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'Are you not coming, Walter?'
'No, I will remain here. Don't tremble there is nothing to fear, dearest Florence.'
'I know that, Walter, with you so near. I am sure of that, but - '
The door was softly opened, without any knock, and Cousin Feenix led her out of the summer evening air into the close dull house. More sombre and brown than ever, it seemed to have been shut up from the wedding-day, and to have hoarded darkness and sadness ever since.
Florence ascended the dusky staircase, trembling; and stopped, with her conductor, at the drawing-room door. He opened it, without speaking, and signed an entreaty to her to advance into the inner room, while he remained there. Florence, after hesitating an instant, complied.
Sitting by the window at a table, where she seemed to have been writing or drawing, was a lady, whose head, turned away towards the dying light, was resting on her hand. Florence advancing, doubtfully, all at once stood still, as if she had lost the power of motion. The lady turned her head.
'Great Heaven!' she said, 'what is this?'
'No, no!' cried Florence, shrinking back as she rose up and putting out her hands to keep her off. 'Mama!'
They stood looking at each other. Passion and pride had worn it, but it was the face of Edith, and beautiful and stately yet. It was the face of Florence, and through all the terrified avoidance it expressed, there was pity in it, sorrow, a grateful tender memory. On each face, wonder and fear were painted vividly; each so still and silent, looking at the other over the black gulf of the irrevocable past.
Florence was the first to change. Bursting into tears, she said from her full heart, 'Oh, Mama, Mama! why do we meet like this? Why were you ever kind to me when there was no one else, that we should meet like this?'
Edith stood before her, dumb and motionless. Her eyes were fixed upon her face.
'I dare not think of that,' said Florence, 'I am come from Papa's sick bed. We are never asunder now; we never shall be' any more. If you would have me ask his pardon, I will do it, Mama. I am almost sure he will grant it now, if I ask him. May Heaven grant it to you, too, and comfort you!'
She answered not a word.
'Walter - I am married to him, and we have a son,' said Florence, timidly - 'is at the door, and has brought me here. I will tell him that you are repentant; that you are changed,' said Florence, looking mournfully upon her; 'and he will speak to Papa with me, I know. Is there anything but this that I can do?'
Edith, breaking her silence, without moving eye or limb, answered slowly:
'The stain upon your name, upon your husband's, on your child's. Will that ever be forgiven, Florence?'
'Will it ever be, Mama? It is! Freely, freely, both by Walter and by me. If that is any consolation to you, there is nothing that you may believe more certainly. You do not - you do not,' faltered Florence, 'speak of Papa; but I am sure you wish that I should ask him for his forgiveness. I am sure you do.'
She answered not a word.
'I will!' said Florence. 'I will bring it you, if you will let me; and then, perhaps, we may take leave of each other, more like what we used to be to one another. I have not,' said Florence very gently, and drawing nearer to her, 'I have not shrunk back from you, Mama, because I fear you, or because I dread to be disgraced by you. I only wish to do my duty to Papa. I am very dear to him, and he is very dear to me. But I never can forget that you were very good to me. Oh, pray to Heaven,' cried Florence, falling on her bosom, 'pray to Heaven, Mama, to forgive you all this sin and shame, and to forgive me if I cannot help doing this (if it is wrong), when I remember what you used to be!'
Edith, as if she fell beneath her touch, sunk down on her knees, and caught her round the neck.
'Florence!' she cried. 'My better angel! Before I am mad again, before my stubbornness comes back and strikes me dumb, believe me, upon my soul I am innocent!'
'Guilty of much! Guilty of that which sets a waste between us evermore. Guilty of what must separate me, through the whole remainder of my life, from purity and innocence - from you, of all the earth. Guilty of a blind and passionate resentment, of which I do not, cannot, will not, even now, repent; but not guilty with that dead man. Before God!'
Upon her knees upon the ground, she held up both her hands, and swore it.
'Florence!' she said, 'purest and best of natures, - whom I love - who might have changed me long ago, and did for a time work some change even in the woman that I am, - believe me, I am innocent of that; and once more, on my desolate heart, let me lay this dear head, for the last time!'
She was moved and weeping. Had she been oftener thus in older days, she had been happier now.
'There is nothing else in all the world,' she said, 'that would have wrung denial from me. No love, no hatred, no hope, no threat. I said that I would die, and make no sign. I could have done so, and I would, if we had never met, Florence.
'I trust,' said Cousin Feenix, ambling in at the door, and speaking, half in the room, and half out of it, 'that my lovely and accomplished relative will excuse my having, by a little stratagem, effected this meeting. I cannot say that I was, at first, wholly incredulous as to the possibility of my lovely and accomplished relative having, very unfortunately, committed herself with the deceased person with white teeth; because in point of fact, one does see, in this world - which is remarkable for devilish strange arrangements, and for being decidedly the most unintelligible thing within a man's experience - very odd conjunctions of that sort. But as I mentioned to my friend Dombey, I could not admit the criminality of my lovely and accomplished relative until it was perfectly established. And feeling, when the deceased person was, in point of fact, destroyed in a devilish horrible manner, that her position was a very painful one - and feeling besides that our family had been a little to blame in not paying more attention to her, and that we are a careless family - and also that my aunt, though a devilish lively woman, had perhaps not been the very best of mothers - I took the liberty of seeking her in France, and offering her such protection as a man very much out at elbows could offer. Upon which occasion, my lovely and accomplished relative did me the honour to express that she believed I was, in my way, a devilish good sort of fellow; and that therefore she put herself under my protection. Which in point of fact I understood to be a kind thing on the part of my lovely and accomplished relative, as I am getting extremely shaky, and have derived great comfort from her solicitude.'
Edith, who had taken Florence to a sofa, made a gesture with her hand as if she would have begged him to say no more.
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Dombey and Son - by Charles Dickens