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Title: Uncle Max
Author: Carey, Rosa Nouchette, 1840-1909
Language: English
As this book started as an ASCII text book there are no pictures available.
Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

*** Start of this Doctrine Publishing Corporation Digital Book "Uncle Max" ***

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UNCLE MAX

by

ROSA NOUCHETTE CAREY

Author of 'Nellie's Memories,' 'Wee Wifie,' 'Robert Ord's Atonement,'
etc.

1894



CONTENTS


       I. Out of the Mist

      II. Behind the Bars

     III. Cinderella

      IV. Uncle Max Breaks The Ice

       V. 'When The Cat Is Away'

      VI. The White Cottage

     VII. Giles Hamilton, Esq

    VIII. New Brooms Sweep Clean

      IX. The Flag of Truce

       X. A Difficult Patient

      XI. One of God's Heroines

     XII. A Missed Vocation

    XIII. Lady Betty

     XIV. Lady Betty Leaves Her Muff

      XV. Up At Gladwyn

     XVI. Gladys

    XVII. 'Why Not Trust Me, Max?'

   XVIII. Miss Hamilton's Little Scholar

     XIX. The Picture In Gladys's Room

      XX. Eric

     XXI. 'I Ran Away, Then!'

    XXII. 'They Have Blackened His Memory Falsely'

   XXIII. The Mystery at Gladwyn

    XXIV. 'Weeping may endure for a Night'

     XXV. 'There is no one like Donald'

    XXVI. I hear about Captain Hamilton

   XXVII. Max opens his Heart

  XXVIII. Crossing the River

    XXIX. Miss Darrell has a Headache

     XXX. With Timbrels and Dances

    XXXI. Wedding-Chimes

   XXXII. A Fiery Ordeal

  XXXIII. Jack Poynter

   XXXIV. I communicate with Joe Muggins

    XXXV. Nightingales and Roses

   XXXVI. Breakers Ahead

  XXXVII. 'I claim that Promise, Ursula'

 XXXVIII. In the Turret-Room

   XXXIX. Whitefoot is saddled

      XL. The Talk in the Gloaming

     XLI. 'At five o'clock in the Morning'

    XLII. Down the Pemberley Road

   XLIII. 'Conspiracy Corner'

    XLIV. Leah's Confession

     XLV. 'This Home is yours no longer'

    XLVI. Nap barks in the Stable-yard

   XLVII. At last, Ursula, at last!'

  XLVIII. 'What o' the Way to the End?'



CHAPTER I

OUT OF THE MIST


It appears to me, looking back over a past experience, that certain days
in one's life stand out prominently as landmarks, when we arrive at some
finger-post pointing out the road that we should follow.

We come out of some deep, rutty lane, where the hedgerows obscure the
prospect, and where the footsteps of some unknown passenger have left
tracks in the moist red clay. The confused tracery of green leaves
overhead seems to weave fanciful patterns against the dim blue of the
sky; the very air is low-pitched and oppressive. All at once we find
ourselves in an open space; the free winds of heaven are blowing over us;
there are four roads meeting; the finger-post points silently, 'This way
to such a place'; we can take our choice, counting the mile-stones rather
wearily as we pass them. The road may be a little tedious, the stones may
hurt our feet; but if it be the right road it will bring us to our
destination.

In looking back it always seems to me as though I came to a fresh
landmark in my experience that November afternoon when I saw Uncle Max
standing in the twilight, waiting for me.

There had been the waste of a great trouble in my young life,--sorrow,
confusion, then utter chaos. I had struggled on somehow after my twin
brother's death, trying to fight against despair with all my youthful
vitality; creating new duties for myself, throwing out fresh feelers
everywhere; now and then crying out in my undisciplined way that the
task was too hard for me; that I loathed my life; that it was impossible
to live any longer without love and appreciation and sympathy; that so
uncongenial an atmosphere could be no home to me; that the world was an
utter negation and a mockery.

That was before I went to the hospital, at the time when my trouble was
fresh and I was breaking my heart with the longing to see Charlie's face
again. Most people who have lived long in the world, and have parted with
their beloved, know what that sort of hopeless ache means.

My work was over at the hospital, and I had come home again,--to rest, so
they said, but in reality to work out plans for my future life, in a sort
of sullen silence, that seemed to shut me out from all sympathy.

It had wrapped me in a sort of mantle of reserve all the afternoon,
during which I had been driving with Aunt Philippa and Sara. The air
would do me good. I was moped, hipped, with all that dreary hospital
work, so they said. It would distract and amuse me to watch Sara making
her purchases. Reluctance, silent opposition, only whetted their
charitable mood.

'Don't be disagreeable, Ursula. You might as well help me choose my new
mantle,' Sara had said, quite pleasantly, and I had given in with a bad
grace.

Another time I might have been amused by Aunt Philippa's majestic
deportment and Sara's brisk importance, her girlish airs and graces; but
I was too sad at heart to indulge in my usual satire. Everything seemed
stupid and tiresome; the hum of voices wearied me; the showroom at
Marshall and Snelgrove's seemed a confused Babel,--everywhere strange
voices, a hubbub of sound, tall figures in black passing and repassing,
strange faces reflected in endless pier-glasses,--faces of puckered
anxiety repeating themselves in ludicrous _vrai-semblance_.

I saw our own little group reproduced in one. There was Aunt Philippa,
tall and portly, with her well-preserved beauty, a little full-blown
perhaps, but still 'marvellously' good-looking for her age, if she could
only have not been so conscious of the fact.

Then, Sara, standing there slim and straight, with the furred mantle just
slipping over her smooth shoulders, radiant with good health, good looks,
perfectly contented with herself and the whole world, as it behooves a
handsome, high-spirited young woman to be with her surroundings, looking
bright, unconcerned, good-humoured, in spite of her mother's fussy
criticisms: Aunt Philippa was always a little fussy about dress.

Between the two I could just catch a glimpse of myself,--a tall
girl, dressed very plainly in black, with a dark complexion, large,
anxious-looking eyes, that seemed appealing for relief from all this
dulness,--a shadowy sort of image of discontent and protest in the
background, hovering behind Aunt Philippa's velvet mantle and Sara's
slim supple figure.

'Well, Ursula,' said Sara, still good-humouredly, 'will you not give us
your opinion? Does this dolman suit me, or would you prefer a long jacket
trimmed with skunk?'

I remember I decided in favour of the jacket, only Aunt Philippa
interposed, a little contemptuously,--

'What does Ursula know about the present fashion? She has spent the last
year in the wards of St. Thomas's, my dear,' dropping her voice, and
taking up her gold-rimmed eye-glasses to inspect me more critically,--a
mere habit, for I had reason to know Aunt Philippa was not the least
near-sighted. 'I cannot see any occasion for you to dress so dowdily,
with three hundred a year to spend absolutely on yourself; for of course
poor Charlie's little share has come to you. You could surely make
yourself presentable, especially as you know we are going to Hyde Park
Mansions to see Lesbia.'

This was too much for my equanimity. 'What does it matter? I am not
coming with you, Aunt Philippa,' I retorted, somewhat vexed at this
personality; but Sara overheard us, and strove to pour oil on the
troubled waters.

'Leave Ursula alone, mother: she looks tolerably well this afternoon;
only mourning never suits a dark complexion--' But I did not wait to
hear any more. I wandered about the place disconsolately, pretending to
examine things with passing curiosity, but my eyes were throbbing and my
heart beating angrily at Sara's thoughtless speech. A sudden remembrance
seemed to steal before me vividly: Charlie's pale face, with its sad,
sweet smile, haunted me. 'Courage, Ursula; it will be over soon.' Those
were his last words, poor boy, and he was looking at me and not at Lesbia
as he spoke. I always wondered what he meant by them. Was it his long
pain, which he had borne so patiently, that would soon be over? or was
it that cruel parting to which he alluded? or did he strive to comfort
me at the last with the assurance--alas! for our mortal nature, so sadly
true--that pain cannot last for ever, that even faithful sorrow is
short-lived and comforts itself in time, that I was young enough to
outlive more than one trouble, and that I might take courage from this
thought?

I looked down at the black dress, such as I had worn nearly two years
for him, and raged as I remembered Sara's flippant words. 'My darling,
I would wear mourning for you all my life gladly,' I said, with an inward
sob that was more anger than sorrow, 'if I thought you would care for me
to do it. Oh, what a world this is, Charlie! surely vanity and vexation
of spirit!'

I did not mean to be cross with Sara, but my thoughts had taken a gloomy
turn, and I could not recover my spirits: indeed, as we drove down Bond
Street, where Sara had some glittering little toy to purchase, I
reiterated my intention of not calling at Hyde Park Mansions.

'I do not want any tea,' I said wearily, 'and I would rather go home.
Give my love to Lesbia; I will see her another day.'

'Lesbia will be hurt,' remonstrated Sara. 'What a little misanthrope you
are, Ursula! St. Thomas's has injured you socially; you have become a
hermit-crab all at once, and it is such nonsense at your age.'

'Oh, let me be, Sara!' I pleaded; 'I am tired, and Lesbia always chatters
so; and Mrs. Fullerton is worse. Besides, did you not tell me she was
coming to dine with us this evening?'

'Yes, to be sure; but she wanted us to meet the Percy Glyns. Mirrel and
Winifred Glyn are to be there this afternoon. Never mind, Lesbia will
understand when I say you are in one of your ridiculous moods.' And Sara
hummed a little tune gaily, as though she meant no offence by her words
and was disposed to let me go my own way.

'The carriage can take you home, Ursula; we can walk those few yards,'
observed Aunt Philippa, as she descended leisurely, and Sara tripped
after her, still humming. But I took no notice of her words: I had had
enough dulness and decorum to last me for some time, and the Black Prince
and his consort Bay might find their way to their own stables without
depositing me at the front door of the house at Hyde Park Gate. I told
Clarence so, to his great astonishment, and walked across the road in an
opposite direction to home, as though my feet were winged with
quicksilver.

For the Park in that dim November light seemed to allure me; there was
a red glow of sunset in the distance; a faint, climbing mist between the
trees; the gas-lamps were twinkling everywhere. I could hear the ringing
of some church bell; there was space, freedom for thought, a vague,
uncertain prospect, out of which figures were looming curiously,--a
delightful sense that I was sinning against conventionality and Aunt
Philippa.

'Halloo, Ursula!' exclaimed a voice in great astonishment; and there, out
of the mist, was a kind face looking at me,--a face with a brown beard,
and dark eyes with a touch of amusement in them; and the eyes and the
beard and the bright, welcoming smile belonged to Uncle Max.

As I caught at his outstretched hand with a half-stifled exclamation
of delight, a policeman turned round and looked at us with an air of
interest. No doubt he thought the tall brown-bearded clergyman in the
shabby coat--it was one of Uncle Max's peculiarities to wear a shabby
coat occasionally--was the sweetheart of the young lady in black. Uncle
Max--I am afraid I oftener called him Max--was only a few years older
than myself, and had occupied the position of an elder brother to me.

He was my poor mother's only brother, and had been dearly loved by
her,--not as I had loved Charlie, perhaps; but they had been much to each
other, and he had always seemed nearer to me than Aunt Philippa, who was
my father's sister; perhaps because there was nothing in common between
us, and I had always been devoted to Uncle Max.

'Well, Ursula,' he said, pretending to look grave, but evidently far too
pleased to see me to give me a very severe lecture, 'what is the meaning
of this? Does Mrs. Garston allow young ladies under her charge to stroll
about Hyde Park in the twilight? or have you stolen a march on her,
naughty little she-bear?'

I drew my hand away with an offended air: when Uncle Max wished to tease
or punish me he always reminded me that the name of Ursula signified
she-bear, and would sometimes call me 'the little black growler'; and at
such times it was provoking to think that Sara signified princess. I have
always wondered how far and how strongly our baptismal names influence
us. Of course he would not let me walk beside him in that dignified
manner: the next instant I heard his clear hearty laugh, and then I
laughed too.

'What an absurd child you are! I was thinking over your letter as I
walked along. It did not bring me to London, certainly; I had business of
my own; but, all the same, I have walked across the Park this evening to
talk to you about this extraordinary scheme.'

But I would not let him go on. He was about to cross the road, so I took
his arm and turned him back. And there was the gray mist creeping up
between the trees, and the lamps glimmering in the distance, and the
faint pink glow had not yet died away.

'It is so quiet here,' I pleaded, 'and I could not get you alone for a
moment if we went in. Uncle Brian will be there, and Jill, and we could
not say a word. Aunt Philippa and Sara have gone to see Lesbia. I have
been driving with them all the afternoon. Sara has been shopping, and how
bored I was!'

'You uncivilised little heathen!' Then, very gravely, 'Well, how is poor
Lesbia?'

'Do not waste your pity on her,' I returned impatiently. 'She is as well
and cheerful as possible. Even Sara says so. She is not breaking her
heart about Charlie. She has left off mourning, and is as gay as ever.'

'You are always hard on Lesbia,' he returned gently. 'She is young,
my dear, you forget that, and a pretty girl, and very much admired.
It always seems to me she was very fond of the poor fellow.'

'She was good to him in his illness, but she never cared for Charlie as
he did for her. He worshipped the very ground she walked on. He thought
her perfection. Uncle Max, it was pitiful to hear him sometimes. He would
tell me how sweet and unselfish she was, and all the time I knew she was
but an ordinary, commonplace girl. If he had lived to marry her he would
have been disappointed in her. He was so large-hearted, and Lesbia has
such little aims.'

'So you always say, Ursula. But you women are so severe in your judgment
of each other. I doubt myself if the girl lives whom you would have
considered good enough for Charlie. Yes, yes, my dear,'--as I uttered a
dissenting protest to this,--'he was a fine fellow, and his was a most
lovable character; but it was his last illness that ripened him.'

'He was always perfect in my eyes,' I returned, in a choked voice.

'That was because you loved him; and no doubt Lesbia possessed the same
ideal goodness for him. Love throws its own glamour,' he went on, and
his voice was unusually grave; 'it does not believe in commonplace
mediocrity; it lifts up its idol to some fanciful pedestal, where the
poor thing feels very uncomfortable and out of its element, and then
persists in falling down and worshipping it. We humans are very droll,
Ursula: we will create our own divinities.'

'Lesbia would have disappointed him,' I persisted obstinately; but I
might as well have talked to the wind. Uncle Max could not find it in
his heart to be hard to a pretty girl.

'That is open to doubt, my dear. Lesbia is amiable and charming, and I
daresay she would have made a nice little wife. Poor Charlie hated clever
women, and in that respect she would have suited him.'

After this I knew it was no good in trying to change his opinion. Uncle
Max held his own views with remarkable tenacity; he had old-fashioned
notions with respect to women, rather singular in so young a man,--for he
was only thirty; he preferred to believe in their goodness, in spite of
any amount of demonstration to the contrary; it vexed him to be reminded
of the shortcomings of his friends; by nature he was an optimist, and had
a large amount of faith in people's good intentions. 'He meant well, poor
fellow, in spite of his failures,' was a speech I have heard more than
once from his lips. He was always ready to condone a fault or heal a
breach; indeed, his sweet nature found it difficult to bear a grudge
against any one; he was only hard to himself, and on no one else did he
strive to impose so heavy a yoke. I was only silent for a minute, and
then I turned the conversation into another channel.

'But my letter, Uncle Max!'

'Ah, true, your letter; but I have not forgotten it. How old are you,
Ursula? I always forget.'

'Five-and-twenty this month.'

'To be sure; I ought to have remembered. And you have three hundred a
year of your own.'

I nodded.

'And your present home is distasteful to you?' in an inquiring tone.

'It is no home to me,' I returned passionately. 'Oh, Uncle Max, how can
one call it home after the dear old rectory, where we were so happy,
father, and mother, and Charlie--and--'

'Yes, I know, poor child; and you have had heavy troubles. It cannot be
like the old home, I am well aware of that, Ursula; but your aunt is a
good woman. I have always found her strictly just. She was your father's
only sister: when she offered you a home she promised to treat you with
every indulgence, as though you were her own daughter.'

'Aunt Philippa means to be kind,' I said, struggling to repress my
tears,--tears always troubled Uncle Max: 'she is kind in her way, and so
is Sara. I have every comfort, every luxury; they want me to be gay and
enjoy myself, to lead their life; but it only makes me miserable; they do
not understand me; they see I do not think with them, and then they laugh
at me and call me morbid. No one really wants me but poor Jill: I am so
fond of Jill.'

'Why cannot you lead their life, Ursula?'

'Because it is not life at all,' was my resolute answer: 'to me it is the
most wearisome existence possible. Listen to me, Uncle Max. Do you think
I could possibly spend my days as Sara does,--writing a few notes, doing
a little fancy-work, shopping and paying visits, and dancing half the
night? Do you think you could transform such a poor little Cinderella
into a fairy princess, like Sara or Lesbia? No; the drudgery of such a
life would kill me with _ennui_ and discontent.'

'It is not the life I would choose for you, certainly,' he said, pulling
his beard in some perplexity: 'it is far too worldly to suit my taste; if
Charlie had lived you would have made your home with him. He often talked
to me about that, poor fellow. I thought a year or two at Hyde Park Gate
would do you no harm, and might be wholesome training; but it has proved
a failure, I see that.'

'They would be happier without me,' I went on, more quietly, for he was
evidently coming round to my view of the case. 'Aunt Philippa does not
mean to be unkind, but she often lets me see that I am in the way, that
she is not proud of me. She would have taken more interest in me if I had
been handsome, like Sara; but a plain, dowdy niece is not to her taste.
No, let me finish, Uncle Max,'--for he wanted to interrupt me here.
'They made a great fuss about my training at the hospital last year,
but I am sure they did not miss me; Sara spoke yesterday as though she
thought I was going back to St. Thomas's, and Aunt Philippa made no
objection. I heard her tell Mrs. Fullerton once "that really Ursula was
so strong-minded and different from other girls that she was prepared for
anything, even for her being a female doctor."'

'Well, my dear, you are certainly rather peculiar, you know.'

'Oh, Uncle Max,' I said mournfully, 'are you going to misunderstand me
too? Providence has deprived me of my parents and my only brother: is it
strong-minded or peculiar to be so lonely and sad at heart that gaiety
only jars on me? Can I forget my mother's teaching when she said,
"Ursula, if you live for the world you will be miserable. Try to do your
duty and benefit your fellow-creatures, and happiness must follow"?'

'Yes, poor Emmie, she was a good woman: you might do worse than take
after her.'

'She would not approve of the life I am leading at Hyde Park Gate,' I
went on. 'She and Aunt Philippa never cared for each other. I often think
that if she had known she would not have liked me to be there. Sundays
are wretched. We go to church?--yes, because it is respectable to do so;
but there is a sort of reunion every Sunday evening.'

'I wish I could offer you a home, Ursula; but--' here Uncle Max
hesitated.

'That would not do at all,' I returned promptly. 'Your bachelor home
would not do for me; besides, you might marry--of course you will,' but
he flushed rather uncomfortably at that, and said, 'Pshaw! what
nonsense!' We had paused under a lamp-post, and I could see him plainly:
perhaps he knew this, for he hurried me on, this time in the direction of
home.

'I am five-and-twenty,' I continued, trying to collect the salient points
of my argument. 'I am indebted to none for my maintenance; I am free, and
my own mistress; I neglect no duty by refusing to live under Uncle
Brian's roof; no one wants me; I contribute to no one's happiness.'

'Except to Jill's,' observed Uncle Max.

'Jill! but she is only a child, barely sixteen, and Sara is becoming
jealous of my influence. I shall only breed dissension in the household
if I remain. Uncle Max, you are a good man,--a clergyman; you cannot
conscientiously tell me that I am not free to lead my own life, to choose
my own work in the world.'

'Perhaps not,' he replied, in a hesitating voice. 'But the scheme is a
peculiar one. You wish me to find respectable lodgings in my parish,
where you will be independent and free from supervision, and to place
your superfluous health and strength--you are a muscular Christian,
Ursula--at the service of my sick poor, and for this post you have
previously trained yourself.'

'I think it will be a good sort of life,' I returned carelessly, but how
my heart was beating! 'I like it so much, and I should like to be near
you, Uncle Max, and work under you as my vicar. I have thought about this
for years. Charlie and I often talked of it. I was to live with him and
Lesbia and devote my time to this work. He thought it such a nice idea
to go and nurse poor people in their homes. And he promised that he
would come and sing to them. But now I must carry out my plan alone, for
Charlie cannot help me now.' And as I thought of the sympathy that had
never failed me my voice quivered and I could say no more.

'I wish we were all in heaven,' growled Uncle Max,--but his tone was a
little husky,--'for this world is a most uncomfortable place for good
people, or people with a craze. I think Charlie is well out of it.'

'Under which category do you mean to place me?' I asked, trying to laugh.

'My dear, there is a craze in most women. They have such an obstinate
faith in their own good intentions. If they find half a dozen fools to
believe in them, they will start a crusade to found a new Utopia. Women
are the most meddlesome things in creation: they never let well alone.
Their pretty little fingers are in every human pie. That is why we get so
much unwholesome crust and so little meat, and, of course, our digestion
is ruined.'

'Uncle Max--' But he would not be serious any longer.

'Ursula, I utterly refuse to inhale any more of this mist. I think a
comfortable arm-chair by the fire would be far more conducive to comfort.
You have given me plenty of food for thought, and I mean to sleep on it.
Now, not another word. I am going to ring the bell.' And Uncle Max was as
good as his word.



CHAPTER II

BEHIND THE BARS


It was quite true, as I had told Uncle Max, that the scheme had been no
new one; it was no sudden emanation from a girl's brain, morbid with
discontent and fruitless longings; it had grown with my youth and had
become part of my environment. As a child the thought had come to me as
I followed my father into one cottage after another in his house-to-house
visitation. He had been a conscientious, hard-working clergyman; in fact,
his work killed him, for he overtasked a constitution that was not
naturally strong. I accompanied my mother, too, in her errands of mercy,
and saw a great deal of the misery engendered by drink, ignorance, and
want of forethought. In the case of the sick poor, the gross
mismanagement and want of cleanly and thrifty habits led to an amount
of discomfort and suffering that even now makes me shudder. The parish
was overgrown and insufficiently worked; the greater part of the
population belonged to the working-classes; dissenting chapels and
gin-palaces flourished. Often did my childish heart ache at the
surroundings of some squalid home, where the parents toiled all day for
worse than naught, just to satisfy their unhealthy cravings, while the
children grew up riotous, half starved, and full of inherited vices.
There was a little child I saw once, a cripple, dying slowly of some sad
spinal disease, lying in a dark corner, on what seemed to me a heap of
rags. Oh, God, I can see that child's face now! I remember when we heard
of its death my mother burst into tears. They were tears of joy, she told
me afterwards, that another suffering child's life was ended; 'and there
are hundreds and hundreds of these little creatures, Ursula,' she said,
'growing up in sin and misery; and the world goes on, and people eat and
drink and are merry, for it is none of their business, and yet it is not
the will of the Father that one of these little ones should perish.'

I had learned much from my father, but still more from my mother.
Uncle Max had called her a good woman, but she was more than that:
she possessed one of those rare unselfish natures that cannot remain
satisfied with their own personal happiness: they wish to include
the whole world. She wanted to inculcate in me her own spirit of
self-sacrifice. I can remember some of her short, trenchant sentences
now.

'Never mind happiness: that is God's gift to a few: do your duty.'

'If you have loved your fellow-creatures sufficiently you will not be
afraid to die. A good conscience will smooth your pillow.'

And once, in her last illness, when Charlie asked if she were
comfortable, 'Not very, but I shall soon be quite comfortable, for I
shall hope to forget in heaven how little I have done, after all, here;
and yet I always wanted to help others.'

Oh, how good she was! And Charlie was good too, after the fashion of
young men: not altogether thoughtless, full of the promptings of his kind
heart; but Uncle Max was right when he said his last illness had ripened
him: it was not the old careless Charlie who had wooed Lesbia who lay
there: it was another and a better Charlie.

In the old days he had rallied me in a brotherly manner on my
old-fashioned, grave ways. 'You are not a modern young lady, Ursie,' he
would say; and he would often call me 'grandmother Ursula'; but all the
same he would listen to my plans with the utmost tolerance and good
nature.

Ah, those talks in the twilight, before the fatal disease developed
itself, and he lay in idle fashion on the couch with his arms under his
head, while I sat on the footstool or on the rug in the firelight! We
were to live together,--yes, that was always the dream; even when
Lesbia's fair face came between us, he would not hear of any difference.
I was to live with him and Lesbia, Lesbia was rich, and, though Charlie
had little, they were to marry soon.

I was to form a part of that luxurious household, but my time was to be
my own, and I was to devote it to the sick poor of Rutherford. 'Mind,
Ursula, you may work, but I will not have you overwork,' Charlie had once
said, more decidedly than usual; 'you must come home for hours of rest
and refreshment. You have a beautiful voice, and it shall be properly
trained; you may sing to your invalids as much as you like, and sometimes
I will come and sing too; but you must remember you have social duties,
and I shall expect you to entertain our friends.' And it was the idea of
this dual life of home sympathy and outside work that had so strongly
seized upon my imagination.

When Charlie died I was too sick at heart to carry out my plan. 'How can
one work alone?' I would say sorrowfully to myself; but after a time the
emptiness of my life and dissatisfaction with my surroundings brought
back the old thoughts.

I remembered the dear old rectory life, where every one was in earnest,
and contrasted it with the trifling pursuits that my aunt and cousin
called duties. My present existence seemed to shut me in like prison
bars. Only to be free, to choose my own life! And then came emancipation
in the shape of hard hospital work, when health and spirits returned to
me; when, under the stimulus of useful employment and constant exercise
of body and mind, I slept better, fretted less, and looked less
mournfully out on the world. Uncle Max was right when he said a year
at St. Thomas's would save me.

By and by the idea dawned upon me that I might still carry out my plan;
there were poor people at Heathfield, where Uncle Max's parish was. What
should hinder me from living there under Uncle Max's wing and trying to
combine the two lives, as Charlie wished?

I was young, full of activity. I did not wish to shut myself out from my
kind. I could discharge my duties to my own class and enjoy a moderate
amount of pleasure. I was young enough to desire that; but the greater
part of my time would be placed at the disposal of my poorer neighbours.
People might think it singular at first, but they would not talk for
ever, and the life would be a happy one to me.

All this had been said in that voluminous letter of mine to Uncle Max;
he might argue and shake his head over it, thereby proving himself a
wise man, but he could not but know that I was absolutely under my own
control, as far as a woman could be. I need ask no one's advice in the
disposal of my own life; his own and Uncle Brian's guardianship was
merely nominal now. After five-and-twenty I was declared my own
mistress in every sense of the word.

Uncle Brian came out to meet us as soon as he heard Uncle Max's voice
in the hall; the two were very great friends, and they shook hands
cordially.

'Glad to see you, Cunliffe; why did you not let us know that you were
coming up to town? We could have put you up easily--eh, Ursula?'

'Yes, indeed, Uncle Brian'; and then I added coaxingly, 'Do please send
for your portmanteau, Uncle Max; you know Lesbia is coming this evening,
and you are such a favourite with her.' I knew this would be a strong
inducement, for Uncle Max's soft heart would insist on treating Lesbia
as though she were a widowed princess.

'All right,' he returned in his lazy way, and then I took the matter into
my own hands by leaving the room at once to consult with Mrs. Martin,
Aunt Philippa's housekeeper. As I closed the door I glanced back for
another look at Uncle Max. He had thrown himself into an easy-chair, as
though he were tired, and was leaning back with his hands under his head
in Charlie's fashion, looking up at Uncle Brian, who was standing on the
rug.

I always thought Uncle Brian a very handsome man. He had clear, well-cut
features and a gray moustache, and he was quiet and dignified. He always
looked to me, with his brown complexion, more like an Indian officer than
a wealthy banker. There was nothing commercial in his appearance; but I
should have admired him more if he had been less cold and repressive in
manner; but he was an undemonstrative man, even to his own children.

I remember hinting this once to Uncle Max, and he had rebuked me more
severely than he had ever done before.

'I do not like young girls like you, Ursula, to be so critical about
their elders. Garston is an excellent fellow; he has plenty of brains,
and always does the right thing, however difficult it may be. Men are not
like women, my dear: they often hide their deepest feelings. Your poor
uncle has never been quite the same man since Ralph's death, and just as
he was getting over his boy's loss a little he had a fresh disappointment
with Charlie: he always meant to put him in Ralph's place.'

I was a little ashamed of my criticism when Max said this. I felt I had
not made sufficient allowance for Uncle Brian: the death of his only son
must have been a dreadful blow. Ralph had died at Oxford; they said he
had overworked himself in trying for honours and then had taken a chill.
He was a fine, handsome young fellow, nearly two-and-twenty, and his
father's idol: no wonder Uncle Brian had grown so much older and graver
during the last few years.

And he had been fond of Charlie, and had meant to have him in Ralph's
place; my poor boy would have been a rich one if he had lived. Uncle
Brian had taken him into the bank, and Lesbia and her fortune were
promised to him, but the goodly heritage was snatched away before his
eyes, and he was called away in the fresh bloom of his youth.

I always thought Uncle Brian liked Max better than any other man: he
was always less stiff and frigid in his presence. I could hear his low
laugh--Uncle Brian never laughed loudly--as I closed the door; Max had
said something that amused him. They would be quite happy without me,
so I ran up to the schoolroom on the chance of getting a chat with Jill.

The schoolroom was on the second floor, where Jill, I, and Fräulein all
slept. Sara had a handsome room next to her mother's, and a little
boudoir furnished most daintily for her special use. I do not believe
she ever sat in it, unless she had a cold or was otherwise ailing; the
drawing-room was always full of company, and Sara was the life of the
house. I used to peep in at the pretty room sometimes as I went up to
bed; there were few notes written at the inlaid escritoire, and the
handsomely-bound books were never taken down from the shelves. Draper,
Aunt Philippa's maid, fed the canaries and dusted the cabinets of china.
Sometimes Sara would trip into the room with one of her cronies for a
special chat; the ripple of their girlish laughter would reach us as Jill
and I sat together. 'Whom has Sara got with her this afternoon?' Jill
would say peevishly. 'Do listen to them; they do nothing but laugh. If
Fräulein had set her all these exercises she would not feel quite so
merry,' Jill would finish, throwing the obnoxious book from her with a
little burst of impatience.

I always pitied Jill for having to spend her days in such a dull room;
the furniture was ugly, and the windows looked out on a dismal back-yard,
with the high walls of the opposite building. Aunt Philippa, who was a
rigid disciplinarian with her young daughter, always said that she had
chosen the room 'because Jill would have nothing to distract her from her
studies.' The poor child would put up her shoulders at this remark and
draw down the corners of her lips in a way that would make Aunt Philippa
scold her for her awkwardness. 'You need not make yourself plainer than
you are, Jocelyn,' she would say severely; for Jill's awkward manners
troubled her motherly vanity. 'What is the good of all the dancing and
drilling and riding with Captain Cooper if you will persist in hunching
your shoulders as though you were deformed? Fräulein has been complaining
of you this morning; she seems excessively displeased at your
carelessness and want of application.' 'I know I shall get stupid, shut
up in that dull hole with Fräulein,' Jill would say passionately, after
one of these maternal lectures. Aunt Philippa was really very fond of
Jill; but she misunderstood the girl's nature. The system had answered
 so well with Sara that she could not be brought to comprehend why it
should fail with her other child. Sara had grown up blooming and radiant
in spite of the depressing influences of Fräulein and the dull, narrow
schoolroom. Her music and singing masters had come to her there. Little
Madame Blanchard had chirped to her in Parisian accent for the hour
together over _les modes_ and _le beau Paris_. Sara had danced and
drilled with the other young ladies at Miss Dugald's select
establishment, and had joined them at the riding-school or in the
cavalcade under Captain Cooper.

Sara had worn her bondage lightly, and had fascinated even grim old Herr
Schliefer. Her tact and easy adaptability had kept Fräulein Sonnenschein
in a state of tepid good-humour. Every one, even cross old Draper,
idolised Sara for her beauty and sprightly ways. When Aunt Philippa
declared her education finished, she tripped out of the schoolroom as
happily as possible to take possession of her grand new bedroom and the
little boudoir, where all her girlish treasures were arranged. She had
not been the least impatient for her day of freedom: it would all come in
good time. When the sceptre was put into her hands and her sovereignty
acknowledged by the whole household, the young princess was not a bit
excited. She put on her court dress and made her courtesy to her majesty
with the same charming unconsciousness and ease of manner. No wonder
people were charmed with such good-humour and freshness. If the glossy
hair did not cover a large amount of brains, no one found fault with her
for that.

Jill raged and stormed fiercely under Sara's light-hearted philosophy;
when her sister told her to be patient under Fräulein's yoke, that a good
time was coming for her also, when lesson-books would be shut up, and
Herr Schliefer would cease to scatter snuff on the carpet as he sat
drumming with his fingers on the keyboard and grunting out brief
interjections of impatience.

'What does it matter about Herr Schliefer?' Jill would say, in a sort of
fury. 'I like him a hundred times better than I do that mincing little
poll-parrot of a Madame Blanchard: she is odious, and I hate her, and I
hate Fräulein too. It is not the lessons I mind; one has to learn lessons
all one's life; it is being shut up like a bird in a cage when one's
wings are ready for flight. I should like to fly away from this room,
from Fräulein, from the whole of the horrid set; it makes me cross,
wicked, to live like this, and all your sugar-plums will do me no good.
Go away, Sara; you do not understand as Ursula does, it makes me feel bad
to see you standing there, looking so pretty and happy, and just laughing
at me.'

'Of course I laugh at you, Jocelyn, when you behave like a baby,'
returned Sara, trying to be severe, only her dimples betrayed her. 'Well,
as you are so cross, I shall go away. There is the chocolate I promised
you. Ta-ta.' And Sara put down the _bonbonnière_ on the table and walked
out of the room.

I was not surprised to see Jill push it away. No one understood the poor
child but myself; she was precocious, womanly, for her age; she had
twenty times the amount of brains that Sara possessed, and she was
starving on the education provided for her.

To dance and drill and write dreary German exercises, when one is
thirsting to drink deeply at the well of knowledge; to go round and round
the narrow monotonous course that had sufficed for Sara's moderate
abilities, like the blind horse at the mill, and never to advance an inch
out of the beaten track, this was simply maddening to Jill's sturdy
intellect. She often told me how she longed to attend classes, to hear
lectures, to rub against full-grown minds.

'Now. Me-ess Jocelyn, we will do a little of ze Wallenstein, by the
immortal Schiller. Hold up the head, and leave off striking the table
with your elbows.' Jill would give a droll imitation of Fräulein, and
end with a groan.

'What does she know-about Schiller? She cannot even comprehend him. She
is dense,--utterly dense and stupid; but because she knows her own
language and has a correct deportment she is fit to teach me.' And Jill
ground her little white teeth in impotent wrath. Jill always appeared to
me like an infant Pegasus in harness; she wanted to soar,--to make use of
her wings,--and they kept her down. She was not naturally gay, like Sara,
though her health was good, and she was as powerful as a young Amazon.
Her nature was more sombre and took colour from her surroundings.

She was like a child in the sunshine; plenty of life and movement
distracted her from interior broodings and made her joyous; when she was
riding with the young ladies from Miss Dugald's, she would be as merry as
the others.

But her dreary schoolroom and Fräulein's society chafed her nervous
sensibilities dangerously; there were only a few brown sparrows, or
a stray cat intent on game, to be seen from her window. From the
drawing-room, from Sara's boudoir, from her mother's bedroom, there was
a charming view of the Park. In the spring the fresh foliage of the
trees, and the velvety softness of the grass, would be delicious; down
in the broad white road, carriages were passing, horses cantering,
happy-looking people in smart bonnets, in gorgeous mantles, driving about
everywhere; children would be running up and down the paths in the Park,
flower-sellers would stand offering their innocent wares to the
passengers. Jill would sit entranced by her mother's window watching
them; the sunshine, the glitter, the hubbub, intoxicated her; she made up
stories by the dozen, as her dark eyes followed the gay equipages. When
Fräulein summoned her she went away reluctantly; the stories got into
her head, and stopped there all the time she laboured through that long
sonata.

'Why are your fingers all thumbs to-day, Fräulein?' Herr Schliefer
would demand gloomily. Jill, who was really fond of the stern old
professor, hung her head and blushed guiltily. She had no excuse to
offer: her girlish dreams were sacred to her; they came gliding to her
through the most intricate passages of the sonata, now with a _staccato_
movement,--brisk, lively,--with fitful energy, now _andante_, then
_crescendo, con passione_. Jill's unformed girlish hands strike the
chords wildly, angrily. '_Dolce, dolce_,' screams the professor in her
ears. The music softens, wanes, and the dreams seem to die away too.
'That will do, Fräulein: you have not acquitted yourself so badly after
all.' And Jill gets off her music-stool reluctant, absent, half awake,
and her day-dream broken up into chaos.



CHAPTER III

CINDERELLA


As I opened the schoolroom door a half-forgotten picture of Cinderella
came vividly before me.

The fire had burnt low; a heap of black ashes lay under the grate; and by
the dull red glow I could see Jill's forlorn figure, very indistinctly,
as she sat in her favourite attitude on the rug, her arms clasping her
knees and her short black locks hanging loosely over her shoulders. She
gave a little shrill exclamation of pleasure when she saw me.

'Ah, you dear darling bear, do come and hug me,' she cried, trying to get
up in a hurry, but her dress entangled her.

'Where is Fräulein?' I asked, pushing her back into her place, while I
knelt down to manipulate the miserable fire. 'Jill, you look just like
Cinderella when the proud sisters drove away to the ball. My dear, were
you asleep? Why are you sitting in the dark, with the fire going out, and
the lamp unlighted? There, it only wanted to be stirred; we shall have
light by which to see other's faces directly,'

'Fräulein has a headache and has gone to lie down,' returned Jill, and,
though I could not see her clearly, I knew at once by her voice that she
had been crying; only she would have been furious if I had noticed the
fact. 'I hope I am not very wicked, but Fräulein's headaches are the
redeeming points in her character; she has them so often, and then she
is obliged to lie down.'

'Of course you have offered to bathe her head?' I asked, a little
mischievously, but Jill, who was unusually subdued, took the question
in good part.

'Oh yes, and I spoke to her quite civilly; but I suppose she saw the
savage gleam of delight in my eyes, for she was as cross as possible, and
went away muttering that "Meess Jocelyn had the heart like the flint; if
it had been Meess Sara, now--" and then she banged the door, so the pain
could not have been so bad after all. It is my belief,' went on Jill,
'that Fräulein always has a headache when she has a novel to finish.
Mamma does not like her to set me an example of novel-reading, so she
is obliged to lock herself in her own room.'

I took no notice of this statement, as I rather leaned to this view of
the subject myself. Fräulein's round placid face and excellent appetite
showed no signs of suffering, and her constant plea of a bad headache was
only received with any credulity by Aunt Philippa herself; neither Sara
nor I had much respect for Fräulein Sonnenschein, with her thick little
figure, and big head covered with flimsy flaxen plaits. We were both
aware of the smooth selfishness of her character, though Sara chose to
ignore it for Jill's benefit. She was industrious, painstaking, and
capable of a great deal of dull routine in the way of duties, but she
was far too fond of her own comfort, and all the affection of which she
was capable was lavished upon her own relatives; she had cared for Sara
moderately, but her other pupil, Jill, was a thorn in her side. So I
passed over Fräulein's headache without comment, and took Jill to task
somewhat sharply for the comfortless state of the room. A good scolding
would rouse her from her dejection; the blinds were up and the curtains
undrawn; the remains of a meal, the usual five-o'clock schoolroom tea,
were still on the table. Jill's German books were heaped up beside her
empty cup and the glass dish that contained marmalade; the kettle
spluttered and hissed in the blaze; Jill's little black kitten, Sooty,
was dragging a half-knitted stocking across the rug.

'I forgot to ring for Martha,' faltered Jill; 'she will come presently.
Don't be cross, Ursula. I like the room as it is; it is deliciously
untidy, just like Cinderella's kitchen; but there is no hope of the fairy
godmother; and you are going away, and I shall be ten times more
miserable.'

It was this that was troubling her, then; for I had told her my plans and
all about my letter to Uncle Max. Perhaps she had heard his voice in the
hall, for Jill's pretty little ears heard everything that went on in the
house: she admitted her knowledge at once when I taxed her with it.

'Oh yes, I know Mr. Cunliffe is here. I heard papa go out and speak to
him; his voice sounded quite cheerful; and now he has come and it will
all be settled; and you will go away and be happy with your poor people,
and forget that I am fretting myself to death in this horrid room.'

She had drawn me down on the rug forcibly,--for she had the strength of
a young Titaness,--and was wrapping her arms around me with a sort of
fierce impatience. Her big eyes looked troubled and affectionate. Few
people admired Jill; she was undeveloped and awkward, full of angles, and
a little brusque in manner; she had a way of thrusting out her big feet
and squaring her shoulders that horrified Aunt Philippa. She was very
big, certainly, and would never possess Sara's slim grace. Her hair had
been cropped in some illness, and had not grown so fast as they expected,
but hung in short thick lengths about her neck; it was always getting
into her eyes, and was being pushed back impatiently, but she would much
oftener throw her head back with a fling like an unbroken pony, for she
was jerky as young things often are.

But, though, people found fault with Jill, and often said that she would
never be as handsome as Sara, I liked her face. Perhaps it was a little
irregular and her complexion slightly sallow, but when she was flushed or
excited and she opened her big bright eyes, and one could see her little
white teeth gleaming as she laughed, I have thought Jill could look
almost beautiful; but her good looks depended on her expression.

'I suppose it will be settled,' I replied, with a quick catch at my
breath, for the mere mention of the subject excited me; 'but you will be
a good child and not fret if I do go away. No, I shall never forget you,'
as a close hug answered me; 'I love you too dearly for that; but I want
you to be brave about it, dear, for I cannot be happy wasting my time and
doing nothing. You know how ill I was before I went to St. Thomas's, so
that Uncle Max was obliged to tell Aunt Philippa that I must have change
and hard work, or I should follow Charlie.'

'Oh yes, and we were all so frightened about you, you poor thing; you
looked so pinched and miserable. Well, I suppose I must let you go, as
you are so wicked as to disobey the proverb that "Charity begins at
home."'

'Listen to me, dear,' I returned, quite pleased to find her so
reasonable. 'I am very glad to know that I have been a comfort to you,
but I shall hope to be so still. I will write long letters to you, Jill,
and tell you all about my work, and you shall answer them, and talk to me
on paper about the books you have read, and the queer thoughts you have,
and how patient and strong you have grown, and how you have learned to
put up with Fräulein's little ways and not aggravate her with your
untidiness.' And here Jill's hand--and it was by no means a small
hand--closed my lips rather abruptly. But I was used to this sort of
sledge-hammer form of argument.

'Oh, it is all very fine for you to sit there and moralise, Ursula, like
a sort of sucking Diogenes,' grumbled Jill, 'when you know you are going
to have your own way and live a deliciously sort of three-volume-novel
life, not like any one else's, unless it were Don Quixote, or one of the
Knights of the Round Table, poking about among a lot of strange people,
doing wonderful things for them, until they are all ready to worship you.
It is all very well for you, I say; but what would you do if you were
me?' cried Jill, in her shrill treble, and quite oblivious of grammatical
niceties; 'how would you like to be poor me, shut up here with that old
dragon?'

This was a grand opportunity for airing my philosophy, and I rushed at
it. To Jill's amazement, I shook my hair back in the way she usually
shook her rough black mane, and, opening my eyes very widely, tried to
copy Jill's falsetto.

'How thankful I am Jocelyn Garston and not Ursula Garston,' I said,
with rapid staccato. 'Poor Ursula! I am fond of her, but I would not
change places with her for the world. She has known such a lot of trouble
in her life, more than most girls, I believe; she has lost her lovely
home,--such a sweet old place,--and her mother and father and Charlie,
all her nearest and her most beloved, and she is so sad that she wants
to work hard and forget her troubles.'

'Oh dear!' sighed Jill at this.

'How happy I am compared with her!' I went on, relapsing unconsciously
into my own voice. 'I am young and strong; I have all my life before me.
True, poor Ralph has gone, but I was only a child, and did not miss him.
I have a good father and an indulgent mother' ('Humph!' observed Jill at
this point, only she turned it into a cough); 'if my present schoolroom
life is not to my taste, I am sensible enough to know that the drudgery
and restraint will not last for long; in another year, or a year and a
half, Fräulein, whom I certainly do not love, will go back to her own
country. I shall be free to read the books I like, to study what I
choose, or to be idle. I shall have Sara's cheerful companionship instead
of Fräulein's heavy company; I shall ride; I shall walk in the sunshine;
I shall be a butterfly instead of a chrysalis; and if I care to be
useful, all sorts of paths will be open to me.'

'There, hold your tongue,' interrupted Jill, with a rough kiss; 'of
course I know I am a wicked, ungrateful wretch, and that I ought to be
more patient. Yes, you shall go, Ursula; you are a darling, but I will
not want to keep you; you are too good to be wasted on me; it would be
like pouring gold into a sieve. Well, I did cry about it this afternoon,
but I won't be such a goose any more. I will live my life the same way,
in spite of all of them, you will see if I don't, Ursula. Who is it who
says, "The thoughts of youth are long long thoughts"? I have such big
thoughts sometimes, especially when I sit in the dark. I send them out
like strange birds, all over the world,--up, up, everywhere,--but they
never come back to me again,' finished Jill mournfully; 'if they build
nests I never know it: I just sit and puzzle out things, like poor little
grimy Cinderella.'

Jill's eloquence did not surprise me. I knew she was very clever, and
full of unfledged poetry, and I had often heard her talk in that way; but
I had no time to answer her, for just then the first gong sounded, and I
could hear Sara running up to her room to dress for dinner. Jill jumped
up, and tugged at the bell-rope rather fiercely.

'Martha must have forgotten all about the tea-things; very likely the
lamp is smoky and will have to be trimmed. I must not come and help you,
Ursie dear, for I have to learn my German poetry before I dress.' And
Jill pulled down the blinds and drew the curtains with a vigorous hand.
Martha looked quite frightened at the sight of Jill's energy and her own
remissness.

'Why did you not ring before, Miss Jocelyn?' she said, plaintively, and
in rather an injured voice, as she carried away the tea-tray.

Uncle Max passed me in the passage; Clarence was following with his
portmanteau; he looked surprised to see me still in my bonnet with my fur
cape trailing over one arm; but I nodded to him cheerfully and went
quickly into my room.

My life at St. Thomas's had inured me to hardness; it had contrasted
strangely with my luxurious surroundings at Hyde Park Gate. Aunt Philippa
certainly treated me well in her way. I had a full share of the loaves
and the fishes of the household; my room was as prettily furnished as
Jill's; a bright fire burnt in the grate; there were pink candles on the
dressing-table. Martha, who waited upon us both, had put out my black
evening dress on the bed, and had warmed my dressing-gown; she would come
to me by and by with a civil offer of help.

I was rather puzzled at the sight of a little breast-knot of white
chrysanthemums that lay on the table, until I remembered Uncle Max; no
one had ever brought me flowers since Charlie's death; he had gathered
the last that I ever wore--some white violets that grew in a little
hollow in the ground of Rutherford Lodge. I hesitated painfully before
I pinned the modest little bouquet in my black dress, but I feared Uncle
Max would be hurt if I failed to appear in it. I wore mother's pearl
necklace as usual, and the little locket with her hair; somehow I took
more pleasure in dressing myself this evening, when I knew Uncle Max's
kind eyes would be on me.

I had not hurried myself, and the second gong sounded before I reached
the drawing-room, so I came face to face with Lesbia, who was coming out
on Uncle Brian's arm. She kissed me in her quiet way, and said, 'How do
you do, Ursula?' just as though we had met yesterday, and passed on.

I thought she looked prettier than ever that evening--like a snow
princess, in her white gown, with a little fleecy shawl drawn round her
shoulders, for she took cold easily. She had a soft creamy complexion,
and fair hair that she wore piled up in smooth plaits on her head; she
had plaintive blue eyes that could be brilliant at times, and a lovely
mouth, and she was tall and graceful like Sara.

They made splendid foils to each other; but in my opinion Sara carried
the palm: she was more piquant and animated; her colouring was brighter,
and she had more expression; but Charlie's Lily, as he called her, was
quite as much admired, and indeed they were both striking-looking girls.

I saw that Uncle Max took a great deal of notice of Lesbia, who sat next
to him. I could not hear their conversation, but a pretty pink colour
tinged Lesbia's face, and her eyes grew dark and bright as she listened,
and I saw her glance at her left hand where the half-hoop of diamonds
glistened that Charlie had placed there; she had not quite forgotten the
dear boy then, for I am sure she sighed, but the next moment she had
turned from Uncle Max, and was engaged in an eager discussion with Sara
about some private theatricals in which Sara was to take a part.

When we went back to the drawing-room we found Fräulein in her favourite
red silk dress, trying to repair the damage that Sooty had wrought in her
half-knitted stocking, and Jill, looking very bored and uncomfortable,
turning over the photograph album in a corner. She looked awkward and
sallow in her Indian muslin gown: the flimsy stuff did not suit her any
more than the pink coral beads she wore round her neck. Her black locks
bobbed uneasily over the book. She looked bigger than ever when she stood
up to speak to Lesbia.

'How that child is growing!' observed Aunt Philippa behind her fan to
Fräulein, whose round face was beaming with smiles at the entrance of the
ladies. 'That gown was made only a few weeks ago, and she is growing out
of it already. Jocelyn, my love, why do you hunch your shoulders so when,
you talk to Lesbia? I am always telling you of this awkward habit.'

Poor Jill frowned and reddened a little under this maternal admonition;
her eyes looked black and fierce as she sat down again with her
photographs. This hour was always a penance to her; she could not speak
or move easily, for fear of some remark from Aunt Philippa. When her
mother and Fräulein interchanged confidences behind the big spangled fan,
the poor child always thought they were talking about her.

Her bigness, her awkwardness, troubled Jill excessively. Her clumsy hands
and feet seemed always in her way.

'I know I am the ugly duckling,' she would say, with tears in her eyes;
'but I shall never turn into a swan like Sara and Lesbia,--not that I
want to be like them!'--with a little scorn in her voice. 'Lesbia is too
tame, too namby-pamby, for my taste; and Sara is stupid. She laughs and
talks, but she never says anything that people have not said a hundred
times before. Oh, I am so tired of it all! I grow more cross and
disagreeable every day,' finished Jill, who was very frank on the
subject of her shortcoming.

I would have stopped and talked to Jill, only Lesbia tapped me on the arm
rather peremptorily.

'Come into the back drawing-room,' she said, in a low voice. 'I want to
speak to you.--Jill, why do you not practise your new duet with Sara? She
will play nothing but valses all the evening, unless you prevent it'

But Jill shook her head sulkily; she felt safer in her corner. Sara was
strumming on the grand pianoforte as we passed her; her slim fingers were
running lazily over the keys in the 'Verliebt und Verloren' valse.
Clarence was lighting the candles; William was bringing in the coffee;
and Colonel Ferguson was following rather unceremoniously. People were
always dropping in at Hyde Park Gate: perhaps Sara's bright eyes
magnetised them. We had colonels and majors and captains at our will,
for there was a martial craze in the house: to-night it was grave,
handsome Colonel Ferguson.

He was rather a favourite with Uncle Brian and Aunt Philippa, perhaps
because his troubles interested them; he had buried his young wife and
child in an Indian grave, and some people said that he had come to
England to look out for a second wife.

He was a very handsome man, and still young enough to find favour in a
girl's sight, and his wealth made him a _grand parti_ in the parents'
eyes. At present he had bestowed equal attention on Sara and Lesbia,
though close observers might have noticed that he lingered longest by
Sara's side.

'How do you do, Colonel Ferguson?' said Sara, nodding to him in her
bright, unconcerned way, as she finished her valse. 'Mother is over
there talking to Fräulein: you will find your coffee ready for you.' And
her glossy little head bent over the keys again, while the lazy music
trickled through her fingers. Though Colonel Ferguson did as he was told,
I fancied he would keep a close watch over the young performer.

The inner drawing-room had heavy velvet hangings that closed over the
archway; on cold evenings the curtains would be drawn rather closely;
there would be a bright fire, and a single lamp lighted. Very often Uncle
Brian would retire with his book or paper when Sara's valses wearied him
or the room filled with young officers. Since Ralph's death he had
certainly become rather taciturn and unsociable. Aunt Philippa, who loved
gaiety, never accompanied him, but now and then Jill would creep from her
corner, when her mother was not looking, and slip behind the ruby
curtains. I have caught her there sometimes sitting on the rug, with her
rough head against her father's knee; they would both of them look a
little shamefaced, as if they were guilty of some fault.

'Go to bed, Jill; it is time for little girls to be asleep,' he would
say, patting her cheek. Jill would nestle it on his coat-sleeve for a
moment, as she obeyed him. Her father had the softest place in her heart.
She always would have it that her mother was hard on her, but she never
complained of want of kindness from her father.

'Colonel Ferguson comes very often,' remarked Lesbia, a little peevishly,
as she walked to the fireplace to warm herself: she was a chilly being,
and loved warmth. 'His name is Donald, is it not? some one told me so:
Donald Ferguson. Well, he is not bad; he may do for Sara. She has plenty
of quicksilver to balance his gravity.'

I was rather surprised at this beginning; but without waiting for any
answer, she went on.

'What is this Mr. Cunliffe tells me?' she asked, fixing her blue eyes
on my face with marked interest. 'You are going to carry out your old
scheme, Ursula, about nursing poor people and singing to them. He tells
me you have chosen Heathfield for your future home, and that he is to
find you lodgings. Sit down, dear, and tell me all about it,' she went on
eagerly. 'I thought you had given up all that when--when--' but here she
stopped and her lips trembled; of course she meant when Charlie died, but
she rarely spoke his name. I would not let her see my astonishment,--she
had never seemed so sisterly before,--but I took the seat close to her
and talked to her as openly as though she were Jill or Uncle Max; now and
then I paused, and we could hear Colonel Ferguson's deep voice: he was
evidently turning over the pages of Sara's music.

'Go on, Ursula; I like to hear it,' Lesbia would say when I hesitated;
she was not looking at me, but at the fire, with her cheek supported
against her hand.

'What do you think of it?' I asked, presently, when I had finished and
we had both been silent a few minutes listening to one of Mendelssohn's
Songs without Words that Sara was playing very nicely.

'What do I think of it?' she replied, and her voice startled me, it was
so full of pain. 'Oh, Ursula, I think you are to be envied! If I could
only come with you and work too!--but there is mother, she could not do
without me, and so we must just go on in the same old way.'

I was so shocked at the hopelessness of her tone, so taken aback at her
words, that I could not answer her for a moment: it seemed inconceivable
to me that she could be saying such things. Poor pretty Lesbia, whom
Charlie had loved and whom I considered a mere fragile butterfly. She
was quite pale now, and her eyes filled suddenly with tears.

'You do not believe me, Ursula; no, I was right--you never understood me.
I often told dear Charlie so. You think, because I laugh and dance and do
as other girls do, that I have forgotten--that I do not suffer. Do you
think I shall ever find any one so good and kind in this world again? Oh,
you are hard on me, and I am so miserable, so unhappy, without Charlie.
And I am not like you: I cannot work myself into forgetfulness; I must
stop with mother and do as she bids me, and she says it is my duty to be
gay.'

I was so ashamed of myself, of my mean injustice, that I was very nearly
crying myself as I asked her pardon.

'Why do you say that?' she returned, almost pettishly, only she looked so
miserable. 'I have nothing to forgive. I only want you to be good to me
and not think the worst, for I'm really fond of you, Ursula, only you are
so reserved and cold with me,'

'My poor dear,' I returned, taking the pretty face between my hands and
kissing it. 'I will never be unkind to you again. Forgive me if I have
misunderstood you: for Charlie's sake I want to love you.' And then she
put her head down on my shoulder and cried a little, and bemoaned herself
for being so unhappy; and all the time I comforted her my guilty
conscience owned that Uncle Max was right.



CHAPTER IV

UNCLE MAX BREAKS THE ICE


Uncle Max was one of those men who like to take their own way about
things; he never hurried himself, or allowed other people's impatience
to get the better of him. 'There is a time for everything, as Solomon
says,' was his favourite speech when any one reproached him with
procrastination; 'depend upon it, the best work is done slowly. What is
the use of so much hurry? When death comes we shall be sure to leave
something unfinished.'

So for two whole days he just chatted commonplaces with Aunt Philippa,
rallied Sara, who loved a joke, and talked politics with Uncle Brian, and
never mentioned one word about my scheme; if I looked anxiously at him he
pretended to misunderstand my meaning, and, in fact, behaved from
morning to night in a most provoking way.

At last I could bear it no longer, and one wet afternoon, when I knew he
was in the drawing-room, making believe to write his letters, but in
reality getting a deal of amusement out of Sara's sprightly conversation,
for she was never silent for two minutes if she could help it, I shut
myself up in my own room, and would not go near him. I knew he would ask
where Ursula was every half-hour, and would soon guess that I was out of
humour about something; and possibly in an hour or two his conscience
would prick him, and he would feel that I deserved reparation.

This little piece of ill-tempered artifice bore excellent fruit, for
before I had nearly finished the piece of plain sewing I had set myself
as a sort of penance, there was a tap at the door, and Sara came in,
looking very excited, with her bright eyes full of wonder.

'Oh, Ursula, there is such a fuss downstairs! Uncle Max has been telling
us all about your absurd scheme. Mother is as cross as possible; she is
so angry, and yet half crying at the same time.'

'And Uncle Brian,' I exclaimed eagerly,--'what does he say?'

'Oh, you know father's way. He just smiled as though the whole thing
were beneath his notice, and went on reading his paper, and when mother
appealed to him he said, coolly, that it was none of his business or hers
either if Ursula chose to make a fool of herself; she had the right to do
so,--something like that, you know.'

'How very pleasant!' I remarked satirically, for I hated the way Uncle
Brian put down his foot on things that displeased him. I preferred Aunt
Philippa's voluble arguments to that.

'To make things worse,' went on Sara cheerfully, 'Mrs. Fullerton and
Lesbia have come in, and mother and Mrs. Fullerton are trying which can
talk the faster. Lesbia asked for you, and then did not speak another
word. What shall you do, Ursula, dear?'

'I shall just go down and ask Aunt Philippa for a cup of tea,' I returned
coolly, folding up my work. Sara looked half frightened at my boldness,
and then she began to laugh.

'It is so absurd, you know,' she returned, linking her arm in mine
affectionately. 'What ever put such nonsense in your head? you are so
comfortable here with us, and you have your own way, and I never tease
you now about going to balls. It is so silly of you trying to make
yourself miserable, and living in poky lodgings. You might as well be
a fakir, or a dervish, or a Protestant nun, or anything else that is
unpleasant.'

'My dear, you do not know anything about it,' I answered rather angrily.
'You and I are different people, Sara; we shall never think the same
about anything.'

'Well, I don't know,' she returned, half affronted: 'when people try to
be extra good I always find they succeed in making themselves extra
disagreeable. It is far more religious, in my opinion, to be pleasant
to every one, and make them believe that there is something cheerful
in life, instead of pulling a long face and doing such dreadfully bad
things.' And after this little fling, in which she tried to be very
severe, only as usual her dimples betrayed her, she begged me quite
earnestly to smooth my hair, as though I were breaking one of the
commandments by keeping it rough; and, having obliged her in this
particular, and allowed her to peep at her own pretty face over my
shoulder, we went down to the drawing-room as though we were the best
of friends.

It was impossible to quarrel with Sara; she was as gay and irresponsible
as a child; one might as well have been angry with a butterfly for
brushing his gold-powdered wings across your face; the gentle flappings
of Sara's speeches never raised a momentary vexation in my mind. I was
often weary of her, but then we do weary of children's company sometimes;
in certain moods her bright sparkling effervescence seemed to jar upon
me: but I never liked to see her sad. Sadness did not become Sara; when
she cried, which was as seldom as possible, and only when some one died,
or she lost a pet canary, all her beauty dimmed, and she looked limp and
forlorn, like a crushed butterfly or a draggled flower.

I do not think I was quite as cool and unconcerned as I wished to appear
when I marched into the drawing-room, and, after greeting Mrs. Fullerton
and Lesbia, asked Aunt Philippa for a cup of tea.

Quite a hubbub of voices had struck on my ear as I opened the door, and
yet complete silence met me. Lesbia, indeed, whispered 'Poor Ursula' as I
kissed her, but Mrs. Fullerton looked at me with grave disapproval. Aunt
Philippa was sitting bolt upright behind the tea-tray, and handed me my
cup, rather as Lady Macbeth did the dagger. I received it, however, as
though it were my due, and glanced at Uncle Max; but he was too wise to
look at me, so I said, as coolly as possible, 'Why are you so silent, and
yet you were talking loudly enough before Sara and I came into the room?'
For there is nothing like taking the bull of a dilemma by the horns; and
I had plenty of, let us say, native impudence, only, personally, I should
have given it another name; and then, of course, I brought the storm upon
me.

Sara was right. Aunt Philippa certainly talked the faster; Mrs. Fullerton
tried her best to edge in a word now and then,--a very scathing word,
too,--but there was no silencing that flow of rapid talk. I quite envied
her pure diction and the ingenious turn of her sentences; she made so
much of her own admirable foresight and care of me, and so little of my
merits.

'I always said something like this would happen, Ursula. I have told your
uncle often,--Brian, why don't you speak?--yes, indeed, I have told him
often that I never met any one so strong-minded and self-willed. You need
not laugh, Sara,--unless you do it to provoke me,--but I have been like a
mother to Ursula. Thank heaven, my daughters are not of this pattern!
they do not mistake eccentricity for goodness, or flaunt ridiculous
notions in the faces of their elders.'

This was too bad of Aunt Philippa; only she had lost her temper, and was
feeling utterly aggrieved, and Mrs. Fullerton, who was a meddlesome,
good-humoured woman, and who had nothing of which to complain in life
except a little over-plumpness and too much money, was agreeing with her
like a good neighbour and friend.

Uncle Max was smiling, and pulling his beard behind his paper; but he
made no attempt to check the flow of feminine eloquence. He had said his
say like a man, and had taken my part behind my back, and he knew women
were like new wine,--very sound and sweet, but they must find their vent.
Aunt Philippa would be kinder ever after if we let her scold us properly,
and took our scolding with a good grace.

Once or twice Uncle Brian let his eye-glasses dangle, and spoke a peevish
word or two.

'Nonsense, my dear! have I not said over and over again that this is
none of our business? Ursula is old enough to know her own mind; if she
chooses to be eccentric we cannot hinder her. All this talk goes for
nothing.'

'Ah, but, Mr. Garston, young people want guidance,' observed Mrs.
Fullerton impressively, for Aunt Philippa was beginning to sob, partly
from the effects of wasted eloquence, and perhaps with a little shortness
of breathing: anyway, her anger was working itself out. 'If you were to
advise Ursula as you would Sara, your influence might induce her to
change her mind.'

'I cannot endorse your opinion, Mrs. Fullerton,' returned Uncle Brian
drily. 'I am far too keen an observer of human nature to think we can
talk sense to deaf ears with any benefit.--Ursula, my child,' turning to
me with a smile that might have been kinder, but perhaps he meant it to
be so, 'there is not a grain of sense in your scheme: in spite of
Cunliffe's eloquence, it will not hold water; in fact, in a little while
you will be glad to come back to us again. When you do, I think I can
promise that we will not laugh at you more than once a day, and then
moderately.'

Now, this speech of Uncle Brian's made me very angry. No doubt he meant
to be kind, and to show me that if my scheme failed I might come home to
them again; but I was so much in earnest that his satire and his laughing
at me hurt me more than all Aunt Philippa's hard speeches. So I flushed
up, and for the first time tears came into my eyes; for he had prophesied
failure, and I could not bear that, and I might have said words in my
sudden irritation for which I should have been sorry afterwards, only
Lesbia, who had sat behind me all this time, as silent and soft-breathed
as a mouse, got up quickly and took my hand and stood by me.

'I think you have all said plenty of hard things to Ursula, and no one
has been kind to her. I think she deserves praise and not all this blame;
if she cannot lead the comfortable life we do, thinking how we are to get
the most pleasure and enjoy ourselves, it is because she is better than
we are, and thinks more about her duty. Mrs. Garston,--I do not mean to
be rude, I am far too fond of you all, because you have all been so good
to me,'--and here Lesbia's while throat swelled,--'but I cannot bear to
hear Ursula so blamed. Mr. Cunliffe, I know you agree with me, you said
so many nice things when Ursula was out of the room.'

This little burst of eloquence surprised us all. Uncle Max said
afterwards that he was quite touched by it. Lesbia was generally so quiet
and undemonstrative that her words took Aunt Philippa by storm. She might
have been offended by Lesbia saying that I was better than the rest of
them,--a fact that my conscience most emphatically contradicted; but when
Lesbia kissed her, and begged her to think better of things, she cried a
little because Charlie was not there to see how pretty she could look,
and then cheered up, and made overtures that I might come and kiss her
too, which I did most willingly, and with a full heart, remembering she
was my father's sister and had been good to me according to her lights.

When Uncle Max saw that reconciliation was imminent, and that by Lesbia's
help I was likely to have the best of it, my own way, and a good deal of
petting to follow,--for they would all make more of me during the short
time I would be with them,--he threw down his paper in high good-humour
and joined us.

'That is what I call sensible, Mrs. Garston,' he said, paying her a
compliment at once, as she sat flushed and fanning herself, 'and Ursula
ought to feel herself very grateful to you for your forbearance and
acquiescence in her plan.'

I do not believe he knew any more than myself where the forbearance had
been, but he took it all for granted.

'Nothing puts heart into a person more than feeling sure of one's
friends' sympathy. Now, we all of us, even Garston, in spite of his
disapproval, wish Ursula good success in her scheme; some of us think
better of it than others; for my own part, I am so convinced that she
will have so many difficulties and disappointments to hamper her that
I cannot bear to say a discouraging word.' And yet he had said dozens,
only I was magnanimous and forgave him.

This settled the matter, for Aunt Philippa grew so sorry for me that she
was almost out of breath again pitying me. 'I do not believe she can help
it,' she said, in rather an audible aside to Mrs. Fullerton; 'her mother
had a sort of craze about these things, and seemed to think it part of
her religion to make herself uncomfortable; and poor Herbert was quite as
bad, only he was a clergyman, and it did not matter so much with him; so
I suppose the poor child inherits it. This sort of thing runs in
families,' went on Aunt Philippa, in an awe-struck voice, as though it
were a species of insanity. 'I am only thankful that my own girls have
not got these notions.'

Mrs. Fullerton found out now that it was time to go home and dress for
dinner, so Lesbia came round to me and whispered that I must come and see
her soon, for she wanted to talk to me, and not to Sara, who was always
running in and out.

'I am very fond of Sara, and like to see her, she amuses me so; but when
I want advice or sympathy I feel I must come to you now, Ursula.' And
though she had never said so much to me before, I knew she meant it; that
there was some change in her, some want of nature or heaven knows what
feminine need, when she missed me, and wanted me, and found some comfort
in the thought of me.

There was no time for more discussion, and indeed we were all a little
weary of it; but after dinner Uncle Max, who seemed in excellent spirits,
as though he had done something wonderful and was proud of his own
achievements, beckoned me into the inner drawing-room under pretence of
showing me some engravings, and when we found ourselves alone, he said
pleasantly, though abruptly--

'Well, Ursula, I thought you would be glad to have an opportunity of
thanking me, for of course you feel very grateful to me for all the
trouble I have taken.'

'Oh, indeed!' I returned scornfully, for it would never do to encourage
this vainglorious spirit. 'I should have felt more disposed to thank you
if you had not kept me for two days in suspense!'

'That is the result of doing a woman a good turn,' shaking his head
mournfully. 'The moment she gets her own way, she turns upon you and
rends you. Fie, fie on you, little she-bear!'

'Oh, Max, do be quiet a moment.'

'Max, indeed! Where are your manners, child? What would Garston say if he
heard your flippancy?' But by the way he stroked his beard and looked at
me, I saw he was not displeased. No one would have taken him for my uncle
who had seen us together, for he was a young-looking man, and I was old
for my age.

'I do want you to be serious a moment,' I went on plaintively. 'I am
really very obliged to you for having broken the ice: after all, I have
not been badly submerged. I soon rose to the surface when Lesbia held out
a helping hand.'

'Well, now, Ursula, do you not agree with me?--was not Lesbia a darling?'

'She was very nice and sisterly,' I confessed. 'She has more in her than
I ever thought. Poor little thing! I am afraid she is very unhappy, only
she hides it so.'

'Just so. That shows her good sense: the world is very intolerant of a
protracted grief; its victims must learn to dry their eyes quickly.'

Uncle Max was becoming philosophical: this would never do.

'Never mind about Lesbia,' I observed impatiently, 'we can talk about
her in the next room; what I want to know is, how soon I may come to
Heathfield.' For I knew how dilatory men can be about other people's
business, and I fully expected that Uncle Max would put me off to the
summer.

'You may come as soon as you like,' he returned, rather too carelessly.
'Shall we say next week, or will that be too early?'

I suppressed my astonishment cleverly, but was down on him in a moment.

'I should like to have some place found for me first,' I remarked
sententiously; 'you must take lodgings for me first, and then I can
settle my plans.'

'Oh, that is done already,' he observed cheerfully. 'I have spoken to
Mrs. Barton about you, and she has very nice rooms vacant. I wanted them
for Tudor, until I mooted the vicarage plan. It is a tidy little place,
Ursula, and I think you will be very comfortable there.'

I felt that Uncle Max deserved praise, and I gave it to him without
stint or limit; he took it nobly, like a man who feels he has earned
his reward.

'I fancy I have done a neat thing,' he said modestly.

'Directly I read your letter and saw that you were in earnest, I went
down to Mrs. Barton and had a long talk with her. Do you remember the
White Cottage, Ursula, that stands just where the road dips a little,
after you have passed the vicarage? It is on the main road that leads to
the common: there is a field, and one or two houses, and on the right the
road branches off to Main Street, where my poorer parishioners live. Oh,
I see that you have forgotten. Well, there is a low white cottage,
standing far back from the road, with rather a pretty garden, and a field
at the back: people call it the White Cottage; though it is smothered in
jasmine in the summer; and there is a nice little parlour with a bedroom
over it. That will do capitally, I fancy. Old Mrs. Meredith lived there
until her death, and she left her furniture to Mrs. Barton.'

I expressed myself as being well pleased at this description, and then
inquired a little anxiously if there were room for my piano and my books.

'Oh yes, it is quite a good-sized room; that is why I wanted it for
Tudor. You will not mind it being a little low: it is only a cottage,
remember. There is a nice easy couch, I spotted that at once, and a
capital easy-chair, and some corner cupboards that will, hold a store of
good things; you can make it as pretty as possible.'

'And Mrs. Barton, Max,--is she a pleasant person?'

'There could not be a pleasanter. You will find yourself in clover,
Ursula, you will indeed; she is a nice little woman, and has all the
cardinal virtues, I believe; she is a widow and has a big son who works
at Roberts's, the builder's. Nathaniel is very big, very big indeed, so
much so that I feel it my duty to warn you of his size, for fear you
should receive a shock. The cottage just holds him when he sits down,
and his mother's one anxiety is that he should not bring down the kitchen
ceiling more than once a year, as it hurts his head and comes expensive;
he has a black collie they call Tinker, the cleverest dog in the place,
so Nathaniel says; and these three constitute the household of the White
Cottage.'

I was charmed with Uncle Max's account; the cottage seemed cosy and
homelike. I knew I could trust his opinion; he was a good judge of
character, and was seldom wrong in his estimate of a man, woman, or
child, and he would be especially careful to intrust me to a thoroughly
reliable person. I begged him therefore to close with Mrs. Barton at
once; she asked a very moderate price for her rooms, and I could have
afforded higher terms. It would not take me long to pack my books and
other treasures: some of them I should be obliged to leave behind, but
I must take all Charlie's books and my own, and my favourite pictures and
bits of china, and a store of fine linen for my own use. I was somewhat
demoralised by the luxury at Hyde Park Gate, and liked to make myself
comfortable after my own way. Poor Charlie used to laugh at me and say
I should be an old maid, and, as I considered this fact inevitable, I
took his teasing in good part.

I told Uncle Max that I thought I could be ready in another week, and
that I saw no good in delay. He assented to this, and was kind enough
to add that the sooner I came the better. I was a little dismayed to
find that he had not considered himself bound to keep my counsel; he had
talked about my plan to his curate, Mr. Tudor, and I gathered from his
manner, for he refused to tell me any more, that he had discussed it
with another person.

This was too bad, but I would not let him see that this vexed me. I
wanted to settle in and begin my work quietly before the neighbourhood
knew of my existence; but if Uncle Max published my intended arrival in
every house he visited, I felt I could not even worship in comfort, for
fear the congregation should be eying me suspiciously.

I thought it better to change the subject: so I began to question him
about Mr. Tudor and Mrs. Drabble, the latter being the ruling power at
the vicarage; and he fell upon the bait and swallowed it eagerly, so my
vexation passed unnoticed.

Uncle Max did not live quite alone. His house was large, far too large
for an unmarried man, and he was very sociable by nature, so he induced
his curate to take up his abode with him; but the two men and Mrs.
Drabble, the housekeeper, and the maid under her, could not fill it, and
several rooms were shut up. Lawrence Tudor had been a pupil of Uncle Max,
and the two were very much attached to each other. Uncle Max had brought
him up once or twice to Hyde Park Gate, and we had all been much pleased
with him. He was not in the least good-looking, but I remember Sara said
he was gentlemanly and pleasant and had a nice voice. I knew his frank
manner and evident affection for Uncle Max prepossessed me in his favour;
he had been very athletic in his college days, and was passionately fond
of boating and cricket, and he was very musical and sang splendidly.

The little Uncle Max had told me about him had strongly interested me.
The Tudors had been wealthy people, and Uncle Max had spent more than one
long vacation at their house, coaching Walter Tudor, who was going in for
an army examination, and reading Greek with Lawrence (or Laurie, as they
generally called him) and another brother, Ben.

Lawrence had meant to enter the army too. Nelson, the eldest of all, was
already in India, and had a captaincy. They were all fine, stalwart young
men, fond of riding and hunting and any out-of-door pursuit. But there
never would have been a parson among them but for the failure of the
company in which Mr. Tudor's money was invested. He had been one of the
directors, and from wealth he was reduced to poverty.

There was no money to buy Walter a commission, so he enlisted, bringing
fresh trouble to his parents by doing so. Ben entered an office, but
Lawrence was kept at Oxford by an uncle's generosity, and under strong
pressure consented to take orders.

The poor young fellow had no special vocation, and he owned to Max
afterwards that he feared that he had done the wrong thing. I am afraid
Max thought so too, but he would not discourage him by saying so; on the
contrary, he treated him in a bracing manner, telling him that he had
put his hand to the plough, and that there must be no looking backward,
and bidding him pluck up heart and do his duty as well as he could; and
then he smoothed his way by asking him to be his curate and live with
him, so saving him from the loneliness and discomfort of some curates'
existence, who are at the mercy of their landladies and laundresses.

So the two lived merrily together, and Lawrence Tudor was all the better
man and parson for Uncle Max's genial help and sympathy; and though Mrs.
Drabble grumbled and did not take kindly to him at first, she made him
thoroughly comfortable, and mended his socks and sewed on his buttons in
motherly fashion. Mrs. Drabble was quite a character in her way; she was
a fair, fussy little woman, who looked meek enough to warrant the best of
tempers; she had a soft voice and manner that deceived you, and a vague
rambling sort of talk that landed you nowhere; but if ever woman could be
a mild virago Mrs. Drabble was that woman. She worshipped her master, and
never allowed any one to find fault with him; but with Mr. Tudor, or the
maid, or any one who interfered with her, she could be a flaxen-haired
termagant; she could scold in a low voice for half an hour together
without minding a single stop or pausing to take breath. Mr. Tudor used
to laugh at her, or get out of her way, when he had had enough of it; she
only tried it on her master once, but Max stood and stared at her with
such surprise and such puzzled good-humour that she grew ashamed and
stopped in the very middle of a sentence.

But, with all her temper, neither of them could have spared Mrs. Drabble,
she made them so comfortable.



CHAPTER V

'WHEN THE CAT IS AWAY'


Aunt Philippa had one very good point in her character: she was not of
a nagging disposition. When she scolded she did it thoroughly, and was
perhaps a long time doing it, but she never carried it into the next day.

Jill always said her mother was too indolent for a prolonged effort; but
then poor Jill often said naughty things. But we all of us knew that Aunt
Philippa's wrath soon evaporated; it made her hot and uncomfortable while
it lasted, and she was glad to be quit of it: so she refrained herself
prudently when I spoke of my approaching departure; and, being of a
bustling temperament, and not averse to changes unless they gave her much
trouble, she took a great deal of interest in my arrangements, and bought
a nice little travelling-clock that she said would be useful to me.

Seeing her so pleasant and reasonable, I made a humble petition that Jill
might be set free from some of her lessons to help me pack my books and
ornaments. She made a little demur at this, and offered Draper's services
instead; but it was Jill I wanted, for the poor child was fretting sadly
about my going away, and I thought it would comfort her to help me. So
after a time Aunt Philippa relented, after extorting a promise from Jill
that she would work all the harder after I had gone; and, as young people
seldom think about the future except in the way of foolish dreams, Jill
cheerfully gave her word. So for the last few days we were constantly
together, and Fräulein had an unexpected holiday. Jill worked like a
horse in my service, and only broke one Dresden group; she came to me
half crying with the fragment in her hand,--the poor little shepherdess
had lost her head as well as her crook, and the pink coat of the shepherd
had an unseemly rent in it,--but I only laughed at the disaster, and
would not scold her for her awkwardness. China had a knack of slipping
through Jill's fingers; she had a loose uncertain grasp of things that
were brittle and delicate; she had not learned to control her muscles or
restrain her strength. She had a way of lifting me up when I teased her
that turns me giddy to remember: I was quite a child in her hands. She
was always ashamed of herself when she had done it, and begged my pardon,
and as long as she put me on my feet again I was ready to forgive
anything. Jill felt a sort of forlorn consolation in using up her
strength in my service: she would hardly let me do anything myself;
I might sit down and order her about from morning to night if I chose.

I made her very happy by leaving some of my possessions under her
care--some books that I knew she would like to read, and other treasures
that I had locked up in my wardrobe. Jill had the key and could rummage
if she liked, but she told me quite seriously that it would comfort her
to come and look at them sometimes. 'It will feel as though you were
coming back some day, Ursie,' she said affectionately.

Late one afternoon I left her busy in my room, and went to the Albert
Hall Mansions to bid good-bye to Lesbia. I had called once or twice, but
had always missed her. So I slipped across in the twilight, as I thought
at that hour they would have returned from their drive.

The Albert Hall Mansions were only a stone's throw from Uncle Brian's
house, so I considered myself safe from any remonstrance on Aunt
Philippa's part. I liked to go there in the soft, early dusk; the smooth
noiseless ascent of the lift, and the lighted floors that we passed, gave
one an odd, dreamy feeling. Mrs. Fullerton had a handsome suite of
apartments on the third floor, and there was a beautiful view from her
drawing-room window of the Park and the Albert Memorial. It was a nice,
cheerful situation, and Mrs. Fullerton, who liked gaiety, preferred it
to Rutherford Lodge, though Lesbia had been born there and she had passed
her happiest days in it.

I found Mrs. Fullerton alone, but she seemed very friendly, and was
evidently glad to see me. I suppose I was better company than her own
thoughts.

I liked Mrs. Fullerton, after a temperate fashion. She was a nice little
woman, and would have been nicer still if she had talked less and thought
more. But when one's words lie at the tip of one's tongue there is little
time for reflection, and there are sure to be tares among the wheat.

She was looking serious this evening, but that did not interfere with her
comeliness or her pleasant manners. I found her warmth gratifying, and
prepared to unbend more than usual.

'Sit down, my dear. No, not on that chair: take the easy one by the fire.
You are looking rather fagged, Ursula. It seems to be the fashion with
young people now: they get middle-aged before their time. Oh yes, Lesbia
is out. It is the Engleharts' "At Home," and she promised to go with Mrs.
Pierrepoint. But she will be back soon. Now we are alone, I want to ask
you a question. I am rather anxious about Lesbia. Dr. Pratt says there
is a want of tone about her. She is too thin, and her appetite is not
good. The child gets prettier every day, but she looks far too delicate.'

I could not deny this. Lesbia certainly looked far from strong, and then
she took cold so easily. I hinted that perhaps late hours and so much
visiting (for the Fullertons had an immense circle of acquaintances,
with possibly half a dozen friends among them) might be bad for her.

Mrs. Fullerton looked rather mournful at this.

'I hope you have not put that in her head,' she returned uneasily.
'All yesterday she was begging me to give up the place and go back to
Rutherford Lodge. Major Parkhurst is going to India in February, and so
the house will be on our hands.'

'I think the change will be good for Lesbia. It is such a pretty place,
and she was always so fond of it.'

'Oh, it is pretty enough,' with a discontented air; 'but life in a
village is a very tame affair. There are not more than four families in
the whole place whom we can visit, and when we want a little gaiety we
have to drive into Pinkerton.'

'I think it would be good for Lesbia's health, Mrs. Fullerton.'

'Well, well,' a little peevishly, 'we must talk to Dr. Pratt about it.
But how is Lesbia to settle well if I bury her in that poky little
village? Perhaps I ought not to say so to you, Ursula; but poor dear
Charlie has been dead these two years, so there can be no harm in
speaking of such things now. But Sir Henry Sinclair is here a great deal,
and there is no mistaking his intentions, only Lesbia keeps him at such
a distance.'

I thought it very bad taste of Mrs. Fullerton always to talk to me about
Lesbia's suitors. Lesbia never mentioned such things herself. As far as I
could judge, she was very shy with them all. I could not believe that the
placid young baronet had any chance with her. She might possibly marry,
but poor Charlie's successor would hardly be a thick-set, clumsy young
man, with few original ideas of his own. Colonel Ferguson would have been
far better; but he evidently preferred Sara.

I was spared any reply, for Lesbia entered the room at that moment. She
looked more delicately fair than usual, perhaps because of the contrast
with her heavy furs. Her hair shone like gold under her little velvet
bonnet, but, though she was so warmly dressed, she shivered and crept as
close as possible to the fire.

Mrs. Fullerton had some notes to write, so she went into the dining-room
to write them and very good-naturedly left us by ourselves.

Lesbia looked at me rather wistfully.

'I have missed you twice, Ursula. I am so sorry; and now you go the day
after to-morrow. I wish I could do something for you. Is there nothing
you could leave in my charge?'

'Only Jill,' I said, half laughing. 'If you would take a little more
notice of her after I have gone, I should be so thankful to you.'

I thought Lesbia seemed somewhat amused at the request.

'Poor old Jill! I will do my best; but she never will talk to me. I think
I should like her better than Sara if she would only open her lips to me.
Well, Ursula, what have you and mother been talking about?'

'About Rutherford Lodge,' I returned quickly. 'Do you really want to go
back there?'

'Did mother talk about that?' looking excessively pleased. 'Oh yes, I
am longing to go back. I don't want to frighten you, Ursie, dear,--and,
indeed, there is no need,--but this life is half killing me. I am too
close to Hyde Park Gate; one never gets a chance of forgetting old
troubles; and then mother is always saying gaiety is good for me, and she
will accept every invitation that comes; and I get so horribly tired; and
then one cannot fight so well against depression.'

I took her hand silently, but made no answer; but I suppose she felt my
sympathy.

'You must not think I am wicked and rebellious,' she went on, with a
sigh. 'I promised dear Charlie to be brave, and not let the trouble spoil
my life; he would have it that I was so young that happiness must return
after a time, and so I mean to do my best to be happy, for mother's sake,
as well as my own; and I know Charlie would not like me to go on
grieving,' with a sad little smile.

'No, darling, and I quite understand you.' And she cheered up at that.

'I knew you would, and that is why I want to tell you things. I have
tried to do as mother wished, but I do not think her plan answers;
excitement carries one away, and one can be as merry as other girls
for a time, but it all comes back worse than ever.'

'Mere gaiety never satisfied an aching heart yet.'

'No; I told mother so, and I begged her to go back to Rutherford because
it is so quiet and peaceful there and I think I shall be happier. I shall
have my garden and conservatory, and there will be plenty of riding and
tennis. I am very fond of our vicar's wife, Mrs. Trevor, and I rather
enjoy helping her in the Sunday-school and at the mothers' meeting; not
that I do much, for I am not like you, Ursula, but I like to pretend to
be useful sometimes.'

'I see what you mean, Lesbia: your life will be more natural and less
strained than it is here.'

'Yes, and time will hang less heavy on my hands. I do love gardening,
Ursula. I know I shall forget my troubles when I find myself with dear
old Patrick again, grumbling because I will pick the roses. I shall sleep
better in my little room, and wake less unhappy. Oh, mother!' as Mrs.
Fullerton entered at that moment with a half-finished note in her hand,
'I am telling Ursula how home-sick I am, and how I long for the dear old
Lodge. Do let us go back, mother darling: I want to hunt for violets
again in the little shady hollow beyond the lime-tree walk.'

'Yes, dearest, we will go if you really wish it so much,' returned Mrs.
Fullerton, with a sigh. 'Why, my pet, did you think I should refuse?' as
Lesbia put her arms round her neck and thanked her. 'When a mother has
only got one child she is not likely to deny her much: is she, Ursula?'

'Oh, mother, how good you are to me!' returned Lesbia, and her blue eyes
were shining with joy. When Mrs. Fullerton had left the room again she
told me that she had often cried herself to sleep with the longing to be
in her old home again; she loved every flower in the garden, every animal
about the place, and she grew quite bright and cheerful as she planned
out her days. No, there was nothing morbid about Lesbia's nature; she was
an honest, well-meaning girl, who had had a great disappointment in her
life; she meant to outlive it if she could, to be as happy as possible.
A wise instinct told her that her best chance of healing lay in country
sights and sounds: the fresh gallop over the downs, the pleasant saunter
through the sweet Sussex lanes, the sweet breath of her roses and
carnations, would all woo her back to health and cheerfulness. When the
pretty colour came back into Lesbia's face her mother would not regret
her sacrifice; and then I remembered that Charlie's friend Harcourt
Manners lived about half a dozen miles from Rutherford, and always
attended the Pinkerton dances, and he was a nice intelligent fellow.
But I scolded back the foolish thoughts, and felt ashamed of myself for
entertaining them.

I parted from Lesbia very affectionately, for she seemed loath to say
good-bye, but I knew poor Jill would be grumbling at my absence; the
others were dining out, and I had promised to join the schoolroom tea,
which was to be half an hour later on my account, but it was nearly six
before I made my appearance, very penitent at my delay, and fully
expecting a scolding.

I found Jill, however, kneeling on the rug, making toast, with Sooty in
her arms; she had blacked her face in her efforts, but looked in high
good-humour.

'Fräulein has gone out for the whole evening: that freckled Fräulein
Misschenstock has been here, and has invited her to tea and supper. Mamma
said she could go, as you would remain with me, so we shall be alone and
cosy for the whole evening. Now, you may pour out tea, if you like, for I
have all this buttered toast on my mind. I am as hungry as a hunter; but
there is a whole seed-cake, I am glad to see. Now, darling, be quick, for
you have kept me so long waiting.' And Jill brushed vigorously at her
blackened cheek, and beamed at me.

But, alas! we had reckoned without our host, and a grand disappointment
was in store for us, though, as it turned out, things were not as bad as
they appeared to be at first.

I was praising Jill's buttered toast, for I knew she prided herself
on this delicacy, and she had just cut herself a thick wedge of the
seed-cake, which she was discussing with a school-girl's appetite, when
I heard Uncle Brian's voice calling for Ursula rather loudly: so I ran to
the head of the staircase, and, to my surprise, saw him coming up in his
slow, dignified manner.

'Look here, Ursula, I shall be late at the Pollocks', and your aunt and
Sara have gone on, and there is Tudor in the drawing-room, just arrived
with a message from Cunliffe. Of course we must put him up; but the
trouble is there is no dinner, and of course he is famished: young men
always are.'

My heart sank as I thought of Jill, but there was no help for it. Max's
friends were sacred. Mr. Tudor must be made as comfortable as possible.

'It cannot be helped, Uncle Brian,' I returned, trying to keep the
vexation I felt out of my voice. 'Supposing you send Mr. Tudor up to the
schoolroom, and we will give him some tea. Jill has made some excellent
buttered toast, and Clayton can get some supper for him by and by in the
dining-room: there is sure to be a cold joint,--or perhaps Mrs. Martin
will have something cooked for him.'

'That must do,' he replied, somewhat relieved at this advice. 'We shall
be back soon after tea, so you will not have him long on your hands.
Entertain him as well as you can, there's a good girl.' He had quite
forgotten, and so had I for the moment, that Fräulein was out for the
evening, and that possibly Aunt Philippa might object to a young man
joining the schoolroom tea; but, as it proved afterwards, she was more
shocked at Uncle Brian than at any one else: she said he ought to have
given up his dinner and stayed with his guest.

'I confess I do not see what Ursula could have done better,' she
remarked severely; 'she could not spend the evening alone with him in the
drawing-room; and of course he wanted his tea. That comes of allowing
Fräulein to neglect her duties: she is too fond of spending her time with
Fräulein Misschenstock.'

I did not dare break the news to Jill, for fear she should lock herself
in her own room, for she never liked the society of young men; they
laughed at her too much, in a civil sort of way: so I hurried down into
the drawing-room and explained matters to Mr. Tudor, whom I found walking
about the room and looking somewhat ill at ease.

He seemed rather amused at the idea of the schoolroom tea, but owned that
he was hungry and tired, as he had had a fourteen-mile walk that day.

'It is all Mr. Cunliffe's fault that I am quartered on you in this way,'
he said, laughing a little nervously--and very likely Uncle Brian's
dignified reception had made him uncomfortable; 'but he would insist on
my bringing my bag, and Mr. Garston has a dinner-engagement, and cannot
attend to business until to-morrow morning.'

'I am afraid you would like a dinner-engagement too, after your fourteen
miles,' I returned, in a sympathetic voice, for he did look very tired.
'We will give you some tea now, and then you can get rid of the dust of
the journey, and by that time Mrs. Martin will have done her best to
provide you with some supper.'

'I see I have fallen in good hands,' he replied, brightening at this in
a boyish sort of way. 'Where is the schoolroom? I did not know there was
such an apartment, but of course Mrs. Garston told me that her youngest
daughter had not finished her studies. I think I saw her once: she was
very tall, and had dark hair.'

'Oh yes; that was Jill--I mean Jocelyn, but we always call her Jill. Will
you come this way, please? Fräulein is out, and we were having a good
time by ourselves.'

'And I have come to spoil it,' he answered regretfully, as I opened the
door.

I shall never forget Jill's face when she saw us on the threshold. She
quite forgot to shake hands with Mr. Tudor in her dismay, but stood
hunching her shoulders, with Sooty still clasped in her arms and her
great eyes staring at him, till he said a pleasant word to her, and then
she flushed up, and subsided into her chair. I stole an anxious glance at
the cake; to my great relief, Jill had been quietly proceeding with her
meal in my absence, for I knew that in her chagrin she would refuse to
touch another morsel. I wondered a little what Mr. Tudor would think of
her ungracious reception of him; but he showed his good-breeding by
taking no notice of it and confining his remarks to me.

Jill's ill-humour thawed by and by when she saw how he entered into the
spirit of the fun. He vaunted his own skill with the toasting-fork, and,
in spite of fatigue, insisted on superintending another batch of the
buttered toast; he was very particular about the clearness of the fire,
and delivered quite an harangue on the subject. Jill's sulky countenance
relaxed by and by; she opened her lips to contradict him, and was met so
skilfully that she appealed to me for assistance.

By the time tea was over, we were as friendly with Mr. Tudor as though we
had known him all our lives, and Jill was laughing heartily over his racy
descriptions of schoolroom feasts and other escapades of his youth. He
looked absurdly young, in spite of his clerical dress; he had a bright
face and a peculiarly frank manner that made me trust him at once; he did
not look particularly clever, and Jill had the best of him in argument,
but one felt instinctively that he was a man who would never do a mean or
an unkind action, that he would tell the truth to his own detriment with
a simple honesty that made up for lack of talent.

I could see that Jill's bigness and cleverness surprised him. He
evidently found her amusing, for he tried to draw her out; perhaps he
liked to see how her great eyes opened and then grew bright, as she
tossed back her black locks or shook them impatiently. When Jill was
happy and at ease her face would grow illuminated; her varying
expression, her animation, her quaint picturesque talk, made her
thoroughly interesting. I was never dull in Jill's company; she had
always something fresh to say; she had a fund of originality, and drew
her words newly coined from her own mint.

I do not believe that Mr. Tudor quite understood her, for he was a simple
young fellow. But she piqued his curiosity. I must have appeared quite a
tame, commonplace person beside her. When Jill went out of the room to
fetch something, he asked me, rather curiously, how old she was, and when
I told him that she was a mere child, not quite sixteen, he said, half
musing, that she seemed older than that. She knew so much about things,
but he supposed she was very clever.

We went down into the drawing-room after this, and Jill kept me company
while Mr. Tudor supped in state, with Clayton and Clarence to wait on
him. He came up after a very short interval, and said, half laughing,
that his supper had been a most formal affair.

'By the bye, Miss Garston,' he observed, as though by an afterthought,
'I hear you are coming down to Heathfield.' He stole a glance at Jill as
he spoke. She had discarded her Indian muslin and coral necklace as being
too grand for the occasion, and wore her ruby velveteen, that always
suited her admirably. She looked very nice, and quite at her ease,
sitting half-buried in Uncle Brian's arm-chair, instead of being bolt
upright in her corner. She had drawn her big feet carefully under her
gown, and was quite a presentable young lady.

I thought Mr. Tudor was rather impressed with the transformation
Cinderella in her brown schoolroom frock, with a smutty cheek and rumpled
collar, was quite a different person:--presto--change--the young princess
in the ruby dress has smooth locks and a thick gold necklace. She has big
shining eyes and a happy child's laugh. Her little white teeth gleam in
the lamplight. I do not wonder in the least that Mr. Tudor looks at Jill
as he talks to me. It is a habit people have with me.

But I answered him quite graciously.

'Yes, I am coming down to Heathfield the day after to-morrow. I suppose
I ought to say _Deo volente_. I hope you all mean to be good to me, Mr.
Tudor, and not laugh at my poor little pretensions.'

'I shall not laugh, for one,' he replied, looking me full in the face
now with his honest eyes. 'I think it is a good work, Miss Garston. The
vicar'--he always called Uncle Max the vicar--'was talking about it up
at Gladwyn the other day, and Mr. Hamilton said--'

'Gladwyn? Is that the name of a house?' I asked, interrupting Mr. Tudor
a little abruptly.

'To be sure. Have you not heard of Gladwyn?' And at that he looked a
little amused. But I was not fated to hear more of Gladwyn that night,
for the next moment Aunt Philippa came bustling into the room, and Sara
and Uncle Brian followed her.



CHAPTER VI

THE WHITE COTTAGE


Good-bye is an unpleasant word to say, and I said mine as quickly as
possible, but I did not like the remembrance of Jill's wet cheek that
I had kissed: I was haunted by it during the greater part of my brief
journey. For some inexplicable reason I had chosen to arrive at
Heathfield late in the afternoon; I wanted to slip into my new home in
the dusk. I knew that Uncle Max would meet me at the station and look
after my luggage, so I should have no trouble, and I hoped that I should
wake up among my neighbours the next morning before they knew of my
arrival.

When we stopped at some station a little while before we reached
Heathfield, the guard put a gentleman in my compartment: I fancied they
had not noticed me, for a large black retriever followed him.

The gentleman lifted his hat directly he saw me, and apologised for
his dog's presence, until I assured him it made no difference to me; and
then he drew a newspaper from his bag and tried to read by the somewhat
flickering light. As I had nothing else to do, and his attention was
evidently very much absorbed, I looked at him from time to time in an
idle, furtive sort of way.

He had taken off his hat and put it on the seat; his dark smooth-shaven
face reminded me of a Romish priest, but he had no tonsure; instead of
that he had thick closely-cropped hair without a hint or suspicion of
baldness, was strongly built and very broad, and looked like a man who
had undergone training.

I was rather given to study the countenances of my fellow-passengers,--it
was a way I had,--but I was not particularly prepossessed with this man's
face; it looked hard and stern, and his manner, though perfectly
gentlemanly, was a little brusque. I abandoned the Romish priest theory
after a second glance, and told myself he was more like a Roman
gladiator.

As we approached Heathfield, he folded up his paper and patted his dog,
who had sat all this time at his feet, with his head on his knees. It was
a beautiful, intelligent animal, and had soft eyes like a woman, and by
the way he wagged his tail and licked the hand that fondled his glossy
head I saw he was devoted to his master.

Just then I encountered a swift, searching glance from the stranger,
which rather surprised me. He had looked at me, as he spoke, in an
indifferent way; but this second look was a little perplexing; it was
as though he had suddenly recognised me, and that the fact amused him;
and yet we had never met before,--it was such an uncommon face, so
singular altogether, that I could never have forgotten it.

I grew irritated without reason, for how could a stranger recognise me?
Happily the lights from the station flashed before my eyes at that
moment, and I began nodding and smiling towards a corner by the
bookstall, where a felt hat and brown head were all that I could see
of Uncle Max.

'Well, here you are, Ursula, punctual to a minute,' exclaimed Max, as he
shook hands. 'Halloo, Hamilton, where did you spring from?' going to the
carriage door to speak to my fellow-passenger. I was so provoked at this,
fearing an introduction, for Max was such a friendly soul, that I went to
the luggage-van and began counting my boxes, and Max did not hurry
himself to look after me.

'Now, then,' he observed cheerily, when he condescended to join me, 'is
your luggage all right? Do you mean all those traps are yours? Bless me,
Ursula, what will Mrs. Barton say? Put them on the fly, you fellows, and
be sharp about it. Come along, child; it is pelting cats and dogs, if you
know what that means: you have a wet welcome to Heathfield.'

I took the news philosophically, and assured him it did not matter in the
least. We could hear the rain beating against the windows as we reached
the booking-office. A closed waggonette with a pair of horses was waiting
at the door; my fellow-passenger, whom Max had addressed as Hamilton, was
standing on the pavement, speaking somewhat angrily to the coachman. I
heard the man's answer as he touched his hat.

'Miss Darrell said I was to bring the waggonette, sir: it did not rain so
badly when the order was brought round to the stables.'

'I could have taken a fly easily: it is worse than folly bringing out
the horses this wet night. Jump in, Nap. What, must I go first? Manners
before a wet coat.'

I heard no more, for Max hurried me into a fly, and the waggonette passed
us on the road.

'Who was that?' I asked curiously.

'Oh, that is Mr. Hamilton. Why did you not wait for me to introduce
him to you, Ursula? He is a rich doctor who lives in these parts; he
practises for his own pleasure among the poor people; he will not attend
gentle-folks. He told me that he had studied medicine meaning to make it
his profession, but a distant relative died and left him a fortune, and
by so doing spoiled his career.'

'That was rather ungracious of him; but he looks the sort of man who
could do plenty of grumbling. Where does he live, Max?'

'Oh, at Gladwyn: I cannot show you the house now, because we do not pass
it. There is the church, Ursula, and there is Tudor in his mackintosh
coming out of the vicarage: that is the best of Lawrence, he never shirks
his duty; he hates the job, but he does it. He is going down to see old
Smithers and get sworn at for his pains.'

'Have you got any cases ready for me, Max?' I asked, with a little
tingling of excitement.

'Hamilton has. I was at Gladwyn the other evening, and had a talk with
him. He was a little off-hand about your mission; he thinks you must be
romantic, and all that sort of thing. You would have laughed to have
heard him talk, and I let him go on just for the joke of it. It was rich
to hear him say that he did not believe in hysterical goodness; a girl
would do anything now to get herself talked about--no, I did not mean to
repeat that,' interrupting himself, with an annoyed air. 'Hamilton always
says more than he means. Look, Ursula, there is the White Cottage; that
bow-window to the right belongs to your parlour. Now, my dear, I will
open the gate, and you must just run up the path as quickly as you can,
for you can hardly hold up an umbrella in this wind. You see the cottage
does not boast of a carriage-drive.'

That odious Mr. Hamilton--or Dr. Hamilton, which was it? No wonder he
looked like a Romish priest if he could make those Jesuitical remarks!
I felt I almost hated him, but I resolved to banish him from my mind,
as I ran past the dripping laurels that bordered the narrow path. The
cottage door was open as soon as our fly had stopped at the gate; and
by the light I could see the neat flower-borders and clipped yews, and
a leafless wide-spreading tree with a seat under it. As I made my way
into the porch, a very big man without his coat passed me with a civil
'good-evening.' I thought it must be Nathaniel, from his great height,
and of course the prim-looking little widow in black, standing on the
threshold, was Mrs. Barton. She had a nice, plaintive face, and spoke
in a mild, deprecating voice.

'Good-evening, Mrs. Barton. What dreadful weather! I hope my wet boxes
will not spoil the oilcloth.'

'That is easily wiped off, Miss Garston; but I am thinking the damp must
have made you chilly. Come into the parlour: there is a fine rousing fire
that will soon warm you. A fire is a deal of comfort on a wet, cool
night. I have lighted one in your bedroom too.'

Evidently Mrs. Barton spared herself no trouble. I was a fire-worshipper,
and loved to see the ruddy flame lighting up all the odd corners, and I
was glad to think both my rooms would be cheerful. The parlour looked the
picture of comfort; my piano was nicely placed, and the davenport, and
the chair that I had sent with it. A large old-fashioned couch was drawn
across the window, the round table had a white cloth on it, and the
tea-tray and a cottage loaf were suggestive of a meal. The room was long
and rather low, but the bow-window gave it a cosy aspect; one glance
satisfied me that I had space for the principal part of my books, the
rest could be put in my bedroom. When Mrs. Barton stirred the fire and
lighted the candles the room looked extremely cheerful, especially as
Tinker, the collie, had taken a fancy to the rug, and had stretched
himself upon it after giving me a wag of his tail as a welcome. Mrs.
Barton would hardly give me time to warm my hands before she begged me
to follow her upstairs and take off my things while they brought in the
luggage.

I found my bedroom had one peculiarity: you had to descend two broad
steps before you entered it.

It was the same size as the parlour, and had a bow-window. The furniture
was unusually good; it had belonged to the previous lodger, Mrs.
Meredith, who had bequeathed it to Mrs. Barton at her death.

I was thankful to see a pretty iron bedstead with a brass ring and blue
chintz hangings, instead of the four-poster I had dreaded. There was a
commodious cupboard and a handsome Spanish mahogany chest of drawers that
Mrs. Barton pointed out with great pride. A bright fire burned in the
blue-tiled fireplace; there was an easy-chair and a round table in the
bow-window; a pleasant perfume of lavender-scented sheets pervaded the
room, and a winter nosegay of red and white chrysanthemums was prettily
arranged in a curious china bowl. I praised everything to Mrs. Barton's
satisfaction, and then she went downstairs to see to the tea, first
giving me the information that Nathaniel was coming upstairs with the
big trunk, and would I tell him where to place it?

He entered the next moment, carrying the heavy trunk on his shoulder as
easily as though it were a toy. He was a good-looking man, with a fair
beard and a pair of honest blue eyes, and in spite of his size and
strength--for he was a perfect son of Anak--seemed rather shy and
retiring.

I left him loosening the straps of my box, and went downstairs to find
Uncle Max.

He had made himself quite at home, and was sitting in the big easy-chair
contemplating the fire.

'Well, Ursula, how do you like your rooms? Oh yes, there are two cups and
saucers,' as I looked inquiringly at the table, 'because Mrs. Barton
expects me to remain to tea. She is frying ham and eggs at the present
moment; I hope you do not mind such homely country fare; but to-morrow
you will be your own housekeeper.'

I assured Uncle Max that I had fallen in love with the White Cottage, and
that I liked Mrs. Barton excessively, that my bedroom was especially cosy
and was most comfortably furnished. 'You will see how pretty this room
will look when I put up my new curtains and pictures,' I went on; 'it is
a little bare at present, but it will soon have a more furnished
appearance. I mean to be so busy to-morrow settling all my treasures.'
And I spoke with so much animation that Uncle Max smiled at what he
called my youthful enthusiasm.

'You may be as busy as you like all day,' he returned, in his pleasant
way, 'so that you come up to the vicarage in the afternoon to see Mrs.
Drabble. Lawrence will be out: that fellow always is out,'--in a humorous
tone of vexation. 'He makes himself so confoundedly agreeable that people
are always asking him to dinner: he is terribly secular, is Lawrence, but
he is young and will mend. Come up to the vicarage and dine with me,
Ursula; I want you to taste Mrs. Drabble's pancakes: they are food for
angels, as Lawrence always says.'

I accepted the invitation a little regretfully, for it seemed hard to
leave my hermitage the first evening; but then Uncle Max had been so good
to me that it would never do to disappoint him, and, as Mr. Tudor would
be out, we should be very cosy together.

Mrs. Barton brought in the ham and eggs at this moment, and I sat down
before my gay little tea-tray, marvelling secretly at the scarlet
flamingo. There were plenty of homely delicacies on the table,--hot cakes
and honey, and a basket of brown-and-yellow pippins. Uncle Max shook his
head and pretended the hot cakes would ruin his digestion, but he enjoyed
them all the same, and made an excellent meal.

We sat for a long time talking over the fire, chiefly of Lesbia and Jill,
for he took a warm interest in them both; but about eight o'clock he
remembered he had an engagement, and went off rather hurriedly, and I
went upstairs and unpacked one of my boxes, and arranged my clothes in
the chest of drawers and in the big, roomy cupboard.

When the church clock struck ten, I went down again in search of hot
water. At the sound of my footstep, Mrs. Barton came out in the passage
and invited me into the kitchen.

'There is only Nat there at his books,' she said, in her plaintive voice;
'he works late sometimes, though I tell him he uses up candle and
firelight. Please make yourself at home, Miss Garston; we shall always
be pleased to see you in our kitchen, when you like to pop in.'

'I hope I shall not come too often,' I returned, looking round at its
bright snug appearance. A square of dark carpet covered part of the
red-tiled floor; the round deal table in the centre was hidden under a
crimson cloth, and two big elbow-chairs stood on each side of the wide
fireplace. Nathaniel sat in one, with a little round table in front of
him, covered with books and papers, with a small lamp for his own use.
Mrs. Barton's work-box and mending-basket were on the centre table, the
hearth had just been swept up, there was a smell of hot bread, and a row
of freshly-baked loaves were cooling on the dresser; the firelight shone
on the gleaming pewter and brass utensils, and a great tabby cat sat
purring on the elbow of Nathaniel's chair. I thought he seemed a little
confused at my entrance, for he got up rather awkwardly and shuffled his
papers together, so I took pity on his embarrassment, and only spoke to
Mrs. Barton.

She took me into the little outer kitchen to show me where she did her
cooking, and I asked her in a low voice what he was studying.

'He does a little of everything,' she said, with a sort of suppressed
pride in her voice. 'Sometimes it is history, and oftener summing; he
will have it that a man cannot have too much learning, and that he wants
to improve himself; he is always fretting because he never had a chance
when he was young, all along of his having to work when his poor father
died, and so he is all for making up for lost time; sometimes Dr.
Hamilton comes in and helps him with the Latin and--what do you call
those figures?'

I suggested mathematics, and she nodded assent.

'Oh, Nat is a sight cleverer already than his master,' she went on. 'I am
thinking that if he goes on learning more and more, that Mr. Roberts will
be taking him into the business some day. Nat is a sort of foreman now,
for his master thinks a deal of Nathaniel, and no wonder, for it is not
only his learning, and his sitting up late, and getting up early in the
winter's morning, and creeping downstairs without his boots so as not
to wake me; for all he is such a good son; but I will say it, that there
is not a young man in these parts that can beat Nat,' finished the little
widow, in a broken voice.

I said I was glad to hear it, for she evidently expected me to say
something; and then I asked how long Dr. Hamilton had given him lessons
in Latin and mathematics. She was only too ready to tell me, and seemed
pleased at my interest.

'Ever since Nat hurt his arm in the railway accident; and I will say that
Dr. Hamilton brought him round in a wonderful way; he found him at his
books one evening, and ordered him off to bed in a hurry; but when he
came next time he had a long talk with Nat, and promised to give him an
hour when he could spare it. Sometimes Nat goes up to Gladwyn, but
oftener Dr. Hamilton drops in here; he has taken a fancy to our kitchen,
he says; but that is his way of putting it. There are plenty of folks who
find fault with the doctor, and say he is not what he ought to be to his
own flesh and blood; but I always will have it, and Nathaniel says the
same, that the doctor has a fine character. Why, Nat swears by him,'

I was beginning to be afraid that Mrs. Barton would never arrive at a
full stop,--she was a little like Mrs. Drabble in that; they were both
discursive and parenthetical speakers, only Mrs. Drabble's meaning was
more involved,--but before I had time to answer, a deep voice from the
kitchen startled us.

