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Title: Hester, Volume 1 (of 3) - A Story of Contemporary Life
Author: Oliphant, Mrs. (Margaret)
Language: English
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                                 HESTER

                      A STORY OF CONTEMPORARY LIFE

                                   BY

                             MRS. OLIPHANT


                  "A springy motion in her gait,
                  A rising step, did indicate
                  Of pride and joy no common rate
                          That flush'd her spirit:
                  I know not by what name beside
                  I shall it call: if 'twas not pride,
                  It was a joy to that allied
                          She did inherit.

                       *    *    *    *    *

                  She was trained in Nature's school,
                          Nature had blest her.
                  A waking eye, a prying mind,
                  A heart that stirs, is hard to bind:
                  A hawk's keen sight ye cannot blind,
                          Ye could not Hester."

                                         CHARLES LAMB.


                            IN THREE VOLUMES
                                 VOL. I

                                 London
                           MACMILLAN AND CO.
                                  1883

         The Right of Translation and Reproduction is Reserved



                                 LONDON
                       R. CLAY, SONS, AND TAYLOR,
                           BREAD STREET HILL.



                                CONTENTS


                 CHAPTER I. VERNON'S.
                 CHAPTER II. MISS CATHERINE.
                 CHAPTER III. THE VERNONRY.
                 CHAPTER IV. A FIRST MEETING.
                 CHAPTER V. NEXT MORNING.
                 CHAPTER VI. NEIGHBOURS AND RELATIONS.
                 CHAPTER VII. SETTLING DOWN.
                 CHAPTER VIII. NINETEEN.
                 CHAPTER IX. RECOLLECTIONS.
                 CHAPTER X. A LOVER.
                 CHAPTER XI. MOTHER AND DAUGHTER.
                 CHAPTER XII. AN INDIGNANT SPECTATOR.
                 CHAPTER XIII. CATHERINE'S OPINION.
                 CHAPTER XIV. HARRY'S VIEW.
                 CHAPTER XV. WHAT EDWARD THOUGHT.
                 CHAPTER XVI. WALKS AND TALKS.



                                HESTER.



                                HESTER.



                               CHAPTER I.
                                VERNON'S.


The Banking House of the Vernons was known through all the Home Counties
as only second to the Bank of England in stability and strength. That is
to say, the people who knew about such matters, the business people, the
professional classes, and those who considered themselves to be
acquainted with the world, allowed that it ought to be considered
second: but this opinion was not shared by the greater proportion of its
clients, the shopkeepers in Redborough and the adjacent towns, the
farmers of a wide district, and all the smaller people whose many united
littles make up so much wealth. To them Vernon's bank was the emblem of
stability, the impersonation of solid and substantial wealth. It had
risen to its height of fame under John Vernon, the grandfather of the
present head of the firm, though it had existed for two or three
generations before him. But John Vernon was one of those men in whose
hands everything turns to gold. What the special gift is which
determines this it is difficult to tell, but there can be little doubt
that it is a special gift, just as it is a particular genius which
produces a fine picture or a fine poem. There were wiser men than he,
and there were men as steady to their work and as constantly in their
place, ready for all the claims of business, but not one other in whose
hands everything prospered in the same superlative way. His investments
always answered, his ships always came home, and under his influence the
very cellars of the banking-house, according to the popular imagination,
filled with gold. At one period of his career a panic seized the entire
district, and there was a run upon the bank, by which it was evident
anybody else must, nay, ought, to have been ruined; but John Vernon was
not ruined. It was understood afterwards that he himself allowed that he
did not understand how he had escaped, and nobody else could understand
it: but he did escape, and as a natural consequence became stronger and
richer, and more universally credited than ever. His son after him had
not the same genius for money, but at least he had the genius for
keeping what he had got, which is next best.

Edward Vernon, however, was not so fortunate in his family as in his
affairs. He had two sons, one of whom died young, leaving a little
daughter to be brought up by her grandfather; the other "went wrong."
Oh, never-ending family tragedy, never ending, still beginning, the
darkest anguish that exists in the world! The younger son went wrong,
and died also in his father's lifetime, leaving a helpless little family
of children, and a poor wife stupefied with trouble. She did her best,
poor soul, to bring up her boy to ways the very opposite of those in
which his father had stumbled and fallen, and it was supposed that he
would marry his cousin Catherine Vernon, and thus unite once more all
the money and prestige of the house. He too was John Vernon, and
resembled the golden great-grandfather, and great things were hoped of
him. He entered the bank in old Mr. Vernon's time, and gave every
promise of being a worthy successor as long as the senior partner, the
head of the house, lived. But when the old gentleman died and John
Vernon became in his turn the head of the house, there very soon
appeared signs of change. In the first place the marriage with his
cousin never came to pass; things had seemed to promise fairly so long
as the grandfather with whom she lived was alive. But after, there was
an immediate cooling of sentiment. Whose fault this was nobody knew. She
said nothing on the subject even to her dearest friends; nor did he say
anything; but he laughed and waved aside all questions as a man who
"could an if he would"----. His mother, for her part, said a great deal.
She ran between them like an excited hen, shaking her tail-feathers and
cackling violently. What did they mean by it? What was it for? She asked
her son how he could forget that if Catherine's money went out of the
business it would make the most extraordinary difference? and she bade
Catherine remember that it would be almost dishonest to enrich another
family with money which the Vernons had toiled for. Catherine, who was
not by any means an ordinary girl, smiled upon her, perhaps a little
sadly, and entered into no explanations. But her son, as was natural,
scoffed at his mother. "What should you know about the business?" he
said. Poor Mrs. Vernon thought she had heard enough of it to understand
it, or at least to understand the intentions of those who understood it.
But what is the use of a mother's remonstrances? The new generation will
please itself and take its way. She scolded and wept for years after,
poor soul, in vain, and yet could never learn that it was in vain, but
began anew day after day weeping, entreating, remonstrating, falling
into nervous crises of passion a hundred and a hundred times over. How
much better for her to have held her tongue! but how could she help it?
She was not of that placid and patient nature which can be wise. And
gradually things began to go badly with John. He married a young lady
belonging to a county family, but with no money to keep up her
pretensions. He had his stables full of horses and his house full of
company. "What is it all to come to?" cried his poor, anxious, angry,
disappointed, despairing mother, seeking opportunities to have a few
words with him, to speak to him seriously, to remind him of his duty. To
be sure she did a great deal more harm than good. She drew many a blow
upon herself which she might have escaped had she been content to allow
that his life had passed far beyond her guidance; but the poor lady
would not be taught. And it was quite true what John Vernon said. It
would take a long time, he told her, before a few horses and pleasant
company would affect Vernon's bank. As the head of that establishment he
was expected to be hospitable, and keep almost open house; the country
which trusted in him knew he could afford it. The Redborough people went
further, and liked to see the confidence with which he spent his money.
What could that do to Vernon's? He had never lived up to his income yet,
he believed. So he told his mother, who was never satisfied, and went on
till the day of her death always seeking a few words with him--an
opportunity of speaking seriously to her son. Poor mother! nothing went
very well with her; perhaps she was not clever either at managing her
children or her money. The partisans of the Vernons said so at least;
they said so of all the wives that were not Vernons, but interlopers,
always working harm. They said so also of Mrs. John, and there his
mother thought they were not far wrong. But none of her children turned
out very satisfactorily; the girls married badly; Edward, her younger
son, went into the Church, and never was more than a vicar, and their
money matters would not go right. Certainly she was not a fortunate
woman. But she died, happily for her, before anything material happened
to realise her alarms in respect to John.

It is astonishing how money grows when it is in the way of growing--when
it has got the genuine impulse and rolls every kindred atom near it,
according to some occult law of attraction, into itself. But just as
wonderfully as money grows does it melt away when the other--the
contrary process--has begun. John Vernon was quite right in saying that
the bank justified, nay, almost demanded, a certain amount of
expenditure from its chief partner. And he was more, much more, than its
chief partner. Catherine, though she was as deeply interested in it as
himself, took no responsibility whatever--how should she, a girl who
knew as much about money as her pony did? She took less interest,
indeed, than in ordinary circumstances she would have done, for there
was certainly something, whatever it might be, which had interrupted the
natural intercourse between the two cousins. They were not at ease with
each other like brother and sister, as everything suggested they ought
to have been--not sufficiently at ease to consider their mutual
interests together, as partners ought to have done. This, one of them at
least thought, would have been ridiculous in any case. When his lawyers
asked what Catherine thought on this or that subject, he laughed in
their faces.

"What should she think? What should she know? Of course she leaves all
that to me," he said. "How can a girl understand banking business?"

But this did not satisfy the respectable firm of solicitors who advised
the banker.

"Miss Vernon is not a girl any longer," said Mr. Pounce, who was its
head; upon which John Vernon laughed, one of those offensive laughs with
which a coarse-minded man waves the banner of his sex over an unmarried
woman.

"No," he said, "Catherine's growing an old maid. She must look alive if
she means to get a husband."

Mr. Pounce was not a sentimentalist, and no doubt laughed sometimes too
at the unfortunate women who had thus failed in the object of their
life; but he respected Miss Vernon, and he was very doubtful of her
cousin.

"Husband or no husband, I think she ought to be consulted," he said.

"Oh, I will take Catherine in my own hands," was the cousin's reply.

And thus life went on, very gay, fast, amusing, and expensive on one
side; very quiet and uneventful on the other. John Vernon built himself
a grand new house, in which there were all the latest improvements and
scientific luxuries, which the most expensive upholsterers filled with
the most costly furniture, and for which the skilfullest gardeners all
but created ready-made trees and shrubberies. He filled it with fine
company--names which the clerks at the bank felt were a credit to the
establishment, and which the townsfolk looked upon with admiring awe:
and there was nothing in the county to equal Mrs. John Vernon's dresses
and diamonds. What is all that to a great bank, gathering money every
hour?--nothing! Even Mr. Pounce acknowledged this. Personal
extravagance, as long as it is merely hospitality and show, must go a
very long way indeed before it touches the great revenue of such a
business. It was not the diamonds nor the feasts that they were afraid
of. But to be lavish with money is a dangerous fault with a man who is a
business man. It is a very common sin, but there is nothing more
perilous. In Manchester or Liverpool, where they turn over a fortune
every day, perhaps this large habit of sowing money about does not
matter. People there are accustomed to going up and down. Bankruptcy,
even, does not mean the end of the world in these regions. But a banker
in a country town, who has all the money of a district in his hands,
should not get into this reckless way. His clients are pleased--up to a
certain limit. But when once the first whisper of suspicion has been
roused it flies fast, and the panic with which rural depositors rush
upon a bank which has awakened the ghost of an apprehension, is even
more cruel and unreflecting than other panics. It went on a long time,
and where it was that the first suggestion came from, nobody ever knew.
Probably it did not come from any one--it was in the air, it struck two
people, all at once, talking to each other, and the electricity of the
contact found a single syllable of utterance. When that was done, all
was done. Everybody had been waiting for this involuntary signal; and
when it came, it flew like lightning through all Redborough, and out
into the roads and lanes--to distant farmhouses, into the rectories and
vicarages, even to the labourer's cottage. "It's said as Vernon's bank's
a-going to break," the ploughmen in the fields said to each other. It
did not matter much to them; and perhaps they were not sorry that the
farmer, who grew fat (they thought) on their toil, should feel that he
was also human. The farmers had something of the same feeling in respect
to their landlords, but could not indulge it for the furious terror that
took possession of themselves. Vernon's bank! Safer than the Bank of
England, was what they had all said exultingly. Very few of them had
sufficient command of themselves to wait now and inquire into it and see
how far the panic was well founded. To wait would have been to leave the
chance of salvation to other men.

Mrs. John Vernon was considered very refined and elegant according to
the language of the day, a young lady with many accomplishments. But it
was the fashion of the time to be unpractical just as it is the fashion
of our time that women should understand business and be ready for any
emergency. To wear your hair in a high loose knot on the top of your
head, with ringlets straying down your cheek, and across the always
uncovered whiteness of your shoulders, and to sing the songs of Mr.
Haynes Bayley, "Oh no, we never mention her," or "The Soldier's
Tear"--could anything be more entirely inconsistent with business
habits? Mrs. John would have considered it a slight to the delicacy of
her mind to have been supposed to know anything about the bank; and when
the head clerk demanded an audience at an unseasonable hour one summer
evening she was entirely taken aback.

"Me! do you mean that it is me Mr. Rule wants to see?" she asked of the
servant in consternation.

"He did ask for master, ma'am," said the man, "but as master's from home
he said he must see my lady. He looks very flustered. I'll say that for
him," he added.

To be sure William had heard the whisper in the air, and was more or
less gratified that Mr. Rule should be flustered; but as for his lady,
she saw no connection whatever between Mr. Rule's excitement and
herself.

"I do not see what good I can do him, William; and it's not an hour at
which I ever receive people. I am sure I don't know what he can want
with me."

"It's business, I think, ma'am," said the servant, with a little
eagerness. He wanted immensely himself to know what it was, and it did
not occur to him as possible that his mistress, so much more interested
than he, should be without anxiety or concern.

"Business!" said Mrs. John, "what do I know about business? However,"
she added, "if he is so desirous, perhaps you had better show him up.
Your master is always pleased when I pay a little attention to the
clerks. He says it does good."

"Yes, ma'am," said William.

Being a reasonable human creature he was touched in spite of himself by
the extraordinary sight of this poor, fine lady, sitting in her short
sleeves on the edge of the volcano, and knowing nothing about it. It was
too bad of master, William thought, if so be---- To leave the poor lady
entirely in the dark so that she did not know no more than a baby what
the clerk could want with her. William speculated, too, on his own
circumstances as he went down stairs. If so be---- It was a good place, and
he would be sorry to lose it. But he remembered that somebody had said
the Sandersons were looking out for a butler.

"Mrs. Vernon will see you, sir," he said in the midst of these thoughts;
and Mr. Rule followed him eagerly up stairs.

But what could Mrs. John do? Her dress was spotted muslin, as most
dresses were in those days; it was cut rather low on the shoulders,
though she was not dressed for company. She had pretty little ringlets
falling upon her cheeks, and short sleeves, and a band round her waist
with a shining clasp. She was considered brilliant in conversation, and
sang, "We met, 'twas in a crowd," and the songs previously mentioned,
with so much feeling that people had been known to weep as they
listened. The clerk had heard of all these accomplishments, and as he
hurried in, his eye was caught by the harp in its corner, which was also
one of the fashions of the time. He could not help being a little
overawed by it, notwithstanding his dreadful anxiety. Poor lady! the
thought passed through his mind as similar thoughts had passed through
William's--Would all this be sold away from her? White muslin dresses
with low necks have the advantage that they quite seem to separate their
wearers from everyday life. We have no doubt that the dying out of
chivalry, and the way in which women nowadays insist on doing their own
business, and most likely other people's too, is in great part to be put
down to high dresses and long sleeves. In these habiliments a lady looks
not so very much different from other people. She feels herself free to
go into common life. But Mrs. John sat there helpless, ignorant, quite
composed and easy in her mind, with pretty feet in sandalled slippers
peeping from under her dress. Mr. Rule had time for all this distressed,
regretful sympathy before he could stammer out in a hurry his anxious
question--or rather his hope--that Mr. Vernon would be home
to-morrow--early?

"I am sure I don't know," said Mrs. John. "It would be scarcely worth
his while to go away if he was to be back so soon. He said perhaps
to-morrow, but more likely next week."

"Next week!" cried Mr. Rule; "then he may just as well stay away
altogether; it will then be too late."

"Dear me!" said Mrs. John, politely, willing to show an interest; but
she did not know what more to say.

"Perhaps you know where he is, ma'am?" said the anxious clerk: for this
was the time when people said ma'am. "We might send an express after
him. If he were here, things might still be tided over. Excuse me, Mrs.
Vernon, but if you can give me any information----"

"Dear me," said Mrs. John, "my husband was going to London, I think. Is
it about business, or anything I may know?"

"All the world will know to-morrow," cried the agitated clerk, "unless
you can give me some assistance. I don't like to trouble a lady, but
what can I do? Mrs. Vernon, to-morrow is market day, and as sure as that
day comes if he is not here to make some provision for it, we shall have
a run on the bank."

"A run on the bank!" said Mrs. John, dismayed. "What does that mean?"

"It means that we shall have to pay every note that is presented us in
gold: and that everybody will rush upon us with our notes in their
hands: and all the people who have deposit accounts will withdraw their
money. It means Ruin," said Mr. Rule, very much flustered indeed, wiping
the perspiration from his brow. He had an account himself, and a
considerable sum to his credit. Oh, the fool he had been to let it lie
there instead of investing it! but then, he had been waiting for a good
investment, and in the meantime, Vernon's was as safe, safer than the
Bank of England. He had believed that till to-day.

Mrs. John sat looking at him with bewildered eyes.

"I don't understand," she said. "The bank of course is for that, isn't
it? I never understand how you do it," she added, with a little of the
sprightliness for which she was distinguished. "It has always been a
mystery to me what good it can do you to take all the trouble of paying
people's bills for them, and locking up their money, and having all that
responsibility; but I cannot deny that it seems to answer," she
concluded with a little simper.

The harassed clerk looked at her with a pity that was almost tragic. If
she had not been so handsome and so fine, and surrounded with all these
luxuries, it is very likely he would have been impatient, and considered
her a fool.

He replied gently--

"I dare say, ma'am, it is difficult for you to form an idea of business;
but I am almost forgetting, sitting talking to you, how dreadfully
serious it is. If I knew where Mr. Vernon was, I would send a
post-chaise directly. We are lost if he is not here. They will say--God
knows what they may not say. For God's sake, ma'am, tell me how I am to
find him?"

"Indeed, Mr. Rule, I am very, very sorry. If I had known! but I rather
encouraged him to go. He was looking so poorly. He was going to town, I
am sure--first: and then perhaps to Bath: or he might go across to
France. He has been talking of that. France--yes, I suggested it. He has
never been on the Continent. But now I think of it, I don't think he
will go there, for he said he might be home to-morrow--though more
likely next week."

"It seems very vague," said Mr. Rule, looking at her with a steady look
that began to show a gleam of suspicion; but this was entirely out of
place. Mrs. John answered lightly without any perception even of what he
could mean.

"Oh yes, it was vague! it is so much better not to be tied down. I told
him he ought to take me; but it was settled in a hurry, he was feeling
so poorly."

"Then he has forsaken us!" cried the clerk in a terrible voice, which
shook even her obtuse perceptions. She gazed at him with a little glow
of anger.

"Forsaken you! Dear me, surely a little holiday never can matter. Why,
the servants could go on without me for a time. It would never come into
Mr. Vernon's head that you could not manage by yourselves even for a
single day."

The clerk did not answer; it was all such a terrible muddle of ignorance
and innocence, and perhaps of deep and deliberate guilt. But anyhow,
there was the result beyond all uncertainty. The bank must come down.
Vernon's, which it had taken the work of generations to build up;
Vernon's, which was safer than the Bank of England. Mr. Rule had been a
clerk there, man and boy, for about twenty years. He had been one of old
Mr. Vernon's staff. He had a pride in the bank as if it had been his
own. To give up Vernon's to destruction seemed more than giving himself
up. But what could the clerks do without the principal? A lieutenant may
fight his ship if the captain fails, or a subaltern replace his leader,
but what can the clerks do without the head of the establishment? And he
had no authority to act even if he had known how to act; and every two
or three minutes there would come across him a poignant recollection of
his own deposit. Oh, the Alnaschar hopes he had built upon that little
fortune, the ways in which it was to serve him! He tried honestly,
however, to put it away from his mind.

"We could have done well enough on an ordinary occasion," he said, "and
Mr. Vernon generally settles everything before he goes; but I thought he
was only absent for the day. Mrs. Vernon," he cried, suddenly, "can't
you help us? can't you help us? It will be ruin for you too."

She stared at him for a moment without speaking, and then--

"You make me quite wretched. I don't understand. I have only a little
money in the house. Would that do any good?" she said.

"How much have you?" said the clerk in his trouble.

She ran to a pretty ornamental desk and opened it nervously.

"I dare say there may be about twenty pounds," she said.

He laughed loudly, harshly, a laugh that seemed to echo through the
large, unoccupied room.

"If it were twenty thousand it might do something," he said.

"Sir!" said Mrs. John Vernon, standing in a fine attitude of displeasure
by her desk, holding it open with one hand. She looked like a picture by
Sir Thomas Lawrence, her scarf, for she wore a scarf, hanging half off
her pretty white shoulders, caught upon one equally white arm, her
ringlets waving on her cheek. His laugh was rude, and then he was only a
clerk. She was all angry scorn from the high knot of brown hair on the
top of her head to the point of her sandalled shoe.

Poor Mr. Rule was as penitent as man could be. He was shocked beyond
measure by his own brutality. He had forgotten himself--and before a
lady! He made the most abject apologies.

"But my interest in the bank will, I hope, be some excuse. I feel half
distracted," he said; and he added, as he backed out at the door with
painful bows, "Perhaps, ma'am, if you can think of any means of
communicating with Mr. Vernon, you would let me know; or I will call
later, if we could send an express; nothing is too much for the chance
of having him back to-morrow."

"Well," said the lady, "you are strange managers, I must say, that
cannot get on without my husband one day."

"It is not that, ma'am; it is not that."

"I don't know what it is. I begin to think it is only making a fuss,"
Mrs. John said.



                              CHAPTER II.
                             MISS CATHERINE.


Poor Mr. Rule rushed out into the night in a state of despair. It was a
summer night, and the streets of Redborough were still full of the
murmur of life and movement. He came down from the slope on which Mr.
John Vernon's grand new house was situated, into the town, turning over
everything that it was possible to do. Should he go to the Old Bank, the
life-long rival of Vernon's, and ask their help to pull through? Even
such a humiliation he would have endured had there been any chance of
success. Should he go to the agent of the Bank of England? He could not
but feel that it was quite doubtful whether between them they could make
up enough to meet the rush he expected; and were they likely to do it?
Would not the first question be, "Where is Mr. Vernon?" And where was
Mr. Vernon? Perhaps gone to Bath; perhaps to France, his wife said. Why
should he go to France without letting any one at the bank know, saying
he was only to be absent for a day? There was no telegraph in those
days, and if he confided Mr. Vernon's story to the other banks, what
would they think of him? They would say that Vernon was mad, or that he
had--gone away. There could be no doubt of what they would say. Rule was
faithful to his old service, and to the honour of the house which had
trained him. He would say nothing about France or Bath. He would allow
it to be understood that Mr. Vernon had gone to London to get the
assistance necessary, and would come back in a post-chaise before the
offices were open in the morning. And perhaps, he said to himself,
perhaps it was so. God grant it might be so! Very likely he had not
thought it necessary to enter into the matter to a lady. Poor thing,
with her twenty pounds! that showed how much she knew of business; but
it was very high-minded and innocent of her to offer all she had. It
showed there was at least no harm in her thoughts. It gave a momentary
ease to the clerk's mind to think that perhaps this was what Mr. Vernon
must mean. He must have known for some time how badly things were going,
and who could tell that the sudden expedition of which he had made so
little, only saying when he left the bank the day before "I shall not be
here to-morrow," who could tell that it was not to help to surmount the
crisis, that he had gone away? Rule turned towards his own house under
the solace of this thought, feeling that anyhow it was better to get a
night's rest, and be strong for whatever was to happen to-morrow. It
would be a miserable to-morrow if Mr. Vernon did not bring help. Not
only the bank that would go, but so many men with families that would be
thrown upon the world. God help them! and that money which stood to his
own credit, that balance of which two or three days before he had been
so proud, to see it standing in his name on those well-kept beautiful
books! All this hanging upon the chance that Mr. Vernon might have gone
to town to get money! No, he could not go in, and sit down at the
peaceful table where Mrs. Rule perhaps would be hemming a cambric ruffle
for his shirt, or plaiting it delicately with her own fingers, a thing
no laundress could do to please her--and the children learning their
lessons. He felt sure that he could not rest; he would only make her
anxious, and why should she be made anxious as long as he could keep it
from her. It is difficult to say how it was that the first suggestion of
a new possibility took hold of Mr. Rule's mind. He turned away when he
was within a stone's throw of his own house, saying to himself that he
could not go in, that it was impossible, and walked in the opposite
direction, where he had not gone far until he came in sight of the bank,
that centre of so many years' hard work, that pride of Redborough, and
of everybody connected with it. Vernon's! To think that Ruin should be
possible, that so dark a shadow could hover over that sacred place. What
would old Mr. Vernon have said, he who received it from his father and
handed it down always flourishing, always prosperous to--not to his son.
If his son had lived, the eldest one, not he who had gone wrong, but the
eldest, who was John too, called after his grandfather, he who was the
father of ---- It was at this point that Mr. Rule came to a dead stop,
and then after a pause wheeled right round, and without saying another
word to himself walked straight up Wilton Street, which as everybody
knows was quite out of his way.

The father of---- Yes, indeed, indeed, and that was true! The
recollection which called forth this fervour of affirmation was a
pleasant one. All the youth of Redborough at one time had been in love
with Catherine Vernon. The bank clerks to a man adored her. When she
used to come and go with her grandfather--and she did so constantly,
bringing him down in the morning in her pony carriage, calling for him
in the afternoon, running in in the middle of the day to see that the
old gentleman had taken his biscuits and his wine--she walked over their
hearts as she crossed the outer office, but so lightly, so smoothly,
that the hearts were only thrilled, not crushed by her footfall, so firm
and swift, but so airy as it was. She knew them all in the office, and
would give her hand to the head clerk, and send a friendly glance all
round, unaware of the harm she was doing to the hapless young men. But
after all it was not harm. It was a generous love they felt for her,
like the love of chivalry for a lady unapproachable. That young princess
was not for them. None of them grew mad with foolish hopes, but they
thought of her as they never thought of any one else. Mr. Rule was at
the end of Wilton Street, just where it meanders out towards the edge of
the common, before he took breath, and began to ask himself what Miss
Vernon could do for him. Was not one lady enough to appeal to? She whom
he had already seen had nothing for him--no help, no advice, not a
suggestion even. And yet she was more closely connected with the bank
than Catherine Vernon, who had disappeared from all visible connection
with it at her grandfather's death, notwithstanding that a great deal of
her money was in it, and that she had in fact a right to be consulted as
a partner. So it had been settled, it was said, by the old man in his
will. But she had never, so far as anybody knew, taken up this
privilege. She had never come to the bank, never given a sign of having
any active interest in it. What then could she be expected to do? What
could she do even if she wished to help them? Mr. Rule was aware that
there was no very cordial feeling between her cousin's house and hers.
They were friends, perfectly good friends, but they were not cordial.
While he turned over these thoughts in his mind, however, he walked on
steadily and quickly without the least hesitation in his step. There was
even a sort of exhilarated excitement in him, a sentiment quite
different from that with which he had been disconsolately straying
about, and painfully turning over possibilities, or rather
impossibilities. Perhaps it was a half romantic pleasure in the idea of
speaking to Miss Vernon again, but really there was something besides
that, a sense of satisfaction in finding a new and capable mind to
consult with at least, if no more.

Miss Vernon lived in the house which her grandfather had lived in and
his father before him. To reach it you had to make your way through the
delta of little streets into which Wilton Street ran, and across a
corner of the common. The Grange was an old house with dark red gables
appearing out of the midst of a clump of trees. In winter you saw the
whole mass of it, chiefly old bricks, though these were thrown up and
made picturesque by the fact that the oldest part was in grey stone.
Broad large Elizabethan windows glimmered, lighted up, through the thick
foliage this evening; for by this time the summer night was beginning to
get dark, and a good deal too late for a visit. Mr. Rule thought as he
knocked at the door that it was very likely she would not see him. But
this was not the case. When he sent in his name as the head clerk at the
bank he was received immediately, and shown into the room with the
Elizabethan windows where she was sitting. By this time she was of
mature years, and naturally much changed from the young girl he had
known. He had been one of the young clerks in the outer office, whom she
would recognise with a friendly smiling look, and a nod of her head all
round. Now, however, Miss Vernon came up to him, and held out her hand
to Mr. Rule. "You need not have sent me word who you were," she said
with a smile. "I knew quite well who you were. I never forget faces nor
names. You have not come to me at this time of night on a mere visit of
civility. Don't be afraid to tell me at once whatever there may be to
say."

"From the way you speak, ma'am," said Mr. Rule, "I conclude that you
have heard some of the wicked reports that are flying about?"

"That is exactly what I want to know," she said, with all her old
vivacity. "Are they wicked reports?"

"A report is always wicked," said Mr. Rule sententiously, "which is
likely to bring about the evil it imagines."

"Ah!" she cried. "Then it is no further gone than that; and yet it is as
far gone as that?" she added, looking anxiously in his face.

"Miss Vernon," said Rule solemnly, "I expect a run upon the bank
to-morrow."

"Good God!" she said, clasping her hands; which was not a profane
exclamation, but the kind of half-conscious appeal which nature makes
instinctively. "But you have made all preparations? Surely you can meet
that."

He shook his head solemnly. The credit of the bank was so much to him
that when thus face to face with the event he dreaded, poor Rule could
not articulate anything, and the water stood in his eyes.

"Good God!" she said again: but her face was not awe-stricken; it was
that of a soldier springing instantly to the alert, rallying all his
resources at the first word of danger; "but you don't mean to say that
my cousin--does not John know this? They say everybody knows these
things before the person concerned. Why, why did you not warn him, Mr.
Rule?"

Rule shook his head.

"It isn't possible that he could have been ignorant. How could he be
ignorant, ma'am? God knows I have not a word to say against Mr.
Vernon--but to think he should forsake us in our moment of trial!"

"Forsake you!" A sudden flush flew over Miss Vernon's face--a spark shot
out of her eyes. Indignation and yet doubt was in her face. "That is not
possible," she cried, holding her head high; and then she said
anxiously, "Mr. Rule, tell me what you mean?"

"I dare say it is the falsity of appearances," said poor Rule. "I am
sure I hope so. I hope Mr. Vernon has gone away to get help, personally:
you can do that so much better than writing: and that he may be back in
time to-morrow."

"Has he gone away?" she said in a low tone.

"Unfortunately, Miss Vernon--I can't help saying unfortunately, for it
paralyses everybody else. We can do nothing at the bank. But I cling to
the hope that he will be back before the bank is opened. Oh, yes, I
cling to the hope. Without that----"

"Everything will be lost?"

"Everything!" cried he, who was so proud of being the head clerk at
Vernon's, with tears in his eyes.

And then there was a pause. For a minute or two not a word was said. The
daughter of the house was as much overcome by the thought as was its
faithful servant. At last she said faintly, but firmly--

"Mr. Rule, I cannot believe but that you will see John to-morrow when
the bank is opened, with means to meet every demand."

"Yes, Miss Vernon, that is my conviction too."

But in what a faltering voice was this conviction stated! The room was
not very light, and they did not distinguish very clearly each other's
faces.

"But in case of any failure--" she said, "for of course one never can
tell, the most tiresome nothings may detain you just when speed is most
important; or he might not have succeeded as he hoped. In case of
any--delay--I shall be there, Mr. Rule; you may calculate upon me, with
every penny I can muster----"

"You, Miss Vernon!" the clerk said, with a cry of relief and joy.

"Certainly; who else, when the credit of the bank is at stake? I have
been living very quietly, you know. I spend next to nothing; my mother's
money has accumulated till it is quite a little fortune, I believe. What
had I best do? send to Mr. Sellon and ask him to help us on that
security? I don't think he will refuse."

"If you do that we are saved," said Rule, half crying. "That is the
thing to do. What a head for business you have!"

She smiled, and gave him a little nod, like one of those happy nods she
used to give to the young clerks in her fine youthful days, in which
there was a kind acknowledgment of their admiration, a friendly good
fellowship with themselves.

"I hope I am not old Edward Vernon's grand-daughter for nothing," she
said, beginning to walk up and down the room with a buoyant impatience,
as though longing for the moment of exertion to come. "I had better
write to Mr. Sellon at once; there is no time to lose."

"And if you will let me I will take the note directly, and bring you an
answer."

"Bravo! that is promptitude," cried Miss Vernon; and she went up to him
and held out her hand. "Between us we will keep the old place going,"
she said, "whoever may give in."

If Mr. Rule had not been the steady, bashful Englishman he was, he would
have kissed that hand. He felt that there was in it enough to save
everything--the bank first, and then his own little bit of money, and
his situation, and his children's bread. He had not allowed himself to
think of these things in the greatness of his anxiety in respect to
Vernon's; but he did think of them now, and was ready to cry in the
relief of his soul.

Never was an evening more full of occupation. Mr. Sellon, who was the
agent of the Bank of England in Redborough, was fortunately at home, and
responded at once to Miss Vernon's appeal. Mr. Rule had the
gratification of walking back with him to the Grange, whither he
hastened to reply in person, and of assisting at the interview
afterwards with a sense of pride and personal advancement which
heightened the satisfaction of his soul. Miss Vernon insisted strongly
on the point that all these preparations were by way of precaution
merely.

"My cousin will no doubt be back in time, fully provided; but of course
you never can be perfectly certain. Horses may break down, shafts be
broken; the least little accident may spoil everything. Of course John
put off such a step till the last moment, and thought it better to keep
it entirely to himself."

"Of course," cried Rule, speaking out of his corner; and "Of course,"
but much more faintly, Mr. Sellon said.

"That is so evident that it requires no repetition: but just as
naturally Mr. Rule was alarmed, and had the good sense to come to me."

All this was by way of convincing Mr. Sellon that the whole matter was
perfectly simple, and that probably his resources would not be called
upon at all. To be sure, as in every case of a similar kind, Miss Vernon
might have saved herself the trouble, the circumstances being far more
clearly known to Mr. Sellon than to herself. He was very sure that John
Vernon would not return, and that his intention was to get himself out
of it. Everybody had known it was coming. It was just as well to humour
a lady, and accept her version as the right one; but he was not for a
moment deceived.

"Of course the bank," he said, "will make it up to you afterwards."

"Of course," she said; "and if not, I don't know who is to stop me from
doing what I like with my own."

He asked a few questions further, in which there was a good deal of
significance, as for instance something about Mrs. John Vernon's
marriage settlements, which neither of the others for the moment
understood. Rule saw Mr. Sellon to the door, by Miss Vernon's request,
with great pride, and went back to her afterwards, "as if he were one of
the family," he described to his wife afterwards.

"Well," she said, "are you satisfied?"

"Oh, more than satisfied, happier than I can tell you," cried the clerk.
"The bank is saved!"

And then she, so triumphant, buoyant, inspired as she was, sank down
upon a chair, and put her head in her hands, and he thought cried; but
Rule was not a man to spy upon a lady in the revulsion of her feelings.
When she looked up again she said to him quickly--

"In any case, Mr. Rule, we are both sure that my cousin is doing all he
can for the bank; if he succeeds or not is in other hands."

"Oh yes, Miss Vernon, quite sure," Rule replied promptly. He understood
that she meant it to be understood so, and determined within himself
that he was ready to go to the stake for the new dogma. And then he
related to her his interview with Mrs. John, and her willingness to give
him up her twenty pounds to save the bank.

Miss Vernon's first flush of indignation soon yielded to amusement and
sympathy. She laughed and she cried.

"That shall always be remembered to her credit," she said. "I did not
think she had any feeling for the bank. Let us always remember it to her
credit. She was ready to give all she had, and who can do any more?"

Mr. Rule was somewhat intoxicated with all these confidences, and with
the way in which Miss Vernon said "we"--his head was a little turned by
it. She was a woman who understood what it was to have a faithful
servant. No doubt, after the sacrifice she was making, she would, in
future, have more to do with the business, and Rule could scarcely keep
his imagination from straying into a consideration of changes that might
be. Instead of merely being head clerk, it was quite possible that a
manager might be required; but he pulled himself up, and would not allow
his thoughts to carry him so far.

Next day everything happened as had been foreseen. There was a run on
the bank, and a moment of great excitement; but when Miss Vernon was
seen at the door of the inner office smiling, with her smile of
triumphant energy and capability, upon the crowd, and when the Bank of
England porters appeared bringing in those heavy boxes, the run and all
the excitement subsided as by magic. The bank was saved; but not by John
Vernon. The outside world never was aware how the matter was settled.
But John did not come back. He would have met nothing but averted looks
and biting words, for there could be no doubt that he had abandoned his
post, and left Vernon's to its fate. Messrs. Pounce and Seeling had a
good deal to do about the matter, and new deeds were drawn, and old
deeds cancelled to a serious extent; but the bank ever after remained in
the hands of Miss Vernon, who, it turned out, had more than her
grandfather's steady power of holding on, and was, indeed, the heir of
her great-grandfather's genius for business. The bank throve in her
hands as it had done in his days, and everything it touched prospered.
She deserved it, to be sure, but everybody who deserves does not get
this fine reward. There is something beyond, which we call good luck or
good fortune, or the favour of Heaven; but as Heaven does not favour
all, or even most of the best people in this way, we have to fall back
upon a less pious phraseology. Is it, perhaps, genius for business, as
distinct as genius in poetry, which makes everything succeed? But this
is more than any man can be expected to understand. Rule attained all
the heights of those hopes which had vaguely dawned on him out of the
mist on that July evening when his good angel suggested to him Catherine
Vernon's name. He was raised to the dignity of manager as he had
foreseen. His salary was doubled, his sons were provided for, and he
grew old in such comfort and general esteem as he had never dreamed of.
"This is the man that saved the bank," Miss Vernon would say. And
though, of course, he deprecated such high praise, and declared that he
was nothing but the humblest instrument, yet there can be no doubt that
he came to believe it in the end, as his wife and all his children did
from the beginning.

