"I sent for you to-night because there is something I must tell you," said Mrs. Kent.
She was sitting, a tiny, erect, determined creature in the armchair by the window in the harsh light of a cold sunset. It was June but it was cold. The sky was hard and autumnal. Emily, walking up the cross-lots path had shivered and wished herself at home. But Mrs. Kent's note had been urgent—almost peremptory. Why in the world did she want her! Surely, it could not be anything in connection with Teddy. And yet what else could make Mrs. Kent send for her in this fashion?
The moment she saw Mrs. Kent she was conscious of a curious change in her—a change hard to define. She was as frail, as pitiful as ever. There seemed even a certain defiant light in her eyes. But for the first time since she had known Mrs. Kent Emily did not feel that she was in the presence of an unhappy woman. There was peace here—a strange, sorrowful, long-unknown peace. The tortured soul was—at last—off the rack.
"I have been dead—and in hell—but now I am alive again," said Mrs. Kent. "It's you who have done this—you found that letter. And so there is something I must tell you. It will make you hate me. And I shall be sorry for that now. But it must be told."
Emily felt a sudden distaste for hearing whatever it was Mrs. Kent had to tell. It had—must have—something to do with Teddy. And she did not want to hear anything—anything—about Teddy now—Teddy who would be Ilse's husband in two weeks.
"Don't you think—perhaps—it would be better not to tell me?"
"It must be told. I have committed a wrong and I must confess it. I cannot undo it—I suppose it is too late to undo it—but it must be told. But there are other things that must be told first. Things I've never spoken of—things that have been torturing me until I've screamed out loud at night sometimes with the anguish of them. Oh, you will never forgive me—but I think you will be a little sorry for me."
"I've always felt sorry for you, Mrs. Kent."
"I think you did—yes, I think you did. But you couldn't realize it all. Emily, I wasn't like this when I was a girl. I was—like other people then. And I was pretty—indeed I was. When David Kent came and made me love him I was pretty. And he loved me—then—and he always loved me. He says so in this letter."
She plucked it from the bosom of her dress and kissed it almost savagely.
"I can't let you see it, Emily. No eyes but mine must ever see it. But I'll tell you what is in it. Oh, you can't know—you can't understand how much I loved him, Emily. You think you love Teddy. But you don't—you can't love him as I loved his father."
Emily had a different opinion on this point, but she did not say so.
"He married me and took me home to Malton where his people lived. We were so happy at first—too happy. I told you God was jealous. And his people did not like me—not from the first. They thought David had married beneath him—that I wasn't good enough for him. They were always trying to come between us. Oh, I knew; I knew what they were after. His mother hated me. She never called me Aileen—only 'you' and 'David's wife.' I hated her because she was always watching me—never said anything—never did anything. Just watched me. I was never one of them. I never seemed able to understand their jokes. They were always laughing over something—me, half the time, I thought. They would write letters to David and never mention me. Some of them were always freezingly polite to me and some of them were always giving me digs. Once one of his sisters sent me a book on etiquette. Something was always hurting me—and I couldn't strike back—I couldn't hurt what was hurting me. David took their part—he had secrets with them he kept from me. But in spite of it all I was happy—till I dropped the lamp and my dress caught fire and scarred my face like this. After that I couldn't believe David could keep on loving me. I was so ugly. My nerves got raw and I couldn't help quarrelling with him over every trifle. But he was patient. He forgave me again and again. Only I was so afraid he couldn't love me with that scar. I knew I was going to have a baby, but I kept putting off telling him. I was afraid he would love it more than he did me. And then—I did a terrible thing. I hate to tell you of it. David had a dog—he loved it so much that I hated it I—I poisoned it. I don't know what possessed me. I never used to be like that—not till I was burned. Perhaps it was because the baby was coming."
Mrs. Kent stopped and changed suddenly from a woman quivering with unveiled feeling to a prim Victorian.
"I shouldn't talk about such matters to a young girl," she said anxiously.
"I have known for some years that babies do not come in Dr. Burnley's black bag," assured Emily gravely.
"Well"—Mrs. Kent underwent another transformation into passionate Aileen Kent again—"David found out what I had done. Oh—oh, his face! We had a dreadful quarrel. It was just before he went out to Winnipeg on a business trip. I—I was so furious over what he said that I screamed out—oh, Emily—that I hoped I would never see his face again. I never did. God took me at my word. He died of pneumonia in Winnipeg. I never knew he was ill till the word of his death came. And the nurse was a girl he had once thought something of and who loved him. She waited on him and tended him while I was at home hating him. That is what I have thought I could never forgive God for. She packed up his things and sent them home—that book among them. He must have bought it in Winnipeg. I never opened it—I never could bear to touch it. He must have written that letter when he was near death and put it in the book for me—and perhaps died before he could tell her it was there. Maybe she knew and wouldn't tell me. And it has been there all these years, Emily—all these years when I've been believing David died angry with me—unforgiving me. I've dreamed of him night after night—always with his face turned away from me. Oh, twenty-seven years of that, Emily—twenty-seven years. Think of it. Haven't I atoned! And last night I opened and read his letter, Emily—just a few lines scribbled with a pencil—his poor hand could hardly hold it. He called me Dear Little Wife and said I must forgive him—Iforgive him—for being so harsh and angry that last day—and he forgave me for what I had done—and said I mustn't worry over it nor over what I had said about not seeing his face again—he knew I didn't mean it—that he understood things better at the last—and he had always loved me dearly and always would—and—and—something more I can't tell anybody—too dear, too wonderful. Oh, Emily, can you imagine what this means to me—to know he didn't die angry with me—that he died loving me and thinking tenderly of me? But I didn't know it then. And I—I—don't think I've ever been quite right since. I know all his people thought me crazy. When Teddy was born I came up here away from them all. So that they couldn't lure him away from me. I wouldn't take a cent from them. I had David's insurance—we could just live on that. Teddy was all I had—and you came—and I knew you would take him from me. I knew he loved you—always. Oh, yes he did. When he went away I used to write him of all your flirtations. And two years ago—you remember he had to go to Montreal so suddenly—and you were away—he couldn't wait to say good-bye. But he wrote you a letter."
Emily gave a little choked cry of denial.
"Oh, he did. I saw it lying on his table when he had gone out. I steamed the flap open and read it. I burned the letter, Emily—but I can tell you what was in it. Could I ever forget! He told you he had meant to tell you how much he loved you before he went—and if you could care a little for him to write and tell him so. But if you couldn't not to write at all. Oh, how I hated you. I burned the letter and sealed up a copy of some poetry verses that were in it. And he mailed it never knowing the difference. I was never sorry—never, not even when he wrote me he was going to marry Ilse. But last night—when you brought me that letter—and forgiveness—and peace—oh, I felt I had done an awful thing. I've ruined your life—and perhaps Teddy's. Can you ever forgive me, Emily?"