'Mother, how long do you mean to keep Miss Garston in that cold, dark
place? It is enough to starve her,' And at this rebuke Mrs. Barton
hurried me into the front kitchen. I was tired by this time, and glad to
bid them both good-night. And yet the widow's talk interested me. It was
not Mr. Hamilton's fault that he had a face like a Romish priest;
evidently he had his good points, like other people, in spite of his
rudeness in laughing at me. But I could not--no, I could not tolerate
that remark of his, 'that a girl would do anything to make herself talked
about.' It was odious, cynical, utterly malevolent. I hoped Uncle Max
would defer the introduction as long as possible. I never wished to know
anything of Gladwyn or its master. These thoughts occupied me until I
fell asleep; and then I dreamt of Jill.

Once or twice I woke in the night, disturbed by a low growl from Tinker,
who slept in the passage. I heard afterwards that his dreams were always
haunted by cats. He was an inveterate enemy to all the feline species,
with the exception of Peter, the great tabby cat. They had long ago sworn
an armistice, and, in his way, Tinker took a great deal of notice of
Peter.

It was strange to look round the low cottage room by the flickering,
fast-dying firelight. The rain still pattered on the garden paths. I was
rather dismayed to find that it had not ceased the next morning; it is so
pleasant to wake up in a fresh place and see the bright sunshine. This
piece of good luck was denied me, however. When I looked out of my window
I could only see dripping laurels and great pools in the gravel walks.
The gray sky had not a break in it. I was glad when I was ready to go
down to my parlour, for the fire and breakfast-table would look cheerful
by comparison; and afterwards I would set to work so busily that I should
not have time to notice the rain.

And so it proved; for until my early dinner--or rather luncheon--was
served, I was employed in unpacking and arranging my books and ornaments.

On my journeys to and fro I often paused at the low staircase window
to reconnoitre the weather. There was no garden behind the cottage; a
small gravelled yard, where Mrs. Barton kept her poultry and some rabbits
belonging to Nathaniel, opened by a gate into a field. There was a
cow-house there, and a white cow was standing rather disconsolately
under some trees. I found out afterwards that both the field and the cow
belonged to Mrs. Barton, so I could always rely on a good supply of sweet
new milk.

Nathaniel had put up my book-shelves when I had sent them with the other
furniture, so I had only to arrange the books. I made use, too, of some
nails he had driven in for my pictures.

The parlour really looked very nice when I had finished; the new
cream-coloured curtains were up, and I had tied them back with amber
silk; two or three sunny little landscapes, and Charlie's portrait, a
beautifully-painted photograph, hung on the walls; my favourite books
were in their places, and the mantelpiece and the corner cupboards held
some of the lovely old china that had belonged to mother. Aunt Philippa
had wished me to leave it behind, as she feared it might be broken; but
I liked to feast my eyes on the soft rich colours, and every piece was
precious to me.

When I had disposed the furniture to the best advantage,--had placed my
davenport and work-table and special chair in the bow-window, and had
replaced the shabby red cloth by a handsome tapestry one,--I called Mrs.
Barton to see the room.

She held up her hands in astonishment.

'Dear me, Miss Garston, it looks quite a different place. What will
Nathaniel say when he sees it?--he is so fond of books and pretty things.
It only wants sunshine and a bird-cage, and perhaps a geranium or two,
to make it quite a bower. May I make so bold, ma'am, as to ask who that
pleasant-faced young gentleman is in the oak frame?'--but I think she
was sorry that she had asked the question when I told her it was my
twin-brother, now in heaven.

'That is where my husband and my dear little daughter both are,' she
said, with moist eyes, as she turned away from the picture. 'Oh, there is
a deal of trouble in the world, but you are young to know it, ma'am.' And
then she looked kindly at me, and went away, to give Nathaniel his
dinner.



CHAPTER VII

GILES HAMILTON, ESQ.


It was quite late in the afternoon when I put the last finishing-touches
to my sitting-room, and it was already dusk when I left the cottage and
walked quickly up the road that led to the vicarage.

My busy day had not tired me, and I should have enjoyed a solitary ramble
in spite of the wet roads and dark November sky, only I knew Uncle Max
would be waiting for me. A keen sense of independence, of liberty, of
congenial work in prospective, seemed to tingle in my veins, as though
new life were coursing through them. I was no longer trammelled by the
constant efforts to move in other people's grooves. I was free to think
my own thought and lead my own life without reproof or hindrance.

The vicarage was a red, irregular house, shut off from the road by
a low wall, with a court-yard planted somewhat thickly with shrubs: the
living-rooms were chiefly at the back of the house, and their windows
looked out on a pleasant garden: a glass door in the hall opened on a
broad gravel terrace bordered by standard rose-trees, and beyond lay a
smooth green lawn almost as level as a bowling-green; a laurel hedge
divided it from an extensive kitchen-garden, to which Uncle Max and Mr.
Tudor devoted a great deal of their spare time and superfluous energies.

It was far too large a house for an unmarried man: the broad staircase
and spacious rooms seemed to require the echo of children's voices. Uncle
Max used to call it the barracks, but I think in his heart he liked the
roomy emptiness; when he was restless he would prowl up and down the wide
landing from one unused room to another. It was an old-fashioned house,
and more than one generation had grown up in it. Uncle Max was fond of
telling me about his predecessors' histories. Two little children had
died in the big nursery overlooking the garden. There was a little brown
room where a _ci-devant_ vicar had written his sermons, with a big
cupboard in the wall where he hung his cassock. He had a grown-up family,
but his wife was dead. One day he married again and brought home a slim,
pale-faced girl--a certain Priscilla Howe--to be the mistress of his
house. There were stories rife in the village that her step-children were
too much for poor, pretty Priscilla; that while her husband wrote his
sermons in the little brown room the young wife pined and moped in her
green sitting-room.

Uncle Max found a picture of her one day in a garret where they stored
apples; a faint musty smell clung to the canvas. 'Priscilla Howe' was
written in one corner; there was a childish look on the small oval face;
large melancholy eyes seemed appealing to one out of the canvas. She was
dressed in a heavy white material like dimity, and held a few primroses
between her fingers. What an innocent, pathetic little bride the
stern-faced vicar must have brought home!

I read her epitaph afterwards when Uncle Max showed me her
grave,--'Priscilla, wife of Ralph Combermere, aged twenty, and her infant
son.' What a sad little inscription! But Uncle Max read something sadder
still one day. A letter in faded ink was found in a corner of the same
old garret, and the signature was 'Priscilla'; there was only one
sentence legible in the whole, and to whom it was written remained a
mystery: 'Trust me, dear love, that I shall ever do my duty, in spite of
flaunts and jeers and most unkindly looks; and if God spares me health,
which I cannot believe, He may yet right me in the eyes that no longer
look at me with fondness.'

Poor Priscilla! so her husband had ceased to love her. No wonder the poor
child dwindled and pined among 'the flaunts and jeers and most unkindly
looks' of her step-children. One could imagine her clasping her baby to
her sad heart as she closed her eyes to the bitter misunderstanding of
this life. 'Where the weary are at rest,'--they might have written those
words upon her tomb.

The thought of Priscilla used to haunt me when I roamed about the
passages on windy days; the old garret especially seemed haunted by her
memory. Uncle Max once said to me that he could have constructed a
romance out of her poor little history. 'She came from a place called
Ecclesbourne Hall,' he said, one day. 'She was an heiress; old Ralph
Combermere knew what he was about when he transplanted the pale primrose.
Do you know, Ursula, this room is supposed to be haunted? And one of the
maids told me seriously that Mistress Combermere walks here on windy
nights with her babe in her arms. Fancy such a report in an English
vicarage!'

When I reached the house the little maid who opened the door informed me
that Uncle Max was in his study: it was a large room with a bow-window
overlooking the garden, and I knew Uncle Max never used any other room
except for his meals. I had volunteered to announce myself. I was never
formal with Max, so I knocked at the door, and, without waiting to hear
his voice in reply, marched in without ceremony.

But the next moment I stood discomfited on the threshold, for instead of
Uncle Max's familiar face I saw a dark, closely-cropped head bending over
the table as though searching for something, and the ruddy firelight
reflected the broad shoulders and hairless profile of the obnoxious Mr.
Hamilton.

My first idea was to escape, and my fingers were already on the
door-handle, when he turned abruptly and saw me. 'I beg your pardon,'
coming towards me and speaking in the deep peculiar voice I had already
heard. 'I was hunting for the matches that Cunliffe always mislays. You
are Miss Garston, are you not? I was told to expect you.' And then he
actually shook hands with me in an off-hand way.

I am not generally devoid of presence of mind, but at that moment I
behaved as awkwardly as a school-girl. If I could only have thought of
some excuse for leaving him,--an errand or a message to Mrs. Drabble; but
no form of words would occur to me. I could only mutter an apology for my
abrupt entrance, and ask after Uncle Max, stammering with confusion all
the time, and then take the chair he was placing for me, while he renewed
his search for the match-box.

'Oh, Cunliffe has only gone down to the village to post his letters: he
will be back in a few minutes. Ah! here are the matches. Now we shall be
able to see each other.' And he coolly lighted Uncle Max's reading-lamp
and two candles, and stirred the fire with such a vigorous hand that the
huge lump of coal splintered into fragments.

'There; I do like a mighty blaze. Take that newspaper, Miss Garston, if
the flame scorches your face. I know young ladies are afraid of their
complexions.' Why need he have said that, as though my brown skin were
Sara's pretty pink cheeks? 'Why do you not throw off your wraps if the
room be too hot?' And he spoke so imperatively that I actually obeyed
him, and got rid of my hat and ulster, which he deposited on the couch.

I did not like the look of Mr. Hamilton any better than I had liked it
yesterday. His dark, smoothly-shaven face was not to my taste; it looked
stern and forbidding. He had a low forehead, and there was a hard set
look about the mouth, and the eyes were almost disagreeable in their
keenness.

Perhaps I was prejudiced, but he looked to me like a man who rarely
laughed, and who would take a pleasure in saying bitter things; his voice
was not unpleasant, but it had a peculiar depth in it, and now and then
there was an odd break in it that was almost a hesitation.

'Well,' he said, looking full at me, but, I was sure, not in the least
wishful to set me at my ease, 'I suppose I ought to introduce myself. My
name is Hamilton.'

I bowed. I certainly did not think it necessary that I should tell him
that I was aware of that fact.

'We met yesterday, when you were good enough to put up with Nap's
company. I was half disposed to introduce myself then: only I feared you
would be shocked at such a piece of unconventionality; young ladies have
such strict ideas of decorum.'

'And very properly so, too,' I put in severely, for my irritation was
getting the better of my nervousness. I could not bear the tone in which
he said 'young ladies.' I felt convinced he had an antipathy to the whole
sex.

'Our skies were very uncivil in their welcome,' he went on, quite
disregarding my remark: 'it was the wettest night we have had for an age.
I was quite savage when I found the horses had been taken out of their
warm stables: the coachman was an ass, as I told him.'

'You scolded him somewhat severely.'

'Ah! did you hear me?' smiling a little at that, as though he were
amused. 'I am afraid I speak my mind pretty freely, in spite of
bystanders. Well, Miss Garston, so I hear you have come down as a sort of
female Quixote among us. Heathfield is to be the scene of your mission.'

I was so angry at the tone in which he said this that I made no reply.
What right had a perfect stranger to meddle in my business? It was all
Uncle Max's fault; if he had only held his tongue.

'Cunliffe was up at Gladwyn the other night,' he continued in the same
off-hand way, 'and he told us all about it.'

'I am sorry to hear it,' very stiffly.

'Sorry! Why? Good deeds ought to be talked about, ought they not, _pro
bono publico_, eh? Why not, Miss Garston?'

'Good intentions are not deeds.'

'True; you have me there. I suppose you think you must not reckon on your
chickens before they are hatched; the _pro bono publico_ scheme is not
properly hatched yet, except in theory. I am afraid I shall make you
angry if I tell you I was rather amused at the whole thing.'

'I am glad to afford you amusement, Mr. Hamilton.'

'Ah, I see you are deeply offended; what a pity, and in five minutes too!
That comes of my unfortunate habit of speaking my mind. Let me follow
this out. I am afraid Cunliffe has been a traitor; that fellow is not
reliable: no parsons are. Let me hear what you have against me, Miss
Garston. I have spoken against your pet theory, and you are aggrieved in
consequence,'

He spoke in a half-jesting manner, but his ironical voice challenged me.

I felt I detested him, and he should know why.

'I expected to be misunderstood,' I returned coldly, 'but hardly to be
accused of hysterical goodness. To be sure, a girl will do anything
nowadays to get herself talked about!'

'Oh,' in a low voice, 'that rascal! But I will be even with him. How many
more of my speeches did Cunliffe repeat?'

'Oh, I had heard enough,' I replied hastily. 'Does it not strike you as
a little hard, Mr. Hamilton, that one should be judged beforehand in this
harsh manner?--that because some girls are full of vagaries, the whole
sex must be condemned?'

'Oh, if you put it in that cut-and-dried way, I must plead guilty: in
fact, I should owe you some sort of apology, only'--with a stress on the
word--'my speech was not intended for the house-top. I am rather a
sceptic about female missions, Miss Garston, and do not always measure my
words when I am discussing abstract theories with a friend. In my opinion
Cunliffe is the one you ought to blame, though if the speech rankles I
will take my share.'

'I certainly wish you had not said it, Mr. Hamilton.'

'There, now,'--in an injured voice,--'that is the way you treat my
handsome apology, and I am not a man ever to own myself in the wrong,
mind you. What does it matter, may I ask, what I think of girls in the
abstract? I had not met you, Miss Garston, or discussed the subject in
its bearings: so where may the offence lie? Of course you have no answer
ready; of course you have taken offence where none is meant. This is so
like a woman--to undertake to renovate society, and lose her temper at
the first adverse word.'

He was looking at me with a peculiar but not unkindly smile as he spoke;
in fact, his expression was almost pleasant; but I was too much
prejudiced to be softened. I did not care in the least what he thought
of my temper; I was quite sure he had one of his own.

'No one likes to meet discouragement on the threshold,' I answered
curtly.

'Not if it comes out with timbrels and dances, like Jephtha's
daughter, to be sacrificed: that was discouragement on the threshold
with a vengeance. I was always sorry for that old fellow. Well, _apropos_
of that touching remark,--which, by the way, is exquisitely
feminine,--supposing we strike a truce. I daresay you look upon me as an
interfering stranger; but the fact is, I am the poor folk's doctor down
here; so you cannot work without me. That alters the case, eh?'--with a
smile meant to be propitiatory, but really too triumphant for my taste.

'Under those circumstances I could wish that you had less narrow views of
women's work,' I returned, with some warmth.

He opened his eyes so widely at this that at any other moment I should
have been amused.

'By all that is wonderful, it is the first time I have been accused of
narrowness.' And here he gave a gruff little laugh. 'I think I had better
leave yon alone, Miss Garston, and label you "dangerous." There is a hot
sparkle in your eyes that warns me to keep off the premises. "Trespassers
will be taken up." I begin to feel uncomfortable. Cunliffe has put me _en
parole_, and I dare not break bounds. Can you manage to sit in
the same room a little longer with such a heretic?'

'Heretics can be converted.'

He shrugged his shoulders at this.

'Not such a hardened sceptic as myself. Now, look here, Miss Garston.
I will say something civil. I believe you are in earnest; so it shall be
_pax_ between us; and I will promise not to thwart you. As for women's
mission in general, I believe their principal mission is not to stop at
home and mind their own business; in fact, home and homely duties are the
last straws that break the back of the emancipated woman.' And with these
audacious words Mr. Hamilton stirred the fire again with prodigious
energy. Happily, Uncle Max came into the room at that moment; so I was
spared any reply.

Max must have thought that I was suspiciously glad to see him, for he
looked from one to the other rather anxiously.

'Sorry to be so late, Ursula; but I met Pardoe, and he entrapped me into
an argument. Well, how have you and my friend Hamilton got on together?'

I turned away without answering, but Mr. Hamilton responded, in a
melancholy voice--

'I have been suppressed, like the dormouse in Alice's teapot. There is
very little left of me. I had no idea your niece had such a taste for
argument, Cunliffe. I take it rather unkindly that I was not warned off
the track.'

'So you two have been quarrelling.' And Uncle Max looked a little vexed.
'What a fellow you are, Hamilton, for stroking a person the wrong way! Of
course Ursula has believed all your cross-grained remarks?'

'Swallowed them whole and entire; and a fit of moral indigestion is the
result. Well, I must be going; but first let me administer a palliative,
Miss Garston. What time do you have breakfast? If it be before ten, I
shall be happy to introduce you to a very eligible case.'

I would have given much to dispense with Mr. Hamilton's patronage; but
under the circumstances it would have been absurd to refuse his offer.
I could not sacrifice my work to my temper; but I recognised with a
sinking heart that Mr. Hamilton would cross my daily path. The idea
was as delightful to me as the anticipation of a daily east wind. I
restrained myself, however, and briefly mentioned that I would be ready
by nine.

'Oh, that is an hour too early: I will call for you at ten. Let me see,
you are at the White Cottage. You are not curious about your first
patient; in that you are not a true daughter of Eve. Well, good-bye, Miss
Garston; good-bye, Cunliffe.' And he left the room without shaking hands
with me again.

Uncle Max followed him out into the hall, and they stood so long talking
that I lost patience, and went into the kitchen to see Mrs. Drabble.

She received me in a resigned way, as usual, and talked without taking
breath once while she buttered the hot cakes and prepared the tea-tray.
I understood her to say that Mr. Tudor's collars were her chief cares in
life; that no young gentleman she had ever known was so hard to please in
the matter of starch; that her master was a lamb in comparison; and did
I not think he was looking ill and overworking himself?

I had some difficulty in finding out to whom she was alluding, but I
imagined she meant her master, who was certainly looking a little thin,
and then she went off on another tack.

'Folks seem mighty curious about you, Miss Ursula; people do say
that only a young lady crossed in love would think of doing such an
out-of-the-way thing as putting up at the White Cottage and nursing
poor people. There was Rebecca Saunders,--you know Rebecca at the
post-office,--she said to me last night, "So your young lady has come,
Mrs. Drabble; the vicar was at the station, I hear, and Dr. Hamilton came
down by the same train: wasn't that curious, now? I am thinking she must
be a mighty independent sort of person to take this work on her; there
has been trouble somewhere, take my word for it, for it is not in young
folks' nature to go in for work and no play."'

'Oh, I mean to play as well as work,' I returned, laughing. 'Don't tell
me any more, Mrs. Drabble; people will talk in a village, but I would
rather not hear what they say.' And then I went back to the study and
made tea for Uncle Max, and tried to pretend that I felt quite myself,
and was not the least uneasy in my mind,--as though I could deceive Max.

'Well, Ursula,' he said, shaking his head at me, 'did Hamilton or Mrs.
Drabble give you those hot cheeks?'

'Oh, Uncle Max,' I returned hastily, 'I am so sorry Mr. Hamilton is your
friend.'

'Why so, little she-bear?'

'Because--because--I detest him: he is the most disagreeable,
insufferable, domineering person I have ever met.'

'Candid; but then you were always outspoken, my dear. Now, shall I tell
you what this disagreeable, insufferable, domineering person said to me
in the hall?'

'Oh, nothing he said will make any difference in my opinion, I assure
you.'

'Possibly not, but it is too good to be lost. He said, "That little girl
actually believes in herself and her work; it is quite refreshing to meet
with such _naïveté_ nowadays. Ursula did you call her? Well, the name
just suits her." How do you like that, poor little bear?'

'I like it as well as I liked all Mr. Hamilton's speeches. Max, do you
really care for that odious man? Must I be civil to him?'

'Indeed, I hope you will be civil, Ursula,' replied Uncle Max, in an
alarmed voice. 'My dear, Giles Hamilton, Esq., is my most influential
parishioner; he is rich; he doctors all my poor people _gratis_, bullies
them one moment, and does them a good turn in the next; he is clever,
kind-hearted, and has no end of good points, and, though he is eccentric
and has plenty of faults, we chum together excellently, and I am very
intimate with his people.'

'His people--who are they?' I asked irritably.

'Oh, it is a queer household up at Gladwyn,' returned Max, rather
uneasily. 'Hamilton has a cousin living with him, as well as his two
sisters; her name is Darrell,--Etta Darrell; she is a stylish-looking
woman, about five-and-thirty; one never knows a lady's age exactly.'

'Are his sisters very young, then? Does Miss Darrell manage the house?'

'Yes. How could you guess that?' looking at me in surprise. 'Gladys,
Miss Hamilton, is about three-and-twenty, but she is very delicate;
the younger one, Elizabeth, is two years younger; they are Hamilton's
half-sisters,--his father married twice: that accounts for a good deal.'

'How do you mean,--accounts for a good deal, Max?'

'Why people say that Hamilton doesn't always get on with his sisters,'
he returned reluctantly: 'there are often misunderstandings in
families,--want of harmony, and that sort of thing. Mind, I do not
say it is true.'

'But you are so often at Gladwyn, you ought to know, Max.'

'Yes, of course; and now and then I have seen Hamilton a little stern
with his sisters; he is rather irritable by nature. I don't quite
understand things myself, but I have got it into my head that they would
be happier without Miss Darrell; she is a splendid manager, but it puts
Miss Hamilton out of her right place.'

'But she is an invalid, you say?'

'No, not an invalid, only very delicate, and a little morbid; not
quite what a girl ought to be. You could do some good there, Ursula,'
rather eagerly. 'Miss Hamilton has no friends of her own age; she is
reserved,--peculiar. You might be a comfort to her; you are sympathetic,
sensible, and have known trouble yourself. I should like to see you use
your influence there.'

'I will try, if you wish it, Max. And her name is Gladys?'

'Yes, Gladys, of Gladwyn,' he returned, with a smile, but I thought he
said it with rather a singular intonation, but it had a musical sound,
and I repeated it again to myself,--'Gladys, of Gladwyn.'



CHAPTER VIII

NEW BROOMS SWEEP CLEAN


We were interrupted just then by Mrs. Drabble, who came in for the
tea-things, and, as usual, held a long colloquy with her master on sundry
domestic affairs. When she had at last withdrawn, Uncle Max did not
resume the subject. I was somewhat disappointed at this, and in spite
of my strong antipathy to Mr. Hamilton I wanted to hear more about his
sisters.

He disregarded my hints, however, and began talking to me about my work.

'Do you know anything about the family Mr. Hamilton mentioned?' I asked,
rather eagerly.

'Oh yes; Mary Marshall's is a very sad case; she has seven children,
not one of them old enough to work for himself; and she is dying, poor
creature, of consumption. Her husband is a navvy, and he is at work at
Lewes; I believe he is pretty steady, and sends the greater part of his
wages to his wife, but there are too many mouths to feed to allow of
comforts; his old blind mother lives with them. I believe the neighbours
are kind and helpful, and Peggy, the eldest child, is a sharp little
creature, but you can imagine the miserable condition of such a home.'

'Yes, indeed.' And I shuddered as I recalled many a sad scene in my
father's home.

'I have sent in a woman once or twice to clean up the place; and Mrs.
Drabble has made excellent beef-tea, but the last lot turned sour from
being left in the hot kitchen one night, and the cat upset the basin of
calf's-foot jelly,--at least the children said so. I go there myself,
because Tudor says the air of the place turns him sick: he looked as
white as a ghost after his last visit, and declared he was poisoned with
foul air.'

'I daresay he was right, Max; poor people have such an objection to open
their windows.'

'I believe you there. I have talked myself nearly hoarse on that subject.
Hamilton and I propose giving lectures in the schoolroom on domestic
hygiene. There is a fearful want of sanitary knowledge in women belonging
to the lower class; want of cleanliness, want of ventilation, want of
whitewashing, are triple evils that lead to the most lamentable results.
We cannot get people to understand the common laws of life; the air of
their rooms may be musty, stagnant, and corrupt, and yet they are
astonished if their children have an attack of scarlet fever or
diphtheria.'

I commended the notion of the lectures warmly, and asked with whom the
idea had originated.

'Oh, Hamilton, of course: he is the moving spirit of everything. We have
planned the whole thing out. There is to be a lecture every Friday
evening; the first is to be on household hygiene, the sanitary condition
of houses, ventilation, cleanliness, etc. In the second lecture Hamilton
will speak of the laws of health, self-management, personal cleanliness,
to be followed by a few simple lectures on nursing, sick-cookery, and
the treatment of infantile diseases. We want all the mothers to attend.
Do you think it a good idea, Ursula?'

'It is an excellent one,' I returned reluctantly, for I grudged the
praise to Mr. Hamilton. He could benefit his fellow-creatures, and give
time and strength and energy to the poor sick people, and yet sneer at me
civilly when I wanted to do the same, just because I was a woman. Perhaps
Max was disappointed with my want of enthusiasm, for he ceased talking
of the lectures, and said he had some more letters to write before
dinner, and during the rest of the evening, though we discussed a hundred
different topics, Mr. Hamilton's name was not again mentioned.

Uncle Max walked with me to the gate of the White Cottage, and bade me a
cheerful good-night.

'I like to feel you are near me, Ursula,' he said, quite affectionately;
'an old bachelor like myself gets into a groove, and the society of a
vigorous young woman, brimful of philanthropy and crotchets, will rub me
up and do me good; one goes to sleep sometimes,' he finished, rather
mournfully, and then he walked away in the darkness, and I stood for a
minute to watch him.

It seemed to me that Max was a little different this evening. He was
always kind, always cheerful; he never wrapped himself up in gloomy
reserve like other people, however depressed or ill at ease he might be;
but Mrs. Drabble was right, he was certainly thinner, and there was an
anxious careworn look about his face when he was not speaking. I was
certain, too, that his cheerfulness and ready flow of conversation were
not without effort. I had asked him once if he were quite well, and he
had looked at me in evident astonishment.

'Perfectly well, thank you,--in a state of rude health. Nothing ever ails
me. Why do you ask?' But I evaded this question, for I knew Max hated to
be watched; and, after all, what right had I to intrude into his private
anxieties? doubtless he had plenty of these, like other men. The
management of a large parish was on his shoulders, and he was too
conscientious and hard-working to spare himself; but somehow the shadow
lying deep down in Max's honest brown eyes haunted me as I unlatched the
cottage door.

I heard Nathaniel's voice in the kitchen, and went in to bid him and his
mother good-night. Mrs. Barton was not there, however, but, to my
chagrin, Mr. Hamilton occupied her seat. He looked up with a rather
quizzical glance as I entered: he and Nathaniel had the round table
between them, strewn with books and papers; Nathaniel was writing, and
Mr. Hamilton was sitting opposite to him.

'I beg your pardon,' I said hurriedly. 'I thought Mrs. Barton was here.'

'She has gone to bed,' returned Mr. Hamilton coolly: 'my friend Nathaniel
and I are hard at work, as you see. Do you know anything of mathematics,
Miss Garston?--no, you shake your head--' I do not know what more he
would have said, but I escaped with a quick good-night.

As I went upstairs I made a resolution to avoid the kitchen in future:
I might at any moment stumble upon Mr. Hamilton. I had forgotten that he
gave Nathaniel lessons sometimes in the evening. What a ubiquitous mortal
this man appeared, here, there, and everywhere! It had given me rather a
shock to see him so comfortably domiciled in Mrs. Barton's cosy kitchen;
he looked as much at home there as in Uncle Max's study. How bright
Nathaniel had looked as he raised his head to bid me good-night! I was
obliged to confess that they had seemed as happy as possible.

It was very late when he left the cottage; I was just sinking off to
sleep when I heard his voice under my window. Tinker heard it too, and
barked, and then the gate shut with a sudden sharp click and all was
still. Nathaniel must have crept up to bed in his stocking-feet, as they
say in some parts, for I never heard him pass my door.

I was glad to be greeted by sunshine the next morning; the day seemed to
smile on my new work like an unuttered benison, as I went down to my
solitary breakfast. I resolved that nothing Mr. Hamilton could say should
damp or put me out of temper, and then I sat down and read a sad rambling
letter from Jill, which was so quaint and original, in spite of its
lugubriousness, that it made me smile.

I was standing by the door, caressing Tinker, who was in a frolicking
mood this morning, when I saw Mr. Hamilton cross the road; he wore a dark
tweed suit and a soft felt hat,--a costume that did not suit him in the
least; he held open the gate for me, and made a sign that I should join
him. As I approached without hurrying myself in the least, he looked
inquiringly at the basket I carried.

'I hope you do not intend to pauperise your patients,' was his first
greeting.

'Oh no,' was my reply, but I did not volunteer any information as to the
contents of the basket. There was certainly a jar of beef-tea that Mrs.
Drabble had given me, and a few grapes; but the little store of soap,
soda, fine rags, and the two or three clean towels and cloths would have
surprised him a little, though he might have understood the meaning of
the neat housewife.

'I am glad you wear print dresses,' was his next remark; 'they are proper
for a nurse. Stuff gowns that do not wash are abominations. I am taking
you to a very dirty place, Miss Garston, but what can you expect when
there are seven children under thirteen years of age and the mother is
dying? She was a clean capable body when she was up; it is hard for her
to see the place like a pig-sty now. Old Mrs. Marshall is blind, and as
helpless as the children,' He spoke abruptly, but not without feeling.

'The neighbours are good to them, Uncle Max tells me.'

'Oh yes; they come in and tidy up a bit, that is their expression; now
and then they wash the baby or take off a batch of dirty clothes, but
they have their own homes and children. I tell my patient that she would
be far more comfortable in a hospital; but she says she cannot leave the
children, she would rather die at home. That is what they all say.'

'But the poor creatures mean what they say, Mr. Hamilton.'

'Oh, but it is all nonsense!' he returned irritably. 'She can do nothing
for the children; she cannot have a moment's quiet or a moment's comfort,
with all those grimy noisy creatures rushing in and out. I found her
sitting up in bed yesterday, in danger of breaking a blood-vessel through
coughing, because one of the imps had fallen down and cut his head and
she was trying to plaster it.'

'Her husband ought to be with her,' I said, somewhat indignantly.

'He is on a job somewhere, and cannot come home; they must have bread
to eat, and he must work. This is the house,' pointing to a low white
cottage at the end of a long straggling street of similar houses; two or
three untidy-looking children were playing in the front garden with some
oyster-shells and a wooden horse without a head. One little white-headed
urchin clapped his hands when he saw Mr. Hamilton, and a pretty little
girl with a very dirty face ran up to him and clasped him round the knee.

''As 'oo any pennies to-day?' she lisped.

'No nonsense; run away, children,' he said, in a rough voice that did not
in the least alarm them, for they scampered after us into the porch until
an elder girl, with a year-old baby in her arms, met us on the threshold
and scolded them away.

Mr. Hamilton shook a big stick at them.

'I shall give no pennies to children with dirty faces. Well, Peggy, how
is mother? Have the boys gone to school, both of them? That is right.
This is the lady who is coming to look after mother.'

Here Peggy dropped a courtesy, and said, 'Yes, sir,' and 'yes please,
mum.'

'Mind you do all she tells you. Now out of my way. I want to speak to
your grandmother a moment, and then I will come into the other room.'

I followed him into the untidy, miserable looking kitchen. An old woman
was sitting by the fire with an infant in her arms; we found out that it
belonged to the neighbour who was washing out some things in the yard.
She came in by and by, clattering over the stones in her thick clogs,--a
brisk, untidy-looking young woman,--and looked at me curiously as she
took her baby.

'I must be going home now, granny,' she said, in a loud, good-humoured
voice. 'Peggy can rinse out the few things I've left.'

Granny had a pleasant, weather-beaten face, only it looked sunken and
pale, and the poor blind eyes had a pathetic, unseeing look in them. To
my surprise, she looked neat and clean. I had yet to learn the slow
martyrdom the poor soul had endured during the last few months in that
squalid, miserable household. To her, cleanliness was next to godliness.
She had brought up a large family well and thriftily, and now in her old
age and helplessness her life had no comfort in it. I was rather
surprised to see Mr. Hamilton shake the wrinkled hand heartily.

'Well, Elspeth, what news of your son? Is he likely to come home soon?'

'Nay, doctor,' in a faint old treble: 'Andrew cannot leave his job for
two or three months to come. He is terrible down-hearted about poor Mary.
Ay, she has been a good wife to him and the bairns; but look at her now!
Poor thing! Poor thing!'

'We must all dree our weird. You are a canny Scotch-woman, and know what
that means. Come, you must cheer up, for I have brought a young lady with
me who is going to put your daughter-in-law a little more comfortable and
see after her from time to time.'

'Ay, but that is cheering news,' returned Elspeth; and one of the rare
tears of old age stole down her withered cheek. 'My poor Mary! she is
patient, and never complains; but the good Lord is laying a heavy cross
on her.'

'That is true,' muttered Mr. Hamilton, and then he said, in a
business-like tone, 'Now for the patient, Miss Garston'; and as he led
the way across the narrow passage we could hear the hard, gasping cough
of the sick woman.

Peggy, with the baby still in her arms, was trying to stir a black,
cindery fire, that was filling the room with smoke. The child was crying,
and the poor invalid was sitting up in bed nearly suffocated by her
cough. The great four-post bed blocked up the little window. The remains
of a meal were still on the big round table. Some clothes were drying by
the hearth; a thin tortoise-shell cat was licking up a stream of milk
that was filtering slowly across the floor, in the midst of jugs, cans,
a broken broom, some children's toys, and two or three boots. The bed
looked as though it had not been made for days; the quilt and valance
were deplorably dirty; but the poor creature herself looked neat and
clean, and her hair was drawn off from her sunken cheeks and knotted
carefully at the back of her head. Mr. Hamilton uttered an exclamation
of impatience when he saw the smoke, and almost snatched the poker out
of Peggy's hands.

'Take the child away,' he said angrily. 'Miss Garston, if you can find
some paper and wood in this infernal confusion, I shall be obliged to
you: this smoke must be stopped.'

I found the broken lid of a box that split up like tinder, and Peggy
brought me an old newspaper, and then I stood by while Mr. Hamilton
skilfully manipulated the miserable fire.

'All these ashes must be removed,' he said curtly, as he rose with
blackened hands: 'the whole fireplace is blocked up with them.' And then
he went to the pump and washed his hands, while I sent Peggy after him
with a nice clean towel from my basket. While he was gone I stepped up
to the bed and said a word or two to poor Mrs. Marshall.

She must have been a comely creature in her days of health, but she was
fearfully wasted now. The disease was evidently running its course; as
she lay there exhausted and panting, I knew her lease of life would not
be long.

'It was the smoke,' she panted. 'Peggy is young: she muddles over the
fire. Last night it went out, and she was near an hour getting it to
light.'

'It is burning beautifully now,' I returned; and then Mr. Hamilton came
back and began to examine his patient, professionally. I was surprised
to find that his abrupt manner left him; he spoke to Mrs. Marshall so
gently, and with such evident sympathy, that I could hardly believe it
was the same person; her wan face seemed to light up with gratitude; but
when he turned to me to give some directions for her treatment he spoke
with his old dryness.

'I shall be here about the same time to-morrow,' he finished; and then he
nodded to us both, and went away.

'Mrs. Marshall,' I said, as I warmed the beef-tea with some difficulty in
a small broken pipkin, 'do you know of any strong capable girls who would
clean up the place a little for me?'

'There is Weatherley's eldest girl Hope still at home,' she replied,
after a moment's hesitation, 'but her mother will not let her work
without pay. She is a poor sort of neighbour, is Susan Weatherley, and
is very niggardly in helping people.'

'Of course I should pay Hope,' I answered decidedly; and when the
beef-tea was ready I called Peggy and sent her on my errand. One glance
at the place showed me that I could do nothing for my patient without
help. Happily, I had seen some sheets drying by the kitchen fire, but
they would hardly be ready for us before the evening; but when Mrs.
Marshall had taken her beef-tea I covered her up and tried to smooth the
untidy quilt. Then, telling her that we were going to make her room a
little more comfortable, I pinned up my dress and enveloped myself in a
holland apron ready for work.

Peggy came back at this moment with a big, strapping girl of sixteen, who
looked strong and willing. She was evidently not a woman of words, but
she grinned cheerful acquiescence when I set her to work on the grate,
while I cleared the table and carried out all the miscellaneous articles
that littered the floor.

Mrs. Marshall watched us with astonished eyes. 'Oh dear! oh dear!' I
heard her say to herself, 'and a lady too!' but I took no notice.

I sent Hope once or twice across to her mother for various articles we
needed,--black lead, a scrubbing-brush, some house flannel and soft
soap,--and when she had finished the grate I set her to scrub the floor,
as it was black with dirt. I was afraid of the damp boards for my
patient, but I covered her up as carefully as possible, and pinned some
old window-curtains across the bed. Neglect and want of cleanliness had
made the air of the sick-room so fetid and poisonous that one could
hardly breath it with safety.

Now and then I looked in the other room and spoke a cheerful word to
granny. Peggy was doing her best for the children, but the poor baby
seemed very fretful. Towards noon two rough-headed boys made their
appearance and began clamouring for their dinner. The same untidy young
woman whom I had seen before came clattering up the yard again in her
clogs and helped Peggy spread great slices of bread and treacle for the
hungry children, and warmed some food for the baby. I saw granny trying
to eat a piece of bread and dripping that they gave her and then lay it
down without a word: no wonder her poor cheeks were so white and sunken.

Mrs. Drabble had promised me some more beef-tea, so I warmed a cupful for
granny and broke up a slice of stale bread in it: it was touching to see
her enjoyment of the warm food. The eldest boy, Tim, was nearly eleven
years old, and looked a sharp little fellow, so I set him to clean up the
kitchen with Peggy and make things a little tidier, and promised some
buns to all the children who had clean faces and hands at tea-time.

I left Hope still at work when I went up to the White Cottage to eat some
dinner. Mrs. Barton had made a delicate custard-pudding, which I carried
off for the invalid's and granny's supper. My young healthy appetite
needed no tempting, and my morning's work had only whetted it. I did not
linger long in my pretty parlour, for a heavy task was before me. I was
determined the sick-room should have a different appearance the next
morning.

I sent Hope to her dinner while I washed and made my patient comfortable.
The room felt fresher and sweeter already; a bright fire burned in the
polished grate; Hope had scoured the table and wiped the chairs, and the
dirty quilt and valance had been sent to Mrs. Weatherley's to be washed.
When Hope returned, and the sheets were aired, we re-made the bed. I had
sent a message early to Mrs. Drabble begging for some of the lending
blankets and a clean coloured quilt, which she had sent down by a boy.
The scarlet cover looked so warm and snug that I stood still to admire
the effect; poor Mary fairly cried when I laid her back on her pillow.

'It feels all so clean and heavenly,' she sobbed; 'it is just a comfort
to lie and see the room.'

'I mean granny to come and have her tea here,' I said, for I was longing
for the dear old woman to have her share of some of the comfort; and I
had just led her in and put her in the big shiny chair by the fire, when
Uncle Max put his head in and looked at us.

'Just so,' he said, nodding his head, and a pleased expression came into
his eyes. 'Bravo, Ursula! Tudor won't know the place again. How you must
have worked, child!' And then he came in and talked to the sick woman.

I had taken a cup of tea standing, for I was determined not to go home
and rest until I left for the night. I could not forget the poor fretful
baby, and, indeed, all the children were miserably neglected. I made up
my mind that Hope and I would wash the poor little creatures and put them
comfortably to bed. My first day's work was certainly exceptionally hard,
but it would make my future work easier.

The baby was a pale, delicate little creature, very backward for its age;
it left off fretting directly I took it in my lap, and began staring at
me with its large blue eyes. Hope had just filled the large tub, and the
children were crowding round it with evident amusement, when Uncle Max
came in. He contemplated the scene with twinkling eyes.

'"There was an old woman who lived in a shoe,"' he began humorously. 'My
dear Ursula, do you mean to say you are going to wash all those children?
The tub looks suggestive, certainly.'

I nodded.

'Who would have believed in such an overplus of energy? Hard work
certainly agrees with you.' And then he went out laughing, and we set to
work, and then Hope and I carried in the children by detachments, that
the poor mother might see the clean rosy faces. I am afraid we had to
bribe Jock, the youngest boy, for he evidently disliked soap and water.

Peggy and the baby slept in the mother's room; there was a little bed in
the corner for them. I did not leave until granny had been taken upstairs
and poor tired Peggy was fast asleep with the baby beside her.

The room looked so comfortable when I turned for a last peep. I had drawn
the round table to the bed, and left the night-light and cooling drink
beside the sick woman; she was propped up with pillows, and her breathing
seemed easier. When I bade her good-night, and told her I should be round
early in the morning, she said, 'Then it will be the first morning I
shall not dread to wake. Thank you kindly, dear miss, for all you have
done'; and her soft brown eyes looked at me gratefully.



CHAPTER IX

THE FLAG OF TRUCE


It could not be denied that I was extremely tired as I walked down the
dark road; but in spite of fatigue my heart felt lighter than it had done
since Charlie's death, and the warm glow from the window of my little
parlour seemed to welcome me, it looked so snug and bright. My low chair
was drawn to the fire, a sort of tea-supper was awaiting me, and Mrs.
Barton came out of the kitchen as soon as I had lifted the latch, to ask
what she could do for me.

The first words surprised me greatly. Mr. Hamilton had called late in the
afternoon, and had seemed somewhat surprised to hear I was still at the
cottage, but he had left no message, and Mrs. Barton had no idea what he
wanted with me.

I was half inclined to think that he had another case ready for me, but
I had done my day's work and refused to think of the morrow. The first
volume of _Kingsley's Life_ was lying on the little table: I had brought
it from the vicarage the preceding evening. I passed a delicious hour in
my luxurious chair, and went to bed reluctantly that I might be fit for
the next day's fatigue.

As soon as I had breakfasted the next morning and read my letters, a
chatty one from Sara and an affectionate note from Lesbia, I went down
to the cottage.

I found my patient a little easier; she had passed a better night, and
seemed, on the whole, more cheerful. Hope had arrived, and was scrubbing
the kitchen, as I had enjoined her. Baby seemed poorly and fretful. I
gave her in charge of Peggy, and set myself to the work of putting my
patient and the sick-room in order, after which I intended to wash the
baby and see after granny's and the children's dinner.

I had just brushed up the hearth and put the kettle to boil, when Mr.
Hamilton's shadow crossed the window, and the next moment he was in the
room.

I was sure that a half-smile of approbation came to his lips as he
looked round the room; he lifted his eyebrows as though in surprise as
he noticed everything,--the neat hearth, white boards, and bright window,
and lastly the comfortable appearance of the bed, with its scarlet quilt
and clean sheets.

'This is quite a transformation-scene, Miss Garston,' he said, in an
approving tone. 'No wonder you were not at home in the afternoon. My
patient looks cheery too: one would think I had set the fairy Order to
work.' I felt that this was meant for high praise, and I received it
graciously. I knew I had worked well and achieved wonders; but then I had
Hope's strong arms to help me: it had been straightforward work, too,
with no complication: any charwoman could have done it as well. I was
sorry that his commendation set Mrs. Marshall's tongue going; she became
so voluble, in spite of her cough, that I was obliged to enforce silence.

Mr. Hamilton's visit was very brief. I asked him to prescribe for the
baby, but he said nothing ailed it in particular; it had always been
sickly, and had been so neglected of late, most likely sour food had been
given it. Mrs. Tyler, the next-door neighbour, who had looked after it,
was a thoughtless body. 'You must take it in hand yourself, Miss
Garston,' he finished; 'keep it warm and clean, and see the food properly
prepared: that will be better than any medicine.' And then he went off
with his usual abruptness, only I saw him stop at the gate to give
pennies to Janie and little Jock.

There was still so much to do that I determined to spend the whole day at
the cottage. I sent off all the dirty things for Mrs. Tyler to wash at
home, for she was so noisy and untidy that I did not care to have her on
the premises, and I thought granny could sit in Mrs. Marshall's room and
hold baby while Peggy waited on me and ran errands.

Hope worked splendidly: when she had scoured the kitchen and front
passage, she went upstairs and scrubbed the two rooms where granny and
the children slept. I had made a potato pie with some scraps of meat
Peggy had brought from the butcher's, and had seen the dish emptied by
the hungry children. When I had fed the sandy cat and had had my own
dinner, which Mrs. Barton had packed in a nice clean basket, and had
peeped at my patient, I went upstairs to help Hope, and Peggy went
with me. The state of the sleeping-rooms had horrified me in the morning;
the windows had evidently not been open for weeks, and the sheets on
granny's bed were black with dirt. Hope had washed the bedstead, and
Peggy had lighted a fire, that the room might be habitable by night. Tim
came up while we were busy, and stared at us. I was helping Peggy drag
the mattresses and bedclothes into the passage. The open windows and the
wet boards reeking with soft soap evidently astonished him.

'Where be us to sleep to-night?' quoth Tim; 'it is colder than in the
yard.' But Peggy, who was excited by her work, bade him hold his tongue
and not stand gaping there blocking up the passage.

I had been singing over my work, just to put heart into all of us and
make us forget what a very disagreeable business it was, when Tim again
made his appearance and said there was a gentleman in the kitchen. 'He
thought he knowed him, but wasn't sure, but he had asked for the lady.'
I went down at once, and found it was Mr. Tudor; he was sitting very
comfortably by the fire, with all the children round him; little Janie
was on his knee; her face was clean, and her pretty curls had been nicely
brushed, so I did not mind her cuddling up to him, and I knew he was fond
of children and always ready to play with them.

He put her down and shook hands with me, and said the vicar had sent him
to look after me, as he could not come himself. I thought he looked a
little amused at my appearance; and no wonder. I had quite forgotten that
I had tied a handkerchief over my head to keep the dust from off my hair;
with my holland bib-apron and sleeves, and pinned-up dress, I must have
looked an odd figure; but when I said so he laughed, and observed that he
rather admired my novel costume: it reminded him of a Highland peasant he
had once seen.

'Was that you who were singing just now, Miss Garston?' he asked
presently, looking at me with some attention.

'Yes,' I returned. 'You seem surprised. Surely you have heard me sing at
Hyde Park Gate?' But he shook his head very decidedly.

'I should not have forgotten your voice if I had once heard it,' he said,
in such a pleasant manner that the straightforward compliment did not
embarrass me. 'You ought not to let such a talent rust, Miss Garston: the
vicar must utilise you for our Penny Readings.'

I was horrified at this notion, and told him very seriously that nothing
would induce me to sing on a platform, but that it was not my intention
to let it rust, only I had my own ideas how best to utilise it.

He looked curious at this, but I changed the subject by asking him if he
would like to see Mrs. Marshall. He hesitated, coloured slightly as
though the question were distasteful, then he put down Janie from his
knee,--for the child had clambered up again,--and said the vicar had
undertaken the case, as he was rather new to the work, but he would see
her if I wished it.

I was provoking enough to say that I did wish it, for I wanted him to
see the comfortable appearance of the room that he so dreaded to enter.
I felt sorry for Mr. Tudor in my heart that his work should be so
distasteful to him: he was a fine, manly young fellow, who would have
made a splendid sailor or soldier, but sick-rooms and old women were not
to his taste, and yet he was very gentle and sympathising in his manners,
and all the poor people liked him.

Granny was dozing by the fire, and the baby was asleep on the mother's
bed, and as I opened the door I quite enjoyed Mr. Tudor's start of
astonishment at the changed scene. I did not let him stay long, but I
thought his kind looks and pleasant voice would cheer poor Mary. He said
very little to either her or Elspeth, but what he said was sensible and
to the point.

I sent him away after this, for my work was waiting for me. He went off
laughing, and protesting that he had no idea that I had taken up the
_rôle_ of a charitable charwoman, and that the vicar would remonstrate
with me on the subject.

I think we all felt the brighter for Mr. Tudor's little visit, though he
had said nothing specially clever; but he was an honest, genial creature,
and I liked him thoroughly. I stopped at the cottage late that evening,
for Mrs. Marshall wanted a letter written to her husband, and I could not
refuse to do it. I was almost too tired to enjoy Kingsley that night, and
found myself dozing over it, so I shut it up and went to bed.

Mr. Hamilton did not make his appearance until later the next day, when
I was presiding over the children's dinner. I had just carried in a plate
of lentil soup to granny, whom I now kept entirely in the sick-room, as
she was too old to bear the children's noise, and the constant draughts
from the opening door would soon have laid her on a sick-bed. I had baby
in my lap, and was feeding her when he looked in on us.

I rose at once to follow him into the sick-room, but he waved me back.

'Do not disturb yourself, Miss Garston; you all look very comfortable.
Jock, are you trying to swallow that spoon? You will find it a hard
morsel.' And then he went into the other room, and, to my surprise, we
did not see him again.

I left a little earlier that evening, as I knew Uncle Max meant to pay me
a visit; but it was already dark when I closed the little gate behind me.
I had not gone many paces when I heard footsteps behind me, and, somewhat
to my dismay, Mr. Hamilton joined me.

'Have you only just finished your day's work?' he said, in evident
surprise. 'This will never do, Miss Garston; we shall have you knocking
yourself up if you use up your time and strength so recklessly, and I
want you for another case.'

'I am quite prepared for that,' I answered; but I am afraid my voice was
a little weary. 'You called on me yesterday, Mr. Hamilton. I was sorry to
be out, but there was so much to do that I stayed at the cottage until
quite late in the evening.'

'Just so,' in rather a vexed tone. 'The village nurse will be on a
sick-bed herself if this goes on.'

'Oh, what nonsense!' I returned, laughing, for I forgot for the moment in
the darkness that I was speaking to the formidable Mr. Hamilton. 'I do
not always mean to work quite so hard. Mr. Tudor called me a charitable
charwoman last evening; but this is an exceptional case,--so many
helpless beings, and such shocking mismanagement and neglect. When I put
things on a proper footing I shall not spend so much time there.'

'What do you mean by putting things on a proper footing?' he asked, with
some show of interest.

'When the place has been properly cleaned it will be kept tolerably tidy
with less labour. Hope Weatherley has been hard at work for two days, and
things are now pretty comfortable.'

'I suppose--excuse me if the question seems impertinent, but I imagine
that you paid Hope out of your own purse?'

'For those two days, certainly. It was necessary for my own comfort,
speaking selfishly, that the place should be made habitable. My nursing
would have been a mere mockery unless we could have got rid of the dirt,'

'You are perfectly right. I had no idea you were such a practical person.
But, if you will allow me to give you a hint, Marshall earns good wages,
and there ought to be sufficient money to pay for a moderate amount of
help.'

'I told Mrs. Marshall so this morning,' I returned, pleased to find
myself talking with such ease to Mr. Hamilton; but he seemed quite
different to-night; evidently his _brusquerie_ was a mere mannerism that
he laid aside at times; he had lost that sneering manner that I so much
disliked. I remembered Uncle Max said that he was kind-hearted and
eccentric.

'We had a long talk,' I went on. 'Marshall sends the money regularly, and
I am to manage it. Mrs. Tyler is to wash for us, and I think we can
afford to have Hope for at least an hour a day, to do the rough work;
Peggy is so little to do everything.'

'Heaven help poor Peg!' he ejaculated; 'for she will soon have all those
children on her hands. Mrs. Marshall cannot last long. Well, Miss
Garston, how many hours do you intend to spend at the cottage daily?'

'I should think two hours in the morning and an hour and a half in the
late afternoon or evening might do, unless there be a change for the
worse, or Elspeth falls ill; she is very old and feeble.'

'She was half starved, poor old creature,--fairly clemmed, as they say
in the North. Here we are at your place, Miss Garston. How bright and
inviting your parlour looks! I wonder if I may ask to come in for a few
minutes, while I tell you about the other case?'

Of course I could not do less than invite him to enter, after that; but
I am afraid my manner lacked enthusiasm, and betrayed the fact that I was
unwilling to entertain Mr. Hamilton as a guest, for when I saw his face
in the lamplight he was regarding me with some amusement.

'Cunliffe has done me no end of mischief,' he said, as he offered to
relieve me of my wraps: 'that unfortunate speech has strongly prejudiced
you against me. Confess, now, you think me a very disagreeable person,
because I happened to disagree with you that evening.'

'Certainly not on that account,' I returned, falling into the trap; and
then we both laughed, for I had as good as owned that I thought him
disagreeable. That laugh made us better friends. I felt I no longer
disliked him: it was certainly not his fault that Providence had given
him that type of face, and I supposed one could get used to it.

'I was in an evil mood that afternoon,' he went on, and then I knew
instinctively that he wanted to efface his satirical words from my
memory. 'Things had gone wrong somehow,--for this world of ours is a
mighty muddle sometimes.' And here he gave an impatient sigh. 'It is a
relief to human nature to vent one's spleen on the first handy person
that crosses one's path, and, pardon me for saying so, you were just a
little aggressive yourself,' looking at me rather dubiously, as though
he were not quite sure how I should take this hit. My conscience told me
that I had been far from peaceable; on the contrary, I had been decidedly
cross; not that I would confess that this was the case, so I only
returned mildly that I considered that he had been hard on me that day,
and had handled my pet theory very roughly.

'Come, now you are talking like a reasonable woman, and I will plead
guilty to some severity. Let me own that I distrusted you, Miss Garston.
I have a horror of gush, and what I call the working mania of young
ladies, and you had not proved to me then that you could work. At the
present day, if a girl is restless and bad-tempered, and cannot get on
with her own people, she takes up hospital-nursing, and a rare muddle she
makes of it sometimes. I own hospital work is better than the convent of
the Middle Ages, where the troublesome young ladies were safely immured;
but, as I said before, I distrust the hysterical restlessness of the
age.'

'No doubt you have a fair amount of argument on your side,' I replied,
so meekly that he looked at me, and then got up from his chair and said
hastily that I was tired, and he was thoughtless to keep me waiting for
my tea.

'Let me give you some, while you tell me about the case,' was my
hospitable reply; for, though I felt no special desire to prolong our
_tête-à-tête_, mere civility prompted my offer.

He hesitated, then, to my surprise, sat down again, and said he would be
very much obliged if I would give him a cup of tea, as he was tired too,
and had to go farther and keep his dinner waiting.

I went out of the room to remove my hat and speak to Mrs. Barton. When
I came back he was standing before Charlie's photograph, and evidently
studying it with some attention, but he made no remark about it; and I
told him of my own accord that it was the portrait of my twin-brother,
who had died two years ago.

'Indeed! There is no likeness; at least I should not have known it was
your brother. This is often the case between relations,' he continued
hastily, as though he feared he had hurt me. 'What a snug little berth
you have, Miss Garston, and everything so ship-shape too! I suppose that
is your piano; but I am afraid you will have little time to practise.'
And then, as I handed him his tea, he threw himself down in the
easy-chair and seemed prepared to enjoy himself.

Looking at Mr. Hamilton this evening, I could have believed he had two
sides to his character: he presented such a complete contrast to the Mr.
Hamilton in Uncle Max's study that I was quite puzzled by it. He had
certainly a clever face, and his smile was quick and bright; it was only
in rest that his mouth looked so stern and hard. I found myself wondering
once or twice if he had known any great trouble that had embittered him.

'Well, I must tell you about poor Phoebe Locke,' he began suddenly. 'I
want you to find out what you can do for her. The Lockes are respectable
people: Phoebe and her sister were dressmakers. They live a little lower
down,--at Woodbine Cottage.

'Some years ago spinal disease came on, and now Phoebe is bedridden. She
suffers a good deal at times, but her worst trouble is that her nerves
are disordered, most likely from the dulness and monotony of her life.
She suffers cruelly from low spirits; and no wonder, lying all day in
that dull little back room. Her sister cannot sit with her, as Phoebe
cannot bear the noise of the sewing-machine, and the sight of the outer
world seems to irritate her. The neighbours would come in to cheer her
up, but she does not seem able to bear their loud voices. It is
wonderful,' he continued musingly, 'how education and refinement train
the voice: strange to say, though my voice is not particularly low, and
certainly not sweet, it never seems to jar upon her.'

'Very likely not,' I returned quickly; 'no doubt she depends upon you for
all her comforts: to most invalids the doctor's visit is the one bright
spot in the day.'

'It seems strange that we do not project our own shadows sometimes, and
make our patient shiver,' he said, with a touch of gruffness. 'It is
little that I can do for Phoebe, except order her a blister or ice when
she needs it. One cannot touch the real nervous suffering: there is where
I look to you for help; a little cheerful talk now and then may lighten
her burden. Anyhow, it would be a help for poor Miss Locke, who has a sad
time of it trying to earn food for them both. There is a little niece
who lives with them, a subdued, uncanny little creature, who looks as
though the childhood were crushed out of her; you might take her in hand
too.'

'I wonder if Phoebe would like me to sing to her,' I observed quietly.
'I have found it answer sometimes in nervous illnesses.'

I thought my remark surprised him.

'It is a good idea,' he said slowly. 'You might try it. Of course it
would depend a great deal on the quality of voice and style of singing.
I wonder if you would allow me to judge of this,'--looking meaningly at
the piano; but I shook my head at this, and he did not press the point.

We had very little talk after this, for he went away almost directly,
first arranging to meet me at Mrs. Marshall's about four the next day and
go with me to Woodbine Cottage.

'You will find plenty of work, Miss Garston,' were his final words, 'so
do not waste your strength unnecessarily.' And then he left the room, but
came back a moment afterwards to say that his sisters meant to call on
me, only they thought I was hardly settled yet: 'we must get Mr. Cunliffe
to bring you up to Gladwyn: we must not let you mope.'

I thought there was little chance of this, with Uncle Max and Mr. Tudor
always looking after me. Mr. Hamilton had hardly closed the door before
Uncle Max opened it again.

'So the enemy has tasted bread and salt, Ursula,' he said, looking
excessively pleased: 'that is right, my dear: do not give way to absurd
prejudices. You and Hamilton will get on splendidly by and by, when you
get used to his brusque manner.' And, though I did not quite endorse this
opinion, I was obliged to acknowledge to myself that the last half-hour
had not been so unpleasant after all.



CHAPTER X

A DIFFICULT PATIENT


I had a little talk with granny the next day.

Mrs. Marshall was dozing uneasily, and I was sitting by granny, nursing
the baby, and waiting for Mr. Hamilton, when I felt her cold wrinkled
hand laid on mine.

'What is it, Elspeth?' I asked, thinking she wanted something.

'What put it in your head, my bairn, to do the Lord's work? that is what
I am wanting to know. I have been listening to you this morning singing
like a bird about the house, with all the bit creatures chirping about
you, and I said to myself, "What could have put it into her head to leave
all her fine friends, and come and wait on the likes of us old and sick
folk and young bairns?"'

I do not know what there was in this speech that made me cry, but I
know I had some difficulty in answering, but I told her a little about
Charlie, and how sad I was, and how I loved the work, and she patted my
hand softly all the time.

'Never fret, my bairn. You will not be lonely long: the Lord will see to
that. He would not let you work for Him and do nothing for you in return.
Nay, that is not His way. Look at me: as doctor said the other day, I
have dreed my weird; few and evil have been my days, like Jacob, but here
I sit like a lady by the fire, warm and comfortable and hearty, thank
God; and Andrew's wife lies on her death-bed, poor woman.'

'Yes; but, Elspeth, you sit there in the dark.'

'Eh, but it is peaceful and quiet-like, and the Lord bides with me, "and
darkness and light are both alike to him,"' finished Elspeth reverently.
And then I heard the click of the gate, and rose hastily, only the baby
cried as I laid her on Elspeth's lap, and I had to stay a moment to
pacify her.

Mr. Hamilton came in and stood by us.

'Do not hurry yourself; I can easily wait a few minutes if you are not
ready. Are you sure you are not too tired to come?' he continued, looking
at me a little inquisitively, and I was certain that he noticed the trace
of tears on my face. Why was it I never could speak of my darling quite
calmly?

'I am perfectly ready, and baby has left off crying,' I returned, taking
up my basket, and then we left the house together.

'I hope you do not suffer from low spirits, like the rest of us,' he
said, in rather a kind tone, as we walked on. 'It is to be expected that
a cross-grained fellow like myself should have fits of the blues
occasionally. That is one thing I particularly admire about Cunliffe!
however worried he is, one never sees him out of humour; his ups and
downs are never perceptible. I do believe he is less selfish than other
people.'

'There is no one like Uncle Max,' I rejoined fervently.

'Is it not odd that we should suit each other so well?' he asked
presently, 'for we are complete contrasts. I can bear him to say things
to me that I would knock any other fellow down for saying. That is why I
let him preach to me, because he honestly believes what he says and tries
to act up to his profession.' He broke off here, for by this time we had
reached Woodbine Cottage, and he unlatched the gate for me.

A thin-faced child with a cropped head and clean white pinafore opened
the door, and dropped an alarmed courtesy when she saw us.

'Please sir, Aunt Susan is out, and Aunt Phoebe is very bad this
afternoon, and cannot see any one. She is lying in the dark, and I was
to let none of the neighbours in while Aunt Susan was away.'

'All right, Kitty; but Aunt Phoebe will see me.' And he walked into the
passage, and told the child to close the door gently. The room we passed
was strewn with work-material, and looked cold and comfortless, but a
small kitchen opposite had a warm cosy aspect. Mr. Hamilton passed both
rooms and tapped at a door lower down the passage, and then without
waiting for an answer entered, and beckoned me to follow him.

A dark curtain had been drawn across the window, and the dim glow of a
cindery fire scarcely gave sufficient light to discern the different
pieces of furniture. Mr. Hamilton gave vent to a suppressed exclamation
of impatience as he seized the poker, but I could not but notice the
skilful and almost noiseless manner in which he manipulated the coals.
Then he looked round for a match, and lighted a candle on the
mantelpiece, in spite of a peevish remonstrance from the patient.

'You will make my head worse, doctor: nothing but the dark eases it.'

'Nonsense, Phoebe! I know better than that,' he returned cheerfully,
and then he stepped up to the bed, and I followed him. The woman who
lay there was still young in years, she could not have been more than
three- or four-and-thirty, but every semblance of youth was crushed out
of her by some subtile and mysterious suffering; it might have been the
face of a dead woman, only for the living eyes that looked at us.

The hopeless wistful look in those eyes gave me a singular shock. I had
never seen human eyes with the same expression; they seemed as though
they were appealing against some awful destiny. Once when Charlie and
I were staying at Rutherford a beautiful spaniel belonging to Lesbia had
been accidentally shot while straying in some wood. The poor animal had
dragged himself with pain and difficulty to the garden-gate, and there we
found him. I shall never forget the wistfulness of the poor creature's
eyes when his mistress knelt down and caressed him. He died a few minutes
afterwards, licking her hand. I could not help thinking of Tito when I
first saw Phoebe Locke; for the same unreasoning anguish seemed in the
sick woman's eyes. A tormented soul looked out of them.

There was something rigid and uncompromising in the whole aspect of the
sick-room; there was nothing to tone down and soften the harsh details of
bodily suffering; everything was in spotless order; the sheets were white
as the driven snow; a formidable phalanx of medicine-bottles stood on the
small square table; there were no books, no pictures, no flowers; a
sampler hung over the mantelpiece, that was all. I saw Mr. Hamilton
glance disapprovingly at the row of bottles.

'I told Kitty to clear all that rubbish away,' he said curtly. 'Why do
you not have something pleasanter to look at, Phoebe?--some flowers, or
a canary? you would find plenty of amusement in watching a canary.'

'Birds are never still for a moment; they would drive me mad,' returned
Phoebe, in the hollow tones that seemed natural to her. 'Flowers are
better; but what have I to do with flowers? Doctor,' her voice rising
into a shrill crescendo, 'you must give me something to send me to sleep,
or I shall go mad. I think, think, think, until my head is in a craze
with pain and misery.'

'Well, well, we will see about it,' humouring her as though she were a
child. 'Will you not speak to this lady, Phoebe? She has come down here
to help us all,--sick people, and unhappy people, and every one that
wants help.'

'She can't do anything for me,' muttered Phoebe restlessly; 'no one--not
even you, doctor, can do anything for me. I am doomed,--doomed before my
time.'

Mr. Hamilton looked at me meaningly, as though to say, 'Now you see what
you have to do: this is more your work than mine.' I obeyed the hint, and
accosted the sick woman as cheerfully as though her dismal speech had not
curdled my blood.

'I hope I shall be some comfort to you; it is hard indeed if no one can
help you, when you have so much to bear!'

'To bear!' repeating my words as though they stung her. 'I have lain here
for three years--three years come Christmas Eve, doctor--between these
four walls, summer and winter, winter and summer, and never knew except
by heat or cold what season of the year it was. And I am young,--just
turned four-and-thirty,--and I may lie here thirty years more, unless
I die or go mad.'

'Now, Phoebe,' remonstrated Mr. Hamilton,--and how gently he
spoke!--'have I not told you over and over that things may mend yet if
you will only be patient and good? You are just making things worse by
bearing them so badly. Why, a friend of mine has been seven years on her
back like you, and she is the happiest, cheeriest body: it is quite a
pleasure to go into her room.'

'Maybe she is good, and I am wicked,' returned Phoebe sullenly. 'I cannot
help it, doctor: it is one of my bad days, and nothing but wicked words
come uppermost. The devil has a deal of power when a woman is chained as
I am.'

'Don't you think you could exorcise the demon by a song, Miss Garston?'
observed Mr. Hamilton, in an undertone. 'This is just the case where
music may be a soothing influence; something must be tried for the poor
creature.'

The proposition almost took away my breath. Sing now! before Mr.
Hamilton! And yet how in sheer humanity could I refuse? I had often sung
before to my patients, and had never minded it in the least; but before
Mr. Hamilton!

'You need not think of me,' he continued provokingly,--for of course I
was thinking of him: 'I am no critic in the musical line. Just try how it
answers, will you?' And he walked away and turned his back to us, and
seemed absorbed in the sampler.

For one minute I hesitated, and then I cleared my throat. 'I am going to
sing something, Phoebe. Mr. Hamilton thinks it will do you good.' And
then, fearful lest her waywardness should stop me, I commenced at once
with the first line of the beautiful hymn, 'Art thou weary? art thou
languid?'

My voice trembled sadly at first, and my burning face and cold hands
testified to my nervousness; but after the first verse I forgot Mr.
Hamilton's presence and only remembered it was Charlie's favourite hymn
I was singing, and sang it with a full heart.

When I had finished, I bent over Phoebe and asked if I should sing any
more, and, to my great delight, she nodded assent. I sang 'Abide with
me,' and several other suitable hymns, and I did not stop until the hard
look of woe in Phoebe's eyes had softened into a more gentle expression.

As I paused, I looked across the room. Mr. Hamilton was still standing by
the mantelpiece, perfectly motionless. He had covered his eyes with his
hand, and seemed lost in profound thought. He absolutely started when I
addressed him.

'Yes, we will go if you have finished,' but he did not look at me as he
spoke. 'Phoebe, has the young lady done you any good? Did you close your
eyes and think you heard an angel singing? Now you must let me take her
away, for she is very tired, and has worked hard to-day. To-morrow, if
you ask her, she will come again.'

'I shall not wait to be asked,' I returned, answering the dumb, wistful
look that greeted the doctor's words. 'Oh yes, I shall come again
to-morrow, and we will have a little talk, and I will bring you some
flowers, and if you care to hear me sing I have plenty of pretty songs.'
And then I kissed her forehead, for I felt strongly drawn to the poor
creature, as though she were a strange, suffering sister, and I thought
that the kiss and the song and the flowers would be a threefold cord
of sympathy for her to bind round her harassed soul through the long
hours of the night.

Mr. Hamilton followed me silently out, and on the threshold we
encountered Susan Locke. She was a thin, subdued-looking woman, dressed
in rusty black, with a careworn, depressed expression that changed into
pleasure at the sight of Mr. Hamilton.

'Oh, doctor, this is good of you, surely,--and you so busy! It is one of
Phoebe's bad days, when nothing pleases her and she will have naught to
say to us, but groan and groan until one's heart is pretty nigh broken.
I was half hoping that you would look in on us and give her a bit of a
word.'

'Miss Garston has done more than that,' replied Mr. Hamilton. 'I
think you will find your sister a little cheered. Give her something
comfortable to eat and drink, and speak as cheerfully as you can.
Good-night, Miss Locke.' And then he motioned to me to precede him down
the little garden. Mr. Hamilton was so very silent all the way home that
I was somewhat puzzled; he did not speak at all about Phoebe,--only said
that he was afraid that I was very tired, and that he was the same; and
when we came in sight of the cottage he left me rather abruptly; if it
had not been for his few approving words to Susan Locke, I should have
thought something had displeased him.

Uncle Max made me feel a little uncomfortable the next morning. I met
him as I was starting for my daily work, and he walked with me to Mrs.
Marshall's.

'I was up at Gladwyn last evening, Ursula,' he began. 'Miss Elizabeth
is still away, but the other ladies asked very kindly after you. Miss
Hamilton means to call on you one afternoon, only she seems puzzled to
know how she is ever to find you at home. I cannot think what put
Hamilton into such a bad temper; he scarcely spoke to any of us, and
looked horribly cranky, only I laughed at him and he got better; he
never mentioned your name. You have not fallen out again, eh, little
she-bear?' looking at me rather anxiously.

'Oh dear, no; we are perfectly civil to each other; I understand him
better now.' But all the same I could not help wondering, as I parted
from Max, what could have made Mr. Hamilton so strangely silent.

It was still early in the afternoon when I found myself free to go and
see Phoebe; she had been on my mind all day, and had kept me awake for
a long time; those miserable eyes haunted me. I longed so to comfort her.
Miss Locke opened the door; I thought she seemed pleased to see me, but
she eyed my basket of flowers dubiously.

'Phoebe is looking for you, Miss Garston, though she says nothing about
it; it is not her way; but I see her eyes turning to the door every now
and then, and she made Kitty open the curtains. If I may make so bold,
those flowers are not for Phoebe, surely?'

'Yes, indeed they are, Miss Locke. Dr. Hamilton wishes her to have
something pleasant to look at.' But Miss Locke only shook her head.

'The neighbours have sent in flowers often and often, and she has made me
carry them out of the room; the vicar used to send them too, but he knows
now that it is no manner of use: she always says they do not put flowers
in tombs, only outside them: she will have it she is living in a tomb.'

'We must get this idea out of her head,' I returned cheerfully, for I was
obstinately bent on having my own way about the flowers.

Kitty was sewing on a little stool by the window; the curtains were
undrawn, so that the room was tolerably light, and might have been
cheerful, only an ugly wire blind shut out all view of the little garden.

I could not help marvelling at the strange perversity that could wilfully
exclude every possible alleviation; there must be some sad warp or twist
of the mental nature that could be so prolific of unwholesome fancies. As
I turned to the bed I thought Phoebe looked even more ghastly in the
daylight than she had done last evening; her skin was yellow and
shrivelled, like the skin of an old woman; her eyes looked deep-set and
gloomy, but their expression struck me as more human; her thin lips even
wore the semblance of a smile.

When I had greeted her, and had drawn from her rather reluctantly that
she had had some hours' sleep the previous night, I spoke to Kitty. The
little creature looked so subdued and moped in the miserable atmosphere
that I was full of pity for her, so I showed her a new skipping rope that
I had bought on my way, and bade her ask her aunt Susan's permission to
go out and play.

The child's dull eyes brightened in a moment. 'May I go out, Aunt
Phoebe?' she asked breathlessly.

'Yes, go if you like,' was the somewhat ungracious answer.

'She is glad enough to get away from me,' she muttered, when Kitty had
shut the door gently behind her. 'Children have no heart; she is an
ungrateful, selfish little thing; but they are all that; we clothe her
and feed her, and it is little we get out of her in return; and Susan
is working her fingers to the bone for the two of us.'

I took no notice of this outburst, and commenced clearing away the
medicine-bottles to make room for my basket of chrysanthemums and
ivy-leaves. Uncle Max had procured them for me, but I had no idea as
I arranged them that they had come from Gladwyn.

Phoebe watched my movements very gloomily; she evidently disapproved
of the whole proceeding. I carried out the bottles to Miss Locke, and
begged her to throw them away: 'they are of no use to her,' I observed.
'Mr. Hamilton intends to send her a new mixture, and this array of
half-emptied phials is simply absurd: it is just a whim. If your sister
asks for them when I have gone, you can tell her that Miss Garston
ordered them to be destroyed.'

On my return to the room I found Phoebe lying with her eyes closed. I
could have laughed outright at her perversity, for of course she had shut
them to exclude the sight of the flower-basket, though it was the
loveliest little bit of colour, the dark-red chrysanthemum nestled so
prettily among trails of tiny variegated ivy. I resolved to punish her
for this piece of morbid obstinacy, and took down the wire blind; she was
speechless with anger when she found out what I had done, but I was
resolved not to humour these ridiculous fancies; the dull wintry light
was not too much for her.

'You must not be allowed to have your own way so entirely,' I said,
laughing: 'your sister is very wrong to give in to you. Mr. Hamilton
wishes your room to be more cheerful: he says the dull surroundings
depress and keep you low and desponding, and I must carry out his orders,
and try how we are to make your room a little brighter. Now'--as she
seemed about to speak--'I am going to sing to you, and then we will have
a talk.'

'I don't care to hear singing to-day, my head buzzes so with all this
flack,' was the sullen answer; but I took no notice of this ill-tempered
remark, and began a little Scotch ballad that I thought was bright and
spirited.

She closed her eyes again, with an expression of weariness and disgust
that made me smile in spite of my efforts to keep serious; but I soon
found out that she was listening, and so I sang one song after another,
without pausing for any comment, and pretended not to notice when the
haggard weary eyes unclosed, and fixed themselves first on the flowers,
next on my face, and last and longest at the strip of lawn, with the bare
gooseberry bushes and the narrow path edged with privet.

When I had sung several ballads, I waited for a minute, and then
commenced Bishop Ken's evening hymn, but my voice shook a little as I saw
a sudden heaving under the bedclothes, and in another moment the large
slow tears coursed down Phoebe's thin face. It was hard to finish the
hymn, but I would not have dispensed with the Gloria.

'What is it, Phoebe?' I asked gently, when I had finished. 'I am sorry
that I have made you cry.'

'You need not be sorry,' she sobbed at last, with difficulty: 'it eases
my head, and I thought nothing would ever draw a tear from me again. I
was too miserable to cry, and they say--I have read it somewhere, in the
days when I used to read--that there is no such thing as a tear in hell.'

I tried not to look astonished at this strange speech. I must let this
poor creature talk, or how should I ever find out the root of her
disease? so I answered quietly that no doubt she was right, that in that
place of outer darkness there should be weeping, without tears, and a
gnashing of teeth, beside which our bitterest human sorrow would seem
like nothing.

'That is true,' she returned, with a groan; 'but, Miss Garston, hell has
begun for me here; for three years I have been in torment, and rightly
too,--and rightly too,--for I never was a good woman, never like Susan,
who read her Bible and went to church. Oh, she is a good creature, is
Susan.'

'I am glad to hear it, Phoebe: so, you see, your affliction, heavy as it
is,--and I am not saying it is not heavy,--is not without alleviation.
The Merciful Father, who has laid this cross upon you, has given you this
kind companion as a consoler. What a comfort you must be to each other!
what a divine work has been given to you both to do,--to bring up that
motherless little creature, who must owe her very life and happiness to
you!'

She lay and looked at me with an expression of bewildered astonishment,
and at this moment Miss Locke opened the door, carrying a little tea-tray
for her sister. I had a glimpse of Kitty curled up on the mat outside the
door, with the skipping-rope still in her hand. She had evidently been
listening to the singing, for she crept away, but in the distance I could
hear her humming 'Ye banks and braes' in a sweet childish treble that was
very harmonious and true.



CHAPTER XI

ONE OF GOD'S HEROINES


No. I was quite right when I told poor Phoebe that her sad case was not
without alleviation. I was still more sure of the truth of my words when
I saw with what care Miss Locke had prepared the invalid's meal, and how
gently she helped to place her in a proper position. There was evidently
no want of love between the sisters; only on one side the love was more
self-sacrificing and unselfish than the other. It needed only a look at
Susan Locke's spare form and thin, careworn face to tell me that she was
wearing herself out in her sister's service. Phoebe looked in her face
and broke into a harsh laugh, to poor Susan's great alarm.

'What do you think Miss Garston has been saying, Susan? That we must be a
comfort to each other. Fancy my being a comfort to you! You poor thing,
when I am the plague and burden of your life,' And she laughed again, in
a way that was scarcely mirthful.

'Nay, Phoebe, you have no need to say such things,' returned her sister
sadly; but she was probably used to this sort of speeches. 'I am bound to
take care of you and Kitty, who are all I have left in the world. It is
not that I find it hard, but that you might make it easier by looking a
little cheered sometimes.'

Phoebe took this gentle rebuke somewhat scornfully.

'Cheered! The woman actually says cheered, when I am already on the
border-land of the place of torment. Was I not as good as dead and buried
three years ago? And did not father always tell us that hell begins in
this world for the wicked?'

'Ay, that was father's notion; and I was never clever enough to argue
with him. But you are not wicked, my woman, only a bit tiresome and
perverse and wanting in faith.' And Miss Locke, who was used to these
wild moods, patted her sister's shoulder, and bade her drink her tea
before it got cold, in a sensible matter-of-fact way, that was not
without its influence on the wayward creature; for she did not refuse
the comforting draught.

I took my leave soon after this, after promising to repeat my visit on
the next evening. Phoebe bade me good-bye rather coldly, but I took no
notice of her contrary mood. Miss Locke followed me out of the room, and
asked me anxiously what I thought of her sister.

'It is difficult to judge,' I returned, hesitating a little. 'You must
remember this is only my second visit, and I have not made much way with
her. She is in a state of bodily and mental discomfort very painful to
witness. If I am not mistaken, she is driving herself half-crazy with
introspection and self-will. You must not give way to this morbid desire
to increase her own wretchedness. She needs firmness as well as
kindness.'

Miss Locke looked at me wistfully a moment.

'What am I to do? She would fret herself into a fever if I crossed her
whims. Directly you have left the house she will be asking for that wire
blind again, though it would do her poor eyes good to see the thrushes
feeding on the lawn, and there is the little robin that comes to us every
winter and taps at the window for crumbs; but she would shut them all
out,--birds, and sunshine, and flowers.'

'Just as she would shut out her Father's love, if she could; but it is
all round her, and no inward or outward darkness can hinder that. Miss
Locke, you must be very firm. You must not move the flowers or replace
the blind on any pretext whatever. She must be comforted in spite of
herself. She reminds me of some passionate child who breaks all its
toys because some wish has been denied. We are sorry for the child's
disappointment, but a wise parent would inflict punishment for the fit
of passion.'

Miss Locke sighed; her mouth twitched with repressed emotion. She was
evidently an affectionate, reticent woman, who found it difficult to
express her feelings.

'I am keeping you standing all this time,' she said apologetically, 'and
I might have asked you to sit down a minute in our little kitchen. Let me
pour you out a cup of tea, Miss Garston. Kitty and I were just going to
begin.'

I accepted this offer, as I thought Miss Locke evidently wanted to speak
to me. She seemed pleased at my acquiescence, and told Kitty to stay with
her aunt Phoebe a few minutes.

'I have baked a nice hot cake with currants in it, Kitty,' she said
persuasively, 'and you shall have your share, hot and buttered, if you
will be patient and wait a little.'

'She is a good little thing,' I observed, as the child reluctantly
withdrew to her dreary post, after a longing look at the table, while
Miss Locke placed a rocking-chair with a faded green cushion by the fire,
and opened the oven door to inspect the cake. 'It is dull work for the
little creature to be so much in the sick-room. It is hardly a wholesome
atmosphere for a child.'

Miss Locke shook her head as though she endorsed this opinion.

'What am I to do?' she returned sorrowfully. 'Kitty is young, but she
has to bear our burdens. I spare her all I can; but when I am at my
dressmaking Phoebe cannot be left alone, and she has learned to be quiet
and handy, and can do all sorts of things for Phoebe. I know it is not
good for her living alone with us, but the Lord has ordered the child's
life as well as ours,' she finished reverently.

'We must see what can be done for Kitty,' was my answer. 'She can be
free to play while I am with your sister. I sent her out with her new
skipping-rope this evening. What brought her back so soon?'

'It was the singing,' returned Miss Locke, smiling. 'The street door
was just ajar, and Kitty crept in and curled herself up on the mat. It
sounded so beautiful, you see; for Kitty and I only hear singing at
church, and it is not often I can get there, with Phoebe wanting me;
so it did us both good, you may be sure of that.'

I could not but be pleased at this simple tribute of praise, but
something else struck me more, the unobtrusive goodness and self-denial
of Susan Locke. What a life hers must be! I hinted at this as gently as
I could.

'Ay, Phoebe has always been a care to me,' she sighed. 'She was never as
strong and hearty as other girls, and she wanted her own way, and fretted
when she could not get it. Father spoiled her, and mother gave in to her
more than she did to me; and when trouble came all along of Robert Owen,
and he used her cruel, just flinging her aside when he saw some one he
fancied more than Phoebe, and driving her mad with spite and jealousy,
then she let herself go, as it were. She was never religious, not to
speak of, all the time she kept company with Robert, so when her hopes
of him came to an end she had nothing to support her. It needs plenty of
faith to make us bear our troubles patiently.'

'And then her health failed.'

'Yes; and mother died, and father followed her within six months, and
Phoebe could not be with them, and she took on about that; she has had a
deal of trouble, and that is why I cannot find it in my heart to be hard
on her; she was that fond of Robert, though he was a worthless sort of
fellow, that, as the saying is, she worshipped the ground he walked on.
Ah, Phoebe was bonnie-looking then, though she was never over-strong,
and had not much colour; but he need not have called her a sickly
ill-tempered wench when he threw her over and married Nancy. It was
a cruel way to serve a woman that loved him as Phoebe did.'

'She has certainly had her share of trouble. How long ago did this happen
to your sister?'

'It must be five years since Robert and Nancy were married. Phoebe was
never the same woman since then, though her health did not fail for a
year or more afterwards; Mr. Hamilton always says she has had a good
riddance of Robert. He never thought much of him, and he has told me that
it is far better that Phoebe never had a chance of marrying him, for she
would have been a sad burden to any man; and she would not have had you
to nurse her.' And Miss Locke's careworn face brightened. 'That is just
what I tell myself, when I am out of heart about her; the Lord knew
Robert would have been a cruel husband to her,--for he is not too kind
to Nancy,--and so He kept Phoebe away from him. Phoebe is not one to bear
unkindness,--it just maddens her,--and we have all spoilt her.'

'Just so, and she knows her power over you. I am afraid she gives you a
great deal to bear, Miss Locke.'

'I never mind it from her,' she answered simply. 'She is all I have in
the world except Kitty, and I am thinking what I can do for her from
morning to night; that is the best and the worst of my work, one need
never stop thinking for it. Sometimes, when I am tired, or things have
gone wrong with my customers, or I am a bit behindhand with the rent,
I wish I could talk it over with her; it would ease me somehow; but I
never do give way to the feeling, for it would only fret and worry her.'

'You are wrong,' I returned warmly. 'Mr. Hamilton would tell you so if
you asked him. Any worry, any outside trouble, would be better for Phoebe
than this unhealthy feeding on herself. Take my advice, Miss Locke, talk
about yourself and your own troubles. Phoebe is fond of you, it will
rouse her to enter more into your life.'

Miss Locke shook her head, and the tears came into her mild hazel eyes.

'There is One who knows it all. I'll not be troubling my poor Phoebe,'
she said, and her hands trembled a little. Kitty came in at this moment
and said her aunt Phoebe wanted her, so we were obliged to break off the
conversation.

I thought about it all rather sadly as I sat by my solitary fire that
evening with Tinker's head on my lap. He had taken to me, and I always
found him waiting for my return; but it was less of Phoebe than of Susan
I was thinking. I was so absorbed in my reflections that Uncle Max's
voice outside quite startled me.

'May I come in, Ursula?' he said, thrusting in his head. 'I have been
at the choir-practice, so I thought I would call as I passed.'

Of course I gave him a warm welcome, and he drew his chair to the
opposite side of the fire, and declared he felt very comfortable: then
he asked me why I was looking grave, and if I were tired of my solitude.
I disclaimed this indignantly, and gave him a sketch of my day's work,
ending with my talk to Susan Locke.

He seemed interested, and listened attentively.

'It is such a sad case, Max,--poor Phoebe's, I mean,--but I am almost
as sorry for her sister. Susan Locke is such a good woman.'

'You would say so if you knew all, Ursula, but Miss Locke would never
tell you herself. When Phoebe's illness came on, and Hamilton told them
that she might not get well for a year or two, or perhaps longer, Susan
broke off her own engagement to stay with her sister. Her father was just
dead, and the child Kitty had to live with them.'

'Miss Locke engaged!' I exclaimed, in some surprise, for it had never
struck me that the homely middle-aged woman had this sort of experience
in her life.

Max looked amused.

'In that class they do not always choose youth and beauty. Certainly
Susan Locke was neither young nor handsome, but she was a neat-looking
body, only she has aged of late. Do you want to know all about it? Well,
she was engaged to a man named Duncan: he was a widower with three or
four children; he had the all-sorts shop down the village, only he moved
last year. He was a respectable man and had a comfortable little
business, and I daresay he thought Miss Locke would make a good mother to
his children. She told me all about it, poor thing! She would have liked
to marry Duncan; she was fond of him, and thought he would have made her
a steady husband; but with Phoebe on her hands she could not do her duty
to him or the children.

'"And there is Kitty; and he has enough of his own; and a sickly body
like Phoebe would hinder the comfort of the house, and I have promised
mother to take care of her." And then she asked my opinion. Well, I could
not but own that with the shop and the house to mind, and five children,
counting Kitty, and a bedridden invalid, her hands would be over-weighted
with work and worry.

'"I think so too," she answered, as quietly as possible, "and I have no
right to burden Duncan. I am sure he will listen to reason when I tell
him Phoebe is against our marrying." And she never said another word
about it. But Duncan came to me about six months afterwards and asked me
to put up his banns.

'"I wanted Susan Locke," he said, in a shamefaced manner, "but that
sister of hers hinders our marrying; so, as I must think of the children,
I have got Janet Sharpe to promise me. She is a good, steady lass, and
Susan speaks well of her."'

Uncle Max had told his story without interruption. I listened to it with
almost painful interest.

With what quiet self-denial this homely woman had put aside her own hopes
of happiness for the sake of the sickly creature dependent on her! She
had owned her affection for Duncan with the utmost simplicity; but in her
unselfishness she refused to burden him with her responsibilities. If she
married him she must do her duty by him and his children, and she felt
that Phoebe would be a drag on her strength and time.

'She is a good woman, Uncle Max,' I observed, when he had finished.
'She is working herself to death, and Phoebe never gives her a word
of comfort.'

'How can you expect it?' he replied quietly. 'You cannot draw comfort out
of empty wells, and poor Phoebe's heart is like a broken cistern, holding
nothing.'

'But surely you talk to her, Uncle Max?'

'I have tried to do so,' he answered sadly; 'but for the last year she
has refused to see me, and Hamilton has advised me to keep away. If I
cross the threshold it is to see Miss Locke. I thought it was a whim at
first, and I sent Tudor in my stead; but she was so rude to him, and
lashed herself into such a fury against us clerics, that he came back
looking quite scared, and asked why I had sent him to a mad woman.'

'She was angry with me to-day.' And I told him about the blind.

'That is right, Ursula,' he said encouragingly. 'You have made a good
beginning: the singing may do more to soften her strange nature than all
our preaching. You will be a comfort to Miss Locke, at any rate.' And
then he stopped, and looked at me rather wistfully, as though he longed
to tell me something but could not make up his mind to do it 'You will be
a comfort to us all if you go on in this way,' he continued; and then he
surprised me by asking if I had not yet seen the ladies from Gladwyn.

The question struck me as rather irrelevant, but I took care not to say
so as I answered in the negative.

'You have been here nearly a week; they might have risked a call by this
time,' he returned, knitting his brows as though something perplexed him;
but I broke in on his reflections rather impatiently.

'I declare, Max, you have quite piqued my curiosity about these people;
some mystery seems to attach to Gladwyn. I shall expect to see something
very wonderful.'

'Then you will be disappointed,' he returned quietly, not a bit offended
by my petulance. 'I cannot help wishing you to make acquaintance with
them, as they are such intimate friends of mine, and I think it will be a
mutual benefit.'

Then, as I made no reply to this, he went on, still more mildly:

'I confess I should like your opinion of them. I have a great reliance in
your intuition and common sense; and you are so deliciously frank and
outspoken, Ursula, that I shall soon know what you think. Well, I must
not stay gossiping here. Your company is very charming, my dear, but I
have letters to write before bedtime. You will see our friends in church
on Sunday. I hear Miss Elizabeth comes home to-morrow; she is the lively
one,--not quite of the Merry Pecksniff order, but still a bright, chatty
lady.

"From morning till night
It is Betty's delight
To chatter and talk without stopping."

'You know the rest, Ursula, my dear. By the bye,' opening the door, and
looking cautiously into the passage, 'I wonder whom the Bartons are
entertaining in the kitchen to-night? I hear a masculine voice.'

'It is only Mr. Hamilton,' I returned indifferently. 'I heard him come
in half an hour ago; he is giving Nathaniel a lesson in mathematics.'

'To be sure. What a good fellow he is!' in an enthusiastic tone. 'Well,
good-night, child: do not sit up late.' And he vanished.

I am afraid I disregarded this injunction, for I wanted to write to my
poor Jill--who was never absent from my mind--and Lesbia; and I was loath
to leave the fireside, and too much excited for sleep.

When I had finished my letters I still sat on gazing into the bright
caverns of coal, and thinking over Susan Locke's history.

'How many good people there are in the world!' I said, half aloud; but I
almost jumped out of my chair at the sound of a deep, angry voice on the
other side of the door.

'It is a thriftless, wasteful sort of thing burning the candle at both
ends. Women have very little common sense, after all.'

I extinguished the lamp hastily, for of course Mr. Hamilton's growl was
meant for me, though it was addressed to Nathaniel. I heard him close the
door a moment afterwards, and Nathaniel crept back into the kitchen. I
woke rather tired the next day, and owned he was right, for I found my
duties somewhat irksome that morning. The feeling did not pass off, and
I actually discovered that I was dreading my visit to Phoebe, only of
course I scouted it as nonsense.

Miss Locke was out, and Kitty opened the door. Her demure little face
brightened when she saw me, and especially when I placed a large
brown-paper parcel in her arms, of that oblong shape dear to all
doll-loving children, and bade her take it into the kitchen.

'It is too dark and cold for you to play outside, Kitty,' I observed,
'so perhaps you will make the acquaintance of the blue-eyed baby I have
brought you; when Aunt Susan comes in, you can ask her for some pieces to
dress her in, for her paper robe is rather cold.'

Kitty's eyes grew wide with surprise and delight as she ran off with her
treasure; the baby-doll would be a playmate for the lonely child, and
solace those weary hours in the sick-room. I would rather have brought
her a kitten, but I felt instinctively that no animal would be tolerated
by the invalid.

It was somewhat dark when I entered the room, but one glance showed me
that my directions had been obeyed; the window was unshaded, and the
flowers were in their place.

Phoebe was lying watching the fire. I saw at once that she was in a
better mood. The few questions I put to her were answered quietly and
to the point, and there was no excitement or exaggeration in her manner.

I did not talk much. After a minute or two I sat down by the uncurtained
window and began to sing as usual. I commenced with a simple ballad, but
very soon my songs merged into hymns. It began to be a pleasure to me to
sing in that room. I had a strange feeling as though my voice were
keeping the evil spirits away. I thought of the shepherd-boy who played
before Saul and refreshed the king's tormented mind; and now and then an
unuttered prayer would rise to my lips that in this way I might be able
to comfort the sad soul that truly Satan had bound.

When my voice grew a little weary, I rose softly and took down the old
brown sampler, as I wished to replace it by a little picture I had
brought with me.

It was a sacred photograph of the Crucifixion, in a simple Oxford frame,
and had always been a great favourite with me; it was less painful in its
details than other delineations of this subject: the face of the divine
sufferer wore an expression of tender pity. Beneath the cross the Blessed
Virgin and St. John stood with clasped hands,--adopted love and most
sacred responsibility,--receiving sanction and benediction.

I had scarcely hung it on the nail before Phoebe's querulous voice
remonstrated with me.

'Why can you not leave well alone, Miss Garston? I was thanking you in my
heart for the music, but you have just driven it away. I cannot have that
picture before my eyes; it is too painful.'

'You will not find it so,' I replied quietly; 'it is a little present I
have brought you. My dead brother bought it for me when he was a boy at
school, and it is one of the things I most prize. He is dead, you know,
and that makes it doubly dear to me. That is why I want you to have it,
because I have so much and you so little.'

My speech moved her a little, for her great eyes softened as she looked
at me.

'So you have been in trouble, too,' she said softly. 'And yet you can
sing like a bird that has lost its way and finds itself nearly at the
gate of Paradise.'

'Shall I tell you about my trouble?' I returned, sitting down by the
bed. It wrung my heart to talk of Charlie, but I knew the history of
his suffering and patience would teach Phoebe a valuable lesson.

An hour passed by unheeded, and when I had finished I exclaimed at the
lateness of the hour.

'Ay, you have tired yourself; you look quite pale,' was her answer; 'but
you have made me forget myself for the first time in my life.' She
stopped, and then with more effort continued, 'Come again to-morrow, and
I will tell you my trouble; it is worse than yours, and has made me the
crazy creature you see. Yes, I will tell you all about it'; but, half
crying, as though she had little hope of contesting my will, 'You will
not leave that picture to make my heart ache more than, it does now?'

'My poor Phoebe,' I said, kissing her, 'when your heart once aches for
the thought of another's sorrow your healing will have begun. Let that
picture say to you what no one has said to you before, "that all your
life you have been an idolater, that you have worshipped only yourself
and one other--"'

'Whom? What do you mean? Have you heard of Robert?' she asked excitedly.

'To-morrow is Sunday,' I returned, touching her softly. 'I am going to
church in the morning, and I shall not be here until evening; but we
shall have time then for a long talk, and you shall tell me everything.'
And then, without waiting for an answer, I left the room. It was late
indeed. Miss Locke had long returned, and was busying herself over her
sister's supper; she held up her finger to me smiling as I passed, and
I peeped in.

Kitty was lying on the rug, fast asleep, with the doll in her arms.

'I found them like this when I came in,' whispered Miss Locke; 'she must
have been listening to the music and fallen asleep. How late you have
stopped with Phoebe! it is nearly eight o'clock!'

'I do not think the time has been wasted,' I answered cheerfully, as
I bade her good-night and stepped out into the darkness. Is time ever
wasted, I wonder, when we stop in our daily work to give one of these
weak ones a cup of cold water? It is not for me to answer; only our
recording angel knows how some such little deed of kindness may brighten
some dim struggling life that seems over-full of pain.



CHAPTER XII

A MISSED VOCATION


It was pleasant to wake to bright sunshine the next morning, and to hear
the sparrows twittering in the ivy.

It had been my intention to set apart Sunday as much as possible as a day
of rest and refreshment. Of course I could not expect always to control
the various appeals for my help or to be free from my patients, but by
management I hoped to secure the greater part of the day for myself.

I had told Peggy not to expect me at the cottage until the afternoon;
everything was in such order that there was no necessity for me to forgo
the morning service. My promise to Phoebe Locke would keep me a prisoner
for the evening, but I determined that her sister and Kitty should be set
free to go to church, so my loss would be their gain.

I thought of Jill as I dressed myself. She had often owned to me that the
Sundays at Hyde Park Gate were not to her taste. Visitors thronged the
house in the afternoon; Sara discussed her week's amusements with her
friends or yawned over a novel; the morning's sermon was followed as a
matter of course by a gay luncheon party. 'What does it mean, Ursula?'
Jill would say, opening her big black eyes as widely as possible: 'I do
not understand. Mr. Erskine has been telling us that we ought to renounce
the world and our own wills, and not to follow the multitude to do
foolishness, and all the afternoon mother and Sara having been talking
about dresses for the fancy-ball. Is there one religion for church and
another for home? Do we fold it up and put it away with our prayer-books
in the little book-cupboard that father locks so carefully?' finished
Jill, with girlish scorn.

Poor Jill! she had a wide, generous nature, with great capabilities, but
she was growing up in a chilling atmosphere. Young girls are terribly
honest; they dig down to the very root of things; they drag off the
swathing cloths from the mummy face of conventionality. What does it
mean? they ask. Is there truth anywhere? Endless shams surround them;
people listen to sermons, then they shake off the dust of the holy place
carefully from the very hem of their garments; their religion, as Jill
expressed it, is left beside their prayer-books. Ah! if one could but see
clearly, with eyes purged from every remnant of earthliness,--see as the
angels do,--the thick fog of unrisen and unprayed prayers clinging to the
rafters of every empty church, we might well shudder in the clogging
heavy atmosphere.

Jill had not more religion than many other girls, but she wanted to be
true; the inconsistency of human nature baffled and perplexed her; she
was not more ready to renounce the world than Sara was, but she wished
to know the inner meaning of things, and in this I longed to help her.
I could not help thinking of her tenderly and pitifully as I walked
down the road leading to the little Norman church. I was early, and the
building was nearly empty when I entered the porch; but it was quiet and
restful to sit there and review the past week, and watch the sunshine
lighting up the red brick walls and touching the rood-screen, while a
faint purple gleam fell on the chancel pavement.

Two ladies entered the seat before me, and I looked at them a little
curiously.

They were both very handsomely dressed, but it was not their fashionable
appearance that attracted me. I had caught sight of a most beautiful and
striking face belonging to one of them that somehow riveted my attention.

The lady was apparently very young, and had a tall graceful figure, and
strange colourless hair that looked as though it ought to have been
golden, only the gloss had faded out of it; but it was lovely hair, fine
and soft as a baby's.

As she rose she slightly turned round, and our eyes met for a moment;
they were large, melancholy eyes, and the face, beautiful as it was, was
very worn and thin, and absolutely without colour. I could see her
profile plainly all through the service, but the dull impassive
expression of the countenance that she had turned upon me gave me a
sensation of pain; she looked like a person who had experienced some
great trouble or undergone some terrible illness. I could not make up
my mind which it could be.

The other lady was much older, and had no claims to beauty. I could see
her face plainly, for she looked round once or twice as though she were
expecting some one.

She must have been over thirty, and had rather a singular face; it was
thin, dark-complexioned, and very sallow; she was a stylish-looking
woman, but her appearance did not interest me. To my surprise, just as
the service commenced, Mr. Hamilton came in and joined them. So these
must be the ladies from Gladwyn, I thought. That beautiful pale girl must
be his sister Gladys, and the other one Miss Darrell.

I tried to keep my attention to my own devotions, but every now and
then my eyes would stray to the lovely face before me. Mr. Hamilton's
behaviour was irreproachable. I could hear his voice following all the
responses, and he sang the hymns very heartily.

I think he knew I was behind him, for he handed me a hymn-book, with a
slight smile, when I was offering to share mine with a young woman. Miss
Darrell gave me a curiously penetrating look when she came out that did
not quite please me, but the girl who followed her did not seem to notice
my presence. I sat still in my place for a minute, as I did not wish to
encounter them in the porch. I had lingered so long that the congregation
had quite dispersed when I got out, but, to my surprise, I could see the
three walking very slowly down the road. Could they have been waiting for
me? I wondered; but I dismissed this idea as absurd.

But I could not forget the face that had so interested me; and when I
encountered Uncle Max on his way to the children's service I questioned
him at once about the two ladies.

'Yes, you are right, Ursula,' he said, a little absently. 'The one with
fair hair was Miss Gladys: her cousin, Miss Darrell, sat by Hamilton.'

'But you never told me how beautiful she was,' I replied, in rather
an injured voice. 'She has a perfect face, only it is so worn and
unhappy-looking.'

'You must not keep me,' observed Max hurriedly; 'Miss Darrell wants to
speak to me before service.' And he rushed off, leaving me standing in
the middle of the path rather wondering at his abruptness, for the bell
had not commenced.

A little farther on, I came face to face with Miss Darrell; she was
walking with Mr. Tudor, and seemed talking to him with much animation.

She bowed slightly, as he took off his hat to me, in a graceful well-bred
manner, but her face prepossessed me even less than it had done in the
morning. She had keen, dark eyes like Mr. Hamilton's, only they somehow
repelled me. I was somewhat quick with my likes and dislikes, as I had
proved by the dislike I had taken to Mr. Hamilton. This feeling was
wearing off, and I was no longer so strongly prejudiced against him. I
might even find Miss Darrell less repelling when I spoke to her. She was
evidently a gentlewoman; her movements were quiet and graceful, and she
had a good carriage.

I was somewhat surprised on reaching the cottage to find Mr. Hamilton
sitting by my patient. He had Janie on his knee, and seemed as though he
had been there for some time, but he rose at once when he saw me.

'I was waiting for you, Miss Garston,' he said quietly. 'I wanted to give
you some directions about Mrs. Marshall'; and when he had finished, he
said, a little abruptly--

'What made you so long coming out of church this morning? I was waiting
to introduce my sister and cousin to you, but you were determined to
disappoint me.'

I was a little confused by this.

'Did you recognise me?' I asked, rather tamely.

'No,--not in that smart bonnet,' was the unexpected reply. 'I did not
identify the wearer with the village nurse until I heard your voice in
the Te Deum: you can hardly disguise your voice, Miss Garston: my cousin
Etta pricked up her ears when she heard it.' And then, as I made no
answer, he picked up his hat with rather an amused air and wished me
good-bye.

I was rather offended at the mention of my bonnet; the little gray wing
that relieved its sombre black trimmings could hardly be called smart,--a
word I abhorred,--but he probably said it to tease me.

'Ay, the doctor has been telling us you have a voice like a skylark,'
observed Elspeth, 'but I have been thinking it must be more like an
angel's voice, my bairn, since you mostly use it to sing the Lord's
praises, and to cheer the sick folk round you: that is more than a
skylark does.'

So he had been praising my voice. What an odd man!

I stayed at the cottage about two hours, and read a little to the
children and Elspeth, and then I started for the Lockes'.

Kitty clapped her hands when she heard she was to go to church with her
aunt Susan. I found out afterwards the child had always gone alone.

Phoebe was evidently expecting me, for her eyes were fixed on the door
as I entered, and the same shadowy smile I had seen once before swept
over her wan features when she saw me. She seemed ready and eager to
talk, but I adhered to my usual programme. I was rather afraid that our
conversation would excite her, so I wanted to quiet her first. I sang a
few of my favourite hymns, and then read the evening psalms. She heard
me somewhat reluctantly, but when I had finished her face cleared, and
without any preamble she commenced her story.

I never remember that recital without pain. It positively wrung my heart
to listen to her. I had heard the outline of her sad story from her
sister's lips, but it had lacked colour; it had been a simple statement
of facts, and no more.

But now Phoebe's passionate words seemed to clothe it with power; the
very sight of the ghastly and almost distracted face on the pillow gave
a miserable pathos to the story. It was in vain to check excitement while
the unhappy creature poured out the history of her wrongs: the old old
story, of a credulous woman's heart being trampled upon and tortured by
an unworthy lover, was enacted again before me.

'I just worshipped the ground he walked on, and he threw me aside like a
broken toy,' she said over and over again. 'And the worst of it is that,
villain as he is, I cannot unlove him, though I am that mad with him
sometimes that I could almost murder him.'

'Love is strong as death, and jealousy is cruel as the grave,' I
muttered, half to myself, but she overheard me.

'Ay, that is just true,' she returned eagerly: 'there are times when I
hate Robert and Nancy and would like to haunt them. Did I not tell you,
Miss Garston, that hell had begun with me already? I was never a good
woman,--never, not even when I was happy and Robert loved me. I was
just full of him, and wanted nothing else in heaven and earth; and when
the trouble came, and father and mother died, and I lay here like a
log,--only a log has not got a living heart in it,--I seemed to go mad
with the anger and unhappiness, and I felt "the worm that dieth not, and
the fire that is not quenched."'

I stooped over and wiped her poor lips and poor head, for she was
fearfully exhausted, and then in a perfect passion of pity closed her
face between my hands and bade God bless her.

'What do you mean?' she said, staring at me; but her voice trembled.
'Haven't I been telling you how wicked I am? Do you think that is a
reason for His blessing me?'

'I think His blessing has always been with you, my poor Phoebe, like the
sunlight that you try to shut out from your windows. You hide yourself
in your own darkness, and pretend that the all-embracing love is not for
you. Well may you call your present existence a tomb; but you must not
wrong your Almighty Father. Not He, but you yourself have walled yourself
up with your own sinful hands, and then you wonder at the weight that
lies upon your heart.'

'Can I forget my trouble when I am not able to move?' she said bitterly.
And it was sad to see how her hands beat upon the bedclothes. But I held
them in mine. They were icy cold. The action seemed to calm her frenzy.

'You cannot forget,' I returned quietly; 'but all this time, all these
weary years, you might have learned to forgive Robert.'

'Nay, I will have nothing to do with forgiving,' was the hard answer.

'And yet you say you love him, Phoebe. Why, the very devils would laugh
at such a notion of love.'

'Didn't I say I both loved and hated him?' very fiercely.

'Speak the truth, and say you hate him, and God forgive you your sin. But
it is a greater one than Robert has committed against you.'

'How dare you say such things to me, Miss Garston?' trying to free her
hands; but still I held them fast. 'You will make me hate you next. I am
not a pleasant-tempered woman.'

'If you do, I will promise you forgiveness beforehand. Why, you poor
creature, do you think I could ever be hard on you?'

The fierce light in her eyes softened. 'Nay, I did not mean what I said;
but you excite me with your talk. How can you know what I feel about
these things? You cannot put yourself in my place.'

'The heart knoweth its own bitterness, Phoebe; and it may be that in your
place I should fail utterly in patience; but if we will not lie still
under His hand, and learn the lesson He would fain teach us, it may be
that fresh trials may be sent to humble us.'

'Do you think things could be much worse with me?' becoming excited
again; but I stroked her hand, and begged her gently to let me finish
my speech.

'Phoebe, as you lie there on your cross, the whole Church throughout the
world is praying for you Sunday after Sunday when the prayer goes up for
those who are desolate and oppressed. And who so desolate and oppressed
as you?'

'True, most true,' she murmured.

'You are cradled in the supplications of the faithful. A thousand hearts
are hearing your sorrows, and yet you say impiously that you are on the
border-land of hell; but no, you will never go there. There are too many
marks of His love upon you. All this suffering has more meaning than
that.'

It is impossible to describe the look she gave me; astonishment,
incredulity, and something like dawning hope were blended in it; but
she remained silent.

'You have missed your vocation, that is true. You were set apart here
to do most divine work; but you have failed over it. Still, you may
be forgiven. How many prayers you might have prayed for Robert! You
might have been an invisible shield between him and temptation. There
is so much power in the prayers of unselfish love. This room, which
you describe as a tomb, or an antechamber of hell, might have been an
inner sanctuary, from which blessings might flow out over the whole
neighbourhood. Silent lessons of patience might have been preached here.
Your sister's weary hands might have been strengthened. You could have
mutually consoled each other; and now--' I paused, for here conscience
completed the sentence. I saw a tear steal under her eyelid, and then
course slowly down her face.

'I have made Susan miserable, I know that; and she is never impatient
with me if I am ever so cross with her. Ah, I deserve my punishment, for
I have been a selfish, hateful creature all my life. I do think sometimes
that an evil spirit lives in me.'

'There is One who can cast it out; but you must ask Him, Phoebe. Such a
few words will do: "Lord help me!" Now we have talked enough, and Susan
will be coming back from church. I mean to sing you the evening hymn, and
then I must go.' And, almost before I had finished the last line, Phoebe,
exhausted with emotion, had sunk into a refreshing sleep, and I crept
softly out of the room to watch for Susan's return.

I felt strangely weary as I walked home. It was almost as though I had
witnessed a human soul struggling in the grasp of some evil spirit. It
was the first time I had ever ministered to mental disease. Never before
had I realised what self-will, unchastened by sorrow and untaught by
religion, can bring a woman to. Once or twice that evening I had doubted
whether the brain were really unhinged; but I had come to the conclusion
that it was only excess of morbid excitement.

My way home led me past the vicarage. Just as I was in sight of it, two
figures came out of the gate and waited to let me pass. One of them was
the churchwarden, Mr. Townsend, and the other was Mr. Hamilton. It was
impossible to avoid recognition in the bright moonlight; but I was rather
amazed when I heard Mr. Hamilton bid Mr. Townsend good-night, and a
moment after he overtook me.

