The letter moved Raye considerably when it reached him. The intelligence itself had affected him less than her unexpected manner of treating him in relation to it. The absence of any word of reproach, the devotion to his interests, the self-sacrifice apparent in every line, all made up a nobility of character that he had never dreamt of finding in womankind.
‘God forgive me!’ he said tremulously. ‘I have been a wicked wretch. I did not know she was such a treasure as this!’
He reassured her instantly; declaring that he would not of course desert her, that he would provide a home for her somewhere. Meanwhile she was to stay where she was as long as her mistress would allow her.
But a misfortune supervened in this direction. Whether an inkling of Anna’s circumstances reached the knowledge of Mrs. Harnham’s husband or not cannot be said, but the girl was compelled, in spite of Edith’s entreaties, to leave the house. By her own choice she decided to go back for a while to the cottage on the Plain. This arrangement led to a consultation as to how the correspondence should be carried on; and in the girl’s inability to continue personally what had been begun in her name, and in the difficulty of their acting in concert as heretofore, she requested Mrs. Harnham—the only well-to-do friend she had in the world—to receive the letters and reply to them off-hand, sending them on afterwards to herself on the Plain, where she might at least get some neighbour to read them to her, if a trustworthy one could be met with. Anna and her box then departed for the Plain.
Thus it befel that Edith Harnham found herself in the strange position of having to correspond, under no supervision by the real woman, with a man not her husband, in terms which were virtually those of a wife, concerning a condition that was not Edith’s at all; the man being one for whom, mainly through the sympathies involved in playing this part, she secretly cherished a predilection, subtle and imaginative truly, but strong and absorbing. She opened each letter, read it as if intended for herself, and replied from the promptings of her own heart and no other.
Throughout this correspondence, carried on in the girl’s absence, the high-strung Edith Harnham lived in the ecstasy of fancy; the vicarious intimacy engendered such a flow of passionateness as was never exceeded. For conscience’ sake Edith at first sent on each of his letters to Anna, and even rough copies of her replies; but later on these so-called copies were much abridged, and many letters on both sides were not sent on at all.
Though selfish, and, superficially at least, infested with the self-indulgent vices of artificial society, there was a substratum of honesty and fairness in Raye’s character. He had really a tender regard for the country girl, and it grew more tender than ever when he found her apparently capable of expressing the deepest sensibilities in the simplest words. He meditated, he wavered; and finally resolved to consult his sister, a maiden lady much older than himself, of lively sympathies and good intent. In making this confidence he showed her some of the letters.
‘She seems fairly educated,’ Miss Raye observed. ‘And bright in ideas. She expresses herself with a taste that must be innate.’
‘Yes. She writes very prettily, doesn’t she, thanks to these elementary schools?’
‘One is drawn out towards her, in spite of one’s self, poor thing.’
The upshot of the discussion was that though he had not been directly advised to do it, Raye wrote, in his real name, what he would never have decided to write on his own responsibility; namely that he could not live without her, and would come down in the spring and shelve her looming difficulty by marrying her.
This bold acceptance of the situation was made known to Anna by Mrs. Harnham driving out immediately to the cottage on the Plain. Anna jumped for joy like a little child. And poor, crude directions for answering appropriately were given to Edith Harnham, who on her return to the city carried them out with warm intensification.
‘O!’ she groaned, as she threw down the pen. ‘Anna—poor good little fool—hasn’t intelligence enough to appreciate him! How should she? While I—don’t bear his child!’
It was now February. The correspondence had continued altogether for four months; and the next letter from Raye contained incidentally a statement of his position and prospects. He said that in offering to wed her he had, at first, contemplated the step of retiring from a profession which hitherto had brought him very slight emolument, and which, to speak plainly, he had thought might be difficult of practice after his union with her. But the unexpected mines of brightness and warmth that her letters had disclosed to be lurking in her sweet nature had led him to abandon that somewhat sad prospect. He felt sure that, with her powers of development, after a little private training in the social forms of London under his supervision, and a little help from a governess if necessary, she would make as good a professional man’s wife as could be desired, even if he should rise to the woolsack. Many a Lord Chancellor’s wife had been less intuitively a lady than she had shown herself to be in her lines to him.
‘O—poor fellow, poor fellow!’ mourned Edith Harnham.
Her distress now raged as high as her infatuation. It was she who had wrought him to this pitch—to a marriage which meant his ruin; yet she could not, in mercy to her maid, do anything to hinder his plan. Anna was coming to Melchester that week, but she could hardly show the girl this last reply from the young man; it told too much of the second individuality that had usurped the place of the first.
Anna came, and her mistress took her into her own room for privacy. Anna began by saying with some anxiety that she was glad the wedding was so near.
‘O Anna!’ replied Mrs. Harnham. ‘I think we must tell him all—that I have been doing your writing for you?—lest he should not know it till after you become his wife, and it might lead to dissension and recriminations—’
‘O mis’ess, dear mis’ess—please don’t tell him now!’ cried Anna in distress. ‘If you were to do it, perhaps he would not marry me; and what should I do then? It would be terrible what would come to me! And I am getting on with my writing, too. I have brought with me the copybook you were so good as to give me, and I practise every day, and though it is so, so hard, I shall do it well at last, I believe, if I keep on trying.’
Edith looked at the copybook. The copies had been set by herself, and such progress as the girl had made was in the way of grotesque facsimile of her mistress’s hand. But even if Edith’s flowing caligraphy were reproduced the inspiration would be another thing.
‘You do it so beautifully,’ continued Anna, ‘and say all that I want to say so much better than I could say it, that I do hope you won’t leave me in the lurch just now!’
‘Very well,’ replied the other. ‘But I—but I thought I ought not to go on!’
Her strong desire to confide her sentiments led Edith to answer truly:
‘Because of its effect upon me.’
‘But it can’t have any!’
‘Because you are married already!’ said Anna with lucid simplicity.
‘Of course it can’t,’ said her mistress hastily; yet glad, despite her conscience, that two or three outpourings still remained to her. ‘But you must concentrate your attention on writing your name as I write it here.’