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Title: Heart and Cross
Author: Oliphant, Mrs. (Margaret)
Language: English
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Copyright Status: Not copyrighted in the United States. If you live elsewhere check the laws of your country before downloading this ebook. See comments about copyright issues at end of book.

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                           HEART AND CROSS.



                           HEART AND CROSS.

                                  BY

                            MRS. OLIPHANT.

    AUTHOR OF “MARGARET MAITLAND,” “ADAM GRAEME,” “THE LAST OF THE
             MORTIMERS,” “THE LAIRD OF MORLAW,” ETC., ETC.

                            IN ONE VOLUME.

                               NEW YORK:
                           JAMES G. GREGORY.
                                 1863.



                           HEART AND CROSS.



CHAPTER I.


I know no reason why I should begin my story of the fortunes of the
Harleys by a description of my own son. Perhaps it is just because there
is no reason whatever that I feel so much disposed to do it--also
because the appearance of that son is the only difference that has come
to my own life since last my unknown friends heard of me, and because
there is quite an exhilaration in thinking that here is a new audience
to whom I am at liberty to introduce the second Derwent Crofton. This
story is not in the least about my boy, and, in consequence, it is quite
an unusual delight to be able to drag him in head and shoulders. Women
are not logical, as everybody knows.

My son, then, is, at the present writing, exactly seven years old. He
is a little athlete--straight and strong. We have often explained to
ourselves that it is in consequence of his having got over the baby
period of existence sooner than most children do, that he is not quite
so plump, as, for example, that red and white heir of the Sedgwicks, who
has a succession of rosy cushions on all the points where there should
be angles of his small frame. Derwent, I confess, has corners about
him--but then what limbs! what color! what hard, consistent stuff the
little rogue is made of! And I am not quite sure that I entirely approve
of these fat children--not when they are past the baby-age. I will not
delude myself, nor anybody else, into the idea that the boy is very
clever. Truth to speak, he has not taken very kindly as yet to
book-learning; but then does not everybody remember that it is the
dunces who grow into great men? Neither is he in the slightest degree
meditative or thoughtful, nor what you would call an interesting child.
He has as many scars upon him as a warrior, and has been bumped and
bruised in all directions. At first the child’s misfortunes somewhat
alarmed me, but by this time I am hardened to their daily occurrence,
and no longer grow pale when I am informed that Master Derwent has
broken his head or got a bad fall. This peculiarity is one in which his
father rather rejoices. I hear Mr. Crofton sometimes privately
communicating to his especial friends the particulars of little
Derwent’s accidents: “He was certainly born to knock about the world,
that boy of mine. Such a fellow was never intended to take peaceable
possession of Hilfont, and settle down a calm country gentleman,” says
Derwent, with a chuckle. And even when once or twice in the child’s life
my husband’s fears have been really excited about some misadventure
greater than usual, there has always been visible to me a certain gleam
of complacence and pride in his fear. For already he sees in the boy,
whom I am half disposed to keep a baby as long as possible, a man--the
heir of his own personal qualities as well as his land.

Little Derwent, however, has none of the sentimental qualities, which
might be expected from an only child. He has indemnified himself in the
oddest fashion for the want of those nursery friendships which sweeten
the beginning of life. In the oddest fashion! I am almost ashamed to
confess--I admit it with natural blushes and hesitation--that this
little boy of ours is the most inveterate gossip that ever was born!
Yes, there is no use disguising the fact, gossiping, plain, naked, and
unsophisticated, is the special faculty of Derwent. He has all the
natural childish thirst for a story, but he prefers to have his stories
warm from the lips of the heroes and heroines of the same; and somehow
everybody to whom he has access confides in the child. He goes through
every corner of Hilfont, from cellar to attic, with his bold, quick
step, and his bright, curious eyes, interested about every individual
under the roof. Too young to feel any of those sentiments which detract
from the value of a sympathizer--without either the condescension of a
superior or the self-comparison of an equal--I find nobody who is not
pleased and comforted by the child’s warm interest in their concerns;
pleased and half amused as well--till, by habit, housekeeper and nurse,
kitchenmaid and groom--for any efforts I might once have made to keep
Derwent a proper little boy, circulating only in an orthodox round
between the drawing-room and the nursery, have proved so totally
fruitless, that I have given up the endeavor--repose a flattered but
perfectly sincere confidence in their master’s little son. Nor is the
village at all stoical to his attractions. He drops in at all the
cottages as if he were the curate or the parish doctor--asks questions
about everything--never forgets any special circumstances which may
happen to have been told him--knows all about the old women’s marriages
and the number of their children, and which one’s son has been wild and
’listed, and which one’s daughter is at service in Simonborough. He is
ready for as many fairy tales as anybody will tell him; but nothing is
so thoroughly interesting to Derwent as the people round about him and
their homely lives. I began by being a little shocked at this propensity
of his--then gradually grew amused at it--then tried my utmost to
restrain that deep inquisitiveness which seemed inherent in him--and at
last have come to accept it quietly as the child’s peculiarity, a part
of himself. If the best object for the study of mankind is man, Derwent
will, perhaps, some day turn out a great philosopher. At present he is
the most sincere and simple-minded of little gossips, pursuing his
favorite branch of knowledge boldly, without any compunctions; such is
the most distinct and remarkable characteristic of my son.

And only to imagine the difference which that pair of blue eyes has
wrought in our great house and our calm life! My husband and I were, to
be sure, “very happy,” as people say, before; as happy as two people can
make each other, by a hearty and sincere love and cordial union; the
climax of happiness we would have thought it, each in our separate
thoughts, when we lived lonely lives apart. But love, which makes labor
sweet and life pleasant, does not answer for daily bread--never does,
let the romancers say what they will; no--not even to women. The heart
within me was dissatisfied even with Derwent--I could not content myself
with that life we lived--that calm, happy, tranquil life, which knew no
burdens, and if it overflowed in courtesies and charities, which cost us
nothing, was thought a model existence by our hard-working neighbors.

By dint of perpetual pin-pricks and unceasing agitation, I had managed
to drive Derwent into Parliament, where he somewhat solaced me by his
intense affliction and sufferings during the season of Parliamentary
martyrdom, and was himself happier during the rest of the year in the
relief of escaping that treadmill; but the content that had fluttered
off from my heart, when I had only my husband and myself to think of,
came with a flash of magic in the train of the little heir. All life
glowed and brightened up with a different interest--there were no longer
only ourselves who had attained all that was attainable in our own
mature and settled existence; but this new living, loving creature, with
all the possibilities of life burning upon his fresh horizon. The
picture changed as if by enchantment; the master and mistress of that
tranquil great house--lone, happy people set apart, none of the changes
of life coming near them, living for themselves, changed into a father
and mother, linked by sweet ties of succession to the other generations
of the world; belonging not to ourselves, but to the past and the
future--to the coming age, which _he_ should influence--to the former
age, which had hailed _our_ entrance as we hailed _his_. One cannot be
content with the foot-breadth of human soil that supports one’s own
weight--one must thrust out one’s hands before and behind. I felt that
we fell into our due place in the world’s generations, and laid hold
upon the lineal chain of humanity when little Derwent went forth before
us, trusted to our guidance--the next generation--the Future to us, as
to the world.



CHAPTER II.


“I suppose, Clare,” said Mr. Crofton to me one morning at breakfast,
“that Alice Harley has made up her mind, like somebody I once knew, to
live for other people, and on no account to permit herself to be
married--is it so?”

“I really cannot undertake to say whether she is like that person you
once knew,” said I, somewhat demurely. I had some hopes that she was--I
was much inclined to imagine that it was a youthful prepossession, of
which, perhaps, she herself was unaware, that kept Alice Harley an
unmarried woman; but of course I was not going to say so even to
Derwent, who, with all his good qualities, was after all only a man. An
unmarried woman!--that I should call my pretty Alice by that harsh,
mature, common-place name! But I am sorry to say the appellation was
quite a just one. She was nearer eight and twenty than eighteen,
now-a-days; she had no love, no engagement, no sentimental gossip at all
to be made about her. I will not undertake to say that she had not some
ideas of another kind, with which I had but a very limited sympathy--but
an unmarried woman Alice Harley was, and called herself--with (I
thought) a little quiet secret interest, which she deeply resented any
suspicion of, in Indian military affairs.

“Because,” said Derwent, with the old affectionate laugh, and glance of
old love-triumph over his old wife, which he never outgrew or exhausted,
“there is that very good fellow, our new Rector, would give his ears for
such a wife--and from all I can see, would suit her famously; which, by
the way, Clare, now that her mother is so dependent on her, is not what
every man would. You should say a good word for Reredos--it is your duty
to look after your protégée’s establishment in life.”

I confess when Derwent said these words a great temptation came to me.
It suddenly flashed upon my mind that Alice in the Rectory would be my
nearest neighbor, and the most pleasant of possible companions. At the
same moment, and in the light of that momentary selfish illumination, it
also became suddenly visible to me that my dear girl had a great many
notions which I rather disapproved of, and was rapidly confirming
herself in that _rôle_ of unmarried woman, which, having once rather
taken to it myself, I knew the temptations of. Mr. Reredos was only
about five years older than herself, good-looking, well-connected, with
a tolerably good living, and a little fortune of his own. And how could
I tell whether my private designs would ever come to anything? Derwent,
simple-minded man, had not fallen on so potent an argument for many a
day before.

“Mamma,” said little Derwent, who heard everything without listening,
“the housekeeper at the Rectory has a son in the Guards--like the men in
the steel-coats that you showed me when we went to London; the other
sons are all comfortable, she says; but this one, when she speaks of
_him_, she puts up her apron to her eyes. Mamma, I want to know if it is
wicked to go for a soldier--Sally Yeoman’s son ’listed last year, and
_she_ puts up her apron to her eyes. Now, my cousin Bertie is in
India--was it wicked in him to go for a soldier?--or what’s the good of
people being sad when people ’list?--eh, mamma?”

“Did you ever see anybody sad about your cousin Bertie?” said I, with a
sudden revulsion of feeling and the profoundest interest.

“N--no,” said little Derwent. He applied himself after that devoutly to
his bread and jam--there was something not altogether assured in the
sound of that “N--no.” Derwent could not help having quick eyes--but the
child knew sometimes that it was best to hold his tongue.

“I should like to know,” said Derwent the elder, laughing, “why Mr.
Reredos’s housekeeper’s son in the Guards has been dragged headlong into
this consultation. Suppose you go for a soldier yourself, Derwie.
There’s your drum in the corner. I have something to say to mamma.”

Little Derwent marched off, obedient, if not very willing. His
inquisitive tendencies did not carry him beyond that rule of obedience
which was the only restraint I put upon the boy. Derwent, elder,
followed him with happy looks. He only came back to his subject after an
interval of pleased and silent observation when there suddenly fell into
the stillness of our cheerful breakfast-room the first thunder of
Derwie’s drum.

“What an inquisitive little imp it is!” said Derwent; “but in spite of
the housekeeper’s son in the Guards, I don’t think you could do a more
charitable action, Clare, than to support Reredos’s suit to Alice
Harley. Such a famous thing for both--and such an excellent neighbor for
yourself.”

“That is very true,” said I; “but still I cannot help building something
upon that son in the Guards.”

Mr. Crofton looked up somewhat puzzled, with a smile upon his lips. I
daresay he asked, “What on earth do you mean?” somewhat exasperated at
the repetition; but Derwie’s drum filled all the apartment at the
moment, and of course I could not hear, much less answer him. We had
some further talk on the subject later, when Derwent called me into the
library to read over that speech of his, which he made a few evenings
before at Simonborough, and which the Editor of the Simonborough
Chronicle had sent over in proof to ask if my husband would kindly
glance over it and see if it was correct. Mr. Reredos was coming to
dinner to meet the Harleys, among other people--and Mr. Crofton, always
good-humored, and disposed to aid and abet all honest love affairs,
could not sufficiently point out the advantages of such a connection to
me.

And I said no more to perplex him, of the son in the Guards; but for
myself remembered that mythical personage, whatever was said to me on
the subject; and appreciated with the highest admiration that singularly
delicate line of association which suggested the reference to little
Derwie’s mind and thoughts. Yes, to be sure! the old women will put up
their aprons to their eyes when they talk about the son who has
’listed; the young women will keep a shadowy corner in their hearts for
that unfortunate--and yet it is not wicked to go for a soldier. I felt
Mr. Reredos’s handsome figure quite blotted out by the suggestion
conveyed in that of his housekeeper’s son. When I had finished my
housekeeping affairs, and given orders about the visitors we expected
for Easter--this I should have said was the Easter recess, the glimpse
of spring at Hilfont, which was all we could catch now that Derwent, to
his great affliction, was a Parliament man--I took my seat in the great
cheerful window of that room where we had breakfasted, and which
overlooked half the country. Far away in the distance the sun caught the
spires and roofs of Simonborough, with its cathedral faintly shining out
from among the lower level of the housetops, and nearer at hand struck
bright upon the slow and timid river which wound through the fields down
below us, at the bottom of this great broad slope of country, which had
no pretensions to be a hill, though its advantage of altitude in our
level district was greater than that of many an elevation twice or three
times as high. Spring was stealing into the long drooping branches of
those willows which marked the irregular line of the stream. Spring
brightened with doubtful, wavering dewy smiles over all the surface of
the country. I remember when I should have been glad to turn my eyes
indoors, away from the sweet suggestions of Nature conveyed by that
sweetest and most suggestive season; but I took the fullest and freest
enjoyment of it now; rather, I sat at the window calmly pleased and
unconscious, as we are when we are happy, feeling no contrast to wound
me between the world without and the world within--and considered fully
the circumstances of Alice Harley, and how I ought to forward, as
Derwent said, my dear girl’s establishment in life.

Now I have to confess that many years before this I had formed my own
plans for Alice--had quite made up my mind, indeed, to a secret scheme
of match-making in which at the moment I had been grievously
disappointed. At that time, when little Derwie was undreampt of, and I
had prematurely made up my mind to a childless life, I had settled my
inheritance of Estcourt upon my young cousin Bertie Nugent, with a
strong hope that the boy, who had known her for so many years, would
naturally prefer my pretty Alice to all strangers, when his good fortune
and affectionate heart put marriage into his head. This did not turn out
the case, however. Bertie made his choice otherwise, was disappointed,
and went off to India, where for eight long years he had remained.
Sometimes, when he wrote to me, I found a message of good wishes to his
old playmates at the very end of the page; once or twice it had occurred
to him to ask, “Is not Alice Harley married?” but the question seemed to
proceed rather from surprise and curiosity than any tender interest. It
is impossible to imagine a greater separation than there was between
these two. Bertie, now Captain Herbert Nugent, at a remote station in
the Bengal Presidency, where, scattered over that vast, arid country, he
had friends, brothers, and cousins by the dozen; and Alice, with her
new-fangled notions, and staid single-woman dignity, hid away in the
depths of a quiet English home, where she addressed herself to her duty
and the education of her little sisters and eschewed society. Whether
any secret thoughts of each other lingered in their minds nobody of
course could tell; but they certainly had not, except in my persistent
thoughts, a single bond of external connection. So long as they were
both unmarried, I could not help putting them together with an
imagination which longed for the power of giving efficacy to its dreams;
but nobody else had ever done so--there were thousands of miles of land
and water dividing them--many long years, and most likely a world of
dissimilar dispositions, experiences and thoughts.

While on the other hand Mr. Reredos was actually present on the scene,
in a pretty Rectory just half a mile from my own house, and not a dozen
miles from Mrs. Harley’s cottage. The young clergyman lost no
opportunity of doing his duty towards that lady, though her dwelling was
certainly in another parish--and showed himself so far disposed towards
Alice’s new-fangled notions as to preach a sermon upon the changed
position and new duties of Woman, on the occasion of her last visit to
Hilfont. I trust it edified Alice, for it had rather a contrary effect
upon myself, and filled the parishioners generally with the wildest
amazement. Most people are flattered by such an adoption of their own
opinions--and a young woman aged twenty-seven, thinking herself very
old, and trying hard to make every one else believe the same, is
especially open to such a compliment. Besides, I could not say anything
even to myself against Mr. Reredos. He was well-bred, well-looking, and
well-dispositioned--the match would be particularly suitable in every
way. Dr. Harley’s daughter, had her father and his fortune survived till
the present day, would still have made quite a sensible marriage in
accepting the Rector of Hilfont. And then the advantage of having her
so near!

I sat in the great window of the breakfast-room, looking over half the
county. If I had been a woman of elevated mind or enlightened views, I
should have been thinking of all the human wishes and disappointments
that lay beneath my eyes, each one under its own roof and its own
retirement. But, on the contrary, I observed nothing but a small figure
on a small pony ascending the road from the village. In the same way I
ought to have been benevolently glad that our excellent young Rector had
inclined his eyes and heart towards my own favorite and friend--the
friend and favorite now of so many years--and that a home so suitable,
at once to her origin and her tastes, awaited the acceptance of Alice.
But I was not glad--I sent my thoughts ever so far away to Bertie’s
bungalow, and felt aggrieved and disappointed for the boy who, alas! was
a boy no longer, and most likely, instead of feeling aggrieved on his
own account, would have nothing but his warmest congratulations to send
when he heard of his old playmate’s marriage. Things are very perverse
and unmanageable in this world. The right people will not draw together,
let one wish it ever so strongly, whereas the wrong people are always
approaching each other in eccentric circles, eluding every obstacle
which one can place in their way. I could not be very melancholy on the
subject, because the pony and its little rider came every moment nearer,
and brightened the face of the earth to my eyes--but still it was in the
highest degree provoking. If it ever came to anything! There was still
that escape from this perplexing matter; for whether I felt disposed to
support his suit or not, it was still by no means certain, even when Mr.
Reredos had finally declared himself, what Alice Harley might say.



Chapter III.


“Who are we to have, Clare?--let us hear. You don’t suppose that my
mind, weighed down with the responsibilities of law-making, can remember
everything, eh?--even my wife’s guests?” said Derwent, rubbing his
hands, as we sat after dinner near the fire in the warm crimson
dining-room. When we were alone I gave Mr. Crofton’s claret my benign
countenance till he was ready to go with me to the drawing-room. There
were not enough of us to separate at that genial hour, especially as
little Derwent sat between us peeling his orange, and quite ready to
give his opinion on any knotty point that might occur.

“Papa, please give Willie Sedgwick the little grey pony,” said Derwie,
“to ride when he’s here; he says his papa will never let him take his
horse anywhere with him--there’s such a lot of children,” added my boy,
parenthetically, with some pity and contempt. “I like little Clary
best--I like her because her name’s the same as mamma’s, and because she
has blue eyes, and because she likes me, and she’s good to that poor
old nurse, too, who has her daughter in a fever, and daren’t go to see
her.”

“How do you know about the nurse’s daughter’s fever, Derwie?” asked I.

“Mamma, they sent _me_ to the nursery, when you were calling there,”
said Derwie, with some emphasis, “and she told me she has the scarlet
fever, and Mrs. Sedgwick won’t let her mamma go to see her, for fear of
the children taking it--isn’t it a shame? Clary told me she said her
prayers for her every night, to get her well; and so,” said Derwent,
coloring, and looking up with some apparent idea that this was not
perfectly right, and the most manful intention to stand out the
consequences, “and so do I.”

His father and I looked at each other, and neither of us said anything
just for that moment, which silence emboldened Derwie to believe that no
harm was coming of his confession, and to go on with his story.

“And Mr. Sedgwick’s man--he’s such a funny fellow. I wish you’d ask him
to tell you one of his stories, mamma,” said Derwie, “for I know he’s
coming here with them. He has a brother like Johnny Harley--just as
lame--and he got cured in Wales, at St. Winifred’s Well. Why don’t you
ask Mrs. Harley to send Johnny to St. Winifred’s Well, mamma?--she only
laughed at me when I said so. I say, mamma,” continued Derwie, with his
mouth full of his orange, “I’ll tell Russell he’s to tell you one of his
stories--I never knew a fellow that could tell such famous stories--I
wish you had a man like Russell, papa. He’s been all over the world, and
he’s got two children at home, and the name of one of them is John--John
Russell--like the little gentleman in _Punch_.”

“Don’t be personal, Derwie,” said Mr. Crofton, laughing; “we are to have
Mr. Sedgwick’s Russell, and Mrs. Sedgwick’s nurse--who else?”

“The Harleys,” said I, “for we’ll postpone for a little, if you please,
Derwie, your friends below-stairs; and Mr. Reredos and his sister, and
Miss Polly Greenfield, and her little nieces. I fear the womankind will
rather predominate in our Easter party--though Maurice Harley, to be
sure”----

“Yes--Maurice Harley, to be sure,” said Derwent, still with a smile,
“is--what should you call him now, Clare--a host in himself?”

“Fellow of Exeter College, Cambridge,” said I, demurely; “he has it on
his card.”

“Mamma, is Maurice Harley a clergyman?--shouldn’t a clergyman care about
people?” said little Derwent; “I don’t think _he_ does. He likes
books.”

“And what do you mean by people?--and don’t you like books?” I asked.

“Oh! yes, sometimes,” said my son; “when there’s pictures in them. But
_you_ know what people mean, mamma--quite well! You talk to them, _you_
do--but Maurice Harley puts up his shoulders like this, and looks more
tired than Bob Dawkes does after his ploughing--so tired--just as if he
could drop down with tiredness. Oh!” cried Derwent, with a sudden burst
of enthusiasm, “I would not give our Johnnie for a hundred of _him_.”

“A hundred of _him_!” I confess the thought filled me with alarm. In my
heart I doubted, with a little shudder of apprehension, whether the
country, not to speak of Hilfont, could have survived the invasion of a
hundred such accomplished men. “But, Derwie,” said I, recovering from
that shock, “if you do not like books except when they have pictures in
them, how do you think you are ever to learn all the things that Maurice
Harley knows?”

“Mr. Sedgwick says he’s a prig,” says little Derwent, with great
seriousness, “and I know more things now than he does--I know how to
make rabbits’ houses. If you were to get some little white rabbits,
mamma, I could make a beautiful house for them. Will Morris taught me
how. Oh! papa, don’t you know Will Morris wants to marry little Susan at
the shop?--he has her picture, and it’s not the least like her, and I
heard Maurice Harley say the photographs _must_ be like, because the sun
took them. Does the sun see better than other people? That one’s like
you with the paper in your hand; but Will Morris’s picture, instead of
being Susan, is anybody in a checked dress.”

“I begin to think you will turn out a great critic, Derwie,” said his
admiring father, who desired no better than to spend his after-dinner
hour listening to the wisdom of his son.

“What’s a critic? is it anything like a prig?” asked Derwent, who was
trying hard to set up the crooked stem of a bunch of raisins--now, alas,
denuded of every vestige of its fruit--like a tree upon his plate; the
endeavor was not very successful, although when propped up on each side
by little mounds of orange-peel, the mimic tree managed to hold a very
slippery and precarious footing, and for a few minutes kept itself
upright. We two sat looking at this process in a hush of pleased and
interested observation. Maurice Harley, with all his powers and
pretensions, could neither have done nor said anything which could thus
have absorbed us, and I doubt whether we would have looked at the
highest triumphs of art or genius with admiration as complete as that
with which we regarded little Derwie setting up the stalk of the bunch
of raisins between these little mounds of orange-peel.

“Clare, how old is he now?” said Mr. Crofton to me.

As if he did not know! but I answered with calm pride, “Seven on Monday,
Derwent--and you remember it was Easter Monday too that year--and tall
for his age, certainly--but he is not so stout as Willie Sedgwick.”

“Ah, Monday’s your birthday, is it, old fellow?” said Derwent; “what
should you like on your birthday, Derwie--let us hear?”

“May I have anything I like, papa?” asked the child, throwing down
immediately both the raisin-stalk and the orange-skin. His father nodded
in assent. I, a little in terror of what “anything I like” at seven
years old might happen to be, hastened to interpose.

“Anything in reason, Derwie, dear--not the moon, you know, nor the
crown, nor an impossible thing. You are a very sensible little boy when
you please; think of something in papa’s power.”

“It is only little babies that cry for the moon,” said Derwie,
contemptuously, “and I’ve got it in the stereoscope--and what’s the good
of it if one had it? nobody lives there; but, papa, I’ll tell you what I
should like--give me the key of the door of the House of Commons, where
you go every day when we are in town. That’s what I should like for my
birthday; what makes you laugh?” continued my boy, coming to a sudden
pause and growing red, for he was deeply susceptible to ridicule, bold
as he was.

“Why on earth do you want to go to the House of Commons?” cried his
father, when his laughter permitted him to speak.

“It’s in the Bible that the people used to come to tell everything to
the king,” said Derwie, a little peevishly; “and isn’t the House of
Commons instead of the king in this country? and doesn’t everybody go to
the House of Commons when they want anything? I should like to see them
all coming and telling their stories--what fun it must be! That’s why
you go there, I suppose, every night? but I don’t know why you never
should take mamma or me.”

“It would never do to let the ladies come in,” said Derwent, with mock
seriousness; “you know they would talk so much that we could never hear
what the people had to say.”

“Mamma does not talk very much,” said Derwie, sharply; “nor Alice
either. Old Mrs. Sedgwick, to be sure--but then it’s some good when she
talks; it isn’t all about books or things I can’t understand, it’s about
people--that’s real talk, that is. Before I go to school--just till this
session is over--oh, papa, will you give me that key?”

“My boy,” said Derwent, with the love and the laughter rivalling each
other in his eyes, “they don’t give me any key, or you should have
it--there’s a turnkey at the door, who opens it to let the poor people
out and in; but some day you and mamma shall go and be shut up in a cage
we have for the ladies, and hear all that’s said. I’m afraid, Derwie,
when you’ve once been there you won’t want to go again.”

“Yes, I shall!” cried Derwie, all his face glowing with eagerness; when
there suddenly appeared a solemn and silent apparition at the door,
namely Nurse, under whose iron rule the young gentleman, much resisting,
was still held, so far at least as his toilette was concerned. That
excellent woman said not a word. She opened the door with noiseless
solemnity, came in, and stood smoothing down her spotless apron by the
wall. No need for words to announce the presence of that messenger of
fate; Derwie made some unavailing struggles with destiny, and at last
resigned himself and marched off defiantly, followed by the mighty
Nemesis. When the door closed upon the well-preserved skirts of that
brown silk gown, in which, ever since little Derwie emerged from
babyhood, nurse had presented herself in the dining-room to fetch him to
bed, Mr. Crofton and I once more looked at each other with those looks
of fondness and praise and mutual congratulation which our boy had
brought to our eyes. We had already exhausted all the phrases of
parental wonder and admiration; we only looked at each other with a
mutual tender delight and congratulation. Nobody else, surely, since the
beginning of the world, ever had such a boy!



CHAPTER IV.