'You are out late to-night, Miss Garston. Do you always mean to play
truant from evening service?'

I told him how I had spent my time, but I suppose my voice betrayed
inward fatigue, for he said, rather kindly,--

'This sort of work does not suit you; you are looking quite pale this
evening. You must not let your feelings exhaust you. I am sorry for
Phoebe myself, but she is a very tiresome patient. Do you think you have
made any impression on her?'

He seemed rather astonished when I briefly mentioned the subject of our
talk.

'Did she tell you about herself? Come, you have made great progress. Let
her get rid of some of the poison that seems to choke her, and then there
will be some chance of doing her good. She has taken a great fancy to
you, that is evident; and, if you will allow me to say so, I think you
are just the person to influence her.'

'It is a very difficult piece of work,' I returned; but he changed the
subject so abruptly that I felt convinced that he knew how utterly jaded
I was. He told me a humorous anecdote about a child that made me laugh,
and when we reached the gate of the cottage he bade me, rather
peremptorily, put away all worrying thoughts and to go to bed, which
piece of advice I followed as meekly as possible, after first reading
a passage out of my favourite _Thomas à Kempis_; but I thought of Phoebe
all the time I was reading it:

'The cross, therefore, is always ready, and everywhere waits for thee.
Thou canst not escape it wheresoever thou runnest; for wheresoever thou
goest, thou carriest thyself with thee and shalt ever find thyself.... If
thou bear the cross cheerfully, it will bear thee, and lead thee to the
desired end, namely, where there shall be an end of suffering, though
here there shall not be. If thou bear it unwillingly, thou makest for
thyself a (new) burden, and increasest thy load, and yet,
notwithstanding, thou must bear it.'



CHAPTER XIII

LADY BETTY


The next evening I was refused admittance to Phoebe's room. Miss Locke
met me at the door, looking more depressed than usual, and asked me to
follow her into the kitchen, where we found Kitty in the rocking-chair by
the hearth, dressing her new doll.

'It is just as she treated the vicar and Mr. Tudor,' she observed
disconsolately. 'I don't quite know what ails her to-day; she had a
beautiful night, and slept like a baby, and when I took her breakfast to
her she put her arms round my neck and asked me to kiss her,--a thing she
has not done for a year or more; and she went on for a long time about
how bad she had been to me, and wanting me to forgive her and make it up
with her.'

'Well?' I demanded, rather impatiently, as Susan wiped her patient eyes
and took up her sewing.

'Well, poor lamb! I told her I would forgive her anything and everything
if she would only let me go on with my work, for I had Mrs. Druce's
mourning to finish; but she would not let me stir for a long time, and
cried so bitterly--though she says she never can cry--that I thought of
sending for you or Dr. Hamilton. But she cried more when I mentioned you,
and said, No, she would not see you; you had left her more miserable than
she was before: and she made me promise to send you away if you came this
evening, which I am loath to do after all your kindness to her.'

'I have brought her some fresh flowers this evening,' was my reply. 'Do
not distress yourself, Miss Locke; we must expect Phoebe to be contrary
sometimes.' And the words came to my mind, "And ofttimes it casteth him
into the fire, and oft into the water." 'You have discharged your duty,
but I am not going just yet. Let me help you with that work. I am very
fond of sewing, and that is a nice easy piece. Shall you mind if I sing
to you and Kitty a little?'

I need not have asked the question when I saw the fretted look pass from
Miss Locke's face.

'It is the greatest pleasure Kitty and I have, next to going to church,'
she said humbly. 'Your voice does sound so sweet; it soothes like a
lullaby. It is my belief,' speaking under her breath so that the child
should not hear her, 'that she is just trying to punish herself by
sending you away.'

I thought perhaps this might be the case, for who could understand all
the perversities of a diseased mind? But if Phoebe's will was strong for
evil, mine was stronger still to overcome her for her own good. I was
determined on two things: first, that I would not leave the house without
seeing her; and, secondly, that nothing should induce me to stay with her
after this reception. She must be disciplined to civility at all costs.
Max had been wrong to yield to her sick whims.

I must have sung for a long time, to judge by the amount of work I
contrived to do, and if I had sung like a whole nestful of skylarks I
could not have pleased my audience more. I was sorry to set Miss Locke's
tears flowing, because it hindered her work; tears are such a simple
luxury, but poor folk cannot always afford to indulge in them.

I had just commenced that beautiful song, 'Waft her, angels, through the
air,' when the impatient thumping of a stick on the floor arrested me; it
came from Phoebe's room.

'I will go to her,' I said, waving Miss Locke back and picking up my
flowers. 'Do not look so scared: she means those knocks for me.' And I
was right in my surmise. I found her lying very quietly, with the traces
of tears still on her face; she addressed me quite gently.

'Do not sing any more, please; I cannot bear it; it makes my heart ache
too much to-night.'

'Very well,' I returned cheerfully. 'I will just mend your fire, for it
is getting low, and put these flowers in water, and then I will bid you
good-night.'

'You are vexed with me for being rude,' she said, almost timidly. 'I told
Susan to send you away, because I could not bear any more talk. You made
me so unhappy yesterday, Miss Garston.'

I was cruel enough to tell her that I was glad to hear it, and I must
have looked as though I meant it.

'Oh, don't,' she said, shrinking as though I had dealt her a blow. 'I
want you to unsay those words: they pierce me like thorns. Please tell me
you did not mean them.'

'How can I know to what you are alluding?' I replied, in rather an
unsympathetic tone; but I did not intend to be soft with her to-day: she
had treated me badly and must repent her ingratitude. 'I certainly meant
every word I said yesterday,'

To my great surprise, she burst into tears, and repeated word for word
a fragment of a sentence that I had said.

'It haunts me, Miss Garston, and frightens me somehow. I have been saying
it over and over in my dreams,--that is what upset me so to-day: "if we
will not lie still under His hand,"--yes, you said that, knowing I have
never lain still for a moment,--"and if we will not learn the lesson He
would fain teach us, it may be that fresh trials may be sent to humble
us."'

Pity kept me silent for a moment, but I knew that I must not shirk my
work.

'I am sorry if the truth pains you, Phoebe, but it is no less the truth.
How am I to look at you and think that God has finished His work?'

She put up both her hands and motioned me away with almost a face of
horror, but I took no notice. I arranged the flowers and tended the fire,
and then offered her some cooling drink, which she did not refuse, and
then I bade her good-night.

'What!' she exclaimed, 'are you going to leave me like that, and not a
word to soothe me, after making me so unhappy? Think of the long night I
have to go through.'

'Never mind the length of the night, if only you can hear His voice in
the darkness. You wanted to send me away, Phoebe; well, and to-morrow I
shall not come; I shall stay at home and rest myself. You can send me
away, and little harm will happen; but take care you do not send Him
away.' And I left the room.

When I told Miss Locke that I was not coming the next evening she looked
frightened. 'Has my poor Phoebe offended you so badly, then?' she asked
tremulously.

'I am not offended at all,' I replied; 'but Phoebe has need to learn
all sorts of painful lessons. I shall have all the warmer welcome on
Wednesday, after leaving her to herself a little.' But Miss Locke only
shook her head at this.

The next day was so lovely that I promised myself the indulgence of a
long country walk; there was a pretty village about two miles from
Heathfield that I longed to see again. But my little plan was frustrated,
for just as I was starting I heard Tinker bark furiously; a moment
afterwards there was a rush and scuffle, followed by a shriek in a
girlish treble; in another moment I had seized my umbrella and flown to
the door. There was a fight going on between Tinker and a large black
retriever, and a little lady in brown was wandering round them,
helplessly wringing her hands, and crying, 'Oh, Nap! poor Nap!'

I took her for a child the first moment, she was so very small. 'Do not
be frightened, my dear,' I said soothingly, 'I will make Tinker behave
himself.' And a well-aimed blow from my umbrella made him draw off
growling. In another moment I had him by the collar, and by dint of
threats and coaxing contrived to shut him up in the kitchen. He was not
a quarrelsome dog generally, but, as I heard afterwards, Nap was an old
antagonist; they had once fallen out about Peter, and had never been
friends since.

I found the little brown girl sitting in the porch with her arms round
the retriever's neck; she was kissing his black face, and begging him to
forget the insult he had received from that horrid Barton dog.

'Poor old Tinker is not horrid at all, I assure you,' I said, laughing;
'he is a dear fellow, and I am already very fond of him.'

'But he nearly killed Nap,' she returned, with a little frown; 'he is
worse than a savage, for he has no notion of hospitality. Nap and I came
to call,' rising with an air of great dignity. 'I suppose you are Miss
Garston. I am Lady Betty.'

I had never heard of such a person in Heathfield; but of course Uncle Max
would enlighten me. As I looked at her more closely I saw my mistake in
thinking she was a child; little brown thing as she was, she was fully
grown up, and, though not in the least pretty, had a bright piquant face,
a _nest retroussé_, and a pair of mischievous eyes.

She was dressed rather extravagantly in a brown velvet walking-dress,
with an absurd little hat, that would have fitted a child, on the top of
her dark wavy hair; she only wanted a touch of red about her to look like
a magnified robin-redbreast.

'Well,' she said impatiently, as I hesitated a moment in my surprise,
'I have told you we have come for a call, Nap and I; but if you are going
out--'

'Oh, that is not the least consequence,' I returned, waking up to a sense
of my duty. 'I am very pleased to see you and Nap; but you must not stop
any longer in this cold porch; the wind is rather cutting. There is a
nice fire in my parlour.' And I led the way in.

I was rather puzzled about Nap, for I seemed to recognise his sleek head
and mild brown eyes; and yet where could I have seen him? He trotted in
contentedly after his mistress, and stretched himself out on the rug
Tinker's fashion; but Lady Betty, instead of seating herself, began to
walk round the room and inspect my books and china, making remarks upon
everything in a brisk voice, and questioning me in rather an inquisitive
manner about sundry things that attracted her notice; but, to my great
surprise and relief, she passed Charlie's picture without remark or
comment--only I saw her glancing at it now and then from under her long
lashes. This mystified me a little; but I thought her whole behaviour a
little peculiar. I had never before seen callers on their first visit
perambulating the room like polar bears, or throwing out curious feelers
everywhere. As a rule, they sat up stiffly enough and discussed the
weather.

Lady Betty was evidently a character; most likely she prided herself on
being unlike other people. I was just beginning to wish that she would
sit down and let me question her in my turn, when she suddenly put up her
eye-glasses and burst into a most musical little laugh.

'Oh, do come here, Miss Garston; this is too amusing! There goes her
majesty Gladys of Gladwyn, accompanied by her prime minister. Don't they
look as though they were walking in the Row?--heads up--everything in
perfect trim! They are coming to call--yes!--no!--They are going to the
Cockaignes first. What an escape! my dear creature, if they come here I
shall fly to Mrs. Barton. The prime minister's airs will be too much for
my gravity.'

I gave her a very divided attention, for I was watching Miss Hamilton and
her companion with much interest. I could see that Miss Darrell was
chatting volubly; but Miss Hamilton's face looked as grave and impassive
as it had looked on Sunday. When they had passed out of sight I turned to
Lady Betty rather eagerly; she had dropped her eye-glasses, but an amused
smile still played round her lips.

'_La belle cousine_ is improving the occasion as usual. Poor Gladys, how
bored she looks! but there is no escape for her this afternoon, for the
prime minister has her in tow. I wonder from what text she is preaching?
Ezekiel's dry bones, I should think, from her majesty's face.'

'Do you know the Hamiltons of Gladwyn very intimately?' I asked
innocently; but I grew rather out of patience when Lady Betty
first lifted her eye-glass and stared at me, with the air of a
non-comprehending kitten, and then buried her face in a very fluffy
little muff in a fit of uncontrolled merriment.

I was provoked by this, and determined not to say a word. So presently
she came out of her muff and asked me, with mirthful eyes, for whom I
took her.

'You are Lady Betty, I understood,' was my stiff response.

'Yes, of course; every one calls me that, except the vicar, who will
address me as Miss Elizabeth. I never will answer to that name; I hate it
so. The servants up at Gladwyn never dare to use it. I would get Etta to
dismiss them if they did. Is it not a shame that people should not have a
voice in the matter of their name,--that helpless infants should be
abandoned to the tender mercies of some old fogey of a sponsor? Miss
Garston, if I were ever to hear you address me by that name it would be
the death-warrant to our friendship.'

'Let me know who you really are first, and then I will promise not to
offend your peculiar prejudice.'

'Dear me!' she answered pettishly, 'you talk just like Giles. He often
laughs at me and makes himself very unpleasant. But then, as I often tell
him, philanthropists are not pleasant people with whom to live; a man
with a hobby is always odious. Well, Miss Garston, if you will be so
prying, my name is Elizabeth Grant Hamilton; only from a baby I have been
called Lady Betty.'

'I shall remember,' I replied quietly, for really the little thing seemed
quite ruffled. This was evidently more than a whim on her part. 'It would
have seemed to me a liberty to use a family pet name. But of course if
you wish me to do so--'

'I do wish it,' rather peremptorily. 'That is partly why Mr. Cunliffe and
I are not good friends,--that, and other reasons.'

'Oh, I am sorry you do not like Uncle Max,' I said, rather impulsively;
but she drew herself up after the manner of an aggrieved pigeon. She was
rather like a bright-eyed bird, with her fluffy hair and quick movements.

'Oh, I like him well enough, but I do not understand him. Men are not
easy to understand. He is quiet, but he is disappointing. We must not
expect perfection in this world,' finished the little lady sententiously.

'I have never met any one half as good as Uncle Max,' was my warm retort.
'He is the most unselfish of men.'

'Unselfish men make mistakes sometimes,' she returned drily. 'Giles and
he are great friends. He is up at Gladwyn a great deal; so is Mr. Tudor.
Mr. Tudor is not a finished character, but he has good points, and one
can tolerate him. There, how vexing, we were just beginning to talk
comfortably, and I see the shadow of her majesty's gown at the gate.
Come, Nap, we must fly to Mrs. Barton's for refuge. _Au revoir_, Miss
Garston.' And, kissing her little gloved hand, this strangest of Lady
Betties vanished, followed by the obedient Nap.

My pulses quickened a little at the prospect of seeing the beautiful face
of Gladys Hamilton in my little room; but it was not she who entered
first, but Miss Darrell, whose sharp incisive glance had taken in every
detail of my surroundings before her faultlessly-gloved hand had released
mine; and even when I turned to greet Miss Hamilton, her peculiar and
somewhat toneless voice claimed my attention.

'How very fortunate,' she began, seating herself with elaborate caution
with her back to the light. 'We hardly hoped to find you at home, Miss
Garston. My cousin Giles informed us how much engaged you were. We have
been so interested in what Mr. Cunliffe told us about it. It is such a
romantic scheme, and, as I am a very romantic person, you may be sure of
my sympathy. Gladys, dear, is this not a charming room? Positively you
have so altered and beautified it that I can hardly believe it is the
same room. I told a friend of ours, Mrs. Saunders, that it would never
suit her, as it was such a shabby little place.'

'It is very nice,' returned Miss Hamilton quietly. 'I hope,' fixing her
large, beautiful eyes on me, 'that you are comfortable here? We thought
perhaps you might be a little dull.'

'I have no time to be dull,' I returned, smiling, but Miss Darrell
interrupted me.

'No, of course not; busy people are never dull. I told you so, Gladys, as
we walked up the road. Depend upon it, I said, Miss Garston will hardly
have a minute to give to our idle chatter. She will be wanting to get to
her sick people, and wish us at Hanover. Still, as my cousin Giles said,
we must do the right thing and call, though I am sure you are not a
conventional person; neither am I. Oh, we are quite kindred souls here.'

I tried to receive this speech in good part, but I certainly protested
inwardly against the notion that Miss Darrell and I would ever be kindred
souls. I felt an instinctive repugnance to her voice; its want of tone
jarred on me; and all the time she talked, her hard, bright eyes seemed
to dart restlessly from Miss Hamilton to me. I felt sure that nothing
could escape their scrutiny; but now and then, when one looked at her in
return, she seemed to veil them most curiously under the long curling
lashes.

She was rather an elegant-looking woman, but her face was decidedly
plain. She had thin lips and rather a square jaw, and her sallow
complexion lacked colour. One could not guess her age exactly, but she
might have been three-or four-and-thirty. I heard her spoken of
afterwards as a very interesting-looking person; certainly her figure
was fine, and she knew how to dress herself,--a very useful art when
women have no claim to beauty.

Miss Darrell's voluble tongue seemed to touch on every subject. Miss
Hamilton sat perfectly silent, and I had not a chance of addressing her.
Once, when I looked at her, I could see her eyes were fixed on my
darling's picture. She was gazing at it with an air of absorbed
melancholy: her lips were firmly closed, and her hands lay folded in
her lap.

'That is the picture of my twin-brother,' I said softly, to arouse her.

To my surprise, she turned paler than ever, and her lips quivered.

'Your twin brother, yes; and you have lost him?' But here Miss Darrell
chimed in again:

'How very interesting! What a blessing photography is, to be sure? Do you
take well, Miss Garston? They make me a perfect fright. I tell my cousins
that nothing on earth will induce me to try another sitting. Why should I
endure such a martyrdom, if it be not to give pleasure to my friends?'

To my surprise, Miss Hamilton's voice interrupted her: it was a little
like her step-brother's voice, and had a slight hesitation that was not
in the least unpleasant. She spoke rather slowly: at least it seemed so
by comparison with Miss Darrell's quick sentences.

'Etta, we have not done what Giles told us. We hope you will come and
dine with us to-morrow. Miss Garston, without any ceremony.'

'Dear me, how careless of me!' broke in Miss Darrell, but her forehead
contracted a little, as though her cousin's speech annoyed her. 'Giles
gave the message to me, but we were talking so fast that I quite forgot
it. My cousin will have it that you are dull, and our society may cheer
you up. I do not hold with Giles. I think you are far too superior a
person to be afraid of a little solitude; strong-minded people like you
are generally fond of their own society; but all the same I hope you do
not mean to be quite a recluse.'

'We dine at seven, but I hope you will come as much earlier as you like,'
interposed Miss Hamilton. 'No one will be with us but Mr. Tudor.'

'You forget Mr. Cunliffe, Gladys,' observed Miss Darrell, in rather a
sharp voice. 'I am sure I do not know what the poor man has done to
offend you; but ever since last summer--' But here Miss Hamilton rose
with a gesture that was almost queenly, and her impassive face looked
graver than ever.

'I did not know you had invited Mr. Cunliffe, Etta, or I should certainly
have mentioned him. Good-bye, Miss Garston: we shall look for you soon
after six.'

There was something wistful in her expression; it seemed as though she
wanted me to come, and yet I was a complete stranger to her. I felt very
reluctant to dine at Gladwyn, but that look overruled me.

'I will try to come early,' was my answer, and then I drew back to let
them pass.

Miss Darrell bade me good-bye a little stiffly; something had evidently
put her out. As they went down the narrow garden path I could see she was
speaking to Miss Hamilton rather angrily, but Miss Hamilton seemed to
take no notice.

What did it all mean? I wondered; and then I suddenly bethought myself of
my other visitor. I had wholly forgotten her existence in my interest in
her beautiful sister. What could have become of Lady Betty?



CHAPTER XIV

LADY BETTY LEAVES HER MUFF


This question was speedily answered.

The gate had scarcely closed behind my visitors when I heard a gay little
laugh behind me, and Lady Betty tripped across the passage and took
possession of the easy-chair in the friendliest way.

'Now we can have a chat and be cosy all by ourselves,' she said, with
childish glee; and then she stopped and looked at me, and her rosy little
mouth began to pout, and a sort of baby frown came to her forehead.

'You don't seem pleased to see me again. Shall I go away? Are you busy,
or tired, or is there anything the matter?' asked Lady Betty, in an
extremely fractious voice.

'There is nothing the matter, and I am delighted to see you, and'--with a
sudden inspiration--'if you will be good enough to stay and have tea with
me I will ask Mrs. Barton to send in one of her excellent tea-cakes.'

This was evidently what Lady Betty wanted, for she nodded and took off
her hat, and began to unbutton her long tan-coloured gloves in a cool,
business-like way that amused me. I ran across to the kitchen, and gave
Mrs. Barton a _carte blanche_ for a sumptuous tea, and when I returned I
found Lady Betty quite divested of her walking-apparel, and patting her
dark fluffy hair to reduce it to some degree of smoothness. She had a
pretty little head, and it was covered by a mass of short curly hair that
nothing would reduce to order.

'This is just what I like,' she said promptly. 'When Giles told us about
you, and I made up my mind to call, I hoped you would ask me to stay. I
do dislike stiffness and conventionality excessively. I hope you mean to
be friends with us, Miss Garston, for I have taken rather a fancy to you,
in spite of your grave looks. Dear me! do you always look so grave?'

'Oh no,' I returned, laughing.

'That is right,' with an approving nod; 'you look ever so much nicer and
younger when you smile. Well, what did the prime minister say? Was she
very gushing and sympathetic? Did she patronise you in a ladylike way,
and pat you on the head metaphorically, until you felt ready to box her
ears? Ah! I know _la belle cousine's_ little ways.'

This was so exact a description of my conversation with Miss Darrell that
I laughed in a rather guilty fashion. Lady Betty clapped her hands
delightfully.

'Oh, I have found you out. You are not a bit solemn, really, only you put
on the airs of a sister of mercy. So you don't like Etta; you need not be
afraid of telling me so; she is the greatest humbug in the world, only
Giles is so foolish as to believe in her. I call her a humbug because she
pretends to be what she is not; she is really a most prosaic sort of
person, and she wants to make people believe that she is a soft romantic
body.'

'You are not very charitable in your estimate of your cousin, Lady
Betty,'

'Then she should not lead Gladys such a life. Poor dear majesty, to be
ruled by her prime minister! I should like to see Etta try to dictate to
me. Why, I should laugh in her face. She would not attempt it again. I
can't think how it is,' looking a little grave, 'that she has Gladys so
completely under her thumb. Gladys is too proud to own that she is afraid
of her, but all the same she never dares to act in opposition to Etta.'

Lady Betty's confidence was rather embarrassing, but I hardly knew how to
check it. I began to think the household at Gladwyn must be a very queer
one. Uncle Max had already hinted at a want of harmony between Mr.
Hamilton and his step-sisters, and Miss Darrell seemed hardly a favourite
with him, although he was too kind-hearted to say so openly.

'Has your cousin lived long with you?' I ventured to ask.

'Oh yes; ever since Gladys and I were little things; before mamma died.
Auntie lived with us too: poor auntie, we were very fond of her, but she
was a sad invalid; she died about three years ago. Etta has managed
everything ever since.'

'Do you mean that Miss Darrell is housekeeper? I should have thought that
would have been your sister's place.'

'Oh, Gladys is called the mistress of her house, but none of the servants
go to her for orders. If she gives any, Etta is sure to countermand
them,'

'It is partly Gladys's fault,' went on Lady Betty, in her frank outspoken
way. 'She tried for a little while to manage things; but either she was a
terribly bad housekeeper, or Etta undermined her influence in the house;
everything went wrong, and Giles got so angry,--men do, you know, when
the dear creatures' comforts are invaded: so there was a great fuss, and
Gladys gave it up; and now the prime minister manages the finances, and
gives out stores, and, though I hate to say it, things never went more
smoothly than they do now. Giles is scarcely ever vexed.'

I am ashamed to say how much I was interested in Lady Betty's childish
talk, and yet I knew it was wrong not to check her. What would Miss
Hamilton say if she were to hear of our conversation? Jill was rather
a reckless talker, but she was nothing compared with this daring little
creature. Lady Betty told me afterwards, when we were better acquainted,
that it had amused her so to see how widely I could open my eyes when I
was surprised. I believe she did it out of pure mischief.

Our talk was happily interrupted by the appearance of Mrs. Barton and the
tea-tray, which at once turned Lady Betty's thoughts into a new channel.

There was so much to do. First she must help to arrange the table, and,
as no one else could cut such thin bread-and-butter, she must try her
hand at that. Then Nap must have his tea before we touched ours; and when
at last we did sit down she was praising the cake, and jumping up for the
kettle, and waiting upon me 'because I was a dear good thing, and waited
on poor people,' and coaxing me to take this or that as though I were her
guest, and every now and then she paused to say 'how nice and cosy it
was,' and how she was enjoying herself, and how glad she felt to miss
that stupid dinner at Gladwyn, where no one talked but Giles and Etta,
and Gladys sat as though she were half asleep, until she, Lady Betty,
felt inclined to pinch them all.

We were approaching the dangerous subject again, but I warded it off by
asking how she and her sister employed their time.

She made a little face at me, as though the question bothered her. 'Oh,
I do things, and Gladys--does things,' rather lucidly.

'Well, but what things, may I ask?'

'Why do you want to know?' was the unexpected retort. 'I don't question
you, do I? Giles says women are dreadfully curious.'

'I think you are dreadfully mysterious; but, as you are evidently ashamed
of your occupations, I will withdraw my question.'

'I do believe you are cross, Miss Garston: you are not a saint, after
all, though Giles says you sing like a cherub: I don't know where he ever
heard one, but that is his affair. Well, as you choose to get pettish
over it, I will be amiable, and tell you what we do. Etta says we waste
our time dreadfully, but as it is our time and not hers, it is none of
her business.'

I thought it prudent to remain silent, so she wrinkled her brows and
looked perplexed.

'Gladys--let me see what Gladys does: well, she used to teach in the
schools, but she does not teach now; she says the infants make her
head ache; that is why she has dropped the Sunday-school. Now Etta
has her class. Then there was the mothers' meeting; well, I never
knew why she gave that up,--I wonder if she knows herself,--but Etta
has got it. And she has left off singing at the penny readings and
village entertainments; Etta would have replaced her there, only she has
no voice. I think she works a little for the poor people at the East End
of London, but she does it in her own room, because Etta laughs at her
and calls her 'Madam Charity.' Gladys hates that. She takes long walks,
and sketches a little, and reads a good deal; and--there, that is all I
know of her majesty's doings.'

Poor Miss Hamilton! it certainly did not sound much of a life.

'And about yourself, Lady Betty?'

'Oh, Lady Betty is here, there, and everywhere,' mimicking me in a droll
way. 'Lady Betty walks a little, talks a little, plays a little, and
dances when she gets a chance. At present, lawn-tennis is a great object
in her life; last winter, swimming in Brill's bath and riding from Hove
to Kemp Town or across the Brighton Downs were her hobbies. In the summer
a gardening craze seized her, and just now she is in an idle mood. What
does it matter? a short life and a merry one,--eh, Miss Garston?'

I would not expostulate with this civilised little heathen, for she was
evidently bent on provoking a lecture, and I determined to disappoint
her. We had sat so long over our tea that the room was quite dark, and I
rose to kindle the lamp. Lady Betty, as usual, was anxious to assist me,
and went to the window to lower the blind. The next moment I heard an
exclamation of annoyance, and as she came back to the table her little
brown face was all aglow with some suppressed irritation.

'What is the matter, Lady Betty?' I asked, in some surprise.

'It is that provoking Etta again,' she began. 'She has guessed where I
am, and has sent for me, the meddlesome old--' But here a tap at our room
door stopped her outburst.

As Lady Betty made no response, I said, 'Come in,' and immediately a
respectable-looking woman appeared in the doorway.

She looked like a superior lady's-maid, and had a plain face much marked
by the smallpox, and rather dull light-coloured eyes.

'Well, Leah,' demanded Lady Betty, rather sulkily, 'what is your business
with Miss Garston?'

'My business is with you, Lady Betty,' returned the woman
good-humouredly. 'Master came in just now and asked where you were;
I think he told Miss Darrell that it was too late for you to be out
walking: so Miss Darrell said she believed you were at the White Cottage,
for she saw your muff lying on Miss Garston's table; so she told me to
step up here, as it was too dark for you to walk alone, and I was to tell
you that they would be waiting dinner.'

'It is just like her interference,' muttered Lady Betty. 'But I suppose
there would be a pretty fuss if I let the dinner spoil. Help me on with
my jacket, Leah; as you have come when no one wanted you, you had better
make yourself useful.'

She spoke with the peremptoriness of a spoiled child, but the woman
smiled pleasantly and did as she was bid. She seemed a civil sort of
person, evidently an old family servant. Something had struck me in her
speech. Miss Darrell had seen Lady Betty's muff, and knew of her presence
in the cottage, and yet she had made no remark on the subject; this
seemed strange, but would she not wonder still more at my silence?

'Lady Betty,' I said hastily, as this occurred to me, 'your cousin will
think it odd that I never spoke of you this afternoon; but you ran out of
the room so quickly, and then I forgot all about it.'

'Oh, Etta will know I was only playing at hide-and-seek. Most likely she
will think I bound you to secrecy. What a goose I was to leave my muff
behind me,--the very one Etta gave me, too! why, she would see a pin;
nothing escapes her: does it, Leah?'

'Not much, Lady Betty: she has fine eyes for dust, I tell her. The new
housemaid had better be careful with her room. Now, ma'am, if you are
ready?'

'Good-bye, Miss Garston; we shall meet to-morrow,' returned Lady Betty,
standing on tiptoe to kiss me, and as they went out I heard her say in
quite a friendly manner to Leah, as though she had already forgotten her
grievance,--

'Is not Miss Garston nice, Leah? She has got such a kind face.' But I did
not hear Leah's reply.

I had not seen the last of my visitors, for about an hour afterwards, as
I was finishing a long chatty letter to Jill, there was the sharp click
of the gate again, and Uncle Max came in.

'Are you busy, Ursula?' he said apologetically, as I looked up in some
surprise. 'I only called in as I was passing. I am going on to the
Myers's: old Mr. Myers is ill and wants to see me.' But for all that
Max drew his accustomed chair to the fire, and looked at the blazing
pine-knot a little dreamily.

'You keep good fires,' was his next remark. 'It is very cold to-night:
there is a touch of frost in the air; Tudor was saying so just now. So
you have had the ladies from Gladwyn here this afternoon?'

'How do you know that?' I asked, in a sharp pouncing voice, for I was
keeping that bit of news for a tidbit.

'Oh, I met them,' he returned absently, 'and they told me that you were
to dine with them to-morrow. I call that nice and friendly, asking you
without ceremony. What time shall you be ready, Ursula? for of course I
shall not let you go alone the first time.'

I was glad to hear this, for, though I was not a shy person, my first
visit to Gladwyn would be a little formidable; so I told him briefly that
I would be ready by half-past six, as they wished me to go early, and it
would never do to be formal on my side. And then I gave him an account of
Lady Betty's visit, but it did not seem to interest him much: in fact, I
do not believe that he listened very attentively.

'She is an odd little being,' he said, rather absently, 'and prides
herself on being as unconventional as possible. They have spoiled her
among them, Hamilton especially, but her droll ways amuse him. She has
sulked with me lately because I will not give in to her absurd fad about
Lady Betty. I tell her that she ought not to be ashamed of her baptismal
name; the angels will call her by it one day.'

'She is very amusing. I think I shall like her, Max; but Miss Darrell
does not please me. She is far too gushing and talkative for my taste;
she patronised and repressed me in the same breath. If there is anything
I dislike, it is to be patted on the head by a stranger.'

'Miss Hamilton did not pat you on the head, I suppose.'

'Miss Hamilton! Oh dear, no; she is of another calibre. I have quite
fallen in love with her: her face is perfect, only rather too pale, and
her manners are so gentle, and yet she has plenty of dignity; she reminds
me of Clytie, only her expression is not so contented and restful: she
looks far too melancholy for a girl of her age.'

'Pshaw!' he said, rather impatiently, but I noticed he looked
uncomfortable. 'What can have put such ideas in your head?--you have
only seen her twice: you could not expect her to smile in church.'

Max seemed so thoroughly put out by my remark that I thought it better
to qualify my speech. 'Most likely Miss Darrell had been nagging at her.'

His face cleared up directly. 'Depend upon it, that was the reason she
looked so grave,' he said, with an air of relief. 'Miss Darrell can say
ill-tempered things sometimes. Miss Hamilton is never as lively as Miss
Elizabeth; she is always quiet and thoughtful; some girls are like that,
they are not sparkling and frothy.'

I let him think that I accepted this statement as gospel, but in my heart
I thought I had never seen a sadder face than that of Gladys Hamilton; to
me it looked absolutely joyless, as though some strange blight had fallen
on her youth. I kept these thoughts to myself, like a wise woman, and
when Max looked at me rather searchingly, as though he expected a verbal
assent, I said, 'Yes, you are right, some girls are like that,' and left
him to glean my meaning out of this parrot-like sentence.

I could make nothing of Max this evening: he seemed restless and ill at
ease; now and then he fell into a brown study and roused himself with
difficulty. I was almost glad when he took his leave at last, for I had
a feeling somehow--and a curious feeling it was--that we were talking at
cross-purposes, and that our speeches seemed to be lost hopelessly in a
mental fog; the cipher to our meaning seemed missing.

But he bade me good-night as affectionately as though I had done him a
world of good: and when he had gone I sat down to my piano and sang all
my old favourite songs, until the lateness of the hour warned me to
extinguish my lamp and retire to bed.

I was just sinking into a sweet sleep when I heard Nathaniel's voice
bidding some one good-night, and in another moment I could hear firm
quick footsteps down the gravel walk, followed by Nap's joyous bark.

Mr. Hamilton had been in the house all the time I had been amusing
myself. I do not know why the idea annoyed me so. 'How I wish he would
keep away sometimes!' I thought fretfully. 'He will think I am practising
for to-morrow: I will not sing if they press me to do so.' And with this
ill-natured resolve I fell asleep.

My dinner-engagement obliged me to go to Phoebe quite early in the
afternoon. Miss Locke looked surprised as she opened the door, but she
greeted me with a pleased smile.

'Phoebe will hardly be looking for you yet,' she said, leading the way
into the kitchen in the evident expectation of a chat; 'she did finely
yesterday in spite of her missing you; when I went in to her in the
morning she quite took my breath away by asking if there were not an
easier chair in the house for you to use. "'Deed and there is, Phoebe,
woman," said I, quite pleased, for the poor thing is far too
uncomfortable herself to look after other people's comforts, and it was
such a new thing to hear her speak like that: so I fetched father's big
elbow-chair with a cushion or two and his little wooden footstool, and
there it stands ready for you this afternoon.'

'That was very thoughtful of Phoebe,' was my reply.

'Well, now, I thought you would be pleased, though it is only a trifle.
But that is not all. Widow Drayton was sitting with me last afternoon,
when all at once she puts up her finger and says, "Hark! Is not that your
Kitty's voice?" And so I stole out into the passage to listen. And there,
to be sure, was Kitty singing most beautifully some of the hymns you sang
to Phoebe; and if she could not make out all the words she just went on
with the tune, like a little bird, and Phoebe lay and listened to her,
and all the time--as I could see through the crack of the door--her eyes
were fixed on the picture you gave her, and I said to myself, "Phoebe,
woman, this is as it should be. You may yet learn wisdom out of the lips
of babes and sucklings."'

'I am very glad to hear all this, Miss Locke,' I returned cheerfully.
'Kitty will be able to take my place sometimes. She will be a valuable
little ally. Now, as my time is limited, I will go to Phoebe.'

I was much struck by the changed expression on Phoebe's face as soon
as I had entered the room. She certainly looked very ill, and when I
questioned her avowed she had suffered a good deal of pain in the night;
but the wild hard look had left her eyes. There was intense depression,
but that was all.

She evidently enjoyed the singing as much as ever: and I took care to
sing my best. When I had finished I produced a story that I thought
suitable, and began to read to her. She listened for about half an hour
before she showed a symptom of weariness. At the first sign I stopped.

'Will you do something to please me in return?' I asked, when she had
thanked me very civilly. 'I want you to go on with this book by yourself
now. I know what you are going to say--that you never read--that it makes
your head ache and tires you. But, if you care to please me, you will
waive all these objections, and we can talk over the story to-morrow.'
Then I told her about my invitation for this evening, and about the
beautiful Miss Hamilton, whose sweet face had interested me. And when we
had chatted quite comfortably for a little while I rose to take my leave.

Of course she could not let me go without one sharp little word.

'You have been kinder to me to-day,' she said, pausing slightly. 'I
suppose that is because I let you take your own way with me.'

'Every one likes his own way,' I said lightly. 'If I have been kinder to
you, as you say, possibly it is because you have deserved kindness more.'
And I smiled at her and patted the thin hand, as though she were a child,
and so 'went on my way rejoicing,' as they say in the good old Book.



CHAPTER XV

UP AT GLADWYN


Uncle Max had never been famous for punctuality. He was slightly Bohemian
in his habits, and rather given to desultory bachelor ways; but his
domestic timekeeper, Mrs. Drabble, ruled him most despotically in the
matter of meals, and it was amusing to see how she kept him and Mr. Tudor
in order: neither of them ventured to keep the dinner waiting, for fear
of the housekeeper's black looks; such an offence they knew would be
expiated by cold fish and burnt-up steaks. Uncle Max might invite the
bishop to dine, but if his lordship chose to be late Mrs. Drabble would
take no pains to keep her dinner hot.

'If gentlemen like to shilly-shally with their food, they must take
things as they find them,' she would say; and if her master ever ventured
to remonstrate with her, she took care that he should suffer for it for a
week.

'We must humour Mother Drabble,' Mr. Tudor would say good-humouredly.
'Every one has a crotchet, and, after all, she is a worthy little woman,
and makes us very comfortable. I never knew what good cooking meant until
I came to the vicarage.' And indeed Mrs. Drabble's custards and flaky
crust were famed in the village. Miss Darrell had once begged very humbly
that her cook Parker might take a lesson from her, but Mrs. Drabble
refused point-blank.

'There were those who liked to teach others, and plenty of them, but she
was one who minded her own business and kept her own recipes. If Miss
Darrell wanted a custard made she was willing to do it for her and
welcome, but she wanted no gossiping prying cooks about her kitchen.'

As I knew Max's peculiarity, I was somewhat surprised when, long before
the appointed time, Mrs. Barton came up and told me that Mr. Cunliffe was
in the parlour. I had commenced my toilet in rather a leisurely fashion,
but now I made haste to join him, and ran downstairs as quickly as
possible, carrying my fur-lined cloak over my arm.

'You look very nice, my dear,' he said, in quite fatherly fashion. 'Have
I ever seen that gown before?'

The gown in point had been given to me by Lesbia, and had been made in
Paris: it was one of those thin black materials that make up into a
charming demi-toilette, and was a favourite gown with me.

I always remember the speech Lesbia made as she showed it to me. 'When
you put on this gown, Ursula, you must think of the poor little woman
who hoped to have been your sister.' This was one of the pretty little
speeches that she often made. Poor dear Lesbia! she always did things so
gracefully. In Charlie's lifetime I had thought her cold and frivolous,
for she had not then folded up her butterfly wings; but even then she
was always doing kind little things.

It was a dark night, neither moon nor stars to be seen, and after we had
passed the church the darkness seemed to envelop us, and I could barely
distinguish the path. Max seemed quite oblivious of this fact, for he
would persist in pointing out invisible objects of interest. I was told
of the wide stretch of country that lay on the right, and how freshly the
soft breezes blew over the downs.

'There is the asylum, Ursula,' he observed cheerfully, waving his hand
towards the black outline. 'Now we are passing Colonel Maberley's house,
and here is Gladwyn. I wish you could have seen it by daylight.'

I wished so too, for on entering the shrubbery the darkness seemed to
swallow us up bodily, and the heavy oak door might have belonged to a
prison. The sharp clang of the bell made me shiver, and Dante's lines
came into my mind rather inopportunely, 'All ye who enter here, leave
hope behind.' But as soon as the door opened the scene was changed like
magic; the long hall was deliciously warm and light: it looked almost
like a corridor, with its dark marble figures holding sconces, and small
carved tables between them.

'I will wait for you here, Ursula,' whispered Uncle Max; and I went off
in charge of the same maid that I had seen before. Lady Betty had called
her Leah, and as I followed her upstairs I thought of that tender-eyed
Leah who had been an unloved wife.

Leah was very civil, but I thought her manner bordered on familiarity:
perhaps she had lived long in the family, and was treated more as a
friend than a servant. She was an exceedingly plain young woman, and her
light eyes had a curious lack of expression in them, and yet, like Miss
Darrell's, they seemed able to see everything.

Seeing me glance round the room,--it was a large, handsomely furnished
bedroom, with a small dressing-room attached to it,--she said, 'This is
Miss Darrell's room. Mrs. Darrell used to occupy it, and Miss Etta slept
in the dressing-room, but ever since her mother's death she has had both
rooms.'

'Indeed,' was my brief reply: but I could not help thinking that Miss
Darrell had very pleasant and roomy quarters. There were evidences of
luxury everywhere, from the bevelled glass of the walnut-wood wardrobe to
the silver-mounted dressing-case and ivory brushes on the toilet-table. A
pale embroidered tea-gown lay across the couch, and a book that looked
very much like a French novel was thrown beside it. Miss Darrell was
evidently a Sybarite in her tastes.

Uncle Max was waiting for me at the foot of the stairs, and took me into
the drawing-room at once.

To our surprise, we found Miss Hamilton there alone. The room was only
dimly lighted, and she was sitting in a large carved chair beside the
fire with an open book in her lap.

I wonder if Max noticed how like a picture she looked. She was dressed
very simply in a soft creamy cashmere, and her fair hair was piled up on
her head in regal fashion: the smooth plaits seemed to crown her; a
little knot of red berries that had been carelessly fastened against her
throat was the only colour about her; but she looked more like Clytie
than ever, and again I told myself that I had never seen a sweeter face.

She greeted me with gentle warmth, but she hardly looked at Max; her
white lids dropped over her eyes whenever he addressed her, and when she
answered him she seemed to speak in a more measured voice than usual. Max
too appeared extremely nervous; instead of sitting down, he stood upon
the bear-skin rug and fidgeted with some tiny Chinese ornaments on the
mantelpiece. Neither of them appeared at ease: was it possible that they
were not friends?

'You are not often to be found in solitude, Miss Hamilton,' observed Max;
and it struck me his voice was a little peculiar. 'I do not think I have
ever seen you sitting alone in this room before.'

'No,' she answered quickly, and then she went on in rather a hesitating
manner: 'Etta and Lady Betty have been shopping in Brighton, and they
came back by a late train, and now Etta is shut up with Giles in his
study. Some letters that came by this morning's post had to be answered.'

'Miss Darrell is Hamilton's secretary, is she not?'

'She writes a good many of his letters. Giles is rather idle about
correspondence, and she helps him with his business and accounts. Etta
is an extremely busy person.'

'Miss Hamilton used to be busy too,' returned Max quietly. 'I always
considered you an example to our ladies. I lost one of my best workers
when I lost you.'

A painful colour came into Miss Hamilton's face.

'Oh no,' she protested, rather feebly. 'Etta is far cleverer than I at
parish work. Teaching does not make her head ache.'

'Yours used not to ache last summer,' persisted Uncle Max, but she did
not seem to hear him. She had turned to me, and there was almost an
appealing look in her beautiful eyes, as though she were begging me to
talk.

'Oh, do you know, Miss Garston,' she said nervously, 'that Giles was very
nearly sending for you last night? He was with Mrs. Blagrove's little
girl until five this morning; the poor little creature died at half-past
four, and he told us that he thought half a dozen times of sending for
you.'

'I wish he had done so. I should have been so glad to help.'

'Yes, he knew that, but he said it would have been such a shame rousing
you out of your warm bed; and he had not the heart to do it. So he
stopped on himself; there was really nothing to be done, but the parents
were in such a miserable state that he did not like to leave them. He was
so tired this afternoon that he dropped asleep instead of writing his
letters: that is why Etta has to do them.'

'Who is talking about Etta?' observed Miss Darrell, coming in at that
moment, with a quick rustle of her silk skirt, looking as well-dressed,
self-possessed, and full of assurance as ever. 'Why are you good people
sitting in the dark? Thornton would have lighted the candles if you had
rung, Gladys; but I suppose you forgot, and were dreaming over the fire
as usual. Miss Garston, I suppose I ought to apologise for being late,
but we are such busy people here; every moment is of value; and though
Gladys asked you to come early, I never thought you would be so good as
to do so. Friendly people are scarce, are they not, Mr. Cunliffe? By the
bye,' holding up a taper finger loaded with sparkling rings, 'I have a
scolding in store for you. Why did you not examine my class as usual last
Sunday?--the children tell me you never came near them.'

'I had so little time that I asked Tudor to take the classes for me,' he
returned quickly, but he was looking at Miss Hamilton as he spoke. 'I am
always sure of the children in that class: they have been so thoroughly
well taught that there is very little need for me to interfere.'

'It would encourage their teachers if you were to do so,' returned Miss
Darrell, smiling graciously. She evidently appropriated the praise to
herself, but I am sure Uncle Max was not thinking of her when he spoke.
Just then Lady Betty came into the room, followed by Mr. Tudor.

Lady Betty looked almost pretty to-night. She wore a dark ruby velveteen
that exactly suited her brown skin; her fluffy hair was tolerably smooth,
and she had a bright colour. She came and sat down beside me at once.

'Oh, I am so vexed that we are so late! but it was all Etta's fault: she
would look in at every shop-window, and so of course we lost the proper
train.'

'What does the child say?' asked Miss Darrell good-humouredly. She seemed
in excellent spirits this evening; but how silent Miss Hamilton had
become since her entrance! 'Of course poor Etta is blamed; she always is
if anything goes wrong in the house; Etta is the family scapegoat. But
who was it, I wonder, who wanted another turn on the pier? Not Etta,
certainly.'

'Just as though those few minutes would have mattered; and I did want
another look at the sea,' returned Lady Betty pettishly; 'but no, you
preferred those stupid shops. That is why I hate to go into Brighton with
you.' But Miss Darrell only laughed at this flimsy display of wrath.

Just then Mr. Tudor had taken the other vacant chair beside me. 'How is
the village nurse?' he asked, in his bright way. I certainly liked Mr.
Tudor, he had such a pleasant, friendly way with him, and on his part he
seemed always glad to see me. If I had ever talked slang, I might have
said that we chummed together famously. He was a year younger than
myself, and I took advantage of this to give him advice in an
elder-sisterly fashion.

'You must take care that the clergy do not spoil the village nurse,'
observed Miss Darrell, who had overheard him, and this time the taper
finger was uplifted against Mr. Tudor.

'Oh, there is no fear of that,' he returned manfully; 'Miss Garston is
too sensible to allow herself to be spoiled; but it is quite right that
we all should make much of her.'

'We will ask Giles if he agrees with this,' replied Miss Darrell, in
a funny voice, and at that moment Mr. Hamilton entered the room.

I do not know why I thought he looked nicer that evening: one thing, I
had never seen him in evening dress, and it suited him better than his
rough tweed; he was quieter and less abrupt in manner, more dignified and
less peremptory, but he certainly looked very tired.

He accosted me rather gravely, I thought, though he said that he was glad
to see me at Gladwyn. His first remark after this was to complain of the
lateness of the dinner.

'Parker is not very punctual this evening, Etta,' he observed, looking
at his watch.

'I think it was our fault, Giles,' returned his cousin plaintively. 'We
kept Thornton such a long time in the study, and no doubt that is the
cause of the delay. Parker is seldom a minute behindhand; punctuality is
her chief point, as Mrs. Edmonstone told me when I engaged her. You see,'
turning to Uncle Max, 'we are such a regular household that the least
deviation in our nature quite throws us into confusion. I am so sorry,
Giles, I am, indeed; but will you ring for Thornton, and that will remind
him of his duty?'

Miss Darrell's submissive speech evidently disarmed Mr. Hamilton, and
deprived him of his Englishman's right to grumble to his womankind: so he
said, quite amiably, that they would wait for Parker's pleasure a little
longer, and then relapsed into silence.

The next moment I saw him looking at me with rather an odd expression;
it was as though he were regarding a stranger whom he had not seen
before; I suppose the term 'taking stock' would explain my meaning.
Just then dinner was announced, and he gave me his arm.

The dining-room was very large and lofty, and was furnished in dark oak.
A circular seat with velvet cushions ran round the deep bay-window. A
small oval table stood before it. Dark ruby curtains closed in the bay.

My first speech to Mr. Hamilton was to regret that he had not sent for me
the previous night.

'Oh no,' he said pleasantly. 'I am quite glad now that your rest was
not disturbed.' And then he went on looking at me with the same queer
expression that his face had worn before.

'Do you know, Miss Garston, your remark quite startled me? Somehow
I do not seem to recognise my nurse to-night. When I came into the
drawing-room just now I thought there was a strange young lady sitting
by Tudor.'

Of course I was curious to know what he meant; but he positively refused
to enlighten me, and went on speaking about his poor little patient.

'She was an only child; but nothing could have saved her. The Blagroves
are well-to-do people,--Brighton shopkeepers,--so they hardly come under
the category of your patients. Miss Garston, you call yourself a servant
of the poor, do you not?'

'I should not refuse to help any one who really needed it,' was my reply.
'But, of course, if people can afford to hire service I should think my
labour thrown away on them.'

'Ah! just so. But now and then we meet with a case where hirelings can
give no comfort. With the Blagroves, for example, there was nothing to be
done but just to watch the child's feeble life ebb away. A miracle only
could have saved her; but all the same it was impossible to go away and
leave them. They were young people, and had never seen death before.'

I was surprised to hear him speak with so much feeling. And I liked that
expression 'servant of the poor.' It sounded to me as though he had at
last grasped my meaning, and that I had nothing more to fear from his
sarcasm.

I wondered what had wrought such a sudden change in him, for I had only
worked such a few days. Certainly it would make things far easier if I
could secure him as an ally; and I began to hope that we should go on
more smoothly in the future.

Mr. Hamilton was evidently a man whom it would take long to know. His was
by no means a character easy to read. One would be sure to be startled by
new developments and curious contradictions. I had known him only for ten
days; but then we had met constantly in that short time. I had seen him
hard in manner and soft in speech, cool, critical, and disparaging, at
one moment satirical and provoking, the next full of thoughtfulness and
readiness to help. No wonder I found it difficult to comprehend him.

When we had finished discussing the Blagroves, Mr. Hamilton turned
his attention to his other guests, and tried to promote the general
conversation: this left me at liberty to make my own observations.

Miss Hamilton sat at the top of the table facing her brother, and Uncle
Max and Mr. Tudor were beside her; but she did not speak to either of
them unless they addressed her, and her replies seemed to be very brief.
If I had been less interested in her I might have accused her of want of
animation, for it is hardly playing the _rôle_ of a hostess to look
beautiful and be chary of words and smiles.

It was impossible to attribute her silence to absence of mind, for she
followed with grave attention every word that was spoken; but for some
inexplicable reason she had withdrawn into herself. Uncle Max left her
to herself after a time, and began to talk politics with Mr. Hamilton,
and Mr. Tudor was soon compelled to follow his example.

Poor Mr. Tudor! I rather pitied him, for his other neighbour, Lady Betty,
had turned suddenly very sulky, and I had my surmises that Miss Darrell
had said something to affront her; for she made snapping little answers
when any one spoke to her, and, though they laughed at her, and nobody
seemed to mind, most likely they thought it prudent to give her time to
recover herself.

Miss Darrell's radiant good-humour was a strange contrast to her two
cousins' silence. She threw herself gallantly into the breach, and talked
fast and well on every topic broached by the gentlemen. She was evidently
clever and well read, and had dabbled in literature and politics.

Her energy and vivacity were almost fatiguing. She seemed able to keep up
two or three conversations at once. The lowest whisper did not escape her
ear; if Mr. Hamilton spoke to me, I saw her watchful eye on us, and she
joined in at once with a sprightly word or two; the next moment she was
answering Uncle Max, who had at last hazarded a remark to his silent
neighbour. Miss Hamilton had no time to reply; her cousin's laugh and
ready word were before her.

I found the same thing happen when Mr. Tudor addressed me: before he had
finished his sentence she had challenged the attention of the table.

'Giles,' she said good-humouredly, 'do you know what Mr. Tudor said in
the drawing-room just now, that it was the bounden duty of the Heathfield
folk to spoil and make much of Miss Garston?'

Both Mr. Tudor and I looked confused at this audacious speech, but he
tried to defend himself as well as he could.

'No, no, Miss Darrell, that was not quite what I said; the whole style
of the sentence is too laboured to belong to me: "bounden duty,"--no, it
does not sound like me at all.'

'We need not quarrel about terms,' she persisted; 'your meaning was just
the same. Come, Mr. Tudor, you cannot unsay your own words, that it was
right for you all to make much of Miss Garston.'

I thought this was spoken in the worst possible taste, and I am sure Mr.
Hamilton thought so too, for he smiled slightly and said, 'Nonsense,
Etta! you let your tongue run away with you. I daresay that was not
Tudor's meaning at all; he is the most matter-of-fact fellow I know, and
could not coin a compliment to save his life. Besides which, I expect he
has found out by this time that it would be rather difficult to spoil
Miss Garston. That cuts both ways, eh!' looking at me rather
mischievously.

'Oh, if all the gentlemen are in conspiracy to defend Miss Garston, I
will say no more,' returned Miss Darrell, with a shrug, but she did not
say it quite pleasantly. 'Gladys dear, I think we had better retire
before I am quite crushed: Giles's frown has quite flattened me out. Miss
Garston, if you are ready,' making me a mocking little courtesy; but Miss
Hamilton waited for me at the door and linked her arm in mine, taking
possession of me in a graceful way that evidently pleased Max, for he
looked at us smiling.

'Come into the conservatory, Gladys,' whispered Lady Betty in her
sister's ear. 'Etta has a cold coming on, and will be afraid of following
us.'

The conservatory led out of the drawing-room, and was lighted by coloured
lamps that gave a pretty effect; it was full of choice flowers, and two
or three cane chairs filled up the centre. It was not so warm as the
drawing-room, certainly, but it was pleasant to sit there in the dim
perfumed atmosphere and peep through the open window at the firelight.
Miss Darrell followed us to the window with a discontented air.

'I hope you are not going to stay there many minutes, Gladys: you will
certainly give yourself and Miss Garston a bad cold if you do. There is
something wrong with the warming-apparatus, and Giles says it will be
some days before it will be properly warmed. I thought I told you so this
morning.'

'I do not think Miss Garston will take cold, Etta, and it is very
pleasant here'; but, though Miss Darrell retreated from the window, I
think we all felt as much constrained as though she had joined us, for
not a word could escape her ears if she chose to listen.

But this fact did not seem to daunt Lady Betty for long, for she soon
began chattering volubly to us both.

'I am not so cross now as I was,' she said frankly. 'I am afraid I was
very rude to Mr. Tudor at dinner; but what could I do when Etta was so
impertinent? No, she is not there, Gladys; she has gone out of the room,
looking as cross as possible. But what do you think she said to me?'

'Never mind telling us what she said, dear,' returned Miss Hamilton
soothingly.

'Oh, but I want to tell Miss Garston: she looks dreadfully curious, and
I do not like her to think me cross for nothing. I am not like that, am
I, Gladys? Well, just before we went in to dinner, she begged me in a
whisper not to talk quite so much to Mr. Tudor as I had done last time.
Now, what do you want, Leah?' pulling herself up rather abruptly.

'I have only brought you some shawls, Lady Betty, as Miss Darrell says
the conservatory is so cold. She has told Thornton to mention to his
master when he takes in the coffee that Miss Gladys is sitting here, and
she hopes he will forbid it.'

'You can take away the shawls, Leah,' returned Miss Hamilton quietly, but
there was a scornful look on her pale face as she spoke. 'We are not
going to remain here, since Miss Darrell is so anxious about our health.
Shall we come in, Miss Garston? Perhaps it is a trifle chilly here.' And,
seeing how the wind blew, and that Miss Darrell was determined to have
her way in the matter, I acquiesced silently; but I was not a bit
surprised to see Lady Betty stamp her little foot as she followed us.

Miss Darrell was lying back on a velvet lounge, and welcomed us with
a provoking smile.

'I thought the threat of telling Giles would bring you in, Gladys,' she
said, laughing. 'What a foolish child you are to be so reckless of your
health! Every one knows Gladys is delicate,' she went on, turning to me;
'everything gives her cold. Giles has been obliged to forbid her
attending evening service this winter: you were terribly rebellious about
it, were you not, my dear? but of course Giles had his way. No one in
this house ventures to disobey him.'

Miss Hamilton did not answer: she was standing looking into the fire, and
her lips were set firmly as though nothing would make her unclose them.

'Oh, do sit down,' continued her cousin pettishly; 'it gives one such an
uncomfortable feeling when a tall person stands like a statue before
one.' And as Miss Hamilton quietly seated herself, she went on, 'Don't
you think religious people are far more self-willed than worldly ones,
Miss Garston? I daresay you are self-willed yourself. Gladys made as much
fuss about giving up evening service as though her salvation depended on
her going twice or three times a day. "What is to prevent you reading the
service in your own room?" I used to say to her. "It cannot be your duty
to disobey your brother and make yourself ill."'

'The illness lay in your own imagination, Etta,' observed Miss Hamilton
coldly. 'Giles would never have found out my chest was delicate if you
had not told him so.'

Miss Darrell gave her favourite little shrug, and inspected her rings.

'See what thanks I get for my cousinly care,' she said good-humouredly.
'I suppose, Gladys, you were vexed with me for telling him that you were
working yourself to death,--that the close air of the schoolroom made
your head ache, and that so much singing was too much for your strength.'

'If you please, Etta, we will talk about some other subject; my health,
or want of health, will not interest Miss Garston.' She spoke with
dignity, and then, turning to me with a winning smile, 'Giles has told me
about your singing. Will you be good enough to sing something to us? It
would be a great pleasure: both Lady Betty and I are so fond of music.'

'Miss Garston looks very tired, Gladys; it is almost selfish to ask her,'
observed Miss Darrell softly; and then I knew that Miss Hamilton's
request did not please her.

I had vowed to myself that no amount of pressing should induce me to sing
that evening, but I could not have refused that gentle solicitation. As I
unbuttoned my gloves and took my place at the grand piano, I determined
that I would sing anything and everything that Miss Hamilton wished; Miss
Darrell should not silence me; and with this resolve hot on me I
commenced the opening bars of 'The Lost Chord,' and before I had finished
the song Miss Hamilton had crept into the corner beside me, and remained
there as motionless as though my singing had turned her into stone.



CHAPTER XVI

GLADYS


I do not know how the majority of people feel when they sing, but with me
the love of music was almost a passion. I could forget my audience in a
moment, and would be scarcely aware if the room were empty or crowded.

For example, on this evening I had no idea that the gentlemen had entered
the room, and the first intimation of the fact was conveyed to me by
hearing a 'Bravo!' uttered by Mr. Hamilton under his breath.

'But you must not leave off,' he went on, quite earnestly. 'I want you to
treat us as you treat poor Phoebe Locke, and sing one song after another
until you are tired.'

I was about to refuse this request very civilly but decidedly, for I
had no notion of obeying such an arbitrary command, when Miss Hamilton
touched my arm.

'Oh, do please go on singing as Giles says: it is such a pleasure to hear
you.' And after this I could no longer refuse.

So I sang one song after another, chiefly from memory, and sometimes I
could hear a soft clapping of hands, and sometimes there was breathless
silence, and a curious feeling came over me as I sang. I thought that the
only person to whom I was singing was Miss Hamilton, and that I was
pleading with her to tell me the reason of her sadness, and why there was
such a weary, hopeless look in her eyes, when the world was so young with
her and the God-given gift of beauty was hers.

I was singing as though she and I were alone in the room, when Max
suddenly whispered in my ear, 'That will do, Ursula,' and as soon as the
verse concluded I left off. But before I could rise Miss Darrell was
beside us.

'Oh, thank you so much, Miss Garston; you are very amiable to sing so
long. Giles was certainly loud in your praises, but I was hardly prepared
for such a treat. Why, Gladys dear, have you been crying? What an
impressionable child you are! Miss Garston has not contrived to draw
tears from my eyes.'

But, without making any reply, Miss Hamilton quietly left the room. Were
her eyes wet, I wonder? Was that why Max stopped me? Did he want to
shield her from her cousin's sharp scrutiny? If so, he failed.

'It is such a pity Gladys is so foolishly sensitive,' she went on,
addressing Uncle Max: 'natures of this sort are quite unfit for the stern
duties of life. I am quite uneasy about her sometimes, am I not, Giles?
Her spirits are so uneven, and she has so little strength. Parochial work
nearly killed her, Mr. Cunliffe. You said yourself how ill she looked in
the summer.'

'True; but I never thought the work hurt her,' replied Max, rather
bluntly. 'I think it was a mistake for Miss Hamilton to give up all her
duties; occupation is good for every one.'

'That is my opinion,' observed Mr. Hamilton. 'Etta is always making a
fuss about Gladys's health, but I tell her there is not the least reason
for alarm; many people not otherwise delicate take cold easily. It is
true I advised her to give up evening service for a few weeks until she
got stronger.'

'Indeed!' And here Max looked a little perplexed. 'I thought you told me,
Miss Darrell, that your cousin found our service too long and wearisome,
and this was the reason she stayed away.'

'Oh no; you must have misunderstood me,' returned Miss Darrell, flushing
a little. 'Gladys may have said she liked a shorter sermon in the
evening, but that was hardly her reason for staying away; at least--'

'Of course not. What nonsense you talk, Etta!' observed Mr. Hamilton
impatiently. 'You know what a trouble I had to coax Gladys to stay at
home; she was rather obstinate about it,--as girls are,--but I asked her
as a special favour to myself to remain.'

Max's face cleared up surprisingly, and as Miss Hamilton at that moment
re-entered the room, he accosted her almost eagerly.

'Miss Hamilton, we have been talking about you in your absence; your
brother and I have been agreeing that it is really a great pity that you
should have given up all your parish duties; it is a little hard on us
all, is it not, Tudor? Your brother declares occupation will do you good.
Now, I am sure your cousin will not have the slightest objection to give
up your old class, and she can take Miss Matthews's, and then I shall
have two good workers instead of one.'

For an instant Miss Hamilton hesitated; her face relaxed, and she looked
at Max a little wistfully; but Miss Darrell interposed in her sprightly
way:

'Do as you like, Gladys dear. Mr. Cunliffe will be too glad of your help,
I am sure, as he sees how much you wish it. We all think you are fretting
after your old scholars; home duties are not exciting enough, and even
Giles notices how dull you are. Oh, you shall have my class with
pleasure; anything to see you happy, love. Shall we make the exchange
to-morrow?'

'No, thank you, Etta; I think things had better be as they are.' And
Miss Hamilton walked away proudly, and spoke to Mr. Tudor; the sudden
brightness in her face had dimmed, and I was near enough to see that her
hand trembled.

'There, you see,' observed Miss Darrell complacently. 'I have done my
best to persuade her in public and private to amuse herself and not give
way to her feelings of lassitude. "Do a little, but not much," I have
often said to her; but with Gladys it must be all or none.'

'Ursula, do you know how late it is?' asked Max, coming up to me. He
looked suddenly very tired, and I saw at once that he wished me to go: so
I made my adieux as quickly as possible, and in a few minutes we had left
the house, accompanied by Mr. Tudor.

Uncle Max was very quiet all the way home. I had expected him to be full
of questions as to how I had enjoyed my evening, but his only remark was
to ask if I were very tired, and then he left me to Mr. Tudor.

'Well, how do you like the folks up at Gladwyn?' demanded Mr. Tudor.
'Lady Betty was not in the best of humours to-night, and hardly deigned
to speak to me; but I am sure you must have admired Miss Hamilton.'

'I like both of them,' was my temperate reply: 'you must not be hard on
poor little Lady Betty. Miss Darrell had been lecturing her, and that
made her cross.'

'So I supposed,' was the prompt answer. 'Well, what did you think of the
Dare-all,--as the vicar calls her sometimes? is she not like a pleasant
edition of Tupper's _Proverbial Philosophy_,--verbose and full of long
sentences? How many words did she coin to-night, do you think?'

There was a little scorn in the young man's voice. Miss Darrell was
evidently not a favourite in the vicarage, yet most people would have
called her elegant and well-mannered, and, if she had no beauty, she was
not bad-looking. She was so exceedingly well made up, and her style of
dress was so suitable to her face, that I was not surprised to hear
afterwards from Lady Betty that many people thought her cousin Etta
handsome. Now when Mr. Tudor made this spiteful little speech I felt
rather pleased, for my dislike to Miss Darrell had increased rather
than diminished by the evening's experiences; under her smooth speeches
there lurked an antagonistic spirit; something had prejudiced her against
me even at our first meeting; I was convinced that she did not like me,
and would not encourage my visit to Gladwyn. Mr. Tudor and I talked a
good deal about Lady Betty; he described her as most whimsical and
sound-hearted, half-child and half-woman, with a touch of the brownie;
her brother often called her Brownie, or little Nix, to tease her. She
was very fond of her sister, he went on to say, but there was not much
companionship between them. Miss Hamilton was very intellectual, and read
a good deal, and Lady Betty never read anything but novels; they all made
a pet of her,--even Mr. Hamilton, who was not much given to pets,--but
she was hardly an influence in the house.

'She has not backbone enough,' he finished, 'and the Dare-all rules them
all with a rod of iron--"cased in velvet."'

Uncle Max listened to all this in silence, and as they parted with me at
the gate of the White Cottage he only said 'Good-night, Ursula,' in a
depressed voice. He was evidently rather cast down about something;
perhaps Miss Hamilton's decision had disappointed him; she had been
his favourite worker, and had helped him greatly; he seemed to feel it
hard that she should withdraw her services so suddenly. How wistfully she
had looked at him as he pleaded with her! it was the first time I had
seen her look at him of her own accord, and yet she had denied his
request,--very firmly and gently.

'I must be friends with her, and then perhaps she will tell me all about
it some day,' I thought; for I was convinced that there was more than met
the eye; but it was some time before I could banish these perplexing
thoughts.

I saw a good deal of Lady Betty during the next week or two. I met her
frequently on my way to the Lockes', and she would walk with me to the
gate, and two or three times she made her appearance at the Marshall's';
'for it's no use calling at the White Cottage of an afternoon,' she would
say disconsolately, 'for you are never at home, you inhospitable
creature.'

'Why, do you think I live here, Lady Betty!' I returned, smiling. 'Do you
know I am becoming a most punctual person? I am always back at the White
Cottage by five, and sometimes a little earlier, and I shall always be
pleased if you will come in and have tea with me.'

'I should like it of all things,' replied Lady Betty, with a sigh; 'and I
will come sometimes, you will see if I don't. But I know Etta will make a
fuss; she always does if I stay out after dark; and it is dark at four
now. That is why I pop in here to see you, because Etta is always busy in
the mornings and never takes any notice of what we do.'

'But surely Miss Darrell will not object to your coming to see me?' I
asked, somewhat piqued at this.

'Oh dear, no,' returned Lady Betty, jumbling her words as though she
found my question embarrassing. 'Etta never objects openly to anything we
do, only she throws stumbling-blocks in our way. I do not know why I have
got it into my head that she would not like Gladys or me to come here
without her, but it is there all the same,--the idea, I mean; it was
something she said the other night to Mrs. Maberley that gave me this
impression. Mrs. Maberley wanted to call on you, because she said you
were Mr. Cunliffe's niece, and people ought to take notice of you. And
Etta said, "Oh dear, yes; and it was a very kind thought on Mrs.
Maberley's part, and Mr. Cunliffe would think it so. That was why Giles
had invited you to Gladwyn. But there was no hurry, and you evidently
were not prepared to enter into society. You had rather strong-minded
views on this subject, and she was not quite sure whether Giles was wise
to encourage the intimacy with his sisters."'

'Miss Darrell said this to Mrs. Maberley?'

'Yes. Was it not horrid of Etta? I felt so cross. And Mrs. Maberley is
such an old dear: only rather old-fashioned in her notions about girls.
So Etta's speech rather frightened her, I could see. Of course she has
not called yet? I am almost inclined to tell Giles about it.'

'Indeed, I hope you will do nothing of the kind, Lady Betty. I am sorry
Miss Darrell does not like me; but I do not see that it matters so very
much what people think of us.'

'Yes; but when Etta takes a dislike to people she tries to prevent us
from knowing them: that is the provoking part of it. She is so dreadfully
jealous, and I expect it was your singing that gave umbrage. Etta is not
at all accomplished; she never cared much for Gladys to sing, because she
had such a sweet voice, and it put her in the background. Ah! I know how
mean it sounds, but it is just the truth about Etta. And if I were to
drop in for five-o'clock tea, as you say, Leah would be sure to make her
appearance and say I was wanted at Gladwyn.'

I found Lady Betty's confidential speeches rather embarrassing, and when
I knew her a little better I took her to task rather seriously for her
want of reticence. But she only pouted, and said, 'When one looks at you,
Miss Garston, one cannot help telling you things: they all tumble out
without one's will. That is what Gladys means when she says you have a
sympathetic face. I wish you would get her to talk to you.'

As Lady Betty persisted in haunting the Marshalls' cottage, I
determined to make her useful. So I set her to read to Elspeth, or to
give sewing-lessons to Peggy, or to amuse the younger children, while
I was engaged with my patient; and I soon found that she was a most
helpful little body.

Mr. Hamilton found her sitting in the kitchen one day surrounded by the
children. She was telling them a story. The baby was sucking her thumb
contentedly on her lap. Poor Mary was worse that day, and I had begged
Lady Betty to keep the little ones quiet.

Mr. Hamilton came into the sick-room looking very much pleased. 'I only
wish you could make Lady Betty a useful member of society, Miss Garston,'
he said, with one of the rare smiles that always lit up his dark face so
pleasantly. 'She is a good little thing, but she wants ballast. As a
rule, young ladies are terribly idle.'

I had called up at Gladwyn a few days after we had dined there, but, to
my great disappointment, I did not see Miss Hamilton. Miss Darrell was
alone, so my visit was as brief as possible.

She told me at once that her cousins had gone over to Brighton for an
afternoon's shopping, and that Mr. Hamilton had run up to London for a
few hours. And then she commenced plying me with questions in a ladylike
way about my work and my past life, but in such a skilful manner that it
was almost impossible to avoid answering. She was so sure that I must be
dull, living all alone. Oh, of course I was too good and unselfish to say
so, but all the same I must be miserably dull. What could have put such a
singular idea in my head, she wondered. When young ladies did this sort
of thing there was generally some painful reason: they were unhappy at
home, or they had had some disastrous love-affair. Of course--laughing
a little affectedly--she had no intention of hinting at such a reason in
my case; any one could see at a glance that I was not that sort of
person; I was far too sensible and matter-of-fact: gentlemen would be
quite afraid of me, I was so strong-minded. But all the same she pleaded
guilty to a feeling of natural curiosity why such an idea had come into
my head.

When I had warded off this successfully,--for I declined to enlighten
Miss Darrell on this subject,--she flew off at a tangent to Aunt
Philippa.

'It was such a pity when relations did not entirely harmonise. An aunt
could never replace a mother. Ah! she knew that too well: and when there
were daughters--and she had heard from Mr. Cunliffe that my cousin Sara
was excessively pretty and charming--no doubt there would be natural
misunderstandings and jealousies. In spite of all my goodness, I was only
human. Of course she understood perfectly how it all happened, and she
felt very sorry for me.'

I disclaimed the notion of any family disagreement with some warmth, but
I do not think she believed me. She had evidently got it into her head
that I was a strong-minded young woman with an uncertain temper, who
could not live peaceably at home. No doubt she had hinted this to Mrs.
Maberley and other ladies. She would make this the excuse for
discouraging any degree of intimacy with her cousins. I should not be
asked very often to Gladwyn if it depended on Miss Darrell; but Mr.
Hamilton had a will of his own, and if he chose me as a companion for
his sisters, Miss Darrell would find it difficult to exclude me.

One could see at a glance that Mr. Hamilton was master in his own house.
Miss Darrell seemed perfectly submissive to him. There was something
almost obsequious in her manner to him. She watched his looks anxiously,
and, though she coaxed and flattered him, she did not seem quite certain
how he would take her speeches.

'We are a strange household; don't you think so, Miss Garston?' she
observed presently. 'Giles is our lord and master. None of us poor women
dare to contradict him. When dear mamma was alive, she had a great deal
of influence over him. He was very fond of her. Her death made a great
difference in the house.'

'It must have been a great trouble to you, Miss Darrell.'

'Yes, indeed. I was almost broken-hearted. She had been the dearest and
most indulgent of mothers; but Giles was very good to me. Gladys and Lady
Betty were very devoted to her; perhaps you have heard them speak of Aunt
Margaret. Ah! I forgot, you have only seen Gladys twice.' And here she
looked at me rather sharply, but I nodded acquiescence. 'Gladys was
always a favourite with her.'

'Miss Hamilton must be a general favourite,' I replied, a little
unguardedly.

'Ah! I suppose you think her handsome,' in rather a forced manner: 'many
people say she is too pale, and rather too statuesque, for their taste.'

'In my opinion she is very beautiful,' I replied quickly, 'I told Uncle
Max the other day that I thought her face almost perfect.'

'And what did he say?' she asked, rather eagerly. 'Did he agree with
you?' But I was obliged to confess that I had forgotten his answer.

'I know Mr. Cunliffe thinks Gladys cold,' she went on. 'He is too
kind-hearted to say so; but I know he feels hurt at her desertion of her
post. It was a strange whim on her part to give up all her parish work.
I am afraid it was a little bit of temper. Gladys has a temper, though
you may not think so. She is very firm, and does not brook the least
interference on my part. Poor dear! if it were not wrong, I should say
she was a little jealous of my influence with Giles, because he likes
me to do things for him; but how am I to help doing what he asks me,
when I owe the very bread I eat to his kindness?'

Miss Darrell was poor and dependent then. This piece of news surprised
me. I thought of the glittering rings and silver-mounted dressing-case
and all the luxurious appliances in her toilet, and wondered if Mr.
Hamilton had paid for them.

Miss Darrell seemed to read my thoughts in a most wonderful way.

'Poor mother left very little except personal jewellery. Yes, I owe
everything to Giles's generosity. He is good enough to say that I earn my
allowance,--and indeed I am never idle; but,' interrupting herself, 'I do
not want to talk of myself; I am a very insignificant person,--just
Giles's housekeeper; Gladys is mistress of the house. I only wanted you
to explain to Mr. Cunliffe that I am not to blame for Gladys's strange
whim. Let me explain a little. She was looking very ill and overworked,
and I begged Giles to lecture her. I told him that there was no need for
Gladys to do quite so much; in fact, she was putting herself a little too
forward in the parish, considering how young she was, and the vicar an
unmarried man. So Giles and I gave her a word. I am sure he spoke most
gently, and I was very careful indeed in only giving her a hint that
people, and even Mr. Cunliffe, might misconstrue such devotion. I never
saw Gladys in such a passion; and the next day she had flung everything
up. She told the vicar that the schoolroom made her head ache, and that
her throat was delicate, and she could not sing. Poor Mr. Cunliffe was
in such despair that I was obliged to offer my services. It is far too
much for me; but what can I do? the parish must not suffer for Gladys's
wilfulness. Now if you could only explain things a little to Mr.
Cunliffe; he looked so hurt the other night when Gladys refused to take
her old class. No wonder he misses her, for she used to teach the
children splendidly; but if he knew it was only a little temper on
Gladys's part he would look over it and be friends with her again. But
you must have noticed yourself, Miss Garston, how little he had to say
to her.'

I had found it impossible to check Miss Darrell's loquacity or to edge in
a single word; but as soon as her breath failed I rose to take my leave,
and she did not seek to detain me.

'You will explain this to Mr. Cunliffe, for Gladys's sake,' she said,
holding my hand. 'I do want him to think well of her, and I can see his
good opinion is shaken.'

But to this I made no audible reply; but, as I shook off the dust of
Gladwyn, I told myself that Uncle Max should not hear Miss Darrell's
version from my lips. She wished to make me a tool in her hands; but her
breach of confidence had a very different result from what she expected.
Miss Darrell's words had cleared up a perplexity in my mind: I could read
between the lines, and I fully exonerated Miss Hamilton.

The following afternoon I had a most unexpected pleasure. When I came
back to the cottage after my day's work Mrs. Barton met me at the door
and told me that Miss Hamilton was in the parlour.

I had thought she meant Lady Betty; but, to my surprise, I found Miss
Hamilton seated by the fire. A pleased smile came to her face as I
greeted her most warmly. She must have seen how glad I was; but she
shrank back rather nervously when I begged her to take off her furred
mantle and stay to tea.

She was not sure that she could remain. Lady Betty was alone, as Giles
and Etta were dining at the Maberleys'. She had been asked, and had
refused; but Etta had taken in her work, as Mrs. Maberley had wanted them
to go early. Perhaps she had better not stay, as it would not be kind to
Lady Betty. But I soon overruled this objection. I told Miss Hamilton
that I saw Lady Betty frequently, but that she herself had never called
since her first visit, and that now I could not let her go.

I think she wanted me to press her; she was arguing against her own
wishes, it was easy to see that. By and by she asked me in a low voice if
I were sure to be alone, or if I expected any visitors; and when I had
assured her decidedly that no one but Uncle Max ever came to see me, and
that I knew he was engaged this evening, her last scruple seemed to
vanish, and she settled herself quite comfortably for a chat. We talked
for a little while on indifferent subjects. She told me about the
neighbourhood and the people who lived in the large houses by the church,
and about her brother's work in the parish, and how if rich people sent
for him he always kept them waiting while he went to the poor ones.

'Giles calls himself the poor people's doctor: he attends them for
nothing. He cannot always refuse rich people if they will have him, but
he generally sends them to Dr. Ramsbotham. You see, he never takes money
for his services, and as people know this, they are ashamed to send for
him; and yet they want him because he is so clever. Giles is so fond of
his profession; he is always regretting that he had a fortune left him,
for he says it would have been far pleasanter to make one. Giles never
did care for money; he is ready to fling it away to any one who asks
him.'

Miss Hamilton kept up this desultory talk all tea-time. She spoke with
great animation about her brother, and I could hardly believe it was the
same girl who had sat so silently at the head of the table that evening
at Gladwyn. The sad abstracted look had left her face. It seemed as
though for a little while she was determined to forget her troubles.

When Mrs. Barton had taken away the tea-tray, she asked me, with the same
wistful look in her eyes, to sing to her if I were not tired, and I
complied at once.

I sang for nearly half an hour, and then I returned to the fireside. I
saw that Miss Hamilton put up her hand to shield her face from the light;
but I took no notice, and after a little while she began to talk.

'I never heard any singing like yours, Miss Garston; it is a great gift.
There is something different in your voice from any one else's: it seems
to touch one's heart.'

'If my singing always makes you sad, Miss Hamilton, it is a very dubious
gift.'

'Ah, but it is a pleasant sadness,' she replied quickly. 'I feel as
though some kind friend were sympathising with me when you sing: it tells
me too that, like myself, you have known trouble.'

I sighed as I looked at Charlie's picture. Her eyes followed my glance,
and I saw again that tremulous motion of her hands.

'Yes, I know,' she said hurriedly; but her beautiful eyes were full of
tears. 'I have always been so sorry for you. You must feel so lonely
without him.'

The intense sympathy with which she said these few words seemed to break
down my reserve. In a moment I had forgotten that we were strangers, as I
told her about my love for Charlie, and the dear old life at the rectory.

It was impossible to doubt the interest with which she listened to me. If
I paused for an instant, she begged me very gently to tell her more about
myself; she was so sorry for me; but it did her good to hear me.

When I spoke of the life at Hyde Park Gate, and told her how little I was
fitted for that sort of existence, she put down her shielding hand, and
looked at me with strange wistfulness.

'No, you are too real, too much in earnest, to be satisfied with that
sort of life. Mr. Cunliffe used to tell us so. And I seemed to understand
it all before I saw you. I always felt as though I knew you, even before
we met. I hope,' hesitating a little, 'that we shall see a great deal of
you. I know Giles wishes it.'

'You cannot come here too often, Miss Hamilton. It will always be such a
pleasure to me to see you.'

'Oh, I did not mean that,' she returned nervously. 'I may not be able
to come here,--that is, not alone; there are reasons, and you must not
expect me; but I hope you will come to Gladwyn whenever you have an hour
to spare. Giles said so the other day. I think he meant you to be friends
with us. You must not mind,' getting still more nervous, 'if Etta is a
little odd sometimes. Her moods vary, and she does not always make people
feel as though they were welcome; but it is only her manner, so you must
not mind it.'

'Oh no; I shall hope to come and see you and Lady Betty some time.'

'And,' she went on hurriedly, 'if there is anything that I can do to help
you, I hope you will tell me so. Perhaps I cannot visit the people; but
there are other things,--needlework, or a little money. Oh, I have so
much spare time, and it will be such a pleasure.'

'Oh yes; you shall help me,' I returned cheerfully, for she was looking
so extremely nervous that I wanted to reassure her; but we were prevented
from saying any more on this subject, for just then we heard the click of
the little gate, and the next moment Uncle Max walked into the room.



CHAPTER XVII

'WHY NOT TRUST ME, MAX?'


Max looked very discomposed when he saw Miss Hamilton; he shook hands
with her gravely, and sat down without saying a word. I wondered if it
were my fancy, or if Miss Hamilton had really grown perceptibly paler
since his entrance.

'What does this mean, Uncle Max?' I asked gaily, for this sort of
oppressive silence did not suit me at all. 'I understood that you and
Mr. Tudor were dining at the Glynns' to-night.'

'Lawrence has gone without me,' he replied. 'I had a headache, and so I
sent an excuse; but, as it got better, I thought I would come up and see
how you were getting on.'

'A headache, Uncle Max!' looking at him rather anxiously, for I had never
heard him complain of any ailment before. I had been dissatisfied with
his appearance ever since I had come to Heathfield; he had looked worn
and thin for some time, but to-night he looked wretched.

'Oh, it is nothing,' he returned quickly. 'Miss Hamilton, I hardly
expected to find you here with Ursula. I thought you were all going
to the Maberleys'.'

'Etta and Giles have gone,' she replied quietly. 'I ought not to be here,
as Lady Betty is alone at Gladwyn; but Miss Garston persuaded me to
remain; but it is getting late. I must be going,' rising as she spoke.

'There is not the slightest need for you to hurry,' observed Max; 'it is
not so very late, and I will walk up with you to Gladwyn.'

'Indeed, I hope you will do nothing of the kind,' she said hurriedly.
'Miss Garston, will you please tell him that there is no need, no need
at all? indeed, I would much rather not.'

Miss Hamilton had lost all her repose of manner; she looked as nervous
and shy as any school-girl when Max announced his intention of escorting
her; and yet how could any gentleman have allowed her to go down those
dark roads alone?

Perhaps Max thought she was unreasonable, for there was a touch of satire
in his voice as he answered her:

'I certainly owe it to my conscience to see you safe home. What would
Hamilton say if I allowed you to go alone?--Ursula,' turning to me with
an odd look, 'it is a fine starlight night; suppose you put on your
hat,--a run will do you good,--and relieve Miss Hamilton's mind.'

'Yes, do come,' observed Miss Hamilton, in a relieved voice; but, as she
spoke, her lovely eyes seemed appealing to him, and begging him not to be
angry with her; but he frowned slightly, and turned aside and took up a
book. How was it those two contrived to misunderstand each other so
often? Max looked even more hurt than he had done at Gladwyn.

I was not surprised to find that when I left the room Miss Hamilton
followed me, but I was hardly prepared to hear her say in a troubled
voice,--

'Oh, how unfortunate I am! I would not have had this happen for worlds.
Etta will--oh, what am I saying?--I am afraid Mr. Cunliffe is offended
with me because I did not wish him to go home with me--but,' a little
proudly and resentfully, 'he is too old a friend to misunderstand me, so
he need not have said that.'

'I think Uncle Max is not well to-night,' I replied soothingly. 'I never
heard him speak in that tone before; he is always so careful not to hurt
people's feelings.'

'Yes, I know,' stifling a sigh; 'it is more my fault than his; he is
looking wretchedly ill; and--and I think he is a little offended with me
about other things; it is impossible to explain, and so he misjudges me.'

'Why do you not try to make things a little clearer?' I asked. 'Could you
not say a word to him as we walk home? Uncle Max is so good that I cannot
bear him to be vexed about anything, and I know he is disappointed that
you will not work in the school.'

'Yes, I know; but you do not understand,' she returned gently. 'I should
like to speak to him, if I dared, but I think my courage will fail; it is
not so easy as you think.' And then as we went downstairs she took my
arm, and I could feel that her hand was very cold. 'I wish he had not
asked you to come: it shows he is hurt with me; but all the same I should
have asked you myself.'

Uncle Max took up his felt hat directly he saw us, and followed us
silently into the entry; he did not speak as we went down the little
garden together; and as we turned into the road leading to the vicarage
it was Miss Hamilton who spoke first. She was still holding my arm,
perhaps that gave her courage, and she looked across at Max, who was
walking on my other side.

'Mr. Cunliffe, I am so sorry you were hurt with me the other night,
when Etta spoke about the schools. I am not giving up work for my own
pleasure; I loved it far too much; but there are reasons,'

I heard Max give a quick, impatient sigh in the darkness.

'So you always say, Miss Hamilton; you remember we have talked of this
before. I have thought it my duty more than once to remonstrate with you
about giving up your work, but one seems to talk in the dark; somehow you
have never given me any very definite reasons,--headaches,--well, as
though I did not know you well enough to be sure you are the last person
to think of ailments.'

'Yes, but one's friends are over-careful; but still you are right; it is
not only that. Mr. Cunliffe, I wish you would believe that I have good
and sufficient reasons for what I do, even if I cannot explain them. It
makes one unhappy to be misunderstood by one's clergyman, and,'
hesitating a moment, 'and one's friends,'

'Friends are not left so completely in the dark,' was the pointed answer.
'It is no use, Miss Hamilton. I find it impossible to understand you. I
have no right to be hurt. No, of course not, no right at all,'--and here
Max laughed unsteadily,--'but still, as a clergyman, I thought it could
not be wrong to remonstrate when my best worker deserted her post.'

There was no response to this, only Miss Hamilton's hand lay a little
heavily on my arm, as though she were tired. I though it best to be
silent. No word of mine was needed. I could tell from Max's voice and
manner how bitterly he was hurt.

But when he next spoke it was on a different subject.

'I must beg your pardon, Miss Hamilton, for having wronged you in my
thoughts about something else. I find your brother has forbidden you to
attend evening service for the present. And no doubt he is right; but
your cousin gave me to understand that you stayed away for a very
different reason.'

'What did Etta tell you?' she asked quickly. But before he could answer
a dark figure seemed to emerge rather suddenly from the roadside. Miss
Hamilton dropped my arm at once. 'Is that you, Leah? Have my brother and
Miss Darrell returned from Maplehurst?' And I detected an anxious note
in her voice.

'Yes, ma'am,' returned Leah civilly; 'and Miss Darrell seemed anxious at
your being out so late, because you would take cold, and master begged
you would wrap up and walk very fast.'

'Oh, I shall take no harm,' returned Miss Hamilton impatiently.
'Good-night, Miss Garston, and thank you for a very happy evening.
Good-night, Mr. Cunliffe, and thank you, too. There is no need to come
any farther: Leah will take care of me.' And she waved her hand and moved
away in the darkness.

'What a bugbear that woman is!' I observed, rather irritably, as we
retraced our steps in the direction of the Man and Plough, the little inn
that stood at the junction of the four roads. Everything looked dark and
eerie in the faint starlight. Our footsteps seemed to strike sharply
against the hard, white road; there was a suspicion of frost in the air.
When Max spoke, which was not for some minutes, he merely remarked that
we should have a cold Christmas, and then he asked me if I would dine
with him at the vicarage on Christmas Day. He and Mr. Tudor would be
alone.

'Christmas will be here in less than a fortnight, Ursula,' he went on,
rather absently, but I knew he was not thinking of what he was saying.
And when we reached the White Cottage he followed me into the parlour,
sat down before the fire, and stretched out his hands to the blaze, as
though he were very cold.

I stood and watched him for a moment, and then I could bear it no longer.

'Oh, Max!' I exclaimed, 'I wish you would tell me what makes you look so
wretchedly ill to-night. Even Miss Hamilton noticed it. I am sure there
is something the matter.'

'Nonsense, child! What should be the matter?' But Max turned his face
away as he spoke. 'I told you that I had a headache; but that is nothing
to make a fuss about. Mrs. Drabble shall make me a good strong cup of tea
when I get home.'

Max's manner was just a trifle testy, but I was not going to be repelled
after this fashion. On the contrary, I put my hand on his shoulder and
obliged him to look at me.

'It is not only a headache. You are unhappy about something; as though
I do not see that. Max, you know we have always been like brother and
sister, and I want you to tell me what has grieved you.'

That touched him, as I knew it would, for he had dearly loved his sister.

'I wish your mother were here now,' he returned, in a moved voice. 'I
wish poor Emmie were here: there were not many women like her. One could
have trusted her with anything.'

'I think I am to be trusted too, Max.'

'Yes, yes, you are like her, Ursula. You have got just the same quiet
way. Your voice always reminds me of hers. She was a dear, good sister
to me, more like a mother than a sister. I think if she had lived she
would have been a great comfort to me now, Ursula.'

'I know I am not so good as my mother, but I should like to be a comfort
to you in her place.'

I suppose Max's ear detected the suppressed pain in my voice, for as he
looked at me his manner changed; the old affectionate smile came to his
lips, and he put his hands lightly on me, as though to keep me near him.
'You have been a comfort to me, my dear. You and I have always understood
each other. I think you are as good as gold, Ursula.'

'Then why not trust me, Max? Why not tell me what makes you so unhappy?'

'Little she-bear,' he said, still smiling, 'you must not begin to growl
at me after this fashion, because I am somewhat hipped and want a change.
There is no need to be anxious about me. A man in my position must have
his own and other people's difficulties to bear. No, no, my dear, you
have a wise head, but you are too young to take my burdens on your
shoulders. What should you know about an old bachelor's worries?'

'An old bachelor,' I returned indignantly, 'when you know you are young
and handsome, Max! How can you talk such nonsense?'

I could see he was amused at this.

'You must not expect me to believe that; a man is no judge of his own
looks: but I never thought much about such things myself. I detest the
notion of a handsome parson. There, we will dismiss the subject of your
humble servant. I want to ask you a favour, Ursula.' And then I knew that
all my coaxing had been in vain, and that he did not mean to tell me what
troubled him and made him look so pinched and worn.

But, in spite of this preface, he kept me waiting for a long time, while
he sat silently looking into the fire and stroking his brown beard.

'Ursula,' he began at last, still gazing into the red cavern of coals, as
though he saw visions there, 'I want you and Miss Hamilton to be great
friends. I am sure that she has taken to you, and she likes few people,
and it will be very good for her to be with you.'

Max's speech took me somewhat by surprise. I had not expected him to
mention Miss Hamilton's name.

'She is not happy,' he went on, 'and she is more lonely than other
girls of her age. Miss Elizabeth is a nice bright little thing, but,
as Lawrence says, she wants ballast; she is a child compared to
Gladys,--Miss Hamilton, I mean.' And here Max stammered a little
nervously.

'No, you are right, she is not happy,' I returned quietly; 'she gives me
the impression that she has known some great trouble.'

'Every one has his troubles,' he replied evasively. 'Most people indulge
in the luxury of a private skeleton. Now I have often thought that Miss
Hamilton and her sister would have been far happier without Miss Darrell;
she has rather a peculiar temper, and I have often fancied that she has
misrepresented things. It is always difficult to understand women, even
the best of them,' with a smothered sigh, 'but I confess Miss Darrell is
rather a problem to me.'

'I am not surprised to hear you say that,' I returned quickly: 'you are
just the sort of man, Max, to be hoodwinked by any designing person. I am
less charitable than you, and women are sharper in these matters. I have
already found out that Miss Darrell makes Miss Hamilton miserable.'

'Gently, gently, Ursula,' in quite a shocked voice; 'there is no need to
put things quite so strongly: you are rather hasty, my dear. Miss Darrell
may be a little too managing, and perhaps jealous and exacting; but I
think she is very fond of her cousins.'

'Indeed!' rather drily, for I did not agree with Max in the least; he was
always ready to believe the best of every one.

'Hamilton, too, is really devoted to his sisters, but they do not
understand him. I believe Miss Hamilton is very proud of her brother, but
she does not confide in him. He has often told me, in quite a pained way,
how reserved they are with him. I believe Miss Darrell is far more his
_confidante_ than his sisters.'

'No doubt,' I returned, quite convinced in my own mind that this was the
case.

'So you must see yourself how much Miss Hamilton needs a friend,' he went
on hurriedly. 'I want you to be very good to her, Ursula; perhaps you may
think it a little strange if I say that I think it will be as much your
duty to befriend Miss Hamilton as to minister to Phoebe Locke.'

'I wonder who is speaking strongly now, Max.'

'But if it be the truth,' he pleaded, a little anxiously.

'You need not fear,' was my answer: 'if Miss Hamilton requires my
friendship, I am very willing to bestow it. I will be as good to her as
I know how to be, Max. Is it likely I should refuse the first favour you
have ever asked me?' And, as he thanked me rather gravely, I felt that he
was very much in earnest about this. He went away after this, but I think
I had succeeded in cheering him, for he looked more like himself as he
bade me good-night; but after he had gone I sat for a long time,
reflecting over our talk.

I felt perplexed and a little saddened by what had passed. Max had not
denied that he was unhappy, but he had refused to confide in me. Was his
unhappiness connected in any way with Miss Hamilton? This question
baffled me; it was impossible for me to answer it.

I could not understand his manner to her. He was perfectly kind and
gentle to her, as he was to all women, but he was also reserved and
distant; in spite of their long acquaintance, for he had visited at
Gladwyn for years, there was no familiarity between them. Miss Hamilton,
on her part, seemed to avoid him, and yet I was sure she both respected
and liked him. There was some strange barrier between them that hindered
all free communication. Max was certainly not like himself when Miss
Hamilton was present; and on her side she seemed to freeze and become
unapproachable the moment he appeared. But this was not the only thing
that perplexed me. The whole atmosphere of Gladwyn was oppressive. I had
a subtile feeling of discomfort whenever Miss Darrell was in the room;
her voice seemed to have a curious magnetic effect on one; its tuneless
vibrations seemed to irritate me; if she spoke loudly, her voice was
rather shrill and unpleasant. She knew this, and carefully modulated it.
I used to wonder over its smoothness and fluency.

And there was another thing that struck me. Mr. Hamilton seemed fond of
his step-sisters, but he treated them with reserve; the frank jokes that
pass between brothers and sisters, the pleasant raillery, the blunt
speeches, the interchange of confidential looks, were missing in the
family circle at Gladwyn. Mr. Hamilton behaved with old-fashioned
courtesy to his sisters; he was watchful over their comfort, but he was
certainly a little stiff and constrained in his manner to them: he seemed
to unbend more freely to his cousin than to them; he had scolded her
good-humouredly once or twice, after quite a brotherly fashion, and she
had taken his rebukes in a way that showed they understood each other.
I grew tired at last of trying to adjust my ideas on the subject of the
Hamilton family. I was rather provoked to find how they had begun to
absorb my interest. 'Never mind, I have promised Uncle Max to be good to
her,' was my last waking thought that night, 'and I am determined to keep
my word.' And I fell asleep, and dreamt that I was trying to save Miss
Hamilton from drowning, and that all the time Miss Darrell was standing
on the shore, laughing and pelting us with stones, and when a larger one
than usual struck me, I awoke.

I wondered if it were accident or design that brought Miss Darrell across
my path the next day. I had just left the Lockes' cottage, feeling
somewhat tired and depressed: Phoebe had been in one of her contrary
moods, and had given me a good deal of trouble, but the evil spirit had
been quieted at last, and I had taken my leave after reprimanding her
severely for her rudeness. I was just closing the garden gate, when Miss
Darrell came up to me in the dusk, holding out her hand with her tingling
little laugh.

'How odd that we should have met just here! I hardly knew you, Miss
Garston, in that long cloak, you looked so like a Sister of Charity.
I think you are very wise to adopt a uniform.'

'Thank you, but I have hardly adopted one,' I returned, folding the fur
edges of my cloak closer to me, for it was a bitterly cold evening. 'Are
you going home, Miss Darrell? because you have passed the turning that
leads to Gladwyn.'

'Oh, I do not mind a longer round,' was the careless answer. 'I am very
hardy, and a walk never hurts me. If it were Gladys, now--by the bye,
have you seen my cousin Giles to-day?'

'No,' I returned, wondering a little at her question.

'You are lucky to have escaped him,' with another laugh. 'Dear, dear,
how angry Giles was last night, to be sure, when we came home and found
Gladys out! he was far too angry to say much to her; he only asked her if
she had taken leave of her senses, and that some people--I do not know
whom he meant--ought to be ashamed of themselves.'

'Indeed!' somewhat sarcastically, for I confess this speech made me feel
rather cross. I wondered if Mr. Hamilton could really have said it. I
determined that I would ask him on the first opportunity.

'It was a very injudicious proceeding,' went on Miss Darrell smoothly.
'Gladys was to blame, of course; but still, if you remember, I told you
how delicate she was, and how we dreaded night air for her: young people
are so careless of their health, but of course, as Giles said, we thought
she would be safe with you. You see, Giles looks upon you in the
character of nurse, Miss Garston, and forgets you are young too. "Depend
upon it, they have forgotten the time," I said to him: "when two girls
are chattering their secrets to each other, they are not likely to
remember anything so sublunary." You should have seen Giles's expression
of lordly disgust when I said that.'

'I should rather have heard Mr. Hamilton's answer.'

'Don't be too sure of that,' returned Miss Darrell, in a mocking voice
that somehow recalled my dream. 'I am afraid it would not please you.
Giles is no flatterer. He said he thought you would have been far too
sensible for that sort of nonsense, but that one never knew, and that it
was not only young and pretty girls like Gladys who could be romantic,
and for all your staid looks you were not Methuselah: rather a dubious
speech, Miss Garston.'

'True!' far too dubious to be entirely palatable to my feminine pride;
but I was careful not to hint this to Miss Darrell, and she went on in
the same light jesting way.

'It is terribly hard to satisfy Giles, he is so critical; he sets
impossible standards for people, and then sneers if they do not reach
them. He had conceived rather a high opinion of you, Miss Garston. He
told me one day that he would be glad for you to be intimate with his
sisters, as they would only learn good from you, and that he hoped that
I would encourage your visits. I trust that he has not changed his
opinion since then; but Giles is so odd when people disappoint him. I
said last night that we would invite you for to-morrow, and then you
and Gladys could finish your talk; but he was as cross as possible, and
begged that I would invite no one for Thursday, as he was very busy, and
Gladys must find another opportunity for her talk. There, how I am
chattering on!--and perhaps I ought not to have said all that; but I
thought you would wonder at our want of neighbourliness, and of course we
cannot expect you to understand Giles's odd temper: it is a great pity
he has got this idea in his head.'

'What idea, Miss Darrell?'

'Dear, dear, how sharp you are! how you take me up! Of course it is only
Giles's ill temper: he cannot really think you wanting in ballast.'

'Oh, I understand now. Please go on.'

'But I have no more to say,' rather bewildered by my abruptness. 'Of
course we shall see you soon, when all this has blown over. If you like,
I will tell Giles I have seen you.'

'Please tell Mr. Hamilton nothing. I will speak to him myself.
Good-night, Miss Darrell; I am rather cold and tired after my day's work.
I do not in the least expect that Miss Hamilton has taken any harm.' And
I made my escape. I do not know what Miss Darrell thought of me, but she
walked on rather thoughtfully; as for me, I felt tingling all over with
irritation. If Mr. Hamilton had dared to imply these things of me, I
should hardly be able to keep my promise to Uncle Max, for I would
certainly decline to visit at Gladwyn.



CHAPTER XVIII

MISS HAMILTON'S LITTLE SCHOLAR


Miss Darrell's innuendoes were not to be borne with any degree of
patience. Mr. Hamilton's opinion might be nothing to me,--how often I
repeated that!--but all the same I owed it to my dignity to seek an
explanation with him.

The opportunity came the very next day.

He called to speak to me about a new patient, a little cripple boy who
had broken his arm; the father was a labourer, and there were ten
children, and the mother took in washing. 'Poor Robin has not much chance
of good nursing,' he went on; 'Mrs. Bell is not a bad mother, as mothers
go, but she is overworked and overburdened; she has a good bit of
difficulty in keeping her husband out of the alehouse. Good heavens! what
lives these women lead! it is to be hoped that it will be made up to them
in another world: no washing-tubs and ale-houses there, no bruised bodies
and souls, eh, Miss Garston?'

Mr. Hamilton was talking in his usual fashion; he had taken the arm-chair
I had offered him, and seemed in no hurry to leave it, although his
dinner-hour was approaching. When he had given me full directions about
Robin, and I had promised to go to him directly after my breakfast the
next morning, I said to him in quite a careless manner that I hoped Miss
Hamilton was well and had sustained no ill effects from her visit to me.

'Oh no: she is better than usual. I think you roused her and did her
good. Gladys mopes too much at home. All the same,' in a tolerant tone,
'you ought not to have kept her so late; as Etta very wisely remarked, it
was no good for her to stay in on Sundays and remain out a couple of
hours later another night; you see, Gladys takes cold so easily.'

'I hear you were very much inclined to blame the village nurse, Mr.
Hamilton.'

'Who?--I?' looking at me in a little surprise. 'I do not remember that I
said anything very dreadful. Etta was in a fuss, as usual; you managing
women like to make a fuss sometimes: she sent off Leah, and wanted me to
lecture Gladys for her imprudence; but I was not inclined to be bothered,
and said it was Gladys's affair if she chose to make herself ill, but all
the same she ought to be ashamed of such skittishness at her age. I don't
believe Gladys knew I was joking; that is the worst of her, she never
sees a joke; Etta does, though, for she burst out laughing when my lady
walked off to bed in rather a dignified manner. I hope you are not easily
offended too, Miss Garston?'

'Oh dear, no,' I returned coolly, 'only I should be sorry if you had in
any way changed your opinion of my steadiness. Miss Darrell hinted that
you were vexed with me for keeping your sister, and thought that I was
to blame.'

Mr. Hamilton looked so bewildered at this that I exonerated him from that
moment.

'What nonsense has that girl been talking?' he said, rather irritated.
'I always tell her that tongue of hers will lead her into trouble; I know
she talked plenty of rubbish that night. When she said it was a pity that
you and Gladys were always chattering secrets, I told her that though you
were not a Methuselah, you were hardly the sort of person to indulge in
that sort of sentimentality, that I could answer for your good sense in
that, and that Etta need not be so hard on a pretty young girl like
Gladys. That was not accusing you of want of steadiness.'

'No, thank you. I am so glad that I know what you really said.'

'Indeed, I was not aware that my good or bad opinion mattered to Miss
Garston: you have certainly never given me the impression that you mind
very much what I say or think.'

Was Mr. Hamilton cross? He looked quite moody all at once; his face wore
that hard disagreeable look that I so disliked. He had been so pleasant
in his manners ever since that evening at Gladwyn that I was rather sorry
that this agreeable state of things should be disturbed. He was evidently
not to blame for Miss Darrell's misrepresentations, so I hastened with
much policy to throw oil on the troubled waters.

'I do not know why you should say that. It ought not to be a matter of
indifference what people think of us.'

'Ought it not? Would you like to know my opinion of you after nearly
a month of acquaintance? Let me warn you, I have entirely changed my
opinion since our stormy interview in Cunliffe's study.'

I do not know what there was in Mr. Hamilton's look and manner that made
me say hastily,--

'Oh no, I would rather not know, and I hope you will not tell me. I am
quite sure you do not misconstrue my motives now.'

'You may be quite sure of that,' rather grimly, as though my last speech
displeased him. 'It is difficult not to think you older than you are, you
are so terribly sensible and matter-of-fact. How can Gladys get on with
you, I wonder? Do you put a moral extinguisher on all her romance?'

'I am not quite so matter-of-fact as you make out, Mr. Hamilton.'

He shot an odd sort of glance at me. 'When you sing, one can believe
that; there is nothing prosaic in a nestful of larks. Poor Phoebe, I do
believe you are doing her good: she looks far more human already. By the
bye, when are you coming to sing to us again? I told Etta that I was
engaged on Thursday, and she declared it was our only free day until
Christmas.'

'I shall be too busy to come till after then,' I replied quietly, for I
did not wish him to think that I was ready to jump at any invitation to
Gladwyn. He seemed rather disconcerted at my coldness.

'Why, it is more than ten days to Christmas! I hope you do not mean to
be stiff and unneighbourly, Miss Garston. I am afraid,' with a decidedly
quizzical look, 'that pride is a serious defect of yours.'

'Perhaps so; but, you see, I do not wish to be different from my
neighbours,' I replied quietly; but my speech was received by Mr.
Hamilton with a hearty laugh.

'Oh yes, you are right: we are a proud lot,' he observed, as he rose to
take leave. 'Well, Miss Garston, after Christmas is over, we shall hope
to see you for an evening; but any afternoon you are free they will be
glad to see you. Etta makes excellent tea. What a craze five-o'clock tea
is with you women! I have protested against it in vain: the girls are in
majority against me.' With this speech he took himself off. I was much
relieved at this peaceable ending to our interview. Now he was gone I
could scarcely believe that I had ventured on a joke with the formidable
Mr. Hamilton, a joke which he had taken in excellent part. I began to
feel less in awe of him: he certainly knew how to shake hands heartily,
and I could recapitulate Lady Betty's criticism on myself and apply it
to him, for when Mr. Hamilton smiled he looked quite a different
man,--years younger, and much better looking. Well, I was glad that
he had such a good opinion of my common sense.

My hands were likely to be full of business until after Christmas. Mrs.
Marshall was growing gradually weaker, and Mr. Hamilton was doubtful
whether she would last to see the New Year in. Her husband would be home
on Christmas Eve; his work at Lewes would be finished by then, and he
hoped to find work nearer home. Poor Mary told me this with tears in her
eyes; her one prayer was that she might be spared to see Andrew again.
'He has been a good husband to me, and has kept out of the public-house
for the sake of his wife and the children, and I cannot die easy until I
have said good-bye to him,' finished the poor woman; but when I repeated
this to Mr. Hamilton he shook his head. 'A few hours may take her off any
day,' he said; 'it is only a wonder that she has lasted so long. I
believe she is keeping herself alive by the sheer force of her longing
to see her husband. Women are strange creatures, Miss Garston.'

My new patient was likely to give me plenty of occupation. I found the
poor little fellow, looking very forlorn and dull, lying in a dark corner
of a large chilly garret, which was evidently shared by two or three
brothers.

Mrs. Bell, who had left her washing-tub to accompany me upstairs, stood
drying her arms on her apron, and talking in a high-pitched querulous
voice. 'No one can say I have not been unfortunate this year,' she
grumbled. 'There's Bell, he gets worse and worse. I fetched him myself
out of the Man and Plough last Saturday night, where he was drinking the
money that was to buy the children bread. "Do you call yourself a man or
a brute?" I says, but in my opinions it's wronging the poor bruteses to
compare them with such as him. "Work!" says he; "why don't you work
yourself?" when I am at that wash-tub from morning till night.'

'And now poor Robin is adding to your trouble, Mrs. Bell,' I observed,
with a pitying look at the child's white face and large wistful eyes.

'Ay, he has gone and done it now,' she returned, with a touch of motherly
feeling; 'it was a slide those bad boys had made, and Robbie came down on
it with his crutch under him. He is always in trouble, is Robbie, has had
more illnesses than all the children put together; there is nothing Robin
can't take: whooping-cough,--why, he nearly whooped himself to death;
measles and scarlet fever,--why, he was as nearly gone as possible, the
doctor said. He has always been puny and weakly from a baby. But there's
Bell, now, makes more of a fuss over Rob than over the others; if there
is anything that will keep him away from the Man and Plough, it is Rob
asking him to take him out somewhere.'

'Ay, father's promised to sit with me this evening,' observed Robin, in
a faint little treble.

'Then we must make the room comfortable for father,' I said quickly.
'Mrs. Bell, I must not hinder you any more; but if you could spare one
of the girls to help me tidy up a little.'

'Ay, Sally can come,' she returned; 'the place does look like a piggery.
You see, Tom and Ned and Willie sleep here along of Robin, and boys know
naught about keeping a place tidy; Sally reds it up towards evening. But
there, doctor said Robbie must have a fire, and I've clean forgotten it:
I will send up Sally with some sticks and a lump or two of coal.'

Mrs. Bell was not a bad sort of woman, certainly, but, like many of her
class, she was not a good manager; and when a woman has ten children, and
a husband rather too fond of the Man and Plough, and is obliged to stand
at her washing-tub for hours every day, one cannot expect to find the
house in perfect order.

We had soon a bright little fire burning, which gave quite a cheery
aspect to the large bare attic; the sloping roof and small window did not
seem to matter so much. With Sally's help I moved Robin's little bed to a
lighter part of the room, where the roof did not slope so much, and where
the wintry sunlight could reach him. Robin seemed much pleased with this
change of position, and when I had washed and made him comfortable he
declared that he felt 'first-rate.'

