low, and she had not the energy to speak.  Grizel fed her with sips of brandy, but she made no attempt to call the nurse, who was sleeping in another room.  She also held the theory that a human soul should be allowed to die after its own fashion, even if thereby life’s span were shortened by a few hours.  Still on her knees she watched while the old woman dozed, and dozed again, waking up to brief moments of consciousness, but her mind had wandered from the present, and was back in the far away past.

“He broke my heart,” she said faintly once.  “It was the money he wanted, not me; but I loved him.  And there was no child-I was alone!” Suddenly her eyes flashed.  “I hope,” she said clearly, “we shall never meet!  I forgive him-it’s all over-but eternity is big enough...  There’s room for both.” ...  Another time, “Remember,” she gasped, “no black for me!  Don’t suit you.  Dismal stuff. Let ’em talk!” and again, with a reminiscent chuckle:  “Rudest woman in London.  That was me, and here I lie!  Well!  Well! it did me one good turn.  When I was crippled they kept their distance...  No fussing and sympathising.  Didn’t want ’em.  Only you-”

Grizel stroked her hand, and she slept again.  It was an awesome thing to watch the grey face, changing moment by moment into a mask of clay.  The hard, bitter-tongued woman had come to the end of her journey, and was going out into the great unknown.  Life had brought her perhaps the hardest of all fates, great wealth, and little love.  The girl kneeling by her side knew that she was the only person on earth who would honestly regret her loss, and the knowledge brought with it the first tear.

She sent out her whole heart in a passion of love and gratitude, as if thereby she could lighten the last struggle of life.  As the shackles of earth were loosened, the spirit so soon to be freed from the fleshly prison must surely be sensitive to the ministrations of a kindred soul.  Grizel poured forth the wealth of her love, and even as she gazed beheld an answering peace on the dying face.  The eyes remained closed, but the fingers stirred within her own with a caressing touch.

“Good-child,” breathed the faint voice.  “Good-child!”

An hour later Grizel awoke the sleeping nurse and informed her of her patient’s death some ten minutes before.  The nurse rose hurriedly, shocked and discomfited in her professional pride.  Why was she not called?

“She did not want you.  We preferred to be alone,” said Grizel calmly.  She was perfectly composed, and there were no tear marks on her pallid face.  The nurse looked at her and wondered instinctively why people called Miss Dundas a beauty.  She fastened her dressing-gown, and made the inevitable attempt at comfort.

“You must be exhausted.  Let me make you a cup of tea!”

“Please do,” returned Grizel heartily.  “I adore stray teas!”

Most unfeeling! the nurse decided, but then, what could one expect?  A most disagreeable old woman, and such a fortune to inherit!  She sighed, stifling a pang of envy.

The will of Lady Griselda Dundas was published the week after her funeral, and was the subject of comment in every large newspaper in the kingdom.  The disposal of so large a fortune was in itself interesting, but the unusual conditions of the will attracted a curious attention.  Beyond a few insignificant legacies the entire property was bequeathed to her niece, and adopted daughter, Miss Grizel Dundas, for the term of her unmarried life.  On her marriage she became entitled to an income of five hundred a year, with a further sum of ten thousand pounds to be paid down on her fiftieth birthday, the remainder of the vast property being divided between certain charities, and a few distant relations, scattered about the world.

Grizel Dundas was left then to decide between single blessedness and an income approaching thirty thousand a year, and marriage on a pittance of five hundred!  Society wagged its tongue in excited effort to solve the reason of the mystery.  Lady Griselda’s own unhappy marriage had made her dread a similar experience for her niece.  Grizel Dundas had been on the eve of an imprudent marriage, from which the will was designed to save her.  Unsavoury facts had come to light concerning the private life of a certain titled aspirant...  Numerous theories were advanced, but only one solution.  Grizel Dundas was already twenty-eight, an age at which the sentimental period might be supposed to be outlived; she would accept the goods which the gods had given, and become one of the great hostesses of society.  Those seemingly lazy, easy-going people were invariably the most practical at heart.  Grizel Dundas was no fool.  She knew well enough on which side her bread was buttered.

And in The Glen, Martin and Katrine Beverley read the different notices in strained silence, and referred to them in terse, difficult words.  Each tried anxiously to discover the other’s sentiments, and to conceal a personal verdict.  Katrine discovered in Martin’s depression the confirmation of her own conviction that he could never venture to ask Grizel to become his wife, at such a cost to her future prospects.  The conviction brought with it a renewed sense of security, but little of the satisfaction which she had expected.  A mysterious weight lay on her heart, and she struggled against an almost overwhelming sense of impatience.  The routine of daily life appeared insufferably monotonous, blank, and unsatisfying.  If Martin settled down again into his old, grave way, life would go on in the same old way, always the same!  She had been passing through a period of unrest and dread, but now that the dread seemed over, her heart knew no joy.  “What do I want?” Katrine asked despairingly of herself.  “What do I want?”

Martin had gone to town to attend the funeral, but as Grizel had not attended the ceremony had had no glimpse of her.  The ordinary letter of condolence had been forwarded, but had received no reply.  A week dragged by, a fortnight, almost three weeks, and Martin, strained almost beyond endurance, was tentatively suggesting to Katrine that it would be a kind action to run up to town to pay Grizel a call, when the morning post arrived, and with it a letter in the large, well-known writing.

“Will you put me up for a week?” Grizel wrote.  “There is a lot of clearing away to be done here, and I must get away.  Expect me to-morrow by the five o’clock train!”