The next day after, being the Saturday, our little Easter party
assembled; first our neighbors the Sedgwicks, who were a party in
themselves. Ten years before, Hugh Sedgwick had been the finest
gentleman in our neighborhood, which he filled with amazement and
consternation when he chose to fall in love with and marry little Clara
Harley, whom, in the most literal sense of the word, he married out of
the school-room, and who was just seventeen years old. But now that five
children had followed this marriage, nobody could have supposed or
believed in the existence of any such great original contrast between
the husband and wife. Either Mr. Sedgwick had grown younger, or Clara
older, than their years. He who now called Maurice Harley a prig, had
been himself the prince of prigs--according to the estimate of the
country gentlemen, his neighbors--in his day; but that day was long
departed. Hugh Sedgwick, fastidious, dilettante fine gentleman, as he
had been, was now the solicitous father of little children, and not
above giving very sound advice upon measles and hooping-cough--while
Clara, who had gradually blossomed out into fuller and fuller bloom, had
scarcely yet attained the height of her soft beauty, despite the little
flock of children round her. Nobody in the county made such a toilette
as little Mrs. Sedgwick. I suspect she must have had _carte blanche_ as
to her milliner’s bills; and when they entered the Hilfont drawing-room,
Clara, with her pretty matronly self-possession, her graceful little
figure, round and full as one of her own babies, and her lovely little
face, with all its cloudless lilies and roses--nobody could have
believed in the time when his good neighbors shrugged their shoulders
and laughed at Hugh Sedgwick’s choice. She sat down, I remember, by Miss
Polly Greenfield--dear old Miss Polly in her primeval drapery--that
crimson satin gown which I had known all my life. Such a contrast they
made in the bright youth and pale age of the two faces, which came
together lovingly in a kiss of greeting! Since her brother, Sir
Willoughby, had married, Miss Polly’s habits had changed greatly. She
had thrown aside her old brown riding-dress and the stiff man’s hat she
used to wear when she rode with Sir Willoughby. And when her old horse
and her old groom were old enough to be pensioned off in their
respective paddock and cottage, Miss Polly set up a pony-carriage, more
suitable to her years. Her niece, a young widow of twenty, a poor,
little, disconsolate soul, who was all the trouble in the world to Miss
Polly, had made a second marriage, and left her two little children to
the care of their grandaunt. They were little girls both, and the tender
old woman was very happy in their society--happier a hundred times than
when she had been mistress of Fenosier Hall. But to hear how little
Clara, who once had stood somewhat in awe of Miss Polly, talked to her
now!--advising her how to manage little Di and Emmy, telling how she
regulated her own Clary, who, though a good deal younger, was very far
on for her age--with what a sweet touch of superiority and simplicity
the dear little matron looked down from her wifely and motherly
elevation upon pale old Miss Polly, who was neither mother nor wife!
Clara was quite ready at the same moment to have bestowed her matronly
counsels upon me.

After the Sedgwicks, Alice Harley, all by herself, as became one who
felt herself at home, and was all but a daughter of the house, came into
the room. Alice was plain in her dress to the extreme of plainness. That
she assumed an evening dress at all was somewhat against her
convictions, and in compassion to my weakness and prejudice; but the
dress was of dark colored silk, made with a studied sobriety of cut, and
lack of ornament. Instead of sharing Clara’s round soft loveliness,
Alice had grown slender and pale. Unimaginative people called her thin.
Out of her girlish beauty had come a face full of thoughtfulness and
expression, but not so pretty as some people expected--perhaps, because
somehow or other, the ordinary roselight of youth had failed to Alice.
Half by choice, half by necessity, she had settled down into the humdrum
useful existence which the eldest daughter of a large family, if she
does not elude her fate by an early marriage, so often falls into.
Various “offers” had been made to her, one of which Mrs. Harley, divided
between a mother’s natural wish to see her daughter properly “settled,”
and a little reluctance, not less natural, to part with her own
household counsellor and helper, had given a wavering support to. Alice,
however, said No, coldly, and not, as I thought, without the minutest
possible tinge of bitterness answered the persuasions which were
addressed to her. She was rather high and grandiloquent altogether on
the subject of marriage, looking on with a half-comic, disapproving
spectator observation at little Clara’s loving tricks to her husband,
whom that little matron had no awe of now-a-days, and discoursing more
than seemed to me entirely necessary upon the subject. Alice was
somewhat inclined to the views of those philosophers (chiefly feminine,
it must be confessed) who see in the world around them, not a general
crowd of human creatures, but two distinct rows of men and women; and
she was a little condescending and superior, it must also be admitted,
to that somewhat frivolous antagonistic creature, man. The ideal man,
whom Alice had never--so she intimated--had the luck to light upon, was
a demigod; but the real male representatives of the race were poor
creatures--well enough, to be sure, but no more worthy of a woman’s
devotion than of any other superlative gift. With sentiments so distinct
and _prononcés_, Alice had not lived all these years without feeling
some yearning for an independent sway and place of her own, as one may
well suppose--which tempted her into further speculations about women’s
work, and what one could do to make a place for one’s self, who had
positively determined not to be indebted for one’s position to one’s
husband. Such was the peculiar atmosphere out of which Alice Harley
revealed herself to the common world. She was deeply scornful of that
talk about people which pleased my boy so much, and so severe upon
gossip and gossips, that I had on more than one occasion seriously to
defend myself. There she stood in her dark-brown silk dress beside
little Clara’s flowing toilette and vivacious nursery talk, casting a
shadow upon pale Miss Polly in her crimson satin. Alice was as much
unlike that tender old soul, with her old maidenly restraints and
preciseness, her unbounded old womanly indulgence and kindness, as she
was unlike her matronly younger sister; and I confess that to myself, in
all her perverseness, knowing as I did what a genuine heart lay below,
there was quite a charm of her own about the unmarried woman. She was so
conscious of her staid and sober age, so unconscious of her pleasant
youth, and the simplicity which, all unknown to herself, lay in her
wisdom. Such was my Alice; the same Alice who, keeping silent and
keeping her brothers and sisters quiet in the nursery, while she knew
her father lay dying many a long year ago, adjured me with unspeakable
childish pathos--“Oh, don’t be sorry for me! I mustn’t cry!”

I do not know how it was that, while I contemplated Alice on her first
appearance with a kind of retrospective glance at her history, there
suddenly appeared above her the head of Mr. Reredos. He was a
middle-sized, handsome man, with a pale complexion and dark hair--very
gentlemanly, people said--a man who preached well, talked well, and
looked well, and who, even to my eyes, which were no way partial, had no
particular defect worth noticing, if it were not the soft, large, white
hands without any bones in them, which held your fingers in a warm,
velvety clasp when you shook hands with the new rector. I don’t know how
he had managed to come in without my perceiving him. And strong must
have been the attraction which beguiled Mr. Reredos to neglect the duty
of paying his respects to his hostess, even for five minutes. It was not
five minutes, however, before he recollected himself, and came with his
soft white hand and his sister on his arm. His sister was so far like
himself that she was very pale, with very black hair, and an
“interesting” look. She did not interest me very much; but I could not
help hoping that perhaps in this sentimental heroine Maurice Harley, for
the time being, might meet his fate. I thought that would be rather a
comfortable way of shelving those members of our party; for Maurice,
though he was a very fine gentleman, not to say Fellow of his College,
afflicted my soul with a constant inclination to commit a personal
assault upon him, and have him whipped and sent to bed.

However, to be sure, we had all the elements of a very pleasant party
about us--people who belonged to us, as one may say. Derwent, who liked
to see a number of cheerful faces about him, was in the lightest
spirits; he paid Clara Sedgwick compliments on her toilette, and
“chaffed” (as he called it--I am not responsible for the word) Alice,
whom he had the sincerest affection for, but loved to tease, and took
Miss Polly in to dinner, while little Derwie did the honors of the
nursery to a party almost as large, and quite as various. I fear we made
rather a night of feasting than a penitential vigil of that Easter Eve.



CHAPTER V.


When we returned to the drawing-room after dinner, we found, hidden in a
distant corner, with books and portfolios, and stereoscopes blocking up
the table near him, Johnnie Harley. I have said little of this boy. He
was the proxy which the handsome, healthy family had given for their
singular exemption from disease and weakness--the one sufferer, among
many strong, who is so often found in households unexceptionably
healthful, as if all the minor afflictions which might have been divided
among them had concentrated on one and left the rest free. When Johnnie
was a child he had only been moved in the little wheeled chair, got for
him in his father’s lifetime, when they were rich. Now he was better,
and able to move about with the help of a crutch, but even now was a
hopeless cripple, with only his vigorous mind and unconquerable spirits
to maintain him through private hours of suffering. Partly from his
infirmities--partly from his natural temperament--the lad had a certain
superficial shyness, which, though it was easily got over, made it
rather difficult to form acquaintance with him. He could not be induced
to dine with us that first night--but he was in the drawing-room,
showing the stereoscope to Miss Polly’s little nieces, Di and Emmy, when
we came back from dinner; the other little creatures were playing at
some recondite childish game in another part of the room; but Emmy and
Di were very proper little maidens, trained to take judicious care of
their white India muslin frocks, the spare dimensions of which
contrasted oddly enough with Clary’s voluminous little skirts and flush
of ribbons. Clary was like a little rose, with lovely rounded cheeks and
limbs like her mother, dimpled to the very finger-points, while Di and
Emmy, though by no means deficient in good looks, were made up quite
after Miss Polly’s own model, in a taste which was somewhat severe for
their years. Johnnie Harley veiled himself behind these little maidens
till we were safely settled in the room. He was twenty, poor fellow, and
did not know what was to become of him. He was sometimes very
melancholy, and sometimes very gay; he was in rather a doubtful mood
to-night.

“Look here, Mrs. Crofton,” he said, drawing me shyly aside. “I’ve put
this one in a famous light--do tell me if you like it. I did it
myself.”

I looked, of course, to please him. It was a pretty view of my own house
at Estcourt, with the orphan children who lived there playing on the
terrace--very pretty, and very minute--so clear that I fancied I could
recognize the children. It pleased me mightily.

“_You_ did it, Johnnie,” cried I, much gratified. “I am very much
pleased; but I never knew you were a ‘photographic artist’ before.”

“No more I was,” said Johnnie, who rather affected a little roughness of
speech, “till they got me a camera the other day. Of course I know it
was Alice, and that somehow or other she’s spared it off herself. Do you
know whether there’s anything she ought to have had that she hasn’t,
Mrs. Crofton? One can never find Alice out. She doesn’t go when she’s
made a sacrifice for you and keep hinting and hinting to let you know,
as some people do; but look here--isn’t it horrible to think I’m grown
up and yet have to stay at home like a girl, and can’t do anything. Now
that I’m able to do these slides, I’d give my ears if I could sell them.
I’d go and stand in the market at Simonborough. But of course it’s no
use speaking. Don’t you think, Mrs. Crofton, that there’s surely
something in the world that could be done by a cripple like me?”

“I have no doubt a dozen things,” said I, boldly; “but have a little
patience, Johnnie. Maurice is ten years older than you are, and he does
nothing that I can see. Besides, it is holiday time--I forbid you to
think of anything but the new camera to-night. Is it a good one? What a
pleasure it must be for all of you,” I continued, looking once more into
the stereoscope, where, most singular of optical delusions, I certainly
saw a pretty new winter bonnet, the back of which, in the wardrobe of
Alice, I had already made a memorandum of, floating over the picture of
my old house.

“Ah,” said Johnnie, with a sigh, “if I were a fellow like Maurice!--but
here, Di, you have not seen this,” he added, transferring another slide
into that wooden box. Grave little Di looked at it, and summoned her
sister with a little scream of delight.

“It’s Miss Harley and Baby Sedgwick,” said Di, “and I do believe if any
one was little enough they could go round behind her in the picture. Oh!
let me tell Derwent and Clara, Mr. John!”

Mr. John was very graciously pleased to exhibit his handiwork to any
number of spectators, and shortly we all gathered round the
stereoscope. Alice stood looking on very demurely, while we were
examining her in that pretty peep-show; she listened to all the usual
observations with due calm, while Johnnie, quite in a flush of pleasure,
produced the pictures, at which I understood afterwards the poor youth
had been working all day long, one by one out of the box.

“My love,” said Miss Polly, in a mild aside, “I’d like to see you just
so in a house of your own, my dear.”

Alice colored slightly; very slightly--it was against her principles to
blush--and made no answer, except a slight shake of her head.

“Such a sweet baby,” said Miss Reredos, “I think one might bear anything
for such a darling! Oh, don’t you think so, Miss Harley? I think it’s so
unnatural for a lady not to love children. I think if dear Clement had
but a family I should be so happy.”

“But, dear, shouldn’t you be happier,” said Clara, opening her bright
eyes a little wider, with a laughing humor which now-a-days that young
lady permitted herself to exercise pretty freely, “if you had a family
of your own?”

“Oh! Mrs. Sedgwick, how can you speak so? I am so glad the gentlemen are
not here,” said the Rector’s sister. Alice stood looking at her with a
half vexed, half amused expression. Alice was a little afraid for the
honor of (most frightful of phrases!) her sex.

“As for Alice,” said Clara, laughing, “do you know she thinks it rather
improper to be married? She would not allow she cared for anybody, not
for the world.”

“I think women ought to be very careful,” said Alice, responding
instantly to the challenge with a little flush and start; “I think there
are very few men in the world worthy of being loved. Yes, I do think so,
whatever you choose to say. They’re well enough for their trades, but
they’re not good enough to have a woman’s heart for a plaything. Of
course there may be some--I do not deny that; but I never”----

Here Alice paused--perhaps she was going to tell a fib--perhaps
conscience stopped her--I will not guess; but Clara clapped her hands in
triumph.

“Ah, but if you did ever,” said Clara, laughing, “would you marry _him_,
Alice?”

“If he asked me it is very likely I should,” said Alice, with great
composure; “but not for a house of my own, as Miss Polly says--nor for
fun, like some other people.”

“My love, it’s very natural to like a house of one’s own,” said Miss
Polly, with a little sigh. “I don’t mind saying it now that I am so old:
once in my life I almost think I would have married for a home--not for
a living, remember, Alice--but for a place and people that should belong
to me, and not to another--that’s what one wishes for, you know; but I
never talked about it either now or then; my dear, I wouldn’t if I were
you.”

At this address Alice blushed crimson--blushed up to the hair, and
patted her foot upon the ground in a very impatient, not to say angry,
way. She cast a somewhat indignant side-look at me, to express her
conviction that I was at the bottom of this, and had suggested the mild
condemnation of Miss Polly--which, so far as agreeing thoroughly in her
sentiments went, I confess I might have done. Then Alice went off
abruptly to the piano, and began playing to the children, who gathered
round her; before long her voice was pleasantly audible in one of those
immemorial songs with a fox or a robin for a hero, which always delight
children; and when the song was finished there ensued as pretty a scene
as I have ever looked at. Clara gathered the children in a ring, which
danced round and round, with a dazzle of little rosebud faces, flying
white frocks and ribbons, to Alice’s accompaniment. Such scenes I have
no doubt were of nightly occurrence in the big, grand drawing-room at
Waterflag Hall; and little Derwie took his part so heartily, and joined
in the chant with which they went round with lungs and will so
unmistakable, that, for my part, I was quite captivated. Miss Polly and
I sat down to watch them. Little Di, too shy and too big to join them,
being twelve years old and a grandmother among these babes, stood
wistfully behind us, envying Emmy, who was only ten and a half, and “not
too old for such a game.” Di, a long way older and graver than Mrs.
Clare, stood nodding and smiling to encourage her little sister every
time she whisked past. Miss Reredos behind us was examining Johnnie’s
pictures and talking sentiment in a soft half-whisper to that
defenceless boy, while Miss Polly and I sat on a sofa together, looking
on.

“It is strange,” said Miss Polly, “but yet I’m sure I am very glad. I
thought of asking you, Clare, whether anything had occurred to disturb
that dear girl? I don’t like when I hear young women talk like that, my
dear--it looks to me as if they had something on their mind, you know.
Once I thought there might perhaps be something between Bertie Nugent
and Alice--that would have been a very nice match; but somehow these
nice matches never come about--at least, not without a deal of trouble;
and I suppose it was nothing but an old woman’s fancy, Clare.”

“I suppose not, indeed,” said I, rather ruefully, looking at that
prettiest spectacle before me, and recognizing, as by intuition, that
Mr. Reredos had just come in, and was standing at the door in a glow of
delight and approbation, looking at Alice, and deciding not to delay his
proposal for an hour longer than it should be absolutely necessary to
keep silent. Ah, me! there was some hope for us in Alice’s philosophical
moods; but when she played to her little nieces and nephews in that
shockingly happy, careless, and easy manner, I was in despair.

“It’s very sad when people won’t see what’s most for their advantage,”
said Miss Polly, with a ghost of humor in her pale old face. “I daresay,
Clare, my dear, Bertie’s just as happy. I heard from Lady Greenfield the
other day--one of _her letters_, you know--that the dear boy was getting
on very well, but breaking his heart to get home that he might go to the
Crimea to the war.”

“So he tells me,” said I, “but I rather think I am very glad he has not
the chance of dying on that dreadful hill.”

“My dear, that’s very true,” said Miss Polly; “one faints at the thought
of it, to be sure, for one’s own; but if I could be
philosophical--which--dear, dear, it isn’t to be expected from an old
woman! I’d say it was wrong to be sorry for the dear young creatures,
God bless them! Think what they’re spared, my dear child. I don’t know
but what it’s a great saving of the labor and the sorrow when they die
young.”

“Miss Polly, this is not like you,” I cried in surprise.

“Perhaps it isn’t; but, dear, we’re always learning something,” said
Miss Polly; “there’s Elinor now, and poor Emmy, the unfortunate little
soul! but hush, here’s your new rector coming--I’ll tell you another
time.”



CHAPTER VI.


“I am surprised,” said Mr. Reredos, as he drank his coffee beside me,
“to hear from Mr. Maurice Harley that he’s not in orders. I really felt
so sure that he must be that I did not think of asking. He’s had his
fellowship this long time, has not he? and really a clergyman’s son, and
with the excellent connections he has--I am surprised!”

“Ah, so is everybody,” said Miss Polly, significantly. Miss Polly was an
old-fashioned woman, and had little sympathy with those delicate
conscientious scruples which kept our friend Maurice out of the Church.

“My dear,” continued Miss Polly, turning aside to me, with some energy,
as Mr. Reredos, always polite, took her empty cup from her, “I could
believe in it if he were doing anything or thinking of doing anything;
but if you’ll believe me, Clare, it’s nothing but idleness--that’s what
it is. When a young man’s idle, if he doesn’t fall in love with the
first girl he meets, he falls in love with himself, which is a deal
worse. The Rector here will be trying to help Maurice out of his doubts,
I shouldn’t wonder. His doubts, indeed! If he lost his fellowship and
had to work hard for his living, I shouldn’t be afraid of his doubts,
for my part.”

“Well,” said I, “but if the loss of his fellowship dispersed poor
Maurice’s dilettante scepticism, and forced him into orders, it might be
better for himself, Miss Polly, but I doubt if it would be better for
the Church. When his conscience keeps him outside, we have no reason to
find fault, but if he came in against his conscience----”

“Conscience! stuff!” said Miss Polly, with some heat. “Child, that’s not
what I meant. I meant--for being his father’s and mother’s son I can’t
think he’s a bad boy at the bottom--I meant a little trouble and
fighting would soon put those idle vagaries out of his head. Now, Mr.
Reredos, mind you don’t go and argue with Maurice Harley. I’m an old
woman, and I’ve seen such before, many’s the time. Wait till he’s got
something to do and something to bear in this world, as he’s sure to
have, sooner or later. Ah, Life’s a wonderful teacher! When a man sits
among his books, or a woman at her needle--and there isn’t such a great
difference as you might suppose--they get mazing themselves with all
kinds of foolish questions, and think themselves very grand too for
doing it; but only wait till they find out what God means them to do and
to put up with in this world--it makes a deal of difference, Clare.”

“Miss Polly, you are a philosopher, and we never knew it!” said I, while
Mr. Reredos stood looking on, much annoyed, and in no small degree
contemptuous of the pale old woman who took upon her to direct so
perfect a person as himself--for Mr. Reredos was not unlike Maurice
Harley, though after his different fashion; he thought he could do a
great deal with his wisdom and his words.

“I am not a philosopher; but I have been alone with the dear children
since my niece Emmy left me,” said Miss Polly, “and not so able to stir
about as I once was; and you know, my dear, one can’t say out everything
in one’s mind to children at their age; so, somehow the thoughts come up
as if I had been gathering them all my life, and never had time to look
at them before.”

“I suspect that is how most of the thoughts that are worth remembering
do come,” said I. Mr. Reredos did not say anything. He stood, with a
faint smile on his lip, which he did not mean us to suspect, much less
understand--and while he bent his handsome head towards the mistress of
the house, gravely attentive, as it was his duty to be, his eyes turned
towards Maurice and Alice Harley. Did not I know well enough what was in
his mind? He thought we were a couple of old women dozing over our slow
experiences. He was still in the world where words and looks produce
unspeakable results, and where the chance of a moment determines a life.
His eyes turned to those other young people who, like himself, were
speculating upon all manner of questions--he would not laugh at us, but
a faint gleam of criticism and superiority just brightened upon his lip.
I liked him none the worse, for my own part.

“This reads like a Newdigate,” said Maurice Harley. “I suppose Sedgwick
brought the book to you, Clara, for a sugar-plum. Listen, how sweetly
pretty! These prize poets are really too delicious for anything.”

“You had better write a poem yourself, Maurice, and show what you can
do,” cried the indignant Clara; “it is so grand to be a critic, and so
easy! Nobody can write to please you, nobody can speak to please you--I
should just like to see you do something yourself, Maurice, that we
could criticise as well.”

Maurice laughed, poising in his hand the pretty new poetry-book which
Mr. Sedgwick had brought down from London to his wife. He looked so
superior and so triumphant, that even his grave brother-in-law was
provoked.

“Maurice is not so foolish,” said Mr. Sedgwick, “as long as he doesn’t
_do_ anything he may be a Shakespeare for anything we know. You girls
may worship him as such now, if you please--there he sits quite ready to
receive your homage; but if he really ventured into print, Maurice would
be only Maurice Harley--just himself, like the rest of us--might even
find a critic in his turn, as such is the fate of mortals. No, no, you
may be sure Maurice won’t commit himself; he’s a great deal too wise for
that.”

Maurice laughed a somewhat constrained laugh, and coloured slightly.
Perhaps a touch of conscience made Mr. Sedgwick’s sarcasm tell--he threw
down the book with a little petulance.

“Far be it from me to object to Clara’s tastes. Thanks to my sisters, I
know pretty well what young ladies like in the shape of poetry,” said
Maurice; “they all admire the Newdigates. There was a time when I found
Alice in tears over one of these distinguished poems--and that not so
very many years ago.”

“Oh! don’t be so dreadfully satirical!” said Miss Reredos, who was
beginning to tire of Johnnie and his stereoscope. “I am sure that year
that mamma and I went to Commemoration with Clement there was the
sweetest thing imaginable--and so charmingly read too--and I have a copy
of it now; but, oh! I know why Mr. Harley does not like the Newdigate,”
cried the Rector’s sister, clasping her soft hands, “he’s a Cambridge
man!”

“Exactly,” said Maurice, recovering himself at once, for he was quite
disposed to take Miss Reredos for his antagonist; “you know the jealousy
which exists between us. Your brother and I preserve an outside
appearance of civility, out of respect to Mrs. Crofton and the presence
of the ladies, but nobody can doubt for a moment how we hate each other
in our hearts.”

“I say, do you though?” cried the small voice, down at Maurice Harley’s
elbow, of my son Derwie, who was, unluckily, at that moment advancing
with the rest of the little troop to say good-night. “Do you hate the
Rector, Maurice?--he’s the clergyman, you know--he can’t do anything
wrong; so _he_ can’t hate _you_--why do you hate him?--is he cleverer
than you are? Stand up a moment, please--I don’t think he’s quite as
tall.”

This interruption Derwent made with the most perfect sincerity and
earnestness, unconsciously guessing at the only reasons which could make
a person so accomplished as Maurice Harley hate anybody. Everybody
laughed except the individual questioned, who shot a glance of wrath at
my boy, and eyed Mr. Reredos with a sort of contemptuous inquiry. Could
any one, even a child, imagine the new rector to be cleverer than the
ineffable Maurice? He sank down again in the chair from which Derwie had
dragged him, laughing with a very bad grace. Then all the broken
currents of talk going on in the room, suffered a little ebb and pause.
Little rosy faces clustered close about Clara Sedgwick, about Alice and
myself, and old Miss Polly, holding up rose-lips full of kisses. Mr.
Crofton shook hands with Derwie, and turned him off with an affectionate
grasp upon his shoulders, declaring, with a fondness beyond caresses,
that he was too old to be kissed. Then we all paused, looking after them
as they trooped out of the room. Miss Reredos, full of something clever
to say in the way of an attack upon Maurice--Maurice himself too
self-conscious to be diverted by that pretty procession, and Johnnie,
who was hanging over his stereoscope, and following the Rector’s sister
with his eyes, were the only persons in the room who did not watch with
a smile and an increased warmth at heart these beautiful children
disappearing, one by one, from the door. Mr. Reredos’s face shone, and
he cast sidelong glances at Alice. He was young, in his first romance of
love, not yet spoken. His heart was moved in him with an unconscious
blessing to the children; visions of a house of his own, musical with
such voices, stole into the Rector’s soul--I could see it in his face.

And was it to be so? There was no side glance from the eyes of Alice,
reciprocating those of Mr. Reredos--no consciousness, as she stood by
the table watching the children, of any future such as that which
sparkled in the young Rector’s eyes. She stood calmly watching them,
nodding and smiling to Derwent, and her little niece Clary, who, hand in
hand, were the last to leave the room--the maiden aunt, only a little
more independent of the children than their mother--almost as much
beloved by them--the young, unmarried woman, gravely cogitating the
necessities of her class of age, and feeling much superior to the
vanities of love-making, without a single palpitation in her of the
future bride, the possible mother. So, at least, it seemed.



CHAPTER VII.


That evening--it was the first of her visit to Hilfont, and a perfectly
natural thing, considering the long affection between us--I paid Alice a
long visit in her own room. I might have done so, even if I had been
conscious of nothing to inquire about, nothing to suggest. It was rather
late when we all came up-stairs, and when I had seen Miss Polly safely
established in her easy chair by her fire, and eluded as well as I could
the story about Elinor’s (to wit, Lady Greenfield, Sir Willoughby’s
wife, once Mrs. Herbert Nugent, my cousin, and Bertie’s aunt) letter--I
turned back to the bright chamber near my own, which was always called
Miss Harley’s room. Alice was sitting rather listlessly by the table,
reading. She looked tired, and did not seem overmuch to enjoy her book.
She was very glad to see me come in, and, I suspect, to be delivered
from her own thoughts, which it was clear enough she could not quite
exorcise by means of literature; for it was not a novel, which there is
some hope in, but a wisdom-book, much esteemed by the superior
classes--one of those books which, if it has any power at all, excites
one into contradiction, by conclusions about human nature in general,
which we can all form our own opinions upon. I suspect Alice could not
keep her attention to it, hard though she tried.