I had so much to do for my patient that I was obliged to let Sally tidy
up the room in her usual scrambling way. The child had been sadly
neglected by that time, and he was getting faint. I had to prepare some
arrow-root for his dinner, and then hurry off to the Marshalls' before I
had my own. I was obliged to omit my visit to Phoebe that day, and divide
my time between Mrs. Marshall and Robin. When I had given Robin his tea,
and had put a chair by the fire for father, I went off, feeling that I
could leave him more comfortably. The eldest boy, Tom, a big, strapping
lad of fourteen, who went to work, had promised to keep the other boys
quiet, 'that the little chap might not be disturbed,' and as Robin again
declared that he felt first-rate, if it weren't for his arm, I hoped that
he might be able to sleep.

'Father stopped with me ever so long, until the boys came to bed,' were
Robin's first words the next morning; 'and doctor came, and said we
looked quite snug, and he is going to send father some books to read, and
some papers, and father said he was more comfortable than downstairs, as
I did not mind his pipe, and Tom has hung my linnet there,' pointing to
the window, 'and if you open the cage, miss, you will see him hop all
over the bedclothes, and chirp in the beautifullest way.'

We had a great deal of cleaning to do that day. I shall never forget Lady
Betty's face when she came upstairs and saw me down on my knees at work
in my corner of the room; for Sally was little, and the room was large,
and I was obliged to go to her assistance.

'Good gracious, Miss Garston!' she said, in quite a shocked voice, 'you
do not mean to tell me that you consider it your duty to scrub floors?'

'Well, no,' I returned, laughing, for really her consternation was
ludicrous, 'I should consider it a waste of strength, generally; but
we never know what comes in a day's work. Sally is so little that I am
obliged to help her.'

'Why can't Mrs. Bell do it?' asked Lady Betty indignantly.

'Mrs. Bell has hardly time to cook the children's dinner. Please don't
look so shocked. I don't often scrub floors, and I have nearly finished
now. What have you brought in that basket, little Red Riding-Hood?' for
in her little crimson hood-like bonnet she did not look so unlike Red
Riding-Hood.

'Oh, Giles asked Gladys to send some things for poor little Robin, and
she packed them herself. There is a jar of beef-tea, and some jelly, and
some new-laid eggs, and sponge-cakes, and a roll or two; and Gladys hopes
you will let her know what Robin wants, for he used to be her little
scholar, and she is so interested in him.'

Of course I knew Lady Betty would chatter about me when she returned
home, but I was rather vexed when Mr. Hamilton took me to task the next
morning and gave me quite a lecture on the subject; he made me promise at
last that I would never do anything of the kind again. I hardly know what
made me so submissive. I think it was his threat of keeping any more
patients from me, and then he seemed so thoroughly put out.

'It is such folly wearing yourself out like this, Miss Garston,' he said
angrily. 'I wonder why women never will learn common sense. If you work
under me I will thank you to obey my directions, and I do not choose my
nurse to waste her time and strength in scrubbing floors. Yes, Robin boy,
I am very angry with nurse; but there is no occasion for you to cry about
it; and--why, good heavens! if you are not crying too, Miss Garston! Of
course; there, I told you so; you have just knocked yourself up.'

His tone so aggravated me that I plucked up a little spirit.

'I am not a bit knocked up,'--and, in rather a choky voice, 'I am not
crying; I never cry before people; only I am a little tired. I was up all
last night with Mrs. Marshall, and you talk so much.'

'Oh, very well,' rather huffily; but he was in a bad humour that day. 'I
won't talk any more to you. But I should like to know one thing: when are
you going home?'

'In another hour; my head aches, rather, and I think I shall lie down.'

'Of course your head aches; but there, you have given me a promise, so I
will not say any more. Try what a good nap will do. I am going round by
the Lockes', and I shall tell Phoebe not to expect you this afternoon. It
won't hurt her to miss you sometimes; it will teach her to value her
blessings more, and people cannot sing when they have a headache.' And he
walked off without waiting for me to thank him for his thoughtfulness.
What did he mean by saying that I was crying, the ridiculous man, just
because there were tears in my eyes? I certainly could not fancy myself
crying because Mr. Hamilton scolded me!

I had a refreshing nap, and kept my dinner waiting, but I must own I was
a little touched when Mrs. Barton produced a bottle of champagne which
she said Mr. Hamilton had brought in his pocket and had desired that I
was to have some directly I woke. 'And I was to tell you, with his
compliments, that his sister Gladys would sit with Robin all the
afternoon, and that Lady Betty was at the Marshalls', and he was going
again himself, and Phoebe Locke was better, and he hoped you would not
stir out again to-day.'

How very kind and thoughtful of Mr. Hamilton! He had sent his sisters
to look after my patients, that I might be able to enjoy my rest with a
quiet conscience. I was sorry that he should think that I was so easily
knocked up; but it was not over-fatigue, nor yet his scolding, that had
brought the tears to my eyes. To-day was the second anniversary of
Charlie's death, and through that long, wakeful night, as I sat beside
poor Mary's bed, I was recalling the bitter hours when my darling went
down deeper into the place of shadows,--when he fought away his young
life, while Lesbia and I wept and prayed beside him. No wonder a word
unnerved me; but I could not tell Mr. Hamilton this.

When we met the next day he asked me, rather curtly, if the headache had
gone; but when I thanked him, somewhat shyly, for the medicine he had
sent, he got rather red, and interrupted me with unusual abruptness.

'You have nothing for which to thank me,' he said, in quite a repellent
tone. 'I am glad you obeyed orders and stopped at home; I was afraid you
might be contumacious, as usual,'--which was rather ungracious of him,
after the promise he had extracted from me.

I questioned Robin about Miss Hamilton's visit; she had remained with the
boy some hours, reading to him and amusing him, and, in Robin's favourite
language, 'getting on first-rate; only, just as I was drinking my mugful
of tea, parson comes, and Miss Hamilton she says she will be late, and
gets up in a hurry, and--'

'Wait a minute, Robin: do you mean Mr. Cunliffe or Mr. Tudor?'

'Oh, the vicar, to be sure; and he seemed finely surprised to see Miss
Hamilton there. "So you've come to see your old scholar," he says,
smiling, and Miss Hamilton says, "Yes; but she must go now," and she
drops her glove, and parson looks for it, but it was too dark, and for
all his groping it could not be found. "I must just go without it," says
Miss Hamilton; "but I have got my muff, and it does not matter," and she
says good-bye, and goes away. Parson found it, though,' went on Robin
garrulously. 'When Sally lighted the candle he spies it at once, and puts
it in his pocket. "Miss Hamilton will be fine and glad when you tell her
it is found," I says to parson; but he just looks at me in an odd sort of
way, and says, "Yes, Robin, certainly."--'And you won't forget to give it
to her, to-morrow, sir?' but he did not seem to hear me. "Good-night,
my man," he said. "So Miss Hamilton did not think you were too old to be
kissed." And he kissed me just in the same place as she did. What did you
say, miss?'

'I did not say anything, Robin.'

'Didn't you, miss? I thought I heard you say "poor man," or something
like that. Is not Miss Hamilton beautiful? I think she is almost as
beautiful as my picture of the Virgin Mary. I asked parson if he did not
think so, and he said yes. Do you think she will come again soon?'

'We shall see, Robbie dear.' But, as I spoke, something told me that we
should not see Miss Hamilton there again.



CHAPTER XIX

THE PICTURE IN GLADYS'S ROOM


The days flew rapidly by, and I was almost too busy to heed them as they
passed. Each morning I woke with fresh energy to my day's work; the hours
were so full of interest and varied employment that my evening rest came
all too soon. I grew so fond of my patients, especially of poor little
Robin, that I never left them willingly; and the knowledge that I was
necessary to them, that they looked to me for relief and comfort, seemed
to fill my life with sweetness.

As I said to myself daily, no one need complain that one's existence is
objectless, or altogether desolate, as long as there are sick bodies and
sick souls to which one can minister. For 'Give, and it shall be given
unto you,' is the Divine command, and sympathy and help bestowed on our
suffering fellow-creatures shall be repaid into our bosoms a hundredfold.
I was right in my surmise: Miss Hamilton did not again visit her little
scholar; but Lady Betty came almost daily, and was a great help in
amusing the child. I was with him for an hour in the morning, and again
in the late afternoon; but Mrs. Marshall took up the greater part of my
time; she was growing more feeble every day, and needed my constant care.
Unless it were absolutely necessary, I was unwilling to sacrifice my
night's rest, or to draw too largely on my stock of strength; but I had
fallen into the habit, during the last week or two, of going down to the
cottage in the evening about eight or nine, and settling her comfortably
for the night. I found these late visits were a great boon to her, and
seemed to break the length of the long winter night, and so I did not
regret my added trouble. Poor Phoebe had to be content with an hour
snatched from the busier portion of the day; but she was beginning to
occupy herself now. I kept her constantly supplied with books; and Miss
Locke assured me that she read them with avidity; her poor famished mind,
deprived for so many years of its natural aliment, fastened almost
greedily on the nourishment provided for it. From the moment I induced
her to open a book her appetite for reading returned, and she occupied
herself in this manner for hours.

She never spoke to her sister about what she read, but when Kitty and she
were alone she would keep the child entranced for an hour together by the
stories she told her out of Miss Garston's books.

'Sometimes Kitty sings to her, and sometimes they have a rare talk,' Miss
Locke would say. 'I am often too busy to do more than look in for five
minutes or so, to see how they are getting on. Phoebe grumbles far less;
it is wonderful to hear her say, sometimes, that she did not know it was
bedtime, when I go in to fetch the lamp. Reading? ay, she is always
reading; but she sleeps a deal, too.'

I used to look round Phoebe's room with satisfaction now; it had quite
lost its stiff, angular look. A dark crimson foot-quilt lay on the bed,
a stand of green growing ferns was on the table, and two or three books
were always placed beside her.

Some gay china figures that I had hunted out of the glass cupboard in the
parlour enlivened the mantelpiece, and a simple landscape, with sheep
feeding in a sunny field, hung opposite the bed. Some pretty cretonne
curtains had replaced the dingy dark ones. Phoebe herself had a soft
fleecy gray shawl drawn over her thin shoulders. Mr. Hamilton again and
again commented on her improved appearance, but I always listened rather
silently; the evil spirit that had taken possession of Phoebe had not
finally left her; 'and why could not we cast it out?' used to come to
my lips sometimes as I looked at her; but all the same I knew the
Master-hand was needed for that.

Christmas Day fell this year on a Tuesday. On Sunday afternoon I had
finished my rounds and was returning home to tea, when, as I was passing
the Marshalls' cottage, Peggy ran after me bareheaded to say her father
had just arrived, and would I come in for a moment, as mother seemed a
little faint, and granny was frightened.

I hastened back with the child; for, of course, in poor Mary's state the
least shock might prove fatal. I found Marshall stooping over the bed and
supporting his wife with clumsy fondness, with the tears rolling clown
his weather-beaten face.

'I'm 'most 'feard she's gone, missis,' he said hoarsely. 'Poor lass,
I took her too sudden, and she had not the strength of the little un
there.'

I bade him lay her down gently, and then applied the necessary remedies,
and, to my great relief, my patient presently revived. It was touching to
see the weak hand trying to feel for her husband; as it came into contact
with the rough coat-sleeve, a smile came upon the death-like face.

'It is Andrew himself,' she whispered; 'I feared it was naught but a
dream, mother; it is Andrew's own self, and he is looking well and
hearty. Ay, lad,' with a loving look at him, 'I could not have died in
peace till I had seen you again; and now God's will be done, for He has
been good to me and granted me my heart's desire.'

Poor Marshall looked weary and travel-stained, so I beckoned Peggy out
of the room, and with her help there was soon a comfortable meal on the
table,--part of the meat-pie that was left from the children's dinner,
a round or two of hot toast, and a cup of smoking coffee.

The poor man looked a little bewildered when he saw these preparations
for his comfort, and he wiped his eyes again with his rough coat-sleeve.

'I have been so long without wife or child that I can't make it out to
see them all flocking round me again. There is Tim a man almost. Well,
I have been tramping it since five this morning, and I am nearly ready
to drop; so thank you kindly, missis, and with your leave I will fall
to.'

When I returned to Mary I found her looking wonderfully revived and
cheerful.

'Isn't it grand to think that the Lord has let me have my own way about
seeing Andrew?' she said, with a smile: 'he will be here now, poor lad,
to see the last of me and look after the children. Now, you must not let
me keep you, Miss Garston, for Andrew is that handy he can nurse as well
as mother there before she lost her eyesight. I have been a deal of
trouble to you, and now you must go home and rest.'

I was glad to be set at liberty, for I hoped that I might be in time to
attend evening service; but just as I had finished tea, and was trying to
think that I was not so very tired, and that it would not be wiser to
stay at home, the outer door unlatched, and the next moment there was a
quick tap at the parlour door, and Lady Betty bustled in, looking very
rosy from the cold.

'Oh, I can't stop a moment,' she said breathlessly; 'I have given Etta
the slip, and in five minutes she will be looking for me; but I took it
in my head to ask you to go and see Gladys. She is in her room with a
cold, and looks dreadfully dull, and I know it will do her so much good
if you will go and talk to her. Giles is out, and every one else, so no
one will disturb you: so do go, there's a good soul.' And actually before
I could answer, the impetuous little creature had shut the door in my
face, and I could hear her running down the garden path.

I had not seen Miss Hamilton since the evening Uncle Max discovered us
together, and I could not resist the temptation of finding her alone.
Lady Betty had said she was in her room, and looked dreadfully dull. I
had promised Max to be good to her, so of course it was my duty to go and
cheer her up. I made this so plain to my conscience that in five minutes
more I was on the road to Gladwyn, and before the church bells had
stopped ringing I had entered the dark shrubberies, and was looking at
the closed windows, wondering which of them belonged to Miss Hamilton's
room.

I was agreeably surprised when a pretty-looking maid admitted me. I had
taken a strange dislike to Leah, and the man who had waited upon us at
dinner that evening had a dark, unprepossessing face; but this girl
looked bright and cheerful, and took my message to Miss Hamilton at once
without a moment's hesitation. She returned almost immediately. Miss
Hamilton was in her room, but she would be very glad to see me, and the
girl looked glad too as she led the way to the turret-room. Miss Hamilton
was standing on the threshold, and met me with outstretched hands; she
looked ill and worn, and had a soft white shawl drawn closely round her
as though she were chilly, but her eyes brightened at the sight of me.

'This is good of you, Miss Garston; I never expected such a pleasure.
That will do, Chatty; you can close the door.' And, still holding my
hand, she drew me into the room. It was a pretty room, but furnished
far more simply than Miss Darrell's. The deep bay-window formed a recess
large enough to hold the dressing-table and a chair or two, and was
half-hidden by the blue cretonne curtains; besides this there were two
more windows. Miss Hamilton had been sitting in a low cushioned chair
by the fire; a small table with a lamp and some books was beside her;
a Persian kitten lay on the white rug. On a stand beside a chair was a
large, beautifully-painted photograph in a carved frame; the folding
doors were open, and a vase of flowers stood before it.

'What has put this benevolent idea into your head?' she asked, as she
drew forward a comfortable wicker chair with a soft padded seat. 'I
thought I had a long, dull evening before me, with no resource but my own
thoughts, for I was tired of reading. I could scarcely believe Chatty
when she said that you were in the drawing-room.'

I told Miss Hamilton of Lady Betty's visit, and she laughed quite
merrily.

'Good little Betty! She is always trying to give me pleasure. She wanted
to stay with me herself, only Etta said it was no use for two people to
stop away from church. They have all gone, even Thornton and Leah. I
believe only Parker and Chatty are in the house.'

'Is Chatty the housemaid?'

'No, the under-housemaid; but Catherine's father is ill, so she has gone
to nurse him--'

'And Leah--who is Leah? I mean what is her capacity in the household?'
as Miss Hamilton looked rather surprised at my question.

'She used to be Aunt Margaret's attendant, and now she is Etta's
maid,--at least, we call her so,--but she makes herself useful in many
ways. She is rather a superior person, and well educated, but I like
Chatty to wait on me best; she is such a simple, honest little soul.
I know people say servants have not much feeling, but I am sure Chatty
would do anything for me and Lady Betty.'

'And you think Leah would not?' I asked, rather stupidly.

'I did not say so, did I?' she answered quickly. 'We always look upon
Leah as Etta's servant. She was devoted to her old mistress, and of
course that makes Etta care for her so much. To me she is not a pleasant
person. Etta has spoiled her, and she gives herself airs, and takes too
much upon herself. Do you know'--with an amused smile--'Lady Betty and I
think that Etta is rather afraid of her? She never ventures to find fault
with her, and once or twice Lady Betty has heard Leah scolding Etta when
something has put her out. I should not care to be scolded by my maid:
should you, Miss Garston?'

'No,' I returned, rather absently, for, unperceived by Miss Hamilton, my
attention was arrested by the photograph. It was the portrait of a young
man, and something in the face seemed familiar to me.

The next moment I was caught. A distressed look crossed Miss Hamilton's
face, and she made a sudden movement, as though she would close the
photograph; but on second thoughts she handed it to me.

'Should you like to see it more closely? It is a photograph of my
twin-brother, Eric. They think--yes, they are afraid that he is dead.'

Her lips had turned quite white as she spoke, and in my surprise, for
I never knew there had been another brother, I did not answer, but only
bent over the picture.

It was the face of a young man about nineteen or twenty,--a beautiful
face, that strangely resembled his sister's; the large blue-gray eyes
were like hers, but the fair budding moustache scarcely hid the weak,
irresolute mouth. Here the resemblance stopped, for Miss Hamilton's firm
lips and finely-curved chin showed no lack of power; but in her brother's
face--attractive as it was--there were clearly signs of vacillation.

'Well, what do you think of it?' she asked, with a quick catch of her
breath.

'It is a beautiful face,' I returned, rather hesitating. 'Very striking,
too. One could not easily forget it; and it is strangely like you: but--'

'Yes, I know,'--taking it out of my hand and closing the carved
panels,--'but you think it weak. Oh yes, we cannot all be strong alike.
Our Creator has ordained that, and it is for us to be merciful. Poor
Eric! He would be three-and-twenty now. He was just twenty when that was
taken.'

'And he is dead?'

'They say so. They think he is drowned; but we have no real proof,
and we cannot be sure of it. He is alive in my dreams. That is the best
of not really knowing,' she went on, in a sad voice: 'one can go on
praying for him, for, perhaps, after all, he may one day come back;
not from the dead,--oh no, I do not believe that for a moment; but if
he be alive--' her eyes dilating and her manner full of excitement.

I pressed her to tell me about him, adding softly that I could feel for
her more than any one else, as I had lost my own twin-brother. But she
looked kindly at me and shook her head.

'Not to-night, I do not feel well enough, and it always makes me so ill
and excited to speak about it, and we should not have time. Perhaps some
day, when I get more used to you. Oh yes, some day, perhaps.'

'Indeed, I do not wish to intrude upon your trouble, Miss Hamilton,'
I returned, colouring at this repulse. But she took my hand and pressed
it gently.

'You must not be hurt with me. I have never spoken to any one about Eric.
Mr. Cunliffe knows. But he--he--is different, and he was very kind to me.
I must always be grateful.' The tears came into her eyes, and she hurried
on:

'I should like you to know, only I am such a coward. I am so sure of
your sympathy, you seem already such a friend. Why do you call me Miss
Hamilton? I am younger than you. I should like to hear you say Gladys.
Miss Hamilton seems so stiff from you, and for years I have thought of
you as Ursula.'

'You mean that Uncle Max has often talked of me?'

'Oh yes,' with an involuntary sigh, 'of you and your brother. He was
always so fond of you both. He used to say very often that he wished that
I knew you; that you were so good, so unlike other people; that you bore
your trouble so beautifully.'

'I bore my trouble well! Oh, Miss Hamilton, it is impossible that he
could have said that, when he knew how rebellious I was.' But here I
could say no more.

'Don't cry, Ursula,' she said, very sweetly; 'you are not rebellious now.
Oh, I used to be so sorry for you; you little thought at that dreadful
time, when you were so lonely and desolate, that a girl whom you had
never seen, and perhaps of whom you had never heard, was praying for you
with all her heart. That is what I mean by saying that I have known you
for a long time.'

By mutual impulse we bent forward and kissed each other,--a quiet
lingering kiss that spoke of full understanding and sympathy. I had
promised Uncle Max to be good to this girl, to do all I could to help
her, but I did not know as I gave that promise how my heart would cleave
to her, and that in time I should grow to love her with that rare
friendship that is described in Holy Writ as 'passing the love of women.'
We were silent for a little while, and then by some sudden impulse I
began to speak of Max; I told her that I felt a little anxious about him,
that he did not seem quite well or quite happy.

'I have thought so myself,' she returned, very quietly.

'Max is so good that I cannot bear to see him unhappy,--he is so
unselfish, so full of thought for other people, so earnest in his work,
so conscientious and self-denying.'

'True,' she replied, taking up a little toy screen that lay in her lap
and shielding her face from the flame: 'he is all that. If any one
deserves to be happy, it is your uncle.'

I was glad to hear her say this, but her voice was a little constrained.

'He seems very far from happy just now,' was my answer: 'he looks worn
and thin, as though he were overworking himself. I asked him the other
night what ailed him. Are you cold, Miss Hamilton? I thought you shivered
just now.'

'No, no,' she returned, a little impatiently: 'you were speaking of your
uncle.'

'Yes. I could not get him to tell me what was the matter; he began to
joke: you know his way; men are so tiresome sometimes.'

'It is not always easy to understand them,' she said, turning away her
face: 'perhaps they do not wish to be understood. It must be a great
comfort to Mr. Cunliffe to have you so near him. I have thought lately
that he has seemed a little lonely.'

'But he comes here very often,' I said, rather quickly; 'he need not be
dull, with so many friends.'

To my surprise, Miss Hamilton's fair face flushed almost painfully.

'He does not come so often as he used; perhaps he finds us a little too
quiet. I am sorry for Giles's sake--oh yes, I do not mean that,' as I
looked at her rather reproachfully. 'Of course we all like Mr. Cunliffe.'

I was about to reply to this, when Miss Hamilton suddenly grew a little
restless, and the next moment the door-bell sounded.

I rose at once. 'They have come back from church. I will bid you good-bye
now.' And, as I expected, she made no effort to keep me.

'You will come again,' she said, kissing me affectionately. 'I have so
enjoyed our little talk; you have done me good, indeed you have, Ursula,'
watching me from the threshold. I knew I could not escape my fate, so I
walked downstairs as coolly as I could, and encountered them all in the
hall. Miss Darrell gave a little shriek when she saw me.

'Dear me, Miss Garston, how you startled me! Who would have thought of
finding you here on Sunday evening, when all good people are at church!'
but here Mr. Hamilton put her aside with little ceremony: he really
seemed as though he were glad to see me.

'You came to sit with Gladys: it was very kind and thoughtful of you.
Poor girl, she seemed rather dull, but now you have cheered her up.'

'Perhaps Miss Garston will extend her cheering influence, Giles,'
observed Miss Darrell in her most staccato manner, 'and remain to supper.
Leah will see her home.'

'I am going to perform that office myself, Etta. Will you stay?' looking
at me in a friendly manner.

'Not to-night,' I returned hurriedly; 'and, indeed, I can very well
walk alone.' But Mr. Hamilton settled that question by putting on his
greatcoat.

'Oh, of course Giles will walk with you: how could he do less?' replied
Miss Darrell, with a scarcely perceptible sneer. 'You have timed your
visit so well that he will be just back to supper. So you have been
sitting with dear Gladys? I wonder how you knew she had a cold: private
information, I suppose. I should hardly have thought Gladys was well
enough to see visitors, she was so feverish when I left her; but that
stupid Chatty makes such mistakes.'

'Miss Hamilton was not at all feverish, I assure you. My visit has done
her no harm.' And I turned to Lady Betty, who stood on tiptoe to kiss me
and breathed a 'thank you' into my ear; but Miss Darrell could not
forbear from a parting fling as she bade me good-night.

'We shall wait supper for you, Giles,' she said rather pointedly; but Mr.
Hamilton took no notice; he only bade me be careful, as it was rather
slippery by the gate, and then he began telling me about the sermon, and,
strangely enough, he endorsed my opinion of Max.

'I tell him he must have a change after Christmas; he looks knocked up,
and a trifle thin. It will not hurt Tudor to work a little harder; you
may tell Cunliffe I say so. Halloo! I think you had better take my arm,
Miss Garston; it is confoundedly dark and slippery.' But I declined this,
as I was tolerably sure-footed.

Mr. Hamilton seemed in excellent spirits, and talked well and with great
animation, as though he were bent on amusing me; he was a clever man,
and had a store of useful information which he did not always care to
produce. I never heard him talk better than on this occasion: there were
flashes of wit and brilliancy that surprised me: I was almost sorry when
I reached the cottage.

'Good-night, Miss Garston, and thank you again for your deed of charity,'
he said quite heartily, and as though he meant it. Really, I never liked
Mr. Hamilton so much before; but then he had never shown himself so
genial. I saw Lady Betty the next morning, and asked her after Miss
Hamilton, but I almost regretted my question when the naughty little
thing treated me to one of her usual confidences: there was no inducing
her to hold her tongue when she was in the humour for chatting.

'Oh, it was such fun!' she said, her eyes dancing with mischief. 'Etta
was so cross when you were gone; she declared it was a conspiracy between
us three, and that you only wanted Giles to walk home with you. No, I did
not mean to repeat that, so please don't look so angry. Etta did not
really think so, but she will say these things about people. I tell
Gladys Etta wants Giles herself. She scolded Chatty for being so stupid,
and said if Leah had been at home she would have shown more sense; and
then she went up to Gladys's room in a nice temper, but Gladys would not
listen, said she was tired, and ordered Etta out of the room. When Gladys
is like that Etta can do nothing with her, so she sulked until Giles came
home, and then began teasing him about his gallantry, and wondering how
he enjoyed his walk, and you know her way.'

'Lady Betty, I am busy; besides which, I do not wish to hear any more of
your cousin's improving conversation.'

'Oh, there is nothing more to tell,' she returned triumphantly. 'Giles
silenced her so completely that she did not dare to open her lips again.
Oh, she is properly frightened of Giles when he is in one of his moods.
He told her that he disliked observations of this sort, that in his
opinion they were both undignified and vulgar, especially when they
related to a person whom he so much respected as Miss Garston. "And allow
me to remark," he continued, looking at poor little me rather fiercely,
as though I were in fault too, "that I shall consider it an honour if
Miss Garston bestows her friendship on any member of my household. I am
very glad she seems to like Gladys, and I only hope she will do the poor
girl good and come every day if she likes, and that is all I mean to say
on the subject." But I think he said quite enough; don't you, Miss
Garston?' finished naughty Lady Betty, looking up at me with such
innocent eyes that I could not have scolded her any more than I could
have scolded a kitten.

But if only Lady Betty could learn to hold her tongue--!



CHAPTER XX

ERIC


That afternoon I had rather an adventure. I was just walking up the hill
on my way to the post-office, when a handsome carriage came round the
corner by the church rather sharply, and the same moment a little dog
crossing the road in the dusk seemed to be under the horses' feet.

That was my first impression. My next was that the coachman was trying
to pull up his horses. There was a sudden howl, the horses kicked and
plunged, some one in the carriage shrieked, and then the little dog was
in my arms, and even in the dim light I could feel one poor little leg
was broken.

The horses were quieted with difficulty, and the footman got down and
went to the carriage window.

'It is poor little Flossie, ma'am,' he said, touching his hat: 'she must
have got out into the road and recognised the carriage, for she was under
the horses' feet. This lady got her out somehow.' And indeed I had no
idea how I had managed it. One of the horses had reared, and his front
hoof almost touched me as I snatched up Flossie. I suppose it was a risky
thing to do, for I never liked the remembrance afterwards, and I do not
believe I could have done it again.

'Oh dear! oh dear!' observed a pleasant voice, 'do let me thank the lady.
Stand aside, Williams.' And a pretty old lady with white hair looked out
at me.

'I am afraid the poor dog's leg is broken,' I observed, as the little
animal lay in my arms uttering short barks of pain. 'Happily your man
pulled up in time, or it must have been killed.'

'Oh dear! oh dear! what will the colonel say to such carelessness?'
exclaimed the old lady. 'He's so fond of Flossie, and makes such a fuss
with her. And Mr. Hamilton has gone to Brighton, or I would have sent
Flossie in for him to attend to her.'

'Will you let me see what I can do, Mrs. Maberley?' I said, for I had
recognised the pretty old lady at once. 'I am the village nurse, Miss
Garston, and I think I can bind up poor Flossie's leg.'

'Miss Garston!' in quite a different voice; it seemed to have grown
rather formal. 'Oh, I am so much obliged to you, but I am ashamed to give
you the trouble; only for poor Flossie's sake,' hesitating, 'will you
come into the carriage and let me drive you to Maplehurst?' And to this
I readily consented. I could never bear to see an animal in pain, and the
little creature, a beautiful brown-and-white spaniel, was already licking
my hand confidingly.

I could see Mrs. Maberley was embarrassed by my presence, for she talked
in rather a nervous manner about it being Christmas Eve, and how busy the
young ladies were decorating the church.

'I wanted to speak to Miss Darrell for a moment,' she went on, 'and I
found her and Lady Betty putting up wreaths in the chancel, and that
good-looking Mr. Tudor was helping them. I was so sorry poor dear Gladys
was not there; but Miss Darrell says her cold is so much better that she
is downstairs again. I am afraid she is very delicate and takes after
her poor mother.'

'I saw Miss Hamilton yesterday, and I certainly thought she looked very
ill.'

'So Miss Darrell told me. What a good, unselfish little creature she is,
Miss Garston! I do not know what Mr. Hamilton and his sisters would do
without her. Ah, here we are at Maplehurst, and Tracy is looking out for
us. Tracy, is the colonel at home? No, I am thankful to hear it. Poor
little Flossie has met with an accident, and this lady has saved her
life, but she tells me her leg is broken. Now, Miss Garston, will you
believe it that I am such a coward that I could not be of the least
assistance? Tracy, take Miss Garston into the morning room, and do your
best to help her.' And Mrs. Maberley trotted away as fast as she could,
while Tracy ushered me into a bright snug-looking room and asked me very
civilly what she could do for me.

Tracy was a handy, sensible woman, and in a few minutes I had managed,
with her help, to strap up poor Flossie's leg in the most successful
manner.

'I am sure, ma'am, Mr. Hamilton couldn't have done better himself,'
observed Tracy, looking at me with respectful admiration, while I petted
Flossie, who was now lying comfortably in her basket, trying to lick her
bandages. 'I must go and tell my mistress that it is done, for she will
be fretting herself ill over poor Flossie.'

I expect Tracy sounded my praises, for when Mrs. Maberley entered the
room in her pretty cap with gray ribbons there was not a trace of
formality in her manner as she thanked me with tears in her eyes for
my kindness to Flossie.

'To think of a young creature being so clever!' she said, folding her
soft dimpled hands together. 'My dear, the colonel will be so grateful to
you: he dotes on Flossie. You must stay and have tea with me, and then he
can thank you himself. No, I shall take no refusal. Tracy, tell Marvel to
bring up the tea-tray at once. My dear,' turning to me, when Tracy had
left the room, 'I am almost ashamed to look you in the face when I
remember how long you have been in Heathfield and that I have never
called on you; but Etta told me that you did not care to have visitors.'

'Yes, I know, Mrs. Maberley; but that is quite a mistake,' I returned,
somewhat eagerly, for I had fallen in love with the pretty old lady, and
her tall, aristocratic colonel with his white moustache and grand
military carriage, and had watched them with much interest from my place
in church. She was such a dainty old lady, like a piece of Dresden china,
with her pink cheeks and white curls and old-fashioned shoe-buckles; and
she had such beautiful little hands, plump and soft as a baby's, which
she seemed to regard with innocent pride, for she was always settling the
lace ruffles round her wrists and pinching them up with careful fingers.

'Dear, dear! I thought Etta told me,' she began rather nervously.

'Miss Darrell makes mistakes, like other people,' I answered, smiling.
'I shall be very pleased to know my neighbours; it is quite true that I
am not often at home, and just now I am very busy, but all the same I do
not mean to shut myself out from society. One owes a duty to one's
neighbours.'

'My dear Miss Garston, I am quite pleased to hear you talk so sensibly.
I was afraid from what Etta said that you were a little eccentric and
strong-minded, and I have such a dislike to that in young people; young
ladies are so terribly independent at the present day, in my opinion, and
I know the colonel thinks the same. They are sadly deficient in good
manners and reverence. That is why I am so fond of the Hamilton girls:
they are perfect young gentlewomen; they never talk slang or slip-shod
English, and they know how to respect gray hairs. The colonel is devoted
to Gladys: I tell him he is as fond of her as though she were his own
daughter.'

'I think every one must be fond of Miss Hamilton.'

'Yes, poor darling! and she is much to be pitied,' returned Mrs.
Maberley, with a sigh. 'Oh, here comes Marvel with the tea. Now, Miss
Garston, my dear, take off that bonnet and jacket: I like people to look
as though they were at home. Marvel, draw up that chair to the fire, and
give Miss Garston a table to herself, and put the muffins where she can
reach them; there, now I think we look comfortable: young people always
look nicer without their bonnets; it was a pity to hide your pretty
smooth hair. Now tell me a little about yourself. I am sure Etta is
wrong: you do not look in the least strong-minded. Tracy said it was
wonderful how such slender little fingers could ever do hospital work.
She has fallen in love with you, my dear; and Tracy has plenty of
penetration. I never can understand why she does not take to Etta; and
Etta is so good to her; but there, we all have our prejudices.'

As soon as Mrs. Maberley's ripple of talk had died away, I told her a
little about my work, and how much I liked my life at Heathfield, and
then I spoke of my great interest in Gladys Hamilton.

It was really very pleasant sitting in this warm, softly-lighted room and
talking to this charming, kind-hearted old lady. Christmas Eve was not so
dull, after all, as I had expected; it was nice to feel that I was making
a new friend,--that the little service I had rendered Mrs. Maberley had
broken down the barrier between us and overcome her prejudice. I knew
that Miss Darrell had set her against me, and that for some reason of
her own she wished to prevent her calling upon me.

Did Miss Darrell dislike my coming to Heathfield? Was she afraid of
finding me in her way? Was she at all desirous of making my stay irksome
to me? These were some of the questions I was continually asking myself.

I noticed that Mrs. Maberley sighed and shook her head when I spoke of
Miss Hamilton. As I warmed to my subject, and praised her beauty and
gentleness and intelligence, she sighed still more.

'Yes, she is a dear girl, a dear good girl; but she has never been the
same since Eric went. Does she talk to you about Eric, Miss Garston? Etta
says she talks of nothing else to her.'

I opened my eyes rather widely at this statement, for I could not forget
what Miss Hamilton had said to me that night: 'I have never spoken to any
one about Eric.' Was it likely that she would choose Miss Darrell for a
_confidante_? But I kept my incredulity to myself, and simply related to
Mrs. Maberley the circumstance that I had seen the photograph by accident
the previous evening, and only knew then that Miss Hamilton had had a
twin-brother.

'How very singular!' she observed, putting down her tea-cup in a hurry.
'I should have thought every one in the place would have spoken about the
young man, he was such a favourite; and it was no use Mr. Hamilton trying
to keep it a secret. Why, the postmaster's wife told me before Eric had
been gone twenty-four hours, and then I went to Mr. Cunliffe. Why, child,
do you mean your uncle has never told you about it?'

'Oh no, Uncle Max never repeats anything; he would be the last person
from whom I should hear it.'

'And yet he was up at Gladwyn every day,--ay, twice a day; and people
said--But what an old gossip I am! Well, about poor Eric, there can be
no harm in your knowing what all the world knows, even Marvel and Tracy;
it is a very sore subject with poor Mr. Hamilton, and no one dares to
mention Eric's name to him; but, as Etta says, Gladys can never hold her
tongue about him when they two are alone together.' I certainly held mine
at that moment. I began to wonder what Miss Darrell would say next.

'So you have seen his picture, Miss Garston, my dear: well, now, is it
not a beautiful face?--not sufficiently manly, as the colonel says; but
then, poor fellow, he had not a strong character. Still, it was a lovely
sight to see them together: our gardens join, you know, and often and
often, as I have sat under our beech, I have seen Gladys and Eric walking
up and down the little avenue, with his arm round her, and their two
heads shining like gold, and she would be talking to him and smiling
in his face, until it made me quite young to see them.'

'Wait a moment, Mrs. Maberley, please. I am deeply interested; but would
Gladys--would Miss Hamilton like me to know all this?'

'To be sure she would,--though perhaps she would not care for the pain
of telling it herself; but it would be better for you to hear it from me
than from Mrs. Barton, or Mrs. Drabble, or any other gossiping person
that takes it into her head to tell you, for you could not be much longer
at Heathfield without hearing of it, when, as I say, every Jack and Tom
in the village knows it,--though how it all got about is more than I can
say. I tell the colonel, Leah must have had a hand in it: I know it was
she who told Tracy.'

I saw by this time that Mrs. Maberley had quite made up her mind to tell
me the story herself; she was garrulous, like many other old ladies, and
perhaps she enjoyed a little gossip about her neighbours, so I only
essayed one other feeble protest.

'I hope Mr. Hamilton will not mind--' but she answered me quite
briskly,--

'Well, poor fellow, he knows by this time people will talk; I daresay
he thinks Mr. Cunliffe has told you. Now, I do not want to blame Mr.
Hamilton; he is a great favourite of mine ever since he cured the
colonel's gout, and I would not be hard on him for worlds; but I have
always been afraid that he did not rightly understand Eric; the brothers
were so different. Mr. Hamilton is very hard-working and rather
matter-of-fact, and Eric was quite different, more like a girl, dreamy
and enthusiastic and terribly idle, and then he fancied himself an
artist. Mr. Hamilton could not bear that.'

'Why not? An artist's is a very good profession.'

'Yes, but he did not believe in his talent; and then Eric was intended
for the law; his brother had sent him to Oxford, but he would not work,
and he was extravagant, and got into debt,--and, oh yes, there was no end
of trouble. I do not know how it was,' went on Mrs. Maberley, 'but Eric
always seemed in the wrong. Etta used to take his part,--which was very
good of her, as Eric could not bear her and treated her most rudely. Mr.
Hamilton used to complain that Gladys encouraged him in his idleness; he
sometimes came in here of an evening looking quite miserable, poor
fellow, and would say that his sisters and Eric were leagued against him;
that but for Etta he would be at his wits' end what to do. Eric would not
obey him; he simply defied his authority; he was growing more idle every
day, and when he remonstrated with him, Gladys took his part. Oh dear, I
am afraid they were all very wretched.'

'You think Mr. Hamilton did not understand his young brother.'

'Well, perhaps not. You see, Mr. Hamilton had not the same temptations;
he was always steady and hard-working from a boy, and never cared much
about his own comfort. As for getting into debt, why, he would have
considered it wicked to do so. I know the colonel thought once or twice
that he was a little hard on Eric. I remember his saying once 'that boys
will be boys, and that all are not good alike, and that he must not use
the curb too much.' It was a pity, certainly, that Mr. Hamilton was so
angry about his painting. I daresay it was only a temporary craze. I am
afraid, though, Eric must have behaved very badly. I know he struck his
elder brother once. Anyhow, things went on from bad to worse; and one day
a dreadful thing happened. A cheque of some value, I have forgotten the
particulars, was stolen from Mr. Hamilton's desk, and the next day Eric
disappeared.'

'Was he accused of taking it?'

'To be sure. Leah saw him with her own eyes. You must ask Mr. Cunliffe
about all that; my memory is apt to be treacherous about details. I know
Leah saw him with his hand in his brother's desk, and though Eric vowed
it was only to put a letter there,--a very impertinent letter that he had
written to his brother,--still the cheque was gone, and, as they heard
afterwards, cashed by a very fair young man at some London Bank; and the
next morning, after some terrible quarrel, during which Gladys fainted,
poor girl, Eric disappeared, and the very next thing they heard of him,
about three weeks afterwards, was that his watch and a pocket-book
belonging to him had been picked up on the Brighton beach close to Hove.'

'Do you mean that this is all they have ever heard of him?'

'Yes. I believe Mr. Hamilton employed every means of ascertaining his
fate. For some months he refused to believe that he was dead. I am not
sure if Gladys believes it now. But Etta did from the first. "He was weak
and reckless enough for anything," she has often said to me. Of course it
is very terrible, and one cannot bear to think of it, but when a young
man has lost his character he has not much pleasure in his life.'

'I do not think Miss Hamilton really believes that he is dead.'

'Perhaps not, poor darling. But Mr. Hamilton has no doubt on the subject,
my dear Miss Garston. He is much to be pitied: he has never been the same
man since Eric went. I am afraid that he repents of his harshness to the
poor boy. He told the colonel once that he wished he had tried milder
treatment.'

'One can understand Mr. Hamilton's feelings so well. You are right, Mrs.
Maberley: he is much to be pitied.'

'Yes, and, to make matters worse, Gladys was very ill, and refused to see
or speak to him in her illness. I believe the breach is healed between
them now; but she is not all that a sister ought to be to him.'

'Perhaps Miss Darrell usurps her place,' I replied a little incautiously,
but I saw my mistake at once. Mrs. Maberley was evidently a devout
believer in Miss Darrell's merits.

'Oh, my dear, you must not say such things. Mr. Hamilton has told me over
and over again that he does not know how he would have got through that
miserable time but for his cousin Etta's kindness. She did everything for
him, and nursed Gladys in her illness. I am sure she would have died but
for Etta. Dear me! Flossie looks restless. I do believe she hears her
master's step outside.--Yes, Flossie, that is his knock.--But I wonder
whom he is bringing in with him.' And Mrs. Maberley straightened herself
and smoothed the folds of her satin gown, and tried to look as usual,
though there were tears in her bright eyes and her hands were a little
tremulous. I do not know why I felt so sure that it would be Mr.
Hamilton, but I was not at all surprised when he followed the tall old
colonel into the room. But he certainly looked astonished when he saw me.

'Miss Garston!' he ejaculated, darting one of his keen looks at me. But
when he had shaken hands he sat down by Mrs. Maberley somewhat silently.

I was rather sorry to see Mr. Hamilton, for our talk had unsettled me
and made me feel nervous in his presence. I was afraid he would read
something from our faces. And I certainly saw him look at me more than
once, as though something had aroused his suspicion. For the first time
I was unwilling to encounter one of those straight glances. I felt
guilty, as though I must avoid his eyes, but all the more I felt he
was watching me.

I was anxious to put a stop to this uncomfortable state of things, but
I could not silence Mrs. Maberley, who was relating to her husband the
story of poor Flossie's accident. My presence of mind and skill were so
much lauded, and the colonel said so many civil things, that I felt
myself getting hotter every moment.

Mr. Hamilton came at last to my relief.

'I think Miss Garston resembles me in one thing, colonel. She hates to be
thanked for doing her duty. You will drive her away if you say any more
about Flossie. Oh, I thought so,' as I stretched out my hand for my hat:
'I thought I interpreted that look aright. Well, I must be going too. I
only brought him back safe to you, Mrs. Maberley.--By the bye, colonel,
I shall tell Gladys that you have never asked after her.'

'My sweetheart, Gladys! To be sure I have not. Well, how is she, my dear
fellow?'

'As obstinate as ever, colonel. Came downstairs to-day, and declares she
will go to early service to-morrow, because it will be Christmas Day,
and she has never missed yet. Women are kittle cattle to manage. Now,
Miss Garston, if you are ready, I will see you a little on your way.'

I knew it was no good to remonstrate, so I held my peace, Mrs. Maberley
kissed me quite affectionately, and begged me to come whenever I had an
hour to spare.

'I wish I had known you before, my dear. But there, we all make mistakes
sometimes.' And she patted me on the shoulder. 'Edbrooke, will you see
them out? He will be your friend for ever, after your goodness to
Flossie: won't you, Edbrooke?'

I never felt so afraid of Mr. Hamilton before. I was wondering what I
should say to him, and hoping that he had not noticed my nervousness,
when he startled me excessively by saying,--

'What makes you look so odd this evening? You are not a bit yourself,
Miss Garston. Come! I shall expect you to confess. Mrs. Maberley is an
old friend of mine, and I am very much attached to her. I should like to
know what you and she have been talking about?'

It was too dark for Mr. Hamilton to see my face, so I answered a little
flippantly,--

'I daresay you would like to know. Women are certainly not much more
curious than men, after all.'

'Oh, as to that, I am not a bit curious,' was the contradictory answer.
'But all the same I intend to know. So you may as well make a clean
breast of it.'

'But--but you have no right to be so inquisitive, Mr. Hamilton.'

'Again I say I am not inquisitive, but I mean to know this. Mrs. Maberley
had been crying. I could see the tears in her eyes. You looked inclined
to cry too, Miss Garston. Now,'--after a moment's hesitation, as though
he found speech rather difficult,--'I know the dear old lady has only one
fault. She is rather too fond of gossiping about her neighbours, though
she does it in the kindest manner. May I ask if her talk this evening
at all related to a family not a hundred miles away from Maplehurst?'

His voice sounded hard and satirical in the darkness. 'I wish you would
not ask me such a question, Mr. Hamilton,' I returned, much distressed.
'It was not my fault: I did not wish--' But he interrupted me.

'Of course; I knew it. When am I ever deceived by a face or manner? Not
by yours, certainly. So my good old friend told you about that miserable
affair. I wish she had held her tongue a little longer. I wish--'

But I burst out, full of remorse,--

'Oh, Mr. Hamilton, I am so sorry! I have no right to know, but indeed
I was hardly to blame.'

'Who says you are to blame?' he returned, so harshly that I remained
silent: 'it is no fault of yours if people will not be silent. But all
the same I am sorry that you know; your opinion of me is quite changed
now, eh? You think me a hard-hearted taskmaster of a brother. Well, it
does not matter: Gladys would have made you believe that in time.'

His voice was so full of concentrated bitterness that I longed to say
something consoling; in his own fashion he had been kind to me, and I
did not wish to misjudge him.

'I know your sister Gladys sufficiently to be sure that she will never
act ungenerously by her brother,' I returned hotly. 'Mr. Hamilton, you
need not say such things: it is not for me to judge.'

'But all the same you will judge,' he replied moodily. 'Oh, I know how
you good women cling together: you know nothing of a man's nature; you
cannot estimate his difficulties; because he has not got your sweet
nature, because he cannot bear insolence patiently--Oh,' with an
abruptness that was almost rude but for the concealed pain in his voice,
'I am not going to excuse myself to you: why should I? I have only to
account to my Maker and my own conscience,' And he was actually walking
off in the darkness, for we were now in sight of the parlour window, but
I called him back so earnestly that he could not refuse to obey.

'Mr. Hamilton, pray do not leave me like this; it makes me unhappy. Do
you know it is Christmas Eve?'

'Well, what of that?' with a short laugh.

'People ought not to quarrel and be disagreeable to each other on
Christmas Eve.'

'I am afraid, Miss Garston, that I do feel intensely disagreeable this
evening.'

'Yes, but you must try and forgive me all the same. I could not quite
help myself; but indeed I do not mean to judge you or any one, and I
should like you to shake hands.'

'There, then,' with a decidedly hearty grasp; and then, without releasing
me, 'So you don't think so very badly of me, after all?'

'I am very sorry for you,' was my prudent answer; 'I think you have had
a great deal to bear. Good-night, Mr. Hamilton.'

'Wait a minute; you have not answered my question. You must not have
it all your own way. I repeat, has Mrs. Maberley given you a very bad
impression of my character?'

'Certainly not; oh, she spoke most kindly; I should not have been afraid
if you had heard the whole of our conversation.'

'I wish I had heard it.'

'She made me feel very sorry for you all. Oh, what trouble there is in
the world, Mr. Hamilton! It does seem so blind and foolish to sit in
judgment on other people! how can we know their trials and temptations?'

'That is spoken like a sensible woman. Try to keep a good opinion of us,
Miss Garston: we shall be the better for your friendship. Well, so we are
friends again, and this little misunderstanding is healed: so much the
better; I should hate to quarrel with you. Now run in out of the cold.'

I hastened to obey him, but he stood at the gate until I had entered
the house; his voice and manner had quite changed during the last few
minutes, and had become strangely gentle, reminding me of his sister
Gladys's voice. What a singular man he was!--and yet I felt sorry for
him. 'I wonder if he is really to blame!' I thought, as I opened the
parlour door.

The lamp was alight; the fire burnt ruddily; Tinker was stretched on the
rug as usual, but something else was on the rug too.

A girlish figure in a dark tweed gown was huddled up before the grate; a
head, with short thick locks of hair tossing roughly on her neck, turned
quickly at my entrance.

'Jill!'

'Yes, it is I, Ursie dear! Oh, you darling bear, what a time you have
been!' Two strong arms pulled me down in the usual fashion, and a hot
cheek was pressed lovingly against mine.

'Oh, Jill, Jill, what does this mean?' I exclaimed, in utter amazement;
but for a long time Jill only laughed and hugged me, and there was no
getting an answer to my question.



CHAPTER XXI

'I RAN AWAY, THEN!'


'Now, Jill,' I demanded, at last, taking her by the shoulders, 'I insist
on knowing what this means.' And when I spoke in that tone Jill always
obeyed me at once.

So she shook her untidy mane, and looked at me with eyes that were
brimful of fun and naughtiness.

'Very well, Ursie dear, if you will know, you shall; but first sit down
in that cosy-looking chair, and I will put my elbows in your lap, in the
dear old fashion, and then we can talk nicely. What a snug little room
this is! it looked just delicious when I came in, and Mrs. Barton made me
such a nice cup of tea, and then I went upstairs to look at your bedroom,
and there was a beautiful fire there, and Mrs. Barton says you always
have one: so you are not so poor and miserable, after all.'

'I am not at all poor, thank you; and I work so hard that I think I
deserve to be warm and comfortable. And when people live alone, a fire
is a nice, cheerful companion. But this is not answering my question,
Jocelyn.'

Now Jill hated me to call her Jocelyn, so she made a face at me, and
said, in rather a grumpy voice, 'Well, I ran away, then!'

'Ran away from Hyde Park Gate! Were you mad, Jill?'

'Oh dear, no,--not from Hyde Park Gate. Did you not get my letter? Oh,
I remember, I forgot to post it: it is in my blotting-case now. Then you
did not know that Sara has scarlatina?'

'No, indeed; but I am very sorry to hear it.'

'Oh, she is nearly well now; but no one knows how she caught it. There
was a terrible fuss when Dr. Armstrong pronounced it scarlatina. Mamma
made father take lodgings at Brighton at once, and Fräulein and I were
packed off there at a minute's notice. You can fancy what my life has
been for the last ten days, mewed up in a dull, ugly parlour with that
old cat.'

'My poor, dear Jill! But why did you not write to me, and I would have
come over at once?'

'So I did write, twice, and I do believe that horrid creature never
posted my letters,--I daresay they are in her pocket now,--and I could
not get out by myself until to-day. Now just think, Ursula, what sort of
a Christmas Day I was likely to have; and then you never came to me, and
I got desperate; so when Fräulein said she had one of her headaches,' and
here Jill made a comical grimace, 'I just made up my mind to take French
leave, and spend Christmas Day with you, and here I am; and scold me if
you dare, and I will hug you to death.' And, indeed, Jill's powerful
young arms were quite capable of fulfilling her threat.

'It is not for me to scold you,' I replied quietly; 'but I am afraid
you will get into trouble for this piece of recklessness. Think how
frightened poor Fräulein will be when she misses you.'

'Poor Fräulein, indeed! a deceitful creature like that. Why, Ursula, what
do you think? I just peeped into her room to be sure that she was safe
and it was all dark: she was not there at all. Oh, oh, my lady, I said to
myself, so that is your little game, is it? And, just to be certain, I
rang at the bell at 37 Brunswick Place, where the Schumackers live, and
asked the servant if Fräulein Hennig was still there, and when I heard
that she was having tea I nearly laughed in his face. What do you think
of that for an instructress of youth,--getting up the excuse of a
headache, and leaving me over those stupid lessons, while she paid a
visit on her own account? Does she not deserve a thorough good fright
as a punishment?'

'I think Aunt Philippa ought to be undeceived. I have never trusted
Fräulein Hennig since you told me she shut herself up in her bedroom to
read novels. Jill, my dear, you have acted very wrongly, and I am afraid
we shall all get into trouble over this school-girl trick of yours. I
must think what is best to be done under the circumstances.'

'You may think as much as you like,' returned Jill obstinately, 'but I
have come to spend my Christmas Day with you, and nothing will induce me
to go back to Fräulein: I shall murder her if I do. Now, Ursie darling,'
in a coaxing voice, 'do be nice, and make much of me. You can't think how
delicious it is to see your face again; it is such a dear face, and I
like it ever so much better than Sara's and Lesbia's.'

I was unable to reply to this flattering speech, for Jill suddenly put up
her hand--I noticed it was a little inky--and said, 'Hark, there is some
one coming up to the door?' and for the moment we both believed that it
was Fräulein; but, to Jill's immense relief, it was only Mr. Tudor, with
a great bough of holly in his hand.

'We have just finished at the church, and I have brought you this, Miss
Garston,' he began, and then he stopped, and said, 'Miss Jocelyn here!'
in a tone of extreme surprise, and Jill got up rather awkwardly and shook
hands with him. I could see that she felt shy and uncomfortable. I was
very pleased to see Mr. Tudor, for I knew he would help us in this
emergency. Jill was such a child, in spite of her womanly proportions,
that I was sure that her escapade would not seriously shock him; he was
young enough himself to have a fellow-feeling for her; and I was not
wrong. Mr. Tudor looked decidedly amused when I told him Jill had taken
French leave. He tried to look grave until I had finished, but the effort
was too much for him, and he burst out laughing.

Jill, who was looking very sulky, was so charmed by his merriment that
she began to laugh too, and we were all as cheerful as possible until I
called them to order, and asked Mr. Tudor if he would send off a telegram
at once.

'A telegram! Oh, Ursula!' And Jill's dimples disappeared like magic.

'My dear, Fräulein would not have a moment's sleep to-night if she did not
know you were safe. Do not be afraid, Jill: we will spend our Christmas
Day together, in spite of all the Fräuleins in the world.' And then I
wrote off the telegram, and a short note, and gave them to Mr. Tudor. The
telegram was necessarily brief:

'Jocelyn safe with me. Will not return until Thursday. Write to explain.'

The note was more explanatory.

I apologised profusely to Fräulein for her pupil's naughtiness, but
begged her to say nothing to her mother, as I would communicate myself
with Aunt Philippa and let her know what had happened. Under the
circumstances I thought it better to keep Jocelyn with me over Christmas
Day, until I heard from Aunt Philippa. But she might depend on my
bringing her back myself.

'It is far too polite,' growled Jill, who had been reading the letter
over my shoulder. 'How can you cringe so to that creature?'

'I consider it a masterpiece of diplomacy,' observed Mr. Tudor, as I
handed it for his inspection. 'Civil words pay best in the long-run; and
you know it was very naughty to run away, Miss Jocelyn.'

'It was nothing of the kind,' returned Jill rebelliously. 'And I would do
it again to-morrow. I am more than sixteen; I am not a child now, and I
have a right to come and see Ursula if I like.' And Jill threw back her
head, and the colour came into her face, and she looked so handsome that
I was not surprised to see Mr. Tudor regard her attentively. I never saw
a face so capable of varying expression as Jill's.

Jill declared she was glad when Mr. Tudor was gone. But I think she liked
him very well on the whole; and, indeed, no one could dislike such a
bright, kind-hearted fellow. As soon as he had left the house I had to
call a council. It was quite certain my bed would not hold Jill; so, at
Mrs. Barton's suggestion, some spare mattresses were dragged in my room
and a bed made up on the floor. Jill voted this delicious; nothing could
have pleased her more, and she was so talkative and excited that I had
the greatest trouble in coaxing her to be quiet and let me go to sleep:
in fact, I had to feign sleep to make her hold her tongue.

But I was much too restless to sleep, and once when I crept out of bed to
replenish the fire I stood still for a moment to look at Jill.

She was sleeping as placidly as an infant in its cradle, her short black
locks pushed back from her face, and one arm stretched on the coverlet.
I was surprised to see how fine Jill's face really was. The ugly
duckling, as Uncle Brian called her, was fast changing into a swan. At
present she was too big and undeveloped for grace; her awkward manners
and angularities made people think her rough and uncouth. 'I expect she
will eclipse Sara's commonplace prettiness some day; but, poor child,
no one understands her,' I sighed, and as I tucked her up more warmly,
with a kiss, Jill's sleepy arms found their way to my neck and held me
there. 'Is not it delicious, Ursie dear?' she murmured drowsily.

I was glad to see that Miss Hamilton was at the early service. She looked
pale and delicate, but there was a brighter look upon her face when she
nodded to me in the porch. Her brother was putting her into a fly, and
Miss Darrell and Lady Betty followed.

I was rather surprised to see him close the door after them and step back
into the porch. And the next moment he joined us.

'Well, Miss Garston,' holding out his hand, with a friendly smile, 'you
see Gladys contrived to have her way. A happy Christmas to you! But I see
you are not alone,' looking rather inquisitively at Jill, who looked very
big and shy as usual.

'I think you have heard of my cousin Jocelyn?' I returned, without
entering into any further particulars. I should have been sorry for
Jill's escapade to reach Mr. Hamilton's ears. But he shook hands with
her at once, and said, very pleasantly, that he had heard of her from
Mr. Cunliffe. And then, after a few more words, we parted.

Mr. Hamilton was unusually genial this morning. There was nothing in his
manner to recall our stormy interview on the previous evening. Perhaps he
wished to efface the recollection from my memory, for there was something
significant in his smile, as though we perfectly understood each other.

I had lain awake for a long time thinking over Mrs. Maberley's talk and
that uncomfortable walk from Maplehurst. Mr. Hamilton's voice and words
haunted me; the suppressed irritation and pain that almost mastered him,
and how he had flung away from me in the darkness.

I was glad to remember that I had called him back and spoken a
conciliatory word. No doubt he had been to blame. I could imagine him
hard and bitter to a fault. But he had suffered; there were lines upon
his face that had been traced by no common experience. No, it was not for
me to judge him. As he said, what could I know of a man's nature? And I
was still more glad when I saw Mr. Hamilton in the church porch, and knew
that the day's harmony was not disturbed, and that there was peace
between us. His bright, satisfied smile made me feel more cheerful.

'What a strange-looking man!' observed Jill, in rather a grumbling voice,
as we walked up the hill. 'Is that Mr. Hamilton? I thought he was young;
but he is quite old, Ursula.'

'No, dear, not more than three-or four-and-thirty, Uncle Max says.'

'Well, I call that old,' returned Jill, with the obstinacy of sixteen.
'He is an old bachelor, too, for of course nobody wants to marry him; he
is too ugly.'

'Oh, Jill, how absurd you are! Mr. Hamilton is not ugly at all. You will
soon get used to his face. It is only rather peculiar.' And I quite meant
what I said, for I had got used to it myself.

'Humph!' observed Jill significantly. But she did not explain the meaning
of her satirical smile, and I proceeded to call her attention to the
hoar-frost that lay on the cottage roof, and the beauty of the clear
winter sky. 'It is a glorious Christmas morning,' I finished.

We had a very merry breakfast, for Jill was almost wild with spirits, and
then we went to church again. Gladys was in her usual place, and looked
round at me with a smile as I entered. When the service was over, I went
to the Marshalls', accompanied by Jill, who announced her intention of
not letting me out of her sight, for I had to preside over the children's
Christmas dinner, and to look after my patient. We visited Robin next,
and then went on to the Lockes', and Jill sat open-eyed and breathless
in a corner of the room as I sang carols to Phoebe in the twilight.

She rose reluctantly when I put my hand on her shoulder and told her
that we must hurry back to the cottage to make ourselves smart for the
evening. Jill seldom troubled her head about such sublunary affairs as
dress.

'I shall be obliged to wear my old tweed,' she said contentedly. 'I have
only to smooth my hair, and then I shall be ready.' And she grumbled not
a little when I insisted on arranging a beautiful spray of holly as a
breast-knot, and twisting some very handsome coral beads that Charlie had
given me round her neck. Jill always looked better for a touch of warm
colour: the dark-red berries just suited her brown skin. 'You will do
better now,' I said, pushing her away gently, 'so you need not pout and
hunch your shoulders. Have I not told you that it is your duty to make
the best of yourself?--we cannot be all handsome, but we need not offend
our neighbours' eyes.' But, as usual, Jill turned a deaf ear to my
philosophy.

The study looked very cosy when we entered it, and Uncle Max gave us a
warm welcome. To be sure, he shook his head at Jill, and told her that he
was afraid she was a naughty girl, but both he and Mr. Tudor prudently
refrained from teasing her on the subject of her escapade. On the
contrary, they treated her with profound respect, as though she were
a grown-up, sensible young lady, and this answered with Jill. She grew
bright and animated, forgot her shyness, and talked in her quaint racy
manner. I could see that Mr. Tudor was much taken with her. She was so
different from the stereotyped young lady; her cleverness and originality
amused him; and I am sure Uncle Max was equally surprised and pleased.

I could see Max was making strenuous efforts to be cheerful, but every
now and then he relapsed into gravity. After dinner I drew him aside a
moment to speak to him about Jill: to my relief, he promised to be the
bearer of a letter to Aunt Philippa.

'I want to go up to town for a day or two,' he said, 'and I may as well
do this business for you. How happy the child looks, Ursula! I wish you
could keep her a little longer. She is very much improved. I had no idea
that there was so much in her; she will be far more attractive than Sara
when she has developed a moderate amount of vanity.' And I fully endorsed
this opinion.

We went home early, for I could see Max was very tired, but both he and
Mr. Tudor insisted on escorting us. It was a beautiful starlight night,
clear and frosty: our footsteps rang crisply on the ground: not a breath
of wind stirred the skeleton branches that stretched above our heads: a
solemn peacefulness seemed to close us round. Jill's mirthful laugh quite
startled the echoes. She and Mr. Tudor were following very slowly. Once
or twice we stood still and waited for them, but Mr. Tudor was in the
middle of some amusing story, and so they took no notice of us.

I told Max about my visit to Mrs. Maberley, and of the conversation
that had taken place between us. I thought he started a little when
I mentioned Eric Hamilton's name.

'What a pity!' he said quietly. 'I had hoped she would have told you
herself. I was waiting for her to do so.'

'But, Max, surely you might have told me?'

'Who?--I? I should not have presumed. You must remember that I was in
Hamilton's confidence, and,' after a moment's hesitation, 'in hers too.
Ursula,' with a sudden passionate inflexion in his voice, 'you have no
idea how she loved that poor boy, and how she suffered: it nearly killed
her. Now you know why I say that she is lonely and wants a friend.' 'But
she has you, Max,' I exclaimed involuntarily, for I knew what he must
have been to them in their trouble; Max could be as tender as a woman;
but he started aside as though I had struck him; and his voice was quite
changed as he answered me.

'You mistake, Ursula. I was only her clergyman: if she confided in me it
was because she could not do otherwise; she is naturally reserved. She
would find it easier to be open with you.'

'I do not think so, Max. I--But what does it matter what I think? There
is one question I want to ask: do you think Mr. Hamilton was at all to
blame?'

'I am Hamilton's friend,' he returned, in a tone that made me regret that
I had asked the question, and then he stood still and waited for the
others to join us. Indeed, he did not speak again, except to wish us
good-night.

'It is the loveliest Christmas Day I have ever spent,' cried Jill,
flinging herself on me, and she was no light weight. 'I do like Mr. Tudor
so; he is nicer than any one I know, more like a nice funny boy than a
man, only he tells me he can be grave sometimes. What was the matter with
Mr. Cunliffe?--he looks tired and worried and not inclined to laugh.' And
so Jill chattered on without waiting for my answers, talking in the very
fulness of her young heart, until I pretended again to be asleep, and
then she consented to be quiet.

I saw Max for a few minutes the next day when he came to fetch my letter.
He looked more like himself, only there was still a tired expression
about his eyes; but he talked very cheerfully of what he should do during
the few days he intended to remain in town.

I made him promise to be very diplomatic with Aunt Philippa, and he most
certainly kept his word, for the next morning I received a letter that
surprised us both, and that drove Jill nearly frantic with joy.

Aunt Philippa's letter was very long and rambling. She began by
expressing herself as deeply shocked and grieved at Jocelyn's behaviour,
which was both dishonourable and unlady-like, and had given her father
great pain. 'Dear old dad! I don't believe it,' observed Jill, pursing
her lips at this.

Aunt Philippa regretted that she could no longer trust her young
daughter,--she was sure Sara would never have behaved so at her age,--and
she felt much wounded by Jocelyn's defiant action. At the same time, she
was equally deceived in Fräulein Hennig, she was certainly more to blame
than Jocelyn. Mr. Cunliffe had told her things that greatly surprised
her. Uncle Brian was very angry, and insisted that she should be
dismissed. Under these distressing circumstances, and as it would not be
safe for Jocelyn to come back to Hyde Park Gate until the rooms had been
properly disinfected, she must beg me as a favour to herself and Uncle
Brian to keep Jocelyn with me until they went to Hastings. Mr. Cunliffe
knew of a finishing governess, a Miss Gillespie, who was most highly
recommended as a well-principled and thoroughly cultured person, only she
would not be at liberty for three or four weeks. As I reached this point
of Aunt Philippa's letter, I was obliged to lay it down to prevent myself
from being strangled.

'Well, Jill, there is no need to hug me to death: it is Uncle Max that
you have to thank, and not me.'

'Yes, but you see it would never do to hug him, for he is not a bit my
uncle, so I am doing it by deputy,' observed Jill recklessly. 'Oh,
Ursula, what a darling you are! and what a dear fellow he is! To think
of my staying here three or four weeks! You will let me help you nurse
people, won't you?' very coaxingly.

'We will see about that presently; but, Jill, you have never opened your
mother's letter. Now, as it is perfectly impossible that you can sleep on
the floor for weeks, and as I do not intend to keep such a chatterbox in
my room, I am going to see what Mrs. Barton advises.' And leaving Jill to
digest Aunt Philippa's scolding as well as she could, I went in search of
the little widow.

I found, to my relief, that there was another room in the cottage, though
it could not boast of much furniture beyond a bed and wash-stand: so,
after a little consideration, I started off to the vicarage to hold a
consultation with Mrs. Drabble.

The upshot of our talk was so satisfactory, and Mrs. Barton and Nathaniel
worked so well in my service, that when bedtime came Jill found herself
the possessor of quite a snug room. There were curtains up at the window,
and strips of carpet on the floor. A dressing-table had been improvised
out of a deal packing-case, and covered with clean dimity. Jill's
travelling-box stood in one corner, and on the wall there was a row of
neat pegs for Jill's dresses. Jill exclaimed at the clean trim look of
the room, but I am sure she regretted her bed on the floor. She came down
presently in her scarlet dressing-gown to give me a final hug and
reiterate her petition for work.

'Mamma has talked a lot of rubbish about my keeping up my studies and
practising two hours a day, and she means to disinfect my books and send
them down, but I have made up my mind that I will not open one. I am
going to enjoy myself, and nurse sick people, and do real work, instead
of grinding away at that stupid German.' And Jill set her little white
teeth, and looked determined, so I thought it best not to contradict
her.

'I am so glad Uncle Max thought of Miss Gillespie, dear.'

'Who is she? I hate her already. I expect she is only an Anglicised
Fräulein,' observed Jill, with a vixenish look.

'You are quite wrong. Miss Gillespie is Scotch, and she is very nice and
good, and pretty too, for I have often heard Uncle Max talk of her. Her
father was Max's great friend, and at his death the daughters were
obliged to go out in the world. Miss Gillespie is the eldest. No, she is
not very young,--nearly forty, I believe,--but she is so nice-looking;
she was engaged to a clergyman, but he died, and they had been engaged
so many years, and so now she will not marry. She is very cheerful,
however, and all her pupils love her, and I am sure you will be happy
with her, Jill.'

Jill would not quite allow this, but the next day she recurred to the
subject, and asked me a good many questions about Miss Gillespie, and
when I told her that it was settled that Miss Gillespie should join them
at Hastings she really looked quite pleased; but nothing would induce her
to open the case of books Aunt Philippa had sent down, and when I told
Uncle Max he only laughed.

'Let her be as idle as she likes. She is over-educated now, and knows far
more than most girls of her age. Take her about with you, and make her
useful.' And I followed this advice implicitly, but for a different
reason,--there was no keeping Mr. Tudor out of the house; so when I was
engaged, and Jill could not be with me, I took advantage of a general
invitation that Miss Hamilton had given me, and sent her up to Gladwyn.

They were all very kind to her, and she seemed to amuse Miss Darrell, but
after a time Mr. Tudor began going there too, and then indeed I should
have been at my wits' end, only Mrs. Maberley came to my rescue. She took
a fancy to Jill, and Jill reciprocated it, and presently she and Lady
Betty began to spend most of their idle hours at Maplehurst.



CHAPTER XXII

'THEY HAVE BLACKENED HIS MEMORY FALSELY'


I loved having Jill with me, but I could not deny to myself or other
people that I found her a great responsibility. In the first place, I
had so little leisure to devote to her, for just after Christmas I was
unusually busy. Poor Mrs. Marshall died on the eve of the New Year, and
both Mr. Hamilton and I feared that Elspeth would soon follow her.

A hard frost had set in, and granny's feeble strength seemed to succumb
under the pressure of the severe cold; she had taken to her bed, and lay
there growing weaker every day. Poor Mary had died very peacefully, with
her hand in her husband's. I had been with her all day, and I did not
leave until it was all over.

Jill was as good as gold, and helped me with Elspeth and the children,
and she always spent an hour or two with Robin; but by and by she began
asking to go up to Gladwyn of her own accord, or proposing to have tea
with Mrs. Maberley.

'Of course I would prefer to stop with you, Ursie dear,' she said
affectionately; 'I would rather talk to you than to any one else; but
then, you see, you are never at home, and when you do come in, poor
darling, you are so tired that you are only fit for a nap.' And I could
not deny that this was the truth. After my hard day's work I was not
always disposed for Jill's lively chatter, and yet her bright face was
a very pleasant sight for tired eyes.

I used to question her sometimes about her visits to Gladwyn, and she
was always ready to talk of what had passed in the day. She and Lady
Betty had struck up quite a friendship: this rather surprised me, as
they were utterly dissimilar, and had different tastes and pursuits. Jill
was far superior in intelligence and intellectual power; she had wider
sympathies, too; and though Lady Betty had a fund of originality, and was
fresh and _naïve_; I could hardly understand Jill's fancy for her, until
Jill said one day,

'I do like that dear Lady Betty, she is such a crisp little piece of
human goods; no one has properly unfolded her, or tested her good
qualities; she is quite new and fresh, a novelty in girls. One never
knows what she will say or do next: it is that that fascinates me, I
believe; because,' went on Jill, and her great eyes grew bright and
puzzled, 'it is not that she is clever; one gets to the bottom of her
at once; there is not enough depth to drown you.'

Jill did not take so readily to Gladys; she admired her, even liked her,
but frankly owned that she found her depressing. 'If I talk to her long,
I get a sort of ache over me,' she observed, in her graphic way. 'It is
not that she looks dreadfully unhappy, but that there is no happiness in
her face. Do you know what I mean? for I am apt to be vague. It rests me
to look at you, Ursula; there is something quiet and comfortable in your
expression; now, Miss Hamilton looks as though she had lost something she
values, or never had it, and must go on looking for it, like that poor
ghost lady who wanted to find her lost pearl.'

Jill never could be induced to say much in Mr. Hamilton's favour, though
he was very civil to her and paid her a great deal of attention. 'Oh,
him!' she would say contemptuously, if I ever hazarded an observation: 'I
never take much notice of odd-looking, ugly men: they may be clever, but
they are not in my line. Mr. Hamilton stares too much for my taste, and
I don't believe he is kind to his sisters; they are half afraid of him.'
And nothing would induce her to alter her opinion.

But Miss Darrell thoroughly amused her. Jill's shrewd, honest eyes were
hardly in fault there: she used to narrate with glee any little fact she
could glean about 'the lady with two faces,' as she used to call her.

'Oh, she is a deep one,' Jill would say. 'I could not understand her at
first. I thought she was just bright and talkative and good-natured, and
I thought it nice to sit and listen to her, and she was very kind, and
petted me a good deal, and I did not find her out at first.'

'Find her out! what do you mean, Jill?' I asked innocently.

'Why, that she is not good-natured a bit, really,' with a sagacious nod
of her head. 'She keeps a stock of smiles for Cousin Giles and any chance
visitor. She is not half so nice and charming when Miss Hamilton and Lady
Betty are alone with her. Oh, I heard her one day, when I was in the
conservatory with Lady Betty. Lady Betty held up her finger and said,
'Hush!' and there she was talking in such a disagreeable, sneering voice
to Miss Hamilton, only I stopped my ears and would not listen. And now
she has got used to me she says unpleasant little things before my face,
and then when "dear Cousin Giles" comes in'--and here Jill looked
wicked--'she is all sweetness and amiability, quite charming, in fact.
Now, that is what I hate, for a person to wear two faces, and have
different voices: it shows they are not true.'

'Well, perhaps you are right, dear'; for, without being uncharitable
to Miss Darrell, I wished to put Jill on her guard a little.

'I don't like the way she talks about you,' went on Jill indignantly.
'She always begins when we are alone; not exactly saying things so much
as implying them.'

'Indeed! What sort of things?' I asked carelessly.

'Oh, she is always hinting that it is rather odd for you to be living
alone; she calls you deliciously unconventional and strong-minded,
but I know what she means by that. Then she is so curious: she is always
trying to find out how often Mr. Cunliffe or Mr. Tudor comes to see you,
or if you go to the vicarage; and she said one day that she thought you
preferred gentlemen's society to ladies', as they could never induce you
to come up to Gladwyn, but of course you saw plenty of her cousin Giles
in the village.'

I felt my cheeks burn at this unwarrantable accusation, but Jill begged
me not to disturb myself.

'She won't make those sort of speeches to me again,' she said calmly.
'She had a piece of my mind then that will last her for a long time.'

'I hope you were not rude, Jill?'

'Oh no! I only flew into a passion, and asked her how she dared to imply
such a thing?--that my cousin Ursula was the best and the dearest woman
in the world, and that no one else could hold a candle to her. "Ursula
care for gentlemen's society!" I exclaimed: "why, at Hyde Park Gate we
never could get her to remain in the drawing-room when those stupid
officers were there: she never would talk to any of them, except old
Colonel Trevanion, who is nearly blind! You do not understand Ursula: she
is a perfect saint: she is the simplest, most unselfish, grandest-hearted
creature; and you make out that she is a silly flirt like Sara." And then
I had to hold my tongue, though I was as red as a turkey-cock, for there
was Mr. Hamilton staring at us both, and asking if I were in my senses,
and why I was quarrelling about my cousin, for of course my voice was as
gruff and cross as possible.'

'Oh, Jill!' I exclaimed, much distressed, 'how could you say such absurd
things?--you know I never like you to talk in this exaggerated fashion. A
saint, indeed! A pretty sort of saint Mr. Hamilton must think me!' for it
nettled me to think that he had ever heard Jill's ridiculous nonsense.

'Wait a moment, till I have finished: you are not too saintly to be cross
sometimes. I will tell him that, if you like. Well, when he said this
about quarrelling, Miss Darrell gave him one of her sweet smiles.

'"Nonsense, Giles, as though I mind what this dear foolish child says;
she is indulging in a panegyric on her cousin's virtues, because I said
she was a little masculine and strong-minded and rather looked down upon
us poor women. I have pressed her over and over again to spend an evening
with us, but she always puts us off. I am afraid we Gladwyn ladies are
not to her taste."

'"Don't be silly, Etta. Have I not told you poor old Elspeth is
dying?--Miss Garston will not leave her, you may be sure of that." And
then Mr. Hamilton said to me in quite a nice way,--oh, I did not dislike
him so much that evening,--"I daresay you misunderstand Etta. I assure
you we all think most highly of your cousin, and she will always be a
welcome guest here, and I hope you will induce her to come soon."
Wasn't it nice of him? Dear Etta did not dare to say another word.'

'Very nice, Jill; but indeed I do not want to hear any more of Miss
Darrell's speeches.' And I got up hastily and opened the piano to put
a stop to the conversation. Jill was always pleased when I would sing
to her, but somehow my voice was not quite in order that evening.

The next day Jill surprised me very much by asking me if I knew that Miss
Hamilton was going to Bournemouth for the rest of the winter.

'Mrs. Maberley has invited her, and Mr. Hamilton thinks it will do her so
much good: they are going early next week. She wants to see you, Ursula;
she says you have not met since Christmas. Could you go this afternoon?
Miss Darrell will be out.'

I considered for a moment, and then said yes, I would certainly go up to
Gladwyn. It made me feel a little dull to think Miss Hamilton was going
away; we had not exchanged a word since that Sunday evening, but I had
thought of her so much since then. My patients had engrossed my time, but
hardly my thoughts. Poor Elspeth was slowly dying, and I had to be
constantly with her. Marshall had not yet resumed work, but he was in
poor spirits from the loss of his wife, and could hardly be a comfort to
the poor creature. I put off my visit to Phoebe until the evening, and
walked up to Gladwyn with Jill; she and Lady Betty were going for a walk,
and were to have tea with the Maberleys. I learned afterwards that Mr.
Tudor met them quite accidentally about three miles from Heathfield, and
had accompanied them to Maplehurst, where he made himself so pleasant to
the old lady that he was pressed to remain. Oh, Mr. Tudor, I am afraid
you are not quite so artless as you look! I began to wish Aunt Philippa
would soon recall Jill.

I found Miss Hamilton alone, and she seemed very glad to see me; her fair
face quite flushed with pleasure when she saw me enter the drawing-room.

'I was afraid it was some stupid visitor,' she said frankly, 'when I
heard the door-bell ring. Did it trouble you to come? How tired you look!
there, you shall take Giles's chair,' putting me with gentle force in a
big blue-velvet chair that always stood by the fire; and then she took
off my wraps and unfastened my gloves, and made me feel how glad she was
to wait on me.

'You are going away,' I said, rather lugubriously, for I felt all at
once how I should miss her. She looked a little better and brighter, I
thought, or was it only temporary excitement?

'Yes,' she returned seriously, but not sadly, 'I think it will be better.
I am almost glad to go away, except that I shall not see you,' looking at
me affectionately.

'Oh, if you wish to go,' for I was so relieved to hear her say this.

'It is not that I wish it, exactly, but that I feel it will be better:
things are so uncomfortable just now, more than usual, I think. Etta
seems always worrying herself and me; sometimes I fancy that she wants
to get rid of me, that I am too troublesome,' with a faint smile. 'She
worries about my health and want of spirits. I suppose I am rather a
depressing element in the house, and, as I get rather tired of all this
fuss, I think it will be better to leave it behind for a little.'

'That sounds as though you were driven away from home, Miss Hamilton.'

'Miss Hamilton!' reproachfully; 'that is naughty, Ursula. I do not call
you Miss Garston.'

'Gladys, then.'

'Perhaps my restlessness is driving me away,' she returned sadly. 'I do
feel so restless without my work. I never minded Etta's fussiness so
much. I daresay she means it kindly, but it harasses me. I am one of
those reserved people who do not find it easy to talk of their feelings,
bodily or mental, except to a chosen few. You are one,--perhaps not the
only one.'

'Of course not,' for she hesitated. 'You do not suppose that I laid such
flattering unction to my soul?'

'Oh, but I could tell you anything,' she returned seriously. 'You seem to
draw out one's thoughts while one is thinking them. Yes, I am sorry to
leave you even for a few weeks; but, for many reasons, Giles is right,
and the change will be good for me.'

'If you will only come back looking better and brighter I will gladly let
you go.'

'I do not promise you that,' she answered quickly, 'unless you remove
the pressure of a very heavy burden; but I shall be quieter and more at
peace, and I am very fond of Colonel and Mrs. Maberley: they are dear
people, and they spoil me dreadfully.'

'I am thankful some one spoils you, Gladys.'

She smiled at that.

'Uncle Max is still away,' I observed, after a brief silence. 'He went to
Torquay to see an invalid friend, and he is still there. Mr. Tudor does
not expect him back until the end of next week.'

'Yes, I know,' she returned, in a low voice; 'but we shall be at
Bournemouth before then. Will you bid him good-bye for me, Ursula, and
say that I hope his visit has rested and refreshed him? He was not very
well, you told me.'

'No, but he is better now: he writes very cheerfully. Gladys, when you
come back you will be stronger, I hope. I really do hope you will resume
your work then; it will be far better for you to do so.'

'You cannot judge,' she said gently. 'I am afraid that I shall be unable
to do that.' And somehow her manner closed the subject; but I was
determined to make her speak on another subject.

'I want to tell you something that I think you ought to know,' I began,
rather abruptly. 'Mrs. Maberley spoke to me about your brother Eric.'

'Ursula!'

'I could not let you go away and not know this: it did not seem honest.
It has troubled me a great deal. Mrs. Maberley would tell me, and she
told it so nicely; and Mr. Hamilton is aware that I know, and I am afraid
he is not pleased about it.'

She put up her hands to her face for a moment, with a gesture full of
distress.

'I meant to tell you myself,' she said, in a stifled voice, 'but not now;
not until I felt stronger.'

'And now you will not have that pain, Gladys. I think you ought to be
relieved that some one else has told me.' But she shook her head.

'How do I know what they said? And Giles is aware of it, you say. Oh,
Ursula, for pity's sake, tell me, has he talked to you about Eric?'

'No, no, not in the way you mean: he only said that we must not judge or
misjudge other people. He seemed afraid that I should misjudge him.'

'Oh, I am thankful to know that. I could not bear to have the poor boy
discussed between you two. Giles would have made you believe everything,
he has such a way with him, and you would not know any better. Oh,
Ursula,' in a piteous voice, 'you must not listen to them; they are all
so hard on my poor darling. Faulty as he was, he was innocent of the
crime laid to his charge; they have accused him falsely. Eric never
took that cheque.'

I could see she was strongly agitated. Her delicate throat swelled with
emotion, and she took hold of my hands and held them tightly, and her
large blue-gray eyes were fixed on my face with such a beseeching
expression that I could have promised to believe anything. And yet she
was right. Mr. Hamilton had a way with him that influenced people
strongly; he could speak with a power and authority that seemed to
dominate one in spite of one's self. It has always appeared to me that we
poor women are easily silenced and subjugated by a strong masculine will.
It is difficult to assert a timid individuality in the presence of a
regnant force.

I answered her as gently as I could. 'Dear Gladys, you will make yourself
ill. Will it give you any relief to speak out? I will listen to anything
you have to say.'

She drew a deep breath, and the colour ebbed back into her face.

'Perhaps it may be a relief: I am weary of silence,--of trying to bear
it alone; and other things are wearing me out. Etta is not so far wrong,
after all.' And then she stopped, and looked at me wistfully, and her
lips trembled. 'Ursula, you are a nurse; you go about comforting sick
bodies and sick minds. If I am ill,--one must be ill sometimes,--will you
promise to come and take care of me, in spite of all Etta may do or say?'

I hesitated for a moment, for it seemed to me impossible to give an
unconditional promise, but she continued reproachfully, 'You cannot have
the heart to refuse! I wanted to ask you this before. You would not,
surely, leave me to eat out my heart in this loneliness! If you knew what
it is to have Etta with one at such times! an east wind would be more
merciful and comforting. I know I am expressing myself far too strongly,
but all this excites me. Do promise me this, Ursula. Giles will not
hinder you coming: he appreciates you thoroughly: it will only be Etta
who may try to oppose you.'

Gladys was right; I had not the heart to refuse: so I gave her the
required promise, and she grew calmed at once.

'Now that is settled, I can breathe more freely,' she said presently.
'I am afraid I am growing fanciful, but lately I have had such a horror
of being ill. Giles would be kind, I know,--he is always kind in
illness,--but he lets Etta influence him. Ursula, she influenced him and
turned him against my poor boy; with all Giles's faults,--and he can be
very hard and stern and unforgiving,--I am sure that of his own accord he
would never have been so harsh to Eric.'

'But Mrs. Maberley told me that Miss Darrell took your brother Eric's
part.'

'Yes, I know, she believes in Etta, and so does Giles; but she is not
true; she has a dangerous way of implying blame when she is apparently
praising a person: have you never noticed this? Giles was always more
angry with Eric after Etta had been into the study to intercede for him.
If she would only have let him alone; but that is not Etta's way: she
must make or mar people's lives.'

There was a concentrated bitterness in Gladys's voice, and her face grew
stern.

'There was no love between them. Eric detested Etta, and on her side I
know she disliked him. Eric never would tell me the reason; he was always
hinting that he had found her out, and that she knew it, and that in
consequence she wanted to get rid of him; but I thought it was all fancy
on the poor boy's part, and I used to laugh at him. I wish I had not
laughed now, for there was doubtless truth in what he said.'

'You were very fond of him, Gladys?' I asked softly, and as I spoke her
face changed, and its expression grew soft and loving in a moment.

'Love him? he was everything to me: he was my twin, you know,--and so
beautiful. Oh, I never saw a man's face so beautiful as his; he had such
bright ways, too, and such a ringing laugh,--I wake up sometimes and
fancy I hear it; and then came his whistle and light footstep springing
up the stairs; but it is only a part of my dream.' She sighed, and went
on: 'He was so fond of me, and used to tell me everything, and he was
never cross to me, however put out and miserable he was; and I know they
made him very miserable. Giles was so strict with him, and would not give
him any liberty, and when Eric rebelled he was cruel to him.'

'Oh, not cruel, surely!' I could not help the involuntary exclamation.
I thought Gladys looked at me a little strangely before she answered:

'It seemed cruel to us; he was very harsh,--oh, terribly harsh; but I
think--nay, I am sure--he has repented of his hardness. I was slow to
forgive him: perhaps it would be more true to say I have not wholly
forgiven him yet; but I know now that he has suffered, that he would undo
a great deal of the past if he could, and this makes me more merciful.
Sometimes in my heart I feel quite sorry for Giles.'



CHAPTER XXIII

THE MYSTERY AT GLADWYN


Just then Leah entered the room to replenish the fire, and Gladys dropped
my hand hastily and took up a screen.

'When my brother comes in we will have tea, Leah,' she said quickly.
'Where is Thornton, that he does not come in to do this?'

'I was passing through the hall, and I thought I would have a look at the
fire, ma'am,' observed Leah, as she stooped to throw on a log. As she did
so, I saw her take a furtive look at us both,--it gave me an unpleasant
feeling,--and a moment afterwards she said in a soft, civil voice,--

'There is no reason why Thornton should not bring tea now, if you like,
ma'am. Master never cares to be waited for, and most likely he will be
late this afternoon. I can walk home with Miss Garston when she is ready.
I am sure my mistress would spare me.'

'We will see about that presently, Leah; when I want Thornton I will ring
for him.' Gladys spoke somewhat haughtily, and Leah left the room without
another word; but I was sorry and troubled in my very heart to see Gladys
motion me to be silent, and then go quickly to the door and open it and
stand there for a moment. Her colour was a little heightened when she
came back to her seat.

'She has gone now, but we must be careful and not speak loudly. I hate
myself for being so suspicious, but I have found out that some of our
conversations have been retailed to Etta. I am afraid Leah listens at the
door. She came in just now to interrupt our talk: it is Thornton's place
to put coals on the drawing-room fire.'

I felt an uncomfortable sensation creeping over me.

'Do you think she even heard us just now?'

'I fear so; and now Etta will know we have been talking about Eric. Oh, I
am glad I am going away! it gets too unbearable. Ursula, I shall write to
you, and you must answer me. Think what a comfort your letters will be to
me; I shall be able to depend on what you say. Lady Betty is so careless,
she knows what Etta is, and yet she will leave her letters about, and
more than once they have not reached me. I am afraid that Leah is a
little unscrupulous in such matters.'

I was aghast as I listened to her, but she changed the subject quickly.

'What were we talking about? Oh, I said Giles was hard; and so he was;
but Eric was faulty too.

'He was very idle; he would not work, and he thought of nothing but his
painting. Giles always says I encouraged him in his idleness; but this is
hardly the truth. I used to try and coax him to open his books, but he
had got this craze for painting, and he spent hours at his easel. I
thought it was a great pity that Giles forced him to take up law; if he
had talent it was surely better for him to be an artist; but Giles and
Etta persisted in ignoring his talent. They called his pictures daubs,
and ridiculed his artistic notions.'

'Do you really believe that he would have worked successfully as an
artist?'

'It is difficult for me to judge. Eric was so young, and had had little
training, and then he only painted in a desultory way: as I have told
you, he was very idle. I think if Giles had been more fatherly with him,
and had remonstrated with him more gently, and showed him the sense and
fitness of things, Eric would have been reasonable; but Etta made so much
mischief between them that things only got worse and worse. Eric was
extravagant; he never managed money well, and he got into debt, and that
made Giles furious, and when Eric lost his temper--for he was very hot
and soon got into a passion--Giles's coolness and hard sneering speeches
nearly drove Eric wild. He came to me one day in the garden looking as
white as a sheet,--that was the day before the cheque was missed,--and
told me, in a conscience-stricken voice, that it was all up between him
and Giles, he had got into a passion and struck Giles across the face.

'"I don't know why he did not knock me down," cried the poor lad. "I
deserved it, for I saw him wince with the pain; but he only took me by
the shoulder--you know how strong Giles is--and turned me out of the room
without saying a word, and there was the mark of my hand across his
cheek. I feel like Cain, I do indeed, Gladys, 'For he that hateth his
brother is a murderer'; and I hate Giles." And the poor boy--he was only
twenty, Ursula--put his head down on my shoulder and sobbed like a child.
If only Giles could have seen him then!'

'Do you know what passed between them?'

'Yes; I heard a little from both of them. Some of Eric's bills had been
opened accidentally by Giles. Etta had told Giles that they were his,
and he had called Eric to account. And then it seems that Eric's affairs
were mixed up with another young man's, Edgar Brown, a very wild young
fellow, with whom Giles had forbidden Eric to associate. They had been
school-fellows, and Giles knew his father, Dr. Brown, and disliked him
much; and it seems that Eric had promised to break with him, and had not
kept his promise; and when Giles called him mean and dishonourable, Eric
had forgotten himself, and struck Giles.

'"It is all over between us, I tell you, Gladys," the poor boy kept
saying. "Giles says he shall take me away from Oxford, and I am to be put
in an attorney's office: he declares I shall ruin him. I cannot stop here
to be tormented and bullied, and I will never go near old Armstrong: why,
the life would be worse than a convict's. I shall just go and enlist, and
then there is a chance of getting rid of this miserable life." But I did
not take much notice of this speech, for I knew Eric had no wish to enter
the army; and certainly he would never do such a rash thing as enlist: he
always declared he would as soon be a shoeblack. What does that look
mean, Ursula?' for I was glancing uneasily at the door. Was it my fancy,
or did I really hear the faint rustle of a dress on the tessellated
pavement of the hall? In another moment Gladys understood, and her voice
dropped into a whisper.

'Come closer to me. I mean to tell you all in spite of them. I will be as
quick as I can, or Giles will be here.

'I never saw Eric in such a state as he was that day. He seemed nearly
beside himself: nothing I could say seemed to give him any comfort. He
shut himself up in his room and refused to eat. He would not admit me for
a long time, but when he at last opened the door I saw that his table was
strewn with papers, and a letter directed to Giles lay beside them.

'We sat down and had a long talk. He told me that he had got into more
difficulties than even Giles suspected. He had been led away by Edgar
Brown. I brought him all the money I had, which was little enough, and
promised him my next quarter's allowance. I remember he spoke again of
enlisting, and said that any life, however hard, would be preferable to
the present one. He could not stay here and be slandered by Etta and
bullied by Giles. He seemed very unhappy, and once he put down his head
upon his arms and groaned. It was just then that I heard a slight
movement outside the door, and opened it just in time to see Leah gliding
round the corner. Ursula, she had heard every word that my poor boy had
said, and it is Leah's evidence that has helped to criminate him.'

'Yes, I see. But did you not put your brother on his guard?'

'No,' she returned sadly, 'I made the grievous mistake of keeping Leah's
eavesdropping to myself. I thought Eric had enough to trouble him,
without adding to his discomfort. I would give much now to have done
otherwise.

'I stayed up late with him, and did not leave him until he had promised
to go to bed. Giles was still in the study when I went to my room, but he
came up shortly afterwards, for I could hear his footsteps distinctly
passing my door. He must have passed Leah in the passage, for I heard him
say, "You are up late to-night, Leah," but her answer escaped me.

'I can tell you no more on my own evidence; but Eric's account, which I
believe as surely as I am holding your hand now, is this:

'He heard Giles come up to bed, and a sudden impulse prompted him to go
down to the study and place his letter on Giles's desk. It was a very
wild, foolish letter, written under strong excitement. I saw it
afterwards, and felt that it had better not have been written. Among
other things, he informed Giles that he would sooner destroy himself than
go into Armstrong's office, and that he (Giles) had made his life so
bitter to him that he thought he might as well do it: oh, Ursula, of
course it was wrong of him, but indeed he had had terrible provocation.
He had made up his mind to put this letter on Giles's desk before he
slept: so he slipped off his boots, that I might not hear him pass my
door, and crept down to the study. He had his chamber candlestick, as he
feared that he might have some difficulty with the fastenings, for he had
heard Giles put up the chain and bell. All our doors on that floor have
chains and bells; it is one of Giles's fads. To his great surprise,
the door was ajar, and when he put down the candle on the table he had
a passing fancy that the thick curtains that were drawn over one of the
windows moved slightly, as though from a draught of air. He blamed
himself afterwards that he had not gone up to the window and examined
it, but in his perturbed mood he did not take much notice; but he was
certainly startled when he turned round to see Leah, in her dark
dressing-gown, standing in the threshold watching him with a queer look
in her eyes. There was something in her expression that made him feel
uneasy.

'"I thought it was thieves," she said, and now she looked not at him, but
across at the curtain. "What are you doing with master's papers, Mr.
Eric?"

'"Mind your own business," returned Eric sulkily: "do you think I am
going to account to you for my actions?" And he took up his candlestick
and marched off.'

'And he left that woman in possession?'

'Yes,' returned Gladys in a peculiar tone, and then she hurried on:
'The next morning Giles missed a cheque for a large amount that he had
received the previous night and placed in one of the compartments of
his desk, and in its place he found Eric's letter. Do you notice the
discrepancy here? Eric vowed to me that he had placed the letter on the
desk, that he never dreamt of opening it, that he always believed Giles
kept it locked, that if Giles had been careless and left the key in it
he knew nothing about it. His business to the study was to put his letter
where Giles would be likely to find it on entering the room. Ursula, how
did that letter get into the desk?

'We were all summoned to the study when the cheque was missed. Etta
fetched me. She said very little, and looked unusually pale. Giles was in
a terrible state of anger, she informed me, and Leah was speaking to him.

'Alas! she had been speaking to some purpose. I found Eric almost dumb
with fury. Giles had refused to believe his assertion of innocence, and
he had no proof. Leah's statement had been overwhelming, and bore the
outward stamp of veracity.

'She told her master that, thinking she heard a noise, and being fearful
of thieves, she had crept down in her dressing-gown to the study, and, to
her horror, had seen Mr. Eric with his hand in his brother's desk, and
she could take her oath that he put some paper or other in his pocket.
She had not liked to disturb her master, not knowing that there was money
in the case.

'Ursula, I cannot tell you any more that passed. That woman had
effectually blackened my poor boy's honour. No one believed his word,
though he swore that he was innocent. I heard high words pass between
the brothers. I know Giles called Eric a liar and a thief, and Eric
rushed at him like a madman, and then I fainted. When I recovered I
found Lady Betty crying over me and Leah rubbing my hands. No one else
was there. Eric had dashed up to his room, and Giles and Etta were in
the drawing-room. I told Leah to go out of my sight, for I hated her; and
I felt I did hate her. And when she left us alone I managed, with Lady
Betty's help, to crawl up to Eric's room. But, though we heard him raging
about it, he would not admit us. So I went and lay down on my bed and
slept from sheer grief and exhaustion.

'When I woke from that stupor,--for it was more stupor than sleep,--it
was late in the afternoon. I shall always believe the wine Leah gave me
was drugged. How I wish I had dashed the glass away from my lips! But I
was weak, and she had compelled me to drink it.

'Lady Betty was still sitting by me. She seemed half frightened by my
long sleep. She said Eric had come in and had kissed me, but very
lightly, so as not to disturb me. And she thought there were tears
in his eyes as he went out. Ursula, I have never seen him since. He
left the house almost immediately afterwards, but no one saw him go. By
some strange oversight Giles's telegram to the London Bank to stop the
cheque did not reach them in time. And yet Etta went herself to the
telegraph-office. As you may have perhaps heard, a tall fair young man,
with a light moustache, cashed the cheque early in the afternoon. Yes, I
know, Ursula, the circumstantial evidence is rather strong just here. I
am quite aware that it was possible for Eric after leaving our house to
be in London at the time mentioned, but no one can prove that it was
Eric.

'Edgar Brown is tall and fair, and there are plenty of young men
answering to that description; and I maintain, and shall maintain to my
dying day,--and I am sure Mr. Cunliffe agrees with me,--that it was not
Eric who presented that cheque. The clerk told Giles that the young man
had a scar across his cheek and a slight cut, though he was decidedly
good-looking. But Giles refused to believe this. He says the clerk made
a mistake about the last.

'The next morning I received a letter from Eric, written at the Ship
Hotel, Brighton, containing the exact particulars that I have given, and
reiterating in the most solemn way that he was perfectly innocent of the
shameful crime laid to his charge.

'"You will believe me, Gladys, I know," he went on. "You will not let my
enemies blacken my memory if you can help it. If I could only be on the
spot to clear up the mystery; for there is a mystery about the cheque.
But I have sworn never to cross the threshold of Gladwyn again until this
insult is wiped out and Giles believes in my innocence. If we never meet
again, my sweet sister, you will know I loved you as well as I could love
anything; but I was never good and unselfish like you. And I fear--I
greatly fear--that I shall never weather through this." That was all.
The letter ended abruptly.

'The following afternoon a messenger from the Ship asked to see Mr.
Hamilton; and after Giles had been closeted with him for a few minutes he
came out, looking white and scared, with Eric's watch and scarf in his
hands. The man had told him the young gentleman had gone out and had not
returned, and they had been found on the beach, at the extreme end of
Hove, and they feared something had happened to him. He had ordered
dinner at a certain time, but he had not made his appearance. The next
morning they had heard reports in the town that caused them to institute
inquiries. A letter in the pocket of the coat, directed to Eric Hamilton,
Gladwyn, Heathfield, enabled them to communicate with his relatives. And
they had lost no time in doing so. I never saw Giles so terribly upset.
He looked as though he had received a blow. He went to Brighton at once,
and afterwards to London, and employed every means to set our fears at
rest, for a horrible suspicion that he had really made away with himself
was in all our minds.

'I was far too ill to notice all that went on. A fever seemed about me,
and I could not eat or sleep. I think I should have done neither, that my
poor brain must have given way under the shock of my apprehensions, but
for Mr. Cunliffe.

'He was a true friend,--a good Samaritan. He bound up my wounds and
poured in oil and wine of divinest charity. He did not believe that Eric
was guilty of either dishonesty or self-destruction. In his own mind he
was inclined to believe that he wished us to think him dead. It was all
a mystery; but we must wait and pray; and in time he managed to instil
a faint hope into my mind that this might be so.

'Etta was rather kind to me just then. She looked ill and worried, and
seemed taken up with Giles. It was well that he should have some one to
look after his comforts, for there was a breach between us that seemed as
though it would never be healed. I saw that he was irritable and
miserable,--that the thought of Eric robbed him of all peace. But I could
make no effort to console him, for I felt as though my heart was
breaking. I--' And here she hid her face in her hands, and I could see
she was weeping, and I begged her earnestly to say no more, that I quite
understood, and she might be sure of my sympathy with her and Eric. She
kissed me gratefully, and said, 'Yes, I know. I am glad to have told you
all this. Now you understand why I am so grateful to Mr. Cunliffe, why I
am so sorry'--and here her lips quivered--'if I disappoint him. I feel as
though he has given me back Eric from the dead. It is true I doubt
sometimes, when I am ill or gloomy, but generally my faith is strong
enough to withstand Etta's incredulity.'

'Does Miss Darrell believe that he is dead?'

'Yes; and she is so angry if any one doubts the fact. I don't know why
she hates the poor boy so: even Mr. Cunliffe has reproved her for her
want of charity. I think she fears Mr. Cunliffe more than any one, even
Giles: she is always so careful what she says before him.'

'Gladys, I think I hear your brother's voice in the hall, and your cheeks
are quite wet: he will wonder what we have been talking about.'

'I will ring for Thornton, and the tea: he shall find me clearing the
table. Don't offer to help me, Ursula.' And I sat still obediently,
watching her slow, graceful movements about the room in the firelight:
her fair hair shone like a halo of gold, and the dark ruby gown she wore
gathered richer and deeper tints. That beautiful, sad face, how I should
miss it!

It was some little time before Mr. Hamilton entered the room. Thornton
had lighted the candles and arranged the tea-tray, and Gladys had placed
herself at the table.

He testified no surprise at seeing me, but walked to the fire, after
greeting me, and warmed himself.

'They told me you were here,' he said abruptly: 'I was at the cottage
just now. Have you not had your tea? Why, it is quite late, Gladys, and
I want to take Miss Garston away.'

'Is there anything the matter, Mr. Hamilton?' for I was beginning to
understand his manner better now.

'Oh, I have some business for you, that is all,--another patient; but I
will not tell you about it yet: you must have a good meal before you go
out into the cold. I shall ring the bell for some more bread-and-butter;
I know you dined early; and this hot cake will do you no good.' And, as
I saw he meant to be obeyed, I tried to do justice to the delicious brown
bread and butter; but our conversation had taken away my appetite.

He stood over me rather like a sentinel until I had finished.

'Now, then, I may as well tell you. Susan Locke is ill,--acute pneumonia.
I have just been down to see her, and I am afraid it is a sharp attack.
Well, if you are ready, we may as well be going; the neighbour who is
with her seems a poor sort of body. They sent for you, but Mrs. Barton
said you were with Elspeth, and when Kitty went there you were nowhere to
be found.'



CHAPTER XXIV

WEEPING MAY ENDURE FOR A NIGHT


I could not suppress an exclamation when Mr. Hamilton mentioned the name.

Susan Locke! Poor, simple, loving-hearted Susan! What would become of
Phoebe if she died?

Mr. Hamilton seemed to read my thoughts.

'Yes,' he said, looking at me attentively, 'I knew you would be sorry;
Miss Locke was a great favourite of yours. Poor woman! it is a sad
business. I am afraid she is very ill: they ought to have sent for me
before. Now, if you are ready, we will start at once.'

'I will not keep you another minute. Good-bye, Ursula.' And Gladys kissed
me, and quietly followed us to the door. It was snowing fast, and the
ground was already white with the fallen flakes. Mr. Hamilton put up his
umbrella, and stood waiting for me under the shrubs, but a sudden impulse
made me linger.

Gladys was still standing in the porch; her fair hair shone like a halo
in the soft lamplight, her eyes were fixed on the falling snow. I had
said good-bye to her so hastily: I ran back, and kissed her again.

'I wish you were not going, Gladys; I shall miss you so.'

'It is nice to hear that,' she returned gently. 'I shall remember those
words, Ursula. Write to me often; your letters will be my only comfort.
There, Giles is looking impatient; do not keep him waiting, dear.' And
she drew back, and a moment afterwards I heard the door shut behind us.

Mr. Hamilton did not speak as I joined him, and I thought that our walk
would be a silent one, until he said presently, in rather a peculiar
tone,--

'Well, Miss Garston, I suppose I ought to congratulate you for succeeding
where I have failed.' Of course I knew what he meant, but I pretended to
misunderstand him, and he went on,--

'You have won my sister's heart. Gladys cares for few people, but she
seems very fond of you.'

'The feeling is reciprocated, I can assure you.'

'I am glad to know that,' he returned heartily. 'I only wish you
could teach Gladys to be like other girls; she is too young and too
pretty to take such grave views of life; it is unnatural at her age. One
disappointment, however bitter, ought not to cloud her whole existence.
Try to make her see things in a more reasonable light. Gladys is as good
as gold. Of course I know that she is a fine creature; but it is not like
a Christian to mourn over the inevitable in this undisciplined way.'

He spoke with great feeling, and with a gentleness that surprised me.
I felt sure then of his affection for his young sister; I wished Gladys
could have heard him speak in this fatherly manner. But, in spite of my
sympathy, it was difficult for me to answer him. I felt that this was a
subject that I could not discuss with Mr. Hamilton, and yet he seemed to
wish me to speak.

'You must give her time to recover herself,' I said, rather lamely.
'Gladys is very sensitive; she is more delicately organised than most
people; her feelings are unusually deep. She has had a severe shock; it
will not be easy to comfort her.'

'No, I suppose not,' with a sigh; 'her faith has suffered shipwreck;
but you must try to win her back to peace. Oh, you have much to do at
Gladwyn, as well as other places. I want you to feel at home with us,
Miss Garston. Some of us have our faults, we want knowing; but you must
try and like us better, and then you will not find us ungrateful.'

He stopped rather abruptly, as though he expected an answer, but I only
stammered out that he was very kind, and that I hoped when Gladys
returned from Bournemouth that I should often see her.

'Oh, to be sure,' he returned hastily. 'I forgot that her absence would
make a difference. You do not like poor Etta: I have noticed that. Well,
perhaps she is a little fussy and managing; but she is a kind-hearted
creature, and very good to us all. I do not know what I should have done
without her; my sisters do not understand me, they are never at their
ease with me. I feel this a trouble; I want to be good to them; but there
always seems a barrier that one cannot break down. I suppose,' with
intense bitterness, 'they lay the blame of that poor boy's death at my
door, as though I would not give my right hand to have him back again.'

'Oh no, Mr. Hamilton,' I exclaimed, shocked to hear him speak in this
way, 'things are not so bad as that. I know Gladys would be more to you
if she could.' But he turned upon me almost fiercely.

'Do not tell me that,' he said harshly, 'for I cannot believe you. Gladys
cared more for Eric's little finger than the whole of us put together;
she looks upon me as his destroyer, as a hard taskmaster who oppressed
him and drove him out of his home. Oh, you want to contradict me; you
would tell me how gentle Gladys is, and how submissive. No, she is never
angry, but her looks and words are cold as this frozen snow; she has not
kissed me of her own accord since Eric left us. I sometimes think it is
painful for her to live under my roof.'

'Mr. Hamilton!'

'Well, what now?' in the same repellent tone.

'You are wrong; you are unjust. Gladys does not feel like that; she has
tried to forgive you in her heart for any past mistake; she sees you
regret much that has passed, and she is no longer bitter against you.
I wish you would believe this. I wish you could understand that she, too,
longs to break down the barrier. Perhaps I ought not to say it, but I
think Miss Darrell keeps you apart from your sisters.'

'What, Etta!' in an astonished tone. 'Why, she is always making
excuses for Gladys's coldness. Come, Miss Garston, I cannot have you
misunderstand my poor little cousin in this way. You have no idea how
faithful and devoted she is. She has actually refused a most advantageous
offer of marriage to remain with us. She told me this in confidence; the
girls do not know it: perhaps I ought not to have repeated it; but you
undervalue Etta. Few women would sacrifice themselves so entirely for
their belongings.'

'No, indeed,' was my reply to this; but I secretly marvelled at this
piece of intelligence, and there was no time to ask any questions, for
we had reached the cottage, and the next minute I was standing by Susan
Locke's bedside.

There was no need to tell me that poor Susan was in danger; the
inflammation ran high; the flushed face, the difficult breathing,
the strength and fulness of the rapid pulse, filled me with grave
forebodings. Mr. Hamilton remained with me some time, and when he took
his leave he promised to come again as early as possible in the morning.

'I will stay altogether if you wish it,' he said kindly, 'if you feel
the least uneasiness at being alone.' But I disclaimed all fear on this
score. I only begged him to remain with the patient a few minutes while
I spoke to Phoebe, and he agreed to this.

It was late; but I knew she would not be asleep. How could she sleep,
poor soul, with this fresh stroke threatening her? As I opened the door
I heard her calling to me in a voice broken with sobs.

'Oh, Miss Garston, I have been longing for you to come to me; you have
been here for hours. I have been lying listening to your footsteps
overhead. Do you know, the suspense is killing me?'

'Yes, I am so sorry for you, Phoebe: it is hard to bear, is it not?
But I could not leave your sister. We are doing all we can to ease her
sufferings, but she is very very ill.'