Miss Vernon's was a reign of great benevolence, of great liberality, but
of great firmness too. As she got older she became almost the most
important person in Redborough. The people spoke of her, as they
sometimes do of a very popular man, by her Christian name. Catherine
Vernon did this and that, they said. Catherine Vernon was the first
thought when anything was wanted either by the poor who needed help, or
the philanthropist who wanted to give it. The Vernon Almshouses, which
had been established a hundred years before, but had fallen into great
decay till she took them in hand, were always known as Catherine
Vernon's Almshouses. Her name was put to everything. Catherine Street,
Catherine Square, Catherine places without number. The people who built
little houses on the outskirts exhausted their invention in varying the
uses of it. Catherine Villas, Catherine Cottage, Catherine Mansion, were
on all sides; and when it occurred to the High Church rector to dedicate
the new church to St. Catherine of Alexandria, the common people, with
one accord, transferred the invocation to their living patroness. She
was, at least, a saint more easily within reach, and more certain to
lend a favourable ear.



                              CHAPTER III.
                              THE VERNONRY.


These things all happened a great number of years before the beginning
of this history. Catherine Vernon had become an old woman--at least she
was sixty-five; you can call that an old woman if you please. Sometimes
it may mean the extreme of age, decrepitude and exhaustion: but
sometimes also it means a softer and more composed middle age--a lovely
autumnal season in which all the faculties retain their force without
any of their harshness, and toleration and Christian charity replace all
sharpness of criticism or sternness of opinion. Sometimes this beautiful
age will fall to the lot of those who have experienced a large share of
the miseries of life and learnt its bitterest lessons, but often--and
this seems most natural--it is the peaceful souls who have suffered
little to whom this crown of continuance is given. Catherine Vernon
belonged to the last class. If her youth had not been altogether happy,
there had been fewer sorrows and still fewer struggles in her life. She
had gone along peacefully, her own mistress, nobody making her afraid,
no one to be anxious about, no one dear enough to rend her heart. Most
people who have gone through the natural experiences of life are of
opinion with the Laureate, that it is

                   "Better to have loved and lost
                   Than never to have loved at all."

But then we do not allow the other people to speak who know the other
side of the question. If love brings great happiness it brings many
woes. Catherine Vernon was like Queen Elizabeth, a dry tree--while other
women had sons and daughters. But when the hearts of the mothers were
torn with anxiety, she went free. She had the good of other people's
children in a wonderful degree, but it was impossible she could have the
harm of them--for those whom she took to were the good children, as was
natural, the elect of this world. Her life had been full of exertion and
occupation since that night when Rule called upon her at the Grange and
set all the world of her being in movement. What flagging and loneliness
might have been hers--what weariness and longing had ended at that time.
Since then how much she had found to do! The work of a successful man of
business increased, yet softened by all the countless nothings that make
business for a woman, had filled her days. She was an old maid, to be
sure, but an old maid who never was alone. Her house had been gay with
young friends and tender friendship. She had been the first love of more
girls than she could count. By the time she was sixty-five she was a
sort of amateur grandmother in numbers of young households. A woman with
plenty of money, with a handsome, cheerful house, and a happy
disposition, she had--at least since her youth was over--never had
occasion to remember the want of those absorbing affections which bind a
married woman within her own circle. The children of the barren in her
case were more than those of any wife. If ever in her heart she said to
herself, like Matthew in the poem--

                       "Many love me, yet by none
                       Am I enough beloved,"

the sentiment never showed, and must have occurred only as Matthew's
did, in moods as evanescent as the clouds. Her face was not without
lines, for that would be to say that it was without expression; nor did
she look too young for her age: but her eye was not dim, nor her natural
force abated. She had a finer colour than in her girlhood, though the
red was not so smooth, but a little broken in her soft cheek. Her hair
was white and beautiful, her figure ample, but graceful still. At sixty
she had given up work, entering upon, she said, the Sabbatical period of
her life. For the rest of her days she meant to keep Sunday, resting
from her labours--and indeed, with perhaps too close a following of the
divine example for any human creature to venture upon, finding them very
good.

It follows as a matter of course that she had found somebody to replace
her in the bank. There were so many Vernons, that this was not very
difficult to do. At least it was not difficult to find candidates for so
important a post. Descendants of the brothers and sisters of the great
John Vernon, who had first made the bank what it was, were plentiful,
and from among them Catherine Vernon selected two hopeful young men to
carry on her work. One of them, Harry Vernon, was descended from the
daughter of the great John, who had married a relation and continued to
bear the family name. The other went further back and traced his descent
from a brother of that great John. The parents of these fortunate young
men acquiesced with delight in the proposals she made to them. It was a
certain fortune--an established living at once--far better than the
chances of the Bar, or the Indian Civil Examinations, or Colorado, which
had begun to be the alternative for young men. Indeed it was only Edward
Vernon who had parents to be consulted. Harry had but a sister, who had
come to live with him in the fine house which the last John, the one who
had put the bank in such deadly peril, had built. Edward lived with Miss
Vernon herself. Five years had passed since their inauguration as
partners and managers, with very little change in their feelings towards
the old cousin, who had done so much for them, and whom they called Aunt
Catherine. She was Aunt Catherine to a great many people, but these
three, who were the nearest to her in blood, were disposed to give
themselves airs, and to punish intruders who presumed upon a fictitious
relationship. They were to all appearance quite satisfactory young
people, if perhaps not brilliant; and pious persons said that Miss
Vernon had got her reward for her kindness to the poor, and her more
than kindness to her poor relations. She was surrounded by those who
were to her like children of her own. No mother could have had sons more
respectful and devoted. Good and virtuous and kind children--what could
a woman have more?

Perhaps this was rather a flattering and ideal statement of the case;
but at all events one of the young men satisfied all Miss Vernon's
requirements, and they were both steady-going, fine young fellows,
paying every attention to business, keeping everything going. Ellen
perhaps was not quite so satisfactory. She was young and headstrong, and
not sure that Catherine Vernon was all that people made her out to be.
There was nothing wonderful in this. To hear one person for ever
applauded is more likely than anything else to set an impatient mind
against that person--and Ellen kept her old cousin at arm's length, and
showed her little affection. Nobody could doubt that this must have
vexed Miss Vernon, but she took it with wonderful calm.

"Your sister does not like me," she said to Harry; "never mind, she is
young, and she will know better one day."

"You must not think so," Harry said. "Ellen is foolish and headstrong,
but she has a very good heart."

Catherine Vernon nodded a little and shook her head.

"It is not a heart," she said, "that is disposed towards me. But never
mind; she will think better of it one day."

Thus you will see that Miss Vernon escaped from the worst, and had the
best, of motherhood. What a bitterness to her heart would this
alienation have been, had Ellen been her child! but as the troublesome
girl was not her child in reality, the unkindness vexed her in a very
much less degree. She was able to think of the boys, who were so good,
without being disturbed by the image of the girl, who was not so good.
And so all things went on serenely, and the years went by, gentle,
unremarkable, tranquil years.

Several years before this, before indeed the young people had entered
into her life, the old house, called the Heronry, came into Miss
Vernon's hands. It was at some distance on the same side of the Common,
but a little further out towards the country than the Grange--a large
old red-brick house, in the midst of a thin but lofty group of trees.
Though it was so near the town, there was something forlorn in it,
standing out against the west, the tall trees dark against the light,
the irregular outline of the old house flush against the sky, for it was
a flat country, no hills or undulations, but everything that was tall
enough showing direct against the horizon in a way that was sometimes
very impressive. This great old house Miss Vernon made a curious use of.
It contained a multitude of rooms, not any very large except that which
occupied the centre of the area, a sort of hall, with a great staircase
going out of it. From the moment it came into her hands, she made,
everybody thought, a toy of the Heronry. She divided it into about half
a dozen compartments, each with a separate entrance. It was very
cleverly done, so as not to interfere in any way with the appearance of
the place. The doors were not new and unsightly, but adapted with great
care, some of them being windows a little enlarged. What was it for? All
kinds of rumours ran about the town. It was some sort of a convent which
she was going to institute, a community of an apostolical kind, a
sisterhood, a hospital, a set of almshouses. Some went so far as to call
it Catherine Vernon's Folly. She spent a great deal of money upon it,
elaborating her whim, whatever it might be. It was fitted up with
apparatus for warming, which would make the dwellers in it independent
of fires, people said, and this looked like a hospital everybody
allowed. There was no end to the conveniences, the comforts of the
place. The old-fashioned gardens were put in order, and the greatest
trouble taken to make the old pool--which had got the place its name,
and where it was said that herons had actually been seen in the lifetime
of some old inhabitants--wholesome and without prejudice to the health
of the house. The pool itself was very weird, and strange to be so near
the dwelling of ordinary life. It lay in the centre of the clump of
trees which had once been a wood, and which round it had grown tall and
bare, with clumps of foliage on the top, and straight, long stems
mounting to the sky, and shining in long lines of reflection in the
still, dark water. Several gaunt and ghostly old firs were among them,
which in the sunset were full of colour, but in twilight stood up black
and wild against the clear, pale sky. This pool was about as far from
the Grange as Miss Vernon could walk with comfort, and it was a walk she
was very fond of taking on summer nights. The Common lay between the
house and the town; beyond it spread the long levels of the flat
country. In the summer all was golden about, with gorse and patches of
purple heather, and the abundant growth of wild, uncultivated nature.
What did Catherine Vernon mean to do with this house? That was what all
Redborough wanted to know.

By the time at which this story properly begins, Redborough had been
acquainted for years with Miss Vernon's intentions; they were indeed no
longer intentions, but had been carried out. The Heronry had changed its
name, if not formally, yet in familiar parlance, throughout all the
neighbourhood, and was called the Vernonry even by people who did not
know why. The six dwellings which had been contrived so cleverly were
all occupied by relations and dependents of the family, members of the
house of Vernon, or connections of the same. They made a little
community among themselves, but not the community of a sisterhood or a
hospital. It was said that they had their little internal feuds and
squabbles, as people living so close together are always supposed to
have, but they were sufficiently well bred, or sufficiently in awe of
their cousin and patroness, to keep these quarrels decorously to
themselves. How far they were indebted to her for their living, as well
as their lodging, nobody knew, which was not for want of many a
strenuous investigation on the part of the neighbourhood; but the
inmates of the Vernonry were clever enough to keep their own counsel on
a matter which involved their own consequence and credit. Disagreeable
things were indeed said about "genteel almshouses," and "poor
relations," when it first became a question in Redborough about calling
on the new residents. But, as it turned out, they were all persons of
pretensions, expecting to be called upon by the county, and contemptuous
of the townspeople. Five of the six apartments into which the old house
had been divided were occupied, when Redborough was startled by the
extraordinary intelligence that the last and best had been reserved for
no less interesting an inmate than Mrs. John Vernon, she who had left
the town in circumstances so painful. John Vernon, the unfortunate or
the culpable, who had all but ruined the bank, and left it to its ruin,
had died abroad. His wife's marriage settlement had secured their
income, but he had spent as much as it was possible to spend of that,
and forestalled every penny that he could manage to forestall. His debts
were such that his widow's income was sadly crippled by the necessity of
paying them, which it was said she would not herself have seen so
clearly but for the determined way in which it was taken up by her
child, a very young girl, born long after the catastrophe, but one who
was apparently of the old stock, with a head for business, and a
decision of character quite unusual in a child. Mrs. John's return
caused a great sensation in Redborough. She was very well connected, and
there could be no question on anybody's mind as to the propriety of
calling on a woman who was aunt to Sir John Southwood, and first cousin
to Lady Hartingale. How she could like to come back there, to live
within sight of her own beautiful house, and to be indebted for shelter
to Catherine Vernon, was a much more difficult matter to understand. But
as everybody said, that of course was Mrs. John's own concern. If she
could make up her mind to it, certainly nobody else had any call to
interfere.

But what a change it was from the fatal day when poor Mr. Rule, all
anxious and miserable, was shown in by the curious servant to the costly
drawing-room in which John Vernon's wife, in her spotted muslin, sat
ignorant of business, but confident and satisfied in her good fortune
and in the certainty that all would go well with her! Poor lady! she had
learned some few things since that day, but never had grasped the
mystery of her downfall, nor known how it was that everything had
collapsed in a moment, tumbling down like a house of cards. She had not,
indeed, tried to understand at that terrible time when it all burst upon
her--when the fact that she had to leave her house, and that her
furniture was going to be sold in spite of all her indignant
protestations, compelled her understanding, such as it was, into the
knowledge that her husband was ruined. She had too much to do then, in
crying, in packing, in appealing to heaven and earth to know what she
had done to be so cruelly used, and in trying to make out how she was to
travel, to be able to face the problem how it had all come about. And
after she went away the strangeness and novelty of everything swept
thought out of her mind, if, indeed, it ever entered there at all.
Perhaps it was only after that life was over, and when widowed and
growing old she came back to the strange little house which Catherine
Vernon had written to offer her, that she remembered once more to ask
herself the question. Or, perhaps, even then it was not she who asked
it, but Hester, who, greatly excited, with eyes large with curiosity and
interest, clinging to her mother's arm in a way she had, which looked
like dependence, and was control, went all over the new-old place with
her, drinking in information. Hester led her mother wherever she
pleased, holding her arm embraced in her own two clasped hands. It was
her way of holding the helm. She was a tall girl of fourteen when she
came to the Heronry, outgrowing all her frocks, and all her previous
knowledge, and thirsting to understand everything. She had never been in
England before, though she prided herself on being an English girl. She
knew scarcely anything about her family, why it was they lived abroad,
what was their history, or by what means they were so severed from all
relationships and friendships. The letter of Catherine Vernon offering
them a house to live in had roused her, with all the double charm of
novelty and mysterious, unknown relationship. "Who is she? Cousin
Catherine? Papa's cousin! Why is she so kind? Oh yes, of course she must
be kind--very kind, or she would not offer us a house. And that is where
you used to live? Redborough. I should think in a week--say a week--we
might be ready to go." It was thus that she carried her mother along,
who at the first did not at all intend to go. Hester arrived at the
curious old house, which was unlike anything she had ever seen before,
with eyes like two notes of interrogation, brilliant, flaming, inquiring
into everything; and as soon as her mother had rested, and had taken
that cup of tea which is an Englishwoman's comfort, the girl had her out
to see what was to be seen, and led her about, turning the helm now one
way, now another. The Grange was visible as soon as they got beyond
their gate, and on the other side of the red roofs of Wilton Street,
standing on the only height that exists in the neighbourhood, there was
the white and splendid "elevation" of the White House, still splendid,
though a little the worse for wear. Mrs. John stood still, resisting the
action of the helm unconsciously, and all at once began to cry. "That is
where we used to live," she said, with little sobs breaking in,
"that--that is where we lived when we married. It was built for me; and
now to think I have nothing to do with it--nothing!"

It was then that the question arose, large, embracing the entire past,
and so many things that were beyond the mother's knowledge--"Why did
papa go away?" Mrs. John cried, she could not help it, feeling in a
moment all the difference, the wonderful change, the downfall and
reversal of everything that in those days she had expected and hoped.
She dried her eyes half a dozen times, and then burst out again. "Oh,
what have I done that so much should happen to me! and Catherine Vernon
always the same," she said. After a while Hester ceased to ask any
questions, ceased to impel her mother this way or that by her arm, but
led her home quietly to the strange house, with its dark wainscot, which
was so unfamiliar, and made her lie down upon the sofa. Mrs. John was
not a person of original impulses. What she did to-day she had done a
great many times before. Her daughter knew all her little ways by heart.
She knew about how long she would cry, and when she would cheer up
again; and in the meantime she did her best to put two and two together
and make out for herself the outline of the history. Of course she was
all wrong. She had heard that her father was the victim of a conspiracy,
and she had never seen him on any but his best side. Her idea was he had
been wronged; perhaps he was too clever, perhaps too good, for the
designing people round him, and they had laid their heads together and
procured his ruin. The only thing that puzzled Hester was the share that
the unknown Cousin Catherine had in it. Had she been against him too?
But, if so, why was she kind to his wife and child? Perhaps out of
remorse and compunction? Perhaps because she was an old woman, and
wanted to make up a little for what she had done? But this was all
vague, and Hester was prudent enough not to make up her mind about it
until further inquiries. She put her mother to bed in the meantime, and
did all the little things for her which were part of Mrs. John's system.
She brushed her hair, still so pretty; she tied nicely, as if it were an
article of full dress, the strings of her nightcap; she put all her
little things by her on the table by her bedside--her Bible and
prayer-book, the novel she had been reading on the journey, a biscuit in
case she should wake up feeling faint in the night. There was quite an
array of small matters. And then Hester kissed her mother and bid her go
to sleep. "You will not be long of coming to bed, dear?" Mrs. John said;
and the girl promised. But she went away, carrying her candle into one
wainscoted room after another, asking herself if she liked them. She had
been used to big white rooms in France. She saw gleams of her own face,
and reflections of her light in the deep brown of these walls with a
pleasant little thrill of alarm. It was all very strange, she had never
seen anything like it before; but what was the reason why papa left?
What had he done? What had been done to him? One of the down stairs
rooms opened upon a pretty verandah, into which she was just about
stepping, notwithstanding her dread that the wind would blow her candle
out, when suddenly she was met by a large and stately figure which made
the heart jump in Hester's breast. Miss Catherine had come out, as she
did so often at night, with a white shawl thrown over her cap. The road
was so quiet--and if it had been ever so noisy Catherine Vernon could
surely dress as she pleased, and go as she pleased, from one place to
another in Redborough and its neighbourhood. She saw coming out upon her
in the light of a candle a pair of brown eyes, large and wide open, full
of eager curiosity, with a tall girl behind them, somewhat
high-shouldered, with clustering curly short hair. Catherine Vernon was
not without prejudices, and she did not like Mrs. John, nor did she
expect (or perhaps intend) to like her daughter. There was something in
the girl's face which disarmed her suspicion; but she was not a person
to give in, and give up her foregone conclusion on any such trifling
occasion as that.



                              CHAPTER IV.
                            A FIRST MEETING.


Catherine Vernon had come to see with her own eyes that her guests or
tenants had arrived, and that they were comfortable. They were
relations, which justified the want of ceremony; but, perhaps, if they
had not been poor, and she had not been their benefactor, she would
scarcely, in so very easy a way, with a shawl over her cap, and at an
hour not adapted for visits, have made the first call upon them. She
would have been more indignant than any one at such a suggestion; but
human motives are very subtle, and, no doubt, though she was not in the
least aware of it, this was true. To be sure, there were circumstances
in which such a visit would have seemed, of all things, the most kind,
but not, perhaps, with persons so little in sympathy as Catherine Vernon
and Mrs. John. She knew she had been substantially kind. It is so much
easier to be substantially kind than to show that tender regard for
other people's feelings which is the only thing which ever calls forth
true gratitude; and perhaps Catherine had not altogether escaped the
deteriorating influences of too much prosperity. In her solitude she had
become a great observer of men--and women: and was disposed to find much
amusement in this observation. Miss Vernon was half aware that other
motives than those of pure benevolence affected her mind as she went
that evening to the Vernonry. Curiosity was in it. She could not but
wonder how Mrs. John was feeling, what she thought of all these changes.
She was glad that her cousin's widow had come home where she could be
looked after, and where it would be seen that nothing happened to her;
but she had wondered above measure when her offer of shelter and a home
had been accepted, not knowing, of course, anything about that very
active factor in Mrs. John's affairs, who was known to the people in
Redborough only as "the little girl." Catherine Vernon thought that she
herself, in Mrs. John's position, would have starved or worked her
fingers to the bone rather than have come back in such a humiliated
condition to the neighbourhood where she had held so different a place.
She was rather glad to feel herself justified in her contempt of her
cousin's wife by this failure in her of all "proper pride"; and she
allowed curiosity and a sense of superiority and her low estimate of
Mrs. John's capacity of feeling, to carry the day over her natural sense
of courtesy. What so natural, she said to herself, as that she should
run out and see whether they had arrived, and if they were comfortable,
and establish friendly, easy relations at once, without waiting for
formalities? _Qui s'excuse s'accuse._ Miss Vernon certainly knew, at the
bottom of her heart, that sorrow and downfall merited a more respectful
accost; but then Mrs. John had none of those delicacies of feeling, or
it was not in nature that she would have come at all. And nothing could
be more substantially kind than Catherine knew she had been. She had
engaged an excellent servant for them--a woman who had been in her own
house, and who was a capital cook, and capable of taking a kind of
charge as housekeeper if Mrs. John still remained incapable as of old;
and, no doubt, Miss Vernon thought, there would be a foreign _bonne_ of
some sort or other to take care of "the little girl." Her own maid
accompanied her to the gate, then went round to the humbler entrance
while Miss Vernon walked through the garden to the pretty verandah newly
put up (but in excellent taste and keeping, everybody said), which was
intended to form a sort of conservatory in a sunny corner, and give the
inhabitants a little more elegance and modern prettiness than the other
houses afforded. She had done this on purpose for Mrs. John, who had got
used, no doubt, to foreign ways, sitting out of doors, and indulgences
of that kind. Could anything have been more kind? And yet, at the bottom
of her heart, Miss Vernon was aware that if she had resisted her impulse
to come and spy upon the poor traveller this first night, and
investigate her feelings, and how she was supporting the change, and all
the recollections to be called forth by her return, she would have been
far more really kind. She felt this, yet she came. What is there in the
human bosom more strong than the desire to see how the gladiators die?
Poor Mrs. John was no gladiator, but she was upon the point of that
sword of suffering which some writhe and struggle upon, and some allow
themselves to be wounded by, in silence. Miss Vernon was very anxious to
know how she was bearing it. The daylight, which had come to an end
altogether in the dark wainscoted rooms inside, was still lingering
without. Behind the trees there was a golden clearness upon the horizon,
against which every branch stood out. The stars were only half visible
in the faint blue. The walk had been delightful. It was the time she
preferred to be abroad, her mind undisturbed by those cares which pursue
less peaceful people, yielding itself up entirely to the spell of
universal tranquillity and repose.

But when Miss Vernon, opening the glass door of the verandah, suddenly
came in sight of a figure which was quite unexpected, which she could
not identify or recognise, she was, for the moment, too much startled to
speak. A tall girl of fourteen, in that large development which so many
girls attain at that early age, to be "fined down" into slim grace and
delicacy afterwards--with rather high shoulders, increased by the simple
form of her dress; hair of a chestnut colour, cut short, and clustering
in natural rings and twists--not curled in the ordinary sense of the
word; a complexion in which white predominated, the creamy whiteness of
a sanguine temperament, with but little of the rose; and two large,
eager brown eyes, full of curiosity, full of life, evidently
interrogating everything, coming out, even upon the twilight and the
tears of departing day, with her lighted candle and all-questioning
eyes. There was so much warmth of life and movement about Hester, that
it was difficult not to feel a certain interest in her; and there was
something wonderfully characteristic in her attitude, arrested, as she
stepped out, like an explorer, with her candle in her hand.

"I don't know you," said Catherine Vernon, who, from her general
popularity and the worship administered to her all round, had, perhaps
without knowing it, acquired the familiar ease of expression which
belonged to kind and well-intentioned despots. The tone of her voice,
Hester thought, who was accustomed to that distinction, was as if she
said "_tu_." And it depends a great deal upon circumstances whether it
is affection or insult to _tutoyer_ a stranger. "I don't know you," she
said, coming in without any invitation, and closing the glass door
behind her. "I suppose you must have come with Mrs. John Vernon. It is
not possible," she cried a moment after, "that you are the little girl?"

"I am all the girl there is. I am Hester: but I don't know you either,"
the girl said, determined not to show any poltroonery or to veil her
pretensions for any one. "Are you Cousin Catherine?" she added after a
moment, with a quick drawn breath.

"Yes, I am Cousin Catherine. I came to see how you have got through your
journey, and how your mother is. I suppose she is your mother? It is
quite astonishing to me to see you look almost like a grown up young
woman, you whom I have always thought of as the little girl."

"I am fourteen," said Hester. "I never was very little since I can
remember;" and then they stood and looked at each other under the glass
roof, which still let in some light among the flowers, their two faces
lit up by the flame of the candle. Hester stood in front of the door
which led into the house, and, indeed, had something the aspect of a
guardian of the house preventing the visitor from going in. There was a
sort of resemblance to each other in their faces and somewhat largely
developed figures; but this, which ought to have been a comfortable and
soothing thought, did not occur to either. And it cannot be denied that
the first encounter was hostile on both sides.

"I should like to see your mother: to--welcome her--home."

"She has gone to bed. She was--tired," Hester said; and then, with an
effort--"I do not suppose it is quite happy for her, just the first
night, coming back to the place she used to live in. I made her go to
bed."

"You take good care of her," said Miss Vernon; "that is right. She
always wanted taking care of." Then, with a smile, she added, "Am I not
to go in? I came to see if you were comfortable and had everything you
want."

"Mother will be much obliged," said Hester, stiffly. She did not know
any better. She was not accustomed to visitors, and was altogether at a
loss what to do--not to speak of the instinct of opposition which sprang
up in her mind to this first new actor in the new life which lay vaguely
existing and unknown before her feet. It seemed to her, she could
scarcely tell how, that here was an enemy, some one to be held at arm's
length. As for Catherine Vernon, she was more completely taken aback by
this encounter than by anything which had happened for years. Few people
opposed her or met her with suspicion, much less hostility; and the
aspect of this girl standing in the doorway, defending it, as it were,
preventing her from entering, was half comic, half exasperating. Keeping
her out of her own house! It was one of the drawbacks of her easy
beneficence, the _defauts de ses qualités_, that she felt a little too
distinctly that it was her own house, which, seeing she had given it to
Mrs. John, was an ungenerosity in the midst of her generosity. But she
was human, like the rest of us. She began to laugh, bewildered, half
angry, yet highly tickled with the position, while Hester stood in front
of her, regarding her curiously with those big eyes. "I must rest here,
if I am not to go in," she said. "I hope you don't object to that; for
it is as much as I can do to walk from the Grange here."

Hester felt as if her lips were sealed. She could not say anything;
indeed she did not know what she ought to say. A vague sense that she
was behaving badly made her uncomfortable; but she was not going to
submit, to yield to the first comer, to let anybody enter who chose. Was
she not the guardian of her mother, and of her quiet and repose? She
shifted her position a little as Miss Vernon sat down on one of the
creaking basket chairs, but did not even put her candle out of her hand,
or relax in her defensive attitude. When her visitor laughed again,
Hester felt a flush of hot anger, like a flame, going over her. To be
ludicrous is the last thing a girl can bear: but even for that she would
not give in.

"You are a capital guardian," Catherine said, "but I assure you I am not
an enemy. I shall have to call my maid Jennings, who has gone to the
kitchen to see Betsey, before I go home, for I am not fond of walking
alone. You must try and learn that we are all friends here. I suppose
your mother has told you a great deal about the Vernons--and me?"

"I don't know about any Vernons--except ourselves," Hester said.

"My dear," said Miss Vernon, hastily, "you must not get it into your
little head that you are by any means at the head of the house, or near
it. Your grandfather was only the second son, and you are only a
girl--if you had been a boy it might have been different; and even my
great-grandfather, John Vernon, who is the head of our branch, was
nothing more than a cadet of the principal family. So don't give
yourself any airs on that score. All your neighbours here are better
Vernons than you----"

"I never give myself any airs--I don't know what you mean," said Hester,
feeling a wish to cry, but mastering herself with all the strength of
passion.

"Don't you, my poor child? I think you do. You are behaving in a silly
way, you know, meeting me like this. Your mother should have taught you
better manners. I have no desire but to be kind to you. But never mind,
I will not say anything about it, for I dare say you are all put the
wrong way with fatigue and excitement; otherwise I should think you were
excessively uncivil, do you know," Miss Vernon said.

And Hester stood, fiery-red, and listened. If she had spoken she must
have cried--there was no alternative. The candle flickered between the
two antagonists. They were antagonists already, as much as if they had
been on terms of equality. When Miss Vernon had rested as long as she
thought necessary, she got up and bade her young enemy good-night. "Tell
your mother that I have done my duty in the way of calling, and that it
is she now who must come to me," she said.

Hester stood at the door of the verandah, with her candle flaring into
the night, while Catherine went round to the other door to call
Jennings, her maid, and then watched the two walking away together with
a mixture of confused feeling which filled her childish soul to
overflowing. She wanted to cry, to stamp with her feet, and clench her
fists, and grind her teeth. She was like a child in the unreasoning
force of her passion, which was bitter shame as well. She had behaved
like a savage, like a fool, she knew, like a little silly, ill-tempered
child. She ought to be whipped for her rudeness, and--oh, far
worse!--she would be laughed at. Does not every one remember the
overwhelming, intolerable shame and mortification which envelope a young
creature like a sudden flame when she perceives that her conduct has
been ludicrous as well as wrong, and that she has laid herself open to
derision and laughter? Oh, if she could but wipe that hour out of her
life! But Hester felt that never, never could it be wiped out of her
life. She would remember it if she lived to be a hundred, Miss Vernon
would remember it, and tell everybody what a senseless, rude, ignorant
being she was. Oh, if the earth would open and swallow her up! She did
not wish to live any longer with the consciousness of this mistake. The
first time, the first time she had been tried--and she had made herself
ridiculous! The tears came pouring from her eyes like hail-drops, hot
and stinging. Oh, how she stamped upon the floor! Never more could she
hold up her head in this new place. She had covered herself with shame
the very first hour. All the self-restraint she could exercise was to
keep herself from flying up stairs and waking her mother in order to
tell her all that had happened. She was not what people call
unselfish--the one quality which is supposed to be appropriate to
feminine natures. She was kind and warm-hearted and affectionate, but
she was not without thought of herself. Her own little affairs naturally
bulked more largely to her than everything else in the world. She could
scarcely endure to keep all this to herself till to-morrow. She had
indeed flown up stairs with a cry of "Mother, mother!" open-mouthed: and
then it had occurred to her that to wake her mother would be cruel. She
was very tired, and she had been more "upset" than Hester had ever seen
her. Probably she would be still upset in the morning if she were
disturbed now in her slumber. Hester's fortitude was not sufficient to
make her go to bed quietly. She was almost noisy in her undressing,
letting her hair-brush fall, and pushing the furniture about, hoping
every moment that her mother would wake. But Mrs. John was very tired,
and she was a good sleeper. She lay perfectly still notwithstanding this
commotion; and Hester, with her heart swelling, had to put herself to
bed at last, where she soon fell asleep too, worn out with passion and
pain--things which weary the spirit more than even a day on the railway
or crossing the Channel when there are storms at sea.

Miss Vernon went home half amused, but more than half angry. Edward
Vernon had not very long before taken up his abode at the Grange, and he
was very attentive to Aunt Catherine, as many of the family called her.
He came out to meet her when she appeared, and blamed her tenderly for
not calling him when she went out.

"I do not think you would have been the worse for my arm," he said. He
was a slim young man with a black beard, though he was still quite
young, and a gentle expression in his eyes. He was one of those of whom
it is said he never gave his parents an anxious hour; but there was
something in his face which made one wonder whether this was from
genuine goodness, or because he had never yet come under temptation.
This doubt had passed through Catherine Vernon's mind when she heard all
that his enthusiastic family had to say of him; but it had worn away in
beholding the sweetness of his disposition, and his gentle, regular
life. To see him so dutiful and gentle was a relief and comfort to her
after the encounter she had just had.

"It would have given you a sensation," she said, "I promise you, if you
had come with me, Edward. I have just had a meeting with a little
spitfire, a little tiger-cat."

"Who is that, Aunt Catherine?"

Miss Vernon threw her shawl off her cap, and sat down on the sofa to
take breath. She had walked home faster than usual in the excitement of
the moment.

"If you will believe me," she said, "I don't even know her name--except
of course that it is Vernon, John Vernon's daughter. I suppose she must
have been warned against me, and instructed to keep me at arm's length."

"To keep _you_ at arm's length? That is not possible."

"Well, it does not look likely, does it?" she said, somewhat mollified.
"People are not generally afraid of Catherine Vernon: but it is singular
sometimes how you will find your own family steeled against you, when
everybody else likes you well enough. They see you too near at hand,
where there is no illusion possible, I suppose; but that could not be
the case with this little thing, who never set eyes on me before. She
let me know that her mother was not to be disturbed, and even refused me
admission--what do you think?--to my own house."

"Are you quite sure there is no mistake?" said Edward; "it seems
incomprehensible to me."

"Oh, I do not find it incomprehensible. She is Mrs. John's daughter, and
there never was any love lost between us. I always felt her to be a
vacant, foolish creature; and no one can tell what a venturesome,
ridiculous hoyden she thought me."

Here Catherine Vernon felt herself grow hot all over, as Hester had
done, bethinking herself of an encounter not altogether unlike the
present, in which she had enacted Hester's part, and exposed herself to
the ridicule of Mrs. John. Though this was nearly half a century ago, it
had still power to move her with that overwhelming sense of
mortification. There are things which no one ever forgets.

"When I heard of that woman coming home, I knew mischief would come of
it," Miss Vernon said.

"But forgive me, Aunt Catherine, was it not you that asked her to come?"

Catherine Vernon laughed.

"You have me there," she said. "I see you are quick, and I see you are
honest, Edward. Most people hearing me say that would have been
bewildered, and thought it not possible. No, I did not bring her. I only
said to her, if you are coming, there is a house here which you are
welcome to if you please. What else could I do?"

"She is not penniless, I suppose. You might have let her settle where
she pleased."

"She is not penniless, but she is heedless and heartless," said Miss
Vernon with a sigh; "and as for settling where she pleased, of course
anyhow she would have come here. And then, I never expected she would
take it."

"You thought she would come here, and yet you never expected she would
take it; and you knew she would make mischief, yet you invited her to
come. That is a jumble. I don't make head or tail of it."

"Nor I," cried Miss Vernon, with another laugh. "You shall carry the
problem a little further, if you please. I feared that her coming would
disturb us all, and yet I am half pleased in my heart, being such a bad
woman, that she is going to make a disturbance to prove me right. You
see I don't spare myself."

"It amuses you to make out your own motives as well as other people's:
and to show how they contradict each other," Edward said, shaking his
head.

This little bit of metaphysics refreshed Miss Vernon. She became quite
herself again, as she told him her story.

"The little firebrand!" she said, "the little spitfire! facing me on my
own ground, defying me, Catherine Vernon, in the very Vernonry, my own
creation!"

"I wonder what the child could mean by it; it must have been ignorance."

"Very likely it was ignorance: but it was more; it was opposition, firm,
healthy, instinctive opposition, without any cause for it; that is a
sort of thing which it refreshes one to see. It must have been born in
her, don't you see? for she didn't know me, never set eyes on me. The
little wild cat! She felt in every nerve of her that we were in
opposition, she and I."

"Don't you think you give too much importance to the nonsense of a girl?
I know," said Edward, with a very serious nod of his head, "what girls
are. I have six sisters. They are strange beings. They will go all off
at a tangent in a moment. Pull a wrong string, touch a wrong stop, and
they are all off--in a moment."

"You forget that I was once a girl myself."

"It is a long time ago, Aunt Catherine," said the ruthless young man. "I
dare say you have forgotten: whereas I, you know, have studied the
subject up to its very last development."

Miss Vernon shook her head at him with a playful menace, and then the
tea was brought in, and lights. As he went on talking, she could not
refrain from a little self-congratulation. What a wise choice she had
made! Many young men hurried out in the evenings, made acquaintances
that were not desirable, involved themselves in indifferent society.
Edward seemed to wish for nothing better than this soft home atmosphere,
her own company, his books and occupations. What a lucky choice! and at
the same time a choice that reflected much credit on herself. She might
just as well have chosen his brother, who was not so irreproachable. As
she sat on the sofa and took her tea, her eyes sought the figure of the
young man, pacing quietly up and down in the dim space, filling the
house and the room and her mind with a sensation of family completeness.
She was better off with Edward than many a mother with her son. It was
scarcely possible for Miss Vernon to divest herself of a certain feeling
of complacency. Even the little adventure with the stranger at the
Heronry enhanced this. Mrs. John, to whom she had been so magnanimous,
to whom she had offered shelter, had always been against her; she had
foreseen it, and if not content with this incident, was so with herself.