When we had talked over indifferent matters for some time, my curiosity,
which I might have dignified with the title of anxiety, too, roused me
to closer inquiries than, perhaps, were quite justifiable. I knew that
after Mr. Reredos had spoken--unless, indeed, he happened to be
accepted--Alice’s lips were closed for ever on the subject, so I
wickedly took advantage of my opportunities.

“Perhaps ere long I shall have to congratulate you,” said I, “and you
may be sure it would be a great matter for me to have you so very near.
We should make famous neighbors, Alice, don’t you think? I may well be
anxious about your decision, my dear, for my own sake.”

“Mrs. Crofton, I do not understand you,” said Alice, in a little dismay,
looking very curiously and wistfully in my face; then, after a little
pause, a deep color suffused her cheeks, she started, and moved her hand
impatiently upon the table, as if in sudden passion with herself, and
then added, coldly, with an inexpressible self-restraint and subdued
bitterness, which it was hard to understand: “Pray tell me what you
mean?”

The contrast of her tone, so suddenly chilled and formal, with the
burning color and subdued agitation of her face, struck me wonderfully.
“My dear child,” said I, “I have no right to ask--I don’t want to
interfere--but you are sure to have this question submitted to you,
Alice, and can’t be ignorant of that now, that it has come so far.
Cannot you think what I mean?”

Alice paused a moment, then she cast rather a defiant glance at me, and
answered, proudly: “If any one has been forming foolish plans about me,
Mrs. Crofton, the responsibility is not mine--I know I am not to blame.”

“That may be very true,” said I, “but I am not speaking of
responsibility. Don’t you think, dear, that this is important enough to
be taken into consideration without any impatience of personal feeling?
Deciding one’s life by the ordeal of marriage is a human necessity it
appears. You are a clergyman’s daughter--no way could you fill a better
or more congenial place than as a clergyman’s wife. If I were you I
should not conclude at once, because, perhaps, in the meantime, of your
own accord, you have not quite fallen in desperate love with your
lover. My dear, you think I am dreadfully common-place, but I cannot
help it. Think, Alice!--you want a life for yourself--a house belonging
to you, and you only--you do! Don’t say no--everybody does; think! Won’t
you take all this into consideration before you decide?”

“Because I am going to have ‘an offer,’ and perhaps I never may have
another--because I am not so young now as to be able to throw away my
chances--and it is _you_ who say so!” cried Alice, throwing at me an
angry, bitter, scornful glance. Perhaps, if she had yielded more to my
arguments, I might have found it harder than I did now.

“You humiliate me,” she cried again: “if I want a life of my own, I want
to make it myself; a house of my own?--no I have no ambition for that.”

“But you falter a little when you say so,” said I, taking cruel
advantage of her weakness. “Now, we are not going to discuss the
disabilities of women. It is just as impossible for an unmarried man to
have what I call a house of his own as it is for you; and as for the
privilege of choice--good lack, good lack! much use it seems about to be
to poor Mr. Reredos! My dear child, don’t be foolish--there is your
brother Maurice with the most complete of educations, and no lack of
power to make use of it. What is he going to do with himself? Where are
the great advantages he has over his sister? _I_ can’t see them. But no,
that’s not the question. The Rector is a good man; he is young, he is
well off; he is agreeable. Your dearest friend could not choose a more
suitable life for you than that you would have at the Hilfont Rectory.
Now, Alice, think. Are you going to make up your mind to throw away all
this, and a good man’s happiness besides?”

“Oh, Mrs. Crofton! Mrs. Crofton! and it is you who say so!” said poor
Alice, with looks which certainly must have consumed me had I been of
combustible material--“this is from you!”

“And why not, my dear?” said I, meekly. “Am not I next to your mother,
Alice?--next oldest friend?--and next interested in your welfare?”

“If you mean that you have a right to say anything you please to me,”
said Alice, seizing my hand and kissing it in a quick revulsion of
feeling, “it is true to the very farthest that you choose to stretch it;
but that is not what you mean. Oh, dear Mrs. Crofton!” said the poor
girl with a rising blush and a certain solemn indignation wonderful to
me--“I can only say it again; of all persons in the world that I should
have had such words from _you_!”

With which exclamation she suddenly cast a guilty, startled look upon me
as if she had betrayed something and hid her face in her hands. How did
she know what was in my heart?--how could she tell that I was arguing
against my own dear and long-cherished plans, which I had made it a
point of honor never to hint in the remotest manner to her? But here we
approached the region where another word was impossible. She would not
have uttered a syllable of explanation for her life--I dared not, if I
meant to have any comfort in mine; I said nothing to her by which it was
possible to infer that I understood what she meant. I absolutely slurred
over the whole question--here we had reached the bound.

“Well, dear,” said I, “don’t distress yourself so very much about
it--you must decide according to your own will and not to mine; only do
think it over again in the fresh morning before the Rector gets an
opportunity of speaking to you. Good night, Alice--don’t sit reading,
but go to sleep!”

She raised her face to me, and leant her cheek a little more than was
quite needful against mine as I kissed her--and so we parted without
another word between us. Possibly, we women talk a great deal on most
occasions; sometimes, however, we show a singular faculty for keeping
silent. Next morning, Alice and I met each other as if we had never
spoken a word which all the world might not hear. We interchanged no
confidences, looked no looks of private understanding. Indeed, surely
nothing _had_ passed between us--all the world might have listened and
been none the wiser. What had a momentary emphasis, a sudden look to do
with the matter? Alice spoke nothing but her usual sentiments, and I did
not say a word inconsistent with mine.



CHAPTER VIII.


The next morning was Easter Sunday. I have no doubt Mr. Reredos would
have been glad enough to add a private joy of his own to the rejoicings
of the festival, and might not have thought it unsuitable to declare
himself even on that morning could he have had a chance. However, there
was not very much time before Church hours, and to be sure the Rector
ought to have been thinking of something else. It was a true Easter
morning, full of sunshine and that new life of spring born out of death
and darkness which to every heart must bear a certain charm. Is it
something of a compensation to the sorrowful that all the wonderful
silent symbols of Nature speak to them with a special force which does
not belong to the happy? We were all dwelling at ease, people
untroubled--our hearts were glad in the sunshine, which to us looked
like a promise of permanence and peace unclouded. Only far off with an
apprehension of the thoughts, and not of the heart, did the meaning of
the feast which we were keeping occur to us. To Derwent and myself this
was perhaps the happiest time of our lives. Perhaps to us the
Resurrection was little more than an article of belief--I think we thus
paid something for our happiness. At all events it did not jar upon us
to perceive a certain agitation in the Rector’s tones--a certain
catching of his breath in the little pleasant sermon, not without some
small sentences in it specially meant for the ear of Alice, but
perfectly “suited to the occasion,” which Mr. Reredos delivered.
Everybody was very attentive, save Maurice Harley. Maurice had some
liberal and lofty objections to the Athanasian creed; he sat down and
amused himself reading the Gunpowder Plot Service with secret smiles of
criticism, while his neighbors round him murmured forth with a universal
rustic voice that strenuous confession of the faith--and he sketched a
bracket (we were rather proud of our Church) while Mr. Reredos preached
his sermon, and comported himself generally as a highly superior man,
attending Church out of complacency to his friends, might be expected to
do.

Next day I fear Mr. Reredos ascertained beyond question what he had to
expect from Alice Harley. With a look of stormy agitation, strongly
restrained, he let me know on the Monday that it was quite necessary
for him to return to the Rectory. He had some sick people to attend to,
who demanded his presence in his own house. I did not say that there was
only half a mile of distance between the Rectory and the Hall--I
acquiesced in his explanations, and accepted his apologies. Miss
Reredos, however, was much more difficult to manage. I heard him tell
her in a low tone that she must get ready to go; and the young lady’s
answer of astonishment, and resistance, and total ignorance of any
reason why her pleasure should be balked, was audible enough to
everybody in the room.

“Go away! Leave Hilfont!” she exclaimed with a gasp of amazement. “Why
should we go away? Mrs. Crofton was good enough to ask us for a week,
and I am sure you could do your duty quite as well here as at the
Rectory. Oh, please, Mrs. Crofton, listen! The only sick people I know
of are that old man at the turnpike, and his blind daughter--he could
visit them quite as well going from Hilfont as from the Rectory. I
believe this is the nearest of the two.”

“Oh, but Mr. Williams from the little chapel goes to see old Johnnie
Dunn,” interrupted little Derwie; “he was there yesterday, and Martha’s
quite well now, and goes to chapel like anything. Miss Reredos, do you
know Martha wasn’t always blind? she used to work and make dresses when
she was young. Once she lived in Simonborough and learned her trade, and
I suppose it was there she learned to go to chapel. Martha says they’re
not Church-folks at all. I don’t think they want Mr. Reredos to go
there.”

“You’re not very complimentary, Derwie,” said the Rector, with a slight
quiver of his lip, which I recognized as a sign of the passion and deep
excitement in which he was. With that wild pain and mortification
tugging at his heart, it would have been a relief to him to burst out in
an ebulition of rage or impatience against somebody, and I instinctively
put out my hand to protect my boy. “But it is sometimes my duty to go
where they don’t want me,” he added, with a laugh as significant, “and
with many regrets and many thanks to Mrs. Crofton we must still go back
to-day. Laura, get ready, please.”

In pity for the unfortunate Rector, who, I saw, longed to escape from
the room, the inquisitive looks of Mrs. Clara, who was present, and the
distinct statement from Derwie, which I knew to be impending, to the
effect, that of his own certain knowledge nobody was ill in the
village, I interposed, and we made a compromise--the Rector left us and
his sister stayed. Miss Reredos was profoundly pleased with the
arrangement. Perhaps her dear Clement did not confide to her his private
reasons for so hasty a return, and I am not sure that she was not quite
as well satisfied with his absence, which might have possibly spoiled
her own particular sport--or interfered with it at least. So he went
away with a certain impetus and haste upon him--his romance come to an
effectual end, and his sensations somewhat bitter. He was not
lackadaisical, but savage, as men are under their mortifications when
they are no longer in their first youth. I daresay, if one could have
read his thoughts, there were ferocious denunciations there against the
women who beguile a man to commit himself so fatally, which would have
been very unjust to poor Alice. I am afraid it is very cold-hearted of
me to speak so lightly of a serious disappointment, which this certainly
was to Mr. Reredos. I have no doubt he was really unhappy; but I thought
it a good symptom that the unhappiness took a savage turn.

Miss Reredos left behind, pursued, as I have said, her own sport. She
was prettier than I thought her at first--she had a little of that
teasing wit which clever young ladies exercise upon attractive young
men, and she had a strong sentimental reserve, much more in keeping with
her pale complexion and black ringlets than the lighter mood. A couple
of days had not passed over us before we all perceived that the poor
lame boy, Johnnie Harley, was hopelessly taken in her toils. Just at
first nobody had paid particular attention to the intercourse between
these two. It was very kind of Miss Reredos to talk to the unfortunate
young man, and interest herself about his pictures, and listen to his
dreams; and so wonderful a prominence has one’s actual self to one’s own
eyes, however unselfish, that I believe Alice was quite of opinion that
Miss Reredos, expecting to be connected with the family by-and-by, was
paying all these friendly attentions to Johnnie by way of conciliating
herself. Nothing could be further from the intentions of the Rector’s
sister. She was strongly of opinion that each man for himself was the
most satisfactory rule, and being possessed of that spirit of conquest
which some women have by nature, commenced her operations from the
moment of entering the house. I do not think she could help it, poor
girl--it was natural to her. There were in Hilfont only two persons
accessible to her charms--Maurice, in every way an eligible victim, and
poor cripple Johnnie, to whom, one could have supposed, not even a
coquettish girl at a loss for a prey, would have had the heart to offer
her sweet poison. But the heart, I fear, has little to do with such
concerns, and almost before the suspicions of the other women of the
party, from myself downward, were awakened, the mischief was done. Miss
Reredos, we had no difficulty in perceiving, had set her heart upon the
subjugation of Maurice, whether for any personal reason, or for sport,
or as a means of retaliation, it was difficult to tell; and really I was
not in the least concerned about the peace of mind of the Fellow of
Exeter. But Johnnie! we all rose up together to his defence, with secret
vows of self-devotion. All the women of us guarded him about, shielding
his little table and his stereoscope from the approach of the
enemy--even Di, tall, timid, and twelve years old, stood by the lad with
a natural instinct. But we were too late. He answered Miss Polly, I
fear, rather sharply, turned his back upon myself, and gave Mrs. Clara a
brotherly push away from him. He wanted none of us--he wanted only the
Siren who was charming the poor boy among such rocks and quicksands as
his frail boat had never yet ventured upon. When Miss Reredos addressed
herself to Maurice, his unfortunate brother turned savage looks upon
that all-accomplished young man. In our first indignation we were all
rather cold to Miss Reredos, and Johnnie, quick-sighted as his
infirmities helped to make him, perceived it in a moment, and resented
the neglect, which of course he attributed to our envy of her
perfections. Then we tried artifice instead, and Clara, sister of the
victim, got up a very warm sudden regard for the enchantress, whose
opinion she sought upon everything; but this Miss Reredos speedily
discovered, exposed, and exulted in; there was no help for it--the
damage which was done, was done, and could not be repaired.

Meanwhile the flirtation with Maurice did not advance so
satisfactorily--he was so much accustomed to admire himself, that the
habit of admiring another came slowly to him; and then, as Miss Reredos
took the initiative, and did not spare to be cleverly rude to the young
man, he, taking advantage of his privileges, was cleverly rude to her in
reply, from which fashionable mode of beginning, they advanced by
degrees to closer friendship, or, at least, familiarity of address.
Alice looked on at all this with the most solemn disapproval--it was
amusing to see the dead gravity of her glances towards them, the tacit
displeasure, and shame, and resentment on account of “her sex!” Poor
Alice took the responsibility on her own shoulders; she watched the
levity of the other girl, who did not resemble herself in a single
particular, with a solemn sense of being involved in it, which struck me
as the oddest comicality I had seen. Could anybody suppose Maurice
Harley concerned about another man’s shortcomings, only because the
culprit was a man, and one of his own _sex_? If it had not been so
entirely true and sincere, it would have been absurd--this championship
of Alice; only women ever dream of such an _esprit de corps_--but she
maintained it with such absolute good faith and solemn gravity, that
while one laughed one loved her the better. There she sat, severe in her
youthful virtue, gravely believing herself old, and past the period of
youth, but in her heart as high-flying, as obstinate, as heroical as if
she were seventeen. Mrs. Clara knew nothing of that romance; perhaps
there are delicate touches of feminine character, which only show
themselves to perfection in the “unmarried woman”--the woman who has
come to maturity without having the closer claims of husband and
children to charm her out of her thoughts and theories--though it is
only in a very gracious subject that such an example as Alice Harley
could be produced.



CHAPTER IX.


“Well, really!” said little Mrs. Sedgwick, bridling with offended
virtue, “I don’t think I am very hard upon a little innocent
flirting--sometimes, you know, there’s no harm in it--and young people
will amuse themselves; but _really_, Mrs. Crofton, _that_ Miss Reredos
is quite ridiculous. I do wonder for my part how men can be so taken
in!--and our Maurice who is so clever!--and she is not even pretty--if
she had been pretty one could have understood.”

“My dear Clara,” said I, “perhaps it is not very complimentary to your
brother, but I do think the most sensible thing Maurice could do would
be to fall in love. I don’t say of course with Miss Reredos; but then,
you see, we can’t choose the person. If he fell desperately in love and
made a fool of himself, I am sure I should not think any worse of him,
and it would do him no harm.”

Both the sisters drew up their shoulders a little, and communicated
between each other a telegraphic glance of displeasure. Between
themselves they could be hard enough upon Maurice, but, after the use of
kinsfolk, could not bear the touch of a stranger.

“Really, I cannot say I should be very grateful to Maurice for such a
sister-in-law,” said Clara, with a toss of her head.

“I don’t think there is very much to fear,” said Miss Polly. “Do you
know what little Derwie told me yesterday? He said a poor woman in the
village had three or four children ill with the hooping-cough--at least
so I understood the child from the sound he made to show me what it was.
Now, I really think if I were you, Clare, I would not let that child
wander so much about the village. Neither Di nor Emmy has ever had
hooping-cough, and I shall be almost frightened to let them go out of
doors.”

“Oh, I assure you it’s nothing, Miss Polly!” cried Clara--“mine had it
two years ago--even the baby--and took their walks just the same in all
weathers; and they must have it one time or other, you know--and such
great girls as your two nieces! Our children all got over it perfectly
well. Though Hugh says I am ridiculously timid, I never was the least
afraid. Their chests were rubbed every night, and they had something
which Hugh said it was polite to call medicine. Oh, I assure you
there’s nothing to be at all afraid of! especially at this time of the
year.”

“I daresay that’s very true, my dear,” said Miss Polly, who took little
Clara’s nursery instructions and assurances in very good part, “but it
isn’t always so. There’s my poor little nephew, little Willoughby--dear,
dear! to think what a strong man his father is, and how delicate that
poor child looks! I can’t help thinking sometimes it must be his
mother’s fault; though to be sure they have the best of nurses, and Lady
Greenfield can’t be expected to make a slave of herself; that poor dear
little soul was very ill with the hooping-cough. Clara--all children are
not so fortunate as your pretty darlings; and that reminds me, Clare,
that you have never seen Elinor’s letter yet; she mentions her nephew in
it, as I think I told you; so, though it’s almost all about Emmy, my
dear children’s mother, if you’ll wait a minute I’ll just bring it
down.”

Saying which Miss Polly left the room. Alice sat rather stiffly at her
work and looked very busy--so very busy that I was suspicious of some
small gleam of interest on her part touching the contents of Lady
Greenfield’s letter.

“Miss Polly does not love Lady Greenfield too much,” said Clara,
laughing; “but,” she added, with a little flush of angry anticipation,
“it’s nothing to laugh at after all. Suppose Maurice were to marry Miss
Reredos! Oh, Mrs. Crofton, isn’t it shocking of you to put such dreadful
thoughts in one’s head! Fancy, Alice! and to settle down hereabout--to
be near us!--I am sure I could never be civil to her: and what do you
suppose mamma would say?”

“Maurice has nothing but his fellowship,” said Alice.

“Well, to be sure, that is some comfort,” said Clara; “but then I
daresay he might get a living if he tried, and Hugh could even”----

Here Miss Polly came in with her letter, so we did not hear at that
moment what could be done by Hugh, who, in the eyes of his little wife,
was happily a person all-powerful.

“My dear,” said Miss Polly, laying down the letter in her lap, and
making a little preliminary lecture in explanation, “you remember that
Emmy, my niece, two years ago, married again. Well, you know, one
couldn’t well blame her. She was only one and twenty, poor little soul,
when she was left with these two children; and I was but too glad to
keep the little girls with me, so she was quite what people call without
encumbrance, you see. So she married that curate whom she had met at
Fenosier. Well, it’s no use disguising it--Lady Greenfield and I are
perhaps not such great friends as we ought to be, and Emmy has a temper
of her own, and is just the weak-minded sort of little soul that will
worry herself to death over those slights and annoyances that good near
neighbors can do to each other--she ought to know better, after all
she’s gone through. So here’s a letter from Elinor, telling me, of
course, she’s as innocent as the day, and knows nothing about it--and so
sorry for poor dear little Emmy--and so good and sweet-tempered herself,
that really, if I were as near to her as Emmy is, I do believe I should
do her a mischief. There’s the letter, Clare; you can read that part
about Bertie out aloud if you please--perhaps the girls might like to
hear it.”

With which, shaking off a little heat of exasperation which had gathered
about her, Miss Polly resumed her usual work and placidity. I confess it
was not without a smile I read Lady Greenfield’s letter. I fortunately
was under no temptations of the kind myself. If I had been, I daresay, I
should have turned out exactly like my neighbors; but the spectators of
a domestic squabble or successful piece of neighborly oppression and
tyranny always see the ludicrous side of it, and I could understand my
lady’s mild malice and certainty of not being to blame, so well. It
appeared that the poor little Emmy, completely overpowered by Lady
Greenfield’s neighborly attentions, had in her turn worried her curate,
and that the result of their united efforts was the withdrawal of the
young clergyman, who did not feel himself able to cope with my lady at
the Hall and his own exasperated little wife in the cottage, which
unlooked-for result Lady Greenfield took the earliest opportunity of
communicating to her dear Polly, with condolences over Emmy’s want of
spirit and weak propensity, poor child!--to see neglect and slight where
nothing of the kind was meant. I was so long getting over this, that,
having heard from him recently myself, I did not make the haste I might
have done to read what Lady Greenfield had to say about Bertie. I was
reminded of this by seeing suddenly over the top of the letter a slight,
quick movement made by Alice. It was only the most common change of
position--nothing could be more natural; but there was a certain
indescribable something of impatience and suspense in it which I
comprehended by a sudden instinct. I stumbled immediately down to the
paragraph about Bertie:

“Pray tell Clare Crofton,” wrote Lady Greenfield, “in case she should
not have heard from Bertie lately--which is very likely, for young men I
know don’t always keep up their correspondences as they ought,
especially with elderly female relations, like dear Clare and
myself--that I had a letter from my nephew by the last mail. He has not
done yet lamenting that he could not get home and go to the Crimea, but
says his old brigadier is suspicious of the Native army, and prophesies
that there will be some commotion among them, which Bertie thinks will
be great fun, and that a thorough cutting down would do these pampered
fellows all the good in the world: so he says, you know, as boys will
talk--but the Company’s officers laugh at the idea. If all keeps quiet,
Bertie says he is rather sick of India--he thinks he will come back and
see his friends: he thinks perhaps his dear cousin Clare has somebody in
her pocket whom she means him to marry. To be sure, after giving him
Estcourt, it would be only right that she should have a vote in the
choice of his wife. Such a great matter, you know, for a boy like
Bertie, his father’s fourth son, to come into a pretty little property
like Estcourt--and so good of dear Clare!--pray tell her, with my love.”

Not having taken the precaution to glance over this, as I ought to have
done from my previous acquaintance with “dear” Elinor, I had stumbled
into the middle of that statement about the somebody whom cousin Clare
had in her pocket before I was aware; and after an awkward pause, felt
constrained to proceed. I thought the malice of the epistle altogether
would defeat itself, and went on accordingly to the end of the sentence.
Then I folded up the letter and gave it to Miss Polly.

“I wonder does Lady Greenfield mean to make me so thoroughly
uncomfortable when Bertie comes home that I shall not let him come here
at all,” said I; “or to terrify me out of the possibility of introducing
him to anybody, lest I should be said to be influencing his choice? But
indeed she need not take the trouble. I know Bertie, and Bertie knows me
much too well for the success of any such attempt. I will not have my
liberty infringed upon, I assure you, Miss Polly, not by half a dozen
Lady Greenfields.”

“My dear, you don’t suppose me an accessory?” said Miss Polly, with a
little spirit. “Did any one ever see such a wanton mischief-maker? I
think she takes quite a delight in setting people by the ears. If Bertie
ever did say such a thing, Clare,” said Miss Polly, with a little
vehemence, “about somebody in your pocket, you know, I could swear it
was Elinor, and nobody else, who put it into his head.”

By the merest inadvertence I am sure, certainly not by any evil
intention, Miss Polly, as she delivered these words, allowed her mild
old glances to stray towards Alice. I at the same moment chanced to give
a furtive look in the same direction. Of course, just at the instant of
danger, Alice, who had been immovable hitherto, suddenly looked up and
detected us both. I do not know what meanings of which they were
innocent her sensitive pride discovered in our eyes, but she sprang up
with an impatience and mortification quite irrestrainable, her very neck
growing crimson as she turned her head out of my sight. I understood
well enough that burning blush of shame, and indignation, and wounded
pride; it was not the blush of a love-sick girl, and my heart quaked
when it occurred to me that Lady Greenfield might possibly have done a
more subtle act of mischief by her letter than even she intended. Whom
was I so likely to have in my pocket as Alice Harley? Indeed, was not
she aware by intuition of some such secret desire in my mind? And
suppose Bertie were coming home with tender thoughts towards the friend
of his boyhood, and perhaps a little tender pleasant wonder, full of
suggestions, why Alice Harley, and she alone, out of her immediate
companions, should remain unmarried--what good would that laudable, and
much-to-be-desired frame of mind do to the poor boy now? If he came to
Hilfont this very night, the most passionate lover, did not I know that
Alice would reject him much more vehemently than she had rejected the
Rector--scornfully, because conscious of the secret inclination towards
him, which, alas! lay treacherous at the bottom of her heart? Oh, Lady
Greenfield! Oh, dearest of “dear” Elinors! if you had anywhere two most
sincere well-wishers, they were surely Miss Polly and myself!



CHAPTER X.


“Why will not you come with us to London, Alice?” said I. “Mr. Crofton
wishes it almost as much as I do. Such a change would do you good, and I
do not need to tell you how pleasant it would be to me. Mrs. Harley and
the young people at home can spare you. Kate, you know, is quite old
enough to help your mother. Why are you so obstinate? You have not been
in town in the season since the year after Clara’s marriage.”

“I went up to see the pictures last year,” said Alice demurely.

“Oh pray, Alice, don’t be so dreadfully proper!” cried Clara; “that’s
what she’s coming to, Mrs. Crofton. The second week in May--to see all
the exhibitions and hear an Oratorio in Exeter Hall--and make ‘mems.’ in
her diary when she has got through them, like those frightful people who
have their lives written! Oh dear, dear! to think our Alice should have
stiffened into such a shocking old maid!”

“Well, Clara, dear, I am very glad you find your own lot so pleasant
that you would like to see everybody the same as yourself,” said Alice,
sententiously, and with no small amount of mild superiority; “for my
part I think the _rôle_ of old maid is quite satisfactory, especially
when one has so many nephews and nieces--and why should I go to London,
Mrs. Crofton? It is all very well for Clara--Clara is in circumstances,
of course, that make it convenient and natural--but as for me, who have
nothing at all to do with your grand life, why should I go and vex
myself with my own? Perhaps I might not have strength of mind to return
comfortably to the cottage, and look after the butcher’s bills, and see
that there were no cobwebs in the corners--and though I am of very
little importance elsewhere,” said Alice, coloring a little, and with
some unnecessary fervor, “I am of consequence at home.”

“But then, you see,” said I, “Mrs. Harley has four daughters--and I have
not one.”

“Ah! by-and-by,” said Alice, with a smile and a sigh, “Mrs. Harley will
only have one daughter. Kate and little Mary will marry just as Clara
has done. I shall be left alone with mamma and Johnnie; that is why I
don’t want to do anything which shall disgust me with my quiet life--at
least that is one reason,” added Alice, with a slight blush. “No,
no--what would become of the world if we were all exactly alike--what a
hum-drum, dull prospect it would be if everybody were just as happy, and
as gay, and as much in the sun as everybody else. You don’t think,
Clara, how much the gray tints of our household that is to be--mamma
old, Johnnie, poor fellow, so often in trouble, and myself a stout
housekeeper, will add to the picturesqueness of the landscape--much more
than if our house were as gay as your own.”

“Why, Alice, you are quite a painter!” cried I, in a little surprise.