'Do you think that I do not know that? She is dying! My only sister is
dying!' And here her tears burst out again. 'Ah, Miss Garston, those
dreadful words are coming true, after all.'

'What words, my poor Phoebe?' And I knelt down by her side and smoothed
the hair from her damp forehead.

'Oh, you know what I mean. I have repeated them before; they haunt me day
and night, and you refused to take them back. "If we will not lie still
under His hand, and learn the lesson He would teach us, fresh trials may
be sent to humble us,"--fresh trials; and, oh, my God, Susan is dying!'

'You must not say that to her nurse, Phoebe; you must try and strengthen
my hands: indeed, all hope is not lost: the inflammation is very high,
but who knows if your prayers may not save her?'

'My prayers! my prayers!' covering her face while the tears trickled
through her wasted fingers; 'as though God would listen to me who have
been a rebel all my life.'

'Ah, but you are not rebellious now: you have fought against Him all
these years, but now all His waves and billows have gone over your head,
and you cannot breast them alone.'

'No, and I have deserved it all. I do try to pray, Miss Garston, I do
indeed, but the words will not come. I can only say over and over again,
"Father, I have sinned against heaven and before thee," and then I stop
and my heart seems breaking.'

'Well, and what can be better than that cry of your poor despairing heart
to your Father! Do you think that He will not have pity on His suffering
child? Be generous in your penitence, Phoebe, and trust yourself and
Susan in His hands.'

'Ah, but you do not know all,' she continued, fixing her miserable eyes
on me. 'I have not been good to Susan: I have let her sacrifice her life
for me, and have taken it all as a matter of course. I made her bear all
my bad tempers and never gave her a good word. She was too tired,--ah,
she was often tired,--and then she took this chill, and I made her wait
on me all the same. She told me she was ill and in great pain, and I kept
her standing for a long time; and I would not bid her good-night when she
went away; and I heard her sigh as she closed the door, and I called her
back and she did not hear me; and now--' But here hysterical sobs checked
her utterance.

'Yes, but you are sorry now, and Susan has forgiven you. I think she
wanted to send you a message, but she is in too great pain to speak. I
heard her say, "Poor Phoebe," but I begged her not to make the effort;
you see she is thinking of you still.'

'My poor Susan! But she must not miss you; I am wicked and selfish to
keep you like this. Go to her, Miss Garston!' And I was thankful to be
dismissed.

My heart was full when I re-entered the sick-room. Mr. Hamilton looked
rather scrutinising as he rose to give me his place.

'Your thoughts must be here,' he said meaningly. 'Forgive me, if I give
you that hint: do not forget Providence is watching over that other room.
One duty at a time, Miss Garston.' And, though I coloured at this
wholesome rebuke, I knew he was correct.

'Yes, he is right,' I thought, as I stood listening to poor Susan's
oppressed and difficult breathing: 'the Divine Teacher is beside His
child. It is not for us to question this discipline or plead for an
easier lesson.' But none the less did the fervent petition rise from my
heart that the angel of death might not be suffered to enter this house.

The night wore on, but, alas! there was no improvement. When Mr. Hamilton
came through the snow the next morning he looked grave and dissatisfied,
and then he asked me if I wanted any help; but I shook my head. 'Mrs.
Martin is in the house: she will look after Phoebe and Kitty.'

When he had gone, I wrote a little note and gave it to Kitty:

'I cannot leave Susan for a minute, she is so very ill. Mr. Hamilton can
see no improvement. He is coming again at mid-day. She suffers very much;
but we will not give up hope, you and I;' and I bade Kitty carry it to
her aunt.

When Mr. Hamilton returned, he brought a little covered basket with him,
and bade me rather peremptorily take my luncheon while he watched beside
the patient.

This act of thoughtfulness touched me. I wondered who had packed the
basket: there was the wing of a chicken, some delicate slices of tongue,
a roll, and some jelly. A little note lay at the bottom:

'Giles has asked me to provide a tempting luncheon: he says you have
had a sad night with poor Miss Locke, and are looking very tired. Poor
Ursula! you are spending all your strength on other people.

'In another half-hour I shall leave Gladwyn. I think I am glad to go,
things are so miserable here, and one loses patience sometimes. I wish
I could know poor Susan Locke's fate before I go; but Giles seems to have
little hope. Take care of yourself for my sake, Ursula. I have grown to
love you very dearly.

'--Your affectionate friend,

'Gladys.'

Mr. Hamilton came again early in the evening, and I took the opportunity
of paying Phoebe another visit.

She was lying with her eyes closed, and looked very ill and
exhausted,--alarmingly so, I thought: her emotion had nearly spent
itself, and she was now passive and waiting for the worst.

'Let me know when it happens,' she whispered. 'I have no hope now, but I
will try and bear it.' And she drew my hands to her lips and kissed them:
'they have touched Susan, they are doing my work, they are blessed hands
to me.' And then she seemed unable to bear more.

When Mr. Hamilton paid his final visit he announced his intention of
remaining in the house. 'There will be a change one way or another before
long, and I shall not leave you by yourself to-night,' he said quietly;
and in my heart I was not sorry to hear this. He told me that there was a
good fire downstairs, and that he meant to take possession of a very
comfortable arm-chair, but that he wanted to remain in the sick-room for
half an hour or so.

I fancied that his professional eyes had already detected some change.
Presently he walked away to the fireplace and stood looking down into the
flames in rather an absent way.

I could not help looking at him once or twice, he seemed so absorbed in
thought; his dark face looked rigid, his lips firmly closed, and his
forehead slightly puckered.

More than once I had puzzled myself over a fancied resemblance of Mr.
Hamilton to some picture I had seen. All at once I remembered the
subject. It was the picture of a young Christian sleeping peacefully just
before he was called to his combat with wild beasts in the amphitheatre:
the keeper was even then opening the door: the lions were waiting for
their prey. The face was boyish, but still Mr. Hamilton reminded me of
him. And there was a picture of St. Augustine sitting with his mother
Monica, that reminded me of Mr. Hamilton too. I had called him plain, and
Jill thought him positively ugly, but, after all, there was something
noble in his expression, a power that made itself felt.

Just then the lines of his face relaxed and softened; he half smiled,
looked up, and our eyes met. I was terribly abashed at the thought that
he should find me watching him; but, to my surprise, his face brightened,
and he roused himself and crossed the room.

'I was dreaming, I think, but you woke me. Are you very tired? Shall I
take your place?' But before I could reply his manner changed, and he
stooped over the bed, and then looked at me with a smile.

'I thought so. The breathing is certainly less difficult: the
inflammation is diminishing. I see signs of improvement.'

'Thank God!' was my answer to this, and before long this hope was
verified: the pain and difficulty of breathing were certainly less
intense, the danger was subsiding.

Mr. Hamilton went downstairs soon after this, and I settled to my
solitary night-watch, but it was no longer dreary: every hour I felt more
assured that Susan Locke would be restored to her sister.

Once or twice during the night I crept into Phoebe's room to gladden her
heart with the glad news, but she was sleeping heavily and I would not
disturb her. 'Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the
morning,' I said to myself, as I sat down by Susan's bedside. I was very
weary, but a strange tumult of thoughts seemed surging through my brain,
and I was unable to control them. Gladys's pale face and tear-filled eyes
rose perpetually before me: her low, passionate tones vibrated in my ear.
'They have accused him falsely,' I seemed to hear her say: 'Eric never
took that cheque.'

What a mystery in that quiet household! No wonder there was something
unrestful in the atmosphere of Gladwyn,--that one felt oppressed and ill
at ease in that house.

Fragments of my conversation with Mr. Hamilton came unbidden to my
memory. How strange that that proud, reserved man should have spoken so
to me, that he had suffered his heart's bitterness to overflow in words
to me, who was almost a stranger: 'They lay the blame of that poor boy's
death at my door, as though I would not give my right hand to have him
back again.' Oh, if Gladys had only heard the tone in which he said this,
she must have believed and have been sorry for him.

'They are too hard upon him,' I said to myself. 'If he has been stern
and injudicious with his poor young brother, he has long ago repented
of his hardness. He is very good to them all, but they will not try to
understand him: it is not right of Gladys to treat him as a stranger.
I am sorry for them all, but I begin to feel that Mr. Hamilton is not the
only one to blame.'

I wished I could have told him this, but I knew the words would never
get themselves spoken. I might be sorry for him in my heart, but I could
never tell him so, never assure him of my true sympathy. I was far too
much in awe of him: there are some men one would never venture to pity.

But all the same I longed to do him some secret service; he had been kind
to me, and had helped me much in my work. If I could only succeed in
bringing him and Gladys nearer together, if I could make them understand
each other, I felt I would have spared no pains or trouble to do so.

If he were not so infatuated on the subject of his cousin's merits, I
thought scornfully, I should be no more sanguine about my success; but
Miss Darrell had hoodwinked him completely. As long as he believed in all
she chose to tell him, Gladys would never be in her proper place.

As soon as it was light I heard Mr. Hamilton stirring in the room below.
He came up for a moment to tell me that he was going home to breakfast;
he looked quite fresh and brisk, and declared that he had had a capital
night's sleep.

'I am going to find some one to take your place while you go home and
have a good seven hours' rest,' he said, in his decided way. 'I suppose
you are aware that you have not slept for forty-eight hours? Kitty is
going to make you some tea.' And with this he took himself off.

I went into Phoebe's room presently. Kitty told me that she was awake at
last. As soon as she saw me she put up her hands as though to ward off my
approach.

'Wait a moment,' she said huskily. 'You need not tell me; I know what you
have come to say; I have no longer a sister: Susan is a saint in heaven.'

For a moment I hesitated, afraid to speak. She had nerved herself to bear
the worst, and I feared the revulsion of feeling would be too great. As I
stood there silently looking down at her drawn, haggard face, I felt she
would not have had strength to bear a fresh trial. If Susan had died
Phoebe would not have long survived her.

'You are wrong,' I said, very gently. 'I have no bad news for you this
morning. The inflammation has diminished. Susan breathes more easily:
each breath is no longer acute agony.'

'Do you mean that she is better?' staring at me incredulously.

'Most certainly she is better. The danger is over; but we must be very
careful, for she will be ill for some time yet. Yes, indeed, Phoebe, you
may believe me. Do you think I would deceive you? God has heard your
prayers, and Susan is spared to you.'

I never saw a human countenance so transformed as Phoebe's was that
moment; every feature seemed to quiver with ecstasy; she could not speak,
only she folded her hands as though in prayer. Presently she looked up,
and said, as simply as a child,--

'Oh, I am so happy! I never thought I should be happy again. You may
leave me now, Miss Garston, for I want to thank God, for the first time
in my life. I feel as though I must love Him now for giving Susan back
to me.' And then again she begged me to leave her.

Mr. Hamilton did not forget me. I had just put the sick-room in order
when a respectable young woman made her appearance. She told me that her
name was Carron, that she was a married woman and a friend of Miss
Locke's, and she would willingly take my place until evening.

I was thankful to accept this timely offer of help, and went home and
enjoyed a deep dreamless sleep for some hours. When I woke it was
evening. Jill was standing by my bedside with a tray in her hands.
The room was bright with firelight. Jill's big eyes looked at me
affectionately.

'How you have slept, Ursie dear! just like a baby! I have been in and out
half-a-dozen times; but no, you never stirred. I told Mr. Hamilton so,
when he inquired an hour ago. Now, you are to drink this coffee, and when
you are quite awake I will give you his message.'

'I am quite awake now,' I returned, rubbing my eyes vigorously.

'Well, then, let me see. Oh, Miss Locke is going on well, and Mrs. Carron
will stop with her until eight o'clock. Phoebe has been ill, and they
sent for him; but it was only faintness and palpitation, and she is
better now. He has been to see Elspeth, and she is poorly; but there is
no need for you to trouble about her. Miss Darrell is sending her broth
and jelly, and Peggy waits on her very nicely. Lady Betty and I went to
see her to-day, and she was as comfortable and cheery as possible, and
told us that she felt like a lady in that big bed downstairs. Mr.
Hamilton says she will not die just yet, but one of these days she will
go off as quietly as a baby. She asked after you, Ursie, and sent you a
power of love, and I hope it will do you good.'

'And what have you been doing with yourself all day, Jill?' I asked,
rather anxiously.

'Oh, lots of things,' tossing back her thick locks. 'Let me see. Lady
Betty came to fetch me for a walk, and we met Mr. Tudor. He is all alone,
poor man, and very dull without Mr. Cunliffe; he told us so: so Lady
Betty brought him back to lunch. And Miss Darrell was so cross, and told
poor Lady Betty that she was very forward to do such a thing; they had
such a quarrel in the drawing-room about it. Mr. Tudor came in and
found Lady Betty crying, so he made us come out in the garden, and we
played a new sort of Aunt Sally. Mr. Tudor stuck up an old hat of Mr.
Hamilton's,--at least we found out it was not an old one after all,--and
we snowballed it, and Mr. Hamilton came out and helped us. After tea, we
all told ghost-stories round the fire. Miss Darrell does not like them,
so she went up to her room. Mr. Tudor had to see a sick man, but he came
back to dinner; but I would not stay, for I thought you would be waking,
Ursie, so Mr. Hamilton brought me home.'

'Jill!' I asked desperately, 'have they not written for you to join them
at Hastings yet? I begin to think you have been idle long enough.'

'Had you not better go to sleep again, Ursie dear?' returned Jill,
marching off with my tray. But she made a little face at me as she went
out of the door. 'I shall get into trouble over this,' I thought. 'I
really must write to Aunt Philippa.' But I was spared the necessity, for
the very next day Jill came to me at Miss Locke's to tell me, with a very
long face, that her mother had written to say that Miss Gillespie was
coming the following week, and Jill was to pack up and join them at
Hastings the very next day.



CHAPTER XXV

'THERE IS NO ONE LIKE DONALD'


Mrs. Carron very kindly took my place that I might be with Jill that last
evening, and we spent it in Jill's favourite fashion, talking in the
firelight.

She was a little quiet and subdued, full of regret at leaving me, and
more affectionate than ever.

'I have never been so happy in my life,' she said, in rather a melancholy
voice. 'When I get to Hastings, my visit here will seem like a dream, it
has been so nice, somehow; you are such a dear old thing, Ursula, and I
am so fond of Lady Betty, I shall ask mother to invite her in the
holidays.'

'And there is no one else you will regret, Jill?' I asked, anxious to
sound her on one point.

'Oh yes; I am sorry to bid good-bye to Mr. Tudor. He has been such fun
lately. I really do think he is quite the nicest young man I know.'

'Do you know many young men, my dear?' was my apparently innocent remark;
but Jill was not deceived by this smooth speech.

'Of course I do,' in a scornful voice; 'they come to see Sara, and I
hate them so, flimsy stuck-up creatures, with their white ties and absurd
little moustaches. Each one is more stupid and vapid than the other. And
Sara must think so too; for she smiles on them all alike.'

'You are terribly hard on the young men of your generation, Jill; I
daresay I should think them very harmless and pleasant.' But she shook
her head vigorously.

'Why cannot they be natural, and say good-natured things, like Mr. Tudor?
He is real, and not make-believe, pretending that he is too bored to live
at all. One would think there was no truth anywhere, nothing but tinsel
and sham, to listen to them. That is why I like Mr. Tudor: he has the
ring of the true metal about him. Even Miss Darrell agrees with me
there.'

'Do you discuss Mr. Tudor with Miss Darrell?'

'Why not?' opening her eyes widely. 'I like to talk about my friends,
and I feel Mr. Tudor is a real friend. She was so interested,--really
interested, I mean, without any humbug,--at least, pretence,' for here I
held up my finger at Jill. 'She wanted to know if you liked him too, and
I said, "Oh yes, so much; he was a great favourite of yours," and she
seemed pleased to hear it.'

'You silly child! I wish you would leave me and my likes and dislikes out
of your conversations with Miss Darrell.'

'Well, do you know, I try to do so, because I know how you hate her,--at
least, dislike her: that is a more ladylike term,--you are so horribly
particular, Ursula; but somehow your name always gets in, and I never
know how, and there is no keeping you out. Sometimes she makes me
dreadfully angry about you, and sometimes she says nice things; but
there, we will not talk about the double-faced lady to-night. I
understand her less than ever.'

We glided into more serious subjects after this. I made Jill promise to
be more patient with her life, and work from a greater sense of duty, and
I begged her most earnestly to fight against discontent, and exorcise
this youthful demon of hers, and again she promised to do her best.

'I feel better about things, somehow: you have done me good, Ursie; you
always do. I must make mother understand that I am nearly a woman, and
that I do not intend to waste my time any longer dreaming childish
dreams. I suppose mother is really fond of me, though she does find fault
with me continually, and is always praising Sara.' Jill went on talking
in this way for some time, and then we went upstairs together.

I was rather provoked to find Mr. Tudor at the station the next morning.
I suppose my steady look abashed him, for he muttered something about
Smith's bookstall, as though I should be deceived by such a flimsy
excuse. After all, Mr. Tudor was not better than other young men; in
spite of Jill's praises, he was capable of this mild subterfuge to get
his own way.

Jill was so honestly and childishly pleased to see him that I ought to
have been disarmed. She went off with him to the bookstall, while I
looked after her luggage, and they stood there chattering and laughing
until I joined them, and then Mr. Tudor grew suddenly quiet.

As the train came up, I heard him ask Jill how long they were to stay at
Hastings, and if they would be at Hyde Park Gate before Easter.

'I shall be up in town then,' he remarked carelessly, 'to see some of my
people.'

'Oh yes, and you must come and see us,' she returned cheerfully.
'Good-bye, Mr. Tudor. I am so sorry to leave Heathfield.'

But, after all, Jill's last look was for me: as she leaned out of the
carriage, waving her hand, she did not even glance at the young man who
was standing silent and gloomy beside me. I felt rather sorry for the
poor boy, as he turned away quite sadly.

'I must go down to the schools: good-bye, Miss Garston,' he said
hurriedly. One would have thought he had to make up for lost time, as he
strode through the station and up the long road. Had Jill really taken
his fancy, I wondered? had her big eyes and quaint speeches bewitched
him? Mr. Tudor was a gentleman, and we all liked him; but what would
Uncle Brian and Aunt Philippa say if a needy, good-looking young curate
were suddenly to present himself as a lover for their daughter Jocelyn?
Why, Jill would be rich some day,--poor Ralph was dead, and she and Sara
would be co-heiresses. Her parents would expect her to make a grand
match.

I shook my head gravely over poor Lawrence's prospects as I took my way
slowly up the hill. I was rather glad when his broad shoulders were out
of sight; I should be sorry if any disappointment were to cloud his
cheery nature.

I missed Jill a great deal at first, but in my heart I was not sorry
to get rid of the responsibility; a lively girl of sixteen, with strong
individuality and marked precocity, is likely to be a formidable charge;
but Mrs. Barton lamented her absence in no measured terms.

'It seems so dull without Miss Jocelyn,' she said, the first evening.
'She was such a lively young lady, and made us all cheerful. Why, she
would run in and out the kitchen a dozen times a day, to feed the
chickens, or pet the cat, or watch me knead the bread. She and Nathaniel
got on famously together, and often I have found her helping him with the
books, and laughing so merrily when he made a mistake. I used to think
Nathaniel did it on purpose sometimes, just for the fun of it.'

Yes, we all missed Jill, and I for one loved the girl dearly. It made me
quite happy one day when she wrote a long letter, telling me that she was
delighted with her new governess.

'Miss Gillespie is as nice as possible,' she wrote. 'I already feel quite
fond of her; my lessons are as interesting now as they used to be dull
with Fräulein. She knows a great deal, and is not ashamed to confess when
she is ignorant of anything; she says right out that she cannot answer my
questions, and proposes that we should study it together. I quite enjoy
our walks and talks, for she takes so much interest in all I tell her.
She is a little dull and sad sometimes, as though she were thinking of
past troubles; but I like to feel that I can cheer her up and do her
good. Mother and Sara are delighted with her; she plays so beautifully,
and they say that she is such a gentlewoman. When we come downstairs in
the evening she will not allow me to creep into a corner; she makes me
join in the conversation, and coaxes me to play my pieces; and she tries
to prevent mother making horrid little remarks on my awkwardness.

'"It will all come right, Mrs. Garston," I heard her say one day. "It is
far wiser not to notice it: young girls are so sensitive, and Jocelyn is
keenly alive to her shortcomings." And mother actually nodded assent to
this, and the next moment she called me up, and said how much I had
improved in my playing, and that Colonel Ferguson had told her that I
had been exceedingly well taught.

'By the bye, I am quite sure that Colonel Ferguson intends to be my
brother-in-law: he is always here in the evening, and yesterday he sent
Sara such a magnificent bouquet.'

Jill's chatty letters were always amusing. She had prepared me
beforehand, so I was not surprised at receiving a voluminous letter from
Aunt Philippa a few days afterwards, informing me of Sara's engagement to
Colonel Ferguson.

'Your uncle and I are delighted with the match,' she wrote. 'Colonel
Ferguson belongs to a very good old family, and he has private property.
Your uncle says that he is a very intelligent man, and is much respected
in the regiment.

'Mrs. Fullerton thinks it is a pity for Sara to marry a widower; but I
call that nonsense; he is a young-looking man for his age, and every one
thinks him so handsome. Sara, poor darling, is as happy as possible. I
believe that they are to be married soon after Easter, as he wants to get
some salmon fishing in Norway: so we shall come up to Hyde Park Gate
early next week, and see about the trousseau, for there is no time to be
lost.'

Sara added a few words in her pretty girlish handwriting.

'I wonder if you will be very much surprised by mamma's letter, Ursula
dear. We all thought he liked Lesbia, but no, he says that was entirely a
mistake on our part, he never really thought of her at all.

'Of course I am very happy. I think there is no one like Donald in the
world. I cannot imagine why such a wise, clever man should fall in love
with a silly little body like me. I suppose I must please him in some
way, for, really, he seems dreadfully in love.

'You must come to my wedding, Ursula, and I must choose your dress
for you; of course father will pay for it, but I promise you it shall
be pretty, and suitable to your complexion. I mean to have eight
bridesmaids. Jocelyn will be one, of course, and I shall get that tall,
fair Grace Underley to act as a foil to her bigness. I shall not ask
poor Lesbia to be one; it would be too trying for her, and I know you
will not care about it; but you must come for a week, and see all my
pretty things, and help poor mamma, for she has only Jocelyn: so remember
you are to keep yourself disengaged the week after Easter.'

I wrote back that same evening warm congratulations to Sara and Aunt
Philippa, and promised to come when Sara wanted me. A gay wedding was not
to my taste, but I knew I owed this duty to them: they had been kind to
me in their own fashion and according to their lights, and I would not
fail them. Easter would fall late this year,--in the middle of April:
there were still three months before Sara would be married, and most
likely by that time I should need a few days' rest and change.

The next morning I heard from Lesbia. It was a kind, sad little letter;
she told me she was glad about Sara's engagement, and as they were still
at Hastings she and her mother had called at Warrior Square, and had
found Sara and her _fiancé_ together.

'I think it has improved Sara already,' it went on; 'she was looking
exceedingly pretty, and in good spirits, and she seemed very proud of
her tall, grave-looking soldier. Mother and I always liked Colonel
Ferguson. He and Sara are complete contrasts; I think her brightness
and good-humour, as well as her beauty, have attracted him, for he is
honestly in love! I liked the quiet, deferential way in which he treated
her. I am sure he will make a kind husband. Mrs. Garston looked as happy
as possible. I did not see Jocelyn; she was out riding with her father.

'We are going down to dear Rutherford in March, but I have promised Sara
to come up for the wedding. Don't sigh, Ursula: it is all in the day's
work, and one has to do trying things sometimes.

'I have come to think that perhaps dear Charlie is better off where he
is. He was so enthusiastic and so true that life must have disappointed
him. Perhaps I should have disappointed him too; but no, I should have
loved him too well to do that.

'I shall love to be at Rutherford during the spring. Everything will
remind me of those sweet spring days two years ago. Oh, those walks and
rides, and the evening when we listened to the nightingale and he told me
that he loved me! I remember the very patch of grass where I stood. There
was a little clump of alders, and I can see how he looked then. Oh,
Ursula, these memories are very sad, but they are sweet, too; for Charlie
is our Charlie still, is he not?'

'Poor Lesbia!' I sighed, as I folded up her letter and prepared for my
day's work. 'It must be hard for her to witness Sara's happiness, when
her own life is so clouded. Her heart is still true to Charlie; but she
is so young, and life is so long. I trust that better things are in store
for her.'

Miss Locke was recovering very slowly. Years of anxiety and hard work
had overtaxed her strength sorely. Mr. Hamilton used to shake his head
over her tardy progress, and tell her that she was a very unsatisfactory
patient, and that he had expected to cure her long before this.

'If it were not for you and my dear Miss Garston, I should never be lying
here now,' she returned gratefully. 'I must have died; you know that,
doctor; and even now, in spite of all the good things you send me, I am
so weary and fit for nothing I feel as though I should never sit up
again.'

'Oh, we shall have you up before long,' he returned cheerfully. 'You
are only rather slow about it. You are not troubling about your work or
anything else, I hope, because the rent is paid, and there is plenty in
the cupboard for Phoebe and Kitty.'

'I know you have paid the rent, and I shall never be grateful enough to
you, doctor; for what should I have done, with this long illness making
me behindhand with everything? I am afraid Miss Garston puts her hand in
her pocket sometimes. I hope the Lord will bless you both for your
goodness to two helpless women. Ay, and he will bless you, doctor!'

'I am sure I hope so,' he returned, in a good-humoured tone, shaking her
hand. 'There! mind what your nurse says, and keep yourself easy: you will
find Phoebe a different person when you see her next.'

I was afraid Phoebe would find her sister much changed when they met.
Miss Locke had greatly aged since her illness; her hair was much grayer,
and her face was sunken, and I doubted whether she would ever be the same
woman again. Mr. Hamilton and I had already discussed the sisters'
future.

'I am afraid they will be terribly pinched,' he said once. 'Miss Locke
is suffering now from years of overwork. She will never be able to work
as hard as she has done. And she has to provide for that child Kitty, as
well as for poor Phoebe.'

'We must think what is to be done,' I replied. 'Miss Locke is a very good
manager: she is careful and thrifty. A little will go a long way with
her.'

Mr. Hamilton said no more on the subject just then, but a few days
afterwards he told me that he intended to buy the cottage. He had a good
deal of house-property in Heathfield, and a cottage more or less did not
matter to him.

'They shall live in it rent-free, and I will take care of the repairs.
There will be no need for Miss Locke to work so hard then. She is a good
woman, and I thoroughly respect her. Of course I know she is a favourite
of yours, Miss Garston, but you must not think that influences me.'

'As though I should imagine such a thing!' I returned, in quite an
affronted tone. But Mr. Hamilton only laughed.

'You are such an insignificant person, you see,' he went on
mischievously. 'You are of so little use to your generation. People do
not benefit by your example, or defer to your opinion. There is no St.
Ursula in the calendar.' Now what did he mean by all this rigmarole? But
he only laughed again in a provoking way, and went out.

I had had both the sisters on my hands. Those hours of fearful suspense
had told on Phoebe, and for a week or two we were very anxious about her.

I kept the extent of her illness from Susan, and she never knew that
Mr. Hamilton visited her daily. Strange to say, Phoebe gave us little
trouble. She bore her bodily sufferings with surprising patience, and
even made light of them; and she would thank me most gratefully when I
waited on her.

I was never long in her room. There was no reading or singing now.
Nothing would induce her to keep me from Susan. She used to beg me to
go back to Susan and leave her to Kitty. I never forgot Susan's look of
astonishment when I told her this.

'Somehow, it doesn't sound like Phoebe,' she said, looking at me a
little wistfully. 'Are you sure you understand her, Miss Garston?--that
something has not put her out? She has often sulked with me like that.'

'Oh, Phoebe never sulks now,' I returned, smiling at this view of the
case. 'She is not like the same woman, Susan. She thinks of other people
now.' Miss Locke heard me silently, but I saw that she was still
incredulous. She was not sanguine enough to hope for a miracle; and
surely only a miracle could change Phoebe's sullen and morbid nature.

The sisters were longing to meet, but the helplessness of the one and the
long-protracted weakness of the other kept them long apart, though only a
short flight of stairs divided them.

At last I thought we might venture to bring Susan into Phoebe's room.

The weather was less severe, and Susan seemed a little stronger, so Kitty
and I hurried ourselves in preparation for a festive tea in Phoebe's
room.

She watched us with unconcealed interest as we spread the tea-cloth, and
arranged the best china, and then placed an easy-chair by her bedside.

The room really looked very bright and cosy. A little gray kitten that I
had brought Kitty was asleep on the quilt; Phoebe had taken a great fancy
to the pretty, playful little creature, and it was always with her;
Kitty's large wax doll was lying with its curly head on her pillow.

Susan trembled very much as she entered the room, leaning heavily on
my arm. Phoebe lay quite motionless, watching her as she walked slowly
towards the bed, then her face suddenly grew pitiful, and she held out
her arms.

'Oh, how ill you look, my poor Susan, and so old and gray! but what does
it matter, so that I have got my Susan back? If you had died, I should
have died too; God never meant to punish me like that.' And she stroked
and kissed her face as though she were a child, and for a little while
the two sisters mingled their tears together.

Susan was too weak for much emotion, so I placed her comfortably in her
easy-chair, and bade her look at Phoebe without troubling to talk; but
her heart was too full for silence.

'Why, my woman,' she burst out, 'you look real bonnie! I do believe your
face has got a bit of colour in it, and you remind me of the old Phoebe;
nay,' as Phoebe laughed at this, 'I never thought to hear you laugh
again, my dearie.'

'It is with the pleasure of seeing you,' returned Phoebe. 'If you only
knew what I suffered while you lay ill! "there is no improvement," they
said, and Miss Garston looked at me so pityingly; and if you had died and
never spoken to me again,--and I had refused to bid you good-night,--you
remember, Susan! oh, I think my heart would have broken if you had gone
away and left me like that.'

'Nay, I should have thought nothing about it, but that it was just
Phoebe's way. Do you mean that you fretted about that, lass? Oh,' turning
to me, for Phoebe was crying bitterly over the recollection, 'I would not
believe you, Miss Garston, when you said Phoebe was changed, for I said
to myself, "Surely she will be up to her old tricks again soon"; but now
I see you are right. Nay, never fret, my bonnie woman, for I loved you
when you were as tiresome and cross-grained as possible. I think I cannot
help loving yon,' finished Susan simply, as she took her sister's hand.

That was a happy evening that we spent in Phoebe's room. When tea was
over we read a few chapters, Kitty and I, and then I sang some of
Phoebe's favourite songs. When I had finished, I looked at them: Phoebe
had fallen asleep with Susan's hand still in hers: there was a look of
peaceful rest on the worn gray face that made me whisper to Miss Locke,--

'The evil spirit is cast out at last, Susan.'

'Ay,' returned Susan quietly. 'She is clothed and in her right mind, and
I doubt not sitting at the feet of Him who has called her. I have got my
Phoebe back again, thank God, as I have not seen her for many a long
year.'



CHAPTER XXVI

I HEAR ABOUT CAPTAIN HAMILTON


It was now more than five weeks since Gladys had left us, but during that
time I had heard from her frequently.

Her letters were deeply interesting. She wrote freely, pouring out her
thoughts on every subject without reserve. Somehow I felt, as I read
them, that those letters gave as much pleasure to the writer as to the
recipient; and I found afterwards that this was the case. Her
consciousness of my sympathy with her made her open her heart more freely
to me than to any other person. She delighted in telling me of the books
she read, in describing the various effects of nature. Her descriptions
were so powerful and graphic that they quite surprised me. She made me
feel as though I were walking through the fir woods beside her, or
standing on the sea-shore watching the white-crested waves rolling in and
breaking into foam at our feet. A sort of dewy freshness seemed to stamp
the pages. Gladys loved nature with all her heart; she revelled in the
solemn grandeur of those woods, in the breadth and freedom of the ocean;
it seemed to harmonise with her varying moods.

'I feel a different creature already,' she wrote when she had been away
a fortnight. 'Without owning myself happy (but happiness, active or
negative, will never come to me again), still I am calmer and more at
peace,--away from the oppressive influences that surrounded me at home.

'I have made up my mind that the atmosphere of Gladwyn is fatal to my
soul's health. I seem to wither up like some sensitive plant in that
blighting air; half-truths, misunderstandings, and jealousies have
corroded our home peace. I am better away from it all, for here I can own
myself ill and miserable, and no one blames or misapprehends my meaning:
there are no harsh judgments under the guise of pity.

'These dear people are so truly charitable, they think no evil of a poor
girl who is faithful to a brother's memory: they are patient with my sad
moods, they leave me free to follow out my wishes. I wander about as I
will, I sketch or read, I sit idle; no one blames me; they are as good to
me as you would be in their place.

'I shall stay away as long as possible, until I feel strong enough to
take up my life again. You will not be vexed with me, my dear Ursula: you
know how I have suffered; you of all others will sympathise with me.
Think of the relief it is to wake up in the morning and feel that no
jarring influences will be at work that day; that no eyes will pry into
my secret sorrow, or seek to penetrate my very thoughts; that I may look
and speak as I like; that my words will not be twisted to serve other
people's purposes. Forgive me if I speak harshly, but indeed you do not
know all yet. Your last letter made me a little sad, you speak so much of
Giles. Do you really think I am hard upon him? The idea is painful to me.

'I like you to think well of him. He is a good man. I have always
thoroughly respected him, but there is no sympathy between us. Of course
it is more Etta's fault than his: she has usurped my place, and Giles no
longer needs me. Perhaps I am not kind to him, not sisterly or soft in my
manners; but he treats me too much as a child. He never asks my opinion
on any subject. We live under his protection, and he never grudges us
money; he is generous in that way; but he never enters into our thoughts.
Lady Betty and I lead our own lives.

'You ask me why I do not write to him, my dear Ursula. Such a thought
would never enter my head. Write to Giles! What should I say to him? How
would such a letter ever get itself written? Do you suppose he would care
for me as a correspondent? I should like you to ask him that question, if
you dared. Giles's face would be a study. I fancy I write that letter,--a
marvellous composition of commonplace nothings. "My dear brother, I think
you will like to hear our Bournemouth news," etc. I can imagine him
tossing it aside as he opens his other letters: "Gladys has actually
written to me. I suppose she wants another cheque. See what she says,
Etta. You may read it aloud, if you like, while I finish my breakfast."
Now do not look incredulous. I once saw Lady Betty's letter treated in
this way, and all her poor little sentences pulled to pieces in Etta's
usual fashion. No, thank you, I will not write to Giles. I write to Lady
Betty sometimes, but not often: that is why she comes to you for news. We
are a queer household, Ursula. I am very fond of my dear little Lady
Betty, but somehow I have never enjoyed writing to her since Etta one day
handed to her one of my letters opened by mistake. Lady Betty has fancied
the mistake has occurred more than once.'

I put down this letter with a sigh; it was the only painful one I had
received from Gladys. My remark about her writing to her brother had
evidently upset her, but after this she did not speak much about Gladwyn,
and by tacit consent we spoke little about any of her people except Lady
Betty. When I mentioned Mr. Hamilton I did so casually, and only with
reference to my own work. He was so mixed up with my daily life, I came
so continually into contact with him, that it was impossible to avoid his
name.

Gladys understood this, for she once replied,--

'I am really and honestly glad that you and Giles work so well together.
He will be a good friend to you, I know, for when he forms a favourable
opinion of a person he is slow to change it, and Giles is one who, with
all his faults, will go through fire and water for his friends. I like to
hear of him in this way, for you always put him in the best light, and
though you may not believe it after all my hard speeches, I am
sufficiently proud of my brother to wish him to be properly appreciated.'
And after this I mentioned him less reluctantly.

Max came back about ten days after Jill had left us. I found him waiting
for me one evening when I got back to the cottage. As usual, he greeted
me most affectionately, only he laughed when I made him turn to the light
that I might see how he looked.

'Well, what is your opinion, Ursula, my dear? I hope you have noticed the
gray hairs in my beard. I saw them there this morning.'

'You are rather tanned by the cold winds. I suppose Torquay has done you
good; but your eyes have not lost their tired look, Max: you are not a
bit rested.'

'I believe I want more work: too much rest would kill me with ennui,'
stretching out his arms with a sort of weary gesture. 'I walked a great
deal at Torquay; I was out in the air all day; but it did not seem to be
what I wanted: I was terribly bored. Tudor is glad to get me back. The
fellow actually seems dull. Have you any idea what has gone wrong with
him, Ursula?' But I prudently turned a deaf ear to this question, and he
did not follow it up; and a moment afterwards he mentioned that he had
been at Gladwyn, and that Miss Darrell had given him a good account of
Miss Hamilton.

'I had no idea that she was away until this afternoon. Her departure was
rather sudden, was it not?'

I think he was glad when I gave him Gladys's message; but he looked
rather grave when I told him how much she was enjoying her freedom.

'She seems a different creature; those Maberleys are so good to her; they
pet her, and yet leave her uncontrolled to follow her own wishes. I am
more at rest about her there.'

'A girl ought to be happy in her own home,' he returned, somewhat
moodily. 'I think Miss Hamilton has indulged her sadness long enough.
Perhaps there are other reasons for her being better. I suppose she has
not heard--?' And here he stopped rather awkwardly.

'Do you mean whether she has heard anything of Eric? Oh no, Max.'

'No, I was not meaning that,' looking at me rather astonished. 'Of course
we know the poor boy is dead. I was only wondering if she had had an
Indian letter lately. Well, it is none of my affair, and I cannot wait to
hear more now. Good-night, little she-bear; I am off.' And he actually
was off, in spite of my calling him quite loudly in the porch, for I
wanted him to tell me what he meant. Had Gladys any special correspondent
in India? I wondered if I might venture to question Lady Betty.

As it very often happens, she played quite innocently into my hands, for
the very next day she came to tell me that she had had a letter from
Gladys.

'It was a very short one,' she grumbled. 'Only she had an Indian letter
to answer, and that took up her time, so that was a pretty good excuse
for once.'

'Has Gladys any special friend in India?'

'Only Claude!--I mean our cousin, Claude Hamilton. Have you not often
heard us talk of him? How strange! Why, he used to stay with us for
months at a time, and he and Gladys were great friends: they correspond.
He is Captain Hamilton now; his regiment was ordered to India just at the
time poor dear Eric disappeared; he was awfully shocked about that, I
remember. Etta wrote and told him all about it; he was a great favourite
of hers. We none of us thought him handsome except Etta; he was a
nice-looking fellow, but nothing else.'

'And you and Gladys are fond of him?'

'Oh yes.' But here Lady Betty looked a little queer.

'Gladys writes to him most: she has always been his correspondent.
Now and then I get a letter written to me. You see, he has no one else
belonging to him, now his mother is dead. Aunt Agnes died about two years
ago, and he never had brothers or sisters, so he adopted us.'

'Uncle Max knew him, of course?'

'To be sure. Mr. Cunliffe knew all our people. Claude was a favourite of
his, too. I think every one liked him; he was so straightforward, and
never did anything mean. I think he will make a splendid officer; he has
had fever lately, and we rather expect he is coming home on sick-leave.
Etta hopes so.'

'Gladys has never spoken of her cousin to me.'

'That is because you two are always talking about other things,--poor
Eric, for example. Gladys likes to talk about Claude, of course: he is
her own cousin.' And Lady Betty's manner was just a little defiant, as
though I had accused Gladys of some indiscretion. I heard her mutter,
'They find plenty of fault with her about that,' but I took no notice.
I had satisfied my curiosity, and I knew now why Max fancied an Indian
letter would raise Gladys's spirits; but all the same he might have
spoken out. Max had no business to be so mysterious with me.

I heard Captain Hamilton's name again shortly afterwards. I was calling
at Gladwyn one afternoon. I was loath to do so in Gladys's absence, but
I dared not discontinue my visits entirely, for fear of Miss Darrell's
remarks. To my surprise, I found her _tête-à-tête_ with Uncle Max. She
welcomed me with a great show of cordiality; but before I had been five
minutes in the room I found out that my visit was inopportune, though
Max seemed unfeignedly pleased to see me, and she had repeated his words
in almost parrot-like fashion. 'Oh yes, I am so glad to see you, Miss
Garston! it is so good of you to call when dear Gladys is away! Of course
I know she is the attraction: we all know that, do we not?' smiling
sweetly upon me. 'She has been away more than five weeks now,--dear,
dear! how time flies!--really five weeks, and this is your first call.'

'You know how Miss Locke's illness has engrossed me,' I remonstrated.
'I never pretend to mere conventional calls.'

'No, indeed. You have a code of your own, have you not? Your niece is
fortunate, Mr. Cunliffe. She makes her own laws, while we poor inferior
mortals are obliged to conform to the world's dictates. I wish I were
strong-minded like you. It must be such a pleasure to be free and despise
_les convenances_. People are so artificial, are they not?'

'Ursula is not artificial, at any rate,' returned Max, with a benevolent
glance. It had struck me as I entered the room that he looked rather
bored and ill at ease, but Miss Darrell was in high spirits, and looked
almost handsome. I never saw her better dressed.

'No, indeed. Miss Garston is almost too frank; not that that is a fault.
Oh yes, Miss Locke's illness has been a tedious affair: even Giles got
weary of it, and used to grumble at having to go every day. Of course,
seeing Giles once or twice a day, you heard all our news, so we did not
expect you to toil up here: that would have been unnecessary trouble
after your hard work.'

Miss Darrell spoke quite civilly, and I do not know why her speech
rankled and made me reply, rather quickly,--

'Nurses do not gossip with the doctor, Miss Darrell. Mr. Hamilton has
told me no news, I assure you. Gladys's letters tell me far more.'

I was angry with myself when I said this, for why need I have answered
her at all or taken notice of her remark? and, above all, why need I have
mentioned Gladys's name? Miss Darrell's colour rose in a moment.

'Dear me! I am glad to hear dear Gladys writes to you. She does not
honour us. Lady Betty gets a note sometimes, but Giles and I are never
favoured with a word. Giles feels terribly hurt about it sometimes, but
I tell him it is only Gladys's way. Girls are careless sometimes. Of
course she does not mean to slight him.'

'Of course not,' rather gravely from Max.

'All the same it is very neglectful on Gladys's part. If you are a real
friend, Miss Garston, you will tell her what a mistake it is,--really a
fatal mistake, though I do not dare to tell her so. I see Giles's look of
disappointment when the post brings him nothing but dry business letters.
He is so anxious about her health. He let her go so willingly, and yet
not one word of recognition for her own, I may say her only, brother.'

Max was looking so exceedingly grave by this time that I longed to change
the subject. I would say a word in defence of Gladys when we were alone,
he and I. It would be worse than useless to speak before Miss Darrell.
She would twist my words before my face. I never said a word in Gladys's
behalf that she did not make me repent it.

The next moment, however, she had started on a different tack.

'Oh, do you know, Mr. Cunliffe,' she said carelessly, as she crossed the
hearth-rug to ring the bell, 'we have heard again from Captain Hamilton?'

Max raised his head quickly. 'Indeed! I hope he is quite well. By the
bye, I remember you told me he had a touch of fever; but I trust he has
got the better of that.'

'We hope so,' in a very impressive tone; 'but it was a sharp attack, and
no doubt home-sickness and worry of mind accelerated the mischief. Poor
Claude! I fear he has suffered much; not that he says so himself: he is
far too proud to complain. But he is likely to come home on sick-leave;
next mail will settle the question, but I believe we may expect him about
the end of July.'

'Indeed! That is good news for all of you'; but the poker that Max had
taken up fell with a little crash among the fire-irons. Miss Darrell gave
a faint scream, and then laughed at her foolish nervousness.

'It was very clumsy on my part,' stammered Max. Could it be my fancy, or
had he turned suddenly pale, as though something had startled him too?

'Oh no, it was only my poor nerves,' replied Miss Darrell, with her
brightest smile. 'What was I saying? Oh yes, I remember now,--about
Claude: he wrote to Gladys to ask if he might come, and she said yes.
Ah, here comes tea, and I believe I heard Giles's ring at the bell.'

I cannot tell which of the two revealed it to me,--whether it was the
sudden pallor on Max's face, or the curious watchful look that I detected
in Miss Darrell's eyes: it was only there for a moment, but it reminded
me of the look with which a cat eyes the mouse she has just drawn within
her claws. I saw it all then with a quick flash of intuition. I had
partly guessed it before, but now I was sure of it.

My poor Max, so brave and cheery and patient! But she should not torment
him any longer in my presence. If he had to suffer,--and the cause of
that suffering was still a mystery to me,--she should not spy out his
weakness. He had turned his face aside with a quick look of pain as he
spoke, and the next moment I had mounted the breach and was begging Miss
Darrell to assist me in the case of a poor family,--old hospital
acquaintances of mine, who were emigrating to New Zealand.

My importunity seemed to surprise her. My sudden loquacity was an
interruption; but I would not be repressed or silenced. I took the chair
beside her, and made her look at me. I fixed her wandering attention and
pressed her until she grew irritable with impatience. I saw Max was
recovering himself: by and by he gave a forced laugh.

'You will have to give in, Miss Darrell. Ursula always gets her own way.
How much do you want, child? You must be merciful to a poor vicar. Will
that satisfy you?' offering me a sovereign, and Miss Darrell, after a
moment's hesitation, produced the same sum from her purse.

I took her money coolly, but I would not resign the reins of the
conversation any more into her hands. When Mr. Hamilton entered the room
he stopped and looked at me with visible astonishment: he had never heard
me so fluent before; but somehow my eloquence died a natural death after
his entrance. I was still a little shy with Mr. Hamilton.

His manner was unusually genial this afternoon. I was sure he was
delighted to see us both there again. He spoke to Max in a jesting tone,
and then looked benignly at his cousin, who was superintending the
tea-table. She certainly looked uncommonly well that day; her dress of
dark maroon cashmere and velvet fitted her fine figure exquisitely; her
white, well-shaped hands were, as usual, loaded with brilliant rings. She
was a woman who needed ornaments: they would have looked lavish on any
one else, they suited her admirably. Once I caught her looking with
marked disfavour on my black serge dress: the pearl hoop that had been my
mother's keeper was my sole adornment. I daresay she thought me extremely
dowdy. I once heard her say, in a pointed manner, that 'her cousin Giles
liked to see his women-folk well dressed; he was very fastidious on that
point, and exceedingly hard to please.'

Mr. Hamilton seemed in the best of humours. I do not think that he
remarked how very quiet Max was all tea-time. He pressed us to remain to
dinner, and wanted to send off a message to the vicarage; but we were
neither of us to be persuaded, though Miss Darrell joined her entreaties
to her cousin's.

I was anxious to leave the house as quickly as possible, and I knew by
instinct what Max's feelings must be. I could not enjoy Mr. Hamilton's
conversation, amusing as it was. I wanted to be alone with Max; I felt
I could keep silence with him no longer. But we could not get rid of Mr.
Hamilton; as we rose to take our departure he coolly announced his
intention of walking with us.

'The Tylcotes have sent for me again,' he said casually. 'I may as well
walk down with you now.' He looked at me as he spoke, but I am afraid my
manner disappointed him. For once Mr. Hamilton was decidedly _de trop_.
I am sure he must have noticed my hesitation, but it made no difference
to his purpose. I had found out by this time that when Mr. Hamilton had
made up his mind to do a certain thing, other people's moods did not
influence him in the least. He half smiled as he went out to put on his
greatcoat, and, as though he intended to punish me for my want of
courtesy, he talked to Max the whole time; not that I minded it in the
least, only it was just his lordly way.

To my great relief, however, he left us as soon as we reached the
vicarage, so I wished him good-night quite amiably, and of course Max
walked on with me to the cottage.

He was actually leaving me at the gate without a word except 'Good-night,
Ursula,' but I laid my hand on his arm.

'You must come in, Max. I want to speak to you.'

'Not to-night, my dear,' he returned hurriedly. 'I have business letters
to write before dinner.'

'They must wait, then,' I replied decidedly, 'for I certainly do not
intend to let you leave me just yet. Don't be stubborn, Max, for you know
I always get my own way. Come in. I want to tell you why Gladys never
writes to her brother.' And he followed me into the house without a word.



CHAPTER XXVII

MAX OPENS HIS HEART


But I did not at once join Max in the parlour, though he was evidently
expecting me to do so: instead of that, I ran upstairs to take off my
walking-things. It would be better to leave him alone a few minutes. When
I returned he was leaning back in the easy-chair, with his hands clasped
behind his head, evidently absorbed in thought. I was struck by his
expression: it was that of a man who was nerving himself to bear some
great trouble; there was a quiet, hopeless look on his face that touched
me exceedingly. I took the chair opposite him, and waited for him to
speak. He did not change his attitude when he saw me, but he looked at me
gravely, and said, 'Well, Ursula?' but there was no interest in his tone.

Of course I knew what he meant, but I let that pass, and something seemed
to choke my voice as I tried to answer him:

'Never mind that now: we will come to that presently. I want to tell you
that I know it now, Max. I guessed a little of it before, but now I am
sure of it.'

I had roused him effectually. A sort of dusky red came to his face
as he sat up and looked at me. He did not ask me what I meant: we
understood each other in a moment. He only sighed heavily, and said, 'I
have never told you anything, Ursula, have I?' but his manner testified
no displeasure. He would never have spoken a word to me of his own
accord, and yet my sympathy would be a relief to him. I knew Max's nature
so well: he was a shy, reticent man; he could not speak easily of his own
feelings unless the ice were broken for him.

'Max,' I pleaded, and the tears came into my eyes, 'if my dear mother
were living you would have told her all without reserve.'

'I should not have needed to tell her: she would have guessed it, Ursula.
Poor Emmie! I never could keep anything from her. I have often told you
you are like her: you reminded me of her this afternoon.'

'Then you must make me your _confidante_ in her stead. Do not refuse
me again, Max: I have asked this before. In spite of our strange
relationship, we are still like brother and sister. You know how quickly
I guessed Charlie's secret: surely you can speak to me, who am her
friend, of your affection for Gladys.'

I saw him shrink a little at that, and his honest brown eyes were full of
pain.

'My affection for Gladys,' he repeated, in a low voice. 'You are very
frank, Ursula; but somehow I do not seem to mind it. I never care for
Miss Darrell to speak to me on the subject, although she has been so
kind; in fact, no one could have been kinder. We can only act up to our
own natures: it is certainly not her fault, but only my misfortune, that
her sympathy jars on me.'

Max's words gave me acute pain.

'Surely you have not chosen Miss Darrell for your _confidante_, Max?'

'I have chosen no one,' he returned, with gentle rebuke at my vehemence.
'Circumstances made Miss Darrell acquainted with my unlucky attachment.
She did all she could to help me, and out of common gratitude I could not
refuse to listen to her well-meant efforts to comfort me.'

I remained silent from sheer dismay. Things were far worse than I had
imagined. I began to lose hope from the moment I heard Miss Darrell had
been mixed up in the affair; the thought sickened me. I could hardly bear
to hear Max speak; and yet how was I to help him unless he made me
acquainted with the real state of the case?

'I suppose I had better tell you all from the beginning,' he said, rather
dejectedly; 'that is, as far as I know myself, for I can hardly tell you
when I began to love Gladys. I call her Gladys to myself,' with a faint
smile, 'and it comes naturally to me. I ought to have said Miss
Hamilton.'

'But not to me, Max,' I returned eagerly.

'What does it matter what I call her? She will never take the only name
I want to give her!' was the melancholy reply to this. 'I only know one
thing, Ursula, that for three years--ay, and longer than that--she has
been the one woman in the world to me, and that as long as she and I live
no other woman shall ever cross the threshold of the vicarage as its
mistress.'

'Has it gone so deep as that, my poor Max?'

'Yes,' he returned briefly. 'But we need not enter into that part of the
subject; a man had best keep his own counsel in such matters. I want to
tell you bare facts, Ursula; we may as well leave feelings alone. If you
can help me to understand one or two points that are still misty to my
comprehension, you will do me good service.'

'I will try my very best for you both.'

'Thank you, but we cannot both be helped in the same way; our paths do
not lie together. Miss Hamilton has refused to become my wife.'

'Oh, Max! not refused, surely.' This was another blow,--that he
should have tried and failed,--that Gladys with her own lips should
have refused him; but perhaps he had written to her, and there was some
misunderstanding; but when I hinted this to Max he shook his head.

'We cannot misunderstand a person's words. Oh yes, I spoke to her,
and she answered me; but I must not tell you things in this desultory
fashion, or you will never understand. I have told you that I do not
know when my attachment to Miss Hamilton commenced. It was gradual and
imperceptible at first,--very real, no doubt, but it had not mastered my
reason. I always admired her: how could I help it?' with some emotion.
'Even you, who are not her lover, have owned to me that she is a
beautiful creature. I suppose her beauty attracted me first, until I saw
the sweetness and unselfishness of her nature, and from that moment I
lost my heart.

'The full consciousness came to me at the time of their trouble about
Eric. I had been fond of the poor fellow, for his own sake as well as
hers, but I never disguised his faults from her. I often told her that I
feared for Eric's future; he had no ballast, it wanted a moral earthquake
to steady him, and it was no wonder that his caprices and extravagant
moods angered his brother. She used to be half offended with me for my
plain speaking, but she was too gentle to resent it, and she would beg
me to use my influence with Hamilton to entreat him not to be so hard
on Eric.

'When the blow came, I was always up at Gladwyn once, sometimes twice, a
day. They all wanted me; it was my duty to be their consoler. I am glad
to remember now that I was some comfort to her.'

'Wait a moment, Max; I must ask you something. Do you believe that Eric
was guilty?'

'I am almost sorry that you have put that question,' he returned
reluctantly. 'I never would tell her what I thought. It was all a
mystery. Eric might have been tempted; it was not for me to say. She
could see I was doubtful. I told her that, whether he were sinned against
or sinning, our only thought should be to bring him back and reconcile
him to his brother. "God will prove his innocence if he be blackened
falsely," I said to her; and, strange to say, she forgave me my doubts.'

'Oh, Max, I see what you think.'

'How can I help it,' he replied, 'knowing Eric's character so well? he
was so weak and impulsive, so easily led astray, and then he was under
bad influences. You will have heard Edgar Brown's name. He was a wild,
dissipated fellow, and Hamilton had a right to forbid the acquaintance;
both he and I knew that Edgar had low propensities, and was always
lounging about public-houses with a set of loafers like himself. He has
got worse since then, and has nearly broken his mother's heart. Do you
think any man with a sense of responsibility would permit a youth of
Eric's age to have such a friend? Yet this was a standing grievance with
Eric, and I am sorry to say his sister took Edgar's part. Of course she
knew no better: innocence is credulous, and Edgar was a sprightly,
good-looking fellow, the sort that women never fail to pet.'

'Yes, I see. Eric was certainly to blame in this.'

'He was faulty on many more points. I am afraid, Ursula you have been
somewhat biassed by Miss Hamilton. You must remember that she idolised
Eric,--that she was blind to many of his faults; she made excuses for him
whenever it was possible to do so, but with all her weak partiality she
could not deny that he was thriftless, idle, and extravagant, that he
defied his brother's authority, that he even forgot himself so far as to
use bad language in his presence. I believe, once, he even struck him;
only Hamilton declared he had been drinking, so he merely turned him out
of the room.'

I looked at Max sadly. 'This may be all true; but I cannot believe that
he took that cheque.'

'The circumstantial evidence against him is very strong,' he replied
quietly. 'You do not know what power a sudden temptation has over these
weak natures: he was hard pressed, remember that; he had gambling debts,
thanks to Edgar. Fancy gambling debts at twenty! I have tried to take
Miss Hamilton's view of the case, but I cannot bring myself to believe
in his innocence. Most likely he repented the moment he had done it,
poor boy. Eric was no hardened sinner. I sometimes fear--at least, the
terrible thought has crossed my mind, and I know Hamilton has had it
too--that in his despair he might have made away with himself.'

'Oh, Max, this is too horrible!' And I shuddered as I thought of the
beautiful young face so like Gladys's, with its bright frank look that
seemed to appeal to one's heart.

'Well, well, we need not speak of it; but it was a sad time for all of
us; and yet in some ways it was a happy time to me. It was such a comfort
to feel that I was necessary to them all; that they looked for me daily;
that they could not do without me. I used to be with Hamilton every
evening; and when Gladys was very ill they sent for me, because they
said no one knew how to soothe her so well.

'Do you wonder, Ursula, that, seeing her in her weakness and sorrow, she
grew daily into my life, that my one thought was how I could help and
comfort her?

'She was very gentle and submissive, and followed my advice in
everything. When I told her that only work could cure her sore heart,
she did not contradict me: in a little while I had to check her feverish
activity. She had overwhelmed herself with duties; she managed our
mothers' meetings with Miss Darrell's help, taught in our schools, and
helped train the choir. I had allotted her a district, and she worked it
admirably. She was my right hand in everything; all the poor people
worshipped her.'

'Yes, Max,' for he paused, as though overwhelmed with some bitter-sweet
recollection.

'I loved her more each day, but I respected her sorrow, and tried to hide
my feelings from her. It was more than a year after Eric's disappearance
before I ventured to speak, and then it was by Hamilton's advice that I
did so. He had set his heart on the match. He told me more than once that
he would rather have me as a brother-in-law than any other man.

'I thought I had prepared her sufficiently, but it seems that she was
very much, startled by my proposal. Her trouble had so engrossed her that
she had been perfectly blind to my meaning. It was all in vain, Ursula,
for she did not love me,--at least not in the right way. She told me so
with tears, accusing herself of unkindness. She liked, most certainly she
liked me, but perhaps she knew me too well.

'She was so unhappy at the thought of giving me pain, so sweet and gentle
in her efforts to console me and heal the wound she had inflicted, that I
could not lose hope. She told me that, though she had trusted me entirely
as her friend, she had never thought of me as her lover, and the idea was
strange to her. This thought gave me courage, and I begged that I might
be allowed to speak to her again at some future time.

'She wanted to refuse, and said hurriedly that she never intended to
marry. But I took these words as meaning nothing. A girl will tell you
this and believe it as she says it. I suppose I pressed her hard to leave
me this margin of hope, for after reflecting a few minutes she looked at
me gravely and said it should be as I wished. In a year's time I might
speak to her again, and she would know her own mind.

'I pleaded for a shorter ordeal, though secretly I was overjoyed at this
crumb of consolation vouchsafed to me. But she was inexorable, though
perfectly gentle in her manner.

'"I wish you had set your heart on some one else, Mr. Cunliffe,"
she said, with a melancholy smile, "for I can give you so little
satisfaction. I feel so confused and weary, as though life afforded me
no pleasure. But, indeed, I do all you tell me, and I mean to go on with
my work."

'I was glad to hear her say this, for at least I should have the
happiness of seeing her every day.

'"In a year's time," she went on, "my heart may feel a little less heavy,
and I shall have had opportunity to reflect over your words. I cannot
tell you what my answer may be, but if you are wise you will not hope. If
you do not come to me then, I shall know that you have changed, and shall
not blame you in the least. You are free to choose any one else. I have
so little encouragement to give you that I shall not expect you to submit
to this ordeal." But I think her firmness was a little shaken, and she
looked at me rather timidly when I thanked her very quietly and said that
at the time appointed I would speak to her again. I supposed she had not
realised the strength of my feelings.

'Ursula, I was by no means hopeless. And as the months passed on my hopes
grew.

'I saw her daily, and after the first awkwardness had passed we were good
friends. But her manner changed insensibly. She was less frank with me;
at times she was almost shy. I saw her change colour when I looked at
her. She was quiet in my presence, and yet my coming pleased her. I
thought it would be well with me when the time came for renewing my
suit; but it seems that I was a blind fool.

'I had put down the exact date, May 7. It was last year, Ursula. I meant
to adhere to the very day and hour; but before February closed my hopes
had suffered eclipse.

'All at once Miss Hamilton's manner became cold and constrained, as
you see it now. Her soft shyness, that had been so favourable a sign,
disappeared entirely. She avoided me on every occasion. She seemed to
fear to be alone with me a moment. Her nervousness was so visible and so
distressing that I often left her in anger. A barrier--vague, and yet
substantial--seemed built up between us.

'She began to neglect her work, and then to make excuses. She was
overdone, and suffered from headache. The school-work tired her. You
have heard it all, Ursula: I need not repeat it.

'One by one she dropped her duties. The parish knew her no more. She
certainly looked ill. Her melancholy increased. Something was evidently
preying on her mind.

'One day Miss Darrell spoke to me. She had been very kind, and had fed my
hopes all this time. But now she was the bearer of bad news.

'She came to me in the study, while I was waiting for Hamilton. She
looked very pale and discomposed, and asked if she might speak to me. She
was very unhappy about me, but she did not think it right to let it go
on. Gladys wanted me to know. And then it all came out.

'It could never be as I wished. Miss Hamilton had been trying all this
time to like me, and once or twice she thought she had succeeded, but the
feeling had never lasted for many days. I was not the right person. This
was the substance of Miss Darrell's explanation.

'"You know Gladys," she went on, "how sensitive and affectionate her
nature is; how she hates to inflict pain. She is working herself up into
a fever at the thought that you will speak to her again.

'"It was too terrible last time, Etta," she said to me, bursting into
tears. "I cannot endure it again. How am I to tell him about Claude?"

'"About Claude!" I almost shouted. Miss Darrell looked frightened at my
violence. She shrank back, and turned still paler. I noticed her hands
trembled.

'"Oh, have you not noticed?" she returned feebly. "Oh, what a cruel task
this is! and you are so good,--so good."

'"Tell me what you mean!" I replied angrily, for I felt so savage at that
moment that a word of sympathy was more than I could bear. You would not
have known me at that moment, Ursula. I am not easily roused, as you
know, but the blow was too sudden. I must have forgotten myself to have
spoken to Miss Darrell in that tone. When I looked at her, her mouth was
quivering like a frightened child's, and there were tears in her eyes.

'"I scarcely know that it is you," she faltered. "Are men all like that
when their wills are crossed? It is not my fault that you are hurt in
this way. And it is not Gladys's either. She has tried--I am sure she has
tried her hardest--to bring herself to accede to your wishes. But a woman
cannot always regulate her own heart."

'"You have mentioned Captain Hamilton's name," I returned coldly, for her
words seemed only to aggravate and widen the sore. "Perhaps you will
kindly explain what he has to do with the matter?"

'She hesitated, and looked at me in a pleading manner. I saw that she did
not wish to speak; but for once I was inexorable.

'"I must rely upon your honour, then, not to repeat my words either to
Giles or Gladys. Your doing so would bring Gladys into trouble; and,
after all, there is nothing definitely settled." I nodded assent to this,
and she went on rather reluctantly:

"Claude was always fond of Gladys, but we never knew how much he admired
her until he went away. They are only half-cousins. Gladys's father was
step-brother to Claude's. Giles has always been averse to cousins
marrying, but we thought this would make a difference."

'"They are engaged, then?" I asked, in a loud voice, that seemed to
startle Miss Darrell.

'"Oh no, no," she returned eagerly; "there is no engagement at all.
Claude writes to her, and she answers him, and I think he is making way
with her: she has owned as much to me. Gladys is not one to talk of her
feelings, especially on this subject; but it is easy to see how absorbed
she is in those Indian letters; she is always brighter and more like
herself when she has heard from Claude."

'"I am to deduce from all this that you believe Captain Hamilton has a
better chance of winning her affections than I?"

'Again she hesitated, then drew a foreign letter slowly from her pocket.
"I think I must read you a sentence from his last letter: he often writes
to me as well as to Gladys. Yes, here it is: 'Your last letter has been a
great comfort to me, my dear Etta: it was more than a poor fellow had a
right to expect. I do believe that this long absence has served my
purpose, and the scratch I got at Singapore. Girls are curious creatures;
one never can tell how to tackle them, and my special cousin knows how to
keep one at a distance, but I begin to feel I am making way at last. She
wrote to me very sweetly last mail. I carry that letter everywhere; there
was a sweetness about it that gave me hope. If I can get leave,--though
heaven knows when that will be,--I mean to come home and carry the breach
boldly. I shall first show her my wound and my medal, and then throw
myself at her pretty little feet. Gladys--' No, I must not read any more;
you see how it is, Mr. Cunliffe?"

'"Yes, I see how it is," I returned slowly. "Forgive me if I have been
impatient or unmindful of your kindness." And then I took up my hat and
left the room, and it was weeks before I set foot in Gladwyn again.'

'Oh, Max! my poor Max!' I returned, stroking his hand softly. He did not
take it away: he only looked at me with his kind smile.

'That was Emmie's way,--her favourite little caress. Wait a moment,
Ursula, my dear; I am going out for a breath of air,' And he stood in the
porch for a few minutes, looking up at the winter sky seamed with stars,
and then came back to me quietly, and waited for me to speak.



CHAPTER XXVIII

CROSSING THE RIVER


Max waited for me to speak, but I had no words ready for the occasion. My
silence seemed to perplex him.

'You have heard everything now, Ursula.'

'Yes, I suppose so. I am very sorry for you, Max; you have suffered
cruelly. And this only happened last year?'

'Last February.'

'It is very strange,--very mysterious. I do not seem to understand it.
I cannot find the clue to all this.'

'There is no clue needed,' he returned impatiently. 'Miss Hamilton is in
love with her cousin, and is sorry for my disappointment.'

'I do not believe it,' I replied bluntly. And yet, as I said this,
Gladys's conduct seemed to me perfectly inexplicable. It was just
possible that Max's statement, after all, might be correct,--that she did
not love him well enough to marry him: and this would account for her
nervousness and constraint in his presence: a sensitive girl like Gladys
would never be at her ease under such circumstances. But she had promised
not to withdraw her friendship: why had she then given up her work and
made herself a stranger to his dearest interest? I had seen her struggle
with herself when he had begged her to resume her class. A brightness had
come to her eyes, her manner had become warm and animated, as though the
stirring of new life were in her veins, and then she had refused him very
gently, and a certain dimness and blight had crept over her. I had
wondered then at her.

No, I could not bring myself to believe that she was indifferent to Max.
He was so good, so worthy of her. And yet--and yet, do we women always
choose the best? Perhaps, as Max said, she knew him too well for him to
influence her fancy. Captain Hamilton's scars and medals might cast a
glamour over her. Gladys was very impulsive and enthusiastic; perhaps Max
was too quiet and gentle to take her heart by storm.

I had plenty of time for these reflections, for Max sat moodily silent
after my blunt remark, but at last he said,--

'I am afraid I believe it, Ursula, and that is more to the purpose. Miss
Darrell has dispelled my last hope.'

'You mean that Captain Hamilton's return speaks badly for your chances?'

'I have no chances,' very gloomily. 'I am out of the running. Miss
Hamilton's message--for I suppose it was a message--was my final answer.
She did not wish me to speak to her again.'

'Are you sure that she sent that message?'

'Am I sure that I am sitting here?' he answered, rather irritably. 'What
have you got in your head, Ursula, my dear? You must not let personal
dislike influence your better judgment. Perhaps Miss Darrell is not to my
taste; I think her sometimes officious and wanting in delicacy; but I do
not doubt her for a moment.'

'That is a pity,' I returned drily, 'for she is certainly not true; but
all you men swear by her.' For I felt--heaven forgive me!--almost a
hatred of this woman, unreasonable as it seemed; but women have these
instincts sometimes, and Max had warned me against Miss Darrell from the
first.

'I will be frank with you,' I continued, more quietly. 'I do not read
between the lines: in other words, I do not understand Gladys's
behaviour. It may be as you say; I do not wish to delude you with false
hopes, my poor Max; Gladys may care more for Captain Hamilton than she
does for you; but it seems to me that you acted wrongly on one point; you
meant it for the best; but you ought to have spoken to Gladys yourself.'

'I wonder that you should say that, Ursula,' he returned, in rather a
hurt voice. 'I may be weak about Miss Hamilton, but I am hardly as weak
as that. Do you think me capable of persecuting the woman I love?'

'It would not be persecution,' I replied firmly, for I was determined
to speak my mind on this point. 'Miss Darrell may have misconstrued
her meaning: the truth loses by repetition: she may have added to or
diminished her words. A third person should never be mixed up in a love
affair: trouble always comes of it. I think you were wrong, Max: you let
yourself be managed by Miss Darrell. She has nothing to do with you or
Gladys.'

'I could not help it if she came to me.'

'True, she thrust herself in between you. Well, it is too late to speak
of that now. If you will take my advice, Max,' for the thought had come
upon me like a flash of inspiration, 'you will go down to Bournemouth and
speak to Gladys, keeping your own counsel and telling no one of your
intention.'

I saw Max stare at me as though he thought I had lost my senses, and then
a sudden light came into his eyes.

'You will go down to Bournemouth,' I went on, 'and the Maberleys will be
glad to see you; you are an old friend, and they will ask no questions
and think no ill. You will have no difficulty in seeing Gladys alone.
Speak to her promptly and frankly; ask her what her behaviour has meant,
and if she really prefers her cousin. If you must know the worst, it will
be better to know it now, and from her own lips. Do go, Max, like a brave
man.' But even before I finished speaking, the light had died out of his
eyes, and his manner had resumed its old sadness.

'No, Ursula; you mean well, but it will not do. I cannot persecute her
in this way. Captain Hamilton is coming home in July: she has given him
permission to come. I will wait for that. I shall very soon see how
matters stand between them. I shall only need to see her with him;
probably I shall not speak to her at all.'

I could have wrung my hands over Max's obstinacy and quixotism: he
carried his generosity to a fault. Few men would be so patient and
forbearing.

How could he stand aside hopelessly and let another man win his prize?
But perhaps he considered it was already won. I pleaded with him again.
I even went so far as to contradict my theory about a third person, and
offered to sound Gladys about her cousin; but he silenced me
peremptorily.

'Promise me that you will do nothing of the kind; give me your word of
honour, Ursula, that you will respect my confidence. Good heavens! if I
thought that you would betray me, and to her of all people, I should
indeed bitterly repent my trust in you.'

Max was so agitated, he spoke so angrily, that I hastened to soothe him.
Of course his confidence was sacred; how could he think such things of
me? I was not like Miss--. But here I pulled myself up. He might be as
blind and foolish as he liked, he might commit suicide and I would not
hinder him; he should enjoy his misery in his own way. And more to that
effect.

'Now I have made you cross, little she-bear,' he said, laying his hand
on mine, 'and you have been so patient and have given my woes such a
comfortable hearing. You frightened me for a moment, for I know how quick
and impulsive you can be. No, no, my dear. I hold you to your own words:
a third person must not be mixed up in a love affair; it only brings
trouble.'

'You have proved the truth of my words,' I remarked coolly. 'Very well,
I suppose I must forgive you; only never do it again, on your peril: you
know I am to be trusted.'

'To be sure; you are as true as steel, Ursula.'

'Very well, then: in that case you have nothing to fear. I will be wise
and wary for your sake, and guard your honour sacredly as my own; if I
can give you a gleam of hope, I will. Anyhow, I shall watch.'

'Thank you, dear. And now we will not talk any more about it; now you
know why I wanted you to be her friend. I am glad to think she is so fond
of you.' But I would not let him change the subject just yet.

'Max,' I said, detaining him, for he rose to go, 'all this is dreadfully
hard for you. Shall you go away--if--if--this happens?'

'No,' he returned quietly; 'it is they who will go away. Captain Hamilton
cannot leave his regiment: he is far too fond of an active life. It will
be dreary enough, God knows, but it will not be harder than the life I
have led these twelve months, trying to win her back to her work and to
put myself in the background. It has worn me out, Ursula. I could not
stand that sort of thing much longer. It is a relief to me that she is
away.'

'Yes, I can understand this.'

'It makes one think, after all, that the extreme party have something in
their argument in favour of the celibacy of the clergy. Not that I hold
with them, for all that; but all this sort of thing takes the heart out
of a man, and comes between him and his work. I should be a better priest
if I were a happier man, Ursula.'

'I doubt that, Max.' And the tears rose to my eyes, for I knew how good
he was, and what a friend to his people.

'My dear, I differ from you. I believe there is no work like happy
work,--work done by a heart at leisure from itself; but of course we
clergy and laity must take what heaven sends us.' And then he held out
his hands to me, and I suppose he saw how unhappy I was for his sake.

'Don't fret about me, my dear little Ursula,' he said kindly. 'The back
gets fitted for the burden, and by this time I have grown accustomed to
my pain; it will all be right some day: I shall not be blamed up there
for loving her.' And he left me with a smile.

I passed a miserable evening thinking of Max. Next to Charlie, he had
been my closest friend from girlhood; I had been accustomed to look to
him for advice in all my difficulties, to rely upon his counsel. I knew
that people who were comparatively strangers to him thought he was almost
too easy-going, and a little weak from excess of good-nature. He was too
tolerant of other folk's failings; they said he preached mercy where
severity would be more bracing and wholesome; and no doubt they thought
that he judged himself as leniently; but they did not know Max.

I never knew a man harder to himself. Charitable to others, he had no
self-pity; selfish aims were impossible to him. He who could not endure
to witness even a child or an animal suffer, would have plucked out his
right eye or parted with his right hand, in gospel phrase, if by doing so
he could witness to the truth or spare pain to a weaker human being. It
was this knowledge of his inner life that made Max so priestly in my
eyes. I knew he was pure enough and strong enough to meet even Gladys's
demands. Nothing but a modern Bayard would ever satisfy her fastidious
taste; she would not look on a man's stature, or on his outward beauty;
such things would seem paltry to her; but he who aspired to be her lord
and master must be worthy of all reverence and must have won his spurs:
so much had I learnt from my friendship with Gladys.

I pondered over Max's words, and tried to piece the fragments of our
conversation with recollections of my talks with Gladys. I recalled much
that had passed. I endeavoured to find the clue to her downcast, troubled
looks, her quenched and listless manner. I felt dimly that some strange
misunderstanding wrapped these two in a close fog. What had brought about
this chill, murky atmosphere, in which they failed to recognise each
other's meaning? This was the mystery: lives had often been shipwrecked
from these miserable misunderstandings, for want of a word. I felt
completely baffled, and before the evening was over I could have cried
with the sense of utter failure and bewilderment. If Max's chivalrous
scruples had not tied my hands, I would have gone to Gladys boldly and
asked her what it all meant; I would have challenged her truth; I would
have compelled her to answer me; but I dared not break my promise. By
letter and in the spirit I would respect Max's wishes.

But I resolved to watch: no eyes should be so vigilant as mine. I was
determined, that nothing should escape my scrutiny; at least I was in
possession of certain facts that would help me in finding the clue I
wanted. I knew now that Max loved Gladys and had tried to win her: that
he had nearly done so was also evident. What had wrought that sudden
change? Had Captain Hamilton's brilliant successes really dazzled her
fancy and blinded her to Max's quiet unobtrusive virtues? Did she really
and truly prefer her cousin? This was what I had to find out, and here
Max could not help me.

There was one thing I was glad to know,--that Mr. Hamilton favoured Max's
suit. At least I should not be working against him. I do not know why,
but the thought of doing so would have pained me: I no longer wished to
array myself for war against Mr. Hamilton; my enmity had died a natural
death for want of fuel.

I felt grateful to him for his kindness to Max; no doubt he had a
fellow-feeling with him. That dear old gossip, Mrs. Maberley, had told
me something about Mr. Hamilton on my second visit that had made me feel
very sorry for him. Max knew about it, of course; he had said a word to
me once on the subject, but it was not Max's way to gossip about his
neighbours; he once said, laughing, that he left all the choice bits
of scandal to his good old friend at Maplehurst.

It was from Mrs. Maberley that I heard all about Mr. Hamilton's
disappointment, and why he had not married. When he was about
eight-and-twenty he had been engaged to a young widow.

'She was a beautiful creature, my dear,' observed the old lady; 'the
colonel said he had never seen a handsomer woman. She was an Irish
beauty, and had those wonderful gray eyes and dark eyelashes that make
you wonder what colour they are, and she had the sweetest smile possible;
any man would have been bewitched by it. I never saw a young man more in
love than Giles: when he came here he could talk of nothing but Mrs.
Carrick: her name was Ella, I remember. Well, it went on for some months,
and he was preparing for the wedding,--there was to be a nursery got
ready, for she had one little boy, and Giles already doted on the
child,--when all at once there came a letter from his lady-love; and a
very pretty letter it was. Giles must forgive her, it said, she was
utterly wretched at the thought of the pain she was giving him, but she
was mistaken in the strength of her attachment. She had come to the
conclusion that they would not be happy together, that in fact she
preferred some one else.

'She did not mention that this other lover was richer than Giles and had
a title, but of course he found out that this was the case. The fickle
Irish beauty had caught the fancy of an elderly English nobleman with a
large family of grown-up sons and daughters. My dear, it was a very
heartless piece of work: it changed Giles completely. He never spoke
about it to any one, but if ever a man was heart-broken, Giles was: he
was never the same after that; it made him hard and bitter; he is always
railing against women, or saying disagreeable home-truths about them. And
of course Mrs. Carrick, or rather Lady Howe, is to blame for that. Oh, my
dear, she may deck herself with diamonds, as they say she does, and call
herself happy,--which she is not, with a gouty, ill-tempered old husband
who is jealous of her,--but I'll be bound she thinks of Giles sometimes
with regret, and scorns herself for her folly.'

Poor Mr. Hamilton! And this had all happened about six or seven years
ago. No wonder he looked stern and said bitter things. He was not
naturally sweet-tempered, like Max; such a misfortune would sour him.

'All well,' I said to myself, as I went up to bed, 'it is perfectly true
what Longfellow says, "Into each life some rain must fall, some days must
be dark and dreary"; but it is strange that they both have suffered. It
is a good thing, perhaps, that such an experience is never likely to
happen to me. There is some consolation to be deduced even from my want
of beauty: no man will fall in love with me and then play me false.' And
with that a curious feeling came over me, a sudden inexplicable sense of
want and loneliness, something I could not define, that took no definite
shape and had no similitude, and yet haunted me with a sense of ill; but
the next moment I was struggling fiercely with the unknown and unwelcome
guest.

'For shame!' I said to myself; 'this is weakness and pure selfishness,
mere sentimental feverishness; this is not like the strong-minded young
person Miss Darrell calls me. What if loneliness be appointed me?--we
must each have our cross. Perhaps, as life goes on and I grow older, it
may be a little hard to bear at times, but my loneliness would be better
than the sort of pain Mr. Hamilton and Max have endured.' And as I
thought this, a sudden conviction came to me that I could not have borne
a like fate, a dim instinct that told me that I should suffer keenly and
long,--that it would be better, far better, that the deepest instincts of
my woman's nature should never be roused than be kindled only to die away
into ashes, as many women's affections have been suffered to die.
'Anything but that,' I said to myself, with a sudden thrill of pain
that surprised me with its intensity.

All this time through the long cold weeks Elspeth had been slowly dying.
Quietly and gradually the blind woman's strength had ebbed and lessened,
until early in March we knew she could not last much longer.

She suffered no pain, and uttered no complaint. She lay peacefully
propped up with pillows on the bed where Mary Marshall had breathed her
last, and her pale wrinkled face grew almost as white as the cap-border
that encircled it.

At the commencement of her illness I was unable to be much with her.
Susan and Phoebe Locke had thoroughly engrossed me, and a hurried visit
morning and evening to give Peggy orders was all that was possible under
the circumstances; but I saw that she was well cared for and comfortable,
and Peggy was very good to her and kept the children out of the room.

'Ah, my bairn, I am dying like a lady,' she said to me one day, 'and it
is good to be here on poor Mary's bed. See the fine clean sheets that
Peggy has put me on, and the grand quilt that keeps my feet warm!
Sometimes I could cry with the comfort of it all; and there is the broth
and the jelly always ready; and what can a poor old body want more?'

When Susan was convalescent I spent more time with Elspeth. I knew she
loved to have me beside her, and to listen to the chapters and Psalms I
read to her. She would ask me to sing sometimes, and often we would sit
and talk of the days that seemed so 'few and evil' in the light of
advancing immortality.

'Ay, dearie,' she would say, 'it is not much to look back upon except in
an angel's sight,--a poor old woman's life, who worked and struggled to
keep her master and children from clemming. I used to think it hard
sometimes that I could not get to church on Sunday morning,--for I was
aye a woman for church,--but I had to stand at my wash-tub often until
late on Saturday night. "After a day's charing, rinsing out the
children's bits of things, and ironing them too, how is a poor tired
body like me to get religion?" I would say sometimes when I was fairly
moithered with it all. But, Miss Garston, my dear, I'm glad, as I lie
here, to know that I never neglected the children God had given me; and
so He took care of all that; He knew when I was too tired to put up a
prayer that it was not for the want of loving Him.'

'No, indeed, Elspeth. I often think we ought not to be too hard on poor
people.'

'That's true,' brightening up visibly. 'He is no severe taskmaster
demanding bricks out of stubble; He knows poor labouring people are often
tired, and out of heart. I used to say to my master sometimes, "Ah well,
we must leave all that for heaven; we shall have a fine rest there, and
plenty of time to sing our hymns and talk to the Lord Jesus. He was a
labouring man too, and He will know all about it." I often comforted my
master like that.'

Elspeth's quaint talk interested me greatly. I grew to love her dearly,
and I liked to feel that she was fond of me in return. I could have sat
by her contentedly for hours, holding her hard work-worn hand and
listening to her gentle flow of talk with its Scriptural phrases and
simple realistic thoughts. It was like washing some pilgrim's feet at
a feast to listen to Elspeth.

One evening she told me that she had been thinking of me.

'I wanted to know what you were like, my bairn,' she said, with her
pretty Scotch accent; 'and the doctor came in as I was turning it over
in my mind, so I made bold to ask him to describe you. I thought he was
a long time answering, and at last he said, "What put that into your
head, granny?" as if he were a little bit taken aback by the question.

'"Well, doctor," I returned, "we all of us like to see the faces of those
we love; and I am all in the dark. That dear young lady is doing the
Lord's work with all her might, and she has a voice that makes me think
of heaven, and the choirs of angels, and the golden harps, and maybe her
face is as beautiful as her voice."

'"Oh no," he says quite sharply to that, "she is not beautiful at all:
indeed, I am not sure that most people would not think her plain."

'I suppose I was an old ninny, but I did not like to hear him say this,
my bairn, for I knew it could not be the truth; but he went on after a
minute,--

'"It is not easy to describe the face of a person one knows so well. I
find it difficult to answer your question. Miss Garston has such a true
face, one seems to trust it in a minute: it is the face of an honest
kindly woman who will never do you any harm;" and then I saw what he
meant. Why, bairn, the angels have this sort of beauty, and it lasts the
longest; that is the sort of face they have there.'

I heard all this silently, and was thankful that Elspeth's blind eyes
could not see the burning flush of mortification that rose to my face.
The dear garrulous old body, how could she have put such a question to
Mr. Hamilton? and yet how kindly he had answered! A sudden recollection
of Irish dark-gray eyes with black lashes came to my mind; I knew Mr.
Hamilton was a connoisseur of beauty. I had often heard him describe
people, and point out their physical defects with the keenest criticism;
he was singularly fastidious on this point; but, in spite of my
humiliation, I was glad to know that he had spoken so gently. He had told
the truth simply, that was all: at least he had owned I was true; I must
content myself with this tribute to my honesty.

But it was some days before I could recall Elspeth's words without a
sensation of prickly heat: it is strange how painfully these little
pin-pricks to our vanity affect us. I was angry with myself for
remembering them, and yet they rankled, in spite of Elspeth's quaint
and homely consolation. Alas! I was not better than my fellows: Ursula
Garston was not the strong-minded woman that Miss Darrell called her.

But when I next met Mr. Hamilton I had other thoughts to engross me, for
Elspeth was dying, and we were standing together by her bedside. I had
not sent for Mr. Hamilton, for I knew that he could do nothing more for
her; but he had met one of the children in the village, and on hearing
the end was approaching had come at once to render me any help in his
power. Perhaps he thought I should like to have him there.

Elspeth's pinched wrinkled face brightened as she heard his voice. 'Ay,
doctor, I am glad to know you are there; you have been naught but kind
to me all these years, and now, thanks to this bairn, I am dying like
a lady. The Lord bless you both! and He will,--He will!' with feeble
earnestness.

I bent down and kissed her cold cheek. 'Never mind us, Elspeth: only tell
us that all is well with you. You are not afraid, dear granny?'

'What's to fear, my bairn, with the Lord holding my hand?--and He will
not let go; ah no, He will never let go! Ay, I have come to the dark
river, but it will not do more than wet my feet. I'll be carried over,
for I am old and weak,--old and weak, my dearie.' These were her last
words, and half an hour afterwards the change came, and Elspeth's
sightless eyes were opened to the light of immortality.

That night I took up a little worn copy of the _Pilgrim's Progress_ that
I had had from childhood, and opened it at a favourite passage, where
Christian and his companion are talking with the shining ones as they
went up towards the Celestial city, and I thought of Elspeth as I read
it. 'You are going now,' said they, 'to the paradise of God, wherein you
shall see the Tree of Life, and eat of the never-failing fruit thereof;
and when you come there you shall have white robes given you, and your
walk and talk shall be every day with the King, even all the days of
eternity. There you shall not see again such things as you saw when you
were in the lower regions, upon the earth, to wit, sorrow, sickness, and
death, for the former things are passed away....

'And the men asked, "What must we do in that holy place?" To whom it was
answered, "You must then receive the comfort of your toil, and have joy
for all your sorrow."' I thought of Elspeth's last words, 'Old and
weak,--old and weak, my dearie.' Surely they had come true: those aged
feet had barely touched the cold water. Gently and tenderly she had been
carried across to the green pastures and still waters in the paradise of
God.



CHAPTER XXIX

MISS DARRELL HAS A HEADACHE


I began to feel that Gladys had been away a long time, and to wish for
her return. I was much disappointed, then, on receiving a letter from her
about a fortnight after Elspeth's death, telling me that Colonel Maberley
had made up his mind to spend Easter in Paris, and that she had promised
to accompany them.

'I shall be sorry to be so long without your companionship,' she wrote.
'I miss you more than I can say; but I am sure that it is far better for
me to remain away as long as possible: the change is certainly doing me
good. I am quite strong and well: they spoil me dreadfully, but I think
this sort of treatment suits me best.'

It was a long letter, and seemed to be written in a more cheerful mood
than usual. There was a charming description of a trip they had taken,
with little graceful touches of humour here and there.

I handed the letter silently to Max when he called the next day. I
thought that it would be no harm to show it to him. He took it to the
window, and was so busy reading it that I had half finished a letter
I was writing to Jill before he at last laid it down on my desk.

'Thank you for letting me see it,' he said quietly: 'it has been a great
pleasure. Somehow, as I read it, it seemed as though the old Gladys
Hamilton had written it,--not the one we know now. Indeed, she seems much
better.'

'Yes, and we must make up our minds to do without her,' I answered, with
a sigh.

'And we shall do so most willingly,' he returned, with a sort of tacit
rebuke to my selfishness, 'if we know the change is benefiting her.' And
then, with a change of tone, 'What a beautiful handwriting hers is,
Ursula!--so firm and clear, so characteristic of the writer. Does she
often write you such long, interesting letters? You are much to be
envied, my dear. Well, well, the day's work is waiting for me.' And with
that he went off, without saying another word.

My next visitor was Mr. Hamilton. He came to tell me of an accident case.
A young labourer had fallen off a scaffolding, and a compound fracture of
the right arm had been the result. He was also badly shaken and bruised,
and was altogether in a miserable plight.

I promised, of course, to go to him at once; but he told me that there
was no immediate hurry; he had attended to the arm and left him very
comfortable, and he would do well for the next hour or two; and, as Mr.
Hamilton seemed inclined to linger for a little chat, I could not refuse
to oblige him.

'It is just as well that this piece of work has come to me,' I said
presently, 'for I was feeling terribly idle. Since Elspeth's death I have
not had a single case, and have employed my leisure in writing long
letters to my relations and taking country rambles with Tinker.'

'That is right,' he returned heartily. 'I am sure we worked you far too
hard at one time.'

'It did not hurt me, and I should not care to be idle for long.--Yes, I
have heard from Gladys,' for his eyes fell on the open letter that lay
beside us. 'I am rather disappointed that I shall not see her before I go
away.'

'Are you going away, then?' he asked, very quickly, and I thought the
news did not seem to please him.

'Not for three weeks. I hope my patient will be getting on by that time,
and will be able to spare me: at any rate, I can give his mother a lesson
or two. You know my cousin is to be married, and I have promised to help
Aunt Philippa.'

'How long do you think you will be away?' he demanded, with a touch of
his old abruptness.

'For a fortnight. I could not arrange for less. Sara is making such a
point of it.'

'A whole fortnight! I am afraid you are terribly idle, after all, Miss
Garston. You are growing tired of this humdrum place. You are yearning
for "the leeks and cucumbers of Egypt,"' with a grim smile.

'You are wrong,' I returned, with more earnestness than the occasion
warranted. 'I feel a strange reluctance to re-enter Vanity Fair. The
splendours of a gay wedding are not to my taste. Sara tells me that her
reception after the ceremony will be attended by about two hundred
guests. To me the idea is simply barbarous. I expect I shall be heartily
glad to get back to Heathfield.'

I was surprised to see how pleased Mr. Hamilton looked at this speech. I
had been thinking of my work and my quiet little parlour, not of Gladwyn,
when I spoke; but he seemed to accept it as a personal compliment.

'I assure you that we shall welcome you back most gladly,' he returned.
'The place will not seem like itself without our busy village nurse.
Well, you have worked hard enough for six months: you deserve a holiday.
I should like to see you in your butterfly garb, Miss Garston. I fancy,
however, that I should not recognise you.'

With a sudden pang I remembered Elspeth's words. He does not think that
such home attire will become me. I thought he preferred me in my usual
nun's garb of black serge.

'Oh,' I said, petulantly and foolishly, 'I must own that I shall look
rather like a crow dressed up in peacock's feathers in the grand gown
Sara has chosen for me'; but I was a little taken aback, and felt
inclined to laugh, when he asked me, with an air of interest, what it
was like in colour and material.

'Sara wished it to be red plush,' I replied demurely; 'but I refused to
wear it; so she has waived that in favour of a dark green velvet. I think
it is absolutely wicked to make Uncle Brian pay for such a dress; but it
seems that Sara will get her own way, so I must put up with all they
choose to give me.'

'That is hardly spoken graciously. If your uncle be rich, why should
he not please himself in buying you a velvet gown? I think the fair
bride-elect has good taste. You will look very well in dark-green velvet:
light tints would not suit you at all; red would be too gay.'

He spoke with such gravity and decision that I thought it best not to
contradict him. I even repressed my inclination to laugh: if he liked to
be dogmatic on the subject of my dress, I would not hinder him. The next
moment, however, he dismissed the matter.

'I agree with you in disliking gay weddings. The idea is singularly
repugnant to me. Because two people elect to join hands for the journey
of life, is there any adequate reason why all their idle acquaintances
should accompany them with cymbals and prancings and all sorts of
fooleries just at the most solemn moment of their life?'

'I suppose they wish to express their sympathy,' I returned.

'Sympathy should wear a quieter garb. These folks come to church to show
their fine feathers and make a fuss; they do not care a jot for the
solemnity of the service; and yet to me it is as awful in its way as the
burial service. "Till death us do part,"--can any one, man or woman, say
these words lightly and not bring down a doom upon himself?' He spoke
with suppressed excitement, walking up and down the room: one could see
how strongly he felt his words. Was he thinking of Mrs. Carrick? I
wondered. He gave a slight shudder, as though some unwelcome thought
obtruded itself, and then he turned to me with a forced smile.

'I am boring you, I am afraid. I get horribly excited over the shams of
conventionality. What were we talking about? Oh, I remember: Gladys's
letter. Yes, she has written to Lady Betty, but not such a volume as
that,' glancing at the closely written sheets. 'You are her chief
correspondent, I believe; but she told us her plans. For my part, I am
glad that she should enjoy this trip to Paris. Really, the Maberleys are
most kind. I sent her a cheque to add to her amusements, for of course
all girls like shopping.'

How generous he was to his sisters! with all his faults of manner, he
seemed to grudge them nothing. But all the same I knew Gladys would have
valued a few kind words from him far more than the cheque; but perhaps he
had written to her as well. But he seemed rather surprised when I asked
him the question.

'Oh no; I never write to my sisters: they would not care for a letter
from me. Etta offered to enclose it in a letter she had just finished to
Gladys, so that saved all trouble. By the bye, Miss Garston, I hope you
will come up to Gladwyn one evening before you leave Heathfield. I do not
see why we are to be deserted in this fashion.'

Neither did I, if he put it in this way: reluctant as I was to spend an
evening there in Gladys's absence, it certainly was not quite kind either
to him or to Lady Betty to refuse. He seemed to anticipate a refusal,
however, for he said hastily,--

'Never mind answering me now. Etta shall write to you in proper form,
and you shall fix your own evening. Now I have hindered you sufficiently,
so I will take my leave,'--which he did, but I heard him some time
afterwards talking to Nathaniel in the porch.

A few days after this I received a civil little note from Miss Darrell,
pressing me to spend a long evening with them, and begging me to bring my
prettiest songs.

I made the rather lame excuse that I was much engaged with my new
patient, and fixed the latest day that I could,--the very last evening
before I was to leave for London. Mr. Hamilton met me a few hours
afterwards, and asked me rather drily what my numerous engagements
could be.

'You are the most unsociable of your sex,' he added, when I had no answer
to make to this. 'I shall take care that you are properly punished, for
neither Cunliffe nor Tudor shall be asked to meet you. Etta was sure you
would like one or both to come, but I put my veto on it at once.'

'Then you were very disagreeable,' I returned laughingly. 'I wanted Uncle
Max very much.' But he only shook his head at me good-humouredly, and
scolded me for my want of amiability.

I determined, when the evening came, that he should not find fault with
me in any way. I was rather in holiday mood; my patient was going on
well, and his mother was a neat, capable body, and might be trusted to
look after him. No other cases had come to me, and I might leave
Heathfield with a clear conscience. Uncle Max would miss me, but an old
college friend was coming to stay at the vicarage, so I could be better
spared. I had seen a great deal of Mr. Tudor lately. I often met him in
the village, and he always turned back and walked with me: he met me on
this occasion, and walked to the gates of Gladwyn. Indeed, he detained me
for some minutes in the road, trying to extract particulars about the
wedding.

'Miss Jocelyn is to be bridesmaid, then?' describing a circle with his
stick in the dust.

'Yes. Poor Sara is afraid that she will be quite overshadowed by Jill's
bigness; she has made her promise not to stand quite close. They have got
a match for her. Grace Underley is as tall as Jill, and very fair. Sara
calls them her night and morning bridesmaids.'

'I think I shall be in London on the fourteenth. I thought, Miss Garston,
that there was a prejudice to weddings in May.'

'Yes; but Sara laughs at the idea, and Colonel Ferguson says it is all
nonsense. I did not know you were coming to town so soon.'

'Some of my people will be up then,' he said absently. 'Perhaps I shall
have a peep at you all; but of course'--rather hastily--'I shall not call
at Hyde Park Gate until the wedding is over.'

I wished he would not call then. What was the good of feeding his boyish
fancy? it would soon die a natural death, if he would only be wise. Poor
Mr. Tudor! I began to be afraid that he was very much in earnest after
all: there was a grave expression on his face as he turned away. Perhaps
he knew, as I did, that our big awkward Jill would develop into a
splendid woman; that one of these days Jocelyn Garston would be far more
admired than her sister; that the ugly duckling would soon change into a
swan. There were times even now when Jill looked positively handsome,
if only her short black locks would grow, and if she would leave off
hunching her shoulders.

'I should like Lawrence Tudor to have my Jill, if he were only rich; but
there is no hope for him now, poor fellow!' I said to myself, as I walked
up the gravel walk towards the house.

Gladwyn looked its best this evening. The shady little lawns that
surrounded the house looked cool and inviting; the birds were singing
merrily from the avenue of young oaks; the air was sweet with the scent
of May-blossoms and wall-flowers: great bunches of them were placed in
the hall.

Thornton, who admitted me, said that Leah would be waiting for me in the
blue room, as Miss Darrell's room was called; so I went up at once.

I was passing through the dressing-room, when I saw the bedroom door was
half opened, and a voice--I scarcely recognised it as Miss Darrell's, it
was so different from her usual low, toneless voice--exclaimed angrily,
'You forget yourself strangely, Leah! one would think you were the
mistress and I the maid, to hear you speaking to me.'

'I can't help that, Miss Etta,' returned the woman insolently. 'If you
are not more punctual in your payments I will go to the master myself and
tell him.' But here I knocked sharply at the door to warn them of my
presence, and Leah ceased abruptly, while Miss Darrell bade me enter.

She tried to meet me as usual, but her face was flushed, and she looked
at me uneasily, as though she feared that I had overheard Leah's speech.
I thought Leah looked sullen and stolid as she waited upon me. It was a
most forbidding face. I was glad when Miss Darrell dismissed her on some
slight pretext.

'Leah is in a bad temper this evening,' she observed, examining the
clasp of a handsome bracelet as she spoke. I noticed then that she had
beautiful arms, as well as finely-shaped hands, and the emerald-eyed
snake showed to advantage. 'She is a most invaluable person, but she can
take liberties sometimes. Perhaps you heard me scolding her; but I
consider she was decidedly in the wrong.'

'She does not look very good-tempered,' was my reply.

Miss Darrell still looked flushed and perturbed; but she took up her
fan and vinaigrette, and proposed that we should join Lady Betty in the
drawing-room. Leah was in the hall. As we passed her she addressed Miss
Darrell.

'If you can spare me a moment, ma'am, I should like to speak to you,' she
said, quite civilly; but I thought her manner a little menacing.

'Will not another time do, Leah?' returned her mistress in a worried
tone; but the next moment she begged me to go in without her.

Lady Betty was sitting by the open window with Nap beside her. I thought
the poor little girl looked dull and lonely. She gave an exclamation of
pleasure at seeing me, and ran towards me with outstretched hands. She
looked like a child in her little white gown and blue ribbons, with her
short curly hair.

'I am so glad to see you, Miss Garston! I thought Etta would keep you,
I have been alone all the afternoon: Etta never sits with me now. How
I wish Gladys would come back! I have no one to speak to, and I miss her
horribly.'

'Poor Lady Betty!'

'You would say so, if you knew how horrid it all was. Just now, as I was
sitting alone, I felt like a poor little princess shut up in an enchanted
tower. Giles is the magician, and Etta is the wicked witch. I was making
up quite a story about it.'

'Why have you not been to see me lately, Lady Betty?'

'Oh, how silly you are to ask me such a question!' she returned
pettishly. 'You had better ask Witch Etta. Now you pretend to look
surprised. She won't let me come--there!'

'My dear child, surely you need not consult your cousin.'

'Of course not,' wrinkling her forehead; 'but then, you see, Witch Etta
consults me: she makes a point of finding out all my little plans and
nipping them in the bud. She says she really cannot allow me to go so
often to the White Cottage; Mr. Cunliffe and Mr. Tudor are always there,
and it is not proper. She is always hinting that I want to meet Mr.
Tudor, and it is no good telling her that I never think of such a thing.'
Lady Betty was half crying. A more innocent, harmless little soul never
breathed; she had not a spice of coquetry in her nature. I felt indignant
at such an accusation.

'It is all nonsense, Lady Betty,' I returned sharply. 'Mr. Tudor has not
called at the cottage more than once since Jill left me, and then Uncle
Max sent him. When I first came to Heathfield he was very kind in doing
me little services, and he dropped in two or three times when Jill was
with me; but indeed he has never been a constant visitor. When we meet
it is at the vicarage or in the street.'

'You would never convince Etta of that,' replied Lady Betty
disconsolately. 'She has even told Giles how often Mr. Tudor goes to the
cottage, and she has got it into her head that I am always trying to meet
him there. It is such an odious idea, only worthy of Etta herself!' went
on the little girl indignantly. 'If I could only make her hold her tongue
to Giles!'

'I would not trouble about it if I were you, dear. No one who knows you
would believe it. Such an idea would never occur to Mr. Tudor; he is an
honest, simple young fellow, who is not ashamed to respect women in the
good old-fashioned way.'

'Oh yes, I like him, and so does Jill; but I wish he were a thousand
miles off, and then Etta would give me a little peace. How angry Gladys
would be if she knew it! But I don't mean to trouble her about my small
worries, poor darling.'

I had never heard Lady Betty speak with such womanly dignity. She was so
often childish and whimsical that one never expected her to be grave and
responsible like other people. She kissed me presently, and said I had
done her good, and would I always believe in her in spite of Etta, for
she was not the giddy little creature that Etta made her out to be; she
was sure Giles would think more of her but for Etta's mischief-making.

Mr. Hamilton came in after this, and sat down by us, but Miss Darrell did
not make her appearance until the gong sounded, and then she hurried in
with a breathless apology. I do not know what made me watch her so
closely all dinner-time. She took very little part in the conversation,
seemed absent and thoughtful, and started nervously when Mr. Hamilton
spoke to her. He told her once that she looked pale and tired, and she
said then that the evening was close, and that her head ached. I wondered
then if the headache had made her eyes so heavy, or if she had been
crying.

Mr. Hamilton was a little quiet, too, through dinner, but listened with
great interest when Lady Betty and I talked about the approaching
wedding. I had to satisfy her curiosity on many points,--the bride's and
bridesmaids' dresses, and the programme for the day.

The details did not seem to bore Mr. Hamilton. His face never once wore
its cynical expression; but when we returned to the drawing-room, and
Lady Betty wanted to continue the subject, he took her quietly by the
shoulders and marched her off to Miss Darrell.

'Make the child hold her tongue, Etta,' he said good-humouredly. 'I want
to coax Miss Garston to sing to us.' And then he came to me with the
smile I liked best to see on his face, and held out his hand.

I was quite willing to oblige him, and he kept me hard at work for nearly
an hour, first asking me if I were tired, and then begging for one more
song; and sometimes I thought of Gladys as I sang, and sometimes of Max,
and once of Mrs. Carrick, with her wonderful gray eyes, and her false
fair face.

When I had finished I saw Mr. Hamilton looking at me rather strangely.

'Why do you sing such sad songs?' he asked, in a low voice, as though he
did not wish to be overheard; but he need not have been afraid: Miss
Darrell was evidently taking no notice of any one just then. She was
lying back in her chair with her eyes closed, and I noticed afterwards
that her forehead was lined like an old woman's.

'I like melancholy songs,' was my reply, and I fingered the notes a
little nervously, for his look was rather too keen just then, and I had
been thinking of Mrs. Carrick.

'But you are not melancholy,' he persisted. 'There is no weak
sentimentality in your nature. Just now there was a passion in your voice
that startled me, as though you were drawing from some secret well.' He
paused, and then went on, half playfully,--

'If I were like the Hebrew steward, and asked you to let down your
pitcher and give me a draught, I wonder what you would answer?'

'That would depend on circumstances. You would find it difficult to
persuade me that you were thirsty, or needed anything that I could give.'

'Would it be so difficult as all that?' he returned thoughtfully. 'I
thought we were better friends; that you had penetrated beneath the upper
crust; that in spite of my faults you trusted me a little.'

His earnestness troubled me. I hardly knew what he meant.

'Of course we are friends,' I answered hastily. 'I can trust you more
than a little.' And I would have risen from my seat, but he put his hand
gently on my sleeve.

'Wait a moment. You are going away, and I may not have another
opportunity. I want to tell you something. You have done me good; you
have taught me that women can be trusted, after all. I thank you most
heartily for that lesson.'

'I do not know what you mean,' I faltered; but I felt a singular pleasure
at these words. 'I have done nothing. It is you that have been good to
me.'

'Pshaw!' impatiently. 'I thought you more sensible than to say that. Now,
I want you,' his voice softening again, 'to try and think better of me;
not to judge by appearances, or to take other people's judgments, but to
be as true and charitable to me as you are to others. Promise me this
before you go, Miss Garston.'

I do not know why the tears started to my eyes. I could hardly answer
him.

'Will you try to do this?' he persisted, stooping over me.

'Yes,' was my scarcely audible answer, but he was satisfied with that
monosyllable. He walked away after that, and joined Lady Betty. Miss
Darrell had not moved; she still lay back on the cushions, and I thought
her face looked drawn and old. When I spoke to her, for it was getting
late, she roused herself with difficulty.

'My head is very bad, and I shall have to go to bed, after all,' she
said, giving me her hand. 'I am afraid your beautiful singing has been
thrown away on me, for I was half asleep. I thought I heard you and Giles
talking by the piano, but I was not sure.'

Mr. Hamilton walked home with me. He had resumed his usual manner; he
told me he had had a letter that day that would oblige him to go to
Edinburgh for a week or so.

'I think I shall take the night mail to-morrow evening, though it will
give me a busy day: so, after all, I shall not miss you, Miss Garston.'
And after a little more talk about the business that had summoned him,
we reached the White Cottage and he bade me good-bye.

'I hope you will have a pleasant holiday. Take care of yourself, for all
our sakes.' And with that he left me.

It was long before I slept that night. I felt confused and feverish, as
though I were on the brink of some discovery that would overwhelm and
alarm me. I could not understand myself or Mr. Hamilton. His words
presented an enigma. I felt troubled by them, and yet not unhappy.

Had Miss Darrell overheard him? I wondered. I felt, if she had done so,
her manner would have been different. She seemed jealous of her cousin,
and always monopolised his words and looks. He had never spoken to me a
dozen words in her presence that she had not tried to interrupt us. Had
she really been asleep? These doubts kept recurring to me. Just before
I fell asleep a remembrance of Leah's sullen face came between me and my
dreams. Her insolent voice rang in my ears. What had she meant by her
words? Why had Miss Darrell submitted to her impertinence? Was she afraid
of Leah, as Gladys said? I began to feel weary of all these mysteries.



CHAPTER XXX

WITH TIMBRELS AND DANCES


Aunt Philippa and Sara came to meet me at Victoria. They both seemed
unfeignedly glad to see me.

Aunt Philippa was certainly a kind-hearted woman. Her faults were those
that were engendered by too much prosperity. Overmuch ease and luxury had
made her lymphatic and indolent. Except for Ralph's death, she had never
known sorrow. Care had not yet traced a single line on her smooth
forehead; it looked as open and unfurrowed as a child's. Contentment and
a comfortable self-complacency were written on her comely face. Just now
it beamed with motherly welcome. Somehow, I never felt so fond of Aunt
Philippa as I did at that moment when she leaned over the carriage with
outstretched hands.

'My dear, how well you are looking! Five years younger.--Does she not
look well, Sara?'

Sara nodded and smiled, and made room for me to pass her, and then gave
orders that my luggage should be intrusted to the maid, who would convey
it in a cab to Hyde Park Gate.

'If you do not mind, Ursula, we are going round the Park for a little,'
observed Sara, with a pretty blush.

Her mother laughed: 'Colonel Ferguson is riding in the Row, and will be
looking out for us. He is coming this evening, as usual, but Sara thinks
four-and-twenty hours too long to wait.'

'Oh, mother, how can you talk so?' returned Sara bashfully. 'You know
Donald asked us to meet him, and he would be so disappointed. And it is
such a lovely afternoon,--if Ursula does not mind.'

'On the contrary, I shall like it very much,' I returned, moved by
curiosity to see Colonel Ferguson again. I had never seen him by
daylight, and, though we had often met at the evening receptions, we
had not exchanged a dozen words.

I thought Sara was looking prettier than ever. A sort of radiance seemed
to surround her. Youth and beauty, perfect health, a light heart, and
satisfied affections,--these were the gifts of the gods that had been
showered upon her. Would those bright, smiling eyes ever shed tears? I
wondered. Would any sorrow drive away that light, careless gaiety? I
hoped not. It was pleasant to see any one so happy. And then I thought
of Lesbia and Gladys, and sighed.

'You do not look at all tired, Ursie,' observed Sara affectionately,
laying her little gloved hand on mine. 'She looks quite nice and fresh:
does she not, mother?--I was so afraid that you would have come up in
your nurse's livery, as Jocelyn calls it,--black serge, and a horrid
dowdy bonnet.'

'Oh no; I knew better than that,' I returned, with a complacent glance
at my handsome black silk, one of Uncle Brian's presents. I had the
comfortable conviction that even Sara could not find fault with my bonnet
and mantle. I had made a careful toilet purposely, for I knew what
importance they attached to such things. Sara's little speech rewarded
me, as well as Aunt Philippa's approving look.

'It has not done her any harm,' I heard her observe, _sotto voce_. 'She
certainly looks younger.'

I took advantage of a pause in Sara's chatter to ask after Jill. Aunt
Philippa answered me, for Sara was bowing towards a passing carriage.

'Oh, poor child, she wanted to come with us to meet you, but it was
Professor Hugel's afternoon. He teaches her German literature, you know.
I was anxious for her not to miss his lesson, and she was very good about
it. She is coming down to afternoon tea, and of course we shall see her
in the evening.'