                               CHAPTER V.
                              NEXT MORNING.


When Mrs. John awoke, confused and not knowing where she was, very early
on the next morning, she was dismayed by the story which was instantly
poured into her half-awakened ears. Hester, it is to be feared, had not
shown that respect for her mother's slumbers which she had enforced upon
Miss Vernon. The girl was too impatient, too eager to tell all that had
happened. "Of course I was not going to let her come in and disturb
you," she cried. "Is that how people behave in England? She had not even
a bonnet on. No. I did not ask her to come in. It was so late: and
besides, I never heard of people making calls at night; people you don't
know."

"Oh, my dear!" said Mrs. John, in dismay. "Oh, Hester! what have you
done? Catherine Vernon turned away from the door! She will never forgive
you, never, as long as she lives."

"I don't care," said Hester, almost sullenly. "How was I to know? Even
if I had been quite sure it was Cousin Catherine, I should not have let
the Queen come in, to disturb you."

"The Queen of course would never want to come," said Mrs. John, who was
very literal, "but Catherine Vernon! she is more than the Queen; the
house belongs to her, and the furniture, and everything. It is all
warmed with hot-water pipes, and servants kept, and every comfort. I
shouldn't wonder if she turned us out after what you have done."

"If she does, mother, I will be your servant. I will keep good fires and
keep you warm, never fear," cried Hester, paling and reddening in panic,
yet courage.

"Good fires!" said Mrs. John; "do you think fires can be got for
nothing? and we have so little money." She looked very pale and worn,
supported among her pillows in the early morning light so penetrating
and so clear; and at this she began to cry. "Oh, why was I so foolish as
to leave you to mismanage everything? I might have known! Whatever
Catherine Vernon wanted, you ought to have let her have it. She can turn
us out in a moment if she pleases, and she will never forgive you,
never. And just when we were going to be so comfortable!" the poor woman
cried.

"Don't cry, don't cry, mamma. You know I always said I should give
lessons. We will get two nice little rooms somewhere, much nicer than
these. If she is such a hard woman, I don't want to be obliged to her.
Oh, mother, mother, don't cry! _I_ can take care of you."

"Oh, hold your tongue, hold your tongue, child! what do you know about
it? Let me get up. I must go to her at once and tell her you are only a
child, and constantly doing silly things."

This to Hester, who was so conscious of being not only her mother's prop
and support, but her real guide in life. She was so utterly aghast, that
she did not know how to reply.

"Put me out my best crape," said her mother. "Catherine will like to see
that even in a foreign place, where it is so difficult to get things as
one ought, proper respect was paid. Everybody said that she meant to
marry your poor papa when she was young; but he saw me--Oh, dear, dear,
when I think of all that has happened since then--and she never has
liked me. I think that was quite natural: and now that you have gone and
made everything worse--Put me out my best dress with the crape."

"It is only five o'clock," said Hester, half penitent, half irritated,
"there is nobody up. The people in England must be very lazy in the
morning. Does no one go to early mass?"

"Five o'clock!" said Mrs. John, fretfully. "I think you must be going
out of your senses, Hester. Is that an hour to wake me, when I have not
had my first sleep out? Draw down the blinds and close the shutters, and
let me get a proper rest. And for goodness' sake," she cried, raising
her head before she settled down comfortably among the pillows, "for
goodness' sake! don't go about talking of early mass here."

Hester did as her mother ordered, but with an impatient heart. It was
bitter to have thus put into the hands of the poor lady who was her
kingdom, and for whom she had legislated for years, the means of shaking
off her sway--a sway which Hester was firmly persuaded was for her good.
John Vernon had not been much of a guide for either mother or child. He
had not cared very much about them. His wife's monotonous feebleness
which might have been well enough in the tranquillity of the luxurious
sheltered life at home to which she was born, was nothing but tiresome
in circumstances where an energetic woman might have been of some use;
and his daughter was a creature he did not understand--a child, a chit,
who ventured to look disapproval at him, to his indignation and wonder.
What you are used to from your birth does not affect you much, and
Hester had not suffered any heartache from her father's neglect. She
accepted it as the order of nature, but the result had been that from
her earliest consciousness almost, she had taken upon herself the charge
of her mother; and to be thus threatened with deposition, and criticised
by her helpless subject, appalled her. So active and young as she was,
and full of superfluous strength, it was impossible for her to return to
her pillow as her mother had done. When she had closed the shutters and
drawn the curtains, she stole softly out on tiptoe down the old oak
staircase which creaked at every footfall. In the glory of the early
morning the house was not dark. In rooms which the sun had reached, the
black old wainscot was glimmering full of reflections, and all the world
out of doors lay resplendent in that early gladness. Hester had heard
all her life from many a discontented mouth, of the gloomy skies and
dark days of England, of a climate always obscured with fog, and a sky
where there was no blue. Accordingly it was with a kind of indignant
ecstasy that she stepped out into the intense delicious radiance, so
soft and fresh, yet so all-powerful. The birds had got their early
morning twitterings over, and were in full outburst of song. The flowers
were all in intensest dewy bloom, and everything taking the good of that
sweet prime of the morning in which they bloomed and sang for
themselves, and not officially on behalf of the world. The girl forgot
her vexation as she came out to the incense-breathing garden, to the
trees no longer standing out black upon the sunset, but in all their
sweet natural variations of colour, basking in the morning light. The
pond even, that had looked so black, was like a basin of pure gold,
rimmed with rich browns and greens. She opened the gate and looked out
upon the road which was all silent, not a shadow upon it, swept by the
broad early blaze of the morning sun. Not a sound except the chorus of
the birds, the crackle of the furze bushes in the stillness, the hum of
insects. She had all the world to herself, as the poet had on that
immortal morning when the houses of quiet London all lay asleep, and the
Thames flowed onward at his own sweet will. Standing apart from the
road, among its shrubberies, was the Grange with its red gables and its
eyelids closed--farther off the light rebounded softly from the roofs of
the town, and behind the town, revealed in partial shadow, rose the
white distant front of the house in which her mother had told Hester her
early married life had been passed. She had it all to herself, nobody to
disturb or interrupt. And what in human form could have given a more
complete impersonation of the morning than this girl, fresh, fair, and
strong, with such a world of latent possibilities in her? The cloud of
last night's perversity blew away. She met the eye of the day with a
gaze as open and as confident. Neither Nature nor Hester had any fear.
She was like her namesake in the poem, whom the "gentle-hearted Charles"
beloved of all men, could not, though she was dead, give up the
expectation of meeting as heretofore, "some summer morning."

    "When from thy cheerful eyes a ray
    Had struck a bliss upon the day,
    A bliss that would not go away,
            A sweet forewarning."

And this glorified world, this land of light and dews, this quiet
sweetness and silence and ecstatic life, was the dull England of which
all the shabby exiles spoke with scorn! Hester felt a delightful
indignation flood her soul. She went out all by herself with a little
awe, and walked round the Common which was all agleam with blobs of
moisture shining like diamonds in the sun:--

    "A springy motion in her gait
    A rising step did indicate,
    Of pride and joy no common rate
            That flushed her spirit.

    "I know not by what name beside
    I shall it call: if 'twas not pride
    It was a joy to that allied
            She did inherit."

Hester was a great deal too young for a heroine, but as it chances there
could not be a better portrait of her than that of Lamb's "sprightly
neighbour." She went out with that springing motion, stepping on air,
with the pride of life and youth and conscious energy in every vein. A
certain youthful contempt for the inferior beings who lay stupid behind
those closed shutters, losing all this bloom and glory, was in her
heart. She was very black in the midst of the bright landscape in her
mourning frock, with a white kerchief tied round her throat like a
French girl, but her curly locks shining like everything else in the
sun. She did not mind the sun. She had not yet learned that she had a
complexion to care for; besides, the sun could do nothing to the
creamy-white of her tint. Perhaps she was not very sensitive, not
thin-skinned at all, either in body or soul.

Now it happened, curiously enough, that as Hester passed the gate of the
Grange, at which she gazed very anxiously with a half-formed intention
of making her way in, in face of every obstacle, and making her peace
with Cousin Catherine--a project which only the early hour prevented her
from carrying out--the said gate opened softly and a man appeared.
Hester was more startled than she could explain to herself. Why should
she be startled? It was not so early now--six o'clock or later. He was a
young man of middle height, with a very dark beard and bright eyes.
Hester felt that he was somewhat unsuitable to the scene, not English in
her opinion--Englishmen had fair hair, rosy complexions, blue eyes--they
were all _blonds_: now this man looked like those to whom she was
accustomed. Was he, she wondered, going to early mass? He had a
portfolio in his hand, a small box strapped to his shoulders. The first
Englishman she had seen; what was he going to do? What he did first was
to look at her with considerable curiosity. She had hastily put on her
hat on seeing him, that there might be no impropriety in her appearance,
an action which put out, so to speak, one of the lights in the
landscape, for her hair was shining almost as brightly as the blobs of
dew. He crossed the road to the Common, and then he paused a moment on
the edge of it and looked at her again.

"I wonder if you are my little cousin," he said.

It was on Hester's lips to protest that she was not little at all, but
quite as tall as he was, but she waived this point on second thoughts.

"Are you a Vernon--_too_?" she said.

"Yes, I am a Vernon--too. Edward, at your service. I am glad to see you
keep such early hours."

"Why?" she asked, but did not wait for any reply. "What are you going to
do?"

"I am going," he said, "out upon the Common to look for a rare flower
that grows here, only I have never been able to find it. Will you come
and help me?"

"A flower!" said Hester, confounded. "Do Englishmen look for flowers?"

"Englishmen as well as others--when they happen to be botanists. Does
that surprise you? I am obliged to get up early, for I have no time in
the day."

"What do you do in the day?" the girl asked.

"I am at the bank. Have you never heard of Vernon's Bank? the business
from which we all take our importance here. The Vernons are great or
they are small, don't you know? according to their connection with the
bank."

"Then you are one of the great ones," said Hester with decision. "Do any
of the Vernons live in that great white house--that one, do you see?--on
the other side of the red roofs?"

"The White House? Oh yes, Harry lives there, another cousin, and his
sister."

"Are they in the bank too?"

"Harry is; he and I do the work between us. Ladies in this country have
nothing to do with business----by the way, I am forgetting Aunt
Catherine."

"That is a pity," said Hester, not noticing his exclamation. "Then I
suppose my father must have had something to do with it, for do you
know, though we are poor now, he once lived there?"

"Yes, I know."

"Then why did he go away?" said Hester musingly; "that is what I should
like to find out. Do you know Cousin Catherine? you must, if you live in
her house."

"I call her Aunt Catherine," said the young man.

"Why? Is she your aunt? And I call her cousin; but she cannot be my
cousin. She is so much older. Was she angry--do you know--last night? I
did not know who she was--and I was--rude."

He laughed, and she, after a doubtful glance, laughed too.

"Oh yes, I am afraid I did know who she was--that she was Cousin
Catherine; but then, who is Cousin Catherine? I had never seen her
before. Mother thinks she will be very angry. Could I let her come in
and disturb my mother after she was in bed? Mother thinks she will not
let us stay."

"Should you be sorry to go?"

Hester cast a long look all round from east to west, taking in the
breadth of the Common glistening in the morning dew, the dark roofs of
the Heronry against the trees, the glittering vanes and windows of the
town on the other side.

"It is very pretty," she said with a little sigh. "And to think what
they say of England! They say it is always fog, and the sun never
shines. How can people tell such lies? We should not go, we should take
some small rooms in the town, and I would teach."

"What could you teach?"

Hester looked at him with half resentment.

"Do you know many languages?" she said.

"Many languages? no!--a smattering of Greek and Latin."

"I don't call them languages. I mean French and Italian and German: for
I know them all. I know them as well as English. I haven't a bit of the
accent Britannique: Madame Alphonse said so, and I hope she is a good
authority. I will give _cours_, as many as they please: French one day
and the others the next. Not only should I be able to help mother, but I
should make a fortune, they all said. Three _cours_ always going: I
should make a great deal of money, and then in ten years or so I could
retire, you know. In ten years I should only be"--here she paused in the
fervour of conversation and eyed him a little with doubt in her face.
Then she said quite calmly, "I forget the rest."

Edward Vernon listened with great edification; he forgot the flower
which he was going to search for.

"I am very sorry to discourage you in your plans: but I don't think Aunt
Catherine will turn you out."

"Don't you think so?"

Hester, after her brag, which was perfectly sincere, and of which she
believed every word, felt a little disappointed to be thus brought down
again.

"No, I don't think so. She told me that you were rude, but she was not
angry; she only laughed."

At this Hester grew wildly red, and stamped her foot. "She shall
not--she shall not--nobody shall laugh at me!" she cried. "I will tell
mother we must go away."

"Don't go away. You must consider that your mother will be a great deal
more comfortable here than in lodgings in town. And you know you are
very young. You had better be a little older before you begin to give
_cours_. Don't be angry: but if you were to mount up to the desk with
your short frock" (here Hester looked down at her feet, and in a sudden
agony perceived the difference between her broad, old-fashioned shoes,
and the pointed toes of her companion) "and short hair----" But this was
more than she could bear.

"You are laughing at me! You too!" she said, with a poignant tone of
mortification.

"No, my little cousin, I will not laugh; but you must let me be your
friend, and show you what is best; for you _are_ very young, you know.
One can't know everything at----"

"Fourteen," said Hester. "Fourteen is not so very young; and girls are
older than boys. Perhaps you are thinking that a boy of fourteen is not
much? That is very true; but it is different with me. Mother is not
strong. I have to do most of the settling, not to tire her. What I think
is always what will be the best----"

"For her? To be sure," said Edward; "so you must make up your mind to be
civil to everybody, and not to quarrel."

"Quarrel! I never quarrel. I would not for anything in the world; it is
so childish."

"I don't think I shall find my flower this morning," he said. "I will
walk home with you if you will let me, and we can talk about everything.
Have you seen the other people who live in the Heronry? Some of them
will amuse you. There are two old ladies--Vernons, like the rest of us."

"Is it Cousin Catherine that has brought us all here?"

"All of us. She is not a person to be made light of, you see."

"And why did she bring _you_? Were you poor? Had you no father like me?
Is she fond of you that she has you to live in her house? Do you love
her?" said Hester, fixing her large curious eyes on the young man's
face.

He laughed. "Where am I to begin?" he said. "I have a father and mother,
little cousin. They are not poor precisely, but neither are they rich. I
can't tell you whether Aunt Catherine is fond of me. She brought me here
to work in the bank; the bank is everybody's first thought; that must be
kept up whatever fails; and she was so good as to think I would do. It
was a great advancement for me. If I had stayed at home I should have
had to struggle for something to do along with all the other young men.
And there are a great many young men in the world, and not so much for
them to do as could be wished. Have I satisfied you now?"

"There is one question you have not answered," said Hester. "Do you love
her?--that is the chief thing I want to know."

"Love her? Come, you must not go into metaphysics. I like her very much.
Aunts are excellent things. I have a great respect for her. Won't that
do?"

"I looked at her last night," said Hester. "I got her by heart. I shall
either love her or hate her. I have not made up my mind which."

"There is something between these violent sentiments," said Edward; "at
least I hope so. You must not hate me."

"Oh, you!" said Hester, with friendly contempt, "that is a different
thing altogether. You are not of any consequence. I think I like you,
but you may be sure I shall never hate you; why should I? You can't do
anything to me. But when there is one that is--that is--well, almost
like God, you know--" said the girl, dropping her voice reverentially.
"It is astonishing, is it not, that one should be so much more powerful
than others? They say in France that men are all equal; but how can that
be when Cousin Catherine--What gives her so much power?"

"That is all a fallacy about men being equal. You will see through it
when you get older," said Edward, with gentle superiority. He had
laughed at her cavalier mention of himself, but he was very willing to
instruct this self-opinioned young person. "You are mixing up
circumstances and principles," he added. "It is circumstances which make
Aunt Catherine powerful; chiefly because she is rich--rich and kind;
very kind in her way; always ready to do a charitable action."

The colour wavered in Hester's cheek. "We don't want charity," she said;
and after this walked on very stately, holding her head high. The
Vernonry towards which they were going had begun to wake up. Smoke was
rising up into the clear air from one or two of the chimneys; a few
blinds had been drawn up; a gardener, with his wheelbarrow and his
scythe stood in the gate, throwing his shadow across the garden. Edward
Vernon thought there was in the air a vague perfume from the cups of tea
that were being carried about in all directions to the bedsides of the
inhabitants. The people in the Vernonry were all elderly; they were all
fond of their little comforts. They liked to open their eyes upon the
world through the refreshing vapour of those early cups. All
elderly--all except this impersonation of freshness and youth. What was
she to do in such a place, amid the retired and declining, with energy
enough for every active employment, and a restless, high, youthful
spirit? Poor girl! she would have some bitter lessons to learn. Edward,
though he had won the heart of his powerful relation by his domestic
character and evident preference for her society, had not been able to
divest himself of a certain grudge against the author of his good
fortune. The feeling which Hester expressed so innocently was in his
mind in a more serious form.

When they reached the gate, Hester stopped short.

"You must not come in now," she said in her peremptory tones, "for
mother is not up yet. I must go and make her coffee before she gets up.
I will make you some, after dinner if you like. You cannot make coffee
in England, can you?"

"No more than we can make the sun shine," said Edward with a smile. "I
shall certainly come for my coffee in the evening. I may be of some use
to you as your difficulties increase; but I should like to know your
name, and what I am to call you?"

"Are you sure that our difficulties will increase?" said Hester, aghast,
opening her mouth as well as her large eyes.

"Unless you know how to deal with them. I shall set up a series of
lectures on fine manners and deportment."

Hester's countenance flamed upon him with mingled resentment and shame.

"Do you think me a savage?" she said. "I--do you know I have been
brought up in France? It is in England that there are no manners, no
politeness."

"And no sunshine," said Edward with a laugh. Thus saying he took off his
hat with a little exaggeration of respect, and waving his hand to her,
turned away. If Hester had been older, she would have known that to
stand and look after him was not according to any code. But at fourteen
the soul is bold and scorns conventional rule. She stood, shading her
eyes with her hand, watching him as he walked along; still the only
figure that broke the blaze and the silence of the morning. It was true,
as she had said, that he was not of any consequence. Perhaps that was
why she felt quite at her ease in respect to him, and on the whole
approved of him as a pleasant feature in the new life.



                              CHAPTER VI.
                        NEIGHBOURS AND RELATIONS.


In the morning, the inhabitants of the Vernonry were to be seen a little
before or after noon, according to the season, appearing and
disappearing in the immediate neighbourhood of their house. It was a
little community perfectly at leisure, called out by no work in the
morning, returning with no more punctuality than pleased them. As a
matter of fact they were exceedingly punctual, coming and going as by
clockwork, supporting their otherwise limp existence by a severe
mechanism of rule. Those who have least to do, are often most rigorous
in thus measuring themselves out; it gives a certain sense of something
real in their lives. It was a little after eleven when Mr. Mildmay
Vernon appeared. His residence was in the west wing, nearest to the pool
and the trees, and he thought it was probably owing to the proximity of
the water that his rheumatism troubled him so much in winter. It did not
trouble him at this fine season, but he had the habit of leaning on his
stick and talking in a querulous voice. He came out with his newspaper
to a little summer-house where the heat was tempered by the foliage of a
great lime. He had very good taste; he liked the flicker of the sunshine
which came through those green-silken leaves, and the shelter was very
grateful when the sun was hot. The worst of it was that the summer-house
was not in his portion of the common grounds, and the ladies, to whom it
ought to have belonged, and to whom it was so convenient to do their
work in, resented his constant presence. In winter, he seated himself
always on a sunny bench which was in front of the windows now belonging
to Mrs. John, but she was not as yet aware of this peculiarity. The Miss
Vernon-Ridgways occupied the space between Mr. Mildmay's house and Mrs.
John's. They were not in the direct line, and they felt that they were
treated accordingly, the best of everything being appropriated to those
whom Catherine Vernon, who was so proud of her name, considered nearest
to the family stock. These ladies were convinced that the blood of the
Ridgways had much enriched the liquid that meandered through the veins
of the Vernons; but in Catherine Vernon's presence they kept silence as
to this belief. The rooms in the wings were much the best, they thought,
and they had even proposed an exchange to Mr. Mildmay when he complained
of being so close to the pool. But he had only grinned and had not
accepted; he knew better. Of course he would have grumbled if he had
been lodged in Windsor Castle, the ladies said; but he knew very well in
his heart that he had been preferred to the best place. On the other
side of the house, towards the road, lived Mrs. Reginald Vernon, the
young widow of an officer, with her four children, of whom everybody
complained, and an old couple, in reality not Vernons at all, but
relations of Catherine's mother who were looked down upon by the entire
community, and had clearly no business in the Vernonry. The old
gentleman, Captain Morgan, had been in the navy, and therefore ought to
have been the equal of any one. But the people on the road side kept
themselves very much to themselves; the aristocracy lived on the garden
front. When Mrs. John Vernon made her appearance in her deep mourning,
there was a great deal of excitement about the place. Mr. Mildmay put
down his paper and came out, bowing, to the door of the summer-house.

"Between relations I do not know if any ceremony of introduction is
necessary," he said. "It gives me great pleasure to welcome you back to
England. Poor John and I were once great friends. I hope you will allow
me to consider myself at once an old acquaintance."

"Oh, how thankful I shall be for some one to speak to!" cried Mrs. John.
"Though my family were of this county, I seem to have lost sight of
every one that used to know me. A great many changes happen when one has
been thirty years away."

"Poor John! I suppose he never came back to this country again?" Mr.
Mildmay said, with sympathetic curiosity, and that air of knowing all
about it which is sometimes so offensive; but Mrs. John was
simple-minded. She was not even displeased by the undertone of
confidential understanding.

"Never! it would have broken his heart; what was left to him to come
for? He always said that when ladies meddle with business everything
goes wrong. But, dear me, I oughtn't to say so here," Mrs. John added,
with a little panic, looking round.

"Why?--you need not be afraid of expressing your sentiments, my dear
lady, before me. I have the greatest respect for the ladies--where would
we without them? 'Oh, woman, in our hours of ease,' &c.--you know. But I
think that mixed up with business they are entirely out of their place.
It changes the natural relations--it creates a false position----"

"John always thought so. But then I was so silly--so dreadfully
silly--about business; and he thought that women should all be like me."

"That is certainly the kind of woman that is most attractive to men,"
said Mr. Mildmay, with a gallant bow; "and in my time ladies thought
much of that. I hope, however, that you will like this retirement, and
be happy here. It is very retired, you see--nothing to disturb us----"

"Oh, Mr. Mildmay, I dare say I shall do very well," said Mrs. John,
putting her handkerchief to her eyes; "but seeing _that_" (she waved her
hand towards the front of the White House in the distance) "from the
window, and knowing every day how things are going on at the bank, and
all the old associations, I cannot be expected to be very happy. That
was not thought of when I came here."

"My dear lady!" Mr. Mildmay said, soothingly; and then he saw his way to
inflicting another pin-prick upon this bleeding heart so easily laid
open to him. "I suppose you know that Catherine has put her nephew Harry
and his sister--he is no more her nephew than I am--one of Gilbert
Vernon's boys: but she took a fancy to him--in the White House? It
belongs to her now, like everything else in the neighbourhood. Almost
the whole of Redborough is in her hands."

"Her nephew?" said Mrs. John, faintly, "but she has no nephew--she was
an only child. My Hester is nearer to her than any one else." Then she
paused, and added with conscious magnanimity, "Since I cannot have it,
it doesn't matter to me who has got it. We must make ourselves as
contented as we can--Hester and I."

It was at this moment that the two ladies appeared who considered the
summer-house their special property. They were tall women with
pronounced features and a continual smile--in dresses which had a way of
looking scanty, and were exactly the same. Their necks were long and
their noses large, both which characteristics they held to be evidences
of family and condition. They followed each other, one always a step in
advance of the other with a certain pose of their long necks and turn of
their shoulders which made some people think of the flight of two
long-necked birds. Mr. Mildmay Vernon, who pretended to some
scholarship, called them the Cranes of Ibycus. They arrived thus at the
peaceful spot all chequered with morning light and shade, as with a
swoop of wings.

"Dear lady!" said Miss Matilda, "we should have waited till we could
make a formal call and requested the pleasure of making your
acquaintance as we ought; but when we saw you in our summer-house, we
felt sure that you did not understand the distribution of the place, and
we hurried out to say that we are delighted to see you in it, and
_quite_ glad that you should use it as much as ever you please."

"Oh!" cried Mrs. John, much disturbed, "I am so sorry if I have
intruded. I had not the least idea----"

"_That_ we were sure you had not--for everybody knows that Mrs. John
Vernon is a lady," said the other. "It is awkward to have no one to
introduce us, but we must just introduce each other. Miss Martha
Vernon-Ridgway, Mrs. Vernon; and I am Matilda," said the spokeswoman,
with a curtsey. "We are very glad to see you here."

At this Mrs. John made her curtsey too, but being unready, found nothing
to say: for she could not be supposed to be glad to see them, as
everybody knew the sad circumstances in which she had returned to her
former home: and she seated herself again after her curtsey, wishing
much that Hester was with her. Hester had a happy knack of either
knowing or suggesting something to say.

"We hope you will find yourself comfortable," said the two ladies, who
by dint of always beginning to speak together had the air of making
their remarks in common; but Miss Matilda had better wind and a firmer
disposition than her sister, and always carried the day. "You are lucky
in having the end house, which has all the fresh air. I am sure we do
not grudge you anything, but it always makes us feel how we are boxed
up; that is our house between the wings. It is monotonous to see nothing
but the garden--but we don't complain."

"I am sure I am very sorry," Mrs. John began to say.

"Your favourable opinion of the end houses is very complimentary," said
Mr. Mildmay. "I wish it were founded on fact. My windows look into the
pool and draw all the miasma out of it. When I have a fire I feel it
come in. But I say nothing. What would be the good of it? We are not
here only to please ourselves. Beggars should not be choosers."

"I hope, Mr. Mildmay Vernon, that you will speak for yourself," said the
sisters. "We do not consider that such an appellation applies to us. We
are not obliged, I beg to say," Miss Matilda added, "to live anywhere
that does not suit us. If we come here as a favour to Catherine Vernon,
who makes such a point of having all her relations about her, it is not
that we are beggars, or anything of the sort."

"Dear, dear me!" said Mrs. John, clasping her hands, "I hope nobody
thinks that is the case. For my poor dear husband's sake, and for
Hester's sake, I could never submit--; Catherine offered the house out
of kindness--nothing but that."

"Oh, nothing but that," said Mr. Mildmay Vernon, with a sneer.

"Nothing at all but that," said the Miss Vernon-Ridgways. "She said to
us, I am sure, that it would be a favour to herself--a personal favour.
Don't you remember, Martha? Nothing else would induce us, as you may
suppose, Mrs. John--my sister and me, who have many friends and
resources--to put up with a little poky place--the worst, quite the
worst, here. But dear Catherine is very lonely. She is not a person, you
know, that can do with everybody. You must understand her before you can
get on with her. Shouldn't you say so? And she is perhaps, you know, a
little too fond of her own way. People who can't make allowances as
relatives do, are apt not to--like her, in short. And it is such a great
stand-by for her--such a comfort, to have us here."

"I should have thought she was very--independent," said Mrs. John,
faltering a little. She did not even venture to risk an opinion; but
something she was obliged to say. "But I can scarcely say I know her,"
she added, anxiously, "for it is thirty years since I was at Redborough,
and people change so much. She was young then."

"Young! she must have been nearly forty. Her character must have been
what one may call formed by that time," said Mr. Mildmay; "but I know
what you mean. Our dear Catherine whom we are all so fond of----"

"You are quite right," said Miss Matilda, emphatically, "_quite_ right,
though perhaps you mean something different, for gentlemen are always so
strange. We _are_ very fond of dear Catherine. All the more that so many
people misunderstand her, and take wrong ideas. I think indeed that you
require to be a relation, to enter into the peculiarities of the case,
and take everything into consideration, before you can do dear Catherine
justice. She is so good, but under such a _brusque_ exterior. Though she
never _means_ to hurt any one's feelings--that I am certain of."

"Oh _never_!" cried Mr. Mildmay, with mock enthusiasm, lifting up his
hands and eyes.

Mrs. John looked, as each spoke, from one to the other with a great deal
of perplexity. It had seemed to her simple mind at first that it was
with a real enthusiasm that their general benefactress was being
discussed; but by this time she had begun to feel the influence of the
undertone. She was foolish, but there was no rancour in her mind. So
gentle a little shaft as that which she had herself shot, in
vindication, as she thought of her husband, rather than as assailing his
successor, she might be capable of; but systematic disparagement puzzled
the poor lady. She looked first at the Miss Vernon-Ridgways, and then at
Mr. Mildmay Vernon, with a bewildered look, trying to make out what they
meant. And then she was moved to make to the conversation a contribution
of her own--

"I am afraid my little girl made a sad mistake last night," she said.
"Catherine was so kind as to come to see me--without ceremony--and I had
gone to bed."

"That was so like Catherine!" the Miss Vernon-Ridgways cried. "Now
anybody else would have come next day at soonest to let you have time to
rest and get over your journey. But that is just what she would be sure
to do. Impatience is a great defect in her character, it must be
allowed. She wanted you to be delighted, and to tell her how beautiful
everything was. It must be confessed it is a little tiresome. You must
praise everything, and tell her you are _so_ comfortable. One wouldn't
like it in anybody else."

"But what I regret so much," continued poor Mrs. John, "is that Hester,
my little girl, who had never heard of Catherine--she is tall, but she
is only fourteen, and such a child! Don't you know she would not let her
in? I am afraid she was quite rude to her."

Here Mrs. John's artless story was interrupted by a series of little
cheers from Mr. Mildmay, and titters from the two sisters.

"Brava!" he said. "Well done!" taking away Mrs. John's breath; while the
two ladies uttered little laughs and titterings, and exchanged glances
of pleasure.

"Oh, how very funny!" they cried. "Oh, what an amusing thing to happen!
Dear Catherine, what a snub for her! How I wish we had been there to
see."

"I should like to make acquaintance with your little Hester, my dear
lady," said Mr. Mildmay. "She must have a fine spirit. Our respected
Cousin Catherine is only human, and we all feel that to be opposed now
and then would be for her moral advantage. We flatter her ourselves,
being grown-up persons: but we like to know that she encounters
something now and then that will be for her good."

"I must again ask you to speak for yourself, Mr. Mildmay," said the
sisters; "flattery is not an art I am acquainted with. Dear, dear, what
a sad thing for a beginning. How nervous it must have made you! and
knowing that dear Catherine, though she is so generous, _cannot_ forgive
a jest. She has no sense of humour; it is a great pity. She will not, I
fear, see the fun of it as we do."

"Do you think," said Mrs. John, with a little tremor, "that she will be
dreadfully angry? Hester is such a child--and then, she didn't know."

The sisters both shook their heads upon their long necks. They wished no
particular harm to Mrs. John; but they would not have been sorry so to
frighten her, as that she should go away as she came. And they sincerely
believed Catherine to be as they represented her. Few people are capable
of misrepresenting goodness in the barefaced way of saying one thing
while they believe another. Most commonly they have made out of shreds
and patches of observation and dislike, a fictitious figure meriting all
their anger and contempt, to which they attach the unloved name.
Catherine Vernon, according to their picture of her, was a woman who,
being richer than they, helped them all with an ostentatious
benevolence, which was her justification for humiliating them whenever
she had a chance, and treating them at all times as her inferiors and
pensioners. Perhaps they would themselves have done so in Catherine
Vernon's place. This at all events was the way in which they had painted
her to themselves. They had grown to believe that she was all this, and
to expect her to act in accordance with the character they had given
her. When the sun shone into the summer-house, and routed the little
company, which happened just about the time when the meal which they
called luncheon, but which to most of them was dinner, was ready, Mrs.
John carried back with her to her new home a tremulous conviction that
any sort of vengeance was possible. She might be turned out of this
shelter, or she might be made to feel that her life was a burden. And
yet when she got back to the low cool room in which Hester, doubtful of
Betsey's powers, was superintending the laying out of the table, it
seemed to her, in the prospect of losing it, more desirable than it had
been before. There were three windows in deep recesses, one of them with
a cheerful outlook along the road that skirted the Common, in which was
placed a soft, luxurious chair, which was exactly what Mrs. John liked.
Nothing could have been more grateful, coming out of the sunshine, than
the coolness of this brown room, with all the little glimmers of light
in the polished wainscot, and the pretty old-fashioned furniture. Mrs.
John sighed as she placed herself in the chair at the window. And the
smell of the dish which Betsey soon after put upon the table was very
appetising. It turned out to be nicely cooked, and the table was laid
with fine linen and pretty crystal and old-fashioned silver--everything
complete. The poor lady in her wandering and unsettled life had lost
almost all this needful garniture which makes life so much more seemly
and smooth. She had been used to lodging-houses, to _pensions_, greasy
and public, to the vulgarity of inns; and all this daintiness and
freshness charmed her with a sense of repose and personal property. She
could have cried to think that it might be put in jeopardy by Hester's
childish petulance.

"Oh, why did I let you persuade me to go to bed? Why didn't I stay up--I
could have done it quite well--and seen Catherine Vernon? Why are you so
self-willed, child? I think I could be happy here, at least as happy as
I can ever be now; and what if I must give it all up again for you?"

"Mother, if we have to give it up, we will do better," said Hester, a
little pale; "we shall get pretty lodgings like Ruth Pinch, and I will
give lessons; and it will not matter about Cousin Catherine."

"Oh, child, child, what do you know about it!" Mrs. John said.



                              CHAPTER VII.
                             SETTLING DOWN.


These alarms, however, did not come to anything, and as the days passed
on Mrs. John accustomed herself to her new position and settled down to
it quietly. She got used to the little meetings in the summer-house or
on the bench in front of her own windows, and soon learned to remark
with the others upon the freedom with which Mr. Mildmay Vernon took the
best place, not taking any trouble to remark to whom it really belonged.
He was a great advantage to the ladies of the Vernonry in giving them a
subject upon which they could always be eloquent. Even when they could
not talk of it openly, they would give each other little looks aside,
with many nods of the head and an occasional biting innuendo; and this
amused the ladies wonderfully, and kept them perhaps now and then from
criticising each other, as such close neighbours could scarcely fail to
do. But even more interesting than Mr. Mildmay Vernon and his mannish
selfishness was Catherine, the universal subject on which they could
fraternise even with Mildmay Vernon himself. He was caustic, and
attacked her keenly; but the sisters never failed to profess a great
affection for their cousin, declaring that from Catherine one accepted
anything, since one felt that it was only her _gauche_ way of doing
things, or the fault of her education, but that she always meant well.
Dear Catherine! it was such a pity, they said. Mrs. John never quite
adopted either style of remark, but the subject was endless, and always
afforded something to say; and there was a little pleasure in hearing
Catherine set down from her superior place, even though a gentler
disposition and simpler mind prevented Mrs. John herself from adding to
the felicities of the discussion. Catherine had taken no notice of the
unlucky beginning which had given so much alarm to Mrs. John, and so
much amusement to the other members of the establishment. When she came
in state to call on the mourner, which she did a few days after, with
that amused toleration of the little weaknesses of her dependents which
was as natural in Catherine's position as the eager and somewhat
spiteful discussion of her was in theirs, Miss Vernon had tapped Hester
on the cheek, and said, "This is the good child who would not let me
disturb her mother." But when Mrs. John began to apologise and explain,
Catherine had stopped her, saying, "She was quite right," with a
decisive brevity, and turning to another subject. The magnanimity of
this would have touched Hester's heart, but for the half-mocking smile
and air of amusement with which it was said, and which made the girl
much angrier than before. It cannot be denied that this was to some
extent the tone unconsciously adopted by Catherine in her dealings with
the poor relations who were so largely indebted to her bounty. There was
a great deal that was ridiculous in their little affectations and
discontents, and the half-resentment, half-exaction with which they
received her benefits. These might have made her close her heart against
them, and turned her into a misanthrope; but though the effect produced
was different from this, it was not perhaps more desirable. Catherine,
though she did not become misanthropical, became cynical, in spite of
herself. She tolerated everything, and smiled at it; she became
indulgent and contemptuous. What did it matter what they said or felt?
If they learned to consider her gifts as their right, if they comforted
themselves in the humiliation of receiving by mocking at the giver, poor
things, that was their misfortune--it did not harm her upon her serene
heights. She laughed at Hester, tapping her cheek. Had she been perhaps
less tolerant, less easy to satisfy, she would not have excited that
burning sense of shame and resentment in the girl's heart.