“No, indeed--I wish I were,” said Alice. “I wonder why it is that some
people can _do_ things, and some people, with all the will in the world,
can only admire them when they’re done, and think--surely it’s my own
fault--surely if I had tried I could have done as well! I suppose it’s
one of the common troubles of women. I am sure I have looked at a
picture, or read a book many a time, with the feeling that all that was
in my heart if I could only have got it out. You smile, Mrs.
Crofton--perhaps it’s very absurd--I daresay a woman ought to be very
thankful when she can understand books, and has enough to live on
without needing to work,” added this feminine misanthrope with a
certain pang of natural spite and malice in her voice.

Spite and malice! I venture to use such ugly words, because it was my
dear Alice, the purest, tenderest, and most lovable of women, who spoke.

“There are a great many people in this world who think it a great
happiness to have enough to live on,” said I, besides women. “I don’t
know if Maurice has your ambition, Alice--but, at least he’s a man, and
has no special disadvantages; yet, begging your pardons, young ladies, I
think Alice is good for something more than _he_ is, as the world
stands.”

“Ah, but then Maurice, you know, Mrs. Crofton--Maurice has doubts,” said
Clara, with a slight pique at my boldness. “Poor Maurice! he says he
must follow out his inquiries wherever they lead him, and however sad
the issue may be. It is very dreadful--he may not be able to believe in
anything before he is done--but then, he must not trifle with his
conscience. And with such very serious things to trouble him, it is too
bad he should be misunderstood.”

“Don’t, Clara! hush!” whispered Alice, looking a little ashamed of this
argument.

“But why should I hush? Hugh says just the same as Mrs. Crofton--it’s
very provoking--but these active people do not take into consideration
the troubles of a thoughtful mind, Maurice says.”

“That is very likely,” said I, with a little complacency--“but remember
this is all a digression--Alice, will you come to London or will you
not?”

Alice got up and made me a very pretty curtsey. “No, please, Mrs.
Crofton, I will not,” said that very unmanageable young lady. She looked
so provokingly pretty, piquant, and attractive at the moment that I
longed to punish her. And Bertie was coming home! and her mind was
irretrievably prejudiced against him; it was almost too much for human
patience--but to be sure, when a woman is seven-and-twenty, she has some
sort of right to know her own mind.

At that moment little Clary Sedgwick, all in a flutter of pink ribbons,
came rustling into the room, her very brief little skirt inflated with
crinoline, and rustling half as much as her mamma’s--a miniature fine
lady, with perfect little gloves, a miraculous little hat, and ineffable
embroideries all over her; but with a child’s face so sweet, and a
little princess’s air so enchanting, that one could no more find fault
with her splendor than one could find fault with the still more
exquisite decorations of a bird or a flower. Clary came to tell her
mamma that the carriage was at the door, and little Mrs. Sedgwick swept
off immediately, followed by Alice, to get ready for her drive. They
were going to call upon somebody near. Clary remained with me till they
came back, and Derwie was not long of finding out his playfellow. Derwie
(my boy was a vulgar-minded boy, with a strong preference for things
over thoughts, as I have before said) stood speechless, lost in
admiration of Clary’s grandeur. Then he cast a certain glance of
half-comical comparison upon his own coat, worn into unspeakable
shabbiness by three weeks of holidays, and upon his brown little hands,
garnished with cuts and scratches, and I am grieved to say not even so
clean as they might have been. When he had a little recovered his first
amazement, Derwie turned her round and round with the tips of his
fingers. Clary was by no means unwilling; she exhibited her Easter
splendor with all the grace of a little belle.

“Mamma, isn’t she grand?” said Derwie--“isn’t she pretty? I never saw
her look so pretty before.”

“Oh, Derwie, for shame!” said Clary, holding down her head with a pretty
little affectation of confusion wonderful to behold.

“For shame?--Why?--For you know you are pretty,” said my straightforward
son, “whether you are dressed grand or not. Mamma, did you ever see her
like this before?--I never did. I should just like to have a great big
glass case and put you in, Clary, so that you might always look just as
you look now.”

“Oh, Derwie!” cried Clary, again, but this time with unaffected horror,
“I’d starve if you put me in there!”

“No, because I’d bring you something every day,” said Derwie--“all my
own pudding, and every cake I got, and the poor women in the village
would be so pleased to come and look at you, Clary. Tell me what’s the
name of this thing; I’ll tell Susan Stubbs, the dressmaker, all about
you. They like to see ladies in grand dresses, all the cottage people;
so do I; but I like to see you best of all. Here, Clary, Clary! don’t go
away! Look at her pink little gloves, mamma!--and I say, Clary, haven’t
you got a parasol?”

“You silly boy! what do you suppose I want with a parasol when I’m going
to drive with mamma?” cried Clary, with that indescribable little toss
of her head.

At that interesting moment the mamma, of whom this delightful little
beauty was a reproduction, made her appearance, buttoning pink gloves
like Clary’s, and rustling in her rosy, shining, silken draperies, like
a perfect rose, all dewy and fragrant, not even quite full-blown yet, in
spite of the bud by her side. Alice came after her, a little demure, in
her brown silk gown, very affectionate, and just a little patronizing to
the pretty mother and daughter--on the whole rather superior to these
lovely fooleries of theirs, on her eminence of unmarried woman. My
pretty Alice! Her gravity, notwithstanding she was quite as much a child
as either of them, was wonderfully amusing, though she did not know it.
They went down-stairs with their pleasant feminine rustle, charming the
echoes with their pleasant voices. My boy Derwie, entirely captivated by
Mrs. Sedgwick’s sudden appearance on the scene--an enlarged edition of
Clary--followed them to the door, vainly attempting to lay up some
memoranda in his boyish mind for the benefit of Susan Stubbs. Pleased
with them all, I turned to the window to see them drive away, when, lo!
there suddenly emerged out of the curtains the dark and agitated face of
Johnnie Harley. Had we said anything in our late conversation to wound
the sensitive mind of the cripple? He had been there all the time.



CHAPTER XI.


“Johnnie, is there anything the matter. Why have you been sitting
there?” cried I.

“Oh, no, there’s nothing the matter,” said Johnnie, in such a tone as a
wild beast making a snap at one might have used if it had possessed the
faculty of words. “I was there because I happened to be there before you
came into the room, Mrs. Crofton; I beg your pardon! I don’t mean to be
rude.”

“I think it is quite necessary you should say as much,” said I. “Your
sisters and I have been talking here for some time, quite unaware of
your presence. That is not becoming. No one ought to do such things,
especially a young man of right feeling like yourself.”

“Oh, you think I have right feelings,” cried Johnnie, bitterly, “you
think I am man enough to know what honor means? That is something, at
least. I have been well brought up, haven’t I? Mrs. Crofton,” continued
the unfortunate youth, “you were rather hard upon Maurice just now--I
heard you, and he deserves it. If I were like Maurice, I should be
ashamed to be as useless as he is. I’m not so useless now, in spite of
everything; but you’ll be frank with me--why does Alice speak of keeping
house with my mother and _Johnnie_? Why, when Kate, and even little
Mary, are supposed to have homes of their own, and Maurice, of course,
to be provided for--why is there to be a special establishment, all
neutral colored and in the shade, for my mother, and Alice, and _me_?”

I sat gazing at the poor youth in the most profound confusion and
amazement. What could I say to him? How, if he did not perceive it
himself, could I explain the naturalness of poor Alice’s anticipations?
I had not a word to say; his question took me entirely by surprise, and
struck me dumb--it was unanswerable.

“You do not say anything,” said Johnnie, vehemently. “Why does Alice
suppose _she_ will have to take care of me all my life through? Why
should I go to contribute that alternative of shade which makes the
landscape picturesque?--picturesque!” exclaimed poor Johnnie, breathing
out the words upon a long breath of wrath and indignation; “is that all
I am good for? Do you suppose God has made me in a man’s form, with a
man’s heart, only to add a subtle charm to another man’s happiness by
the contrast of my misery? I believe in no such thing, Mrs. Crofton. Is
that what Alice means?”

“I believe in no such thing either,” said I, relieved to be able to say
something; “and you forget, Johnnie, that the same life which Alice
assigned to you she chose for herself. She thought, I suppose, because
your health is not strong, that you would choose to live at home--she
thought”----

“Mrs. Crofton,” said Johnnie, “why don’t you say it out? she
thought--but why say thought--she _knew_ I was a cripple, and debarred
from the joyous life of man; she thought that to such as me no heavenly
help could come; it did not occur to her that perhaps there might be an
angel in the spheres who would love me, succor me, give me a place among
the happy--yes, even me! You think I speak like a fool,” continued the
young man, the flush of his excitement brightening all his face, and the
natural superlatives of youth, all the warmer and stronger for the
physical infirmities which seemed to shut him out from their legitimate
use, pouring to his lips, “and so I should have been, but for the divine
chance that brought me here. Ah, Mrs. Crofton, you did not know what an
Easter of the soul you were asking me to! I came only a boy, scarcely
aware of the dreary colors in which life lay before me. Now I can look
at these dreary colors only by way of Alice’s contrast--to make the
reality more glorious--for I too shall have the home and the life of a
man!”

He stopped, not because his words were exhausted, but because breath
failed him--he stood before me, raising himself erect out of his
habitual stoop of weakness, strengthened by the inspiring force of the
great delusion, which gave color to his face and nerve to his hand.
Looking at him so, his words did not seem such sad, bitter,
heart-breaking folly as they were. Poor boy! poor Johnnie! how would he
fall prostrate upon the cold, unconsolatory earth, when this spell was
broken! I could have cried over him, as he stood there defying me; he
had drunk that cup of Circe--but he did not know in his momentary
intoxication that it was poison to him.

“My dear Johnnie,” said I, “I am very glad of anything that makes you
happy--but there is surely no occasion to speak so strongly. Alice, I
must remind you again, chose exactly the same life for herself that she
supposed for you”----

“Alice has had her youth and her choice,” said Johnnie, with a calmer
tone, and sinking, his first excitement over, into a chair; “but she
does not think Maurice is likely to share that gray life of
hers--Maurice, who, as you say yourself, is of no use in the world--nor
Harry, whom they have all forgotten now he is in Australia, nor the
children at home; only mamma when she is old, and _Johnnie_--well, it is
of no use speaking. A man’s business is not to speak, but to work.”

“That is very true, certainly,” said I: “but tell me, will you--if it is
not wrong to ask--what has made this great change in your ideas, all at
once?”

“Ah, Mrs. Crofton, don’t you know?” cried Johnnie, blushing, a soft
overpowering youthful blush, which would have done no discredit to Clara
herself; and the poor, foolish boy looked at me with an appealing
triumphant look, as if he at once entreated me to say, and defied me to
deny that _she_ was altogether an angel, and he the very happiest of
boys or men.

“My dear boy,” said I, “don’t be angry with me. I’ve known you all your
life, Johnnie. I don’t mean to say a word against Miss Reredos--but tell
me, has there been any explanation between her and you?”

He hesitated a moment, blushing still.

“No,” he said, after a pause; “no--I have not been able to arrange my
thoughts at all yet. I have thought of nothing but--but herself--and
this unimaginable hope of happiness--and I am a man of honor, Mrs.
Crofton. I will not speak to her till I know whether I have anything but
love to offer--not because I am so base as to suppose that money could
recommend a man to _her_, or so foolish as to think that I will ever
have anything beyond _income_; but when I do speak, you understand, Mrs.
Crofton, it is not for vague love-making, but to ask her to be my wife.”

He looked at me with his sudden air of manhood and independence, again
somewhat defiant. Heaven help the poor boy! I heard myself groaning
aloud in the extremity of my bewilderment and confusion; poor Johnnie,
with his superb self-assumption!--he, a fortnight ago, the cheerfulest
of boy invalids, the kindest of widow’s sons!--and she, five years older
than he, at the lowest reckoning, an experienced young lady, with dreams
of settlements and trousseaux occupying her mature mind! Alack, alack!
what was to come of it? I sat silent, almost gaping with wonderment at
the boy. At last I caught at the idea of asking him what his prospects
or intentions were--though without an idea that he had any prospects, or
knew in the least what he was talking about.

“You spoke of income, Johnnie--may I ask what you were thinking of?”

Johnnie blushed once more, though after a different fashion; he grew
confidential and eager--like himself.

“I have told no one else,” he said, “but I will tell you, Mrs. Crofton,
not only because you are our oldest friend, but because I have just told
you something so much more important. I--I have written
something--nobody knows!”

“Oh, you poor boy!” cried I, quite thankful to be able on less delicate
ground to make an outcry over him; “don’t you think half the people in
the country have written something?--and are you to make an income by
that?”

“I beg your pardon,” said Johnnie, with dignity, “but it’s _accepted_,
Mrs. Crofton--that makes all the difference. Half the country don’t have
letters from the booksellers saying that it’s very good and they’ll
publish it on the usual terms. I could show you the letter,” added my
young author, blushing once more, and putting his hand to his
breast-pocket--“I have it here.”

And there it was, accordingly, to my intense wonderment--and Johnnie’s
hopes had, however small, an actual foundation. On the book about to be
published on “the usual terms” the poor boy had built up his castle.
Here he was to bring Miss Reredos to a fairy bower of love and
literature--which, alas! I doubted would be very little to that young
lady’s taste; but I dared not tell Johnnie so--poor, dreaming, foolish
cripple-boy! Nothing afterwards, perhaps, would taste so sweet as that
delusion, and though the natural idea that “it would be kindness to
undeceive him” of course moved me strongly, I had not the boldness to
try, knowing very well that it would do no good. He must undeceive
himself, that was evident. Thank Heaven he was so young! When his eyes
were opened he would be the bitterest and most miserable of misanthropes
for a few months, and then, it was to be hoped, things would mend. I saw
no other ending to Johnnie’s romance. But he went hobbling away from me
with his stick and his stoop, as full of his momentary fallacious
happiness, as if he had been the handsome young prince of the fairy
tale, whom the love of Miss Reredos would charm back to his proper
comeliness. Alas, poor Johnnie! If his Laura could have wrought that
miracle I fear the spell was still impossible, for lack of the
love--miraculous magic! the only talisman which even in a fairy tale can
charm the lost beauty back.



CHAPTER XII.


“Now, if I had the luck to hold a confidential talk with Maurice, I
should have gone round the entire Harley family,” said I to myself the
next morning, “and be in the secret of sundry imaginations which have
not seen the light of day--but Maurice, fortunately, is not likely to
make me nor any one else his _confidante_. I wonder if there is anything
at all concerning him which it would be worth one’s while to be curious
about?”

The question was solved sooner than I thought. When everybody had left
our pleasant breakfast-room but myself, and I, with my little basket of
keys in my hand, was preparing to follow, Maurice, who had been
lingering by the great window, startled me by asking for a few minutes’
conversation, “if I was quite at leisure.” I put down my basket with the
utmost promptitude. Curiosity, if not courtesy, made me perfectly at
leisure to hear anything he might have to say.

“I have undertaken a very foolish office,” said Maurice--“I have had the
supreme conceit and presumption of supposing that I could perhaps plead
with you, Mrs. Crofton, the cause of a friend.”

“I trust I shall feel sufficiently flattered,” said I, assuming the same
tone. “And pray who is the friend who has the advantage of your support,
Maurice? and what does he want of me?”

The young man colored and looked affronted--he was highly sensitive to
ridicule, like all self-regarding men.

“Nay, pray don’t convince me so distinctly of my folly before I start,”
he said; “the friend is a college friend of mine, who was so absurd as
to marry before he had anything to live on; a very good fellow with--oh!
don’t be afraid--perfectly sound views, I assure you, Mrs. Crofton,
though he is acquainted with me.”

“I should think being acquainted with you very likely to help a sensible
man to sound views,” said I, with some natural spite, thankful for the
opportunity of sending a private arrow into him in passing; “and what
does your friend want that I can help him in?”

“The Rector of Estcourt is an old man, and very ill,” said Maurice,
after a pause of offence; “Owen, my friend, has a curacy in
Simonborough. I told him I should venture--though of course aware I had
not the slightest title to influence you--to name him to Mrs. Crofton,
in case of anything happening.”

“Aware that you have not the slightest title to influence me--that
means, does it not, Maurice?” said I, “that you rather think you have
some claim upon that Rectory at Estcourt, and that you magnanimously
resign it in favor of your friend? It was your father’s--it is your
mother’s desire to see you in his place--you have thought of it vaguely
all your life as a kind of inheritance, which you were at liberty to
accept or withdraw from; now, to be sure, we are very, very old
friends--is not that plainly, and without any superfluity of words, what
you mean?”

Maurice made a still longer pause--he was seized with the restlessness
common to men when they are rather hard tested in conversation. He got
up unawares, picked up a book off the nearest table, as if he meant to
answer me by means of that, and then returned to his chair. Then, after
a little further struggle, he laughed, growing very red at the same
time.

“You put the case strongly, but I will not say you are wrong,” he
answered; “after all, I believe, if it must be put into words, that is
about how the thing stands; but, of course, you know I am perfectly
aware”----

“Exactly,” said I; “we both understand it, and it is not necessary to
enter further into that part of the subject; but now, tell me, Maurice,
supposing your rights of natural succession to be perfectly
acknowledged, why is it that you substitute another person, and postpone
your own settlement to his?”

“My dear Mrs. Crofton,” cried Maurice, restored to himself by the
question, “what would not I give to be able to accept as mine that calm,
religious life?--what would not I relinquish for a faith as entire and
simple as my friend Owen’s? But that is my misfortune. I suppose my mind
is not so wholesomely constituted as other people’s. I cannot believe so
and so, just because I am told to believe it--I cannot shape my creed
according to the received pattern. If I could, I should be but too
happy; but _que voulez-vous_? a man cannot act against his
convictions--against his nature.”

“Nay, I assure you I am a very calm spectator,” said I; “I would not
have either one thing or another. I have not the least doubt that you
will know better some day, and why should I concern myself about the
matter?”

“Why, indeed?” echoed Maurice, faintly; but he was mortified; he
expected a little honor, at the very least, as his natural due, if not a
womanish attempt at proselytizing. The discomfiture of my adversary was
balm to my eyes--I was, as may be perceived, in a perfectly unchristian
state of mind.

“And how then about yourself?--what do you mean to do?” asked I; “you
are getting towards the age when men begin to think of setting up houses
and families for themselves. Do you mean to be a College Don all your
life, Maurice? I fear that must be rather an unsatisfactory kind of
existence; and one must take care, if that is the case, not to ask any
young ladies again to meet you--some one might happen to be too
captivating for your peace of mind--a Miss Reredos might outweigh a
fellowship;--such things have been even with men of minds as original as
your own.”

“Miss Reredos! ah, she amuses herself!” said Maurice, with a conscious
smile.

“Yes, I think you are very well matched,” said I, calmly; “you will not
do her much harm, nor she inflict a very deep wound on your heart, but
it might have happened differently. People as wise as yourself, when
their turn comes, are often the most foolish in these concerns.”

“Ah, you forget that I am past youth,” said Maurice; “you, Mrs.
Crofton, have made a private agreement, I suppose, with the old enemy,
but I have no such privilege--I have done with that sort of thing long
ago. However, about Owen, if I may remind you, is there anything to
say?”

“Somebody asked me for the living of Estcourt when your father lay
dying; I was younger then, as you say--I was deeply horrified,” said I.
“We must wait.”

“Ah, yes; but my father was a man in the prime of life, and this is an
old man, whom even his own family cannot expect to live long,” said
Maurice; “but, of course, if you do not like it, I have not another word
to say.”

“Ah, Maurice,” said I, forgetting for a moment the personage who sat
before me, and thinking of Dr. Harley’s death-bed, and the fatherless
children there so helpless and dependent on other people’s judgment,
“your father was a good man, but he had not the heart to live after he
lost his fortune, and your mother is a good woman, but she had not the
heart to bring you up poorly and bravely in your own home. They are my
dear friends, and I dare speak of them even to you. Why did she send you
to that idle uncle of yours, to be brought up in idleness?--you big,
strong, indolent man! What is the good of you, though you are Fellow of
Exeter? You might have been of some use in the world by this time if you
had lived among your brothers and sisters, a widow’s son.”

Maurice started--rose up--made a surprised exclamation of my name--and
then dropped into his chair again without saying anything. He did not
answer me a word. The offence melted out of his face, but he kept his
eyes down and did not look at me. I could not tell whether he was
angry--I had been moved by my own feelings beyond, for the moment,
thinking of his.

“Ask your friend to come and see you here,” I said, after an awkward
little pause; “say, Mr. Crofton and I will be glad if he will dine with
us before you go--perhaps, to-morrow, Maurice, and that will leave him
time to get home on Saturday--and we will think about it, should the
living of Estcourt fall vacant. Forgive me,” I continued, as I rose to
go away, “I said more than I ought to have said.”

He took my hand and wrung it with an emphatic pressure; what he said I
made out only with difficulty, I think it was, “No more than is true.”

And I left him with somewhat uncomfortable feelings. I had not the very
least right to lecture this young man; quite the other way--for was not
I a woman and an illiterate person, and he Fellow of his College? I
confess I did not feel very self-complacent as I left the room. This
third confidential interview, in which I had over-passed the prudent
limits of friendliness, did not _feel_ at all satisfactory.
Nevertheless, I was glad to see that Maurice was magnanimous--that he
was likely to forgive me--and that possibly there were elements of
better things even in his regarding indolence. All which symptoms,
though in a moral point of view highly gratifying, made me but feel the
more strongly that I had gone beyond due limits, and exceeded the margin
of truth-telling and disagreeableness which one is _not_ allowed towards
one’s guests, and in one’s own house.



CHAPTER XIII.


It may be allowed to me to confess that I watched during the remainder
of that day with a little natural, but extremely absurd curiosity to see
“what effect” our conversation had upon Maurice Harley. After I had got
over my own unpleasant sensations, I began to flatter myself, with
natural vanity, that perhaps I might have “done him good.” I had an
inkling that it was absurd, but that made very little difference, and I
acknowledge that I felt quite a new spur and stimulus of interest in the
young man. I listened to his chance observations during the day with an
attention which I had never before bestowed upon them. For the moment,
instead of simple impatience of his indolence, and virtuous, gentlemanly
good-for-nothingness, I began to sympathize somewhat in the lamenting
admiration of his friends that so much talent should be lost to the
world. Altogether, in my capacity of hostess to Maurice, I was for that
day a reformed and penitent person, full of compunction for my offence.
I am obliged to confess, however, that there was no corresponding change
upon my guest. Maurice demeaned himself that day exactly as he had done
the day before--was as superior, and critical, and indifferent, as much
above the common uses of life and motives of humanity as he had ever
been. Still, my penitential feelings lasted out the day, and it was not
till I perceived how entirely he was laying himself out to charm and
captivate Miss Reredos and make up to her for the attentions she had
paid him, that I detected myself in the simple-minded vanity of
expecting to have “done him good.” The flirtation that evening was so
evident, and Maurice threw himself so much more warmly into it than on
any former occasion, that we, the spectators, were all roused to double
observation. Johnnie sat behind the little table in the corner, with the
stereoscope before him, blazing the wildest rage out of his half-hidden
eyes upon his brother, and sometimes quite trembling with passion. Alice
moved about with a little indignant dilation of her person and elevation
of her head--half out of regard to the honor of her “sex,” which Miss
Reredos, she supposed, was compromising, and half out of shame and
annoyance at the “infatuation” of her brother. And not quite knowing
what this new fervor might portend, I took an opportunity as I passed
by Maurice’s chair to speak to him quietly--

“Is Miss Reredos, then, to be more attractive than the fellowship?” I
said, lingering a moment as I passed.

Maurice looked up at me with a certain gleam of boyish malice and temper
in his eye.

“You know we are very well matched, and I cannot do _her_ much harm,” he
said, quoting my own words.

This was the good I had done him--this, out of a conversation which
ended so seriously, was the only seed that had remained in that fertile
and productive soil, the mind of Maurice Harley, and behold already its
fructifications. I went back to my seat, and sat down speechless. I was
inexpressibly angry and mortified for the moment. To be sure it was a
little private and personal vanity which made the special sting. Yet he
had been unquestionably moved by my candid opinion of him, in which very
little admiration was mingled with the regret--but had I not piqued
_his_ vanity as well?

As for Johnnie, having been taken into his confidence, I was doubly
alive to the feelings with which he watched his brother. Miss Reredos
managed admirably well between the lover real and the lover
make-believe, _her_ vanity being of course in play even more decidedly
than anybody else’s. I believe she was quite deceived by the sudden
warmth of Maurice. I believe the innocent young woman fell captive in an
instant, not to his fascinations, but to the delusion of believing that
she had fascinated him, and that the name of the Fellow of Exeter was
that evening inscribed upon her long list of victims; but,
notwithstanding, she would not give up Johnnie; I suppose his youthful
adoration was something new and sweet to the experienced young lady--the
absoluteness of his trust in her and admiration of her was delicious to
the pretty coquette, with whom warier men were on their guard. Over
Johnnie she was absolute, undisputed sovereign--he was ready to defy the
whole world in her behalf, and disown every friend he had at her
bidding. Such homage, even from a cripple, was too sweet to be parted
with. Somehow, by means of those clever eyes of hers, even while at the
height of her flirtation with Maurice, she kept Johnnie in hand,
propitiated, and calmed him. I don’t know how it is done--I don’t think
Alice knew either; but I am not sure that a certain instinctive
perception of the manner of that skilful double movement did not come
natural to Clara Sedgwick, and stimulate her disgust at the proceeding.
If she had not been married so early and been so happy a little wife,
Clara might have been a little flirt herself--who knows? I saw that she
had an intuition how it was done.

As for Miss Polly, she could do nothing but talk about the advantages of
useful training for girls. “If these poor children should turn out
flirts, Clare!” she cried, in dismay. To be sure, Emmy, the pretty one,
was only ten and a half--but still if education could hinder such a
catastrophe, there was certainly no time to be lost.

Mr. Owen came to dinner next day, according to my invitation. He was a
young man, younger than Maurice, and a hundred times more agreeable. He
was curate of St. Peter’s, in Simonborough, where a curate among the
multitude of divines congregated about the cathedral, was as hard to
find or make any note of as the famous needle in the bundle of hay. And
it is very probable that he was not a brilliant preacher, or noted for
any gift in particular; but I liked the honest, manful young fellow, who
was not ashamed either to do his work or to talk of it when occasion
called--nor afraid to marry upon his minute income, nor to tell me with
a passing blush and a happy laugh, which became him, what a famous
little housekeeper his wife was, and what fun they had over her
economics. Maurice heard and smiled--calm, ineffable, superior--and
wished he could only submit his unhappily more enlightened mind to a
simple faith like Owen’s. And Owen, on his part, was respectful of the
dainty disbeliever, and took off his hat to that scepticism, born of
idleness and an unoccupied mind, for which I, in my secret heart, for
sheer impatience and disgust, could have whipped the Fellow of Exeter.
Mr. Owen was as respectful of it as if that pensive negation had been
something actual and of solemn importance. He shook his head and talked
to me mysteriously of poor Harley. Maurice had rather distinguished
himself at college before he sank into his fellowship. His old
companions who were of the same standing were a little proud of his
scholarly attainments. “He could be anything if he chose,” they said to
themselves; and because Maurice did not choose, his capabilities looked
all the grander. Owen was quite a partisan of Harley. “What a pity it
was!” the honest fellow said, “with such a mind, if he could but get
right views”----

At which juncture I struck the excellent young man dumb and breathless
by uttering aloud a fervent desire and prayer that by some happy chance
Maurice should fall in love.