'Poor dear Jocelyn! she was longing to come, I know. You and Miss
Gillespie are terribly severe,' observed Sara, with a light laugh. She
was so free and gay herself that she rather pitied her young sister,
condemned to the daily grind of lessons and hard work.

'Nonsense, Sara!' returned her mother sharply. 'We are not severe at all.
Jocelyn knows that it is all for her good if Miss Gillespie keeps her to
her task. My dear Ursula, we are all charmed with Miss Gillespie,--even
Sara, though she pretends to call her strict and old-fashioned. She is a
most amiable, ladylike woman, and Jocelyn is perfectly happy with her.

'I am very pleased with Jocelyn,' she went on. 'You have done her good,
Ursula, and both her father and I are very grateful to you. She is not
nearly so wayward and self-willed. She takes great pains with her
lessons, and is most industrious. She is not so awkward, either, and Miss
Gillespie thinks it will be a good plan if I take her out with me driving
sometimes when Sara is married. I shall only have Jocelyn then,' finished
Aunt Philippa, with a regretful look at her daughter. I was much
interested in all they had to tell me, but I was not sorry when we
entered the Park and the stream of talk died away.

I almost felt as though I were in a dream, as the moving kaleidoscope
of horses and carriages and foot-passengers passed before my eyes.

Yesterday at this time I was sitting in poor Robert Lambert's whitewashed
attic, listening to the sparrows that were twittering under the eaves.
When I had left the cottage I had walked down country roads, meeting
nothing but a donkey-cart and two tramps.

Now the sunshine was playing on the rhododendrons and on the green leaves
of the trees in Hyde Park. A brass band had struck up in the distance.
The riders were cantering up and down the Row, to the admiration of the
well-dressed crowds that sauntered under the trees or lingered by the
railings. Carriages were passing and repassing. A four-in-hand drove past
us, followed by a tandem. Beautiful young faces smiled out of the
carriages. A few of them looked weary and careworn. Now and then under
the smart bonnet one saw the pinched weazened face of old age,--dowagers
in big fur capes looking out with their dim hungry eyes on the follies of
Vanity Fair. One wondered at the set senile smile on these old faces;
they had fed on husks all their lives, and the food had failed to nourish
them; their strength had failed over the battle of life, but they still
refused to leave the field of their former triumphs. Everywhere in these
fashionable crowds one sees these pale meagre faces that belong to a past
age. They wear gorgeous velvets, jewels, feathers, paint: like Jezebel,
they would look out of the window curiously to the last. How one longs to
take them gently out of the crowd, to wash their poor cheeks, and lead
them to some quiet home, where they may shut their tired eyes in peace!
'What is the world to you?' one would say to them. 'You have done all
your tasks,--well or badly; leave the arena to the young and the strong;
it is no place for you; come home and rest, before the dark angel finds
you in your tinsel and gewgaws.' Would they listen to me, I wonder?

Sara's soft dimples came into play presently. A pretty blush rose to her
face. A tall man with a bronzed handsome face and iron-gray moustache had
detached himself from the other riders, and was cantering towards the
carriage that was now drawn up near the entrance: in another moment he
had checked his horse with some difficulty.

'I have been looking out for you the last three-quarters of an hour,' he
said, addressing Sara. 'I could not see the carriage anywhere.--Miss
Garston, we have met before, but I think we hardly know each other,'
looking at me with some degree of interest. Sara's cousin was no longer
indifferent to him.

I answered him as civilly as I could, but I could see his attention
wandered to his young _fiancée_, and he soon rode round to her side of
the carriage. It was evident, as Lesbia said, that the colonel was
honestly in love with Sara. She looked very young beside him, but there
must have been something very winning in her sweet looks and words to the
man who had known trouble and had laid a young wife and child to rest in
an Indian grave.

Before the evening was over I felt I liked Colonel Ferguson immensely,
and thought far more of Sara for being his choice; there was an air of
frankness and _bonhomie_ about him that won one's heart; he was sensible
and practical. In spite of his fondness for Sara, he would keep her in
order: one could see that. I heard him rebuke her very gently that first
evening for some extravagance she was planning. They were standing apart
from the others on the balcony, but I was near the open window, and I
heard him say distinctly, in a grave voice,--

'I am very sorry to disappoint you, but I must ask you to give up this
idea, my darling; it would not be right in our position: surely you must
see that.'

'No, Donald, I do not see it a bit,' she answered quickly.

'Then will you be satisfied with my seeing it, and give it up for my
sake, dear?'

I knew when they came back into the room that he had got his way. Sara
was smiling as happily as usual: her disappointment had not gone very
deep. Her future husband would have very little trouble with her. She was
neither self-willed nor selfish. She wanted to be happy herself and make
other people happy; she would be easily guided.

When we left the Park Colonel Ferguson rode off to his club, and we drove
home rather quickly. There were some visitors waiting for Sara in the
drawing-room, so I went up to my old room to take off my bonnet. Martha
would unpack my boxes, Aunt Philippa told me, as she gave me another kiss
in the hall.

I had not been there for five minutes when I heard flying footsteps down
the passage, and the next moment Jill's strong arms had taken me by the
shoulders and turned me round.

'Now, Jill, I don't mean to be strangled as usual'; but she left me no
breath for more.

'Oh, my dear, precious old bear, this is too good to be true! I nearly
cried with joy this morning at the idea of seeing you in your old room
and knowing you will be here a whole fortnight. I declare, after all,
Sara is very nice to get married.'

No, Jill was not changed; she was as real and big and demonstrative as
usual, but somehow she looked nicer.

'You must be quick,' she continued, 'for father has come in, and Clayton
has taken in the tea. We must go down directly; but I want you to see
Miss Gillespie first.' And Jill looked proud and eager as she led me down
the passage.

The schoolroom was still the same dull back room that Aunt Philippa
thought so conducive to her young daughter's studies, but it certainly
looked more cheerful this evening.

The window was opened. There was a window-box full of gay flowers. A
great bowl of my favourite wall-flowers was on the table, and another
vase, with trails of laburnum and lilac, was on Jill's little table. The
fresh air and sunshine and the sweet scent of the flowers had quite
transformed the dingy room. There was new cretonne on the old sofa, a
handsome cloth on the centre-table, and a new easy-chair.

Miss Gillespie was sitting by the window, reading. She had an interesting
face and rather sad gray eyes, but her manner was decidedly
prepossessing.

She looked at her pupil with affection. Evidently Jill's abruptness and
awkwardness were not misunderstood by her.

'I want you two to like each other,' Jill had said, without a pretence of
introduction; and we had both laughed and extended our hands.

'I seem to know you already, Miss Garston,' she said, in a pleasant
voice. 'Jocelyn talks about you so much that you cannot be a stranger
to me.--Do you know your father has come in, dear?' turning to Jill.

'Yes, and I must take my cousin downstairs. Good-bye for the present,
Gypsy.'

Miss Gillespie smiled again when she saw my astonishment at Jill's
familiarity.

'Jocelyn thinks my name too long, and has abbreviated it to Gypsy. Mrs.
Garston was terribly shocked at first, but I told her that it did not
matter in the least: in fact, I like it.'

'She is such a dear old thing!' burst out Jill, as we left the schoolroom
and proceeded downstairs arm in arm. 'I never think of her as my
governess; she is just a kind friend who helps me with my lessons and
walks with me. We do have such cosy times together. Does not the
schoolroom look nice, Ursie?'

'Very nice indeed, my dear.'

'So I think; but Sara says it is horrid: she has made mother promise to
give me her room directly she is married. Sara has a beautiful piano
there, and a book-case, and all sorts of pretty things. It is a lovely
room, you know, and looks out over the Park. Mother thinks it too nice
and pretty for a schoolroom; but I am to call it my study and keep it
tidy. And Gypsy is to have the old schoolroom for herself: so we are both
pleased. It is nice for her to have a room of her own, where she can be
alone.'

'Your mother is very kind to you, Jill.'

'Awfully kind--I mean very kind: Gypsy does so dislike that expression.
Do you know, I think you two are rather alike in that? Gypsy is very
unhappy sometimes, though. I have found her crying more than once when I
have left her long alone; only mother does not know, and I don't mean to
tell her, because she thinks people ought always to be cheerful. It was
so sad that clergyman dying,--the one she was to marry; his name was
Maurice Compton. I saw the name in one of her books: "Lilian Gillespie,
from her devoted friend, Maurice Compton."'

'My dear Jill, how long are you going to keep me standing in the hall?
Clayton will find us here directly.'

'Yes, I know'; but Jill showed no intention of moving; the prospect of
cold tea did not trouble her; 'but I want to tell you something before
you go in. Mother is certainly kinder to me than she ever has been; she
says I am to drive with her very often, and that she shall take me to see
picture-galleries. And father is going to buy a horse for me, because he
says I ride so well that I may go out with him, as a rule, instead of
with a master; and--'

'You shall tell me all that presently,' I returned, 'for I am too tired
to stand on this mat any longer. Are you coming, Jill? or shall I go in
without you?' but of course I knew she would follow me.

The room seemed full when we entered. Aunt Philippa was at the tea-table;
Sara was flitting about the room from one guest to another. Uncle Brian,
who was standing on the hearth-rug, put out his hand to me.

'I am glad to see you back again, Ursula,' looking at me with his cool,
penetrating glance. Uncle Brian was never demonstrative. 'I think the
work suits you, to judge by your looks. Take that chair by your aunt,
child, and she will give you some tea.' And accordingly I placed myself
under Aunt Philippa's wing, while Jill and a boy-officer with a budding
moustache waited on me.

The rest of the evening passed very pleasantly. I had a long conversation
with Miss Gillespie in the inner drawing-room while Sara and Jill played
duets: of course our subject was Jill. Miss Gillespie spoke most warmly
of her excellent abilities and fine development of character. 'She will
be a very striking woman,' she finished, when the last chords were played
and a soft clapping of hands succeeded. 'Whether she will be a happy one
is more doubtful: she must not be thwarted too much, and she must have
room to expand. Jocelyn wants space and sunshine.'

I thought these remarks very sensible; they taught me that Miss Gillespie
had grasped the true idea of Jill's character. There was nothing little
about Jill: she never did things by halves: she either loved or hated.
She was truthful to a fault. There was a massive freedom and simplicity
about her that would guide her safely through the world's pitfalls.
'Space and sunshine,' that was all Jill needed to bring her to maturity
and fruition. Some girls may be trusted to educate themselves. Jill was
one of these.

The next morning Sara took possession of me. A great honour was to be
vouchsafed me: I was to be treated to a private view of the trousseau
and wedding-presents.

I had exhausted my vocabulary of admiring epithets, and sat in eloquent
silence, long before Sara had finished her display. It was like the
picture of Pandora opening her box, to see the pretty creature opening
the big, carved wardrobe to show me the layers of delicate embroidered
raiment, muslin and laces and jewels, curious trinkets and wonderful
gifts worthy of the Arabian Nights. There were two rooms full of
treasures that had been laid at her feet, and no doubt, like Pandora,
Sara had the rainbow-tinted hope lying amid the bridal gifts.

'This is Donald's present,' she said, smiling, showing me a diamond
spray. 'I am to wear it on Thursday: it is the loveliest present of
all,--though mother has given me that beautiful pearl necklace.'

'Wait a moment, Sara,' I said, detaining her as she closed the morocco
case: 'tell me, do you not feel like a princess in fairy-land, with all
this glitter round you? Does it all seem real, somehow?'

'Donald is real, anyhow,' she returned, with a charming blush. 'Nothing
would be real without him. Oh, Ursula, it is nice to be so happy! I
always have been happier than other girls.' And something like a tear
stole to her pretty eyes.

'Now you must see your own dress,' she continued, brushing off the tiny
tear-drop, with a laugh at her own sentimentality. 'What do you think of
that? Is that not charming taste?'

'It is far too good for me,' I returned seriously. 'How could Uncle Brain
buy that for me? It is beautiful; it is perfect, and just my taste.' And
then I could say no more, for Sara had placed her hands across my lips to
silence me.

'Then you must wear it, dear. Father and mother wanted to give you
something nice, because you were so good to Jocelyn, and I knew you had a
fancy for a velvet gown. Is not that yellowish lace charming, Ursula? and
the bonnet harmonises so well! Your bouquet is to be cream-coloured, too,
with just a tea-rose or so. You will look quite pretty in it, Ursula
dear. Do you know Donald liked the look of you so yesterday? he said you
looked so strong and sensible; he called you an interesting woman.'

I hastened to change the subject, for it recalled certain words that I
vainly tried to forget. It was a relief when visitors were announced and
Sara left me to go down to the drawing-room. I was glad to be alone for
a few minutes. Aunt Philippa came up soon afterwards with a bevy of
friends, and I escaped to my own room until luncheon-time.

I grew a little weary of the bustle by and by, and yet I was pleased and
interested too; the excitement was infectious; one smiled to see so many
happy faces; and then there was so much to do, every one was pressed into
the service. Jill shut up her books with a bang; her piano remained
closed. She and Miss Gillespie were answering notes, unpacking presents,
running to and fro with messages; people came all day long; they talked
in corners on the balcony, in Uncle Brian's study; no room was held
sacred.

A cargo of flowers arrived presently; the hall and drawing-room were to
be transformed into bowers. It must rain roses as well as sunshine on the
young princess. Sara's bright face appeared every now and then among the
workers; a little court surrounded her; sometimes Colonel Ferguson's
bronzed face looked over her shoulders.

'That is very pretty, Ursula. I see you have caught the right idea.
Jocelyn dear, you are overfilling that basket, and some of the stalks are
showing. Miss Gillespie will put it right for you. Come, Grace, shall we
go upstairs?'

Sara nodded and smiled at us as she led the way to the upper regions.
Pandora was for ever opening her box in those days: she was never weary
of fingering her silks and satins.

'Now she has gone, let us rest a little,' Jill exclaimed, letting her
arms fall to her side. 'Are you not tired of it all, Ursie dear? I get so
giddy that I keep rubbing my eyes. I never knew weddings meant all this
fuss. Why cannot people do things more quietly? If I ever get married I
shall just put on my bonnet and walk to the nearest church with father.
What is the use of all this nonsense? It is like decking the victim for
the sacrifice, to see all these roses and green leaves. Supposing we have
a band of music to drown her groans while she is dressing,' finished Jill
rebelliously, as she contemplated her flower-basket with dissatisfied
eyes.

Jill's speech recalled Mr. Hamilton's words most vividly: 'Because two
people elect to join hands for the journey of life, is there any adequate
reason why all their idle acquaintances should accompany them with
cymbals and prancings, and all sorts of fooleries, just at the most
solemn moment of life?' and again, '"Till death us do part,"--can any
one, man or woman, say those words lightly and not bring down a doom upon
himself?'

Could I ever forget how solemnly he had said this? After all, Mr.
Hamilton was right, and I think Jill was right too.



CHAPTER XXXI

WEDDING-CHIMES


When we had finished the flowers and brought in Aunt Philippa to see the
effect, I left the others and went up to my room. I had been busy since
the early morning, and felt I had fairly earned a little rest.

The room that was still called mine had a side-window looking over the
Park. Down below carriages were passing and repassing; a detachment of
hussars trotted past; people were pouring out from the Albert Hall,--some
afternoon concert was just over; the children were playing as usual on
the grass; the soft evening shadows were creeping up between the trees;
the sky was blue and cloudless. May was wearing her choicest smiles on
the eve of Sara's wedding-day.

Martha, the schoolroom maid, had brought me a cup of tea; the rest of the
family were crowded in Uncle Brian's study; the dining-room was already
in the hands of Gunter's assistants; the long drawing-room and inner
drawing-room were sweet with roses and baskets of costly hot-house
flowers; a bank of rhododendrons was under the hall window; the house was
full of sunshine, flowers, and the ripple of laughter. I could hear the
laughter through the closed door. Sara's musical tinkle rang out whenever
the door opened. I had fallen into a sort of waking dream, when something
white and golden passed between me and the sunlight; a light kiss was
dropped on my drowsy eyelids, and there was Lesbia smiling at me.

She looked so cool and fair in her white gown, with a tiny bouquet of
delicious tea-roses in her hand, her golden hair shining under her little
lace bonnet. I thought she looked more than ever like Charlie's white
lily, only now there was a touch of colour on her face.

'Oh, Ursie dear, I am so pleased to see you!' she said gently, laying
the flowers on my lap. 'Clayton told me that every one else was in Mr.
Garston's study, so I begged to run up here. We only came up from
Rutherford this morning, and we have been so busy ever since. I was
afraid you were asleep, for I knocked at the door without getting any
answer; but no, your eyes were wide open; so you were only dreaming.'

'I believe I was very tired, they have kept me running about all day.
Take this low chair by the window, dear, and tell me all about yourself.
Do you know it is six months since we met? There must be so much to say
on both sides. But, first, how is Mrs. Fullerton? and is it Rutherford
that has given you those pretty roses, Lesbia?' But the roses I meant
were certainly not on my lap.

She answered literally and seriously, in her usual way: 'Yes, they are
from Rutherford: I cut them myself, in spite of Patrick's grumbling.
Mother is very well, Ursula; I am sure the country agrees with her. We
have been there since March, and these two months have been the happiest
to me since dear Charlie died.'

'You need not tell me that,' I returned, with a satisfied look at the
sweet face. 'Health has returned to you; you are no longer languid and
weary; your eyes are bright, your voice has a stronger tone in it.'

'Is it wrong?' she answered quickly. 'I do not forget, I shall never
forget, but the pain seems soothed somehow. When I wake up in the bed
where I slept as a child, I hear the birds singing, and I do not say to
myself, "Here is another long weary day to get through." On the contrary,
I jump up and dress myself as quickly as I can, for I love to be out
among the dews; everything is so sweet and still in the early morning;
there is such freshness in the air.'

'And these early walks are good for you.'

'Oh, I never leave the grounds. I just saunter about with Flo and Rover.
When breakfast is ready I have a bouquet to lay beside mother's plate.
Dear, good mother! do you know she cannot say enough in praise of
Rutherford, now she sees the breakfasts I eat? I think she would be
reconciled to any place if she saw me enjoy my food: at the Albert Hall
Mansions I never felt hungry; I was always too tired to eat.'

'I knew Mrs. Fullerton would never repent her sacrifice.'

'No, indeed; mother and I have never been so cosy in our lives. She sits
in the verandah and laughs over my quarrels with Patrick: he is quite as
cross-grained as ever, dear old fellow, but there is nothing that he will
not do for me. We are making a rose-garden now. Do you remember that
sunny corner by the terrace and sundial?--dear Charlie always wanted me
to have a rose-garden there. We have trellis-work arches and a little
arbour. Patrick and Hawkins are doing the work, but I fancy they cannot
get on without me.'

She stopped with a little laugh at her own conceit, and then went on:

'And I am so busy in other ways, Ursula. Every Monday I go to the
mothers' meeting with Mrs. Trevor, and I have some of the old women at
the almshouses besides,--I am so fond of those old women,--and I have
just begun afternoons for tennis; people like these, and they come from
such a distance. Mr. Manners declares the Rutherford Thursdays will
soon be known all over the country.'

'Bravo, Lesbia! you are taking your position nobly, my dear; this is just
what Charlie wanted to see you,--a brave sweet woman who would not let
sorrow and disappointment spoil her own and other people's lives.' Then,
as she blushed with pleasure at my words, I said carelessly, 'Do you
often see Mr. Manners?'

'Oh yes,' she returned without hesitation,--'on my Thursdays, and at
church, and at the vicarage: we are always meeting somewhere. He was
Charlie's friend, you know, and he is so nice and sympathising, and tells
me so much about their school life and college life together. He was so
fond of Charlie, and the undergraduates used to call them Damon and
Pythias.'

'To be sure: Charlie was always talking about Harcourt. He has grown very
handsome, I have heard.'

'Mother says so: he is certainly good-looking,' she answered simply; 'and
then he is so kind. I feel almost ashamed at troubling him so much with
our business and commissions, but he never seems to mind any amount of
trouble. I have never met any one so unselfish.'

I turned away my head to hide a smile. Lesbia was quite serious. She was
too much absorbed in the memory of Charlie to read the secret of Harcourt
Manners's unselfishness: the kindly attentions of the young man, his
solicitude and sympathy, had not yet awakened a suspicion of the truth.

One day Lesbia's eyes would be opened, and she would be shocked and
surprised to find the hold that Charlie's friend had got over her heart.
Very likely she would dismiss him and lock herself up in her room and cry
for hours; probably she would persist for some weeks in making herself
and him exceedingly unhappy. But it would be all no use; the tie of
sympathy would be too strong; he would have made himself too necessary to
her. One day she would have to yield, and find her life's happiness in
thus yielding. Charlie's white lily was too fair to be left to wither
alone, and I knew Harcourt Manners would be worthy to win the prize.

I could see it all before it happened, while Lesbia talked in her serious
way of Mr. Manners's unselfishness. Presently, however, she changed the
subject, and began questioning me eagerly about my work; and just then
Jill joined us, and placed herself on the floor at my feet, with the firm
intention, evidently, of listening to our remarks.

The conversation drifted round to Gladwyn presently. I could see Lesbia
was a little curious about these friends of mine that I had mentioned
casually in my letters.

'I can't quite make out the relationship,' she said, in a puzzled tone.
'You are always talking about this Gladys. Is she really so beautiful and
fascinating? And who is Miss Darrell?'

'You had better ask me,' interrupted Jill, quite rudely, 'for Ursula is
so absurdly infatuated about the whole family; she thinks them all quite
perfect, with the exception of the double-faced lady, Miss Darrell; but
they are very ordinary,--quite ordinary people, I assure you.'

'Now, Jill, we do not want any of your impertinence. Lesbia would rather
hear my description of my friends.'

'On the contrary, she would prefer the opinion of an unprejudiced
person,' persisted Jill, with a voluble eloquence that took away my
breath. 'Listen to me, Lesbia. This Mr. Hamilton that Ursula is always
talking about'--how I longed to box Jill's pretty little ears! she had
lovely ears, pink and shell-like, hidden under her black locks--'is an
ugly, disagreeable-looking man.'

'Oh!' from Lesbia, in rather a disappointed tone.

'He is quite old,--about five-and-thirty, they say,--and he has a long
smooth-shaven face like a Jesuit. I don't recollect seeing a Jesuit,
though; but he is very like one all the same. He has dark eyes that stare
somehow and seem to put you down, and he has a way of laughing at you
civilly that makes you wild; and Ursula believes in him, and is quite
meek in his presence, just because he is a doctor and orders her about.'

'My dear Lesbia, I hope you are taking Jill's measure with a grain of
salt. Mr. Hamilton is not disagreeable, and he never orders me about.'

Jill shook her head at me, and went on:

'Then there is the double-faced lady--but never mind her; we both hate
her.'

'You mean Miss Darrell, Mr. Hamilton's cousin?'

'Yes, Witch Etta, as Lady Betty calls her. She is a dark-eyed, slim piece
of elegance, utterly dependent on her clothes for beauty; she dresses
perfectly, and makes herself out a good-looking woman, but she is not
really good-looking; and she is always talking, and her talk is exciting,
because there is always something behind her words, something mildly
suggestive of volcanoes, or something equally pleasant and enlivening.
If she smiles, for instance, one seems to think one must find out the
meaning of that.'

'Who has taught you all this, Jill?' asked Lesbia, bewildered by this
sarcasm.

'My mother-wit,' returned Jill, utterly unabashed. 'Well, then there is
Gladys. Ah, now we are coming to the saddest part. Once upon a time there
was a beautiful maiden, really a lovely creature,--oh, I grant you that,
Ursula,--but she fell under the power of some wicked magician, male or
female,--some folks say Witch Etta,--who changed her into a snow-maiden
or an ice-maiden. If she were only alive, this Gladys would be most
lovely and bewitching; but, you see, she is only a poor snow-maiden, very
white and cold. If she gives you her hand, it quite freezes you; her kiss
turns you to ice too; her smile is congealing. Ursula tries to thaw her
sometimes, but it does no good. She is only Gladys, the snow-maiden.'

I was too angry with Jill to say a word. Lesbia looked more mystified
than ever.

'If she be so cold and sad, how can Ursula be so fond of her?' she
demanded, in her practical way. But Jill took no notice, but rattled on:

'Little brown Betsy--I beg her pardon--Lady Betty, is the best of all:
she is really human. Gladys is only half alive. Lady Betty laughs and
talks and pouts; she wrinkles up like an old woman when she is cross, and
has lovely dimples when she smiles. She is not pretty, but she is quaint,
and interesting, and childlike. I am very fond of Lady Betty,' finished
Jill, with a benevolent nod.

I proceeded to annotate Jill's mischievous remarks with much severity.
I left Mr. Hamilton alone, with the exception of a brief sentence; I
assured Lesbia that he was not ugly, but only peculiar-looking, and that
he was an intellectual, earnest-minded man who had known much trouble.
Jill made a wry face, but did not dare to contradict me.

'As for his sister Gladys,' I went on, 'she is simply a most beautiful
girl, whose health has failed a little from a great shock'; here Jill and
Lesbia both looked curious, but I showed no intention of enlightening
them. 'She is a little too sad and quiet for Jill's taste,' I continued,
'and she is also somewhat reserved in manner, but when she likes a person
thoroughly she is charming.'

I went on a little longer in this strain, until I had thoroughly
vindicated my favourite from Jill's aspersion.

'You are very fond of her, Ursula: your eyes soften as you talk of her.
I should like to see this wonderful Gladys.'

'You must see her one day,' I rejoined; and then the gong sounded, and
Lesbia jumped up in a fright, because she said she would keep her mother
waiting, and Jill hurried off to her room to dress.

We had what Jill called a picnic dinner in Uncle Brian's study. Every one
enjoyed it but Clayton, who seemed rather put out by the disorganised
state of the house, and who was always getting helplessly wedged in
between the escritoire and the table. We would have much rather waited on
ourselves, and we wished Mrs. Martin had forgone the usual number of
courses. When it was over we all went into the long drawing-room, and
Jill played soft snatches of Chopin, while Sara and Colonel Ferguson
whispered together on the dark balcony.

Mrs. Fullerton and Lesbia joined us later on, and then Colonel Ferguson
took his leave. I thought Sara looked a little quiet and subdued when she
joined us; her gay chatter had died away, her eyes were a little
plaintive. When we had said good-night, and Jill and I were passing down
the corridor hand in hand, we could hear voices from Aunt Philippa's
room. Through the half-opened door I caught a glimpse of Sara: she was
kneeling by her mother's chair, with her head on Aunt Philippa's
shoulder. Was she bidding a tearful regret to her old happy life? I
wondered; was she looking forward with natural shrinking and a little
fear to the new responsibility that awaited her on the morrow? It was the
mother who was talking; one could imagine how her heart would yearn over
her child to-night,--what fond prayers would be uttered for the girl.
Aunt Philippa was a loving mother: worldliness had not touched the
ingrained warmth of her nature.

I am glad to remember how brightly the sun shone on Sara's wedding-day.
There was not a cloud in the sky. When I woke, the birds were singing in
Hyde Park, and Jill in her white wrapper was looking at me with bright,
excited eyes.

'It is such a lovely morning!' she exclaimed rapturously. 'Actually Sara
is asleep! Fancy sleeping under such circumstances! She and mother are
going to have breakfast together in the schoolroom. Do be quick and
dress, Ursula; father is always so early, you know.'

Uncle Brian was reading his paper as usual when I entered the study. Miss
Gillespie was pouring out coffee. Jill was fidgeting about the room,
until her father called her to order, and then she sat down to the table.
I do not think any of us enjoyed our breakfast. Uncle Brian certainly
looked dull; Jill was too excited to eat; poor Miss Gillespie had tears
in her eyes; she poured out tea and coffee with cold shaking hands.
'Lilian Gillespie, from her devoted friend Maurice Compton,' came into my
head: no wonder the thought of marriage-bells and bridal finery made her
sad. I am afraid I should have shut myself up in my own room, and refused
to mingle with the crowd, under these circumstances. I quite understood
the feeling of sympathy that made Jill stoop down and kiss the smooth
brown hair as she passed the governess's chair: it was a sort of
affectionate homage to misfortune patiently borne.

I went up to the schoolroom when breakfast was over. Aunt Philippa looked
as though she had not slept: there was a jaded look about her eyes. Sara,
on the contrary, looked fresh and smiling; she was just going to put
herself in her maid's hands; but she tripped back in her pretty muslin
dressing-gown and rose-coloured ribbons to kiss me and ask me to look
after Jill's toilet.

'Every one is so busy, and mother and Draper will be attending to me.
Do, please, Ursie dear, see that she puts on her bonnet straight.' And
of course I promised to do my best.

As it happened, Jill was very tractable and obedient. I think her
beautiful bridesmaid's dress rather impressed her. I saw a look of awe in
her eyes as she regarded herself, and then she dropped a mocking courtesy
to her own image.

'I am Jocelyn to-day, remember that, Ursula. I don't look a bit like
Jill. Jocelyn Adelaide Garston, bridesmaid.'

'You look charming, Jill--I mean Jocelyn.'

'Oh, how horrid it sounds from your lips, Ursie! I like my own funny
little name best from you. Now come and let me finish you.' And Jill, in
spite of her fine dress, would persist in waiting on me. She was very
voluble in her expression of admiration when I had finished, but I did
not seem to recognise 'Nurse Ursula' in the elegantly-dressed woman that
I saw reflected in the pier-glass. 'Fine feathers make fine birds,' I
said to myself.

I think we all agreed that Sara looked lovely. Lesbia, who joined us in
the drawing-room, contemplated her with tears in her eyes.

'You look like a picture, Sara,' she whispered,--'like a fairy queen,--in
all that whiteness.' Sara dimpled and blushed. Of course she knew how
pretty she was, and how people liked to look at her; but I am sure she
was thinking of Donald, as her eyes rested on her bridal bouquet. Dearly
as she loved all this finery and consequence, there was a soft,
thoughtful expression in her eyes that was quite new to them, and
that I loved to see.

We went to church presently, and Lesbia and I, standing side by side,
heard the beautiful, awful service. 'Till death us do part.' Oh, what
words to say to any man! Surely false lips would grow paralysed over
them!

A most curious thing happened just then. I had raised my eyes, when they
suddenly encountered Mr. Hamilton's. A sort of shock crossed me. Why was
he here? How had he come? How strange! how very strange! The next moment
he had disappeared from my view: probably he had withdrawn behind a
pillar that he might not attract my notice. I could almost have believed
that it was an illusion and fancied resemblance, only I had never seen a
face like Mr. Hamilton's.

The momentary glimpse had distracted me, and I heard the remainder of the
service rather absently; then the pealing notes of the wedding-march
resounded through the church; we all stood waiting until Sara had signed
her name, and had come out of the vestry leaning on her husband's arm.

I was under Major Egerton's care. The crowd round the door was so great
that it was with the greatest difficulty that he could pilot me to the
carriage. Lesbia was following us with another officer, whose name I did
not know. As we took our seats I distinctly saw Mr. Hamilton cross the
road. He was walking quietly down Hyde Park. As we passed he turned and
took off his hat. I thought it was a strange thing that he should be in
the neighbourhood on Sara's wedding-day, and that he should have deigned
to play the part of a spectator after his severe strictures on gay
weddings. I supposed his business in Edinburgh was finished, and he had
an idle day or two on his hands. I half expected him to call the next
day, for I had given him my address; but he did not come, and I heard
from Mr. Tudor afterwards that he had gone on to Folkestone.



CHAPTER XXXII

A FIERY ORDEAL


It is a hackneyed truism, and, like other axioms, profoundly true, that
wedding-festivities are invariably followed by a sense of blank dulness.

It is like the early morning after a ball, when the last guests have left
the house: the lights flicker in the dawn, the empty rooms want sweeping
and furnishing to be fit for habitation. Yawns, weariness, satiety, drive
the jaded entertainers to their resting-places. Every one knows how
tawdry the ball-dress looks in the clear morning light. The diamonds
cease to flash, the flowers are withered, the game is played out.

Something of this languor and vacuum is felt when the bride and
bridegroom have driven away amid the typical shower of rice. The smiles
seem quenched, somehow; mother and sisters shed tears; a sense of loss
pervades the house; the bridal finery is heaped up in the empty room; one
little glove is on the table, another has fallen to the floor. All sorts
of girlish trinkets that have been forgotten lie unheeded in corners.

I know we all thought that evening would never end, and I quite
understood why Jill hovered near her mother's chair, listening to her
conversation with Mrs. Fullerton. Every now and then Aunt Philippa broke
down and shed a few quiet tears. I heard her mention Ralph's name once.
'Poor boy! how proud he would have been of his sister!' Uncle Brian heard
it too, for I saw him wince at the sound of his son's name; but Jill
stroked her mother's hand, and said, quite naturally, 'Most likely Ralph
knows all about it, mamma, and of course he is glad that Sara is so
happy.'

Our pretty light-hearted Sara. I had no idea that I should miss her
so much! Indeed, we all missed her: it seemed to me now that I had
undervalued her. True, she had not been a congenial companion to me in my
dark days; but even then I had wronged her. Why should I have expected
her to grope among the shadows with me, instead of following her into the
sunshine? Sara could not act contrary to her nature. Sad things depressed
her. She wanted to cause every one to be happy.

Her feelings were far deeper than I had imagined them to be. I liked the
way she spoke to Jill when she was bidding good-bye to us all.

'Jocelyn dear, promise me that you will be good to mother. She has no one
but you now to study her little ways and make her comfortable, and she is
not as young as she was, and things tire her.' Of course Jill promised
with tears in her eyes, and Sara went away smiling and radiant. Jill was
already trying to redeem her promise, as she hovered like a tall slim
shadow behind her mother's chair in the twilight.

'Come and sit down, Jocelyn, my dear,' observed Aunt Philippa at last, in
her motherly voice. When I looked again, Jill's black locks were bobbing
on her mother's lap, and the three seemed all talking together.

There was very little rest for any one during the next few days. Sara's
marriage had brought sundry relations from their country homes up to
town, and there was open house kept for all. Jill went sight-seeing with
the young people. Aunt Philippa drove some of the elder ladies to the
Academy, to the Grosvenor Gallery, to the Park, and other places.

Every day there were luncheon-parties, tea-parties, dinner-parties; the
long drawing-room seemed full every evening. Jill put on one or other of
her pretty new gowns, and played her pieces industriously; there was no
stealing away in corners now. There were round games for the young
people; now and then they went to the theatre or opera: no wonder Jill
was too tired and excited to open her lesson-books. My fortnight's visit
extended itself to three weeks. Aunt Philippa could not spare me; she
said I was much too useful to her and Uncle Brian. I wrote to Mrs. Barton
and also to Lady Betty, and I begged the latter to inform her brother
that I could not leave my relations just yet.

Lady Betty wrote back at once. She had given my message, she said, but
Giles had not seemed half pleased with it. She thought he was going away
somewhere, she did not know where; but he had told her to say that there
were no fresh cases, and that Robert Lambert was going on all right, and
that as I seemed enjoying myself so much it was a pity not to take a
longer holiday while I was about it, and he sent his kind regards; and
that was all. I suppose I ought to have been satisfied, but it struck me
that there was a flavour of sarcasm about Mr. Hamilton's message.

But he was right; I was enjoying myself. Lesbia was still in town, and I
saw her every day. My acquaintance with Miss Gillespie grew to intimacy,
and I think we mutually enjoyed each other's society. Aunt Philippa
seemed to turn to me naturally for help and comfort, and her constant
'Ursula, my dear, will you do this for me?' gave me a real feeling of
pleasure; and then there was Jill to pet and praise at every odd moment.

One day we were all called upon to admire Sara's new signature, 'Sara
Ferguson,' written in bold, girlish characters. 'Donald is looking over
my shoulder as I write it, dear mamma,' Sara wrote, in a long postscript.
'Are husbands always so impertinent? Donald pretends that it is part of
his duty to see that I dot my _i_'s and cross my _t_'s: he will talk such
nonsense. There, he has gone off laughing, and I may end comfortably by
telling you that he spoils me dreadfully and is so good to me, and that
I am happier than I deserve to be, and your very loving child, Sara.'

'Poor darling! she always did make her own sunshine,' murmured Aunt
Philippa fondly.

Now, that afternoon who should call upon us but Mr. Tudor? Jill was out,
as usual, riding with two of her cousins and Uncle Brian; they had gone
off to Kew or Richmond for the afternoon; but Aunt Philippa, who had been
dozing in her easy-chair by the window, welcomed the young man very
kindly, and made him promise to stay to dinner.

Mr. Tudor tried not to look too much pleased as he accepted the
invitation. A sort of blush crossed his honest face as he turned to me:
he had two or three messages to deliver, he said. Mr. Cunliffe had given
him one, and Mrs. Barton, and Lady Betty. She, Lady Betty, wanted me to
know that Miss Darrell was going to Brighton for a week or ten days, and
that she hoped I should come home before then.

I heard, too, that Mr. Hamilton had gone to Folkestone, and that he had
tried to induce Uncle Max to go with him. 'But it is no use telling him
he wants a change,' finished Mr. Tudor, with a sigh; 'he is bent on
wearing himself out for other people.'

Mr. Tudor and I chatted on for the remainder of the afternoon. I had
taken him out on the balcony: there were an awning and some chairs, and
we could sit there in comparative privacy looking down on the passers-by.
Aunt Philippa was nodding again: we could hear her regular breathing
behind us: poor woman! she was worn out with bustle and gaiety. I was
thankful that a grand horticultural _fête_ kept all the aunts and cousins
away, with the exception of the two who were riding with Jill.

Clayton brought us out some tea presently, and we found plenty of topics
for conversation.

All at once I stopped in the middle of a conversation.

'Mr. Tudor, have my eyes deceived me, or was that Leah?'

'Who?--what Leah? I do not know whom you mean!' he returned, rather
stupidly, staring in another direction. There was a cavalcade coming up
the road,--a tall slim girl, on a chestnut mare, riding on in front with
a young man, another girl and an elderly man with a gray moustache
following them, a groom bringing up the rear.

Of course it was Jill, smiling and waving towards the balcony; she could
not see Mr. Tudor under the awning, but she had caught sight of my silk
dress. Jill looked very well on horseback: people always turned round to
watch her. She had a good seat, and rode gracefully; the dark habit
suited her; she braided her unmanageable locks into an invisible net that
kept them tidy.

'Is that Miss Jocelyn?' asked Lawrence, almost in a voice of awe. The
young curate grew very red as Jill rode under the balcony and nodded to
him in a friendly manner.

'There is Mr. Tudor,' we heard her say. 'Be quick and lift me off my
horse, Clarence.' But she had slipped to the ground before her cousin
could touch her, and had run indoors.

Mr. Tudor went into the room at once, but I sat still for a moment.
Why had I asked him? Of course it was Leah. I could see her strange
light-coloured eyes glancing up in my direction. What was she doing in
London? I wondered. She was dressed well, evidently in her mistress's
cast-off clothes, for she wore a handsome silk dress and mantle. Had they
quarrelled and parted? I felt instinctively that it would be a good day
for Gladwyn if Leah ever shook off its dust from her feet. Gladys
regarded her as a spy and informer, and she had evidently an unwholesome
influence over her mistress.

We separated soon after this to dress for dinner, and Mr. Tudor went to
his hotel. I was rather sorry when I came downstairs to find that Jill
had made rather a careless toilet. She wore the flimsy Indian muslin gown
that I thought so unbecoming to her style, with a string of gold beads of
curious Florentine work round her neck. She looked so different from the
graceful young Amazon who had ridden up an hour ago that I felt provoked,
and was not surprised to hear the old sharp tone in Aunt Philippa's
voice:

'My dear Jocelyn, why have you put on that old gown? Surely your new
cream-coloured dress with coffee lace would have been more suitable. What
was Draper thinking about?'

'I was in too great a hurry; I did not wait for Draper,' returned Jill
candidly. 'Draper was dreadfully cross about it, but I ran away from her.
What does it matter, mamma? They have all seen my cream-coloured dress,
except--' But here Jill laughed: the naughty child meant Mr. Tudor.

'I am afraid there is not time to change it now; but I am very much vexed
about it,' returned Aunt Philippa, in a loud whisper. 'You are really
looking your worst to-night.' But Jill only laughed again, and asked her
cousin Clarence when he took her down to dinner if it were not a very
pretty gown.

'I don't know much about gowns,' drawled the young man,--Mr. Tudor and
I were following them: 'it looks rather flimsy and washed out. If I were
you I would wear something more substantial. You see, you are so big,
Jocelyn; your habit suits you better.'

We heard Jill laughing in a shrill fashion at this dubious compliment,
and presently she and Mr. Tudor, who sat next to her, were talking as
happily as possible. I do not believe he noticed her unbecoming gown: his
face had lighted up, and he was full of animation. Poor Lawrence! he was
five-and-twenty, and yet the presence of this girl of sixteen was more to
him than all the young-ladyhood of Heathfield. Even charming little Lady
Betty was beaten out of the field by Jill's dark eyes and sprightly
tongue.

It was a very pleasant evening, and we were all enjoying ourselves: no
one imagined anything could or would happen; life is just like that: we
should just take up our candlesticks, we thought, and march off to bed
when Aunt Philippa gave the signal. No one could have imagined that there
would be a moment's deadly peril for one of the party,--an additional
thanksgiving for a life preserved that night.

And then no one seemed to know how it happened; people never do see,
somehow.

There was music going on. Agatha Chudleigh--the Chudleighs were Aunt
Philippa's belongings--was playing the piano, and her brother Clarence
was accompanying her on the violoncello. There was a little group round
the piano. Jill was beating time, standing with her back to a small
inlaid table with a lamp on it. Mr. Tudor was beside her. Jill made a
backward movement in her forgetfulness and enthusiasm. The next moment
the music stopped with a crash. There was a cry of horror, the lamp
seemed falling, glass smashed, liquid fire was pouring down Jill's
unfortunate dress. If Mr. Tudor had not caught it, they said afterwards,
with all that lace drapery, the room must have been in flames; but he had
jerked it back in its place, and, snatching up a bear-skin rug that lay
under the piano, had wrapped it round Jill. He was so strong and prompt,
there was not a moment lost.

We had all crowded round in a moment, but no one dared to interfere with
Mr. Tudor. We could hear Aunt Philippa sobbing with terror. Clarence
Chudleigh extinguished the lamp, some one else flung an Indian blanket
and a striped rug at Jill's feet. For one instant I could see the girl's
face, white and rigid as a statue, as the young man's powerful arms
enveloped her. Then the danger was over, and Jill was standing among us
unhurt, with her muslin gown hanging in blackened shreds, and with
bruises on her round white arms from the rough grip that had saved her
life.

One instant's delay, and the fiery fluid must have covered her from head
to foot; if Lawrence had not caught the falling lamp, if he had lost one
moment in smothering the lighted gown, she must have perished in agony
before our eyes; but he was strong as a young Hercules, and, half
suffocated and bruised as she was, Jill knew from what he had saved her.

As the scorched bear-skin dropped to the floor, Lawrence picked up the
Indian blanket and flung it over Jill's tattered gown. 'Go up to your
room, Miss Jocelyn,' he whispered: 'you are all right now.' And she
obeyed without a word. Miss Gillespie and I followed. I think Aunt
Philippa was faint or had palpitations, for I heard Uncle Brian calling
loudly to some one to open the windows. Jill was hysterical as soon as
she reached her room. She was quite unnerved, and clung to me, shaking
with sobs, while Miss Gillespie mixed some sal-volatile. I could not help
crying a little with her from joy and thankfulness; but we got her quiet
after a time, and took off the poor gown, and Jill showed us her bruises,
and cheered up when we told her how brave and quiet she had been; and
then she sat for some minutes with her face hidden in my lap, while I
stroked her hair silently and thanked God in my heart for sparing our
Jill.

Miss Gillespie had gone downstairs to carry a good report to Aunt
Philippa. Directly she had gone, Jill jumped up, still shaking a little,
and went to her wardrobe.

'I must go downstairs,' she said, a little feverishly. 'I have never
thanked Mr. Tudor for saving my life. Help me to be quick, Ursie dear,
for I feel so queer and tottery.' And nothing I could say would prevail
on her to remain quietly in her room. While I was arguing with her, she
had dragged out her ruby velveteen and was trying to fasten it with her
trembling fingers.

'Oh, you are obstinate, Jill: you ought to be good on this night of all
nights.' But she made no answer to this, and, seeing her bent on her own
way, I brought her a brooch, and would have smoothed her hair, but she
pushed me away.

'It does not matter how I look. I am only going down for a few minutes.
He is going away, and I want to say good-night to him, and thank him.'
And Jill walked downstairs rather unsteadily.

Mr. Tudor was just crossing the hall. When he saw Jill, he hurried up to
her at once.

'Miss Jocelyn, this is very imprudent. You ought to have gone to bed: you
are not fit to be up after such a shock,' looking at her pale face and
swollen eyes with evident emotion.

Jill looked at him gently and seriously, and held out her hands to him
quite simply.

'I could not go to bed without thanking you, I am not quite so selfish
and thoughtless. You have saved my life: do you think I shall ever forget
that?'

Poor Lawrence! the excitement, the terror, and the relief were too much
for him; and there was Jill holding his hands and looking up in his face,
with her great eyes full of tears. It was not very wonderful that for a
moment he forgot himself.

'I could not help doing it,' he returned. 'What would have become of me
if you had died? I could not have borne it.'

Jill drew her hands away, and her face looked a little paler in the
moonlight. The young man's excited voice, his strange words, must have
told her the truth. No, she was not too young to understand; her head
drooped, and she turned away as she answered him,--

'I shall always be grateful. Good-night, Mr. Tudor: I must go to my
mother. Come, Ursula.'

She did not look back as we walked across the hall, though poor Lawrence
stood quite still watching us. Why had the foolish boy said that? Why had
he forgotten his position and her youth? Why had he hinted that her life
was necessary to his happiness? Would Jill ever forget those words, or
the look that accompanied them? I felt almost angry with Lawrence as
I followed Jill into the room.

Jill need never have doubted her mother's love. Aunt Philippa had been
too faint and ill to follow her daughter to her room, but her face was
quite beautiful with maternal tenderness as she folded the girl in her
arms. Not even her father, who especially petted Jill, showed more
affection for her that night.

'Oh, Jocelyn, my darling, are you quite sure that you are unhurt? Miss
Gillespie says you were only frightened and a little bruised; but I
wanted to see for myself. Mr. Tudor will not let us thank him, but we
shall be grateful to him all our lives, my pet. What would your poor
father and I have done without you?'

Jill hid her face like a baby on her mother's bosom: she was crying
quietly. Her interview with Mr. Tudor had certainly upset her. Uncle
Brian put his hand in her rough locks. 'Never mind, my little girl: it is
now over; you must go to bed and forget it,'--which was certainly very
good advice. I coaxed Aunt Philippa to let her go, and promised to remain
with her until she was asleep. She was very quiet, and hardly said a word
as I helped her to undress, but as I sat down by the bedside she drew my
head down beside hers on the pillow.

'Don't think I am not grateful because I do not talk about it, Ursie
dear,' she whispered. 'I hope to be better all my life for what has
happened to-night.' But as Jill lay, with wide, solemn eyes, in the
moonlight, I wondered what thoughts were coursing through her mind. Was
she looking upon her life preserved as a life dedicated, regarding
herself as set apart for higher work and nobler uses? or was her
gratitude to her young preserver mixed with deeper and more mysterious
feelings? I could not tell, but from that night I noticed a regular
change in Jill: she became less girlish and fanciful, a new sort of
womanliness developed itself, her high spirits were tempered with
softness. Uncle Brian was right when he said a few days afterwards
'that his little girl was growing a woman.'



CHAPTER XXXIII

JACK POYNTER


My conscience felt decidedly uneasy that night: in spite of all argument
to the contrary, I could not shake off the conviction that it was my duty
to speak to Aunt Philippa. I ought to warn her of the growing intimacy
between the young people. She and Uncle Brian ought to know that Mr.
Tudor was not quite so harmless as he looked.

It made me very unhappy to act the traitor to this honest, simple young
fellow. I would rather have taken his hand and bidden him God-speed with
his wooing. If I had been Uncle Brian I would have welcomed him heartily
as a suitor for Jill. True, she was absurdly young,--only sixteen,--but I
would have said to him, 'If you are in earnest, if you really love this
girl, and are willing to wait for her, go about your business for three
years, and then come and try your chance with her. If she likes you she
shall have you. I am quite aware you are poor,--that you are a curate on
a hundred and fifty a year; but you are well connected and a gentleman,
and as guileless as a young Nathaniel. I could not desire a better
husband for my daughter.'

But it was not likely that Uncle Brian would be so quixotic. And I
knew that Aunt Philippa was rather ambitious for her children, and it
had been a great disappointment to her that Sara had refused a young
baronet. So it was with the guilty feelings of a culprit that I entered
the morning-room the next morning and asked Aunt Philippa if I might
have a few minutes' conversation with her.

To my relief, she treated the whole matter very coolly, and with a
mixture of shrewdness and common sense that quite surprised me.

She assured me that it was not of the least consequence. Young creatures
like Jocelyn must pass through this sort of experiences. She was
certainly rather young for such an experiment, but it would do her no
harm. On the contrary, a little stimulus of gratified vanity might be
extremely beneficial in its after-effects. She was somewhat backward and
childish for her age. She would have more self-respect at finding herself
the object of masculine admiration.

'Depend upon it, it will do her a great deal of good,' went on Aunt
Philippa placidly. 'She will try now in earnest to break herself off her
little _gaucheries_. As for Mr. Tudor, do not distress yourself about
him. He is young enough to have half-a-dozen butterfly fancies before he
settles down seriously.'

'I remember,' she continued, 'that during Sara's first season we had
rather a trouble about a young barrister. He was a handsome fellow, but
terribly poor, and your uncle told me privately that he must not be
encouraged. Well, Sara got it into her head that she was in love with
him, and, in spite of all I could say to her by way of warning, she
would promise him dances, and, in fact, they did a good bit of flirting
together. So I told your uncle that we had better leave town earlier that
year. We went into Yorkshire, paying visits, and then to Scotland. Sara
had never been there before, and we took care that she should have a
thoroughly enjoyable trip. My dear, before three months were over
she had forgotten Henry Brabazon's existence. It was just a girlish
sentimentality; nothing more. When we got back to town we made Mr.
Brabazon understand that his attentions were displeasing to your uncle,
and before the next season he was engaged to a rich young widow. I do
not believe Sara ever missed him.'

I listened to all this in silence. I was much relieved to find that Aunt
Philippa was not disposed to blame me for Lawrence Tudor's infatuation.
She told me that she was not the least afraid of his influence, and
should not discourage his visits. Jocelyn would never see him alone, and
it was not likely that she would be staying at Heathfield again. I
thought it useless to say any more. I had satisfied my conscience, and
might now safely wash my hands of all responsibility. If the thought
crossed my mind that Jill was very different from Sara,--that her will
was stronger and her affections more tenacious,--there was no need to
give it utterance. Sixteen was hardly the age for a serious love-affair,
and I might well be content to leave Jill in her mother's care.

Now and then a doubt of Aunt Philippa's wisdom came to me,--on the last
evening, for instance, when I was speaking to Jill about Heathfield, and
when I rather incautiously mentioned Lawrence Tudor's name.

I recollected then that Jill had never once spoken of him since the night
of the accident. It had dropped completely out of our conversation. I
forget what I said then, but it was something about my seeing him at
Heathfield.

We were standing together on the balcony, and as I spoke Jill stooped
suddenly to look at a little flower-girl who was offering her wares on
the pavement below. For a moment she did not answer. But I could see her
cheek and even her little ear was flushed.

'Oh yes, you will see him,' she returned presently. 'What a little mite
of a child! Look, Ursula. Please remember us to him, and--and we hope he
is quite well.' And Jill walked away from me rather abruptly, saying she
must ask her mother for some pence. It was then that a doubt of Aunt
Philippa's policy crossed my mind; Jill was so different from other
girls; and Lawrence Tudor had saved her life.

I had other things to occupy my mind just then,--a fresh anxiety that I
could share with no one, and which effectually spoiled the last few days
of my London visit.

The sight of Leah had somewhat disturbed me. It had brought back memories
of the perplexities and mysteries of Gladwyn. Strange to say, I saw her
again the very next day.

Mr. Tudor was calling at the door to inquire after Jill: he had his bag
in his hand, and was on his way to the station. I was just going out to
call on Lesbia, and we walked a few yards together. Just as I was bidding
him good-bye, two women passed us: as I looked at them casually, I saw
Leah's flickering light-coloured eyes; she was looking in my direction,
but, though I nodded to her, she did not appear to recognise me. The
other woman was a stranger.

I was sitting alone on the balcony that afternoon. Aunt Philippa and Jill
and Miss Gillespie were driving. I took advantage of their absence and
the unusual quiet of the house to finish a book in which I was much
interested.

I was very fond of this balcony seat: the awning protected me from the
hot June sun, and the flower-boxes at my feet were sweet with mignonette.
I could see without being seen, and the cool glimpses of the green Park
were pleasant on this hot afternoon.

The adjoining house was unoccupied: it was therefore with feelings of
discomfort that I heard the sound of workmen moving about the premises,
and by and by the smell of fresh paint made me put down my book with
suppressed annoyance.

A house-painter was standing very near me, painting the outside sashes of
the window: he had his back turned to me, and was whistling to himself in
the careless way peculiar to his class. It was a clear, sweet whistling,
and I listened to it with pleasure.

A sudden noise in the street caused him to look round, and then he saw
me, and stopped whistling.

Where had I seen that face? It seemed familiar to me. Of whom did that
young house-painter remind me? Could I have seen him at St. Thomas's
Hospital? Was it some patient whose name I had forgotten during my year's
nursing? I had had more than one house-painter on my list.

I was tormented by the idea that I ought to recognise the face before
me, and yet recognition eluded me. I felt baffled and perplexed by some
subtile fancied resemblance. As for the young painter himself, he looked
at me quietly for a moment, as though I were a stranger, touched his cap,
and went on painting. When he had finished his job, he went inside, and
I heard him whistling again as he moved about the empty room.

It was a beautiful face: the features were very clearly cut and defined,
like--Good heavens! I had it now: it reminded me of Gladys Hamilton's.
The next moment I was holding the balcony railing as though I were giddy;
it was like Gladys, but it was still more like the closed picture in
Gladys's room. I pressed my hands on my eyelids as with a strong effort
I recalled her brother Eric's face, and the next moment the young painter
had come to the window again, and I was looking at him between my
fingers.

The resemblance could not be my fancy; those were Eric's eyes looking at
me. It was the same face, only older and less boyish-looking. The fair
moustache was fully grown; the face was altogether more manly and full of
character. It must be he; I must go and speak to him; but as I rose, my
limbs trembling with excitement, he moved away, and his whistle seemed to
die in the distance.

It was nearly six o'clock, and there was no time to be lost. I ran
upstairs and put on my bonnet and mantle. I thought that Clayton looked
at me in some surprise,--I was leaving the house without gloves; but I
did not wait for any explanation: the men would be leaving off work. The
door was open, and I quickly found my way to the drawing-room, but, to my
chagrin, it was empty, and an elderly man with gray hair came out of a
back room with a basket of carpenter's tools and looked at me
inquiringly.

'There is a workman here that I want to find,' I said breathlessly,--'the
one that was painting the window-frames just now,--a tall, fair young
man.'

'Oh, you'll be meaning Jack Poynter,' he returned civilly; 'he and his
mate have just gone.'

'It cannot be the one I mean,' I answered, somewhat perplexed at this.
'He was very young, not more than three-or four-and-twenty, good-looking,
with a fair moustache, and he was whistling while he worked.'

'Ay, that's Jack Poynter,' returned the man, taking off his paper cap and
rubbing up his bristly gray hair. 'We call Jack "The Blackbird" among us;
he is a famous whistler, is Jack.'

'Oh, but that is not his name,' I persisted, in a distressed voice. 'Why
do you call him Jack Poynter?'

'That is what he calls himself,' returned the man drily. Evidently he
thought my remarks a little odd. 'Folks mostly calls themselves by their
own names; among his mates he is known as "The Whistler," or "The
Blackbird," or "Gentleman Jack."'

'Well, never mind about his name,' I replied impatiently. 'I want to
speak to him. Where does he live? Will you kindly give me his address?'

'You would be welcome to it if I knew it, but "Gentleman Jack" keeps
himself dark. None of us know where he lives. I believe it used to be
down Holloway; but he has moved lately.'

'I wish you would tell me what you know about him,' I pleaded. 'It is
not idle curiosity, believe me, but I think I shall be able to do him
a service.'

'I suppose you know something of his belongings,' returned the man with a
shrewd glance. 'Now that is what me and my mates say. We would none of us
be surprised if "Gentleman Jack" has respectable folk belonging to him.
He has not quite our ways. He is a cut above us, and clips his words like
the gentlefolk do. But he is an industrious young fellow, and does not
give himself airs.'

'Could you not find out for me where he lives?'

'Well, for the matter of that, you might ask him yourself, miss; he will
be here again to-morrow morning, and I am off to Watford on a job. Jack
is not at work regularly in these parts. He is doing a turn for a mate of
his who is down with a touch of colic. He is working at Bayswater mostly,
and he will be here to-morrow morning.'

'You are sure of that?'

'Oh yes. Tom Handley won't be fit for work for a spell yet. He will be
here sharp enough, and then you can question him yourself.' And, bidding
me a civil good-evening, the man took up his tools and went heavily
downstairs, evidently expecting me to follow him. I went back and stole
up quietly to my room. Aunt Philippa and Jill had returned from their
drive. I could hear their voices as I passed the drawing-room; but I
wanted to be alone to think over this strange occurrence.

My pulses were beating high with excitement. Not for one moment did I
doubt that I had really seen Eric in the flesh. Gladys's intuition was
right: her brother was not dead. I felt that this assurance alone would
make her happy.

If she were only at Heathfield, or even at Bournemouth, I would telegraph
for her to come; I could word the message so that she would have hastened
to me at once; but Paris was too far; too much time would be lost.

Uncle Max, too, had been called to Norwich to attend a cousin's
death-bed: I had had a note from him that very morning, so I could not
have the benefit of his advice and assistance. I knew that I dared not
summon Mr. Hamilton: the brothers had parted in ill blood, with bitter
words and looks. Eric looked on his step-brother as his worst enemy. All
these years he had been hiding himself from him. I dared not run the risk
of bringing them together. I could not make a _confidante_ of Aunt
Philippa or Uncle Brian. They had old-fashioned views, and would have at
once stigmatised Eric as a worthless fellow. Circumstantial evidence was
so strong against him that few would have believed in his innocence. Even
Uncle Max condemned him, and in my own heart there lurked a secret doubt
whether Gladys had not deceived herself.

No, my only course would be to speak to him myself, to implore him for
Gladys's sake to listen to me. My best plan would be to rise as early as
possible the next morning, and to be on the balcony by six o'clock. I
should see the men come in to their work, and should have no difficulty
in making my way to them. The household was not an early one, especially
in the season. I should have the house to myself for an hour or so.

Of course my future movements were uncertain. I must speak to Eric first,
and induce him to reopen communications with his family. I would tell him
how his brother grieved over his supposed death, how changed he was; and
he should hear, too, of Gladys's failing health and spirits. I should not
be wanting in eloquence on that subject. If he loved Gladys he would not
refuse to listen to me.

After a time I tried to set aside these thoughts, and to occupy myself
with dressing for the evening. We had a dinner-party that night. Mrs.
Fullerton and Lesbia were to be of the party. They were going down to
Rutherford the next day, so I should have to bid them good-bye.

The evening was very tedious and wearisome to me: my head ached, and the
glitter of lights and the sound of many voices seemed to bewilder me.
Lesbia came up after dinner to ask if I were not well, I was so pale and
quiet. We sat out on the balcony together in the starlight for a little
while, until Mrs. Fullerton called Lesbia in. I would gladly have
remained there alone, drinking in the freshness of the night dews, but
Jill came out and began chattering to me, until I went back with her into
the room.

There was very little sleep for me that night. When at last I fell into
a dose, I was tormented by a succession of miserable dreams. I was
following a supposed Eric down long country roads in the darkness.
Something seemed always to retard me: my feet were weighted with lead,
invisible hands were pulling me back. I heard him whistling in the
distance, then I stumbled, and a black bog engulfed me, and I woke with
a stifled cry.

I woke to the knowledge that the sun was streaming in at my windows,
and that some sound like a falling plank had roused me from my uneasy
slumbers. It must be past six o'clock, I thought; surely the men must be
at work. Yes, I could hear their voices; and the next moment I had jumped
out of bed, and was dressing myself with all possible haste.

It was nearly seven when I crept down into the drawing-room to
reconnoitre the adjoining house. As I unfastened the window I heard the
same sweet whistling that had arrested my attention yesterday.

Without a moment's hesitation I walked out on the balcony. The young
painter looked round in some surprise at the sound of my footsteps, and
touched his cap with a half-smile.

'It is a beautiful morning,' I began nervously, for I wanted to make him
speak. 'Have you been at work long?'

'Ever since six o'clock,' he returned, and I think he was a little
surprised at hearing himself addressed. 'We work early these light
mornings.' And then he took up his brush and went on painting.

I watched him for a minute or two without a word. How was I to proceed?
My presence seemed to puzzle him. Perhaps he wondered why a lady should
take such interest in his work. I saw him glance at me uneasily.

'Will you let me speak to you?' I said, in a very low voice, and as he
came towards me, rather unwillingly, I continued: 'I know the men call
you Jack Poynter, but that is not your name. You are Eric Hamilton; no,
do not be frightened: I am Gladys's friend, and I will not injure you.'

I had broken off abruptly, for I was alarmed at the effect of my words.
The young painter's face had become ashen pale, and the brush had fallen
out of his shaking hand. The next moment a fierce, angry light had come
to his eyes.

'What do you mean? who are you?' he demanded, in a trembling voice, but
even at the moment's agitation I noticed he spoke with the refined
intonation of a gentleman. 'I know nothing of what you say: you must
take me for another man. I am Jack Poynter.'

'Oh, Mr. Hamilton,' I implored, stretching out my hands across the
balcony, 'do not treat me as an enemy. I am a friend, who only means
well. For Gladys's sake listen to me a moment.'

'I will hear nothing!' he stammered angrily. 'I will not be hindered in
my work any longer. Excuse me if I am rude to a lady, but you take me for
another man.' And before I could say another word he had stepped through
the open window.

I could have wrung my hands in despair. He had denied his own identity at
the very moment when his paleness and terror had proved it to me without
doubt. 'You take me for another man,' he had said; and yet I could have
sworn in a court of justice that he was Eric Hamilton; not only his face,
but his voice; his manner, told me he was Gladys's brother.

But he should not elude me like this, and I hurried downstairs,
determined to find my way into the empty house and confront him again.
The fastenings of the hall door gave me a little difficulty. I was afraid
Clayton would hear me, but I found myself outside at last, and in another
minute I was in the deserted drawing-room.

Alas! Eric was not there: only his paint-pot and brush lay on the balcony
outside. Surely he could not have escaped me in these few minutes; he
must be in one of the other rooms. At the top of the stairs I encountered
a young workman, and began questioning him at once.

'Well, this is a queer start,' he observed, in some perplexity. 'I saw
Jack only this moment: he wanted his jacket, for he said he had a summons
somewhere. I noticed he was palish, and seemed all of a shake, but he did
not answer when I called out to him.'

'Do you mean he has gone?' I asked, feeling ready to cry with
disappointment.

'Yes, he has gone right enough; but he'll be back presently, by the time
the governor comes round. I wonder what's up with Jack; he looked mighty
queer, as though the peelers were after him; in an awful funk, I should
say.'

'Will you do me a favour, my man?' and as I spoke a shining half-crown
changed hands rather quietly. 'I want to speak to your friend Jack
Poynter very particularly, but I am quite sure that he wishes to avoid
me. If he comes back, will you write a word on a slip of paper and throw
it on to the balcony of 64?--Just the words "At work now" will do, or any
direction that will find him. I am very much in earnest over this.'

The man looked at me and then at the half-crown. He had a good-humoured,
stupid-looking face, but was young enough to like an unusual job.

'It will be worth more than that to you to bring me face to face with
Jack Poynter, or to give me any news of him,' I continued. 'You do not
know where he lives, for example?'

'No: we are none of us his mates, except Fowler and Dunn, and they don't
know where he lodges: "Gentleman Jack" keeps himself close. But he'll be
here sure enough by and by, and then I will let you know,' and with this
I was obliged to be content. I was terribly vexed with myself. I felt I
had managed badly. I ought to have confronted him in the empty house,
where he could not have escaped me so easily. Would he come back again?
As I recalled his terrified expression, his agitated words, I doubted
whether he would put himself within my reach. I was so worried and
miserable that I was obliged to own myself ill and to beg that I might be
left in quiet. I had to endure a good deal of petting from Jill, who
would keep coming into my room to see how my poor head was. Happily,
one of my windows commanded an uncovered corner of the balcony. I could
see without going down if any scrap of paper lay there. It was not until
evening that I caught sight of an envelope lying on one of the seats.

I rang my bell and begged Draper to bring it to me at once. She thought
it had fluttered out of my window, and went down smilingly to fulfil my
behest.

It was a blank envelope, closely fastened, and I waited until Draper was
out of the room to open it: the slip of paper was inside.

'Jack has not been here all day,' was scrawled on it, 'and the governor
is precious angry. I doubt Jack has got into some trouble or other.--Your
obedient servant, Joe Muggins.'



CHAPTER XXXIV

I COMMUNICATE WITH JOE MUGGINS


Of course I knew it would be so; Eric had escaped me; but I could not
help feeling very down-hearted over the disappointment of all my hopes.

I longed so much to comfort Gladys, to bring back peace and unity to that
troubled household. I had nourished the secret hope, too, that I might
benefit Mr. Hamilton without his knowledge, and so return some of his
many kindnesses to me. I knew--none better--how sincerely he had mourned
over the supposed fate of his young brother, how truly he lamented his
past harshness. If I could have brought back their young wanderer, if I
could have said to them, 'If he has done wrong he is sorry for his fault;
take him back to your hearts,' would not Mr. Hamilton have been the first
to hold out his hand to the prodigal? Here there was no father; it must
be the elder brother who would order the fatted calf to be killed.

I had forgotten Miss Darrell. The sudden thought of her was like a dash
of cold water to me. Would she have welcomed Eric? There again was the
miserable complication!

All the next day I watched and fretted. The following evening Clayton
told me, with rather a supercilious air, that a workman calling himself
Joe Muggins wanted to speak to me. 'He did not know your name, ma'am, but
he described the lady he wanted, so I knew it was you. He said you had
asked him a question about a man named Jack Poynter.'

'Oh, it is all right, thank you, Clayton,' I returned quickly, and I went
out into the hall.

Joe Muggins looked decidedly nervous. He was in his working dress,
having, as he said, 'come straight to me, without waiting to clean
himself.'

'I made so bold, miss,' went on Joe, 'because you seemed anxious about
Jack, and I would not lose time. Well, Jack has been and given the
governor the sack,--says he has colic too; but we know that is a sham. My
mate saw him in Lisson Grove last night. He was walking along, his hands
in his pockets, when Ned pounces on him. "What are you up to, Jack?" he
says. "Why haven't you turned up at our place? The governor's in a
precious wax, I can tell you. They want him to put on more men, as
there's a press for time."--"Well, I am not coming there any more," says
Jack, looking as black as possible. "The work doesn't suit my complaint,
and I have written to tell Page so." And he stuck to that, and Ned could
not get another word out of him: but he says he is shamming, and is not
ill a bit. It is my belief, and Ned's too, that he has got into some
trouble with the governor.'

'No, I am sure you are wrong,' I returned, with a sigh; 'but I am very
much obliged to you for the trouble you have taken. If you hear anything
more about Jack Poynter, or can find out where he lives, will you
communicate with me at this address?' And I handed Joe my card and a
half-sovereign.

'Yes, I'll do it, sure and certain,' he replied, with alacrity. 'Some of
us will come across him again, one of these days, and we will follow him
for a bit. You may trust me for that, miss. We will find him, sure
enough.' And then I thanked him, and bade him good-night.

There was only one thing now that I could do before taking counsel with
Gladys, and that was to advertise in some of the London papers. I wrote
out some of these advertisements that evening:

'Jack Poynter is earnestly requested to communicate with Ursula G. He may
possibly hear of something to his advantage.' And I gave the address of
an old lawyer who managed my business, writing a note to Mr. Berkeley at
the same time, begging him to forward any answer to Ursula G.

Another advertisement was of a different character:

'For Gladys's sake, please write to me, or give me a chance of speaking
to you. An unknown but most sincere friend, U. G.'

The third advertisement was still more pressing:

'Jack Poynter's friends believe him dead, and are in great trouble: he
is entreated to undeceive them. One word to the old address will be a
comfort to his poor sister.'

As soon as I had despatched these advertisements to the paper offices, I
sat down and wrote to Gladys. It was not my intention to tell her about
Eric, but I must say some word to her that would induce her to come home.
I told her that I was going back to Heathfield the following afternoon,
and that I was beginning to feel impatient for her return.

'I cannot do without you any longer, my dear Gladys,' I wrote. 'There is
so much that I want to talk to you about, and that I cannot write. I have
heard something that has greatly excited me, and that makes me think that
your view of the case is right, and that your brother Eric is alive. Of
course we must not be too sanguine, but I begin to have hopes that you
may see him again.'

More than this I did not venture to say, but I knew that these few words
would make Gladys set her face homeward: she would not rest until she
asked me my meaning. As I gave Clayton the letter I felt convinced that
before a week was over Gladys would find her way to Heathfield.

I had to give all my attention to Jill after this; but, though she hung
about me in her old affectionate way, I felt that I should leave her far
happier than she had ever been before, and she did not deny this, only
begged me to come and see them sometimes.

'You know I can't do without you, you darling bear,' she finished, with
one of her old hugs.

I was still more touched by Aunt Philippa's regret at parting with me;
she said so many kind things; and, to my surprise, Uncle Brian relaxed
from his usual coldness, and quite warmed into demonstration.

'Come to us as often as you can, Ursula,' he said. 'Your aunt and I
will be only too pleased to see you.' And then he asked me, a little
anxiously, if I found my small income sufficient for my needs.

I assured him that my wants were so few, and Mrs. Barton was so
economical, that but for my poorer neighbours I could hardly use it all.

'Well, well,' he returned, putting a handsome cheque in my hands, 'you
can always draw on me when you feel disposed. I suppose you like pretty
things as much as other girls.' And he would not let me even thank him
for his generosity.

Aunt Philippa only smiled when I showed her the cheque.

'My dear, your uncle likes to do it, and you must not be too proud to
accept his gifts: you may need it some day. We have only two daughters:
as it is, Jocelyn will be far too rich. I do not like the idea that
Harley's child should want anything.' And she kissed me with tears in her
eyes.

Dear Aunt Philippa! she had grown quite motherly during those three
weeks.

It was a lovely June afternoon: when I started from Victoria there was a
scent of hay in the air. Jill had brought with her to the station a great
basketful of roses and narcissus and heliotrope, and had put it on the
seat beside me that its fragrance might refresh me.

I felt a strange sort of excitement and pleasure at the thought of
returning home. Mrs. Barton would be glad to get me back, I knew. Uncle
Max would not be at the station to meet me, for he had written to say
that he was still detained at Norwich. His cousin was dead, and had left
him her little property,--some six or seven hundred a year. There were
some valuable books and antiquities, and some old silver besides. He was
the only near relation, and business connected with the property would
oblige him to remain for another week or ten days. I was rather sorry to
hear this, for Heathfield was not the same without Uncle Max.

But not even Uncle Max's absence could damp me, I felt so light-hearted.
'I hope I am not fey,' I said to myself, with a little thrill of
excitement and expectation as the familiar station came in view. Never
since Charlie's death had I felt so cheerful and full of life.

Nathaniel was on the platform to look after my luggage, so I walked up
the hill quietly, with my basket of flowers. As I passed the vicarage,
Mr. Tudor came out and walked with me to the gate of the White Cottage.
I had a dim suspicion that he had been watching for me.

Of course he asked after the family at Hyde Park Gate, and was most
particular in his inquiries after Aunt Philippa. Just at the last he
mentioned Jill.

'I hope your cousin Jocelyn is well,--I mean none the worse for her
accident,' he said, turning very red.

'Oh no,' I returned carelessly; 'nothing hurts Jill. She was riding in
the Park the next morning as though nothing had happened.'

'I remember you told me so, when I called to inquire,' was his answer.
'It was a nasty accident, and might have upset her nerves; but she is
very strong and courageous.'

'She has great reason to be grateful to you,' I returned, for I felt very
sorry for him. He was hoping that she had sent him some message; she
would surely desire to be remembered to him. When I repeated Jill's
abrupt little speech his face cleared, and he looked quite bright.

'There is Mrs. Barton looking out for you: I must not keep you at the
gate talking,' he said cheerfully. 'Besides, I see Leah Bates coming down
from Gladwyn, and I want to speak to her.' And he ran off in his boyish
fashion.

I was glad to escape Leah, so I went quickly up the garden-path. The
little widow was waiting for me in the porch, her face beaming with
welcome. Tinker rushed out of the kitchen as soon as he heard my voice,
and gambolled round us with awkward demonstrations of joy that nearly
upset us, and Joe the black cat came and rubbed himself against my gown,
with tail erect and loud purring.

The little parlour looked snug and inviting. The fireplace was decorated
with fir cones and tiny boughs covered with silvery lichen. A great pot
of mignonette perfumed the room with its sweetness. Charlie's face seemed
to greet me with grave sweet smiles. I seemed to hear his voice, 'Welcome
home, Ursula.'

'Oh, I am so glad to be home!' I said, as I went upstairs to my pretty
bedroom.

When I had finished my unpacking, and had had tea, I sat down in my
easy-chair, with a book that Miss Gillespie had lent me. Tinker laid his
head in my lap, and we both disposed ourselves for an idle, luxurious
evening. The bees were still humming about the honeysuckles; one great
brown fellow had buried himself in one of my crimson roses; the birds
were twittering in the acacia-tree, chirping their good-night to each
other; the sun was setting behind the limes in a glory of pink and golden
clouds, and a mingled scent of roses, mignonette, and hay seemed to
pervade the atmosphere.

I laid down my book and fell into a waking dream; my thoughts seemed to
take bird-flights into all sorts of strange places; the summer sounds and
scents seemed to lull me into infinite content. Now I heard a drowsy
cluck-cluck from the poultry-yard,--Dame Partlet remonstrating with her
lord; then a faint moo from the field where pretty brown-eyed Daisy was
chewing the cud; down below they were singing in the little dissenting
chapel; sweet shrill voices reached me every now and then. I could hear
Nathaniel chanting in a deep bass, as he worked in the back-yard, 'All
people that on earth do dwell,'--the dear homely Old Hundredth. It was no
wonder that a light, very light, footstep on the gravel outside did not
rouse me. The door behind me opened, and Tinker turned his head lazily,
and his tail began to flop heavier against the floor. The next moment two
soft arms were round my neck.

'Gladys,--oh, Gladys!' and for the moment I could say no more, in my
delight and surprise at seeing the dear beautiful face again.

'I wanted to surprise you, Ursula dear,' she said, laughing and kissing
me. 'How still and quiet you and Tinker were! I believe you were both
asleep. When I heard you were coming home I planned with Lady Betty that
I would creep down to the cottage and take you unawares. I made Mrs.
Barton promise not to betray me.'

'When did you come back?' I asked, bewildered. 'Why did you not write and
tell me you were coming?'

'Oh, it was decided all in a hurry. The Maberleys heard that their
daughter, Mrs. Egerton, would arrive in England this week, a whole month
before they expected her, so they have gone down to Southampton, and left
me to find my way home alone. I arrived last night, much to Giles's
astonishment. You know Dora is their only surviving child, and she has
been in India the last five years. She is bringing her two boys home.'

'Last night. Then you did not get my letter?'

'No; but it will follow me. How good you have been to write so often,
Ursula! I have quite lived on your letters.'

'Let me see how you look,' was my answer to this; and indeed I thought
she had never looked more beautiful. There was a lovely colour in her
face, and she seemed bright and animated, though I could not deny that
she was still very thin.

'You have not grown fatter,' I went on, pretending to grumble; 'you are
still too transparent, in my opinion; but Jill's snow-maiden has a little
life in her.'

'Does Jill call me that?' she returned, in some surprise. 'Oh, I am quite
well: even Giles says so. He declares he is glad to have me back, and
poor little Lady Betty quite cried with joy. It was nice, after all,
coming home.'

'I am so glad to hear you say that.'

'Etta is away, you know: that makes the difference. Gladwyn never seemed
so homelike before. By the bye, Ursula, Giles has sent you a message;
he--no, we all three, want you to spend a long evening with us to-morrow.
He has been called away to Brighton, and will not be back until mid-day;
but we all three agreed that it would be so nice if you came early in the
afternoon, and we would have tea in the little oak avenue. Etta never
cares about these _al fresco_ meals, she is so afraid of spiders and
caterpillars; but Lady Betty and I delight in it.'

I wish Jill could have heard Gladys talk in this bright, natural way. I
am sure she would not have recognised her snow-maiden. There was no weary
constraint in her manner to-night, no heavy pressure of unnatural care on
her young brow: she seemed too happy to see me again to think of herself
at all.

When we had talked a little more I began to approach the subject of Eric
very gradually. At my first word her cheek paled, and the old wistfulness
came to her eyes.

'What of Eric?' she asked quickly. 'You look a little strange, Ursula.
Do not be afraid of speaking his name: he is never out of my thoughts,
waking or sleeping.'

I told her that I knew this, but that I had something very singular to
narrate, which I feared might excite and disappoint her, but that I could
assure her of the certainty that he was alive and well.

She clasped her hands almost convulsively together, and looked at me
imploringly. 'Only tell me that, and I can bear everything else,' she
exclaimed.

But as she listened her face grew paler and paler, and presently she
burst into tears, and sobbed so violently that I was alarmed.

'It is nothing,--nothing but joy,' she gasped out at length. 'I could
not hear you say that you had seen him, my own Eric, and not be overcome.
Oh, Ursula, if I had only been with you!' And she hid her face on my
shoulder, and for a little while I could say no more.

When she was calmed I finished all that I had to tell, and read her the
advertisements, but they seemed to frighten her.

'How dreadful if Etta or Giles should see them!' she said nervously.
'Etta is so clever, she finds out everything. I would not have her read
one of them for worlds. Why did you put your name, Ursula?--it is so
uncommon.'

'No one will connect me with Jack Poynter. I did not think there would be
any risk,' I replied soothingly. 'I put "for Gladys's sake" in the _Daily
Telegraph_. You see, we must try to attract his notice.'

'Giles never takes in the _Daily Telegraph_. We have the _Times_ and the
_Standard_, and the _Morning Post_ for Etta. Which did you put in the
_Standard_?'

I repeated the advertisement: 'Jack Poynter's friends believe him dead,
and are in great trouble: he is entreated to undeceive them. One word to
the old address will be a comfort to his poor sister.'

'That will do,' she answered, in a relieved tone. 'Etta cannot read
between the lines there. Oh, Ursula, do you think that Eric will see
them?'

I assured her that there was no doubt on the subject. All the better
class of workmen had access to some club or society, where they saw the
leading papers. I thought the _Daily Telegraph_ the most likely to meet
his eyes, and should continue to insert an advertisement from time to
time. 'We must be patient and wait a little,' I continued. 'Even if our
appeals do not reach him, there is every probability that Joe Muggins
or one of the other workmen will come across him. We want to find out
where Jack Poynter lives. I mean to write to Joe in a few days, and offer
him a handsome sum if he can tell me his address.'

'That will be the best plan; but, oh, Ursula, how am I to be patient?
To think of my dear boy becoming a common workman! he is poor, then; he
wants money. I feel as though I cannot rest, as though I must go to
London and look for him myself.'

Gladys looked so excited and feverish that I almost repented my
confidence. I did all I could to soothe her.

'Surely, dear, it is not so difficult to wait a little, knowing him to be
alive and well, as it was to bear that long suspense.'

'Oh, but I never believed him to be dead,' she answered quickly. 'I was
very anxious, very unhappy, about him, often miserable, but in my dreams
he was always full of life. When I woke up I said to myself, "They are
wrong; Eric is in the world somewhere; I shall see him again."'

'Just so; and now with my own eyes I have seen him, evidently in perfect
health and in good spirits.'

'Ah, but that troubles me a little,' she returned, and her beautiful
mouth began to quiver like an unhappy child's. 'How can Eric, my Eric who
loved me so, be so light-hearted, knowing that all these years I have
been mourning for him? I remember how he used,' she went on plaintively,
'to whistle over his work, and how Giles used to listen to him. Sometimes
they kept up a duet together, but Eric's note was the sweeter.'

'We must be careful not to misjudge him even in this,' was my answer:
'how do you know, Gladys, that he has not assured himself that you are
all well, and, as far as he knows, happy? Or perhaps his heart was very
heavy in spite of his whistling. A young man does not show his feelings
like a girl.'

'No doubt you are right,' she replied, sighing, and then she turned her
head away, and I could see the old tremulous movement of her hands.
'Ursula,' she said, in a very low voice, 'have you told Mr. Cunliffe
about this?'

'Uncle Max!' I exclaimed, concealing my astonishment at hearing her
mention his name of her own accord. 'No; indeed, he is away from home:
we have not met for the last three weeks. Would you wish me to tell him,
Gladys?'

She pondered over my question, and I could see the curves of her throat
trembling. Her voice was not so clear when she answered me:

'He might have helped us. He is kind and wise, and I trusted him once.
But perhaps it will be hardly safe to tell him: he might insist on Giles
knowing, and then everything would be lost.'

'What do you mean?' I asked hastily. 'Surely Mr. Hamilton ought to know
that his brother is alive.'

'Yes, but not now--not until I have seen him. Ursula, you are very good;
you are my greatest comfort; but indeed you must be guided in this by me.
You do not know Giles as I do. He is beginning to influence you in spite
of yourself. If Giles knows, Etta will know, and then we are lost.'

Her tone troubled me: it was the old keynote of suppressed hopeless
pain: it somehow recalled to me the image of some helpless innocent bird
struggling in a fowler's net. Her eyes looked at me with almost agonised
entreaty.

'If Etta knows, we should be lost,' she repeated drearily.

'She shall not know, then,' I returned, pretending cheerfulness, though
I was inwardly dismayed. 'You and I will watch and wait, Gladys. Do not
be so cast down, dear. Remember it is never so dark as just before the
dawn.'

'No,' she replied, with a faint smile, 'you are right there; but it is
growing dark in earnest, Ursula, and I must go home, or Leah will be
coming in search of me.'

'Very well; I will walk with you,' I replied; and in five minutes more we
had left the cottage.

We walked almost in silence, for who could tell if eaves-droppers might
not lurk in the dark hedgerows? I know this feeling was strong in both
our minds.

At the gate of Gladwyn we kissed each other and parted.

'I am happier, Ursula,' she whispered. 'You must not think I am
ungrateful for the news you have given me, only it has made me restless.'

'Hush! there is some one coming down the shrubbery,' I returned, dropping
her hand, and going quickly into the road. As I did so, I heard Leah's
smooth voice address Gladys:

'You were so, late, ma'am, that I thought I had better step down to the
cottage, for fear you might be waiting for me.'

'It is all right, Leah,' was Gladys's answer. 'Miss Garston walked back
with me. Thank you for your thoughtfulness.' And then I heard their
footsteps dying away in the distance.



CHAPTER XXXV

NIGHTINGALES AND ROSES


I was very busy the next morning. I went round to the Marshalls' cottage
to see Peggy, and then I paid Phoebe a long visit, and afterwards I went
to Robert Stokes.

They seemed all glad to welcome me back, especially Phoebe, who lay and
looked at me as though she never wished to lose sight of me again.

When I had left her room I sat a little while with Susan. She still
looked delicate, but at my first pitying word she stopped me.

'Please don't say that, Miss Garston. If you knew how I thank God for
that illness! it has opened poor Phoebe's heart to me as nothing else
could have opened it.'

'She does indeed seem a different creature,' I returned, full of
thankfulness to hear this.

'Different,--nay, that is not the word: the heart of a little child has
come back to her. It rests me now, if I am ever so tired, to go into her
room. It is always "Sit down, Susan, my woman, and talk to me a bit," or
she will beg me to do something for her, just as though she were asking a
favour. I read the Bible to her now morning and evening, and Kitty sings
her sweet hymns to us. It is more like home now, with Phoebe to smile
a welcome whenever she sees me. I do not miss father and mother half so
much now.'

'If you only knew how happy it makes me to hear you say all this, Miss
Locke!'

'Nay, but I am thinking we owe much of our comfort to you,' she answered
simply. 'You worked upon her feelings first, and then Providence sent
that sharp message to her. And we have to be grateful to the doctor, too.
What do you think, Miss Garston? He is our landlord now, and he won't
take a farthing of rent from us. He says we are doing him a kindness by
living in the house, and that he only wished his other tenants took as
much care of his property; but of course I know what that means.' And
here Susan's thin hands shook a little. 'The doctor is just a man whose
right hand does not know what his left hand does; he is just heaping us
with benefits, and making us ashamed with his kindness.'

'You are a great favourite of his,' I answered, smiling, as I took my
leave; but Susan answered solemnly,--

'It won't be forgotten in his account, Miss Garston. The measure running
over will surely be returned to him, and not only to him.' And here she
looked at me meaningly, and pressed my hand. Poor Susan! she had grown
very fond of her nurse.

As I walked up to Gladwyn that afternoon I felt a pleasant sense of
excitement, a sort of holiday feeling, that was novel to me. Miss Darrell
was away, and Gladys and Lady Betty would be at their ease. We might look
and talk as we liked, no one would find fault with us.

I was pleased, too, at the thought of seeing Mr. Hamilton again. I was in
the mood to be gay: perhaps the summer sunshine infected me, for who
could be dull on such a day? There was not a cloud in the sky, the birds
were singing, the rooks were cawing among the elms, the very sparrows had
a jaunty look and cheeped busily in the ivy. As I approached Gladwyn, I
saw Mr. Hamilton leaning on the gate: he looked as though he had been
standing there some time.

'Were you watching for me?' I asked, rather thoughtlessly, as he threw
the gate open with a smile and shook hands with me. I had asked the
question quite innocently and casually; but the next moment I felt hot
and ashamed. Why had I supposed such a thing? Why should Mr. Hamilton be
watching for me?

He did not seem to notice my confusion: he looked very glad to see me.
I think he was in a gay mood too.

'Yes, I was looking for you. You are a little late, do you know that? I
was just meditating whether I should walk down the road to meet you. Come
and take a turn with me on this shady little lawn. Gladys and Lady Betty
are arranging the tea-table, and are not quite ready for us.'

He led the way to the little lawn in front of the house. Gladwyn was
surrounded with charming lawns: the avenue of young oaks was at the back.
We could catch glimpses of Lady Betty's white gown as she flitted
backward and forward. The front window of Mr. Hamilton's study was before
us.

'Well,' he said, looking at me brightly, 'we are all glad to welcome
Nurse Ursula back: the three weeks have seemed very long somehow.'

'Have you any more cases ready for me?' I returned, trying to appear at
my usual ease with him. It seemed ridiculous, but I was certainly rather
shy with Mr. Hamilton this afternoon. He looked different somehow.

'If I have, you will not know them to-day. I am not going to talk
business to you this afternoon. Tell me about your visit: have you
enjoyed yourself? But I need not ask: your looks answer for you.'

'I have most certainly enjoyed myself. Aunt Philippa was so kind: indeed,
they were all good to me. Did you hear of Jill's accident, Mr. Hamilton?
No. I must tell you about it, and of Mr. Tudor's presence of mind.' And I
narrated the whole circumstance.

'It was a marvellous escape,' he returned thoughtfully. 'Poor child! she
might have fared badly. Well, Miss Garston, the green velvet gown was
very becoming.'

I looked up quickly, but there was no mockery in Mr. Hamilton's smile. He
was regarding me kindly, though his tone was a little teasing.

'I saw you in the church,' I returned quietly.

'Yes, I suppose there is a kind of magnetism in a fixed glance.
I was looking at you, trying to identify Nurse Ursula with the
elegantly-dressed woman before me, and somehow failing, when your
eyes encountered mine. Their serious disapproval most certainly
recalled Nurse Ursula with a vengeance.'

He was laughing at me now, but I determined to satisfy my curiosity.

'I was so surprised to see you there,' I replied seriously: 'you were so
strong in your denunciations of gay weddings that your presence as a
spectator at one quite startled me. Why were you there, Mr. Hamilton?'

'Do you want to know, really?' still in a teasing tone.

'Of course one always likes an answer to a question.'

'You shall have it, Miss Garston. I came to see that velvet gown.'

'Nonsense!'

'May I ask why?'

'Well, it is nonsense; as though you came for such an absurd purpose!'
But, though I answered Mr. Hamilton in this brusque fashion, I was aware
that my heart was beating rather more quickly than usual. Did he really
mean that he had come to see me? Could such a thing be possible? I began
to wish I had never put that question.

'I either came to see the gown or the wearer: upon my honour I hardly
know which. Perhaps you can tell me?' But if he expected an answer to
that he did not get it: I was only meditating how I could break off this
_téte-à-téte_ without too much awkwardness. No, I did not recognise Mr.
Hamilton a bit this afternoon: he had never talked to me after this
fashion before. I was not sure that I liked it.

'After all, I am not certain that I do not like you best in that gray
one, especially after I have picked you some roses to wear with it:
something sober and quiet seems to suit Nurse Ursula better.'

'Mr. Hamilton, if you please, I do not want to talk any more about my
gown.'

'What shall we talk about, then? Shall I--' And then he looked at my face
and checked himself. His teasing mood, or whatever it was, changed.
Perhaps he saw my embarrassment, for his manner became all at once very
gentle. He said we must go in search of the roses; and then he began to
talk to me about Gladys,--how much brighter she looked, but still thin,
oh, far too thin,--and was I not glad to have her back again? and all the
time he talked he was looking at me, as though he wanted to find out the
reason of something that perplexed him.

'He will think that I am not glad to be home again, that all this gaiety
has spoiled me for my work,' I thought, with some vexation; but no effort
of my part would overcome this sudden shyness, and I was much relieved
when we turned the corner of the house and encountered Lady Betty coming
in search of us.

'Of course we saw you on the little lawn,' she said eagerly, 'but we were
too busy arranging the table. Tea is ready now. Where are you going,
Giles? Oh, don't pick any more roses: we have plenty for Ursula.'

'But if I wish Miss Garston to wear some of my picking, what then,
Elizabeth?' he asked, in a laughing tone, and Lady Betty tossed her head
in reply and led me away; but a moment afterwards he followed us with the
roses, and mollified the wilful little soul by asking Ladybird--his pet
name for her--to fasten them in my dress. Both the sisters wore white
gowns. I thought Gladys looked like a queen in hers, as she moved slowly
under the oak-trees to meet us, the sun shining on her fair hair. As I
looked at her lovely face and figure, I thought it was no wonder that she
was poor Max's Lady of Delight. Who could help admiring her?

She met me quite naturally, although her brother was beside us.

'Have we kept you waiting too long? I thought you would not mind putting
up with Giles's society for a little while. Oh, Thornton was so stupid; I
suppose he did not approve of the trouble, for he would forget everything
we asked him to bring.'

'This is quite a feast, Gladys,' observed Mr. Hamilton gaily. And indeed
it was a pretty picture when we were all seated: a pleasant breeze
stirred the leaves over our head, the rooks cawed and circled round us,
Nap laid himself at his master's feet, and a little gray kitten came
gingerly over the grass, followed by some tame pigeons.

There was a basket of roses on the table, and great piles of strawberries
and cherries. Gladys poured out the tea in purple cups bordered with
gold. Mr. Hamilton held out a beautiful china plate for my inspection.
'This belonged to Gladys's mother,' he said: 'we are only allowed to use
it on high days and holidays. Etta was unfortunate enough to break a
saucer once: we have never seen the tea-set since.'

I saw Gladys colour, but she said nothing: only naughty Lady Betty
whispered in my ear, 'She did it on purpose. I saw her throw it down
because she was angry with Gladys.' But, happily, Mr. Hamilton was deaf
to this.

I hardly know what we talked about, but we were all very happy. Gladys,
as usual, was rather quiet, but I noticed that she spoke freely to her
brother, without any constraint of manner, and that he seemed pleased
and interested in all she said; and Lady Betty chatted as merrily as
possible.

When tea was over we all strolled about the garden, down the long
asphalt walk that skirted the meadow, where a little brown cow was
feeding, down to the gardener's cottage and the kitchen-garden, and to
the poultry-yard, where Lady Betty reigned supreme. Then we sat down on
the terrace by the conservatory, and Mr. Hamilton threw himself down on
the grass and played with Nap, as he talked to us.

I could see Leah sewing at her mistress's window, but the sight did not
disturb me in the least. Yes, I must be fey, I thought. I could find no
reason for the sudden feeling of contentment and well-being that
possessed me; in all my life I had never felt happier than I did that
evening; and yet I was more silent than usual. Mr. Hamilton talked more
to his sisters than to me, but his manner was strangely gentle when he
addressed me. I was conscious all that evening that he was watching me,
and that my reserve did not displease him. Once, when he had been called
away on business, and Lady Betty had tripped after him, Gladys said, with
a half-sigh,--

'How young and well Giles looks to-day! He seems so much happier. I wish
we could always be like this. I am sure if it were not for Etta we should
understand each other better.'

I assented to this, and Gladys went on:

'I wonder if you have ever heard Mrs. Carrick's name, Ursula?'

What a strange question! I flushed a little as I told her that her old
friend Mrs. Maberley had put me in possession of all the family secrets.
'Quite against my will, I assure you,' I added; for I always had a
lurking consciousness that I had no right to know Mr. Hamilton's affairs.

'Well, it does not matter. I daresay Giles will tell you all about
it himself some day. You and he seem great friends, Ursula; and
indeed--indeed I am glad to know it. Poor Giles! Why should you not be
kind to him?'

What in the world could Gladys mean?

'I was only a child,' she went on; 'but of course I remember Ella. She
was very beautiful and fascinating, and she bewitched us all. She had
such lovely eyes, and such a sweet laugh; and she was so full of fun, and
so high-spirited and charming altogether. Giles was very different in
those days; but he reminds me of his old self this evening.'

I made no answer. I seemed to have no words ready, and I was glad when
Gladys rather abruptly changed the subject. Leah was crossing the field
towards the cottage with a basket of eggs on her arm. As we looked after
her, Gladys said quickly--

'Your talk last night seems like a dream. This morning I asked myself,
could it be true--really true--that you saw Eric? I have hardly slept,
Ursula. Indeed, I do not mean to be impatient; but how am I to bear this
restlessness?'

'It is certainly very hard.'

'Oh, so hard! But for Eric's sake I must be patient. I saw the
advertisement this morning in the _Standard_. Lady Betty read it aloud to
us at breakfast-time; but Giles took no notice. I wished that we dared to
tell Mr. Cunliffe about it; he might employ a detective: but I am so
afraid of Etta.'

'I think we may safely wait a little,' I returned. 'I have faith in Joe
Muggins: a five-pound note may do our work without fear of publicity.'

'If you hear any news, if you can find out where he lives, remember that
I must be the first to see him: Giles shall be told, but not until I have
spoken to Eric.'

'Do you think that you will be able to persuade him to come home?'

'I shall not try to persuade him,' she returned proudly. 'I know Eric too
well for that. Nothing will induce him to cross the threshold of Gladwyn
until his innocence is established, until Giles has apologised for the
slur he has thrown upon his character.'

'I am afraid Mr. Hamilton will never do that.'

'Then there will be no possibility of reconciliation with Eric, Ursula.
If Eric does not come home, if things remain as they are, I have made up
my mind to leave Giles's roof. I cannot any longer be separated from
Eric: if he be poor I will be poor too: it will not hurt me to work;
nothing will hurt me after the life I have been leading these three
years.' And the old troubled look came back to Gladys's face. Lady Betty
joined us, and our talk ceased, and soon afterwards we went up into the
turret-room to prepare for dinner.

After dinner Lady Betty proposed that we should go down the road a little
to hear the nightingales; but Mr. Hamilton informed her with a smile that
he had a nightingale on the premises, and, turning to me, he asked me if
I were in the mood to give them all pleasure, and if I would sing to them
until they told me to stop.

I was rather dubious on this latter point, for how could I know, I asked
him, laughing, that they might not keep me singing until midnight?

'You ought to have more faith in our humanity,' he returned, with much
solemnity, as he opened the piano. Gladys crept into her old seat by me,
but Mr. Hamilton placed himself in an easy-chair at some little distance.
As the room grew dusk, and the moonlight threw strange silvery gleams
here and there, I could see him leaning back with his arms crossed under
his head, and wondered if he were asleep, he was so still and motionless.

How I thanked God in my heart for that gift of song, a more precious gift
to me than even beauty would have been! As usual, I forgot everything,
myself, Gladys, Mr. Hamilton; I seemed to sing with the joyousness of a
bird that is only conscious of life and freedom and sunshine.

I would sing no melancholy songs that night,--no love-sick adieux, no
effusions of lachrymose sentimentality,--only sweet old Scotch and
English ballads, favourites of Charlie's; then grander melodies, 'Let the
bright seraphim,' and 'Waft her, angels, through the air.' As I finished
the last I was conscious that Mr. Hamilton was standing beside me; the
next moment he laid his hand on mine.

'That will do. You must not tire yourself: even the nightingales must
leave off singing sometimes; thank you so much. No! that sounds cold and
conventional. I will not thank you. You were very happy singing, were you
not?'

I could not see his face, but he was so close,--so close to me in the
moonlight, and there was something in his voice that brought the old
shyness back.

I was trying to answer, when we heard the front door open and some one
speaking to Parker. Was that Miss Darrell's voice? Mr. Hamilton heard it,
for he moved away, and Gladys gave a half-stifled exclamation as he
opened the door and confronted his cousin.

'Where are you all?' she asked, in a laughing voice. 'You look like bats
or ghosts in the moonlight. No lights, and past ten o'clock! that is
Gladys's romantic idea, I suppose. What a dear fanciful child it is! Lady
Betty, come and kiss me! Oh, I am so glad to be home again!'

'Good-evening, Miss Darrell.'

'Good gracious! is that you, Miss Garston? I never dreamt of seeing you
here to-night; and you were hiding behind that great piano. Giles, do,
for pity's sake, light those candles, and let me see some of your faces.'

But Mr. Hamilton seemed to take no notice of her request.

'What brought you back so soon, Etta?' he asked; and it struck me that he
was not so pleased to see his cousin as usual. 'I thought you intended to
remain another week.'

'Oh, but I wanted to see Gladys, after these months of absence. I thought
it would be unkind to remain away any longer. Besides, I was not enjoying
myself,--not a bit. Mrs. Cameron grows deafer every day, and it was very
_triste_ and miserable.'

'How did you know I was at home, Etta?' asked Gladys, in her clear voice.

Miss Darrell hesitated a moment: 'A little bird informed me of the fact.
You did not wish me to remain in ignorance of your return, did you? It
sounds rather like it, does it not, Giles? Well, if you must be
inquisitive, Leah was writing to me about my dresses for the cleaner,
and she mentioned casually that "master had gone to the station to meet
Miss Gladys."'

'I see; but you need not have hurried home on my account.'

'Dear me! what a cousinly speech! That is the return one gets for
being a little more affectionate than usual. Giles,'--with decided
impatience,--'why don't you light those candles? You know how I hate
darkness; and there is Miss Garston standing like a gray nun in the
moonlight.'

'It is so late that I must put on my bonnet,' I replied quickly; for I
was bent on making my escape before the candles were lighted. Never had
I dreaded Miss Darrell's cold scrutiny as I did that night.

Gladys followed me rather wearily.

'Well it has been very pleasant, but our holiday has been brief,' she
said, with a sigh; and then she laid her cheek against mine, and it felt
very soft and cold. With a sudden rush of tenderness I drew it down and
kissed it again and again.

'Don't let the hope go out of your voice, Gladys: it will all come right
by and by. Only be strong and patient, my darling.'

'I am strong when I am near you, but not when I am alone,' she answered,
with a slight shiver; and then we heard Lady Betty's voice calling her,
and she left me reluctantly.

I thought she would come back, so I did not hurry myself; but presently
I got tired of waiting, and walked to the head of the staircase.

As I looked down on the lighted hall I saw Mr. Hamilton standing with
folded arms, as though he had been waiting there some time; at the sound
of my footstep he looked up quickly and eagerly, and our eyes met, and
then I knew,--I knew!

'Come, Ursula,' he said, with a sort of impatience, holding out his hand;
and somehow, without delay or hesitation, just as though his strong will
was drawing me, I went down slowly and put my hand in his, and it seemed
as though there was nothing more to be said.

I saw his face light up; he was about to speak, when Miss Darrell swept
up to us noiselessly with a hard metallic smile on her face.

'Do you know, Miss Garston, Lady Betty tells me that the nightingales are
singing so charmingly; she and I are just going down the road to listen
to them, if you can put up with our company for part of the way.'

Giles--I called him Giles in my heart that night, for something told me
we belonged to each other--said nothing, but his face clouded, and we
went out together.

No one heard the nightingales, but only Lady Betty commented on that
fact. Miss Darrell was talking too volubly to hear her. She clung to my
side pertinaciously, almost affectionately; she wanted to hear all about
the wedding; she plied me with questions about Sara, and Jill, and Mr.
Tudor. All the way up the hill she talked until we passed the church and
the vicarage, until we were at the gate of the White Cottage, and then
she stopped with an affected laugh.

'Dear me, I have actually walked the whole way; how tired I am!--and no
wonder, for there is eleven chiming from the church tower. For shame, to
keep us all up so late, Miss Garston!'

'I will not detain you,' I returned, with secret exasperation.

Mr. Hamilton had not spoken once the whole way, only walked silently
beside me; but as he set open the gate and wished me good-night, his
clasp of my hand gave me the assurance that I needed.

'Never mind: he will come to-morrow and tell me all about it,' I said to
myself as I walked up the narrow garden-path between the rows of sleeping
flowers. If I lingered in the porch to watch a certain tall figure
disappear into the darkness, no one knew it, for the stars tell no tales.



CHAPTER XXXVI

BREAKERS AHEAD


It was well that the stars, those bright-eyed spectators of a sleeping
world, tell no tales of us poor humans, or they might have whispered the
fact that the reasonable sober-minded Ursula Garston was holding foolish
vigil that night until the gray dawn drove her away to seek a brief rest.

But how could I sleep?--how could any woman sleep when such a revelation
had been vouchsafed her?--when a certain look, and those two words,
'Come, Ursula,' still haunted me,--that strange brief wooing, that was
hardly wooing, and yet meant unutterable things, that silent acceptance,
that simple yielding, when I put my hand in his, Giles's, and saw the
quick look of joy in his eyes?

Ah, the veil had fallen from my eyes at last: for the first time I
realised how all these weeks he had been drawing me closer to himself,
how his strong will had subjugated mine. My dislike of him had been
brief; he had awakened my interest first, then attracted my sympathy, and
finally won my respect and friendship, until I had grown to love him in
spite of myself. Strange to say, I had lost all fear of him; as I sat
holding communion with myself that night, I felt that I should never be
afraid of him again. 'Perfect love casteth out fear': is not that what
the apostle tells us? It was true, I thought, for now I did not seem to
be afraid either of Mr. Hamilton's strange stern nature, of the sadness
of his past life, or of the mysteries and misunderstandings of that
troubled household. It seemed to me I feared nothing,--not even my own
want of beauty, that had once been a trial to me; for if Giles loved me
how could such minor evils affect me?

Yes, as I sat there under the solemn starlight, with the jasmine sprays
cooling my hot cheek and the soft night breeze fanning me, I owned, and
was not ashamed to own, in my woman's heart, and with all the truth of
which I was capable, that this was the man whom my soul delighted to
honour; not faultless, not free from blame, full of flaws and
imperfections, but still a strong grand man, intensely human in his
sympathies, one who loved his fellows, and who did his life's work in
true knightly fashion, running full tilt against prejudices and the
shams of conventionality.

Often during the night I thought of my mother, and how she had told me,
laughing, that my father had never really asked her to marry him.

'I don't know how we were engaged, Ursula,' she once said, when we
were talking about Charlie and Lesbia in the twilight; 'we were at a
ball,--Lady Fitzherbert's,--and of course being a clergyman he did not
dance, but he took me into the conservatory and gave me a flower: I think
it was a rose. There were people all round us, and neither he nor I could
tell how it was done, but when he put me into the carriage I knew we were
somehow promised to each other, and when he came the next day he called
me Amy, and kissed me in the most quite matter-of-fact way. I often laugh
and tell him that he took it all, for granted.'

'Giles will come to-morrow,' I said to myself, as the first pale gleam
came over the eastern sky, 'and then I shall know all about it.' And I
fell asleep happily, and dreamt of Charlie, and I thought he was pelting
me with roses in the old vicarage garden.

'"And the evening and the morning were the first day,"' were my waking
words when I opened my eyes; for in the inward as well as the outward
creation, in hearts as well as worlds, all things become new under the
grace of such miracle. I was not the same woman that I had been
yesterday, neither should I ever be the same again. I seemed as though I
were in accord with all the harmonies of nature. 'And surely God saw that
it was good,' ought to be written upon all true and faithful earthly
attachments. I was expecting Mr. Hamilton, and yet it gave me a sort of
shock when I saw him coming up the road: he was walking very fast, with
his head bent, but his face was set in the direction of the cottage.

I sat down by the window and took out some work, but my hands trembled so
that I was compelled to lay it aside. It was not that I was afraid of
what he might say to me, for my heart had its welcome ready, but natural
womanly timidity caused the slight fluttering of my pulses.

The moments seemed long before I heard the click of the gate, before the
firm regular footsteps crunched the gravel walk; then came his knock at
my door, and I rose to greet him. But the moment I saw his face a sudden
anxiety seized me. What had happened? What made him look so pale and
embarrassed, so strangely unlike himself? This was not the greeting I
expected. This was not how we ought to meet on this morning of all
mornings.

As he shook hands with me quickly and rather nervously, he seemed to
avoid my eyes. He walked to the window, picked a spray of jasmine, and
began pulling it to pieces, all the time he talked. As for me, I sat down
again and took up my work: he should not see that I felt his coldness,
that he had disappointed me.

'I have come very early, I am afraid,' he began, 'but I thought I ought
to let you know. Mrs. Hanbury's little girl, the lame one, Jessie, has
got badly burnt,--some carelessness or other; but they are an ignorant
set, and the child will need your care.'

'I will go at once. Where do they live?' But somehow as I asked the
question I felt as though my voice had lost all tone and sounded like
Miss Darrell's.

He told me, and then gave me the necessary instructions. 'Janet Coombe,
a servant at the Man and Plough, is ill too, and they sent up for me this
morning; it seems a touch of low fever,--nothing really infectious,
though; but the men from the soap-works are having their bean-feast, and
all the folks are too busy to pay Janet much attention.'

'I will see about her,' I returned. 'Are those the only cases, Mr.
Hamilton?' He looked round at me then, as though my quiet matter-of-fact
answer had surprised him, and for a moment he surveyed me gravely and
wistfully; then he seemed to rouse himself with an effort.

'Yes, those are the only cases at present. Thank you, I shall be much
obliged if you will attend to them. Little Jessie is a very delicate
child: things may go hardly with her.' Then he stopped, picked another
spray of jasmine, and pulled off the little starry flowers remorselessly.

'Miss Garston, I want to say something: I feel I owe you some sort of
explanation. I wish to tell you that I have only myself to blame. I have
thought it all over, and I have come to the conclusion that it is no
fault of yours that I misunderstood you. It is your nature to be kind.
You did not wish to mislead me.'

'I am not aware that I ever mislead people,' I returned, rather proudly,
for I could not help feeling a little indignant: Mr. Hamilton was
certainly not treating me well.

'No, of course not,' looking excessively pained. 'I know you too well to
accuse you of that. If I misunderstood you, if I imagined things, it was
my own fault,--mine solely. I would not blame you for worlds.'

'I am glad of that, Mr. Hamilton,' in rather an icy tone.

'No, you could not have told me: I ought to have found it out for myself.
Do you mind if I go away now? I do not feel quite myself, and I would
rather talk of this again another time. Perhaps you will tell me all
about it then.' And he actually took up his hat and shook hands with me
again. Somehow his touch made me shiver when I remembered the long
hand-clasp of the previous night,--only ten or eleven hours ago; and yet
this strange change had been worked in him.