But Catherine was very kind. She came in the afternoon in the carriage
and took them out with her for a drive, to the admiration of all
beholders. The Miss Vernon-Ridgways inspected this from behind their
curtains, and calculated how long it was since Catherine had shown such
a civility to themselves, and how soon Mrs. John would find out the
brief character of these attentions. And the drive was perhaps not quite
so successful as might have been expected. Mrs. John indeed gave her
relative all the entertainment she could have desired. She became
tearful, and fell away altogether into her pocket-handkerchief at almost
every turn of the road, saying, "Ah, how well I remember!" then emerged
from the cambric cloud, and cheered up again till the next turn came, in
a way which would have afforded Catherine great amusement but for the
two blazing, indignant, angry eyes of Hester fixed from the opposite
side upon her mother's foolish little pantomime and her patroness's
genial satisfaction, with equal fury, pain, and penetration. Hester
could not endure the constant repetition of that outburst of pathos, the
smiles that would follow, the sudden relapse as her mother was recalled
by a new recollection to a sense of what was necessary in her touching
position; but still less could she bear the lurking smile in Catherine
Vernon's eyes, and her inclination to draw the poor lady out, sometimes
even by a touch of what Hester felt to be mock-sympathy. The girl could
scarcely contain herself as she drove along facing these two ladies,
seeing, even against her will, a great deal which perhaps they
themselves were only half-conscious of. Oh, why would mother be so
silly! and Cousin Catherine, this rich woman who had them all in her
power, why had she not more respect for weakness? Hester turned with an
angry longing to her idea of putting her own small young figure between
her mother and all those spurns and scoffs, of carrying her away, and
working for her, and owing nothing to anybody.

When they stopped at the door of Kaley's, the great shop of Redborough,
and half-a-dozen obsequious attendants started out to devote themselves
to the lightest suggestion of the great Miss Vernon, Mrs. John cleared
up, and enjoyed the reflected distinction to the bottom of her heart;
but Hester, pale and furious, compelled to sit there as part of the
pageant, could scarcely keep still, and was within an ace of jumping out
of the carriage and dragging her mother after her, so indignant was she,
so humiliated. Cousin Catherine threw a little _fichu_ of black lace
into the girl's lap, with a careless, liberal, "You want something for
your neck, Hester," which the girl would have thrown at her had she
dared; and it would not have taken much to wind her up to that point of
daring: but Mrs. John went home quite pleased with her outing. "It was a
melancholy pleasure, to be sure," she said. "All those places I used to
know so well before you were born, Hester--and Kaley's, where I used to
spend so much money. But, after all, it is a pleasure to come back among
the people that know you. Mr. Kaley was so very civil; did you notice? I
think he paid more attention to me even than to Catherine; of course he
remembered that as long as I was well off I always used to go there for
everything. It was very sad, but I am glad to have done it. And then
Catherine was so kind. Let me see that pretty lace thing she gave you?
It is exactly what you wanted. You must be sure to put it on when we go
there to-morrow to luncheon." Hester would have liked to tear it in
pieces and throw it in Miss Vernon's face; but her mother regarded
everything from a very different point of view.

Catherine Vernon, on her side, talked a great deal to Edward that
evening of the comical scene, and how she could not get the advantage of
poor Mrs. John's little _minauderies_ because of that child with her two
big eyes. "I was afraid to stir for her. I scarcely dared to say a word.
I expected every moment to be called to give an account of myself," she
said. It added very much to her enjoyment of all the humours of her life
that she had this companion to tell them to. He was her confidant, and
heard everything with the tenderest interest and a great many amusing
comments of his own. Certainly in this one particular at least her
desire to be of use to her relations had met with a rich reward. No son
was ever more attentive to his mother: and all his habits were so _nice_
and good. A young man who gets up to botanise in the morning, who will
sit at home at night, who has no evil inclinations--how delightful he is
to the female members of his family, and with what applause and
gratitude they repay him for his goodness! And Miss Vernon felt the
force of that additional family bond which arises from the fact that all
the interests of the household, different as their age and pursuits may
be, are the same. Nothing that concerned the one but must have an
interest for the other. Perhaps Edward did not speak so much about
himself, or even about the business, which was naturally of the first
interest to her, as he might have done, but she had scarcely as yet
found this out: and certainly he entered into all she told him on her
side with the most confidential fulness. "The Vernonry has always been
as good as a comedy," she said. "I have to be so cautious not to offend
them. And I must be on my ps and qs with this little girl. There is a
great deal of fun to be got out of her; but we must keep it strictly to
ourselves."

"Oh, strictly!" said Edward, with a curious little twist about the
corners of his mouth. He had not told the story of his own encounter
with the new subject of amusement, which was strange; but he was a young
man who kept his own counsel, having his own fortune to make, as had
been impressed upon him from his birth.

There were only two other members of the Vernon community with whom the
strangers had not yet made acquaintance (for as has been already said
Mrs. Reginald Vernon, the young widow who was altogether wrapped up in
her four children, and old Captain and Mrs. Morgan on the west side of
the Vernonry scarcely counted at all), and these were its gayest and
most brilliant members, the present dwellers in the White House, Harry
and Ellen Vernon, the most independent of all the little community.
Stories were current in it that Harry in business matters had begun to
set himself in something like opposition to Catherine Vernon not long
after she had given up the conduct of the bank into his hands: while
Ellen detached herself openly from her Aunt Catherine's court, and had
set up a sort of Princess of Wales's drawing-room of her own. It was
some time before they appeared at the Vernonry, Harry driving his sister
in a phaeton with a pair of high-stepping horses which seemed scarcely
to touch the ground. The whole population of the place was stirred by
the appearance of this brilliant equipage. Mrs. Reginald Vernon's little
boy, though bound under solemn penalties never to enter the gardens,
came round and hung upon the gate to gaze. Even old Captain Morgan rose
from his window to take another look. Mr. Mildmay Vernon came out with
his newspaper in his hand, and if the sisters did not appear, it was not
from want of curiosity but because Ellen Vernon had not received their
civilities when she came to Redborough with the cordiality they had a
right to expect. Catherine Vernon's fine sleek horses made no such
impression as did this dashing pair. And the pair who descended from the
phaeton were as dashing as their steeds. Ellen was very fair, with hair
half flaxen half golden, in light little curls like a baby's upon her
forehead, which was not the fashion in those days and therefore much
more effective. She was dressed in a rich red-purple gown, charitably
supposed to be "second mourning" by the addition of a little lace and a
black ribbon, with yards of silken train sweeping after her, and
sweeping up too all the mats at the doors as she went in. Harry was in
the lightest of light clothes, but he had a tiny hat-band supposed to
answer all necessities in the way of "respect" to John Vernon deceased,
or to John's widow living. Hester standing shyly by, thought this new
cousin Ellen the most beautiful creature she had ever seen; her
daintiness and her fineness, her airy fairness of face, set off by the
rich colour of her dress, was dazzling as she came into the brown room,
with its two inhabitants in mourning, and the tall, light-coloured young
man after her. Mrs. John made them her little curtsey, shook hands with
them, gave her greeting and a smile or two, and then had recourse to her
handkerchief.

"Oh yes, thanks," she said, "I have quite settled down. I am very
comfortable, but everything is so changed. To go away from the White
House where I had everything I wished for, and then to come back--here;
it is a great difference."

"Oh, but this is so much nicer than the White House," cried Ellen; "this
is so delightfully old fashioned! I would give the world to have the
Vernonry. If Aunt Catherine had only given it to us when we came here
and taken the White House for the----" pensioners she was about to say,
but paused in time--"other relations! I should have liked it so much
better, and probably so would you."

Mrs. John shook her head.

"I never could have gone back to it in the same circumstances," she
said, "and therefore I would prefer not to go to it at all."

"But oh, you must come and see me!" said Ellen; "and you too," turning
to Hester. "I am so fond of getting among little girls and feeling
myself quite young again. Come and spend a long day with me, won't you?
I will show you all my things, and Harry shall drive us out, if you like
driving. May she come? We have always something going on. Aunt
Catherine's is the old set, and ours is the young set," she said with a
laugh. She spoke with a little accompaniment of chains and bracelets, a
soft jingle as of harness, about her, being very lively and full of
little gestures--pretty bridlings of her head and movements of her
hands.

Harry behind backed her up, as seemed to be his duty.

"She is dreadfully wild," he said; "she would like to be always on the
go."

"Oh, Harry, nothing of the sort; but if we don't enjoy ourselves when we
are young, when are we to do it? And then I say it is good policy, don't
you think so, Mrs. Vernon? You see we are just like shopkeepers, all the
people hereabouts are our customers. And Aunt Catherine gives big
dinners for the old fogeys, but we do just as much good, keeping the
young ones jolly; and we keep ourselves jolly too."

"Indeed, Miss Ellen," said Mrs. John, with some dignity, "I never heard
such an idea that bankers were like shopkeepers. Catherine must have
made great changes indeed if it is like that. It never was so in my
time."

"Oh," said Ellen, "you were too grand to allow it, that is all, but it
is the fashion now to speak plain." And she laughed, and Harry laughed
as if it had been the best joke in the world. "But we mustn't say so
before Aunt Catherine," cried the gay young woman. "She disapproves of
us both as it is. Perhaps not so much of Harry, for she likes the boys
best, you know; but oh, dreadfully of me! If you want to keep in favour
with Aunt Catherine--isn't your name Hester?"

"I don't," said Hester, abruptly, without further question.

"Oh, Harry, look here, here's another rebel! isn't it fun? I thought you
were nice from the very first look of you," and here Ellen rose with a
still greater jingle of all her trappings and touched with her own
delicate fair cheek the darker oval of Hester's, which coloured high
with shyness and pleasure. "I'll tell you what I'll do, I'll come for
you one of these days. Are you doing lessons now? What are you learning?
Oh, she may have a holiday for one day?"

"That is just what I ought to be inquiring about," said Mrs. John. "A
governess--I am afraid I am not able to carry her on myself. I have
taught her," the poor lady said with pride, "all she knows."

Hester listened with a gasp of astonishment. What Mrs. John meant was
all she knew herself, which was not much. And how about her teaching and
her independence and the _cours_ she felt herself ready to open? She was
obliged to overcome her shyness and explain herself.

"I don't want to learn," she said, "I want to teach. I can speak French,
and Italian, and German. I want to open a _cours_; don't you think I
might open a _cours_? I know that I could teach, for I am so fond of it,
and I want something to do." Having got all this out like a sudden shot
from a gun, Hester stopped short, got behind her mother, and was heard
no more.

"Oh!" cried Ellen, "teach! that little thing!" and then she turned to
her brother, "Isn't it fine?" she said; "it would be a shame to stop her
when she wishes it. French and Italian and German, only fancy. I don't
know what a _cours_ is, but whatever it is you shall have it, dear. I
promise you. Certainly you shall have it. I will not have you kept back
for the want of that."

Hester was a great deal too much excited to laugh, and here Mrs. John
interfered. "You must excuse me," she said, nervously. "Do not think I
don't feel the kindness. Oh, you must excuse me! I could not let her
teach. My poor husband would never have suffered it for a moment. And
what would Catherine say?--a Vernon! Oh, no, no! it is impossible; there
is nothing I would not rather do. She has spoken of it before: but I
thought it only childish nonsense. Oh, no, no! thank Heaven, though we
are poor," cried the poor lady, "and fallen from what we were--we are
not fallen so far as that."

"Oh, but it isn't falling at all," said Ellen; "you see you are
old-fashioned. Don't be angry. I don't mean any harm. But don't you know
it is the fashion now for girls to do something? Oh, but it is though!
the best girls do it; they paint, and they do needlework, and they sing,
and they write little books, and everybody is proud to be able to earn
money. It is only when they are clever that they can teach; and then
they are so proud! Oh, I assure you, Mrs. Vernon! I would not say so if
it were not quite the right thing. You know, Harry, people do it in town
constantly. Lady Mannion's daughter mends old lace, and Mrs. Markham
paints things for the shops. It is the fashion; the very best families
do it. It will be quite aristocratic to have a Vernon teaching. I shall
take lessons myself."

"That's the thing," said the good-natured Harry. "Nell, that's the best
thing. She shall teach you and me."

"Oh, he wants to make a hole-and-corner thing of it," said Ellen, "to
hide it up! How silly boys are! when it is the very height of the
fashion and will bring us into notice directly! There is old Lady
Freeling will take her up at once: and the Duchess. You may do whatever
you please, but I will stand by her. You may count upon me, Hester, I
will stand by you through thick and thin. You will be quite a heroine:
everybody will take you up."

Mrs. John looked from one to the other aghast. "Oh, no, no, pardon me;
but Hester--I cannot sanction it, I cannot sanction it; your poor
papa--" faltered Mrs. John.

It was characteristic that in the very midst of this discussion Ellen
Vernon got up with all the ringing of her caparison, and took her leave,
declaring that she had forgotten that she had to go somewhere at four
o'clock, "and you know the horses will not stand, Harry," she said, "but
whenever we are happy anywhere, we forget all our engagements--we are
two such sillies, Harry and I." She put her arm round Hester's waist as
they went through the passage, and kissed her again at the door. "Mind,
you are to come and spend a long, long day with me," she said. Mrs. John
interrupted in the midst of her remonstrances, and not sure that this
dazzling creature would not drive off straight somewhere or other to
establish Hester in her _cours_, followed after them trying to put in
another word. But Ellen had been placed in her seat, and her dust-cloak
arranged round her, before the poor lady could say anything. And she too
stood spell-bound like all the rest, to see the beautiful young couple
in their grandeur, so fair, so handsome, so perfectly got up. The only
fault that their severest critic could find with them was that they were
too fair; their very eyelashes were flaxen, there were no contrasts in
their smooth fair faces; but this in conjunction with so much youth and
daintiness had a charm of its own. Mr. Mildmay Vernon had been watching
for them at the window, losing all the good of his book, which was from
the circulating library and cost twopence a night; consequently he threw
away at least the half of a farthing waiting for the young people to
come out. When they appeared again he went to his door, taking off the
soft old felt hat which he wore habitually out of doors and in, and
kissing his hand--not it is to be feared very much to his advantage, for
these two fine young folks paid little attention to their poor
relations. The Miss Vernon-Ridgways looked out behind their curtains
watching closely. How fine it is to be young and rich and beautiful and
on the top of the wave! With what admiration all your dependents look
upon you. Every one in the Vernonry was breathless with excitement when
Harry took the reins and the groom left the horses' heads, and the
phaeton wheeled round. The little boys at the gate scattered as it
wheeled out, the small Vernons vindicating their gentility and
relationship by standing straight in the way of the horses. And with
what a whirl and dash they turned round the sweep of the road, and
disappeared from the longing view! Mildmay Vernon who had taken such
trouble to get a glance from them crossed over to the door of the
verandah where Mrs. John, with the streamers of her cap blowing about
her, and her mind as much disturbed as her capstrings, stood still
breathless watching the departure. "Well," he said, "so you've had the
Prince and Princess in all their grandeur." Mrs. John had to take a
moment to collect herself before she could even make out what he had
said. As for Hester, she was so dazzled by this visit, her head and her
heart so beating and throbbing, that she was incapable of putting up
with the conversation which always made her wicked. She ran away,
leaving her mother at the door, and flew to her own room to recollect
all that had passed, and to go over it again and again as lovers do. She
put her hands over her eyes and lived over again that moment, and every
detail of Cousin Ellen's appearance and every word she had said. The
jingle of her chains and trinkets seemed to Hester like silver bells, a
pretty individualism and sign of her presence. If she went into a dark
room or if you were blind, Hester thought, you would know by that that
it was she. And the regal colour of her dress, and the black lace of her
bonnet all puffed about those wonderful light locks, and her dainty
shoes and her delicate gloves, and everything about her! "A long, long
day," and "You may count upon me, Hester." Was it possible that a
creature so dazzling, so triumphant, had spoken such words to her? Her
heart was more elated than it had ever been before in her life. And as
for the work which she had made up her mind to do, for the first time it
seemed possible and feasible. Cousin Ellen would arrange it for her. She
was far too much excited and awed to be able to laugh at the mistake
Cousin Ellen had made in her haste about buying a _cours_ for Hester,
not knowing in the least what it meant. In this way with all sincerity
the dazzled worshippers of greatness lose their perception of the
ridiculous in the persons of those who have seized upon their
imaginations. Hester would have been revolted and angered had any one
noted this ludicrous particular in the conversation. Through the open
window the girl heard the voices of her mother and the neighbours, now
including the sharp voice of Miss Vernon-Ridgway, and the sound made her
heart rise with a kind of indignant fury. They would discuss her as if
they had any understanding of such a creature, as if they knew what they
were speaking about! they, old, poor, spiteful as they were, and she so
beautiful, so young, so splendid, and so kind. "The kindness was the
chief thing," Hester said to herself, putting her fingers in her ears
not to hear the ill-nature down stairs. Oh, of course, they would be
taking her to pieces, pouring their gall upon her! Hester felt that
youth and happiness were on her own side as against the envious and old
and poor.

For days after she looked in vain for the reappearance of that heavenly
vision, every morning getting up with the conviction that by noon at
least it would appear, every afternoon making up her mind that the
dulness of the lingering hours would be brightened by the sound, the
flash, the wind of rapid movement, the same delightful voice, the
perfumed fair cheek, the jingle of the golden caparisons. Every day Mrs.
John said, first cheerfully, then querulously, "I wonder if they will
come for you to-day." When it began to dawn upon Hester at last that
they were not coming, the sense of deception which came over her was, in
some sort, like the pangs of death. She stood still, in her very being
astounded, unable to understand what had happened. They _were not coming
again_. Her very heart stood still, and all the wheels of her existence
in a blank pause like death. When they began to move again reluctantly,
hoarsely, Hester felt too sick and faint for any conscious comment upon
what had happened. She could not bear the commentary which she was
almost forced to hear, and which she thought would kill her--the "Poor
child! so you've been expecting Ellen Vernon?" which Miss Matilda next
door said to her with an insulting laugh, almost drove her frantic. And
not much less aggravating to the sensitive girl were her mother's
frequent wonderings what could have become of them, whether Ellen could
be ill, what had happened. "They said they would come and fetch you to
spend a day with them, didn't they? Then why don't they come,
Hester?--why don't they come?" the poor lady said. Hester's anger and
wretchedness and nervous irritation were such that she could almost have
struck her mother. Was it right, in addition to her own disappointment,
that she should have this question thrust upon her, and that all the
pangs of her first disenchantment should be discussed by contemptuous
spectators? This terrible experience, which seemed to Hester to be
branded upon her as by red-hot irons, made a woman of her all at once.
To her own consciousness, at least, she was a child no more.



                             CHAPTER VIII.
                                NINETEEN.


Such were the scenes and the people among whom Hester Vernon grew up.
Her first _désillusionment_ in respect to Cousin Ellen, who for one
bright and brief moment seemed about to bring glory to her young
existence, was very poignant and bitter: but by the time Hester was
nineteen she had ceased to remember that there had been so sharp a sting
in it, and no longer felt it possible that Ellen, with all her finery,
could at any moment have affected her with any particular sentiment.
These years made a great deal of difference in Hester. She was at the
same time younger and older at nineteen than at fourteen. She was less
self-confident, less sure of her own powers to conduct everything, from
her mother--the most easily guided of all subject intelligences in the
old days--upwards to all human circumstances, and even to life itself,
which it had seemed perfectly simple to the girl that she should shape
at her own pleasure. By degrees, as she grew older, she found the
futility of all these certainties. Her mother, who was so easily guided,
slid back again just as easily out of the groove into which her child
had, as she thought, fixed her, and circumstances defied her altogether,
taking their own way, altogether uninfluenced by her wishes. Mrs. John
Vernon was like the "knotless thread" of the Scotch proverb. Nothing
could be more easy than to convince her, to impress her ductile mind
with the sense of this or that duty; but, on the other hand, nothing
could be more easy than to undo next moment all that had been done, and
turn the facile will in a new direction. Between this soft and yielding
foundation of her life upon which she could find no firm footing, and
the rock of Catherine Vernon who remained quite immovable and
uninfluenced by her, coming no nearer as the years went on, yet hemming
in her steps and lessening her freedom, the conditions of existence
seemed all against the high-spirited, ambitious, active-minded and
impatient girl, with her warm affections, and quick intelligence, and
hasty disposition. The people immediately about were calculated to make
her despise her fellow-creatures altogether: the discontented dependents
who received everything without a touch of human feeling, without
gratitude or kindness, and the always half-contemptuous patroness who
gave with not much more virtue, with a disdainful magnanimity, asking
nothing from her pensioners but that they would amuse her with their
follies--made up a circle such as might have crushed the goodness out of
any young mind. Even had she herself begun with any enthusiasm for
Catherine, the situation would have been less terrible; but as this,
unfortunately, had not been the case, the poor girl was delivered over
to the contemplation of one of the worst problems in human nature
without shield or safeguard, or any refuge to creep into. Fortunately
her youth, and the familiarity which deadens all impression, kept her,
as it keeps men in general, from a conscious and naked encounter with
those facts which are fatal to all higher views or natural charities.
She had in her, however, by nature only too strong a tendency to despise
her neighbours, and the Miss Vernon-Ridgways and Mr. Mildmay Vernon were
exactly of the order of beings which a young adventurer upon life
naturally treats with disdain.

But Hester had something worse in her life than even this feeling of
contempt for the people about her, bad as that is. She had the
additional pang of knowing that habit and temper often made her a
partaker of the odious sentiments which she loathed. Sometimes she would
be drawn into the talk of the women who misrepresented their dear
Catherine all day long, and sneered bitterly at the very bounty that
supplied their wants. Sometimes she would join involuntarily in the
worse malignity of the man to whom Catherine Vernon gave everything that
was good in his life, and who attributed every bad motive to her. And as
if that was not enough, Hester sinned with Catherine too, and saw the
ridicule and the meanness of these miserable pensioners with a touch of
the same cynicism which was the elder woman's great defect, but was
unpardonable in the younger, to whom there should as yet have been no
loss of the ideal. The rage with which she would contemplate herself
when she yielded to the first temptation and launched at Cousin
Catherine in a moment of passion one of those arrows which were
manufactured in the Vernonry, the deep disgust which would fill her when
she felt herself, like Catherine, contemplating the world from a
pinnacle of irony, chill but smiling, swept her young spirit like
tempests. To grow at all in the midst of such gales and whirlwinds was
something. It was not to be expected that she could grow otherwise than
contorted with the blasts. She came to the flower and bloom of existence
with a heart made to believe and trust, yet warped to almost all around,
and finding no spot of honest standing-ground on which to trust herself.
Sometimes the young creature would raise her head dismayed from one of
the books in which life is so different from what she found it, and ask
herself whether books were all lies, or whether there was not to be
found somewhere an existence which was true? Sometimes she would stop
short in the midst of the Church services, or when she said her prayers,
to demand whether it was all false, and these things invented only to
make life bearable? Was it worth living? she would ask sometimes, with
more reason than the essayists. She could do nothing she wanted in it.
Her _cours_ had all melted into thin air; if it had been possible to get
the consent of her authorities to the work she had once felt herself so
capable of, she was now capable of it no longer. Her mother, obstinate
in nothing else, had been obstinate in this, that her poor husband's
daughter should not dishonour his name (alack the day!) by becoming a
teacher--a teacher! like the poor governesses for whom he had felt so
much contempt; and Catherine Vernon, the last auxiliary whom Mrs. John
expected, had supported her with a decision which put all struggles out
of the question. Catherine indeed had explained herself on the occasion
with a force which had almost brought her within the range of Hester's
sympathies, notwithstanding that the decision was against herself. "I am
here," Miss Vernon had said, "to take care of our family. The bank, and
the money it brings in, are not for me alone. I am ready to supply all
that is wanted, as reason directs, and I cannot give my sanction to any
members of the family descending out of the position in which, by the
hard work of our forefathers, they were born. Women have never worked
for their living in our family, and, so far as I can help it, they never
shall."

"You did yourself, Cousin Catherine," said Hester, who stood forth to
learn her fate, looking up with those large eyes, eager and penetrating,
of which Miss Vernon still stood in a certain awe.

"That was different. I did not stoop down to paltry work. I took a place
which--others had abandoned. I was wanted to save the family, and thank
Heaven I could do it. For that, if you were up to it, and occasion
required, you should have my permission to do anything. Keep the books,
or sweep the floors, what would it matter!"

"It would matter nothing to me," cried Hester, clasping her nervous
hands together; and then it was that for a moment these two, the old
woman and the young woman, made of the same metal, with the same defects
and virtues, looked each other in the eyes, and almost understood each
other.

Almost, but, alas! not quite: Catherine's prejudices against Mrs. John's
daughter, and her adverse experiences of mankind and womankind,
especially among the Vernons, intervened, and brought her down suddenly
from that high and serious ground upon which Hester had been capable of
understanding her. She turned away with one of those laughs, which still
brought over the girl, in her sensitive youthfulness, a blush which was
like a blaze of angry shame.

"No chance, I hope, of needing that a second time: nor of turning for
succour to you, my poor girl."

It was not unkindly said, especially the latter part of the sentence,
though it ended in another laugh. But Hester, who did not know the
circumstances, was quite unaware what that laugh meant. She did not know
that it was not only Catherine Vernon's personal force and genius, but
Catherine Vernon's money, which had saved the bank. In the latter point
of view, of course, no succour could have been had from Hester; and it
was the impossibility of this which made Miss Vernon laugh. But Hester
thought it was her readiness, her devotion, her power of doing
everything that mortal woman had ever done before her, which was
doubted, and the sense that she was neither believed in nor understood
swept in a wave of bitterness through her heart. She was taken for a
mere schoolgirl, well-meaning perhaps--perhaps not even that:
incapable--she who felt herself running over with capacity and strength,
running to waste. But she said nothing more. She retired, carried
further away from Catherine in the recoil, from the manner of the
approach to comprehending her which she felt she had made. And after
that arrest of all her plans, Hester had ceased to struggle. In a little
while she was no longer capable of the _cours_ to which she had looked
so eagerly. She did not know anything else that she could do. She was
obliged to eat the bread of dependence, feeling herself like all the
rest, to the very heart ungrateful, turning against the hand that
bestowed it. There was a little of Mrs. John's income left, enough,
Hester thought, to live upon in another place, where she might have been
free to eke out this little. But at nineteen she was wiser than at
fourteen, and knew that to risk her mother's comfort, or to throw the
element of uncertainty again into her life, would be at once
unpardonable and impossible. She had to yield, as most women have to do.
She had to consent to be bound by other people's rules, and to put her
hand to nothing that was unbecoming a Vernon, a member of the reigning
family. Small earnings by means of sketches, or china painting, would
have been as obnoxious to Catherine Vernon's rule as the _cours_: and of
what use would they have been? It was not a little money that Hester
wanted, but work of which something good might come. She yielded
altogether, proudly, without another word. The arrangement of the little
household, the needlework, and the housekeeping, were nothing to her
young capabilities; but she desisted from the attempt to make something
better of herself, with an indignant yet sorrowful pride. Sometime
Catherine might find out what it was she had rejected. This was the
forlorn and bitter hope in her heart.

The only element of comfort which Hester found at this dark period of
her life was in the other side of the Heronry in the two despised
households, which the Miss Vernon-Ridgways and Mr. Mildmay Vernon
declared to be "not of our class." Mr. Reginald Vernon's boys were
always in mischief; and Hester, who had something of the boy in her,
took to them with genuine fellow-feeling, and after a while began to
help them in their lessons (though she knew nothing herself) with great
effect. She knew nothing herself; but a clear head, even without much
information, will easily make a path through the middle of a schoolboy's
lessons, which, notwithstanding his Latin, he could not have found out
for himself. And Hester was "a dab at figures," the boys said, and found
out their sums in a way which was little short of miraculous. And there
was a little sister who called forth all the tender parts of Hester's
nature, who had been a baby on her first appearance at the Vernonry, and
to whom the girl would gladly have made herself nurse and governess, and
everything that girl could be. Little Katie was as fond of Hester as of
her mother, and this was a wonderful solace to the heart of the girl,
who was a woman every inch of her, though she was so much of a boy.
Altogether the atmosphere was better on that side of the establishment,
the windows looked on the Common, and the air was fresh and large. And
Mrs. Reginald, if she would have cared for it, which was doubtful, had
no time for gossip. She did not pretend to be fond of Catherine, but she
was respectful and grateful, a new feeling altogether to Hester. She was
busy all day long, always doing something, making clothes, mending
stockings, responding to all the thousand appeals of a set of healthy,
noisy children. The house was not so orderly as it might be, and its
aspect very different from that of the refined gentility on the other
side; but the atmosphere was better, though sometimes there was a
flavour of boots in it, and in the afternoon of tea. It was considered
"just like the girl," that she should thus take to Mrs. Reginald, who
had been a poor clergyman's daughter, and was a Vernon only by marriage.
It showed what kind of stuff she was made of.

"You should not let her spend her time there--a mere nursery-maid of a
woman. To think that your daughter should have such tastes! But you
should not let her, dear Mrs. John," the sisters said.

"_I_ let her!" cried Mrs. John, throwing up her hands; "I would not for
the world say a word against my own child, but Hester is more than I can
pretend to manage. She always was more than I could manage. Her poor
papa was the only one that could do anything with her."

It was hard upon the girl when her own mother gave her up; but this too
was in Hester's day's work; and she learned to smile at it, a little
disdainfully, as Catherine Vernon did; though she was so little hardened
in this way that her lips would quiver in the middle of her smile.

The chief resource which Hester found on the other side of the Vernonry
was, however, still more objectionable to the feelings of the genteel
portion of the little community, since it was in the other little house
that she found it, in the society of the old people who were not Vernons
at all, but who quite unjustifiably as they all felt, being only her
mother's relations, were kept there by Catherine Vernon, on the money of
the family, the money which was hers only in trust for the benefit of
her relations. They grudged Captain Morgan his home, they grudged him
his peaceful looks, they grudged him the visits which Catherine was
supposed to pay oftener to him than to any one else in the Vernonry. It
is true that the Miss Vernon-Ridgways professed to find Catherine's
visits anything but desirable.

"Dear Catherine!" they said, "what a pity she has so little manner! When
she is absent one can recollect all her good qualities, how kind she
really is, you know, at bottom, and what a thing it is for her to have
us here, and how lonely she would be, with her ways, if she had not us
to fall back upon. But when she is present, really you know it is a
struggle! Her manner is so against the poor, dear! One is glad to see
her go, to think, _that_ is over; it will be some time before she can
come again; for she really is much better, _far_ better, than she
appears, poor dear Catherine!"

This was how they spoke of her: while Mr. Mildmay shrugged his thin old
shoulders. "Catherine, poor thing, has too much the air of coming to see
if our houses are clean and our dinners simple enough," he said.

Even Mrs. John chimed in to the general chorus, though in her heart she
was glad to see Catherine, or any one. But they were all annoyed that
she should go so often to those old Morgans. They kept an account of her
calls, though they made believe to dislike them, and when the carriage
was heard on the road (they could all distinguish the sound it made from
that of any other carriage), they all calculated eagerly at what house
she was due next. And when, instead of coming in at the open gate, which
the old gardener made haste to open for her, as if he had known her
secrets and was aware of her coming, she stayed outside, and drew up at
the Morgans, nobody could imagine what a commotion there was. The
sisters rushed in at once to Mrs. John, who had a window round the
corner, and watched to see if it was really true, and how long Catherine
stayed. They made remarks on the little old gentleman, with his white
head, when he came out to put her into the carriage.

"What hypocrites some people are," they cried. "We are always as civil
as ever we can be, and I hope dear Catherine, poor thing, _always_ feels
that she is welcome. But to make believe that we have enjoyed it is more
than Martha or I am equal to." They watched until the fat horses had
turned round and Catherine's bonnet was no longer distinguishable. "That
is the third time in a month, to my certain knowledge," Miss Matilda
would say.

"Be thankful, my dear ladies, that it is on old Morgan, not on you, that
she bestows her favours," Mr. Mildmay would remark.

Mrs. John was not always sure that she liked this irruption into her
house. But she too watched with a little pique, and said that Catherine
had a strange taste.

"Oh, taste; dear Catherine! she has no _taste_! Her worst enemy never
accused of her _that_," the other ladies cried.

And when it was known that these old Morgans, the captain and his wife
whom Catherine Vernon distinguished in this way, had gained the heart of
Hester, the excitement in the Vernonry was tremendous. Mr. Mildmay
Vernon, though he was generally very polite to her, turned upon his
heel, when the fact was made known to him, with angry contempt.

"I draw the line at the Morgans," he said. Much might be forgiven to the
young girl, the only youthful creature (except Mrs. Reginald's boys,
whom he detested) among them, but not this.

The sisters did not, alas, pass it over so briefly. They themselves had
never taken any notice of the old couple. The utmost they had done had
been to give the old captain a nod, as they did to the tradesmen, when
he took off his hat to them. Mrs. Morgan, who never went out, did not
come in their way, fortunately for her. So strange was this departure on
Hester's part from all the traditions of the place that, to do them
justice, they would not believe in her iniquity until the fullest proof
had been secured. But after she had been seen about half a dozen times,
at least, seated in the round window which commanded the road, and was
the old gentleman's delight, and even, strange girl, without any sense
of shame, had made herself visible to everybody walking with him on the
edge of the Common, and standing talking to him at his door, there was
no further possibility of doubt on the subject. The only thing that
could be thought was to cut Hester, which was done accordingly by all
the garden front, even her own mother being wound up by much
exhortation, as for the advantage of her daughter's soul, to maintain a
studied silence to the culprit by way of bringing her to her senses. But
it may be supposed that Mrs. John did not hold out long. A more
effectual means of punishment than this was invented by Mr. Mildmay
Vernon, who declared that it was a very clever way of currying favour
with Catherine, and that he only wondered it had never been adopted
before. This, indeed, touched Hester to the quick: but it did not detach
her from her friends. The objects of all this enmity were two very
simple old people without any pretension at all, who were very willing
to live peaceably with all men. Captain Morgan was an old sea-captain,
with all the simplicity of homely wisdom which so often characterises
his class; and his wife a gentle old woman, entirely devoted to him,
and, by this time, not capable of much more than to keep the record of
all his distinctions and to assert his goodness. It was he who helped
her down stairs every day to the chimney corner in winter, and in summer
to the large chair in the window, from which she could see everything
that went on in the road, all the people that passed, and the few events
that happened. A conviction that little Ted, Mrs. Reginald's third boy,
would be run over, and an alarmed watch for that incident, were the only
things that disturbed her placid existence: and that she could not
accompany him on his walks was her only regret.

"He dearly loves somebody to walk with," she said: "except when he was
at sea, my dear, I've gone everywhere with him: and he misses me sadly.
Take a little turn with the captain, my dear."

And when Hester did that which so horrified the other neighbours, old
Mrs. Morgan looked out after them from the window and saw the tall slim
girl walking by the side of the stooping old man, with a pure delight
that brought the tears to her eyes. When you are over eighty it does not
take much to make you cry. Hester, who was the subject of continual
assault in every other place, was adored and applauded in this little
parlour, where they thought her more beautiful, and good, and clever,
than ever girl had been before. The old captain, who was screwed and
twisted with rheumatism, and stooped with age, held himself almost
straight when his young companion started with him upon his daily walk.

"When a young lady goes with me," he said, "I must remember my manners.
An old fellow gets careless when he's left to himself."

And he told Hester stories of all the many-chaptered past, of the long
historic distances, which he could remember like yesterday, and which
seemed endless, like an eternity, to her wondering eyes. He had been in
some of the old sea-fights of the heroic days--at Trafalgar, though not
in Nelson's ship; and he liked nothing better than to fight his battles
over again. But it was not these warlike recollections so much as the
scraps of his more peaceful experience which entranced the young
listener. She liked to hear him tell how he had "got hold" of a foolish
young middy or an able seaman who was "going to the bad," or how he had
subdued a threatening mutiny, and calmed an excitement; and of the many,
many who had fallen around him, while he kept on--fallen in death
sometimes, fallen more sadly in other ways. A whole world seemed to open
round Hester as he talked--a world more serious, more large, than this,
in which there were only the paltry events of the day and her foolish
little troubles. In Captain Morgan's world there were great storms and
fights; there were dangers and struggles, and death lurking round every
corner. She used to listen breathless, wondering at the difference--for
what danger was there, what chance of mortal peril or temptation, here?
In that other universe the lives of hundreds of people would sometimes
hang upon the decision and promptitude, the cool head and ready resource
of one. Why was not Hester born in that day? Why was not she a man? But
she did not sufficiently realise that when the men were going through
these perils, the mothers and sisters were trembling at home, able to do
no more than she could. After these walks and talks, she would go in
with the captain to pour out his tea, while Mrs. Morgan, in her big
chair, restrained herself and would not cry for pleasure as she was so
fain to do.