Mr. Owen looked at me for a moment thunderstruck, the words of his own
former sensible sentence hanging half-formed about his lips; then, when
he had recovered himself a little, he smiled and said, “You have so much
confidence in a female preacher? No doubt they are irresistible--but not
in matters of doctrine, perhaps.”

“No such thing,” said I, “I have no confidence in female preachers or
religious courtship; but apart from the intense satisfaction which I own
I should have in seeing Maurice make, as people say, a fool of himself,
that is the only means I see of bringing him back to life.”

“To life!” said my new acquaintance, with a lively look of
interrogation.

“Oh, I do not mean anything grand; I mean common life, with the
housekeeping to be provided for,” said I smiling, “and the daily bread,
and the other mouths that have to eat it. I daresay, even you yourself,
who seem to stand in no such need as Maurice, have found out something
in the pleasant jingle you were talking of--of Mrs. Owen’s basket of
keys.”

The young man blushed once more that slight passing color of happiness,
and answered gravely, yet with a smile, “It is true, I see what you
mean--and it is very possible indeed--but,” he added, stopping
abruptly, and looking at his friend, who was in the full tide of
flirtation with Miss Reredos, “Mrs. Crofton, look there!”

I shook my head. “Nothing will come of it,” said I; “they are amusing
themselves.”

Condign punishment came upon my head almost as I spoke; I had turned my
head incautiously, and Johnnie and Alice had both heard me.

“Amusing themselves!” cried Johnnie, hissing the words into my ears in a
whisper. “Amusing! do you suppose that it is anything but her
angel-sweetness, Mrs. Crofton, that makes her so forbearing with
Maurice--_my_ brother? I adore her for it,” cried (but in a whisper) the
deluded boy.

“Amusing themselves!” cried Alice, raising her head, “and _you_ can say
so, Mrs. Crofton? Oh, I am ashamed, to think a woman should forget
herself so strangely; I could forgive anything--almost anything,” said
Alice, correcting herself with a blush, “which really sprang from true
strong feeling; but flirting--amusing themselves! Oh, Mrs. Crofton!”

“My dear child, it is not my fault,” said I, “I have no hand in the
matter, either one way or the other.”

“Yes, that is true,” said Alice, with that lively impatience and
disinclination to suffer a dear friend to rest in an opinion different
from her own, which I have felt myself and understood perfectly,--“but
you will not see how unworthy it is--how dishonoring to women! That is
what wounds me.”

“Is it not dishonoring to men as well?--two are playing at it, and the
other creature is accountable likewise. Are you not concerned for the
credit of your sex?” said I, turning to Owen.

The young curate laughed, Alice blushed and looked deeply affronted, and
Johnnie, turning all the fury of his jealousy upon me, looked as if it
would have pleased him to do me some bodily harm. Well, well, one can
bear all that--and I am happy to say that I think I accelerated
distantly and humbly by this said conversation, the coming on of Maurice
Harley’s fate.



CHAPTER XIV.


Very shortly after our little party separated, it was time to go back to
London to Derwent’s treadmill; our holiday was over--and as Alice had
positively declined my invitation to go with us to London, we were again
for several months quite separated from our country friends. I heard
from them in the meantime various scraps of information, from which I
could gather vaguely how their individual concerns went on. Mr. Reredos
was again a visitor at the cottage, and Mrs. Harley, who was not in the
secret of his previous rejection, wrote to me two or three long,
anxious, confidential letters about his evident devotion to her dear
girl--and what did I think of it? It was, the good mother said, the
position of all others which she would choose for her daughter, if it
lay in her decision--a country clergyman’s wife, the same position which
she herself had held long ago, when Dr. Harley lived, and she was
happy!--but she could not make out what Alice’s mind was. Alice was
sometimes cordial and sometimes distant to this candidate for her
favor--“And I often fear that it will just be with Mr. Reredos as with
the rest,” said Mrs. Harley, despondingly--“and I like him so much--he
reminds me of what her dear father was once--and the connection would
altogether be so eligible that I should be very sorry if it came to
nothing. Do you think, dear Mrs. Crofton, that you could use your
influence with her on this subject? My dear girl is so shocked and
disgusted with the idea of people marrying for an establishment, that I
really do not venture to say a word to her about her own establishment
in life; but _you_ know as well as I do, dear Mrs. Crofton, that such
things must be thought of, and really this is so thoroughly
eligible”----

Alice followed on the same key.

“Mamma teases me again on that everlasting subject, dear Mrs. Crofton;
there is some one so completely eligible, she says--and I quite feel
it--so entirely eligible that if there was not another in the world!
Mamma is provoked, and says if somebody came who was quite the reverse
of eligible that I should answer differently--and indeed I am not sure
but there is justice in what she says. But do interfere on my behalf,
please; I prefer to be always Alice Harley--do, please, dear Mrs.
Crofton, persuade my mother not to worry me, but to believe that I know
my own mind.”

From which double correspondence I inferred that Mr. Reredos had somehow
managed to resume his suit and to make a partisan of Mrs. Harley without
giving a desperate and hopeless affront to the pride of Alice, which
raised my opinion of his generalship so greatly that I began to imagine
there might possibly be some likelihood of success for the Rector--a
conclusion which I fear did not gratify me so much as Mrs. Harley had
imagined it should.

Along with this information I heard of a sister of Mr. Owen’s, who was
paying them a visit--of repeated excursions into Simonborough--of
Maurice’s growing relish for home, and some anxieties on the young man’s
part about his future life. And Johnnie’s book was published--a book
which in my wildest imagination I could not have supposed to be produced
by the cripple boy, who, out of the cottage, knew nothing whatever of
life. Johnnie’s hero was a hero who did feats of strength and skill
unimaginable--tamed horses, knocked down bullies, fought, rode, rowed,
and cricketed, after the most approved fashion of the modern youth,
heroical and muscular--and in his leisure hours made love!--such
love!--full of ecstasies and despairs, quite inconceivable to any
imagination above twenty--but all enforced and explained with such
perfect ingenuousness and good faith that one could have hugged the boy
all the time for the exquisite and delightful folly, in which there did
not mix an evil thought. Nothing could well be more remarkable than this
fiery outburst of confined and restrained life from the bosom of the
cripple, to whom all these active delights were impossible--it was
profoundly pathetic too, to me. Poor Johnnie! with that fervid
imagination in him, how was he to bear the gray life which Alice had
predicted--the life which must be his, notwithstanding all his dreams
and hopes? How, when it came to that, was he to undergo the downfall of
his first miraculous castle in the air, his vain and violent
love-passion? Poor heart, foredoomed! would he ever learn to bring the
music of Patience, so lovely to those who hear, so hard to those who
make it, out of those life-chords which were drawn all awry, beyond the
reach of happiness? I was happy myself in those days. I had little
desire to think of the marvellous life to come in which all these
problems shall be made clear. I could not cast forward my mind beyond
this existence--and the strange inequality between this boy’s mind and
his fate vexed me at the heart.

And so, quite quietly and gradually, the time stole on. I heard nothing
more from poor Bertie Nugent, in India; he meant to come home, but he
had not yet obtained his leave of absence, and it remained quite
uncertain when we should see him. Everything was very quiet at home. Our
fighting was over--our national pride and confidence in our own arms and
soldiers, revived by actual experience; everything looking prosperous
within the country, and nothing dangerous without.

It was at this time that the dreadful news of the Indian mutiny came
upon the country like the shock of an earthquake. News more frightful
never startled a peaceful people. Faces paled, and hearts sickened, even
among people who had no friends in that deadly peril; and as for us, who
had relatives and connections to be anxious for, it is impossible to
describe the fear that took possession of us. I knew nobody there but
Bertie, and he, thank Heaven, was but a man, and could only be killed at
the worst; but I had people belonging to me there, though I did not know
them; people whom I had heard of for years and years, though I had never
seen them; cousins, and such like--Nugents--with women among them--God
help us! creatures who might have to bear tortures more cruel than
death. The thought woke me up into a restless fever of horror and
anxiety, which I cannot describe. Perhaps I felt the hideous contrast
more because of my own perfect safety and happiness, but I could neither
sleep by night nor smile by day, for the vision of that horrible anguish
which had fallen upon some, and might be--might be--for anything I
knew--at any moment--ah! the thought was too much for flesh and blood.
It was growing towards autumn, yet I, who hated London, was reluctant
that year to leave it. We were nearer to those news which it was so
sickening to hear, yet so dreadful to be out of reach of, and it seemed
to me as if it would be impossible to go into those tranquil country
places, where all was happy, and still, and prosperous, with such a
cloud of horror, and fear, and rage about one’s heart. At that time I
almost think I could have heard without any great additional pang that
Bertie himself had been killed. He was a man, thank Heaven, and they
could only kill him! Mere family affection was lost for the moment in
the overpowering horror of the time.

But the first miseries were over by the time we went to Hilfont--it had
begun to be a fight of man to man--that is to say, of one man to some
certain number of heathen creatures, from a dozen to a hundred--and the
news, breathless news, mad with gasps of grief, anxiety, and
thanksgiving, did not now strike such horror and chill to our blood. We
went home and quieted ourselves, and grew anxious about Bertie--very
anxious. Of course he was in the thick of the fight. If he had not been,
could we ever have forgiven him?--but he was, and we had only to wait,
and long, and tremble for news, to catch here and there a glimpse of him
through obscure telegraphic reports, and slow dispatches, coming long,
long, and slow, after that bewildering, tantalizing snatch of
half-comprehensible tidings. Then I saw, for the first time, how
thoroughly the young man, though he had been away eight years, kept his
hold upon our hearts. Derwent would ride a dozen miles to the railway
for a chance of hearing a little earlier than was possible at Hilfont,
when the _new_ news came in; everybody about the house looked breathless
till they heard if the Captain, as they called him, was still safe. As
for Alice Harley, I do not remember that she ever asked a question--she
went and came about the house, read all the papers, listened to all the
conversations, stood by and heard everything, while her sister Clara
poured forth inquiry upon inquiry, while the gentlemen discussed the
whole matter, and decided what everybody must do; while even Lady
Greenfield, drawn towards me, though we were but indifferent friends,
by a common touch of nature (for I cannot deny that she liked her
nephews), consulted and argued where Bertie could be now, and wished him
safe home. My little Derwent, with a flush on his childish cheeks, and
tears in his eyes, cried out against her; “Do you think Bertie will come
safe home when they are murdering the women and the babies?” cried
Derwie, with a half-scream of childish excitement. “Bertie?--if he did,
I would like to kill him; but he never, never, will till they’re all on
board the ships--he had better be killed than come safe home!”

The tears were in my own eyes, so that I did not see the child very
clearly as he spoke; but I saw Alice bend quickly down to kiss him, and
heard in the room the sound of one sob--a sound surprised out of
somebody’s heart. Not Lady Greenfield’s, who put her handkerchief to her
eyes, and said that really she was only human, and might be forgiven for
wishing her own relations safe. Miss Polly had come with her
sister-in-law that day--she was paler than ever, the tender old lady.
She cried a little as we talked, but it was not out of her calm old
heart that such a sob of anguish and passion came.

“My dear,” said Miss Polly, speaking as if she addressed me, but not
looking in my direction, “I’m afraid Derwie’s right; if he die he must
do his duty--there’s no talk of being safe in such times.”

“It is very easy for you to speak,” said Lady Greenfield, and I believe
she thought so; “but Clare and I feel differently--he is not a relation
of yours.”

“I pray for the dear boy, night and morning, all the same. God bless
him, at this moment, wherever he may be!” said Miss Polly. I was
conscious of a quick, sudden movement as the words fell, soft and grave,
from her dear old lips. It was Alice who had left the room.

She could not bear it any longer. _She_ did not belong to him--she was
not old enough to speak like Miss Polly--she durst not flutter forth her
anxiety for her old playfellow as Clara did. Her heart was throbbing and
burning in her young warm breast. She did not say a word or ask a
question; but when the tender old woman bade God bless him, Alice could
stand quiet no longer. I knew it, though she had not a word to say.



CHAPTER XV.


This time of anxiety was one which, in that great common interest and
grief, drew many people together who had little sympathy with each other
in ordinary times. Many a close, private, confidential talk, deluged
with tears, or tremulous with hope, I had within these days with many a
troubled woman, who up to that time had been only an acquaintance, or
very slightly known to me, but who was now ready, at the touch of this
magical sympathy, to take me into her heart. Derwent’s custom of riding
to the railway for the earliest perusable news, and an occasional
message by telegraph, which came to him when any important intelligence
arrived, made our house besieged by anxious people, to whom the greatest
joy of their lives was to find no mention in these breathless dispatches
of the individual or the place in which they were interested. Nugents,
whom I had never heard of, started up everywhere, asking from me
information about Bertie and his family. The girls who had been brought
up at Estcourt deluged me with letters asking after him. I am not sure
that our entire household did not feel, amid all its anxiety, a little
pride in the consciousness of thus having a share in the universal
national sympathy which was bestowed so warmly and freely upon all who
had friends in India. As for little Derwie, he devoted himself entirely
now to the business of carrying news. He knew already by heart the list
of all the families--I had almost said in all the county, certainly
between Hilfont and Simonborough--who had soldier-sons; and Derwie and
his pony flew along all the country roads for days together when news
came, the child carrying in his faithful childish memory every detail of
the dispatch to the cottage women, who had no other means of hearing it.
The people about--that is to say, Miss Reredos and the important people
of the village--called my boy the telegraph-boy, and I am not quite sure
that I was not rather proud of the name. Whether his news-carrying
always did good I will not say--perhaps it was little comfort to the
mother of a nameless rank-and-file man to hear that another battle had
been won, or a successful march made, in which, perhaps, God knows, that
undistinguished boy of hers might have fainted and fallen aside to die.
But the common people--God bless them!--are more hopeful in their
laborious hearts than we who have leisure to think all our anxieties
out, and grow sick over them.

Derwie flew here and there on his pony, telling the news--possessed with
it to the exclusion of every other thought--and I could but be thankful
that he was a child, and the telegraph-boy, not a man, able to set out
with a heart of flame to that desperate and furious strife.

I surprised a nursery party at this memorable period in the expression
of their sentiments. It was somebody’s birthday at Waterflag, and all
the little people were collected there. Derwent had been telling them of
a feat performed in India by a Flintshire man, which all the newspapers
had celebrated, and which we were all rather proud of. Derwie, in his
capacity of newsboy, read the papers to the best of his ability, with
very original readings of the Indian names, but he was much more
thoroughly informed than any of the others--by reason of his trade--and
they listened to him as to an oracle. Then came an account of the mutiny
and all its frightful consequences, as well as Derwie knew. The children
listened absorbed, the girls being, as I rather think is very common,
much the most greatly excited. Willie Sedgwick, the chubby pink and
white heir, who looked so much younger than Derwie, sat silent,
fingering his buttons, and with no remarkable expression in his face;
but Miss Polly’s two nieces bent down from their height of superior
stature to listen, and Clara Sedgwick--lovely little coquette--stood in
the middle of the room, arrested in something she had been doing,
breathless, her little face burning with the strongest childish
excitement. She was not now arrayed in that glorious apparel which had
captivated Derwie and myself in the spring. It was only a simple gray
morning frock, which was expanded upon her infantine crinoline at this
moment; but her beautiful little figure, all palpitating with wonder,
wrath, and excitement, was a sight to see.

“Oh!” cried out the child, stamping her little foot, as Derwie,
breathless himself, paused in his tale--“oh! if I had only a gun, I
would take hold of papa’s hand and shoot them all!”

“Ah!” cried Emmy, whose thoughts had been doubtless following the same
track, and to whom this sudden sense of a want which, perhaps, she
scarcely realized in ordinary times, came sharp in sudden contrast with
that exclamation of Clary’s--“Ah, Clary!” cried the poor child, with a
shrill accent in the momentary pang it gave her, “but we have no papa.”
It struck me like a sudden passionate, artless postscript of personal
grief, striking its key-note upon the big impersonal calamity which
raised, even in these children’s bosoms, such generous horror and
indignation.

“He was killed in India,” said Di, in a low tone, her womanly little
face growing dark with a sudden twilight of feeling more serious than
her years.

“They don’t want _us_ to fight,” said Derwie, whom this personal
digression did not withdraw from his main interest; “you may be sure,
Clary, they don’t want a little thing like you, or me, or Willie; to be
sure, if we had been older!--but never mind, there’s sure to be somebody
to fight with when we’re big enough; and then there’s such famous
fellows there--there’s Sam Rivers, I was telling you of, that
Huntingdonshire man; I know his mother, I’ll take you to see her, if you
like; and there’s Bertie--there’s our Bertie, don’t you know?--he’ll
never come home till they’re all safe, or till he’s killed.”

“If he’s killed he’ll never come back,” said Willie Sedgwick.

“Oh, I wish you would go away, you horrid great boy!” cried Clary,
indignantly--“Killed! when you know mamma is so fond of Mrs. Crofton’s
Bertie, and loves him as much as Uncle Maurice!--but Willie doesn’t care
for anything,” she said, in an aggrieved tone, turning away from her
brother with a disgust which I slightly shared.

“I could bear him to be killed,” said Derwie, who, poor child, had never
seen the hero he discussed, “if he did something worth while first--like
that one, you know, who blew himself up, or that one”----

“But, Derwie, what was the good of blowing himself up,” said Clary, with
wondering round eyes.

“Don’t you see?” cried Derwie, impatiently; “why, to destroy the powder
and things, to be sure, that they might not have it to fire at us.”

“I’d have poured water all on the powder, if it had been me, and spoiled
it without hurting any one,” said the prudent Willie.

“As if he had time to think about hurting any one!” said Derwie--“as if
he didn’t just _do_ it--the first thought that came into his head.”

“Oh, Derwent!” cried Clary again, “if they were all--every one--ten
thousand thousand, standing up before one big gun, and papa would only
take hold of my hand, I would fire it off!”

“Aunty says we should forgive,” said Miss Polly’s gentle Di, in a low
voice; “’tis dreadful to be killed, but it would be worse to kill
somebody else.”

“I don’t think so at all,” cried Clary, “I would kill them every one if
I could--every one that did such horrid, cruel, wicked things. I hope
Bertie will kill ever so many--hundreds! Don’t you hope so, Derwie? I
would if I were him.”

This sanguinary speech was interrupted by an arrival of nurses and
attendants, and Clary, quite beautiful in her childish fury, went off to
make a captivating toilette for the early childs’ dinner, where
everybody was to appear in gala costume, to do honor to the birthday
hero. The elder Clara, the child’s mother, had been standing with me in
one end of the great nursery, listening to this discussion. She turned
round with a laugh when the party had dispersed.

“What a little wretch!” said Clara; “but oh! Mrs. Crofton, isn’t it
absurd what people say about children’s gentleness and sweetness, and
all that? I know there is never a story told in my nursery of a wicked
giant, or a bad uncle, or anything of that sort, but the very baby, if
he could speak, would give his vote for cutting the villain up in little
pieces. There never were such cruel imps. They quite shout with
satisfaction when that poor innocent giant, who never did any harm that
I can see, tumbles down the beanstalk and gets killed--though I am sure
that impudent little thief Jack deserves it a great deal more. But what
a memory Derwie has!--and how he understands! I am sure, I hope most
sincerely that Bertie, after all, will get safe home. Is there any more
news?”

“No more,” said I, “I have not heard from himself a long time now--and
the public news only keeps us anxious. I am not quite so philosophical
as Derwie--few things would make me so thankful as to hear that Bertie
was on his way home.”

“Oh, I should be so glad!” said Clara, eagerly; then, after a pause and
with a smile, “young men who want their friends to get dreadfully
interested about them should all go out--don’t you think, Mrs. Crofton?
There is Alice, for example. I thought everything was coming round quite
nicely, and that Alice was going to be quite rational, and _settle_ like
other people, at last--but just when everything seemed in such excellent
train, lo! here came this Indian business, and upset the whole again.”

“Upset what? I don’t understand what you mean,” said I, with a little
wonder, partly affected and partly real.

“Oh, Mrs. Crofton! you _do_,” cried Clara; “you know mamma and I had
just been making up our minds that Mr. Reredos was _the_ person, and
that all was to be quite pleasant and comfortable. He was _so_
attentive, and Alice really so much better behaved than she had ever
been before. Then this Indian business, you know, happened, and she was
all in a craze again. She doesn’t say much, but I am quite sure it is
nothing else that has upset her. Of course, looking at it in a rational
way, Bertie and Alice can’t _really_ be anything to each other. But he’s
far away, and he’s in danger, and there’s quite an air of romance about
him. And Alice is so ridiculous! I am quite sure in my own mind that
this is the only reason why she’s so very cool to the Rector again.”

“It is very injudicious to say so, Clara,” said I; “of course she must
be interested--her old playfellow--like a brother to you both; but as
for interposing between her and an eligible”----

“Now, please don’t be rational,” pleaded Clara, “I know exactly what you
are going to say--but after all she must marry somebody, you know, and
where is the harm of an eligible establishment? Perhaps it would be as
well if mamma did not use the word--but still!--oh! to be sure, dear,
good, kind Bertie--the children are quite right,” said Clara, with a
sweet suffusion of kindness and good feeling over all her face--“I am
sure I love him every bit as much as I love Maurice--he was always like
a brother, the dear fellow! I don’t say Alice should not be interested
in him; but only it’s all her romance, you know. She’s not in love with
him--if she were in love with him, I couldn’t say a word--it’s only
sympathy, and friendship, and sisterhood, and all that; and because he’s
in trouble she’ll forget all about herself, and send this good man, who
is very fond of her, away.”

“These young ladies, you see, Clara,” said I, “they are not at all to be
depended on; they never will attend to what we experienced people say.”

“Ah, yes, that is true,” said Alice’s younger sister, with a sigh of
serious acquiescence, and the simplest good faith.

Clara, with her five babies, had forgotten that she was not her sister’s
senior--while Alice, for her part, looking down from her quiet
observatory in her brown silk dress upon Clara’s wonderful toilettes and
blooming beauty, felt herself a whole century older than that pretty
matron-sister, who was always so sweetly occupied with life, and had so
little time for thought. I smiled upon them both, being near twenty
years their senior, and thought them a couple of children still. So we
all go on, thinking ourself the wisest always. In these days I began to
moralize a little. I have no doubt Miss Polly had similar thoughts of
me.



CHAPTER XVI.


That evening I had the satisfaction (or dissatisfaction) of beholding a
very similar condition of things to that which had occupied my attention
in my own house at Easter. All the Harleys were at Waterflag, in honor
of Willie’s birthday, including the pretty little Kate, whose first
party this was, and--a more perplexing addition--their mother. Mrs.
Harley was exactly what she had always been, but age had made her
uncertain mind more uncertain, while it increased her anxiety to have
her children “provided for,” as she called it. The colder Alice was to
Mr. Reredos, the more warmly and tenderly her mother conciliated and
courted him. Here was a good match, which might be lost for a caprice,
one might have supposed the good woman to be thinking; and it was her
duty to prevent that consummation, if possible. Mrs. Harley quite gave
herself up to the task of soothing down the temper which Alice had
ruffled, and whispering perseverance to the discouraged suitor. She
referred to him on all occasions, thrust his opinions into anything that
was going forward, contrived means of bringing him into immediate
contact with Alice, which last brought many a little sting and slight to
the unfortunate and too well-befriended lover--on the whole, conducted
herself as a nervous, anxious, well-meaning woman, to whom Providence
has not given the gift of comprehending other people’s individualities,
might be supposed likely to do. As Mrs. Harley sat in her great chair by
the fire in the Waterflag drawing-room, and looked round her upon her
children and descendants, I did not wonder that she was both proud and
anxious. There was Maurice with a new world of troublous thoughts in his
face. I could no more understand what was their cause than I could
interfere with them. Was it that dread following out of his
investigations into Truth, wherever she might lead him, which he had
contemplated with tragical but complacent placidity six months since--or
had other troubles, more material, overtaken the Fellow of Exeter? I was
somewhat curious, but how could I hope to know? Then there was Johnnie,
poor, happy, deluded boy! Miss Reredos was of the company--and while she
still saw nobody else who was more likely game, she amused herself with
Johnnie, and overwhelmed his simple soul with joy. His book and his love
together had changed him much, poor fellow; he was sadly impatient of
being spoken to as a youth, or almost as a child, in the old
sympathetic, tender custom which all his family had fallen into. He was
jealous of being distinguished in any way from other people, and took
the indulgences long accorded to his ill-health and helplessness
fiercely, as if they had been so many insults. Poor Johnnie! he thought
himself quite lifted above the old warm family affection, which clung so
close to the weakest of the flock, by this new imaginary love of his. I
wonder what that syren of his imagination felt when she saw what she had
done! I imagine nothing but amusement, and a little pleasurable thrill
of vanity. Many men made love to Miss Reredos, or had done so during the
past career of that experienced young lady; few perhaps had thrown
themselves at her feet _tout entier_, like our poor cripple Johnnie. She
felt the flattery, though she cared little about the victim. I believe,
while she foresaw quite coolly the misery she was bringing on the boy,
she yet had and would retain a certain grateful memory of him all her
life.

But it appeared that she had either tired of Maurice, or recognized as
impracticable her flirtation with that accomplished young gentleman.
They were on somewhat spiteful terms, having a little passing encounter
of pique on the one side and anger on the other, whenever they chanced
to come in contact. The pique was on the lady’s side; but as for
Maurice, he looked as if it would have been a decided relief to his
feelings to do her some small personal injury. There was a kind of snarl
in his voice when he addressed her, such as I have heard men use to a
woman who had somehow injured them, and whom they supposed to have taken
a mean advantage of her woman’s exemption from accountability. “If you
were a man I could punish you; but you are not a man, and I have to be
polite to you, you cowardly female creature,” said the tone, but not the
words of Maurice’s voice; and I could discover by that tone that
something new must have happened which I did not know of. All the more
fervently for the coolness of his mother and sisters to her, and for the
constraint and gloomy looks of Maurice, did Johnnie, poor boy, hang upon
the words and watch the looks of the enchantress--he saw nobody else in
the room, cared for nobody else--was entirely carried beyond all other
affections, beyond gratitude, beyond every sentiment but that of the
exalted boyish passion which had, to his own consciousness, changed all
his life and thoughts.