I let him go, though it nearly broke my heart to see him look so careworn
and miserable. My woman's pride was up in arms, though for very pity and
love I could have called him back and begged him to tell me in plain
English and without reservation what he meant by his vague words. Once I
rose and went to the door, the latch was in my hand, but I sat down again
and watched him quietly until he was out of sight. I would wait, I said
to myself; I would rather wait until he came to his senses; and then I
laughed a little angrily, though the tears were in my eyes. It was
vexatious, it was bitterly disappointing, it was laying on my shoulders a
fresh burden of responsibility and anxiety. The happiness that a quarter
of an hour ago seemed within my reach had vanished and left me worried
and perplexed. And yet, in spite of the pain Mr. Hamilton had inflicted,
I did not for one moment lose hope or courage.

Something had gone wrong, that was evident. The perfect understanding
that had been between us last night seemed ruthlessly disturbed and
perhaps broken. Could this be Miss Darrell's work? Had she made mischief
between us? I wondered what part of my conduct or actions she had
misrepresented to her cousin. It was this uncertainty that tormented
me: how could I refute mere intangible shadows?

Strange to say, I never doubted his love for a moment. If such a doubt
had entered my mind I should have been miserable indeed; but no such
thought fretted me. I was only hurt that he could have brought himself
to believe anything against me, that he should have listened to her false
sophistry and not have asked for my explanation; but, as I remembered
that love was prone to jealousy and not above suspicion, I soon forgave
him in my heart.

Ah well, we must both suffer, I thought; for he certainly looked very
unhappy, fagged, and weary, as though he had not slept. If he had told me
what was wrong I would have found some comfort for him; but under such
circumstances any woman must be dumb.

He had made me understand that he did not intend to ask me to marry him,
at least just yet; that for some reason best known to himself he wished
for no further explanation with me. Well, I could wait until he was ready
to speak; he need not fear that I should embarrass him. 'Men are strange
creatures,' I thought, as I rose, feeling tired in every limb, to put on
my bonnet; but, cast down and perplexed as I was, I would not own for a
minute that I was really miserable. My faith in Mr. Hamilton was too
strong for that; one day things would be right between us; one day he
would see the truth and know it, and there would be no cloud before his
eyes. I went rather sadly about my duties that day, but I was determined
that no one else should suffer for my unhappiness, so I exerted myself to
be cheerful with my patients, and the hard work did me good.

I was tired when I reached home, and I spent rather a dreary evening: it
was impossible to settle to my book. I could not help remembering how I
had called this a new day. As I prayed for Mr. Hamilton that night, I
could not help shedding a few tears; he was so strong, all the power was
in his hands; he might have saved me from this trouble. Then I remembered
that we were both unhappy together, and this thought calmed me; for the
same cloud was covering us both, and I wondered which of us would see the
sunshine first.

I do not wish to speak much of my feelings at this time: the old adage,
that 'the course of true love never runs smooth,' was true, alas, in my
case; but I was too proud to complain, and I tried not to fret overmuch.
Most women have known troubled days, when the current seems against them
and the waves run high; their strength fails and they seem to sink in
deep waters. Many a poor soul has suffered shipwreck in the very sight
of the haven where it would fain be, for man and woman too are 'born to
trouble as the sparks fly upward.'

Sometimes my pain was very great; but I would not succumb to it. I worked
harder than ever to combat my restlessness. My worst time was in the
evening, when I came home weary and dispirited. We seemed so near, and
yet so strangely apart, and it was hard at such times to keep to my old
faith in Mr. Hamilton and acquit him of unkindness.

'Why does he not tell me what he means? Do I deserve this silence?' I
would say to myself. Then I remembered his promise that he would speak
to me again about these things, and I resolved to be brave and patient.

I was longing to see Gladys, but she did not come for more than ten days.
And, alas! I could not go up to Gladwyn to seek her. This was the first
bitter fruit of our estrangement,--that it separated me from Gladys.

Lady Betty had gone away the very next day to pay a two months' visit to
an old school-fellow in Cornwall: so Gladys would be utterly alone. Uncle
Max was still in Norwich, detained by most vexatious lawyer's business:
so that I had not even the solace of his companionship. If it had not
been for Mr. Tudor, I should have been quite desolate. But I was always
meeting him in the village, and his cheery greeting was a cordial to me.
He always walked back with me, talking in his eager, boyish way. And I
had sometimes quite a trouble to get rid of him. He would stand for a
quarter of an hour at a time leaning over the gate and chatting with me.
By a sort of tacit consent, he never offered to come in, neither did I
invite him. We were both too much afraid of Miss Darrell's comments.

In all those ten days I only saw Mr. Hamilton once, for on Sunday his
seat in church had been vacant.

I was dressing little Jessie's burns one morning, and talking to her
cheerfully all the time, for she was a nervous little creature, when I
heard his footstep outside. And the next instant he was standing beside
us.

His curt 'Good-morning; how is the patient, nurse?' braced my faltering
nerves in a moment, and enabled me to answer him without embarrassment.
He had his grave professional air, and looked hard and impenetrable. I
had reason afterwards to think that this sternness of manner was assumed
for my benefit, for once, when I was preparing some lint for him, I
looked up inadvertently and saw that he was watching me with an
expression that was at once sad and wistful.

He turned away at once, when he saw I noticed him, and I left the room as
quickly as I could, for I felt the tears rising to my eyes. I had to sit
down a moment in the porch to recover myself. That look, so sad and
yearning, had quite upset me. If I had not known before, past all doubt,
that Mr. Hamilton loved me, I must have known it then.

We met more frequently after this. Janet Coombe was dangerously ill, and
Mr. Hamilton saw her two or three times a day. And, of course, I was
often there when he came.

He dropped his sternness of manner after a time, but he was never
otherwise than grave with me. The long, unrestrained talks, the friendly
looks, the keen interest shown in my daily pursuits, were now things of
the past. A few professional inquiries, directions about the treatment,
now and then a brief order to me, too peremptory to be a compliment,
not to over-tire myself, or to go home to rest,--this was all our
intercourse. And yet, in spite of his guarded looks and words, I was
often triumphant, even happy.

Outwardly, and to all appearance, I was left alone, but I knew that it
was far otherwise in reality. I was most strictly watched. Nothing
escaped his scrutiny. At the first sign of fatigue he was ready to take
my place, or find help for me. Mrs. Saunders, the mistress of the Man and
Plough, told me more than once that the doctor had been most particular
in telling her to look after me. Nor was this all.

Once or twice, when I had been singing in the summer twilight, I had
risen suddenly to lower a blind or admit Tinker, and had seen a tall,
dark figure moving away behind the laurel bushes, and knew that it was
Mr. Hamilton returning from some late visit and lingering in the dusky
road to listen to me.

After I had discovered this for the third time, I began to think he came
on purpose to hear me. My heart beat happily at the thought. In spite of
his displeasure with me, he could not keep away from the cottage.

After this I sang every evening regularly for an hour, and always in
the gloaming: it became my one pleasure, for I knew I was singing to him.
Now and then I was rewarded by a sight of his shadow. More than once I
saw him clearly in the moonlight. When I closed my piano, I used to
whisper 'Good-night, Giles,' and go to bed almost happy. It was a little
hard to meet him the next morning in Janet's room and answer his dry
matter-of-fact questions. Sometimes I had to turn away to hide a smile.

Gladys's first visit was very disappointing. But everything was
disappointing in those days. She had her old harassed look, and seemed
worried and miserable, and for once I had no heart to cheer her, only I
held her close, very close, feeling that she was dearer to me than ever.

She looked in my face rather inquiringly as she disengaged herself, and
then smiled faintly.

'I could not come before, Ursula; and you have never been to see me,' a
little reproachfully, 'though I looked for you every afternoon. I have no
Lady Betty, you know, and things have been worse than ever. I cannot
think what has come to Etta. She is always spiteful and sneering when
Giles is not by. And as for Giles, I do not know what is the matter with
him.'

'How do you mean?' I faltered, hunting in my work basket for some silk
that was lying close to my hand.

'That is more than I can say,' she returned pointedly. 'Have you and
Giles had a quarrel, Ursula? I thought that evening that you were the
best of friends, and that--' But here she hesitated, and her lovely eyes
seemed to ask for my confidence; but I could not speak even to Gladys of
such things, so I only answered, in a business-like tone,--

'It is true that your brother does not seem as friendly with me just now;
but I do not know how I have offended him. He has rather a peculiar
temper, as you have often told me: most likely I have gone against some
of his prejudices.' I felt I was answering Gladys in rather a reckless
fashion, but I could not bear even the touch of her sympathy on such a
wound. She looked much distressed at my reply.

'Oh no, you never offend Giles. He thinks far too much of you to let
any difference of opinion come between you. I see you do not wish me
to ask you, Ursula; but I must say one thing. If you want Giles to tell
you why he is hurt or distant with you,--why his manner is different, I
mean,--ask him plainly what Etta has been saying to him about you.'

I felt myself turning rather pale. 'Are you sure that Miss Darrell has
been talking about me, Gladys?'

'I have not heard her do so,' was the somewhat disappointing reply, for
I had hoped then that she had heard something. 'But I was quite as sure
of the fact as though my ears convicted her. I have only circumstantial
evidence again to offer you, but to my mind it is conclusive. You parted
friends that evening with Giles. Correct me if I am wrong.'

'Oh no; you are quite right. Your brother and I had no word of
disagreement.'

'No; he left the house radiant. When he returned, which was not for an
hour,--for he and Etta were out all that time in the garden, and they
sent Lady Betty in to finish her packing,--he was looking worried and
miserable, and shut himself up in his study. Since then he has been in
one of his taciturn, unsociable moods: nothing pleases him. He takes no
notice of us. Even Etta is scolded, but she bears it good-humouredly
and takes her revenge on me afterwards. A pleasant state of things,
Ursula!'

'Very,' I returned, sighing, for I thought this piece of evidence
conclusive enough.

'Now you will be good,' she went on, in a coaxing voice, 'and you will
ask Giles, like a reasonable woman, what Etta has been saying to him?'

'Indeed, I shall do no such thing,' I answered. And my cheek began to
flush. 'If your brother is ungenerous enough to condemn me unheard, I
shall certainly not interfere with his notions of justice. Do not trouble
yourself about it, Gladys. It will come right some day. And indeed it
does not matter so much to me, except it keeps us apart.'

Now why, when I spoke so haughtily and disagreeably, and told this little
fib, did Gladys suddenly take me in her arms and kiss me most sorrowfully
and tenderly?

'One after another!' she sighed. 'Oh, it is hard, Ursula!' But I would
not let her talk any more about it, for I was afraid I was breaking down
and might make a goose of myself: so I spoke of Eric, and told her that
I had written to Joe Muggins without success, and soon turned her
thoughts into another channel.



CHAPTER XXXVII

'I CLAIM THAT PROMISE, URSULA'


It was soon after this that Uncle Max came home.

I met Mr. Tudor in the village one morning, and he told me with great
glee that they had just received a telegram telling them that he was on
his way, and an hour after his arrival he came down to the cottage.

Directly I heard his 'Well, little woman, how has the world treated you
in my absence?' I felt quite cheered, and told my little fib without
effort:

'Very well indeed, thank you, Max.'

It is really a psychological puzzle to me why women who are otherwise
strictly true and honourable in their dealings and abhor the very name
of falsehood are much addicted to this sort of fibbing under certain
circumstances; for instance, the number of white lies that I actually
told at that time was something fabulous, yet the sin of hypocrisy did
not lie very heavily on my soul.

When I assured Uncle Max with a smiling face that things were well with
me, his only answer was to take my chin in his hand and turn my face
quietly to the light.

'Are you quite sure you are speaking the truth? You look rather thin; and
why are your eyes so serious, little she bear?'

'It is such hot weather,' I returned, wincing under his kindly scrutiny.
'And we--that is, I have had anxious work lately. I wrote to you about
poor Janet Coombe. It is a miracle that she has pulled through this
illness.'

'Yes, indeed: I met Hamilton just now on his way to her, and he declared
her recovery was owing to your nursing; but we will take that with a
grain of salt, Ursula: we both know how devoted Hamilton is to his
patients.'

'He has saved her life,' was my reply, and for a moment my eyes grew dim
at the remembrance of the untiring patience with which he had watched
beside the poor girl. It was in the sick-room that I first learned to
know him,--when metaphorically I sat at his feet, and he taught me
lessons of patience and tenderness that I should never forget until
my life's end.

When we had talked about this a little while, Max asked me rather
abruptly when Captain Hamilton was expected. The question startled me,
for I had almost forgotten his existence.

'I do not know,' I returned uneasily, for I was afraid Max would think
I had been remiss. 'Lady Betty is away, and I have only seen Gladys twice
since my return, and each time I forgot to ask her.'

'Only twice, and you have been at home more than three weeks,' observed
Max, in a dissatisfied voice.

'I have been so engaged,' I replied quickly, 'and you know how seldom
Gladys comes to the cottage. Max, do you know you have been here a
quarter of an hour, and I have never congratulated you on your good
fortune! I was so glad to hear Mrs. Trevor left you that money.'

'I did not need it,' he returned, rather gloomily. 'I had quite
sufficient for my own wants. I do not think that I am particularly
mercenary, Ursula: the books and antiquities were more to my taste.'

Max was certainly not in the best of spirits, but I did all I could to
cheer him. I told him of Gladys's improved looks, and how much her change
had benefited her, but he listened rather silently. I saw he was bent on
learning Captain Hamilton's movements, and reproached myself that I had
not questioned Gladys. I was determined that I would speak to her about
her cousin the next time we met.

Max went away soon after this; he was rather tired with his journey, he
said; but the next morning I received a note from him asking me to dine
with him the following evening, as he had seen so little of me lately,
and he wanted to hear all about the wedding.

Of course I was too glad to accept this invitation,--I always liked to go
to the vicarage,--and this evening proved especially pleasant.

Max roused himself for my benefit, and Mr. Tudor seemed in excellent
spirits, and we joked Uncle Max a great deal about his fortune, and after
dinner we made a pilgrimage through the house, to see what new furniture
was needed.

Max accompanied us, looking very bored, and entered a mild protest to
most of our remarks. He certainly agreed to a new carpet for the study
and a more comfortable chair, but he turned a perfectly deaf ear when Mr.
Tudor proposed that the drawing-room should be refurnished.

'It is such a pretty room, Mr. Cunliffe,' he remonstrated; 'and it
will be ready by the time you want to get married. Mother Drabble's
arrangement of chairs and tables is simply hideous. I was quite ashamed
when Mrs. Maberley and her daughter called the other day.'

'Nonsense, Lawrence!' returned Max, rather sharply. 'What do two
bachelors want with a drawing-room at all? You and Ursula may talk as
much as you like, but I do not mean to throw away good money on such
nonsense. We will have a new book-case and writing-table, and fit up the
little gray room as your study--and, well, perhaps I may buy a new
carpet, but nothing more.' And we were obliged to be content with this.

Max brought out a couple of wicker chairs on the terrace presently, and
proposed that we should have our coffee out of doors. Mr. Tudor grumbled
a little, because he had a letter to write; but I was not sorry when he
left me alone with Max. I really liked Mr. Tudor, but we were neither of
us in the mood for his good-natured chatter.

'I think old Lawrence is very much improved,' observed Max, as we watched
his retreating figure. 'His sermons have more ballast, and he is
altogether grown. I begin to have hopes of him now.'

'He is older, of course,' I remarked oracularly, wondering what Max would
say if he knew the truth. 'Well, Max, did you go up to Gladwyn last
night?'

'Yes,' he returned, with a quick sigh, 'and Hamilton made me stay to
dinner. I have found out about Captain Hamilton. He cannot get leave just
yet, and they do not expect him until the end of November.'

'I am sorry to hear that. Do you not wish that you had taken my advice
now, and gone down to Bournemouth?' But a most emphatic 'No' on Max's
part was my answer to this.

'I am very thankful I did nothing of the kind,' he returned, a little
irritably. 'You meant well, Ursula, but it would have been a mistake.'

'Hamilton told me about his cousin,' he went on; 'but his sister was in
the room. She coloured very much and looked embarrassed directly Claude's
name was mentioned.'

'That was because Miss Darrell was there.' But I should have been wiser
and, held my tongue.

'You are wrong again,' he returned calmly. 'Miss Darrell was dining at
the Maberleys', and never came in until I was going.'

'How very strange!' was my comment to this.

'Not stranger than Miss Hamilton's manner the whole evening, I never felt
more puzzled. When I came in she was alone. Hamilton did not follow me
for five minutes. She came across the room to meet me, with one of her
old smiles, and I thought she really seemed glad to see me; but
afterwards she was quite different. Her manner changed and grew listless.
She did not try to entertain me; she left me to talk to her brother. I
don't think she looks well, Ursula. Hamilton asked her once if her head
ached, and if she felt tired, and she answered that her head was rather
bad. I thought she looked extremely delicate.'

'Oh, Gladys is never a robust woman. She is almost always pale.'

'It is not that,' he returned decidedly. 'I consider she looked very
ill. I don't believe the change has done her the least good. There is
something on her mind: no doubt she is longing for her cousin.'

I thought it well to remain silent, though Max's account made me anxious.
If only I could have spoken to him about Eric! Most likely Gladys was
fretting because there was no news from Joe Muggins. She was certainly
not fit for any fresh anxiety. I felt my banishment from Gladwyn acutely.
If Gladys were ill or dispirited, she would need me more than any one.

I think both Max and I were sorry when Mr. Tudor came back and
interrupted our conversation. He carried me off presently to show me
some improvements in the kitchen-garden; but Max was too lazy to join us,
and we had quite a confidential talk, walking up and down between the
apple-trees. Mr. Tudor told me that, after all, he was becoming fond of
his profession, and that the old women did not bore him quite so much.
When we returned, Max was not on the lawn, but a few minutes afterwards
he appeared at the study window.

'I was just speaking to Hamilton,' he said. 'He came while you were in
the kitchen-garden, but he was in a hurry and could not wait. By the bye,
he told me that I was not to let you sit out there any longer, as the
dews are so heavy. So come in, my dear.'

I obeyed Max without a word. He had been here, and I had missed him!
Everything was flat after that.

I took my leave early, feeling as though all my merriment had suddenly
dried up. How would he have met me? I wondered. Would Max have noticed
anything different? 'How long will this state of things go on?' I
thought, as I bade Max good-bye in the porch.

I waited for some days for Gladys to come to me, and then I wrote to
her just a few lines, begging her to have tea with me the following
afternoon; but two or three hours afterwards Chatty brought me a note.

'Do not think me unkind, Ursula,' she wrote, 'if I say that it is better
for us not to meet just now. I have twice been on my way to you, and Etta
has prevented my coming each time. My life just now is unendurable. Giles
notices nothing. I sometimes think Etta must be possessed, to treat me as
she does: I can see no reason for it. I hope I am not getting ill, but I
do not seem as though I could rouse myself to contend with her. I do not
sleep well, and my head pains me. If I get worse, I must speak to Giles:
I cannot be ill in this place.'

Gladys's letter made me very anxious. There was a tone about it that
seemed as though her nerves were giving way. The heat was intense, and
most likely anxiety about Eric was disturbing her night's rest. Want of
sleep would be serious to Gladys's highly-strung organisation. I was
determined to speak to Mr. Hamilton, or go myself to Gladwyn.

My fears were still further aroused when Sunday came and Gladys was not
in her usual place. After service Miss Darrell was speaking to some
friends in the porch. As I passed Mr. Hamilton I paused for a moment, to
question him: 'Why was Gladys not at church? Why did she never come to
see me now?'

'We might ask you that same question, I think,' he returned, rather
pointedly. 'Gladys is not well: she spoke to me yesterday about herself,
and I was obliged to give her a sleeping-draught. She was not awake when
we left the house.'

'I will come and see her,' I replied quickly, for Miss Darrell was
bearing down upon us, and I am sure she heard my last words; and as I
walked home I determined to go up to Gladwyn that very evening while the
family were at church.

I thought I had timed my visit well, and was much exasperated when Miss
Darrell opened the door to me.

'I saw you coming,' she said, in her smooth voice, 'and so I thought I
would save Leah the trouble. She is the only servant at home, and I sent
her upstairs to see if Gladys wanted anything. I hope you do not expect
to see Gladys to-night, Miss Garston?'

'I most certainly expect it,' was my reply. 'I have given up the evening
service, hearing that she was ill.'

'It is too kind of you; but I am sorry that I could not allow it for a
moment. Giles was telling me an hour ago that he could not think what
ailed Gladys: he was afraid of some nervous illness for her unless she
were kept quiet. I could not take the responsibility of disobeying
Giles.'

'I will take the responsibility on myself,' I returned coolly. 'You
forget that I am a nurse, Miss Darrell. I shall do Gladys no harm.'

'Excuse me if I must be the judge of that,' she returned, and her thin
lips closed in an inflexible curve: 'in my cousin's absence I could not
allow any one to go near Gladys. Leah is with her now trying to induce
her to take her sleeping-draught.'

I looked at Miss Darrell, and wondered if I could defy her to her face,
or whether I had better wait until I could speak to Mr. Hamilton. If
Gladys were really taking her sleeping-draught, my presence in her room
might excite her. If I could only know if she were telling me the truth!

My doubts were answered by Leah's entrance. Miss Darrell addressed her
eagerly:

'Have you given Miss Gladys the draught, Leah?'

'Yes, ma'am, and she seems nicely inclined to sleep. She heard Miss
Garston's voice, and sent me down with her love, and she is sorry not
to be able to see her to-night.'

I thought it better to take my leave after this, hoping for better
success next time. I watched anxiously for Mr. Hamilton the next day, but
unfortunately I missed him. When I arrived at Janet's he had just left
the house, and I did not meet him in the village. I was growing desperate
at hearing no news of Gladys, and had determined to go up boldly to
Gladwyn that very evening, when I saw Chatty coming in the direction of
the cottage. She looked very nicely dressed, and her round face broke
into dimples as she told me that Miss Darrell had sent her to the
station, and that she meant to call in and have a chat with Mrs. Hathaway
on her way, as she need not hurry back.

Jem Hathaway was pretty Chatty's sweetheart. I knew him well. He was
a blacksmith, and lived with his mother in the little stone-coloured
cottage that faced the green. He was an honest, steady young fellow,
a great friend of Nathaniel, and Mrs. Barton often told me that she
considered Chatty a lucky girl to have Jem for a sweetheart.

'And if you please, ma'am,' went on Chatty, looking round-eyed and
serious, 'my mistress said that I was to give you this.' And she produced
a slip of paper with a pencilled message. I knew Chatty always called
Gladys her mistress: so I opened the paper eagerly:

'Why did you go away on Sunday evening without seeing me? I implored Leah
to bring you up when I heard your voice talking to Etta, and when the
door closed I turned quite sick with disappointment. Ursula, I must see
you; they shall not keep you from me. Come up this evening at half-past
seven, while they are at dinner. Chatty will let you in.'

'Very well: tell your mistress I will come,' I observed; and Chatty
dropped a rustic courtesy, and said, 'Thank you, ma'am; that will do my
mistress good,' and tripped on her way.

I went back into my parlour, feeling worried and excited. Gladys had sent
for me, and I must go; but the idea of slipping into the house in this
surreptitious way was singularly repugnant to me. I would rather have
chosen a time when I knew Mr. Hamilton would be absent; but in that case
I might find it impossible to obtain admittance to Gladys's room. No,
I must put my own feelings aside, and follow her directions. But, in
spite of this resolve, I found it impossible to settle to anything until
the time came for keeping my appointment.

I arrived at Gladwyn just as the half-hour was chiming from the church
clock. As I walked quickly through the shrubbery I glanced nervously up
at the windows. Happily, the dining-room was at the back of the house,
but Leah might be sewing in her mistress's room and see me. As this
alarming thought occurred to my mind, I walked still more rapidly, but
before I could raise my hand to the bell the door opened noiselessly, and
Chatty's smiling face welcomed me.

'I was watching for you,' she whispered. 'Leah is in the housekeeper's
room, and master and Miss Darrell are at dinner. You can go up to my
mistress at once.'

I needed no further invitation. As I passed the dining-room door I could
hear Miss Darrell's little tinkling laugh and Mr. Hamilton's deep voice
answering her. The next moment Thornton came out of the room, and I had
only time to whisk round the corner. I confess this narrow escape very
much alarmed me, and my heart beat a little quickly as I tapped at
Gladys's door; then, as I heard her weak 'Come in,' I entered.

The room was full of some pungent scent, hot and unrefreshing. Some one
had moved the dressing-table, and Gladys lay on a couch in the circular
window, within the curtained enclosure. I always thought it the prettiest
window in the house. It looked full on the oak avenue, and on the elms,
where the rooks had built their nests. There was a glimpse of the white
road, too, and the blue smoke from the chimneys of Maplehurst was plainly
visible.

The evening sunshine was streaming full on Gladys's pale face, and my
first action after kissing her was to lower the blind. I was glad of the
excuse for turning away a moment, for her appearance gave me quite a
shock.

She looked as though she had been ill for weeks. Her face looked dark and
sunken, and the blue lines were painfully visible round her temples. Her
forehead was contracted, as though with severe pain, and her eyes were
heavy and feverish. When she raised her languid eyelids and looked at me,
a sudden fear contracted my heart.

'Ursula, thank God you have come!'

'We must always thank Him, dearest, whatever happens,' I returned, as
I knelt down by her and took her burning hand in mine. 'And now you must
tell me what is wrong with you, and why I find you like this.'

'I do not know,' she whispered, almost clinging to me. And it struck me
then that she was frightened about herself. 'As I told Giles, I feel very
ill. The heat tries me, and my head always aches,--such a dull, miserable
pain; and, most of all, I cannot sleep, and all sorts of horrid thoughts
come to me. Sometimes in the night, when I am quite alone, I feel as
though I were light-headed and should lose my senses. Oh, Ursula, if
this goes on, what will become of me?'

'We will talk about that presently. Tell me, have you ever been ill in
this way before?'

'Yes, last summer, only not so bad. But I had the pain and the
sleeplessness then. Giles was so good to me. He said I wanted change, and
he took a little cottage at Westgate-on-Sea and sent me down with Lady
Betty and Chatty, and I soon got all right.'

'So I thought. And now--'

'Oh, it is different this time,' she replied nervously. 'I did not have
dreadful thoughts then, or feel frightened, as I do now. Ursula, I know
I am very ill. If you leave me to Etta and Leah, I shall get worse. I
have sent for you to-night to remind you of your promise.'

'What promise?' I faltered. But of course I knew what she meant. A sense
of wretchedness had been slowly growing on me as she talked. If it should
come to that,--that I must remain under his roof! I felt a tingling sense
of shame and humiliation at the bare idea.

'Of your solemn promise, most solemnly uttered,' she repeated, 'that if I
were ill you would come and nurse me. I claim that promise, Ursula.'

'Is it absolutely necessary that I should come?' I asked, in a distressed
voice, for all at once life seemed too difficult to me. How had I
deserved this fresh pain!

In a moment her manner grew more excited.

'Necessary! If you leave me to Etta's tender mercies I shall die. But
no--no! you could not be so cruel. They are making me take those horrid
draughts now, and I know she gives me too much. I get so confused, but it
is not sleep. My one terror is that I shall say things I do not mean,
about--well, never mind that. And then she will say that my brain is
queer. She has hinted it already, when I was excited at your going away.
There is nothing too cruel for her to say to me. She hates me, and I do
not know why.'

'Hush! I cannot have you talk so much,' for her excitement alarmed me.
'Remember, I am your nurse now,--a very strict one, too, as you will
find. Yes, I will keep my promise. I will not leave you, darling.'

'You promise that? You will not go away to-night?'

'I shall not leave you until you are well again,' I returned, with forced
cheerfulness. But if she knew how keenly I felt my cruel position, how
sick and trembling I was at heart! What would he think of me? No, I must
not go into that. Gladys had asked this sacrifice of me. She had thrown
herself on my compassion. I would not forsake her. 'God knows my
integrity and innocence of intention. I will not be afraid to do my duty
to this suffering human creature,' I said to myself. And with this my
courage revived, and I felt that strength would be given me for all that
I had to do.



CHAPTER XXXVIII

IN THE TURRET-ROOM


My promise to stay with Gladys soothed her at once, and she lay back on
her pillows and closed her aching eyes contentedly, while I sat down and
wrote a hasty note to Mrs. Barton.

When I had finished it, I said quietly that I was going downstairs in
search of her brother; and when she looked a little frightened at this, I
made her understand, in as few words as possible, that it was necessary
for me to obtain his sanction, both as doctor and master of the house,
and then we should have nothing to fear from Miss Darrell. And when I had
said this she let me go more willingly.

My errand was not a pleasant one, and I felt very sorry for myself as I
walked slowly downstairs hoping that I should find Mr. Hamilton alone in
his study; but they must have lingered longer than usual over dessert,
for before I reached the hall the dining-room door opened, and they came
out together; and Miss Darrell paused for a moment under the hall lamp.

She was very much overdressed, as usual, in an _eau de Nile_ gown,
trimmed with costly lace: her gold bangles jangled as she fanned herself.

'Come out into the garden, Giles,' she said, with a ladylike yawn; 'it is
so hot indoors. I thought you said that you expected Mr. Cunliffe.'

'Perhaps he will be here by and by,' returned Mr. Hamilton; and then he
looked up and saw me.

'Miss Garston!' he ejaculated, as though he could scarcely believe his
eyes, and Miss Darrell broke into an angry little laugh; but I took no
notice of her. I determined to speak out boldly what I had to say.

'Mr. Hamilton,' I said quickly, 'I have seen Gladys. I am quite shocked
at her appearance: she certainly looks very ill. If you will allow me,
I should like to remain and nurse her.'

'But you must allow no such thing, Giles,' interfered his cousin sharply.
'I have always nursed poor dear Gladys myself, and no one understands her
as I do.'

'Gladys sent for me just now,' I went on firmly, without taking any
notice of this speech, 'to beg me to remain with her. She has set her
heart on my nursing her, and she reminded me of my promise.'

'What promise?' he asked, rather harshly; but I noticed that he looked
disturbed and ill at ease.

'Some months ago, just before Gladys went to Bournemouth, she asked me to
make her a promise, that if she were ever ill in this house I would give
up my work and come and nurse her. She was perfectly well then,--at
least, in her ordinary health,--and I saw no harm in giving her the
promise. She claims from me now the fulfilment.'

'Very extraordinary,' observed Miss Darrell, in a sneering voice. 'But
then dear Gladys was always a little odd and romantic. You remember I
warned you some time ago, Giles, that if we were not careful and firm--'

'Pshaw!' was the impatient answer, and I continued pleadingly,--

'Gladys seems to me in a weak, nervous state, and I do not think it would
be wise to thwart her in this. Sick people must be humoured sometimes. I
think you could trust me to watch over her most carefully.'

'Giles, I will not answer for the consequences if Miss Garston nurses
Gladys,' interposed Miss Darrell eagerly. 'You have no idea how she
excites her. They talk, and have mysteries together, and Gladys is always
more low-spirited when she has seen Miss Garston. You know I have only
dear Gladys's interest at heart, and in a serious nervous illness like
this--' But he interrupted her.

'Etta, this is no affair of yours: you can leave me, if you please, to
make arrangements for my sister. I am very much obliged to you, Miss
Garston, for offering to nurse Gladys, but there was no need of all this
explanation; you might have known, I think, that I was not likely to
refuse.'

He spoke coldly, and his face looked dark and inflexible, but I could see
he was watching me. I am sure I perplexed and baffled him that night: as
I thanked him warmly for his consent, he checked me almost irritably:

'Nonsense! the thanks are on our side, as we shall reap the benefit of
your services. What shall you do about your other patients, may I ask?'

'I will tell you,' I returned, not a bit daunted either by his
irritability or sternness. In my heart I knew that he was glad that
I had asked this favour of him. Oh, I understood him too well to be
afraid of his moods now!

'I must ask you to help me,' I went on. 'Will you kindly send that note
to Mrs. Barton. It is to beg her to furnish me with all I need.'

'Thornton shall take it at once,' he returned promptly.

'Thank you. Now about my poor people. Little Jessie still needs care, and
Janet will be an invalid for some time. I do not wish them to miss me.'

His face softened; a half-smile came to his lips. 'There is only one
village nurse,' he said dubiously.

'True, but I think I can find an excellent substitute. Do you remember my
speaking to you of a young nurse at St. Thomas's who was obliged to leave
from ill health? She is better now, only not fit for hospital work. I am
thinking of writing to her, and asking her to occupy my rooms at the
cottage for a week or two until Gladys is better. Change of air will do
Miss Watson good, and it will not hurt her to look after Janet and little
Jessie.'

Mr. Hamilton looked pleased at this suggestion,--'an excellent idea,'
and, as though by an afterthought, 'a very kind one. I did not wish to
add to your burdens, but Janet Coombe is hardly out of the wood yet.'

Miss Darrell tittered scornfully. As I glanced at her, I saw she was
dragging her gold bangles over her arm until there was a red line on the
flesh. Her eyes looked dark and glittering, but she was obliged to
suppress her anger.

'Janet Coombe is only a poor servant. The work is not so attractive to
Miss Garston, I should think,' she said, in a tone so suggestive that the
blood rushed to my face. Women know how to stab sometimes. Happily, Mr.
Hamilton's common sense came to my aid. I quieted down directly at the
first sound of his voice.

'What makes you so uncharitable, Etta? We all know our village nurse too
well to believe that insinuation. If Gladys be only nursed with half the
tenderness that was shown to Janet, I shall be quite content to leave her
under Miss Garston's care.' Then, turning to me, with something of his
old cordial manner, 'Well, it is all settled, is it not, that you remain
here to-night? Is there anything else you wish to say to me?'

'Only one thing,' I replied quietly. 'Will you kindly give orders that
Gladys's little maid, Chatty, waits upon the sick-room? Leah seems to
have taken that office upon herself lately, and Gladys has a great
dislike to her.'

'Really, this passes everything!' exclaimed Miss Darrell angrily. 'What
has my poor Leah done, to be set aside in this way?'

'She is your maid, is she not, Etta?'

'Yes; but, Giles--'

'And Chatty always waits on my sisters. It is certainly not Leah's
business to wait on the turret-room.'

'Leah,' raising his voice a little, as Leah came downstairs with a tray
of linen, 'I want to speak to you a moment. Miss Garston has undertaken
to nurse my sister, and all her orders are to be carried out. Chatty is
to attend to the sick-room for the future; there is no need for you to
neglect your mistress.'

'Very well, sir,' replied the woman civilly; but he did not see the look
she gave me. I had made an enemy of Leah from that moment: neither she
nor her mistress would ever forgive me that slight.

'If Miss Garston has no more orders to give me,' observed Miss Darrell,
with ill-concealed temper, 'I may as well go, for I am rather tired of
this, Giles.' And she followed Leah, and we could hear them whispering
in the little passage leading to the housekeeper's room.

'You must not mind Etta's little show of temper,' remarked Mr. Hamilton
apologetically. 'She is rather put out because Gladys prefers your
nursing. Between ourselves, she is a little too fussy to suit a nervous
invalid; but she is kind-hearted and means well. I was rather sorry for
her just now, but I know how to bring her round.'

'I am no favourite with Miss Darrell,' I returned, wondering secretly at
his blind infatuation for his cousin.

'No; it is easy to see that you do not understand each other. Etta was
not quite fair to you just now. That is why I spoke so decidedly. I will
have no interference with the sick-room: you will have to account to me,
but to no one else.'

I did not venture to raise my eyes. I was so afraid they might betray me.
How could I repent my trust in such a man? I felt I could wait cheerfully
for years, until he chose to break down the barrier between us.

I bade him good-night, after this, and hurried back to Gladys. I had no
idea that he was following me. As I closed the door, I said, in quite a
gay tone,--

'Well, darling, I always told you your brother was your best friend, and
he has proved the truth of my words. I knew we could trust him--' But a
knock at the door interrupted me. I felt rather confused when he entered,
for I knew I must have been overheard; but he took no notice, and went
straight up to Gladys.

'You see, it is to be as you wished,' he said pleasantly, 'and Miss
Garston has installed herself here as your nurse. Is your mind easier
now, you foolish child?'

'Oh yes, Giles, and I am so much obliged to you; it is so good of you to
allow it.'

'Humph! I don't see the goodness much; but never mind that now: you must
promise me to do all Miss Garston tells you, and get well as soon as you
can. Make up your mind, my dear, that you will try and overcome all these
nervous fancies.'

'Yes, Giles,' very faintly.

'You have let yourself get rather too low, and so it will be hard work to
pull you up again; but we mean to do it between us, eh, Miss Garston?'

I told him that I hoped Gladys would soon be better.

'Oh yes; but Rome was not built in a day,' patting her hand: 'we want a
little time and patience, that is all.' And he was leaving the room, when
her languid voice recalled him:

'I mean to be good, and give as little trouble as possible,--and--and--I
should like you to kiss me, Giles.'

I saw a dusky flush come to his face as he stooped and kissed her. I knew
it was the first time that she had ever voluntarily kissed him since
Eric's loss.

'Good-night, my dear,' he said, very gently; but he did not look at me as
he left the room.

I put Gladys to bed after this, with Chatty's help. She was very faint
and exhausted, and I sat down in the moonlight to watch her. My thoughts
were busy enough. There would be little sleep for me that night, I knew.
It was so strange for me to be under that roof,--so strange and so sweet
that I should be serving him and his; and then I thought of Uncle Max,
and how troubled he would be to hear of Gladys's illness, and I
determined to write to him the next day.

I was rather startled later on, when most of the household had retired to
rest, to hear a gentle tap at the door.

Of course it was Mr. Hamilton, and I went into the passage, half closing
the door behind me.

'Is she asleep?' he asked anxiously, as he noticed this action.

'No, not asleep, but quite drowsy. I have given her the draught as you
wished, but it is singular how she objects to it. She says it only
confuses her head, and gives her nightmare.'

'We must quiet her by some means,' he returned; and I saw by the light of
the lamp he carried that his face looked rather grave. 'Perhaps you did
not know that Etta and I were up with her last night. She was in a
condition that bordered on delirium.'

'No; I certainly did not know that.'

'She may be better to-night,' he returned quickly: 'her mind is more at
rest. Poor child! I cannot understand what has brought on this state of
disordered nerves.'

'Nor I.'

'It is very sad altogether. It is a great relief to me to know you are
with her. I must have had a professional nurse, for Etta's fussiness was
driving her crazy. Now, Miss Garston,' in a business-like tone, 'I want
to know how they have provided for your comfort. Where do you sleep
to-night?'

I could not suppress a smile, for I knew that there had been no provision
made for my accommodation: the whole household had metaphorically washed
their hands of me.

'I shall rest very well on the couch,' I returned, unwilling to disturb
him.

'Good heavens!' he exclaimed, looking excessively displeased. 'Do you
mean that Lady Betty's room has not been got ready for you? I told Leah
myself, as Chatty was in the sick-room; and she certainly understood me.
This shall be looked into to-morrow. Leah will find I am not to be
disobeyed with impunity. I thought Lady Betty's room would do so well for
you, as there is a door of communication, and if you left it open you
could hear Gladys in a moment.'

'Never mind to-night,' I returned cheerfully. 'I am quite fresh, and
shall not need much sleep. No doubt the room will be ready for me
to-morrow.'

'Well, I suppose it is too late to disturb them now; but I feel very much
ashamed of our inhospitality.' Then, in rather an embarrassed voice, 'I
am afraid I must have seemed rather ungracious in my manner downstairs,
but I am really very grateful to you.'

This was too much for me. 'Please don't talk of being grateful to me, Mr.
Hamilton,' I returned, rather too impulsively. 'You do not know how glad
I am to do anything for you--all.' The word 'all' was added as though by
an afterthought, and came in a little awkwardly.

There was a sudden gleam in Mr. Hamilton's eyes; he seemed about to
speak; impetuous words were on his tongue, then he checked himself.

'Thank you. Good-night, Nurse Ursula,' he said, very kindly, and I went
back to Gladys, feeling happier than I had felt since that afternoon when
he had given me the roses.

Gladys was quieter that night; she slept fitfully and uneasily, and
moaned a little as though she were conscious of pain, but there was no
alarming excitement.

Early the next morning I heard them preparing Lady Betty's room, and once
when I went into the passage in search of Chatty I met Leah coming out
with a dusting-brush: she looked very sullen, and took no notice of my
greeting. Chatty helped me arrange my goods and chattels: as we worked
together she told me confidentially that master had been scolding Leah,
and had told her she ought to be ashamed of herself, and when Miss
Darrell had taken her part he had been angry with her too. 'Thornton says
Miss Darrell has been crying, and has not eaten a mouthful of breakfast,'
went on Chatty; but I silenced these imprudent communications. It was
quite evident that I was a bone of contention in the household, and that
Mr. Hamilton would have some difficulty in subduing Leah's contumacy.

I wrote to Ellen Watson that morning, and soon received a rapturous
acceptance of my invitation. She would be delighted to come to the
cottage and to look after my poor people.

'I am very much stronger,' she wrote, 'but I must not go back to the
hospital for two months: a breath of country air will be delicious, and
it is so good of you, my dear Miss Garston, to think of me. I am sure
Mrs. Barton will make me comfortable, and I will do all I can for poor
Janet Coombe and that dear little burnt child.'

I showed Mr. Hamilton the letter, and while he was reading it Chatty
brought me word that Uncle Max was waiting to speak to me.

'If you like to go down to him I will wait here until you come back,' he
said; and I was too glad to avail myself of this offer, for Gladys seemed
more suffering and restless than usual. I found Max walking up and down
the drawing-room. As he came forward to meet me his face looked quite old
and haggard.

'I am glad you have not kept me waiting, Ursula. I sent up that message
in spite of Leah's telling me that you never left the sick-room.'

'Leah is wrong,' I replied coolly. 'Mr. Hamilton insists on my going in
the garden for at least half an hour daily, while Chatty takes my place.
I cannot stay long, Max, but all the same I am glad you sent for me.'

'I felt I must see you,' he returned, rather huskily. 'Letters are so
unsatisfactory; but it was good of you to write, always so kind and
thoughtful, my dear.' He paused for a moment as though to recover
himself. 'She is very ill, Ursula?'

'Very ill.'

'How gravely you speak! Are things worse than you told me? You do not
mean to tell me there is absolute danger?'

'Oh no; certainly not; but it is very sad to see her in such a state. Her
nerves have quite broken down; all these three years have told on her,
and there seems some fresh trouble on her mind!'

'God forbid!' he returned quickly.

'Ay, God forbid, for He alone knows what is burdening the mind of this
young creature: she is too weak to throw off her nervous fancies. She
blames herself for harbouring such gloomy thoughts, and it distresses her
not to be able to control them. The night is her worst time. If we could
only conquer this sleeplessness! I have sad work with her sometimes.'

I spared Max further particulars: he was harassed and anxious enough.
I would not harrow up his feelings by telling him how often that feeble,
piteous voice roused me from my light slumbers; how, hurrying to her
bedside, I would find Gladys bathed in tears, and cold and trembling in
every limb, and how she would cling to me, pouring out an incoherent
account of some vague shadowy terror that was on her.

There were other things I could have told him: how in that semi-delirium
his name, as well as Etta's, was perpetually on her lips, uttered in a
tone sometimes tender, but more often reproachful, sometimes in a very
anguish of regret. Now I understood why she dreaded Etta's presence in
her room: she feared betraying herself to those keen ears. Often after
one of these outbursts she would strive to collect her scattered
faculties.

'Have I been talking nonsense, Ursula?' she would ask, in a tremulous
voice. 'I have been dreaming, I think, and the pain in my head confuses
me so: do not let me talk so much.' But I always succeeded in soothing
her.

If I read her secret, it was safe with me. I must know more before I
could help either her or him. If she would only get well enough for me to
talk to her, I knew what to say; and I did all I could to console Max.
But I could not easily allay his anxiety or my own; it was impossible to
conceal from him that she was in a precarious state, and that unless the
power of sleep returned to her there was danger of actual brain-fever; in
her morbid condition one knew not what to fear. Perfect quiet, patience,
and tenderness were the only means to be employed. As I moved about the
cool, dark room, where no uneasy lights and shadows fretted her weakened
eyes, I could not help remembering the comfortless glare and the hot,
pungent scents that Miss Darrell had left behind her. Most likely she had
rustled over the matting in her silk gown, and her hard, metallic voice
had rasped the invalid's nerves. Doubtless there was hope for her now in
her brother's skilful treatment, and when I told Max so he went away a
little comforted.



CHAPTER XXXIX

WHITEFOOT IS SADDLED


After the first day or so the strangeness and novelty of my
position wore off, and I settled down to my work in the sick-room.

Chatty waited upon us very nicely; but Miss Darrell never came near us.
Once a day a formal message was brought by Chatty asking after the
invalid. I used to think this somewhat unnecessary, as Mr. Hamilton could
report his sister's progress at breakfast-time.

When I encountered Miss Darrell on my way to the garden I always accosted
her with marked civility; her manner would be a little repelling in
return, and she would answer me very coldly. In spite of her outward
politeness, I think she was a little afraid of me at that time. I always
felt that a concealed sneer lay under her words. She made it clearly
understood that she considered that I had forced myself into the house
for my own purposes. Under these conditions I thought it better to avoid
these encounters as much as possible.

I saw Uncle Max two or three times. He had timed his visits purposely
that he might join me in my stroll in the garden. We had made the
arrangement to meet in this way daily. Max's society and sympathy would
have been a refreshment to me, but we were obliged to discontinue the
practice. Max never appeared without Miss Darrell following a few minutes
afterwards. She would come out of the house, brisk and smiling, in
_grande toilette_,--to take a turn in the shrubberies, as she said.
Max would look at me and very soon take his leave. At last he told
me dejectedly that we might as well give it up, as Miss Darrell was
determined that he should not speak to me alone: so after that I
contrived to send him daily notes by Chatty, who was always delighted
to do an errand in the village.

'I can't think what makes Miss Darrell so curious, ma'am,' the girl once
said to me. 'She asks me every day if I have been down to the vicarage.
She did it while master was by the other afternoon, and he told her quite
sharply that it was no affair of hers.'

'Never mind that, Chatty.'

'Oh, but I am afraid she means mischief, ma'am,' persisted Chatty, who
had a great dislike to Miss Darrell, which she showed by being somewhat
pert to her, 'for she said in such a queer tone to master, "There, I told
you so: now you will believe me," and master looked as though he were not
pleased.'

As I strolled round the garden in Nap's company I often saw Leah
sitting sewing at her mistress's window: she would put down her work and
watch me until I was out of sight. I felt the woman hated me, and this
surveillance was very unpleasant to me. I never felt quite free until
I reached the kitchen-garden.

Mr. Hamilton visited his sister's room regularly three times a day. He
never stayed long: he would satisfy himself about her condition, say a
few cheerful words to her, and that was all.

His manner to me was grave and professional. Now and then, when he had
given his directions, he would ask me if there were anything he could do
for me, and if I were comfortable: and yet, in spite of his reserve and
guarded looks and words, I felt an atmosphere of protection and comfort
surrounding me that I had not known since Charlie's death.

Every day I had proofs of his thought for me. The flowers and fruits that
were sent into the sick-room were for me as well as Gladys. I was often
touched to see how some taste of mine had been remembered and gratified:
sometimes Chatty would tell me that master had given orders that such a
thing should be provided for Miss Garston; and in many other ways he made
me feel that I was not forgotten.

For some days Gladys continued very ill; she slept fitfully and uneasily,
waking in terror from some dream that escaped her memory. I used to hear
her moaning, and be beside her before she opened her eyes. 'It is only a
nightmare,' I would say to her as she clung to me like a frightened
child; but it was not always easy to banish the grisly phantoms of a
diseased and overwrought imagination. The morbid condition of her mind
was aggravated and increased by physical weakness; at the least exertion
she had fainting-fits that alarmed us.

She told me more than once that a sense of sin oppressed her; she must be
more wicked than other people, or she thought Providence would not permit
her to be so unhappy. Sometimes she blamed herself with influencing Eric
wrongly: she ought not to have taken his part against his brother. '"He
that hateth his brother is a murderer." Ursula, there were times, I am
sure, when I hated Giles.' And with this thought upon her she would beg
him to forgive her when he next came into the room.

He never seemed surprised at these exaggerated expressions of penitence:
he treated it all as part of her malady.

'Very well, I will forgive you, my dear,' he would say, feeling her
pulse. 'Have you taken your medicine, Gladys?'

'Oh, but, Giles, I do feel so wretched about it all! Are you sure that
you really and truly forgive me?'

'Quite sure,' he returned, smiling at her. 'Now you must shut your eyes,
like a good child, and go to sleep.' But, though she tried to obey him, I
could see she was not satisfied: tears rolled down her cheeks from under
her closed eyelids.

'What is it, my darling?' I asked, kissing her. 'Do you feel more ill
than usual?'

'No, no; it is only this sense of sin. Oh, Ursula, how nice it would be
to die, and never do anything wrong again!' And so she went on bemoaning
herself.

I had thought it better to move her into Lady Betty's room. It was a
large square room opening out of the turret-room, and very light and
airy. I had a little bed put up for my use, so that I could hear her
every movement. I told Mr. Hamilton that I could not feel easy to have
her out of my sight; and he quite agreed with me.

In the daytime we carried her into the turret-room. The little recess
formed by the circular window made a charming sitting-room, and just held
Gladys's couch and an easy-chair and a little round table with a basket
of hot-house flowers on it. Mr. Hamilton declared that we looked very
cosy when he first found us there.

In the cool of the evening, when Gladys could bear the blind raised, it
was very pleasant to sit there looking down on the little oak avenue,
where the girls had set their tea-table that afternoon: we could watch
the rooks cawing and circling about the elms. Sometimes Mr. Hamilton
would pass with Nap at his heels and look up at us with a smile. Once a
great bunch of roses all wet with dew came flying through the open window
and fell on Gladys's muslin gown. 'Did Giles throw them? Will you thank
him, Ursula?' she said, raising them in her thin fingers. 'How cool and
delicious they are?' But when I looked out Mr. Hamilton was not to be
seen.

Lady Betty wrote very piteous letters begging to be recalled, which Mr.
Hamilton answered very kindly but firmly. He told her that Gladys
required perfect quiet, that if she came home she would not be allowed to
be with her; and when Lady Betty heard that I was nursing her she grew a
little more content.

Gladys was always more restless and suffering towards evening; 'her bad
thoughts,' as she called them, came out like bats in the darkness. I
tried the experiment of singing to her one evening, and I found, to my
delight, that my voice had a soothing influence: after this I always sang
to her after she was in bed: I used to take up my station by the window
and sing softly one song after another, until she was quiet and drowsy.

As I sang I always saw a dark shadow, moving slowly under the oak-trees,
pacing slowly up and down; sometimes it approached the house and stood
motionless under the window, but I never took any notice.

'Thank you, dear Ursula,' Gladys would say when I at last ceased; 'I
feel more comfortable now.' And after a time I would hear her regular
breathing and know she was asleep. I shall never forget the relief with
which I watched her first natural sleep: she had had a restless night, as
usual, but towards morning she had fallen into a quiet, refreshing sleep,
which had lasted for three hours.

I had finished my breakfast when I heard her stirring, and hurried in to
her; to my delight, she spoke to me quite naturally, without a trace of
nervousness:

'I have had such a lovely sleep, Ursula, and without any bad dreams.
I feel so refreshed.'

'I am so glad to hear it, dear,' I replied; and, overjoyed at this good
news, I went out into the passage to find Chatty, for I wanted Mr.
Hamilton to know at once of this improvement. He had been very anxious
the previous night, and had talked of consulting with an old friend of
his who knew Gladys's constitution.

On the threshold I encountered Miss Darrell.

'Were you looking for any one?' she asked coldly.

'Yes, for Chatty. I want Mr. Hamilton to know that Gladys has had three
hours' sleep, and has awakened refreshed and without any nervous
feelings. Will you be kind enough to tell him?'

'Oh, certainly: not that I attach much importance to such a transient
improvement. Gladys's case is far too serious for me to be so sanguine.
I believe you have not nursed these nervous patients before. If Giles had
taken my advice he would have had a person trained to this special work.'

'Gladys's case does not require that sort of nurse,' I replied quickly.
'Excuse me, Miss Darrell, but I am anxious that Mr. Hamilton should know
of his sister's improvement before he goes out. Chatty told me that they
had sent for him from Abbey Farm.'

'Yes, I believe so,' she replied carelessly. 'Don't trouble yourself Miss
Garston: I am quite as anxious as yourself that Giles's mind should be
put at rest. He has had worry enough, poor fellow.'

I was rather surprised and disappointed when, ten minutes afterwards, I
heard the hall door close, and, hurrying to a window, I saw Mr. Hamilton
walking very quickly in the direction of Maplehurst. A moment afterwards
Chatty brought me a message from him. He had been called off suddenly,
and might not be back for hours. If I wanted him, Atkinson was to take
one of the horses. He would probably be at Abbey Farm or at Gunter's
Cottages in the Croft.

This message rather puzzled me. After turning it over in my mind, I went
in search of Miss Darrell. I found her in the conservatory gathering some
flowers.

'Did you give my message to Mr. Hamilton?' I asked, rather abruptly. I
thought she hesitated and seemed a little confused.

'What message? Oh, I remember,--about Gladys. No, I just missed him: he
had gone out. But it is of no consequence, is it? I will tell him when he
comes home.'

I would not trust myself to reply. She must have purposely loitered on
her way downstairs, hoping to annoy me. He would spend an anxious day,
for I knew he was very uncomfortable about Gladys: perhaps he would write
to Dr. Townsend. It was no use speaking to Miss Darrell: she was only too
ready to thwart me on all occasions. I would take the matter into my own
hands. I went down to the stables and found Atkinson, and asked him to
ride over to Abbey Farm and take a note to his master.

'I hope Miss Gladys is not worse, ma'am,' he said civilly, looking rather
alarmed at his errand; but when I had satisfied him on this point he
promised to find him as quickly as possible.

'There is only Whitefoot in the stable,' he said. 'Master has both the
browns out: Norris was to pick him up in the village. But he is quite
fresh, and will do the job easily.' I wrote my note while Whitefoot was
being saddled, and then went back to the house. Miss Darrell looked at me
suspiciously.

'I thought I heard voices in the stable-yard,' she said; and I at once
told her what I had done.

For the first time she seemed utterly confounded.

'You told Atkinson to saddle Whitefoot and go all these miles just to
carry that ridiculous message! I wonder what Giles will say,' she
observed indignantly. 'All these years that I have managed his house
I should never have thought of taking such a liberty.'

This was hard to bear, but I answered her with seeming coolness:

'If Mr. Hamilton thinks I am wrong, he will tell me so. In this house
I am only accountable to him.' And I walked away with much dignity.

But I knew I had been right when I saw Mr. Hamilton's face that evening,
for he did not return until seven o'clock. He came up at once, and
beckoned me into Lady Betty's room.

'Thank you for your thoughtfulness, Miss Garston,' he said gratefully.
'You have spared me a wretchedly anxious day. A bad accident case at
Abbey Farm called me off, and I had only time to get my things ready, and
I was obliged to see the colonel first. If you had not sent me that note
I should have written to Dr. Townsend. But why did not Chatty bring me a
message before I went?'

I explained that I had given the message to Miss Darrell.

'That is very strange,' he observed thoughtfully. 'Thornton was helping
me in the hall when I saw Etta watering her flower-stand. Well, never
mind; she shall have her lecture presently. Now let us go to Gladys.'

Of course his first look at her told him she was better, and he went
downstairs contentedly to eat his dinner. After this Gladys made slow but
steady progress: she gained a little more strength; the habit of sleep
returned to her; her nights were no longer seasons of terror, leaving her
dejected and exhausted. Insensibly her thoughts became more hopeful; she
spoke of other things besides her own feelings, and no longer refused to
yield to my efforts to cheer her.

I watched my opportunity, and one evening, as we were sitting by the
window looking out at a crescent moon that hung like a silver bow behind
the oak-trees, I remarked, with assumed carelessness, that Uncle Max had
called earlier that day. There was a perceptible start on Gladys's part,
and she caught her breath for an instant.

'Do you mean that Mr. Cunliffe often comes?' she asked, in a low voice,
and turning her long neck aside with a quick movement that concealed her
face.

'Oh yes, every day. I do not believe that he has missed more than once,
and then he sent Mr. Tudor. You see your friends have been anxious about
you, Gladys. I wrote to Max often to tell him exactly what progress you
were making.'

'It was very kind of him to be so anxious,' she answered slowly, and
with manifest effort. I thought it best to say no more just then, but to
leave her to digest these few words. That night was the best she had yet
passed, and in the morning I was struck by the improvement in her
appearance; she looked calmer and more cheerful.

Towards mid-day I noticed that she grew a little abstracted, and when
Uncle Max's bell rang, she looked at me, and a tinge of colour came to
her face.

'Should you not like to go down and speak to Mr. Cunliffe?' she said
timidly. 'I must not keep you such a prisoner, Ursula.' But when I
returned indifferently that another day would do as well, and that I had
nothing special to say to him, I noticed that she looked disappointed. As
I never mentioned Miss Darrell's name to her, I could not explain my real
reason for declining to go down. I was rather surprised when she
continued in an embarrassed tone, as though speech had grown difficult to
her,--she often hesitated in this fashion when anything disturbed her,--

'I am rather sorry that Etta always sees him alone: one never knows what
she may say to him. I have begun to distrust her in most things.'

'I do not think that it matters much what she says to him,' I returned
briskly; for it would never do to leave her anxious on this point. 'You
know I have provided an antidote in the shape of daily notes.'

'Surely you do not write every day,' taking her fan from the table with
a trembling hand. 'What can you have to say to Mr. Cunliffe about me?'
And I could see she waited for my answer with suppressed eagerness.

'Oh, he likes to know how you slept,' I returned carelessly, 'and if you
are quieter and more cheerful. Uncle Max has such sympathy with people
who are ill; he is very kind-hearted.'

'Oh yes; I never knew any one more so,' she replied gently; but I
detected a yearning tone in her voice, as though she was longing for his
sympathy then. We did not say any more, but I thought she was a trifle
restless that afternoon, and yet she looked happier; she spoke once or
twice, as though she were tired of remaining upstairs.

'I think I am stronger. Does Giles consider it necessary for me to stop
up here?' she asked, once. 'If it were not for Etta I should like to be
in the drawing-room. But no, that would be an end to our peace.' And here
she looked a little excited. 'But if Giles would let me have a drive.'

I promised to speak to him on the subject of the drive, for I was sure
that he would hail the proposition most gladly as a sign of returning
health; but I told her that in my opinion it would be better for her to
remain quietly in these two pleasant rooms until she was stronger and
more fit to endure the little daily annoyances that are so trying to a
nervous invalid.

'When that time comes you will have to part with your nurse,' I went on,
in a joking tone. But I was grieved to see that at the first hint of my
leaving her she clung to me with the old alarm visible in her manner.

'You must not say that! I cannot part with you, Ursula!' she exclaimed
vehemently. 'If you go, you must take me with you.' And it was some time
before she would let herself be laughed out of her anxious thoughts.

When I revolved all these things in my mind,--her prolonged delicacy and
painful sensitiveness, her aversion to her cousin, and her evident dread
of the future,--I felt that the time had come to seek a more complete
understanding on a point that still perplexed me: I must come to the
bottom of this singular change in her manner to Max. I must know without
doubt and reserve the real state of her feeling with regard to him and
her cousin Claude. If, as I had grown to think during these weeks of
illness, one of these two men, and not Eric, was the chief cause of her
melancholy, I must know which of these two had so agitated her young
life. But in my own mind I never doubted which it was.

This was the difficult task I had set myself, and I felt that it would
not be easy to approach the subject. Gladys was exceedingly reserved,
even with me; it had cost her an effort to speak to me of Eric, and she
had never once mentioned her cousin Captain Hamilton's name.

A woman like Gladys would be extremely reticent on the subject of lovers:
the deeper her feelings, the more she would conceal them. Unlike other
girls, I never heard her speak in the light jesting way with which others
mention a love-affair. She once told me that she considered it far too
sacred and serious to be used as a topic of general conversation. 'People
do not know what they are talking about when they say such things,' she
said, in a moved voice: 'there is no reverence, and little reticence,
nowadays. Girls talk of falling in love, or men felling in love with
them, as lightly as they would speak of going to a ball. They do not
consider the responsibility, the awfulness, of such an election, being
chosen out of a whole worldful of women to be the light and life of a
man's home. Oh, it hurts me to hear some girls talk!' she finished, with
a slight shudder.

Knowing the purity and uprightness of this girl's nature, I confess I
hesitated long in intruding myself into that inner sanctuary that she
guarded so carefully; but for Max's sake--poor Max, who grew more
tired-looking and haggard every day--I felt it would be cruel to hesitate
longer.

So one evening, when we were sitting quietly together enjoying the cool
evening air, I took Gladys's thin hand in mine and asked her if she felt
well enough for me to talk to her about something that had long troubled
me, and that I feared speaking to her about, dreading lest I should
displease her. I thought she looked a little apprehensive at my
seriousness, but she replied very sweetly, and the tears came into her
beautiful eyes as she spoke, that nothing I could say or do could
displease her; that I was so true a friend to her that it would be
impossible for her to take offence.

'I am glad of that, Gladys dear,' I returned quietly; 'for I have long
wanted courage to ask you a question. What is the real reason of your
estrangement from Max?' and then, growing bolder, I whispered in her ear,
as she shrank from me, 'I do not ask what are your feelings to him, for I
think I have guessed them,--unless, indeed, I am wrong, and you prefer
your cousin Captain Hamilton.' I almost feared that I had been too abrupt
and awkward when I saw her sudden paleness: she began to tremble like a
leaf until I mentioned Captain Hamilton's name, and then she turned to me
with a look of mingled astonishment and indignation.

'Claude? Are you out of your senses, Ursula? Who has put such an idea
into your head?'

I remembered Uncle Max's injunctions to secrecy, and felt I must be
careful.

'I thought that it could not be Captain Hamilton,' I returned, rather
lamely: 'you have never mentioned his name to me.' But she interrupted me
in a tone of poignant distress, and there was a sudden trouble in her
eyes, brought there by my mention of Claude.

'Oh, this is dreadful!' she exclaimed: 'you come to me and talk about
Claude, knowing all the time that I have never breathed his name to you.
Who has spoken it, then? How could such a thought arise in your mind? It
must be Etta, and we are undone,--undone!'

'My darling, you must not excite yourself about a mere mistake,' I
returned, anxious to soothe her. 'I cannot tell you how it came into my
head; that is my little secret, Gladys, my dear: if you agitate yourself
at a word we shall never understand each other. I want you to trust me as
you would trust a dear sister,--we are sisters in heart, Gladys,'--but
here I blushed over my words and wished them unuttered,--'and to tell me
exactly what has passed between you and Max.'



CHAPTER XL

THE TALK IN THE GLOAMING


I heard Gladys repeat my words softly under her breath,--she seemed to
say them in a sort of dream,--'what has passed between you and Max.' And
then she looked at me a little pitifully, and her lip quivered. 'Oh, if I
dared to speak! but to you of all persons,--what would you think of me?
Could it be right?--and I have never opened my lips to any one on that
subject of my own accord; if Lady Betty knows, it is because Etta told
her. Oh, it was wrong--cruel of Giles to let her worm the truth out of
him!'

'If Lady Betty and Miss Darrell know, you might surely trust me,--your
friend,' I returned. 'Gladys, you know how I honour reticence in such
matters; I am the last person to force an unwilling confidence; but there
are reasons--no, I cannot explain myself; you must trust me implicitly or
not at all. I do not think you will ever repent that trust; and for your
own sake as well as mine I implore you to confide in me.' For a moment
she looked at me with wide, troubled eyes, then she ceased to hesitate.

'What is it you want to know?' she asked, in a low voice.

'Everything, all that has passed between you and my poor Max, who always
seems so terribly unhappy. Is it not you who have to answer for that
unhappiness?'

A pained expression crossed her face.

'It is true that I made him unhappy once, but that is long ago; and men
are not like us: they get over things. Oh, I must explain it to you, or
you will not understand. Do not be hard upon me: I have been sorely
punished,' she sighed; and for a few moments there was silence between
us. I had no wish to hurry her. I knew her well: she was long in giving
her confidence, but when once she gave it, it would be lavishly,
generously, and without stint, just as she would give her love, for
Gladys was one of those rare creatures who could do nothing meanly or
by halves.

Presently she began to speak of her own accord:

'You know how good Mr. Cunliffe was to me in my trouble; at least you can
guess, though you can never really know it. When I was most forlorn and
miserable I used to feel less wretched and hopeless when he was beside
me; in every possible way he strengthened and braced me for my daily
life; he roused me from my state of selfish despondency, put work into my
hands, and encouraged me to persevere. If it had not been for his help
and sympathy, I never could have lived through those bitter days when all
around me believed that my darling Eric had died a coward's death.'

'Do not speak of Eric to-night, dearest,' I observed, alarmed at her
excessive paleness as she uttered his name.

'No,' with a faint smile at my anxious tone; 'we are talking about some
one else this evening. Ursula, you may imagine how grateful I was,--how I
grew to look upon him as my best friend, how I learned to confide in him
as though he were a wise elder brother.'

'A brother!--oh, Gladys!'

'It was the truth,' she went on mournfully: 'no other thought entered my
mind, and you may conceive the shock when one morning he came to me, pale
and agitated, and asked me if I could love him well enough to marry him.

'How I recall that morning! It was May, and I had just come in from
the garden, laden with pink and white May blossoms, and long trails of
laburnum, and there he was waiting for me in the drawing-room. Every one
was out, and he was alone.

'I fancied he looked different,--rather nervous and excited,--but I never
guessed the reason until he began to speak, and then I thought I should
have broken my heart to hear him,--that I must give him pain who had been
so good to me. Oh, Ursula! I had never had such cruel work to do as that.

'But I must be true to him as well as myself: this was my one thought. I
did not love him well enough to be his wife; he had not touched my heart
in that way; and, as I believed at that time that I could never care
sufficiently for any man to wish to marry him, I felt that I dared not
let him deceive himself with any future hopes.'

'You were quite right, my darling. Do not look so miserable. Max would
only honour you the more for your truthfulness.'

'Yes, but he knew me better than I knew myself,' she whispered. 'When he
begged to speak to me again I wanted to refuse, but he would not let me.
He asked me--and there were tears in his eyes--not to be so hard on him,
to let him judge for us both in this one thing. He pressed me so, and he
looked so unhappy, that I gave way at last, and said that in a year's
time he might speak again. I remember telling him, as he thanked me very
gratefully, that I should not consider him bound in any way; that I had
so little hope to give him that I had no right to hold him to anything;
if he did not come to me when a year had expired, I should know that he
had changed. There was a gleam in his eyes as I said this that made me
feel for the first time the strength and purpose of a man's will. I grew
timid and embarrassed all at once, and a strange feeling came over me.
Was I, after all, so certain that I should never love him? I could only
breathe freely when he left me.'

'Yes, dear, I understand,' I returned soothingly, for she had covered her
face with her hands, as though overpowered with some recollection.

'Ursula,' she whispered, 'he was right. I had never thought of such
things. I did not know my own feelings. Before three months were over, I
knew I could give him the answer he wanted. I regretted the year's delay;
but for shame, I would have made him understand how it was with me.'

'Could you not have given a sign that your feelings were altered, Gladys?
it would have been generous and kind of you to have ended his suspense.'

'I tried, but it was not easy; but he must have noticed the change in me.
If I were shy and embarrassed with him it was because I cared for him so
much. It used to make me happy only to see him; if he did not speak to
me, I was quite content to know he was in the room. I used to treasure up
his looks and words and hoard them in my memory; it did not seem to me
that any other man could compare with him. You have often laughed at my
hero-worship, but I made a hero of him.'

I was so glad to hear her say this of my dear Max that tears of joy came
to my eyes, but I would not interrupt her by a word: she should tell her
story in her own way.

'Etta had spoken to me long before this. One day when we were sitting
over our work together, and I was thinking happily about Max--Mr.
Cunliffe, I mean.'

'Oh, call him Max to me,' I burst out, but she drew herself up with
gentle dignity.

'It was a mistake: you should not have noticed it. I could never call him
that now.' Poor dear! she had no idea how often she had called him Max in
her feverish wanderings. 'Well, we were sitting together,--for Etta was
nice to me just then, and I did not avoid her company as I do now,--when
she startled me by bursting into tears and reproaching me for not having
told her about Mr. Cunliffe's offer, and leaving her to hear it from
Giles; and then she said how disappointed they all were at my refusal,
and was I really sure that I could not marry him?

'I was not so much on my guard then as I am now, and, though I blamed
Etta for much of the home unhappiness, I did not know all that I have
learned since. You have no idea, either, how fascinating and persuasive
she can be: her influence over Giles proves that. Well, little by little
she drew from me that I was not so indifferent to Mr. Cunliffe as she
supposed, and that in a few months' time he would speak to me again.

'She seemed very kind about it, and said over and over again how glad she
was to hear this; and when I begged her not to hint at my changed
feelings to Giles, she agreed at once, and I will do her the justice to
own that she has kept her word in this. Giles has not an idea of the
truth.'

'Nevertheless, I wish you had kept your own counsel, Gladys.'

'You could not wish it more than I do; but indeed I said very little. I
think my manner told her more than my words, for I cannot remember really
saying anything tangible. I knew she plied me with questions, and when I
did not answer them she laughed and said that she knew.

'I have paid dearly for my want of caution, for I have been in bondage
ever since. My tacit admission that I cared for Mr. Cunliffe has given
Etta a cruel hold over me; my thoughts do not seem my own. She knows how
to wound me: one word from her makes me shrink into myself. Sometimes I
think she takes a pleasure in my secret misery,--that she was only acting
a part when she pretended to sympathise with me. Oh, what a weak fool I
have been, Ursula, to put myself in the power of such a woman!'

'Poor Gladys!' I said, kissing her; and she dashed away her indignant
tear, and hurried on.

'Oh, let me finish all the miserable story. There is not much to say, but
that little is humiliating. It was soon after this that I noticed a
change in Mr. Cunliffe's manner. Scarcely perceptible at first, it became
daily more marked. He came less often, and when he came he scarcely spoke
to me. It was then that Etta began to torment me, and, under the garb of
kindness, to say things that I could not bear. She asked me if Mr.
Cunliffe were not a little distant in his manners to me. She did not wish
to distress me, but there certainly was a change in him. No, I must not
trouble myself, but people were talking. When a vicar was young and
unmarried, and as fascinating as Mr. Cunliffe, people would talk.

'What did they say? Ah, that was no matter, surely. Well, if I would
press her, two or three busybodies had hinted that a certain young lady,
who should be nameless, was rather too eager in her pursuit of the vicar.

'"Such nonsense, Gladys, my dear," she went on, as I remained dumb and
sick at heart at such an imputation. "Of course I told them it was only
your enthusiasm for good works. 'She meets him in her district and at the
mothers' meeting; and what can be the harm of that?' I said to them. 'And
of course she cannot refuse to sing at the penny readings and people's
entertainments when she knows that she gives such pleasure to the poor
people, and it is rather hard that she should be accused of wanting to
display her fine voice.' Oh, you may be sure that I took your part. Of
course it is a pity folks should believe such things, but I hope I made
them properly ashamed of themselves."

'You may imagine how uneasy these innuendoes made me. You know my
sensitiveness, and how prone I am to exaggerate things. It seemed to
me that more lay behind the margin of her words; and I was not wrong.

'In a little while there were other things hinted to me, but very gently.
Ah, she was kind enough to me in those days. Did I not think that I was a
little too imprudent and unreserved in my manner to Mr. Cunliffe? She
hated to make me uncomfortable, and of course I was so innocent that I
meant no harm; but men were peculiar, especially a man like Mr. Cunliffe:
she was afraid he might notice my want of self-control.

'"You do not see yourself, Gladys," she said, once; "a child would find
out that you are over head and ears in love with him. Perhaps it would
not matter so much under other circumstances, but I confess I am a little
uneasy. His manner was very cold and strange last night: he seemed afraid
to trust himself alone with you. Do be careful, my dear. Suppose, after
all, his feelings are changed, and that he fears to tell you so?"

'Ursula, can you not understand the slow torture of these days and weeks,
the first insidious doubts, the increasing fears, that seemed to be
corroborated day by day? Yes, it was not my fancy; Etta was right; he
was certainly changed; he no longer loved me.

'In desperation I acted upon her advice, and resigned my parish work. It
seemed to me that I was parting with the last shred of my happiness when
I did so. I made weak health my excuse, and indeed I was far from well;
but I had the anguish of seeing the unspoken reproach in Mr. Cunliffe's
eyes: he thought me cowardly, vacillating; he was disappointed in me.

'It was the end of April by this time, and in a week or two the day would
come when he would have to speak to me again. Would you believe it?--but
no, you could not dream that I was so utterly mad and foolish,--but in
spite of all this wretchedness I still hoped. The day came and passed,
and he never came near me, and the next day, and the next; and then I
knew that Etta was right,--his love for me was gone.'

'You believed this, Gladys?' but I dared not say more: my promise to Max
fettered me.

'How could I doubt it?' she returned, looking at me with dry, miserable
eyes; and I seemed to realise then all her pain and humiliation. 'His not
coming to me at the appointed time was to be a sign between us that he
had changed his mind. Did I not tell him so with my own lips? did I not
say to him that he was free as air, and that no possible blame could
attach itself to him if he failed to come? Do you suppose that I did
not mean those words?'

'Could you not have given him the benefit of a doubt?' I returned.
'Perhaps your manner too was changed and made him lose hope: the
resignation of all your work in the parish must have discouraged him,
surely.'

'Still, he would have come to me and told me so,' she replied quickly.
'He is not weak or wanting in moral courage: if he had not changed to me
he would have come.

'I have never had hope since that day,' she went on mournfully. 'He is
very kind to me,--very; but it is only the kindness of a friend. He tries
to hide from me how much he is disappointed in me, how I have failed to
come up to his standard; but of course I see it. But for Etta I should
have resumed my work. You were present when he nearly persuaded me to do
so; I was longing then to please him; I think it would be a consolation
to me if I could do something, however humble, to help him; but Etta
always prevents me from doing so. She has taken all my work, and I do not
think she wants to give it up, and she makes me ready to sink through the
floor with the things she says. I dare not open my lips to Mr. Cunliffe
in her presence; she always says afterwards how anxious I looked, or how
he must have noticed my agitation: if I ever came down to see you,
Ursula, she used to declare angrily that I only went in the hope of
meeting him. She thinks nothing of telling me that I am so weak that she
must protect me in spite of myself, and sometimes she implies that he
sees it all and pities me, and that he has hinted as much to her. Oh,
Ursula, what is the matter?' for I had pushed away my chair and was
walking up and down the room, unable to endure my irritated feelings.
She had suffered all this ignominy and prolonged torture under which her
nerves had given way, and now Max's ridiculous scruples hindered me from
giving her a word of comfort. Why could I not say to her, 'You are wrong:
you have been deceived; Max has never swerved for one instant from his
love to you?' And yet I must not say it.

'I cannot sit down! I cannot bear it!' I exclaimed recklessly, quite
forgetting how necessary it was to keep her quiet; but she put out her
hand to me with such a beautiful sad smile.

'Yes, you must sit down and listen to what I have to say: I will not have
you so disturbed about this miserable affair, dear. The pain is better
now; one cannot suffer in that way forever. I do not regret that I have
learned to love Max, even though that love is to bring me unhappiness in
this world. He is worthy of all I can give him, and one day in the better
life what is wrong will be put right; I always tell myself this when I
hear people's lives are disappointed: my illness has taught me this.'

I did not trust myself to reply, and then all at once a thought came to
me: 'Gladys, when I mentioned Captain Hamilton's name just now--I mean at
the commencement of our conversation--why did you seem so troubled? He is
nothing to you, and yet the very mention of his name excited you. This
perplexes me.'

She hesitated for a moment, as though she feared to answer: 'I know I can
trust you, Ursula; but will it be right to do so? I mean, for other
people's sake. But, still, if Etta be talking about him--' She paused,
and seemed absorbed in some puzzling problem.

'You write to him very often,' I hazarded at last, for she did not seem
willing to speak.

'Who told you that?' she returned quickly. 'Claude is my cousin,--at
least step-cousin,--but we are very intimate; there can be no harm in
writing to him.'

'No, of course not: but if people misconstrue your correspondence?'

'I cannot help that,' rather despondently; 'and I do not see that it
matters now; but still I will tell you, Ursula. Claude is in love with
Lady Betty.'

'With Lady Betty?'

'Yes, and Giles does not know. Etta did not for a long time, but she
found out about it, and since then poor Lady Betty has had no peace. You
see the poor children consider themselves engaged, but Lady Betty will
not let Claude speak to Giles until he has promotion. She has got an idea
that he would not allow of the engagement; it sounds wrong, I feel that;
but in our unhappy household things are wrong.'

'And Miss Darrell knows?'

'Yes; but we never could tell how she found it out: Claude corresponds
with me, and Lady Betty only puts in an occasional letter; she is so
dreadfully frightened, poor little thing! For fear her secret should be
discovered. We think that Etta must have opened one of my letters;
anyhow, she knows all there is to know, and she holds her knowledge as a
rod over the poor child. She has promised to keep her counsel and not
tell Giles; but when she is in one of her tempers she threatens to speak
to him. Then she is always hinting things before him just to tease or
punish Lady Betty, but happily he takes no notice. When you said what you
did I was afraid she had made up her mind to keep silence no longer.'

'Why do you think your brother would object to Captain Hamilton?' I
asked, trying to conceal my relief at her words.

'He would object to the long concealment,' she returned gravely. 'But
from the first I wanted Lady Betty to be open about it; but nothing would
induce her to let Claude write to him. Our only plan now is to wait for
Claude to speak to him when he arrives in November. Nothing need be said
about the past: Claude has been wounded, and will get promotion, and
Giles thinks well of him.'

She seemed a little weary by this time, and our talk had lasted long
enough; but there was still one thing I must ask her.

'Gladys, you said you trusted me just now. I am going to put that trust
to the proof. All that has passed between us is sacred, and shall never
cross my lips. On my womanly honour I can promise you that; but I make
one reservation,--what you have just told me about Captain Hamilton.'

She looked at me with an expression of incredulous alarm.

'What can you mean, Ursula? Surely not to repeat a single word about
Claude?'

'I only mean to mention to one person, with whom the knowledge will be as
safe as it will be with me, that Lady Betty is engaged to your cousin
Claude.'

'You will tell Mr. Cunliffe,' she replied, becoming very pale again. 'I
forbid it, Ursula!' But I hindered all further remonstrance on her part,
by throwing my arms round her and begging her with tears in my eyes, and
with all the earnestness of which I was capable, to trust me as I would
trust her in such a case.

'Listen to me,' I continued imploringly. 'Have I ever failed or
disappointed you? have I ever been untrue to you in word or deed? Do
you think I am a woman who would betray the sacred confidence of another
woman?'

'No, of course not; but--' Here my hand resolutely closed her lips.

'Then say to me, "I trust you, Ursula, as I would trust my own soul. I
know no word would pass your lips that if I were standing by you I should
wish unuttered." Say this to me, Gladys, and I shall know you love me.'

She trembled, and turned still paler.

'Why need he know it? What can he have to do with Lady Betty?' she said
irresolutely.

'Leave that to me,' was my firm answer: 'I am waiting for you to say
those words, Gladys.' Then she put down her head on my shoulder, weeping
bitterly.

'Yes, yes, I will trust you. In the whole world I have only you, Ursula,
and you have been good to me.' And, as I soothed and comforted her, she
clung to me like a tired child.



CHAPTER XLI

'AT FIVE O'CLOCK IN THE MORNING'


I passed a wakeful and anxious night, pondering over this strange recital
that seemed to me to corroborate Max's account. I had no doubt in my own
mind as to the treachery that had alienated these two hearts. I knew too
well the subtle power of the smooth false tongue that had done this
mischief; but the motive for all this evil-doing baffled me. 'What is her
reason for trying to separate them?' I asked myself, but always
fruitlessly. 'Why does she dislike this poor girl, who has never harmed
her? Why does she render her life miserable? It is she who has sown
discord between Mr. Hamilton and myself. Ah, I know that well, but I am
powerless to free either him or myself at present. Still, one can detect
a motive for that. She has always disliked me, and she is jealous of her
position. If Mr. Hamilton married she could not remain in his house; no
wife could brook such interference. She knows this, and it is her
interest to prevent him from marrying. All this is clear enough; but
in the case of poor Gladys?' But here again was the old tangle and
perplexity.

I was not surprised that Gladys slept little that night: no doubt
agitating thoughts kept her restless. Towards morning she grew quieter,
and sank into a heavy sleep that I knew would last for two or three
hours. I had counted on this, and had laid my plan accordingly.

I must see Uncle Max at once, and she must not know that I had seen him.
In her weak state any suspense must be avoided. The few words that I
might permit myself to say to him must be spoken without her knowledge.

I knew that in the summer Max was a very early riser. He would often be
at work in his garden by six, and now and then he would start for a long
country walk,--'just to see Dame Earth put the finishing-touches to her
toilet,' he would say. But five had not struck when I slipped into
Chatty's room half dressed. The girl looked at me with round sleepy eyes
as I called her in a low voice.

'Chatty, it is very early, not quite five, but I want you to get up and
dress yourself as quietly as you can and come into the turret-room. I am
going out, and I do not want to wake anybody, and you understand the
fastenings of the front door. I am afraid I should only bungle at them.'

'You are going out, ma'am!' in an astonished voice. Chatty was thoroughly
awake now.

'Yes, I am sorry to disturb you, but I do not want Miss Gladys to miss
me. I shall not be long, but it is some business that I must do.' And
then I crept back to the turret-room.

Leah slept in a little room at the end of the passage, and I was very
unwilling that any unusual sound should reach her ears. Chatty seemed
to share this feeling, for when she joined me presently she was carrying
her shoes in her hands. 'I can't help making a noise,' she said
apologetically; 'and so I crept down the passage in my stockings. If
you are ready, ma'am, I will come and let you out.'

I stood by, rather nervously, as Chatty manipulated the intricate
fastenings. I asked her to replace them as soon as I had gone, and to
come down in about half an hour and open the door leading to the garden.
'I will return that way, and they will only think I have taken an early
stroll,' I observed. I was rather sorry to resort to this small
subterfuge before Chatty, but the girl had implicit trust in me, and
evidently thought no harm; she only smiled and nodded; and as I lingered
for a moment on the gravel path I heard the bolt shoot into its place.

It was only half-past five, and I walked on leisurely. I had not been
farther than the garden for three weeks, and the sudden sense of freedom
and space was exhilarating.

It was a lovely morning. A dewy freshness seemed on everything; the birds
were singing deliciously; the red curtains were drawn across the windows
of the Man and Plough; a few white geese waddled slowly across the green;
some brown speckled hens were feeding under the horse-trough; a goat
browsing by the roadside looked up, quite startled, as I passed him,
and butted slowly at me in a reflective manner. There was a scent of
sweet-brier, of tall perfumy lilies and spicy carnations from the
gardens. I looked at the windows of the houses I passed, but the blinds
were drawn, and the bees and the flowers were the only waking things
there. The village seemed asleep, until I turned the corner, and there,
coming out of the vicarage gate, was Uncle Max himself. He was walking
along slowly, with his old felt hat in his hand, reading his little
Greek Testament as he walked, and the morning sun shining on his
uncovered head and his brown beard.

He did not see me until I was close to him, and then he started, and an
expression of fear crossed his face.

'Ursula, my dear, were you coming to the vicarage? Nothing is wrong,
I hope?' looking at me anxiously.

'Wrong! what should be wrong on such a morning?' I returned playfully.
'Is it not delicious? The air is like champagne; only champagne never had
the scent of those flowers in it. The world is just a big dewy bouquet.
It is good only to be alive on such a morning.'

Max put his Greek Testament in his pocket and regarded me dubiously.

'Were you not coming to meet me, then? It is not a quarter to six yet.
Rather early for an aimless stroll, is it not, my dear?'

'Oh yes, I was coming to meet you,' I returned carelessly. 'I thought you
would be at work in the garden. Max, you are eying me suspiciously: you
think I have something important to tell you. Now you must not be
disappointed; I have very little to say, and I cannot answer questions;
but there is one thing, I have found out all you wish to know about
Captain Hamilton.'

It was sad to see the quick change in his face,--the sudden cloud that
crossed it at the mention of the man whom he regarded as his rival. He
did not speak; not a question came from his lips; but he listened as
though my next word might be the death-warrant to his hopes.

'Max, do not look like that: there is no cause for fear. It is a great
secret, and you must never speak of it, even to me,--but Lady Betty is
engaged to her cousin Claude.'

For a moment he stared at me incredulously. 'Impossible! you must have
been deceived,' I heard him mutter.

'On the contrary, I leave other people to be duped,' was my somewhat cool
answer. 'You need not doubt my news: Gladys is my informant: only, as I
have just told you, it is a great secret. Mr. Hamilton is not to know
yet, and Gladys writes most of the letters. Poor little Lady Betty is in
constant terror that she will be found out, and they are waiting until
Captain Hamilton has promotion and comes home in November.'

He had not lost one word that I said: as he stood there, bareheaded, in
the morning sunshine that was tingeing his beard with gold, I heard his
low, fervent 'Thank God! then it was not that;' but when he turned to me
his face was radiant, his eyes bright and vivid; there was renewed hope
and energy in his aspect.

'Ursula, you have come like the dove with the olive-branch. Is this
really true? It was good of you to come and tell me this.'

'I do not see the goodness, Max.'

'Well, perhaps not; but you have made me your debtor. I like to owe this
to you,--my first gleam of hope. Now, you must tell me one thing. Does
Miss Darrell know of this engagement?'

'She does.'

'Stop a moment: I feel myself getting confused here. I am to ask no
questions: you can tell me nothing more. But I must make this clear to
myself: How long has she known, Ursula? a day? a week?'

'Suppose you substitute the word months,' I observed scornfully. 'I know
no dates, but Miss Darrell has most certainly been acquainted with her
cousin's engagement for months.'

'Oh, this is worse than I thought,' he returned, in a troubled tone.
'This is almost too terrible to believe. She has known all I suffered on
that man's account, and yet she never undeceived me. Can women be so
cruel? Why did she not come to me and say frankly, "I have made a
mistake; I have unintentionally misled you: it is Lady Betty, not Gladys,
who is in love with her cousin"? Good heavens! to leave me in this
ignorance, and never to say the word that would put me out of my misery!'

I was silent, though silence was a torture to me. Even, now the extent of
Miss Darrell's duplicity had not clearly dawned on him. He complained
that she had left him to suffer through ignorance of the truth; but the
idea had not yet entered his mind that possibly she had deceived him from
the first. 'Oh, the stupidity and slowness of these honourable men where
a woman is concerned!' I groaned to myself; but my promise to Gladys kept
me silent.

'It was too bad of her, was it not?' he said, appealing to me for
sympathy; but I turned a deaf ear to this.

'Max, confess that you were wrong not to have taken my advice and gone
down to Bournemouth: you might have spared yourself months of suspense.'

'Do you mean--' And then he reddened and stroked his beard nervously; but
I finished his sentence for him: he should not escape what I had to say
to him.

'It is so much easier to come to an understanding face to face; but you
would not take my advice, and the opportunity is gone. Gladys is in the
turret-room: you could not gain admittance to her without difficulty:
what you have to say must be said by letter; but you might trust that
letter to me, Max.'

He understood me in a moment. I could see the quick look of joy in his
eyes. I had not betrayed Gladys, I had adhered strictly to my word that I
would only speak of Lady Betty's engagement; and with his usual delicacy
Max had put no awkward questions to me: he had respected my scruples, and
kept his burning curiosity to himself. But he would not have been a man
if he had not read some deeper meaning under my silence: he told me
afterwards that the happy look in my eyes told him the truth.

So he merely said very quietly, 'You were right, and I was wrong, Ursula:
I own my fault. But I will write now: I owe Miss Hamilton some
explanation. When the letter is ready, how am I to put it into your
hands?'

'Oh,' I answered in a matter-of-fact way, as though we were speaking of
some ordinary note, and it was not an offer of marriage from a penitent
lover, 'when you have finished talking to Miss Darrell,--you will enjoy
her conversation, I am sure, Max; it will be both pleasant and
profitable,--you might mention casually that there was something you
wanted to say to your niece Ursula, and would she kindly ask that young
person to step down to you for a minute? and then, you see, that little
bit of business will be done.'

'Yes, I see; but--' but here Max hesitated--'but the answer, Ursula?'

'Oh, the answer!' in an off-hand manner; 'you must not be looking for
that yet. My patient must not be hurried or flurried: you must give
her plenty of time. In a day or two--well, perhaps, I might find an
early stroll conducive to my health; these mornings are so beautiful;
and--Nonsense, Max! I would do more than this for you'; for quiet,
undemonstrative Max had actually taken my hand and lifted it to his lips
in token of his gratitude.

After this we walked back in the direction of Gladwyn, and nothing more
was said about the letter. We listened to the rooks cawing from the elms,
and we stood and watched a lark rising from the long meadow before
Maplehurst and singing as though its little throat would burst with its
concentrated ecstasy of song; and when I asked Max if he did not think
the world more beautiful than usual that morning, he smiled, and suddenly
quoted Tennyson's lines, in a voice musical with happiness:

'All the land in flowery squares,
Beneath a broad and equal-flowing wind,
Smelt of the coming summer, as one large cloud
Drew downward; but all else of heaven was pure
Up to the sun, and May from verge to verge,
And May with me from heel to heel.'

'Yes, but, Max, it is July now. The air is too mellow for spring. Your
quotation is not quite apt.'

'Oh, you are realistic; but it fits well enough. Do you not remember how
the poem goes on?

"The garden stretches southward. In the midst
A cedar spread its dark-green layers of shrub.
The garden-glasses shone, and momently
The twinkling laurel scattered silver lights."

I always think of Gladwyn when I read that description.'

I laughed mischievously: 'I am sorry to leave you just as you are in a
poetical vein; but I must positively go in. Good-bye, Max,' I felt I had
lingered a little too long when I saw the blinds raised in Mr. Hamilton's
study. But apparently the room was empty. I sauntered past it leisurely,
and walked down the asphalt path. On my return I picked one or two roses,
wet with dew. As I raised my head from gathering them I saw Leah standing
at the side door watching me.

'Oh, it was you,' she grumbled. 'I thought one of those girls had left
the door unlocked. A pretty piece of carelessness that would have been
to reach the master's ears! You are out early, ma'am.'

I was somewhat surprised at these remarks, for Leah had made a point of
always passing me in sullen silence since I had refused her admittance
into the sick-room. Her manner was hardly civil now, but I thought it
best to answer her pleasantly.

'Yes, Leah, I have taken my stroll early. It was very warm last night,
and I did not sleep well. There is nothing so refreshing as a morning
walk after a bad night. I am going to take these roses to Miss Gladys.'
But she tossed her head and muttered something about people being mighty
pleasant all of a sudden. And, seeing her in this mood, I walked away.
She was a bad-tempered, coarse-natured woman, and I could not understand
why Mr. Hamilton seemed so blind to her defects. 'I suppose he never sees
her; that is one reason,' I thought, as I carried up my roses.

Gladys was still asleep. I had finished my breakfast, and had helped
Chatty arrange the turret-room for the day, when I heard the long-drawn
sigh that often preluded Gladys's waking. I hastened to her side, and
found her leaning on her elbow looking at my roses.

'They used to grow in the vicarage garden,' she said wistfully. 'Dark
crimson ones like these. I have been dreaming.' And then she stopped and
flung herself back wearily on her pillow. 'Why must one ever wake from
such dreams?' she finished, with the old hopeless ring in her voice.

'What was the dream, dear?' I asked, smoothing her hair caressingly. It
was fine, soft hair, like an infant's, and its pale gold tint, without
much colour or gloss, always reminded me of baby hair. I have heard
people find fault with it. But when it was unbound and streaming in wavy
masses over her shoulders it was singularly beautiful. She used to laugh
sometimes at my admiration of her straw-coloured tresses, or lint-white
locks, as she called them. But indeed there was no tint that quite
described the colour of Gladys's hair.

'Oh, I was walking in some fool's paradise or other. There were roses in
it like these. Well, another blue day is dawning, Ursula, and has to be
lived through somehow. Will you help me to get up now?' But, though she
tried after this to talk as usual, I could see the old restlessness was
on her. A sort of feverish reaction had set in. She could settle to
nothing, take pleasure in nothing; and I was not surprised that Mr.
Hamilton grumbled a little when he paid his morning visit.

'How is this? You are not quite so comfortable to-day, Gladys,' he asked,
in a dissatisfied tone. 'Is your head aching again?'

She reluctantly pleaded guilty to the headache. Not that it was much, she
assured him; but I interrupted her.

'The fact is, she sat up too late last night, and I let her talk too
much and over-exert herself.' For I saw he was determined to come to the
bottom of this.

'I think the nurse was to blame there,' he returned, darting a quick,
uneasy look at me. I knew what he was thinking: Miss Darrell's speech,
that Miss Garston always excited Gladys, must have come into his mind.

'If the nurse deserves blame she will take it meekly,' I replied. 'I know
I was wrong to let her talk so much. I must enforce extra quiet to-day.'
And then he said no more. I do not think he found it easy to give me the
scolding that I deserved. And, after all, I had owned my fault.

I had just gone out in the passage an hour later, to carry away a bowl of
carnations that Gladys found too strong in the room, when I heard Uncle
Max's voice in the hall. The front door was open, and he had entered
without ringing. I was glad of this. The door of the turret-room was
closed, and Gladys would not hear his voice. I should manage to slip
down without her noticing the fact.

So I busied myself in Lady Betty's room until I heard the drawing-room
door open and close again, and I knew Miss Darrell was coming in search
of me. I went out to meet her, with Gladys's empty luncheon-tray in my
hands. I thought she looked rather cross and put out, as though her
interview with Uncle Max had disappointed her.

'Mr. Cunliffe is in the drawing-room, and he would like to speak to you
for a moment.' she said, in a voice that showed me how unwilling she was
to bring me the message. 'I told him that you never cared to be disturbed
in the morning, as you were so busy; but he was peremptory.'

'I am never too busy to see Uncle Max: he knows that,' I returned
quickly. 'Will you kindly allow me a few moments alone with him?' for she
was actually preparing to follow me, but after this request she retired
sulkily into her own room.

I found Max standing in the middle of the room, looking anxiously towards
the door: the moment it closed behind me he put a thick white envelope in
my hand.

'There it is, Ursula,' he said nervously: 'will you give it to her as
soon as possible? I have been literally on thorns the last quarter of an
hour. Miss Darrell would not take any of my hints that I wished to see
you: so I was obliged at last to say that I could not wait another
moment, and that I must ask her to fetch you at once.'

'Poor Max! I can imagine your feelings; but I have it safe here,' tapping
my apron pocket. 'But you must not go just yet.' And I beckoned him
across the room to the window that overlooked a stiff prickly shrub.

He looked at me in some surprise. 'We are alone, Ursula.'

'Yes, I know: but the walls have ears in this house: one is never safe
near the conservatory: there are too many doors. Tell me, Max, how have
you got on with Miss Darrell this morning?'

'I was praying hard for patience all the time,' he replied, half
laughing. 'It was maddening to see her sitting there so cool and crisp
in her yellow tea-gown--well, what garment was it?' as I uttered a
dissenting ejaculation: 'something flimsy and aesthetic. I thought her
smooth sentences would never stop.'

'Did she notice any change in your manner to her?'

'I am afraid so, for I saw her look at me quite uneasily more than once.
I could not conceal that I was terribly bored. I have no wish to be
discourteous to a lady, especially to one of my own church workers; but
after what has passed I find it very difficult to forgive her.'

This was strong language on Max's part. I could see that as a woman he
could hardly tolerate her, but he could not bring himself to condemn her
even to me. He hardly knew yet what he had to forgive: neither he nor
Gladys had any real idea of the treachery that had separated them.

Max would not stay many minutes, he was so afraid of Miss Darrell coming
into the room again. I did rather an imprudent thing after that. Max was
going to the Maberleys', for the colonel was seriously ill, so I begged
him to go the garden way, and I kept him for a moment under the window of
the turret-room.

I saw him glance up eagerly, almost hungrily, but the blinds were
partially down, and there was only a white curtain flapping in the summer
breeze.

But an unerring instinct told me that the sound of Max's voice would be a
strong cordial to the invalid, it was so long since she had heard or seen
him. As we sauntered under the oak-trees I knew Gladys would be watching
us.

On my return to the room I found her sitting bolt upright in her
arm-chair, grasping the arms; there were two spots of colour on her
cheeks; she looked nervous and excited.

'I saw you walking with him, Ursula; he looked up, but I am glad he could
not see me. Did--did he send me any message?' in a faltering voice.

'Yes, he sent you this.' And I placed the thick packet on her lap. 'Miss
Hamilton,'--yes, it was her own name: he had written it. I saw her look
at it, first incredulously, then with dawning hope in her eyes; but
before her trembling hands could break the old-fashioned seal with which
he had sealed it I had noiselessly left the room.



CHAPTER XLII

DOWN THE PEMBERLEY ROAD


Three-quarters of an hour had elapsed before I ventured into the room
again; but at the first sound of my footsteps Gladys looked up, and
called to me in a voice changed and broken with happiness.

'Ursula, dear Ursula, come here.' And as I knelt down beside her and put
my arms round her she laid her cheek against my shoulder: it was wet with
tears.

'Ursula, I am so happy. Do you know that he loves me, that he has loved
me all through these years? You must not see what he says; it is only for
my eyes; it is too sweet and sacred to be repeated; but I never dreamt
that any one could care for me like that.'

I kissed her without speaking; there seemed a lump in my throat just
then. I did not often repine, but the yearning sense of pain was strong
on me. When would this cruel silence between me and Giles be broken? But
Gladys, wrapt in her own blissful thoughts, did not notice my emotion.

'He says that there is much that he can only tell me by word of mouth,
and that he dare not trust to a letter explanations for his silence, and
much that I shall have to tell him in return; for we shall need each
other's help in making everything clear.

'He seems to reproach himself bitterly, and asks my pardon over and over
again for misunderstanding me so. He says my giving up my work was the
first blow to his hopes, and then he had been told that I cared for my
cousin Claude. He believed until this morning that I was in love with
him; and it was your going to him--oh, my darling! how good you have been
to me and him!--that gave him courage to write this letter, Ursula.'
And here she cried a little. 'Was it Etta who told him this falsehood
about, Claude? How could she he so wicked and cruel?'

'Do not think about her to-day, my dearest,' I returned soothingly. 'Her
punishment will be great some day. We will not sit in judgment on her
just now. She cannot touch your happiness again, thank heaven!'

'No,' with a sigh; 'but, as Max says, it is difficult to forgive the
person who is the chief source of all our trouble. He did say that, and
then he reproached himself again for uncharitableness, and added that he
ought to have known me better.

'He does not seem quite certain yet that I can care for him, and he begs
for just one word to put him out of his suspense, to tell him if I can
ever love him well enough to be his wife. I don't want him to wait long
for my answer, Ursula: he has suffered too much already. I think I could
write a few words that would satisfy him, if I could only trust Chatty to
take them.'

'You had better wait until to-morrow morning and intrust your letter to
the "five-o'clock carrier."' And as my meaning dawned on her her doubtful
expression changed into a smile. 'Do wait, Gladys,' I continued
coaxingly. 'It is very selfish of me, perhaps, but I should like to give
that letter to Max.'

'You may have your wish, then, for I was half afraid of sending it by
Chatty. I have grown so nervous, Ursula, that I start at a shadow. I can
trust you better than myself. Well, I will write it, and then it will be
safe in your hands.'

I went away again after this, and left her alone in the quiet shady room.
I fought rather a battle with myself as I paced up and down Lady Betty's
spacious chamber. Why need I think of my own troubles? why could I not
keep down this pain? I would think only of Gladys's and of my dear Max's
happiness, and I dashed away hot tears that would keep blinding me as I
remembered the chilly greeting of the morning. And yet once--but no; I
would not recall that bitter-sweet memory. I left Gladys alone for an
hour: when I went back she was leaning wearily against the cushions of
her chair, the closely-written sheets still open on her lap, as though
she needed the evidence of sight and touch to remind her that it was not
part of her dream.

'Have you written your letter, Gladys?'

'Yes,' with a blush; 'but it is very short, only a few words. He will
understand that I am weak and cannot exert myself much. Will you read it,
Ursula, and tell me if it will do?'

I thought it better to set her mind at rest, so I took it without demur.
The pretty, clear handwriting was rather tremulous: he would be sorry to
see that.

'My dear Mr. Cunliffe,'--it said,--'Your letter has made me very happy.
I wish I could answer it as it ought to be answered; but I know you will
not misunderstand the reason why I say so little.

'I have been very ill, and am still very weak, and my hand trembles too
much when I try to write; but I am not ungrateful for all the kind things
you say; it makes me very happy to know you feel like that, even though I
do not deserve it.

'You must not blame yourself so much for misunderstanding me: we have
both been deceived; I know that now. It was wrong of me to give up my
work; but Etta told me that people were saying unkind things of me, and
I was a coward and listened to her: so you see I was to blame too.

'I have not answered your question yet, but I think I will do so by
signing myself,

'Yours, always and for ever,

'Gladys.'

'Will he understand that, Ursula?'

'Surely, dear; the end is plain enough: you belong to Max now.'

'I like to know that,' she returned simply. 'Oh, the rest of feeling that
he will take care of me now! it is too good to talk about. But I hope I
am sufficiently thankful.' And Gladys's lovely eyes were full of solemn
feeling as she spoke.

I thought she wanted to be quiet,--it was difficult for her to realise
her happiness at once,--so I told her that I had some letters to write,
and carried my desk into the next room, but she followed me after a time,
and we had a long talk about Max.

When Mr. Hamilton came up in the evening he noticed the improvement in
Gladys's appearance.

'You are better to-night, my dear.'

'Oh yes, so much better,' looking up in his face with a smile. 'Giles, do
you think it would hurt me to have a drive to-morrow? I am so tired of
these two rooms. A drive alone with Ursula would be delicious. We could
go down the Redstone lanes towards Pemberley: one always has a whiff of
sea-air there over the downs.'

Gladys's request surprised me quite as much as it did Mr. Hamilton. She
had proposed it in all innocence; no idea of encountering Max entered her
head for a moment; Gladys's simplicity would be incapable of laying plans
of this sort. Her new-born happiness made her anxious to lay aside her
invalid habits; she wanted to be strong, to resume daily life, to breathe
the fresh outer air.

As for Mr. Hamilton, he did not try to conceal his pleasure.

'I see we shall soon lose our patient, nurse,' he said, with one of his
old droll looks. 'She is anxious to make herself independent of us.--Oh,
you shall go, by all means. I will go round to the stable and tell
Atkinson myself. It is an excellent idea, Gladys.'

'I am so glad you do not object. I am so much stronger this evening,
and I have wanted to go out for days; but, Giles,'--touching his arm
gently,--'you will make Etta understand that I want to go alone with
Ursula.'

'Certainly, my dear.' He would not cross her whim; she might have her way
if she liked; but the slight frown on his face showed that he was not
pleased at this allusion to Miss Darrell. He thought Gladys was almost
morbidly prejudiced against her cousin; but he prudently refrained from
telling her so, and Gladys went to bed happy.

I had taken the precaution of asking Chatty to wake me the next morning.
I had slept little the previous night, and was afraid that I might
oversleep myself in consequence. It was rather a trial when her touch
roused me out of a delicious dream; but one glance at Gladys's pale face
made me ashamed of my indolence. I dressed myself as quickly as I could,
and then looked at my little clock. Chatty had been better than her word:
it had not struck five yet.

Max would not be out for another hour, I thought, but all the same I
might as well take advantage of the morning freshness: so I summoned
Chatty to let me out as noiselessly as possible, and then I stole through
the shrubberies, breaking a silver-spangled cobweb or two and feeling the
wet beads of dew on my face.

I walked slowly down the road, drinking deep draughts of the pure morning
air. I had some thoughts of sitting down in the churchyard until I saw
some sign of life in the vicarage; but as I turned the corner I heard a
gate swing back on its hinges, and there was Max standing bareheaded in
the road, as though he had come out to reconnoitre; but directly he
caught sight of me two or three strides seemed to bring him to my side.

'Have you brought it?' he asked breathlessly.

'Yes, Max.' And I put the letter in his outstretched hand; and then,
without looking at him, I turned quietly and retraced my steps. I would
not wait with him while he read it; he should be alone, with only the
sunshine round him and the birds singing their joyous melodies in his
ear. No doubt he would join his _Te Deum_ with theirs. Happy Max, who had
won his Lady of Delight!

But I had not quite crossed the green when I heard his footsteps behind
me, and turned to meet him.

'Ursula, you naughty child! why have you run away without waiting to
congratulate me? And yet I'll be bound you knew the contents of this
letter.'

'Yes, Max, and from my heart I wish you and Gladys every happiness.'

'Good little Ursula! Oh yes, we shall be happy.' And the satisfaction in
Max's brown eyes was pleasant to see. 'She will need all the care and
tenderness that I can give her. We must make her forget all these sad
years. Do you think that she will be content at the old vicarage,
Ursula?' But as he asked the question there was no doubt--no doubt at
all--on his face.

'I think she will be content anywhere with you, Max. Gladys loves you
dearly.'

'Ah,' he said humbly, 'I know it now, I am sure of it; but I wish I
deserved my blessing. All these years I have known her goodness. She used
to show me all that was in her heart with the simplicity of a child. Such
sweet frankness! such noble unselfishness! was it a wonder that I loved
her? If I were only more worthy to be her husband!'

I liked Max to say this: there was nothing unmanly or strained in this
humility. The man who loves can never think himself worthy of the woman
he worships: his very affection casts a glamour over her. When I told Max
that I thought his wife would be a happy woman, he only smiled and said
that he hoped so too. He had not the faintest idea what a hero he was
in our eyes; he would not have believed me if I had told him.

Max said very little to me after that: happiness made him reticent. Only,
just as he was leaving me, I said carelessly, 'Max, do you ever go to
Pemberley?'

'Oh yes, sometimes, when the Calverleys are at the Hall,' he returned,
rather absently.

'Pemberley is a very pretty place,' I went on, stopping to pick a little
piece of sweet-brier that attracted me by its sweetness: 'it is very
pleasant to walk there through the Redstone lanes. There is a fine view
over the down, and at four o'clock, for example--'

'What about four o'clock?' he demanded: and now there was a little
excitement in his manner.

'Well, if you should by chance be in one of the Redstone lanes about
then, you might possibly see an open barouche with two ladies in it.'

'Ursula, you are a darling!' And Max seized my wrists so vigorously that
he hurt me. 'Four--did you say four o'clock?'

'It was very wrong of me to say anything about it. Gladys would be
shocked at my making an appointment. I believe you are demoralising me,
Max; but I do not mean to tell her.' And then, after a few more eager
questions on Max's part, he reluctantly let me go.

I had plenty to tell Gladys when she woke that morning, but I prudently
kept part of our conversation to myself. She wanted to know how Max
looked when he got her letter. Did he seem happy? had he sent her any
message? And when I had satisfied her on these points she had a hundred
other questions to ask. 'I am engaged to him, and yet we cannot speak
to each other,' she finished, a little mournfully.

I turned her thoughts at last by speaking about the promised drive. We
decided she should put on her pretty gray dress and bonnet to do honour
to the day. 'It is a fête-day, Gladys,' I said cheerfully, 'and we must
be as gay as possible.' And she agreed to this.

At the appointed time we heard the horses coming round from the stables,
and Mr. Hamilton came upstairs himself to fetch his sister. Chatty had
told me privately that Miss Darrell had been very cross all day. She had
wanted the carriage for herself that afternoon, and had spoken quite
angrily to Mr. Hamilton about it; but he had told her rather coldly that
she must give up her wishes for once. Thornton heard master say that he
was surprised at her selfishness: he had thought she would be glad that
Miss Gladys should have a drive. 'Miss Darrell looked as black as
possible, Thornton said, ma'am,' continued Chatty; 'but she did not dare
argue with master; he always has the best of it with her.'

As we drove off, I saw Miss Darrell watching us from the study window:
evidently her bad temper had not evaporated, for she had not taken the
trouble to come out in the hall to speak to Gladys, and yet they had not
met for a month. Gladys did not see her: she was smiling at her brother,
who was waving a good-bye from the open door. My heart smote me a little
as I looked at him. Would he think me very deceitful, I wondered, for
giving Max that clue? but after a moment I abandoned these thoughts and
gave myself up to the afternoon's enjoyment.

The air was delicious, the summer heat tempered by cool breezes that
seemed to come straight from the sea. Gladys lay back luxuriously among
the cushions, watching the flicker of green leaves over our heads, or the
soft shadows that lurked in the distant meadows, or admiring the
picturesque groups of cattle under some wide-spreading tree.