"Oh, my dear, it was a good wind that blew you here," the old lady said.
"The trouble it has been to me not to be able to go about with him!
Indoors we are the best companions still; but he always liked his walk,
and it is dreadful not to be able to go out with him. But he is happy
when he has a young companion like you."

Thus they made a princess of Hester, and attributed to her every
beautiful quality under the sun. When a girl is not used to enthusiasm
at home, it does her good to have somebody believe in her and admire all
she is doing. And this was what made her strong to bear all the jibes of
the fine people, and even that detestable suggestion that she meant to
curry favour with Catherine. Even the sting of this did not move her to
give up her old captain and her humbler friends.



                              CHAPTER IX.
                             RECOLLECTIONS.


"If you will not think me an old croaker, ma'am, I would say that you
retired from work too soon. That was always my opinion. I said it at the
time, and I say it again. To give up before your time is flying in the
face of Providence."

"I know you are fond of a fine preacher, Mr. Rule," said Catherine
Vernon; "don't you remember what the Scotch Chalmers said, that our
lives were like the work of creation, and that the last ten years was
the Sabbath--for rest?"

"We are not under the Jewish dispensation," said the old clerk, as if
that settled the question.

Catherine laughed. She was seated near old Mrs. Morgan in the round
window, her carriage waiting outside. Mr. Rule, who was a neighbour,
having retired upon a handsome pension and occupying a handsome house,
had come in to call upon the old couple, and these two, so long
associated in labour and anxiety, had begun, as was natural, to talk on
a subject which the others with difficulty followed--the bank. Mrs.
Morgan never did anything save sit contentedly in her chair with her
hands clasped, but the captain sat by the table working away at one of
his models of ships. He was very fond of making these small craft, which
were admirably rigged and built like miniature men-of-war. This one was
for Alick Vernon, the middle boy of Mrs. Reginald's three. In the
background, half hidden by the curtains and by the captain's seat,
Hester had taken refuge in a deep elbow-chair, and was reading. She did
not want to hide herself, but she had no desire to be seen, and kept in
the background of her own will. Catherine Vernon never took any special
notice of her, and Hester was too proud either to show that she felt
this, or to make any attempt to mend matters. She had risen up on her
cousin's entrance, and touched her hand coldly, then sank back into her
former place, and whether any one remembered that she was there at all
she did not know.

"If one works till sixty, one does very well," Miss Vernon said.

"You did not think that applicable to me, ma'am," said the clerk. "You
would not let me give up till I was near seventy."

"For the sake of the bank--for the sake of the young men. Where would
they have been without a guide?"

"Ah!" said old Rule, shaking his head, "there is no guide like the
chief. They might turn upon me, and laugh in my face, and tell me I am
old-fashioned; but they could not say that to you."

"Well, well! the young men fortunately have gone on very well, and have
shown no need of a guide."

To this there was no reply, but a little pause pregnant of meaning. The
thrill of the significance in it roused Hester altogether from her book:
she had not been reading much to begin with, and now all her faculties
were awakened. She understood no reason for it, but she understood _it_.
Not so Catherine, however, who took no notice, as so often happens to
the person chiefly concerned.

"Thirty years is a long spell," she said. "I was at it late and early,
and did not do so badly, though I am only a woman."

"Women--when they do take to business--are sometimes better then men,"
said the clerk, with an accent almost of awe.

"That is natural," said old Captain Morgan over his boat, without
raising his head. "For why?--it is not the common women, but those of
the noble kind, that ever think of trying: so of course they go further
and do better than the common men."

"I don't think that is a compliment," said Catherine, "though it sounds
a little like one. You have a turn for those sort of sayings, Uncle
Morgan, which seem very sweet, but have a bitter wrapped up in them."

"Nay, he never was bitter, Catherine," said the old lady. "He knows what
he is talking of. He means no harm to the common women--for his wife is
one of them."

"We will not inquire too closely what he means," said Catherine Vernon
with a smile. "Anyhow it is very sweet to be able to retire while one
has still command of all one's faculties, and see the young ones come
in. Of course one does not expect to live for ever. We are all in the
Sunday period of our lives, all of us here."

"Not I," said the old clerk, "with respect be it spoken: I have had my
Sunday and am ready to begin again, if there should be any need of me."

"Which there is not, thank God," she said heartily. And again there
ensued that little pause. Was it possible she did not observe it? No one
echoed the sentiment, no one even murmured the little nothings with
which a stillness, which has a meaning, is generally filled up by some
benevolent bystander. What did it mean? Hester asked herself. But
Catherine took no notice. All had gone so well with her. She was not
afraid of evil tidings. Her affection for the young men, her relations
and successors, was calm enough to secure her from the anxious
prescience of love. She took her life and all that was connected with
her, with that serene and boundless faith which is the privilege of the
untried soul. Catherine would have resented beyond everything else the
imputation that her life was without experience. She had gone through a
great deal, she thought. The evening long ago, when she had been told
that the credit of the Vernons was at stake, and had roused herself to
redeem it, had been the highest crisis and turning-point of existence to
her. What had happened since had been little in comparison. She had not
known what anxiety meant in the deepest sense of the word, and what had
happened before was so long over, that, though she recollected every
incident of that early time, it was apart from all her after-life, and
never influenced her practical thoughts. She did not pay any attention
to that pause which might have awakened her suspicions. There was no
foundation in her for suspicion to build upon. She was so sure of all
connected with her, and of herself, the first necessity of all.

"I will never forget," said old Mr. Rule, after a pause, "that night,
when I had to go and warn you that all was lost unless you would help.
What a night it was! I recollect now the light on Wilton Street; the
sunset shining in the Grange windows as I rushed through the shrubbery.
You were a young lady then, Miss Vernon, and I could not tell whether
you would do it or not. Mrs. John, poor thing, that I went to first, was
never very wise----"

Here a sudden fit of coughing on the part of the captain, and a stirring
of Hester in the background, showed the old clerk his mistake.

"I beg your pardon, Miss Hester," he cried, "I was just going to tell
something of your mother that would please you. When I told her we
wanted money, she ran to her desk and got out all she had. It was twenty
pounds," said the old clerk with a little laugh; "twenty pounds, when we
wanted twice as many thousands! But what did that matter? Some people
have laughed when I have told that story, and some have been nearer
crying."

He was an old man, and tears and laughter get mixed up at that age; he
was nearly crying himself at the end.

Hester's heart gave a bound of mingled pleasure and pain. Perhaps even
she had never done justice to her simple-hearted mother. She sat bolt
upright in her chair, listening with all her might. Catherine Vernon
seemed to retire from the principal place she had hitherto held in the
conversation, and Hester came forward in her stead. She looked at the
old clerk steadily.

"You speak," she said, "of ladies only. Where was my father?" holding
Rule with her eye, so that he could not escape.

"Your father!" he faltered, his very lips quivering with surprise and
consternation.

"I don't know why we should bring up all these old stories to-night,"
said Catherine, suddenly, "nor what led us to introduce the subject. Let
bygones be bygones, Mr. Rule. We old fogeys have our little talks
together, and tell over our old adventures to amuse ourselves for want
of something better; but that is what the young ones never understand."

"Do you wish me to go away, Cousin Catherine?" said Hester with her
usual pale defiance, rising up with the book in her arms.

"Oh no, not I. It does not matter in the least whether you stay or go. I
can remember, Uncle Morgan, when the same sort of thing I am now saying
to Hester you used to say to me: and it does not seem so very long ago
either. Now we are all old together, and not much difference between
us," she said with a little laugh. It still gave her a certain amusement
to think that she was old like these old people, and yet it was true;
for though sixty-five and eighty-five are very different, nobody can
doubt that sixty-five is old. It was still strange, almost ludicrous, to
Catherine, that it should be so.

"I am of all ages," said the old captain, "for I can remember all. I'll
sail my boat with Alick to-morrow, and enjoy it like a small boy (it's a
capital little boat, and will sail, I can tell you, Catherine, if you
took any interest in it), and then I shall walk on the Common with a
young lady, and talk of poetry and love."

"Fie, captain!" said his old wife; "but he does not mean all that
nonsense, Hester."

"If love is nonsense, and poetry, she and I will go to the stake for
them," said the captain. "We'll take a longer walk to-night, my dear, to
prove to that old woman how wrong she is."

"I can't wish you a pleasanter thing, captain--and now I must be going,"
said old Rule, inconsequently.

Catherine, who had been sitting thoughtful since the moment when she
interfered, all unthanked and misunderstood, to save Hester, rose when
the old clerk did, and went out before him, with her rich black silk
gown sweeping and rustling. The presence of the elder people made her
look blooming, and capable, and young. The old couple watched her from
their window, as Rule, gratified and beaming, put her into the carriage.

"She looks young enough to do as much again," said Captain Morgan,
standing in the window with his gum-bottle in his hands, with which he
was working.

"Oh, captain!" said his wife, "but where's the money?" shaking her old
head.

Hester behind peered out between these two aged heads, pale with
interest, and antagonism, and attraction. She could never think of any
one else when Catherine was near, though all her instincts were in arms
against her. The words that passed between the old people were as a
foreign tongue to her. She had not the slightest perception what they
meant.

Meantime Catherine spoke a warning word to her former prime minister,
who had abdicated later than herself.

"You were very near giving that child a heartache," she said. "Take care
not to say anything before her. She need never know that her father
deserted his post. The creature has a quick sense of honour, and it
might wound her."

"She is not like his daughter," said the clerk, "nor that poor lady's
either. She is one of the pure old Vernon stock."

"Do you think so?" said Catherine, indifferently. "I rather dislike her
than otherwise; but I would not do the child any harm." And then the fat
horses put themselves in motion, and she gave a smile and a bow to all
her retainers and worshippers--and the Miss Vernon-Ridgways drew away
from Mrs. John's window, where as usual they had been watching
Catherine, as she, amid all these visible signs of her wealth and
sovereignty, disappeared from their eyes.

"I suppose, Captain Morgan," said Hester that evening, when she walked
out with him as usual, "that Cousin Catherine was young once?"

It seemed an absurd question, but it was put with the utmost gravity;
and Hester knew what she meant, as perhaps the reader will too.

"About your age, my dear," the captain said, promptly, "and not at all
unlike you."

"Like me!"

"You think you are very different now, but there is not much more
difference than that of years. She was the same kind of girl as you
are--masterful--very sure that her own way was the right one--obstinate
as a mule in her mind, but not so difficult to move by the heart."

"Am I all that?" said Hester, wondering; "not in some things, for I am
never sure that I am right--or any one else--except you, perhaps. No, it
is the other way, quite the other way! I am very sure that I am wrong,
and every one else--except you."

"A large rule and a small exception," said the old man; "but it is the
same thing. Catherine was rich and had everything her own way. You
are--in the midst of a poor community where we can have nothing our own
way. And at your age you can't discriminate any more than she could at
hers."

"Then does it come to this, that money is everything?" asked the
disciple with some bitterness, but without, as may be supposed, the
slightest intention of accepting the master's teaching on this point.

Captain Morgan made no reply. What he said was--

"I should like to interest you in Catherine, my dear; all that happened,
you know, before we came here, while we were busy with our own life, my
wife and I; but I have put this and that together since. Catherine was,
as people say, crossed in love, notwithstanding her wealth and all her
qualities. So far as I can make out, the man preferred a woman that
could not hold the candle to her; not so pretty, not so clever,
altogether inferior. That must be rather a blow to a woman!"

"A blow! What sort of a woman would she be that cared for a man who did
not care for her?"

This somewhat inarticulate sentiment Hester delivered with an indignant
blush and flashing eyes.

"That is all very fine, my dear; but you are too clear-headed to be
taken in by it," said the captain. "A woman might not show it, perhaps.
I have no reason to suppose that Catherine showed it. But you must
remember that a woman is not a woman in the abstract, but Catherine or
Hester as the case may be, and liable to everything that humanity is
liable to; and she would be a poor creature indeed if she were incapable
of falling in love generously, as a man is supposed to do."

"I don't know what you mean by generously!"

"Ah, but you do--none better. Something however occurred after, much
worse than his preference of another woman. The man turned out to be an
unworthy man."

Hester had been following every word with breathless interest. She grew
quite pale, her lips dropped apart, her eyes blazed out of the whiteness
of her face upon her old instructor. He went on without taking note of
this change,

"I should think for my part that there cannot be any such blow as that.
Don't you remember we agreed it was the secret of all Hamlet's tragedy?
It is the tragedy of the world, my dear. I told the old woman we were
going to talk of love and poetry. You see I was right."

"But--Catherine?"

Hester was, as became a girl, far too much interested in the individual
case to be able to stray to the abstract, and in fact she had only
assented to her mentor's theory in respect to Hamlet, not having begun
such investigations for herself.

"Ay, Catherine. Well, that is just what happened to her, my dear. The
man first showed that he had no appreciation of herself, which we will
allow must have wounded her; and then after, when that was all over,
proved himself unworthy, dishonourable--in short, what the young men
call a cad."

"Who was he?" asked Hester, in a low and awe-stricken tone.

Then Captain Morgan turned to look at her, apparently with some alarm;
but his fears were quieted by her face. She had evidently no clue to who
it was.

"I never knew the man," he said quickly. "One has no wish to know
anything about him. The interesting person is the woman in such a case.
Here, Hester, you must be the teacher. Tell me, what would that
discovery do to a girl, a daring, masterful spirit like you?"

"Oh, captain, I am not daring or masterful," cried the girl clasping her
hands; "don't you know it is cruel to call me so--I that can do nothing,
that am only like a straw tossing on the water, carried the way I would
not. If I were masterful, I would go away from here. I would do
something for myself."

"All that is no answer to my question," the old captain said.

Hester was used to follow his leading at a touch. There was a kind of
mesmerism in the effect he had upon her.

"I cannot tell," she said in a low and hurried voice. "I don't see: it
would turn all the world wrong. It would---- But," she added, collecting
herself, "she would throw him away from her like a dead thing. He would
be dead. She would think of him no more. Unworthy! One shakes one's self
free--one is done with that!"

"Look again," said the old man, with a half smile, shaking his head.

"I don't wish to look again. Is not that enough? I suppose it would make
her very unhappy. She would struggle, she would try to find excuses. Oh,
Captain Morgan, don't press me so! I suppose everything would turn round
and round. There would seem nothing to stand on, nothing to look up to,
the skies would all whirl and the solid ground. It makes my head swim to
think of it," the girl cried, covering her eyes with her hands.

"That was how it was with Catherine, so far as I know. She had to exert
herself to save the bank, and that saved her."

"Had he anything to do with the bank?" she asked quickly.

"My dear, I tell you I was not here at the time," said the wary old man.
"I had no knowledge of the circumstances. I never wish to know who he
was, lest perhaps I should fail in charity towards him. It is Catherine
I want you to think of. The bank troubles came afterwards, and she had
to get up and put her shoulder to the wheel, which saved her. But do you
think the world ever looked the same after? Hamlet would never have
discovered what traitors those young courtiers were, if his mother had
not turned out a fraud, and his love a delusion--at least that is my
opinion. The wonder is, he did not misdoubt Horatio too. That is what I
should have done if it had been me. But there is the good of genius,
Hester; the Master who knew everything knew better. Catherine had a sort
of honest Horatio in old Rule, and she had that work to do, which was
the best thing for her. But you may be sure the world was all dissolving
views, and nothing solid in it for years to come."

Hester, after the shock of the realisation which had been forced upon
her, as to what the result of such a calamity would be, felt exhausted
and sick at heart, as if all her strength had been worn out.

"Why did you want me to know this?" she said at last. "I see no signs of
it in her. She looks so triumphant, as if nothing had ever happened or
could happen. She sees through everybody and laughs at them, as if all
their lies could never touch her. Oh, she sees very well how they lie,
but is never angry, only laughs; is that the way to make one love her?
And she does not know the false from the true," the girl cried with an
access of indignation. "She considers us all the same."

"No--no--no--no," said the old man, patting her arm, but he did not
press her any further. He had said as much as he wanted to say. They
went further than usual over the Common as he had threatened to his
wife, and as they returned the old captain owned himself fatigued and
took Hester's arm. "You must be my great-grandchild in the spirit," he
said. "We had a little girl once, my wife and I. I have often fancied
her grown up and married and having children in her turn. Oh, I am a
great dreamer and an old fool. You remember Elia's dream children, and
then Tennyson, though he was not old enough to know anything about it,
making the unborn faces shine beside the never-lighted fire. These poets
make fools of us all, Hester. They know everything without any way to
know it. I fancy you are one of little Mary's grandchildren. She must be
as old as Catherine Vernon, though age, we may suppose, doesn't count
where she is."

"You never told me about _her_."

"There was nothing to tell," he said cheerfully. "Her mother cries still
if you speak of little Mary, but not I. It would have been a great thing
for us if we could have kept her, but she would have married I suppose,
and her husband might not have pleased me. I have thought of that. She
would have been taken in probably, and brought us some man I could not
put up with, though the children might have been an addition. I dare say
she would have turned out a soft, innocent creature, taken in all round,
something like your mother, Hester. You are tempted to despise that, you
clever ones, but it is a great mistake."

"Oh, Captain Morgan, mother is taken in, as you say, because she thinks
everybody true--but she is true always."

"_Always!_" said the old man with fervour, "and far happier because she
does not find it out. My wife is the same. It is such souls as these
that keep the world steady. We should all tumble to pieces if the race
was made up of people like Catherine Vernon and you."

"I wish you would not say Catherine Vernon and me!" said Hester
passionately; "there is no likeness, none at all--none at all!"

But the old captain only laughed, and turned her attention to the
sunset, which was lighting up all the western sky. The pines stood up
against it like rigid black shadows, cut out against the golden light
which was belted with flaming lines of crimson. Overhead the sky
ascended in varying tints of daffodil and faint ethereal greenness up to
the deep yet bright summer blue. The last gleams caught the yellow gorse
upon the Common and turned every blossom into gold, and all the peaks of
the Vernonry rose black against the radiance of the west.

"I wonder if the people _up there_ have any hand in it?" said the old
man. "I should like to think so. The old landscape painters, perhaps,
that never had such colours to work with before. But in that case there
would be nothing for me to do," he added with a laugh, "unless it was
some small post about the gunneries. I was always fond of my guns."

To Hester this light suggestion, and the laugh with which it was
accompanied, sounded profane. She shrank from anything which could take
away the awe and mystery from death, just as the old man, who was so
near the threshold, liked to familiarise himself with the thought of
going over it, and still finding himself a recognisable creature there.



                               CHAPTER X.
                                A LOVER.


It was about this time that Hester became aware of a circumstance the
most important that could possibly happen in a young woman's life. There
had been no opportunity for her to become acquainted with the emulations
and rivalship of other girls. Girls there were none about the Vernonry,
nor did they abound in the neighbourhood, in the class from which alone
her mother's visitors were chosen. Mrs. John, it has been said, belonged
to a county family, a fact of which she was as proud as it is natural
and becoming a woman should be. She did not altogether frown upon the
few callers from the town who thought it only their duty to Miss Vernon,
the most hospitable entertainer in the neighbourhood, to take a little
notice of the pensioners, as the poor ladies at the Vernonry were
called; but she did not encourage these benevolent visitors. "They are
all ladies, and as good as any of us," Mrs. Redfern had been heard to
say, who was the mayor's lady, and considered herself a leader of
society; and it was a beautiful sight to see Mrs. John, in her
old-fashioned dark room and simplest black gown, receiving with kind
condescension, and endeavouring to set at her ease, this very fine lady,
who considered herself to be paying the poor widow a quite undeserved
honour. Mrs. John returned cards only in acknowledgment of Mrs.
Redfern's visit, and there the acquaintance ended. So that Hester lost
altogether the opportunity of knowing how ordinary girls looked and
talked, and what was the object of their ambition. She had not even,
which may surprise some people, come to any conclusion whatever in
respect to her own personal appearance. Sometimes indeed, it cannot be
denied, she had looked up in the midst of a novel, where all the young
persons in whom the reader was supposed to take any interest were
beautiful, and asked herself vaguely, with a blush, feeling ashamed of
the question, whether she was pretty. But partly she was ashamed to give
the time necessary to the solution of the problem, and partly she had
not the data upon which to form her conclusions. There was a beautiful
girl in Redborough in a humble position, upon whose claims everybody was
agreed, but she was a queenly creature, with dark hair and blue eyes,
and features of the most exquisite regularity, to whom Hester could not
flatter herself that she bore the slightest resemblance. Nor was she
like Ellen Vernon, with her lovely fairness, her look of wax and
confectionary. Hester was not ethereal at all. There was no smallness
about her, though she was slim as became her age. "The springy motion in
her gait," the swift, light step which never tired, were beautiful in
their way, and so was the eager outlook in her eyes, which seemed to
contract and expand according to the degree of interest with which
outside subjects moved them; but all this rather as exponents of the
mind within than as merely physical features. Her hair had never grown
long, not much longer indeed than was just necessary to twist into the
knot behind which proved her to be grown up, and it remained full of
curl and ready to break the smoothness of outline then thought
necessary, on the smallest provocation. Her complexion was very
variable, sometimes radiant with flutters of sudden colour, sometimes
relapsing into a rose-tinted whiteness, more white than pale. Her
features were not much to brag of; it was the play of prompt feeling in
her face, the interest, the indignation, the pity, the perpetual change
and vicissitude, that made it attractive, and on this point of course
Hester could not judge. Seeing that her mouth was too large, and her
nose too short, and her eyebrows too marked, she concluded that she was
not pretty, and regretted it, though in her circumstances it mattered
very little; her friends liked her just as well, whether or not; and she
was never likely to produce the effect which the heroines in
novels--even though comparatively plain--did produce. So she decided,
with a little shame to think that she could have been disturbed about
the matter, that it was not worth going into it further. All the same it
is a pity, for the sake of young readers, that all the girls in novels,
with so very rare exceptions--and Jane Eyre, if not pretty, probably was
less plain than she thought, and certainly was _agaçante_, which is much
more effective--should be beautiful and should have so much admiration
and conquest. The girls who read are apt to wonder how it is that they
have not the same fortune. Hester, for her part, had a fine scorn of
feminine victories in this sort; they had never come within the
possibilities of her lot. She never went to balls, nor met in society
gangs of suitors contending for her smile; she did not believe in such
things, and she thought she despised them.

It was in the very midst of this scepticism that she suddenly became
aware of certain facts which, as we have said, were of the kind
generally supposed to be most important in a young woman's life. Harry
Vernon had been for some time alone in the splendour of the White House;
Ellen, who had inflicted so deep a wound upon Hester's inexperienced
girlhood, had married the previous summer, and in the lack of young
ladies worthy to swell her train on that occasion, had selected Hester
as one of her bridesmaids. Hester had never forgiven her frivolous
kinswoman for that first disenchantment of her youth, but her mother,
upon whom her exclusion from society and from all opportunities of
distinguishing herself there weighed heavily, had insisted on the
acceptance of the invitation, and Hester had figured accordingly in a
white muslin frock, much too simple to match the toilette of the other
bridesmaids in the pageant, greatly to her own disquiet. She was the
only Vernon in it, and thus had been specially put forward, and Ellen,
altogether unconscious of previous offence, had exhausted herself in
demonstrations of affection to her young relative. It was she whom Harry
led out in the morning's procession, and he had, in the intervals of his
duty to his guests, come back again and again to her side. Hester, all
inexperienced and unknowing, had paid little attention to these early
indications. She did not identify him with his sister's guilt towards
her. He was a weak, good-natured, genial fellow, and no more. If Harry
did anything wrong, no doubt it was because of being led astray. In
himself he wished nothing but good to any one. He was not clever, he was
steady and stolid, and went through both work and pleasure without much
discrimination as to which was which, carrying on both in the same way.
When he began to come to the Vernonry evening after evening, Hester paid
little attention to him. She would go out to walk with old Captain
Morgan in the very face of the young visitor whose "intentions" all the
community considered to be of such importance. Hester never thought of
his "intentions." She had none herself in which he was anyhow involved.
She was perfectly friendly when they met, but she did not care whether
they ever met or not, and repulsed him as much as steady indifference
can repulse an obstinate and not very clear-sighted young man. But this
was not saying much. Harry knew as well as any one that his suit was a
wonderful chance for his distant cousin; that Hester had no right to
look for such good fortune as that of being the object of his
affections. He knew that he was bringing in his hand everything a girl
need wish for. And so far as Hester's course of action was concerned,
though he was much irritated by it sometimes, he still felt that it was
what she had a right to employ in the circumstances. It "drew a fellow
on;" she was right to do what she could to obtain this so desirable
consummation. He could not find fault with her even when he was angry.
Had she been too ready to meet him, he felt that he would himself have
despised what was so easily won. But her coyness, her apparent
indifference, her walking out to the old captain from her lover, all
helped to rivet his chains. It was excellent policy, and he took it as
such; it drew a fellow on.

And it would be impossible to describe the interest of the Vernonry in
this new development. Harry made his appearance first when they were all
outside enjoying the beauty of the summer evening, Mr. Mildmay Vernon
occupying that bench in front of the verandah, which was the most
desirable place in the evening, being just clear of the low sunbeams
which came into your eyes through the trunks of the pines, penetrating
like golden arrows. Mrs. John herself was watering the plants in the
verandah, which were a little exhausted by the long, scorching day, and
wanted refreshment. The Miss Vernon-Ridgways were walking about with
their long sashes extended and their large sleeves flying, the one
eagerly talking from a few paces behind her, to the other. Their
conversation was on the well-worn subject of "some people who never knew
their own place," and was aimed at the tranquil gentleman on the bench,
who when he had secured his own comfort, which was the first thing to be
thought of, rather prided himself upon never interfering with his
neighbours. When Harry Vernon appeared, there was a universal stir. The
sisters made a little flight round him, gazing at him. "I do believe it
is Harry. Is it Harry?" they said. Mr. Mildmay Vernon put down his paper
in the midst of a paragraph, and came forward with his most genial air.
"I hope this is a visit only. I hope there is nothing wrong," he said.

"Wrong! what should be wrong?" said Harry, turning his fair countenance
wonderingly upon the group. "It's a lovely evening, and I wanted a
walk," he added, with a little reddening of that too fair face; "and
besides, I've got a message from Ellen to Mrs. John----"

"Dear Ellen! How is Ellen? When is she coming home?" cried Miss Matilda.
"When you write to her, give her our love. But I suppose she is too
happy to care about anybody's love save one person's. Marriage will
improve Ellen--marriage will steady her. She used to be a little
forgetful, perhaps. Ah! marriage will do her a great deal of good. She
had everything too much her own way."

"But she is missed. It would be pretty to see her again--forgetting,"
said Mr. Mildmay, "that she had ever set eyes on you before."

"Ah, dear Ellen! We should not have known her without her little ways!"

Now Harry was fond of his sister.

"I'll thank you to leave Ellen alone," he said, brusquely. "I dare say
we've all got our little ways. I had something to say to Mrs. John if
you'll let me pass, please."

"Politeness is characteristic of our family," said Miss Matilda, drawing
her skirts closely round her, and standing ostentatiously, though she
was not very near him, out of his way.

Mrs. John stood looking on in the verandah with the watering-can in her
hand, not hearing much of what they said, but feeling that it was
uncivil, and putting on a little deprecating, anxious smile--

"Come in," she said, "come in. The parlour, I think, is almost cooler
than the garden after this hot day. Shall I make you a cup of tea?"

"These pensioners of Aunt Catherine's are odious people," said Harry.
"It was you and Hester I came to see."

"You must not speak of them so--they would not like it," said Mrs. John,
not thinking that she herself might be spoken of in the same way, though
rather pleased at the bottom of her heart that Harry should make a
distinction between them. He threw himself down in a chair, which
creaked under his weight, and looked very large and mannish in the
little feminine room--rather, indeed, it must be allowed, out of place
there.

"I wonder how you can get on in such a poky little place," he said. "I
should like to see you in handsome big rooms; it would seem much more
natural."

Mrs. John smiled again, a deprecating, half-apologetic smile.

"Oh, I am very glad to be here. I did not expect ever to have to live in
such a poor place when I married, it is true; but people's minds change
with their circumstances. I am glad to have it----"

"You oughtn't to--you should have been provided for in a different way.
Ah, Hester! I am so glad to see you," Harry said, rising with some
commotion to his feet. He took Hester's hand and held it for a moment.
"I thought I'd come and tell you about Ellen," he said, with a blush.

"Hester," said her mother, giving her a little meaning look, of which
she did not understand the signification, "you must give Mr. Harry a cup
of tea."

And there he sat, to her great oppression, for an hour at least. He did
not even tell them about Ellen. He said nothing in particular--nothing
which it was necessary to say. Hester, who had intended to go out with
her old captain, felt herself bound by politeness and her mother's
warning looks. She did not know what these looks meant, but they held
her fast. There was not very much conversation. He said a few things
over and over, which made it difficult to change the subject; and it was
mostly Mrs. John who replied, and who rather liked, also, to repeat the
same sentiment. Hester poured out the tea, and when the moment came for
that, lighted the candles, and sat down in the background and took her
work. She was not very fond of work, but it was better than doing
nothing at all. When she took that seat which was beyond his point of
vision, Harry turned his chair round so as to face her, and took up one
of the candles and arranged it for her, that she might see to work. "You
should have a lamp," he said. "I have a nice little lamp at home just
the thing for you; you must let me send it." What a long time he sat,
and how anxious he was to make himself agreeable! After that he came
three or four times in succession. Mrs. John began to look for him,
brightening up as the hour of his visit approached; and the neighbours
kept up a watch which it was impossible to mistake. "If he comes
to-night again I shall know what to think," Miss Matilda said. But when
he came that night he met Hester at the gate in her out-door apparel.
Harry's countenance fell.

"Oh, you are surely not going out," he said, "not just when I come? You
couldn't be so unkind."

"I have been unkind to Captain Morgan very often," said Hester. "I must
not neglect him to-night," and she passed him quickly with a little bow
and smile. It made Harry very angry, but still he felt that it drew a
fellow on.

On one of these occasions, when Hester eluded him in this way, Harry
spoke his mind to Mrs. John.

"I'm very lonely up there by myself," he said, "and I have nobody to
please but myself. Ellen used to interfere and keep me in order, as she
said; but now she's got somebody else to look after. I've thought a
great deal of Hester for years back. That time when we came to see you
first, you know, when Ellen made so many advances and forgot all about
them--that was her way. She's not a bad sort when you get safe hold of
her--but it's her way. Well, from that time I've thought of Hester,
though I never liked to say a word as long as Ellen was there."

"Oh, Mr. Harry," said Mrs. John, who was fluttered and flattered as if a
proposal were being made to herself. "She was only a child in those
days."

"I know; but she isn't a child now. If she'll have me--and I can't see
why she shouldn't have me--we might all make each other very
comfortable. I'm not frightened of a mother-in-law as so many fellows
are. I believe that's all bosh. I shouldn't wish to part you more than
for the honeymoon, you know. There is plenty of room for you in the
White House, and it would be always nice for her to have you there, when
I happened to be engaged. I think we should hit it off very well
together. And as for money--I know she has no money--I should never
think twice about that. Of course it would be to my own advantage to
make as good settlements as possible, which is always a good thing in
business when one never knows what may happen. We might have to consult
Aunt Catherine just at first, for she always keeps a hold on the
funds----"

"And there's Hester to consult--that is the most important," said Mrs.
John.

"To be sure, that's the most important; but I can't see why she should
object," said Harry. "Why, she has never seen any one, has she? I am the
only man that has paid any attention to her. At Ellen's wedding there
were one or two, and that was only once in a way. I don't say she likes
me, but she can't like any one else, can she? for she has never seen
anybody."

"Not that I know of," said Mrs. John; "but, Mr. Harry, girls are so
fanciful. You cannot be sure of them in that way. They may have some
ideal in their heads, though they have never met any one----"

"Eh?" said Harry, making a large mouthful of the word, and opening wide
those blue eyes of his with the light lashes. And, indeed, he did not
know much about that sort of thing. He returned to the question without
paying any attention to this strange piece of nonsense. "There's nobody
about but the old gentlemen, and Ned at Aunt Catherine's. Sometimes I've
felt a little suspicious of Ned. Does he come and see you often? He is a
great fellow for books and that sort of thing."

"Mr. Edward Vernon," said Mrs. John, a little stiffly, "_never_ comes
here. Hester, I believe has met him at the Grange or elsewhere; but he
never comes here. I scarcely know him, neither of course does she."

"Then," said Harry, taking no notice of the offence in her tone, but
bringing down his hand vehemently upon his knee, "if it isn't Ned, there
is no one she can have seen, and the field is all clear for me."

"That is very true," said Hester's mother, but her tone was doubtful.
"At the same time," she continued, "perhaps it would be well to let me
talk to her a little first, Mr. Harry, just to see, before you said
anything."

"If she doesn't want to have me, I don't wish to force her to have me,"
said Harry, his pride taking alarm.

"Force--oh, Mr. Harry, do you think I would force my child? And indeed I
couldn't;" cried Mrs. John, shaking her head. "She is far, far stronger
than I."

"She would be the cleverest of us all," said Harry admiringly. "I
believe she is as clever as Aunt Catherine. I dare say she might even
find out dodges in the bank, like Aunt Catherine did. Perhaps on the
whole it might be better if you would sound her a bit, eh? and find out
what she is up to. What she thinks of me, for instance," said Harry,
nodding half with modesty, half with vanity. "Yes, I should like that. I
should like to be pretty sure before I committed myself. A man doesn't
like to make a fool of himself for nothing," the young man said.

Mrs. John thought it was quite natural. And indeed all her feelings were
enlisted on Harry's side, who expressed himself so beautifully. What
better could happen to Hester than to be thus uplifted to the heights of
luxury and wealth, the White House, and everything else that heart could
desire, with a nice husband, so good-looking, so tall, so fair, and so
anxious to be kind to her mother? Her imagination, not her strong point
on ordinary occasions, was strong enough on this, to jump at all the
advantages of the match with a rapidity which would not have disgraced
Hester herself. To see her child the mistress of the White House was the
very height of Mrs. John's ambition. She did not feel that the world
held anything more desirable. Her mind made a hurried rush through the
rooms, all so familiar to her, and which Harry, no doubt, would re-model
in preparation for his bride. With what pride and happiness would she
see her child at the head of the table, where she herself had once sat!
It would be a return more triumphant than any return in her own person.
And yet she would be there too, the happy spectator, the witness of it
all. She saw in her mind's eye, the wedding, the beautiful clothes, the
phaeton, and the high-stepping horses, and perhaps a pony carriage which
Hester herself would drive. All this in a moment, while Harry was
telling her that he would like to be pretty sure before he committed
himself. Perhaps it was not a lofty sentiment, but she felt it to be
quite natural. A man with so much to bestow had a right to see his way
before him, and then for Hester's own sake it was far better that she
should not be taken by surprise. She was a perverse girl, and if the
young man walked straight up to her without warning, and asked her to
marry him, the chances were that she would refuse. That was not a risk
to be run when so much was at stake.

"If you will leave it in my hands, I think you will have no cause to
regret it," she said, nodding her head at him with the softest maternal
smile. "You may be sure you will have my good wishes."

They were both quite affected when he took his leave.

"I feel sure we should hit it off together," Harry said, warmly grasping
her hand; and the water stood in her eyes. She could almost have given
him a kiss as he stood before her, a little flushed and agitated with
his self-revelation. Indeed, she would have done so but for that doubt
about Hester. What would Hester say? That was the one point upon which
doubt existed, and unfortunately it was the most important of all. There
could not be the least uncertainty as to the many advantages of the
match; money, comfort, good position, good connection, everything that
can be wished for in marriage, and with no personal defects to be
glossed over by these advantages, but a fine young man, a husband any
girl might be proud of. Elation and gladness filled Mrs. John's heart,
when she contemplated that side of the question; but when she turned to
the other a chill came over her, a cloud that swallowed up the sunshine.
What would Hester say? Oh the perverseness of girls that never know what
is good for them! If it had been somebody quite ineligible, somebody
without a penny, the chances were that Hester would have had no doubt on
the subject. Mrs. John could not remain still after this momentous
conversation. She went from one window to another, looking out, watching
for her daughter's return. She had been vexed that Hester should have
been so uncivil as to go away for no better reason than to walk with old
Captain Morgan when Harry was coming, but she felt now that this
contradictoriness on the girl's part had been providential. How full her
head was with thoughts and plans how to speak, and what to say, with
artful approaches to the subject, and innocent wiles by which to divert
all suspicion, and lead Hester unawares towards that goal! She trotted
up stairs and down, from one window to another, framing dialogue after
dialogue in her mind. She was astonished by her own powers as she did
so. If she ever had been so clever in reality as she was in this sudden
crisis of imagination, she felt that it might have made a difference in
her whole life. And one thing Mrs. John had the wisdom and goodness to
do in the midst of her excitement, she kept within her own house, and
did not so much as venture down to the verandah, where she might have
been seen from outside, and pounced upon by the eager watchers, brimful
of curiosity, who wanted to know what it all meant. Miss Matilda
Vernon-Ridgway, as has been intimated, had been conscious of an internal
admonition that something critical, something decisive, something
throwing a distinct light upon the "intentions" of young Harry would
happen this night. And Mrs. John knew herself, and was aware that she
never would be able to stand against the questionings of these curious
spectators. Her only safety was in keeping out of their way. Thus not
only her imaginations, but her moral faculties, her power of
self-control and self-denial, were strengthened by the occurrences of
this momentous evening. She had not felt so important before since
Hester was born.