And there, on the other hand, was Alice, thwarting all the wishes and
inclinations of her friends. Mrs. Harley forgave Johnnie, and turned all
her wrath for his foolishness upon Miss Reredos; but she did not forgive
Alice for those cold and brief answers, that unapproachable aspect which
daunted the Rector, comfortable and satisfactory as was his opinion of
himself. I could not help looking at these young people with a passing
wonder in my mind over the strange caprices and cross-purposes of their
period of life. Maurice, for instance--what was it that had set Maurice
all astray from his comfortable self-complacency and _dilettante_
leisure? Somehow the pleasure-boat of his life had got among the rocks,
and nothing but dissatisfaction--extreme, utter, unmitigated
dissatisfaction--was left to the young man, as I could perceive, of all
his accomplishments and perfections. Alice was thrusting ordinary life
away from her--thrusting aside love, and independence, and “an eligible
establishment,” trying to persuade herself that there were other
pursuits more dignified than the common life of woman--for--a caprice,
Clara said. Johnnie, poor Johnnie, was happy in the merest folly of
self-deception that ever innocent boy practised. Alas! and that was but
the threshold of hard, sober existence, and who could tell what bitter
things were yet in store for them? How hard is life! Perhaps Bertie
Nugent at that moment lay stark upon some Eastern field of battle;
perhaps he was pledging his heart and life to some of those
languid-lively Indian Englishwomen, ever so many thousand miles off--who
can tell? And why, because Bertie was in danger, should Alice Harley
snub that excellent young Rector, and turn from his attentions with such
an air of impatience, almost of disgust? Nobody could answer me these
simple questions. Indeed, to tell the truth, I did not ask anybody, but
quietly pursued the elucidation of them for myself.

And of course our conversation during the course of the evening ran upon
matters connected with India and the last news. Derwent and Mr. Sedgwick
held grave consultations on the political aspect of the matter and the
future government of India. Miss Reredos shuddered, and put on pretty
looks of earnest attention; Clara told the story of the conversation in
the nursery; while, in the mean time, Alice expressed her interest
neither by look nor word--only betrayed it by sitting stock-still,
taking no part in the conversation, and restraining more than was
natural every appearance of feeling. That silence would have been
enough, if there had been nothing else, to betray her to me.

But I confess I was surprised to hear the eager part which Maurice took
in the conversation, and the heat and earnestness with which he spoke.

“If there is one man on earth whom I envy it is Bertie Nugent,” said
Maurice, when Clara had ended her nursery story. “I remember him well
enough, and I know the interest Mrs. Crofton takes in him. You need not
make faces at me, Clara--I don’t think he’s very brilliant, and neither,
I daresay, does Mrs. Crofton; but he’s in his proper place.”

“Maurice, my dear, the place Providence appoints to us is always our
proper place,” said Mrs. Harley, with the true professional spirit of a
clergyman’s wife.

“Oh! just so, mother,” said the Fellow of Exeter, with a momentary
return of his old, superb, superior smile, “only, you know, one differs
in opinion with Providence now and then. Bertie Nugent, however, has no
doubt about it, I am certain. I envy him,” added the young man, with a
certain glance at me, as if he expected me to appreciate the change in
his sentiments, and to feel rather complimented that my poor Bertie was
promoted to the envy of so exalted a personage.

“I thought Mr. Maurice Harley despised soldiers,” said Miss Reredos,
dropping her words slowly out of her mouth, as if with a pleasant
consciousness that they contained a sting.

“On the contrary, I think soldiering the only natural profession to
which we are born,” said Maurice, starting with an angry flush, and all
but rudeness of tone.

“Don’t say so, please, before the children,” cried Clara. “War’s
disgusting. For one thing, nobody can talk of anything else when it’s
going on. And then only think what shoals of poor men it carries away,
never to bring them back again. Ah, poor Bertie!” cried Clara, with a
little feeling, “I wish the war were over, and he was safe home.”

“I am not sure that war is not the most wholesome of standing
institutions,” said Maurice, philosophically. “Your shoals of poor men
who go away, and never return, don’t matter much to general humanity.
There were more went off in the Irish exodus than we shall lose in
India. We can afford to lose a little blood.”

“Oh, yes, and sometimes it takes troublesome people out of the way,”
said the Rector’s sister--“one should not forget that.”

“Extremely true, and very philosophical, for a woman,” said Maurice,
with a savage look. “It drains the surplus population off, and makes
room for those who remain.”

Clara and her mother, both of them, rushed into the conversation with
the same breath as women rush to separate combatants. I should have been
very much surprised had I been more deeply interested. But at present I
was occupied with that imperturbable, uninterfering quietness with which
Alice sat at the table, saying nothing;--how elaborately unconscious and
unconcerned she looked!--that was much more important to me than any
squabble between Maurice and the Rector’s sister--or than the Rector
himself, or any one of the many and various individual concerns which,
like the different threads of a web, were woven into the quiet household
circle--giving a deep dramatic interest to the well-bred, unpicturesque
pose of the little company in that quiet English room.



CHAPTER XVII.


We stayed all that night at Waterflag, as we always did when we dined
with the Sedgwicks, and of course I was subjected to a long private and
confidential conversation with Mrs. Harley in my dressing-room, when we
both ought to have been at rest. She poured out her anxieties upon me as
she had done many a long year ago, when all these young people were
unconscious little children, and Dr. Harley, poor good man, was newly
dead. Only Time had changed both of us since then--she had become an old
woman with silver-white hair under her snowy cap. I was old too, though
my boy was but a child, and kept me nearer to youth than belonged to my
years; but Mrs. Harley was as glad of this outlet to her anxieties, and
felt as much relief in pouring these anxieties forth upon somebody
else’s shoulders as ever.

“Ah, Clare!” she said, “you have only one, to be sure, and he’s nobly
provided for; but we’re never so happy, though we don’t think it, as
when they’re all children. There’s nothing but measles and such things
to frighten one _then_--but _now_!--dear, dear! the charge of all these
grown up young people, Clare, is far too much for a poor woman like me.
I believe I shall break down all at once, one of these days.”

“Let us take it quietly,” said I, “they are very good, sensible,
well-educated young people--they know what they are doing--don’t you
think you might trust them to act for themselves?”

“They will, whether I trust them or not,” sighed poor Mrs. Harley. “Ah
dear! to think how one toils and denies one’s self for one’s family, and
how little account they make of one’s wishes when all is done! I think
mine have quite set themselves--all but Clara, dear girl, who is so
perfectly satisfactory in every way--to thwart and cross me, Alice--you
know how unreasonable she is--I can do nothing with her. Just the thing
of all others that I could have chosen for her, and such a nice,
excellent, judicious young man. You saw how she behaved to him
to-night.”

“But really, Mrs. Harley, if Alice doesn’t like him”--I interposed with
humility.

“Oh, nonsense--she does like him--at least, she doesn’t like anybody
else that I know of--and why shouldn’t she like him?” asked the
exasperated mother. “You know, Mrs. Crofton, that my poor income dies
with me--and there is Johnnie, poor child, to make some provision for,
and when I die what will she do?--though to be sure,” concluded Mrs.
Harley, drawing herself up a little, “I am not the sort of person to
marry my daughters merely for an establishment--that never was my way.
This case, you must perceive, Clare, is quite different. He is such a
very nice--such an entirely satisfactory person; and the position--I was
a clergyman’s wife myself, and I would choose that sphere rather than
any other for Alice; and as for liking, I really cannot see a single
reason why she should not like him, do you?”

“Why, no--except just, perhaps, that--I fear--she doesn’t,” said I, with
hesitation; for I confess this superlative mother’s argument quite
nonplused me. After all, why shouldn’t she like that good, young,
handsome Rector? I reserved the question for private consideration, but
was a little staggered by the strength of Mrs. Harley’s case.

“My opinion is that Alice thinks it rather a merit to refuse an eligible
person,” said Mrs. Harley--“like all these young people. There is
Maurice, too--you will not believe it, Clare--but Maurice has actually
had the folly to fall in love with Francis Owen’s sister in
Simonborough. I could not believe my ears when I heard of it first.
Maurice, who has always been such a very prudent boy! She is a very
nice, pretty girl, but, of course has not a penny--and Maurice has
nothing but his fellowship. It is a pretty mess altogether. In the very
best view of the case, if Maurice even had been content to think like
other people, and had a nice living waiting for him, they might both
have done better--_he_ might have done a _great_ deal better at least.
But, no!--when they find somebody quite unsuitable, that is the very
thing to please young people in these days; and there is my son,
Clare--my eldest son--who was never intended for any profession but the
Church--actually broaching all kinds of wild schemes about work, and
talking of going to Australia, or taking a laborer’s hod, or any other
wild thing he can think of; it is enough to break my heart!”

“Then do you mean that Maurice intends to throw up his fellowship, and
marry?” said I, thinking this too good news to be true.

Mrs. Harley shook her head.

“It is all a muddle,” she said, “there is no satisfaction at all in it;
she thought he flirted with Miss Reredos, and he thought she flirted
with some of the officers; and Miss Reredos has such a grudge at him
for falling in love with anybody but herself, that she did all she could
to help them to a quarrel; and a very good thing, too, for of course
they never would have been so mad as to marry, and I dislike long
engagements exceedingly; only since then it is really almost impossible
to endure Maurice in the house. He is _so_ ill-tempered, it is really
quite dreadful. I am sure, when I was young, I never gave my parents any
uneasiness about me, yet my two eldest children seem to think it quite
an amusement to worry me out of my life.”

“Let us believe they don’t do it on purpose,” said I; “troubles never
come single, you know--and I daresay this is the most critical time of
their life.”

“Ah, Alice should have had all these affairs over long ago!” said Mrs.
Harley, disapprovingly; “Alice is seven and twenty, Mrs. Crofton--she
ought to have been settled in life years ago. I am sure, considering all
the opportunities she has had, it is quite disgraceful. I can’t help
feeling that people--her father’s friends, for instance--will blame me.”

I found it difficult not to smile at this refinement of maternal
anxiety, but after a while succeeded in soothing the good mother, whose
mind was evidently eased by the utterance, and persuading her that
everything would come right. She went away shaking her head, but smiling
through her anxious looks. She laid down her burden at my door, and left
it there. When she had gone I took up my portion of it with sundry
compunctions. Bertie Nugent had been seven years away--when he went away
Alice was scarcely twenty. They had of course been very much in each
other’s society before this, but seven years is a long break, even for
lovers. These two were not lovers; and was not Clara right when she
stigmatized as the merest foolish romance any interest which Alice might
have in her long-departed and indifferent playfellow? I began to blame
myself for cherishing in my own mind the lingering hope that my wishes
might still be accomplished concerning them. Perhaps that hope had, by
some subtle means, betrayed itself to Alice, and had helped to
strengthen her in her natural perversity and the romance of that vague
visionary link which existed only in her mind and mine. I have known
very similar cases more than once in my life--cases in which a childish
liking, kept up only by chance inquiries or friendly messages at long
intervals on one side or the other, has forestalled the imagination of
the two subjects of it so completely, that both have kept from all
engagements for years, until at long and last, encountering each other
once again, they have discovered themselves to have loved each other all
this time, and married out of hand. This vague sort of tie, which is no
tie, has a more captivating hold upon the mind than a real engagement;
but then it might come to nothing. And after an interval of seven years,
was it not everybody’s duty to turn the dreamer away from that romantic
distance to the real ground close at hand? I had considered the question
many times with too strong a regard for Bertie (who, to be sure, had no
particular solicitude about the matter, or he might have been home long
ago) in my thoughts. Now I rather changed my point of view. If Alice
liked Bertie, it was purely a love of the imagination. Why, for that
Will-o’-the-wisp, was she to keep dreaming in the twilight while the
broad daylight of life and all its active duties were gliding out of her
reach? I resolved to bestir myself and startle Alice into common sense
and ordinary prudence. Here was she, letting youth pass her, not
perceiving how it went, looking so far away out of her horizon to that
fantastic, unreal attraction at the other end of the world. Thinking
over it I grew more and more dissatisfied. She was wrong to entertain,
I was wrong to encourage, so uncomfortable a piece of self-delusion. It
is true, Bertie was in danger, and surrounded with a flush of interest
and anxiety which doubled his claims on everybody who knew him. Still it
must not be permitted to continue--she must be roused out of this vain
imaginary attachment which blinded her to the love that sought her close
at hand. Why did she not like the Rector? I resolved to be at the bottom
of that question, which I could not answer, before twenty-four hours
were out.



CHAPTER XVIII.


But who can tell what is to happen within twenty-four hours? When I left
my dressing-room next morning, I found Derwent lingering in the corridor
outside, waiting for me. He carried in his hand one of those ominous
covers which thrill the hearts of private people with fears of evil
tidings. He had been half afraid to bring it into me, but he did not
hide either the startling hieroglyphics which proclaimed the nature of
the dispatch, nor his own distressed and sorrowful face.

“What is the matter?” I cried, in breathless alarm, when I saw him;
“something has happened!”

“I fear so,” said Derwent; “but softly--softly, Clare; in the first
place it is not absolutely his name and there are such perpetual
mistakes by this confounded telegraph. Softly, softly, Clare.”

I had seized the dispatch while he was speaking--I read it without
saying a word--did I not know how it would be?--ah, that concise,
dreadful, murderous word--killed! I knew it the moment I saw Derwent’s
face.

“But, my love, it is not his name--look! it absolutely may be somebody
else and not Bertie,” cried my husband.

Ah, Bertie! the sound of his dear, pleasant, homely name overcame me.
There was no longer any Bertie in the world! I had borne the dreadful
excitement of reading the dispatch, but I lost my self-command entirely
when all the world of love and hope that had lived in him came before me
in his name--it went to my heart.

Long after, Derwent returned to point out the possibilities, which I had
no heart to find out. I heard him languidly--I had made up my mind at
once to the worst. One hopes least when one’s heart is most deeply
concerned; but still my mind roused to catch at the straw, such as it
was. The telegraph reported that it was Captain N. Hugent who was
killed. It was a very slight travesty to rest any confidence upon; but
then Bertie was Lieutenant-Colonel, lately breveted. I refused to listen
for a long time; but at last the hope caught hold of me. Derwent
recalled to my recollection so many other errors--even in this very
dispatch the name of one place was quite unrecognizable. When I did
receive the idea into my head, I started up, crying for an Army List.
Why did they not have one in Waterflag? It was afternoon then, and the
day had gone past like a ghost, without a thought of our return home, or
of anything but this dismal piece of news. Now I put my bonnet on
hurriedly, and begged Derwent to get the carriage. We had a list at
home. We could see if there was anybody else whose name might be
mistaken for our dear boy’s.

A pale afternoon--a ghostly half twilight of clouds and autumn
obscurity. I went into Clara’s favorite sitting-room, where she was by
herself, to bid her good-bye, unable to bear the sight of the whole
family, especially of Mrs. Harley, and the sympathy, sincere though it
was, which she would give me. That miserable morsel of hope, which I did
not believe in, yet trusted to, in spite of myself, raised to a fever my
grief and distress. The deepest calamity, which is certain, and not to
be doubted, is so far better than suspense, that it has not the burning
agitation of anxiety to augment its pangs. I went into Clara’s room with
the noiseless step of a ghost, impelled by I cannot tell what impulse of
swiftness and silence. Clara was crying abundantly for her old
playfellow. Alice, as I did not observe at the time, but remembered
afterwards, was not to be seen that day, and never came to whisper a
word of consolation to me, nor even to bid me good-bye. I put my veil
aside for a moment to kiss Clara. “Oh, Mrs. Crofton! it will turn out to
be somebody else!” cried Clara, with her unreasoning impulse of
consolation. I wrung the little hand she put into mine and hurried away.
Ah! God help us! if it was not Bertie it must be somebody else--if we
were exempted, other hearts must break. Oh, heavy life! oh, death
inexorable! some one must bear this blow, whether another household or
our own.

We hurried back to Hilfont, all very silent, little Derwie leaning back
in his corner of the carriage, his eyes ablaze, and not a tear in them;
the child was in the highest excitement, but not for Bertie’s
life--panting to know, not that the cousin whom he had never seen was
saved, but that something noble and great had been done by this hero of
his childish imagination. As for my husband, I knew it was only in
consideration of my weakness that he had remained all day inactive. I
saw him look at his watch, and lean out to speak to the coachman. I knew
that he would continue his journey to town as fast as steam could carry
him. I felt certain Derwent could not rest without certain news.

When we reached home, I hastened at once, in advance of them all, to
the library, where I knew that Army List was. I remember still how I
threw the books out of my way till I found it, and how, with a haste
which defeated its own object, I ruffled over the leaves with my
trembling hands. I found nothing like Bertie’s name--nothing that could
be changed into that Captain N. Hugent in all his regiment. I threw the
book away from me and sunk upon a chair, faint and giddy. My hopes had
grown as I approached to the point of resolving them; now they forsook
me in a moment. Why should I quarrel with that inevitable fate? Why
should we be exempted, and no other? Long and peaceful had been this
interregnum. Years had passed since grief touched us--now it was over,
and the age of sorrow had begun again.

“I have only a minute to spare,” said Derwent, looking over the list
himself, with a grave and unsatisfied face; “of course I must go to town
immediately, Clare, and see if any more information is to be had. But
look here! it is not so much the mistake of name as of rank which weighs
with me; military people, you know, are rigid in that respect. Had it
been Colonel, I should not have questioned the transposing of the
initials; but see! he is registered as Major even here.”

“Don’t say anything, Derwent,” said I; “let me make up my mind to it.
Why should not we have our share of suffering as well as so many others?
Do not try to soothe me with a hope which you don’t feel.”

“My dear, if I were not so anxious, I should be sure of it,” said
Derwent. “I am very hopeful even now. And, Clare,” said my husband,
stopping sorrowfully to look at me, “grieved as we are, think, at the
most, it might have been worse still--it might have been your own son.”

I turned my head away for the moment, with something of an added pang.
My boy Bertie!--he was not my son--he did not even look so very, very
much younger than I, now-a-days, as he had been used to do; yet he was
my boy, kindred in blood and close in heart. Little Derwent stood by,
listening up to this moment in silence. Now he spoke.

“Mamma, are you sorry?” cried the child; “our Bertie would not die for
nothing, if he did die. Is it for Bertie, because he’s been a brave
soldier that you cry? Then how will you do, mamma, when _I’m_ a man?”

How should I do? I clasped my son close in my arms and wept aloud. His
father went away from us with a trembling lip, and tears in his eyes.
My heart groaned and exulted over the child, who felt himself a knight
and champion born. Ah! what should I do when he was a man? What would
every one do who loved Derwie, if death and danger came in the way of
_his_ duty? But some such men bear charmed lives.

Derwent went away that day to do all that was possible towards
ascertaining the truth. We were left alone in the house, Derwie and I.
My boy kept by me all day, unfolding to me the stores of his wonderful
childish information--what in my pride and admiration I had been used to
call Derwie’s gossip. He did not console, nor suggest consolation; but
the heart swelled in his child’s bosom to think of some great thing
which he had yet to hear of, that Bertie had done. He was entirely
possessed with that idea; and by-and-by his enthusiasm breathed itself
into his mother also. I began to bear myself proudly in the depths of my
grief. “Another for England!” I said in my heart: Ah! more than for
England, for humanity, nature, our very race and blood. If Bertie had
died to deliver the helpless from yonder torturing demons, could we
grudge his life for that cause? So I tried to stifle down my fond hopes
for my chosen heir--to put Alice Harley and Estcourt aside out of my
mind, that nothing might come between me and our dearest young hero. He
was killed. That murderous chariot of war had gone over him, and
extinguished those fair and tender prospects out of this world; but not
the praise nor the love, which should last for ever.

So I thought, waiting for further tidings, persuading myself that I had
no other expectation than to hear that fatal dispatch confirmed--yet
cherishing I cannot tell what unspoken, unpermitted secret hopes at the
bottom of my heart.

Some days of extreme suspense ensued. Derwent found no satisfaction in
London; but remained there in order to get the first news that came.
Heavily those blank hours of uncertainty went over us. Lady Greenfield
came to Hilfont, and she and I grew friends, as we mingled our
tears--friends for the first time. All my other neighbors distressed me
with inquiries or condolences. Some wondered I went to church on the
next Sunday, and was not in mourning. Nobody would let me alone in my
anxiety and grief. I had a visit almost every day from Clara Sedgwick,
who came in crying, as if that would console me, and hung upon my neck.
I was far too deeply excited to take any comfort out of Clara’s
caresses; perhaps, if truth must be told, I was a little bored with
demonstrations of affection, to which, uneasy and miserable as I was, I
could make so little response.

Then came the day for news--the dread day, when all secret hopes which
might be lurking in our hearts were to receive confirmation or
destruction, the last being so very much the most probable. I felt
assured that if the news was favorable, Derwent would return that day,
and waited with a beating heart for the dispatch, which I knew he would
not delay a moment in sending me. The news came--alas! such unhappy
no-news! The same perplexing, murderous information, simply repeated
without a single clue to the mistake, whatever it was. I sank down in my
chair, with an overpowering sickness at my heart while I read--sickness
of depressed hope, of disappointment of a conviction and certainty which
crushed me. The repetition somehow weighed heavily with my imagination.
I could no longer either deny or doubt the truth of it. It was all over.
There was no more Bertie Nugent of Estcourt now to maintain the name of
my fathers; so many hopes and dreams were ended, and such a noble, fresh
young life, full of all good and generous impulses, was finished for
ever.

“I fear--I fear, Derwie, my darling--I fear it must be true,” said I.

“But what did he do? Bertie did not die for nothing, mamma--is it not in
the paper what he _did_?” cried Derwie.

If it had been, perhaps one could have borne it better. If he had died
relieving a distressed garrison, or freeing a band of agonized
fugitives, and we had known that he did so, perhaps--perhaps--it might
have been easier to bear. I sat down listlessly in the great window of
the breakfast-room. Something of the maze of grief came over me. If I
had seen him coming through the avenue yonder, crossing the lawn,
approaching to me with his pleasant smile, I should not have wondered.
Death had separated Bertie from the limits of place and country--he was
mysteriously near, though what remained of him might be thousands of
miles away.

Thus I sat languidly looking out, and saying over in my heart those
verses which everybody must remember who has ever been in great
trouble--those verses of _In Memoriam_, in which the poet sees the ship
come home with its solemn, silent passenger, and yet feels that if along
with the other travellers he saw the dead man step forth--

      “And strike a sudden hand in mine,
      And ask a thousand things of home;--

    “And I should tell him all my pain,
      And how my life had drooped of late,
      And he should sorrow o’er my state,
    And marvel what possessed my brain;

    “And I perceived no touch of change,
      No hint of death in all his frame,
      But found him all in all the same,
    I should not feel it to be strange.”

Wonderful subtle intuition of the poetic soul! Who does not know that
strange contrast of death and life? A week ago, and had I seen Bertie
from that window, I should have hailed his appearance with the wildest
amazement. But I should neither have wondered nor faltered had I seen
him this day; on the contrary, would have felt in my heart that it was
natural and fit he should be there.

But I did not see Bertie. I saw far off a homely country gig driving up
rapidly towards the house, and strained my eyes, wondering if it could
be Derwent, though he had sent me no intimation of his return. As it
came closer, however, I saw that one of the figures it contained was a
woman’s, and at last perceived that my visitors were no other than Alice
Harley and her brother Maurice. I started nervously up, and hid away my
dispatch, for I trembled to see my dear girl. What had she to do coming
here?--she who could not ask after his fate with calmness, and yet to
the bottom of her maiden heart felt that she had _no right_ to be
concerned.

Alice was very pale--I could see the nervous trembling over her whole
frame, which she subdued painfully, and with a nervous force, as she
came in. Though her voice would scarcely serve her to say the words, she
made an explanation before she asked if I had any news. “My mother sent
me,” said Alice, with bare childish simplicity, but with that breathless
gasp in her voice which I knew so well--gasp of utter despair at the
thought of enduring that suspense, and concealing it for five minutes
longer--“to know if you had any further news--if you had heard,” she
added, with a convulsive calmness, casting at me a fiery glance, defiant
of the compassion she saw in my face. I saw she meant to say his name,
to show me how firm she was, but nature was too much for Alice--she
concluded hurriedly in the baldest, briefest words--“anything more?”

I shook my head, and she sank into the nearest seat--not
fainting--people do not faint at such moments--kept alive and conscious
by a burning force of pain.

“Only the same miserable news over again,” said I, “with the same
mistake in the name; letters must come, I fear, before we can know--but
I am afraid to hope.”

A little convulsive sound came from Alice’s breast--she heard it
herself, and drew herself up after it to hide the wound still if she
could. Maurice, too, was greatly affected, though he could scarcely be
said to have known Bertie; he walked about the room in his careless
man’s way, doing everything in the world without intending it, to make
that composure we two women had wound ourselves up to,
impossible--making his lamentations as he paced about from table to
table, picking up all the books to look at them as he went and came.

“Poor Nugent!” said Maurice--“poor honest fellow!--he was not very
brilliant, but people liked him all the better for that. What a bright
frank face he had--what a laugh! I shall never hear anybody laugh so
heartily again. And to think of a fellow like that, and hundreds more,
sacrificed to these black demons! Good heavens! and we sitting here at
home idling away our lives!”

“Ah, my Bertie!” cried I, out of my heart, “and no one left behind him
to bear his name--nobody to mourn for him except ourselves--nobody
belonging to _him_! If there is one thing a man has a right to in life
and death, it is surely a woman’s tears.”

I did not think what I was saying. The words were scarcely out of my
lips when an overpowering burst of tears broke through all the painful
reserve and forced calmness of Alice. She covered her face with her
hands, hid her head, drew her veil frantically over her passionate
weeping. But the flood would have its way, and she could not stop it. I
dried my own tears to look on almost with awe at that outburst of
controlled and restrained nature. My poor Bertie! the last sad right of
a man had fallen to him unawares; he had that mournful possession, all
to himself, poured forth upon the grave of his youth with a fulness that
knew no reserve--a woman’s tears!

Maurice stood by overwhelmed with surprise; he looked at his sister--he
grew crimson up to his hair--he drew back a step as if he felt himself
an intruder spying upon this unsuspected grief. Then he retired to the
bookcase at the other side of the room, with an appealing glance at me.
I followed him softly, Alice being far too entirely absorbed to observe
us for the moment.

“What does it mean--was there anything between them?” asked Maurice, in
my ear.

“They were playfellows and dear friends,” said I; “you know how Clara
feels it too.”

“Not like _that_,” said Maurice, once more growing red, as he turned to
the books in the shelves--he stood there absorbed in these books, taking
out some to examine them, showing himself entirely occupied with this
investigation till Alice had recovered her composure. She looked up at
me with a guilty, pale face when she had wept out her tears; and I was
comforted that she saw her brother coldly standing in the background
with his back to us and a book in his hand. I had never been so pleased
with Maurice before.

“You are not well, my dear child,” said I, “I will bring you some wine,
and you must rest a little. Thank you for remembering him, Alice. Now we
can give him nothing but tears.”

Alice, all pale, miserable, and abashed, gasped forth something of which
I could only distinguish the words “playfellow” and “old friend.”

“I was saying so--you were like his sisters, Clara and you,” said I, out
loud to reach Maurice’s ear.

Alice looked up in my face, now that she had betrayed herself. I thought
she was almost jealous that I did not understand her--that I really
believed these were, like Clara’s, friendly and sisterly tears.