We had nearly reached Pemberley, the white roofs of the cottages were
gleaming through a belt of firs, when I at last caught sight of Max. He
was half hidden by some blackberry-bushes. I think he was sitting on a
stile resting himself; but when he heard the carriage-wheels he came
slowly towards us and put up his hand as a sign that Atkinson should pull
up.

I shall never forget the sudden illumination that lit up Gladys's face
when she saw him: a lovely colour tinged her cheeks as their eyes met,
and she put out her little gray-gloved hand to touch his. I opened the
carriage door and slipped down into the road.

'The horses can stand in the shade a little while, Atkinson,' I said
carelessly: 'I want to get some of those poppies, if the stile be not
very high.' I knew he would be watching me and looking after Whitefoot,
who was often a little fidgety, and would take the vicar's appearance on
the Pemberley road as a matter of course.

I was a long time gathering those poppies. Once I peeped through the
hedge. I could see two heads very close together. Max's arms were on the
carriage; the little gray-gloved hands were not to be seen; the sunshine
was shining on Gladys's fair hair and Max's beard. Were they speaking at
all? Could Atkinson have heard one of those low tones? And then I went
on with my poppies.

It was more than a quarter of an hour when I climbed over the stile
again, laden with scarlet poppies and pale-coloured convolvuli. Gladys
saw me first. 'Here is Ursula,' I heard her say; and Max moved away
reluctantly.

'I do not see why we should not drive you back to Heathfield, Max,' I
remarked coolly; and, as neither of them had any objection to raise, we
soon made room for Max.

There was very little said by any of us during the drive home; only
Gladys pressed my hand in token of gratitude; her eyes were shining with
happiness. As Max looked at the pale, sweet face opposite to him his
heart must have swelled with pride and joy: nothing could come between
those two now; henceforth they would belong to each other for time and
eternity.

Max asked us to put him down at the Three Firs; he had to call at 'The
Gowans,' he said. 'In two or three days--I cannot wait longer,' he said,
in a meaning tone, as he bade good-bye to Gladys. She blushed and smiled
in answer.

'What does Max mean?' I asked, as we left him behind us in the road.

'It is only that he wishes to speak to Giles,' she returned shyly. 'I
asked him to wait a day or two until I felt better; but he does not wish
to delay it; he says Giles has always wanted it so, but that he has long
lost hope about it.'

'I don't see why Max need have waited an hour,' was my reply; but there
was no time for Gladys to answer me, for we were turning in at the gate,
and there were Mr. Hamilton and Miss Darrell walking up and down the lawn
watching for us.

Mr. Hamilton came towards us at once, and gave his hand to Gladys.

'I need not ask how you have enjoyed your drive,' he said, looking at her
bright face with evident satisfaction.

'Oh, it has been lovely!' she returned, with such unwonted animation that
Miss Darrell stared at her. 'How do you do, Etta? It is long since we
have met.--Giles, if you will give me your arm, I think I will go
upstairs at once, for I am certainly a little tired.--Come, Ursula.'

'We met Mr. Cunliffe in the Pemberley Road, and drove him back,' I
observed carelessly, when Miss Darrell was out of hearing. I thought it
better to allude to Max in case Atkinson mentioned it to one of the
servants.

'You should have brought him in to dinner,' was Mr. Hamilton's only
comment. 'By the bye, Miss Garston, when do you intend to honour us with
your company downstairs? Your patient is convalescent now.'

'I have just awoke to that fact,' was my reply, 'and I have told Mrs.
Barton that she will soon see me back at the White Cottage. Miss Watson
leaves next Tuesday: I think Gladys could spare me by then.'

Gladys shook her head. 'I shall never willingly spare you, Ursula; but of
course I shall have no right to trespass on your time.'

'No, of course not,' returned her brother sharply; 'Miss Garston has been
too good to us already: we cannot expect her to sacrifice herself any
longer. We will say Tuesday, then. You will come downstairs on Sunday,
Gladys?'

'Yes,' with a faint sigh.

'We need not talk about my going yet, when Gladys is tired,' I returned,
feeling inclined to scold Mr. Hamilton for his want of tact. Tuesday, and
it was Wednesday now,--not quite a week more; but, looking up, I saw Mr.
Hamilton regarding me so strangely, and yet so sorrowfully, that my
brief irritability vanished. He was sorry that I was going; he seemed
about to speak; his lips unclosed, then a sudden frown of recollection
crossed his brow, and with a curt good-night he left us.

'What is the matter with Giles?' asked Gladys, rather wearily: I could
see she was very tired by this time. 'Have you and he quarrelled,
Ursula?'

'Not to my knowledge,' I replied quietly, turning away, that she should
not see my burning cheeks. 'There is Chatty bringing the tea: are you not
glad, dear?' And I busied myself in clearing the table.



CHAPTER XLIII

'CONSPIRACY CORNER'


Gladys went to bed very early that night: her long drive had disposed her
for sleep. The summer twilight was only creeping over the western sky
when I closed her door and went out into the passage: the evening was
only half over, and a fit of restlessness induced me to seek the garden.

The moon was just rising behind the little avenue, and the soft rush of
summer air that met me as I stepped through the open door had the breath
of a thousand flowers on it. Mr. Hamilton was shut safely in his study;
I was aware of that fact, as I had heard him tell Gladys that night
that he had a medical article to write that he was anxious to finish.
Miss Darrell would be reading novels in the drawing-room; there was no
fear of meeting any one; but some instinct--for we have no word in our
human language to express the divine impetus that sways our inward
promptings--induced me to take refuge in the dark asphalt path that
skirted the meadow and led to Atkinson's cottage and the kitchen-garden.

I was unhappy,--in a mood that savoured of misanthropy; my fate was
growing cross-grained, enigmatical. Mr. Hamilton's frown had struck
cold to my heart; I was beginning to lose patience (to lose hope was
impossible),--to ask myself why he remained silent.

'If he has anything against me,--and his manner tells me that he
has,--why does he not treat me with frankness?' I thought. 'He calls
himself my friend, and yet he reposes no trust in me. He breaks my heart
with his changed looks and coldness, and yet he gives me no reason for
his injustice. I would not treat my enemy so, and yet all the time I feel
he loves me.' And as I paced under the dark hanging shrubs I felt there
was nothing morbid or untrue in those lines, that 'to be wroth with one
that we love does work like madness on the brain,' and that I was growing
angry with Mr. Hamilton.

I had just reached a dark angle where the path dips a little, when I was
startled by hearing voices close to me. There was a seat screened by some
laurel-bushes that went by the name of 'Conspiracy Corner,' dating back
from the time when Gladys and Eric were children and had once hidden some
fireworks among the bushes. It was there that Claude Hamilton had
proposed to Lady Betty, when Gladys had found them, and the two young
creatures had appealed to her to help them. The seat was so hidden and
secluded by shrubs that you could pass without seeing its occupants,
unless a little bit of fluttering drapery or the gleam of some gold chain
or locket caught one's eye. I remembered once being very much startled
when Lady Betty popped out suddenly on me as I passed.

I was just retracing my steps, with a sense of annoyance at finding my
privacy invaded, when a sentence in Leah's voice attracted my attention:

'I tell you he was driving with them this afternoon: I heard Miss Garston
tell the master so. It is no good you fretting and worrying yourself,
Miss Etta, to prevent those two coming together. I've always warned you
that the vicar cares more for her little finger than he does for all your
fine airs and graces.'

I stood as though rooted to the spot, incapable of moving a step.

'You are a cruel, false woman!' returned another voice, which I
recognised as Miss Darrell's, though it was broken with angry sobs. 'You
say that to vex me and make me wretched because you are in a bad temper.
You are an ungrateful creature, Leah, after all my kindness; and it was
you yourself who told me that he was getting tired of Gladys's whims and
vagaries.'

'I can't remember what I told you,' replied the woman sullenly. 'There
are no fools like old ones, they say, and you need not believe everything
as though it is gospel truth. There is not a man in the world worth all
this worry. Why don't you give it up, Miss Etta? Do you think Mr.
Cunliffe will ever give you a thought? I would be too proud, if I were
a lady, to fling myself under a man's feet. Do you think he would like
your crooked ways about Mr. Eric?'

'Hush, Leah! for pity's sake, hush! What makes you so cruel to me
to-night?'

'Well now, look here, Miss Etta; I am not going to be hushed up when I
choose to speak; and who is to hear us, I should like to know? only it is
your guilty conscience that is always starting at shadows. I mean to
speak to you pretty plainly, for I am getting sick of the whole business.
You are playing fast and loose with me about that money. Are you going to
give it me or not?'

I drew a step nearer. Leah had mentioned Eric's name. Was it not my
duty,--my bounden duty,--for Gladys's sake, for all their sakes, to hear
what this woman had to say? Would it be dishonourable to listen when so
much was at stake? Already I had been startled by a revelation that
turned me cold with horror. Miss Darrell was Gladys's rival,--her deadly,
secret rival,--and not one of us, not even Max, guessed at this unhealthy
and morbid passion. That such a woman should love my pure-minded,
honourable Max! I recoiled at the mere idea.

'You are so impatient, Leah,' returned the other reproachfully. 'You know
it is not easy for me to get the money. Giles was complaining the other
day that so much was spent in the housekeeping; he never thought me
extravagant before, but he seemed to say that my personal expenses were
rather lavish. "You have twice as many gowns as Gladys," he said: "and,
though I do not grudge you things, I think you ought to keep within your
allowance."'

'I can't help all that, Miss Etta,' and I could tell by the voice that
the woman meant to be insolent. 'A promise is a promise, and must be
kept, and poor Bob must not suffer from your procrastinating ways. You
are far too slippery and shifty, Miss Etta; but I tell you that money I
must and will have before this week is over, if I have to go to master
myself about it.'

'You had better go to him, then,' with rising temper. 'I don't quite know
what Giles will say about retaining you in his service when he knows you
have a brother at Millbank. A servant with a convict-brother is not
considered generally desirable in a house.' But Leah broke in upon this
sneering speech in sudden fury: even in my disgust at this scene I could
not but marvel at Miss Darrell's recklessness in rousing the evil spirit
in this woman.

'You to talk of my poor Bob being in Millbank, who ought to be there
yourself!' she cried, in a voice hoarse and low with passion. 'Are you
out of your senses, Miss Etta, to taunt me with poor Bob's troubles? What
is to prevent me from going to master now and saying to him--'

'Oh, hush, Leah! please forgive me; but you made me so angry.'

'From saying to him,' persisted Leah remorselessly, "'You are all of you
wrong about Mr. Eric. You have hunted the poor boy out of the house, and
driven him crazy among you; and if he has drowned himself, as folk
believe, his death lies at Miss Etta's door. It was she who stole the
cheque. I saw her take it with my own eyes, only she begged me on her
knees not to betray her; and just then Mr. Eric came in with his letter,
and the devil entered into me to cast the suspicion on him."'

'Leah,' in a voice of deadly terror, 'for God's sake be silent! if any
one should hear us! There was a crackling just now in the bushes. Leah,
you were good to my mother: how can you be so cruel to me?'

'It is no use your whining to me, Miss Etta,' returned the same hard,
dogged voice; 'Bob must have that money. When I promised to keep your
disgraceful secret,--when I stood by and helped you ruin that poor boy,
and Bob cashed your cheque,--I named my price. I wanted to keep Bob out
of mischief, but his bad companions were too much for him. Now are you
going to get that money for me or not?'

'I dare not ask Giles for more,' replied Miss Darrell, and I could hear
she was crying. 'I gave you half the housekeeping money last week and the
week before. If Giles looks at my accounts I am undone.'

'And there was that cheque that you were to send Miss Gladys when she was
at Bournemouth, and for which she sent that pretty message of thanks,'
interposed Leah, with a sneer. 'Shall I tell master where that has gone,
Miss Etta? And you to speak of my poor Bob because he is at Millbank!'

'Leah, you are killing me,' renewed Miss Darrell. 'I might as well die as
go on living like this. You are always threatening to turn against me,
and I give you money whenever you ask me. You shall have my gold bracelet
with the emerald star. It was my mother's and it will fetch a good deal.
I cannot get more from Giles now. He is not like himself just now, and I
dare not make him angry.'

'Oh, you have tried your hand there, Miss Etta. No, I am not asking you,
so you need not tell me any lies. I knew all about it when you sent me up
to Hyde Park Gate to spy on my young lady. I have worked willingly for
you there. I've hated Miss Garston ever since I set eyes on her. She is a
sharp one, I tell you that, Miss Etta. She means to bring these two
together, and she will do it in spite of you.'

'I wish I were dead!' moaned Miss Darrell.

But I did not dare to linger another moment. My heart was beating so
loudly that I feared it would betray me. The faint stir of the bushes
turned me sick, for I thought they might be moving from their seat. Not
for worlds would I have confronted them alone in that dark asphalt walk.
My fears were absurd, but I felt as though Leah were capable of
strangling me. Granted that this terror was unreasonable and childish,
I knew I could not breathe freely until I was within reach of Mr.
Hamilton. As I crept down the path the sensation of a nightmare haunted
me. I felt as though my feet were weighted with lead. My face was cold
and damp, and I drew my breath painfully. I almost felt as though I must
hide myself in the shrubbery until the faintness passed off; but I shook
off my weakness as I remembered that I might be shut out of the house if
I allowed them to go in first. As I emerged from the dark overhanging
trees I grew calmer and walked on more quickly. I dared not cross the
open lawn, for fear I might be seen, but took the most secluded route
through the oak avenue. If they should perceive me walking down the
terrace towards the conservatory they would only think that I had just
left the house. I could see no signs of them, however, and gained the
open door safely.

Even in my state of terror I had made my plan, and without giving myself
a moment to recover my self-possession I knocked at the study door, and,
at Mr. Hamilton's rather impatient 'Come in,' entered it with the same
sort of feeling that one would enter an ark of refuge.

He laid down his pen in some surprise when he saw me, and then rose
quickly from his seat.

'You are ill; you have come to tell me so,' in an anxious voice. 'Don't
try to speak this moment: sit down--my--Miss Garston'; but I caught his
arm nervously as he seemed about to leave me.

'Don't go away: I must speak to you. I am not ill: only I have had a
turn. You may give me some water'; for there was a bottle and glass on
the table. He obeyed me at once, and watched me as I tried to take it;
but my hand trembled too much: the next moment he had put it to my lips,
and had wiped the moisture gently from my forehead.

'It is only faintness; it will pass off directly,' he said quietly. 'I
will not leave you; but I have some sal volatile in that cupboard, and I
think you will be the better for it.' And he mixed me some, and stood by
me without speaking until the colour came back to my face. 'You are
better now, Ursula--I mean,' biting his lips--'well, never mind. Do you
feel a little less shaky?'

'Yes, thank you. I did not mean to be so foolish, but it was dark, and
I got frightened and nervous; and oh, Mr. Hamilton, I must not lose time,
or they will be coming in.'

'Who will be coming in?' he asked, rather bewildered at this. 'There is
no one out, is there?'

'Yes, Miss Darrell and Leah. I heard them talking in "Conspiracy Corner";
you know that seat in the asphalt walk?'

'Well?' regarding me with an astonished air.

'Mr. Hamilton, I am better now. I am not frightened any longer now I am
with you. Will you please call Leah when she comes in from the garden? I
want to speak to her in your presence. I have a most serious charge to
make against her and against your cousin Miss Darrell. It relates,' and
here I felt my lips getting white again,--'it relates to your brother
Eric.'

He started, and an expression of pain crossed his face,--a sudden look
of fear, as though he dreaded what I might have to tell him; but the next
moment he was thinking only of me.

'You shall speak to Leah to-morrow,' he said gently; 'it is late
now,--nearly ten o'clock,--and you are ill, and had better go to bed
and rest yourself. I can wait until to-morrow,' taking my cold hand.

But I would not be silenced. I implored him earnestly to do this for
me,--to summon Leah into the study, but not to let Miss Darrell know.

'I suppose you think you could not sleep until you had relieved your
mind,' he said, looking at me attentively. 'Well, they are coming in now.
Leah is fastening the door. Finish that sal volatile while I fetch her.'

I took it at a draught. But Mr. Hamilton's kindness had been my best
restorative: I was no longer faint or miserable: he had cheered and
comforted me.

I heard Leah's voice approaching the study door with perfect calmness.

'Miss Etta has gone up to bed, sir,' I heard her say; 'she has a
headache: that is what makes her eyes so weak.'

'I should have said myself that she was crying,' returned Mr. Hamilton
drily. 'Come in here a moment, Leah; I want to speak to you.'

She did not see me until the door was closed behind her, and then I saw
her glance at me uneasily. Mr. Hamilton had evidently not prepared her
for my presence in the study.

'Did you or Miss Garston wish to speak to me, sir?' she asked, with a
veiled insolence of manner that she had shown to me lately; but I could
see that no suspicion of the truth had dawned on her.

'It is I who wish to speak to you, Leah,' I returned severely; 'and
I have asked your master to send for you that I might speak in his
presence. Mr. Hamilton, I am going to repeat the conversation that I have
just overheard between Leah and her mistress when they were in the seat
in the asphalt walk: you shall hear it from my lips word for word.'

I never saw a countenance change as Leah's did that moment: her ordinary
sallow complexion became a sort of dead-white; from insolence, her manner
grew cringing, almost abject; the shock deprived her of all power of
speech; only directly I began she caught hold of my gown with both hands,
as though to implore me to stop; but Mr. Hamilton shook off her touch
angrily, and asked her if it looked as though she were an honest woman to
be so afraid of her own words. And then the sullen look came back to her
face and never left it again.

I repeated every word. I do not believe I omitted a sentence, except
that part that referred to Uncle Max. I could see Leah shrink and
collapse as I mentioned her convict-brother, and such a gleam of fierce
concentrated hatred shot from beneath her drooping lids that Mr. Hamilton
instinctively moved to my side; but a low groan escaped him when I
repeated Leah's words about the cheque. 'Good heavens! do you mean that
Eric never took it?' he exclaimed, in a horror-stricken tone; but the
woman merely raised her eyes and looked at him, and he was silent again
until I had finished.

There was a moment's ominous silence after that: perhaps Mr. Hamilton was
praying for self-control; he had grown frightfully pale, and yet he was a
man who rarely changed colour: the veins on his forehead were swollen,
and when he spoke his voice was hoarse with repressed passion.

'What have you to say for yourself, Leah? Do you know I could indict you
for conspiracy and conniving at theft?'

'I know that very well,' returned the woman, trying to brave it out; but
she could not meet his indignant look. 'But it is your own flesh and
blood that is in fault here. Miss Etta is more to blame than I.'

Mr. Hamilton crossed the room and locked the door, putting the key coolly
in his pocket; then he made me sit down,--for I had been standing all
this time,--and, as though to enforce obedience, he kept his hand on my
arm. I could see Leah looking about her as though she were caught in a
trap: her light-coloured eyes had a scintillating look of fear in them.

'Now, Leah,' observed her master, in a terrible voice, 'if you are to
expect any mercy at my hand you will make a clean breast; but first you
will answer my question: Has Miss Garston repeated the conversation
between you and Miss Etta correctly?'

'Yes, I believe so,' very sullenly.

'You saw Miss Etta take the cheque with your own eyes the night before
Mr. Eric left home?'

'Yes.' Then, as though these questions tortured her, she said doggedly--

'Look here, sir; I am caught in a trap, and there is no getting
out of it. I have lost my place and my character, thanks to Miss
Garston,'--another vindictive look at me. 'If you will promise like
a gentleman not to take advantage of my evidence, I will tell you all
about it.'

'I will make no promises,' he returned, in the same stern voice; 'but
if you do not speak I will send for the police at once, and have you up
before a magistrate. You have connived at theft; that will be sufficient
to criminate you.'

'I know all about that,' was the unflinching answer; 'and I know for the
old mistress's sake you will be glad to hush it all up: it would not be
pleasant to bring your own cousin before a magistrate, especially after
promising the old mistress on her death-bed to be as good to Miss Etta as
though she were your own sister.'

I saw the shadow of some sorrowful recollection cross his face as she
said this. I had heard from Max how dearly he had loved his aunt
Margaret: though her daughter had wrought such evil in his life, he would
still seek to shield her. Leah knew this too, and took advantage of her
knowledge in her crafty manner.

'It would be best to tell you all, for Mr. Eric's sake. I know Miss Etta
will be safe with you. She has done a deal of mischief since she has been
under your roof. Somehow crooked ways come natural to her: the old
mistress knew that, for she once said to me towards the last, "Leah, I am
afraid my poor child has got some twist or warp in her nature; but I hope
my nephew will never find out her want of straightforwardness." And she
begged me, with tears in her eyes, to watch over her and try to influence
her, although I was only a servant; and for a little while I tried, only
the devil tempted me, for the sake of poor Bob.'

'Bob is the name of your brother who is at Millbank?' asked Mr. Hamilton,
in the same hard voice.

'Yes, sir; he got into a bit of trouble through mixing with bad
companions. But there,'--with a sudden fierce light in her eyes that
reminded me of a tigress protecting her young,--'I am not going to
talk of Bob: lads will get into trouble sometimes. If Mr. Eric had
not been so interfering at that time, ordering Bob off the premises
whenever he caught sight of him, and calling him a good-for-nothing
loafer and all sorts of hard names,--why, he gave Bob a black eye one
day when he was doing nothing but shying stones at the birds in the
kitchen-garden,--if it had not been for Mr. Eric's treatment of Bob
I might have acted better by him.'

'Will you keep to the subject, Leah?' observed her master, in a warning
voice. 'I wish to hear how that cheque was taken from my study that
night.'

'Well, sir, if you must know,' returned Leah reluctantly, 'Miss Etta was
in a bit of a worry about money just then: she had got the accounts wrong
somehow, and there was a heavy butcher's bill to be paid. She had let it
run on too long, and all the time you believed it was settled every week:
it was partly your fault, because you so seldom looked at the accounts,
and was always trusting her with large sums of money. Miss Etta did not
mean to be dishonest, but she was extravagant, and sometimes her
dressmaker refused to wait for the money, and sometimes her milliner
threatened to dun her; but she would quiet them a bit with a five- or
ten-pound note filched from the housekeeping, always meaning, as she
said, to pay it back when she drew her quarterly allowance.

'I used to know of these doings of hers, for often and often she has sent
me to pacify them with promises. I told her sometimes that she would do
it once too often, but she always said it was for the last time.

'She got afraid to tell me at last, but I knew all about the butcher's
bill, for Mr. Dryden had been up to the house asking to see you, as he
wanted his account settled. You were out when he called, but I never saw
Miss Etta in such a fright: she had a fit of hysterics in her own room
after he had left the house, and I had trouble enough to pacify her. She
said if you found out that Dryden's account had not been settled for
three months that you would never trust her again; that she was afraid
Mr. Eric suspected her, and that she did not feel safe with him, and a
great deal more that I cannot remember.

'It ended with her making up her mind to pawn most of her jewellery, and
we arranged that Bob should manage the business. He was up at the cottage
for a night or two, though no one was aware of that fact, for he kept
close, for fear Mr. Eric should spy upon him.

'He slept at the cottage the very night the cheque was stolen from the
study'; but as Leah paused here Mr. Hamilton lifted his head from his
hands and bade her impatiently go on with the history of that night.



CHAPTER XLIV

LEAH'S CONFESSION


'You know what happened that day, sir,' observed Leah, hesitating a
moment, for even her hard nature felt some compunction at the look of
suffering on her master's face. She had eaten his bread for years, and
had deceived and duped him; but she must have felt remorse stirring in
her as she saw him drop his head on his clasped hands again, as though
he were compelling himself to listen without interruption.

'You had been talking to Mr. Eric a long time in the study, Miss Etta
told me; he had been going on like mad about Mr. Edgar Brown, and having
to go to Mr. Armstrong's office; but you had been very firm, and had
refused to hear any more, and he had flung off to his own room in one of
his passions. Miss Gladys had followed him, and I heard him telling her
that he had forgotten himself and struck you, and that you had turned
him out of the study, and that he was in difficulties and must have
money, for Mr. Edgar had got him into some trouble.'

'You heard this by listening at Mr. Eric's door, for Miss Gladys saw
you,' I observed, not willing to let this pass.

'What has that got to do with it?' she returned rudely. 'I am speaking
to the master, not you': but she grew a shade paler as I spoke. 'You
were up late that night, sir; I was waiting to speak to Miss Etta, and
encountered you in the passage. I went back to my own room for a little
while, and then I knocked at her door; but there was no answer. I could
see the room was dark, but I could hardly believe she was asleep: so I
went to the bed and called Miss Etta, but I very soon found she was not
there: her gown was on the couch and her dressing-gown missing from its
place.

'I had a notion that I might as well follow her, for somehow I guessed
that she had gone to the study; but I was certainly not prepared to see
Mr. Eric stooping over your desk. He had a letter in his hand, and had
just put down his chamber candlestick. All at once it flashed upon my
mind that Miss Etta had told me that you had received a large cheque that
night, and that you were going up to London the next day to cash it, and
she hoped Dryden would not call again before you went. She said it quite
casually, and I am sure then she had not thought of helping herself. Then
the thought must have come to her all of a sudden.

'I remembered the cheque, and for an instant I suspected Mr. Eric. But as
I was watching him I saw the curtain of one of the windows move, and I
had a glimpse of yellow embroidery that certainly belonged to Miss Etta's
dressing-gown. In a moment I grasped the truth: she had taken the cheque
to settle Dryden's bill. But I must make myself certain of the fact: so
I asked Mr. Eric, rather roughly, what he was doing, and he retorted by
bidding me mind my own business.

'He had laid his letter on the desk, but when he had gone I walked up
straight to the window, and nearly frightened Miss Etta into a fit by
asking her what she had done with the cheque. She was grovelling on her
knees before me in a moment, calling me her dear Leah and imploring me to
shield her. I was very fierce with her at first, and was for putting it
back again, until she told me, trembling all over, that she had endorsed
it. She had copied your writing, and only an expert could have told the
difference.

'"It is too late, Leah," she kept saying; "we cannot hide it from Giles
now, and I must have the money, and you must help me to get it." And then
she whispered that I should have some of it for Bob.

'"It is a nasty bit of business, Miss Etta," I replied, for I did not
want to spare her; "it is forgery, that is what they would call it in a
court of law"; but she would not let me finish, but flung herself upon me
with a suppressed scream, and I could not shake her off. She kept saying
that she would destroy herself if I would not help her: so I turned it
over in my mind. I wanted money for Bob, and--well, sir, the devil had a
deal to do with that night's business. I had settled it all before an
hour was over. Bob would go up to London with the cheque, and cash it at
the bank: he was tall and fair, and a suit of Mr. Eric's old clothes
would make him quite the gentleman, and no one would notice the scar;
when he was safely off and you missed the cheque there would be little
trouble in casting the blame on Mr. Eric. I had taken care to place the
letter in the desk, and I had plenty of circumstantial evidence to offer.

'Well, you know the rest, sir,--how you called Miss Etta into your study,
and how she begged you to send for me. I had my story all ready,--my fear
of thieves, and how I saw Mr. Eric standing with his hand in your desk.
Of course the cheque could not be found: no one believed the poor young
gentleman's ravings, especially after his talk with Miss Gladys. We took
care that the telegram should not be sent too soon. Bob was on his way
back by then, and before evening Dryden had his money, and Bob was safe
in Clerkenwell. What is the good of my repeating it all? I shielded Miss
Etta at Mr. Eric's expense; and, though I was sorry enough to drive him
away from his home, we had to look to our own safety, and Miss Etta was
nearly out of her mind with remorse and terror.' But here Mr. Hamilton's
voice interrupted her harshly.

'Wait a moment, woman: have you ever since that day heard anything of
that unfortunate boy?'

To my surprise Leah hesitated. 'Miss Etta believes that he is dead, sir;
but I can't help differing from her, though I never told her the reason;
but I have fancied more than once,--indeed I am speaking the truth now,
sir,' as he darted a meaning look at her, 'I have no motive to do
otherwise.--I have fancied that I have seen some one very like Mr. Eric
lurking about the road on a dark night. Once I was nearly sure it was Mr.
Eric, though he wore a workman's dress as a disguise. He was looking at
the windows; the blind was up in the study, and Miss Gladys was there
with Mr. Cunliffe; he had made her laugh about something. It was a warm
night, and rather wet, and the window was open; I was just shutting it
when I caught sight of him, and nearly called out; but he turned away
quickly, and hid himself in the shrubbery, and though I went out to look
for him I was too late, for I could see him walking down the road.'

'You are sure it was Mr. Eric.' Oh, the look of intense relief on Mr.
Hamilton's face! He must have believed him dead all this time.

'I am nearly sure, sir. I saw him again in town. I was passing the Albert
Memorial when I looked up at one of the fine houses opposite, and saw a
young workman on the balcony with a painter's brush in his hand: the sun
was shining full on his face. I saw him plainly then.'

Mr. Hamilton started from his seat. 'If this be true!--my father's son
gaining his bread as a house-painter!'

'It is true,' I whispered; 'for I saw him myself, and told Gladys.'

'You saw him!--you!' with an air of utter incredulity.

'Yes; and I tried to speak to him. He was so like the picture in Gladys's
room, I thought it must be Eric. But he would not hear me, and in a
moment he was gone. The men called him Jack Poynter, and said he was a
gentleman, but no one knew where he lived. Oh, I have tried so hard to
find him for you, but he will not be found.'

'And you did not tell me of this,' very reproachfully.

'Gladys would not let me tell you,' I returned: 'we could not be sure,
and--' But he put up his hand to stop me.

'That will do,' in a tone of suppressed grief that went to my heart. 'I
will not wrong you if I can help it; no doubt you did it for the best;
you did not willingly deceive me.'

'Never! I have never deceived you, Mr. Hamilton.'

'Not intentionally. I will do you justice even now; but, oh,'--and here
he clinched his right hand, and I saw the veins on it stand out like
whip-cord,--'how I have been betrayed! Those I have trusted have brought
trouble and confusion in my household; and, good God! they are women, and
I cannot curse them.'

I saw Leah quail beneath this burst of most righteous indignation.
The blinding tears rushed to my eyes as I heard him: in spite of his
sternness, he had been so simple and so unsuspicious. He trusted people
so fully, he was so generous in his confidence, and yet the woman he
loved had played him false, and the pitiful creatures he had sheltered
under his roof had hatched this conspiracy against his peace.

'You can leave me now,' he continued harshly, turning to Leah. 'I will
not trust myself to say more to you. If you receive mercy and not justice
at my hands, it is because your confederate is even more guilty than you.
I cannot spare the one without letting the other go unpunished. To-morrow
morning, before the household is up, you and everything belonging to you
shall leave this house. If you ever set foot in Heathfield again it will
be at your own peril. Go up to your own room now and pack your boxes; I
shall take the precaution of turning the key in your door to prevent your
holding communication with any member of my household.'

'I give you my word, sir--' began Leah, turning visibly pale at the idea
of finding herself a prisoner.

'Your word!' was the disdainful reply; and then he pointed to the door.
'Go at once!' But she still lingered. There was a spark of good even in
this woman. She was unwilling to quit our presence without knowing what
was to become of her mistress.

'You will not be hard on Miss Etta, sir? She has done wrong, but she is
a poor creature, and--' But Mr. Hamilton walked to the door and threw it
open with a gesture that compelled obedience.

The next moment, however, he recoiled with a low exclamation of horror;
for there, drawn up against the wall, in a strange half-crouching
attitude, as though petrified with terror, was his miserable cousin.

I heard Leah's shocked 'Miss Etta! How could you be so mad?' And then Mr.
Hamilton put out his hand, as though to forbid approach; but with a cry
of despair Miss Darrell seemed to sink to the ground, and held him
convulsively round the knees, so that he could not free himself.

'Get up, Etta!' he said indignantly. 'It is not to me you have to kneel';
for he thought her attitude one of supplication. But I knew better. She
had not strength to stand or support herself, and I passed behind him
quickly and went to her help.

'You cannot speak to him like that, Miss Darrell. He will not hear you.'
But, though Leah assisted me, we had some difficulty in inducing her to
relax her frantic grip. And even when we placed her in a chair she seemed
as though she would sink again on the ground. She was trembling all over,
her teeth chattering; the muscles of her face worked convulsively.

'Giles, Giles,' she screamed, as he seemed about to leave her, 'you may
kill me if you like, but you shall not look at me like this.' But,
without vouchsafing her any answer, he turned to me.

'Will you wait with my cousin a moment? I will be back directly.' I
nodded assent. I knew he wished to see Leah safely in her room, but as
he closed the door Miss Darrell clutched my arm. She seemed really beside
herself.

'Where has he gone? Will he fetch the police, Miss Garston? Will they put
me in prison for it?'

'No,' I returned sternly. 'You know you are safe with him. He will not
hurt a hair of your head, because you are a woman, and his own flesh and
blood.'

'But he will banish me from his house!' she moaned. 'He will never
forgive me or let me see his face again. He will tell--oh, I cannot bear
it!'--her words strangled by a hoarse scream. 'I cannot and will not bear
it.'

I put my hand on her shoulder. 'You must control yourself,' I said
coldly. 'Would you wish Mr. Hamilton to treat you as a mad woman? Listen
to me, Miss Darrell. One part of your secret is safe with me. Try and
restrain yourself, and I will promise you that it shall never pass my
lips.'

Even in her hysterical excitement she understood me, and a more human
expression came into her hard, glaring eyes. 'Say it again; promise me,'
she moaned. 'I hate you, but I know you are to be trusted.'

'If you behave yourself and try to control your feelings a little,' I
returned slowly, 'I will say nothing about Uncle Max.' But at the name
she covered her face with her hands and rocked herself in agony. In spite
of all her sins I pitied her then.

At that moment Mr. Hamilton returned; but before he could speak I said
quickly--

'Your cousin is not in a condition to listen to you to-night, and it is
very late: I am going to take her up to her room and do what I can to
help her. Will you allow us to go?'

He looked at her and then at me. His face was hard and sombre; there was
no relenting there. 'Perhaps it will be better,' he returned slowly.
'Yes, you may go, but do not stay long with her. I may want to speak
to you again.'

'Not to-night,' I remonstrated; for I could see he was oblivious of the
time, and it was near midnight. 'To-morrow morning, as early as you like;
but I cannot come down again.'

'Oh, I see,' the meaning of my words dawning upon him. 'To-morrow
morning, then. Take her away now.' And, without another glance, he walked
away to his study table.

'Come, Miss Darrell,' I whispered, touching her; and she rose
reluctantly. 'Giles,--let me say one word to him,' said she, trying to
follow him feebly, but I recalled her sternly and made her follow me. I
had no fear of her now. Leah, whom I dreaded, was locked safely in her
room, and this poor miserable woman was harmless enough.

She broke into hysterical sobs and moans when I got her into her own
room. I was afraid Gladys might hear her, and I insisted on her showing
more self-control. My sharp words had their effect after a time, but it
was impossible to induce her to undress or go to bed. She had flung
herself across the foot and lay crouched up in a heap, with all the
delicate embroidery of her French dressing-gown crushed under her. When
she was quieter I put pillows under her head and covered her up warmly,
and then sat down to watch her.

I was about to leave the room once to fetch something I wanted, when she
suddenly struggled into a sitting posture, and begged me, in a voice of
horror, not to leave her.

'Leah will murder me if you do!' she cried. 'She has frightened me
often,--she says such things,--oh, you do not know! I should never have
been so bad but for Leah!'

'I shall not be long; and Leah is locked in her room; Mr. Hamilton has
the key,' I returned quietly. But it was with difficulty that she would
let me go. I suppose even criminals feel the need of sympathy. Miss
Darrell hated me in her heart, had always hated me, but the sight of even
an unloved human face was better than solitude. No wonder with such
thoughts people go mad sometimes.

I was surprised to see Mr. Hamilton walking up and down the long passage,
as though he were keeping guard. He was going to let me pass him without
a word, but I stopped and asked what he was doing.

'I was waiting until you were safe in your own room,' was the reply.
'What has kept you so long?'

'I must go back again,' I returned quickly; 'she is not fit to be left
alone. I am not afraid of her now, Mr. Hamilton: she can do me no harm.
Please do not watch any longer.'

'You were ill: have you forgotten that? I ought not to allow you to make
yourself worse. Why,' with a sort of impatience visible in his manner,
'need you be troubled about our miserable affairs?'

'Let me go back for a little while,' I pleaded; for I knew if he ordered
me into my own room I should be obliged to obey him. 'It keeps her in
check, seeing me there: she is so exhausted that she must sleep soon; and
then I will lie down.' I suppose he thought there was no help for it, for
he drew back for me to pass; but I was grieved to hear his footsteps for
a long time after that pacing slowly up and down, and it was more for his
sake than my own that I was glad when Miss Darrell's moans ceased, and
the more quiet regular breathing proved to me that she was asleep.

The passage was empty when I came out, and the first faint streak of dawn
was visible. It was too late then to think of going to bed. I lay down,
dressed as I was, and slept for a couple of hours; then the sunshine woke
me, and I got up and took my bath and felt refreshed.

Chatty brought me my tea early, and told me that Mr. Hamilton was walking
in the garden. 'And do you know, ma'am,' observed the girl breathlessly,
'something strange must have happened since last evening; for when I
looked out of my window before six this morning I saw master standing
before the door, and there was Leah, in her bonnet, speaking to him, and
she went off with Pierson, wheeling off her boxes on his truck. I do
believe she has really gone, ma'am, and not a creature in the house knows
it.'

'Never mind: it is not our business, Chatty; but I think I will go and
speak to your master when I have finished my tea.'

'I was to give you a message, ma'am,--that he would be glad if you could
join him in the garden as soon as you were up, as he had to go some
distance, and he wanted to tell you about it.' I put down my cup at once
when I heard this, and hurried out into the garden.

Mr. Hamilton was pacing up and down the asphalt walk as he had paced the
passage last night. He did not quicken his steps when he saw me, but
walked towards me slowly, with the gait of a man who has a load on his
mind.

'I hardly expected you so early. Have you had any rest at all?' looking
at me rather anxiously.

'Yes, thank you; I have slept for two hours. But you have not, Mr.
Hamilton'; for he was looking wretchedly worn and ill.

'Was it likely that I could sleep?' he returned impatiently. 'But I have
no time to waste. Atkinson will be round here directly with the dog-cart.
I am going off to Liverpool by the 12.10 train.'

'To Liverpool?' in unfeigned surprise.

'Yes; I have been thinking all night what is to be done about my
unfortunate cousin. She is dependent on me, and I cannot send her away
without finding her a home. That home,' pausing as though to give
emphasis to his words, 'can never be under my roof again.'

'I suppose not.'

'The sin is of too black a dye for me to bring myself to forgive her. If
I were to say that I forgive her I should lie.' And here his face became
dark again. 'She has disgraced that poor boy Eric, and driven him away
from his home; she has made Gladys's life wretched: her whole existence
must have been a tissue of deceit and treachery. How could I sleep when
I was trying to disentangle this mesh of deception and lies? how do I
know when she has been true or when wholly false?'

'I fear there has been little truth spoken to you, Mr. Hamilton.' I was
thinking of Gladys when I said that, but something in my words seemed to
strike him.

'Is there anything else I ought to know? But no, I have no time for that:
I must try and make some arrangements at once: she cannot break bread
with us again. The people I want to find are old patients of mine. I was
able to serve them once: I feel as though I have a claim on them.'

'But you will be back soon?' for I could not bear him to leave us alone.

'To-morrow morning. I will take the night train up, but I shall be
detained in London. Take care of Gladys for me, Miss Garston. Do not tell
her more than you think necessary. Do not let Etta see her, if you can
help it; but I know you will act for the best.' Then, as he looked at me,
his face softened for a moment. 'I wish I had not to leave you; but you
could send for Mr. Cunliffe.'

'Oh, there will be no need for that,' I returned hastily, for the thought
of the wretched woman upstairs would prevent me from sending for Uncle
Max. 'Come back as quickly as you can, and I will do my best for Gladys.'

'I know it. I can trust you,' he replied, very gently. 'Take care of
yourself also.' Then, as the wheels of the dog-cart sounded on the
gravel, he held out his hand to me gravely, and then turned away. A
moment afterwards I heard his voice speaking to Atkinson, and as I
entered the shrubbery Pierson was fastening the gate after them.



CHAPTER XLV

'THIS HOME IS YOURS NO LONGER'


There are long gray days in every one's life.

I think that day was the longest that I ever spent: it seemed as though
the morning would never merge into afternoon, or the afternoon into
evening. Of the night I could not judge, for I slept as only weary youth
can sleep.

Sheer humanity, the mere instinct of womankind, had obliged me to watch
by Miss Darrell through the previous night: for some hours her hysterical
state had bordered on frenzy. I knew sleep was the best restorative in
such cases: she would wake quieter. There would be no actual need for my
services, and unless she sent for me I thought it better to leave her
alone: she was only suffering the penalty of her own sin, the shame of
detected guilt. There was no sign of real penitence to give me hope for
the future.

I found Gladys awake when I returned from the garden: in spite of my
anxiety, it gave me intense pleasure to hear her greeting words.

'Oh, Ursula, come and kiss me; it is good morning indeed. I woke so
happy; everything is so lovely,--the sunshine, and the birds, and the
flowers!' And, with a smile, 'I wished somebody could have seen--"my
thoughts of Max."' And then, still holding me fast, 'I do not forget my
poor boy, in spite of my happiness, but something tells me that Eric will
soon come back.'

'He might have been here now,' I grumbled, 'if you had allowed me to tell
your brother'; for those few reproachful words haunted me.

'Yes, dear; I know I was wrong,' she answered, with sweet candour. 'Giles
is so kind now that I cannot think why I was so reserved with him; but of
course,' flushing a little, 'I was afraid of Etta.'

'I suppose that was the reason,' I returned, busying myself about the
room; for I did not care to pursue the subject. Mr. Hamilton's few words
had convinced me that he thought it would be wiser to leave Gladys in
ignorance of what was going on until Miss Darrell was out of the house.
She had borne so much, and was still weak and unfit for any great
excitement. My great fear was lest Miss Darrell should force her way
into Gladys's presence and disturb her by a scene; and this fear kept
me anxious and uneasy all day.

Gladys was a trifle restless; she wanted a drive again, and when I made
her brother's absence a pretext for refusing this, she pleaded for a
stroll in the garden. It was with great difficulty that I at last induced
her to remain quietly in her room. But when she saw that I was really
serious she gave up her wishes very sweetly, and consoled herself by
writing to Max, in answer to a letter that he had sent under cover to me.

It was nearly noon before Chatty brought me a message that Miss Darrell
was just up and dressed, and wished to speak to me; and I went at once to
her.

The usually luxurious room had an untidy and forlorn aspect. The crumpled
Indian dressing-gown and the breakfast-tray littered the couch;
ornaments, jewellery, and brushes strewed the dressing-table. Miss
Darrell was sitting in an easy-chair by the open window. She did not
move or glance as I entered in the full light. She looked pinched and
old and plain. Her eyelids were swollen; her complexion had a yellowish
whiteness; as I stood opposite to her, I could see gray hairs in the
smooth dark head; before many years were over Miss Darrell would look an
old woman. I could not help wondering, as I looked at her, how any one
could have called her handsome.

'Chatty says Leah has gone,' she said, in a voice fretful with misery.
'I told her that that was too good news to be true. Is it true, Miss
Garston?'

'Yes; she has gone.'

'I am glad of it,' with a vixenish sharpness that surprised me. 'I hated
that woman, and yet I was afraid of her too: she got me in her toils, and
then I was helpless. Where has Giles gone, Miss Garston? Chatty said he
went off in a dog-cart with his portmanteau.'

How I wished Chatty would hold her tongue sometimes! but most likely Miss
Darrell had questioned her.

'Mr. Hamilton's business is not our affair,' I returned coldly.

'That means I am not to ask; but all the same you are in his secret,'
with one of her old sneers. 'Will he be back to-night?'

'No, not to-night; to-morrow morning early.'

'That is all I want to know, Miss Garston,' hesitating a little
nervously. 'I have never liked you, but all the same I have not injured
you.'

'Have you not, Miss Darrell?'

'No,' very uneasily; but she did not meet my eyes. 'I defy you to prove
that I have. Still, if I were your enemy, ought you not to heap coals of
fire on my head?'

'Possibly.'

My coolness seemed to frighten her; she lost her sullen self-possession.

'Have you no heart?' she said passionately. 'Will you not hold up a
finger to help me? You have influence with Giles; do not deny it. If you
ask him to keep me here he will not refuse you, and you will make me your
slave for life.'

I heard this proposition with disgust. She could cringe to me whom she
hated. I shook my head, feeling unable to answer her.

'I could help you,' she persisted, fixing her miserable eyes on me. 'Oh,
I know what you want: you cannot hide from me that you are unhappy. I
know where the hindrance lies; one word from me would bring Giles to your
feet. Am I to say that word?'

'No,' I returned indignantly. 'Do you think that I would owe anything
to you? I would rather be unhappy all my life than be under such an
obligation. You are powerless to harm me, Miss Darrell; your plots are
nothing to me.'

'And yet a word from me would bring him to your feet.'

'I do not want him there,' I replied, irritated at this persistence.
'I do not wish you to mention his name to me; if you do so again I will
leave you.'

'On your head be your own obstinacy,' she returned angrily; but I could
see the despair in her eyes, and I answered that.

'Miss Darrell,' I went on, more gently, 'I cannot help you in this. How
could I ask Mr. Hamilton to keep you under his roof, knowing that you
have poisoned his domestic happiness? Even if I could be so mad or
foolish, would he be likely to listen to me?'

'He would listen to you,' half crying: 'you know he worships the ground
you walk on.'

I tried to keep back the rebellious colour that rose to my face at her
words.

'Do not cheat yourself with this insane belief,' I returned quietly. 'Mr.
Hamilton is inexorable when he has decided on anything.'

'Inexorable! you may well say so!' rocking herself in an uncontrollable
excitement. 'Giles is hard,--cruel in his wrath: he will send me away and
never see me again.' And now the tears began to flow.

'Miss Darrell,' I continued pityingly, 'for your own sake listen to me a
moment. You have failed most miserably in the past: let the future years
be years of repentance and atonement. Mr. Hamilton will not forgive until
you have proved yourself worthy of forgiveness: remember you owe the
future to him.'

She stared at me for a moment as though my words held some hope for her;
then she turned her back on me and went on rocking herself. 'Too late!'
I heard her mutter: 'I cannot be good without him.' And, with a strange
sinking of heart, I left the room.

She could bring him to my feet with a word. Was this the truth, or only
an idle boast? No matter; I would not owe even his love to this woman.
'I can live without you, Giles,--my Giles,' I whispered; but hot tears
burnt my cheeks as I spoke.

In the afternoon I saw Miss Darrell pacing up and down the asphalt walk.
Gladys saw her too, and turned away from the window rather nervously.
'How restless Etta seems!' she said once; but I made no answer. Towards
evening I heard her footsteps perambulating the long passage, and softly
turned the key in the lock without Gladys noticing the movement. Gladys
noticed very little in that sweet dreamy mood that had come to her; her
own thoughts occupied her; her lover's letter had more than contented
her.

About ten o'clock I went in search of Chatty, and came face to face with
Miss Darrell. She was in her crumpled yellow dressing-gown, and her dark
hair hung over her shoulders; her eyes looked bright and strange. I moved
back a step and laid my hand on the handle.

She greeted this action with a disagreeable laugh.

'I suppose you heard me trying the door just now. Yes, I wanted to see
Gladys; I wished to make some one feel as wretched as I do myself; but
you were too quick for me. Do you always keep your patients under lock
and key?'

'Sometimes,' laconically, for I disliked her manner more than ever
to-night: it was not the first time that I had fancied that she had had
recourse to some form of narcotic. 'Why do you not go to bed, Miss
Darrell?'

'Perhaps I shall when I have thoroughly tired myself. These passages have
rather a ghastly look: they remind me of Leah, too,' with a shudder.
'Good-night, Miss Garston; pleasant dreams to you. I suppose you have
not thought better of what I said about Giles?'

'No, certainly not,' retreating into my room and locking the door in a
panic. I heard a husky laugh answer me. Perhaps last night's watching had
tired my nerves, for it was long before I could compose myself to sleep.

The night passed quietly, and I woke, refreshed, to the sound of summer
rain pattering on the shrubs. The little oak avenue looked wet and
dreary; but no amount of rain or outward dreariness could damp me, with
the expectation of Mr. Hamilton's return; and I helped Chatty arrange our
rooms with great cheerfulness.

He came back earlier than I expected. I had hardly finished settling
Gladys for the day,--she took great pains with her toilet now, and was
hard to please in the matter of ruffles and ornaments,--when Chatty told
me that he wished to speak to me a moment.

I made some excuse and joined him without delay. He looked much as he
had the previous morning,--very worn and tired, and his eyes a little
sunken; but he greeted me quietly, and even kindly; he asked me if I felt
better, and how Gladys was. I was rather ashamed of my nervous manner of
answering, but that odious speech of Miss Darrell would come into my
mind when he looked at me.

'Chatty says my cousin is in the dining-room: do you mind coming down
with me for a few minutes? I do not wish to see her alone.'

Of course I signified my willingness to accompany him, and he walked
beside me silently to the dining-room door.

Miss Darrell was sitting on the circular seat looking out on the oak
avenue; she did not turn her head, and there was something hopeless in
the line of her stooping shoulders. I saw her hands clutch the cushions
nervously as her cousin walked straight to the window.

'Etta,' he began abruptly, 'I wish you to listen to me a moment. I will
spare you all I can, for Aunt Margaret's sake: I do not intend to be more
hard with you than my duty demands.'

'Oh, Giles!' raising her eyes at this mild commencement; but they dropped
again at the sight of the dark impenetrable face, which certainly had no
look of pity on it. She must have felt then, what I should certainly have
felt in her place, that any prayers or tears would be wasted on him.

'It would be useless, and worse than useless,' he went on, 'to point out
to you the heinousness of your sin,--perhaps I should say crime. All
these years you have not faltered in your relentless course; no pity for
me and mine has touched your heart; you have allowed our poor lad to
wander about the world as an outcast; you have suffered Gladys to carry a
heavy and bitter weight in her bosom. Pshaw! why do I reiterate these
things? you know them all.'

'Giles, I have loved you in spite of it all! Be merciful to me!' But he
went on as though he heard her no more than the rain dripping on the
leaves.

'This home is yours no longer; you are no fit companion for my sisters,
even if I could bear to shelter a traitor under my roof. If I know my
present feelings, I will never willingly see your face again: whether I
ever do see it depends on your future conduct.'

'Oh, for pity's sake, Giles!' She was writhing now. In spite of all her
sins against him, she had loved him in her perverse way.

'I have found you a home far from here,' he continued in the same
chilling manner, 'and to-morrow morning you will be taken to it. The
Alnwicks are kind, worthy people--not rich in this world's goods, or what
the world would call refined. I was able to help them once when they were
in bitter straits: in return they have acceded to my request and have
offered you a home.'

'I will not go!' she sobbed passionately. 'I would rather you should kill
me, Giles, than treat me with such cruelty!'

'They are old,' he went on calmly, 'but more with trouble than years, and
they have no one belonging to them, and they promise to treat you like a
daughter. You will be in comfort, but not luxury: luxury has been your
curse, Etta. A moderate sum will be paid to you yearly for your dress and
personal expenses, but if overdrawn or misapplied it will be curtailed
or stopped altogether. Your maintenance will be arranged between the
Alnwicks and myself, and, unless I give you permission to write,--which
is distinctly not my purpose now,--no letter from you will be read or
answered, and I forbid all such communication.'

'I cannot--I cannot bear it!' she screamed, springing to her feet; but he
waved her back with such a look that her arms dropped to her side.

'No scene, I beg,' in a tone of disgust. 'Let me finish quietly what I
have to say.--Miss Garston,' turning to me, 'could you spare Chatty to
help my cousin pack her clothes and books? for we shall start early in
the morning. Mr. Alnwick has promised to meet us half-way.'

'I can set Chatty at liberty for the day,' was my answer.

'Very well. Etta, you may as well go at once. Your meals will be served
in your room. I do not wish you to resume your usual habits: this is my
house, not yours. Your only course now must be obedience and submission.
Let your future conduct atone to me for the past, that I may remember
without shame that I have a cousin Etta.'

He turned away then, but I could see his face working. He had dearly
loved this miserable creature, and had cared for her as though she had
been his sister, and he could not leave her without this vague word of
hope. Did she understand him, I wonder,--that in the future he might
bring himself to forgive her? I heard her weeping bitterly in her room
afterwards, and Chatty, in her fussy, good-natured way, trying to comfort
her: the girl had a kind heart.

Early in the afternoon Mr. Hamilton joined us in the turret-room.
Directly he came in and sat down by his sister's couch I knew that he
meant to tell her everything,--that he thought it best that she should
hear it from him.

He told it very quietly, without any explanation or expression of
feeling; but it was not possible for Gladys to hear that Eric's name was
cleared without keen emotion. 'Oh, thank God for this other mercy!' she
sobbed, bursting into tears; and presently, as he went on, she crept
closer to him, and before he had finished she had clasped his arm with
her two hands and her face was hidden in them.

'Oh, Giles! if you only knew what she has made me suffer!' she whispered.
'We should have understood each other better if Etta had not always come
between us.'

'You are right; I feel you are right, Gladys,' stroking her fair hair as
he spoke; then she looked up and smiled affectionately in his face.

'Ursula, will you leave me alone with my brother for a little? There is
something I want to tell him!' And I went away at once.

As I opened the door, Chatty came down the passage with a pile of
freshly-ironed linen. Her round face looked unusually disturbed.

'She is going on so, ma'am,' she whispered, 'it is dreadful to hear her.
She is making us turn out all her drawers, and there are three big trunks
to fill. She says she is going away for ever.'

'Hush!' I returned, with a warning look, for Miss Darrell was at the door
watching us. She was in her yellow dressing-gown, and the old pinched
look was still in her face.

'Why are you stopping to gossip, Chatty?' she said querulously. 'I shall
not have finished until midnight at this rate. Leah would have packed by
this time.' And Chatty, with rather a frightened look, carried in her
pile of clean linen.

I strolled about the garden for an hour, and then went back to the house.
Mr. Hamilton was just closing the door of his sister's room. He looked
happier, I thought: the dark, irritable expression had left his face. He
came forward with a smile.

'Gladys has been telling me, Miss Garston. I am more glad than I can say.
Cunliffe is a fine fellow; there is no one that I should like so well for
a brother.'

'I knew you would say so. Uncle Max is so good.'

'Well, he has secured a prize,' with a slight sigh. 'Gladys is a noble
woman; she will make her husband a happy man. There is little doubt that
Etta did mischief there; but Gladys was not willing to enter on that part
of the subject. I begin to think,' with a quick, searching look that
somewhat disturbed me, 'that we have not yet reached the limits of her
mischief-making.'

I could have told him that I knew that. I think he meant to have said
something more; but a slight movement in the direction of Miss Darrell's
room made us separate somewhat quickly. I saw Mr. Hamilton glance
uneasily at the half-closed door as he went past it.

I found Gladys in tears, but she made me understand with some difficulty
that they were only tears of relief and joy.

'But I am sorry too, because I have so often grieved him so,' she said,
drying her eyes. 'Oh, how good Giles is!--how noble!--and I have
misunderstood him so! he was so glad about Max, and so very very kind.
And then we talked about Eric. He says we were wrong to keep it from him,
that even you were to blame in that. He thinks so highly of you, Ursula;
but he said even good people make mistakes sometimes, and that this was
a great mistake. I was so sorry when he said that, that I asked his
pardon over and over again.'

I felt that I longed to ask his pardon too; and yet the fault had been
Gladys's more than mine; but I knew she had talked enough, so I kissed
her, and begged her to lie down and compose herself while I got the tea
ready.

We did not see Mr. Hamilton again that night. Gladys and I sat by the
open window, talking by snatches or relapsing into silence. When she had
retired to rest I stole out into the passage to see what had become of
tired Chatty, but I repented this charitable impulse when I saw Miss
Darrell standing in the open doorway opposite, as though she were
watching for some one.

On seeing me she beckoned imperiously, and I crossed the passage with
some reluctance.

'Come in a moment: I want to speak to you,' she said hoarsely; and I
saw she was much excited. 'I sent Chatty to bed. We have finished
packing,--oh, quite finished. Giles will be satisfied with my obedience;
and now I want you to tell me what you and he were saying about Mr.
Cunliffe.' But her white lips looked whiter as she spoke.

'Excuse me, Miss Darrell,' I returned; but she stopped me.

'You are going to say that it is no business of mine. You are always
cautious, Miss Garston; but I am resolved to know this, or I will refuse
to leave the house to-morrow morning. Are they engaged? is that what
Giles meant when he said he was a fine fellow?'

I thought it wiser to tell her the truth. 'They are engaged.'

'And Giles knows it, and gives his consent?'

'Most gladly and willingly.'

'I wish I could kill them both!' was the sullen reply; and then, without
taking any further notice of me, she sat down on one of the boxes and hid
her face in her hands, and when I tried to speak to her she shook her
head with a gesture of impatience and despair.

'The game is played out; I may as well go,' she muttered; and seeing her
in this mood I thought it better to leave her; but I slept uneasily, and
often started up in bed fancying I heard something. I remembered her
words with horror: the whole scene was like a nightmare to me,--the
disordered and desolate room, with the great heavily-corded trunks, the
dim light, the wretched woman in her yellow dressing-gown sitting
crouched on a box. 'Can this be love?' I thought, with a shudder,--'this
compound of vanity and selfishness?' and I felt how different was my
feeling for Giles. The barrier might never be broken down between us, I
might never be to him more than I was now, but all my life I should love
and honour him as the noblest man I knew on God's earth.



CHAPTER XLVI

NAP BARKS IN THE STABLE-YARD


I was arranging some flowers that Max had sent us the next morning, and
waiting for Gladys to join me, when Mr. Hamilton came in.

'Where is Gladys?' he asked, looking round the room; but when he heard
that she had not finished dressing, he would not hear of my disturbing
her.

'It is no matter,' he went on. 'I shall be back before she is in bed. I
only wanted to tell her that I have seen Cunliffe. I breakfasted with him
this morning. He will be up here presently to see her. He looks ten years
younger, Miss Garston.' And, as I smiled at that, he continued, in rather
a constrained voice,--

'Mr. Tudor breakfasted with us.'

'Yes, I suppose so,' I returned carelessly. 'What splendid carnations
these are, Mr. Hamilton! You have not any so good at Gladwyn.'

'Cunliffe must spare me some cuttings,' he replied, rather absently;
then, without looking at me, and in a peculiar voice, 'Is it still a
secret, Miss Garston, or may I be allowed to congratulate you?'

I dropped the carnations as though they suddenly scorched me.

'Why should you congratulate me, Mr. Hamilton?'

'I thought you considered me a friend,' he replied, rather nervously.
'But, of course, if it be still a secret, I must beg your pardon for my
abruptness.'

'I don't know what you mean,' I said, very crossly, but my cheeks were
burning. 'If this be a joke, I must tell you once for all that I dislike
this sort of jokes: they are not in good taste': for I was as angry with
him as possible, for who knew what nonsense he had got into his head? He
looked at me in quite a bewildered fashion; my anger was evidently
incomprehensible to him. We were playing at cross-purposes.

'Do you think I am in the mood for joking?' he said, at last. 'Have you
ever heard me jest on such subjects, Miss Garston? I thought we agreed on
that point.'

'Do you mean you are serious?'

'Perfectly serious.'

'Then in that case will you kindly explain to me why you think I am to be
congratulated?'

He looked uncomfortable. 'I have understood that you and Mr. Tudor
were engaged, or, at least, likely to become so. Do you mean,' as
my astonished face seemed to open room for doubt, 'that it is not
true?--that Etta deceived me there?'

'Miss Darrell!' scornfully; then, controlling my strong indignation
with an effort, I said, more quietly, 'I think that we ought to beg Mr.
Tudor's pardon for dragging in his name in this way: he would hardly
thank us. If I am not mistaken, he is in love with my cousin Jocelyn.'

'Impossible! What a credulous fool I have been to believe her! Your
cousin Jocelyn,--do you mean Miss Jill?'

'Yes,' I returned, smiling, for a sense of renewed happiness was stealing
over me. 'The foolish fellow is always following me about to talk of her.
I do believe he is honestly in love with her. He saved her life, and that
makes it all the worse.'

'All the better, you mean,' regarding me gravely. That fixed, serious
look made me rather confused.

'Would you mind telling me, Mr. Hamilton,' I interposed hurriedly, 'what
put this absurd idea into your head?'

'It was Etta,' he returned, in a low voice. 'It was that night when you
had been singing to us, and she came home unexpectedly.'

'Yes, yes, I remember'; but I could not meet his eyes.

'She told me when we got home that Mr. Tudor was in love with you, and
that she believed you were engaged, or that, at least, there was an
understanding between you; and she added that if I did not believe her I
might watch for myself, and I should see that you were always together.'

'Well?' rather impatiently.

'I will beg your pardon afterwards for following Etta's advice, but I did
watch, and it was not long before I came round to her opinion.'

'Mr. Hamilton!'

'Wait a moment before you get angry with me again. I never saw you in a
passion before'; but I knew he was laughing at me. 'Etta was certainly
right in one thing: I seemed always finding you together.'

'That was because I often met Mr. Tudor in the village, and he turned
back and walked with me a little; but we always talked of Jill.'

'How could I know that?' in rather an injured voice. 'Were you talking of
Miss Jocelyn in the vicarage kitchen-garden that evening?'

'Probably,' was my cool reply; for how could I remember all the subjects
of our conversation?

'And when you went to Hyde Park Gate, you were together then,--Leah saw
you,--and--' But I could bear no more.

'How could I know that I should be watched and spied upon, and all my
innocent actions misrepresented?' I exclaimed indignantly. 'It was not
fair, Mr. Hamilton. I could not have believed it of you, that you should
listen to such things against me. That boy, too!'

'Nonsense!' speaking in his old good-humoured voice, and looking
exceedingly pleased. 'He is five-and-twenty, and a very good-looking
fellow: a girl might do worse for herself than marry Lawrence Tudor.'

'But I intend to have him as my cousin some day,' was my reply; but at
this moment Chatty came in to tell Mr. Hamilton that the boxes were in
the cart, and Miss Darrell waiting in the carriage.

'Confound it! I had forgotten all about Etta,' he returned impatiently.
'Well, it cannot be helped: we must finish our conversation this
evening.' And with a smile that told of restored confidence he went off.

I sat down and cried a little for sheer happiness, for I knew the barrier
was broken at last, and that we should soon arrive at a complete
understanding. It was hard that he should have to leave me just then; and
the thought of resuming the conversation in the evening made me naturally
a little nervous. 'Supposing I go back to the White Cottage,' I thought
once; but I knew he would follow me there, and that it would seem idle
coquetting on my part. It would be more dignified to wait and hear what
he had to say. I should go back to the White Cottage in a day or two.

Gladys came out of her room when she heard the wheels, and proposed that
we should go down into the drawing-room. 'Poor poor Etta!' she sighed. 'I
try to pity and be sorry for her, but it is impossible not to be glad
that she has gone. I want to look at every room, Ursula, and to realise
that I am to have my own lovely home in peace. We must send for Lady
Betty; and Giles must know about Claude. I do not believe that he will
be angry: oh no, nothing will make Giles angry now.'

Max found us very busy in the drawing-room. I was just carrying out a
work-box and a novel that belonged to Miss Darrell, and Gladys had picked
up a peacock-feather screen, and a carved ivory fan, and two or three
little knick-knacks. 'Take them all away, Ursula dear,' she pleaded, with
a faint shudder; but as she put them in my arms there were Max's eyes
watching us from the threshold.

I saw her go up to him as simply as a child, and put her hands in his,
and as I closed the door Max took her in his arms. The peacock screen
fell at my feet, the ivory fan and a hideous little Chinese god rolled
noisily on the oilcloth. I smiled as I picked them up. My dear Max and
his Lady of Delight were together at last. I felt as though my cup of joy
were full.

Max remained to luncheon, but he went away soon afterwards. Gladys must
rest, and he would come again later in the evening. I was rather glad
when he said this, for I wanted to go down to the White Cottage and see
Mrs. Barton, and I could not have left the house while he was there. Yes,
Max was certainly right: it would be better for him to come again when
Mr. Hamilton was at home.

I made Gladys take possession of her favourite little couch in the
drawing-room, but she detained me for some time talking about Max, until
I refused to hear another word, and then I went up to my own room, and
put on my hat.

I thought Nap would like a run down the road,--and I could always make
Tinker keep the peace,--so I went into the stable-yard in search of him.
He was evidently there, for I could hear him barking excitedly. The next
moment a young workman came out of the empty coach-house, and walked
quickly to the gate, followed closely by Nap, jumping and fawning on him.

'Down, down, good dog!' I heard him say, and then I whistled back Nap,
who came reluctantly, and with some difficulty I contrived to shut him up
in the stable-yard. There seemed no man about the premises. Then I
hurried down the road in the direction of the village: my heart was
beating fast, my limbs trembled under me. I had caught sight of a perfect
profile and a golden-brown moustache as the young workman went out of the
gate, and I knew it was the face of Eric Hamilton.

My one thought was that I must follow him, that on no account must I lose
sight of him. As I closed the gate I could see him in the distance, just
turning the corner by the Man and Plough; he was walking very quickly in
the direction of the station. I quickened my steps, breaking into a run
now and then, and soon had the satisfaction of lessening the distance
between us; my last run had brought me within a hundred yards of him,
and slackened my pace, and began to look the matter in the face.

I remembered that the London train would be due in another quarter of an
hour; no doubt that was why he was walking so fast. I must keep near him
when he took his ticket. I had no fear of his recognising me; he had only
seen me twice, without my bonnet, and now I wore a hat that shaded my
face, and my plain gray gown was sufficiently unlike the dress I had
worn at Hyde Park Gate. I had a sudden qualm as the thought darted into
my mind that he might possibly have a return-ticket; but I should know if
he got into the Victoria train, and I determined on taking a ticket for
myself.

I had a couple of sovereigns and a little loose silver in my purse. I had
assured myself of this fact as I walked down the hill. As soon as the
young workman had entered the booking-office, I followed him closely, and
to my great relief heard him ask for a third-class ticket for Victoria.
When he had made way for me I took the same for myself, and then, as I
had seven minutes to spare, I went into the telegraph-office and dashed
off a message to Gladys.

'Called to town on important business; may be detained to-night. Will
write if necessary.'

As I gave in the form I could hear the signal for the up train, and had
only time to reach the platform when the Victoria train came in.

The young workman got into an empty compartment, and I followed and
placed myself at the other end. I had no wish to attract his notice; the
ill success of my former attempt had frightened me, and I felt I dared
not address him, for fear he should leave the train at the next station.
Some workmen had got in and were talking noisily among themselves. I did
not feel that the opportunity would he propitious.

When we had actually left Heathfield I stole a glance at the young man:
he had drawn his cap over his eyes, and seemed to feign sleep, no doubt
to avoid conversation with the noisy crew opposite us; but that he was
not really asleep was evident from the slight twitching of the mouth and
a long-drawn sigh that every now and then escaped him.

I could watch him safely now, and for a few minutes I studied almost
painfully one of the most perfect faces I had ever seen. It was thin and
colourless, and there were lines sad to see on so young a face; but it
might have been a youthful Apollo leaning his head against the wooden
wainscotting.

Once he opened his eyes and pushed back his cap with a gesture of
weariness and impatience. He did not see me: those sad, blue-gray eyes
were fixed on the moving landscape; but how like Gladys's they looked!
I turned aside quickly to hide my emotion. I thought of Gladys and Mr.
Hamilton, and a prayer rose to my lips that for their sake I might
succeed in bringing the lost one back.

The journey seemed a long one. All sorts of fears tormented me. I
remembered Mr. Hamilton was in London: there was danger of encountering
him at Victoria. It was five now: he might possibly return to dinner. I
could scarcely breathe as this new terror presented itself to me, for if
Eric caught sight of his brother all would be lost.

When the train stopped, I followed the young workman as closely as
possible. As we were turning in the subterranean passage for the District
Railway, my heart seemed to stop. There was Mr. Hamilton reading his
paper under the clock: we actually passed within twenty yards of him, and
he did not raise his eyes. I am sure Eric saw him, for he suddenly dived
into the passage, and I had much trouble to keep him in sight: as it was,
I was only just in time to hear him ask for a third-class single to
Bishop's Road.

I did not dare enter the same compartment, but I got into the next,
and now and then, when our train stopped at the different stations,
I could hear him distinctly talking to a fellow-workman, in a refined,
gentlemanly voice, that would have attracted attention to him anywhere.
Once the other man called him Jack, and asked where he hung out, and I
noticed this question was cleverly eluded, but I heard him say afterwards
that he was in regular work, and liked his present governor, and that the
old woman who looked after him was a tidy, decent lady, and kept things
comfortable. My thoughts strayed a little after this. The sight of Mr.
Hamilton had disturbed me. What would he think when Gladys showed him
my telegram? He had promised to finish our conversation this evening.
I felt with a strange soreness of longing that I should not see Gladwyn
that night. My absence of mind nearly cost me dear, for I had no idea
that we had reached Bishop's Road until Eric passed my window, and with a
smothered exclamation I opened the door: happily, the passengers were
numerous and blocked up the stairs, so I reached the street to find him
only a few yards before me.

My patience was being severely exercised after this, for Eric did not go
straight to his lodgings. He went into a butcher's first, and after a few
minutes' delay--for there were customers in the shop--came out with a
newspaper parcel in his hand. Then he went into a grocer's, and through
the window I could see him putting little packets of tea and sugar in his
pocket.

His next business was to the baker's, and here a three-cornered crusty
loaf was the result. The poor young fellow was evidently providing his
evening meal, and the sight of these homely delicacies reminded me that
I was tired and hungry and that a cup of tea would be refreshing. Eric
carried his steak and three-cornered loaf jauntily, and every now and
then broke into a sweet low whistle that reminded me of his nickname
among his mates of 'Jack the Whistler.'

We were threading the labyrinth of streets that lie behind Bishop's Road
Station; I was beginning to feel weary and discouraged, when Eric stopped
suddenly before a neat-looking house of two stories, with very bright
geraniums in the parlour window, and taking out his latch-key let himself
in, and closed the door with a bang.

I stalked carelessly to the end of the street, and read the name. 'No. 25
Madison Street,' I said to myself, and then I went up to the door and
knocked boldly. My time had come now, I thought, trying to pull myself
together, for I felt decidedly nervous.

A stout, oldish woman with rather a pleasant face opened the door; her
arms were bare, and she dried her hands on her apron as she asked me my
business.

'Your lodger Jack Poynter has just come in,' I said quietly. 'I have a
message for him. Can I see him, please?'

'Oh ay,--you can see him surely.' And she stepped back into the passage
and called out, 'Jack, Jack! here is a young woman wants to speak to
you.' But I shut the door hurriedly and interrupted her:

'Let me go up to his room: you can tell me where it is'; for it never
would do to speak to him in the passage.

'Well, perhaps he may be washing and brushing himself a bit after his
journey,' she returned good-humouredly: 'he is a tidy chap, is Jack. If
you go up to the top landing and knock at the second door, that is his
sitting-room; he sleeps at the back, and Sawyer has the other room.'

I followed these instructions, and knocked at the front-room door; but no
voice bade me come in; only a short bark and a scuffle of feet gave me
notice of the occupant: so I ventured to go in.

It was a tidy little room, and had a snug aspect. A white fox-terrier
with a pretty face retreated growling under a chair, but I coaxed her to
come out. The steak and the loaf were on the table. But I had no time for
any further observation, for a voice said, 'What are you barking at,
Jenny?' and the next moment Eric entered the room.

He started when he saw me caressing the dog.

'I beg your pardon for this intrusion,' I began nervously, for I saw I
was not recognised; 'but I have followed you from Heathfield to tell you
the good news. Mr. Hamilton, it is all found out; Miss Darrell stole that
cheque.'

I had blurted it out, fearing that he might start away from me even then:
he must know that his name was cleared, and then I could persuade him to
listen to me. I was right in my surmise, for as I said his name he put
his hand on the door, but my next words made him drop the handle.

'What?' he exclaimed, turning deadly pale, and I could see how his lips
quivered under his moustache. 'Say that again: I do not understand.'

'Mr. Hamilton,' I repeated slowly, 'you need not have rushed past your
poor brother in that way at Victoria, for he is breaking his heart, and
so is Gladys, with the longing to find you. Your name is cleared: they
only want to ask your forgiveness for all you have suffered. It was a
foul conspiracy of two women to save themselves by ruining you. Leah has
made full confession. Your cousin Etta took the cheque out of your
brother's desk.'

'Oh, my God!' he gasped, and, sitting down, he hid his face in his hands.
The little fox-terrier jumped on his knee and began licking his hands.
'Don't, Jenny: let me be,' he said, in a fretful, boyish voice that made
me smile. 'I must think, for my brain seems dizzy.'

I left him quiet for a few minutes, and Jenny, after this rebuke, curled
herself up at his feet and went to sleep. Then I took the chair beside
him, and asked him, very quietly, if he could listen to me. He was
frightfully pale, and his features were working, but he nodded assent and
held his head between his hands again, but I know he heard every word.

I told him as briefly as I could how Gladys had languished and pined all
these years, how she had clung to the notion of his innocence and would
not believe that he was dead. He started at that, and asked what I meant.
Had Giles really believed he was dead?

'He had reason to fear so,' I returned gravely; and I told him how his
watch and scarf had been found on the beach at Brighton, and how the
hotel-keeper had brought them to Mr. Hamilton.

He seemed shocked at this. 'I had been bathing,' he said, in rather an
ashamed voice: 'some boy must have stolen them, and then dropped his
booty for fear of the police. I missed them when I came out of the water,
and I hunted about for them a long time. As I was leaving the beach I saw
one of Giles's friends coming down towards me, and I got it into my head
that I was recognised. I dared not go back to the hotel. Besides, my
money was running short. I took a third-class ticket up to London, and
on my way fell in with a house-painter, who gave me lodging for a few
nights.'

'Yes, and then--' for he hesitated here.

'Well, you see, I was just mad with them at home. I thought I could never
forgive Giles that last insult. My character and honour were gone. Etta
had been my secret enemy all along, because she knew I read her truly.
Leah had given in her false evidence. My word was nothing. I was looked
upon as a common thief. I swore that I would never cross the threshold of
Gladwyn again until my name was cleared. They should not hear of me; if
they thought me dead, so much the better!'

'Oh, Mr. Eric, and you never considered how Gladys would suffer!'

'Yes, that was my only trouble; but I thought they would turn her against
me in time. I was nearly mad, I tell you: but for Phil Power I believe I
should have been desperate; but he stuck to me, and was always telling me
that a man can live down anything. Indeed, but for Phil and his pretty
little wife I should have starved, for I had no notion of helping myself,
and would not have begged for a job to save my life, for I could not
forget I was a gentleman. But Phil got me work at his governor's. So
I turned house-painter, and rather liked my employment. I used to tell
myself that it was better than old Armstrong's office. Why, I make two
pounds a week now when we are in full work,' finished the poor lad
proudly.

My heart was yearning over him, he was so boyish and weak and impulsive;
but I would not spare him. I told him that it was cowardly of him to hide
himself,--that it would have been braver and nobler to have lived his
life openly. 'Why not have let your brother know what you were doing?' I
continued. 'For years this shadow has been over his home. He has believed
you dead. He has even feared self-destruction. This fear has embittered
his life and made him a hard, unhappy man.'

'Do you mean Giles has suffered like that?' he exclaimed; and his gray
eyes grew misty.

'Yes, in spite of all your sins against him, he has loved you dearly; and
Gladys--' But he put up his hand, as though he could hear no more.

'Yes, I know, poor darling; but I have often seen her, often been near
her; but I heard her laugh, and thought she was happy and had forgotten
me. How long is it since Leah confessed, Miss--Miss--' And here he
laughed a little nervously. 'I do not know who you are, and yet you
must be a friend.'

'I am Ursula Garston, a very close friend of your sister Gladys, and
I have been nursing her in this last illness.'

'What! has she been ill?' he asked anxiously. And when I had given him
full particulars he questioned me again about Leah's confession, and I
had to repeat all I could remember of her words.

'Then I was not cleared when you spoke to me at Hyde Park Gate?' he
returned, with a relieved air. 'So it did not matter my giving you the
slip. You frightened me horribly, Miss Garston, I can tell you that. I
saw those advertisements, too, to Jack Poynter, and I was very near
leaving the country; but I am glad I held on, as Phil advised,' drawing
a long breath as he spoke.



CHAPTER XLVII

'AT LAST, URSULA, AT LAST!'


We were interrupted at this moment by the landlady's voice calling to
Eric from the bottom of the stairs.

'Jack,--I say, Jack, what has become of the steak I promised to cook for
you? I'll be bound Jenny has eaten it.'

Eric gave a short laugh and went out into the passage, and I heard him
say, in rather a low voice,--

'A lady, a friend of my sister's, has just brought me some news. I expect
she is as tired and hungry as I am. Do you think,' coaxingly, 'that you
could get tea for us in the parlour, Mrs. Hunter? and perhaps you will
join us there'; for class-instinct had awoke in Eric at the sight of a
lady's face, and I suppose, in spite of my Quakerish gray gown, I was
still young enough to make him hesitate about entertaining me in his
bachelor's room.

There was a short parley after this. Then Mrs. Hunter came up panting,
and, still wiping her hands from imaginary soap-suds, carried off the
steak and the three-cornered loaf. 'It will be ready in about twenty
minutes, Jack,' she observed, with a good-natured nod.

Eric employed the interval of waiting by questioning me eagerly about his
sisters. Then he tried to find out, in a gentlemanly way, how I contrived
to be so mixed up with his family. This led to a brief _résumé_ of my own
history and work, and by the time Mrs. Hunter called us I felt as though
I had known Eric for years.

Mrs. Hunter beamed on us as we entered. There was really quite a tempting
little meal spread on the round table, though the butter was not fresh
nor the forks silver, but the tea was hot and strong, and the bread was
new. And Eric produced from his stores some lump sugar and a pot of
strawberry jam, and I did full justice to the homely fare.

When Mrs. Hunter went into the kitchen to replenish the teapot I took the
opportunity of consulting Eric about a lodging for the night. It was too
late to return to Heathfield. Besides, I had made up my mind that Eric
should accompany me. Aunt Philippa and Jill were in Switzerland, and the
house at Hyde Park Gate would be empty. I could not well go to an hotel
without any luggage. Eric seemed rather perplexed, and said we must take
Mrs. Hunter into our confidence, which we did, and the good woman soon
relieved our minds.

She said at once that she knew an excellent person who let lodgings round
the corner,--a Miss Moseley. Miss Gunter, who had been a music-mistress
until she married the young chemist, had lived with her for six years;
and Miss Crabbe, who was in the millinery department at Howell's, the big
shop in Kimber Street, was still there. Miss Gunter's room was vacant,
and she was sure Miss Moseley would take me in for the night and make me
comfortable.

I begged Mrs. Hunter to open negotiations with this obliging person, and
she pulled down her sleeves at once, and tied her double chin in a very
big black bonnet. While she was gone on this charitable errand, Eric and
I sat by the parlour window in the gathering dusk, and I told him about
Gladys's engagement to Uncle Max.

He seemed much excited by the news. 'I always thought that would be a
case,' he exclaimed: 'I could see Mr. Cunliffe cared for her even then.
Well, he is a first-rate fellow, and I am awfully glad.' And then he fell
into a reverie, and I could see there were tears in his eyes.

Mrs. Hunter returned presently with the welcome news that Miss Moseley
was airing my sheets at the kitchen fire, and, after a little more talk,
Eric walked with me to Prescott Street and gave me in charge to Miss
Moseley, after promising to be with me soon after nine the next morning.

I found Miss Moseley a cheerful talkative person, with very few teeth and
a great deal of good-nature. She gave me Miss Gunter's history as she
made the bed. I could see that her marriage with the young chemist was
a great source of glorification to all connected with her. She was still
holding forth on the newly-furnished drawing-room, with its blue sofa
and inlaid chiffonier, as she lighted a pair of candles in the brass
candlesticks, and brought me a can of hot water. I am afraid I was rather
thankful when she closed the door and left me alone, for I was tired, and
longed to think over the wonderful events of the day. I slept very
sweetly in the old-fashioned brown bed that was sacred to the memory of
Miss Gunter, and woke happily to the fact that another blue day was
shining, and that in a few hours Eric and I would be at Heathfield. I
ate my frugal breakfast in a small back parlour overlooking the blank
wall of a brewery, and before I had finished there was a quick tap at the
door, and Eric entered. A boyish blush crossed his handsome face as I
looked at him in some surprise. He had laid aside his workman's dress,
and wore the ordinary garb of a gentleman. Perhaps his coat was a little
shabby and the hat he held in his hand had lost its gloss, but no one
would have noticed such trifles with that bright speaking face and air
of refinement; and, though he looked down at his uncovered hands and
muttered something about stopping to buy a pair of gloves, I hastened to
assure him that it was so early that it did not matter. 'I should hardly
have recognised you, Mr. Eric,' I ventured to observe, for I saw he was
a little sensitive about his appearance; and then he told me in his frank
way that the clothes he wore were the same in which he left Gladwyn
nearly four years ago.

'They have been lying by all this time,' he went on, 'and they are sadly
creased, I am afraid. I have grown a little broader, and they don't seem
to fit me, somehow, but I did not want Gladys to see me in anything
else.'

We had decided to take the ten o'clock train to Heathfield, so I did
not keep him long waiting for me. On our way to the station we met a
house-painter: he looked rather dubiously at Eric.

'All right, Phil,' he laughed, 'I am going home; but I shall turn up
again all right: this lady has brought me good news.' And he wrung Phil's
hand with a heartiness that spoke volumes.

He was very excited and talkative at first, but as soon as we left
Victoria behind us he became quieter, and soon afterwards perfectly
silent; and I did not disturb him. He grew more nervous as we approached
Heathfield, and when the train stopped he had not an atom of colour in
his face.

'I do not know what I shall say to Giles,' he said, as we walked up the
hill. 'It will be very awkward for both of us, Miss Garston. Of course
I know that--'

But I begged him not to anticipate the awkwardness. 'You will be welcomed
as we only welcome our dearest and best,' I assured him. 'Your brother's
heart has been sore for you all these years: you need not fear one word
of reproach from him.' But he only sighed, and asked me not to walk so
quickly; his courage was failing; I could see the look of nervous fear
on his face.

We had arranged that he should accompany me to Gladwyn. Gladys never left
her room before twelve, and I thought that I could shut him safely in the
dining-room while I prepared her for his arrival. I knew Mr. Hamilton was
never at home at this hour, but I had not reckoned on the disorganised
state of the house, or the difference my brief absence would make in the
usual routine.

I blamed myself for rashness and want of consideration when, on opening
the gate, I saw Gladys crossing one of the little lawns around the house,
with Max and Mr. Hamilton. At my faint exclamation Eric let go the gate
rather too suddenly, and it swung back on its hinges so noisily that they
all looked round, and the poor boy stood as though rooted to the spot.
But the next moment there was the gleam of a white gown, and Gladys came
running over the grass towards us with outstretched hands, and in another
second the brother and sister were locked in each other's arms.

'Oh, my darling,' we heard her say, as she put up her face and kissed
him, and then her fair head seemed to droop lower and lower until it
touched Eric's shoulder. I glanced anxiously at Mr. Hamilton.

'Take her into the house, Eric,' he said, in his ordinary voice; but how
white his face looked! 'It has been too sudden, and she has fainted.'
And, without a word, Eric lifted her in his strong arms and carried her
of his own accord to the little blue couch in the drawing-room, and then
stood aside while his brother administered the usual remedy. Not a look
had passed between them yet: they were both too much absorbed in Gladys.

She soon opened her eyes, and pushed away the vinaigrette I was holding
to her.

'It is nothing, Ursula. I am well, quite well. Where is my dear boy? Do
not keep him from me.' And then Eric knelt down beside her, and put his
arm round her with a sort of sob.

'I ought not to have startled you so, Gladys. I have made you look so
pale.' But she laughed again, and pushed back his hair from his forehead,
and feasted her eyes on his face as though they could never be satisfied.

'Eric, darling, it seems like a dream; and it was Ursula, dear good
Ursula, who has given you back to us. We must thank her presently; but
not now. Oh, I must look at you first. He looks older, does he not,
Giles?--older and more manly. And what broad shoulders, and such a
moustache!' but Eric silenced her with a kiss.

'That will do, Gladys dear,' he whispered, springing to his feet; and
then, with downcast eyes and a flush on his face, he held out his hand
to his brother. It was taken and held silently, and then Mr. Hamilton's
disengaged hand was laid on his shoulder caressingly.

'Welcome home, my dear boy,' he said; but his voice was not quite so
clear as usual.

'I am very sorry, Giles,' he faltered; but Mr. Hamilton would not let him
speak.

'There is nothing to be sorry for, now,' he said significantly. 'Have you
shaken hands with Mr. Cunliffe, Eric? Gladys, can you spare your boy for
a few moments while I carry him off?' And, as Gladys smiled assent, Mr.
Hamilton signed to Eric to follow him.

Max sat down beside Gladys when they had left the room, and Gladys made
a space for me on the couch.

'You must tell us how it happened,' she said, fixing her lovely eyes on
me. 'Dear Ursula, we owe this fresh happiness to you: how can I thank you
for all your goodness to us?' But I would not allow her to talk in this
fashion, and I left Max to soothe her when she cried a little, and then
I told them both how I had found Eric in the stable-yard with Nap, and
how I had tracked him successfully to his lodgings.

'She is a brave, dear child, is she not, Gladys?' observed Max. Then,
with a mischievous look in his brown eyes, 'You are proud of your
presumptive niece, are you not, dear?' And then, in spite of Gladys's
confusion, for she was still a little shy with him, I burst out laughing,
and she was obliged to join me, for it had never entered into our heads
that Gladys would be my aunt. The laugh brought back her colour and did
her good; but she would not look at Max for a long time after that,
though he was on his best behaviour and said all sorts of nice things
to us both.

It was a long time before Mr. Hamilton brought Eric back to us. They
both looked very happy, but Eric's eyes had a strangely softened look
in them. The gong sounded for luncheon just then, and Mr. Hamilton asked
me, in rather a surprised tone, why I had not taken off my hat and
jacket, so I ran off to my room in a great hurry. As he opened the door
for me, he said, in rather an odd tone, 'Do you know you have not wished
me good-morning, Miss Garston?' I muttered some sort of an answer, but he
merely smiled, and told me not to keep them waiting. Gladys came in to
luncheon, and took her usual place; but neither she nor Eric made much
pretence of eating, though Mr. Hamilton scolded them both for their want
of appetite. Nobody talked much, and there was no connected conversation:
I think we were all too much engrossed in watching Gladys. Max was in the
background for once, but he did not seem to think of himself at all: the
sight of Gladys's sweet face, radiant with joy, was sufficient pleasure
for him; but now and then she turned to him in a touching manner, as
though to show she had not forgotten him, and then he was never slow
to respond.

When luncheon was over, Mr. Hamilton begged me to take Gladys to the
turret-room and persuade her to lie down.

'I am going to send Cunliffe away until dinner-time,' he said, with
a sort of good-natured peremptoriness: 'under the circumstances he is
decidedly _de trop_. Yes, my dear, yes,' as Gladys looked pleadingly at
him, 'Eric shall come and talk to you. I am not so unreasonable as that.'
And I think we all understood the feeling that made Gladys put her arms
round her brother's neck, though we none of us heard her whisper a word.
Max consented very cheerfully to efface himself for the remainder of the
afternoon, and Gladys accompanied me upstairs. I waited until Eric joined
us, and then I left them together.

'Oh, Gladys, he was so good, and I did not deserve it!' he burst out
before I had closed the door. 'I never knew Giles could be like that.'
But I took care not to hear any more. I hardly knew what to do with
myself that afternoon, but I made up my mind at last that I would finish
a letter I had begun to Jill. The inkstand was in the turret-room, but I
thought I would fetch one out of the drawing-room; but when I reached
the head of the staircase I drew back involuntarily, for Mr. Hamilton was
standing at the bottom of the stairs, leaning against the wall with
folded arms, as though he were waiting for somebody or something. An
unaccountable timidity made me hesitate; in another second I should have
gone back into my room, but he looked up, and, as before, our eyes met.

'Come,' he said, holding out his hand, and there was a sort of impatience
in his manner. 'How long are you going to keep me waiting, Ursula?' And I
went down demurely and silently, but I took no notice of his outstretched
hands.

I was trying to pass him in a quiet, ordinary fashion, as though there
were no unusual meaning in his deep-set eyes; but he stopped me somewhat
coolly by taking me in his arms.

'At last, Ursula, at last!' was all he said, and then he kissed me....

       *       *       *       *       *

I remember I told Giles, when I had recovered myself a little, that he
had taken things too much for granted.

He had brought me into the drawing-room, and was sitting beside me on the
little couch. To my dazzled eyes the room seemed full of sunshine and the
sweet perfume of flowers: to this day the scent of heliotrope brings back
the memory of that afternoon when Giles first told me that he loved me.
He seemed rather perplexed at first by my stammering little speech, and
then I suppose my meaning dawned on him, for his arm pressed me more
closely.

'I think I understand: you mean, do you not, Ursula, that I have not
asked you in plain English to be my wife? I thought we understood each
other too well for any such word to be necessary. Ever since you told me
that fellow Tudor was nothing to you, I felt you belonged to me.'

'I do not see that,' I returned shyly, for Giles in his new character was
rather formidable. He had taken such complete possession of me, and, as I
had hinted, had taken everything for granted. 'Because Mr. Tudor was
simply a friend, it did not follow that I cared for any one else.'

'Yes; but you do care for me a good deal, darling, do you not?' in a
most persuasive voice. 'But, for my own comfort, I want you to tell me
if you are quite content to accept such a crabbed old bachelor for your
husband.'

It was a little difficult to answer, but I made him understand that
I looked upon him in a very different light, and I think I managed to
content him.

'And you are really happy, dear?'

'Yes, very happy'; but the tears were in my eyes as I answered. He seemed
distressed to see them, and wanted me to tell him the reason; but I think
he understood me thoroughly when I whispered how glad Charlie would have
been. I asked him presently how long he had cared for me, but, to my
surprise, he declared that he hardly knew himself: he had been interested
in me from the first hour of our meeting, but it was when he heard me
sing in Phoebe Locke's room that the thought came to him that he must try
and win me for his wife.

I think it was in answer to this that I said some foolish word about my
want of beauty. I was a little sensitive on the subject, but, to my
dismay, Giles's face darkened, and he dropped my hand.

'Never say that to me again, if you love me, Ursula,' he said, in such
a grieved voice that I could hardly bear to hear it. 'Do you think I
would have married you if you had been handsome? Do you know what you
are talking about, child? Has no one told you about Ella?'

'Oh yes,' I returned, terrified at his sternness, for he had never spoken
to me in such a tone before. 'Yes, indeed, and I know she was very
beautiful.'

'She was perfectly lovely,'--in the same hard voice. Oh, how he must have
suffered, my poor Giles! 'And the memory of that false loveliness has
made me loathe the idea of beauty ever since. No, I would never have let
myself love you if you had been handsome, Ursula.'

'I am glad I am not,' I returned, in a choked voice, for all this was
very painful to me. Something in my tone attracted his notice, for he
stooped and looked in my face, and his manner instantly changed.

'Oh, you foolish child,' very caressingly, 'there are actually tears in
your eyes! You are not afraid of me, Ursula? I am always excited when I
speak of Ella: she very nearly destroyed my faith in women.'

'I cannot bear to think how you suffered,' I faltered, but he would not
let me finish.

'Never mind; you have been my healer; you have always rested me so. Never
call yourself plain again in my hearing. No other face could be half so
dear to me.' And then, with his old smile, 'Do you know, dear, when I saw
you in that velvet gown at your cousin's wedding you looked so handsome
that I went home in a bad humour, and then Etta told me about Tudor.
Well, I have you safe now.' But I will not transcribe all Giles's speech;
it was so lover-like, it made me understand, once for all, what I was to
him, and how little he cared for life unless I shared it with him.

By and by he went on to speak of our mutual work, and here again he more
than contented me.

'I do not mean to rob the poor people of their nurse, Ursula,' he said
presently. 'When you come to Gladwyn as its mistress, I hope we shall
work together as we do now.'

I told him I hoped so too; that I never wished to lay down my work.

'You are quite right, dear,' he answered cheerfully. 'We will not be
selfish in our happiness. True, your work must be in limits. When I come
home I shall want to see my wife's face. No,' rather jealously, 'I could
not spare you of an evening, and in the morning there will be household
duties. You must not undertake too much, Ursula.'

I told Giles, rather demurely, that there was plenty of time for the
consideration of this point. He was inclined to bridge over the present
in a man's usual fashion, but my new position was too overwhelming for me
to look beyond the deep abiding consciousness that Giles loved me and
looked to me for happiness.

So I turned a deaf ear when he asked me presently if I should mind Lady
Betty sharing our home; 'for,' he went on, 'the poor child has no other
home, and she is so feather-headed that no sensible man will think of
marrying her.' It was not my place to enlighten Giles about Claude, but
I thought it very improbable that Lady Betty would be long at Gladwyn;
but I was a little oppressed by this sort of talk, and yet unwilling that
he should notice my shyness, so I took the opportunity of saying it was
tea-time, and did he not think that Gladys and Eric had been talking long
enough?

He seemed unwilling to let me go, but I pleaded my nurse's duties, and
then he told me, laughing, that I was a wilful woman, and that I might
send Eric to him. As it happened, Eric was coming in search of Giles, and
I found him in the passage.

Gladys was lying on her couch, looking worn out with happiness. She
was beginning to speak about Eric, when something in my face seemed to
distract her. She watched me closely for a moment, then threw her arms
round me and drew my head on her shoulder.

'Is it so, Ursula? Oh, my dear dear sister! I am so glad!' And she seemed
to understand without a word when my over-excited feelings found vent in
a flood of nervous tears, for she only kissed me quietly, and stroked my
hair, until I was relieved and happy again.

'Dear Ursula,' she whispered, 'how can I help being glad, for Giles's
sake?'

'And not for mine?' drying my eyes, and feeling very much ashamed of
myself.

'Ah, you will see how good Giles will be,' was her reply to this. 'You
will be a happy woman, Ursula. You are exactly suited to each other.' And
I knew she was right.

Max's turn came presently.

I was sitting alone in the drawing-room before dinner. Giles had brought
me some flowers, and had rushed off to dress himself; and I was looking
out on the garden and the strip of blue sky, and buried in a happy
reverie, when two hands suddenly lifted me up, and a brown beard brushed
my face.

'Little she-bear, do you know how glad I am!' Max joyously exclaimed. And
indeed he looked very glad.



CHAPTER XLVIII

'WHAT 0' THE WAY TO THE END?'


Two days afterwards I went back to the White Cottage and took up my old
life again,--my old life, but how different now!

I shall never forget how Phoebe welcomed me back, and how she and Susan
rejoiced when I told them the news. Strange to say, neither of them
seemed much surprised. They had expected it, Susan said, in rather an
amused tone, for it was easy to see the doctor had thought there was no
one like me, and was always hinting as much to them. 'Why, I have seen
him watch you as though there were nothing else worth looking at,'
finished Susan, with simple shrewdness.

I kept my own counsel with regard to Aunt Philippa and Jill, for I had
made up my mind to go up to Hyde Park Gate as soon as they had returned,
and tell them myself. But I wrote to Lesbia, with strong injunctions of
secrecy.

The answer came by return of post.

It was a most loving, unselfish little letter, and touched me greatly.

'I shall be your bridesmaid, Ursula,' it said, 'whether you ask me or
not. Nothing will keep me away that day. I shall love to be there for
dear Charlie's sake.

'The news has made me so happy. Mother scolded me when she found me
crying over your letter, but she cried herself too. We both agreed that
no one deserved happiness more. I am longing to see your Mr. Hamilton,
Ursie dear. He has one great virtue in my eyes already, that he
appreciates you,' and so on, in Lesbia's gentle, sisterly way.

The fact of our engagement made a great sensation in the place. People
who had hitherto ignored the village nurse came to call on me. I suppose
curiosity to see Mr. Hamilton's _fiancée_ brought a good many of them.

My new position was not without its difficulties. Giles, who was
impatient and domineering by nature, chafed much against the restraints
imposed upon him by my loneliness.

His brief calls did not suffice him. I would not let him come often or
stay long. Max asked us to the vicarage sometimes, and now and then
Gladys or Lady Betty would call for me and carry me off to Gladwyn for
the evening; and of course I saw Giles frequently when he visited his
patients, but with his dislike to conventionality it was rather difficult
to keep him in good-humour. He could not be made to see why I should not
marry him at once and put an end to this awkward state of things.

We had our first lovers' quarrel on this point,--our first and our
last,--for I never had to complain of my dear Giles again.

I think hearing about Lady Betty's long engagement with Claude Hamilton
had made him very sore. He had been bitterly angry both with poor little
Lady Betty and also with Gladys. He declared the secrecy had hurt him
more than anything; but Eric acted as peacemaker, and he was soon induced
to condone his sisters' trangression.

He came down to talk over the matter with me, and to tell me of the
arrangements he had made for them.

It seemed that a letter from Claude had arrived that very mail; telling
Giles of his promotion, and asking leave to come and fetch his dear
little Lady Betty. It was an honest, manly letter, Giles said; and as
Claude was in a better position, and Lady Betty had five thousand pounds
of her own, there seemed no reason against their marrying.

He had talked to both Max and Gladys, and they were willing that Claude
and Lady Betty should be married at the same time. The New Year had been
already fixed for Gladys's, and Max meant to get leave of absence for two
or three months and take her to Algiers; and as Claude would have to
start for India early in March, Giles thought the double wedding would be
best. They could get their _trousseaux_ together, and the fuss would be
got over more easily.

I expressed myself as charmed with all these arrangements, for I thought
it would be very dull for Lady Betty to be left behind at Gladwyn; and
then I asked Giles what he had settled about Eric.

He told me that Eric was still undecided, but he rather thought of going
to Cirencester to enter the agricultural college there.

'You see, Ursula,' he went on, 'the lad is a bit restless. He has given
up his absurd idea of becoming an artist,--I never did believe in those
daubs of his,--but he feels he can never settle down to city life. He is
very much improved, far more manly and sensible than I ever hoped to see
him; but he is of different calibre from myself,'

'Do you think farming will suit him?' I asked anxiously.

'Better than anything else, I should say,' was the reply. 'Eric is an
active, capable fellow, and he was always fond of out-door pursuits. He
is young enough to learn. I have promised to keep Dorlicote Farm in my
own hands until he is ready to take it. It is only ten miles from here,
and has a very good house attached to it, and Eric will find himself in
clover.' Then, as though some other thought were uppermost in his mind,
he continued, 'I am so glad that you and he are such friends, Ursula, for
he will often take up his quarters at Gladwyn.'

It was after this that Giles asked me to marry him at once. He was
strangely unreasonable that morning, and very much bent on having his own
way. My objections were overruled one by one; he absolutely refused to
listen to my arguments when I tried to show him how much wiser it would
be to have his sisters and Eric settled before he brought me home as
mistress to Gladwyn.

It was the first time our wills had clashed; and, though I knew that I
was right and that he was wholly in the wrong, it was very painful for me
to refuse his loving importunities and to turn a deaf ear when he told me
how he was longing for his wife; but I held firmly to my two points, that
I would settle nothing without Aunt Philippa's advice, and that I would
not marry him until Easter.

I told him so very gently, but Giles was not quite like himself that day.
Lady Betty's secrecy was still rankling in his mind, and he certainly
used his power over me to make me very unhappy, for he accused me of
coldness and over-prudence, and reproached me with my want of confidence
in his judgment. My pride took fire at last, and rose in arms against his
tyranny. 'You must listen to me, Giles,' I returned, trying to keep down
a choking feeling. 'You are not quite just to me to-day, but you do not
mean what you say. You will be sorry afterwards for your words. If I do
not accede to your wishes, it is not because I do not love you well
enough to marry you to-morrow, if it were expedient to do so; but under
the circumstances it will be wiser to wait. I will marry you at Easter,
If Uncle Max comes back by that time, for neither you nor I would like
any one else to perform the ceremony. Will you not be content with this?'

'No,' he returned gloomily. 'You are keeping me waiting for a mere
scruple: neither Gladys nor Lady Betty would say a dissenting word if
I brought you to Gladwyn at once. You are disappointing me very much,
Ursula. I could not have believed that my wishes were so little to you.'
But he was not able to finish this cutting speech, for I could bear no
more, and suddenly burst into such an agony of tears that Giles was quite
frightened.

I found out then the goodness of his heart and his deep unselfish
affection for me. He reproached himself bitterly for causing me such
pain, begged my pardon a dozen times for his ill temper, and so coaxed
and petted me that I could not refuse to be comforted.

He laughed and kissed me when I implored him to take back his words about
my coldness.

'My darling!--as though I meant it!' he said; but he had the grace to
look very much ashamed of himself. 'Of course you were right,--you always
are, Ursula: we will wait until Easter if you think it best. Miss
Prudence shall have her own way in the matter; but I will not wait a day
longer for all the Uncle Maxes in the world.' And so we settled it.

I remember how I tried to make up to Giles for his disappointment, and to
show him how much I cared for him. We were dining at the vicarage that
evening with Gladys and Eric, and as he walked home with me in the
moonlight he took me to task very gently for being too good to him.

'You have been like a little angel this evening, Ursula, and I have not
deserved it. I believe I love you far more for not giving me my own way.
It was pure selfishness: I see it now.'

'I hope it is the last time that your will will not be mine,' I answered,
rather sadly. 'If you knew what it cost me to refuse you, Giles!' But one
of his rare smiles answered me.

It was the end of September when I went up to Hyde Park Gate to tell my
wonderful piece of news to Aunt Philippa and Jill. Jill was very naughty
at first, and declared that she should forbid the banns; her dear Ursula
should not marry that ugly man. But she changed her opinion after a long
conversation with Giles, and then her enthusiasm knew no bounds. It was
amusing to see the admiring awe with which Aunt Philippa looked at me. My
engagement had raised her opinion of me a hundredfold. I was no longer
the plain eccentric Ursula in her eyes; the future Mrs. Hamilton was a
person of far greater consequence.

I could see that her surprise could scarcely be concealed. I used to
notice her eyes fixed on me sometimes in a wondering way. She told Lesbia
that she could hardly understand such brilliant prospects for dear
Ursula. I had not Sara's good looks; and yet I was marrying a far richer
man than Colonel Ferguson.

'I think Mr. Hamilton a very distinguished man, my dear,' she continued,
much to Lesbia's amusement. 'He is peculiar-looking, certainly, and a
little too dark for my taste; but his manners are charming, and he is
certainly very much in love with Ursula. She looks very nice, and is very
much improved; but still, one hardly expected such a match for her.'

Lesbia retailed this little speech with much gusto. Dear Aunt Philippa!
she certainly did her duty by me then: nothing could exceed her kindness
and motherliness. And Sara came very often, looking the prettiest and
happiest young matron in the world, and almost overwhelmed me with advice
and petting.

They had come to the conclusion that my position was a somewhat awkward
one, and that it would not do for me to go on living at the White
Cottage. They wanted me to give up my work at Heathfield until after my
marriage; and at last Aunt Philippa conceived the brilliant idea of
taking a house at Brighton for the winter.

'You have never liked Hyde Park Gate, Ursula,' she said, very kindly;
'and we shall all be glad to escape London fogs this year: your uncle
will not mind the expense, and I think the plan will suit admirably.
Heathfield is only twenty minutes from Brighton, and Mr. Hamilton will be
able to visit you far more comfortably, and you can sleep a night or two
at Sara's when you want to go up to London to get your _trousseau_.'

I thanked Aunt Philippa warmly for her kind thought, and then I wrote to
Giles, and asked his opinion. I found that he entirely agreed with Aunt
Philippa.

'I think it an excellent plan, dear,' he wrote; 'and you must thank your
good aunt for her consideration for us both. I shall see you far oftener
at Brighton than at the White Cottage. Miss Prudence will be less active
there: I shall be allowed to enjoy a reasonable conversation without the
speech--"Oh, do please go away now, Giles; you have been here nearly an
hour"--that invariably closed our cottage interviews.' I could see Giles
was really pleased with Aunt Philippa's proposition, so I promised to go
back to Heathfield and settle my affairs, and join them directly the
house in Brunswick Place was ready; and by the middle of October we were
all settled comfortably for the winter.

I found Giles was right. I saw him oftener, and there was less restraint
on our intercourse. He would come over to luncheon whenever he had a
leisure day, and take me for a walk, or drop in to dinner and take the
last train back. Gladys and Lady Betty came over perpetually. I used to
help them with their shopping, and often go back with them for a few
hours. Max was also a frequent visitor, and Mr. Tudor. Aunt Philippa kept
open house, and made all my visitors welcome. I think she was a little
sorry that Mr. Tudor came so perseveringly: but she was true to her
principles to let things take their course and not to fan the flame by
opposition. She was always kind to the young man, and though she
generally contrived to keep Jill beside her when he dropped in for
afternoon tea or encountered them on the parade, she did it so quietly
that no one noticed any significance in the action.

But I think Aunt Philippa's maternal fears would have been up in arms if
she had overheard a conversation between Jill and myself one wintry
afternoon.

Aunt Philippa had gone up to town to see Sara, who was a little ailing,
and she and Uncle Brian were to return later. Gladys and Giles were to
dine with us, and Max would probably join them. Aunt Philippa was very
fond of these impromptu entertainments, but she had not extended the
invitation to Mr. Tudor, who had called the previous day, and I had got
it into my head that Jill was a little disappointed.

She sat rather soberly by the fire that afternoon; but when Miss
Gillespie left us she took her usual seat on the rug, and her black locks
bobbed into my lap as usual, but I thought the firelight played on a very
serious face.

'What makes you so silent this afternoon, Jill?' I asked, rather
curiously; but she did not answer for a moment, only drew down my
hand, and looked at the diamonds that were flashing in the ruddy
blaze,--Giles's pledge that he had placed there; then she laid her cheek
against them, and said suddenly--

'I was only thinking, Ursie dear: I often think about things. Do you
remember that evening at Hyde Park Gate when the lamp fell on me, and
I might have been burnt to death?'

'Oh yes, Jill,' with a shudder, for I never cared to recall that scene.

'Well, I was thinking,' still dreamily. Then, with a change of manner
that startled me, 'Ursie, if a person saves another person's life, don't
you think that life ought to belong to them?--that is, if they wish it?'
with a sudden blush that rather alarmed me.

'Stop, my dear,' I returned coolly. 'This is very vague. I do not think
I quite understand. A person and another person, and them, too: it is
terribly involved. Which is which? As the children say.'

Jill gave a nervous little laugh, but her eyes gave me no doubt of her
meaning: they looked strangely dark and soft.

'Mr. Tudor saved my life,' she whispered. 'Ursie, if he wants it, that
life ought to belong to him.'

'Jill, my dear,' for I was thoroughly startled now. Things were growing
serious; but Jill gave me a little push in her childish way.

'Ursie, don't pretend to look so surprised: you knew all about it: I saw
it in your face. Don't you remember what he said that night, that he did
not know what would become of him if I died, that he could not bear it?
Did you see how he looked when he said it?'

I remained silent, for I could not deny that Mr. Tudor had betrayed
himself at that moment; but she went on very quietly, 'Ursie dear, I know
Mr. Tudor cares for me; he does not always hide it, though he tries to do
so. You see he is so real and honest that he cannot help showing things.'

'Jill,' I exclaimed anxiously, 'what would your mother say if she knew
this?'

'I think she does know it,' replied Jill calmly. 'She does not care for
Mr. Tudor to come so often, but she is good to him all the same. Neither
father nor mother will be pleased about it, because he is not rich, poor
fellow; not that I think that matters,' finished Jill, in a grave,
old-fashioned manner.

'My dear child,' in a horrified tone, 'you talk as though you were sure
of your own mind, and you are hardly seventeen.'

'So I am sure,' was the confused answer. 'If Mr. Tudor cares enough for
me to wait for a good many years,--until I am one-and-twenty,--he will
find me all ready: of course I belong to him, Ursula: has he not saved my
life? There is no hurry,' went on Jill, in her matter-of-fact way; 'he is
very nice, and I shall always like him better than any one else; but
I should not care to be engaged until I am one-and-twenty. One wants
a little fun and a good deal of work before settling down into an engaged
person,' finished the girl, with a droll little laugh.

I was spared the necessity of any reply to this surprising confession by
the entrance of our three visitors, for Max had encountered them at the
station, of course by accident, and had walked up with them. That fact
was sufficient to account for Gladys's soft bloom and the satisfied look
in her eyes: she looked so lovely in the new furs Giles had bought her,
that I did not wonder that Max was a little absent in his replies to me.
Jill had made some excuse and left us, and it was really a very