                              CHAPTER XI.
                          MOTHER AND DAUGHTER.


Mrs. John had a long time to wait. The old captain prolonged his walk,
as he was too apt to do, beyond his strength, and came home very slowly,
leaning on Hester's arm; and then as every hindrance, when people are
anxious, has a way of doubling itself, Mrs. Morgan sent a polite message
to say that she hoped Mrs. John Vernon would not object if she kept
Hester to supper. Mrs. John objected greatly, but she was weak, and had
never set up her own will in the face of any one else who made a stand
for theirs. She said "Oh yes, with pleasure," with a pitiful little
smile to Mrs. Morgan's maid. To deny Hester anything (except the power
of making a governess of herself and losing caste) was what she had
never done in her life. It always gave her a little pang when her child
left her to eat her solitary meal in the dark little parlour which
nothing would light up, but she had trained herself to feel that this
was very wrong, and that young people need change. Hester was entirely
unacquainted with the series of little sacrifices which her mother thus
made for her. If she thought of them at all, she thought that the poor
lady "did not mind." Her old friends next door were not gay, but they
talked as Mrs. John was quite incapable of talking, and lived, though
they saw nobody, in a wider atmosphere, a bigger world than any of the
others. The old captain's stories, the people he had seen, the
experiences both these old people had gone through, were like another
world to Hester. Her mother was small and straitened, had seen without
seeing, and lived without living. In the days when Hester had guided her
about by the arm, taking her whither she pleased, making new eyes for
her in the vividness of her own, it was enough for the girl to have that
echo of all her sentiments, that little objection generally ending with
agreement, that broken little stream of faint recollections which her
mother would give forth. But Hester had long ceased to form part of that
sort of dual being which is so often made by a mother and her only
daughter. To feel your parent smaller and sillier than yourself is sad.
A great many young people do it without any adequate reason, strong in
their sense of being the reigning monarchs of the present, while their
progenitors belong to the past. Perhaps indeed it is the nature of youth
to take a pleasure in such superiority. But that is very different from
the fact of actual incapacity on the mother's part to follow her child's
thoughts or even to know what she meant. Mrs. John was very well aware
of it herself, and declared with a smiling countenance that young people
liked change, and that she was never so happy as when her child was
enjoying herself. And Hester, though she was so much more clever,
accepted all this, and believed and thought her mother was quite
contented with the evening paper, or a book from the circulating
library, and never missed her when she was away. She misunderstood her
silly mother, far more than that silly mother did her. The lesser
comprehended the bigger, not the bigger the lesser, as in the ordinary
course of affairs. Mrs. John had a great many sacrifices to make, of
which her daughter was quite unconscious. And to-night the poor lady
felt it, as with her mind so full she sat down at her little solitary
table, which she had made pretty for Hester. There was nothing on it
more luxurious than cold meat and salad, but the crisp greenness of the
leaves, the little round loaf, the pat of butter in a small silver dish
which was one of her relics, the creaming glass of milk, all set out
upon a white cloth and lighted up by the two candles, would, she had
flattered herself, call out an admiring exclamation when the girl came
in out of the dark, a little dazzled for the first moment by the light.
After she had said "Oh, yes, with pleasure," Mrs. John came in and sat
down and cried. Such a pretty table laid out, and oh, for once, so much
to say! her mind so overflowing, her news so all important! There could
not be anything so exciting to talk about, that was certain, on the
other side of the partition, and this provoked and tantalised sense of
having herself far better entertainment for Hester than she could be
having, gave an insufferableness to the position. At one moment Mrs.
John thought she must send for the girl, that she could not put up with
the disappointment, but she was much more used to putting up with
things, than to asserting herself. She sat down very cheerlessly and ate
a mouthful of bread and salad. To eat alone is always miserable. Hester
was making the table, where the old Morgans sat, very lively and
cheerful, talking as she never talked with her mother. They sat and
talked quite late into the night. What with the captain's stories, and
Mrs. Morgan's elucidations and Hester's questionings, the evening was
full of interest. It flew away so quickly that when the clock struck
eleven the girl sprang up with a great sense of guilt. "Eleven o'clock!
what will mother say? I have never been so late before," she cried. They
were all half proud of it, of having been so mutually entertaining. "The
poor little mother must have felt lonely," Mrs. Morgan said, with a
passing compunction when Hester flew round the corner, watched from the
door to see that all was safe by the maid; but the captain took no
notice. "It is delightful to see how that child enjoys herself," he
said, flattered in spite of himself, "though it's no very intoxicating
amusement we furnish her." Captain Morgan was very soft-hearted, and
understood by his affections as well as with his understanding, but in
this case something beguiled him, perhaps a little complacency, perhaps
want of thought.

When Hester ran in, in the dark, locking the door of the verandah behind
her, Mrs. John had gone up stairs and was going to bed. She was chilly
and "cross" her daughter thought, who ran quickly up to her full of
apologies. "We got talking," she said; "you must forgive me, mother. The
captain's stories run on so, one into another--one forgets how the time
runs on too."

"I wish," said Mrs. John, with the tears very near the surface, "that
your mother was sometimes as amusing as the captain." It was the
greatest reproach she had addressed to her daughter for years.

"Oh, mother! If I had thought you minded," cried Hester, with wondering
eyes.

Mrs. John was penitent at once, and did her best to make things up. "I
ought not to speak," she said, "after all--for I was not so very lonely.
Harry stayed a long time and kept me company. It is only when you have
him to yourself that you see how nice he is."

"Is he so nice?" said Hester, indifferently. "How lucky for him to find
you alone," she added, with a little laugh.

"Oh, Hester, how can you say so. As if it was me he came for! Whatever
you may try to make yourself believe you can't think that."

Hester made no reply. She slept in a small room within her mother's, the
door of which always stood open. She had taken off her out-door things
and let down her hair to brush it. It hung about her in a cloud, running
up into curls as soon as she let it free. Mrs. John, seated in the
easiest chair, sat contemplating this operation with a mixture of
pleasure and pain. The mass of curls was pretty, but it was not the
fashion. It was quite unlike the smooth brown glossy locks that had
adorned her own head when she was young. But she said to herself that it
suited Hester, and gazed at her child admiringly, yet anxiously,
conscious of many things in which she might be improved: her hair for
one thing: and her waist, which was not so small as Mrs. John's had been
in her youth: and her nose, which was a little too short. And yet with
all these defects she was pretty. When she was Harry's wife everybody
would admire her. Perhaps it was only because she was not sufficiently
seen that she had no more admirers now.

"I had a great deal to say to you, dear," she said. "I don't grudge you
being away when you are enjoying yourself, but I had many things to say.
It is not likely that Harry Vernon would sit with me for hours for
nothing."

"I suppose," said Hester, from the midst of her curls, "that he finds it
dull now without Ellen at the White House?"

"I could tell you a great deal about that," said her mother quickly,
eager to seize an opening. But Hester yawned with discouraging
demonstrations of fatigue.

"Don't you think it will keep till to-morrow, mother? We had a long
walk, and I am sleepy. I think Harry can't be very urgent. To-morrow
will be time enough."

"Oh, Hester, how strange you are," cried Mrs. John, "so pleased with
those old people, ready to listen to all their old stories; but when I
begin to talk to you of a thing that is of the greatest importance----"

"Nothing concerning Harry Vernon can be of great importance to me,"
cried the perverse girl; and then she tried to turn off her wilfulness
with a laugh. "The beauty of the captain's stories is that they are of
no importance, mother. You can have them when you please. It is like
going to a theatre, or reading a book."

"I am not so clever as the captain to interest you," Mrs. John said.

There was a plaintive tone in her voice with which Hester was very well
acquainted, and which betokened an inclination to tears. She came and
kissed her mother, and gave her a few of those half-impatient caresses
which generally soothed the poor lady. The girl did not in the least
know that any consciousness was in Mrs. John's mind of the superficial
character of those kindnesses. She was not without love for the tender
domestic creature who had been hers to use at her pleasure since ever
she could recollect, but she bestowed these kisses upon her, as she
would have given sweetmeats to a child.

"Go to bed, mother. Don't mind me. I will shut the door; you shall not
have the light in your eyes to keep you from sleeping. Go to bed, mammy
darling."

Mrs. John had liked this caressing talk when Hester was a child. She was
soothed by it still, though a faint sense that there was something like
contempt in it had got into her mind: and she could not struggle against
a will which was so much stronger than her own. But she could not sleep,
though she allowed herself to be put to bed. She could not help crying
in the night, and wondering what she could do to be more respected, to
be more important to her child; and then she prayed that she might be
able to put Harry before her in the best light, and stopped and wondered
whether it were right to pray about a young man. Altogether Mrs. John
had not a tranquil night.

But next morning she made a great effort to dismiss her anxiety, to
present herself at breakfast with a cheerful aspect, and to get rid of
that plaintive tone which she was herself aware of, which she had so
often tried to remedy. Instead of it she tried a little jauntiness and
gaiety, for extremes are always easy. It is the _juste-milieu_ which it
is so difficult to attain.

"I am afraid I scolded you last night, Hester. I was cross when you came
back. One can't help being cross when one has a great many things to say
and no audience," she said with a laugh.

"I am very sorry, mamma. I did not mean to stay so late."

"Oh, it was nothing, my dear. I had Harry. He sat with me a long time.
He is--really--very--entertaining when you have him to yourself."

"Is he?" said Hester demurely. "I should not have expected that: but I
am very glad, mother, for your sake."

"Because I am likely to see a great deal of him in the future? Oh yes,
my dear. I hope so, at least. He is very kind to me. Nobody has spoken
so nicely of me for many a year."

"I like him for that," said Hester honestly, yet with a blush of
self-consciousness; for perhaps though she liked him for it, it did not
improve her opinion of Harry's intellect, that he should find her
mother's company so congenial.

"Oh, you would if you knew him better, Hester. He feels for me in my
changed circumstances. You don't know how different things used to be,
what a great deal people used to think of me when I was young. I don't
complain, for perhaps it was silly of them; but it is a great change.
But living where he does in my house, you know, Harry feels that: he
says it is there I ought to be--in the White House. Even though nothing
should ever come of it, it is nice that somebody should think so."

"Unfortunately nothing can ever come of it," said Hester. "However nice
people may be they do not give up their house to you, or their living;
for you would need his money as well, to be able to live in the White
House."

"You say unfortunately, dear," said her mother, with eagerness. Mrs.
John blushed like a girl as she began her attempt to hint out Harry's
love-tale to her daughter. She was innocent and modest, though she was
silly. No talk about lovers, no "petty maxims" about marriage, had ever
offended Hester's ears. Her mother blushed and trembled when she felt
herself broaching the subject to her child. "Oh, Hester, it would be
easy, very easy, to cease to be unfortunate--if you choose, dear. All
that part of our life might fly away like a cloud--if you choose. We
might be done with poverty and dependence and thinking of what Catherine
will say and what people will think. The White House--might be yours if
you liked, everything might be yours. You would only have to say the
word."

Mrs. John's eyes filled with tears. She could not get to the end of a
long speech like this without crying; and she was so anxious, that they
found their way also into her voice.

"Mother!" cried Hester, opening wide her eyes. They were very bright and
clear, and when they opened widely looked almost unnatural in their
size. She was all the more startled that she had never been subject to
any such representation before. "I don't know what you mean," she said.
"What should we do with the White House? I think it is a vulgar, staring
place, and far too big."

"Don't speak so, Hester. I can't bear it. My own married home that your
poor papa took me to!"

"I beg your pardon, mother. I had forgotten that. Of course taste was
different in those days."

"Oh, taste! Your poor papa had beautiful taste. There are some things
there that just break my heart--the ormolu set that everybody admired
so, and the picture of me over the mantel-piece in the little parlour.
It used to be in the drawing-room, but you can't wonder at them changing
it. The hair was worn high then, on the top of your head, and short
sleeves. It was very becoming to me. And to hear you call it vulgar and
staring----"

"It was a mistake, mamma. I did not think what I was saying. Forgive me,
mother dear!"

"You know I would forgive you anything," cried Mrs. John, now fairly
launched, and forgetting all prudential restraints. "But oh, Hester, my
darling, when he speaks to you don't be hasty; think of all that is
involved. I am not going to tell you what he wants to say--oh no, he
would never forgive me. It is he himself that must tell you that. But
Hester, oh, don't speak hastily; don't answer all in a moment, without
thinking. Often, often a girl says what she is sorry for, not being
prepared. Think, my darling, what it would be--not only to be rich, but
to be independent--to have your own house, all your own, and no
charity--to have as much money as you want, to be able to help the poor,
and do everything you wish, and to make me happy, so happy, to the end
of my days!"

It was thus that Mrs. John treated Harry's secret. She forgot all her
precautions and her conviction that from himself only the proposal ought
to come. The dialogues she had invented, the long conversations with
Hester which she had held in imagination, delicately, diplomatically
leading up to the main possibility, had all disappeared when the moment
came. When she began to speak she had forgotten them altogether, and
gone off impromptu without recollecting a syllable of all that had been
so painfully prepared: and her own eloquence, if it did not affect her
daughter, affected herself beyond description: her mouth quivered, the
tears flowed out of her eyes. Hester, who could no more bear to see her
mother cry (though she had seen that sight often enough) than to see the
tears of a child, rose from her seat, and coming round hurriedly behind
Mrs. John's chair put her arms caressingly round her, and laid her cheek
to that wet one. She was not so entirely unprepared but that she
understood well enough what this emotion meant, but she tried to look as
if it had a different meaning altogether. She drew her mother's head to
her breast and kissed her.

"Dear mother! Is it really so bitter to you to be dependent? and you
never let me know that you felt it."

"What would have been the good," said the poor lady, "when we could do
nothing? The thing was to put the best face upon it. But now when it is
all in your power----"

"It was always in my power," said Hester, with a mixture of real
earnestness and a desire to persuade her mother that she put a different
meaning upon all that had been said; "if you had not stopped me, mother;
but I have not lost my accent, and if you will only give your consent
now--I am older, and people will trust me with their children."

"Oh, Hester, do not vex me so," cried Mrs. John. "Do you think that is
what I mean? And besides, if I were to give you leave to-morrow,
Catherine, you know, would never consent."

"If you will trust to me," said Hester, colouring high, "what Catherine
pleases shall not be the last word."

Mrs. John wrung her hands, drawing herself out of Hester's arms, to gaze
into her face.

"Oh, why will you make such a mistake? It is not _that_. I am not strong
to stand out against you, Hester, but for your own sake. And Catherine
would never let you do it. Oh, this is quite a different thing, my dear
love! Not to work like any poor girl, but to be far above that, to have
everything that heart could desire. And all so right and so nice, and so
suitable, Hester. If your dear papa had lived and all had gone well I
could not have wished for a better match."

"Match!" said the girl, colouring violently.

She had indeed understood well enough that Harry was behind all her
mother's anxious insinuations, her promises and entreaties, but she had
been confident in her power to defeat Mrs. John by aid of her own
confused statements always capable of bearing two meanings. This word
"match," however, was one upon which there could be no confusion, and
she was immediately driven to bay. She drew herself away from the tender
attitude in which she had been standing.

"I never thought," she said, "that this was a thing that could be
discussed between us," with all the unreasonable indignation of a
high-handed girl, determined to crush all attempts to influence her on
the spot.

But Mrs. John, though she was conscious she could not stand against
Hester, was too sure that she was right, and too deeply convinced of the
importance of this great question to give in, as she usually did.

"Oh why should it not be discussed between us?" she said. "Is there any
one so much interested as I am? I have heard people say it was a
mother's duty. And Hester, abroad where we used to live, I should have
settled it altogether--you would never have been consulted. I am sure I
don't know that it is not the best way."

"It is a way--that could never have been taken with me," Hester said.
She walked round to her own side of the table with a very stately aspect
and sat down, and made a pretence of resuming her breakfast, but her
hand trembled with excitement as she took up her cup. "It may be quite
true what you say, that you are interested, mother. I suppose so. People
consider a girl a piece of goods to be sold and disposed of."

"Oh, Hester, have I ever thought so? I have been wanting in my duty,"
cried Mrs. John. "I have never tried to put you forward, to get you
invitations, to have you seen and admired as other people do. You are so
proud and so fanciful that I have never dared to do it. And when there
comes one, without ever being invited, or thought of, or supposed
possible----"

It seemed to Hester that the burning blush which she felt go all over
her was capable of bursting into flame. It was not the shy
shamefacedness with which every girl contemplates this subject on its
first introduction, but bitter and scorching shame.

"Invited--thought of; mother!" she cried in a voice of girlish thunder;
"is it possible that you could ever think of scheming--match-making--for
me?"

No capitals could represent the fervour of her indignation. She was
entirely unconscious of the arrogance of self-opinion that was in all
she said. For me. That a man should be invited into her presence with
that thought, that she should be put forward, taken into society in
order to be seen with that view. Heaven and Earth! was it possible that
a woman should avow such possibilities and yet live?

"When I tell you that I never did it, Hester! though I know it was my
duty," Mrs. John cried with tears. Never was woman punished more
unjustly. She turned like the proverbial worm at the supreme
inappropriateness of this judgment against her, and a sudden impulse of
anger sustained the gentle little woman. "I know it was my duty," she
cried; "for who is to care for you, to see that you are settled in life,
but me? But I was afraid to do it. I was obliged to leave it--to
Providence. I just said to myself, it is no use. Hester would never be
guided by me. I must leave it--to Providence."

It did not appear that Mrs. John had much opinion of Providence in such
matters, for she announced this with a voice of despair. Then taking
courage a little, she said with insinuating gentleness--

"I was just the same when I was a girl. I could not endure to hear about
settlements and things. It was all love I thought of--my darling. I was
like you--all love."

"Oh, mother!" cried Hester, jumping to her feet. This was more
intolerable than the other. Her face flamed anew with the suggestion
that it was "all love." "For Heaven's sake don't say any more about it,
unless you want to drive me out of my senses," she said.

Mrs. John stopped crying, she was so astonished, and gazed with open
mouth and eyes. She had thought this last tender touch would be
irresistible, that the child would fall into her arms, and perhaps
breathe forth the sweetest secret aspiration of her heart--perhaps own
to her that dark eyes and a moustache had been her dream instead of
Harry's fairness; or that a melting voice or a genius for poetry were
absolute requirements of her hero. With all these fancies she would have
so tenderly sympathised. She would have liked to discuss everything, to
point out that after all a fair complexion was very nice, and a genius
for poetry not profitable. She remembered what occupation and delight
these same subjects had afforded herself in the interval before John
Vernon had proposed to her. She herself had dreamed of a troubadour, a
lonely being with a guitar, with long hair and misfortunes; and John
Vernon had none of these attractions. She was talked over by her mother
and sister and made to see that the Bank and the White House were far
better. Hester, perhaps, would have been more difficult, but yet she had
felt that, confidence once established, the sweetness of these
discussions would have been unspeakable. When she had got over her
astonishment, she sank back in a despair which was not unmingled with
resentment. Had it come to that, that nothing a mother could say would
please a child nowadays--neither the attraction of a great match nor the
tenderness of love?

This was how the great question of a young woman's life was first
revealed to Hester. It was not, to be sure, the last word. That would
come when she was placed face to face with the aspirant for her favour
and have to decide, so to speak, upon the future of two lives. But to
say "no" to Harry would not have excited and confused her being, like
this previous encounter with all the other powers and influences which
were concerned--or which were considered to be concerned, in her fate.



                              CHAPTER XII.
                         AN INDIGNANT SPECTATOR.


Hester Vernon had been, during the most important years of her
existence, a sort of outlaw from life. She had been unacquainted
altogether with its course and natural order, out of all its usual
habits, separated from every social way of thinking or discipline of
mind. She belonged to a little community which thought a great deal of
itself, yet had no foundation for so doing; but, strangely enough,
though she saw through the fallacy of its general pretensions, she yet
kept its tradition in her own person and held her head above the
ordinary world in unconscious imitation of the neighbours whom she knew
to have no right to do so. She kept the spirit of the Vernons, though
she scorned them, and thought them a miserable collection of ungrateful
dependents and genteel beggars, less honourable than the real beggars,
who said "thank you" at least. And she had no way of correcting the
unfortunate estimate of the world she had formed from this group, except
through the means of Catherine Vernon, and the society in her house, of
which, at long intervals, and on a doubtful footing which set all her
pride in arms and brought out every resentful faculty, she and her
mother formed a part. If the Vernon-Ridgways and Mr. Mildmay Vernon were
bitterly critical of Catherine, missing no opportunity to snarl at the
hand that fed them, Catherine, on her part, was so entirely undeceived
in respect to them, and treated them with such a cynical indulgence and
smiling contempt, as if nothing save ingratitude and malice were to be
expected from humanity, that Hester had found no relief on that side
from her painful thoughts. She was so conscious in her own person of
meanings more high, and impulses more noble, that the scorn with which
she contemplated the people about her was almost inevitable. And when,
deeply against her will, and always with an uneasy consciousness that
her mother's pleasure in the invitations, and excitement about going,
was childish and undignified, Hester found herself in a corner of the
Grange drawing-room, her pride, her scornful indignation and high
contempt of society, grew and increased. Her poor little mother standing
patiently smiling at all who would smile at her, pleased with the little
recognition given her as "one of the poor ladies at the Vernonry," and
quite content to remain there for hours for the sake of two minutes'
_banal_ conversation now and then, to be overlooked at supper, and taken
compassion upon by a disengaged curate, or picked up by some man who had
already brought back a more important guest, made Hester furious and
miserable by her complacency. Hester herself was one of some half dozen
girls in white muslin, who kept a wistful eye upon the curate in the
hope of being taken away to the supper-room down stairs, from which such
a sound of talk and laughter came up to the forlorn ones left above. But
no curate, however urgent, ever persuaded Hester to go down, to stand at
the tail of the company and consume the good things on Catherine's
table. She saw it all from that point of view which takes the glitter
off the brightest surface. Why did those poor girls in white muslin, not
being compelled, like Hester, continue to go? There were two sisters,
who would chatter together, pretending to be very merry, and point out
to each other the pictures, or some new piece of furniture, and say that
Miss Vernon had such taste. They were always of the number of those who
were forgotten at supper, who were sent down after the others came up
stairs with careless little apologies. Why did they come? But Hester was
not of a temper to chatter or to look at the pictures, or to make the
best of the occasion. She stood in the corner behind her mother, and
made it quite clear that she was not "enjoying herself." She took no
interest in the pieces that were performed on the piano, or the songs
that were sung, and even rejected the overtures of her companions in
misfortune to point out to her the "very interesting photographs" which
covered one table. Some of the elder ladies who talked to her mother
made matters worse by compassionately remarking that "the poor girl" was
evidently "terribly shy." But, otherwise, nobody took any notice of
Hester; the other people met each other at other houses, had some part
in the other amusements which were going on, and knew what to say to
each other. But Hester did not know what to say. Edward Vernon, her
early acquaintance, whom she would still often meet in the morning, and
between whom and Hester there existed a sort of half-and-half alliance
unlike her relations with any one else, took no open notice of her; but
would sometimes cast a glance at her as he passed, confidential and
secret. "How are you getting on?" he would say; and when Hester answered
"Not at all," would shrug his shoulders and elevate his eyebrows and say
"Nor I" under his breath. But if he did not "get on," his manner of
non-enjoyment was, at least, very different from Hester's. He was, as it
were, Catherine Vernon's son and representative. He was the temporary
master of the house. Everybody smiled upon him, deferred to him,
consulted his wishes. Thus, even Edward, though she regarded him with
different eyes from the others, helped to give a greater certainty to
Hester's opinion on the subject of Society. Even he was false
here--pretending to dislike what he had no reason to dislike, and, what
was perhaps worse, leaving her to stand there neglected, whom he was
willing enough to talk with when he found her alone.

Hester felt--with her head raised, her nostrils expanded, a quiver of
high indignation in her lip--that she herself would never suffer any one
to stand thus neglected in any room of hers. Those women in their
diamonds, who swept down stairs while her mother stood and looked on
wistfully, should not be the first in her house. She would not laugh and
say "One of the Vernonry," as Catherine permitted herself to do. It
seemed to Hester that the poor and the small would be the first whom she
would think of, and amuse and make happy. They should have the best of
everything, they who had not the best of anything in life. Society (she
thought, always in that corner, where there was full time to make
theories, and the keen prick of present humiliation to give animation to
them) should be a fine compensation to those who were not so happy as
the others. A true hostess should lay herself out to make up to them,
for that one genial moment, for the absence of beauty and brightness in
their lives. It should be all for them--the music, and the wit, and the
happy discourse. Those who lived in fine houses, who had everything that
wealth could give, should stand aside and give place to the less happy.
There should be no one neglected. The girl whom no one noticed stood
apart and invented her high magnanimous court, where there should be no
respect of persons. But it was not wonderful if in this real one she
felt herself standing upon a pedestal, and looked out with scorn upon
the people who were "enjoying themselves," and with a sense of bitter
mortification watched her poor little mother curtseying and smiling,
pleased to go down to supper after the fine people were satisfied, on
somebody's benevolent arm who was doing duty for the second time. "No, I
thank you," Hester said to the curate, who stood offering his arm,
tossing her head like a young princess. "I never go to supper." She was
not without a consciousness either, that Catherine, hearing this, had
been mightily amused by her airs and her indignation, and next time
looked out for them as one of the humours of the night.

Thus it will be seen that all Hester's small experience of society
taught her to despise it. She was outside of the life of families, and
knew little or nothing of the ordinary relations of parents and
children, and of that self-sustaining life where there are no painful
bonds of obligation, no dependence, no forced submission of one set of
people to another. She thought the mass was all the same, with such
exceptions as old Captain Morgan and his wife rarely appearing, and here
and there a visionary, indignant soul such as herself, free as yet from
all bonds, looking on with proud consciousness that were power in her
hands it should not be so. The great question of love had scarcely
flitted at all across her firmament. She had indeed a trembling sense of
possibility such as youth itself could not be youth if destitute of, a
feeling that some time suddenly there might come down upon her path out
of the skies, or appear out of the distance, some one--in whom all the
excellences of earth should be realised; but this, it need not be said,
was as entirely unlike an ideal preference for dark eyes and moustaches,
as it was unlike the orthodox satisfaction in a good match which her
mother had so abruptly revealed. It was like the dawn upon the horizon
where as yet there is no sun and no colour, a visionary, tremulous
premonition of the possible day. A girl who has this feeling in her
heart is not only horrified but angry, when the fact comes down upon her
in the shape of a dull man's proposal or a parent's recommendation. It
is a wrong to herself and to him, and to the new earth and the new
heaven which might be coming. Hester left her mother on that memorable
morning with the glow of a fiery resentment in her heart. Everything
seemed to grow vulgar under that touch, even things which were heavenly.
Not a magnanimous hero, but Harry--not a revelation out of heaven, out
of the unknown, but a calculation of his good qualities and the comforts
he could bestow. All this no doubt was very highflown and absurd, but
the girl knew no better. She felt it an insult to her, that her mother
should have set such a bargain before her--and oh, worse than an insult,
intolerable! when poor Mrs. John, in her ignorance, invited the
confidence of this high visionary maiden on the subject of love. This
drove the girl away, incapable of supporting such profanation and
blasphemy. She went out upon the Common, where she could be quite alone,
and spent an hour or two by herself beyond reach of anybody, trying to
shake off the impression. She had nothing to do to occupy her mind, to
force out of it an unpleasant subject. She could only rush out and
secure for herself solitude at least, that she might master it and get
it under her feet.

But sometimes to appoint a meeting with yourself to discuss such a
question, ends in another way from that which has been foreseen. Sitting
alone under a bush of whins, some chance touch of fancy made Hester
think of her mother's aspirations towards the White House, the ormolu
set, and the portrait in short sleeves. Thoughts arise sometimes in a
curious dramatic order, to all appearance independent of the mind of the
thinker, as if certain pictures were presented to it by some independent
agency outside. In this way there gleamed across the mind of Hester a
sudden presentation of her mother in those same short sleeves, her
pretty dark hair in two large bows on the top of her head, her feet in
white satin shoes with sandals, like an artless beauty out of the
_Keepsake_ or the _Forget-me-not_. The imagination was so sudden that in
the midst of thoughts so different it tempted the girl to a smile. Poor
mother, so young and pretty--and silly, perhaps! And then Hester
recollected old Mr. Rule's story, how she had rushed to her desk and
produced twenty pounds to save the bank from bankruptcy. The girl
recollected, with an indignant pang of compassion, that Catherine had
produced thousands of pounds, and _had_ saved the bank. What virtue was
that in her? She had the money whilst the other had not, and Mrs. John's
helpless generosity was just as great. Poor little mother! and the house
she was so proud of, her "married home," her ideal of everything that
was fine and handsome. Hester's imagination after this made a jump, and
beheld her mother in the widow's dress of black which she never left
off, standing, glad of any crumbs of notice which might fall to her in
the corner of the drawing-room where Catherine the successful reigned
supreme. It angered the girl that her mother should be so
humble-minded--but yet it was quite characteristic of her. And what a
contrast was in those two scenes! Who made her think of this at the very
moment when, rushing out to escape from her mother, she had felt the
gulf of incomprehension between them more bitterly than ever before? It
could not be anything but a kind influence that did it, a good fairy, or
even perhaps a friendly angel, grieved at the emancipation of this child
from the tenderest bonds of nature. Anyhow Hester thought, with a sudden
moistening of her eyelids, of the pretty creature in the picture and the
widow in the black gown at the same moment. From white satin to crape,
from twenty to fifty--ah, and more than these, from the thoughtless
prosperity of a creature who had never known anything different, to the
humiliation borne so sweetly of the too-submissive artless soul. Her
eyelids moistened, and the sun caught them, and amused himself making
tiny rainbows in the long lashes. Hester's heart too was caught and
touched. Poor _petite mère_! how much, as she would have said herself,
she had "gone through!"

And then something occurred to Hester which made her set her white teeth
and clench her hands. If she pleased she could set that right again
which was so wrong. She could put back her mother in the White House she
loved, take down the innocent portrait in white satin, and hang it in
the place of honour once more; throw open finer rooms than Catherine's
for the reception of, oh! so different a company--society in which no
one should be overlooked, and in which Catherine's gentle rival should
be supreme. She could do all this if she chose. The thought suddenly
bursting upon her made her head go round. She could put her mother in
the place from which it seemed (wrongly, but yet that was so natural an
impression) Catherine had driven her, turn the tables altogether upon
Catherine, and make a new centre, a new head, everything new. The girl
raised her head with a little shake and toss like a high-bred horse, as
this strange and sudden suggestion came into her mind like an arrow. She
could do it all. The suggestion that she could do it when it came from
her mother had been an insult and wrong; but when it came as it did now,
though there was horror in it, there was also temptation, the sharp
sting of an impulse. What was the dreadful drawback? Nothing but Harry:
no monster, nothing terrible, a good fellow, a docile mind--one who had
never been unkind. Hester had judged him with his sister for a long
time, but of late days she had learned to separate Harry from Ellen. He
had always been _nice_, as Mrs. John said--not great indeed or noble,
but honest and kind in his simple way. Once at least (Hester remembered)
he had--what was nothing less than heroic in the circumstances--stepped
forward, broken all the Redborough laws of precedence, and "taken down"
her mother at one of the Grange parties, in entire indifference to the
fact that ladies more great were waiting for his arm. This recollection
jumped suddenly into her mind as she sat in the solitude thinking it all
over. He had always done his best, coming to her, standing by her side,
with not much to say indeed, but with a sort of silent championship
which Hester had laughed at, but which she remembered now. He was not
very often present at the Grange parties; but when he was there, this
was what he had done. It was no great matter, but in the excited state
of her mind it told upon her. Edward came only by moments when the
company was otherwise engaged, and then spoke to her rather by signs, by
that shrug of the shoulders and elevation of the eyebrows, than in
words. But Harry had penetrated to her corner and stood by her, making
himself rather larger than usual that everybody might see him. The
ungrateful girl had laughed, and had not been proud of her large-limbed
champion; but when she thought of it now her heart melted to him. _He_
had not been afraid of what people would say. And after all, to be able
to set everything right, to restore her mother's comfort and exaltation,
to be free and rich, with no greater drawback than Harry, would that be
so difficult to bear? She shivered at the thought; but yet, that she did
so much as ask herself this question showed how far already her thoughts
had gone.

After the untoward conversation of this morning, Mrs. John took great
pains to keep Harry back. She ventured even to write a note to him,
composed in great anxiety, very much underlined and emphatic. "I have
sounded her, and find her mind _a complete blank_ on that subject. She
has never thought about it, and _she has seen no one_, as you remarked.
If you will but put off a little, I feel sure it will be followed by the
happiest results." Circumstances, as it happened, served Mrs. John's
purpose, and made it indispensable to put off a little any formal
advances. For Harry had to leave Redborough on business for a week or
two. His consequent absence from the Vernonry was seen with great
satisfaction by the neighbours, who knew no reason for that absence.

"He has seen his mistake in time," the Miss Vernon-Ridgways said,
congratulating each other, as if the destruction of poor Hester's
supposed hopes and projects was some gain to them; and Mr. Mildmay
Vernon nodded his head over his newspaper, and chuckled and announced
that Harry was no fool. They all remarked with much particularity to
Mrs. John that her visitor had not long continued his assiduities.

"But we can't expect, you know, that a young man should always be coming
out here," said Miss Matilda. "What was there to gain by it? and that is
the rule nowadays. Besides, dear Catherine does not like these nephews
of hers, as she calls them--no more nephews than I am!--to see too much
of _us_. They might hear things which she wouldn't wish them to hear."

Mr. Mildmay's remark was jaunty like himself. "So Harry has given you
up! Young dog, it's what they all do, you know. He loves and he rides
away. I was no better myself, I suppose."

Mrs. John could have cried with humiliation and pain. She explained that
Mr. Harry was absent; that he had told her he was going away; but these
kind people laughed in her face. Perhaps this too had a certain effect
upon Hester's mind. She heard the laugh, though her mother did all she
could to keep her from hearing; and an impulse to show them her
power--to prove once for all that she could have everything they prized,
the money, and the finery, and the "position," which they all envied and
sneered at, when she pleased--an impulse less noble, but also keener
than the previous one, came suddenly into her mind. When Harry came
back, however, Hester quailed at the thought of the possibility which
she had not rejected. She saw him coming, and stole out the other way,
round the pond and under the pine-trees, so as to be able to reach the
house of the Morgans without being seen. And when Harry appeared he had
to run the gauntlet of the three bitter spectators, the chorus of the
little drama, without seeing its heroine.

"Dear Harry, back again!" the Miss Vernon-Ridgways cried; "how nice of
you to come again. We made up our minds you had given us up. It was so
natural that you should tire of us, a set of shabby people. And dear
Catherine is so fond of you; she likes to keep you to herself."

"I don't know that she's so fond of me. I've been in town on business,"
Harry said, eager to escape from them.

Mr. Mildmay patted him on the shoulder with his newspaper. "Keep your
free will, my boy," he said; "don't give in to habits. Come when you
please, and go when you please--that's a man's rule."

Harry looked at this feeble Mephistopheles as if he would have liked to
kick him, but of course he did not; because he was feeble and old, and
"a cad," as the young man said in his heart; and so went in by the
verandah door to see Hester, and found her not, which was hard, after
what he had gone through. Mrs. John pinned him down for a talk, which
she was nervously anxious for, and which he, after the first moment,
liked well enough too; and perhaps it was as well, he consented to
think, that he should see how the land lay.