What could I do? I hushed her, drawing her head to my breast. I could
say nothing,--he was gone--he could neither learn what love was bestowed
upon him nor return it. Words could no longer touch that secret matter
which was made holy by Bertie’s grave.

“Look here, Mrs. Crofton,” said Maurice, turning round upon me, when he
saw I had left Alice’s side, with the Army List in his hand; “it is not
in Nugent’s regiment, certainly, but the 53d is in India, too--look
here.”

I looked with little interest, believing it only a kind expedient to
break up the trying situation in which we all stood. It was a name which
Maurice pointed out, the name entirely unknown to me, of Captain Nicolas
Hughes.

“What of it?” said I, almost disposed to think he was making light of
our trouble.

“Captain N. Hughes--Captain N. Hugent--the mistake might be quite
explainable; at least,” said Maurice, putting up the book, “at least
with such a similarity we ought not yet to despair. Alice we’ll go home
now. I daresay Mrs. Crofton has too many visitors just at present, and
my mother will be anxious to hear. Dear Mrs. Crofton,” said the young
man, in whom I could not recognize that Fellow of Exeter, grasping my
hand warmly, “don’t despair.”

And Alice, with a painful blush on her cheeks, and her veil over her
face, followed him out without a word. I took but faint hope from the
suggestion of that name; but if it were possible--if still we might hope
that Bertie was spared--never would Alice Harley forgive him for that
outburst of tears.



CHAPTER XIX.


Derwent had not yet returned, and I could understand perfectly why he
waited, uneasy for further news, or at least for some explanation of
that which we had already heard. I waited also, spending the days sadly,
but giving up hope, and consequently in a state of anxiety less painful.
Sometimes, indeed, Derwie thrust me back into my fever of suspense by
his oft-repeated wonder that there should be no news yet of that feat of
arms which had cost Bertie his life. The child could not and would not
understand how the bravest may perish by some anonymous undistinguished
shot, as well as the coward; nor believe that “Bertie had died for
nothing,” as he said. And sometimes that name which Maurice Harley
pointed out to me wavered through my memory for hours together, and
upset my calm. Captain Nicolas Hughes--who was he? I wondered, musing at
the window, with still that vague thrilling thought at my heart that it
would not surprise me to see Bertie coming across the lawn. Was he
young, perhaps, and had mother and sisters at home breaking their hearts
with an anxiety kindred to our own--or, harder still, perhaps a wife
trembling to believe that her children had no father? Alas! alas! who
could choose to be delivered one’s-self at the cost of another’s
heartbreak? God’s will be done, whatever it was! _He_ knew, though we
did not. There was nothing else to say.

A few days after I had an unexpected, and, I am grieved to say, not very
welcome visit from Mrs. Harley. I had shunned seeing her hitherto,
afraid alike of her condolences over a sorrow which I had not consented
to, or her weak encouragements of a hope in which I durst not believe.
Had it been possible to so old a friend, I would have denied myself,
when I saw the same gig in which Maurice had driven Alice--a convenient
rural vehicle belonging to a farmer close by her house--driving up once
more to Hilfont with Mrs. Harley; but as, in spite of thirty years’
close friendship, the good woman would still have set this down as a
slight to her poverty, I did not venture to refuse her admittance. She
came in with her best conventional look of sympathy, shook my hand with
emphasis, and gave me a slow lingering kiss; did all those things by
which our friends mark their profound consciousness of our sorrow, and
readiness to receive our confidence. I, for my part, was disposed to say
very little on the subject. There was no more news--nothing to say. I
was afraid to speculate, or to have any speculations upon this, which
none of us could elucidate. It was best to leave it in silence while we
waited--time enough to speak when all was secure.

Yet when I saw that Mrs. Harley’s sympathy was the merest superficial
crust overlaid upon her own perennial anxieties, I am not sure that I
was pleased. One feels it impossible that one’s friends can feel for one
fully; yet one is disappointed, notwithstanding, when one perceives how
entirely occupied they are with the closer current of their own affairs.
Mrs. Harley had no sooner expressed her feeble affliction over “the sad
calamity,” than she forsook that subject for a more interesting one; and
it was a little grievous to be called upon to adjudicate in favor of
Alice’s lover, just after I had looked with respect and sympathy on
Alice’s tears.

“My dear Mrs. Crofton, I am sure I would not for the world trouble you
with my affairs, when you are in such deep affliction,” said Mrs.
Harley, doing of course the very thing she deprecated; “but I am in
such anxiety about Alice; and really Mr. Reredos is so very urgent that
I no longer know what to say to him. I ventured to give him an
intimation, a few weeks ago, that Alice was rather inclining towards
him, as I thought--and of course the poor young man redoubled his
attentions; and now, whether it is mere perversity or dislike, or what
it is, I cannot tell, but from that time Alice has treated him with such
indifference, not to say disdain, that I am at my wit’s end.”

“It would have been better to have said nothing to the Rector without
Alice’s consent,” said I, languidly, yet not without a certain
satisfaction in piercing my visitor with this little javelin. Mrs.
Harley shook her head and wiped her eyes.

“It is so easy to say so,” said the troubled mother, “so easy to think
what is best when one’s own heart is not concerned; But if I _was_ wrong
I cannot help it now--Alice is so very unreasonable. She cannot endure
the very sight of Mr. Reredos now--it is extremely distressing to me.”

“I am very sorry to hear it, Mrs. Harley, but you know I cannot help
you,” said I.

“Oh! my dear Clare, I beg your pardon a thousand times for troubling you
when you have such distressing news, but you know quite well you are
all-powerful with Alice. Then another thing, Clara tells me that dear
Bertie--dear fellow!--I am sure I loved him like a child of my own--had
something to do with her sister’s behavior to the Rector--not that they
were in love, you know, only some old childish friendship that the dear
girl remembered when he was in danger. Do you think there is anything in
it, Clara? Can that be the reason? but you know of course it is quite
nonsense. Why, they have not met for eight years!”

“That proves it must be nonsense, to be sure,” said I; “but excuse me,
Mrs. Harley, this dear boy who is gone was very dear to me--I cannot
mingle his name in any talk about other people. I beg your pardon--I
can’t indeed.”

“Dear, dear, it is I who should beg your pardon,” cried Mrs. Harley, in
great distress; “I am sure I did not mean to be so selfish; but you used
to be very fond of Alice, Clare--fonder of her than of any one else,
though I say it. Long ago you would not have turned off anything that
was for the poor girl’s good.”

“You know I am as fond of Alice as ever I was--what do you want me to
do?” cried I.

“Oh, nothing, Clare, dear--nothing but a little good advice,” said Mrs.
Harley. “If it should happen to be dear Bertie whom she has set her
thoughts upon, just because he was in danger, as girls will do, and
refusing other eligible offers, and throwing away quite a satisfactory
match and suitable establishment, wouldn’t you speak to her, dear Clare?
Her dear papa had such confidence in you that you would always be a
friend to his girls--he said so many a time, long before we knew what
was going to happen. You have such influence with all my children, Mrs.
Crofton--almost more than their mother has. Do represent to Alice how
much she’s throwing away--and especially, alas! _now_.”

This emphasis was rather too much for my patience.

“You forget,” I said, “that Alice is able to judge for herself--she is
not a girl now”----

“She is seven and twenty, Mrs. Crofton--do you mean to reproach her with
her age?” said Mrs. Harley, with an angry color rising on her face.

“Reproach her! for what?” said I, constrained to laugh in the midst of
my grief. “Why will you tease Alice, and yourself, and me? She is very
well--she is,” I added, with a little gulp, swallowing my better
knowledge, “quite contented and happy--why will you torture her into
marrying? She is quite satisfied to be as she is.”

“Ah, Clare--but I have so many children to provide for!” cried poor Mrs.
Harley, with a gush of tears.

This silenced me, and I said no more. But Mrs. Harley had not exhausted
her budget of complaints.

“And Maurice,” said this unfortunate mother; “after the education he has
had, and all the money and pains that have been expended on
him--Maurice, I do believe, Mrs. Crofton, will do something violent one
of these days; he will go into business, or,” with another outburst of
tears, “set himself to learn a trade.”

“Surely nothing quite so bad as that,” said I, with as much sympathy as
I could summon up.

“Ah, you don’t know how he speaks--if you could only hear him; and the
troubles in India and this last dreadful news have had such an effect
upon Maurice,” said Mrs. Harley; “you would suppose, to hear him speak,
that the poor soldiers had suffered all the more because he was doing
nothing. Such nonsense! And instead of going into the Church in a proper
and dignified manner, like his dear father, I see nothing better for it
but that he’ll make a tradesman of himself.”

“But it would be satisfactory to see him doing something for
himself--improving his own position; he can never settle and make a
home for himself while he has only his Fellowship. Don’t you think
Maurice is right?” said I, keeping up the conversation from mere
politeness, and already sufficiently tired of the interruption it made.

“He has his mother’s house,” said Mrs. Harley, a little sharply, “and he
has the position of a gentleman,” she added a moment after, in a
faltering, apologetic tone. Good, troubled woman! She had come to that
age of conflicting interests when the instincts of the heart do not
always guide true. She wanted--very naturally--to see her daughter
provided for; and so, if she could, would have persuaded Alice into an
unwilling marriage. She could not bear to see her son derogating from
the “position” which his father’s son ought to fill; and as he would not
go into the Church, she would fain have condemned the young man to
shrivel up into the dreary dignity of a College Don. Poor Mrs.
Harley!--that was all that the philosophy of the affections instructed
her to do.

She had scarcely left me half an hour when I was startled by the
appearance of the Rector. He was grave and pale, held my hand in his
tight grasp, and made his professions of sympathy all very properly and
in good taste. But his looks and his tone aggravated a sick impatience
of sympathy which began to grow about my heart. I began to comprehend
how people in deep and real grief, might grow disgusted with the
conventional looks expected from them, and learn an almost levity of
manner, to forestall those vulgar, dreary sympathies; and this sympathy,
too, covered something very different--something a great deal nearer to
the Rector’s heart.

“It may seem to you a very indelicate question--I beg your pardon, Mrs.
Crofton--I ask it with great diffidence--but I do not hesitate to
confess to you that my own happiness is deeply concerned,” said Mr.
Reredos, blushing painfully--and I knew at once, and recognized with a
certain thrill of impatience and disgust, what he was going to ask;
“Miss Harley and the late Captain Nugent were almost brought up
together, I have heard; will you forgive me asking if there was any
attachment--any engagement between them?”

“_Colonel_ Nugent, please!” said I, I fear rather haughtily; “and it is
surely premature to say the late, as I trust in Heaven we shall yet have
better news.”

“I beg your pardon,” repeated the Rector, quickly, “I--I was not
aware--but might I ask an answer to my question?”

“If there was any engagement between Alice and my dear Bertie?--none
whatever!” cried I, with all my might--“nothing of the kind! Pardon me,
you have _not_ been delicate--you have _not_ considered my feelings--if
Alice has been unfavorable to you, it is for your own merits, and not on
his account.”

I was half sorry when I saw the grave, grieved, ashamed expression with
which this other young man turned away. He bowed and was gone almost
before I knew what I had said--I fear not without an arrow of
mortification and injured pride tingling through the love in his heart.



CHAPTER XX.


And after all, the Rector was premature--we were all premature,
lamenting for him over whom we were so speedily to rejoice. When Derwent
put the dispatch into my hand (he did not send, but brought it, to make
more sure), I could not read the words for tears. My eyes were clear
enough when I saw that terrible _killed_, in which we believed to read
Bertie’s fate. But the dear boy’s own message, in rapid reply to one
which Derwent, out of my knowledge, had managed to have sent to him,
floated upon me in a mist of weeping. The truth came inarticulate to my
mind--I could neither see, nor scarcely hear the words in which it was
conveyed.

But, alas! alas! it _was_ Captain Nicholas Hughes who had fallen,
instead of Bertie. I inquired all that I could learn about this unknown
soldier, with a remorseful grief in the midst of my joy, which I cannot
describe. I could not join in the tumult of exultation which rose round
me. I could not forget that this news, which came so welcome to us,
brought desolation upon another house. I could not think of him but as
Bertie’s substitute, nor help a painful, fantastical idea that it was to
our prayers and our dear boy’s safety that he owed his death. I was
almost glad to find that the widow whom he had left behind him had need
of what kind offices we could do her for the bringing up of her
children, and vowed to myself, with a compunction as deep as it was, no
doubt, imaginary, that she should never want while Estcourt remained
mine. Was it not their dismal loss and bereavement which had saved the
heir of my father’s house?

“It is the fortune of war,” said Derwent, when he learned, to his
profound amazement, this idea which had taken possession of me. “It is
the will of God,” said Captain Hughes’s pale widow, lifting her tearful
face to me, from under the heavy veil of her mourning. So it was--but
sharp and poignant is the contest between grief and joy.

“See what your despised telegraph can do, after all!” cried Derwent,
rejoicing with all his honest heart over the news he had brought.

“But, ah! if Bertie’s friend had been poor!” said I. “How many souls do
we wring with additional pangs, to have our anxiety dispelled the more
easily? Think of the news of a battle, with so many killed and
wounded--and some dreadful fortnight, or maybe month, to live through
before one knows whether one’s own is dead or alive. No, ’tis a cruel
earthly Geni, and not a celestial Spirit--it does good now and then,
only because it cannot help it--relieves us, Derwent, but slaughters
poor Mrs. Hughes.”

“I believe Clare is not half-content--nobody must be killed to satisfy
you women--but, unfortunately that will not do in this world,” said
Derwent. “We have to be thankful for our own exemption, without entering
too deeply into other people’s grief. And most of us find that
philosophy easy enough.”

“Most of us are very poor creatures,” said Maurice Harley,
sententiously. He came alone to make his inquiries this time. Alice was
invisible, and not to be heard of. I could not see her even when I
called at the cottage. She had taken overpowering shame to herself, and
shrank from my eyes. It was her brother who carried our news to his
mother’s house--carried it, as I discovered incidentally, with the
rarest and most delicate care for her--rigidly keeping up the fiction of
supposing her not to care for it, nor to be specially interested, any
more than for her old playfellow. He was ill at ease himself, and
distracted with questions no longer of a _dilettante_ kind. In my eyes
this increased his kindness all the more.

“Yes, we are poor creatures the most of us,” repeated Maurice, when my
husband--who did not notice any particular improvement in the Fellow of
Exeter, and was disposed to be contemptuous, as elder men are, of his
superiority to ordinary mortals--had sauntered, half-laughing,
half-disgusted, out of the room. “Something you said the other day has
stuck to my memory, Mrs. Crofton--help me out with it, pray. Are we
worth a woman’s tears, the greater part of us? What is the good of us? I
don’t mean Bertie, who is doing something in this world, but, for
example, such a fellow as me!”

“Take care, Maurice! I see hoofs and a tail upon that humility of
yours,” said I. “You, who are so wise, do you not know that women and
their tears are no more superlative than men and their doings? Did you
think I meant the tender, heroical, sentimental tears of romance, for
the sake of which the sublime knight might be content to die? No such
thing. I meant only that there seems a kind of pathetic, homely justice
in it, when the man who dies--especially the man who dies untimely--has
a woman belonging to him, to be his true and faithful mourner; that is
all--it is nothing superlative; the sublime men are no better loved than
the homeliest ones. Alice, if you asked her, would give you the poetical
youthful interpretation of it, but I mean no such thing, Maurice. We
want no great deeds, we womenkind; we were born to like you, and to cry
over you, troublesome creatures that you are!”

“Ah! that is very well,” said Maurice, who in his heart was young enough
to like the superlative idea best. “I wish I had a supreme right to
somebody’s tears--but why should anybody cry over me? Am not I
foredoomed to shrivel up into a College Don?”

“If you please,” said I.

“And if I don’t please?” cried Maurice, starting up, and seizing, after
his usual fashion, a book off the table. He made a hurried march about
the room, as usual, too; throwing that down; and picking up another to
look at its title, then returned, and repeated, with some emphasis--“And
what if I don’t please?”

“Why then, please God, you will do something better,” said I; “I hope so
sincerely--it will give me the greatest pleasure--but you don’t make any
progress by talking of it; that is our woman’s province. _Do_, Maurice,
_do_! don’t _say_!”

The young man flashed with an angry and abashed color. “Thank you, I
will, if it were to carry a hod. I have not forgotten,” he said, with a
little bitter meaning, “that I am a widow’s son.”

“A widow’s son should be the prince of sons,” said I. “You make me
preach, you young people, though it is not my vocation. Carry a hod
then, if you will, like a gentleman and a Christian, and I, for one,
will bid you God speed.”

Maurice put down his book, and came forward to me, holding out his hand.
I suspect he liked me, though he had no great reason, and I confess,
now-a-days, that I liked him. He held out his hand to say good-bye, and
in saying good-bye opened his heart.

“Mrs. Crofton, you preach very well, considering that it is not your
vocation; but I begin to think I am coming to that big preacher, Life,
whom you once told me of. _He_ is not a college don. Do you know,” said
Maurice, with a frank, confused laugh, and rising color, “I’m in love?”

“I suspected as much,” said I. “Is all well?”

“All was ill, what with my own folly, and what with that spiteful little
witch at the Rectory,” said Maurice; “but it’s coming right again. If I
were to die to-morrow--little as I deserve them--I believe I should have
these woman’s tears.”

“My dear boy, be thankful, and go home and live!” said I, with the water
in my eyes. I was half inclined to kiss, and bless, and cry over him in
the foolishness of my heart.

“I will,” said Maurice, in the fulness and effusion of his; and he
kissed my hand with a congenial impulse, and went away abruptly, moved
beyond speaking. He left me more profoundly and pleasantly touched than
I had been for a long time. Perhaps I thought, with natural vanity, that
I had a little--just a little--share in it. Dire must be the
disappointment, and heavy the calamity, which should shrivel up Maurice
Harley now into a college don.



CHAPTER XXI.


Another long period of home quietness, but great anxiety followed this.
Bertie, of course, would not return while the crisis of affairs in India
had not yet been determined; and we were so much the more anxious about
him, since he had been restored to us, as it seemed, out of the very
grave. Later he was seriously wounded, threatened with fever, and really
in great danger, but got through that as he had through all the other
perils of that murderous Indian war. He distinguished himself, too, to
our great pride and delight, especially to the boundless exultation of
Derwie, and gained both credit and promotion almost beyond the hopes of
so young a man. But, in the meantime, we were both anxious and
concerned, for we could not induce him to think that he had encountered
his full share of the fighting, and might now, surely, with perfect
honor and satisfaction bring his laurels home.

“If the women and the babies are all safe on board the ships,” said
Derwie, who was almost as reluctant to consent to Bertie’s return
before the fighting was over as Bertie himself.

During all this time I scarcely saw Alice; she avoided coming in my way;
when we met, avoided speaking to me--avoided looking in my face when
that was practicable--could neither forgive herself for having betrayed
her feelings, nor me for having witnessed that betrayal. Altogether her
feelings towards me and in my presence were evidently so uncomfortable,
that out of mere charity and consideration I no longer visited Mrs.
Harley’s as I had done, nor invited them to Hilfont. They still came
sometimes, but not as they had done before. I began to fear that I had
lost Alice, which, to be sure, was unkind of her, considering what very
old friends we were; but she could not forget nor forgive either herself
or me for those tears out of which she had been cheated over that
supposititious grave where Bertie Nugent was not.

So that there occurred an interregnum of information, at least, if not
of interest, in respect to the Harleys. Maurice was in London,
struggling forward to find what place he could in that perennial
battle--struggling not very successfully--for, to the amazement of all,
and, above all, to his own, he was not so greatly in advance of other
people, when he had done something definite to be judged by, as the
Fellow of Exeter had supposed himself. Providence, in quaint, poetic
justice, had deprived Maurice, for example, of that faculty of writing
which he had, maybe, esteemed too highly. His admirers had prophesied
great triumphs for him in the field of literature before he had tried
his pen there; but it turned out that Maurice could not write, and the
discovery was rather humiliating to the young man. I have no doubt he
made an infinitude of other discoveries equally unpleasant. His
Fellowship kept him from starving, but it aggravated his failures and
the pain of them, and held up more conspicuously than might have been
desired, the unexpected imperfections of “Harley of Exeter,” in whom his
contemporaries had been disposed to put a great deal of faith.
Nevertheless, Maurice held on bravely. I liked him better and better as
he found himself out. And he bore the discovery like a man.

As for Johnnie, poor boy, who had, all uneducated and without training
as he was, just that gift of putting his mind into words which his
brother lacked--he had not yet come to the bitter ending of his boyish
dream. He was busy with his second book, in high hope and spirits,
thinking himself equally secure of fame and of love. The poor lad had
forgotten entirely the difference between the present time and that
past age in which literature, fresh and novel, took its most sovereign
place. He thought how Fanny Burney was fêted and applauded for her early
novel; he thought of Scott’s unrivalled influence and honor; and he
forgot that a hundred people write books, and especially write stories,
now-a-days, for one who wrote then--and that he himself was only the
unconsidered member of a multitudinous tribe, over whose heads Fame
soared far away. It was not wonderful--he was scarcely one and twenty
yet, though he was an author, and Miss Reredos’s slave. He meant to make
the lady of his love “glorious with his pen,” as Montrose did, and
expected to find an equal monarchy in her heart. Poor cripple Johnnie! a
sadder or more grievous folly never was.

But it surprised me to find that he, poor fellow, was never the object
of his mother’s anxiety. She was sorry, with a sort of contempt for his
“infatuation,” and could not for her life imagine what men could see in
that Miss Reredos. Mrs. Harley was a very kind and tender mother, ready
at any time to deny herself for any real gratification to her boy; but
she did not make much account of his heartbreak, of which “nothing could
come.” For all practical purposes Johnnie’s love-tale was but a
fable--nothing could ever come of it. Anything so unlikely as that Miss
Reredos would marry the cripple never entered anybody’s mind but his
own. And Mrs. Harley accordingly took it calmly, save for a momentary
outburst of words now and then against the cause of Johnnie’s
delusion--that was all. Nothing save the bitter disappointment, the
violent mortification, the youthful despair, all augmented and made
doubly poignant by the ill health and infirmities of this unfortunate
boy, could result from his unlucky love-fever. So his mother was calm,
and made no account of that among her may troubled and anxious concerns.

As for Alice, she was still Mrs. Harley’s greatest grievance, though I
was not trusted with the same confidences, nor implored to use my
influence, as before. Alice was more capricious, more tantalizing, less
to be reckoned on than ever. She had, I suppose, dismissed Mr. Reredos
with less courtesy than the Rector believed due to him, for he went
about his duties with a certain grim sullenness, like an injured man,
and never permitted himself to mention her name. I was in the Rector’s
ill graces, as well as in those of Alice. He could not forgive me any
more than she could, for the confidence themselves had bestowed. It was
rather hard upon me to be thus excommunicated for no ill-doings of my
own; but I bore it as best I could, sorry for Mr. Reredos, and not
doubting that, some time or other, Alice would come to herself.

It was thus, in our immediate surroundings, that we spent the time until
Bertie’s return.



CHAPTER XXII.


It was once more spring when Bertie returned. Spring--Easter--that
resurrection time which came to our hearts with a more touching force
when we received home into our peaceful house--so pale, so worn out, and
yet so sunburnt and scarred with violent labors past--that Bertie, who
had gone from us so strong and so bold. He had been repeatedly
wounded--had suffered more than once from fever--had felt, at last, that
his health was broken, and that there was little more use in him while
he remained in India, and so was persuaded to come home. Derwent,
kindest of friends, went to meet him at Southampton, and brought him
home as tenderly as any nurse, or rather far more tenderly, with a
tenderness more considerate and requiring less response than that of a
woman. To see our young hero an invalid, overpowered me entirely. I
quite broke down under it, comparing him with what he was, and fearing
everything from the mortal paleness, thrown by his sunbrowned
complexion into a ghastly yellow, which sometimes overspread his face.
Derwent judged more justly--he held up his finger to me when he saw the
exclamation of dismay and grief that trembled on my lips.

“He’s tired, Clare,” said my husband. “A bright fire, and an English bed
and rest--that’s all Bertie wants to-night. He’ll answer all your
questions to-morrow. Come, old fellow, you know your way to your old
room.”

“I should think so, indeed--and thank God I am at home,” cried Bertie,
with his familiar voice. With a thrill of anguish I restrained my
salutations and followed quietly to see that all was comfortable for
him. He protested that it was nonsense, that he could come downstairs
perfectly well, that Mr. Crofton only wanted to humble his vanity; but
at the same moment drew up his foot wearily upon the sofa, with a
gesture that showed better than words his need of rest.

“Alas, Derwent, has it come to this?” said I, as we went downstairs.

Derwent turned round upon me, put his big hands upon my shoulders, and
thrust me in before him to the handiest room. “Now, Clare,” he said,
with comical solemnity, “if we are going to have any nonsense or
lamentations, I’ll shut you up here till my patient’s better. The boy
is as sound as I am, and would be able to ride to cover in a fortnight,
if any such chances were going. Now don’t say a word--I am speaking
simple truth.”

“I must trust my own eyes,” said I; “but you need not fear my
indiscretion. See how I have refrained from agitating him now.”

“Agitating him! Oh!” cried Derwent, with a good-humored roar. “What
stuff you speak, to be sure! He is quite able to be agitated as much as
you please--there is nothing in the world but wounds and fatigue the
matter with Bertie. I am afraid you are only a woman after all, Clare;
but you’re not to interfere with my patient. I’ve taken him in hand, and
mind you, I’m to have the credit, and bring him through.”

“But, oh, Derwent,” said I, “how pale he is!”

“If I had seen as many dreadful sights as he has, I should be pale too,”
said Derwent. “Seriously, he is tired and worn out, but not ill. Don’t
be sorry for him, Clare--don’t put anything in his head. Talk
pleasantly. I don’t forbid the subject, for example,” said my husband,
looking at me with a certain affectionate cloudy mirth, as if he had
known my secret all along, “of Alice Harley, if you choose.”

I put him aside a little impatiently, and he followed me into the very
late dinner, which had been deferred for the arrival of the travellers,
and where Bertie’s empty chair struck me again with a little terror. But
I was wise for once, and yielded to Derwent’s more cheerful opinion. On
the next morning Bertie was better--he went on getting better day by
day. Derwent took care of him, and attended him in a way which took me
by surprise; never teasing him with questions--never gazing at him with
his heart in his eyes, as we womanish creatures do, to mar the work we
would give our lives to accomplish; but with his eyes always open, and
his attention really missing nothing that happened, and taking account
of all.

A week after his arrival, Bertie, who hitherto had been telling me, as
he could, his adventures in India--dread adventures, interwoven with all
the thread of that murderous history--at last broke all at once into the
full tide of home talk.

“And dear old Estcourt, Cousin Clare,” said Bertie, “stands exactly as
it was, I suppose; and Miss Austin as steadfast as the lime trees--and
the children to keep the old park cheerful--all as it was?”

“All as it was, Bertie; but the other house ready and waiting for you.”

