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Rachel Minchin stands in the dock, accused of murdering the dissolute husband she was preparing to leave. The trial is sensational, and public opinion vehemently and almost universally against her. When the jury astonishes and outrages the world with a vedict of not Guilty, Rachel quickly finds herself in need of protection. It comes in the form of a surprising offer of marriage from a mysterious stranger who has sat through every day of her trial. The marriage to this intriguing stranger, Mr. Steel, is by mutual agreement to be a platonic one, the only condition of which is that neither is ever to question the other about the past. The two travel to Steel’s remote country estate, where Rachel accidentally discovers that her second husband’s past was somehow intertwined with her first husband’s history - but how, exactly, and why he determined to marry her, Steel will not say. As her doubts about her husband increase, local busybodies threaten to unearth Rachel’s own past. And that is the least of the secrets that comes to light as this entertaining mystery unfolds.
308 pages, with a reading time of ~4.75 hours (77,227 words), and first published in 1902. This DRM-Free edition published by epubBooks, 2018.
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“It is finished,” said the woman, speaking very quietly to herself. “Not another day, nor a night, if I can be ready before morning!”
She stood alone in her own room, with none to mark the white-hot pallor of the oval face, the scornful curve of quivering nostrils, the dry lustre of flashing eyes. But while she stood a heavy step went blustering down two flights of stairs, and double doors slammed upon the ground floor.
It was a little London house, with five floors from basement to attic, and a couple of rooms upon each, like most little houses in London; but this one had latterly been the scene of an equally undistinguished drama of real life, upon which the curtain was even now descending. Although a third was whispered by the world, the persons of this drama were really only two.
Rachel Minchin, before the disastrous step which gave her that surname, was a young Australian lady whose apparent attractions were only equalled by her absolute poverty; that is to say, she had been born at Heidelberg, near Melbourne, of English parents more gentle than practical, who soon left her to fight the world and the devil with no other armory than a good face, a fine nature, and the pride of any heiress. It is true that Rachel also had a voice; but there was never enough of it to augur an income. At twenty, therefore, she was already a governess in the wilds, where women are as scarce as water, but where the man for Rachel did not breathe. A few years later she earned a berth to England as companion to a lady; and her fate awaited her on board.
Mr. Minchin had reached his prime in the underworld, of which he also was a native, without touching affluence, until his fortieth year. Nevertheless, he was a travelled man, and no mere nomad of the bush. As a mining expert he had seen much life in South Africa as well as in Western Australia, but at last he was to see more in Europe as a gentleman of means. A wife had no place in his European scheme; a husband was the last thing Rachel wanted; but a long sea voyage, an uncongenial employ, and the persistent chivalry of a handsome, entertaining, self-confident man of the world, formed a combination as fatal to her inexperience as that of so much poverty, pride, and beauty proved to Alexander Minchin. They were married without ceremony on the very day that they arrived in England, where they had not an actual friend between them, nor a relative to whom either was personally known. In the beginning this mattered nothing; they had to see Europe and enjoy themselves; that they could do unaided; and the bride did it only the more thoroughly, in a sort of desperation, as she realized that the benefits of her marriage were to be wholly material after all.
In the larger life of cities, Alexander Minchin was no longer the idle and good-humored cavalier to whom Rachel had learned to look for unfailing consideration at sea. The illustrative incidents may be omitted; but here he gambled, there he drank; and in his cups every virtue dissolved. Rachel’s pride did not mend matters; she was a thought too ready with her resentment; of this, however, she was herself aware, and would forgive the more freely because there was often some obvious fault on her side before all was said. Quarrels of infinite bitterness were thus patched up, and the end indefinitely delayed.
In the meantime, tired of travelling, and impoverished by the husband’s follies, the hapless couple returned to London, where a pure fluke with some mining shares introduced Minchin to finer gambling than he had found abroad. The man was bitten. There was a fortune waiting for special knowledge and a little ready cash; and Alexander Minchin settled down to make it, taking for the nonce a furnished house in a modest neighborhood. And here it was that the quarrelling continued to its culmination in the scene just ended.
“Not another day,” said Rachel, “nor a night–if I can be ready before morning!”
Being still a woman with some strength of purpose, Mrs. Minchin did not stop at idle words. The interval between the slamming of doors below and another noise at the top of the house was not one of many minutes. The other noise was made by Rachel and her empty trunk upon the loftiest and the narrowest flight of stairs; one of the maids opened their door an inch.
“I am sorry if I disturbed you,” their mistress said. “These stairs are so very narrow. No, thank you, I can manage quite well.” And they heard her about until they slept.