Meanwhile, Hester very cautiously had crept into the house of the old
people next door. The two houses were divided only by a partition, yet
how different the atmosphere was! The keen inquisitions of the Vernonry,
its hungry impatience to know and see everything, its satirical
comments, its inventions of evil motives, were all unknown here. And
even her mother's anxieties for her own advancement put a weary element
into life, which in the peaceful parlour of the old captain and his wife
existed no more than any other agitation. The old lady seated in the
window, putting down her book well pleased when the visitor came in, was
an embodiment of tranquillity. She had lived no easy life; she had known
many troubles and sorrows, laboured hard and suffered much; but all that
was over. Her busy hands were still, her heart at rest. Hester did not
know sometimes what this great tranquillity meant, whether it was the
mere quiet of age, almost mechanical, a blank of feeling, or if it was
the calm after great storms, the power of religious consolation and
faith. It filled her sometimes with a little awe--sometimes with a sort
of horror. To think that she, with all the blood dancing in her veins,
should ever come to be like that! And yet even in her small round she
had seen enough to be sure that these old people had a kind of happiness
in their quiet which few knew. Mrs. Morgan took off her spectacles, and
closed them within the book she had been reading, well pleased when
Hester appeared. The captain had gone out; she was alone; and perhaps
she did not care very much for her book. At all events, Hester was her
favourite, and the sight of the girl's bright looks and her youth, her
big eyes always full of wonder, her hair that would scarcely keep
straight, the "something springy in her gait," pleased the old lady and
did her good.

"May I stay and talk to you?" Hester said.

"You shall stay, dear, certainly, if you think it right; but I see
everything from my window, and Harry Vernon has just gone in to see your
mother. Do you know?"

"I saw him coming," Hester said, with a cloud upon her face, which
looked like displeasure, but was indeed the trouble of her
self-discussion and doubt as to what she should do.

"Something is wrong," said the old lady, "and you have come to tell me.
Are you going to marry Harry Vernon, Hester?"

"Would that be something wrong?" cried the girl, looking up quickly,
with a certain irritation. She did not mean to have so important a
question fore-judged in this easy way.

"That is according as you feel, my dear; but I fear he is not good
enough for you. Catherine says----"

Now the Morgans were altogether of Catherine's faction, being her
relations, and not--as the other members of the community remembered
with much resentment--Vernons at all. It was a sinful use of the family
property as concentrated in Catherine's hand, to support these old
people who had no right to it. More or less this was the sentiment of
the community generally, even, it is to be feared, of Mrs. John herself;
and consequently, as an almost infallible result, they were on
Catherine's side, and took her opinions. Hester stopped the mouth of the
old lady, so to speak, hastily holding up her hand.

"That is a mistake," she cried; "Catherine is quite wrong! She does not
like him; but he is honest as the skies--he is good. You must not think
badly of him because Catherine has a prejudice against him."

"That is a rash thing for you to say. Catherine is a great deal older,
and a great deal wiser than you."

"She may be older, and she may be wiser; but she does not know
everything," said Hester. "There is one prejudice of hers you don't
share--she thinks the same of me."

This staggered the old lady.

"It is true--she does not understand you somehow; things seem to go the
wrong way between times."

"Am I difficult to understand?" cried Hester. "I am only nineteen, and
Catherine is sixty----"

"You are not quite so easy as A B C," said Mrs. Morgan, with a smile;
"still I acknowledge that is one thing against her judgment. But you do
not answer my question. Are you going to marry Harry Vernon?"

Hester, seated in the shelter of the curtain, invisible from outside,
hardly visible within, looked out across the Common to the place where
she had sat and pondered, and breathed a half-articulate "No."

"Then, Hester, you should tell him so," said the old lady. "You should
not keep him hanging on. Show a little respect, my dear, to the man who
has shown so much respect to you."

"Do you call that respect?" said Hester, and then she added, lowering
her voice, "My mother wishes it. She thinks it would make her quite
happy. She says that she would want nothing more."

"Ah!" said the old lady, "that means----" It is to be feared that she was
going to say something not very respectful to Hester's mother, about
whom, also, Catherine's prejudice told: but she checked herself in time.
"That gives it another aspect," she said.

"Do you think it would be right to marry a man only because your mother
wished it?" asked Hester, fixing her eyes on Mrs. Morgan's face.

"Sometimes," said the old lady, with a smile.

"Sometimes! I thought you were like the captain, and believed in love."

"Sometimes," she said again. "It does not do in every case: that is what
I object to the captain and you for. You are always so absolute. Love
rejects suitableness; and if Catherine is not quite wrong--"

"She is quite wrong!" cried Hester again, vehemently. "She does not know
Harry any more than she knows me. He is not clever, but he is true."

"Then marry him, my dear."

"Why should I marry him?--one does not marry every one whom Catherine
misjudges--oh, there would be too many!--nor even to please mother."

"I am perhaps as poor a judge as Catherine, Hester."

"Now you are unjust--now you are unkind!" cried the girl, with anger in
her eyes.

"Come," said Mrs. Morgan, "you must not assault me. You are so young and
so fierce: and my old man is not here to take my part."

"I cannot ask him, because he is a man," said Hester; "but I know what
he would say. He would not say 'Sometimes' like you; he would say
'Never!' And that is what I think too."

"Because you are so young, my dear; and my old man, bless him, he is
very young. But this world is a very strange place. Right and wrong, are
like black and white; they are distinct and easy. The things that baffle
us are those that perhaps are not quite right, but certainly are not
wrong."

"Do you call it not wrong--to do what your heart revolts at to please
your mother?"

"I call that right in one sense; but I would not use such strong
language, Hester," the old lady said.

"This must be metaphysics," said the girl. "Sophistry, isn't it?
casuistry, I don't know what to call it; but I see through you. It would
be right to do a great many things to please her, to make my dress her
way instead of mine, to stop at home when she wanted me though I should
like to go out; but not--surely not, Mrs. Morgan----"

"To marry the man of her choice, though he is not your own?"

Hester nodded her head, her face glowing with the sudden blush that went
and came in a moment. She was agitated though she did not wish to show
it. The impulse to do it became suffocating, the shiver of repugnance
stronger as she felt that the danger was coming near.

"I am not so sure," said the old lady in her passionless calm.
"Sometimes such a venture turns out very well; to please your mother is
a very good thing in itself, and if you are right about his character,
and care for no one else, and can do it--for after all that is the great
thing, my dear--_if you can do it_--it might turn out very well, better
than if you took your own way."

"Is that all that is to be thought of, whether it will turn out well?"
cried Hester, indignantly. "You mean if it is successful; but the best
way is not always successful."

"Success in marriage means almost everything," the old lady said.

Then there was a pause. Separated only by the partition, Harry Vernon
was discoursing with Mrs. John on the same subject. He was telling her
all he would do for his wife when he got her. The White House should be
refurnished; but if she pleased the best of the old things, "the ormolu
and all that rubbish," Harry said, which gave the poor lady a wound in
spite of her great and happy emotion, should be put into the rooms which
were to be her rooms for life; but for Hester he would have everything
new. And he thought he saw his way to a carriage: for the phaeton,
though Ellen was fond of it, was not quite the thing, he allowed, for a
lady. He had got just about that length, and was going on, a little
excited by his own anticipations, and filling his future mother-in-law
with delight and happiness, when Hester, on the other side of the wall,
suddenly sprang up and cried, throwing up her hands--

"But I cannot do it!" in tones so painful and so clear that it was a
wonder they did not penetrate the wainscotting.

Mrs. Morgan, who had been waiting for a reply, folded her old
fingers--worn with the hard usage of life, but now so quiet--into each
other, and said, softly--

"That was what I thought."



                             CHAPTER XIII.
                          CATHERINE'S OPINION.


It is not to be supposed that Harry's visits, which made so much
commotion at the Vernonry, could have entirely escaped the keen
observation of the Grange. Catherine Vernon shared, with most sovereigns
and the ruling class in general, the peculiarity, not indeed a very
unusual one, of liking to know everything that went on within her
sphere. It was not as gossip, nor, she would have said with some reason,
from curiosity alone. She had for so long been all-powerful, and sure
that the means were in her hand to help those that wanted help, and to
regulate affairs in general for the benefit of the world, that it had
become a necessity, almost a duty on her part, to keep herself informed
of everything that went on. When an individual feels capable of
performing the part of a visible Providence, it becomes incumbent upon
that person, so far as possible, to know everything, to shut his eyes to
no detail, to note every little incident, and to encourage not only the
confidences of his possible clients and _protégés_, but the observations
of all surrounding them, and every hint as to their motives, their
intentions and purposes, that can be got at. The outside crowd, knowing
nothing of the meaning of these investigations, is apt to mistake them
altogether; but Catherine did not care much about the outside world. It
was her wish that everything should be told her, and she was perhaps too
apt to think that those who were not willing or able to open their
hearts, were people who had secrets in their life, and probably a good
deal that would not bear the light. She liked her friends to bring her
news, and never thought anything too trivial to be added to the mass of
information which was in her hands. She knew the habits of her
neighbours, and the good and evil fortune that befell them, better
sometimes than they did themselves. Parents, who were doubtful about the
proceedings of their sons, had they asked Catherine, would have known
all about them. So the prince, in a little State, may often interest
himself graciously about the affairs of his subjects, and monarchs are
the best of genealogists, knowing who married who all the world over,
even outside of the Almanach de Gotha. It is not a taste which can be
indulged without falling into an occasional appearance of pettiness; but
yet there is a great deal to be said for this degree of interest in our
fellow creatures, and there is no way in which it can be kept up so well
as in a country town, where everybody knows everybody else. This is
perhaps rather an elaborate preface to introduce the simple fact that
Catherine Vernon from the very beginning had known of Harry's visit to
the Vernonry. Her own woman, Meredith by name, shared her mistress's
task, without Catherine's fine reason for it, and carried it deeper than
Catherine, not refusing any garbage of the lanes to satisfy her
appetite. And she was a woman who saw everything and knew everybody. It
was no more than Harry's second or third visit when she pointed him out
to her mistress, walking past in his summer morning suit, which the long
evenings permitted a young man to retain while daylight lasted and he
could be about. Harry was very carefully got up; he wore light clothes,
and ties of the most interesting description. He had always the stick
which was in fashion, the hat of the moment; and a very pleasant sight
he was striding along in the summer evening, going where love carried
him, with honest intentions and a simple heart. He was not perhaps
capable of a very refined or poetical sentiment. He had at that time no
doubt whatever that Hester would accept him gratefully, not so much for
himself (in which point he had an instinctive humility), but for the
good things he could give her. The glamour and the thousand little
enchantments of love were not in him, but he was honest and true, as
Hester had said. He meant this poor girl, whom most people, in
Catherine's drawing-room and elsewhere, passed by without notice, though
some thought her pretty--he meant her as his wife to be a happy and
much-honoured woman. And what was more, he meant to be good to his
mother-in-law. He might have been a romantic paladin, or a man of
genius, and not have been so excellent, so worthy of all admiration as
that. It never occurred to Harry to go another way, to conceal what he
was about from prying eyes. He was not ashamed of what he was about. All
the world might watch his steps so far as he cared, and it must have
required a distinct effort on the part of any honest heart not to like
the sight of him as he went a-wooing, and wish him a happy ending.
Perhaps it would be too much to say that Catherine made that effort; but
she was not favourable to Harry as to his cousin who was under her own
roof.

It is scarcely possible for any eyes but those of a parent (and even the
eyes of a parent are not always impartial) to look upon two young
candidates for favour with exactly the same sentiments. If it is too
much to say that one will be loved and the other hated, at least the
balance will be unequal. Edward had found means from the beginning to
please his patroness and relative. He had been--is not this the grand
reason?--so good: he had been ready at her service when she wanted him,
he had stayed at home, he had been son and daughter to the lonely woman.
All that she knew of him was excellent, and she had no reason to imagine
there was anything to know which was not equally good.

Catherine was one of the people who say that they do not look for
gratitude. If Edward had not appreciated the kindness which picked him
up as it were from the roadside, she would but have laughed; she would
not have shown either surprise or pain; but the fact that he did feel
her kindness, and devote himself to her, touched her deeply. She was as
well off as if he had been her son, far better off than many mothers
with sons. But Harry was very different. For a long time she had made up
her mind that Harry was her great failure. He and his sister had never
attempted to attach themselves to Catherine. They had considered their
elevation to the White House, and the honours of the bank, as owing to
their own merits, and had set up a sort of heir-apparent establishment
always in opposition. With the natural instinct of a woman, she had
concluded it all to be Ellen's fault; but Harry had not the good sense
to separate himself from his sister, or even to imply that he did not
support her in her proceedings: far from that, he stood by her with the
utmost loyalty. Though he never was anything but deferential and
respectful in his dull way to his benefactress, he never would allow it
to be supposed that he did not approve of his sister and back her up. If
Catherine saw the merit of this faithfulness, it was in a grudging way;
and, as a matter of fact, she did not like Harry. There was nothing in
reality to find fault with in him. He was very steady at his business,
notwithstanding the rival claims of cricket in summer and football in
winter. And when he was asked to dinner at the Grange, he was as
punctual as clockwork, with an expanse of shirt front that would have
been a credit to any man. But he did not please Catherine. He had given
her a reproof which stung, on that occasion when he "took down" Mrs.
John, without waiting to know what person of importance should have gone
before. Nothing that could have been said would have stung Catherine so
much as that good-natured act, and it was all the more hard upon her
that in her heart (always a good and generous one) she approved Harry.
It was a reproach to her, and still more, it was a reproach to Edward,
who had never taken the slightest notice of Mrs. John's presence, but
left her among the neglected ones. Catherine had been doubly angry with
Harry ever since that evening. She would not allow even that he was a
handsome fellow.

"He is big enough," she would say, resenting the fact that he was a head
taller than Edward, and twice as strong. "He is a fine animal, if you
like: but I don't see how a man with white eyelashes can be considered
handsome."

Edward did not oppose his aunt in this any more than in other things. "I
allow," he would say, "that he is not clever." But he shook his head, as
one who would deprecate a too true accusation when Miss Vernon held
Harry up to ridicule. "No, he is not clever; he will never set the
Thames on fire," Edward said.

Miss Vernon saw Harry pass the third time he went to the Vernonry, and
afterwards she looked for him regularly. "Who was it for?" she asked,
with an ardent feminine appreciation of the only motive which could
induce a man to hurry over his dinner and get to the Vernonry in time
for the humble community's tea. This was a question not very hard to
answer, seeing that the next moment she added to herself, "Who else
could it be?" It could not be Matilda, or Martha, who were neither young
nor fair. It was very unlikely to be Mrs. Reginald, though she was young
enough, and not without beauty. "But Harry is not the man to burden
himself with a lot of children," said Catherine, with an unnecessary
scoff at the poor fellow who was not her favourite. Thus there was only
one person whom it could be. It gave her a sort of pang of amusement
when she concluded upon this--Hester! that proud, troublesome
creature--she who would never give in, who put on the airs of a princess
in the Grange drawing-room, and declined to go to supper--she with the
spirit of a revolutionary, and the temper of a--demon--(no, no, this was
perhaps too bad--the temper of a--Vernon, Catherine said to herself with
a laugh)--she to fall to the lot of Harry! This was so strangely funny,
so paradoxical, so out of character, that it amused Catherine altogether
beyond description, yet gave her a strange blow. What a ridiculous
combination! If the world had been ransacked for two who ought not to
come together, these two would be that pair. What would they do with
each other? how could they ever pull together--the one all eagerness and
vigour, the other stolid and heavy? Catherine was almost tempted to be
sorry for the girl, but the next moment she laughed again. Oh, it was
easy to understand! Mrs. John must have managed it all. She would see in
it a way of recovering all her lost glories, of getting back her footing
in that ridiculous White House, which had been adapted to her silly
taste from the beginning. Oh, no doubt it was her doing! She would talk
the girl over; she would persuade her into it, "with a host of petty
maxims preaching down a daughter's heart." And it was with a gleam of
vindictive amusement that Catherine assured herself that Mrs. John would
find herself mistaken. After she had made the marriage she would be left
in the lurch. Harry was not a man to put up with a mother-in-law. Thus
Catherine Vernon, though she was a clever woman, misconceived and
misunderstood them all.

But yet it did give her a natural pang. That girl, who compelled her
attention somehow, though she had no favour for her--who inspired her
with a certain respect, notwithstanding the consistent opposition to
herself which Hester had always shown--to think of that ambitious
creature, all fire and life being quenched in the dulness of Harry, put
out in the heavy tranquillity of his athletic existence--to score at
cricket matches, and spend long wearisome days out in the sun, watching
for the runs he got! But then, she would be well off, would have the
White House and all sorts of good things. Oh, no occasion to be sorry
for her. She would get her compensation. And then Catherine thought,
with a jealous displeasure which she felt angry with herself for
entertaining, of the arrangements which Harry's marriage would make
necessary. Up to this time he had more or less held his position at her
pleasure, but she had no reason, she was aware, to refuse to satisfy all
her engagements, and make him actually independent, as he had been
virtually for a long time back. She would not have the slightest excuse
for doing it. Everything had gone on perfectly well. There were no
complaints of him at the bank. The business flourished and made
progress. But the thought that Hester would be thus immediately placed
on a sort of equality with herself, and Mrs. John reinstated, vexed her.
It was a mean sentiment, but she could not help it. It vexed her in
spite of herself.

The news had been, it is scarcely necessary to say, communicated to
Edward at a very early stage. Miss Vernon had called him to her, after
dinner, as soon as he came up stairs to the drawing-room, to the window
from which the road was visible winding along the side of the Common to
the Vernonry.

"Do you see that?" she said, pointing his cousin out.

What? He saw the Common lying in all its sweetness, its roughness and
undulations standing out in the level sunset rays, every bush casting a
shadow. He was young, and he had at least a scientific love of nature,
and longed to be out poking into those beds of herbage, feeling the
fresh air on his face; and it was with a secret grudge in his heart that
he realised the difference between the light, strong figure moving along
buoyant with life and liberty, and he himself in his evening clothes in
his aunt's drawing-room, seeing it all from within four walls.

"What?" he said, thinking that he would rather not see the fair out-door
evening world since he could have no share in it. "Why--is it Harry?"
and then he felt that he hated the fellow who was his own master.

"He is going a-wooing," Miss Vernon said.

She was sitting in her favourite place which commanded this prospect,
the Common, the Vernonry, the tall pines, and the red bars of the sunset
behind. The sunset was her favourite entertainment, and in summer she
always sat here. Edward stood behind, looking out over her head. She did
not see the grimace with which he heard these words. And he did not
reply for some time. It gave him a shock more sharp even than that with
which Catherine herself had heard it first, though to be sure there was
no reason why.

"Ah!" he said indifferently, "who can he find to woo about here?" But he
knew very well in his heart what the answer would be.

"Only one person, so far as I can make out. It must be that girl of Mrs.
John's. I suppose she is what you call pretty, though she has never been
a favourite of mine."

"But you can't confine prettiness to your favourites, Aunt Catherine,"
said Edward, with a sharp smile which he had sometimes.

"No, that's true. I deserved that you should hit that blot. She is
pretty I know. Poor Harry, he will have his hands full, what with the
mild mother and the wild daughter. I wonder at the girl though. She is
an ambitious, energetic thing, and poor dear Harry will never set the
Thames on fire as you say."

"Did I say it? No, I don't think he will; but he has solid qualities."

"Very solid--the White House and his share in the bank. Oh, there will
be an equivalent! And to think that little schemer, that soft little
woman that looks as if she could not harm a fly, should have managed to
secure herself in this cunning way and get her daughter back to the
point she started from! Who would have thought it? There is nothing so
astute as simplicity."

Edward made no reply, and this was a thing Miss Vernon did not like. She
required a response. Silence felt like disapproval, and as there was a
strong silent protest in her heart against everything that was mean or
petty in what she said, she was apt to resent this want of acquiescence
all the more. She looked back at him when he did not expect it, and was
startled to see a look she had never seen before, a look that astonished
her, on his face. It was something like a snarl of contempt and despite,
but it disappeared in a moment and she could not believe her eyes.

"Are you so sure that Hester will marry him?" was all that Edward said.

"Marry him! Why how could he have so much as looked that way without
encouragement? To be sure she will marry him. Where could she find any
one who had so much to offer? The girl is not a fool. Besides, her
mother would not let her if she wished it; and of course she would not
wish it, an ambitious girl to whom her present position is intolerable.
Don't you remember her look on the Thursdays, which we both remarked?"

Edward had remarked it, not exactly in the same way as Catherine had
done. Hester's look had made him ashamed of himself, but he had not had
the strength to go and display himself by her side as Harry had done. It
made him furious to think of Harry standing there by her in the corner,
not caring what their patroness might think. It was a courage of which
he was not capable.

"Don't you think," he said, softly, "that we are going too fast, Aunt
Catherine, in every way? Harry's visit may be a chance one. There may be
no purpose at all in it, or it may have some other purpose."

"He was there last night and on last Saturday and Wednesday, and I don't
know how many evenings besides. Oh no, there can be no doubt on the
subject. It will be a great amusement for the Vernonry; the dear old
ladies want something to amuse them."

This was said of the Ridgways and Mr. Mildmay, who were all younger than
Catherine, and one of them a man. But that fact increased the pleasantry
all the more.

The curious thing was, that through all this Catherine was aware that
what she was saying was unworthy of her, and in reality was disgusted
with herself, and kept a mental reckoning of all the meannesses of which
she had been guilty. There were first her remarks upon Mrs. John, which
indeed might be true enough, but which she ought not to have made; and
her certainty that scheming and "encouragement" must have been used to
entrap Harry, and that Hester would marry him for an equivalent. No
moralist would have noted these faults more clearly than she did
herself, yet somehow she went on with them all the same. But it vexed
and annoyed her to find Edward so constrained. He said, "Will you come
and have a turn in the garden?" but not in his usual tone. That turn in
the garden had been doubly pleasant to her, because he had made it
appear that it was pleasant to him too.

"I think not to-night," she said.

"There is a new moon. It is a lovely evening," said he. "I think you
ought to go. The sunset on one side, and that clear, pale shining in the
east on the other, make such a beautiful contrast. Come, Aunt Catherine,
it will do you good."

"You think it will blow the ill-natured thoughts out of my head," she
said with a laugh.

"Have you ill-natured thoughts? I was not aware of it," said Edward; and
then as she did not move he added--"If you will not come I think I must
go and give a little attention to some papers I brought home with me. I
had not time to look at them during the day."

"What papers?" she said quickly.

"Oh, only some prospectuses and details about investments," he said with
a careless air, and left her: to her great surprise.

He had been in the habit of telling her of any work he had, all about
it, and of sitting with her for an hour or two at least. Catherine was
surprised, but as is natural in a first shock of this kind, having got
over the momentary prick of it, assured herself that it was accidental
and meant nothing: yet was a little more vexed with _that_ girl and with
Harry, because in the same way their concerns had brought about this
little, little break, this momentary lapse in the continuance. She could
not any longer amuse herself with the prospect of the Vernonry, and the
little excitement of this dawning story. There were a great many pricks
about the story altogether, sentiments and sensations of which, when
left alone and without the support of any moral backer up, of Meredith's
stimulating disclosures or Edward's assent, she felt ashamed. It was
wrong to speak as she had done about the astuteness of Mrs. John's
simplicity. Why should not the mother wish to place her child in the
position which she, after all by no fault of her own, poor creature! had
lost? Catherine escaped from the tingling of shame at her own pettiness
which had gone through her, by considering the final arrangements which
she would have to make in view of Harry's marriage. Practically she was
always magnanimous; she would have scorned a petty cutting off, a
restraint of liberality, a condition to her gifts. Her givings were
always large, and if her mind was warped by the sense of benefactions
unappreciated, or kindness unprized, of reaping envy and resentment
where she should have got gratitude and love, was it not the fault of
her pensioners more than her own, the fault of human nature, which she
had been forced to believe she saw through, and which--in order not to
break her heart over it--she was obliged to laugh at and despise?

It would have given Catherine Vernon a sharper shock still if she had
seen into Edward's mind as he went away from her, bitterly feeling that
while other men could taste the sweetness of freedom and of love, he was
attached to an old woman's apron-strings, and had to keep her company
and do her pleasure, instead of taking the good of his youth like the
rest. It was a sudden crisis of this bitterness which had made it
impossible for him to bear the yoke which he usually carried so
patiently, and which she, deceived in this instance, believed to be
pleasant to him, the natural impulse of a tranquil and home-loving
disposition. Had she known how he regarded it, how violently he
suppressed and subdued himself, the shock would have been a terrible
one; for she was slow to put faith in those around her, and she clung to
the one who had been able to impress her with a sense of
trustworthiness, with a double tenacity. Edward breathed more freely
when he got out of that drawing-room where he always seemed so entirely
at home. The library in which he sat when he was alone was a little less
oppressive in so far that he was alone in it, but the recollection of
Harry going lightly along in his freedom, going a-wooing, had raised a
ferment in the breast of the other which it was very difficult to quiet
down. Since the morning when he made her acquaintance first, Hester had
been an interest to the self-sufficing young man. Perhaps it was only a
little warmer than the interest he felt in his botany, in a new
specimen, but it had continued through all those years. When he spoke
that little aside to her at the party, with his eyebrows and shoulders
in a suppressed and confidential attitude which placed himself and her
in the same category of compelled assistants at a lugubrious merrymaking
where neither of them "got on"--he felt her in her poor little muslin
frock and her high indignation to be far the most interesting person in
the room, and he resented the necessity which made it impossible to him
as the official host to separate himself from the more important people,
and show the opinion he had of her. Here again the disabilities of his
good fortune weighed upon Edward. He was the host; he was the first
person there next to Catherine, her representative, the master of all
her wealth. Harry was not of any authority in the house; so he could do
as he pleased, and earn the gratitude of Hester; but Edward could
neither go to her side in her corner, nor set out of a lovely evening in
his pleasantest clothes to woo her, as a free man might. He was not sure
that he wanted to woo her, any more than as a fine specimen; but he
could not bear the impudence of the other fellow who thought himself
good enough to go after her, and whom Catherine thought so sure to win.
Edward could not contemplate with any self-possession the idea that
Harry might win. It made him angry, it made him furious; it made him for
the moment too much a natural man, too sincere and real to be capable of
his usual self-suppression. Harry would have an equal share with himself
of the bank; they were equal there in power and authority, and in the
profits they drew. Why then was it that Harry should be his own master
and Edward the slave of an old woman! This was the utterance of his
passion, of the sincerity which was forced upon him by the enticements
of the summer night, the freedom in the air, and the sight of all the
privileges which Harry exercised so easily without knowing they were
privileges at all. No doubt the fellow thought himself good enough for
Hester, perhaps believed that she would jump at him, and was encouraging
him, and ready to accept his proffered hand as soon as ever he should
hold it out. This thought made Edward's blood boil, and the confinement
of the Grange became so oppressive to him that he did not know how to
bear it. He indemnified himself by plunging into the midst of the bundle
of papers which he had not chosen to describe to Catherine. In these
papers lay far more excitement than all Harry's privileges had yet
supplied. A battery of artillery planted in front of this peaceful
Grange with all its matches alight would scarcely have been more full of
danger. There was enough in the packet to tear the house up by its
roots, and send its walls flying in a whirlwind of ashes and ruin.
Edward sat down to examine it as another man might have flown to brandy
or laudanum. Dreams were in it of sudden successes, of fortunes achieved
in a moment. Castles in the air more dazzling than ever rose in a fairy
tale. He revenged himself on his bonds, on the superior happiness of his
rival, on Catherine above all, the unconscious cause of his
imprisonment, by this--Here was enough, all ready and in his hands, to
ruin them all.



                              CHAPTER XIV.
                              HARRY'S VIEW.


Of all the people who discussed his affairs and were interested in his
prosperity, Harry Vernon himself would have agreed most entirely with
Catherine. He had no very elevated ideal either of life in general or
even of love, though that influenced him at the present moment very
powerfully. He had got to be "very fond," as he would himself have
described it, of Hester. He thought her very pretty to begin with, very
delightful, attractive, and amusing--the sort of girl with whom life
never would be dull. He thought her clever, one who would be able to
manage his now somewhat too large and unwieldy house and take the
trouble off his hands; he thought that handsomely dressed, as of course
she would be, she would look very nice at the head of his table and make
it popular--better even than Ellen had done: for in Ellen's time it had
been somewhat fast and noisy, more than Harry, with the instincts of a
respectable citizen and man of business, felt to be advantageous, though
he had enjoyed it well enough. In all these particulars he felt that his
affections were leading him wisely, and that not merely love--always
avowedly more or less folly--but discrimination and sense were in his
choice. But he would have thought Catherine perfectly right about the
advantages on Hester's side, and he would not have been disgusted or
offended by the suggestion that Mrs. John had schemed to place her
daughter in the White House, and done her best not to let such an
eligible suitor slip through her hands. And quite right too, he would
have said! He knew that he would be "a catch" for Hester, and that as
she was no fool, it was inconceivable that she should not jump at him.
This idea did not offend him at all; that she should marry him because
he could give her rank which otherwise she would not have, was a
natural, sensible, perfectly legitimate reason to Harry. Had there been
a rival in the field with greater things to offer, he would have felt
that he had a right to pause, to think what was most to her advantage.
But as there was nobody, he thought probably that Hester would be a
great fool if she made any difficulty. Catherine had offended herself
and offended Edward by her suggestion, but she would not have offended
Harry. "That is about it--that is the true state of the case," he would
have said. And it is possible that he might have represented that
notwithstanding the fact that she had no money, Hester would not be an
altogether bad investment; for she had connections. Mrs. John might be a
silly little woman, but she was Sir John Westwood's cousin, and a little
more backing up from the county people would do the Vernons no harm.
Thus he took a very common-sense view of the whole concern, thinking it
perfectly reasonable that Mrs. John should scheme, and that Hester
should consider the advantages. He thought even that she had probably
calculated the uses of holding back, and that her expeditions with the
old captain, her disappearances at the time of his own visits, were done
with a distinct intention of drawing a fellow on. It made him very
angry, especially as matters came to a crisis, to find her absent, and
only Mrs. John, very nervous and apologetic, waiting for him when he
went in: but after the first bitterness of the disappointment, he was
ready to allow that it was good policy, and that he was all the more
anxious in the pursuit because she thus played with him and kept him in
uncertainty. If Hester had but known that she was supposed to be
"drawing him on" by her absences! but fortunately she did not know. And
nothing could have made them understand each other on that point. They
belonged to two different species, and talked different languages. But
the superficial explanation which Catherine was ashamed of herself for
giving, and which Edward despised, would have seemed quite natural to
Harry, though in many ways he was better than they were, and far more
true to his own system of morality. He neither hid nor deceived, he did
not cheat himself nor any one else; and truth is so precious that even a
low matter-of-fact truth is better than half a falsehood, however
delicately and cleverly carried out. Harry was all genuine throughout,
not elevated in kind, but never pretending to be what he was not. He
liked to think that he had a great many advantages to bestow, and that
the lady of his hopes had too much good sense not to take these
advantages into consideration. This was different from wild impulse and
passion, which some people think finer things. But Harry did not think
so; he knew nothing indeed about them. He considered that a man (and on
the other side perhaps an heiress) might "please his fancy," in the
first place, about his wife, before thinking of other matters: but that
the girl should weigh the advantages, and strain a point to accept a
good offer, was as clear to him as daylight. It would not in the
smallest degree have vexed him to know that his own claims were thus
reasonably weighed. He had the proud satisfaction of thinking that
Hester was not very likely to get such another offer; and he felt
sufficient confidence in her good sense to be sure that this must have
its just influence upon her. Why should not it weigh with her? She was
"no fool." She could not but see on which side the advantage lay.

The only thing was that he got tired of waiting for the decision. He
thought it unreasonable that having so honourably and unequivocally
displayed his intentions, he should not be allowed to carry them out.
Summer began to wane and autumn to come on, and yet he had never been
able to speak to the object of his affections. At last his patience
failed him altogether. He announced his mind to Mrs. John almost with
solemnity. "I can't go on much longer," he said; "the servants worry me
to death. Ellen always took that sort of thing off my hands. But I don't
want Ellen to get in her nose again and spoil my wife's chances when she
does come. The truth is, I should like to get married before Christmas,
if I am to be married at all. Why should Hester hold me off and on? If
she won't have me, let her say so, and I can look elsewhere. I don't
think I should have much difficulty in finding--" he concluded, his
annoyance going off in a half-smile of vanity as he caressed his light
moustache.

A shiver ran through Mrs. John. Before Christmas! Even if Hester would
consent at all, was it possible that her reluctance could be overpowered
so soon, or that she should be made to acquiesce in Harry's quite
practical and matter-of-fact view. "No doubt you want a lady in the
house," she said, sympathetically. "I am sure if I could be of any
use----"

"Oh yes, of course you could be of use," said the straightforward lover,
"after we are married; but it would be making a laughing-stock of
ourselves if I were to have you before. If there was any reason for
putting off I might wait, but I don't see any reason. Once it's settled,
we could make our arrangements comfortably. It is being hung up like
this from week to week which is such a nuisance to me."

He went away that evening almost angry. What was to be done? Mrs. John's
natural instinct was to "talk to" Hester; but she had learned by
experience that "talking to" is not a very effectual instrument. All
that she had been able to say had been said, but without much apparent
effect. She had pointed out all the advantages. She had shown, with
tears in her eyes, what a change it would be--what an unspeakable,
delightful difference. Insensibly to herself, Mrs. John had become
eloquent upon the charms, if not of Harry, at least of the White House.
But this had suddenly been brought home to her by her remorseless child,
who said calmly, "Mother, if I could marry the house and let you have
it, I would do so in a moment," which stopped Mrs. John's mouth.

"Marry the--house!" she said, with a surprised cry.

"It is of the house you are talking. I know it is nice--or at least I
know you like it. I do not care for it myself."

"Oh, Hester, my first married home!"

"Yes, mother, I know. I wish I could get it for you--on easier terms,"
the girl said, with a sigh. And this was about all that ever came of
talking to her. She was very obstinate: and such a strange girl.

But sometimes Providence, so much appealed to--whom we upbraid for not
furthering us and backing up our plans--suddenly did interfere. It was
entirely by chance, as people say. Mrs. John had gone out of the room
not two minutes before, and Hester, who had been walking and had just
come in, stood before the old-fashioned dark mirror which occupied the
space between the windows, arranging her hair, which had been blown
about by the wind. It was, as has been said, troublesome hair--so full
of curls that the moment it had a chance it ran out of the level and
orderly into rings and twists, which were quite unfashionable in those
days. It had been loosened out by the wind, and she was trying to coax
it back into its legitimate bondage, with her arms raised to her head,
and her back turned to the door. Harry came in without knocking, and the
first intimation Hester had that the long-avoided moment had come, and
that there was no escape for her, was when she saw his large form in the
glass, close to her, looming over her, his fair head above hers, looking
down with admiration and tenderness upon her image. She turned round
hastily, with a cry of astonishment, her rebellious locks escaping from
her hands.

"Why shouldn't you let it stay so? It is very pretty so," Harry said,
looking at the curly mass with a smile, as if he had a great mind to
take a lock of it in his fingers.

Hester sprang away from him, and twisted it up, she did not know how.

"It is so untidy--there is so much wind." She was angry with herself for
apologising. It was he who ought to have apologised. She pushed the hair
away behind her ears, and got it fastened somehow. "I did not hear you
knock," she said.

"I fear I didn't knock. The verandah door was open. I saw nobody about.
I did not know whether I should find any one. You are so often out now."

"Yes, I walk with old Captain Morgan about this time. In the morning I
am always at home."

"If I had known that I should have come in the morning," he said, "not
regularly because of the bank, but I should have come once to see you.
However, this is far better. I am so glad to find you. I have wished for
this for months past. Has it never occurred to you that I was anxious to
see you, Hester? You looked to me as if you were keeping away."

"Why should I keep away? I do always the same thing at the same hour.
Captain Morgan is old--he requires to have somebody with him."

"And I--I am young, and I want somebody with me."

"Oh, it does not matter about young people," Hester said.

"I think it matters most of all, because they have their life before
them; and, don't you know, the choice of a companion tells for so
much----"

"A companion!--oh, that is quite a different question," said Hester. "It
is teaching I have always wanted, never a companion's place."

"I have heard of that," said Harry. "When you were quite a little thing
you wanted to teach, and Aunt Catherine would not let you.
You--teaching! It would have been quite out of the question. Won't you
sit down? Do come for once, now that I have found you, and sit down
here."

It was the little old-fashioned settee that was indicated, where there
was just room for two.

"Oh, I have got things to do!" cried Hester, in alarm. "My mother will
be here immediately, but I--have got something up stairs----"

"Always when I come," he said. "Just once, because I am here, listen to
me, Hester. It won't take very long. I think you use me very ill. You
know I come here for you, and you will never let me see you. And now
when I find you by chance, you insist that you have something to do.
Leave it till to-morrow. Perhaps after to-morrow," said Harry, in a
lugubrious voice, "I may not be coming any more."

"Is anything to happen to-morrow?" said Hester, betrayed by his seeming
gravity.

Then Harry cheered up again, and became more at his ease.

"Not," he said, "if something should happen to-night. That's what I
wish--that something should happen now. Sit down, please, and listen.
Don't you know, Hester--they say women always know--that I've been in
love with you ever so long?"

"No, I don't know anything about it," said Hester, though a sudden flush
came over her face.