I looked up with a little anxiety to see the effect of what I said.
Distracted with a disappointed love, Bertie had left us--ill and languid
he had returned. I thought my words might recall to his mind at once his
old dreams and his present weakness; and with some terror I glanced at
his face. He was lying on the sofa in that bright morning room with the
great bow window, from which, shining afar like a great picture, he
could see all the peaceful slope of our low-country, with the river
glistening in links and bends, and the cathedral towers far off, lending
a graceful centre and conclusion to the scene.

Bertie did not return my glance; he lay still, with a languid ease and
satisfaction in his attitude which struck me for the first time--as if
he was profoundly content to be there, and felt his fatigues and pains
melt away in that warmth of home. As I looked at him a warmer color rose
over his brown-pale face, a pleasant glimmer woke in his eye--his whole
aspect warmed and brightened--a half conscious smile came playing about
his parted lips. Whatever Bertie thought upon, it was neither
disappointment nor broken health.

There was a long pause--the silence was pleasant--broken only by the
soft domestic sounds of a great house; brightly lay that pleasant
landscape outside the window, all soft and sweet with spring; tender
and pleasant was the contrast of all the scene, the care and love
surrounding the soldier now, with the burning plains and cruel contests
from which he had come; and thoughts, dear, warm, and tender, arose in
Bertie’s heart. He paused long, perhaps, with a simple art, to conceal
from me a little the link of pleasant association which had directed his
thoughts that way--then, with that wavering, conscious smile, spoke--

“So Alice Harley is not married,” he said, turning on his elbow, with a
pretence of carelessness, as if to get a fuller view. “How is that,
Cousin Clare?”

To think that Alice Harley connected herself instinctively with the idea
of Bertie’s house which was ready for him, was a pleasant thought to me;
but I only answered, “There is no telling, Bertie. She might have been
married two or three times had she pleased.”

“I am very glad of it,” said Bertie; “to see every pretty girl whom one
used to know converted into the mother of ever so many children, makes a
fellow feel old before his time. I am not so frightfully old, after all;
but I fear nobody will have anything to say to a worn-out poor soldier
like me.”

“Don’t be too humble, Bertie,” said I. “I don’t think, between
ourselves, that Colonel Nugent is so very diffident of his own merits.
On the contrary, he knows he has made a little noise in this world, is
aware that people will drink his health, and fête him when he is well
enough, and that all the young ladies will smile upon the hero. Don’t
you think now, honestly, that this is the real state of the case?”

Bertie blushed and fell back to his old position. “Don’t be hard upon a
fellow, Cousin Clare,” he said, with a slightly pleading tone--half
afraid of ridicule--half conscious that little ridicule was to be
expected from me.

“No indeed, quite the reverse--nobody will be hard upon you, my boy,”
said I. “Huntingshire is quite ready to bestow anything you wish upon
you, Bertie--anything from a seat in Parliament, up to the prettiest
daughter it has, if you mean to set up your household gods in the
Estcourt jointure-house.”

Bertie blushed once more, and coughed, and cleared his throat a little,
as if he had some intentions of taking me into his confidence, when my
boy Derwie suddenly made a violent diversion by rushing in all red and
excited, and flinging himself against our soldier with all his might.

“Bertie!” shouted little Derwent, “is it true you’re going to have the
Victoria Cross?”

Bertie colored violently as he recovered from that shock. I don’t
believe, if he had been suddenly charged with running away, that he
would have looked half as much abashed.

“Why, you know, Derwie, we’d all like it if we could get it,” he said,
faltering slightly; but I knew in a moment, by the sudden movement of
his head and glance of his eye, that he really did believe it possible,
and that this was the darling ambition of Bertie’s heart.

“But Bevan told me!” cried Derwie--“he told me about those gates, you
know, that you and the rest blew up. Mamma, listen! There were six of
them, forlorn-hope men, Bevan says”----

“Ah, Derwie, hush!--four of them sleep yonder, the brave fellows!--four
privates, who could not hope for distinction like me,” cried Bertie,
with that same profound awe and compunction, contrasting his own
deliverance with the calamity of others, which had once stricken me.

“A private can have the Victoria Cross as well as a general,” cried
Derwie, clapping his hands; “and more likely, Bevan says--for a general
commands and doesn’t fight.”

“That is true--God save the Queen!” cried Bertie. “If Corporal Inglis
gets it, Derwie--and he ought--we’ll illuminate.”

“If you get it,” said Derwie, “you deserve it all the same. Mamma, they
blew up the gates with gunpowder; they went close--so close that”----

“Boh!” cried Bertie; “mamma read all about it in the papers. It was
nothing particular--it only had to be done, that’s all. Now, Derwie,
don’t you know when a thing has to be done somebody must do it?”

“Yes, I know,” said Derwie, “perfectly well. When mamma says _must_ I
always go directly--don’t I, mamma?--and if I were as big as you I
wouldn’t mind being killed either. When you were killed, Bertie--that
time you know when everybody thought so--oh, what a crying there was!”

“Was there?” asked Bertie, with a softened tone, putting his arm round
the eager child.

But a new point of interest in those human studies which were so dear to
him had suddenly seized upon Derwie’s imagination. He turned abruptly to
me.

“Mamma, didn’t Alice come once and cry? I saw her go away with such red
eyes; and she never came again, and never looked like her own self when
she did come,” said my boy, with a courageous disregard of grammar.
“What is that for? Wasn’t she glad when Bertie came alive again, and it
was only poor Captain Hughes?”

“Hush, Derwie, my boy--you don’t understand these things. I was deeply
grieved for that poor Captain Hughes, Bertie--I almost felt as if, in
our great anxiety for you, his fall was our fault.”

But Bertie was not thinking of Captain Hughes. He was looking intently
at me with that wavering color in his cheeks and an eager question in
his eyes. When I spoke, my words recalled him a little, and he put on a
grave look, and murmured something about the “poor fellow!” or “brave
fellow!” I could not tell which--then looked at me again, eager, with a
question hovering on his lips. The question of all others which I was
resolute not to answer. So I gathered up my work remorselessly, put it
away in my work-table, jingled my keys, told him I would see if the
newspaper had come yet, and left the room without looking round. He
might find that out at Alice’s own hands if he wished it--he should not
receive any clandestine information from me.



CHAPTER XXIII.


The first visit which Bertie was able to make was to the cottage--to see
Mrs. Harley, as he said, gravely--but I fear he did not get a very
satisfactory reception. He told me he thought Alice greatly changed when
he returned; but he was not communicative on the subject, and had a
decided inclination to go back again. Perhaps the wavering, pleasant,
half-conscious sentiment, and tender youthful reminiscence, with which
Bertie came home, was the better of a little opposition to warm it into
independent life; and Alice had reason enough for a double share of
perversity and caprice, though Bertie knew nothing of that. She had
betrayed herself to me, and, for a moment, to Maurice. She thought, no
doubt, that everybody had suspected that secret of hers--and with
unconscious self-importance, that it was whispered throughout the
country with secret smiles over all her former unmarried-woman
superiority to vulgar love-affairs. Her credit was consequently very
deeply involved--she would not have smiled upon Bertie Nugent now had
it been to save his life.

Still, however, Bertie, in the pleasant leisure of his convalescence,
betook himself to Mrs. Harley’s cottage; and came home talking of
Johnnie and little Kate, and the letters from Maurice--but very little
about Alice, save chance words now and then, which showed a singularly
close observation of her habits. Sometimes he asked me puzzled questions
about those opinions of hers. Bertie, though he had been cheated once,
was not contemptuous of womenkind. He did not understand these new views
about the vulgarity of being married, and the propriety of multiplying
female occupations. I suspect he entertained the natural delusion that,
while he himself stood there, most ready and anxious, to share with her
the common course of life, private projects of her own, which turned her
aside from that primitive and ancient occupation of wife, were a little
fantastical, and extremely perplexing. But Bertie was not like Mr.
Reredos--he wanted simply to be at the bottom of it, and find out what
she meant. He was not the man to worry any woman into marrying him, or
to lay insidious siege to her friends. Ancient kindness, a lingering
recollection of her youthful sweetness and beauty, which had come softly
back to Bertie after his early love-troubles, and which had been kept
alive by the fascination of a secret delicious wonder, whether, perhaps,
_he_ might have anything to do with the fact of her remaining unmarried,
had combined to direct Bertie’s thoughts towards Alice, and to connect
her image with all the plans and intentions of his return home. In
short, the feeling upon both sides was very much alike--with both it was
a certain captivating imaginary link, far more subtle and sweet than an
understood engagement, which warmed their hearts to each other. But for
those tragical possibilities which had so deeply excited Alice, all
would have gone as smoothly as possible when our hero came home. Now the
obstacles on each side were great. On Alice’s, that dread idea of having
betrayed a secret, unsought, unreturned affection for the distant
soldier, along with the lesser but still poignant remembrance of Lady
Greenfield’s malicious report that Bertie himself had expected Cousin
Clare to have somebody in her pocket for him to marry. On Bertie’s part,
the equally dangerous chance that, deeply mortified by finding his hope
of having some share in her thoughts so entirely unfounded, as it
appeared, he might turn away sorrowfully from the theories which
influenced her, but which his simple intelligence did not comprehend.
Never matchmaker was more perplexed than I was between these two; I
dared not say a word to either--I looked on, trembling, at the untoward
course of affairs. It was Bertie who disappointed me once; for all I
could see, it was most likely to be Alice now.

When we began--which was not till another autumn restored us to
Hilfont--to be able to give some entertainments to our country
neighbors, in honor of our soldier, Alice, most cleverly and cunningly
avoided coming. She had always some admirable excuse--some excuse so
unquestionable that it would have been quite cruel to have grumbled at
it. I do not think she had been once within our house since Bertie
returned. She sent me her love, and the most dutiful messages. She was
so sorry, but she was sure her dear Mrs. Crofton would not be displeased
when she knew. I was displeased, however, and had hard ado with myself
to keep from saying as much, and declaring my conviction that she was
very unkind to Bertie. I daresay I might have done so with advantage,
though prudence and the fear of something coming of it, restrained
me--for the idea of being unkind to Bertie would, doubtless, have been
balm to Alice’s soul.

They met, however, though she would not come to Hilfont--Clara Sedgwick,
who was as bold to give Bertie welcome as she had been to weep her free
sisterly tears, which there was no need to conceal, over his supposed
grave, arranged one of her very largest and grandest dinner-parties for
Bertie as soon as it was practicable. Everybody was there--Lady
Greenfield and her husband, who had all at once grown an old man, his
wife having stopped his fox-hunting long ago--and Miss Polly, and all
the Croftons, far and near, and such Nugents as could be picked up
handily; and finally, all the great people of the county, to glorify our
hero. I cannot tell by what ingenious process of badgering Alice had
been driven out of her retirement, and produced that night in the
Waterflag drawing-room. I will not even guess what cruel sisterly
sarcasms and suggestions of what people might say, had supplemented the
sisterly coaxing which were, no doubt, ineffectual; but there Alice
was--there she stood by the side of Clara’s dazzling toilette and rosy
tints, pale and clouded, in her brown silk dress--her _old_ brown silk
dress, made in a fashion which “went out” at least three years ago;
without a single ornament about her anywhere--her hair braided as
plainly as though she had just come down-stairs to make the tea, and
superintend the breakfast table--not even the pretty bouquet of delicate
flowers at her breast, which made so pretty a substitute for jewels on
little Kate’s white dress--not a bracelet nor a ring--nothing to
diversify the entire plainness of her appearance, nor a single sparkle
or gleam of reflection on neck, finger, or arm. I confess that I was
both annoyed and disappointed. Instead of doing her womanly utmost to
look well and young, as became her, Alice had exhausted all her perverse
pains in making a dowdy of herself. I cannot say she had succeeded. It
was the crisis of her life, and mind and heart were alike full of
movement and agitation. She could not prevent the excitement of her
circumstances from playing about her with a gleaming fitful light, which
made her expressive face wonderfully attractive. She could not but
betray, in despite of her cold, unadorned appearance, and the almost
prim reserve which she affected, the tumult and contest within
her--extreme emotion, so restrained that the effort of self-control gave
a look of power and command to her face, and somehow elevated and
dilated her entire figure, and so contradictory that it flashed a
hundred different meanings in a moment out of those eyes which were
defiant, sarcastic, tender, and proud, all in a glance. I am not sure
even that her plain dress did not defeat its purpose still more
palpably; it distinguished her, singularly enough, from other
people--it directed everybody’s attention to her--it suggested reasons
for that prim and peculiar attire--all which, if Alice had guessed them,
would have thrown her into an agony of shame.

Miss Reredos was also one of Clara’s great party--much against little
Mrs. Sedgwick’s will--only because it could not be helped, Mrs. Harley
being still pertinacious in favor of the Rector, who had all but given
up his own cause. And we were still engaged in the mysteries of dinner,
and there still remained all the long evening to operate in, when I
perceived that this indefatigable young lady had seriously devoted
herself to the entertainment of Bertie. He was doing his best to be
polite, the good fellow; but it was a long time before he could be
warmed into a flirtation. At last some very decided slight from Alice
irritated my poor soldier. He turned to the play beside him, and began
to amuse himself with it as so many other men had done. Thanks to Miss
Reredos, it speedily became a notable flirtation, witnessed and observed
by all the party. Alice watched it with a gradual elevation of her head,
paling of her cheeks, and look of lofty silent indignation, which was
infinitely edifying to me. What had she to do with it?--she who would
not bestow a single glance upon Colonel Nugent--who called him
perpetually by that ceremonious name--who was blind and deaf to all his
deprecating looks and allusions to youthful days. If he should flirt or
even fall in love with and marry Miss Reredos, what was that to Alice?
But, to be sure, most likely that indignation of hers was all for
Johnnie’s sake.

Poor Johnnie! He sat glaring at Bertie with furious eyes. Johnnie’s
little bit of bookish distinction disappeared and sank to nothing in
presence of Bertie’s epaulettes. Nobody felt the least interest to-day
in Mrs. Harley’s clever cripple-boy. His Laura indeed had kept him in
life, when she first arrived, by some morsels of kindness, but Laura too
had gone over to the enemy. Laura was visibly disposed to charm into her
own train that troublesome interloper, and Johnnie, who had resented and
forgiven fifty violent flirtations of his lady-love since he himself
first found new life, as he said, in her eyes, was more bitterly
resentful of this defection than he had been of any previous one. If she
and the other culprit, Bertie, could have been consumed by looks, we
should have had only two little heaps of ashes to clear away from the
Sedgwicks’ dinner-table that day in place of those two unfortunate
people; but Miss Reredos was happily non-combustible. She swept away in
all the fulness of crinoline when the inevitable moment came and we
womenkind were dismissed, insulting her unhappy young lover by a little
nod and smile addressed to him across the table, which would have been
delicious an hour ago, but was wormwood and bitterness now. Bertie, I
think, at the same moment caught Alice’s lofty, offended, indignant
glance, and brightened to see the quiet resentment in that perverse
young woman’s face. It had all the effect of sunshine upon our soldier.
At that crisis we left affairs, when we went to the drawing-room. I
confess I don’t share the often-expressed sentiment about the dulness
and absurdity of that little after-dinner interval. The young ladies and
the young gentlemen may not like it, perhaps, but when could we maturer
womenkind snatch a comfortable moment for that dear domestic talk which
you superior people call gossip, if it were not in the pleasant
relaxation of this interregnum, when the other creatures are comfortably
disposed of downstairs? But for once in my life, being profoundly
interested in the present little drama--there is always one at least
going on in a great house in the country full of visitors--I did long
that day for the coming of the gentlemen, or of Bertie, at least, the
hero at once of the situation and of the day.

The first to come upstairs was Johnnie Harley. For some time past he had
rather affected, as a manly practice, the habit of sitting to the last
after dinner. This day he was burning to discharge the fulness of his
wrath upon Miss Reredos, so he lost no time, anxious to be beforehand
with his new rival. Miss Reredos had already posed herself at a table,
covered with a wealth of prints and photographs, these sentimental
amusements being much in her way.

“I have come to have my turn,” said Johnnie, savagely. I was seated
within hearing, and, I confess, felt no very strong inducement to
withdraw from my position. Perhaps Johnnie did not see me--Miss Reredos
did, and certainly did not care. “I am come to have my turn, and to tell
you that I can’t be content to take turns--especially with that empty
fellow Nugent, whom you seem, like all the rest, to have taken so great
a fancy to.”

“Colonel Nugent is not an empty fellow--he is a very agreeable man,”
said Miss Reredos, calmly.

“Oh! and I am not, I suppose?” cried the reckless and embittered boy.

“You certainly are not always agreeable,” answered poor Johnnie’s false
love, quite blandly; “and as for being a _man_ at all---- We have
really had quite enough of this, thank you, Master Harley. One tires of
these scenes--they don’t answer when they are repeated every day.”

“No--not when there is better sport going!” cried poor Johnnie. “I see
it all now--you have only been making game of me all the time.”

“Did you ever suppose anything else?” asked the witch coldly. I think it
must have been Johnnie’s transport of passion which made the floor
thrill, as I felt under my chair. I heard a furious muttered
exclamation--then a long pause. The passion changed, and a great sob
came out of Johnnie’s boyish heart.

“You don’t mean what you say--Laura, Laura!” groaned the poor lad. I
could have---- well, to be sure I am only a vindictive woman, as women
are. I don’t know what I could not have done to her, sitting calm and
self-satisfied there.

“It is quite time this should be over,” said the virtuous Miss Reredos;
“I was not making game of you; but I certainly was amusing myself, as I
thought you were doing, also. Why, I am three or four years older than
you--you silly boy!--don’t you know?”

She might have said five or six years, which would have been nearer the
truth, but it mattered nothing to Johnnie.

“I could be as good a man as _him_ for your sake,” he cried, with a
gasp. Miss Reredos only played with the fan which dangled from her
wrist.

“Say you did not mean it, Laura,” whispered the unfortunate boy again.

But Laura shook her head.

“No, no--it has gone quite far enough. Oh! I’m not angry--but, dear,
dear, don’t you see it’s no use. You are a great deal--at least you are
younger than I am--and we have nothing, neither of us--and besides”----

“Besides I am a cripple, and you don’t love me!” cried Johnnie, wildly.

“I can’t contradict it,” said Circe with a toss of her head.

Another fierce exclamation, a hurried dash across the room, a wondering
little scream from Clara, across whose ample skirts her brother plunged,
as he rushed half frantic away, ended this episode. Clara rose up,
startled and nervous, to look after him--and I had to restrain myself
from the same impulse; but Circe sat calm among her photographs, and
made no sign. After a few moments’ interval Clara went tremulously after
him. I could only settle myself on my chair again. The poor cripple
boy--tenderest and merriest of the flock--whom all the rest had guarded
so jealously!--they could do nothing for him now. He, too, like all the
rest of us, had his burden to bear alone.

But I sat on thorns, fearing to see Bertie, when he came upstairs,
resume his flirtation with “that witch from the Rectory,” whom Maurice
had so truly named. He did not, to my great satisfaction--but remained
very quiet, refusing, great lion as he was, to roar--and looking as
plaintive and pathetic as it was possible for Bertie’s honest face,
unused to simulation of any kind, to look. I fancy the poor fellow
imagined--a forlorn hope of that good, simple mind of his, which
certainly was not original in its expedients--that Alice might possibly
be influenced more favorably by his pitiful looks.

Seeing this, I undertook a little management of that very refractory
young person myself.

“Alice, you will come to Hilfont on my birthday, as you have always
done--won’t you?--that will be in a fortnight,” said I.

“If you please, Mrs. Crofton,” said Alice, very demurely.

“You know I please; but I don’t please that you should promise, and then
send me such a clever, pretty, reasonable excuse when the time comes,
that I cannot say a word against it, but only feel secretly that it is
very unkind.”

“Unkind! to _you_, Mrs. Crofton!” cried Alice, with a little blush and
start.

“To me--who else?--it is for _my_ birthday that I ask you to come,” said
I, with an artful pretense of feeling offended; “but really, if you
treat me as you have done before, I shall be disposed to believe there
is _some reason_ why you refuse so steadily to come.”

“You may be quite sure I will not stay away,” said Alice, with great
state.

She sat by me for half an hour longer, but we did not exchange a dozen
words. She said “nothing to nobody” all the remainder of the evening;
she looked just a little cross as well, if the truth must be told.



CHAPTER XXIV.


A fortnight after came my birthday, and a family festival.

Mr. Crofton was greatly given to keeping birthdays; he was not a man to
be daunted by that coldest and vulgarest commonplace, which warns us
with lugubrious mock solemnity that these birthdays are hastening us to
the grave. The grave out of which our Lord rose was no devouring,
irresponsible monster to Derwent--it was a Christian institution,
blessed and hallowed by Him who triumphed over it. So he kept his
birthdays with thanks and a celebration of love; and I was well content
in this, as in many another kind suggestion of his genial nature, that
my husband should have his way.

Bertie was to leave us shortly after, to look after the fitting up of
his own house--the Estcourt jointure-house, which he was to occupy
during my lifetime. It was a very sufficient, comfortable house, and he
was to fit it up according to his own taste. But he was very slow to
talk of his intentions. Any suggestions which I made to him on the
subject he received in silence, or with a confused assent. Good
Bertie!--he meant that somebody else should decide these questions for
him; and somebody else was so perverse, so unaccountable, so
unsatisfactory. He sighed, and held his peace.

Johnnie Harley wandered off from Waterflag that night, after his
explanation with Miss Reredos. For a week the unfortunate lad was not
heard of, and the family spent that interval in the wildest anxiety,
making every kind of search after him, from Maurice’s hunt through
London, whither they thought it likely he would go, to fruitless
dragging in the pretty Est river, which mudded its pleasant pools, but
fortunately had no other result. At the end of a week he came
home--where he had been he never would tell. He returned ill,
remorseful, and penitent, with all his little money gone, and his
watch--his father’s watch--a catastrophe which quite completed Mrs.
Harley’s misery. Renewed and increased ill health followed this sad
escapade of poor Johnnie; but the boy was happy in his
unhappiness--nothing could part from him that all-forgiving home-love
which forgot every fault of the poor cripple boy.

And in that fortnight Bertie made a brief journey to London--a journey
which thrilled the whole household with the highest excitement, and
warmed every individual in it with a touch of the reflected glory.
Bertie was _decoré_ when he returned; but no, there is no French word in
existence which deserves to be used in connection with that supremest
badge of modern chivalry, which our boy, with a modest and shame-faced
delight, impossible to describe in words, received from his Queen.

Bertie wore his prize with a swelling breast, but an abashed cheek;
indeed, he did not wear it at all, reserving it for his private triumph,
and, as I supposed, for my birthday feast. But our hero had something
else in his mind.

The day came at last, and at last, most earnestly looked for, in a
carriage filled with the Sedgwick children, and, I believe, all the
flowers in Clara’s conservatory, and all that could be come by honestly
or dishonestly within ten miles of country--Alice Harley made her
appearance. To show emphatically how much I was mistaken in supposing
that _any reason_ could keep her away from Hilfont when her dear Mrs.
Crofton wished her to be there, Alice with rash temerity had volunteered
to take charge of the children, and come with them early and alone. In
the same spirit she had actually taken a little trouble with her dress,
which was new, full, soft, and delicate--if not white, as nearly so as
Alice’s conscience and profound conviction of her grave years could
permit it to be. She was on her defence, but not exactly defiant as
yet--a little melted in spite of herself by sundry associations of the
place and time--by good news from Maurice, which she whispered in my
ear, news of an appointment which her brother had got after much
exertion, and which would enable him to marry; and perhaps a little by
the honor which she knew her “old playfellow” had come to. I saw her
cast a momentary but somewhat eager look at Bertie’s breast when she saw
him first, but to my disappointment, as to hers, his decoration was not
there.

And then Alice had a present for me. I had by me a little present to be
given to her on the same occasion--an old ornament of my own, which I
thought, for that reason at least, the prim Alice might perhaps be
induced to wear. The children had gone away with their attendants, to be
extricated out of the many wrappings in which their mother’s care had
enveloped them. Only Derwie stayed with us in the breakfast-room; the
child was extremely anxious about these two, I could not tell why. Some
unconscious link of association, or acute childish observation,
connected them in little Derwent’s mind. He stood by my side on pretence
of waiting till Clary and the rest were ready, but I believe in my heart
from sheer curiosity and interest in these affairs of life and humanity
which were so deeply attractive to my son.

Alice was seated near the great window, her pretty figure visible
against the light, looking fresher and more youthful than she had done
for a long time, and the soft breadth of landscape without, making a
pleasant background to the picture. A little more in the shade stood
Bertie, and Derwie and I were opposite Alice, with a little table
between us, all full in the light of the large bow-window, from which
all curtains and obscuring influences--such was my husband’s cheerful
pleasure--were always drawn as much back as possible. My present to
Alice was a little gold chain for the neck. I like that fashion of
ornament. This one was long enough to encircle that pretty throat twice,
or to hang loose upon her breast if she pleased. I said it wanted a
pendant, as I threw it loosely round her neck.

Alice had been a little nervous and tremulous before; this made her
rather more so--she kissed me in a trembling, breathless way. She could
not help feeling conscious of that shadow behind her, and of a certain
want of air and cloud which betokened a crisis. She knew something was
coming, and faltered--it was quite a secret, close, appealing touch
which her arms gave me for the moment. Alice was afraid. When she sat
down again she played with the clasp of the chain and unloosed it, and
continued so, unconsciously dangling that loose end in her hand.

“It should have a heart at it, mamma--like Clary’s,” said little
Derwent.

“Yes,” said I, “certainly it wants a pendant--a locket--or, as Derwie
says, a heart, or a cross, or----”

“For once let me supply what it wants,” said Bertie, suddenly starting
forward with one of those long, noiseless steps which people only make
when they are almost past speaking. He took the end of the chain from
Alice’s fingers, slid his own matchless decoration on it, clasped it,
let it fall. “Heart and Cross!” said Bertie, breathless with feelings he
could not speak. Alice had not looked up--did not see what it was, so
rapidly was all done, till it lay dark upon the white bosom of her
dress, moving with the palpitations of her heart--cold, ugly,
glorious--a gift far beyond all Bertie’s fortune--more precious to him
than his life.

She gazed at it astonished for a moment, then glanced round at us all
with an amazed, inquiring glance--then faltering, and making the utmost
efforts to control herself, took it in her hands, put it to her lips,
and burst into an irrestrainable passion of tears.

Little Derwie and I, like sensible people, took each other’s hands, and
marched away.

Alice did not wear her hero’s cross that night to her chain. He wore it
himself, as was fit--but it did not much matter. She had taken the other
invaluable and invisible appendage which Bertie offered with his
glorious badge--had consented to be solemnly endowed with all his
worldly goods, cross and heart included, and humbly put her chain round
her neck without any pendant, in token of the unwilling bondage to which
she had yielded at last.

So ended, after eight years of disappointment, and _that_ early
love-affair, which Colonel Bertie had long ago forgotten, my solitary
enterprise in match-making. Let nobody despair. I am secure now that
Estcourt shall have no alien mistress, and that all Huntingshire will
not hold a happier household than that of Bertie Nugent, my heir, who
has already added the highest distinction of modern chivalry to the name
of his fathers and mine.

THE END.





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