She had seated herself on the sofa in a kind of desperation, fearing
that he meant to place himself beside her. And such had been Harry's
intention; but some dim sense of fitness moved him to depart from this
portion of his programme. He stood before her instead, looking down upon
her, feeling now that he had it all in his own hands.

"It is true, though. What do you suppose I have been coming here for
every night? I _think_ I've been in love with you ever since I first saw
you--when you were only a child. Now I'm alone since my sister is
married, and quite free to choose where I like. He made a pause, but
Hester did not say anything. She sat drawing patterns upon the carpet
with her foot, listening--because she could not help it. She who was so
full of eagerness and life, it seemed to Harry as if every line of her
figure expressed the listlessness of a subject that wearied her. Now
this was more than a fellow could stand, although even now he felt that
it drew him on. "By Jove!" he cried, "one would think you were getting
offers every day of your life."

She looked up at him with a brightening countenance.

"No," she said. "If this is an offer, Cousin Harry, it is the first I
have ever had."

"And you think no more of it than that!" he cried, with most natural
feeling, flinging himself down in a low wicker-work chair at her feet,
so that he made it shake and tremble. This restored Hester once more to
herself. She began to be amused, which, in the dull life she was
leading, told for so much.

"How should I take it? I don't know, indeed, for I never was in the
circumstances before. It is true I have read about it in books," said
Hester, considering. "A girl in a novel would say that it was a great
honour you had done her, Cousin Harry," for he showed signs of natural
impatience, jumping up and pacing noisily about the room. "Don't you see
it is very difficult. You make a statement to me about your own state of
mind, and then you look as if you expected something from me; but what
am I to say? I am not in love with you--or anybody," Hester added
quietly, as if by an after-thought.

He was coming towards her, with his lips apart ready to speak; but this
quiet little additional word seemed to stop in a moment what he was
going to say. He did not quite know how, nor did she know, whether she
meant anything by it; but it had an immediate effect. He gave a gasp as
if those arrested words almost choked him, then said, "Nor anybody?"
suddenly. It had seemed certain to him before that: she never could have
seen any one, and she had informed him that this was her first "offer";
nevertheless he took these words--having them thrown at him, as it were,
in a surprise--as a great concession. He drew a long breath, and said--

"Then, Hester, there is the more chance for me."

Thus in a moment their relative positions were changed. Harry had begun
by feeling that he had a great deal to bestow--many things which no girl
in her senses could neglect or reject. But in a moment he had been
reduced to what in chivalry should be a lover's only standing-ground,
the right of telling his love with or without response, waiting
absolutely upon his lady's pleasure, hoping for her bounty--no more. He
was so carried away by this new impulse that he did not understand
himself, or the change worked in him; but with a gasp as for breath,
turned from the nineteenth-century version of love-making to the
primitive one, not knowing what he did.

"I don't know," said Hester. "Perhaps; I cannot tell. I don't know
anything about it; and, if I must tell you the truth, Cousin Harry, I
don't wish to know. It seems to me that all that is silly between you
and me. You can come here as often as you like: my mother is always glad
to see you. We are all very good friends. What advantage do you think
there would be in turning everything upside down--in making a great fuss
and disturbance and changing all our relations? I cannot see what object
there is in it. I think we are much better to stay as we are."

"But I don't think so," said Harry stoutly. "If you're going to argue
about it, I never was good at that sort of thing, and you might easily
beat me. But _I_ don't think so. I don't care about being good friends.
I want you to belong to me, to live with me, you and your mother too.
Why! we might go on as we are doing for a hundred years, and we never
could be of any use to each other----"

Here Hester stopped him with raised hand and gesture. "Oh, yes, a great
deal of use. To be friends is about the best thing in the world----"

"Not half so good," cried Harry, "as being man and wife! My house might
all be at sixes and sevens, and you could not help me to manage it,
living here; and you would never let me be of any use to you. Don't you
see? if we were married I could give you everything you wanted, it would
be natural. We should get on together, I know. I should never grudge you
anything, and your mother could come back to her old home, and I should
see to her comfort too. Whereas here, living as we are, what can I
do?--or you for me?" said Harry. "Ah! that's all nonsense about being
friends. It isn't your friend I want to be."

"What you say is very curious to me," said Hester. "There is a great
deal that is very fine in it, Cousin Harry. To offer to give me all that
is very nice of you, and I should like to help you to manage your house.
I have often thought I should like to try--very likely I should not
succeed, but I should like to try."

"It is the easiest thing in the world," he said with a smile that was
tender, and touched Hester's heart. "As soon as ever you marry me----"

"But the preliminary is just what I don't like," said Hester. "I would
rather not marry--any one. I don't see the need for it. We are very well
as we are, but we don't know what a new state of things might do for
us."

"I know," said Harry, "what it would do for me. It would make me very
happy and comfortable at home, which I am not now. It would settle us
both in life. A young fellow is thought nothing of till he is married.
He may go off to the bad at any time, he may take a wrong turn; and in
business he is never relied upon in the same way. When he has a wife he
has given hostages to society, they say--that is what it would do for
me. Except being richer and better off, and able to make your mother
comfortable, and so forth, I can't say, of course, what it would do for
you."

"Nor I either," she said gravely. "All these things would be very good:
but it might make me into something I shouldn't like. I feel afraid of
it. I have no inclination to it, but all the other way."

"By Jove!" said Harry, which was an exclamation he never used save when
very hard bested, "that is not very complimentary to me."

"Did you wish me to pay you compliments? No; we are arguing out the
general question," said Hester, with her serious face.

Harry was at his wits' end with impatience and provokedness, if we may
use such a word. He could have seized her with his hands and shaken her,
and yet, all the time, he was still conscious that this strange
treatment drew a fellow on.

"I suppose all this means that you won't have me?" he said, after a
pause.

"I think so, Cousin Harry. I am not satisfied that it would do us any
good; but don't rush away in a temper," she said, laying her hand
lightly on his arm. "Don't be vexed; why should you? I don't mean to vex
you. If I don't see a thing in the same light as you do, that is no
reason why you should be angry."

"By Jove!" said Harry again, "if a man is not to be vexed when he's
refused, I wonder what you think he's made of?--not flesh and blood."

"Sense," said Hester, "and kindness. These are things you are made of,
whether you are angry or not."

She had risen up, and stood looking at him, as he turned round hastily
and made for the door; but this flattery (if it was flattery) stopped
him. He turned round again and stood looking at her, tantalised,
provoked, soothed, not knowing what to say.

"If you think all that of me, why won't you have me?" he said,
stretching out wistful hands towards her.

Hester shook her head.

"I don't want to have--any one," she said.

Mrs. John had been listening on the stairs. Not listening--she was too
far off to hear a word--but waiting for the indications which a step, a
sound of movement, the opening of a door, might give. The stair was an
old oaken one at the end of the passage, hidden in the evening dimness;
dark at any time even in the day. When the door did open at last, though
it did so with a little jar as from an agitated hand, yet two voices
came out, and the sound of their conversation was not angry, nor like
that of people who had quarrelled. But, on the other hand, it was not
low like the talk of lovers; and Mrs. John could not conceive it
possible that if he had been accepted Harry would have left the house
without seeing her. That was impossible. Either nothing had been said on
the subject, or else-- But what else? She was confounded, and could not
tell what to think. Hester went out with him to the verandah door. It
was she who did most of the talking. She called out to him something
that sounded like "Don't be long of coming back," as he went out. Mrs.
John by this time had hurried out of the staircase, and rushed to a
window whence she could see him departing. He turned round and waved his
hand, but he also shook his head with a look more completely lover-like
than Mrs. John had yet seen him cast at her child. It was full of tender
reproach, yet pleasure, disappointment, but also something that was far
from despair. "It is all very well for you to say so," he said. What did
it mean? Mrs. John hurried down when he had disappeared, tingling with
curiosity and anxiety. She found Hester sitting in the twilight quite
unoccupied, her hands in her lap, her eyes gazing straight before her.
Nothing could be more unlike her usual dislike to idleness. She was
lying back on the settee, thinking, not even asking for lights. Mrs.
John stole to her in the gathering darkness and gave her a sudden kiss.
The mother was tremulous and shaken, the daughter very calm.

"Oh, Hester! what has happened? Have you accepted him?" said Mrs. John:
"have you refused him? What has been going on? Now it is over, you might
let me know."

"I am just trying to think, mother," Hester said.



                              CHAPTER XV.
                          WHAT EDWARD THOUGHT.


The day after this interview, which had excited everybody, and which,
not only Mrs. John, but the chorus of attentive neighbours had felt in
their hearts to be of the most critical importance, Hester had, as
happened sometimes, a commission from her mother--or rather, as she was
the active housekeeper and agent in all their business, a necessity of
her own, which took her into Redborough. Mrs. John had been brought up
in the age when girls were supposed to be charming and delightful in
proportion as they were helpless, and her residence abroad had confirmed
her in the idea that it was not becoming, or indeed possible, to permit
a young woman "of our class" to go anywhere alone. But what was it
possible for the poor lady to do! She could not herself walk into
Redborough, a distance which was nothing in the estimation of the young
and energetic. All that Mrs. John was capable of, was to bemoan herself,
to wring her hands, and complain how dreadfully things were changed, how
incapable she herself would have been of going anywhere
unaccompanied--all which galled, almost beyond endurance, the high
spirit of Hester, whose proud consciousness of perfect capacity to guard
herself wherever she choose to go, was yet so much embittered by the
tradition of her mother's prejudice, that her expeditions, harmless as
they were, always appeared to her as a sort of confession of lowliness
and poverty, and defiance of the world's opinion. Thus she moved swift
and proud about the streets, looking neither to the right hand nor the
left, with a half-shame, half-scorn of her unprotectedness, which
mingled oddly with her indignant contempt of the idea of wanting
protection at all. No messenger ever went so quickly, or returned so
soon as Hester, under this double inspiration. She skimmed along with
"that springy motion in her gait," as straight and as light as an arrow;
and before the chorus of the Vernonry had finished communicating to each
other the exciting fact that Mrs. John had once more permitted _that_
girl to go into town by herself, and asking each other what she could
expect was to come of such proceedings--Hester would walk back into the
midst of their conclave with such a consciousness of all their
whisperings in the large eyes with which she contemplated them as she
passed to her mother's door, as suddenly hushed and almost abashed the
eager gossips.

"She can't have been in Redborough," Miss Matilda would say breathless
when the girl disappeared. "Nobody could go so quickly as that. She has
never been there at all. Dear Mrs. John, how she is taken in! She must
have had some appointment, some rendezvous, there can't be any doubt of
it."

"You know best, ladies, how such things are managed," Mr. Mildmay Vernon
would say with his acid smile, which was like a doubled-edged weapon,
and cut every way.

This was the usual course of affairs. But on this particular day she did
not surprise them in their animadversions by her rapid return. She was
as long as an ordinary mortal. It was already afternoon when she set
out, and the early autumn twilight had almost begun when she returned
home. The weather was no longer warm enough to permit of those hostile
meetings in the summer-house where the Vernonry disputed and
fraternised. They were all indoors, looking out--Miss Matilda seated in
her window, with her work-table displayed, Mr. Mildmay making himself
uncomfortable at the only angle of his which commanded the gate, to
watch for the girl's return. If Harry accompanied her back the community
felt that this would be certain evidence as to what had happened; but
they were still full of hope that Harry had not been such a fool. It
strung up their nerves to the highest pitch of suspense to have to wait
so long, especially as it was evident that Mrs. John too was exceedingly
nervous about her daughter's delay. She was seen to go out, at least
twice, with a shawl over her cap, to look out along the road, and twice
to return disappointed. What was she anxious about? Very good cause she
had to be anxious with a girl like _that_, wandering no one could tell
where about the streets! And where could she be? and whom could she be
with? Of course things could not go on like this; it must come to light
sooner or later; for the credit of the family it ought not to be allowed
to go on. This was what the chorus said.

In the meantime Hester had done her business as quickly as usual, but on
her return she had found herself waylaid. Edward, with whom her
intercourse had been so broken, who had established himself on the
footing of a confidential friend on the first day of her arrival, and at
intervals when they had met by chance since then, had spoken and looked
as if this _entente cordiale_ had never been disturbed--Edward was
lingering upon the edge of the Common on this particular afternoon on
his way home apparently, though it was early. It would be difficult to
explain Hester's feelings towards him. He piqued her curiosity and her
interest beyond any one of the limited circle with which the girl had to
do. There were times when her indignation at the contrast between his
fraternal and almost tender accost on their accidental meetings, and the
way in which he held himself aloof on more public occasions, was
uncontrollable; but yet there rarely occurred any of these public
occasions without a meaning look, a word said in an undertone which
conveyed to Hester a curious sense of secret intimacy, of having more to
do with Edward's life than any of the fine people among whom he was so
much more visibly familiar. She was young enough to have her imagination
excited, and kept in a state of tantalised interest by these tactics,
and also to be indignant by any suggestion that this mode of treatment
was not honourable on his part. Not honourable! The idea would have
roused Hester into proud indignation. What was he to her that it should
matter how he behaved? His blowing hot and cold, his holding off and on,
which a moralist would have condemned summarily, which the gossips would
have delighted in commenting upon, what was it to her? But it amused her
in the meantime with a constant curiosity and frequent pique, exercising
over her imagination something of the same effect which her own
waywardness had upon Harry, when he declared that it drew a fellow on.
When she got out of the streets, and saw before her walking slowly, as
if waiting for some one, the figure of this tantalising and uncertain
personage, there was a slight quickening of Hester's pulses and flutter
at her heart. He had never done anything of this kind before, and she
had a feeling that he had not waited for her for nothing, but that some
further revelation must be at hand.

"I saw you from my office-window," he said. "I never saw any one walk
like you. I know you at once at any distance, even in a crowd. Do you
dislike so much walking alone?"

"Why should I?" she asked quickly. "I always walk alone."

"That is no answer. One may hate many things one has to do habitually.
Your walk says that you dislike it. It says, Here am I, who ought to be
guarded like a princess; but I am poor, I have no escort of honour; yet
here I walk, a whole retinue, a body-guard to myself."

Hester's colour changed from pale to red, and from red to pale, with
mingled indignation and pleasure. It occurred to her, against her will,
that Harry might have seen her pass for years without learning anything
from her gait.

"I have to be my own body-guard, it is true," she said; "but why should
I want one at all? It is folly to suppose a girl requires protection
wherever she goes. Protection! who would harm me?" she cried, lighting
up with an almost angry glow.

"I for one should not like to try," said Edward, looking at her, with a
look which was habitual to him when they were alone. What did it mean? A
sort of contemplative regretful admiration as of a man who would like to
say a great deal more than he dared say--a sort of, "if I might," "if I
could," with an element of impatience and almost anger in the regret.
There was a pause, and then he resumed suddenly, and without any
preface, "So it is Harry--who is to be the man?"

"Harry!" Hester gasped, suddenly stopping short, as she had a way of
doing when anything vexed or disturbed her. The rapidity of the attack
took away her breath. Then she added, as most people, and certainly
every girl naturally would add, "I don't know what you mean."

"Who else?" said Edward, calmly. "He has his freedom and he knows how to
use it. And I approve him, for my part. I am of the same opinion. It
should be I, if I were he."

It seemed to Hester that all the blood in her rushed to her throbbing
cheeks and aching forehead. She stamped her foot on the ground.

"Is it of me you dare to speak so?" she cried. "Oh, I understand you!
When one has been brought up among the Vernons, one knows what things
mean. You venture to tell me that Harry is the man!--who else?--but that
you would have been so had you been free--the man," cried the girl with
blazing eyes, that smote him with lightnings not of a harmless kind, "to
pick up out of the dust--me!--like something on the roadside."

"You are very eloquent, my little cousin," said Edward, "not that there
is very much in what you say; but your looks and gesture are as fine as
ever I saw. After all though, is it called for? When I say that Harry is
the man, I do not suppose either that he is worthy of you, or that you
think so; but you are a girl, what can you do? They would not let you
work, and if you could work, nothing but daily bread would come of it.
And, my dear Hester, you want a great deal more than daily bread. You
want triumph, power; you want to be as you are by nature, somebody. Oh,
yes," he said, going on quietly, waving his hand to avert the angry
interruption which was on her lips; "believe me it is so, even if you
don't know it. And how can you do this, save by marrying? It does not
make anything worse to recognise its real character. You must do this by
marrying. Harry is the first man who offers. If you were to wait a
little longer you might do better; but you do not feel that you can
wait. I do not blame you. I should do the same were I you."

All this was said very quietly, the speaker going on by her side with
his eyes turned to the ground, swinging his stick in a meditative way.
The soft measure of his voice, with little pauses as if to mark the
cadence, exercised a sort of spell upon the girl, who with passion in
all her veins, and a suffocating sense of growing rage, which made her
almost powerless, and took away words in the very heat of her need for
them--moved on too against her will, feeling that she could express
herself only by tones of fury if she attempted to express herself at
all.

"Money does it all," said Edward, in the same meditative way. "I am
supposed to have as much as he has, but I am tied to an old woman's
apron, and would lose everything were I to venture like he. Why should
he be free and I a slave? I know no reason. Caprice--chance, made it so.
He might have been taken in at the Grange, and I at the White House.
Then I should have been the man, and he been nowhere. It is just so in
life. Nothing but money can set it right. Money does. You can believe in
Providence when you have money. I shall get it some day; but so far as
this goes, I shall be too late. For you, there are compensations," he
said, giving a little glance at her. "You will find him very
manageable--more manageable than many who would have suited you
better--than myself for instance. I should not have been docile at
all--even to you--but he will be. You can do what you please with him;
there is compensation in all----"

"Cousin Edward," said Hester, suddenly finding her voice, "you told me
just now that I disliked to walk alone, that I was poor and had no
body-guard. I said, who would harm me? but you have proved that it was
true, and I a fool. I did want a body-guard, some one to see that I was
not insulted, to protect me, on a quiet country road, from--from--"

"Yes? from--whom? an unsuccessful suitor: a man that always has a right
to be insulting," cried Edward with a sort of laugh, "to relieve his
mind. True! to be sure all these things are true. It is quite right that
a girl needs protection. Men are stronger than she is, and they will
insult her if it is in their power, if not in one way then in another.
The weak will always go to the wall. If there is nobody to take care of
you, and nobody to punish me for it, of course I shall treat you badly.
If I am not any worse than my neighbours I don't pretend to be any
better. Do you think I should have waited for you to-night if I had not
wanted to insult you? because you were alone and unprotected and
unfriended," he said, with a sort of snarl at her, turning upon her with
a fierce sneer on his face.

Hester was struck with a horror which stopped her indignation in full
career. "Oh," she cried, "how can you make yourself out to be so
ignoble, so ungenerous! even when you say it I cannot believe it; to
insult me cannot be what you mean."

"Why not?" he said, looking at her, "you can't do anything to me. For
your own sake you will tell nobody that Edward Vernon met you and--said
anything that he ought not to have said. Besides, if you wished to ruin
me with _her_," he waved his hand towards the Grange as he spoke, "in
the first place she would not believe you, in the second place if it
came to that I should not much mind. It would be emancipation anyhow; I
should be no longer a slave bound to follow a woman, in chains. If I
lost in one way, I should gain in another. But I am safe with you," he
said with another laugh; "I am free to irritate you, to outrage you as
much as I please; you will not complain: and in that case why should not
I take it out of you?" he cried, turning fiercely upon her.

Hester was too much startled to retain the violent indignation and
offence of her first impulse. She was overwhelmed with pity and horror.

"Cousin Edward," she said, "you do not mean all that. You did not come
here to insult me. You must have had some other thought. You must be
very unhappy somehow, and troubled, and distressed to speak as you are
doing now. It comes out of yourself, it is not anything about me."

"Oh, yes, it is something about you," he said with a laugh. Then after a
pause, "But you have some insight all the same. No. I'll tell you what
it is; it is money, money, Hester--that is what we all want. If you had
it you would no more marry Harry than old Rule; if I had it----And the
thing clear is that I must have it," said Edward, breaking off abruptly.
"I can't wait."

Hester went home very much bewildered, outraged by all he said, yet more
sorry than angry. He had not made any reply to her appeal for his
confidence, yet she knew that she was right--that it was out of a
troubled and miserable heart that he had spoken, not merely out of
wounded feeling on the subject of herself. She did not know whether he
understood what she said to him on the subject of Harry, or if that
penetrated his mind at all; but she went home at once more miserable and
more interested than she thought she had ever been in her life. Had not
she too drawn some conclusion of the same kind from her own experiences,
from the atmosphere of the Vernonry so full of ingratitude, unkindness,
and all uncharitableness? She came very slowly home, and took no notice
of the way in which Mildmay Vernon squinted at her from his corner, and
the Miss Ridgways waved their hands from the window. Harry then had not
come home with her. "I knew he was not such a fool," the male observer
said to himself, and the sisters laughed and talked in quite an outburst
of gaiety for some time after. "Harry Vernon think of _that_ girl! of
course he did not. Who would? so ill brought up, with such manners, and
hair that is nearly red," they said.



                              CHAPTER XVI.
                            WALKS AND TALKS.


"They tell me you are to be congratulated, Hester," said old Captain
Morgan.

She had met him taking his evening walk, and in that and in his aspect
altogether there was something altogether despondent--a depression and
air of weakness which was not common with the old man. She had not gone
with him for some days, and perhaps he had felt the desertion. The first
thing Hester did was to draw his hand within her arm.

"You are tired," she said.

"Not very. I am a silly old fellow and always go too far. I have been
thinking of you, my dear; and if you are to be congratulated----"

"No; I don't think so, Captain Morgan. What about?"

"About---- If anything so important had happened you would have come and
told me, Hester."

"I am glad you see that at last. But yes, there is something to
congratulate me upon. Nothing did happen. Is not that a great deal to
say? For I was tempted, sadly tempted."

"My dear, I don't understand that."

Hester laughed.

"You see, Captain Morgan, you are wise and know a great deal; but you
were never a girl--and a poor girl. It would have been so delightful to
put my mother back in her nice house, and show Catherine----" Here she
paused somewhat embarrassed.

"What of Catherine?" he said.

"Oh, not much--they were, perhaps, when they were young--on different
sides. My mother has come down, and Cousin Catherine has gone up. I
should like to have put the balance straight."

"To bring Catherine down, and put your mother----"

"No, Captain Morgan. Catherine is always good when she is with you. I
think I almost like her _then_. I would not harm her," said Hester,
holding up her head, "if I had the power to do it. But she scorns every
one of us; perhaps because we all consent to eat her bread. I would not,
you know, if I could help it."

"I know you are ungenerous, Hester, in that respect."

"Ungenerous! Well, never mind, there are more kinds of ungenerosity than
one. I am going in with you to tell Mrs. Morgan."

"I am not sure," said the old captain, "though it is a wretched piece of
self-denial, that I want you to come with me to-night."

Hester opened her great eyes wide.

"Why!" she said. It was the one house in the world to which she felt she
had a right.

"That is nonsense, however," said the old man; "for of course you must
meet. We have got our grandson, Hester."

"I heard somebody had come, but I thought it was a gentleman. I did not
know you had any--children--except little Mary."

"We have none--in this world; but do you think my wife would have been
what she is with never a child? We all have our disabilities, my love. I
have never been a young girl, and you have never been an old--pair."

They both laughed. Hester with the easily-recovered cheerfulness of
youth, he in tremulous tones, which had as much pathos as mirth in them.

"This is the son of my daughter," he said. "She has been long dead, poor
girl--happily for her. Unless when there is some business connected with
them to be settled we don't talk much of them. My wife and I long ago
went back to the honeymoon stage. We have had to live for each other:
and very glad to have each other to live for. Children are very strange,
my dear."

"Are they?" said Hester, with an awe which she could scarcely
understand.

"Very strange. So dependent upon you for long, so independent after; so
unlike you, that you cannot understand what you have to do with them.
Perhaps it is a penalty of living so long as we have done. I have a
theory," said the old captain, cheering up, "that after seventy, when
you have lived out your life, you begin another. And it is quite
different. It is a pity we can't renew the old bodies--eyes and ears and
legs and all the rest of it. It would be a very interesting experiment."

"Like the people who found the elixir of life, or the Wandering Jew?"

The girl spoke to humour him, herself wondering over every word with
that curiosity, mingled with pity and tenderness and half disapproval,
with which youth listens to the vagaries of age.

"Not at all like the Wandering Jew; his life was continuous and
one-ideaed," said Captain Morgan, delighted to get upon his hobby. "And
I miss a great deal in the stories of those who get the elixir. They may
renew their lives but not themselves. There is one I recollect at this
moment, St. Leon. Of course you have never read St. Leon. He becomes a
beautiful young man, and the rival of his son, who, of course, does not
know him. But the old fellow knows _him_. He is an old fellow
notwithstanding his elixir; the soul of him is just the same. That is
not my point of view."

The old man had become quite erect and walked smartly, animated by his
fancy, leading Hester with him rather than leaning on her.

"No," he repeated, "that is not at all my point of view. The bodies keep
old, the minds get--different. I have shaken off my old burdens. I don't
take any more responsibility for those who--used to belong to me. They
don't belong to me any longer. They are labouring along in the former
life. I have started in the new."

"But Mrs. Morgan?" said Hester, with a quaver in her voice.

"Ah! there's the blot," said the old man. "Of course, she and I belong
to each other for ever and ever. Oh, I don't want to begin again without
my old wife; and she won't give up the children, though they are
children no longer. Once a mother, always a mother, Hester. You women
are sadly fettered--you can't shake it off."

"Nor you either, Captain Morgan!" cried Hester, indignant. She could not
bear that he should so wrong himself.

"My dear, I could do it--without difficulty. Is it just, do you think,
that one human creature should be made the victim of another, simply
because he has been instrumental in bringing that other into the world?
Supposing that they have drained all that was best in me out of me for
years? Supposing that they have made my life hard and bitter to me?
Supposing that they have grown alien to me in every respect--thinking
other thoughts, walking in other ways? And that they are as old and more
worldly than I am--older, less open to any influence of nature--am I to
go treating these old rigid commonplace people as if they were my
children still, and breaking my heart about them? No; no."

This seemed a terrible speech to Hester. She kept patting his arm softly
with her hand, and saying, "Oh, Captain Morgan! You do not mean that!"
again and again. It was dreadful that he should say this. A father to
give up his children! It hurt Hester to think that such an idea could
find entrance into any mind.

"And as for the grandchildren, that is out of the question altogether,"
Captain Morgan said; "I am not going to begin a new life of trouble
through them."

"I thought," said Hester, "that fathers and mothers never could forget
their children--it is in the Bible."

"'Can a woman forget?' It is a woman, my dear. There is nothing about a
man. My wife is horrified at what I say, as much as you are. But for all
that there is justice in everything, and one soul should not be
sacrificed for another. Well, will you come in? I do not forbid you; but
don't take much notice, I warn you, Hester, of the person you are going
to meet."

The person she was going to meet! This was enough to make her curious,
if not prepossess her in favour of the unknown, who, however, she
expected to be introduced to her in the shape of a schoolboy--perhaps a
heavy schoolboy--a sort of being for whom the girl had an instinctive
dislike. She followed the old captain into the house almost
mechanically. Mrs. Morgan's chair, now that it began to be chilly in the
evenings, was placed so as to approach the fire, which in the evening
was now always lighted, and sent out a cheerful glow. It was more
cheerful than usual to-night, coming in from the grey of the waning
light outside. There was no lamp, but only the leaping flame of the
fire. The sound of cheerful voices in conversation, even of laughter,
was audible as the door was opened. The quiet in which the old lady
generally sat waiting for her husband's return--a tranquillity which was
peace itself, yet a silent peacefulness--had always seemed very sweet to
Hester. That soft stillness of waiting had seemed to her the very
atmosphere of love; but now at the door, even before she entered, she
was conscious of a difference. Life had entered in. The voices were not
forced or measured, but chiming with each other in the free interchange
of familiar affection: the old lady's soft little laugh enticing a
louder laughter; her voice alternating with the deeper tones. There was
no pause in this lively conversation; but some one rose up against the
firelight--a tall, straight figure, no schoolboy, as was evident at the
first glance--when they went in. But, indeed, the first glance was not
supported by any further revelation, for after the little commotion
occasioned by their entrance, the stranger subsided into his chair
again, and remained to Hester, till her departure, a shadow only, with a
singularly soft and harmonious voice. It got up again to bow to her. And
it went on talking, out of the gloom, as she, sitting in the full glare
of the light, kept shyly by Mrs. Morgan's side. Why was she shy? It was
not her disposition to be shy. This evening a gentle embarrassment was
upon her. She had a pleasure in sitting there by the old lady's side,
defended by the darkness from all necessity of saying anything, sharing,
she could scarcely tell why, the content which trembled in every tone of
her old friend's voice. The captain did not take any share in this talk.
He sat down behind backs, saying that the fire was too much for him,
with a long-drawn breath that sounded like a sigh. Once or twice he was
appealed to by name, and made a brief response; but he took no part in
the conversation. On ordinary occasions it was he who talked, Mrs.
Morgan in her great chair remaining quietly quiescent, now and then
making a remark. It was very strange to see the captain thrown thus into
the background; but, curiously enough, Hester did not remark it, so much
was she occupied with the novelty of the conversation. When the door
opened she was alarmed lest it should be the lights that were coming, so
much more satisfactory was it to let things remain as they were. The
unseen speaker talked about a great many things altogether unknown to
Hester--his brothers and sisters, his cousins, a throng of unknown
Christian names, every one of which it was evident had characteristics
of its own with which both the speakers were acquainted. The listener
felt as if a throng of new acquaintances crowded softly in, filling the
dim place with not unfriendly faces.

"And what is Elinor doing?" Mrs. Morgan said.

"It is easy to answer that question, grandmother. She is spoiling her
children, and we all know so much better, we who have none."

"Yes, yes; that is always the way," said the old lady. "But, Roland, you
must tell her from me that it is very foolish. She will not think it is
ignorance on my part. Her mother, poor dear, was just the same," and
here the old lady shook her head softly, with a glitter in her eyes, as
if a tear was not far off; but if so, there was sweetness in the tear.
She turned, after a time, to Hester, who sat by, with a strange sort of
pleasure to which she was unaccustomed, listening, in surprised
interest, without wishing to take any part.

"You are surprised to hear me so talkative, Hester? But it is not often
I have a grandson to wake me up. You did not know I had one perhaps? Ah!
I have been hearing of so many people that I don't often hear of. That
does an old body good."

"I like it too," said Hester, the firelight adding colour and animation
to her face. "I did not know there were so many people in the world."

"That's very pretty of you to say, my dear," said the old lady. "I was
afraid you would think it all gossip; but they are people who belong to
me, the most of them. And letters don't tell you like the voice. You
must run away when you are tired, for I think I shall go on asking
questions till midnight. This young lady--this dear girl--Roland, is the
comfort of our lives."

"I thought no less," said the voice of the shadow, with a softness which
went to Hester's heart, sending a little thrill of pleasure through her.
She had not even seen his face--but she could not be unaware that he was
looking at hers--from the protecting darkness on the other side of the
fire. This curious pleasurable encounter, as through a veil, of two
fresh souls, hitherto unknown to each other--a moment as full of
enchantment as can be in this world--was suddenly broken in upon by the
old captain, who jumped up, notwithstanding his rheumatism, as quickly
as a boy, and, coming between, stood up with his back to the fire,
interrupting the light.

"My old woman," he said, "your Elinors and your Emilys are like a book
to her. It is like reading a chapter at hazard out of a novel; but there
is no end to the story and no beginning, and she is at this moment deep
in her own--approaching the end of the third volume."

"I should have said, to see Miss Vernon," said the stranger, who was
more a voice than ever, now that the old man interrupted what little
light there was, "that she was at the beginning of the first."

Was it the beginning of the first? Hester felt a wave of colour fly over
her face, and thought in her heart that the new-comer was right. The
initial chapter--surely this was true; not even a beginning, but
something that went before any beginning.

"It never answers," said Captain Morgan, "to give an opinion without
knowledge of the facts. You are a clever fellow, Roland, but not so
clever as that comes to. You will find, Hester, that round every human
creature you come across, there is some kind of a world hanging 'bound
with gold chains about the feet of----' That is the most uncomfortable
metaphor I know. I wonder what Mr. Tennyson could have been thinking of?
Did he think that this round world was hanging on like a big ball,
hampering the going of God, do you suppose? But there is something of
that kind, true enough, with men."

"If you mean that for me," said the old lady, smiling, "you are wrong,
Rowley. God knows my heart yearns after them all, great and small, and
it is the greatest refreshment and no hampering, to hear about them
all--their pleasures and their troubles. What hurts me is to keep it all
in and ask no questions, as so often I have to do."

The old captain shook his head. He kept on shaking it gently.

"We have argued that question a great many times," he said, "but I am
not convinced."

What was evident was, that he intended this conversation which had been
so animated and pleasant to come to an end. He could not surely be
unkind? But he placed himself, as it were, in the midst of the current,
and stopped its flowing. A sensation of vexed displeasure and
disappointment with her old friend whom she loved rose in Hester's mind.
Was it like him to reject the kindness of kin, to limit his wife in her
affections, to turn a cold shoulder on his grandson? And yet all these
things he seemed to do. "Roland" on the other side (she knew no other
name for him), had been silenced. He had scarcely attempted to speak
since the old man took that place in front of the fire, from which his
shadow fell like a dark pillar across the room, dividing the side on
which Mrs. Morgan sat with Hester beside her, from the other on which
was the new being with whom Hester had already formed an almost intimate
acquaintance she felt, though she did not know his name and had not seen
his face. This very uncertainty pleased her imagination, and inclined
her to the new-comer. But it was embarrassing to find herself in the
midst of a scene, where so many confusing uncomprehended elements were
at work, and where something which was not family harmony and peace lay
evidently under the surface. When she rose up to go away, the unknown
rose too; but the captain was on the alert.

"You can now go back to your gossip," he said, "my dear: for I mean to
see Hester round the corner."

"No, Captain Morgan. It is very damp, and your rheumatism----"

"Bah! my rheumatism. There are worse things than my rheumatism," he
said, bustling to get his coat.

"Might I not replace you, grandfather? It would be a pleasure, and I
have no rheumatism."

This idea pleased Hester. It would be only for a moment; but he was
something new. She was so sadly familiar with every person and thing
about that any novelty was delightful to her. But the captain was not to
be shaken off. He pushed Roland back into his seat. "There are worse
things than rheumatism," he said. And he scrambled into his coat and
took Hester under his arm with unwonted formality. She felt annoyed and
angry beyond description, vexed with her old friend. Why should he
interrupt the innocent talk? Why interfere so pointedly to prevent the
simplest communication between her and the stranger? A mere politeness,
where could have been the harm of that? And then it was quite
unnecessary that anybody should see her home. That the old man should
risk an illness to do this, when she had so often run unattended from
one door to the other, was more irritating than words could say. And,
what was worst of all, it made the captain less perfect in her
opinion--the captain of whom she had felt that, all the rest of the
world failing her, here was still an excellence upon which she could
fall back.

Since they had come in, though the interval was short, the autumn
evening had closed in completely. It was very damp and cold. The Common
lay in a white mist; the sky hazy, with a few faint stars looking down
through veils of vapour; the atmosphere heavy.

"Why should you come out to catch cold?" Hester said. "I want no one. I
am quite able to take care of myself."

"And I want no one, my dear, except myself, to have anything to do with
you," said the old man. "I am not afraid to tell you my meaning, without
disguise."

"Then stand at the door while I run home," she pleaded; but he would not
spare her a step of the way. He hobbled along to the verandah, with his
comforter twisted about his throat and mouth, speaking out of the folds
of it with a muffled voice.

"If it was any girl but you I should be afraid to say it, lest the mere
contradiction might be enough for them; but with you I am not afraid,"
he said.

Was his confidence justified? Was Hester too wise to be moved by that
hint of opposition, that sense that a thing which is forbidden must be
pleasant? It is dangerous to predict of any one that this will be the
case; and perhaps the captain did his best to falsify his own hope. He
took her to the very door and saw her admitted, as if there might be a
chance up to the last moment of the alarming grandson still producing
himself to work her harm. And then he hobbled back in the gathering
mists. He even stood lingering at his own door before he went in to the
fireside and the cheerful light.

"Neither Catherine nor Hester, neither the young nor the old," he said
to himself. In his earnestness he repeated the words half aloud,
"Neither Catherine nor Hester, neither money nor love." And then there
came something of scorn into the old man's voice. "If his father's son
is capable of love," he said.

                             END OF VOL. I.



                                 LONDON
                       R. CLAY, SONS, AND TAYLOR,
                           BREAD STREET HILL.


       *       *       *       *       *


                           TRANSCRIBER NOTES


Obvious errors and inconsistencies in spelling, punctuation and
hyphenation have been corrected.

Archaic spellings have been retained.





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